This prologue was a necessary device used to get the story started but now I'm not so certain it works. My first instinct is to delete it only both Claire and my sister believes I should keep it. Now I put it to you my dear friends before sending it off to Harlequin undone.
May 29th 1818
A fortnight at the Stamfords’ in Brighton
Dominic watched the stunning dark-haired woman with her tidy attire fill the basket at her feet with sweet English roses from the garden path until she, without turning, said, “Good morning, my lord.”
“Indeed it is now that I’ve happened on such lovely company.”
“You do that very well,” she said this time with a measured smile over her shoulder. Looking, in that moment, to be the very image of Tintoretto La Maddalena... He loved that painting. In fact, he made an effort to see it every time he was in Rome.
"And what would that be?"
"Singing the praises of young, unsuspecting women," she replied easily.
“Surely, you don’t disapprove?”
“Have I cause to?”
“No,” Dominic said with an amused smile.
“Then I don’t.”
“I like that.”
“My blind acceptance of your truth, you mean?” Helena smiled, turning fully round with something like mockery in her eyes and Dominic laughed.
“You are laughing me.”
“You think me silly?”
She looked at him a moment as if she was genuinely attempting to weight his words against her opinion of him then she, with pensive eyes, said, “Not silly... Perhaps charismatic? No, rather pleasant... Yes, I think you most pleasant.”
“Pleasant, I would take offence if I wasn't so certain you meant it as praise.”
“My highest compliment, I guarantee it,” Helena said with a sweet smile her eyes dimmed momentarily with some unknown melancholy before adding, “No one bothers flirting with me now I’ve fallen so far.”
“Beautiful as you are? Now that I can hardly believe,” Dominic said dismissively.
“Oh, I’m offered plenty of male attention, only now that I’m a member of the service class there isn’t the pretence of coy flirtation applied to those propositions.”
“That, I’m inclined to believe, has less to do with your station and more with your allure.”
He had covered the distance between them without her having noticed and was now standing at her side, casting her in the shadow of his imposing frame and replacing the air around her with his scent. It was something musky, sensual and clean, that put her in mind of a garden by the shore.
“You truly are brilliant at that aren’t you?”
“Singing your praises, you mean?”
“That and lowering my guard so that you might invade my space.”
“See now,” he said with a killer smile, “In order for this to be a proper flirtation, you have to pretend not to notice that. You know?”
“Yes, and well you know it.”
“I do but I don’t want to encourage attention or kindness from you,” she said bluntly.
“And why is that?”
“It will vex my employers if they get wind of it and I don’t want them provoked.”
“Your Cousin Sarah?”
“Yes, the Baroness Stamford,” Helena said with something akin to irritation before stooping to retrieve her basket of roses in preparation to return to the house.
“Here I’ll take that,” Dominic said while reaching for the basket and she relinquished it without quarrel.
She was being rude when all he had done was offer her kindness and it made her feel like a bit of an eel. She’d have to apologize and was about to when he asked, “Why won’t you let your Cousin Charles help you?”
“I’ve grown used to my independence.”
“I realize I haven’t the right to your confidence, but I’d much rather you not reply than have you lie to me,” Dominic admonished. “She treats you as an indentured servant for Christ’s sakes.”
“Sarah you mean?”
“Yes, of course, Sarah,” he snapped. “What’s the matter with you?”
“There is nothing the matter with me and I’ll ask you not to address me in that manner for as you so rightly pointed out, you are not entitled to my confidence.”
“Alright,” he conceded coming suddenly to stand in front of her so he could hold her eyes before continuing with earnest request. “Will you tell me the truth? Tell me why you permit her to treat you so rottenly?”
“One misses family no matter how awful their conduct and I’ve been away from mine for half a decade... Besides, it’s not all Sarah. There is also the children.”
Helena could not, for the life of her, figure out why she had revealed so much to a near stranger. Except that maybe it was because he cared enough to ask, but she was not allowed the time to contemplate for he had a follow-up question.
“If that truly be the case, then why not accept Charles’ aid?”
“For precisely the reason I said before,” Helena said patiently. “When my parents perished in that horrid accident I let Charles install me with Sarah and Stamford. But the instant his back was turned, they were nothing but inhospitable. I had to leave.”
“And now you have returned.”
“Yes, but now it’s under my own terms and this way I’m free to leave the instant I’m no longer happy here.”
“You are happy now?”
“I’m contented for now to be with the children for they, despite their parents, are lovely kind-hearted people.”
