FORBIDDEN (Scandalous Sirens: Book 1)
An Erotic Historical Romance
“The wonderful end deserves cheers.” — Sensual Romance
EXCERPT FROM FORBIDDEN
COPYRIGHT © TRACY COOPER-POSEY & J.A. TEMPLETON 2012
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
1835, Fairleigh Hall, England
Vaughn Wardell, Viscount Rothmere, only heir of the Marquis of Fairleigh, stepped from the carriage and looked up at the three-story manor he hadn’t seen in nearly two decades. Fairleigh Hall hadn’t changed at all. The grounds were still immaculate, and the impressive manor rivaled any in England.
He hated the sight of it.
The years he’d spent at Fairleigh Hall had been the worst of his life. Now, at the age of tweny-four, he had returned to this hideous heap of stone to save his future.
His gut clenched as it had when he heard the outrageous news. The thought was a despairing one: Kirkaldy, his mother’s final gift, might be lost to him.
Little more than a glorified hunting lodge near Edinburgh, Kirkaldy had been his mother’s only untainted possession. The days there, far from Fairleigh Hall and his father, had been the best of Vaughn’s young life. At Kirkaldy, his mother had been carefree, even joyous. For that reason alone, Vaughn intended to plant himself like a weed here at Fairleigh Hall, a weed that refused to be pulled and discarded, until Kirkaldy’s ownership had been determined.
Taking a deep breath, he walked up the thirteen steps to his father’s home.
Vaughn had no trouble imagining the disapproval his father would convey upon his return. He’d learned years ago there was no pleasing Rufus Wardell. The only emotion Rufus had ever openly shown him had been when he’d announced Vaughn would be leaving for boarding school. A cruel smile had curled his father’s lips as he’d laid out the details of what would become twelve years of purgatory, hidden behind the walls of one of the best public schools in England. Though nearly a decade had passed since he had graduated, those memories still appeared in his dreams from time to time. They would wake him in the middle of the night, to cold sweat and a hurting heart, the bed sheets tangled around his legs.
The memory subsided as the door was opened. Joshua, his father’s trusted valet, stared at him. “Good lord! I mean, Lord Vaughn.” The valet’s expression softened. “You’ve come home?” There was a buried hope in his tone.
Vaughn’s chest tightened with fondness for the old man. While Vaughn had been growing up there had been countless occasions when he had been locked in the attic for yet another transgression. It had been Joshua who had slipped food, blankets and tallows to provide light through the long nights when not even his mother’s pleadings had moved his father to release him.
Vaughn laid a hand on Joshua’s shoulder. “I’m not here to stay,” he said gently.
This time the disappointment in Joshua’s eyes was easy to read. He stepped back, covering the emotion with formal pride. “Come in, my lord.”
Vaughn handed over his coat, hat and gloves and strode through the broad entrance hall into the circular foyer that dominated the center of the building, where he halted. He turned a full circle on his heels, taking in the cold marble surfaces and massive round columns that lined the foyer in regimented pairs. They were dazzlingly lit by the glass dome on the roof that bathed the foyer in natural sunlight, showcasing the polished, untouched perfection of the green-flecked marble. The foyer was widely admired across five counties for its elegant, unusual design. Whenever his father loosened the purse strings enough to entertain, the foyer was thick with guests, dotted about the floor and the stairs, tucked into the recesses between the columns, gossiping.
But while everyone had appeared to enjoy the spectacular room, Vaughn’s recollection of the foyer was a bitter one that caught at his throat. His gaze lingered on the staircase that swooped in a spiral to both upper floors. His pulse skittered at the sight of the thick stone balustrade on the first floor. That was where he had stood as a frightened ten-year old, his fingers trying to dig into the cold stone, watching his mother leave in the middle of the night.
She had promised to send for him, with as many kisses and hugs as she could manage before hurrying to escape the house. She had smelled of lavender and her hand against his cheek had been warm and delicate.
That had been the last time he’d seen her alive.
“Your father is at dinner. Shall I announce you?” Joshua asked, startling Vaughn and bringing him back to the present.
“And ruin the surprise?” Vaughn asked, already heading toward the high-arched French doors. Taking a calming breath, he opened the double doors and stepped inside.
The room was long and dim compared to the foyer. There were a row of tall sash windows along one wall and their limited light fell on a collection of large portraits and mediocre landscapes hanging from the picture rail on the other. Between was an ocean of expensive oriental carpets, pinned down on the edges by heavy, hand-carved buffets and occasional chairs. All of them framed the focal point of the room: a long Georgian mahogany dining table that easily seated thirty people.
