Excerpt: A Kiss of Lies
Book 1: The Disgraced Lords
York, Canada, March 1816
Mrs. Sarah Cooper, although ushered into Lord Markham’s study by invitation, immediately felt the waves of animosity rolling off him. Gone was the fun-loving, handsome, and jovial rake she remembered spying on in her youth. Instead, she found a man whose love for life seemed as snuffed out as last night’s candle.
She couldn’t miss his scars, and saw that life had hurt him, marked him . . . as indeed it had her. He was badly burned over the right side of his face.
His once sensual lips appeared to curl at the corner as if he were permanently sneering. Lord Markham had let his hair grow longer than was fashionable and allowed it to hang about his face, probably in an attempt to hide the worst of his scars. As he swung round to greet her, she glimpsed his puckered cheek. The skin was pulled so taut, surely it must hurt to talk or eat. However, God had been slightly merciful, because his eye had not been damaged, nor much of the skin around it, he even had part of his eyebrow. She’d always loved the green of his eyes, as warm and welcoming as a summer meadow.
She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been free to run through tall grass. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been free, period.
Life hadn’t transpired as she’d thought or hoped.
They had that in common.
Even though she’d heard of his injuries, when she saw them her feet tripped in shock. His burns made her think of pain. Her heart welled with pity as she took in his scars. Gone was the smile that had had women forgetting everything, including propriety. Instead, the scars spoke of excruciating pain.
With her newfound inner strength, she steeled herself not to show any emotion. Besides, life on a slave plantation had introduced her to worse injuries.
Lord Markham, she was sure, would not appreciate pity. She needed to hide the fact that she’d seen him when he still looked like every woman’s fantasy. If he thought she recognized him, it might prompt his memory, and she needed to remain anonymous. She’d never been formally introduced to the Earl, and therefore felt a modicum of safety.
Since she was pretending to be a governess, normally they should never have crossed paths. For in which world would a governess ever mix with a bachelor earl? Nowhere respectable, certainly, and this position called for respectability. She’d seen the type of women he’d been interviewing before her, and seen them being shown the door.
Sarah prayed that the battle-scarred war hero sitting behind the imposing desk would remain unaware of how desperately she needed this position. Lord Markham—“Devil Scarface,” as the local Yorkers cruelly named him—was not renowned for his sweet temperament. If he saw through her deception, there was no telling what he might do.
In the ordinary course of events, it should’ve been Lily Pearson’s mother interviewing her for the position of governess, but since both Lily’s parents had died recently, the task was left to Lord Markham, the girl’s guardian.
Unlike most of York, she felt no fear in Devil Scarface’s presence. She remembered the honorable, intelligent rake from her past, who was welcomed with open arms within the ton. Surely there was still a smidgen of the man he’d once been hidden beneath his scars.
In fact, her heart had obviously recognized something within the man across from her, for to her consternation, she felt an altogether inappropriate emotion as she gazed upon the Earl’s stern features.
Regardless of who or what he had become, Sarah not only contemplated the position of governess to Lily Pearson but coveted the role. She had never expected to be a widow at twenty-two, and certainly not in these circumstances. The idea of hiding in Canada for the rest of her life was too awful to bear. No, a governess on a large estate in Dorset would be preferable.
“Perhaps you could detail your previous experience, Mrs. Cooper. You appear to be rather young to be an experienced governess.”
His voice was comforting—rich and smooth. For a man of his size, she’d expected him to sound otherwise.
The Earl watched her intently, with eyes as rich as the emeralds she’d had to sell in order to reach Canada. Her escape from Virginia had been perilous, and in the colonies she’d been unable to rely on anyone to help a lady in distress merely out of honor. Yet it was amazing how the goodness of people’s hearts overflowed once payment was offered.
She cleared her throat and answered in her haughtiest voice, hoping to sound mature and knowledgeable while maintaining her disguise. It had been two years since she’d left England, and Lord Markham had been away fighting Napoleon for six months before she left. It was unlikely he’d remember her. The Libertine Scholars avoided debutantes, very much in the manner of cunning foxes avoiding being torn apart by hounds.
