About the author:
I live in South Florida with my husband, Ian, and a whole lot of cats (more than a dozen, less than 20!)
Here is a short sample from the book:
Cornwall, England 1661
As the sound whistled through the air, Isabelle Beaumont grimaced and braced for the imminent blow. When switch met skin through only a thin layer of silk, it stung more than she could ever imagine. Fire leapt at the point of contact, coursing along shocked nerves. Her breath escaped with a hiss through gritted teeth.
The second blow landed with less mercy than the first against the tender flesh of her barely clad posterior. Her fingers clenched white-knuckled around the wooden leg of the footstool over which she knelt. Tears rose in her eyes. She clamped them shut to keep the betraying moisture from leaking out.
A sob resonated through the room and she feared it might have slipped from her own lips. But the sound came from her mother, who stood at her father’s side mere feet away, watching as the ordered punishment was meted out.
“Isabelle! For God’s sake, please be a good daughter and submit!” Her mother’s harsh cry hurt even more than the switch, but Izzy would not acquiesce. Not on this matter. How could she?
The fourth blow didn’t sting nearly as much as the previous three. Perhaps because her flesh had begun to go numb. She fixed her gaze beyond her parents, on the large desk at the opposite end of the dark paneled study, trying to refocus her attention on anything other than the pain.
“Enough!” Her father commanded.
Relief shuddered through Izzy. She glanced at her father’s haggard face. I outlasted him!
With a curt nod, he dismissed the Vicar’s hefty wife, who’d been summoned to administer the discipline he had not been able to bring himself to deliver. Izzy almost wished it had been Papa who’d served the punishment. Despite his burly size, he probably would have gone easier on her than had Prudence Smith, who seemed content to carry on wielding the switch, and even now muttered something under her breath about ‘sparing the rod’.
Izzy’s mother ran to her side, stroked her face with trembling fingers and hurried to lower the rumpled damask gown back over Izzy’s chemise.
Dizzy with pain, relief, and the released tension of fear, Izzy stumbled to her feet, allowing herself to lean on her mother and be led to a dark blue velvet covered sofa. As she sat her abused flesh screamed in protest, but she bit her lip and did so anyway. She couldn’t let Papa see her falter now.
Gerald Beaumont waited until Mrs. Smith had been escorted from his study before he spoke. “Why must you be so stubborn, Isabelle?”
She snuck a look at her father’s face, noting his expression drawn with both anger and regret. He hated disciplining her as much as she hated being disciplined. Well, mayhap not quite as much as she hated it. But she’d called his bluff when he’d threatened the switch, and he in turn had been forced to send for Mrs. Smith, whose eager appearance at his summons was no doubt spurred by memories of a cooling apple pie long ago stolen from her windowsill. Who would have ever guessed that a dare issued to Izzy by her brothers would have such dire consequences so many years later?
“Nothing has changed, Papa. I will not marry him.” Izzy raised her chin and met her father’s stern gaze as she picked up their conversation from where they’d stopped when Papa thought that perhaps the switch might gain her cooperation. It wouldn’t. It couldn’t.
“You will do your duty and do as I say.” He shook his head in consternation. “My God, I allowed you too much freedom in your youth. Now you think you can defy me on this.”
She may have gotten her blue eyes, chestnut curls, and diminutive height from her petite mother, but Izzy’s iron will came straight from her father, a fact Papa had oft lamented, usually with affection in his voice. He tended to turn a blind eye to her mischief or violation of his dictates, but on this matter it was proving impossible to move him.
“I will not marry a man I do not love and cannot respect. I’m in love with Paul. If I can’t marry him I shan’t wed at all!”
“Love has little bearing on marriage, and you well know it.” Her father’s expression softened. “You’re too young to know real love, Izzy. Paul will not return for you. He’s not the man you think he is.”
“He said he would come for me, Papa. If you would only wait, you’ll see he will come to marry me. He told me so!” Shifting with frustration at her father’s failure to understand her perspective, she winced as the cushion rubbed against her sore backside.
“I’ve given Huntley three years to come for you, despite the fact that a match with him would gain this family nothing. But now an opportunity has arisen that will restore some of our fortunes and I will take it. You’ve an obligation to this family. Paul is not a reasonable choice. His family is in worse financial straits than ours!” He ground one fist into his other hand, a sure sign of his growing frustration.
