Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Romance excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded this one already, you’re in for a treat!
“What drives this surprisingly deep novel are its revelations and their aftermath… Highly recommended for historical romance fans.” ~ Library Journal, starred review
“Despite being overloaded with a million things, I just spent the afternoon reading An Heir of Deception. I loved it. Beverley gave me that lovely aching feeling in my gut for Charlotte and Alex. I really think this is her best book yet, and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.” ~ Courtney Milan, New York Times bestselling author.
“An Heir of Deception is a romance with heart. It is angst-ridden, deeply emotional and compelling. I could not put it down, and it left a smile on my face for hours.” ~ Romance Novel News, Recommended Read!
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
London, 4 May 1859
A hushed silence greeted Alex Cartwright, the Marquess of Avondale, as he arrived in the large antechamber in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Attired in navy frock coats, precisely knotted neckties, and light-blue trousers, the Viscounts Creswell and Armstrong, and Rutherford, the Earl of Windmere, were certainly suited up well enough for the occasion. At least in dress if not demeanor, for their faces held the grayish cast of men bound for the gallows. And Rutherford’s hair appeared as if it had been plowed more times than a seasoned whore.
Paused just inside the threshold, Alex let out a dry laugh. “Come now, gentlemen, it can’t be as bad as that,” he teased. “The occasion does not call for black dress or armbands. This isn’t a funeral you’re attending, but my wedding.”
Such a comment would have customarily elicited a wry smile—at the very least—but received not so much as a blink. Another silence the weight of a ship’s anchor descended upon the room, blanketing him in air as cold as London’s fog was thick.
Determined that whatever their affliction, it would not spoil the most important day thus far in his twenty-nine years, Alex quelled the sense of unease beginning to unfurl in his gut.
Under a domed celestial frieze of cherubs and angels, Alex advanced toward the trio standing motionless in front of a large marble-topped table, his footfalls muffled by the carpeted floor. He would have welcomed more noise, some sort of distraction from the somberness surrounding him, be it in human form or décor.
Located in the south transept of the church, the chamber boasted dark-burgundy drapes of some thick, expensive fabric, and surrounding the black marble fireplace were three chairs crafted with enough gild, scrollwork, and velvet to satisfy royalty. But then, with the sudden death of his brother the year before—the much beloved son and heir to the Hastings dukedom—wasn’t Alex now regarded as such? Despite his mother’s vehement opposition to the marriage, when Alex had made it clear he’d marry Charlotte with or without her approval, she thrown her considerable ducal weight into ensuring his wedding would be the most celebrated event in Society for at least the next decade to come.
Halting in front of his friends, he quirked a brow. “Surely you’re not commiserating over my nuptials?” Alex found light sarcasm served as a wonderful vehicle to lift a dour mood. “I would think not, as you all have walked,” he executed a mock bow, “I stand corrected gentlemen—vanquished this course years ago.”
And most assuredly they had, the three men happily married with nary a complaint regarding the oft-bemoaned rigors of the institution. Indeed, each had been passionate in its recommendation.
Armstrong shot Rutherford a look, one Alex instantly recognized. He’d seen it often enough over the course of an acquaintance numbering twenty-six years. In that instant, he knew something was terribly, perhaps tragically, wrong.
Panic bloomed and anxiety burned like acid in his throat. Alex’s gaze flew to Rutherford. “It’s Charlotte, isn’t it? Something has happened to Charlotte.”
The earl averted his gaze.
Alex grabbed Rutherford forcibly by the arms, bringing the two men practically nose to nose. Even if his friend’s delay had been infinitesimal, it measured what felt like an eternity too long.
Alex held his friend in a vise grip and gave him a teeth-jarring shake. “Tell me, damn it. What’s happened to Charlotte? Is she hurt? Where is she?”
Rutherford bent his imprisoned arm at the elbow. With obvious reluctance, he offered up the envelope. “She sent this for you,” Rutherford said, his voice strained and hoarse.
With a cautious step back, Alex dropped his hands to his sides. At first, he could only stare at the innocuous rectangular paper, uncomprehending. Slowly, the fog released its hold on his senses.
