Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. The Lords of Lockwood are the very embodiment of a sinful existence. But could the right woman change that?
Locked behind the walls of Lockwood Manor, Julian Cynfell, the Marquess of Lockwood whiles away his days writing angry letters, drinking and sleeping. He never expects his solitude to be interrupted by a brazen American heiress.
An American heiress who is expecting a wedding.
Viola Thompson can’t believe her luck when the English lord she had been corresponding with for the better part of a year asks her to visit him. This had to mean an offer of marriage surely? Finally, Viola would prove to her family and friends that she is more than a ruined woman with no prospects. Not to mention she knows they will be a love match. No one could write such beautiful letters without being the perfect man.
But when she arrives in cold, dreary England to be faced by a foul-tempered, grizzled—albeit in a handsome way—marquess, her dreams of marriage are quickly dashed. Can she draw the lord out of his melancholy ways? And does she even want to remain in England while rumours of three dead wives circulate around Lockwood?
One thing is for certain, this American heiress has never been one to back down from a challenge—especially when not even the Atlantic Ocean could dampen the patent desire running between them.
Bang, bang, bang.
Somebody was setting off fireworks inside of Julian Cynfell’s skull. He winced, cracked open an eye and peered around. The curtains were drawn and a blanket of gloom dominated the large drawing room.
“What in the devil...?”
He eased up from the chaise longue and groaned. There it was again. No fireworks though. The flashes of bright light bursting through his skull had merely been a product of the headache plaguing him.
Julian scrubbed a hand across his face and sat fully upright. He cradled his delicate head for a few moments and closed his eyes. Apparently some mischievous elves had taken up residence in his skull and were taking tiny hammers to it. Each movement felt as though they were renewing their efforts in protest of being jostled about.
The front door. That was where the noise was coming from. Well, that made more sense than fireworks in the main drawing room of Lockwood Manor he supposed. Cursing the little creatures inside his head, he stood and squinted into the darkness. A tiny slit of light slipped through each of the three sets of curtains, spilling onto the highly polished walnut furnishings, picking out the gilded highlights of the soft furnishings and emphasising the strong patterns on the carpet. Julian curled his lip in distaste. Far too much for one’s delicate eyes to see after a night of heavy indulgence.
Whoever was at the door clearly had no intention of leaving. Where was the damned butler? Or the maids? Yes, he didn’t have many of those left but he could spare one member of his household to open a damned door, surely?
Feeling as though he had aged a hundred years overnight, he dragged himself to the hallway door and flung it open. Bright light greeted him and he groaned. At the smell of fresh flowers and a hallway that had certainly already been aired out, he hated himself anew. Even he could smell the fog of alcohol surrounding him. He needed a bath, a teeth clean and a swirl of mint tea.
Then he needed some strong coffee to help him sober up.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” he muttered to the persistent visitor as the door knocker vibrated through the house again.
Julian took a moment to steady himself against the marbled banister of the staircase before heading to the large double doors that signalled the entrance to his house. Tall pillars in matching cream marble reached high up to support the ceiling and he had to stare at them for some time to realise they were not wavering from side to side. It was, in fact, he who could not stay still.
Damn. No more drinking.
Oh who was he kidding? Besides it wasn’t as if he was a slave to the drink. He’d only indulged—what?—twice this week. Admittedly, he did like to indulge until darkness swallowed him and he could forget everything, but it didn’t normally matter. Normally he didn’t have visitors and he could sleep off any ill effects. Everyone was wise enough to stay away.
But not this person, damn them to hell. Didn’t they know who he was? Hadn’t they heard tell of his infamous reputation?
On wobbly legs, he edged over to the door and drew it open, readying himself to say something cutting before slamming it shut.
“What in the—?”
Instead of ramming the door closed as planned, he found himself opening it farther. The feathers caught his eye first. The white plumes drooped under the weight of raindrops. Though his front door stood under the shelter of several columns and a jutting pediment, this woman had clearly been a victim of quite the soaking.
He peered past her and saw that it was indeed a miserable day. Grey clouds weighed down the sky like lead and water filled the dips in the road leading to the house.
Julian turned his attention back to the soaked woman on his doorstep. The white feathered hat matched a long, white gown, shielded from the weather by only a pale blue jacket. She looked dressed for fine summer weather and certainly not spring showers.
When the woman lifted her head and took a long perusal of him, he stiffened. A shard of sensation twisted through him, making the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Underneath the huge brim of her hat sat bold blue eyes, a narrow but plump set of lips and a face that made his heart stutter.
Still drunk, he reminded himself. She could have been a hideous beast but the fog of alcohol made even the plainest of women beautiful.
