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Authors: Jennifer Conner

The Reluctant Heir

BOOK: The Reluctant Heir
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The Reluctant Heir

 

 

 

 

 

Jennifer Conner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Reluctant Heir

Copyright 2011- Books to Go Now

For information on the cover illustration and design, contact [email protected]

First eBook Edition –August 2011

Printed in the United States of America

Warning: the unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages for review purposes.

This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to any person, living or dead, any place, events or occurrences, is purely coincidental. The characters and story lines are created from the author’s imagination and are used fictitiously.

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Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd; Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell Rode the six hundred.

 

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

 

England, 1855

 

Clarke Garrison watched Adeline walk across the vast lawn of the estate. He wasn't exactly sure why he was compelled to watch her every move. They’d known each other since childhood.
 

Adeline wasn’t a child any longer.

Her dark hair hung to her waist in curls that only accentuated her deep blue eyes and porcelain skin. Womanly curves filled her white and blue flowered cotton dress nicely making his mouth dry. She was hands down one of the most beautiful women in this part of the shire, but there was something about her that set her apart from all others. She’d proved to him she was strong and resilient, not a shy maiden like many he’d met. He hated those giggling, silly girls his mother kept introducing him to. Even after the tragedy she’d endured, she’d held her head high and looked others in the eye when they spoke to her.
 

He didn't know why he chose to put himself through this torture day after day. He’d avoided Adeline at every turn possible since his return from the Crimea war.
 
If she knew the truth, he was the last person she would ever want to talk to.

He was responsible for her brother’s death.

Turning from the large paned windows, he moved away, but came to a stop as his best friend Spencer swung the door open.

“There you are. Amelia and I have looked all over for you,” Spencer said as he pulled his new bride by the hand through the door.

 
Amelia smiled and said, “We're going on a picnic. It's such a lovely day the cook is packing lunch now.”

She was such a sweet girl. Spencer was lucky to find a wife that he was able to marry for love and not money. Spencer was the Duke, and through Clarke was not a Duke, he was from noble lineage and an Earl. His mother pushed possible matches for marriage and hung his entitlement over his head. What he couldn’t make her understand was that he didn’t want any of it; he just wanted things to be set right. Something money couldn’t buy.

 
“No, I'll be staying here,” he said in an even tone. He strode over to the bookshelf and pulled out a fine bound leather volume. “I have been meaning to read this all week, and now with the house quiet, I'll finally have the chance."


The King’s American Dispensatory
?” Spencer asked with a raised brow.

He hadn't even looked to see what he pulled off the shelf. He glanced down and scanned the title. “Herbal medicinal healing, important for everyone to know, don’t you agree?”

“Clarke,” Spencer began, but then stopped and turned to Amelia. “Can you give us a moment alone, dear?"

The last thing Clarke wanted to do was stand there and be lectured to.

"What," he said tersely.

“You are not the only one who carries scars and horror filled nights from those battlefields we endured. We fought. We survived. We were the lucky ones who returned home."

Clarke let out a snort of disgust. “So, I'm one of the lucky ones?"

“Yes, we both are. You were not solely responsible for Adeline’s brother’s death. We both gave orders that day. You didn’t just sit in the tent while the brigade was cut down."

“I do not feel like skipping across some bloody meadow for a bloody picnic.” Clarke pinched the bridge of his nose where the beginnings of a headache grew. “Your wife is waiting. I suggest you go and find her and be on your way.” He turned his back.

He didn't turn around for a good five minutes. He didn't want to be angry, he was a good-natured man. But there were just some things Spencer needed to understand.

 
Life would never be as it once had.

 

 

Adeline was happy to finally have a few moments to herself. She'd been introduced to the Duke of this such, and the Earl of that such over the past weeks. With her father having one foot out of debtor’s prison and their estate close to bankruptcy, she was more a laughing stock than a catch.

She’d had plans of spending the summer at home, but when brokers took most of her home’s furnishings she was lost. When Spencer and his sister, Felicity, invited her to stay at Warringham Estate for the summer, it was a Godsend.
 
They had huge hearts and she would always be thankful for their generosity and the fact that not once had they mentioned her family’s financial woes.

Spencer and Felicity were like a brother and sister to her. Felicity dropped hints on a possible match between her and Spencer, but she never had any feeling beyond ‘brotherly’ affection. Now he’d fallen in love and married Amelia. She acquired another sister, and she was desperately happy for both of them. Would love ever be in the cards for her?
 