His gaze darted to the sheet of paper crushed in his friend’s other hand. She’d also written a letter to Rutherford and it was obvious he’d read his. Alex then recalled the footman hurrying down the hall. In that instant, he knew the man he’d passed with so little regard, so consumed with his own happiness, had been the bearer of the news that had sent his friends into such morbid melancholy. News that would assuredly send him someplace far worse.
Charlotte wasn’t hurt. The evidence stood before him in the form of her brother. Had she been injured or taken ill, a stable full of horses wouldn’t have been able to drag Rutherford from her side. But too swiftly on the heels of staggering relief nipped a growing fear, for penned in her signature slopes and curls was his name emblazoned across the front of the envelope. A letter from her on the day of their wedding could signify only one thing.
“She’s not coming, is she?” His cravat—silk mulberry that his valet had fussed into an elaborate knot—felt as if it had a stranglehold on his words.
Alex’s head jerked violently in the direction of his friend, the set of his countenance effectively cutting Creswell off at the utterance of his name.
Armstrong sighed and ran his hand through a thatch of golden hair, regarding him with eyes filled with the kind of compassion no man should have to countenance on his wedding day. Sympathy was bad enough, but pity? Intolerable.
Directing his attention back to Rutherford, Alex stared at the envelope unclaimed in his friend’s hand, knowing its contents promised to deliver him the felling blow.
“What does she say?” he asked, his voice a hollow imitation of his former self.
“I did not read it,” Rutherford muttered gruffly, extending his arm so the tan paper touched the flesh exposed at Alex’s wrist.
The fires of perdition could not have singed his skin more at the contact and Alex retreated several steps as he surveyed it with abhorrence.
“What did she tell you?” he asked quietly, dragging his gaze up to Rutherford’s.
Three years ago when his friend had paced the halls outside his wife’s bedchamber awaiting the birth of their twins, he’d worn the same expression he did at present, a helpless sort of fright.
“What does she say!” Alex’s voice exploded like a cannon blast in graveyard silence. “Isn’t it in the letter she sent to you?”
Isn’t it in the letter she sent to you?
The echo transcended the room to storm the corridors of the prestigious church.
Rutherford appeared to be rallying his courage, swallowing and then drawing in a ragged breath before he said, “The footman brought the letters only moments before your arrival. I was coming—”
“God dammit, man, quit all your blasted blathering. Just tell me what she wrote!”
Rutherford made an uncomfortable sound in his throat before replying in graveled tones, “She wrote to beg my forgiveness for any scandal or shame her actions may bring upon the family but…says she can’t marry you.”
A roar sounded in Alex’s ears as he grasped the back of a nearby chair, the coolness of the metal frame muted by his silk white gloves. He blinked rapidly in an effort to halt the stinging in his eyes and swallowed to douse the burning in his throat. And a numbness such as he’d never known assailed him, turning his limbs into leaden weights.
“Where is she?”
Stark pain and fear flashed in Rutherford’s pale blue eyes. “I do not know. She’s quit the Manor but gave no indication as to where she’s gone. She merely states she is safe and that we must not concern ourselves unduly over her.”
The weight on Alex’s chest threatened to crush every organ beneath it. But such destruction would do little to his heart, for it had already broken into a multitude of pieces.
Like that, with the flourish of a pen, she was gone.
Alex turned to the open door. Around him, he felt rather than saw his friends move in chorus toward him. He stopped abruptly, angled his head over his shoulder and met their gazes. “Let me be. I shall be fine.” But he wouldn’t lie to himself; he would never be fine.
The three men did not advance any farther.
Alex blindly put one foot in front of the other. With every step, he discarded a piece of the life he’d foolishly dreamt to have with her…until there were none.
He took his leave of the room, his leave of the church, to start his way back to a life obliterated to a pile of nothingness.
Berkshire, 1 March 1864
Her sister was gravely ill.
The knowledge plagued Charlotte Rutherford, consuming her with such fear that a proper night’s sleep had been impossible since her dear friend, Lucas Beaumont, had informed her upon his return from England.
The news had catapulted her into a frenzy of activity for two days thereafter. In that time, she’d arranged passage to England and closed up her small townhouse in Manhattan. What came next required all of her endurance: an eleven-day voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.
