A Tarnished Heart
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by Leslie Dicken
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: She can save him--or bring him to ultimate ruin. The Earl of Markham's life is unraveling before his eyes. The harder he tries to pick up the frayed ends, the quicker his carefully guarded control slips from his iron grasp. Five years after the death of his wife, the threat of blackmail hangs over his son's inheritance. His only hope to quell the gossip before it begins lies in a headstrong young commoner as wild and free as the English countryside she loves. She is wrong for him in every way. Yet she brings life to his colorless world--and warms his heart with a fire that threatens to shatter the wall around his heart. Lizzie Parker is content with her garden, her village and caring for her aging father. She wants no part of the glittering London Season, but her father will not be denied his wish to see to her future. Still, she plans to do everything in her power to vex the man charged with taking her away from her beloved home. The man who once broke her heart. Markham. She never expected his kisses to tame her resistance. With each touch he rouses her senses, until suddenly she's not at all sure where she belongs? This book has been previously published. Warning: Blackmail! (oh my) Secrets! (oh my) Love Scenes! (oh oh my) and even a trip to the magnificent Crystal Palace in London. You won't be able to put this one down.
eBook Publisher: Samhain Publishing, Ltd., 2010 2010
Filament eBookStore Release Date: August 2010
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [395 KB]
Reading time: 247-346 min.
All Other formats: Printing DISABLED, Read-aloud DISABLED
Lizzie Parker just lost her virginity to her father's curate, Edmund Greene.
At least, that was the lie she was ready to tell, though it rotted on her tongue like rancid meat.
Her teeth chattered as she stared at the raindrops falling in her garden, so far unable to bring herself to go inside the cottage.
Nausea churned, but desperation took over.
The wind twisted Lizzie's skirt as several large rain droplets splattered around her. She fought back tears and started toward home. Rain thumped her shoulders and smacked her face.
Lizzie slipped in through the back door and pushed it shut against the wind, her nerves ready to shatter. The normally appetizing scent of stew turned her stomach. She clutched the folds of her drenched skirt, squared her shoulders and took a deep breath.
Her father entered the kitchen, his brown eyes hopeful, his gray hair smooth and combed. The sight of him deepened the ache in her gut, yet rage pounded in her breast. He didn't have a right to force her to do this, to lie to him, yet she would. Because she loved him with every ounce of blood in her body.
"Elizabeth, you are soaked," her father said. "Go upstairs and change, child."
"I...I have to tell you something, Papa." Now, oh God, she must say it now, before he did something to make her change her mind. "I have been with Edmund."
"You went to his house to say good-bye?"
Lizzie nodded, then quickly shook her head. Her stomach turned. She would burn in hell for this. "I love him, Papa, you know I want to marry him."
His lips pursed, disapproval clear in his eyes. "We've discussed this, Elizabeth."
"But I don't understand..."
"You don't want to understand. Edmund Greene is my curate. He has little means to take care of you. You deserve better."
Heat flushed her cheeks. "He will make me happy."
"You are too young to know what will make you happy."
Her body quaked again, but she couldn't go to London. She could not leave her father here alone.
"Papa, I didn't just go over to say good-bye. I...I was with him." His eyes widened, but she must continue. "I feared I'd never see him again. You are sending me away and..."
He slapped her face, the sting forced checked tears from her eyes. "Are you telling me that you have lain with the boy?" His voice rose until he regained ominous control. "Is this the truth?"
"I'm sorry," she sobbed, and rubbed her cheek, the pain a welcome ease to her guilt. "I know it was wrong and I will pay for my sin, but I..."
Her father held his hand up. The grimace on his worn face caused a stab of pain in her gut. "Your plan was to force my hand, was it? Give me no option other than to have you marry that boy?"
"I love him. I don't want to go to London. I don't want to leave you." Tears threatened again. "Please."
He removed his coat and rested it on her shoulders. "You have made a grave error. This ploy, though more disgraceful than any of your others, does not change my mind."
Lizzie's head snapped up. "But no one will want me now."
"You have changed nothing with your foolish actions. I am not even certain I believe you." He sighed. "You will go to London as I instructed. Already you are two years past the appropriate age. Now, go up to your room and beg God to forgive you. Right now, I cannot."
But she didn't want to go upstairs, she wanted to run into the yard and scream to the heavens. Even giving her body to a man before marriage would not sway her father from sending her to London for the Season. She shuddered to think if she had gone through with her plan she may have permitted Edmund to take her virginity and then still be expected to marry a baron or viscount.
"I must see my guest to the door, Elizabeth. Go now."
"You have a guest?" she whispered. The blood drained from her limbs. Please, let it be the baker's wife with poor hearing or some old man who fell asleep on the sofa. Oh God, she never intended to embarrass her father. "Who waits for you in the front room?"
Lizzie edged to the open doorway. She must see who was here, who may have heard her ugliness when she had been faced with no other alternatives. Perhaps if they had, they may be able to see past the shame and understand her thinking. They could tell her father that she did not need a Season in London, that she was needed more at home.
Her father swept a wet strand of hair from her face. "Your escort and benefactor to London awaits my return. I wished to present you, but now I've no desire to do so. It shall be done another day."
Her escort and benefactor to London. Not someone who could sway her father's opinion, but the very person who would take her away on his behalf.
Already in a tangle of emotions, she considered retreating outside to the peace of the rain and her garden. But she could not curb her curiosity.