It seemed to be such a foreign thing… like Russia.

Men spoke of her beauty, but she found most of them were empty headed dandies. She feigned interest while they talked on about some poor fox run to ground and set upon by hounds.

A stroll through the gardens would clear her mind.

Adeline turned her face to the sun and breathed in the warm air. The smell of grass and wild roses cascaded in the breeze. Watching the interesting cobblestone path in front of her, she came around the corner, and stopped dead.

“Captain Garrison.” She looked around. “I didn’t realize anyone was here.”

He looked abashed as if he’d seen an apparition. Her hair was slightly mussed, but she couldn’t look that bad.

He cleared his throat. “Miss Barlow.” He still looked rather ill. “Why aren’t you at the picnic?”

“I could ask the same question of you.”

“I can make my own sandwich. I don’t need crust-less monstrosities.”

“I am sure you can. Would you care to walk with me?” She knew she should not be out here with a man, unescorted, but her father was no longer healthy enough to bark judgment. “Captain Garrison…”

“Adeline? Formalities?” he asked, though he still looked uneasy with her presence. “We’ve practically known each other since birth.”

She smiled. “Do you wish for me to call you Clarke Park, as I used to?”

“Clarke will be fine. I said we were to drop formalities, and that goes for childish nicknames too.” He had a brutish quality since he’d returned. Adeline wasn’t sure if it made him handsome or frightening. His dark hair was combed back from his angular face and he’d lost all boyhood roundness from when he was a lad. He was all muscle and strong lines now. His eyes matured into such a deep shade of brown. When he’d first returned she’d mistaken them for black. Unlike most of the polished young men around the estate, Clarke’s beard stubble darkened his chin and accentuated his full mouth.

She had the strangest thought. How would his lips taste?

Adeline pulled her gaze up to meet his eyes. He still wasn’t smiling.

“If you have other duties to attend to, I will be fine. I will be on my way.” She turned to walk away, but felt a hand grasp her upper arm, his finger warm against her skin.

“Wait. I…”

Most men she could read like an open old volume of the dictionary. She had no idea what Clarke was thinking.
 
When they were young she could, but not now. “Yes?”

“I would be happy to walk you back.” He stiffly crooked an elbow and she wound her hand through the opening.

They walked for a few minutes in silence until she finally said, “I have not seen much of you these past few months. Since you came to tell me…”

The muscles in his arm tightened.

“Death is never easy,” she said after a sigh. “Bearing the news of David’s, especially someone so young, must be extremely difficult. I cannot imagine being burdened with the task of informing the families on the loss of a loved one.”

“I was the Captain of his unit. It was my duty.”

“A duty? I thought it was because of your acquaintance with my family.”

“It was both.” They stopped by a wooden garden bench. He motioned for her to sit and then joined her.

Clarke rubbed hands over his knees and then straightened his back.
 
“How has your family coped with your brother’s loss?”

“My father continues to be ill. His cough is worse by the week and I fear he will not be with us too much longer. With my brother gone, there are no male heirs. I will not inherit-so I am not sure where that leaves the estate. If he’s declared a bankrupt, his name will appear in the
London Gazette
. I only hope my father passes before then. He is a proud man, and deserves to die with his dignity.” Adeline forced a smile. “What does your father have in mind for your future?”

 
“My brother, Ellis, assists my father the best he is able with the estate. I am sure you know we fought together and he was injured.”

“I heard of the wound to his leg. I am sorry.” They walked a little farther before she asked, “Your family is fortunate. With two sons and you the eldest, there will always be someone to inherit.”

“I’m not interested in the estate. Money is not what I seek.”

A reluctant heir? She had never heard of this, young men were usually anxious to take their place running the family estate. “What do you seek, Clarke?”

“Peace of mind.” He stood and walked to the arbor.
 
He leaned a hand against the wood post and looked out at the pond filled with quacking ducks.

Adeline wasn’t sure what to do. He seemed angry, but more than that, he seemed lost.

 
When she moved to stand next to him, she laid a hand on his arm. “I have wondered all these months, tell me your last memories of my brother. I miss him so dearly.”

Clarke looked into her eyes. “He was with me,” he said, barely above a whisper.

 
Her heart broke from the look in his eyes. “It was his choice to join. My father knew he was too young, but approved, because he wasn’t of age to join the ranks.
 
David was so proud to be the bugler for you and Spencer’s regiment.”

“He was only a child.” He turned to her.

“It is hard not to be bitter. I want someone I can blame for his death. He was taken too young.”