With too much time to her solitary thoughts, she’d been wracked with inconsolable grief and the bitterest regret…and heart stopping fear that her presence there would open a Pandora’s Box of a different sort.
Now two weeks to the day after she had learned of her twin’s illness, Charlotte was here. The place she’d once called home. And after an absence of nearly five years, the reality of once again being on English soil—standing at the doors of Rutherford Manor—brought with it the heartbreak of old.
All of that, however, paled in the light of her sister’s illness. For Katie, Charlotte would endure anything, even if it meant risking exposure and opening a wound that had never healed. One she feared might never truly heal.
With her heart in her throat and anxiety now a familiar—albeit unwelcome—companion, Charlotte lifted the knocker of the oak door and brought it down three times in rapid succession.
The ensuing seconds seemed to stretch on endlessly. Were they home? She hadn’t even considered that possibility when she’d arrived in Town and had proceeded directly to Paddington Station to catch the train to Reading. She shot a glance over her shoulder and regarded the carriage parked in front of her hired coach. Someone must be in residence, as it appeared they had company. Something else she hadn’t considered.
Upon the opening of the door, she gave a nervous start and spun back around. Reeves, the Rutherford butler of thirty odd years, stood in the doorway, his tall, spare frame and lined visage reminiscent of happier times in days long past. But the advance of age had left its mark. Once possessed of a head of hair with equal amounts of gray and brown, his hair now rivaled the unadulterated white of Father Christmas. And his stature, which formerly would have been the envy of any uniformed man, now gently rounded at the shoulders, proving once again how time spared no one.
Given he was a man disposed to typical English butler demeanor, she’d never imagined he had it in his personal repertoire to blanch, but that is precisely what he did upon viewing her. He said nothing for several seconds, simply stared, his eyes wide and unblinking. Charlotte stifled a laugh—one of the nervous sort—fearing any attempt at speech would cause her to dissolve into a heap of polka dot skirts at his feet.
Behind her, a horse whinnied and stomped its hooves and birds continued their cheerful chirping while Reeves appeared to be struggling to find his tongue.
At length, he exclaimed softly, “Miss Charlotte.” He spoke as if he believed she was but a vision and any undue noise would send her off into obscurity.
Charlotte managed a tremulous smile, tears pricking the corners of her eyes. “Hullo, Reeves. I-I’m delighted to see you looking so well.” The greeting seemed hardly adequate, but she was at a loss to find something fitting to say after so long an absence. So sudden a departure.
Her voice appeared to galvanize him into action. Throwing open the door, he ushered her through an entrance hall as large as the ground floor of her townhouse and into the vestibule. She’d quite forgotten just how large an estate her brother owned.
“I fear we were not apprised of your arrival. Such a shame as, just this morning his lordship and her ladyship went into London with the children. However, Miss Catherine is in residence. She will be happy that you’ve returned.”
In all the years Charlotte had known him, she could scarcely remember a time when she’d seen him looking anything less than unwaveringly stoic. At present his mouth curved into something close to a smile.
“I hadn’t time to send word of my coming.” She’d naturally assumed everyone would be home with her sister doing so poorly. She was more than a little surprised James had gone off to London and left Katie in the care of the servants—and no doubt the attending physician. Actually, it was inconceivable he would do so.
Charlotte pivoted sharply to face the elderly butler. She laid a restraining hand on his black-clad arm as he made a move to relieve her of her pelisse. “Reeves, can you tell me anything of my sister’s condition?”
Reeves stilled at her touch. He lowered his hands to his sides, staring down at her with white furrowed brows. After a pause, the deep creases in his forehead eased. “If you’re speaking of that rather nasty cold she fell ill with the month past, then I can assure you she has since fully recovered.”
A cold? The doctor has done all he can for her. If she recovers it will be by the grace of God. She could hear Lucas’s words as though he’d spoken them yesterday. Not even the severest of colds rose to that criticality.
Before she had an opportunity to question Reeves further, the scramble of feet and a high-pitched squeal drew her attention to the top of the double mahogany staircase.
Her sister stood in the middle of the first floor landing clutching the balustrade, her form poised for flight.
“Charlotte, is that really you?” Katie cried.