There were not that many people dining this evening. In fact, there were only two. One was a woman sitting at the right of the head of the table, her back to Vaughn. This could only be his father’s new fiancée, Elisa.
The woman who had ripped Kirkaldy from him.
She was to blame for all of this. It was because of her he had been forced back to Fairleigh Hall to confront Rufus.
The sight of her erect back filled him with a sudden sharp fury he hadn’t suspected he held. His whole body tightened with it. She was ruining his life, taking away from him the only precious memories he owned.
Vaughn blinked, astonished at the power of the emotion that bubbled up inside him now that he was at the point of confrontation for which he had been bracing himself.
His attention was drawn to the short man sitting at the head of the table. Rufus Wardell was staring at him, his gray brows furrowing together in a frown Vaughn remembered well. Rufus’ permanently red cheeks bracketed a big nose. Small muddy brown eyes sat above them. Even at sixty, Rufus’ hair was thick, but it was coarse and dirty gray. With his short, rotund shape he might have appeared boyish, but because of the cruel light in his eyes and the cynical twist to his lips, Rufus looked more like a maniacal cherub.
He studied Vaughn as though he were trying to place him. He probably was. Vaughn was over six feet tall. He was broad across the shoulders thanks to hours as an adolescent taking his frustrations out upon various professional pugilists. There was nothing of the boy who had left Fairleigh Hall so very long ago.
After an endless moment, surprise crossed Rufus’ face. He’d finally recognized him. “What the hell are you doing here, boy?” Rufus asked, his rasping voice bereft of any warmth.
Though Vaughn had anticipated his reaction, it still stung. “Thank you for the nice welcome, Father. It’s a pleasure to see you, too.”
It apparently disturbed Rufus Wardell not at all that this was the first return of the child he tossed out without regard nearly twenty years ago. No conscience appeared to stir him at the arrival of the son he had inexcusably wronged.
The anger squeezed Vaughn’s throat and chest and nearly closed off his breath. He’d hoped there would have been some doubt, some chance of redemption, but there was none.
“Well, out with it!” Rufus glared at Vaughn. “You obviously have something on your mind, or you would not have traveled so far. Pray tell,” he added with patently false politeness, “to what do I owe the pleasure of your company?”
“I’m not here to be polite, so you needn’t extend yourself,” Vaughn assured him.
“Then get out. I’m dining with the woman I intend to marry and your presence is not welcome.” Rufus shot a look at Elisa, who sat in perfect stillness at the end of the table, her head bowed in imitation of a modest woman.
Vaughn’s friends had been quick to advise him just how short on modesty the harlot was. He paused, trying to quell the hot tide of resentment rising in him. “It is about her that I am here,” he said. He stepped around the end of the table to face Elisa, and swept into a low bow. The courtesy came automatically, as did the phrasing: “My lady, we have not had the pleasure of being introduced—”
—and then, he looked at her properly for the first time. Shock slithered through his veins, dispersing all the fury, resentment and indignation in one breathless moment.
As her large eyes glanced up at him, wide with apprehension, he stared at her, taking in her face and apparel, trying to estimate just how old she was. Blue eyes the same glorious shade as a bright summer sky stared back at him as she gave a hesitant, nervous smile. The smile drew his attention to her full, pleasantly pink lips and the white teeth behind.
Her skin was softly touched by the sun, but flawless and as he took her hand and bowed over it again, he noticed the cheeks bloom with hot color at his attention.
Absurdly, her coyness sent a thrill of pleasure through him.
He could not help but smile as he stepped back. She ducked her chin, unable to look at him directly. It was then he noticed the head of gleaming blonde curls the color of wheat. A silky ringlet tipped forward across her shoulder at her movement and he fought the temptation to brush it gently back.
She was so young…and sweetly, stunningly beautiful. The thought occurred to him with a shock that momentarily obliterated the sting of his father’s cold welcome. With it came confusion, because although he had not heard how young his father’s fiancée was, Vaughn was more than familiar with the rumors of her sordid past.
This was the woman who had brought on the death of her husband by her lover’s hand? All of London had been abuzz with the news.
“Boy, you’ve grown tall and insolent,” Rufus snarled. “I didn’t pay good money all those years for you to learn bad manners.”
Vaughn dragged his attention back to his father. “I’m paying my respects to the future lady of this splendid home.” And he turned back to Elisa once more, to study her.