“You have to know the truth. If you need to blame someone, blame me.”

“What?”

“You heard what I said.” Clarke said something else but the words were blurred.

“You don’t know what you’re saying,” she choked out.

He grabbed her arms, desperation etched on his face. “I know exactly what I’m saying. I am the one responsible for his death. Blame me!”

How could this be?
She pulled away. He reached for her but Adeline yanked her arms free and ran. She ran back to the house until she thought her lungs would explode from lack of air.

She opened the door and stumbled inside, then ran the distance to her room. Adeline fell face down on the comforter and cried.

 

She wasn’t sure how many hours passed. There were so many unanswered questions running through her head. There must be some mistake, but with the look on Clarke’s face. He wanted her to believe him. To blame him.

She had.

There was a knock on the door. Adeline swung her legs over the edge of the bed and sat up. “Yes?”

“It’s Amelia. Can Spencer and I come in?”

She wiped her eyes clear and opened the door.

“Clarke came and got us. He was worried about you.” Amelia said and shut the door behind them.

“Please, sit.” Spencer motioned to the chair by the window and lit a lamp for light. “This has gone much too far and I will not allow these untruths to be spread one day longer. Adeline, we have known each other since we were children. Do you trust my word?”

“Of course, Spencer.”

“I want you to speak the truth now, what did Clarke say to you in the garden? He would not tell me.”

Adeline felt a tear slide down her cheek. “He said he was responsible for my brother’s death.”

Spencer sat and dropped his head into his hands. When he looked up, he let out a sigh. Amelia placed a hand over his shoulder and squeezed, her love for her husband evident on her face. “I was afraid that may be what he said. If that is the case, then I am just as responsible as all the men of Warringham who left to fight. We were young and anxious to have our chance at battle. But, with that came decisions and responsibilities. None of us were ready for the brutality of war. I have barely just begun to allow myself to speak of it with others.

Clarke’s brother took a saber blow to the leg, but Ellis’ may be an easier wound to heal than Clarke’s. He blames himself for so much, starting with the death of your brother.”

“Tell me what happened.” Adeline braced herself for the story.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

Clarke made sure the hooks and eyes at the neck of his jacket were fastened to stave off the biting October wind. Lord Raglan gave the command as Clarke’s Calvary Brigade Seventeenth Lancers were pressed to defend the Ottoman redoubts against the Russian attack. Adrenaline, combined with the roar of cannon fire made his heart beat heavy in his chest.

He clasped his thighs against the saddle, and waited. He wished all his men had horses, the advantages over an opponent on foot was great. A soldier on horseback had in his favor height, speed, and inertial mass, not to mention the element of fear.

The Scottish Regiment was holding back the attack and the cavalry was ready to advance. Clarke squared his shoulders and looked around. He saw Spencer, but where was his brother, Ellis? He’d seen him only a few minutes back. It was a mass of blue jackets and caps; he could not make him out.

“Wait men,” he yelled to be heard over the din. With swords and lances raised, they waited until the first attack broke through. He lowered his saber and moved forward.
 
The smell of gun powder hung in the air like death waiting to swoop down and claim another victim.

The order to confront the Russian guns at a trot was madness. They were sitting targets and already under fire.

 
“Charge!” The cry of his erupted around him as they moved into battle. He swung his sword almost decapitating the first man. Everything slowed. One after the other, he concentrated on killing the enemy in front of him.

Clarke swiveled on his mount and caught the colors of a boy’s coat. He saw David, Adeline’s younger brother. What was he doing out here? He wasn’t ready to fight. Damn him. David went against his explicit orders to stay behind. He was only the bugler, not a trained soldier. He’d never wielded a saber. David was in his unit, his care, just like all the other men, but the boy didn’t even own a saber, instead he held a short blade in his hand as he squared off against an enemy.

There were too many men between them to maneuver his horse. Clarke jumped off his mount, and ran towards the boy. Just as the enemy soldier raised his sword, Clarke ran him through. The man looked surprised and crumpled.

He had reached David in time. Clarke pulled his sword free and tried to think of some place to take the boy to safety. He reached for his hand.

Blood sprayed across the front of his coat. At first David only stood there, his hand still in his.

“No!” Clarke cried. He drew his Pepperbox pistol from his coat and fired a ball into the chest of the man behind David. Frantic, he grabbed his gold sash from his waist and tried to staunch the bleeding.

His efforts were lost. David’s heart continued to pump blood through the gaping wound across the boy’s throat.