Lizzie inhaled a deep breath, stepped around her father's form and into the small room. If she must meet this person eventually, it may as well be tonight when her life could plummet no lower.
Lizzie's shoes squished her arrival. She stared at the tall man who stood in front of the fireplace, his dark head angled up at her mother's large painting.
"Lizzie, go, before he sees you dressed as such." Her father's whisper halted her stare, but curiosity did not stop her retreat to the hall. Who was the man in her front room? Why did the sight of his imposing frame remind her of someone she once knew?
But, no, that couldn't be possible.
"Go, Lizzie, now!"
She turned and headed for the stairs.
"Wait." The deep tone of a stranger's voice accompanied by the sound of heavy footsteps. Then, a heady, exotic scent wafted toward her. "I have waited long enough. I would prefer to meet Elizabeth tonight."
The voice, she'd heard it before. Its memory urged her forward. When she reached the bottom step, he spoke again.
"Let me see you, Miss Parker."
No. Not now. She couldn't face him now. Her clothes were soaked, her hair dripping, her nerves afire. "I-I must change."
"I cannot wait."
Lizzie held her breath. She didn't want to breathe in the scent of him, hear the deep utterance of his words. But neither did she want to run off like a coward.
Slowly, she turned toward him.
How was it possible? Now, six years later, he was more handsome, more striking. His features had chiseled into a man of maturity. The black curl of his windswept hair partially concealed deeper lines on his forehead. Lips, still full and promising, twitched, but she could not discern their intention. Time slowed as he stared at her openly with those dark eyes that raked her over as if she were horseflesh for purchase.
A tingle raced through her bloodstream and spread warmth to her core. Her knees weakened, breathing halted. She slipped into the spell which enveloped her years ago.
But she had been a fool to believe in fairytales. Fairytales fueled by her dying mother's assurances that one day Lizzie would marry Lord Markham. Fantasies of embraces in his protective arms and his soft whispers to soothe the unbearable passing of her mother.
But God determined the price for her dreams when her sister disappeared. Lizzie would not pay that price again.
A flush of temper raced up her neck and bloomed hot on her cheeks. This man destroyed everything she cared about. Nearly everyone she loved.
She forced herself to breathe, but no words formed again in her mouth.
Her father touched her elbow. "Elizabeth, you remember the Earl of Markham, do you not?"
He was not the true earl.
Evan Fielding, the ninth Earl of Markham, stared at the reward for his parents' poor timing and the clergyman's greediness. A vice constricted his ribs. A sharp pulse slammed at his temples. The Reverend Parker's daughter reminded him of the hell his life had just become.
And, yet, the wet blue dress clung to her young body and his rage transformed into desperate need. Two pert nipples broke the smooth plane of the drenched fabric. Her red hair hung down over her shoulders and enticed him to run his fingers through the dripping curls, then lick the rain from her freckled skin.
Damn the traitorous hardening of his flesh, the blaze alive in his veins.
The girl glared at him, her green eyes challenged him. Did she fear he'd overheard her scandalous conversation?
Oh, yes, he'd heard it. All of it.
He'd listened to every little detail of how she gave herself to a local boy, seduced him to avoid her season in London.
A suffocating tightness pressed against his lungs.
Markham shoved his hands in his pockets, his stomach coiled into a knot. He shouldn't have come tonight. He should have done more research, scoured the library for information, and investigated details that could prove the vicar's story untrue.
But, so far, he found nothing to dispute that he was born before Reverend Parker could legally marry his parents.
His son, Lucas, at Blackhawk Manor with his nanny, knew nothing of this mess. If Markham were to fail, Lucas would no longer have a title or inheritance. Money could not buy prestige nor repair a reputation. Markham must protect his son. He would not fail him again.
The arranged marriage would buy the clergyman's silence. But this spirited, headstrong girl could never be his countess. From her low status, to her rebellious attitude, to her unrefined looks, Reverend Parker's daughter could undo years of careful judgment and preparation.
"Yes, Papa," Miss Parker said at last. "I remember Lord Markham."
And yet she did not bow or curtsy. She did nothing but stand there, in her soaked dress, seduction in the making, a fierce glint in her gaze.
"Miss Parker," Markham replied, all emotion cleared from his voice.
She lifted her chin. "Elizabeth, but I prefer Lizzie."
He gave her another cursory glance. "Miss Parker."
At that, her eyes narrowed and she crossed her arms under her breasts. Markham swallowed as those tiny points lifted higher. He could think of little else but to wrap his fingers around those breasts and swirl his tongue over those pert nipples. How was it possible to be both enraged and aroused?
"Papa, may I go upstairs now and change?" She turned for the stairs again.
"Elizabeth, aren't you going to say goodnight to the earl?"
She stopped. Her long hair continued to drip on her dress, on her shoes, on the floor. But she said nothing.
Markham waited, as her father did, for the girl to utter a suitable response. But only the wind and rain rattled the panes and echoed in the room.
"Elizabeth?" Reverend Parker prompted, his tone rose. Her lack of social graces even troubled her father.
The girl looked at her father, determination written in her features. "Good night," she uttered through clenched teeth.
Miss Parker vanished up the stairwell. A door slammed and then he and the rector were alone.
Markham cleared his throat and willed himself calm. "The wolves in London will eat her alive."
The reverend rubbed his eyes. "Then you must protect her."
"She does not want to go any more than I want her there."
"Then you have something in common."