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Sweet Surrender

Sweet Surrender

Jackson Scott has returned to England—after swearing he never would. A decade earlier, he fled to Egypt, seeking fame and fortune as an African adventurer. But his brother, the Earl of Milton, has died, and Jackson has been named guardian to the man’s young son. He’s chafing at the designation. He doesn’t want to assist his bumbling nephew, doesn’t want to deal with his scheming sister-in-law or domineering mother. Yet he can’t resist their incessant pull.

When beautiful, alluring Grace Bennett arrives unexpectedly at Milton Abbey, she has a young boy with her who she claims is her ward. She tells a fantastical tale about Jackson’s brother. It’s the story of a secret wedding. Of a secret love child finally brought home where he belongs. Of one boy who isn’t the earl and one boy who is.

Against his will, Jackson is attracted to Grace, and because he wants her so desperately, he can’t decide what is real, what is true. As their worlds collide and their ardor ignites, Jackson must separate fact from fiction, must learn the truth about Grace, despite where it might lead him. Enmeshed in a risky and clandestine affair, his passion for her grows, but so does the danger from those who would keep them apart.

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Amazon Bestseller

Christmas will come early this year with the arrival on December 1st of New York Times Bestselling Author Cheryl Holt’s steamy new Regency book, SWEET SURRENDER!

From the first moment they meet the chemistry between Jackson Scott and Grace Bennett is so volatile I actually feared for the life of my smart phone. When you take one completely unrepentant rake who practically oozes with “Take me I’m Yours” and a high spirited, no-nonsense, sharp tongued female on a mission and put them in the same room you just know sparks aren’t just going to fly, they are going to explode.

The rapid fire banter and mutual loathing mixed with desire dialog between Jackson and Grace will give your swiping finger a real work out trying to keep up, while your heart and mind are busy screaming, “Just kiss her already!”

All the characters good and evil alike, not only interlace beautifully within the story but enhance it to a degree that they take on a vivid life all their own, especially the very sweet and special friendship that develops between the two young boys at the center of it all.

To say this story is a real page turner is a gross understatement, so make sure to clear several hours from your schedule before you begin, because I can guarantee that once you start reading you won’t be able to put it down until the end. ~Teresa St. Mary — Novels Alive TV

CHAPTER ONE

Rural England, summer, 1814…

“Are you sure this is the right place?”

“I’ve lived in the area all my life.  Of course I’m sure.”

Grace Bennett stared up at the teamster—Mr. Porter—in whose wagon she’d been riding for most of the morning.  He seemed competent and truthful, yet she was completely confused.

“You’re certain this is the entrance to Milton Abbey,” she said, “home of the Scott family?”

“None other.”

“Is there another Scott family in the vicinity—perhaps in the village or the surrounding towns?”

“There are likely other Scotts all over the world.  But you asked me to drop you at Milton Abbey.  This is Milton Abbey.”

She peered at the massive gate next to which they’d stopped, then her gaze swept down the long, tree-lined lane.  At the end, she could discern the contours of a mansion, and it wasn’t the sort of comfortable abode she’d anticipated.

It was an edifice where a king might reside.  There was a courtyard with a fountain, marble steps leading up to an ornate front door, a sloping green lawn tended by gardeners.  The corners had turrets—turrets!—as if it had once been part of an ancient castle.

“They can’t be merchants,” she mused more to herself than to him.

Mr. Porter scoffed.  “They wouldn’t dirty their hands in such a low way.”

“I don’t understand this, at all.”

“I don’t, either,” her younger sister, eighteen-year-old Eleanor said.  “It’s not even close to what I was expecting.”

Grace frowned at her ward, nine-year-old Michael Scott.  “How about you?  Does this make any sense?”

“No, Grace.”  Michael was the most confident child she’d ever met, but he appeared even more unsettled than she was.  “Do you suppose my grandmother is here?”

“I have no idea.  I can’t believe this is her home.”

She stared up at Mr. Porter again.  “Were you acquainted with a Mr. Edward Scott?  He died nine years ago in a carriage accident.”

“Not mister, Miss Bennett.  You mean Lord Milton.”

“What?”

“Edward Scott wasn’t a commoner.  He was Lord Milton, the earl of Milton.”

“That just can’t be.”  She shook her head.  “The Edward I’m talking about was a merchant.”

“He wasn’t a merchant, and he didn’t die nine years ago.  He passed away over the prior winter.  From the influenza.”

“Are you positive there isn’t another branch of the family that might have had a son named Edward?  Maybe there was a cousin or a nephew.”

“Anything is possible, Miss Bennett, but as I mentioned, you were interested in Milton Abbey.  The Edward who lived at Milton Abbey was Lord Milton, and he died last winter.”

“Hmm…”

Grace’s confusion soared.

For a few brief months a decade earlier, her best friend Georgina had been married to Edward.  They’d had a short and wonderful love affair, but tragically, he’d been killed in a carriage accident.  Before he’d ever learned of Georgina’s pregnancy.  Before she’d had the chance to tell him they were having a baby.

Georgina had recently perished from her own bout with the influenza, and her final words had been about Edward, about how much she still missed him.

“The Edward to whom I refer,” Grace haltingly stated, “was very charming, very handsome.  He had dark hair and blue eyes and—”

“Yes, yes,” Mr. Porter interrupted, “that’s the one.  He looked like this lad.”  From his perch on the wagon seat, he pointed down at Michael.

“I look like him,” Michael explained, “because he’s my father.”
Mr. Porter gasped.  “Edward was your father?”

“Yes.”

He nodded.  “I can definitely see why you’d think so.”

“I don’t think so,” Michael huffed in the autocratic manner for which he was renowned.  “I know so.  My mother always said I was his spitting image.”

“You act like him, too,” Mr. Porter muttered.

“I’ll take that as a great compliment, sir.”

Mr. Porter studied the grand house hidden in the trees, Michael, the house again.  He gestured to Michael.

“Would you wait over by that hedge?  I need a private minute with your auntie.”

“She’s not my aunt.  She is my guardian.  My mother entrusted me to her care.  It was her dying wish that Grace watch over me.”

“Fine,” Mr. Porter snapped, “she’s your guardian.  Now wait over there while I speak to her.”

Michael peered up at Grace, silently asking if he should, and Eleanor eased over the awkward moment.

“Let’s let Grace talk to Mr. Porter,” Eleanor said, “then we’ll continue on our way.”

“Is that all right with you Grace?” Michael inquired.

“Yes.”

Michael picked up his bag—and Grace’s too—and he walked through the gate.  Eleanor grabbed her own satchel and followed him.

“What is it?” Grace asked Mr. Porter once they were far enough away that they couldn’t listen in.

“Does the Scott family know you’re coming?”

“No.”

“You’re about to surprise them?”

“Yes.”

“The lad seems convinced that he’s the earl’s son.”

“He’s Edward Scott’s son,” Grace corrected.  “I’ve never claimed that his father was an earl.  Edward was a merchant; that’s all I was ever told.”

“I’m simply warning you:  I’ve never heard of another boy.”

Another boy?  What do you mean?”

“I’d like to be a mouse in that corner…” he grumbled.

“What?”

“Lord Milton—Edward Scott—was married.  He has a son, a lawful son, named Percival.  He’s already been installed as earl.”

“What has that to do with Michael?  I’m sure you’re mistaken about these two Edwards.  They have to be different men.”

“I’m not about to speculate as to why you believe Edward died a decade ago.”

