The Rake and the Recluse : A Tale of Two Brothers
Part One: FREEDOM
Madeleine ran as if the devil himself were on her. She glanced back when she heard the hounds then tripped, scraping her hands as her head whipped forward. Her temple struck a tree root. She groaned, feeling the trail of blood marching slowly down her forehead, the coinciding beats in her skull growing with the advance. She crawled forward, slowly at first, dirt caking the scrapes on her palms before she gathered up her skirts and scrambled to her feet.
He will never catch me. I will never go back, I will never be his. I will die first.
She tried to catch her breath as she stumbled wildly. Tears spilled down her cheeks as she fought the barrage of low-hung branches and high-reaching roots. She leaned against a tree trunk to steady herself, her hand shaking as she yanked at her corset, trying to loosen it.
She heard the dogs to her right and concentrated on her bearing. This was her only chance. The Earl of Hepplewort became more daring and devious with every sunset and she didn’t believe her fiancé intended to wait for the marriage before making her his own. She shifted direction to compensate for the chase and glimpsed the bright sunlight of a break in the tangled woods. She knew it wasn’t far to the manor, but had no idea how she was to survive the run across open meadow with his hounds on her. Surely Lord Hepplewort would call them off before the duke discovered his trespass. Surely she would make it to safety.
She heard the group of hounds approach in the rustling of the underbrush with the snarling and snapping of jaws and her heartbeat rushed to her throat, forcing a scream that tore through her like a jagged knife. The rumble of a carriage gave her hope and she drove herself toward it through the trees as one of the hounds tore at her skirts. The horn blew, recalling the dogs as she launched herself from the protective covering of the forest—directly into the path of a pair of horses.
“Mon Dieu!” The words ripped through her as the large black horses startled and reared, their frightened neighs filling the clearing with warning. She fell back as their front legs came within a hairsbreadth of her nose, then the first hoof came down, dispatching the hound by her feet with a horrid shriek. She flung her arms about her head and prayed for a swift end.
The alarm went off at 5 a.m. and Francine hit the snooze. It went off again at 5:10 and 5:15. At 5:20 she rolled out of bed, bleary-eyed but moving. I should just go back to bed, she thought. The office would miss me for exactly five minutes before some other up-and-comer like Isaac stepped up to steal my position. She sneered. Let him have it.
She dressed in soft black yoga pants and a washed-out green tank and turned for the door of her bedroom as she slipped into her shoes. Grabbing her iPod, she hurried down the hall toward the fire escape. She ran nine flights down to the second floor landing, then back up and down four more times before returning to her apartment.
Still moving quickly, she stripped her clothes off and threw them, missing the basket by the bathroom door. Instead, they landed on the ceramic tiles with a sweaty thwack. She yanked the shower on and brushed her teeth as she considered the candles and bath oils she kept on a shelf by the tub, wondering when she would have the time, or inclination, to use them. She never seemed to make it past the browse, dream, purchase phase.
Thirty minutes later Francine looked at the clock and grunted, then gazed in the mirror and took a deep breath. Her short golden hair brushed her shoulders in gentle waves. Her wide mouth was held in a tight line of concentration.
She relaxed and smiled, checking her suit for stray hairs as she flattened the lapels and smoothed the skirt around her wide hips. She glanced up at her face, catching the shadow of insecurity in her own gaze. She poked her tongue out. “Blah!” she exclaimed, staring at the mirror. As if it wasn’t bad enough that she was terrified of her presentation today, she had to be obsessing about looks, too.
Today is the first day of my future. Today is the first day of my future, she chanted. It was the culmination of years of hard work, so why was she questioning it? Her academic accomplishments had pushed her into an internship with an international firm, and that had led to a much sought-after—albeit temporary—position. She intended to make it permanent today. She was doing what everyone expected of her, on a track bound for certain glory: a high paying position, a big house in Cherry Hills, followed by—she mentally ticked off her fingers—husband, dog, children, fish, and happiness.
Going back to her dresser, she picked up the old family portrait that had been taken just a month before the accident. Her thumb rubbed over the glass. Her mom had been so pretty, so sure of herself. So happy taking care of her family and her home.
“I hope I make you proud today, Momma,” she said quietly. When her parents were killed—and she was left a ward—the court had liquidated their assets to make her moveable life more manageable. Her only tangible legacy from her parents—beyond her blonde locks—was the trust fund that followed her from foster home to foster home, her father’s thesis study journals—which weren’t making much sense—and a miniature of a girl that looked like her, save for the hair and costume. Francine put the picture down and picked up the miniature. “Madeleine Adelais,” she said, running her thumb over the engraving on the silver frame.