“I’m skilled in all facets of a lady’s education. I am also fluent in Latin, French, and German, with a sprinkling of Russian. I am rather good with numbers, and botany and anatomy are particular interests of mine.” That sounded sufficiently bluestocking and appropriate for a governess.
She watched with growing horror as Lord Markham’s lips twitched at her boast.
“I’m not sure these are the skills my young ward will require in order to find an appropriate husband when she comes of age.”
The teasing in his voice transported her back to when she had been a young girl of fifteen. For a few seconds, Lord Markham’s disfiguring burns dissolved, and she was once again staring at the features of an Adonis, with lustrous thick hair shining as black as a starless night. Then the reality of the cruel scars invaded her vision once more, distorting the aristocratic handsomeness of his face.
He’d been a beautiful man once. A dark-haired, virile Greek god sent to walk among mere mortals. His injuries were a sacrilege. War had a lot to answer for.
He’d obviously read her thoughts and seen the fleeting look of pity race across her expression, because his mouth curled briefly at the corner. “The rewards of war.” He added dryly, “No matter. I assure you even I flinch at my reflection.”
His voice had become brittle, and she heard the note of pained cynicism underlying it.
He cleared his throat. “I believe you were going to assure me of your suitability for the role.”
Belatedly, she recalled where she was and why she was there. “Education is important—even for a woman.”
“Is that so?” he asked.
“I did hope that one of the infamous Libertine Scholars might see the value in a woman having a well-equipped brain.” She gazed into his eyes. “After all, beauty is unreliable. It fades with time—or is snatched away by God’s will. A match of the mind would make for a happier life.”
His eyes darkened and his voice hardened. “My injury was not God’s will. It was a French bitch who showed no mercy when she set fire to the cart I was trapped under.”
His eyes blazed with a similar fire, and his fists curled upon the desk.
She sat in shocked silence, wishing the ground would open up and send her to a real hell. She hadn’t meant to bring up such terrible memories.
A moment later he uttered, “I apologize, Mrs. Cooper. That was uncalled for.” His anger, quick to flare, just as quickly retreated. “You seem to be very well informed about my past. I take it you did not grow up in York.”
She nodded while she tried to find her voice. When constructing her cover story, she’d decided it was safer to stick as close as possible to the truth. Lies were hard to remember.
“I grew up in the household of the Duke of Hastings.” That was no lie. He sat waiting for more. She didn’t care to expand on her answer. But Lord Markham did not appear to be the type of man to be fobbed off or fooled, she thought, swallowing hard.
Even battle-scarred, he commanded attention. Masculine and broad-shouldered, he reflected the trappings of his background—money and breeding. She took note of his high starched shirt collar, a pristine white cravat, and a superbly tailored coat of forest-green superfine cloth that matched his eyes. But it was his aristocratic bearing that lent him an air of unmistakable elegance. Scars or no scars, this man drew attention.
His eyebrows rose. “In what capacity, may I inquire? I have visited the Duke on several occasions. He has a daughter. She would be about your age, if I recall. You are too young to have been her governess.”
Sarah swallowed hard. Fooling Lord Markham was going to take all the skill she had. “Yes, I knew her well. She was an only child, and lacked for company. I was the gardener’s daughter, and her friend. Given my relationship with Lady Serena, I experienced all the advantages she was given, including sharing her governess. Hence my education.”
He stared at her, his gaze measuring for a moment, before asking, “I take it you haven’t actually worked as a governess. Do you have any experience with children? Do you have children of your own?”
She did not let this bombardment of questions rattle her. She pondered a reply that would be at least half credible. Lies were a slippery trap. One lie often led to many more, until you had no place left to turn.
She gave an impression of ease by relaxing back in her chair, yet she could feel the muscles in her neck tightening. “No. This would be my first position as a governess, and I’ve never been blessed with children of my own.”
“Have you ever spent any time around children?” he probed.
She shook her head, feeling despair inch into her blood. He was not going to employ her. With a resigned sigh, Sarah simply said, “The one qualification I do have is that I too lost my mother at an early age. I know exactly how Lily is feeling.”