“And you’re content to simply rear her children?” Dominic asked incredulously.
“Meaning what exactly?”
“Don’t you want children of your own?”
“You haven’t any right to ask me such a thing,” Helena said with barely contained emotion before turning and stalking away.
Only her dignity stopped her running from the garden so he would not see her shed tears. Then he was at her side once more without effort, his voice clear and apologetic.
“Please forgive me, Miss Alexander,” Dominic said sincerely with a strong warm hand on her arm. “It was a gross offence and I shan’t forgive myself if I’ve ruined a lovely association do to my poor conduct.”
Helena could not form words around the tears forming in her throat and the comfort of his gentle hand on her arm. She lifted her eyes to meet Dominic’s and was struck by the tenderness she saw there. It broke her heart to have this handsome gentleman pity her.
She would have wept and embarrassed herself had Charles not chosen that precise moment to appear in the path ahead of them.
“There you are, Strange,” Charles said with big grin, “I see you’ve found my pretty cousin.”
“Good morning, my lord,” Helena said while snitching the basket from an unsuspecting Dominic's hand before rushing off with quick curtsy. “The Baroness will be wondering what’s keeping me.”
The two watched her go. Then without bothering to turn and look at his friend, Charles said, “Despite her age, wit and intelligence, she lacks the sophistication for the games you play so I’d ask –”
“Here now, what sort of fellow do you take me for?”
“We’re two of a kind, you and I,” Charles said with easy smile.
“I like her.”
“Of course, you do. She has the face of an angel and a body made for a man’s touch. Now come, my sister has assembled a bevy of delectable willing ladies for our entertainment.”
Dominic went with Charles without further contention but his thoughts remained with Helena and their too-brief encounter. He wondered about her, that near sadness in her eyes… and perhaps there was a degree of wonder of her appeal. She was striking. And that body of hers, with all its enticing curves... well, Christ.
Maybe, he thought, just maybe, Charles was right about him liking her only for that luscious body, but if that had truly been the case, why didn’t he use his usual approach? Why hadn’t he charmed and seduced as he had done so successfully until now? What about her had pulled at him so? He would obsess about that and her the rest of the day.
In fact, she was all he thought of the rest of his time at Stamford’s house party.
Monday June 8th 1818
Still in Brighton, East Sussex, England
Miss Helena Alexander never much minded that her Cousin Sarah treated her more as slave than family.
Or that she now introduced her as the children’s governess to ladies they had both known as children.
Nor did she feel any shame in having to earn her keep. She was a brilliant governess and always in demand. She had only taken the position in her cousin’s household because she adored the children.
What she did mind however, was being made to feel like a handmaid for young women to whom she had taught proper deportment in the absence of their silly mamas.
She had noticed it with increased frequency at this house party and she could directly attribute it all to Sarah’s rotten treatment. The other ladies took their cues from her and now she was being made to jump through hoops for these spoilt girls and their vapid mothers.
Just imagine that vain dunce, Christine Blakemore, sending her back to the house to retrieve her parasol…
Well she’d had it, and she was giving in her notice. She would miss Arabella and Catherine dearly but, she would sooner occupy the position at Lord Stanwell's taking care of his rotten dozen than continue another day at Sarah’s beck and call.
In fact, she would do it now. That stupid girl could perish from sunstroke for all she cared. She was not returning to that picnic with the parasol and that was that. She would return to her room and pen her resignation the instant she reached the house.
It’s with this single-minded intent that Helena entered Sarah’s rented Brighton estate via the main entrance as her final act of defiance... only to be greeted by a frantic Arabella.
“I prayed you would sense my need for you and return,” the pretty blond girl said as she threw herself in Helena’s arms.
“What’s the matter pet?” Helena asked with comforting arms around Sarah’s oldest.
“Not here,” Arabella said before dragging Helena to the quiet of a nearby salon and closing the door behind her to whisper, “Mama has set me to a task that goes against everything I know to be right and I'm sure that it will lead to my eventual heartbreak.”
“Now, my dear, in spite of it all your mama loves you dearly and I’m certain that whatever it is she has asked is meant only to benefit –”
“She wants me to compromise myself by trapping the Earl of Strange into marriage.”
“Surely, you misunderstood your mama’s meaning.”
“While you are all at the picnic and the Earl now sleeps off the effects of what papa made certain he consumed last night, I am to climb into his bed and be discovered there by papa.”
“Your father knows of this?”
