Authors: Elf Ahearn
Tags: #romance, #historical
This edition published by
an imprint of F+W Media, Inc.
10151 Carver Road, Suite 200
Blue Ash, Ohio 45242
Copyright © 2013 by Elf Ahearn
ISBN 10: 1-4405-6614-3
ISBN 13: 978-1-4405-6614-1
eISBN 10: 1-4405-6615-1
eISBN 13: 978-1-4405-6615-8
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, corporations, institutions, organizations, events, or locales in this novel are either the product of the author’s imagination or, if real, used fictitiously. The resemblance of any character to actual persons (living or dead) is entirely coincidental.
Cover art © istockphoto.com/hannondovi and /susandaniels
My last book was dedicated to my husband, Patrick, and my sister, Jenny, so for this novel I wracked my brains for other deserving individuals. My mother sprang immediately to mind. Ergo,
Lord Monroe’s Dark Tower
is dedicated to the woman who lugged me around for nine months and has kept me alive ever since, Jano Bell. Patrick, and Jenny, you get another mention, too. You also contribute daily to my happiness, my welfare, and my creativity. I love you all, and thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I was going to cheat and paste the acknowledgments from my first novel,
A Rogue in Sheep’s Clothing
, into this book because it’s 1:30
and my deadline is tomorrow. It’s not such a bad idea because the players haven’t changed — everyone who helped me with
was there for me with
. So, for this set of acknowledgments I’m going to half cheat by quoting myself. To Patrick, “for being the greatest thing that ever happened in my life”; to Jenny “who told me I should write romances and suggested the Regency era because those are the books she likes to read” ; to “the gals in the Hudson Valley Romance Writers of America chapter for their ‘constant guidance and encouragement’ (special shout out to Janet Lane Walters—the mother of us all and to Miss Peachy for never ceasing to tell me I can write), and to Pat and Jimin at Sarah Lawrence College for their ‘expertise and kindness.’”
I wrote something about how all these people hold a special place in my heart and how wonderful it is to have them in my life. That’s still accurate, but what I’d like to add is a big, fat THANK YOU for still being there for me.
Bournemouth, England — 1818
If Claire Albright had one wish, it was that her heart would stop hammering against her ribs. One look from him with those troubled, brooding eyes and she would certainly faint. But if he was attentive or warm, perhaps she would cry. She took a deep breath.
Stop being ridiculous
you will neither faint nor cry.
Ignoring logic, her heart beat faster.
The vehicle drew to a bumpy stop at the exact point where a crenellated tower cast its toothy shadow. Feeling as if she were lowering herself into the jaws of a beast, Claire stepped from the coach, shivered in the chill shade, and approached the stairs to Bingham Hall. Two urns squatted like toads on either side. From each jutted the naked stems of flowers that had been ripped away. Droplets of moisture still oozed from the traumatized stalks.
Not a welcoming sight
. Claire’s fingers went cold, and feeling her knees grow weak, she clung to the stone balustrade like a sailor in a rough sea.
From inside the coach came the chipper voice of her chaperone, Mrs. Gower. “Smile dear, bright and happy.”
Claire tried to force her trembling lips into a grin. “Be vibrant, not shy,” her chaperone lectured during the ride. “Don’t talk about herbs and cures — he’ll take you for a midwife.”
“But I am a midwife.”
“Then you’re not to mention it. No man wants a wife with a profession.”
Swallowing, Claire paused to collect herself.
“Go on child!” urged Mrs. Gower’s shrill voice, “
, he’ll be married to someone else by the time you reach the door.”
“Please hush,” Claire whispered, her stomach churning as she lifted the knocker — a mermaid with its tail curled in an uncomfortable loop. But as her fingers brushed the mermaid’s scales, a butler jolted the door open. Barely stifling a cry, Claire jumped back, and regaining her composure, pasted what she hoped was a ‘bright’ smile on rigid lips. “I’m here by invitation from the Viscountess Monroe and her son, Flavian Bourne, Viscount Monroe,” she said, digging frantically into her reticule for a calling card.
“You must be Lady Claire Albright,” the butler said, his eyes lighting with interest. “His lordship is awaiting your arrival. Please come in. I’ll announce you at once.”
But before she crossed the threshold, Lord Flavian Monroe hurried into the dim recesses of the hall. “Lady Albright,” he said, his welcoming smile warming her icy nerves like a cordial on a cold day. He swept past the butler. “What a joy to see you. I’ve been waiting like a child for a sweetmeat.” He took both her hands in his. Calloused and rough, his hold radiated heat through the chill in her bones. She couldn’t help but laugh.
“My lord, I’ll confess the horses seemed to trot a ponderous gait.”
“A pretty pair of Cleveland bays, too. What a shame they didn’t understand the urgency of your arrival.”
She laughed again and bowed her head. How wonderful to see the haunted look she remembered gone from his eyes. If she gazed one second longer, she might stroke his chiseled cheek and shame herself. Oh, why did he have to be so spectacularly handsome? Chestnut hair swept back from a high forehead, serious brown eyes with a glint — like a bonfire burning miles away — and masculine, weathered cheeks that lacked the creamy blandness of most titled gentlemen.
