Some call Christina Thornton spoilt, others simply call her beautiful. But one thing's for certain: she's a young woman firmly in charge of her own destiny... or so she thinks!When the dark-hearted Count Marchesi rides into town, it is to claim Miss Thornton as his bride. Christina's stubborn protests are of no use, for her future is in the hands of this brooding Italian. But how long can willful Christina resist her passionate husband when her heart is urging her to give in?
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March 01, 2010
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Excerpt from Scandalous Secret, Defiant Bride by Helen Dickson
During the quiet of the afternoon heat, when everyone was at rest and nothing moved in Castello Marchesi in the Tuscan hills, the boy crept up the curving staircase and gingerly went towards the nursery. Pushing open the door, holding his breath, he halted on the threshold and peered inside. The light was subdued, the curtains having been partly drawn, one of them fluttering in the gentle breeze from an open window.
Rosa, the nursemaid, was nowhere to be seen, but he knew she wouldn't mind him being there. Looking directly ahead of him, his eyes came to rest on a cradle with diaphanous curtains.
Tiptoeing across the richly patterned carpet, he peered uncertainly over the side at the tiny bundle lying there--a girl just six weeks old. Inhaling the innocent fragrance of her, studying her face with a smile of wonder, he watched her sleep.
As he looked at her he felt a stabbing pain of joy to his heart and tears sprang to his eyes. Never had anything moved him as this child did, and with infinite gentleness he reached out his hand and touched the tiny fingers curled into a ball on the pillow beside her cheek. They twitched and he smiled, his bright blue eyes alight with tenderness.
'Do you know how beautiful you are?' he said aloud to the child, and then, more softly. 'You are the most beautiful little girl I have ever seen.'
The child's eyes opened a moment--emerald green and sparkling, exquisite they were--unusual, the boy thought, he had been told that all babies' eyes were blue when they were born. They fluttered closed and he laughed softly. 'Oh, you little beauty,' he whispered, his heart aching for his own empty childhood. 'You see, little one,' he murmured, lightly brushing her cheek with the backs of his fingers, 'already I disturb your dreams. With eyes as lovely as yours you will set the whole world alight. If only you knew what trouble your arrival has created.'
This was true, for what a terrible time that had been when Lydia, the baby's mother, had died. Her father, Roberto, unable to cope with the grief of losing his beloved wife, had appeared at Castello Marchesi with the child and faced his mother, the boy's step-grandmama, and begged her to take the child. From where he sat in a secluded part of the balcony reading his book, he had heard it all.
Looking through the glass doors his gaze had been drawn to his step-grandmama. Tall and thin with a spine ramrod straight, her eyes were alight with the brilliance of a demon as she glared at her son. Although he hadn't known Lydia well, he was aware that she had been a wilful, spirited young woman--unlike her husband, who was totally subordinate to his formidable mother. As always, it was his step-grand-mama's voice that prevailed. Roberto had sat cowed, too distraught to put up a defence. That was when he had heard his own father calling his name from the drive below and he'd turned away.
Leaving the child to sleep, he left the nursery, only to return the next day clutching a small fluffy bear as a gift. But things were not right. Rosa was folding a basket of freshly laundered clothes on the table, and he saw that she was quietly weeping. His eyes went to the cradle and slowly he walked towards it and bent to look inside. It was empty.
He straightened slowly and turned, looking at Rosa with a sudden tension on his face. 'Rosa? Where is she? Where is the baby?'
'Oh, she's gone.'
'Gone? Gone where?'
'The English lady and gentleman--you remember, they came yesterday. The lady is the baby's aunt--Lydia's sister. They--have taken her to England.'
'You mean Grandmama has given her away?' He stood transfixed, unable and unwilling to believe the old lady would do such a cruel thing. 'But--Roberto will look after her. He is her father.'
'Roberto has gone.' She shook her head, sorrow etched into every line of her face. 'He said he was not coming back.' Rosa stopped what she was doing and looked at the boy. His eyes were wide open, his face like a chalk mask. 'The English couple will be her parents from now on,' Rosa said gently, wiping away her own tears, for she had become fond of the child and she would miss her.
