What the Hart Wants – Emily Royal

“I’M NOT JESTİNG, sir. You’re now the thirteenth Duke Molineux.” Fraser drained his glass. The amber liquid burned his throat, and he choked and slammed the glass on the desk. “Is the brandy not to your taste, Your Grace?” The lawyer gave Fraser a look of smug disdain, no doubt considering whether a Highlander was fit to be called a duke rather than a savage. “I prefer moonshine myself, Mr. Simpkins,” he said. “Fraser!” Ma leaned forward; her brow furrowed with disapproval. Despite her age, she was still a goodlooking woman, but the presence of the black-clad cockroach of a lawyer, come to seek profit from the death of a distant relation, had tempered her good humor. Or was it the fact that Fraser had alluded to the illicit activities upon which their livelihood depended? The woman sitting beside Ma bore a different look altogether. Though a beauty, with hair as golden as hay in the sunshine, and eyes the color of heather, her expression reeked of ambition. Jennifer—beautiful, lush Jennifer—who’d parted her thighs more times than he’d corked bottles of moonshine. Ma’s face had twisted with horror as the lawyer related the fate of the twelfth duke. But Jennifer’s expression betrayed her greed. Jennifer used sex for her own ends.

She’d taken many lovers, pitting one rival against another to heighten their desire. But, on hearing that her current lover had inherited a title, her expression had changed from the indifference of a woman who toyed with a man’s heart, to the hunger of a woman seeking a prize. And that prize was him. There was nothing like the prospect of being a duchess to renew a weary woman’s vigor. Doubtless, she’d offer him the usual delights, which he’d sampled in her bedchamber, on this very desk and, if he recalled rightly, three times against the oak-paneled wall of the minstrels’ gallery. But never against the rock of his homeland, the hard granite which pulsed with the lifeblood of the highlands. He’d save that for the woman who won his heart if such a woman existed. But now was not the time to think of rutting. Before him lay the unpleasant duty of seeing to an English estate crippled by debt, if the newspapers were to be believed, and clouded by scandal. According to Simpkins, the twelfth duke had possessed tastes rivaling the Marquis de Sade, had drunk and whored himself into near-bankruptcy, and finally met his maker after falling out of the top floor window of a brothel.

With a sigh, Fraser signed the document. “Excellent,” the lawyer said. “Perhaps we might schedule our next appointment at my offices in London once you’re settled at Clayton House.” “Why would I want to go there?” “To assume your responsibilities, of course,” the lawyer said. “It’s the Molineux London residence. You must be anxious to begin overseeing the estate, and my fees are very reasonable.” The lawyer licked his lips in a gesture, almost mirroring Jennifer’s. Another individual who viewed him as a prize. “You imagine incorrectly, Simpkins,” he said. “But, sir,” the lawyer said, his features now showing desperation, “these matters need to be settled.

” “And they shall,” Fraser said, “in a manner, and at a time, of my choosing. Not yours.” “But…” “Be so good as to leave the papers with me, Simpkins,” he said. “My mother will show you to the door.” Ma rose to her feet and ushered the cockroach out. Jennifer’s smile broadened, and she leaned forward and ran a fingertip along the edge of her gown, dipping it into the valley between her breasts. “I think, my love, it’s time for a celebration.” Did she think he’d offer for her now he was a duke? If she thought to use him, she’d discover he was a much better player at that particular game. But for the present, her willing body would prove a pleasant diversion. With a smile, he rose to his feet, not bothering to disguise the bulge in his breeches, and swept aside the contents of the desk.

Chapter One Clayton House, London 1823 “HAVE YOU MİSSED me?” Lilah held out her hand, and the bird flew toward her and settled on her finger, dipping its head as if in welcome. One of the few remaining souls in a crumbling ruin which had been abandoned for four years. But that crumbling ruin provided Lilah with a haven from the incessant noise generated by her family who, now she’d embarked on her first season, insisted on trying to teach her propriety. Especially Dexter. Though Lilah loved her brother dearly, the increase in his fortunes had come hand-in-hand with a disproportionate increase in his desire to elevate their status in society. Wishing to sweep aside their humble origins, Dex had paid a considerable sum to fund Lilah’s debut, and he expected her to reward his investment with the dividend of a society marriage. Which meant she’d have to surrender her liberty to a man who valued only three things in a woman: Biddability, silence, and the ability to bear children. But unlike her brother, she had no burning desire to marry a title—or marry at all. The bird chirped, returning her to the present. “I’m sorry, my friend,” she said.

