Two years ago, ROSSLYN BAKERSFIELD lost her fiancé in the war. Now, ready to renew her search for a husband, she is determined to keep her heart out of the equation. That is until she comes face to face with the notorious Earl of Craven, a ghost from the past who has charmed his way into the beds of countless women. Or so it is rumored. The truth may be something different altogether. If only his wicked kisses did not leave her wanting more…

LUCIEN ALEXANDER has lived in misery ever since his best friend died in battle. Now, with the return of Miss Bakersfield into society, his life is about to become more cursed, especially when he discovers her list of ill-suited gentlemen for potential husbands. His task is clear: unveil their true character and avoid any and all entanglements. It is practically child's play for a master such as him. If only her lips weren’t so full and inviting…

Excerpt:

Prologue

At the age of thirteen, Lucien Alexander, the not-quite-yet Earl of Craven, was run over by Alfred Buxton, the not-quite-yet Marquis of Linden, as the latter fled from a group of miscreants who sought to give him another bloody nose—something which they considered their own brand of entertainment. While Lucien could by no means be called a troubled child, he had, however, taken an enormous amount of pleasure in beating Alfred’s bullies to a pulp. That, of course, resulted in the pair becoming best of friends and quite simply inseparable. As time passed, theirs was a relationship that transcended the bond friendship to enter that of brotherhood.

So they became brothers.

For always.

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And having both been raised by uncompromising fathers, they were both tutored from a young age to value family above all. But as with all things, their relationship was not without its own trials. The most significant of which did not occur until eight years later. And like many other things, the heart of this trial would revolve around love and war.

“I’ve met a lady, Lucien!” Alfred exclaimed as they came to a halt on top of a hill on the Marquis of Linden’s country estate. “I believe she is the one.”

The smile on Lucien’s face matched that of his friend’s. “A lady, heh? Always thought you preferred a good old rod.”

“Bastard, that joke has lost its fervor, you know.”

“It still cracks me up.”

“Yes, well, your prank is the one that had me on my knees in the headmaster’s office. Even my father bought the rumors, threatened to box my ears if I didn’t change my ways.”

Lucian threw his head back and laughed. “So, this lady of yours, she reciprocates your feelings?”

“I believe so.”

“Never would have suspected you were one for fanciful notions, let alone the belief in ‘one true love.’”

“Neither did I, but the devil take me, when my eyes first fell upon her bewitching beauty, the world at my feet shifted.”

Lucien yanked on the reigns to angle his horse for a better view of the estate. “She must be quite the woman for you to fall so effortlessly in love. Am I to presume wedding bells will chime in the near future?”

Alfred didn’t answer the question and instead replied, “I received a letter today. The war is moving farther east, and soldiers are dying.”

Lucien let loose a string of curses. “You are considering enlisting.”

“And if I were?”

“Don’t be a tart, Alfred. You know as well as I your father will never allow it.”

“He will threaten to cut me off,” his friend agreed. “But we all know it’s a bluff. I’m his only heir.”

Lucien’s innards clenched in fierce protestation at what his friend’s words hinted at. “Forget about the war. Marry, have little Buxton babies, and leave the fighting to Wellington.”

His friend looked away.

His heart sank. “You already signed up, haven’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Damnation, Alfred!” Lucien snapped, running an exasperated hand through his hair. Maximillian, his horse, started to stomp his hooves, feeling his owner’s agitation. Lucien soothed the beast with calming words, and visibly relaxed his own stiff posture.

After a moment he turned and shot his friend a glare. “If we die, I will bloody well kill you again.”

“We?”

“Yes, we. Someone needs to make certain you don’t get slaughtered.”

While Lucien would happily throw himself under the hooves for his friend, that did not mean he had to be jolly about it.

“I would never ask you to enlist because of me,” Alfred murmured, his expression now devoid of any emotion.

“I am aware,” Lucien muttered. “Are you certain this is what you want? To risk your life on the battlefield?”

His friend nodded, but something moved across his face—a flash of emotion so deep and so raw that it startled him. It disappeared in the blink of an eye before Lucien could identify it. He gave his friend a hard look, trying to decipher where this sudden need to conquer came from, but his friend gave nothing else away. Nothing gave Lucien a clue as to the reason for his sudden interest in war.

With a hard nudge, he spurred his horse forward, shouting over his shoulder, “So be it.”

And with that, he followed Alfred Buxton into war.

