Romancing the Rogue – Erica Ridley

A gust of cold ocean wind from the black depths of the horizon swept across the encroaching night. The gale shrieked through the lonesome turrets of South Cornwall’s most carefully avoided stronghold: the soaring monolithic stones of haunted Castle Keyvnor. From the day the castle had been constructed over six hundred years earlier, generations had been plagued by ill fortune. Some of the villagers claimed the grounds— and its inhabitants—were cursed. A few had even met their untimely demise within the castle’s dank walls. Only a fool would willingly cross the ancient stone threshold into shadowy depths from which one might never return. At two-and-twenty years, Miss Rebecca Bond was nobody’s fool. She was, however, desperate. And destitute. After five long years of living virtually unnoticed within the countless nooks and crannies of Castle Keyvnor, she’d come to think of it as her home. Until now. Rebecca aligned her billiard cue with the blood-red carom on the felt-topped table and drove the ball into its cushion with one strike. As with her other shots, systematically knocking the carom ball into a series of cushions with a single strike no longer brought a flutter of pleasure. She was too worried about losing her home to care about a record six-month streak of successful billiard shots. Besides, no one knew about her record.

Other than a handful of servants, few souls recalled an orphaned miss named Rebecca even lived at Castle Keyvnor. Including its current master, the Earl of Banfield, who lay upstairs in his sickbed. The elderly earl was not expected to survive the night. Even on his deathbed, Lord Banfield’s bedchamber brimmed with life. Maids, footmen, surgeons, the vicar, even the heir apparent to the earldom…and to Castle Keyvnor. A shiver snaked down Rebecca’s spine. She might not have a home much longer. Time was running out. The old earl might not remember the slip of a girl he’d allowed into his sprawling castle after her parents had died, but Rebecca was reminded of that kindness every moment of her life. She quite literally owed the roof over her head to his largesse…and his forgetfulness.

She placed her billiard cue back in its stand and carefully arranged the balls for lagging, as if she had never touched them. When the billiards room appeared as undisturbed as every other abandoned chamber, she slipped out into the dark corridors to make her way toward the kitchen. Because so few inhabitants of the castle registered Rebecca’s presence, she had not only dined alone these past five years, but had also been obliged to forage for her own meals. At first, she had expected the vanishing bits of bread and cheese or the sudden appearance of raisin biscuits in the oven to raise eyebrows amongst the scullery maids. But once she realized that the staff attributed the random appearances and disappearances of foodstuffs to interference by any number of the castle’s meddlesome spirits, secretly helping servants keep the castle in order became something of a game. After all, an orphaned spinster needed something with which to occupy her time. The billiard room and the sumptuous library were Rebecca’s favorite haunts, but she believed it bad form even for a forgotten guest to devote herself solely to her own entertainment. The least a poor relation could do was tidy up after herself and ensure that her presence caused no undue burden upon the staff. Tonight when she slipped into the kitchen, the cook—Mrs. Woodbead—was nowhere in sight, but an exhausted scullery maid slumped fast asleep next to a table full of halfpeeled apples.

Rebecca’s stomach gave a happy growl. Mrs. Woodbead’s apple pies were exquisite. The missing cook had likely dashed upstairs to receive any last minute instructions from the earl’s sickbed. Without waking the scullery maid, Rebecca cleaned, cored, and peeled the rest of the apples. She gave them a quick rinse of honey water to keep them from turning brown before the cook returned to the kitchen. To save room for pie, Rebecca ate a light repast of cheese and bread before heading back toward her guest chamber, where a stack of accounting journals awaited her careful eye. When the elderly Lord Banfield had fallen ill, he could no longer audit his steward’s accounting entries into the estate journals. Rebecca, however, had nothing but time on her hands—as well as a fine head for figures. She had even found a few tallying mistakes in previous years’ journals, and had taken to leaving the steward unsigned notes requesting his prompt attention to each discrepancy.