“He did die!”

“So you say, but use your head girl!  They won’t be too keen on you spreading stories about there being another son.”

“It’s not a story,” she indignantly scoffed.

“That’s as may be, but you should…ah…reconsider before you proceed.  You’ll be stirring a hornet’s nest.”

“Michael needs their help.”

“Why are you so certain they’ll give it?”

“I’m not.  I’m just…just…”

Her voice trailed off, her worry and fatigue acute.  She gazed over at Michael and Eleanor, at the gray stone of Milton Abbey.  Throughout their lengthy journey, she hadn’t wanted them to sense her concern over Edward’s relatives.

Now, they were literally at the gate, and she was more anxious than ever.

“We don’t have anywhere else to go,” she finally said.

“It’s a fine pickle you’ve sliced for yourself, Miss Bennett.”

“Yes, it is.  Would you know if Michael’s grandmother Beatrice is at home?”

His brows flew up.  “The dowager countess?  No, she’s in London, lucky for you.”

“Why would you say that?”

“When you meet her, you’ll see.”  He nodded toward the house.  “Edward’s brother is here.”

“Edward has a brother?  What’s his name?”

“Jackson Scott—recently back from the wilds of Africa.  He’s an adventurer.”

“My goodness.”

“He’s come to take charge of young Percival, but the earl and his mother are still in the city.  Mr. Scott is entertaining a few of his old school chums.  It’s not a suitable environment for your sister and ward.”

“Why not?”

“There are a hundred lewd rumors circulating in the village, Miss Bennett.  Mr. Scott has been away from England for an eternity, and he’s enjoying his return.”

Grace snorted with disgust.  “I’m not afraid of some drunken school boys.”

“They’re not boys.”

“I’m not afraid of drunken men, either.”  As a midwife and healer, she’d observed the very worst that human beings had to offer.  Nothing surprised her; nothing scared her.  “Besides, it’s only eleven o’clock.  Who would be imbibing of spirits this early?”

“You’d be amazed at what a rich, idle fellow can find to occupy his time.”

“No, I wouldn’t.”  She reached up her hand.  “Thank you, Mr. Porter.  I appreciate your advice and your many kindnesses.”

“You’re welcome.”  Mr. Porter clasped her extended hand and gently patted it.  “I’ll be in the village until Friday, then I’m off to London.  If this doesn’t end as you planned—“

“We’ll be all right,” she stated with more confidence than she felt.

“—ask for me at the blacksmith’s shop.  They’ll locate me for you.  I’m happy to take you with me.”

“We won’t need a ride anywhere.”

“You just never know,” he sagely replied, then he clicked the reins, and his horses pulled with all their might.

Gradually, the wheels on the wagon turned, and the animals drew him away.  She watched until he rounded the bend in the road, and as he vanished from view, she was bereft, as if she’d lost her last friend.

“Are we going on or not?” Eleanor called.

Grace pasted on a smile.  “Yes, of course, we’re going.  Why wouldn’t we?”

“You have the strangest expression on your face.  You seem…worried.”

Michael wasn’t looking at Grace, and she gave a slight shake of her head, warning Eleanor to avoid words like worry or concern.  She had enough on her plate without making Michael anxious.  He was too astute; he always sensed when something was wrong, and she didn’t want him fretting.

And nothing was wrong precisely.

She merely wasn’t positive they’d tracked down the correct people.  Edward had been estranged from his family, so Georgina had few details about any of them.  But they haled from Milton, and Milton Abbey was their home.

What were the chances that there could be another Milton Abbey in England?

Grace refused to accept Mr. Porter’s version about Edward.  They couldn’t be mistaken.  She had justice on her side, and if it killed her, she would ensure that Michael received the recognition and assistance he deserved.

She walked over and grabbed her portmanteau.  It contained all that remained of a life of work and effort.  When they’d been evicted, when the sheriff had arrived and forced them to leave Georgina’s small cottage, he’d let them each fill a bag.

The ordeal had been humiliating, searching cupboards and drawers, pondering, sorting, choosing.  What did they need?  What could they carry?

The furniture had come with the house when Edward bought it for Georgina, so it belonged to Edward’s relatives.  Grace hoped—once she’d contacted them—that some of their possessions could be retrieved.  She wouldn’t consider any other conclusion.

Eleanor and Michael picked up their bags, too, and the three of them started toward the mansion.  As they approached, it grew larger and larger until the walls towered over them.  They stood, gaping up at it.

“What should we do?” Eleanor asked.

“We knock on the door, silly,” Michael answered.

He strode forward, leading the way as was his custom.

From his earliest days, he’d been unique in a manner other boys could never be.  He was shrewd and smart and overly wise for his age.  He would be a ruler of men, would always have lesser mortals tagging after him, eager to admire and adore.

When Georgina had begged Grace—with her dying breath—to serve as Michael’s guardian, it had been easy to agree.  Who wouldn’t love such a marvelous child?

He bounded up the stairs, then paused to glance over his shoulder at Grace.

“Is my grandmother here?” he queried.  “Did Mr. Porter say?”

“She’s not here, but he claims you have an uncle.  He’s here.”

“An uncle!  How splendid!” Michael gushed.

“An uncle?”  Eleanor frowned and murmured, “Georgina never mentioned that Edward had a brother.”

“No, she didn’t,” Grace whispered, “which vexes me enormously.”

“What’s his name?” Michael inquired.

“Jackson Scott.”

“I like it!” Michael beamed.  “It’s very noble.”

“Maybe Mr. Porter erred.”  Eleanor’s frown deepened.  “Maybe we are at the wrong house.”

“We’re not at the wrong house,” Michael insisted.  “I just know this was my father’s home.  Can’t you feel it?”

He spun away and had raised his hand to knock on the door when it was whipped open.  Two giggling women raced out.  From their attire, they appeared to be housemaids, although their caps were off and their hair down.

A man was chasing them, and he might have been a gentleman, but he’d removed his coat, and his shirt sleeves were rolled back.  He was clutching a decanter of liquor, the contents sloshing out as he ran by.

The trio didn’t notice Grace, Michael, or Eleanor.  They were too absorbed in their game.  They dashed down the steps and hurried off.

“Last to the lake,” one of the women shouted to the man, “is a rotten egg.”

They chortled as if it was the pithiest remark ever uttered, then they increased their speed.

“I hope that wasn’t my uncle,” Michael said as the group vanished around the corner.

“I’m sure it wasn’t,” Grace replied.  The door was still open, and she nodded to it.  “Let’s find some help.”

They entered cautiously, not certain of what they might encounter, and Grace’s trepidation spiraled.

The house was ornate, like something out of a fairytale, but there were no servants in evidence.  Off to the side, there was a fancy salon cluttered with debris.  Apparently, Jackson Scott had been reveling quite raucously, but there was no one present to clean up after him.

When she had left Cornwall for Milton Abbey, she had pictured the Scotts as staid, boring merchants.  They would rise at dawn, labor strenuously, eat heartily at a bountiful dining table, and retire early to rest up for the next day’s endeavors.

Her opinion had been based on what a fine man Edward had seemed to be.  What she hadn’t imagined was inebriation and wicked conduct.  If debauchery was in progress, how could she introduce Michael into such a depraved environment?

There was a bench in the foyer, and she motioned to it.  Michael and Eleanor sat while Grace paced, each stride echoing off the high ceiling.  Eventually, a footman approached.

“Oh, hello,” he said.  He gaped as if he’d never seen visitors before.  “I didn’t realize you had arrived.”