 

Chapter 1

“They say he was skinned alive.”

Rosslyn Bakersfield’s head snapped up at that. She’d been so lost in thought, so engrossed in her list of potential husbands, that she’d quite lost track of the conversation. She glanced down at the scribbled names once more before folding the note and pocketing it.

Portia Evington pointed in the direction behind Rosslyn, who dutifully followed Portia’s finger to a man much more familiar to Rosslyn than she would have preferred. Her muscles contracted as her entire body tensed, her gaze drifting over his large form. A deep shudder tore through her. “Is that—?”

“Lord Craven in the flesh,” Portia confirmed with a nod.

Mary Adams, their other companion, snickered.

“And you say he was skinned alive?” Skepticism colored her disbelief.

“Yes, I overheard mother speak of it to her friends,” Portia said.

“I overheard the same from my aunt,” Mary agreed.

“You must be joking,” Ross said and gave her friends a hard look. “If he had been skinned alive, would that not make him dead?”

They seemed to ponder her statement and dismissed it. “That would make him without skin,” Mary put in.

Portia nodded.

“Then what do you imagine covers his face? A mask? Porcelain?”

Portia and Mary both scrunched their brows together and studied the earl with interest. Both their heads were tilted to the side, reminding Ross of two little puppies.

“Perhaps his face and hands were spared,” Portia murmured.

“That does make sense,” Mary once again agreed.

Ross glanced away but failed to keep her face free of incredulity. Not because she believed them, goodness no, but because of the empty-headedness on their part. Surely they did not believe such hogwash? But knowing Portia and Mary as she did, they had in all likelihood eaten up every gossipy word like butter cake.

For two years, she had drawn breath without setting eyes on Lord Craven—had not seen him since he came back from the war and informed her of her fiancé’s death. Though she could hardly claim his acquaintance, she’d known Alfred to only sing the man’s praises. She had never met the earl until that day—the day he arrived on her doorstep with the locket she’d given Alfred as a token of her love. It had been clear that Craven hadn’t even meant to inform her, having instead come to tell her father the news of Alfred’s death. But her father had been away on business at the time.

“I suppose one will never know,” Ross murmured in distraction.

“What was that?” Portia asked.

“Oh, nothing, I was just wondering whether you’ve heard any news of Lady Lucinda.”

The topic set the girls off in a chatty and unremarkably detailed account of Lady Lucinda’s elopement with the clumsy Lord Beaverstoke, which of course Ross already knew all about but had wanted to change the subject to a safer theme.

Her return to London was supposed to symbolize a new start. So far escaping her past remained a fruitless venture. From the moment she arrived a week ago, Lord Craven’s vexing name haunted her every step, like a leopard stalking its unsuspecting prey. Lord Craven, the name on almost every gossipmonger’s lips, seemed to fascinate all of London. By all accounts, he was rumored to be a notorious rake, snatching young girls from their mother’s arms and ravishing them. Nothing was ever mentioned of his past, however, and indeed, it appeared as though nobody had ever been informed he’d fought in the war.

Had Ross known the earl had taken up residence in London, she might have postponed her husband hunting until she was certain he’d departed. As rude as that may sound, she did not desire any more reminders of what she’d lost two years ago. The pain, an endless pit of torment, had haunted her for the better part of those years and only recently had she recovered some form of spark, and with it an urge for companionship. Well, that and her mother had grown tired of her sulking about their home in a tireless fashion.

“You have suffered a terrible loss, Rosslyn, but that doesn’t mean your life has stopped, you still age with each passing day, my dear. Alfred would not have wanted you to close yourself off from the world. He’d have wanted you to find love again—preferably before your skin resembles that of a dry prune!”

Ross flinched as she recalled her mother’s reprimand, touching the flesh of her hand for good measure. Ultimately, it had been those wise words that had prompted her eagerness to reenter society—though on her own terms. She would marry, by all means, but only to a man who posed no danger to her heart. Her husband should also be in possession of mild mannerism, so as to not be bothered to tell her what to do or how to do it. She’d give him an heir and perhaps a spare, though she would prefer a daughter. They would all live a happy, entirely uncomplicated life.

