Sir Charles Afforde:
the infamous, devilish rake has purchased Hollowhurst Castle lock, stock and barrel. All that is left to possess is the castle's determined and beautiful chatelaine.
her youthful, romantic dreams of Charles shattered long ago, this unconventional country miss would rather stay a spinster than enter a loveless marriage.
Only this rake's devastatingly sensual onslaught is impossible to resist....
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August 01, 2010
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Excerpt from The Rake of Hollowhurst Castle by Elizabeth Beacon
Roxanne Courland stood in the bay of delicately leaded windows that lit the drawing room of Hollowhurst Castle and watched darkness overtake the gloriously unimproved gardens. Soon the quaint old topiary would become a series of unearthly shapes and the holly grove the blackest of shadows. Rumours about the grove being planted by witches, whose terrible curses would fall on anyone unwary enough to visit it after dark, were rife in the surrounding villages. Roxanne thought such tall tales had been invented to frighten the maids away from temptation, though, and wondered if such cunning tactics still worked in the year of Our Lord eighteen hundred and eighteen. Not that it would make an ideal trysting place, of course, but once upon a time she'd have waited all night long for a lover among its spiky darkness, if he'd only asked her to.
Silly, impressionable Rosie Courland and her elder sisters had hidden in its shelter to catch their first glimpse of the guests their brother had invited for Christmas ten years ago, because it was close on midnight and even her elder sister Joanna should have been in bed hours before. How different that joyful season had been at the giddy age of fourteen, she thought now, her heart sore at the likelihood of spending another festive season in splendid isolation. Then she'd been so excited she could barely stop herself squeaking with anticipation as she shifted from one foot to the other in the snow, her boots gradually getting wetter and her feet colder, despite her restlessness.
'For pity's sake keep still, Rosie,' seventeen-year-old Joanna had hissed furiously at her. But keeping still was something elderly people like her sisters did, along with not running and never arguing with one's elders, even if they were wrong and needed to know it.
'It's prickly and dark in here, as well as freezing cold. Why can't we hide in the oaks by the Solar Tower, or up the Tower for that matter?' she complained halfheartedly.
'Because you can't see the drive, of course, and there's no leaves on the oak trees to hide us from anyone who heard a squeak from you and swung their lantern in our direction, you silly, infuriating child,' Maria told her scornfully, ever ready to trumpet her two years' superiority in age over her annoying little sister.
'Silly child yourself, maybe you can't see much from the ground over there, but we could have climbed the oaks, or even looked out from the roof with Grandpapa's telescope. Nobody would see us up there in the dark at any rate and we'd be a lot more comfortable.'
'Someone would have caught us sneaking up the stairs the way you rattle on, even if we could see anything up there in the dark with one telescope between three of us. Anyway, I'm not climbing trees in the pitch darkness and Uncle Granger threatened to send you to school the last time you borrowed his spyglass and broke it, so have some sense, do. Either go inside and wait quietly in the warm like a good little girl, or stay here and stop moaning,' Joanna had whispered impatiently, then gone back to staring fixedly at the avenue as if her life depended on seeing any sign of movement.
'You're both so stuffy since you started putting your hair up, I'm surprised you don't petrify like that silly statue of Virtue in the library. All either of you ever do nowadays is talk about clothes and novels that make no sense at all and you strike the most ridiculous attitudes so the boys will admire you, when they'd like you a whole lot more if you stopped being so stupid.'
'She's just a little girl who's scared of the witches, Joanna, ignore her,' Maria had urged.
It would have felt better if she'd bothered to whisper a few witchy cackles and invented a bloodcurdling curse or two to frighten her away, but instead Maria had turned her back and taken Joanna's arm, as if their annoying little sister was irrelevant. Roxanne had felt hurt and bewildered when her previously intrepid eldest sister became ever more remote and grown-up, then Joanna even began to agree with Maria's constant criticisms rather than taking Roxanne's part. If that was what growing up and falling in love did for you, she'd sworn to herself as she stood shivering in the shadows fighting off tears, she'd never commit such arrant folly.
