The Spurned Viscountess
She must marry him.
Cursed with the sight and rumors of witchcraft, Rosalind’s only chance at an ordinary life is marriage to Lucien, Viscount Hastings. She doesn’t expect love, only security and children of her own. Determined to go through with the wedding, she allows nothing she encounters at the gloomy Castle St. Clare to dissuade her.
He wants nothing to do with her.
Recently returned from the Continent, Lucien has no time for the English mouse his family has arranged for him to marry, not when he’s plotting to avenge the murder of his beloved Francesca. He has no intention of bedding Rosalind, not even to sire an heir.
Dark secrets will bind them.
Though spurned by her bridegroom, Rosalind turns to him for protection when she is plagued by a series of mysterious accidents and haunted by terrifying visions. Forced to keep Rosalind close, and tempted into passionate kisses, Lucien soon finds himself in grave danger of falling in love with his own wife…
Note: This book was previously released under the title, The Second Seduction. This version has been revised. The Spurned Viscountess is NOT an erotic romance.
East Sussex, England, 1720
“Hastings, the carriage is coming. Your betrothed has arrived.”
Lucien rose from a square-backed chair, flicked the lace at his cuffs and studied the elderly man stepping away from the window—the man who claimed him as son. “My name is Lucien.”
The earl ruffled up like a feisty bantam cock. “Stuff and nonsense! George is your christened name. If it’s good enough for the king, it’s good enough for you.”
Lucien strolled past shelves of books and paused to finger an amber figurine from the Orient. From what he’d heard since his arrival in England, people disapproved of the king, who hailed from Hanover. The man didn’t even speak English. Lucien looked the earl straight in the eye. “My name is Lucien,” he repeated, his tone implacable and determined. “Lucien. Not George or Hastings.”
“Damn it, boy, why do you persist with your gainsaying?” The Earl of St. Clare’s voice held a trace of pleading. “Can’t you see the likeness in the family portraits?”
Lucien grimaced. If he studied the portraits with one eye shut and the other squinted—certainly there were similarities. He replaced the figurine and stalked across a blue Persian rug to gaze out a window overlooking the courtyard.
The family and the faithful servants all backed up the Earl of St. Clare’s assertion, but the role didn’t feel right to Lucien. Living in the gloomy pile of rocks called Castle St. Clare made him edgy and apprehensive.
They were all mistaken.
He was not the Earl of St. Clare’s son.
The idea was laughable. Him—the long lost heir, Viscount Hastings. He didn’t recall any of the stories they told him of his childhood or growing up at the castle.
The study door flew open. Lucien spun around in a defensive stance, only relaxing when the honorable Charles Soulden bounded into the room. “Hastings…” He faltered when he intercepted Lucien’s glare. “I mean, Lucien! Your betrothed comes.”
“So I’m told.” Lucien sauntered toward Charles, his newly discovered cousin. “By all means, let us greet the woman brave enough to wed a man with no memory.”
The carriage swayed and bounced over the rutted road. With each successive pothole, the driver cursed more colorfully. Rosalind gripped a carriage strap, the excessive jolting doing nothing for her agitated nerves. At the completion of this journey, she would meet her betrothed for the first time. Questions pounded inside her head. Would he like her? And would he accept her, despite her…faults?
Her childhood friend and maidservant, Mary, pressed her nose to the carriage window. “Oh, miss! I think we’re almost there.”
Rosalind tensed. She forced a smile and bit back a cry of alarm when the carriage lurched. Grabbing the seat to avoid a tumble to the floor, she righted herself and slid along the seat to Mary. “Can you see Castle St. Clare?” She peered out the dusty window, attempting to see her future home.
A snarling gargoyle appeared inches from their faces. Rosalind’s breath escaped with a gasp.
Beside her, Mary screamed and jerked away from the window. “Miss Rosalind, do you think we should turn around and return to Stow-on-the-Wold?” She clutched Rosalind’s forearm, her voice rising to a squeak.
Mary’s dread, her frenetic thoughts of monsters, bombarded Rosalind and she shrugged from her maid’s grip to break the emotional connection.
“The earl is expecting us, Mary. We can’t go back.”
They sped past a rundown gatehouse, the carriage jolting from one pothole to the next. As they clattered through a stone gateway, Rosalind glimpsed the gargoyle’s twin. It leered from atop a stone wall and seemed alive, as if it could step from its granite prison on a whim.