“Here, I have a treat for you.” She held up a piece of bread, and the bird pecked at it, ruffling its feathers as if in thanks. Ripples of iridescence shimmered across the creature’s back. The bird looked out of place in the aviary—a bright exotic prisoner among the dull, earthy colors of plants, which might once have conformed to aesthetics, but were now choked by ivy. Four years of neglect had turned Clayton House into a ruin, as if the soul of its late owner, the twelfth Duke Molineux, had permeated into the fabric of the building and rotted it from within. And well, he might. Lilah shivered at her childhood memory of him—a beautiful youth whose exterior concealed a blackened heart. Soulless gray eyes, which glittered with mirth at the discomfort of others. The whole line was rotten to the core. The first duke had earned his title from a grateful Henry Tudor after distinguishing himself in battle.

But his successors had gained notoriety, which increased with each generation. The tenth duke had narrowly escaped the gallows after a spate of murders. The eleventh had been killed in a duel within a week of inheriting the title after compromising six young women in a single night. As for the twelfth—he’d debauched his way around London before ending his life in the manner by which he’d lived it—drunk, naked, and in the arms of a harlot—leaving a penniless widow who’d been turned out of the estate before he was cold in his grave. Lilah lifted her hand, and the bird launched into the air and disappeared into the ivy. She would have freed it, but it would never survive in the wild. It had lost its independence, as she would lose hers if married. Why was it that a woman was expected to marry in order to find fulfillment? Could she not thrive as an individual in her own right, rather than as half of a pair? If Dexter expected her to yield her liberty, it would have to be with a man who saw her as an equal. And such a man did not exist, except, perhaps, Sir Thomas, who, for all that he was a baronet, at least appreciated the value of the lower classes. She scattered the rest of the breadcrumbs on the ground and stepped back to let the more timid inhabitants of the aviary seek their bounty in peace.

Closing the door behind her, she picked her way across the ground toward the main building. Clayton House was a large mansion built during the Jacobean era, but through the years, each incumbent had added layers of ostentation, as if to establish their superiority of rank. To Lilah, the building served a purpose, for it was a reminder of the evils of society. It served to inspire her Essays on Patriarchy, and it provided her with respite from Dexter’s admonishments and Dorothea’s attempts to turn her into a lady. She crossed the main hall and entered the library, where row upon row of books filled the shelves, their colors clouded with a thin film of dust, punctuated by occasional fingerprints, evidence of Lilah’s trespass. Plucking a book from the shelf, she traced the title on the spine, running her fingertips across the smooth surface of the gold embossing. Byron’s Hours of Idleness. Published when he was younger than her. Might her poems be published one day? What would it feel like to have her name embossed in gold on the spine of a book? She smiled at the notion of realizing her dream. A creak echoed outside, followed by a faint scratching.

The sounds of London always filtered through the air—a voice from the street at the bottom of the drive, the cry of a bird, or the soft creaks as the fabric of the house expanded and contracted in the ever-changing temperature as day turned to night, summer turned to winter. Or perhaps it was one of the many rats which resided in the bowels of the building. Lilah sat in an armchair beside the empty fireplace and opened the book. Reading should be a means to further a moral and spiritual education. But Byron’s words, written by a man renowned for debauchery, stirred unwelcome feelings in her body, and she closed the volume with a snap, coughing at the dust which tickled her nostrils. To succumb to the body’s desires was the first step to humiliation. And one only had to recall the fate of Lady Caroline Lamb or Augusta Leigh to understand the imbalance of society in favor of rakes such as Byron. She had no desire to suffer humiliation at the hands of such a man. Her first ball of the Season had shown her the dangers of doing so, when, in search of the dance partner Dexter had taken great pains to secure for her, she’d come across him in flagrante delicto with another. Which just went to prove that men of the aristocracy were not fit to rule the world.

She jumped at another crash—this time much closer. Someone was in the house. A ripple of fear raised the hairs on the back of her neck. She stood from her seat and looked around the room. Her gaze landed on a vase situated on a pedestal beside the window, decorated in bright, gaudy colors and embossed with gold leaf. It contained the ashes of the seventh duke. Perhaps, today, one of the cursed Molineuxs would prove himself useful in her hour of need. She picked it up, drawing comfort from its cold hardness, as she tried to dispel images of ruffians and brigands ransacking their way through London and murdering the innocent. She heard a curse right outside the door, which resembled a deep growl. The door handle turned, metal winking in the fading sunlight, and she lifted the vase over her head, ready to defend herself as the door swung inward.

* FRASER CROSSED THE front garden and stopped when the house came into view. It was worse than he feared. Clayton House was a bloody ruin. The cost of restoring it would reduce his funds to almost nothing. He cursed himself for not coming to London sooner, though there had been little point while the Excise Act was still being debated. But now that the Act had been passed, he could openly attract investors and customers, and show these London fops, that compared to a MacGregor single malt, French brandy was nothing more than horse piss. The building before him seemed to soak up the light, the windows, reproachful eyes staring blankly out. The light of the setting sun glittered on the glass, where some of the windows had been smashed. Perhaps he should burn it to the ground and start again. Or let the dissidents do it for him.