Yet it was sad to say her mother may have been correct in her attempt to get Ross to return to society as soon as possible. In the two years since she stepped out of the haut ton to mourn her beloved Alfred, not only had most of the desired gentlemen married, but even the most timorous of gentlemen had managed to secure wives. Thus, her list of eligible husbands was one of meager scrapings. That should have made the choice easy, except the pickings for someone her age were even slimmer. Most of the unattached gentlemen were either too young or too old. At one and twenty, still a fledgling truth be told, she appeared to be overlooked.

Luckily, love needn’t be factored in. So after eliminating the too young and the too old, she’d proceeded to scratch off all the other men that did not meet her criteria: too rakish, too rotund, too smelly, too drunk, too little hair, too many teeth—and so forth. Not that she saw anything particularly wrong with those features, but since she’d be spending the duration of her life with this man, share a bed with the gent, and do her duty by him, it seemed to her that he should at the very least be passable. So the list of already meager scrapings had been reduced to a whopping number of six gentlemen.

A painless task, no?

“He is very handsome.”

“Who?” Ross asked, having been brought back to the present by Portia’s statement. “Lord Beaverstoke?”

“No, Lord Craven,” Mary whispered.

Oh, blast, back to Craven again.

“Why are you whispering?” Ross asked.

“Because he is looking this way!” Portia murmured with a giggle.

And immediately she wished she hadn’t. Asked, that is.

Her head snapped his way, and indeed, he was looking straight at them. To her utter dismay, their eyes locked for a brief second before she snapped her head back again.

She did not need this now.

It was hard, no, impossible to imagine how Alfred had become friends with the earl. Her fiancé had been a sweet and kind man, not rude or obnoxious or…heartless like Craven. Yes, “heartless” was the precise word that came to mind when one gazed upon Craven’s stony and chiseled countenance.

“I think he is staring at me,” Mary gushed with an unmistakable note of pleasure.

“Don’t be daft, his eyes are fixed on me,” Portia said. “It’s obvious by the way his body is angled in my direction.”

Lord, take me now.

Ross only barely restrained herself from rolling her eyes heavenward. Of course, they did not know that she’d met the earl, or that her fiancé had been his best friend. The world had all but forgotten Alfred. Just like her mother had said, the world had not stopped at all, but rather moved on quite efficiently.

Something in Ross rose to the surface then, something wild and untamed, spurred on by society’s lack of empathy and their blatant refusal to acknowledge the dead.

Well, she’d remind them.

“If the earl is staring at anyone, it is me,” Ross declared, lifting her chin as the two girls’ eyes whipped to her.

Her tone must have given away that they shared some kind of history, because Portia said, “You are acquainted with the earl, then?”

Ross inwardly cursed. An acquaintance suggested a familiar relationship and theirs was quite the opposite. “The earl and my late fiancé, Lord Alfred Buxton, heir to the Marquis of Linden, were best friends, though I only met the man once.”

The girls blinked, their brains piecing together portions of a puzzle long since tossed into the attic.

“Lord Buxton, who perished in battle?”

Ross gave a curt nod, clenching her teeth at the curiosity in the girl’s voice.

“Oh! I have quite forgotten you were engaged to Lord Buxton!” Mary exclaimed, her bright eyes only irking Ross even more. She paused, a slow smile forming on her face. “Perhaps Lord Craven is finally in search of a wife, then,” Mary finished.

A wife? Craven?

An illogical conclusion if Ross had ever heard one.

“What makes you think that, Mary?” Portia asked.

“Well, why not? He has only recently taken up residence in London again and his best friend hadn’t been against marriage. Perhaps he’s ready now, too.”

Ross wanted to slap the girl, wishing she’d kept her mouth shut. Now they would never get off the topic of Craven.

And why was her blasted heart slamming against her chest, leaving her breathless? She began searching the crowd for an avenue of escape.

“The Countess of Craven! Can you imagine it?” Mary asked.

The Countess of Craven.

No, Ross certainly could not imagine it.

“Perhaps, he shall choose me!” Portia exclaimed as another bout of giggles sprung from her lips.

Ross turned away from them, wishing Portia luck. The girl would need it if she attempted to penetrate the thick, icy walls of the earl’s frozen heart.

 

Miss Rosslyn-bloody-Bakersfield.

The last woman he’d ever thought to see. His muscles flexed when her companion, a malicious little chit by the look of her, pointed a deuced finger straight his way. He was about to bare his teeth at her when Miss Bakersfield whipped her head around.

Emerald eyes locked with his from across the room.

Unprepared for the wild beating of his heart that followed, he cursed beneath his breath. He’d been watching her before that moment, watching as she stood still, completely focused on a letter in her hands before she folded and tucked it away in the folds of her dress.