He peered at her again. The strong nose wasn’t beautiful. However, when he stopped looking at it and took her face in as a whole, she was back to being spectacular.
He really ought to give up the drink. His mind was playing tricks on him.
The stranger lifted an auburn eyebrow. Several strands of hair that would likely be the same colour when dry clung to her cheeks. Those pouty lips parted.
“Yes?” he asked abruptly, aware he’d been staring at her for too long. His alcohol-soaked brain seemed to be working at a snail’s pace.
Her wet lashes darted over her cheeks several times before she spoke. “Oh, hello. Um. Is the master home?”
An American. He tried not to sound like his mother but the voice in his head had sounded distinctly marchioness-like. A brash, coarse, unsophisticated American. That was his mother’s voice too. Julian hadn’t met many American women so he couldn’t really be a judge of how brash, coarse and unsophisticated they were.
She looked at him, awaiting a response. Brash indeed. Most women withered and looked away under his darkest stares. In fact, most ladies wouldn’t even approach him. Too scared of him. After all, the Marquess of Lockwood had the touch of death.
“The master is home,” he drawled.
A smile slipped across those lips and he followed the movement of them. They were certainly narrow but, bloody hell, the cupid bow shape of them did strange things to his insides. He couldn’t remember any of his wives’ lips making him feel as though his gut was twisting into knots.
“That is wonderful news.” She thrust out a gloved hand. “I’m Miss Viola Thompson. My friends call me Vee.”
Viola Thompson. Oh Christ, the woman he’d been writing to in New York. The woman he’d been... well that didn’t matter. What the blazes was she doing here? He contemplated her hand for several moments until her fingers curled and she tucked it back against her side.
“Could I speak with your master?” she tried again, her voice holding a little less strength this time.
“I have no master.” He leaned against the door frame and folded his arms. A little amusement first thing in the morning would do no harm.
“But I thought...” Colour seeped into her pale cheeks and confusion marred her brow.
“Julian Cynfell, Marquess of Lockwood, at your service, Miss Thompson.”
“But...” Her lips opened and closed several times while her gaze ran over him. “You cannot possibly be.”
He hadn’t considered what he looked like. If he looked down, he’d likely see his shirt was untucked, his feet were bare and he knew at least a month’s worth of bristle covered his jaw. What sort of servant she thought he was, he didn’t know.
“Forgive me if I disappoint.”
Viola clutched her travelling bag to her chest. “No, no, forgive me. I didn’t realise... Well, anyway,” she said brightly. “Here I am.”
Letting both brows rise, he ran his gaze from head to toe. What was he meant to do with her? “Yes, here you are.”
“Can I come in?”
Julian’s head pounded anew. All he wanted to do was have a coffee, eat something wholesome and go to bed—a proper bed. His back ached from having fallen asleep on the chaise. Instead, he had an admittedly stunning American woman on his doorstep, expecting him to do something with her.
He could think of several things he might like to do with her—it had been over a year after all—but he doubted those were the sort of somethings she expected. Viola Thompson was all of twenty-two and definitely innocent—that had been clear from her letters. Besides which, Julian didn’t do women anymore.
He scowled and leaned out of the door to search for a carriage or sign of a chaperone. No one. Nothing. Was Miss Thompson all alone?
“How did you get here?”
“The mail coach dropped me off at the end of the road.” She pointed in the direction of the end of the private road. It couldn’t be seen from the house as rows of large oak trees hid it from view.
“And you walked all the way up here in the rain?”
She nodded and a tiny shudder wracked her.
“You’re alone?” He did another scan of the area, wondering if someone was hiding behind the fountain or had decided to walk around the back of the house to explore the ornamental garden.
“You’re American.” He didn’t ask, just stated. He needed to work his brain around several things and saying them aloud helped.
She squeezed her bag tightly to her chest. “Well, yes, but you knew that. We’ve been writing to each other for six months now.”
“No, it’s just... did you travel from America alone?”
“Yes.” She nodded again as though this was a perfectly normal thing to do.
Fingers to his temples, he levered himself away from the door frame. For some reason, he had this woman he’d been writing to on his doorstep, alone, expecting something. And she’d crossed the ocean on her own. He opened and closed his eyes several times to make sure he wasn’t seeing things, but she remained, resolute and a little fragile-looking.
“You can’t come in.”
“What?” She almost dropped her bag and had to fumble to keep hold of it.
“You’re alone. You cannot possibly come in.”
“But... Julian...” Her eyes widened. “I mean, my lord, I am cold and wet and hungry. I haven’t slept since my ship docked in Southampton.”
“Miss Thompson,” he said slowly as though speaking to an imbecile, “there is no room at the inn. No place for you to say. No warm welcome here. May I suggest you find a hotel and find your warmth and rest there?”