“Tell my father I died with honor,” David said through a mouth full of blood, before his body went limp.

“No… No, you will not die!” he cried. He only had a moment to grieve before he had to push the body from his lap and continue fighting.
 
His hands slipped in the boy’s blood as he struggled to hold the grip of the saber.

David wasn’t supposed to die… how could he possibly tell Adeline?

 

“Clarke,” a woman’s voice cried.

There were no women on the battlefield.

 
“Clarke!” the voice stopped the battle replaying in his nightmare.

He shook his head to clear it and slowly opened his eyes. “Adeline. How… why are you here?” His brain was fogged with sleep and the shots of whiskey he’d downed a few hours earlier.

“Spencer told me what happened. How David died.”

His jaw muscles tightened. “I’m sure he did.”

“Spencer was there, he saw what happened and that you were not responsible in any way. David disobeyed orders to stay behind the lines, only wanting to fight. It was foolish, but he was young. He was already in the fray fighting when you tried to save him.”

“I was his Captain, I should have protected him. He was not a soldier.” Clarke looked down at his hands half expecting to see them stained red. “I tried to save him… but there was so much blood.”

“It was war. You did what you could. David shouldn’t have been out there, but he was. He made that decision, not you. The enemy cut his throat. There was nothing you could have done.” Adeline raised a hand and cupped his cheek. “Clarke, look at me. No one blames you. I do not blame you. You must stop torturing yourself. You were David’s Captain, but you did not create the war in which he fell.”

 
“He died in my arms,” he said barely above a whisper and clasped her hand in his. “How can you be so strong?”

“I am not,” she confessed. “Sometimes, I am not sure if I can make it though the day. The grief I feel for David is overwhelming. Is this the way it is for you?”

He nodded, his throat tight.

“Let’s make a pact,” she said. “I will be support for you, and in turn you can support me. That way we will always know there is someone looking over us when we are sad. David would have wanted that.”

Clarke always held a deep attraction for Adeline, but this was the moment he fell in love with her.
 
“I cannot think of a more generous offer.” He raised her hand and kissed her knuckles. “This may be a pact for you, but for me I think it is
my
salvation.” Clarke meant to kiss her forehead, but Adeline turned her face up.

He inhaled the scent of her hair, jasmine and fresh vanilla. It went straight to his head and made him forget what he had planned to do. His gaze settled on her lips. They were pink and full, and when she moistened them with the tip of her tongue, he had to kiss her.

“Maybe I should leave, I…” she stopped in mid-sentence.

“Yes.” There was a draw between the two of them. Like lightning.

Suddenly she laced her hand around the back of his neck and surprised him by pulling him down to meet her. When their lips touched, something shifted deep within him. It was like his old life left his body and a new one began. He groaned softly against her mouth as she deepened the kiss. It was like neither one had control of what was happening. It just was.

For the first time in a long time, he called a moment in his life wonderful.

Placing a hand around her slim waist, he pulled her close. He had to feel her warmth against him. In his trousers his arousal was apparent; it grew along with an almost desperate need to have her be his.

He’d pushed away his physical emotions for so long he was shocked by how quickly Adeline brought the feel of pleasure back. He kissed her again, and then again. The touch of her mouth sent a slow shiver of desire though him that melted his ice clad heart.

Clarke wanted the kiss to go on forever. He never gave into his deepest desires, but at this moment all he wanted was to pull her beneath him. He wanted to peel the clothes from her body and kiss her in very unrespectable places until she moaned his name.

But now was not the time. He forced himself to ease away. They were both breathing hard, and they just stared into each other’s eyes.

“You were right before. I should leave. If I do not at this second, you will be stuck with me for life.” Her cheeks were flushed and her mouth swollen from his kisses.

She smiled and his heart slipped. “I can think of many worse things.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

 

It had been a week’s time since Adeline’s encounter with Clarke. She wanted desperately to talk to him, but knew avoiding their meeting was for the best there were always people around. Every time she saw him, even at a distance, there was a wild charge that passed between them bringing back memories of the night he’d kissed her. Their encounter could only be one time. It could never happen again. She would never allow her family’s scandal to darken Clarke’s name.

Adeline grasped Felicity’s arm as they headed down curved marble stairs to the ball. Adeline dreaded the evening. These days, she didn’t really care much for
any
social gatherings. Earlier in the day she tried to use the excuse she didn’t have the proper dress, which she didn’t, but when Felicity let her borrow one, she’d run out of excuses. She’d used the excuse of a headache the week prior, and Felicity wouldn’t let her use that again.