“You are most welcome, Vaughn. I am pleased to meet you at last,” she responded with a tiny smile. Her voice was a low contralto, soft and unexpected.
He nodded one more time, before stepping back.
He had intended to leave the room, to let his father have his intimate dinner. It would be wiser to retreat for a while and regroup his defenses now his father had shown no punches were to be pulled in the trial that lay ahead.
Instead, he lowered himself into the chair opposite his father’s fiancée. “Thank you, I will have a brandy,” he told Rufus, answering the question a good host would have asked.
Rufus’ upper lip curled and his eyes narrowed. He looked up at the manservant standing by the door of the dining room and jerked his head. Silently, the man glided to a buffet laid with decanters and crystal to pour the drink.
Vaughn glanced at Elisa again.
She delicately cut her meat into small pieces, lifted the fork and slid a piece into her mouth. A visible pulse beat at the base of the long column of her throat.
The servant placed the brandy in front of Vaughn. Rufus began to eat again, attacking his plate with furious gusto. With every loaded forkful of food he would take a big mouthful of claret. The red liquid dribbled from the corners of his mouth as he chomped vigorously.
Vaughn looked away, his disgust growing. Surely the man would try a bit harder in front of his intended? How could she contemplate marrying this gruesome imp? Or perhaps the money was worth it to her….
He looked back to the silent beauty on the other side of the table. He still could not believe this was the same woman of whom he’d heard tell. The gossips had spared him no detail: a bride at seventeen, wed to an aging count. A mother at nineteen and a cuckolded wife the same year. Then, swiftly, she had set about giving her husband his own set of horns. The gossips had been firm in their approval of her husband’s reaction to her supposed whoring. He had taken the only honorable course of action an aggrieved husband could; he’d challenged her lover to a duel. No honor had been lost because he’d been killed. In fact, society had gathered about his grieving family and presented a solid, united front to anyone who dared to abuse the deceased lord’s memory.
That had been years ago. In the aftermath, Elisa’s name had quickly disappeared into shamed obscurity. No good woman or honorable gentleman would speak of her aloud in polite company. It had only been the relaxed bawdy banter around a late night card table that had alerted Vaughn to the fact Elisa had re-emerged from her exile. His card companions that night had thought it a superb jest his own father had proposed to her. Vaughn had gone along with the joke at the time, thinking the pair deserved each other.
The contradiction between her appearance and her past was indeed confusing.
She was pushing at a piece of the meat on her plate with her fork and Vaughn wondered if she did so to avoid looking up and seeing him watching her. Was she aware of him? By her sweet looks, he would have judged her an innocent, but her reputation told him she probably knew and understood every hot thought running through his mind.
Vaughn sipped at his brandy thoughtfully, alternatively watching Rufus eat and Elisa toy with her food. She really was a lovely creature, he realized. He was not at all surprised two men had fought to the death over her.
She touched her mouth with her napkin, then lifted a fingertip to slide it across her lips a second time, without the linen. It was unconsciously graceful and sensuous. Vaughn’s body tightened with an old familiar ache, intensified beyond reason like a taut bow string stretched to the limits of endurance, vibrating with tension and packed with potential power to explode.
The realization slammed into Vaughn with the shock of ice water.
He wanted her.
And the wanting was not a casual, passing impulse. It was burning in him, pushing aside thought, reason, caution.
Vaughn stared at her, feeling his heart thump erratically and the beat echo in his temple. What was happening to him? Had he lost all good sense?
His thoughts were scattered when Rufus’ hand thumped into his upper arm.
“You’re silent, boy,” Rufus said, not bothering to hide his loathing tone. “One would wonder why you’re still sitting at the table if you’ve got nothing left to say.”
“I’m finishing my brandy, thank you.” The calm tone Vaughn produced took enormous willpower.
He saw Rufus’ eyes swivel to glance at Elisa before glaring at him again. “That’d better be all, boy.”
“I am hardly a boy, Father. You may call me ‘son’ if you would prefer, but as you’ve called me nothing at all these past twenty years, either in person or by correspondence, I won’t insist upon it.”
“If I am such a horrible father, then why are you here?” Rufus asked, one corner of his mouth turned upward in a mocking smile.
Vaughn’s heart gave a little jump. This was it. This was the moment of confrontation he had been anticipating for three days. The anger that had been building for those three days renewed itself, washing over him in waves as he met Rufus’ intent stare.
