Can she be more than a mistress?
With a tarnished reputation, Mercy Lyndhurst expected to become the Earl of Rochford’s mistress, not his wife. Immediately abandoned by her husband after their wedding, Mercy transformed herself from commoner to countess, vowing to protect the lands and people her husband was forced to leave.
Over the past six years, William has restored the family fortune all the while tortured by his memories of Mercy…and the dark night he killed a man. When a threat draws him home, William learns just how much has changed—including his wife. While the passion still flares between them, he fears he has wounded her too badly to regain her trust. But as the danger grows they must unite to save the estate…and possibly their marriage.
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Drenched through, William banged the knocker. The heavy door creaked open under his hand. Unease slid through him. Where was everyone? Even old and cantankerous, the butler usually kept his post when William came home. He spared a glance for the flashing sky and then stepped into his home.
Flames flickered in their sconces, throwing shadows on red walls. The door shut behind him with a thud, throwing the hall into eerie silence.
Where was that damn butler? “Gerald?”
Memories rose to the surface, unbidden, of him as a younger man—a boy, really—returning home on a night like this. A very bad night. The similarities meant nothing. England was perpetually damp, and only seemed to get wetter north of Epping Forest. His family seat hadn’t changed in the ten years since his parents’ death, either. Of course everything was the same. But still, wariness unfurled within him.
He lifted his chin like an animal scenting danger.
The heel of William’s boots clacked through the thin rug. “Mr. Beck?”
His annoyance had leveled into a burning resentment in his gut during the rattling coach ride from Cambridge, but it flared again, brighter now. Of all people, his steward should have greeted him. He had no excuse after sending what could only be described as a summons. A very strange, very unwelcome summons.
A legacy of riches. Beware the ghosts and witches.
Though cryptic, he knew what it meant: come home. A message only someone raised in the village would understand. Even though he’d been raised in the manor, set apart, he understood.
He crumpled the note in his fist. Ridiculous. The ghosts had never been real. Just an old, poorly maintained abbey on an even older, more poorly maintained estate. It was a child’s rhyme. William couldn’t even remember the rest.
He preferred to forget.
Forgetting was easy enough to do in London. For years he had worked toward this goal, pooling the earldom’s dwindling resources into a shipping venture that would depart next week. If the investments weren’t successful, if he wasn’t on that ship, the unentailed land surrounding the manor would be lost.
So he had almost ignored the missive. In fact, he might have—but for the use of that child’s rhyme. Someone had sent for him. Someone who knew him. It called to some long-dormant sense of responsibility. He must return home, to this almost abandoned house, and settle any trouble. Despite his lack of tact, he must soothe any concerns. He smiled faintly. If nothing else, it would be practice for his time on the ship.
His years scrambling and gambling and fighting for enough cash to keep his family’s land intact hadn’t imbued him with any diplomacy. He wasn’t always proud of what he’d done, but his father had cared about the title. His grandfather had cared about the people who lived on it. The least he could do was keep them from penury.
Silence shrouded the house, the unnatural stillness a wan version of his memories. His mother could always be heard in one of her spells. Ever ineffectual, his father would beg and plead for her to stop. He’d always seemed so helpless in front of his wife. He’d never been helpless locked in his office with William, taking out his anger with his fists or a belt.
It had always been loud in the house, drowning any preternatural creatures that were said to inhabit the area. Now a strange current ran through the damp air, causing gooseflesh to rise on his frozen skin.
The butler probably thought it was a great joke to allow William to wander around the house. Gerald was stalwart and staid, as old retainers were wont to be, but he always took a secret glee in tormenting William. For his part, William had fought back with frogs and other boyhood pranks. A pretense of independence as they had both been trapped under the pious thumb of his father.
The implacable tick of the hall clock grew louder in the stillness. Worry sparked inside him, but he refused to let it breathe. Floorboards above him creaked, and he lifted his gaze. Shadows lay heavy across the landing. For a moment, William reached for the pistol he kept in his coat when he traveled.
He frowned. “Who’s there?”
A man emerged from the darkness, and the unsteady light drew his face in sharp relief. Beck, his steward. William distantly recalled their last meeting. Beck had seemed deferential at the time, though now his posture seemed almost like a challenge.
“Lord William.” Beck’s voice held surprise, and possibly … fear?
The surprised was uncalled for, considering he’d written the note to bring William home. And Beck should not be on the upper levels. He had no business there. Anger broke free of the concern that gripped him, a welcome distraction.
William climbed the stairs. “What the devil are you about?”
Beck moved to intercept. “My lord, perhaps you should wait—”
“I think not.”
William brushed past him, feeling chills down his spine as old memories merged with the present. He was halfway down the hallway when a woman’s soft sobs floated to him from his mother’s bedroom. There. There was the proof that everything was as it should be. Not that he wanted his mother to cry, but after years of consoling her, there was a constancy to her tears.
Except his mother had died ten years ago.
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About the Author
Her debut novel, Giving It Up, received The Romance Review’s Top Pick, Night Owl Top Pick, and 5 Blue Ribbons from Romance Junkies. RT Book Reviews gave it 4.5 stars, calling it “truly extraordinary.” She has been published by Loose Id, Carina Press, and Entangled.
Amber married her high school sweetheart, birthed a kid who’s smarter than she is, and spends her nights writing down her dirty thoughts. In other words, life is good.