Then in a blur of pale-green muslin, she took the right set of stairs with all the refinement of a horde of marauding boars. Her fingers skimmed and skipped over the polished mahogany banister as her skirt fluttered and quivered under the breeze of her stampeding steps.
Transfixed by the first sight of her twin in nearly five years as she flew down the stairs, Charlotte could neither move nor speak.
Lucas claimed to have received the information of her sister’s illness on good authority, but it was clear he’d been grossly misinformed.
Katie was not ailing.
At least Charlotte had never seen a person whose survival was said to have hinged on God’s mercy with so much bounce and pep, her cheeks flushed with the healthy hue of breathless excitement, not the ravages of fever. No, her sister looked as vital and healthy as any twenty-four-year-old woman could.
After a fortnight of anticipating the worst and ardent prayers that she’d arrive to find her sister at least on the verge of recovery, a tidal wave of emotion washed over her, and soon Charlotte was moving, her feet carrying her forward without conscious effort or thought.
“Oh Lottie, Lottie. You’ve come back,” her sister cried before launching herself into her arms. “Lord, how I’ve missed you.”
Charlotte choked out a sob at the use of her childhood name as they embraced at the foot of the staircase, clinging to one another under a deluge of shared tears. Joy, relief, and the pain of their long separation had Charlotte trembling uncontrollably. The last time they’d held each other this tightly, they had been frightened five-year-old girls just arrived at the boarding school. Save a father who’d ensured for only their financial welfare, they’d been very much alone in the world.
“Oh God, I thought you—” Charlotte broke off abruptly when her sister turned a tear-stained face to her, her joy a living, breathing entity. How could she now admit she’d returned because she’d thought her near death’s door? She simply could not.
“Thought I was what?” Katie asked in a voice choked with tears.
“I thought perhaps I would not find you home,” Charlotte quickly improvised. “Oh Katie, how I missed you too, so very very much.”
Katie’s breaths came in pants and half sobs, her arms tightening around Charlotte’s waist until she could scarce draw a breath. How long they stood holding each other, she didn’t know. But for those finite moments, time seemed to stand still.
After she caught her breath, and her sister was no longer gasping as if she’d been running too hard and too long, Charlotte loosened her hold and drew back to take in a face so dearly familiar and identical to her own.
Sky blue eyes fringed with long, thick lashes gazed back at her. Eyes glassy with tears. In all the jostling and excitement, ringlets of burnished gold curls had come dislodged from what had to be a small army of pins securing her sister’s chignon. How well Charlotte knew what it took to keep the thick mane properly tamed and presentable.
Katie reached out to cradle Charlotte’s cheek in her palm, her touch almost reverent. “Where—when—why didn’t you say anything about coming home in your last letter?”
“I decided at the last possible minute,” Charlotte whispered in a voice equally thick with emotion.
After brushing the crest of Charlotte’s cheek with her thumb, Katie dropped her hand to her side. “I hope you realize that James and Missy will be beside themselves when I send word of your return,” she chided gently. “They’re to stay in London a week. Of course, I’ll have to send word express that you’ve returned. I expect they’ll be home tomorrow or soon after. Christopher is touring the Continent. He’s not expected back in England until the fall.”
Charlotte was convinced that their half brother Christopher had vagabond blood running in his veins. He’d toured the Continent the summer he’d graduated from Eton. But whether she’d be here when he returned was still in question.
“I know and I’m disappointed too, but in a way I’m happy it’s just the two of us—at least for today.”
Katie smiled, her face flushed pink with pleasure. After several moments of contented silence, she took a step back and began a critical appraisal of Charlotte’s figure, commencing at the ruffled collar of her blue-and-yellow wool traveling suit. Her expression sobered the farther her gaze continued downward. “You’re too thin. Why, I must be a good half stone heavier.”
“I have recently lost some weight.” The stress of thinking one’s sister hovered on the brink of death tended to kill one’s appetite. Of course, that was something she couldn’t now admit to her.
“We’ll have to fatten you up a bit. It’s obvious you haven’t been taking proper care of yourself,” Katie stated crisply, eyeing the ill fit of Charlotte’s dress. Several weeks ago it had cinched her waist instead of hanging on her like a rooster’s wattle as it did now.