A crease appeared between her brows and she studied him for long moments as though trying to work out a puzzle. “The nearest town is five miles away. I know that because that is where I caught the train to. Firstly, how do you expect me to get there? And secondly, I thought you were expecting me.”
Julian found himself taken aback by her sharp tone. Coarse, definitely coarse. Also slightly appealing. None of his wives had ever spoken to him so directly—not even the last one.
“I wasn’t expecting you.”
“But your letter...” She tried to reach for the purse hanging off her arm by a metal chain but her travelling bag slipped and dropped to the floor with a thud. He half expected the overly-stuffed fabric to split apart and for her belongings to explode all over him. Viola thrust her hands to her sides and let out a small huff sound. And there, in her eyes, was the undoing of him. The little shimmer of tears that never failed to scour his insides and turn him into an utter weakling.
“Come in for a moment.” He said the words as low as he could, half-hoping she wouldn’t hear and she would decide to run back to New York.
She brushed by him eagerly, not even waiting for him to step aside properly. Her arm breezed past his chest and a few feathers tickled his nose. Julian stepped back and shut the door. Viola removed her hat and lifted her gaze to the vaulted ceiling. Her mouth fell open.
“Goodness, what a place.”
Brash for certain. His mother would have delighted in meeting this woman and putting her in her place. He, however, couldn’t help but enjoy her open expression of pleasure. He supposed the house was impressive when you first saw it but he’d grown up in it. Lockwood Manor didn’t interest him. It was nice to see it appreciated though. The few visitors he received usually did their upmost to appear entirely unimpressed and at ease with his grand home.
“Come into the...” No, he couldn’t put her in the main drawing room. The place would smell of alcohol and he’d probably left a few empty decanters lying around. She already didn’t have the best impression of him. Best not to add to that.
Though why did he care?
“Come into the day room,” he said, motioning to the door on the other side of the hall.
Julian supposed it was a relief to have someone who didn’t already have a bad opinion of him in his house. The rumours and gossip were the very reason he never set foot outside his house anymore, so if there were any ladies left who didn’t know all about him, he had never met them. Miss Thompson knew him as nothing more than some words on paper—nice words too. Honest ones. Their correspondence had been one of the more enjoyable aspects of his life.
He also supposed he owed her a more pleasant welcome, even if he couldn’t fathom why she was here.
When he pressed open the door, she slipped past him—again caring little for his personal space. Or hers. In spite of travelling all night presumably, she smelled floral and fresh. She began to unbutton that tiny jacket and work it off her shoulders as she did a loop of the room. No predatory glint hung in her gaze.
Normally, when women visited his home, they were weighing up his valuables. Gauging how much the paintings were worth. Deciding how they’d decorate the pale green room. In some ways, the death of his last wife had at least saved him from any more visits from mothers and daughters. None would go near him now.
“This is a beautiful room.” She shrugged out of her jacket and glanced around for somewhere to put it. It ended up draped over a Louis XV chair along with her hat. “Very feminine.”
Feminine. Yes. There was a lot of feminine in this room right now. However, it wasn’t the curves of the gilded chairs that drew his attention. It was the curves under Miss Thompson’s high-necked shirt that captured his eye. She did another loop, as though parading especially for him. Her skirt clung tightly to her hips and as near as he could tell, no bustle enhanced her behind. Everything fit tight, perfectly. Julian had ample idea what her figure was like. Long, lithe, with high, pert breasts. Of course a corset could be responsible for those breasts but this was a fantasy after all and his fantasy woman had breasts that were high and round and succulent.
Mother wouldn’t approve of course, which made it all the more appealing. His mother had designed this room and he imagined her lips curled in distaste at the idea of an American scattering her clothes over the furniture. Thank the Lord she was in Brighton.
Julian, however, rather liked the idea of more clothes being scattered. A shirt perhaps. Then a corset. A skirt and some drawers. Maybe he’d leave any stockings on. He bet she would look radiant in silk stockings.
Miss Thompson paused by the fire and held out her hands. Apparently some of his staff was around as it had been lit on this dreary morning. He glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece. Afternoon. Not morning. He’d slept that away it seemed.
While his visitor fussed with her auburn hair, drawing back the wet strands that were stuck to her cheeks, he rang the bell for tea. He had a limited amount of staff—yes the house took a lot of work—but he hardly needed anyone to care for him. However, there had to be someone around.
He eyed the back of her for a while. What to do with her? He coughed. “Will you not... will you not have a seat?”
She smiled at him. Any hint of that rebellious woman demanding entrance to his house had vanished. A warm fire and a dry room had done wonders for her temperament.
Easily pleased then. Very unlike wife number three.