'But how can they be? Roberto is still her father.'
'She will have a new father and a new mother, one who will love her as much as Lydia, which she would not have--' Rosa bit her lip to stop herself saying more, for Countess Marchesi had laid down a proviso before the couple left. She had insisted that the child be raised knowing who she was and when she was eighteen she would return to Italy and wed her betrothed--this young boy whose heart she had already stirred. Their union would join two of Tuscany's most successful houses. The boy was at an impressionable age. These things were best left to his family to explain.
'But this is her home. I thought we would be a family now. Oh, Rosa, this is too cruel.'
Striding out of the nursery, he went to his room and through the French windows out on to the balcony, where the olive groves and the vineyards with rows of ripening grapes spread out before him.
Having told him as gently as she could, Rosa watched him go. She'd never before encountered the pent-up, rigidly controlled grief that the boy displayed, and for the first time she realised his mind was so powerful that it seemed able to completely override all his emotions when he wished. Rosa had cared for him since the moment of his birth--the moment he had taken his first breath and his mother her last.
He was well cared for with everything money could buy, his school in England the very best, but of parental care there was a total lack. His step-grandmother was a cold woman who grudgingly accepted his presence and wore the air of someone doing a duty where he was concerned. His father was kind, in his brisk, 'spare the rod and spoil the child' manner, but it was Rosa to whom the boy turned for the love and affection he craved, from Rosa, fifty and never married, that he received it.
All manner of things careered through the boy's mind, not the least of which was his own loss, of the child he felt closer to than any human being. It came to him that if the child had been given away then neither his grandmama nor her father could love her--if they did, then they would not have done it.
A dark anger rose up in him as he dwelt on the child's image, and with tears running fast down the coldness of his face--the first and the last he would ever shed--he looked up at the sky, a breathtakingly beautiful blue. And in a firm, clear and defiant voice he said, 'She was mine. That child was mine. One day I will find her. I swear I will.'
It was the sound of her ringing laughter that first drew Maxwell Lloyd to Christina Thornton. Until now only the subdued call of birds, his own quiet breathing and the lazy drone of a browsing bee disturbed the silence of the woodland. Riding slowly along the dim chequered path, he heard more shrieks and laughter, now masculine as well as feminine. He came out of the trees and on to the edge of the small private lake on Sir Henry Thornton's estate. It basked in the benign warmth of the sun and long tendrils of willow brushed the surface.
On the grass he observed two pairs of men's boots and stockings neatly tucked into the tops. Beside them were two piles of carefully folded trousers, shirts and tweed jackets. A little further apart what he saw brought a smile to his firm lips and told him much about the owner of the possessions. A small pair of leather shoes and more delicate cream stockings had been discarded with less care on the ground, and a red dress had been thrown untidily over a bush--such fine-quality material would not be worn by a servant.
Halting his horse on the edge of the trees, he surveyed the scene before him with astonishment. The sun was hot and the water looked cool and inviting and, had the lake not been occupied by three young things, he would have taken off his clothes and dove into the silent dark depths himself.
Two boisterous young men were cavorting in the water with a young woman scantily clad in what he assumed must be her petticoat. With carefree, wholesome hearts they were too absorbed in their antics to notice him, so he could look his fill.
But he only had eyes for the young woman. In those first dazzling moments he acted as any hot-blooded male would and all he could do was stare as a thrill of excitement ran through his veins. But Maxwell Lloyd was no ordinary man and he recovered at once.
Of medium height and as slender as a wand, her perfectly rounded breasts rose in two delectable white hemispheres above the lace of her petticoat. Saturated, it clung to her, outlining her body, her hips arched from her small waist, and the perfect shape of her legs. Her breathtaking beauty quickened his soul and stirred his mind with imaginings of what further loveliness lay concealed beneath her flimsy attire. Her hair was an explosion of bright, rich, dark brown curls hanging down her back to her buttocks in a tangled mass. Her face was heart shaped, her mouth like a ripe raspberry.