She sighed heavily and her shoulders fell. How can I not know, at this point, that what I have been working for is what I want? Mother-number-four had always told her that she needed to work hard in school and get a business degree so she could make enough money to have the happiness she wanted. But she’d done those things, and still she felt…nothing.
She was still constantly struggling for something: a little more composure, a little more concentration, a little more time. There was so much missing from her past that the pieces of who she was floundered about, impossibly fractured and incapable of coexisting.
She glanced at the clock and her heart skipped. “Crap!” She scowled as she grabbed her cell phone, ebook reader, and the last journal in her father’s set and headed for the door. She passed a bookshelf full of the same classics that were on her reader and looked back to the mirror in the hallway one last time, bright from the reflection of all the white, barren walls, then grunted as she grabbed her briefcase and left.
She nodded at G.W. as he held the front door to the old building. He always stood tall and always had a smile. She loved that he seemed to be here only because he liked it.
“Good morning, Miss Larrabee,” he said.
“Good morning, G.W.,” she replied with a smile, juggling her accessories.
“You look lovely today.”
“Why thank you, G.W.”
“Of course, miss. I’ve a taxi waiting,” he said, then turned to open the car door.
“You’ve saved me once again.” She ducked into the back seat.
He winked. “Good luck today.”
She appreciated the way G.W. always thought ahead, paid attention to what she enjoyed and needed, and always knew when she was running late. He was the perfect replacement for a boyfriend: all the care and attention and none of the drama. Maybe I could add him to the list, she thought. Husband, children, dog, fish—and G.W. She smiled.
Francine gave directions to the driver, then was tossed across the backseat, dropping her reader, the journal, and the miniature on the seat as they sped away from the curb, the door not yet fully closed. Shit. She should have left that home.
She picked up the portrait carefully, inspecting the girl who gazed out from the frame. She looked so confident. There was something innately familiar about her, like she could see into her soul. “What is it you have to tell me, Madeleine?” she whispered.
The taxi darted through traffic and Francine swayed, throwing her arm out to steady herself. She shook off the reverie and called her assistant. “Julia, I forgot the meeting with my father’s thesis advisor about this notebook. Could you call him to reschedule? I need to speak with him. The assumptions appear to be based in fact, but—well, you saw how preposterous they are.” She paused, listening.
The journals detailed a time-shift within an unnamed lineage. It developed a theory that certain people within the family were born at the wrong time, and the universe was endeavoring to return them to the age when they should have lived. Or, more precisely, to whom they should have lived with. She’d grown up thinking her father was a brilliant anthropologist, but the journals made him sound like a loon.
Francine had shared them with her assistant at the firm since she was the closest Francine had to a friend. She laughed at her assistant’s snarky response. “Thank you, really, like what we need to do here is make fun of the dead.” She ran a thumb over the miniature again. “No doubt my father is living in the shoes of some ancestor in the middle ages. It was his favorite era for research, after all.” She smiled. “Yes, yes, I’m on my way, I just—well you know. Please call the professor and—”
The taxi lurched to the left around a corner, then was brought to a screeching halt before it could crash into an overturned delivery van. Francine jolted forward against the safety glass, her phone dropping to the floor as she was thrown back on the seat like a rag doll.
As she shook off the confusion she could feel hands on her body, but she couldn’t see. She strained to open her eyes, but they wouldn’t cooperate. There were sounds of fabric tearing and people screaming. She tried to touch her face, but someone grabbed her hand and yelled for someone else to hold her down. She struggled and her head flew back, hitting the ground hard. Then everything went dark.
When she came around she was gasping desperately for air. She heard rushing footsteps and a rather loud stomping. Women screamed, men commanded and—horses? We weren’t close to the 16th Street Mall, were we? She clutched her hands instinctively, but both the miniature and her phone were gone. Francine tried again to focus her eyes, but they deceived her. Instead of the city, she saw a picturesque countryside, a pair of horses rearing, and a man with bright green eyes and thick, dark hair spilling into his face as he leaned over her.
“No!” he yelled.
She heard fabric tearing and felt an intense pressure around her ribs, then suddenly air rushed to her lungs and she was arching into him with a powerful breath. “What the hell is this?” she asked, her voice rasping with pain. She frowned and reached up to her throat; the sound had barely come out.
He shook his head. “Gentry! Smyth!” The man’s baritone rumbled deeply as he shouted. Her eyes went wide when he lifted her against his hard chest, and she latched onto his lapels as her vision spun against the thundering in her temple. She tried to stay lucid but lost the battle as she felt, more than heard, the man’s voice commanding those around him.