Her own irritation flared. “Why can’t one of my brothers make a good match to bring in the funds you so desperately need? Why must I be the one to go to the auction block? Why must I be the sacrificial lamb?”
Anger flashed in her father’s brown eyes. “Your brothers spilt their blood on the battlefield fighting with Charles. They’ve made their sacrifices. Now you will make yours!”
“And so I must spill my blood as well?”
“Your blood?” Papa looked perplexed.
“My virgin blood! Isn’t that what the Earl is paying for?”
Papa rolled his eyes. “Don’t be melodramatic, Izzy, it isn’t becoming.”
It took every bit of will power she possessed not to stamp her foot in frustration. “Nothing about this travesty is becoming. Why can’t you see that? You would marry me to a Parliamentarian, to a man who supported Cromwell, to a roundhead!” She spat the words and turned away, unable to stop the rise of tears. All her life she’d been reared to believe Charles Stuart was the rightful heir to the throne of England. Her family had gone into exile for their fallen monarch, had given their money, their lands, their very blood to see him restored to his proper place as King of England. To consider marrying one whom, until recently, had been considered an enemy was anathema.
“If the King can grant pardon to those who fought for Cromwell against his father, then you can find it in your heart to accept the past and move on.” He heaved an exasperated sigh, then paced before his heavy maple desk. “This man is a viscount, the only son of the Earl, and destined to one day be a powerful earl himself. Think of it! I’m offering to make you a viscountess! But even more importantly, Chesworth holds property that once belonged to this family!”
“Then Charles will restore it to you, as he did Rendstell Manor.” She glanced about at the beloved timber framed Tudor house, remembering the immense relief of the day the King had summoned them home for the first time in nine long years.
“Nay, Izzy. The King restored only those properties illegally seized by Cromwell during the war. I outright sold our land to Chesworth for the funds we so desperately needed, assuming he would want to hold the land adjacent to his own. He’s under no obligation to return it, yet has agreed to do just that and pay additional funds if you but marry his son. They sided with Cromwell and are desperate to marry into a family in such high standing with the king.”
“What you propose I do is no better than what Buckingham did!” George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, had once been King Charles’ closest friend. After years of poverty-stricken exile on the continent with his monarch, he’d snuck back into England and married the daughter of the man who’d received Villier’s confiscated estates, thus recovering what he’d lost for the King’s cause. What he’d done was despicable.
“Charles does not begrudge him for what he did. It was the expedient thing for Buckingham to do. It is expedient for you to marry and regain our land. If our monarch can be reasonable, so then, can you. And here I am, offering you a man who will one day make you a countess.”
“I care not for his pedigree.” She lifted her chin, hoping he wouldn’t see it tremble. “I won’t marry him, Papa.”
“Please Izzy, do not make me say the words I shall speak next. It is the last thing in the world I wish to say to you!”
“Nothing you say will make me change my mind. I’ll not have the roundhead, Papa!”
Her father’s face hardened and instant tension filled the room. “I have been lenient with you these years past, but on this I will not tolerate disobedience. If you do not marry him, Isabelle, you’ll no longer be my daughter.”
Pain flashed across her father’s face as he uttered the terrible words, but it didn’t soothe the stab of betrayal that lanced her heart. Beside her, her mother gasped and grabbed Izzy’s hand, squeezing it. “Please, Isabelle?” she whispered.
With those words, Papa had effectively trapped her, after all. If she stood by her principles, she might lose her family. Her stomach clenched at the very idea. But could she give up everything she believed in, abandon the man she loved, and marry this traitor for the sake of family harmony?
What choice did she have? Icy panic clenched its fingers around her heart.
She glanced at the thin fingers entwined so tightly with her own. Her mother would be distraught if Papa disowned her, and so would Izzy. And what about Papa? He’d spent his life taking care of them all. She studied his haggard expression again. He’d aged so much in the last decade; his once dark head of hair was now liberally shot through with gray. The threat of disowning her devastated him. Could she bring more grief to him after everything else?