The carriage made a sharp swing to the right, the coachman cursing his team of straining horses as the gradient increased sharply. The whip cracked. Without warning, the interior of the carriage turned pitch black. Mary yelped, the shrill cry hurting her ears.
Rosalind swallowed her gasp, rearranged the skirts of her best blue riding habit trimmed in gold, and patted Mary on the arm. “It’s all right,” she soothed, yet the hand hidden in her skirts trembled. For a moment, the temptation to turn back teased at her, then she recalled the situation she’d return to—relations who resented her presence. The reality pushed aside her fears. Ugly gargoyles or not, she silently vowed to continue her journey.
An object scraped along the carriage sides, sending a shiver down her spine. Mary’s piercing shriek resounded within the confines of the enclosed space. Goose bumps rose on Rosalind’s arms. Her gaze whipped about the carriage. The noise repeated with an eerie echo.
“Hush, Mary.” Rosalind’s heart was pounding so loudly she could barely hear herself think. Mustering every shred of courage, she pressed her nose to the cold glass of the carriage window.
This was meant to be a grand adventure, her last opportunity to seize a secure future. Rosalind, the afflicted one, the one the people of Stow-on-the-Wold whispered would never catch a husband. The cousin destined to stay on the shelf. This was her chance to prove them all wrong, despite her accursed gift.
Leaves swept against the windows, followed by the same scraping sound. The cold knot of fear in her stomach twisted. A flash of ghostly fingers waved before her startled eyes. A branch. That was surely a branch. The fear clogging her throat lessened a fraction, and she relaxed against the plush cushions of the St. Clare coach with a tremulous sigh of relief.
“It’s a branch,” she said to Mary. “We’re driving along an avenue of trees. I fear they need trimming to let in the sunlight.”
“Are you sure, Miss Rosalind?”
“Of course I’m sure.” Rosalind made her voice firm and decisive. “Look out the window. You can make out the branches if you look hard enough.” As she spoke, the darkness in the carriage lifted. Then they were in daylight again. “There, what did I tell you?”
Mary grabbed her arm and tugged. Frantically. “Miss. Miss. Look!”
Rosalind swallowed. This was where she was to live? She studied the fortress perched atop the cliff like a menacing monolith. Built of stone, the castle appeared solid and strong enough to withstand the winds that howled across the English Channel. Arrow slits glared at her like malignant eyes. Hardly the welcoming home she had envisioned.
“We’re almost there. I can see the gate and the courtyard beyond.” Mary turned, her eyes huge brown rounds in her freckled face. “There are people waiting to meet us.”
Rosalind’s hands crept up to check that her lacy cap sat straight. Uncertainties assailed her, threatening her fragile composure. Repeated swallowing did little to clear the lump in her throat. They said Hastings was mad. Perhaps she should have refused to marry him, but she’d promised her uncle, Sir John Chandler. He’d signed the papers when she and her cousin Miranda were babes. One of them had to marry Hastings.
Miranda had flatly refused so it was up to Rosalind to fulfill family obligations. At least she’d have a home of her own. That was what she wanted, wasn’t it? A home of her own, a husband and, if she was fortunate, lots of chubby, laughing babies.
“Whoa, there!” the coachman bellowed. A horse snorted. A harness jangled, and a piercing screech rent the air as the coachman hauled on the brake to halt the ponderous carriage.
The door flew open, and a footman dressed in green livery placed a step down for them to alight. Rosalind pushed aside her apprehension, swept up her skirts and placed her hand into the footman’s to descend. She relinquished his aid almost instantly and stepped aside. Seconds later, Mary exited and stood beside her, blinking in the early afternoon sun.
The earl, much older than she recalled, bowed before her. Tall and thin with stooped shoulders, his clothing hung loosely while his powdered wig drew attention to his extreme pallor. “Rosalind, my dear, it is good to see you again.”
Rosalind sank into a deep curtsey, her eyes modestly lowered to hide her sudden nervousness. Her betrothed was here, standing right behind his father, but she was too frightened to look. Her cousin’s hysterical words rang through her mind. Viscount Hastings was an ogre. A beast.
