Finding the extensive family at Aldershaw in complete disarray, Lucinda Stiles takes on the task of putting the house in order while trying desperately not to fall in love with the handsome owner, Sir Robert Sandifort.
The woman makes him mad as fire…
Sir Robert has never known a woman like Lucy Stiles before. She’s pigheaded, determined, and far too clever for her own good. But her efforts at restoring order to Aldershaw, his Hampshire home, force him to recognize her worth. Difficult circumstances within his family, however, hold him hostage, especially the desperate plight of his younger siblings under the thumb of their father’s widow. Lucy, however, seems able to manage the wicked step-mother and at the same time resolves a whole host of conflicts. Yet when it comes to Lucy, his own emotions are in an uproar. He desires her but why must she challenge him at every turn? Will he one day be able to understand her? Or will she grow tired of their quarrels and choose to create a new life for herself away from Aldershaw?
The man tears at her sanity…
Lucy has known Robert forever, but from the time she can remember they’ve quarreled, always butting heads over the smallest things. As his ward, she must remain in his house until she turns five-and-twenty in just a few short months, then she will be free to manage her inheritance on her own. But when she enters his unruly home, governed by the most selfish woman Lucy has ever known, she readily embraces the difficulties laid out before her. Yet, why must Robert continually set up her back? Worse, he insists at the most inopportune moments to kiss her, making her feel that maybe more resides for her at Aldershaw than she ever imagined possible. But beneath his hard exterior, does he truly possess a heart that can beat just for her?
~ ~ ~
The entire first chapter from GARDEN OF DREAMS!!!
Hampshire, England, 1817
Lucy Stiles made her way through mounds of overgrown shrubbery, returning to Aldershaw’s maze by her original path. If there was a more direct route to the house, she could not find it. So once again, she passed by the shaggy home chard before plowing through dense undergrowth to finally reach what was now an unrecognizable maze in the form of a tangle of yew shrubs.
She had just stepped into a clearing, which used to be the edge of a vast lawn, when she collided with the master of Aldershaw himself. “Robert,” she said. How quickly her cheeks grew warm.
“Lucy?” He stepped back. “I do beg your pardon.”
Did she see a look of welcome relief in his eyes?
“Hallo, Robert.” Had it really been three years? How different he seemed, yet wholly the same. How different she felt. “How do you go on?”
“Tolerably well, thank you.”
A sudden silence rose up between them. She wanted to speak but all she could think of at the moment was that he was as handsome as ever, more so if that were even possible. He doffed his hat and in doing so a strand of wavy black hair touched his forehead. She knew the most ridiculous impulse to lift it gently back in place. Instead, she clasped her hands in front of her. Unsettled by the familiar if ridiculous tendre she had always felt for him, and afraid the gap would become uncomfortable, she spoke hurriedly, “I know that I should have sought you out at once upon my arrival, but no one was about and I chanced upon your head gardener, Mr. Quarley. He insisted upon giving me a tour of the succession houses, which I must say were the only part of the grounds, save for the front drive, I found in tolerable order. I have been with him just now for this past half hour and more. Robert, the tales he told me of Aldershaw . . . I am still in a state of shock.”
He smiled faintly, settling his hat back on his head. “Quarley always did favor you, but do you mean to tell me he took you through this terrible tangle of vines and shrubs?”
She smiled and nodded. “I was not in the least afraid. Besides, he wished to show me some improvements he hopes to make in your gardens, once he is given permission, of course.” What would Robert say to that, she wondered.
He sighed. “I see he has been attempting to garner your support. I am well aware that he is grown frustrated that the acreage closest to the manor remains in this wretched state. However, I fear I cannot concern myself with his wishes at this point.” His gaze drifted over her gown. “I trust in all this rambling about you have not snagged or torn your skirts?”
“I do not think so,” she said, glancing down at the hem of her gown. Lifting her gaze to his face, she looked into his brown eyes and felt several butterflies flit suddenly about her stomach. How unfortunate that he was so very handsome and that, except for the anxious lines at the corner of his eyes, she thought he had never looked better. He was taller than most men and in her opinion had the perfect blend of lean athleticism and strength in his figure. His shoulders were broad, tapering to a narrow waist, and his legs were quite well turned. Whether in riding gear or formal black attire, he struck a commanding presence when he crossed any threshold, or appeared suddenly as he had just now, in a garden.