After inhabiting the dark recesses of the castle for half a decade, Rebecca wasn’t the least surprised when the steward obeyed each mysterious command as if he had been reprimanded by the earl himself. If the rebukes did not come from Lord Banfield, the steward undoubtedly presumed he was being targeted by the restless soul of a deceased castle guest…and truly, which was more frightening? ’Twas little wonder the Banfield accounts had never been in better form. She tucked a stray tendril of hair behind her ear. Minding the books was one of the countless small ways in which she attempted to earn her keep. But the hour of reckoning drew near. Given that all her acts were performed anonymously, what worth did she have in the eyes of others? A woman who was rarely glimpsed could scarcely expect her efforts to be acknowledged. She sighed. A life of seclusion had done well for her these past years, giving her the time she needed to make peace with her grief and find solace in solitude. In fact, she quite preferred to be alone. She enjoyed being Lord Banfield’s unsung woman of numbers, a secretary so secret even the earl himself had no clue.

She liked being mistaken for one of the many castle ghosts when she helped cook or clean or ironed a bit of laundry. And when the day was done, she loved quiet evenings curled up with a book by the light of the library fireplace. After all this time, she finally felt like she had a home again. Like there was somewhere she belonged. She paused outside her chamber door and decided to turn instead toward the earl’s sick quarters. Lord Banfield might not remember his great-niece still resided on the castle grounds, but Rebecca often stood in the shadowed corridor with her back to the wall, praying for his swift recovery. As she neared her usual haunt, the earl’s door flung open and a horror-stricken chambermaid staggered out with her hands clapped over her pallid face. “Mary, what is it?” Rebecca asked, although a pit was already forming in her stomach. She feared the worst. Nonetheless, Rebecca reached a calming hand toward the maid.

“Are you all right?” “Milord is…dead,” Mary gasped. “I hope his spirit is not trapped here with the others.” The disconsolate maid ran off down the hall before Rebecca could react. Not that there was any comfort she was in a position to offer. The castle servants all had contracts. Steady wages. Letters of recommendation. Rebecca had nothing. Two men strode out of the sickroom. She recognized them at once.

The pale, gaunt man on the right was Mr. Timothy Hunt, the earl’s solicitor, who had spent several days by the earl’s sickbed, helping him refine his last will and testament. The dark-haired, middle-aged man on the left was Mr. Allan Hambly, the heir apparent. No, not the heir…the new Earl of Banfield. As of this moment, Allan Hambly was now lord of the castle—and the new master of Rebecca’s fate. Both men stopped short when they saw her. “Who is this?” the new Lord Banfield asked. The solicitor’s brow furrowed, as if he had almost recognized Rebecca’s face, but couldn’t quite place her. Very well.

She straightened her spine. This was bound to happen sooner or later. Might as well get on with it. “I am Miss Rebecca Bond,” she said quietly. “The late earl was my great-uncle.” A befuddled pause stretched along the dark corridor. “You don’t mean… Agnes’s daughter?” Lord Banfield asked in surprise. She nodded shyly. He remembered! Rather, he’d remembered her mother. “I am your niece.

” “But what the devil are you doing here?” the new earl demanded in obvious bafflement. “Banfield’s only just passed. We haven’t even addressed the announcements, let alone sent for family.” “I—I live here,” Rebecca admitted. The pit had returned to her stomach. She would not be hurt that her mother’s brother had completely forgotten her after the death of her parents. Heirs were busy being important. She did not want his attention. She merely wished to be left alone in the castle. “Live here?” Lord Banfield spluttered.

“You can’t live here. I am already responsible for five daughters and a wife, which are more than enough females for any man to contend with. I cannot possibly take on another.” “You don’t need to ‘take me on,’” Rebecca explained earnestly. This was the opening she’d needed! “I am long used to tidying after myself, and I shan’t trouble you in the slightest. You won’t even know I’m here.” “Won’t even—” He burst into laughter. “Why, that’s no life for a lady, and everyone knows it. What you need is a husband, girl. The sooner, the better.