His Grace Gideon Alrick Trumbull, the tenth Duke of Roxleigh, held a countenance both foreboding and powerful. His ability to terrify people with his demeanor only helped his business dealings, creating a sense of either security or terror—depending on which side of the table one was seated—and tonight he clearly seated himself on the wrong side of his own table.
He had nearly killed a girl. If he’d been paying more attention he was sure he’d have taken note of her sooner, but his mind was on the railroad plans. Now he paced nervously in the sitting room outside the guest bedchamber, raking his hands through his hair with a growl so deep in his chest it was nearly inaudible.
When his household manager Mrs. Weston emerged, he turned on her. She stood before him, her face stricken and pale, wringing her stout fingers together. She was a short but sturdy woman with graying, mahogany brown hair gathered in a knot above the nape of her neck. She had a muddled accent that belied her history; based in cockney, then thickening in Glasgow and finishing in the service of a blue blood. She’d attended the Trumbull household for most of her life after she met and lost her husband, helping to raise the children. In all the years Roxleigh had presented Mrs. Weston with the challenges of his adventurous youth she’d not generally been taken to fits of unease when faced with an injury, and that fact alone served to worry him further.
“Your Grace,” she started, trembling. “Pardon, Your Grace,” she said again.
Roxleigh slowly curled his outstretched hands into claws while she continued wringing hers. She peered around him, as if looking for someone to save her. He clenched his jaw.
“What is it, woman?” he bellowed.
“Beg pardon, Your Grace. I am not sure what to say.”
“Well,” he began, “let us start with something simple.” He straightened, clasping his hands behind his back and squaring his shoulders.
Mrs. Weston squeaked.
“Is she alive?” he asked calmly.
“Well yes, Your Grace, she—she is that.”
“Good.” he responded, then waited. “How about this,” he said a moment later, rather sardonically, “Is she speaking?”
Mrs. Weston shifted her eyes. “Oh well, that she is, Your Grace. Yes…quite.” Her eyes grew as round as saucers. “She goes on and on about where she is, and where she should be and what year it is—and she thinks we have absconded with her! She wants us to call her office, and notify—”
Roxleigh cut the woman off with a drastic exhale, deflating his chest as though the world needed the air worse than he.
“Fine then, Mrs. Weston, she is alive and she is speaking.” He paused. “Did you say ‘what year it is?’”
Mrs. Weston nodded slowly and he paced again, then stopped, waving the statement off. “Indeed, and beyond that what exactly seems to be the difficulty?” He opened his arms. “I know she lost no limbs and seemed to be—”
He was interrupted by the loud crash of something hitting the wall directly behind Mrs. Weston, who jumped forward into his outstretched arms. They both glanced over her shoulder at the spot on the wall, then he caught her gaze with a silent, pointed question.
Mrs. Weston realized herself and pushed away from him, casting her eyes downward. “That is just it, Your Grace. You see, she is a bit upset. I mean—she is not quite herself. Well, we do not know who she is, so it is difficult to say that, exactly. But she does seem to be a bit—” She hesitated. “Cross.”
Mrs. Weston shook her head. “That is to say, she does not act quite as a lady should, of course, assuming that she is a lady. She is not very ladylike, certainly. There is something about her, the way she speaks, Your Grace. She is just not quite right. We have tried, Your Grace, truly, we have tried, but we cannot pacify—”
He placed his hands on her quivering shoulders in a last attempt to calm her.
“Oh, Your Grace, I cannot—I simply have never seen anything so—”
“Well then.” Roxleigh halted her meandering. “I will just have to see what I can make of it.” He straightened and moved her aside. He opened the door to the bedchamber and nudged the silver tray on the floor with the toe of his boot, scowling as he looked back at his wall and spied the splintered panel where it had hit.
He scanned the room. The barefoot girl was pacing in front of the windows at the far wall of the bedchamber, explaining in a raspy voice—to no one in particular—that she didn’t appreciate the assumptions being made. She had naught on but a thin, sleeveless chemise and ankle-length drawers, and her long brown hair was tangled with leaves and fodder.
Dr. Walcott stood to Roxleigh’s right, in front of the hearth, his white comb-over floating in disarray. Two housemaids, Meggie and Carole, cowered behind the doctor like mice tracked by a tomcat. Meggie had hold of her apron, which she twisted relentlessly in her hands. Dr. Walcott saw Roxleigh and shook his head, his hair flying in tufts around his ears.