The earl interrupted her panic. “Child, let me look at you.” Rosalind straightened and met the frank gaze of the elderly earl. “You have the look of your grandmother.”
She smiled. “Thank you, my lord. I count that a compliment indeed.”
Certainly, her grandmother had been the one person who understood how she felt, since she suffered from the same family affliction. Rosalind had found the past three years since her grandmother’s death both difficult and lonely.
The earl urged her forward. “Let me introduce you to my son and nephew. You will meet my sister, Lady Augusta, later.”
A chill swept through Rosalind and her lashes lowered to screen her fears. The moment she had both anticipated and dreaded—the first meeting with her betrothed.
“Rosalind Chandler, may I present my son, Viscount Hastings, and my nephew, Charles Soulden?”
Viscount Hastings thrust out a hand, and Rosalind placed her trembling one in his, wishing she had remembered to pull on her gloves. It was too late to worry now. She sank into another curtsey, too nervous to meet his gaze. She registered his size first and then a number of erratic pictures flickered through her mind. She shoved them away, concentrating on the tangible man. He towered above her by a good ten inches, making her acutely aware of her own lack in that area.
The callused hand holding hers tightened, and Rosalind looked up, startled. Her breath caught when she saw her betrothed clearly. Clad in a somber black jacket and breeches, and as dark as she imagined the devil to be, he disdained the fashionable wigs and powder the other men wore. Instead, his hair tumbled in loose, disheveled curls about his head. His face was tanned, as if he spent many hours outside under the sun. But what really caught her attention was the angry scar that slashed his face, running from just below his left eye to his jaw. Puckered and red, it drew the eye.
Rosalind swallowed and looked away, but her gaze clashed with that of her betrothed before she could politely withdraw. His eyes were a mahogany brown, so dark they were almost black, and they openly mocked her nervous reaction.
Confusion and embarrassment fought within her. She tensed under his sardonic look. She’d known the viscount had suffered an injury while on a Grand Tour in Italy. The gossip about his miraculous return from the dead had spread rapidly through the ballrooms of London. Her stomach churned uneasily, and she averted her eyes to the weathered gray wall surrounding the courtyard.
“Rosalind, enchanted I’m sure.” Hastings’s low, gravely voice sent a surge of alarm through her veins.
She inclined her head and valiantly tried to hide her agitation, but she suspected few fooled Hastings. “Thank you, my lord.”
Sensations bombarded her mind, fragments of pictures, pieces of a larger puzzle. They were faint at the moment, but she knew from experience more details would come with time. A frustrated scream lodged in her throat. She tugged to free her hand, but he held fast. Why now? Why her betrothed? She’d thought—hoped—he would be one of the people for whom her accursed gift didn’t work. She’d felt nothing when she touched the Earl of St. Clare.
The picture of a woman formed in her mind. Dressed in a flowing white gown with a tumble of dark curls about her shoulders, she walked arm in arm with a man. The man was her betrothed, and the woman with him was heavy with child. Rosalind gasped. Her left hand clutched her skirt, and she yanked her right from his grasp. She fanned her face vigorously, fighting for control. “It is hot today.”
“Come inside,” the earl said. “You must be tired after your long journey.”
“Yes,” she said, still aware of the viscount’s mocking countenance. Her chin rose. “I am a little weary.”
“Allow me.” Hastings offered his arm. Rosalind caught the beaming smile on the earl’s face as he and Charles Soulden turned toward a flight of stairs leading inside the castle.
“It’s not too late to call off the wedding,” the viscount murmured.
Rosalind went cold inside at the rejection on his face. The gravel in the courtyard crunched underfoot—the only sound breaking the sudden hush between them.
If she backed out of this wedding, she’d be a laughingstock. A failure, and she’d have no home or chubby, laughing babies. She would end up on the shelf, a charity case depending on her uncle’s largesse. A shudder swept her at the thought of being prey to her waspish aunt again. No, she didn’t want that, which meant the wedding must go ahead.
Despite the fact that the man walking at her side was in love with another woman.
“Shelley Munro’s revised story is a beautiful, adventurous tale of the strength of love and forgiveness. Set in 1720 England, the landscape is so well defined that the reader is immediately drawn back to the past. With hints of a gothic story, the tale moves along at a quick pace with hints of mystery and a very satisfying romance.”
~ Night Owl Reviews