She had to admit, the dress Felicity let her borrow was beautiful. The blue silk had an outer layer of delicate lace and ribbon trim. Adeline’s hair was covered with a row of sheer frill trim with matching blue ribbon knots. A pearl necklace, tasseled earrings, and bracelets on each wrist finished the ensemble.

The crinoline under her skirts was already itching through her chemise. She’d make a quick appearance and eat a few bites. After all, she had to eat something. She’d bid a quick goodnight and head back to her room.

She felt better now that she had a plan.

It also felt good to have Felicity by her side, but as soon as they entered the ballroom, Felicity spotted another friend and left her standing alone by a potted fern.

“May I have this dance?” a deep voice asked.

Adeline spun and almost collided with Clarke. He smiled and tipped his head her direction. In his white tie and tails, he was the handsomest man she’s ever laid eyes on. He extended his hand.

“I’m not sure that would be a wise idea, my lord” she said, pausing to keep an even tone to her voice.

“I know you are not here with anyone.”

“And how would you know that?”

“Felicity.”

 
“It is not necessary to feel pity for me. She always imagines herself a matchmaker. There are many much more suitable women here to dance with. If we dance the guests will start the gossip wheel turning against your favor.”

He looked around and frowned. People
were
watching them. “I do not wish to dance with ‘other women’.
 
I wish to dance with you.”

She hadn’t really agreed, when Clarke grasped her arm and drew her towards the floor. The dancers stood in rows to face each other as the music began. Her heart raced seeing the fire in his eyes. The look he gave her made her feel beautiful and desired. He could have just about any single woman here. Why choose her, the woman with the scandalous family?

One dance and then she would set him straight. This would never work. He needed to understand.

As the music built in tempo he swung her through the figures. When he pulled her back against his side, he brushed the underside of her breast. His fingers were hot through the cloth. She was out of breath when the music stopped.

Clarke bowed and then smiled. “I’ll fetch us some punch. Wait here. I’ll return in a moment.”

Adeline watched him stride away. His tall legs ate up the floor as he walked. To be out of the way of the dancers, she stepped partially behind a large flower arrangement against the wall.

Lady Beatrice Stokes’ voice emanated from behind the flowers, “It is bad enough she is taking advantage of the Duke and Lady Warringham’s generosity. Can you believe it? She has her nerve.” The women with Beatrice laughed.

Adeline hadn’t heard Clarke return.

He took one look at her, and the smile faded from his face. “What’s wrong?”

All she could do was shake her head. She wanted to drag him away, but the woman began talking again. “I saw Lady Warringham sport the dress she is wearing two months back at the Dilstram’s dinner. She thinks she can dance with the Earl?… in a borrowed dress? It’s a disgrace she is even the good graces of the
ton
. It’s an embarrassment!” There was more feminine laughter.

A flush of shame flooded Adeline’s face as she pushed past Clarke. He called her name as she went through the outer doors and down the steps. She didn’t stop until she reached the far side of the gardens.

She grasped the edge of arbor for support and drew in a couple deep breaths.
 
Rose thorns scraped her bare arm, but that was a pain she could stand. The internal pain from the hurtful words was worse. She clasped one hand tight around the other, but she couldn’t seem to stop shaking. No matter what that horrid little beasty Beatrice said about her, she would not cry.

“Adeline?”

She didn’t need to turn to know who it was.
 
“Go away. Go back to the party.”

“I’m not going anywhere until you talk to me.”

“I thought men always accused women of being the ones who want to talk. Well, I’m the woman here, and I don’t want to talk. Go away. Leave me be.”

“I heard what Lady Stokes said back there.”

“I’m sure you did.” If she were able to dig a big hole with her toes and just drop in, she would be happy. “I did borrow the dress. My family has no money to buy new ones. With nothing to offer, and no dowry I should not assume I have any rights to dance with an Earl. I was caught up in the moment.”

“Look at me.” He wrapped a hand around her upper arm and turned her to face him.

“You belong in there.” She waved a hand in the direction of the house. “I don’t.”

“You belong in there as much as the rest of that lot.”

“I’ll be fine.” She sniffed. “What happened in there was exactly what I feared. I won’t have my family’s gossip hurt anyone’s good name. Especially yours.”

“You were worried…” he stopped and shook his head. “You were worried about her statements hurting me? Good God.”