Obviously, Grace nearly sneered.  Instead, she politely inquired, “Can you assist us?”

“With what?”

“I’d like to speak with Mr. Jackson Scott regarding a…personal matter.”

“I wouldn’t dare to interrupt him.”

“You can’t tell him he has a caller?”

“I’m not that brave,” the man insisted.  “He’s…entertaining.  He doesn’t like to be bothered.”

“Is the butler here?”

“Most of the staff was given a holiday.  There are only a few of us on the premises.”

“I see,” Grace said.

“Perhaps if you came back next week?”

“We can’t.  I have to talk to him today.”

“He’s asked not to be disturbed.”

With that uncooperative response, he sauntered off, leaving Grace in a tremendous quandary.  Was it all right for them to wait?  She supposed they could become squatters in the foyer.  If they were lucky, Mr. Scott might stroll by and deign to notice them.

“Well!” Eleanor huffed with indignation.  “What do you make of that?  I’ve received more courtesy from a stray mutt in the road.”

“What now, Grace?” Michael inquired.

Grace studied them, deciding they looked as exhausted as she felt.

The previous months had been extremely difficult.  First, Eleanor had finished school and returned home.  Then Georgina had grown ill and died.  Her monthly stipend from Edward’s estate had stopped.  Shortly after, the sheriff had notified them that they were being evicted.

In the years Grace had stayed with Georgina, she’d saved a small amount of money from her nursing, but it wasn’t much.  Her modest income had never been sufficient to sustain the three of them.

She’d had no option but to beg assistance from the Scott family.  She’d written to Beatrice, who hadn’t answered the letter.  So Grace had recklessly traveled to Milton, being absolutely certain that—once they met Michael—they wouldn’t deny him.

But she was assailed by doubts.  What if she’d been wrong?  What if the journey had been for naught?  If Jackson Scott sent them packing, what would they do?

There was nothing for them in their rural village, and even if there was, they had no funds to pay their way back.  They’d have to start over in the Milton area, where they had no acquaintances or ties.  Eleanor would have to hire herself out as a maid or shop girl, and the notion was so depressing that Grace could have plopped down and wept for a week.

She was twenty-five years old, and her entire past had been filled with struggle and toil.  Her parents had perished when she and Eleanor were little.  As orphans, they’d had no kin to help them.  Eventually, Georgina’s mother—their neighbor—had taken them in and raised them.

She’d been a healer and had taught Grace her trade.  Grace had a natural affinity for healing, so she’d gratefully embraced the path fate provided.  Student had become master, and she’d ultimately guided the woman through her own demise.

Yet with Georgina’s recent death, Grace was where she’d been as a young child.  Broke.  Afraid.  On her own—but this time with two charges who needed her care and support.

Why was the world such a grueling place?  She bet Jackson Scott never had to wonder over when his next meal would arrive.

A sound wafted by, of voices laughing and glassware clinking.  It came from the second floor.  Was Jackson Scott holed up in one of the rooms?

The prospect that he was idling away the morning set her temper ablaze.

Dare she climb the stairs?   Dare she accost him?

She glanced over at Michael and Eleanor, their expressions expectant and curious.

“I think I hear people upstairs,” she said.  “I have to see if it’s Mr. Scott.”

“Really, Grace”—Eleanor’s tone was scolding—“is that wise?”

“We can’t tarry forever without a resolution.  You stay here.  Don’t move an inch—no matter what.”

“Should I come with you?” Michael asked.  “Mr. Scott might wish to speak with me right away.”

“You sit with Eleanor,” Grace replied.  She wasn’t about to introduce Michael before she learned the true situation.  “I may be gone for many minutes.  Don’t be nervous and don’t search for me.”

“We won’t.”  Eleanor slipped her arm through Michael’s to keep him with her as Grace marched up the stairs.

On the landing, the noise was louder, and she followed it to the room at the end of the hall.  The double doors opened into a large, messy salon.  Empty glasses and decanters of liquor were strewn about, as were pillows and blankets.  A vase had been smashed, but no one had bothered to pick up the glass shards.

There was an ornate, throne-like chair over by the window.  A man lounged in it, and she didn’t have to be told that—with very little effort—she’d found Jackson Scott.

With his black hair and blue, blue eyes, he looked exactly like Michael, exactly like Edward.  There could be no mistaking their close blood relationship.

He was different though, too, appearing tough and menacing in a way Edward had never been.  He seemed arrogant and weary and ruthless, and her heart sank.

This wasn’t the encounter she’d envisioned, at all.  She’d pictured a stuffy parlor, tea on a tray, stiff-backed chairs, uncomfortable questions, erudite answers.

Instead, she’d walked in on what had to be an…orgy.  She’d never been particularly clear on what the word described, but this had to be it.

Mr. Scott was being tended by several lithe, blond beauties.  They were scantily clad in undergarments made from a thin, gauzy fabric Grace had never seen before.  Mr. Porter had mentioned that Mr. Scott lived in Africa, and he had to have brought the clothing with him from that wild locale.

Two of the women fanned him with palm leaves, while a third danced a seductive dance.  A fourth was seated on his lap and feeding him bites of food.

As Grace watched the shocking spectacle, he leaned in and kissed the woman on the mouth!  The woman gleefully participated, the others simpering as if they couldn’t wait to be next, and Grace was so astonished, she was surprised she didn’t faint.

His dark hair was much too long—it actually brushed his shoulders—and needed to be trimmed.  His chest was broad and muscled, his skin tanned, which she could plainly see because he wasn’t wearing a shirt or shoes.  He was attired only in a pair of loose-fitting trousers sewn from another exotic, flowing fabric.

It was the sort of garment she imagined a sultan might choose when entertaining his harem.  Not that she’d ever imagined such a thing, but if she had, this was precisely the type of decadent scene that would have presented itself.

This depraved devil was Michael’s uncle?  This corrupt wretch was brother to charming, witty, amiable Edward?  How could it be possible?

She thought of the desperate months recently passed, of the dreary miles they’d traveled, and her temper boiled over.

How dare he disappoint her!  How dare he be so utterly and completely ill-suited to her purpose!

“Excuse me,” she said, but no one noticed her.  She could have been invisible.

“Excuse me!” she shouted, and she clapped her hands for good measure.

Mr. Scott frowned, then glanced over to where Grace stood in the entry.  On observing her, his fury was palpable, and she should have fled, but she was impaled by his magnificent eyes.  She couldn’t move, which was aggravating in the extreme.

She had nursed every kind of patient with every sort of illness and condition.  Maiming.  Dismemberment.  Birthing.  Dying.  Nothing fazed her, and she wasn’t about to let Jackson Scott be the first to succeed.

“Hello, Mr. Scott,” she brazenly said.  “I’m sorry for the interruption, but there was no butler to greet us.”

“So you just barged in?” he asked.

“Yes.  My mission is dire, and I couldn’t return later.”

His gaggle of admirers tittered with amusement as his hot, angry gaze slithered down her person.  Compared to the women who were salivating over him, he definitely found her lacking, and he smirked, wanting her to know that he wasn’t impressed.

Clearly, his taste ran to willowy and fawning, so she shouldn’t have been upset by his overt disdain, but she was.  She could have defended herself to Mr. Scott, could have told him all the ways she was remarkable, but why would she?

She couldn’t help it if she was short—only five foot four—and much too thin at a hundred and twenty pounds.  But work and worry could make a female waste away from fretting.