Coming back to the here and now, she recalled that resolution with a wry smile. It must have been the worst-kept vow in the long and eventful history of the Courlands of Hollowhurst, for just then Maria's unusually sharp ears had detected the faintest jingle of a harness, and Roxanne had frozen into stillness as she heard how the sound of approaching voices carried uncannily across the deep snow. Not daring to move a muscle lest they be discovered and excluded from the Christmas feasts for standing in a snowdrift at twelve o'clock at night, all three sisters had stood like enchanted beings from some hoary legend and strained every sense toward the travellers.
Their brother David, riding his prized grey gelding, had shown up first through the darkness and they had strained their eyes to see who was with him. Roxanne had heard her eldest sister's involuntary gasp of pleasure and relief as she glimpsed Tom Varleigh's chestnut hunter when the lodge-keeper Fulton's lamp swung towards him; then Fulton turned back to guiding the young gentlemen up the drive, and Rosie had felt her heart thud in fear for the changes some instinct warned her were surely coming. Telling herself she was exasperated because Joanna had made far more noise than she, Rosie nudged her sister sharply to remind her where they were and what they were risking, and peered through the darkness to see if Davy had brought anyone else back from Cambridge with him. Then she forgot her apprehension, trying to make out the third rider when it became obvious not even two young gentlemen could make such a merry outcry on sighting journey's end.
Suddenly there was a blaze of light as the household within finally heard the sounds of horses' hooves, and the ringing calls of young men at the end of a long and gruelling ride were carrying on the still air. Then a huge horse, as fell and powerful as the darkness itself, reared up at the unexpected bloom of lights and Rosie held her breath, expecting to see his rider plunge heavily into the nearest snowdrift. Instead, that remarkable young man controlled the great brute with an ease the fiery animal must have found near to insulting and only laughed at his antics.
'Get down with you, Brutus, you confounded commoner,' a voice as dark and distinctive as his mount rang out joyfully, as if his rider had enjoyed the tussle for supremacy that Brutus already seemed to know he'd lost from the half-hearted nature of his last trial of strength with his conqueror--until the next time.
Rosie had watched with spellbound awe as the stranger mastered the curvetting horse with ease, then leapt out of the saddle as soon as the fiery beast was quiet and produced a carrot from the depths of his greatcoat pocket, which he bestowed on the huge black stallion with an affectionate pat.
'He's certainly not changed for the better since I was last in England,' the young man had shouted cheerfully at Tom Varleigh, who was watching the show with an appreciative grin on his face.
'Why d'you think I chose the chestnut when my father offered us the pick of his stable?' Tom replied.
'Because you have an unfriendly wish to see me summarily unshipped into the snow, dear cousin?' the stranger said as part of his identity became clear to the girls, who strained to see and hear all.
A cousin of well-connected Tom Varleigh, and he'd been overseas, probably with the military if the cut of that greatcoat was anything to go by. Rosie could practically hear Maria calculating his eligibility or otherwise to become her husband as soon as she could arrange it, and she had felt a primitive scream of denial rise just in time to hold it back and briefly wonder at herself, before her attention was once more fixed on the young man in front of them.
'I've a far stronger one not to take a tumble myself,' Tom had admitted.
The tall stranger responded by laughing and picking up a handful of snow to throw at Tom. They had a fine snowball battle going and all three young men looked as if they really had fallen off their horses into the heavy drifts after all when Sir Granger Courland appeared in the wide doorway and laughed even more loudly than his youthful visitors at their boisterous antics.
A smile lifted Roxanne's wistfully curved lips now at that poignant memory of her great-uncle, enjoying his duties as master and host of Hollowhurst Castle to the full, even as she blinked back a tear that he was no longer here to do so. Uncle Granger had been born to welcome guests and throw open his generous hall to them, she decided, picturing his still tall figure that had grown a little stout over the years. Sir Granger's hair had still been dark at sixty-five, even if his side-whiskers were grey, and his great voice could often be heard from one end of the hunting field to the other. He'd seemed so undimmed by the march of time while she was growing up that she'd made the mistake of thinking him indestructible.
'Welcome, one and all, and the compliments of the season to you,' he'd bellowed at the suddenly still group, she remembered, finding the past more attractive than the present again. 'Whoever have you brought me, Davy? It's not that Varleigh fellow we kept falling over at every turn last summer, is it?'