Her vision blurred as tears gathered anew. She loved her family with all her heart. Where would she go if Papa disowned her? How long before Paul returned to honor his promise? One of her brothers would take her in, she was sure of it. But her brothers had fought hard for the Stuart cause, and they deserved the privileges that might be bought with the monies a union with Chesworth would provide. This marriage would preserve their legacies. Could she be so selfish and deny her family so much?
But where did that leave her? Forced to give up the only man she’d ever loved, faced with the prospect of a bleak future trapped in a loveless marriage, that’s where!
Anger warred with her sense of duty. It was a cruel thing to bear, when she’d always thought the choice of husband would be hers alone. Yet in the end, there was no other decision to be made. She would sacrifice her happiness for the sake of her family.
Her submission did not mean she would do so quietly, nor would she cease to try to find a way out of her predicament.
Gathering what shreds of dignity remained after the day’s punishment, she faced her father. “I will marry the roundhead,” she spat the word as though it were venom lodged in her throat. “But I shall never forgive you for this, Papa. Never.”
Piss poor couldn’t even begin to describe Ramsay Maitland’s mood. Dusty and dirty from the road, he glared with impatience into the dim stable. The stamping and snorting of the horses housed within was all quite normal. The absence of a groom was not.
With a muttered curse he saw to his horse himself, his disposition no sunnier for the exertion after the long and tiring journey from London. After finishing the task he marched toward the magnificent red-bricked Tudor manor house in which he’d grown up, determined to discover why there was no one to look after his horse. The absence of staff was unusual, as the Earl had always been a stickler for propriety and quick to lecture on the importance of duty. A subject which, Ram observed with a grim frown, he’d been instructed at great length of late.
Damn Father’s meddling in my private affairs!
Why he’d ever allowed his father to talk Ram into agreeing to a betrothal that caused every one of his nerve endings to stand on end, he’d never understand. It didn’t matter he was Viscount Royston, a grown man past thirty years, or that he had long ago surpassed his father in height. The Earl of Chesworth still had a presence that commanded obedience, and an irritating ability to make Ram feel like a boy of six years old. He was a bloody fool for agreeing to his father’s madcap scheme.
His throat tightened and his stomach churned, as happened each time in the month since the betrothal contract was signed and he allowed his thoughts to wander towards his impending nuptials. While he’d been in London, his mistress had tried her damnedest to distract him with her bountiful charms in her boudoir, with little success.
Frustration had led him back to Cornwall, if only to sneak a peek at his bride-to-be. If he was to have any peace of mind for the next month, he needed to put his deepest fears to rest. His father claimed his betrothed was rumored to be a great beauty, but what beautiful woman remained unmarried at the advanced age of two and twenty? Of course, it was not just her looks that alarmed him. Many a man married a plain woman to advance his position. But this particular woman had spent a good portion of her life in exile, with the current monarch’s courtiers, and their immorality was well known. It was his betrothed’s character that truly worried him. His need to see her grew with every passing day as the wedding fast approached.
The wet crunch of the mud-laden gravel beneath his leather boots ended as he strode up the stone steps that led to the massive wooden entrance. His father’s butler opened the door and peered at him as if he were a stranger. At least Hawthorne’s predictability brought a small smile to Ram’s face.
“Where the bloody hell is everybody, Hawthorne?” He stepped past the butler and into the dim foyer beyond. “There are no grooms in the stable. My father would have their heads if he knew.” He noticed the empty place against the wall at the base of the staircase. “And where are the footmen?”
“Apparently you’ve spent far too much time enjoying the frivolities of London, my lord.” Hawthorne sniffed with disdain. “Today is the first of May. Do they not celebrate such a rustic holiday in our great capital city?”
Ram grinned. It had forever miffed the staid Hawthorne that the Earl kept another butler in his London household, forcing Hawthorne to remain in perpetuity in the country. “Surely you wouldn’t want to be in the congested and polluted city when you have the grandeur of the Cornish countryside at your disposal?”
The butler made a sound that suspiciously resembled a snort, his stiff frame straightening beneath his Chesworth livery. “I’ll find a boy and send him out to see to your horse, my lord.”
“No need to pull anyone away from the festivity, I’ve already seen to it.”