What on God’s green earth was she doing in London? She was supposed to be in the country, ideally married to a country gentleman, and living out her days in peace. She was meant to be there—there, where Lucien did not have to watch her turnabout the room, happy as a peach while he marinated in misery.

He’d been completely caught off guard when he spotted her amidst the crowd earlier. At first, he had thought he’d imagined her—that his mind had conjured her up as a cruel reminder of his friend’s death. Unwelcome memories had assailed him, tortured images of pain and blood. His skin had felt too tight across his bones, as if he’d just crossed the desert without so much as a drop of water.

Clenching his jaw, he worked his mind away from the impressions, the echoes of events that had transpired.

When he had realized it was not his mind but his reality that had conjured her, he’d leaned back against a stone marble pillar to observe the lady through hooded eyes. More images had assaulted him then, but this time of her, staring up at him with such hopefulness until he shattered her world with the return of her locket. It had been two years since he’d seen her face.

Rosslyn-bloody-Bakersfield.

He recalled only too vividly how she had frowned at the necklace, blinking as if to put something important together, something he had yet to reveal. The confusion in her eyes had punched him in the gut, as had her refusal to believe the evidence he’d presented.

“Where is Alfred?” she’d asked. “I do not follow.”

By then, Lucien had seen enough death to understand that only clear and precise words could overcome the denial rooting itself firmly in her mind.

“He is dead, madam. He died in battle. My condolences on your loss. Please relay the news to your father. I’m sure he’ll take great comfort in it.”

He still cursed those parting words, sneered purposefully to hurt her. Alfred had cared a great deal for the woman and would no doubt have rolled in his grave if he’d heard Lucien that day. Hell, Alfred had loved her and Lucien had treated her like she’d been the one to send his friend to an early death.

More troubling was the reason behind his rude response. Struck blind by the first sight of her, he recalled wondering how the deuce Alfred had managed to ensnare such a creature’s heart. But then he also called to mind the true reason his friend had enlisted in the war at all.

Her.

What had it been about Miss Bakersfield that his friend would dive into the battlefield for?

Of course, Lucien already knew the answer. Her father had insisted upon it—had wanted a war veteran for a son-in-law. Or so he had said. Lucien knew better now.

Alfred had been heir to one of the oldest titles in England, whereas Miss Bakersfield was the only daughter of a baron. Almost anyone would say his friend had been a catch, the best match she might ever make.

Christ, she was no beauty either—though pretty certainly in an average sort of way. Where other ladies’ skins were white as marble, her upper cheeks and nose sported a rich amount of freckles. Miss Bakersfield clearly enjoyed the outdoors and did not care for wearing a bonnet, which spoke of a rebellious nature. Deep green eyes were framed by long, dark lashes, full of life and mischief. He recalled that day how her chestnut hair had been braided around her head with carefully arranged flowers weaved into her plaits. She’d reminded him of a forest nymph. She had looked young and innocent, too young to marry. And then she had smiled, and one small indentation appeared on her right cheek, taking another two years off her age. Devil take it, if he hadn’t known his friend so well, he may have thought Alfred had decided to marry a thirteen-year-old girl.

But what had haunted him the most over the past two years had been that with a few poorly chosen words, he’d erased the innocence in her eyes, wiped it from her features and her heart. In the single span of one mere moment, he’d given her a glimpse of a world she may have otherwise been oblivious to—a cruel world where people did not give a damn. And now she had returned to the fold only to remind him of all his shortcomings, of his guilt, of his pain.

Dammit all to hell!

He wanted her gone. The further away the better. Had her father come to London, as well? Lucien bloody hoped not, or he would have a long talk with the baron.

But the thought begged his next question: Did Miss Bakersfield shoulder the knowledge of what her father had done? The reason he’d sent her fiancé, his best friend, to war?

Lucien prayed that was not the case, for should he ever discover she’d known of her father’s hand in it, he would destroy her as thoroughly as he had destroyed the baron.

Her green eyes broke from his, then, but not before a sweet, tortured frisson of awareness rippled down the length of his spine.

She turned away, giving him her back. A telling sign of her sentiment, he mused with a shake of his head. He watched with interest as she turned her head slightly to each side, looking for an escape.

Lucien nearly laughed.

As if she could escape the Earl of Craven.

COLLAPSE

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