When charming rake Tristan Barrett sweeps Lady Elizabeth off her feet, stealing both her heart and a kiss in a secluded garden, her brother challenges Tristan to a duel. The only way to save her brother and Tristan from harm—not to mention preserve her reputation—is to get married. But her father, the Duke of Pemberton, refuses to allow his daughter to marry anyone but a titled lord. The duke demands that Elizabeth marry Tristan’s older brother, Richard, the Earl of Averston. Now Elizabeth must give up Tristan to marry a man who despises her, a man who loves another, a man she’ll never love.
Richard fears Elizabeth is as untrustworthy as his mother, who ran off with another man. However, to protect his brother from a duel and their family name from further scandal, he agrees to the wedding, certain his new bride will betray him. Yet when Elizabeth turns his house upside down and worms her way into his reluctant heart, Richard suspects he can’t live without his new countess. Will she stay with him or is it too little, too late?
Tristan quoted, his voice rich and resonant:
“She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes…”
He gazed at her. “You do walk in beauty, Elizabeth. You are beauty. I am fortunate to have found you.”
She moistened her lips, her pulse racing at his nearness. “I, too, feel fortunate.”
He drew her close. She went willingly into his arms and rested a hand on his chest. His heart beat strong under her palm. With gentle fingers, he traced circles on her cheek, then bent his head toward hers. Tingles of nervous exhilaration raced down her back. He kissed her with warm, soft lips. Her heart thudded in her ears. At that moment, she fully understood what had driven Romeo and Juliet to such drastic measures and why Lady Enid and her Prince Eric fought so hard for one another.
Tristan’s first kiss this afternoon had been a promise of more. Tonight, he grew passionate. She’d never been kissed by anyone before Tristan, but he clearly knew how.
Tristan’s kiss enfolded her in a cushion of joy. Then his hands began a slow exploration of her body. Startled, she froze. All daring drained out of her.
She let out a strangled breath, and pulled away. “Tristan, I’m not a strumpet.”
“No, beloved.” He touched her cheek. “You are a lovely and desirable lady.”
He enfolded her in his embrace and kissed her again, but disappointment that he would take such liberties cooled her ardor. She stiffened, pulled away, and captured his hands with hers. He was supposed to be the perfect storybook hero. They weren’t even married yet. Was he so sure her father would give permission that he considered them already betrothed?
“Get your hands off my sister!” a voice snarled.
Tristan snapped his head back and stepped away. Alone, Elizabeth wobbled on her feet. Her half-brother, Martindale, stalked into view, bristling like an angry dog.
With his hands held out, Tristan faced Martindale. “My lord, we were merely—”
“None of your lies, Barrett.”
Other voices made exclamations of delighted horror. Elizabeth faced a nightmare; most of the houseguests stared at her, including some of London’s worst gossips. Naturally, they would assume the worst. Heat crawled up Elizabeth’s neck and burned her cheeks. She’d never live down the humiliation. Closing her eyes, she clamped her mouth shut to avoid screaming at the injustice of it all. She’d only desired a few moments alone with the man she loved. Instead, she’d been caught in an intimate embrace in a dark garden. Gossipers would spread an exaggeratedly sordid tale all over England. She’d be utterly ruined.
Immersed in his role of haughty marquis, Martindale snarled, “Consider your second, Barrett. Tomorrow you shall receive my challenge.”
Elizabeth’s heart stalled. “No! You can’t do this.” Elizabeth’s protest died on her lips as her brother rounded on her.
“Silence! You’ve behaved like a common whore.”
Elizabeth recoiled as if he’d slapped her.
Tristan stiffened. “Hear now, that’s no way to speak to the lady. I give you my word, it was merely a kiss.”
Martindale let out a scoff. “I should trust the word of a known rake?” He turned to Elizabeth, his eyes boring into hers.
“You’ve brought disgrace upon the family.”
Tears burned Elizabeth’s eyes. Her brother was right. Only Tristan could save her from shame. She turned to him, silently pleading for rescue.
Tristan glanced at her, his expression unreadable, before returning his attention to Martindale. He lowered his voice. “Let us go inside and discuss this in private.”
“You’ve compromised my sister,” her brother practically shouted. “There’s nothing to discuss. Choose your weapon.”
Elizabeth hugged herself while her knees threatened to fold. Her voice collapsed to a whisper. “You cannot mean to duel.”
“My formal challenge will be delivered at dawn.” Martindale marched away.
“Elizabeth! What have you done?” Duchess’s strident voice broke through the buzzing in Elizabeth’s head as her mother arrived upon the scene.
Oh, heaven help her. She’d probably be bedridden for a month. Elizabeth choked back the bile in her throat and grappled with the idea of running away, simply disappearing.
Tristan started to reach for her but dropped his arm. “I’m sorry. I never meant for this to happen.” He strode away.
Stunned, she stared after his retreating back. He hadn’t declared his intentions—no words of love, no vow to marry her and rescue her from her ruined state.
She’d been abandoned.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Author of Historical Romance and Fantasy, award-winning author Donna Hatch is a sought-after speaker and workshop presenter. Her writing awards include the Golden Rose and the prestigious Golden Quill. Her passion for writing began at age 8 she wrote her first short story, and she wrote her first full-length novel during her sophomore year in high school, a fantasy which was later published. In between caring for six children, (7 counting her husband), her day job, her work as a freelance editor and copywriter, and her many volunteer positions, she still makes time to write.
After all, writing IS an obsession.
All of her heroes are patterned after her husband of over 20 years, who continues to prove that there really is a happily ever after.
Visit with Donna on her blog at http://donnahatch.blogspot.com/