Her hair, the bane of her existence, was a rusty auburn, pulled into a tidy chignon.  It highlighted her expressive green eyes, and she was secretly proud of it—not that she’d ever admit to having one small vanity.

At least she was fully dressed.  Her gray gown, the best she owned, covered her from chin to wrist to toe, and she wouldn’t apologize for modesty.  Not when modesty was so obviously a trait he despised.

“Who the hell are you,” he snapped, “and why are you in my home?”

“I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t curse in my presence.”

“It’s my house.  I’ll speak however I damn well please.  If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stay.”

She gnawed on her cheek, keen to argue, but castigation would be pointless.  Jackson Scott was a rude fiend.  Debate was futile.

“I am Grace Bennett, Mr. Scott.”

“Bully for you.  Now go away.  You annoy me.”

“I can’t leave until we’ve conferred on a matter of the utmost importance.”

“I’m busy, and I don’t wish to talk to you.  Go away!”

“No.”

“Are you deaf?  Are you thick-headed?  What part of go away don’t you understand?”

She brushed off his snide comment and used her best schoolteacher voice, the one that soothed patients.  “Put on a shirt and follow me into a room where we can have a private discussion.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

Apparently, she’d flummoxed him, and it dawned on her that it was probably a rare occasion when his commands were ignored.  He would be accustomed to barking orders and having them instantly obeyed.  In dealing with her, he would be exceedingly frustrated.

She thought all men were fools.  She thought all men were ridiculous.

“Duncan!” he suddenly called, and he peered into the hallway, expecting someone to rush to his aid.

She peeked over her shoulder, seeing naught but empty space.

“There’s no one to rescue you, Mr. Scott.  You’ll have to speak with me.”

The doxy was still perched on his lap, and he pushed her away.  For a moment, she looked as if she might protest his rough handling, but his irked glower prevented any pouting.  She slinked behind the chair with the others.

They glared at Grace, visually warning her that they deemed Mr. Scott to be their own, and they didn’t intend to share.

You can have him! she nearly told them, but didn’t.  She wasn’t about to bicker with a group of half-dressed trollops.

“What’s it to be, Mr. Scott?” she asked.  “If you’d like, I can mention my quest here in front of your…friends, but I’d rather not.  When you hear my story, you’ll be glad that it’s between the two of us.”

“You think so, do you?”

“Yes.”

“You’re awfully certain that you know my preferences.”

“Men are simple creatures.  It’s not that difficult to figure you out.”

He laughed, and it sounded rusty, as if it had been ages since he’d found humor in anything.

“So I’m simple, am I?”

“You’re a man.  What more is there to say?”  She shrugged as if that explained every mystery in the universe.

He studied her, his astute gaze digging deep.  He was trying to rattle her, but he’d meet with scant success.  She could carry out an amputation without flagging, so he could hardly frighten her by scowling.

She stared back, studying him just as meticulously.

The signs of his fast-living were evident.  He had bags under his eyes from lack of sleep, and he hadn’t shaved.  Stubble darkened his cheeks, making him appear dashing and dangerous.  She wanted to glance away, but they were engaged in a battle of wills, and she wasn’t about to show any weakness.

He was the type who would pounce and gobble her up.

Finally, as he realized that he couldn’t shake her, a corner of his beautiful mouth curled into a lethal smile.

“Miss Bennett, is it?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“You’re an interesting piece of work.”  He gestured to his adoring gaggle.  “Ladies, would you step outside?”

There were groans and pleas that he reconsider, but a quick snap of his fingers had them scurrying to the hall.

Grace let them pass, then closed the door.

Once they were alone, he didn’t stand as a proper gentleman would, but watched her with that insolent, bored look that never left his handsome face.

As if he was a real king, he motioned for her to approach, and she walked over and halted directly in front of his throne.

“Would you put on a shirt?” she said.

“No.  You have five minutes.”  He nodded at the fireplace, where there was a clock on the mantel.  “Starting now.”

“I really can’t talk to you when you’re in this condition.”

“Four minutes and fifty seconds.”

“I’m not used to dealing with a man when he’s in such a state of dishabille.”

“Four minutes and forty-five seconds.”

She sighed.  “You are an obstinate ass.”

“Yes, I am.  Four minutes and forty seconds.”

“Fine, I give up.”

He grinned.  “I knew you would.”

She threw up her hands in exasperation.  “I have traveled from Cornwall.”

“I hope your journey was comfortable.”

“Actually, it wasn’t.”

“I don’t care to hear about it.  Why are you pestering me?”

There seemed no way to ease him into the news.  He was so haughtily curt and condescending.  Wasn’t it better to bite the bullet and get it over with?

“I brought your nephew.”

“Percival is here?”

“No, your other nephew, Michael.”

“I don’t have a nephew named Michael.”

“Up until this moment, you haven’t been informed.  A decade ago, your brother Edward married my friend Georgina and—“

“You’re a liar.”

The bald insult stopped her in her tracks.  “What?”

He straightened in his chair, his posture alert and forbidding, like a dog on the hunt that had scented the fox.  Suddenly, he didn’t appear quite so drunk or inept.

“You.  Are.  A.  Liar,” he hissed.

“No, I’m not.  Your brother married Georgina.  I have the records that—“

Furiously, he cut her off.  “My brother did not marry some woman named Georgina a decade ago.  He married his dearest Susan a decade ago.  They have a son, Percival, who is his lawful heir.  Quit wasting my time.”

“No, he married Georgina.  I have all the records to prove it, and Michael—“

He narrowed his gaze, his focus cruel and biting.  “What game are you playing, Miss Bennett?”

“I’m not playing any game.  Georgina passed away last year, and I am Michael’s guardian.  I wrote to your mother, seeking an introduction, but she didn’t respond.  We’ve lost our home and we’re desperate, so I’ve arrived unannounced.”

“Why?”

“We need your help.”

“Ah…” he mused.  “As in money?”

“Well, yes.  And a place to stay and perhaps some local employment if you could supply a recommendation for me.”

He steepled his fingers under his chin, and an awkward interval ensued.  She could see his mind working as he devised the appropriate reply.

He took so long that she’d begun to suppose she was making some headway, when he said, “Go away.”

“No.”

“Go.  Away.”

“Stop saying that.  Your childishness won’t resolve the problem.”

“I don’t want you here.”

“I realize that, but you’re being ridiculous.”

I am being ridiculous?  You, Miss Bennett, have waltzed in and interrupted my morning amusement.  You’ve hurled spurious accusations about my brother.  You’ve enraged and offended me, and I don’t have to listen to you.”

“Yes, you do.”

“Says who?  You?”

He unfolded himself from his throne, sliding to his feet and stepping in so he towered over her.

He was very large, at least six feet in height, and he was very virile, very male.  She’d stood next to many undressed men in her life, but she’d never encountered one like him.  His nearness engendered the wildest swings of sensation.

“Let me show you out.”

He clasped hold of her arm and started for the door.  She tried to wrestle free, but escape was impossible.

“You don’t believe me,” she glumly said.

“That would be putting it mildly.”

“The truth won’t vanish merely because you can’t face it.”

“A philosopher!  How marvelous.”

They’d arrived at the door.  He yanked it open, and his harem was hovering, spying through the keyhole.  They jumped back, feigning innocence, as if they hadn’t been hanging on every word.

“Miss Bennett is leaving,” he announced.  “One of you escort her out.  If she refuses to depart, call Duncan to assist you.”