His face was bronzed, undoubtedly from riding about the estate, as Mr. Quarley had already told her he was wont to do for the majority of each day, but somehow his features seemed enhanced rather than diminished by the effect. His brows were nicely arched, his cheekbones high and strong, his nose straight, his jaw line a trifle mulish as it had always been, and his expression firm and confident. “You seem to be in excellent health,” she stated, a new blush rising on her cheeks. Could she not think of something more interesting to say?
“I am well,” he returned in an oddly quiet voice. He was staring at her but she was unable to determine in the least what his thoughts might be.
~ ~ ~
Robert Sandifort could not escape the quite poignant sensation he was presently experiencing at seeing Lucy Stiles again. He had been expecting her all morning, hoping to speak with her before the others in order to give some manner of explanation for what was going forward at Aldershaw. Now words escaped him, for all he could think was that he had forgotten how utterly beautiful she was, even wearing a frivolous bonnet with an enormous white ostrich feather curling over the front of the brim. Her features were far too delicate to bear the enormity of ostrich feathers and this one seemed inordinately grand.
Regardless of her hat, however, she seemed to have undergone some inexplicable change in the past three years. She had an air about her, which bespoke “the woman” rather than “the young miss.” Of course she was four and twenty now, no longer a chit just out of the schoolroom, but had her eyes always been so blue and her complexion nearly the color of cream and sublimely ripe peaches? Her features were as they had always been, utter perfection. Her brows were light and beautifully arched, her lashes thick and full, her lips sweetly curved and a lovely shade of pink, ripe for kissing, surely.
She pushed a blond curl away from her cheek and smiled, if faintly. “I confess I am happy to see you again, though I hope we may not brangle as we were used to do in the past.”
“I am certain we shall not,” he responded. The strangest urge, full of affection and perhaps something stronger still, came over him. He wanted to embrace her, even to kiss her. Good God, where had such a reckless thought come from? Not that he would in any manner act upon his thoughts or urges, however strong. Lucy Stiles was, after all, his ward. His guardianship of her, as ridiculous as that happened to be, was a relic from the bond between their military fathers, something that should have been altered in his father’s will when he became so ill. As it was, he was responsible for her until the end of the summer when she would turn five and twenty and come into her inheritance. After that she would be free to live however she desired.
“Robert, I must know,” she said, interrupting his reverie. “What has happened at Aldershaw these past three years? I was never more shocked by the sight which met my eyes when the carriage turned up the long avenue.”
He frowned. The question, as innocent and properly formed as it was, served to overset him. He desired nothing more of the moment than to strike something very hard with his fist. Dictates of his father’s will prevented him from acting as he desired, as he believed was right and proper. Worse still, the cause of all the trouble lay at the door of his stepmother, Lady Sandifort, who still resided beneath his roof. To Lucy, however, he could not say these things. Instead he expressed but part of the complexity of the problem. “My father was ill for a very long time, longer I believe than any of us knew. During that time, he allowed a great deal of his fortune to be drained away in rather useless pastimes—”
“You must be referring to the very tedious task of keeping Lady Sandifort content.”
“Did my sister, Hetty, tell you as much in her letters?”
Lucy nodded. “But Mr. Quarley also explained some things to me about your stepmother, that she ‘rules the roost,’ as he put it.”
“My stepmother,” he said bitterly. “She is but a year older than myself.” Lucy grew very quiet, perhaps in the face of his obvious frustration. “Well, I see that you are as perceptive as ever. As for Aldershaw, the staff is reduced to scarcely a tenth.”
“A tenth,” she said, obviously shocked. “Well that certainly explains much of the condition of the estate. I could not help but notice that all the furniture in at least two of the larger receiving rooms are covered in cloths.”
“Aye,” he returned, releasing a sigh. “I had hoped to make more changes once, well, once my father passed away, but the inheritance he left me had been depleted sorely.”