Elisa abruptly cleared her throat and the tiny sound reminded Vaughn of her presence. Suddenly, he was reluctant to discuss the matter in front of her, despite three days of mentally rehearsing the cutting speech he had intended to bestow upon his father regardless of who was there to see it. In truth, his rehearsal of the confrontation had always included the harlot Elisa on hand to hear all he had to say of his father’s base qualities. Now, it seemed the height of rudeness to let his fury spill out unheeded while she watched.
“What brings you to Fairleigh Hall, boy?” his father asked again.
“I thought it was time to pay a visit before I settled in at Kirkaldy.” The mention of his estate was intentional and he didn’t blink as he waited for his father’s response.
Rufus shifted in his chair. “So…will you be leaving at first light?”
Vaughn’s indirect challenge had completely misfired.
“Surely it has not been twenty years since last you were here?” Elisa remarked, and Vaughn was grateful for the interruption, although irritated it was she who supplied it. He didn’t want to be grateful to the whore. He didn’t want any association with her at all. Now he must play out the little social by-play.
“Indeed, it has been twenty years. Fairleigh Hall has not changed in all that time. Tell me, Elisa, how do you find Fairleigh?”
She lightly touched the napkin to those pink lips. “It’s very nice.”
Her words completely lacked conviction, as well they should. The manor sat in rocky countryside and had little to offer anyone under the age of fifty. He could only imagine how lonely it would be for a young woman to live in such a cold, desolate place.
“How long have you been here?”
“I arrived a little over a month ago, along with my maid, Marianne.”
So, her maid was with her. How very proper. “Do you ride?” he asked. He already knew she did. Rumors of her shocking skill in the saddle had reached every men’s club in London and beyond. Vaughn’s friends had taken great pleasure in telling him about his soon-to-be stepmother’s shortcomings. She wasn’t content to keep to a decorous trot upon a sidesaddle. In her teens she had ridden astride like any man, her dress hoisted up to her thighs to give her the freedom to ride recklessly.
It was rumored she had bested many men on horseback.
“I fear I have little time for riding these days.”
He watched her intently. “Why not?”
His father slammed his drink down, bringing Vaughn’s attention back to him. “Vaughn, you’re making Elisa uncomfortable.”
“He’s not making me uncomfortable, Rufus,” Elisa told him. She smiled soothingly at Rufus before glancing at Vaughn again. “I’ve missed riding.”
“I’m certain Father has a vast array of mares to choose from.”
“I’ve asked Rufus to go with me, but his back pain prevents him from doing so.”
“Certainly a short ride wouldn’t tax you too much, Father?”
Again, he received one of his father’s icy glares. Rufus took a long drink of his claret, keeping his eye upon Vaughn. “I’m too old.”
The response came from him unbidden, unplanned. “Very well, I’ll ride with her, then.”
His father’s face turned purple with anger, but Vaughn barely heard what Rufus was trying to say, for he had seen Elisa’s surprised expression. Then, briefly, a flare of joy followed by a soft, warm smile lifted her lovely full lips. The smile was for him and her eyes sparkled. Vaughn felt his heart give a painful leap in response.
Then abruptly, all expression was removed and her gaze dropped to her plate, as if she had suddenly remembered her place. But the afterglow bathed Vaughn in a heady warmth that threatened to make his hands tremble.
Rufus finally found his voice. “You’ll not be here long enough to have idle time on your hands.”
How like Rufus to dictate how and when he should come and go. Some of the earlier fury leapt in Vaughn’s chest. “Father, long ago you gave up any right to tell me what I can and cannot do.” His voice echoed his anger, emerging low and strained.
Rufus’ eyes narrowed a little. The moment of silence between them grew and Vaughn knew his father was studying him anew, reassessing. Vaughn did not look away. He had no intention of backing down in this petty game of willpower.
Finally Rufus cleared his throat with a harsh hack and reached for the wine.
Vaughn drained his own brandy, needing the small sustenance, knowing he had won but a small victory that would make Rufus all the more determined to bring him down in the very near future. Rufus bent on vengeance was a dangerous man indeed.
While Rufus called for another decanter, swearing at the lack of foresight of the footman, Vaughn dared to glance at Elisa once more and he recognized fear in her eyes. She shook her head a little, her lips opening as if she breathed a warning. She understood what was happening then.
Vaughn smiled at her reassuringly, pretending a confidence he did not wholly feel.
Her hand came to her mouth as if she was distressed and she looked away. After a moment she looked back as if drawn, perhaps reluctantly.
Vaughn struggled to hide the shock her glance sent through him, for he had understood that searing gaze with perfect clarity.
Elisa wanted him, too.