“Mr. Scott!” Grace protested.

“Goodbye, Miss Bennett.”

“Mr. Scott!” she complained more vehemently.

“If I’m very lucky—which I haven’t been so far—you’ll be smart enough to grasp that you should never again darken my day with any of your frivolous gibberish.”

He pushed her into the hall and slammed the door.  The key spun in the lock.

She was angrier than she could ever remember being, and she wanted to march over and pound on the wood, to shout and insult and reprimand, but why bother?

She whirled away and left, wondering how she’d ever tell Michael would she’d learned.

 

+ Awards

Amazon Bestseller

+ Reviews

Christmas will come early this year with the arrival on December 1st of New York Times Bestselling Author Cheryl Holt’s steamy new Regency book, SWEET SURRENDER!

From the first moment they meet the chemistry between Jackson Scott and Grace Bennett is so volatile I actually feared for the life of my smart phone. When you take one completely unrepentant rake who practically oozes with “Take me I’m Yours” and a high spirited, no-nonsense, sharp tongued female on a mission and put them in the same room you just know sparks aren’t just going to fly, they are going to explode.

The rapid fire banter and mutual loathing mixed with desire dialog between Jackson and Grace will give your swiping finger a real work out trying to keep up, while your heart and mind are busy screaming, “Just kiss her already!”

All the characters good and evil alike, not only interlace beautifully within the story but enhance it to a degree that they take on a vivid life all their own, especially the very sweet and special friendship that develops between the two young boys at the center of it all.

To say this story is a real page turner is a gross understatement, so make sure to clear several hours from your schedule before you begin, because I can guarantee that once you start reading you won’t be able to put it down until the end. ~Teresa St. Mary — Novels Alive TV

+ Sample Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

Rural England, summer, 1814…

“Are you sure this is the right place?”

“I’ve lived in the area all my life.  Of course I’m sure.”

Grace Bennett stared up at the teamster—Mr. Porter—in whose wagon she’d been riding for most of the morning.  He seemed competent and truthful, yet she was completely confused.

“You’re certain this is the entrance to Milton Abbey,” she said, “home of the Scott family?”

“None other.”

“Is there another Scott family in the vicinity—perhaps in the village or the surrounding towns?”

“There are likely other Scotts all over the world.  But you asked me to drop you at Milton Abbey.  This is Milton Abbey.”

She peered at the massive gate next to which they’d stopped, then her gaze swept down the long, tree-lined lane.  At the end, she could discern the contours of a mansion, and it wasn’t the sort of comfortable abode she’d anticipated.

It was an edifice where a king might reside.  There was a courtyard with a fountain, marble steps leading up to an ornate front door, a sloping green lawn tended by gardeners.  The corners had turrets—turrets!—as if it had once been part of an ancient castle.

“They can’t be merchants,” she mused more to herself than to him.

Mr. Porter scoffed.  “They wouldn’t dirty their hands in such a low way.”

“I don’t understand this, at all.”

“I don’t, either,” her younger sister, eighteen-year-old Eleanor said.  “It’s not even close to what I was expecting.”

Grace frowned at her ward, nine-year-old Michael Scott.  “How about you?  Does this make any sense?”

“No, Grace.”  Michael was the most confident child she’d ever met, but he appeared even more unsettled than she was.  “Do you suppose my grandmother is here?”

“I have no idea.  I can’t believe this is her home.”

She stared up at Mr. Porter again.  “Were you acquainted with a Mr. Edward Scott?  He died nine years ago in a carriage accident.”

“Not mister, Miss Bennett.  You mean Lord Milton.”

“What?”

“Edward Scott wasn’t a commoner.  He was Lord Milton, the earl of Milton.”

“That just can’t be.”  She shook her head.  “The Edward I’m talking about was a merchant.”

“He wasn’t a merchant, and he didn’t die nine years ago.  He passed away over the prior winter.  From the influenza.”

“Are you positive there isn’t another branch of the family that might have had a son named Edward?  Maybe there was a cousin or a nephew.”

“Anything is possible, Miss Bennett, but as I mentioned, you were interested in Milton Abbey.  The Edward who lived at Milton Abbey was Lord Milton, and he died last winter.”

“Hmm…”

Grace’s confusion soared.

For a few brief months a decade earlier, her best friend Georgina had been married to Edward.  They’d had a short and wonderful love affair, but tragically, he’d been killed in a carriage accident.  Before he’d ever learned of Georgina’s pregnancy.  Before she’d had the chance to tell him they were having a baby.

Georgina had recently perished from her own bout with the influenza, and her final words had been about Edward, about how much she still missed him.

“The Edward to whom I refer,” Grace haltingly stated, “was very charming, very handsome.  He had dark hair and blue eyes and—”

“Yes, yes,” Mr. Porter interrupted, “that’s the one.  He looked like this lad.”  From his perch on the wagon seat, he pointed down at Michael.

“I look like him,” Michael explained, “because he’s my father.”
Mr. Porter gasped.  “Edward was your father?”

“Yes.”

He nodded.  “I can definitely see why you’d think so.”

“I don’t think so,” Michael huffed in the autocratic manner for which he was renowned.  “I know so.  My mother always said I was his spitting image.”

“You act like him, too,” Mr. Porter muttered.

“I’ll take that as a great compliment, sir.”

Mr. Porter studied the grand house hidden in the trees, Michael, the house again.  He gestured to Michael.

“Would you wait over by that hedge?  I need a private minute with your auntie.”

“She’s not my aunt.  She is my guardian.  My mother entrusted me to her care.  It was her dying wish that Grace watch over me.”

“Fine,” Mr. Porter snapped, “she’s your guardian.  Now wait over there while I speak to her.”

Michael peered up at Grace, silently asking if he should, and Eleanor eased over the awkward moment.

“Let’s let Grace talk to Mr. Porter,” Eleanor said, “then we’ll continue on our way.”

“Is that all right with you Grace?” Michael inquired.

“Yes.”

Michael picked up his bag—and Grace’s too—and he walked through the gate.  Eleanor grabbed her own satchel and followed him.

“What is it?” Grace asked Mr. Porter once they were far enough away that they couldn’t listen in.

“Does the Scott family know you’re coming?”

“No.”

“You’re about to surprise them?”

“Yes.”

“The lad seems convinced that he’s the earl’s son.”

“He’s Edward Scott’s son,” Grace corrected.  “I’ve never claimed that his father was an earl.  Edward was a merchant; that’s all I was ever told.”

“I’m simply warning you:  I’ve never heard of another boy.”

Another boy?  What do you mean?”

“I’d like to be a mouse in that corner…” he grumbled.

“What?”

“Lord Milton—Edward Scott—was married.  He has a son, a lawful son, named Percival.  He’s already been installed as earl.”

“What has that to do with Michael?  I’m sure you’re mistaken about these two Edwards.  They have to be different men.”

“I’m not about to speculate as to why you believe Edward died a decade ago.”

“He did die!”

“So you say, but use your head girl!  They won’t be too keen on you spreading stories about there being another son.”

“It’s not a story,” she indignantly scoffed.

“That’s as may be, but you should…ah…reconsider before you proceed.  You’ll be stirring a hornet’s nest.”

“Michael needs their help.”

“Why are you so certain they’ll give it?”

“I’m not.  I’m just…just…”

Her voice trailed off, her worry and fatigue acute.  She gazed over at Michael and Eleanor, at the gray stone of Milton Abbey.  Throughout their lengthy journey, she hadn’t wanted them to sense her concern over Edward’s relatives.