“He is the mastermind,” Arabella sobbed. “We are near ruin.”
“Sit awhile and I’ll get you some water,” Helena said with a leading hand but her charge was well beyond comfort.
“Haven’t you been listening to me?” she demanded frantically. “There isn’t any money and I will lose Joshua.”
“Arabella listen to me, families near financial ruin don’t rent Brighton palaces for month-long house parties. It would be reckless and irresponsible,” Helena reasoned.
“They would if they wanted their friends to believe that all is well. Besides, the main purpose of the house party was to lure Strange.”
“The Earl is here in company with your Uncle Charles, so all we need do is let the matter be known to him.”
“There isn’t time! Uncle Charlie was called away and more than likely will not return until nightfall.”
“Alright, here is what we'll do,” Helena said after a moment’s pause. “I’ll go find the Earl’s valet and have him roused while you stay here, out of sight. And then, when Charles returns, we tell him what your misguided parents are about.”
“And what do you suppose papa will do to me once he has discovered that I’ve betrayed him?”
“It won’t come to that, you have my word. Now, I must hurry if we are to be successful.”
“I know, my dear,” she said with a kind hand on the fretful girl's shoulder. Then she hurried from the room to find the Earl’s man.
Helena went straight away to the housekeeper who informed her that the Earl did not arrive with a valet. So, it was left to her to find his quarters and rouse him before Lord Dudley arrived expecting to find Arabella and pretend outrage.
Dominic was dead to the world when Helena arrived at his chamber and shook him vigorously. Her voice was steady and calm as she whispered, “My lord.”
His only answer was to nestle closer into the pillows, so she added bite to her tone and pressure to her hand as she called once more for the sleeping gentlemen, “Lord Strange you must rise at once –”
Helena was not given the opportunity to finish what it was she meant to say, for a still-sleeping Dominic seized her by the waist in one effortless motion and pulled her down atop him. An alarmed breath escaped her while she tried to get her bearings. She made a futile attempt to free herself from his hold, but alas, it was to no avail.
His hand at her waist was as unyielding as a steel bar and all her useless struggling succeeded in doing was getting her pinned beneath him. Soon he was crushing her between his hard body and the plush bedding while whispering endearments meant for some ‘sweet darling.’
He was heavy, naked and motivated with lips quick and hard against hers.
She froze, her mind blank, as his firm and open mouth, turned suddenly soft in unhurried and arousing kisses. He was consuming her with gentle heady strokes of his tongue as he deepened the kiss.
Helena held still for a brief moment, surprising herself by letting go of her inhibitions in order to grab a hold of the sensation. She leaned into his kiss and allowed the delicious weight of his body to settle onto hers. He was intoxicating, silky and languid from sleep as he lazily kissed her free of her good sense.
His skin, warm from sleep, quickly rose to a burn from the growing friction of their bodies pressed together through cumbersome fabric. His fingers were nimble, even in sleep, as he undid a few of the pins in her hair gripping her scalp in order to pull her lips more firmly to his lips and Helena sighed as Dominic sucked deeply on her tongue.
Her desperate hands gripped tightly to the bare smooth planes of his back as he undulated into her, causing her to gasp in surprise. She arched against the intimate touch, squirming instinctively towards him, her hands clutching to his back as her hips moved against his.
He felt so good... Helena revelled in the weight and feel of him as he nuzzled his way from her lips to the center of her chest, squeezing her breasts, pulling an excited gasp from her with each stroke of his hand. Soon she was writhing under him wantonly. Well, that was until he bit her nipple through her frock causing her eyes to go wide as lucidity returned and her body tensed.
He noticed right away.
“What’s the matter my angel?” he asked from someplace just outside of sleep, his voice a sweet rumble and eyes still closed.
“Your hosts have plotted to trap you in marriage and the hour of your compromise is all but upon us,” she offered hurriedly as she squirmed to get from under him.
“Tell Arundel I’m not amused,” Dominic said with lazy nuzzle against her neck.
“Charles has no part in this my lord. Now you must rise and be vigilant.”
Dominic opened his brilliant green eyes to look at her, his face marked by sleep and sudden awareness. Then he sat up, rearranging the fine linens under which he laid naked as he went so they pooled over his lap. He held her in his sight for a breath then he asked, “How did you come to learn of this plot, Miss Alexander?”
“Arabella just now confessed it to me,” Helena said, as he slid with near grace off the bed.
“And how did she come to it?” he prompted.