There was a great deal more to the situation than he felt he ought at present to say to Lucy. Lady Sandifort ruled the roost as his head gardener had so aptly put it, not just because she had used up most of the resources of the estate, but because his father had imprudently given Lady Sandifort power over his younger twin sisters, Anne and Alice, even to the arranging of their marriages, if she so desired.
How often had he heard her threaten to do so when she did not get her way? At least she was forbidden any such course of action until they reached their eighteenth birthdays, but there was nothing to stop her from having betrothal papers drawn beforetimes. There was only one circumstance by which her power could come to an end: she would have to voluntarily quit Aldershaw, something she absolutely refused to do. At least she had agreed to refrain from making known the exact nature of his father’s will, although he knew quite well she was simply waiting for the exact moment to reveal the truth to the twins. She was, if nothing else, calculating in every way.
Two of his siblings, Hetty and Henry, both knew of the conditions of the will, so they understood quite to perfection how frequently he was prevented from giving his stepmother the dressing down she so greatly deserved. At the same time, he could not bear to have this information known generally. He did not want either Anne or Alice learning the truth about their father’s truly hateful decision. It was hard enough that he was gone from their lives forever, but even worse that he had left each of their fates in the hands of a punitive, irrational stepmother.
There was only one ray of light through this dark expanse of clouds. For whatever his father’s reasons for having jeopardized the future happiness of his twin daughters, Sir Henry had assigned to Robert the legal guardianship of his three youngest children, the offspring of Lady Sandifort: Hyacinth, William, and Violet. Lady Sandifort had no hold on them whatsoever. She could make no decisions for them concerning their education, nor could they be removed from Aldershaw unless Robert gave his permission, something he would never do, not so long as he drew breath.
Robert sighed heavily and continued, “I have every confidence that in time . . . Oh the devil take it, you cannot know how frustrated I am.”
“Since your complexion has changed more than once upon the introduction of this subject, I believe I have a glimmering of understanding.”
Yes, Lucy was as perceptive as ever. “Beyond this,” he continued, “the house is quite overrun at present and what servants have remained are sorely overworked.” Instantly he regretted saying as much, since a new blush rose on her cheeks and a concerned light entered her eye.
“It was not by my choice that I am here,” she stated quickly. “And if I could change this ridiculous arrangement of our fathers, I most certainly would. But my solicitor said the will was quite explicit, that I must be under your roof until my birthday for a period of no less than three months if I am to receive my inheritance.”
“Yes, yes, I know. My words were thoughtless. When I said the house was overrun I was not in the smallest way referring to your arrival, but to others. My brother George, his wife Rosamunde and daughter Eugenia have been living here for the past two years, and without end I am begun to fear. But of course Hetty would have told you as much in her letters to you. Lady Sandifort remains ostensibly because of her children, but I vow I have never seen a lady with less affection for or interest in her offspring.” He regarded her for a moment thinking that he was very happy she had come and that he could not recall why it was they used to brangle. He could not remember.
Lucy frowned slightly. “I must know, Robert. Is Lady Sandifort as cruel to your sister, to Hetty, as she was used to be?”
“Abominably so, made worse because they are of an age. It is a daily trial for Hetty, who is, by the way, quite looking forward to your stay at Aldershaw. But Lady Sandifort is never content unless she has said or done something to cause my sister to fly into the boughs at least once during the course of a day. Yet, I must confess to a degree of frustration with Hetty. She still shows no interest in matrimony even though, despite being four and thirty, she is still the prettiest lady in four counties and commands all degree of notice and attention. Of course, it is quite helpful that she is well-dowered. At least my father was unable to touch the girls’ dowries. Hetty, Anne, Alice, Hyacinth and Violet, all are provided for.” He was aware he was speaking to her as though they had just met but yesterday and that they were the greatest of friends. He wondered how it was he had fallen so easily into conversation with her.
“I am glad to hear it. You have not spoken of Henry, though. Hetty wrote to me in the spring saying he was going to take holy orders.”