“You haven’t changed a bit, still just as bossy as ever,” Charlotte teased, attempting to lighten the mood. Her sister would have time to reproach her on her inadequate diet later.
Desperate to hold off the questions sure to come, she turned to her surroundings. Her gaze swept the three-story vestibule and down the wide corridor of the picture gallery ahead. “Though the same can’t be said of this place. I hardly recognize it anymore.”
Katie came immediately to her side, hooking her arm through Charlotte’s as if she couldn’t bear any physical distance between them. She followed the direction of Charlotte’s gaze. “Yes, Missy redecorated three summers ago. I’m proud to say I did have a small hand in the effort. I selected the chandelier.” Her sister angled them toward the front and pointed at the elaborate crystal-and-glass light fixture soaring high above the entrance hall. “A fine choice if I daresay.”
Charlotte nodded in agreement. Her sister had always had exquisite taste.
“Missy insisted on a décor more suited to children. The rugs were purchased when the floors met with one too many of her treasured Wedgwood vases. Marble tends to be terribly unforgiving that way.” Her sister’s laughter rang throughout the hall, ebullient and light. “But the alterations have added a warmth that was lacking before. Don’t you think it looks and feels more like a home and less like a museum than when the dowager lived here?”
Charlotte nodded mutely as a frisson of fear coursed the length of her spine at the mention of her half brothers’ mother. She did not want to think about her—could not bear to.
Slowly, she lowered her gaze to admire the Persian rug beneath her booted feet, and continued on to take in silk-papered walls done in dark green. Also gracing the hall were two walnut tables inlaid with a lighter wood, and several chairs with cushioned seats in which a weary bottom might actually find comfort.
“Yes, it certainly does.”
Months after the death of their father, the dowager Countess of Windmere had moved to Devon and James had taken possession of the manor home. Charlotte had found the place as cold and sterile as its previous occupant. Although they had never been formally introduced, the dowager had made no secret of her intense dislike of her and Katie. But given they were the illegitimate issue of the woman’s husband and born only months after Christopher, her youngest son, her feelings were understandable and expected. However, the dowager had carried her hatred too far. The letter and the threat had revealed how truly vindictive she could be.
“While I was sad for James and Christopher when she passed away, I must admit to a sense of relief knowing our paths would never cross again.”
Charlotte’s next breath emerged a serrated gasp. Her head snapped to the side and she stared at Katie, mouth agape. “She is dead?” She spoke in a hushed whisper as if terrified of waking the woman from her resting place.
Her sister sent her a puzzled frown, her winged brows collecting over a slender nose. “Surely you cannot be distressed?” Katie chided. “You know how I normally refrain from the use of clichés, but truly that woman was the bane of my existence. If you had remained, you would have been similarly affected. I’m certain if not for that wretched woman, I would have married ages ago. But no, despite the fact that James threatened to cut off her funds, she told everyone who would listen that we were James’s sisters and not his cousins. Illegitimate and not at all good enough for their precious sons.”
Charlotte didn’t respond immediately, still trying to digest the enormity of what she’d just learned. With the dowager gone, so too was the threat she had posed. Which meant for the first time in years she could breathe easy.
“Wh-when did she die?”
“Early last year. I would have told you had I the correct address in which to send my correspondence,” Katie replied with a note of censure in her voice. “I do not believe you ever used the same return address twice.”
Guilt warmed Charlotte’s cheeks. Lucas had posted the letters for her when he traveled to England on business. It had been the only way to ensure no one discovered her whereabouts.
But to learn the dowager had been dead an entire year made her wish for something solid to sit on.
Certainly if she had shared the information, something would have surfaced by now. And she could not fathom her brother taking his family to London with a scandal of that magnitude about his sisters raging within the drawing rooms of Mayfair. Dare she hope the woman had taken it with her to her grave as it appeared she had?
She shot Katie a glance. It would appear their secret was safe.
“I imagine it must have been a very difficult time for James and Christopher.” This Charlotte could say with all honesty.
Her sister gave her a sidelong look. “I feared you were going to start spouting empty platitudes about how sorry you are that she is gone. She was a simply horrible woman, and I have not missed her one little bit.”