He sat contemplating her, and then slowly smiled. The very same smile that had taken her breath away the first time she saw him, when only a young girl. Even now the smile stirred her insides, and her heart lifted. He was still stunningly gorgeous.
“Perfect. That’s the most important qualification I can imagine. Lily needs someone who can empathize with her. However, before I decide on the person most suitable for the position, I will seek Lily’s opinion.”
Lord Markham moved his right arm to pull the bell beside his desk, and grimaced. Lifting a searching gaze to his face, she detected a pallor to his complexion that she’d missed before. The blood drained from his face, and lines of pain fanned out from his stunning green eyes. It would appear his burns were more extensive than were visible to the eye. The realization aroused the most absurd desire in her. She’d seen far too much suffering during the last eighteen months. She wanted to go to him and offer him comfort.
Sarah shook herself mentally at such an inappropriate impulse. It was the one sure way to ensure she did not get the position. Finding him watching her with an unsettlingly candid gaze, she damped down her impulse to inquire after his health.
She’d master the art of servitude even if she had to bite her tongue in half to do so. She had to learn, and fast, that she was now subservient, and therefore should not engage her betters.
Christian, meanwhile, had been aware of Mrs. Sarah Cooper as a woman the minute she walked into the room. What man wouldn’t be? He’d always been a connoisseur of all things beautiful, and this woman outshone them all. The round spectacles that were too big for her face, as well as the matronly cap covering hair the color of dried wheat, couldn’t disguise the flawless beauty beneath.
His body hummed with awareness. Such composure and presence in one so young surprised him. She didn’t look a day over twenty, yet she did not appear to be in awe of him at all. Usually his title had women fawning over him while trying to hide the fact they found him repulsive. Women thought that if they pretended to find him appealing, they would get what they wanted from him—namely, his title and money.
Mrs. Cooper looked directly at him with no hint of pretense. Either she was a consummate actress or the scars were really not important. She seemed completely focused on obtaining this position.
She also spoke in cultured tones. Interesting.
Listening to her words, two things struck Christian. One, she knew who he was, and two, she was right. Already during this short conversation, it wasn’t her beauty that had caught and held his interest. It was her intelligence. She had been neither cowered nor flustered by his appearance or questions. It was as if she’d been around nobility all her life. She’d grown up in a duke’s household. Now he understood her composure.
This was the first time since ending up in this hellhole of a backwater that Christian hadn’t minded being stuck in York. Not if it introduced him to the delights of Mrs. Cooper.
He’d been in Canada since November last year. Over the long, frozen winter months, he’d wallowed here, consumed by anger so potent it had eaten him up from the inside. Christian could feel his anger growing stronger as each day passed. To be wrongfully accused of such a crime made him want to throttle something or someone—and that someone was Harriet Penfold.
He briefly closed his eyes and took a couple of deep breaths. He’d battled all his life to control the violence deep inside him. Having seen what his father had become through not being able to control his inner demons, Christian strove to conquer his ever-present weakness and the burning need to give in to his temper.
When he was an officer, the war gave him an avenue to release his frustrations. Now, all he used to vent them was alcohol and sex. Both enabled him to keep his ill humor under control. Since being so unfairly stranded in York, he’d used—or, rather, abused—both ferociously. He hardly cared. Until he returned to England and could confront Harriet, he’d use anything to keep the dark rage away. Nothing consumed him more than settling the score with the Duke of Barforte and his lying daughter. Harriet had become an obsession. Why had she lied? Memories of that fateful night were returning. Harriet had not been in his bed, he’d swear on his mother’s grave.
Once back on English soil, Christian was determined to ascertain the truth from Harriet, his accuser. He’d be sailing home as soon as he had an appropriate governess for Lily. Mrs. Cooper looked very promising—very promising indeed.
When he’d failed to escape the Honey Pot on that fateful day, all those months ago, Simon and his father shanghaied him onto a schooner heading for York, Canada, with only the clothes he had on his back and a few coins in his pocket. Obviously they were hoping he’d starve or freeze to death. He could hardly raise credit when he had no proof of his identity. The bank laughed in his face—a scarred ruffian proclaiming to be an earl, with no papers of introduction and no luggage!