How could he have forgotten? May Day celebrations were a staple from his youth, yet many had been the years since he’d even contemplated the holiday. Cromwell had forbidden such practices, nationwide, more than a decade ago due to the heathen roots of the festival. It was an ancient fertility celebration, said to hearken back to the days of the Romans, a reminder of the time when Pagans had inhabited the land. Always a bloody fun day.
“Is my father in his study?”
The silver-haired butler shook his head and gave a discreet cough. “Nay, my lord. He’s in Bodmin.”
Bodmin. Of course. With his mistress. It was almost as if his father knew he’d return from London today, armed with new arguments against this betrothal, and so he’d gone to ground to avoid a confrontation. Ram’s mood deteriorated further.
“May I get you some refreshments, my lord?”
“Thank you, but nay.” He peered closer at the butler. “No desire to dance around the maypole today, Hawthorne?”
The man came close to a laugh before he caught himself. “My missus would have my head, sir.”
Ram chuckled. As a lad, he’d always enjoyed the sheer revelry of the holiday; girls and boys dancing around the may pole in merry abandonment as the May Queen looked on from her lofty throne. And then, later, when the moon was high and the children abed, men and women would mate with wild abandon; behind a bush, in the stables, against a wall. It had never been hard to find female companionship amongst the villagers during the celebrations. In fact, he and his friends had wagered each year over who would be the seducer of the May Queen into his bed.
“You make a fine point, my friend. Wives can be quite shrewish about such things, can’t they? Perhaps I should take my last opportunity as a bachelor to engage in a bit of debauchery.”
Hawthorne grinned. “If your father happens to ask upon his return, I’ve not seen you.”
Ram smiled at his co-conspirator. “You’re a good man, Hawthorne.” His mood lifted. It had been a while since he had engaged in a celebration of any kind. Unexpected excitement coursed through him at the thought of joining in the merriment. His betrothed could wait; he would investigate her on the morrow. Today he would enjoy himself to the fullest.
Taking the stairs two at a time, he strode toward the chambers he used when he came to Chesworth House. The luxurious suite of rooms where he’d spent precious little time in the course of the last decade had hardly changed since his childhood.
The muted light of the early morning sun struggled to penetrate the heavy blue and gold brocade drapery that covered the tall windows. His glance skittered toward the ornately carved mahogany bed of inviting proportion. Travel weary as he was, the idea of May Day revelry overshadowed the notion of sleep. He shed his clothing and stepped to the washbasin, using the pitcher and the cool water to clean away the grime of his journey. Then he padded across the thick blue rug to his wardrobe, contemplating what to wear.
Though the Civil War had ended with the restoration of King Charles II, Cornwall had been one of the few counties to remain fiercely loyal to the Stuart cause throughout the long years of exile. It was no secret Ram’s father had been a staunch Parliamentarian, and Ram would likely receive an icy reception should his identity be apparent. Though it had been years since he’d spent extended time in the county. Likely no one would even recognize him. But to be sure, he’d leave off the trappings of nobility and go to the village dressed plainly. Perhaps, as in his younger days, he’d find some pleasurable companionship for the evening.
Wearing a simple white shirt and a pair of worn, tan breeches, he returned to the stable and chose a fresh mount. He saddled Mercury, his favorite chestnut, and swung into the saddle. Perhaps the stallion sensed Ram’s excitement to leave behind his cares for the day, or perhaps the notion of escaping the confines of his own stabled existence pleased him, but at the first squeeze of Ram’s heels Mercury leapt beneath him like bottled lightning. Ram threw his head back and let the smells and sights of Cornwall fill his senses.
He’d forgotten how beautiful the countryside could be. The frigid fingers of winter had begun to release their grasp on the landscape, which in turn began to bloom, bathed in the life-sustaining warmth of the late spring sun. Fragile flowers unfurled their petals, perfuming the air with the sweet smells of bluebells and primrose, while birds chattered in the trees as they prepared their nests.
With his lagging spirits lifted by the beauty of the day, Ram made his way down from his father’s manor toward the small village, a journey of less than a mile. He followed the bank of the River Camel, marveling at the lengths to which his father would go to find favor with the newly restored King.