The girl turned on him. “You!” she said, her voice catching on the force of the word as she marched determinedly for Roxleigh. “Are you in charge?”
“Am I— Pardon?” His eyes narrowed. “This is my estate, my land, my manor, the seat of the Roxleigh dukedom. Everything you see from these windows is within my purview, if that is what you ask.” He slid his gaze over her.
She stunned him. She was not a small girl, but rather tall, though not as tall as he. His eyes traveled her womanly curves, remembering the soft feel of her weight in his arms. He could see the gash on her forehead, but she otherwise appeared healthy—angry, but healthy. He shook off his improper gaze and looked at Dr. Walcott questioningly before walking toward the settee.
“Perhaps you should put this on,” he said as he reached for a robe.
The girl walked directly to him, fisting her hands on her hips as she inspected him. He felt her gaze measuring, as if to determine his very soul, and he flinched. From the corner of his vision he saw the doctor drop his hands, which had been suspended in midair as if to ward off some sort of attack.
The strange woman caught up to him, her temper evident. “The fact that I have no clothes on is an issue for both of us, but I’m not doing anything until you tell me what the hell is going on! Where am I?” The words came out on a croak, and she poked him in the chest before continuing. “I don’t know what kind of damn joke this is, but I’ve had enough!”
The doctor and two housemaids gasped at the boldness of her speech, and Roxleigh felt the tension of their reactions weigh heavily. He released the robe and slowly straightened again as the woman went on, apparently heedless of his growing ire.
“I don’t understand the problem. I want to know where I am.” She started ticking off fingers as she spoke. “I want to know how I got here, and these people,” she ground out between her teeth, “won’t explain anything to me. They just insist I cover myself, calm down, and get back in bed. Screw your bed!” she yelled toward Dr. Walcott, who winced in return before her gaze swung back to Roxleigh. “I had a presentation today. I’ve been working on this for months— No! Gah! My whole life!” Her voice broke on the last word and she rubbed her throat gently as she looked down. “I sound like I smoked a pack of reds.” She straightened her spine and looked him square in the eyes. “This crap isn’t funny. Explain how I ended up here in this drafty room, in someone else’s underwear, and how you are going to get me home!” Her voice cut out again and she held her throat as she swayed, drifting closer to him, her other hand flattening against his chest to steady herself.
Roxleigh looked from the woman to the doctor, then back. He watched as she steadied herself, then clasped his large hands together behind his back as he considered her with narrowed eyes. She spoke French, but English as well, although he couldn’t place the dialect. He took a deep breath to gather his frayed nerves. He didn’t much care for surprises, and was having a difficult time reconciling the soft, injured figure he’d carried from the track with the angry young lady who stood before him now. He fancied himself quite a patient man, but this behavior was more than enough to cause his control to slip.
“First of all, miss, you must remove your prodding hand from my waistcoat and gather your wits. I am more than interested in assisting you, as soon as you are able to compose yourself.”
Francine glanced at her hand and suddenly felt the heat of him sinking into her skin. She yanked the appendage back. Compose? Her gaze snapped to his. “Compose this, jackass!” she yelled, ignoring the searing pain that knifed through her throat and head as she flipped him off.
His jaw twitched.
A woman out of her time…
Another ahead of hers…
and the men they yearn for…
On a path bound for certain glory Francine Larrabee unexpectedly travels in time, landing in Victorian England, and is nearly killed by a team of terrifying black horses led by the Duke of Roxleigh. Though she’s drawn to the Duke, Gideon, her rescuer wants nothing to do with her—despite the pull he feels in her presence. Taken aback by his cross and angry nature, Francine sets out to win the heart of the man she can’t understand.
He saved her, allowed her sanctuary to heal, but avoids her at every turn. Francine wants answers—and him. Meanwhile, after a brutal attack, once a simple and frail miss—Lilly Steele finds strength and courage in her rise from the ashes. Feeling a connection and a sense of security around the brother of The Duke of Roxleigh, Lord Peregrine Trumbull, Lilly tempts him with her persuasive but innocent ways. However, Perry ignites when she touches him, setting him on fire for a woman he knows he shouldn’t touch.
For Lilly to heal from the wounds of her past Perry must submit to the woman he desires, going against everything he believes.
Can two women in a world dominated by males find a way to seduce the men they desire into the submission of their hearts, minds, and bodies?
THE BOOKS IN THE LORDS OF TIME SERIES:
GRAY : BOOK SIX in the Lords of Time Series
MADOC : BOOK SEVEN in the Lords of Time Series