The newspapers had been full of stories of houses being ransacked. It seemed as if the Terrors in France had ignited bloodlust in the dispossessed, and a handful of riots had sprung up, resulting in the occasional nobleman finding himself standing outside a burning building in his breeches. One paper, the City Chronicle, even encouraged such behavior. Not directly, of course, but a careful editor could use language to incite unrest. Only last week he’d heard someone complaining in Whites about a new series of articles entitled Essays on Patriarchy. The author, a Mr. Jeremiah Smith, was nowhere to be found—most likely, too cowardly to write under his own name. The bastard had even made a reference to the Molineux lineage in his first piece. Though Fraser might agree that the previous dukes had earned their reputation as wastrels, such notoriety risked his chances of using the title to further his business prospects. A flicker of light caught his eye, then a shape moved across one of the ground-floor windows.

A trespasser. Or worse. The front door was ajar, and he pushed through it, wincing as the hinges creaked. He paused but heard no movement from inside. Wrinkling his nose at the smell of dust, damp, and rotting vegetation, he crept across the hallway. Patches of mold adorned the walls, and the marble statues guarding the doors had a greenish hue. As he moved deeper into the building, a noise came from behind a door to the right. Someone was there. In his house. The noise stopped, then he discerned faint footsteps.

They were too light to be those of a man. Perhaps a child was playing hide-and-seek. With a stern word and a clip on the ear, Fraser could dispatch him with little trouble. He pushed the door open. The walls of the room were lined with books, from floor to ceiling. A deep red rug lined the floor, its pattern illuminated by a thin ray of sunlight. Beyond, a pedestal stood by the window. It was empty. Presumably, someone had broken in and stolen whatever ornament had graced it. A sound came from behind, but before he could move, pain exploded in the back of his head, and he crumpled to the floor.

* THE UNCONSCİOUS MAN at Lilah’s feet seemed to have shrunk in size compared to the ogre which had emerged through the door. But nevertheless, he was a man, and a large one. Save the stubble on his chin, he looked every part the gentleman. A dark green jacket fitted his form like a glove, leaving little to the imagination regarding his athletic, broad-shouldered form. A wicked heat pulsed inside her body at the sight of his breeches through which muscular calves and thighs were visible to the point of wantonness. Polished black boots completed the ensemble, mud spatters evidence of his efforts to conquer the weeds and brambles surrounding the house. A man of tenacity. Thick, honey-colored locks framed a strong face with a high forehead, straight nose, and a square jaw, which could have been chiseled by Michelangelo. Her lips parted involuntarily as her gaze traced the line of his mouth. He let out a low groan and turned his head.

The sunlight caught the strands of his hair, igniting a flare of red. Then he opened his eyes. Her senses were assaulted by the most striking blue she’d ever seen. Two pools, the color of an ocean, stared back at her, and she took a step back. Until now, she’d always believed her brother to be the most handsome man of her acquaintance. But he was nothing compared to the specimen before her. Had she not felled him by her own hands, assuring herself of his mortality, she would have believed him a gift from the gods. He sat up, rubbing the back of his head and uttered an ungodlike curse. “Fuck!” Then he noticed her. A slow smile crept across his lips.

An uncomfortable heat bloomed across her body as his gaze caressed her form, and he made no attempt to disguise his frank appraisal of her. Then his lips thinned as his expression hardened as he spotted the shard in her hand—a shard to match the remnants of the vase on the floor. “What the devil do ye think you’re doing, foolish lass?” His voice, a low baritone, rumbled with a rich Scottish burr which resonated in her bones, and she drew breath, willing the cool air to temper the little pulse of longing. How could a man have such an effect on her? But the best way to fight fire was with fire—as she had learned years ago. He might be bigger and stronger than her, but he was only a man and, by the look of him, an arrogant one. There was nothing for it but to employ equal arrogance. She dropped the shard and folded her arms. “I might ask you the same thing,” she said. “This is private property.” “Is that so?” He held out his hand.

“Help me up, would you?” “I’ll do nothing of the sort.” “Frightened, eh?” A tone of amusement lightened his voice. “I’m frightened of no man,” she said. “Then ye’re a fool.” He rose to his feet and brushed the front of his jacket. A puff of dust swirled in the air, and he coughed. No—not dust, but the contents of the shattered vase. Unable to suppress a giggle, Lilah let out a snort. “What’s so funny, lass?” “The fact that the owner of Clayton House is blissfully unaware that a trespasser is currently breathing in his ancestor.” “I don’t understand.

” She gestured toward the shards. “The seventh duke has resided in that vase for almost two centuries. He weathered the great Fire of London, the riots against the gin taxes, a shooting inside his ancestral home—only to be felled at the hands of a woman defending his home.” “Not his home anymore, though, is it? The current owner would be within his rights to recoup the cost of that vase from the woman who broke it.” “I was defending myself against a trespasser!” she cried. “Are you the owner?” “I’m acquainted with the family.”

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