He’ll break every rule for her…
She’s forbidden in every way…
Brandon St. Clair, the Earl of Vale, has never been one to follow the rules. Even though he must marry a wealthy heiress so that he can be rid of the pile of debt he inherited with his title, he can’t stop thinking of another. Amelia Somerton is the daughter of an art forger and is not a suitable wife. But that doesn’t stop Brandon from making Amelia a different offer, the kind that breaks every rule of etiquette…
Sin runs in Amelia’s family. And even though she now rubs elbows with the aristocracy, she knows the truth—she has the ability to forge priceless works of art. She’ll never be seen as an acceptable wife, not that she wants to marry, anyway. So when the earl scandalously offers her the one thing she’s always dreamed of, she can’t help but take it. But what begins as a simple arrangement, soon escalates into much more, and as the heat between them sizzles, each encounter becomes a lesson in seduction…
Amelia turned to the end of the sketchbook, and a single candle illuminated her most recent work, a rough sketch of Lord Vale’s handsome face. She’d captured a knowing glint in his eyes, a lazily seductive glance that had upset her balance more than once.
A soft knock on her bedchamber door startled her. She set her sketchbook aside, donned her night rail over her nightgown, and cracked the door to find the flesh and blood model of her sketch standing in the hall.
“I saw the candlelight beneath the door. I’m glad you’re awake,” he said.
Her brow furrowed, and she peeked around him. “Is something amiss with Chloe?”
“Then why are you here?”
“I thought to show you the secret passageway,” he said.
“Now? It’s well past midnight.”
“All the guests are asleep. It’s the perfect time.”
Perfect for him. He was fully dressed, from jacket and waistcoat to shined Hessians. He looked like he was ready for a ride in the country. Amelia was dressed in her nightclothes. Even though the fabric covered every inch of her skin, from the high neckline and long sleeves to her slippered feet, she still felt exposed.
“I’m not sure this is the best time to—”
“There’s no better opportunity.” He stepped inside and closed the door. “Your sister watches you like a hawk. My grandmother misses nothing.”
Amelia backed up a step.
“You’re not afraid, are you?” he asked.
Now that he was inside her bedchamber with candlelight flickering across his face, she had second thoughts. Could she do this? Could she be alone with a man for hours each night and paint his portrait? She didn’t fear physical harm from him. Her instincts told her she would be safe with him. But there were other disconcerting factors—a fluttering at the back of her neck and the wild beating of her pulse when he looked at her. And the way her heart seemed to rush to the spot on her hand or arm every time he briefly touched her.
“Let me show you the passageway. If you have second thoughts, you can back out of our arrangement. I’ll send a message straightway to Stirling at the Royal Academy that I am no longer in need of his services,” he said.
At the mention of the old, master painter, Amelia shook her head. “No. Show me.”
Art lessons were a once in a lifetime opportunity and she couldn’t let propriety or discomfort get in her way, no matter how highly attractive she found her subject.
A second passed, then two, before Vale nodded. “He carried his candle to the chest of drawers and held the light close to the paneled wall.
Amelia bent to look where he was indicating. “I don’t see anything.”
“Look close. Here,” he pointed to the molding at the base of the wall.
She saw it then. A small crack that was nearly invisible with the paint.
“If you press the lever by the molding, you will hear a click and the door will open,” he instructed.
Amelia ran her fingers across the molding until she felt a small lever. She pressed down and felt a latch release at the same time she heard a click. A door opened in the paneling, and darkness met her eyes.
Vale held up his candle, and the glow lit a passageway. “The passage leads directly to my study. Follow me.”
Amelia reached for her own candle and followed behind him. Candlelight flickered off the corridor’s walls and the hair on her nape stood on end. “How far is it?” she whispered.
“We’re almost there.”
She’d never liked small spaces and the corridor was dim and cramped. A trickle of sweat beaded between her breasts. Reaching out, she pressed a hand against his jacket between his shoulder blades. His strength and warmth beneath her palm kept any panic at bay.
“We’re here.” He lowered the candle to show her another lever to press. A door sprang open and she followed him into a room.
She took a deep breath and blinked as her eyes adjusted from the dimness in the corridor to the brightly lit room.
Three rows of bookshelves lined with supple leather volumes graced one wall. A large pearwood desk occupied the wall opposite a stone fireplace with a coal grate. The desk was covered with papers and a wooden globe rested on an end table.
But it was the two canvases on easels in the corner that caught her eye. A smaller canvas was for the Aelbert Cuyp landscape. The larger one, measuring five feet tall and three feet wide, was the exact dimensions for a portrait that she’d scrawled on a note and handed to his butler. Her wooden box of art supplies rested on an end table close by the canvas.
“Are they acceptable?” he asked.
“You can work here each night after the guests retire. No one but my butler and most trusted staff enter here. I often work late at night and they are used to my unconventional work habits.”
In the brightly lit room, Amelia’s concerns vanished. She could easily paint here for hours without threat of discovery.
“I have one question,” she said. “What was the secret passageway used for? Were the past earls of Vale involved in espionage on behalf of the Crown?”
His lips twitched in amusement. “Hardly such a noble cause. My great grandfather was profligate and his mistresses often visited Rosewood. The secret passageway was a convenient means for his lovers to come to him. I’m certain the tales have been exaggerated, but the corridor speaks for itself. Only a handful of people have ever known of its existence.”
She hadn’t expected such an explanation. She’d imagined spies and noble self-sacrificing men taking risks on behalf of their country. Not the illicit affairs of an old earl.
She motioned toward the door hidden in the paneling. “Then why does the passage lead to the study and not the master bedchamber?”
His smile turned up a notch. “Because my great grandmother, the countess, would have heard everything.”
“Oh.” Amelia’s face grew warm. Whatever answer she had expected it wasn’t that. A sudden thought occurred to her, and she eyed him with newfound knowledge. “You won’t be making any visits through the passage into my bedchamber.”
His placed his hand across his heart. “My vow as a gentleman. I’d never visit a lady’s bedchamber unless I’m invited.”
Heavens. The way he said it suggested he was often invited. Amelia felt a rush of heat across her skin. She hadn’t even started to paint him and she was thinking scandalous thoughts. She needed to maintain all boundaries.
Arching an eyebrow, she glared at him. “Since that will never happen, I will begin working tomorrow night, my lord.”
Best-selling author Tina Gabrielle is an attorney and former mechanical engineer whose love of reading for pleasure helped her get through years of academia. She often picked up a romance and let her fantasies of knights in shining armor and lords and ladies carry her away. She is the author of adventurous Regency historical romances. Publisher’s Weekly calls her Regency Barrister’s series, “Well-matched lovers…witty comradely repartee.”