If it hadn’t been for Mr. Matthew Pearson, he probably would have starved, or perhaps frozen to death with the first snowfall—just as the Duke had hoped.
Coward! If you had to kill a man, have the honor to do it while looking him in the eye.
“May I ask how the Pearsons died? It will help me when dealing with Lily’s grief.”
Her polite inquiry stabbed at his heart. She was the only interviewee who’d bothered to ask, the only one who showed an ounce of caring. “They were caught in a blizzard while returning from a function. They were trapped for five hours, and by the time the rescuers reached them, all had perished.”
It had been his reluctance to show his face in public that had saved him. He had chosen to stay in town and frequent the local brothel.
“Lily is fortunate that you have taken her in. I’m sorry for the loss of your friends.”
“I had only known the Pearsons for a few months.”
Her glasses slipped down her nose as she frowned. A small, delicate, gloved finger pushed them back up, but not before he’d glimpsed the deep blue of her eyes. “Oh. Because you took Lily in, I assumed that you’d known them.”
“No. I met Mr. Pearson when I arrived in Canada a few months ago. We went into business together.”
The day he’d arrived, Matthew had taken pity on an earl who had no way of proving who he was, and no access to any funds. Matthew took him into his home and allowed Christian to stay until he was able to contact England and access his considerable fortune. The bank was now no longer laughing. In fact, groveling had become their forte.
The two men were the same age, thirty-two, but they were from vastly different backgrounds. Matthew, born and bred in Canada, came from a good family of moderate means. He was contentedly married to Pamela, and they had a gorgeous twelve-year-old daughter, Lily. Matthew and Christian soon became firm friends. And Christian had never envied a man more. From where he sat, Matthew’s life seemed perfect.
There was never any doubt that Christian would take Lily back to England and raise her as if she were his own. He did not believe he’d ever have a legitimate child, and he recognized that Lily would fill the loneliness deep inside him.
So, three days ago, he’d placed an advertisement in the local York Times for a governess to sail back to England with them and to take charge of Lily’s upbringing.
Given the colonial location and his reputation, he’d had the most unsuitable women applying. It seemed no respectable governess wished to work for Devil Scarface. Those who did simply wanted passage to England. That is, until the woman seated on the other side of Matthew’s large maplewood desk applied.
She was the first woman who’d looked him directly in the eye in a long time. He found it disconcerting. The red rawness of the skin on his burnt face had faded over the years, but even so, it—he—was not a congenial sight.
She hardly seemed to notice.
Yet he had noticed her all right—too much. His body reacted to her ethereal beauty like a stallion scenting a mare. A flood of tangled emotions rushed through him. One of them was a current of regret. Ever since he’d been injured at Waterloo, he’d pretended that it didn’t matter to him that his looks were gone. Anger and bitterness had soured his demeanor. Perhaps it would have been better if he’d died there and then. It was only when he saw a woman like Mrs. Cooper, with such grace and beauty, that the pain of all he’d lost swamped him in self-pity.
She sat opposite him, very composed, in a charming if somewhat dated lavender ensemble, the shade flattering her ocean-deep blue eyes. Her hair was pulled back severely under the cap. The only thing that seemed out of place was the golden hint of a tan and a nose covered in delightful freckles, as if she’d been outside for long periods without a hat.
Her vocabulary and demeanor spoke of maturity. As he assessed her, his whole body ached with the most basic human need.
He wanted her. Not just her body, but more . . .
He wanted the dream he’d promised himself on the battlefields of Europe. A beautiful wife and family, a home, some shreds of normality, a few children to justify the future and to give him a tangible reason for having put himself through the horror of war.
He watched her nervously lick her lips. His groin tightened. He imagined the sleek wetness around him …
He tried to cross his legs but hit his knee on the underside of the desk. Reality returned.
He’d be lucky if even a governess agreed to be his wife. The allure of his wealth and title meant that a desperate few still approached him. But he refused to marry a woman who’d have him only because of his title, and then lie rigid and cold beneath him in the marriage bed.
This woman unsettled him because she looked at him differently. She looked at him as if he were a kindred soul, as if she understood his pain and wanted to share it.