Oh, he understood his father’s motives, and he couldn’t truly fault his sire, not all that much, at least. It was the manner in which the Earl had gone about conducting the betrothal— behind Ram’s back— as if he were a lad barely out of the schoolroom rather than a man of thirty, which rankled most. It was Ram’s duty to marry well, and he was prepared to do just that, but to a bride of his own choosing. His father had known that when he’d betrothed him to a young lady who’d spent the whole of her adolescence in the courts on the Continent and occasionally with the young, exiled King. Ram had absolutely no use for a courtier as a bride- a woman who knew the fine nuances of flirting and giggling and scarce else.
“Whoa, boy!” He pulled hard on the reigns as a flash of white caught his eye.
Mercury was almost atop a girl on the riverbank. The stallion did some fancy footwork, somehow managing to avoid trampling her. The lass had hiked up her skirts, as though about to wade into the water. She dropped them as she jumped away from the horse, but not before he glimpsed a tantalizing view of nicely formed, pale calves.
On closer inspection, though she was quite short, it was apparent this was a woman full grown. The lass was no girl. Dressed in peasant clothing, a long full skirt flowed to her ankles, covered by a white apron. An equally white blouse peeked from beneath her close-fitting dark bodice. A kerchief draped around her neck and shoulders. All the layers of clothing couldn’t hide her tiny waist and gently flaring hips, or the generous swell of her bosom.
Out of place was the unbound mass of chestnut curls flowing in a riotous wave over her shoulders and down her back, reaching almost to her hips. As she turned to face him, the rays of the mid morning sun sent red and golden highlights dancing through her hair.
Her face was as delicate as the rest of her. Even from atop his horse he observed her skin was the smoothest he’d ever seen. Winged brows the same shade as her hair were raised over eyes whose color he couldn’t discern from his vantage point. Her full lips were slightly parted in surprise at his intrusion.
His loins thickened. With any luck, he’d just stumbled upon his companionship for the evening.
He dismounted, tossed Mercury’s reins into a bush, and noticed right away the source of her problem. She’d lost her cap and it was snagged upon some reeds in the water.
“Allow me to retrieve your cap, Madam.” Without waiting for her assent, he stepped off the bank into the cool stream. His boots filled with cold water, but he paid them no mind as he waded towards the reeds. He had two dozen pairs of boots at home; one pair ruined in the pursuit of enjoyable bedsport was no great loss.
With white cap in hand, he returned to the bank, triumphant. Instead of looking as overwhelmingly pleased as he expected, she looked… amused. One delicate brow arched over eyes he could see now were a dark blue color that brought to mind sapphires.
A wry grin tipped up the corners of her sensuous mouth. “My thanks, sir, for your aid. That was most…chivalrous.”
Taken aback, Ram paused. Sarcasm? Most maids of his acquaintance would have responded with simpering gratitude. She could have at least flirted with him in reply! Still, his interest rose another notch at her unexpected response. “Aye, it was that.” He couldn’t stop the slow grin that pulled at his lips. “I would have hated to see you ruin your skirts to retrieve it.”
“I am quite sure you would have. You are a knight without shining armor.”
Her sarcasm rankled, until he caught her taking his measure, looking him over from head to toe. Her tongue darted out to moisten her lips. She liked what she saw. A good start.
As she took the cap from his hands and twisted her mane to stuff it back under the wisp of fabric, he nearly protested the loss of all that abundant shimmering hair. No matter. He’d have her hair down once more before the day ended, spread around them as he buried himself deep inside of her and fucked them both into oblivion.
He cleared his throat. “Are you on your way to the May Day celebration?” He motioned to his horse. “Perhaps I could escort you. A lady shouldn’t be alone in the wild where all manner of predators abound.”
She blinked. A sculpted brow rose. “Tell me sir; does a predator have me in his sights?”
Izzy tried to contain her delight at the banter between her and the deliciously handsome man before her.
Her May Day disguise emboldened her. Dressed as she was, she didn’t have to act demure and restrained. She could be herself and not be deemed unladylike. With this costume came a freedom she’d rarely before experienced. It hadn’t been hard to talk one of her maids into fetching the ensemble she now wore, as they were accustomed to her oft-eccentric requests.
She took a closer look at the man standing before her, but didn’t recognize him. Then again, she’d been gone so long during the war there were many local people she didn’t know anymore.