“I am heading back to my father’s estate in the morning. No one will not have to worry about other incidents like this happening again.”

“I’m afraid you won’t be able to do that.”

She felt her eyes widen. “You can’t stop me. I’ve made up my mind.”

“You’re right. I can’t stop you, but things have changed. Your father’s land has been entailed.”

“He’s declared it? He’s bankrupt?” Her head dropped. “Oh… God…no.”

“I did not say that. He has not lost the property; it is still tied to your family. But a new occupant will soon inhabit the estate.”
 

“I can’t stay here, and if I can’t go home...” She felt desperate and lost, her voice was barely a whisper. A tear skittered down her cheek. “I have nowhere to go.”

“There is one way you can return home, you can live there with me. I am the new occupant of
Templeman’s
.”

“You are…
what
?”

Clarke reached into his pocket, pulled out a velvet box and dropped to one knee. “Marry me, Adeline.” Inside was a blue sapphire ring encircled with smaller diamonds and filigree.

“Wait… can you repeat…” She felt her knees give way and she sat down with a plop on the ground with her skirts billowed around her. He smiled, but still held her hand. “I have already asked your father for your hand, and I have also made a silent settlement with him to clear most of his debts. I used the money from my Captaincy and some from my father. He understands my wishes and for once supports them.
 
I have asked permission to legally occupy the estate until a male heir, your father’s grandson, becomes of age. Then the estate will become the boy’s and stay in the family.”

“Grandson?”

“Grandson.
Our son.
That sounds much better, doesn’t it? If we have only daughters,” he shrugged a broad shoulder, “I can only hope this silly antiquated law that disallows women from inheriting property will be abolished by that time. The land in all rights should be yours.”

“You do not need to do this, Clarke. If this is because of guilt or commitment you feel over my brother’s death…”

“Do not say it.” He held up a hand to cut her off. “It is not true. I felt horrible guilt over your brother’s death. I still do. But, I would never use that as grounds for marriage.” He looked into her eyes. “A better reason is that I am irrefutably in love with you.”

“You are?” Adeline was glad she was already on the ground, for she could have been pushed over with a feather. “What about
your
estate?”

He kissed her knuckles.
 
“The wounds Ellis received in that horrid war left him with much self-doubt. He has been the happiest I’ve seen him since our return helping father run the estate and stables. Ellis needs something to work towards. He needs to instill his own self importance. I love him dearly, and he is the finest brother one can wish for. I know I cannot turn over my family’s estate, I am the eldest, but, this is what I can do. It will be Ellis’ in every right, but paper.
 
I have an estate to run, the
Templeman Estate
, alongside you.”

“I don’t know what to say?” She was sure she was still in shock.

Clarke’s face grew dark, he clasped her hands tighter.
 
“There is something I need to be very clear on before you say yes or no to my proposal. I am still plagued with nightmares from the war. You saw me. They often haunt my sleep. I know you are a strong woman, but that is what it will take. I am not sure how long I will struggle with this. I wake up many nights in cold sweats … it’s terrible… I can’t stop the memories.”

“Remember the pact we made. We will be there for each other.” Adeline laid a hand on his cheek. “I love you, Clarke. I’ll marry you. Whatever you are going through, I will always be there for you. “

“You can never know how much I need you, Adeline.” He turned her hand and kissed her palm. “You are like a rope that keeps me from drowning in the turbulent sea.” His voice was rough as he grabbed her and pulled her to him. She slipped her hand around the back of his neck and rose on her toes to kiss him.

 

 

 

Chapter 4

           

 

           
 
“I should take you back to the party. The next part of the evening will entail me introducing you as my fiancée.” Clarke felt his heart beat staccato in his chest.
 
He was so happy, he thought it would burst through.

           
“I don’t want to go back. Beatrice is there. That old fish monger’s wife should be damned to hell.”
           
Clarke smiled at her swearing. He smoothed a dark, loose curl over the top of her ear. “Lady Stokes, and I use the term ‘Lady’ loosely, hadn’t dare say anything about the Earl’s fiancé from this day forward. If she does she will answer to me, and me alone. If she wishes to say anything about ‘sleeping beneath her’, I have heard on good authority that Lady Stokes is having a side dalliance with one of my brother’s stable hands.” He grinned. “I’m sure her husband would love to know the details.”

           
 
“Oh, that is wicked,” Adeline exclaimed, “but such wonderful information to know. I guess the phrase ‘knocked off her high horse’ could have a whole new meaning…now that we know it is by a stable hand!”