David had laughed and pulled Tom into the light, where he smiled sheepishly and earnestly said he hoped he hadn't worn out his welcome.
'Never, you'll always find one by my fireside, lad-- but who else do we have here? A circus rider, perhaps, or some damn-your-eyes cavalry officer?'
'Neither, sir, I'm Tom Varleigh's cousin, and only a humble sailor. Your grand-nephew invited me here for the season out of the goodness of his heart.'
'Goodness of his heart? He hasn't got any,' Uncle Granger teased his heir, who was nearly as soft-hearted and hospitable as he was himself. 'If he had, he'd have managed to get himself sent down weeks ago, for we all miss him sorely. Come on in, boy,' he bellowed and the stranger obeyed, laughing at some unheard comment from his cousin Tom as he went.
Once in front of the great doorway and almost within sight of a warm fire and a good meal after his long day, the stranger had taken off his sailor's bi-corn and the flaring light lovingly picked up the brightness of his curly blond hair that reflected gold back at them. From her hiding place, Roxanne had strained to see every detail of his lithe figure; a totally novel admiration she didn't truly understand making her drink in this splendid young man, from the wide grin on his tanned face to his travel-stained boots. He bowed elegantly to his host and presented himself to be duly inspected. The lamplight twinkled on the highly polished brass buttons and the single epaulette on his dark blue coat that indicated he was a lieutenant in his Majesty's Navy, once he'd stripped off his wet greatcoat and presented it to the waiting footman.
'Lieutenant Charles Afforde of the Trojan at your service, Sir Granger,' he had said in that deep husky-toned voice that sent shivers down Rosie's spine as she peered out of the darkness, as enthralled as if she truly was under the spell of some ancient sorceress.
Little Rosie Courland had stood in her chilly hiding place and forgotten the cold and the spiny darkness, awed by every detail of this young demi-god as she fell youthfully and completely in love after all. She'd felt the deep, unknown thrill of it shiver right through her at the very thought of actually meeting such a splendid specimen of manhood instead of worshipping from afar. Miss Roxanne Courland recalled with a cynical grimace how underwhelmed he'd been by that meeting when it came and tried not to squirm for her youthful, deluded self, even as her memory insisted on drawing her back to that snowy night so long ago, as if intent on reminding her what folly extreme youth was capable of.
'Didn't know Samphire had a boy in the navy,' her uncle had roared on, oblivious to the fact that his youngest great-niece had just had her world rebuilt by one careless smile into the snow-laden night from his unexpected guest.
Roxanne remembered wondering how her great-uncle could be oblivious to such a momentous moment and smiled wryly at her childish self-importance. It had certainly felt unforgettable to the silly schoolroom miss who had stood and watched Lieutenant Charles Afforde hungrily that night, as if recalling every detail of his handsome face might one day save her life or change the orbit of the spheres.
'He doesn't, sir,' the blond Adonis had admitted cheerfully. 'The last earl was my grandfather and took me in as a scrubby brat, but I'm just a mere nephew to the new earl.'
'Well, any relative of old Pickle is welcome under my roof.'
'Thank you, sir, although my grandfather didn't care to be reminded of that nickname in his latter years.'
'Grown too full of his own importance, had he?' Sir Granger had roared gleefully. 'I must tell you how richly he deserved it when you're not frozen and tired half to death.'
'And I warrant that's a tale that'll make good listening,' Charles Afforde had remarked laughingly.
'That it will, m'boy,' Uncle Granger had replied, 'but come on inside, all three of you, so we can shut the doors. I prefer what warmth there is from the fires we light to try and keep this great barn warm kept inside instead of taking the chill off the park, my lads.'
With a quick glance of concern for his mount, Lieutenant Afforde had obviously decided he was as well, and as bad tempered, as ever, and left the animal to his host's head groom so that he could enter the welcoming portals of Hollowhurst Castle with a light heart. For one moment he'd paused on the threshold and it seemed to Rosie Courland in her cold and prickly hiding place as if he had somehow seen all three of them, bunched together spellbound in the darkness as they watched the new arrivals play like boys, then be welcomed as men.