“She is who they intended to be your bride. Now, I must go for I’ve left her anxiously waiting below stairs.”
“I owe you every thanks,” Dominic said with a staying hand on her arm, his eyes holding hers in earnest gratitude and a gorgeous disarming smile. “I shan’t ever forget it, Helena.”
It caught her, his use of her name, so easy on his lips and echoing an era so long gone it almost seemed like someone else’s. Especially since, they had only been acquainted on the periphery, he a shining star and she the daughter of a lowly baron’s second son. In fact, if it hadn’t been for his friendship with her Cousin Charles she’d never have been introduced to him in that one month she was out in society as a débutante.
She looked at him then, half-naked and sleep-marked and saw some of the young man she knew from before. He was exotic and lean-limbed, with flawless proportions making him graceful. The wide shoulders, narrow hips and well-defined legs spoke of a promise fulfilled.
The youthful Dominic – the one she had been acquainted to all those years ago – was but the foundation for this man now sitting in front of her.
Helena wondered how he came to be this man in but seven years. She’d heard rumours of him being a ruthless mercenary who made his fortune in league with Archer and Foxborough but she’d dismissed it as just hearsay.
She set aside her musings for something more practical, saying the polite, “You are most welcome, my lord. But, all I did was in service to Arabella and you must extend your gratitude to her.”
“How could I do anything else,” he said humbly and she turned to exit thought the change room that led to the service entrance. Before she even completed her second step, there was a brisk knock at the door she had entered from the hallway.
Helena looked to Dominic with a pale face as the door swung open and Lord Dudley Stamford – Arabella’s conniving papa – entered and was genuinely caught by surprise. As were the two that followed on his heels. Lord Stamford had brought them with the hopes that they would pay witness to his daughter’s compromise.
She could feel Dominic's warm, strong hand close around hers as the shock on Dudley’s face turned to outrage at having his plans foiled. Then Dominic spoke, his voice even and sure as he arranged the sheets over his shoulder in one deft move so he could stand next to her.
“Be the first to wish me and my fiancée happy, my lord.”
Lord Stamford was saying something but, Helena was having trouble hearing over the frantic pounding of her heart and all the while Dominic's sure hands held her to his side. Then they were leaving with smiles on their faces, Lord Stamford’s strained, the other two genuine.
Once they were gone Helena felt two things. One was calm, in spite of the panic that was consuming all her rational thoughts. The other was hunger... she was suddenly starving.
“I’m suddenly famished,” she said with a relatively normal tone.
“Then we should get you fed,” Dominic said without pause. He released her by inches making certain she had her legs then went to the bell rope and pulled, all the while keeping her in easy conversation. “Now tell me what you crave.”
“Viennese apple strudel, if you can manage it,” she said with a wistful smile. “But I’d gladly settle for buttered eggs on brioche or croissant.”
“You realize of course that Sarah’s French chef won’t like you asking for Viennese anything,” Dominic said from where he stood now rooting around his wardrobe.
“Then I’ll have whatever pastry he has ready for the picnic luncheon,” she said conciliatorily as Dominic pulled on his trousers under his sheet.
He was watching her keenly without appearing to do so and he could see she was having trouble processing what had just happened. When a footman knocked, Dominic met him at the door and issued his order then returned to the wardrobe to find a shirt. He dropped the sheet that was draped over his shoulder in order to pull on a shirt.
“Yes, my dear,” he said his voice intentionally light.
“What will we do?”
“We’ll have a mid-afternoon meal in the antechamber through those doors there then I’ll send instructions to my steward to procure a special license from the clerk’s office in London and we’ll marry.”
“How can you be so matter-of-fact after this cruel thing has been done to you?”
“It’s you, my dear,” Dominic said simply. “You have my best interest at heart and will no doubt see that no harm comes to me.”
“You say that as if it were a quality lacking in the maidens of the ton.”
“Oh, but it is,” he said without faltering. “Marriage in our society is no more than a transaction of birth for wealth or vice versa, but you will take care of me.”
“Me seeing you well does not have to lead to you marrying me you know?”
“How do you mean?”
“I’ve been offered a position in Lord Stanwell’s household and I have no doubt that my cousin and her husband's cooperation could be purchased.”
“Here now, not even the desperate Stanwell, with his awful dozen will tolerate a tarnished governess and it’s what you’ll be if you refuse to marry me,” Dominic said to a suddenly faint
Helena as the full scope her new situation made it home in the recesses of her mind.
My gratitude, my love,