           
They laughed until his sides ached. God, he loved this woman. She could take a bad situation and somehow find humor in it. When they stopped, he looked at her for a long moment before he drew her close and kissed her again.

           
Her breasts brushed softly against his chest. He was hard as stone and throbbed to the point of pain in his britches. “I will understand if you say no, but I will want no one but you for the rest of my life. I want to spend the night with you.” Clarke grew somber, knowing if she did not agree to his plan, he would have to honor her wishes. “There is no need to return to the party.”
 
He tipped his head. “The groundskeeper cabin is over there by the trees. I know for a fact they are gone for the weekend.”

           
He stood and then pulled her to her feet.

           
She straightened her skirts and then extended her hand. She looked up through long dark lashed and grinned. “Then we best be off…
husband
.”

           
After all the darkness and pain in their lives, she was willing to accept him for who he was. This commitment meant more than she could ever comprehend.
 
He found someone who shared some of his same pain and freed his demons.

           
Clarke took his coat off and wrapped it around her shoulders as they headed off across the lawn.

 

           
Once inside the cabin, he lit candles and a fire in the hearth. When the flames kicked up, he warmed his hands and turned to watch Adeline take the pins from her hair. It tumbled over her shoulders like a dark waterfall. She was so beautiful, it made his mouth dry with desire.

           
He came to her and slipped one hand behind her head for another kiss. He skimmed a hand over the wool of his coats collar and then pulled it from her shoulders. He tossed it over a chair and swept a hand from her elbow, down the side of her torso. Her breath quickened.

           
Clarke trailed a finger over the swell of her breast, barely touching it, before cupping the curved softness through the cloth. Turning her, he slipped the buttons free down the back of her gown. He was happy she was turned away and couldn’t see his fingers tremble in anticipation.
How many buttons were there on this damn thing?

           
Finally, he slipped the last free and pushed the silk gown from her shoulders.
 
He took her hand and helped her step free of the crinoline.

           
“How can women wear these things?” he asked.

           
“We have little choice. It is the fashion.”

           
“I prefer this.” He cupped his hands over her chemise, and toyed with her nipples. He undid the ties of her chemise so hurriedly, he heard the rip of linen. He was far beyond caring. The fabric fell to the floor leaving her naked.

           
He stepped back. A blush of color washed up her neck. He knew his silent measure of her made her uneasy, but he couldn’t help himself. On the night before the battle, he’d tried to picture a woman. This was the memory he’d wanted to take to his death. This was the perfect vision he would remember. Her. Now. He’d had sex, but he’d always ached for more. A Connection. Now, he shook his head to make sure it was real and that Adeline was here with him.

           
Her nipples were hard from the cold room and a deep rosy pink. Slipping a hand around her waist, he pulled her close and relished how she fit against him.
 
He dropped his head to suckle and tease her breast, alternating back and forth. His mouth was unrelenting until she moaned. Electric bursts of fire shot through him desperate in his need for her.

           
He broke their kiss long enough to strip off his clothes, then he savagely kissed a trail down her cheek to the side of her neck. Her hips lifted against him, where his steel cock pressed against her stomach.

           
 
“What do you want?” he asked his voice hoarse as she explored the hard planes of his back and shoulders with her fingertips.

           
She smelled like so many memories. Happy memories. Spring days they played in the fields. “I don’t know.” She contemplated his question. “I want to touch you.”

           
 
“I am yours.”
 
He lifted his arms out from his sides.

           
 
When her soft, small hand wrapped around him, Clarke thought he would spill right there. She tentatively slid her hand from the base to the crown. It only lasted a few strokes before he stilled her hand. “I’m not sure how much you know about a man.”

           
“Nothing.”

           
“Then I will tell you, your touch is
too
sweet. I am not stopping you because you are doing anything wrong; I am stopping you because you have stripped my willpower and I want to show you there is more.”

           
He swung her into his arms, strode a few feet and laid her on top of the small bed in the corner of the room.
 
He pressed over her.

           
She cupped his cheek with her hand and looked into his eyes. “Do you really love me?”

           
“I have known you half of my life, and loved you the other half.”

           
He was large, and she was so damn tight, he would have to let her adjust. But, she was already wet with desire and this allowed him to slide a few more inches inside. He ground his back teeth fighting for control.

           
“Clarke?” Her eyes were wide and the darkest shade of blue he had ever seen.

           
He kissed her gently as he pressed against her barrier, and then further. “From this night forward, I am your husband and I will always love you.”