Now, they were literally at the gate, and she was more anxious than ever.

“We don’t have anywhere else to go,” she finally said.

“It’s a fine pickle you’ve sliced for yourself, Miss Bennett.”

“Yes, it is.  Would you know if Michael’s grandmother Beatrice is at home?”

His brows flew up.  “The dowager countess?  No, she’s in London, lucky for you.”

“Why would you say that?”

“When you meet her, you’ll see.”  He nodded toward the house.  “Edward’s brother is here.”

“Edward has a brother?  What’s his name?”

“Jackson Scott—recently back from the wilds of Africa.  He’s an adventurer.”

“My goodness.”

“He’s come to take charge of young Percival, but the earl and his mother are still in the city.  Mr. Scott is entertaining a few of his old school chums.  It’s not a suitable environment for your sister and ward.”

“Why not?”

“There are a hundred lewd rumors circulating in the village, Miss Bennett.  Mr. Scott has been away from England for an eternity, and he’s enjoying his return.”

Grace snorted with disgust.  “I’m not afraid of some drunken school boys.”

“They’re not boys.”

“I’m not afraid of drunken men, either.”  As a midwife and healer, she’d observed the very worst that human beings had to offer.  Nothing surprised her; nothing scared her.  “Besides, it’s only eleven o’clock.  Who would be imbibing of spirits this early?”

“You’d be amazed at what a rich, idle fellow can find to occupy his time.”

“No, I wouldn’t.”  She reached up her hand.  “Thank you, Mr. Porter.  I appreciate your advice and your many kindnesses.”

“You’re welcome.”  Mr. Porter clasped her extended hand and gently patted it.  “I’ll be in the village until Friday, then I’m off to London.  If this doesn’t end as you planned—“

“We’ll be all right,” she stated with more confidence than she felt.

“—ask for me at the blacksmith’s shop.  They’ll locate me for you.  I’m happy to take you with me.”

“We won’t need a ride anywhere.”

“You just never know,” he sagely replied, then he clicked the reins, and his horses pulled with all their might.

Gradually, the wheels on the wagon turned, and the animals drew him away.  She watched until he rounded the bend in the road, and as he vanished from view, she was bereft, as if she’d lost her last friend.

“Are we going on or not?” Eleanor called.

Grace pasted on a smile.  “Yes, of course, we’re going.  Why wouldn’t we?”

“You have the strangest expression on your face.  You seem…worried.”

Michael wasn’t looking at Grace, and she gave a slight shake of her head, warning Eleanor to avoid words like worry or concern.  She had enough on her plate without making Michael anxious.  He was too astute; he always sensed when something was wrong, and she didn’t want him fretting.

And nothing was wrong precisely.

She merely wasn’t positive they’d tracked down the correct people.  Edward had been estranged from his family, so Georgina had few details about any of them.  But they haled from Milton, and Milton Abbey was their home.

What were the chances that there could be another Milton Abbey in England?

Grace refused to accept Mr. Porter’s version about Edward.  They couldn’t be mistaken.  She had justice on her side, and if it killed her, she would ensure that Michael received the recognition and assistance he deserved.

She walked over and grabbed her portmanteau.  It contained all that remained of a life of work and effort.  When they’d been evicted, when the sheriff had arrived and forced them to leave Georgina’s small cottage, he’d let them each fill a bag.

The ordeal had been humiliating, searching cupboards and drawers, pondering, sorting, choosing.  What did they need?  What could they carry?

The furniture had come with the house when Edward bought it for Georgina, so it belonged to Edward’s relatives.  Grace hoped—once she’d contacted them—that some of their possessions could be retrieved.  She wouldn’t consider any other conclusion.

Eleanor and Michael picked up their bags, too, and the three of them started toward the mansion.  As they approached, it grew larger and larger until the walls towered over them.  They stood, gaping up at it.

“What should we do?” Eleanor asked.

“We knock on the door, silly,” Michael answered.

He strode forward, leading the way as was his custom.

From his earliest days, he’d been unique in a manner other boys could never be.  He was shrewd and smart and overly wise for his age.  He would be a ruler of men, would always have lesser mortals tagging after him, eager to admire and adore.

When Georgina had begged Grace—with her dying breath—to serve as Michael’s guardian, it had been easy to agree.  Who wouldn’t love such a marvelous child?

He bounded up the stairs, then paused to glance over his shoulder at Grace.

“Is my grandmother here?” he queried.  “Did Mr. Porter say?”

“She’s not here, but he claims you have an uncle.  He’s here.”

“An uncle!  How splendid!” Michael gushed.

“An uncle?”  Eleanor frowned and murmured, “Georgina never mentioned that Edward had a brother.”

“No, she didn’t,” Grace whispered, “which vexes me enormously.”

“What’s his name?” Michael inquired.

“Jackson Scott.”

“I like it!” Michael beamed.  “It’s very noble.”

“Maybe Mr. Porter erred.”  Eleanor’s frown deepened.  “Maybe we are at the wrong house.”

“We’re not at the wrong house,” Michael insisted.  “I just know this was my father’s home.  Can’t you feel it?”

He spun away and had raised his hand to knock on the door when it was whipped open.  Two giggling women raced out.  From their attire, they appeared to be housemaids, although their caps were off and their hair down.

A man was chasing them, and he might have been a gentleman, but he’d removed his coat, and his shirt sleeves were rolled back.  He was clutching a decanter of liquor, the contents sloshing out as he ran by.

The trio didn’t notice Grace, Michael, or Eleanor.  They were too absorbed in their game.  They dashed down the steps and hurried off.

“Last to the lake,” one of the women shouted to the man, “is a rotten egg.”

They chortled as if it was the pithiest remark ever uttered, then they increased their speed.

“I hope that wasn’t my uncle,” Michael said as the group vanished around the corner.

“I’m sure it wasn’t,” Grace replied.  The door was still open, and she nodded to it.  “Let’s find some help.”

They entered cautiously, not certain of what they might encounter, and Grace’s trepidation spiraled.

The house was ornate, like something out of a fairytale, but there were no servants in evidence.  Off to the side, there was a fancy salon cluttered with debris.  Apparently, Jackson Scott had been reveling quite raucously, but there was no one present to clean up after him.

When she had left Cornwall for Milton Abbey, she had pictured the Scotts as staid, boring merchants.  They would rise at dawn, labor strenuously, eat heartily at a bountiful dining table, and retire early to rest up for the next day’s endeavors.

Her opinion had been based on what a fine man Edward had seemed to be.  What she hadn’t imagined was inebriation and wicked conduct.  If debauchery was in progress, how could she introduce Michael into such a depraved environment?

There was a bench in the foyer, and she motioned to it.  Michael and Eleanor sat while Grace paced, each stride echoing off the high ceiling.  Eventually, a footman approached.

“Oh, hello,” he said.  He gaped as if he’d never seen visitors before.  “I didn’t realize you had arrived.”

Obviously, Grace nearly sneered.  Instead, she politely inquired, “Can you assist us?”

“With what?”

“I’d like to speak with Mr. Jackson Scott regarding a…personal matter.”

“I wouldn’t dare to interrupt him.”

“You can’t tell him he has a caller?”

“I’m not that brave,” the man insisted.  “He’s…entertaining.  He doesn’t like to be bothered.”

“Is the butler here?”

“Most of the staff was given a holiday.  There are only a few of us on the premises.”

“I see,” Grace said.