Mr. Hunt will read the bequests on the first of November, after which my daughters will expect me to direct my full attention to their dowries and trousseaus. You must be wed by then. It’s the only fair solution.” Rebecca’s mouth fell open in horror. Wed within a month? The only fair solution? It wasn’t any sort of solution at all! Not only was there no one she’d care to wed—well…not anymore—there were certainly no gentlemen interested in marrying a bookish orphan without a penny to her name. “The will,” she gasped. There had to be another way. “Perhaps you needn’t worry about my wellbeing at all. Lord Banfield—” “—did not mention your name in his bequests.

” The solicitor accompanied this pronouncement with a kind look, surely meant to calm impending female hysteria. Rebecca hadn’t been this far from calm since the last time she’d lost her home, after her parents’ accident. But she had never been prone to hysteria. Her escapes from reality were always in plans and schemes and numbers. Although it didn’t always work. Her plot to keep to the shadows in order to live in the castle indefinitely had served perfectly well—until “out of sight” meant “out of mind” when it came to the prior earl’s will. The reality of her situation wrapped cold tentacles about her heart. “You cannot mean to toss me out on my ear,” she begged. “I intend to marry you off, girl. I daresay that’s hardly ‘out on your ear.

’” Lord Banfield stared at her as if she’d gone mad. No—it was perhaps worse than madness. It was sanity. The bleak loss of freedom. Up until now, she had been mistress of herself. As a wife, however, she would lose all autonomy. Her independence would be gone forever. A flash of lightning lit the corridor, followed by a crack of thunder that shook the very walls. As it always did on nights such as these, the icy ocean wind shrieked through the castle turrets like the high-pitched wail of a madwoman. Lord Banfield’s cheeks blanched at the eerie sound.

“Honestly, child. You cannot wish to stay here. No reasonable person would.” Rebecca swallowed. Castle Keyvnor had been the last place she’d wished to visit when her parents had first proposed the idea five years ago. Back then, her life had been full of laughter and joy. Seventeen years old and the light of her parents’ eyes, her first London Season had been everything Rebecca had dreamed. Until her childhood friend and the love of her life—the delectable and devilish Daniel Goodenham, Viscount North-Barrows—had given her the cut direct at the height of the Season. After leading her to believe that between them was something more. She’d been too distraught from his cruel rejection to even consider putting herself forward with other men.

When her parents despaired, she’d reminded them there was always next Season… Except next Season never came. Lord North-Barrows might have been the first to forget about Rebecca, but it had taken no time at all for everyone else to do the same. Day by day, she’d faded from everyone’s memories. Now that the new earl had been reminded of her existence, she was nothing more than a problem to be fixed. An error to scrub away as quickly as possible. “I’ve nothing with which to attract a husband,” she said dully. If her own family could forget her, attracting a suitor was impossible. “I haven’t so much as a ha’penny. And every frock I own is five years out of style.” “Piffle,” Lord Banfield scoffed.

“I’ll give you a dowry, of course. Five hundred pounds should do. Plenty of men would wed a sack of grain for less.” How complimentary. Rebecca pressed her lips together. Her attractiveness as a wife was comparable to marrying a sack of grain. Was it any wonder she preferred to be left alone? And yet…that much money could completely change her life. “If I were to live very simply,” she mused aloud, working the financial details out in her mind, “five hundred pounds might be enough for me to live on my own as a woman of independence.” “You don’t get the five hundred pounds,” the earl reminded her impatiently. “It goes to your husband.

” “You could give it to me instead,” she said hopefully. Such a neat solution would grant her the independence she craved without causing her to be a burden on anyone else. “And have you spend the entire sum on tiaras and fur muffs?” He laughed. “Come now, child, I’m far too practical to blunder that badly. You would be penniless in a fortnight. Have you forgotten I live with six ladies of impeccable taste? What you need is a strong hand, I’m afraid.” Not as afraid as Rebecca was. The last thing she needed was a husband. For the past five years, she had got by without anyone at all. She’d missed her parents, of course.