The two young men, one dark, the other fair, were teasing her mercilessly, splashing her with water and shrieking louder when she tried to back away and fell, dowsing the whole of her in the lake. The fair-haired young man took her hand and hauled her to her feet; not a bit chagrined, with a riotous sense of fun she laughingly threatened them with the same. In mock-terror the two young men immediately dove under the water and, when they emerged, with strong swift strokes began swimming towards the centre of the lake.
The young woman watched them go without attempting to follow. Throwing back her head, she laughed loud, with none of the ladylike posturing of other young ladies of Max's acquaintance.
'Cowards,' she called, shaking her fist high. 'You can look out. When you come back I'll get my own back. I swear I will.'
Max was riveted. Vibrant and vital, she had a freshness and a delightful simplicity that captured his attention.
Suddenly her back stiffened and she became still, like a young animal that has caught the scent of danger. She spun round and her gaze flew directly to where horse and rider stood. Eyes narrowed, with a proud lift to her head she waded out of the water and moved towards him, seemingly not in the least embarrassed at confronting a complete stranger in her sodden petticoat. There was indignation in the thrust of her chin and anger in her narrowed eyes. Stopping a short distance away, her feet were luminously white on the green grass.
How small and slender they were--like a child's, Max thought. He could see her eyes were heavily lashed, tilted, feral, and emerald green. Something that had lain dormant for many years stirred inside him. There was something about her, the boldness in her eyes, the tilt of her head that attracted him.
'Good afternoon,' she said boldly, having no idea who he was. 'We were unaware that we were being spied on.' Lifting her chin haughtily, she met the brilliant blue eyes beneath dark brows that were observing her with frank interest--far too much interest, she thought as he scrutinised her with a thoroughness that made her feel more undressed than she was. His gaze moved over her unabashedly. She stiffened with indignation. No one--especially not a man--had looked at her in quite that way before.
The man was obnoxious, she decided, although the cleanshaven face beneath his thick black hair was terribly handsome, she would grant him that. There was also an uncompromising authority in the set of his jaw and an arrogance in the tilt of his head that was not to her liking. Astride a magnificent strawberry-roan horse, his skin was as brown as if he was used to hot climes, which put her in mind of her friend's brothers, when they had come back from serving in the army in India.
Christina's pride had been pricked and she was hardly in the mood to forgive this stranger for being at hand when she was so scantily clad. With ill-suppressed ire she scowled up at him. 'I trust you've had an edifying look, sir--pretending to be a gentleman, riding about the countryside on a fine horse on the look out for poor, defenceless girls.'
White teeth gleamed in a reckless smile as Max responded. She was like a kitten spitting and showing its claws. Again his gaze slid from her moistened lips, following the line of her throat down to the tantalising orbs of flesh exposed to his view above her clinging wet petticoat. With her head thrown back and her irate breathing, they quivered and peaked invitingly, emphasising the undeniable fact that she had left her childhood behind and was on the brink of becoming an alluring woman.
'You? Defenceless? Now you do exaggerate. Something tells me you are afraid of no one.' Her clenched fists and rose-tinted cheeks, the brilliance of her green eyes, told him so.
The accented voice was courteous enough, which only seemed to exacerbate Christina's temper. 'Have you nothing better to do with your time?'
'I suppose I could find something to occupy me,' he replied easily, 'but I can't think of anything more pleasurable just now than looking at you. I was merely out riding. The day is too pleasant to remain indoors.'
'Then you must be a stranger, otherwise you would know you are trespassing. This is private land.'
A slow appreciative smile worked its way across his face as his eyes raked her from head to toe once more and then came back to her furious eyes. 'A thousand apologies. I hadn't realised--but my crime, if that is what it is, was well worth it,' the foreign voice said smoothly.
'We prosecute trespassers.'
'Really?' His eyebrows arched and his eyes gleamed with sardonic amusement, which seemed to infuriate her all the more.
'There are notices.'
'I'm afraid I didn't see them.'
'You would have, if you'd stayed on the road.'
Her tart reply almost brought Max to outright laughter. 'Then since I am trespassing and you apparently are not, I can only assume you must be related to the Thorntons.'