“Perhaps if you came back next week?”

“We can’t.  I have to talk to him today.”

“He’s asked not to be disturbed.”

With that uncooperative response, he sauntered off, leaving Grace in a tremendous quandary.  Was it all right for them to wait?  She supposed they could become squatters in the foyer.  If they were lucky, Mr. Scott might stroll by and deign to notice them.

“Well!” Eleanor huffed with indignation.  “What do you make of that?  I’ve received more courtesy from a stray mutt in the road.”

“What now, Grace?” Michael inquired.

Grace studied them, deciding they looked as exhausted as she felt.

The previous months had been extremely difficult.  First, Eleanor had finished school and returned home.  Then Georgina had grown ill and died.  Her monthly stipend from Edward’s estate had stopped.  Shortly after, the sheriff had notified them that they were being evicted.

In the years Grace had stayed with Georgina, she’d saved a small amount of money from her nursing, but it wasn’t much.  Her modest income had never been sufficient to sustain the three of them.

She’d had no option but to beg assistance from the Scott family.  She’d written to Beatrice, who hadn’t answered the letter.  So Grace had recklessly traveled to Milton, being absolutely certain that—once they met Michael—they wouldn’t deny him.

But she was assailed by doubts.  What if she’d been wrong?  What if the journey had been for naught?  If Jackson Scott sent them packing, what would they do?

There was nothing for them in their rural village, and even if there was, they had no funds to pay their way back.  They’d have to start over in the Milton area, where they had no acquaintances or ties.  Eleanor would have to hire herself out as a maid or shop girl, and the notion was so depressing that Grace could have plopped down and wept for a week.

She was twenty-five years old, and her entire past had been filled with struggle and toil.  Her parents had perished when she and Eleanor were little.  As orphans, they’d had no kin to help them.  Eventually, Georgina’s mother—their neighbor—had taken them in and raised them.

She’d been a healer and had taught Grace her trade.  Grace had a natural affinity for healing, so she’d gratefully embraced the path fate provided.  Student had become master, and she’d ultimately guided the woman through her own demise.

Yet with Georgina’s recent death, Grace was where she’d been as a young child.  Broke.  Afraid.  On her own—but this time with two charges who needed her care and support.

Why was the world such a grueling place?  She bet Jackson Scott never had to wonder over when his next meal would arrive.

A sound wafted by, of voices laughing and glassware clinking.  It came from the second floor.  Was Jackson Scott holed up in one of the rooms?

The prospect that he was idling away the morning set her temper ablaze.

Dare she climb the stairs?   Dare she accost him?

She glanced over at Michael and Eleanor, their expressions expectant and curious.

“I think I hear people upstairs,” she said.  “I have to see if it’s Mr. Scott.”

“Really, Grace”—Eleanor’s tone was scolding—“is that wise?”

“We can’t tarry forever without a resolution.  You stay here.  Don’t move an inch—no matter what.”

“Should I come with you?” Michael asked.  “Mr. Scott might wish to speak with me right away.”

“You sit with Eleanor,” Grace replied.  She wasn’t about to introduce Michael before she learned the true situation.  “I may be gone for many minutes.  Don’t be nervous and don’t search for me.”

“We won’t.”  Eleanor slipped her arm through Michael’s to keep him with her as Grace marched up the stairs.

On the landing, the noise was louder, and she followed it to the room at the end of the hall.  The double doors opened into a large, messy salon.  Empty glasses and decanters of liquor were strewn about, as were pillows and blankets.  A vase had been smashed, but no one had bothered to pick up the glass shards.

There was an ornate, throne-like chair over by the window.  A man lounged in it, and she didn’t have to be told that—with very little effort—she’d found Jackson Scott.

With his black hair and blue, blue eyes, he looked exactly like Michael, exactly like Edward.  There could be no mistaking their close blood relationship.

He was different though, too, appearing tough and menacing in a way Edward had never been.  He seemed arrogant and weary and ruthless, and her heart sank.

This wasn’t the encounter she’d envisioned, at all.  She’d pictured a stuffy parlor, tea on a tray, stiff-backed chairs, uncomfortable questions, erudite answers.

Instead, she’d walked in on what had to be an…orgy.  She’d never been particularly clear on what the word described, but this had to be it.

Mr. Scott was being tended by several lithe, blond beauties.  They were scantily clad in undergarments made from a thin, gauzy fabric Grace had never seen before.  Mr. Porter had mentioned that Mr. Scott lived in Africa, and he had to have brought the clothing with him from that wild locale.

Two of the women fanned him with palm leaves, while a third danced a seductive dance.  A fourth was seated on his lap and feeding him bites of food.

As Grace watched the shocking spectacle, he leaned in and kissed the woman on the mouth!  The woman gleefully participated, the others simpering as if they couldn’t wait to be next, and Grace was so astonished, she was surprised she didn’t faint.

His dark hair was much too long—it actually brushed his shoulders—and needed to be trimmed.  His chest was broad and muscled, his skin tanned, which she could plainly see because he wasn’t wearing a shirt or shoes.  He was attired only in a pair of loose-fitting trousers sewn from another exotic, flowing fabric.

It was the sort of garment she imagined a sultan might choose when entertaining his harem.  Not that she’d ever imagined such a thing, but if she had, this was precisely the type of decadent scene that would have presented itself.

This depraved devil was Michael’s uncle?  This corrupt wretch was brother to charming, witty, amiable Edward?  How could it be possible?

She thought of the desperate months recently passed, of the dreary miles they’d traveled, and her temper boiled over.

How dare he disappoint her!  How dare he be so utterly and completely ill-suited to her purpose!

“Excuse me,” she said, but no one noticed her.  She could have been invisible.

“Excuse me!” she shouted, and she clapped her hands for good measure.

Mr. Scott frowned, then glanced over to where Grace stood in the entry.  On observing her, his fury was palpable, and she should have fled, but she was impaled by his magnificent eyes.  She couldn’t move, which was aggravating in the extreme.

She had nursed every kind of patient with every sort of illness and condition.  Maiming.  Dismemberment.  Birthing.  Dying.  Nothing fazed her, and she wasn’t about to let Jackson Scott be the first to succeed.

“Hello, Mr. Scott,” she brazenly said.  “I’m sorry for the interruption, but there was no butler to greet us.”

“So you just barged in?” he asked.

“Yes.  My mission is dire, and I couldn’t return later.”

His gaggle of admirers tittered with amusement as his hot, angry gaze slithered down her person.  Compared to the women who were salivating over him, he definitely found her lacking, and he smirked, wanting her to know that he wasn’t impressed.

Clearly, his taste ran to willowy and fawning, so she shouldn’t have been upset by his overt disdain, but she was.  She could have defended herself to Mr. Scott, could have told him all the ways she was remarkable, but why would she?

She couldn’t help it if she was short—only five foot four—and much too thin at a hundred and twenty pounds.  But work and worry could make a female waste away from fretting.

Her hair, the bane of her existence, was a rusty auburn, pulled into a tidy chignon.  It highlighted her expressive green eyes, and she was secretly proud of it—not that she’d ever admit to having one small vanity.

At least she was fully dressed.  Her gray gown, the best she owned, covered her from chin to wrist to toe, and she wouldn’t apologize for modesty.  Not when modesty was so obviously a trait he despised.

“Who the hell are you,” he snapped, “and why are you in my home?”

“I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t curse in my presence.”

“It’s my house.  I’ll speak however I damn well please.  If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stay.”