Dreadfully. And at first, she’d even missed other people. But when her year of mourning concluded, she’d had no money to return to London and no sponsor to accompany her to another Season. More importantly, by then the idea of trying to fit in with the fashionable set no longer interested her. She held no desire to be among silly people, or have Lord North-Barrows’ sharp tongue flay her anew. The castle was her home now. Or had been. She straightened her shoulders. “You cannot possibly expect me to find a husband inside of a month. It cannot be done.

You are a practical man. If marrying off women were that simple, your eldest daughters would be wed by now.” The new earl frowned. “If you insist upon a Season at your advanced age, you may attend with my family in January. But my focus, as you correctly point out, must be on my own daughters. Your wardrobe and entertainment costs will be deducted from your five hundred pound balance, leaving you very little with which to attract a husband. You would need to charm him fast.” Rebecca’s fingers curled into fists as she fought to hold her tongue at this rebuke. Blast it all, her uncle’s assumption that she could not attract a suitor without aid of a dowry hurt only because it was true. She had learned that much during her sole, ill-fated Season, in which Lord North-Barrows had been too embarrassed to be seen with her in public.

Suffering through another London Season would be a living hell. “There has to be another way,” she whispered. Lord Banfield brightened. “If you don’t want a Season, we can have the thing solved in no time. Surely a village like Bocka Morrow must have at least one bachelor in want of a wife?” Rebecca’s stomach churned. She would have no more chance for happiness with one of the local fishermen or wayfaring smugglers than she would with the London crowd. She didn’t fit in anywhere. What she wanted was her independence. Not a husband. Just the freedom to be herself.

“Please, Uncle.” She clutched her hands to her chest, fully prepared to beg. “Could you please give me the money outright? I promise never to return, asking for more.” He laughed jovially and gave her a kind pat upon the shoulder. “Of course I cannot. The very question proves how silly women are. How would you pay your bills? Everyone knows females aren’t good with figures.” A bolt of impatience flashed through her. “Who do you think has been auditing the books?” she snapped without thinking. The solicitor’s stricken face swung in her direction.

“It wasn’t a ghost?” “I daresay a ghost would do better at accounting than a woman,” Lord Banfield put in disapprovingly before Rebecca could answer. “I won’t stand for any such meddling, young lady. Now that I’m the earl, you are forbidden from even touching any of the journals. I take care of my business myself. Starting with you. If you wish to make your own decisions, then turn your pretty head to selecting a husband.” “And…if I can’t find one?” she stammered with dread. “If you aren’t wed before the start of the Season and cannot bring anyone up to scratch before your portion runs dry, then you leave me no choice but to do the selecting myself. If you haven’t chosen a husband by the end of January—I’ll choose for you.” She tried to hide her shiver as a chill went down her spine.

He nodded at the solicitor. “Now if you’ll excuse us, we’ve invitations to address, and then I must collect my wife and daughters. Dozens of guests will be arriving for the reading of the will. Lady Banfield will wish her family to be settled first.” Rebecca stepped back as the two men swept past her. When they disappeared down the corridor, she sagged back against the wall and tried to calm her heart. Three months. She had only until the end of January to find a sweet, not-toodemanding suitor delighted to have her dowry—and happy to leave her alone. She swallowed. Perhaps Bocka Morrow would be a fine pond to fish in.

She could stay in the country, far from London. And her husband would be gone all day, doing whatever it was country husbands did. Such a marriage could be bearable after all. Provided she could arrange one within three short months. Her fists clenched. She could not allow her uncle to choose for her. He’d pick some dreadful London fop, or an ancient roué, or a self-important, fickle rakehell like that arrogant Lord North-Barrows…who undoubtedly topped the guest list for the reading of the will. Not just because he was related to the prior earl’s sister. But because everyone who knew Lord North-Barrows, loved him. Once, Rebecca had too.

She leaned the back of her head against the wall in despair. What hope had she of even attracting a country gentleman? Even her alleged friends had turned from her ever since the moment of Lord North-Barrows’ public cut. In fact, Rebecca had been hurt so badly that she was relieved at first when her parents didn’t have the funds to give her a second Season. But they loved her too much to give up.

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