Robert felt nothing but disgust. “In May,” he said angrily. “He said he would do so in May, but nothing ever came of it and now it is June. He is one and thirty, he has lived in the same house all his life, he has refused the army, the navy, the law, and now it appears he is vacillating on the priesthood. I am out of all patience with him.”
Lucy shook her head, her concern obvious. “Does Henry not wish to be a priest?” she asked.
“I have not the faintest notion. I have never understood him. I never shall. He rides like the devil but has refused a hundred times my offer to purchase a pair of colors for him. But come, let me escort you back to the house. I know Hetty and the twins are longing to see you.”
He offered his arm and she took it.
“So, Hetty is still steadfast in her refusal to take a husband?”
“Quite so,” he said, wondering again why it was Henrietta, so pretty and lively, would have become a spinster. “She has a large enough dowry to tempt at least two hopeful suitors every year but she never allows any to approach her heart. I cannot for the life of me comprehend why she has not by now given up . . . that is . . . even if she had reasons earlier in her life for not marrying, I do not understand why she does not desire more than anything to have a home of her own, a family. Is that not what every woman desires?”
“I suppose to some degree, yes,” Lucy responded. “And I believe you are perfectly justified in your bewilderment. Hetty is a delightful creature. She would have made any man an excellent wife these many years and more. She’s not only good-natured but knows how to speak her mind when necessary, which I believe a lady ought to do.”
He glanced at her, at the openness of her countenance, and felt suddenly that he might be erring in encouraging so strong an intimacy between them. He thought it would be wise to shift the course of their conversation, so he teased her with, “This from an ape-leader of four and twenty?” He wondered if she would respond with her usual flash of eyes. He was not disappointed.
“An ape-leader, you say. How very provoking.”
He chuckled. “Nearly as provoking as that absurd bonnet you are wearing. Your features are far too delicate to bear the burden of one ostrich feather, nonetheless two.”
“How kind of you to express your opinion when I have not asked for it.” She lifted her chin.
“You demand an opinion merely by wearing that horrid bonnet.”
“And now my bonnet is horrid.” She withdrew her arm from his with a jerk. “That, Robert, is quite the outside of enough. I have not criticized your appearance, have I?”
“How could you when there is no need for criticism?” He stopped and threw his hands wide.
Lucy stopped as well, her eyes flashing dangerously. “I shall not lower myself to address the finer points of your toilette. However, if we are to discuss matrimony in its various forms I shall not hesitate to remind you that you have not married either, so how do you find the courage to recommend it to others or to judge them for refraining from it, as you clearly have done? Why have you never married?”
“Because I have no interest in taking a wife at present, though I suppose I must do so and that fairly soon, since it is certainly my duty to Aldershaw. Presently, however, I am far too busy to make a good husband.”
She snickered her disbelief. “These are paltry excuses. I shall tell you why you are not wed, Robert, and ’tis not because you are so occupied. The reason you have never married is because you are cross as crabs nearly all the time. No lady would have you.”
He narrowed his eyes in a manner he intended to be quite stern. “I see your tongue has not improved, Miss Stiles,” he stated.
“Nor has yours, since you have already begun to find fault with me.”
“Some things have need of correction.” He was not certain why the tone of their exchange had altered so completely. He remembered now that this was how they were used to speak with one another.
“Indeed,” she said. She did not flinch, not one whit, but remained standing before him as she always did when she came to Aldershaw, as though she owned every square inch of the property and all the inhabitants within. He never understood where her supreme confidence came from, save that he believed Lucy’s sire had been of a similar temper.
The deuced fellow could command a room merely by raising an eyebrow, his father had once said.
Well, if Lucy Stiles thought to pass off such tricks today or any other day during her present sojourn beneath his roof, she was greatly mistaken. “I suppose you mean now to stare me down,” he said, folding his arms over his chest.
“And now you are on your high horse because I told you why it is you are not married? I daresay you never even kiss one of your flirts except by permission.”
This was going beyond the pale, but to his credit Robert held his temper strongly in check. “If you think to get a rise out of me this morning, Cousin—”
“We are not cousins,” she said, interrupting him. “I would never, not even if sorely pressed, claim the smallest relationship with you.”