She gnawed on her cheek, keen to argue, but castigation would be pointless.  Jackson Scott was a rude fiend.  Debate was futile.

“I am Grace Bennett, Mr. Scott.”

“Bully for you.  Now go away.  You annoy me.”

“I can’t leave until we’ve conferred on a matter of the utmost importance.”

“I’m busy, and I don’t wish to talk to you.  Go away!”

“No.”

“Are you deaf?  Are you thick-headed?  What part of go away don’t you understand?”

She brushed off his snide comment and used her best schoolteacher voice, the one that soothed patients.  “Put on a shirt and follow me into a room where we can have a private discussion.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

Apparently, she’d flummoxed him, and it dawned on her that it was probably a rare occasion when his commands were ignored.  He would be accustomed to barking orders and having them instantly obeyed.  In dealing with her, he would be exceedingly frustrated.

She thought all men were fools.  She thought all men were ridiculous.

“Duncan!” he suddenly called, and he peered into the hallway, expecting someone to rush to his aid.

She peeked over her shoulder, seeing naught but empty space.

“There’s no one to rescue you, Mr. Scott.  You’ll have to speak with me.”

The doxy was still perched on his lap, and he pushed her away.  For a moment, she looked as if she might protest his rough handling, but his irked glower prevented any pouting.  She slinked behind the chair with the others.

They glared at Grace, visually warning her that they deemed Mr. Scott to be their own, and they didn’t intend to share.

You can have him! she nearly told them, but didn’t.  She wasn’t about to bicker with a group of half-dressed trollops.

“What’s it to be, Mr. Scott?” she asked.  “If you’d like, I can mention my quest here in front of your…friends, but I’d rather not.  When you hear my story, you’ll be glad that it’s between the two of us.”

“You think so, do you?”

“Yes.”

“You’re awfully certain that you know my preferences.”

“Men are simple creatures.  It’s not that difficult to figure you out.”

He laughed, and it sounded rusty, as if it had been ages since he’d found humor in anything.

“So I’m simple, am I?”

“You’re a man.  What more is there to say?”  She shrugged as if that explained every mystery in the universe.

He studied her, his astute gaze digging deep.  He was trying to rattle her, but he’d meet with scant success.  She could carry out an amputation without flagging, so he could hardly frighten her by scowling.

She stared back, studying him just as meticulously.

The signs of his fast-living were evident.  He had bags under his eyes from lack of sleep, and he hadn’t shaved.  Stubble darkened his cheeks, making him appear dashing and dangerous.  She wanted to glance away, but they were engaged in a battle of wills, and she wasn’t about to show any weakness.

He was the type who would pounce and gobble her up.

Finally, as he realized that he couldn’t shake her, a corner of his beautiful mouth curled into a lethal smile.

“Miss Bennett, is it?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“You’re an interesting piece of work.”  He gestured to his adoring gaggle.  “Ladies, would you step outside?”

There were groans and pleas that he reconsider, but a quick snap of his fingers had them scurrying to the hall.

Grace let them pass, then closed the door.

Once they were alone, he didn’t stand as a proper gentleman would, but watched her with that insolent, bored look that never left his handsome face.

As if he was a real king, he motioned for her to approach, and she walked over and halted directly in front of his throne.

“Would you put on a shirt?” she said.

“No.  You have five minutes.”  He nodded at the fireplace, where there was a clock on the mantel.  “Starting now.”

“I really can’t talk to you when you’re in this condition.”

“Four minutes and fifty seconds.”

“I’m not used to dealing with a man when he’s in such a state of dishabille.”

“Four minutes and forty-five seconds.”

She sighed.  “You are an obstinate ass.”

“Yes, I am.  Four minutes and forty seconds.”

“Fine, I give up.”

He grinned.  “I knew you would.”

She threw up her hands in exasperation.  “I have traveled from Cornwall.”

“I hope your journey was comfortable.”

“Actually, it wasn’t.”

“I don’t care to hear about it.  Why are you pestering me?”

There seemed no way to ease him into the news.  He was so haughtily curt and condescending.  Wasn’t it better to bite the bullet and get it over with?

“I brought your nephew.”

“Percival is here?”

“No, your other nephew, Michael.”

“I don’t have a nephew named Michael.”

“Up until this moment, you haven’t been informed.  A decade ago, your brother Edward married my friend Georgina and—“

“You’re a liar.”

The bald insult stopped her in her tracks.  “What?”

He straightened in his chair, his posture alert and forbidding, like a dog on the hunt that had scented the fox.  Suddenly, he didn’t appear quite so drunk or inept.

“You.  Are.  A.  Liar,” he hissed.

“No, I’m not.  Your brother married Georgina.  I have the records that—“

Furiously, he cut her off.  “My brother did not marry some woman named Georgina a decade ago.  He married his dearest Susan a decade ago.  They have a son, Percival, who is his lawful heir.  Quit wasting my time.”

“No, he married Georgina.  I have all the records to prove it, and Michael—“

He narrowed his gaze, his focus cruel and biting.  “What game are you playing, Miss Bennett?”

“I’m not playing any game.  Georgina passed away last year, and I am Michael’s guardian.  I wrote to your mother, seeking an introduction, but she didn’t respond.  We’ve lost our home and we’re desperate, so I’ve arrived unannounced.”

“Why?”

“We need your help.”

“Ah…” he mused.  “As in money?”

“Well, yes.  And a place to stay and perhaps some local employment if you could supply a recommendation for me.”

He steepled his fingers under his chin, and an awkward interval ensued.  She could see his mind working as he devised the appropriate reply.

He took so long that she’d begun to suppose she was making some headway, when he said, “Go away.”

“No.”

“Go.  Away.”

“Stop saying that.  Your childishness won’t resolve the problem.”

“I don’t want you here.”

“I realize that, but you’re being ridiculous.”

I am being ridiculous?  You, Miss Bennett, have waltzed in and interrupted my morning amusement.  You’ve hurled spurious accusations about my brother.  You’ve enraged and offended me, and I don’t have to listen to you.”

“Yes, you do.”

“Says who?  You?”

He unfolded himself from his throne, sliding to his feet and stepping in so he towered over her.

He was very large, at least six feet in height, and he was very virile, very male.  She’d stood next to many undressed men in her life, but she’d never encountered one like him.  His nearness engendered the wildest swings of sensation.

“Let me show you out.”

He clasped hold of her arm and started for the door.  She tried to wrestle free, but escape was impossible.

“You don’t believe me,” she glumly said.

“That would be putting it mildly.”

“The truth won’t vanish merely because you can’t face it.”

“A philosopher!  How marvelous.”

They’d arrived at the door.  He yanked it open, and his harem was hovering, spying through the keyhole.  They jumped back, feigning innocence, as if they hadn’t been hanging on every word.

“Miss Bennett is leaving,” he announced.  “One of you escort her out.  If she refuses to depart, call Duncan to assist you.”

“Mr. Scott!” Grace protested.

“Goodbye, Miss Bennett.”

“Mr. Scott!” she complained more vehemently.

“If I’m very lucky—which I haven’t been so far—you’ll be smart enough to grasp that you should never again darken my day with any of your frivolous gibberish.”

He pushed her into the hall and slammed the door.  The key spun in the lock.

She was angrier than she could ever remember being, and she wanted to march over and pound on the wood, to shout and insult and reprimand, but why bother?

She whirled away and left, wondering how she’d ever tell Michael would she’d learned.

 

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