A blacksmith perhaps, if the generous width of his shoulders beneath the simple white cambric shirt he wore was anything to go on. Or perhaps a stable hand, based on the quality of horseflesh he rode. Yet his speech was not the rough dialect of the peasantry. Mayhap a footman from a nearby manor? He was tall, towering over her by at least a head, his long legs encased in snug brown riding breeches that came to the knee, emphasizing his fine musculature. The stockings beneath disappeared into high black riding boots. Wavy black hair hung long, tied back in a queue. He wore no hat.
A very handsome man, indeed. He must be a footman; they were hired for their height and good looks.
While she openly examined him, he seemed to recover his decorum. “I daresay you might have been in extreme danger had I not stumbled upon you when I did. Don’t you know wolves and other beasties prowl these woods, seeking fair damsels to prey upon?” His gray eyes twinkled as he cast one hand in the direction of the trees.
Utterly charmed, she went along with his banter. “But I have always been warned that wolves oftentimes come disguised as sheep. Your intentions seem noble, but tell me, good sir, how do I know you are not a wolf in sheep’s clothing?”
He grinned, leaning closer. “I can be both wolf and sheep, should the situation warrant it.”
The husky tone of his voice curled her toes. His features were so handsome, a thrill coursed along her spine.
He gave an exaggerated sigh. “Alas, today I am but a simple man, on a mission to save unsuspecting maids from all manner of trouble. And since I so bravely saved your life, I now have the responsibility of you.
She laughed. “You saved my cap, Sir!”
“Well yes, but had I not wandered along, you might have gone after it yourself and become swept up in the current and drowned.”
Casting a wry grin at the shallow, slow moving water, she raised an eyebrow to make her point, then glanced back at him.
He gave another long-suffering sigh. “How could I know whether or not you swim? Nay, there’s no help for it, I’m afraid. I am responsible for your well-being for the rest of this day at least, madam.”
He tucked an errant strand of her hair back under the cap and she went still at such a familiar gesture. A frisson of heat passed from his body into hers at his touch. She started, the banter forgotten, and he sobered, taking a step back.
He leaned against his horse and contemplated her for a long moment. When he spoke again his voice was much subdued. “If you were going to the May Day celebrations I would now be honor bound to give you escort.”
“As a matter of fact, I’m on my way to Wadebridge for that very purpose, but my cap decided it ought to go for a swim.”
He smiled. “You don’t wish to go a bit further to Padstow, instead? ’Tis a much more exuberant affair.”
She’d heard about the famous celebrations that took place each year in the small harbor town. Aside from the regular May Day revelry, the folks of Padstow engaged in the ‘Obby ‘Oss festival, a sight she’d never been privy too, but one she’d always had a keen interest in. “I fear Padstow is too far to travel by foot.”
His wicked grin returned and he waggled raven eyebrows at her in a suggestive manner. “Then it’s a good thing I wandered upon you when I did. I daresay my mount could handle the extra weight should you wish escort to Padstow.”
It went against everything she’d ever been taught, to be so familiar with a man, and a stranger at that. But dear God, he intrigued her so very much! And she was on an important mission. It was conceivable she could use this chance meeting to her advantage. This man was very handsome; perhaps she might seduce him into doing what needed to be done. What she’d planned specifically to do this day if she could but keep her nerve.
She would keep her nerve. She must.
Her sense of humor rose to the fore. How appropriate might it be if she played the sacrificial lamb to this wolf? Besides, recognition was far less likely in Padstow than in Wadebridge.
Instead of answering, she offered her hand. He hoisted her onto his horse and leapt up behind her, his arms reaching around her to take the reins. Of course, he wouldn’t place her on the horse as if she were riding side saddle; he thought her a servant, never a lady. It was thrilling to sit astride a horse, even if she did have to hike her skirts to her knees to do so, but that was exciting and titillating too. As she adjusted them as best she could over her legs, she was keenly aware of the hardness of his chest pressed against her back, the feel of his arms against her sides, and the heat that seemed to leap from his body to hers. She shivered.
“Are you chilled?” His voice was almost a whisper, his mouth hovering just over the sensitive skin of her ear.
She shook her head. “Only excited. I’ve never been to Padstow before.”
“You’ll have a most pleasurable time,” his voice dropped, taking on a husky quality. “I guarantee it.