           
He wanted to spend the next few hours kissing her and making love. He would, but for this first time, he knew he would not last. He brought her knees higher and plunged deep. This time when she cried his name, he knew it was from pleasure and not pain.

           
She rippled around him as her climax shattered her. His entire body tensed. He let her milk him as he thrust one last time. Clarke threw back his head, let out a guttural cry, and emptied himself deep within her.
It poured from his soul, filled with his dreams, his needs, his fears.

           
They were now bound. He was hers.

           

           

 

Chapter 5

 

 

           
Clarke swirled the brandy until it coated the sides of the snifter in tiny tendrils. He leaned a hip against the stone hearth, and looked at Spencer. “So what is this ‘
secret meeting’
about? You made it sound like a life or death issue.”

           
“I feel it is.” Spencer strode over to stand beside him, and poured himself another drink from the cut crystal decanter.
 
He pulled the drape aside and stared at a distant spot on the grounds. “I think there are things needing to be dealt with.
 
Now that you have asked Adeline for her hand in marriage, I realized that both our lives are more than just our own.”

           
“If this has to do with the handling of her father’s land and Ellis being in charge of
Garrison,
I-”

           
Spencer cut him off. “It has nothing to do with land or property… or…
Jesus
.”
 
He tipped the glass, downed the content, and then placed the glass with a
thump
on the sidebar. He ran a hand through his already disheveled hair. “I think we need to…
I
need to talk to someone about what happened to us in the war.”

           
“Yes?” He was pretty bloody sure what Spencer might say, but Clarke let the word hang in the air as a question.

           
 
“What went on.” He swore again. “The things we saw…. no man should see.”

           
The mere mention of the battle had Clarke’s mouth bone dry. He tried to add an air of practiced casualness to his tone. “Come man, what is there to say? As far as I am concerned we are home, it is over.”

           
“If you say it’s ‘
over
’, than I fear you lie. The battle is over. The memories will live forever, at least with me… with all of us.”

           
Clarke started to add a rude comment. All of this was too fresh. Too raw. Like an open wound. When he noticed the stark honesty on his friend’s face and heard the crack in Spencer’s voice his own chest tightened.

           
“There are nights when I am
not
home, I am back in the fields with blood on my hands and the stench of gunpowder in my nostrils. Surrounded by death. I hear the cries of dying friends I can’t help. I thought I could handle things on my own, go on as it always has been when I returned, but it’s not just you or me this is affecting.”

           
“Amelia?”

           
“And Adeline. Amelia’s my wife and soon you will wed Adeline. I love Amelia with every fiber of my being, and why I am baring my soul and asking for your help. You have always been the brother I wished I had by birth. But, most of all, we stood side by side on that battlefield, that hell. I cannot go through this on my own. It has taxed me to the extreme. I want to wake up with the feel of Amelia’s bare flesh next to me, and the smell of her hair…” he closed his eyes, lost in thought, and pulled in a long breath before he continued, “her hair smells of the honeysuckle water she bathes with. It’s the most amazing smell. Most nights… I can’t smell it. It’s replaced with blood from those days. I get up and pace the floors. It’s as if I attempt to out walk my demons.”

           
 
Clarke moved away to the wall and drew a saber off the rack. He pulled it from its scabbard and ran a gentle thumb over the blade just enough to not break the skin. He wondered what went though Ellis’s mind when he was cut down with such a sword.

           
Spencer’s voice drew him back, “I sound like a ranting lunatic. I understand… you can only say no.”

           
“You have not proposed anything. Once again you are putting words in my mouth. I have always hated when you did that. You’re telling me you suffer nightmares that still haunt you?” Clarke noticed the red rim of Spencer’s eyes as he nodded. Was it from broken sleep? Spencer’s eyes were the same he’d seen in the mirror that morning.

           
He sat in a chair and hooked a long leg over the arm. The silence in the room stretched before Clarke finally admitted, “Yes. It’s devastating when it happens.” His laugh was dry. “Funny enough, it was such a nightmare that brought Adeline, alone, to my room. She heard my cries.” He sat up and dropped hands between his knees.
 
“I felt like a fool. A child. That was the night I knew I truly loved her, but how can she love a man who is so weak?”

           
“I’ve asked myself that question a hundred times about Amelia. But do you want to know the God’s truth… they do.” Spencer shook his head. “I still can’t believe how large and understanding their hearts are. Much more than I fear mine would ever be.”

BOOK: The Reluctant Heir
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