No, Charlotte could not have lied about that. The woman had been the cause of enough pain and heartbreak to ensure that three generations of Rutherfords wallowed in misery. “As I said before, you haven’t changed a’tall,” she said dryly. Her sister did not believe in being agreeable for propriety’s sake.
Katie flashed an infectious grin. “And why should I change? As I recall it was the only way anyone could tell us apart. Should I become kind and agreeable, I could very well be mistaken for you.”
“And we certainly wouldn’t want that.” Charlotte felt lighter than she had in years. Such a shame it was due to the death of someone close to the brothers she loved that had been responsible for relieving her of an enormous weight. “Although, that happened often enough when we first came to live with James.”
For their newly discovered brother and his bride, telling her and Katie apart had come down to the simple matter of her sister’s birthmark—a tiny mole on the nape of her neck. The memory of Missy craning her neck in a not-so-subtle attempt to determine the existence—or lack thereof—of said birthmark brought a small smile to Charlotte’s face, eliciting a stark feeling of nostalgia.
“Yes, the only person who never confused us was Al—” Katie’s eyes flashed wide with alarm. “I didn’t mean to—I mean….”
Tears stung Charlotte’s eyes and her chest constricted. She pulled her sister’s arm tighter against her side and whispered, “It is fine. I shan’t break at the mention of his name. Truly. In any case, it was I who…” She swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat. “Alex has always been a big part of our—your life. I certainly don’t expect you to change anything to suit me.”
With a tiny nod, Katie drew Charlotte into the circle of her arms for a gentle hug before setting her away. “Come, you must be famished. Off with your cloak and I shall have the cook prepare you something to eat. Then I can tell you everything that has happened to me these last five years and you can tell me everything you did not include in your letters. I assume you hired a hackney from the station in town.”
Without giving Charlotte an opportunity to respond, her sister turned to Reeves, who stood far enough away as to allow them privacy, but close enough to be summoned to duty forthwith. “Reeves, please have the footmen retrieve my sister’s belongings from the coach.”
“No!” The response sprang sharp and unbidden from Charlotte’s mouth. Even she could hear the panic threading her tone.
Both Reeves and Katie treated her to a look of surprise.
“I mean not yet. Katie, there is something I need to tell you—”
A movement, a figure, in the corner of her vision halted her speech. Charlotte shifted her gaze. Her breath and her world came to a shuddering halt.
He rounded the stretch of hall leading from the study. Their eyes met across a distance of some forty feet.
Her breath left her completely then. The air surrounding her became charged and hot.
His stride might have faltered but he recovered so swiftly, she couldn’t be certain she hadn’t imagined it.
Charlotte stood frozen, ensnared as deftly and completely as a rabbit in the presence of a rattler preparing to strike. She watched as he proceeded down the seemingly endless corridor toward her.
Senses starved for the flesh-and-blood man greedily tried to take him in all at once, hoarding away every minute detail to take back with her to feed the lonely nights when dreams and memories were all she’d have…and yet still not enough.
Save the measured fall of his footsteps, silence reigned with a parasitic presence that made speech a novelty and breathing a luxury. Charlotte could do nothing but wait in statue-like stillness while her heart picked up its pace. To even blink would have created too much noise.
As he drew closer, she began to make out the subtle changes time had wrought in his visage.
In appearance, he looked much the same as the man she’d known and loved—loved still. With hair the black and shine of obsidian brushing the collar of his tan morning coat, and the delicious little dimple in his chin, he had always been surfeit in looks. But the Alex of old had possessed a wicked sort of charm. His smile, lazy and hinting at deeper passions, had caused the palpitation of many a female heart. Upon their betrothal announcement, the gossip sheets had stated the sound of those very same hearts breaking could be heard from Cornwall to Northumberland.
At present, however, it appeared no smile would dare venture near his lips. Faint lines bracketed his full mouth, the surrounding skin unforgiving in its tautness. And there was an iciness in his expression that pierced her heart with a corresponding blast of cold. He even carried his lean, muscular frame with an aloofness, tight and very controlled.
Any hope she would find in him a smidgeon of warmth, an inkling of the affection he’d once felt for her, wilted and died under his regard. Yet she remained resolute as he advanced upon her, awaiting the first words they would exchange since the day before what should have been their wedding day.