“As I was saying, Cousin, you shan’t get a rise out of me today.”
“I did not wish for any such thing. I was hoping for a kiss.”
He was dumbstruck and saw the provoking, challenging light in her sparkling blue eyes. “You were hoping for a kiss?” he queried, stupefied. Some part of him knew she was playing at her games again, but the mere mention of a kiss rattled his ability to be the habitually rational creature he knew himself to be.
“Yes, you ought to be kissed, you know,” she responded sagely. “Then you would not be so peevish most of the time, always hurrying to find fault. I begin to remember now why it was you and I brangled so much. You know, Robert, you should have had a wife long before this. You would have been a much more reasonable creature had you married, although I daresay you would have plagued the life out of her.”
“Much you know about it,” he retorted hotly. He realized vaguely she had hooked him into another fruitless argument, yet he felt powerless to resist engaging the battle. “There is not a lady of my acquaintance who would not be an impossible burden to bear were we to wed. ‘Why are we not in London this season? Why do I not have more jewels? Why cannot we purchase a townhouse in Brighton, Bath, Cheltenham, and . . . and York, for God’s sake.’ ”
“York? Of all the absurd starts,” she said, smiling broadly. “And may I inquire if this is a mimicry of your stepmama?” She also folded her arms across her chest.
“I was not referring to Lady Sandifort,” he said. He released his arms but could not keep his hands from clenching into fists. “I was merely referring to the vast array of those ladies with whom I am acquainted.”
“Then I am very sorry for you if you truly believe what you say.”
“You are no different.” These words served to drop the smile from her lips. Her arms fell to her sides as well and she, too, made a neat pair of fists. “I beg your pardon?”
“How many times have I heard you proclaim that you intend to marry a very wealthy man for only such a man could make you happy.”
“Oh, yes, just so,” she admitted, but she began to smile again, and her hands relaxed. “Oh, Robert, what a ridiculous fellow you are. I was very young when I said such things, and besides, I did not know precisely the nature of my own fortune at that time. But here, the day is too fine to be brangling and that so early, for it is not even ten o’clock. Instead let me cheer you up.” With that, she took sudden hold of the front of his coat, pulled him down to her, and quite brazenly kissed him full on the lips. “Better?” she asked, drawing back.
He could not help himself. Something about Lucy always brought the challenging beast out of him. The kiss had been a rather wonderful greeting, but he could not say as much. Instead he lifted a cool brow. “I have had better kisses from my pointer, Tess, but I thank you anyway.”
She rose to the bait. Her blue eyes flashed wildly once more and with her intentions sublimely clear, she untied the ribbons of her bonnet, removed the silly creation from her head, and dropped it to the weed-ridden grass below. She then took a stronger hold of his coat and even slung her other arm about his neck. She kissed him hard on the lips for a very long moment and he found himself a little more than intrigued.
When she drew back, she said, “You cannot possibly complain about that.”
She released his coat and was sliding her arm away from his neck, but he caught her firmly about the waist and did not let her disengage. At the same time, he tossed his own hat on the ground. “This is a very interesting game you have chosen to begin this morning, Cousin, only I wonder how deeply you are willing to play?”
She gasped. “Let me go,” she commanded. For the first time since he had known her, she appeared out of her depth. He did not, however, release her but instead kissed her, intent on proving that he was not hers to do with as she pleased.
~ ~ ~
Lucy was as mad as fire. How dare he hold her captive! She struggled against him for a very long time, realizing she had erred, that she had begun a wicked game she ought not to have and now she was suffering for it. She knew Robert as well as she knew her own thoughts and feelings. He was as stubborn as she, but far less temperate. She should not have kissed him even if her initial reasons had been quite harmless. Now, as she pushed against his arms trying to disengage herself from his strong hold about her waist, she could not conceive what had prompted her to so reckless a course.
The more she struggled, however, the tighter his hold became. At last she wearied and realizing she had lost the battle. She surrendered, allowing him to seek her mouth and give her the kiss she had been evading.