, my lord,” cried Mrs. Gower, whose bulk stuffed the coach door, “what a splendid
Flavian’s gaze shifted to the chaperone. “Mrs. Gower, what a grand sight you are.”
“Indeed,” Mrs. Gower said, losing her balance on the coach stairs during a peel of flirty giggles. Two footmen dove to catch her. She bumbled onto the gravel, accidently tearing a gold frog on one man’s livery, but managed to keep her footing. “My lord, it’s impossible to figure, but I’ll wager I’ve lost a full ten stone since we met last year at Lady Claire’s sister’s wedding.”
“And that’s why I mistook you for a sapling.”
“Oh, you’re a charmer,” the chaperone gushed. “Out of my way, lassie, I’m taking him.”
Flavian laughed with the same warm good humor Claire remembered teasing out of him during their walks at Cowick Hill two years ago. As the months plodded by and she hadn’t heard from him, Claire had come to doubt the feeling of delight they’d shared in one another’s company. What a relief to know she was mistaken.
As one footman assisted Mrs. Gower up the stairs, the other struggled with the oversized trunks strapped to the top of the coach. Even loosening them from the roof seemed too much for the fellow.
Flavian rested a hand on Claire’s back and winked down at her. “I’d like to impress your chaperone, if you’ll indulge me a moment.”
She dropped a small curtsey. “Impress to your heart’s desire.”
He swept down the stairs and standing beside the coach, said, “Hand it down, Hancock.”
“Are you ready to swoon, Mrs. Gower?” he called over his shoulder. The woman batted away her escort and pivoted to watch the action.
The footman dragged the trunk to the edge of the roof, maneuvered it over the low rail, and straining not to let it drop, slid it at a dangerously fast rate toward his master. In one graceful motion, Flavian caught the wooden container and, single handedly, lowered it to the ground. “Now, the next.” Red-faced and sweating, the footman repeated the procedure. When Flavian had both trunks on the ground, he positioned them on their ends and then stood between them. “Hold onto the railing Mrs. Gower, for I intend to amaze.” Laughing, he bent his knees, and with fingers clutching each handle, he lifted the two trunks simultaneously.
!” shrieked the chaperone, braying like a fishmonger’s wife. “He’s as bluff as bull beef.”
Flavian managed a grin, though he gritted his teeth from the strain. When he took a step forward, and another, and another, till he started up the stairs, Claire could restrain her admiration no longer. “
, it must be fourteen stone you’re carrying!”
“His lordship’s the strongest man in all England!” cried the footman from atop the carriage.
Though the viscount’s figure was long and lean, he clearly possessed strength beyond that of the typical man his size. A thrill ran through Claire as she pictured the ropes of muscle beneath his coat, unable to tear her eyes from the bulges beneath the fabric.
As Flavian approached the top of the stairs, he appeared to falter, almost tipping backward. Claire dashed to his side. “Careful, my lord!”
“Ha,” he said, delighted that she’d fallen for his trick. At the last few stairs, he hoisted the trunks higher, broke into a trot, and then, turning for her benefit, lowered them slowly to the floor. Claire’s hands went to her heart and she shook her head in amazement. “I am in awe. It took four men to load my baggage.”
He grinned and stepped back into the sun. A bead of sweat raced toward his cheek, he huffed air, but otherwise acted as if he’d just lifted the down of a dandelion.
A slight rustle overhead distracted Claire, and at the same time, she felt a light tap on the back of her travel costume. She looked up to see the flicker of a face disappear inside a window on the third floor. The sash screeched in its casement, closing with a bang, and the face disappeared. Confused, she looked behind, and saw the desiccated body of a small, gray rat. Flavian’s expression went dark; pain, worry, and anger flickered across his features before he composed himself with the shielded, haunted look she’d seen so often at Cowick Hill. He wrapped his arm around her waist and guided her into the house. “Clean that up, Marlow,” he said to the butler.
What poor servant made that terrible mistake?
Claire wondered, hoping no one would suffer dismissal for it. “It’s quite all right,” she said, trying to sound amused. “Our cats bring me similar presents all the time.”
Instead of joining in her gaiety, Flavian’s lips drew tight. “I’m so sorry. What an awful greeting.”
Claire smiled, trying to cheer him. “Oh, forgive the perpetrator. Accidents happen, and nothing can dampen my pleasure in seeing you again.”
“Isn’t she sweet?” Mrs. Gower added. “Imagine what a lovely mistress of the house she’d make.”
Claire cringed inwardly. It really was too bad her sister, Snap, was too young for a come out, and that her father refused to “abandon his research for a lot of London ne’er-do-wells.” Why couldn’t he make do without her mother just this once, when Claire was faced with the most important decision of a young lady’s life; namely, to find a proper husband? She let a little sigh escape. Meanwhile, the tiniest speck of light had sneaked back into Flavian’s eyes. Being burdened with Mrs. Gower wouldn’t be quite so bad if the chaperone amused him.
“Now, what would you like to do?” he asked. “Settle into your rooms and freshen a bit?”
“Perfection,” Mrs. Gower declared. “Your summons of Lady Claire has pricked my curiosity, my lord. Whatever could a handsome young man want so urgently with a beautiful, wealthy, unwed girl?”