His lips were surprisingly tender, even though his arms were still a vice about her waist. As his tongue touched her lips, sending a shiver down her neck, she realized he was not going to be content with a simple kiss. No, his intentions became quickly obvious and she regretted anew that she had so brazenly kissed him in the first place.
She allowed him what he sought, parting her lips and allowing him to touch the deepest recesses of her mouth. How very wicked he was. She counted the seconds waiting for him to desist and leave her in peace, but he was clearly in no hurry to release her. She wanted to protest but she knew such protest was useless. There was only one thing to be done—she put her arm about his neck and returned his kiss, pretending to enjoy his horrid assault.
~ ~ ~
Robert felt so sweet a sensation of satisfaction and victory at the feel of her arm about his neck that he knew the moment had arrived in which he ought to finish the silly charade. Yet, suddenly, and for no comprehensible reason, he did not desire to end the absurd tug of wills. He was holding a beautiful young woman in his arms. She was kissing him warmly, even passionately, and for this moment all his cares seemed to vanish like chaff in the wind, swept away forever. What a tender peace filled him, something he had not experienced in a very long time, not for years.
He did not realize until this moment just how harried he felt. For a long time, extending at least two years before his father’s death, he had watched the estate decline without the smallest power to prevent its disintegration. Lady Sandifort had ruled his father and she had spent the Sandifort fortune, having collected a fine array of jewels while at the same time letting the estate take on the appearance of a neglected ruin. Though he now held the purse strings, every spare groat went not into his own house but rather into the estate farms, for repairs and improvements that the rent rolls might be enlarged. And still Lady Sandifort remained.
How glad he was that Lucy had come for all her games, trickery and mischief. How happy he was to be kissing her.
~ ~ ~
Lucy had thought he would let her go but he did not, though she felt his arm about her waist slacken considerably. She could then, withdraw, but some deviltry was working within her, and the knowledge that he had somehow become engaged in the kiss in a way that rather shocked her, spurred her on.
Only . . . she began to enjoy kissing Robert as well. So much so that she forgot just how much she was used to quarrel with the man kissing her so . . . well, passionately.
Her mind became fixed on the softness of his lips as he drifted them over hers. She thought of nothing else except perhaps that she had begun to feel warm all the way to her toes. How was it she had never known how pleasant Robert’s lips could be? The same lips that released so many sardonic words now seemed to be enchanting her heart. But how was that possible when Robert had no heart?
Awareness that she ought not to be kissing Robert dawned quite suddenly and she flew back from him as though he had just breathed fire. She gasped and did not close her mouth for staring at him. He did not speak either, but held her gaze in return, his mouth equally agape.
“Lucy,” he whispered suddenly, reaching for her.
She recoiled. “Good God,” she cried. “What on earth was that?”
His expression altered instantly and once more he was the arrogant creature she had known since she was a little girl. She did not want to hear what he might next say to her so she whirled about, caught up her bonnet quickly in hand, and ran in the direction of the maze. She had not gone far when she caught sight of Henry, Robert’s younger brother, approaching from the direction of the stables, to the east.
“Lucy,” he called after her. “Whatever is the matter? You appear as though you have seen a ghost. Lucy, is anything wrong?”
She could not answer him. Everything in this moment seemed wrong. Her thoughts were so jumbled that her brain felt as though a whirlwind had taken up residence in the middle of it.
You are in love with him. Her mind began to betray her with such thoughts and she had only one fixed intention of the moment: to escape.
She shook her head at Henry and turned the other direction, moving into the tangled depths of the maze.
“Lucy, wait,” he called after her. “There is something I would say to you. It is of very great importance.”
She did not stop to give him answer but continued wending her way through one uneven path of yew branches after another.
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More about Valerie King and her books!
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Valerie King has published over fifty Regency novels and novellas, primarily with Kensington Publishing and in 2005 Romantic Times honored her with a Career Achievement award in Regency Romance. Currently, she’s working on a Regency Historical, Sweet Regency novellas, and self-publishing her extensive backlist. She also writes paranormal and contemporary romance as Caris Roane.