New York Times bestselling author Karen Hawkins writes a ravishing addition to an exciting series of romances touched by magic as old as time with additional stories from Stephanie Laurens, Suzanne Enoch, and Linda Needham, and future stories from Victoria Alexander and Susan Andersen.
A properly raised young lady rebels against the restrictions of both society and family when she meets a dark, dangerous, and wildly passionate man as they both fight to resist their forbidden love ... and the seductive pull of an ancient magic.
Miss Charlotte Harrington knows what’s expected of her. Properly raised and newly reminded of her duties after the unexpected death of her far-more-perfect twin sister, Charlotte is resigned to wedding the son of a near neighboring land owner and live a sedate and proper, respectable life. But Charlotte’s high spirits will not be contained and she yearns deeply for a life of adventure, excitement, and love.
When wild and untamed Marco di Rossi arrives at Nimway Hall, commissioned to carve a masterpiece for the family home, he finds himself instantly drawn to the far-from-subdued Charlotte. Despite the potential ruin to his own brilliant career, he cannot resist her spirit and beauty, nor the call of the deep, wild magic that resides within a mysterious and magical orb hidden deep in the walls of the ancient house of Nimway…
A historical novel of 57,000 words interweaving romance, mystery, and magic.
“Mannaggia la miseria! We are lost.” The servant, an elderly man with a shock of white hair and deeply tanned skin, and far rounder than he was tall, looked at the trees surrounding them as if he were offended by their very existence.
“I said as much an hour ago,” Marco di Rossi answered shortly. “But you’d hear none of it. In fact, we’ve passed that tree three times now.”
“Three times?” Pietro Luca, a master stonemason and an impossible assistant, cocked a disbelieving eye at the tree. “Impossibile!”
Marco’s black gelding snorted his disgust. Marco patted the horse’s neck and murmured, “True, Diablo. He will not listen to anyone.”
“I should have ridden with the cart to Nimway Hall.” Pietro scowled at the wood as if he had a personal grievance with it.
“I suggested that, too, but again you would have none of it,” Marco said shortly. As irked as it made him, he never took Pietro’s grumbling to heart. The stonemason was an old man, his hair so white it gleamed even in the shadow of the trees. No one knew his real age, including Pietro, although some said it was over ninety, although Marco thought it was closer to seventy, and even then he wasn’t certain.
However old he was, Pietro had one allegiance and that was to the di Marco family, which had rescued the Lucas family from poverty and given them decades of employment in a variety of tasks. Pietro, who’d been just a child when his family had been welcomed to the di Rossi estate after his grandfather had become head groomsman for the famous di Rossi stables, had learned the valuable art of stonemasonry, and had since taught everything he knew to Marco.
Marco had taken Pietro’s knowledge of stone and turned it into art. And thus the perfect partnership had been born.
Pietro sniffed loudly. “A shortcut, ha! The post boy at the inn lied. There is no shortcut. He’s probably even now laughing at me. Why I should hunt him down like the dog he is and slit his throat for—”
“Boh! You waste your time with that halfwit. We must find Nimway Hall. The cart will have arrived already and those fools cannot set up my workshop without instruction.” The cart had gone ahead with the two of Pietro’s assistants, brawny lads brought to handle the large marble slabs Marco would need to complete this assignment.
Assignment. Curse is more like. He hadn’t wanted to accept the overly generous offer from Mrs. Harrington to carve a ‘unique to my home’ marble fireplace to serve as a centerpiece for her dining hall. But Marco’s father, a famous painter in his own right, had pointed out that the English market was ready for a favorite Italian sculptor and it would be foolish to turn down an assignment from someone so well connected. Marco couldn’t disagree, especially after Mrs. Harrington casually mentioned that she couldn’t wait to share her new treasure with the Queen, with whom she had more than a passing acquaintance. It was one thing to sell one’s work for mere money. But a recommendation to royalty? Ah . . . that was something else.
Marco stifled a sigh and looked at the sun where it shone through the trees. At least the heavy mist was gone. That was helpful as it made the wood seem less . . . active. Marco grimaced at his own imagination. It was a normal wood, this. Slightly confusing, true, with its inclines and rambling pathways, but nothing more than that.
An owl hooted as if in defiance of his thoughts.
Pietro started and his horse pranced nervously. The horse, a fat but small piebald the stonecutter fondly called ‘Goliath’ after the animal’s unusually huge appetite, looked as if he was ready to bolt. So then so did his rider. “What’s an owl doing awake at this time of the day?” Pietro asked loudly, suspicion in his voice.
“Perhaps we woke him up, tromping under his perch over and over.” Marco stared at the tree from where the hooting had come. Odd, he remembered all of the trees in this clearing except that gnarled oak. The tree was twisted and turned as if it had fought untold elements, its leaves fluttering in the wind as if trying to shake off a bad thought. On impulse, Marco turned Diablo toward the crooked tree and rode past it, the owl hooting softly as they went. “Come, Pietro!”
Grumbling, the stonemason followed, Goliath snorting nervously. They pushed through some shrubs and the path appeared before them. Marco pulled up Diablo and grinned. “We’ve found the path again.”
“We found a path,” Pietro said in a flat tone. “I hope it’s the right one.”
“It is. I recognize that bolder.”
Pietro looked at the bolder, paled, and then made the sign of the cross. “That looks like a screaming face.”
“It does no such thing,” Marco said sharply, although now that Pietro mentioned it, the boulder did look a little like a screaming face. But only a little.
Still, it was more than enough for Pietro, who said in a dark tone, “There’s evil at work here.”
Marco chuckled. “You are ridiculous. What do you think will happen? The angel of death will jump out of the woods and eat you—”
A white mare burst onto the path before them, scattering leaves and twigs. A girl – for she could be no more than sixteen, if that – sat astride the huge horse, the voluminous skirts of her sapphire blue habit flowing about her. Diablo shied wildly, and for a moment Marco held the animal in check, but that damned knobby tree, which he’d thought well behind him, managed to get in the way. His cloak tangled with some low hung branches and ensnared him even more.
He was match for one or the other – the bolting horse or the tangling branches – but not for both. The horse reared and he, hampered by the tree branches, was thrown to the round.
With a thud, he landed on his back, the breath knocked out of him.
Moments passed where all he could do was stare up at the flecks of blue sky visible between the knotted branches and try and recover his knocked-out breath. It was then it happened – an apparition appeared, one as vivid as it was beautiful. A heart-shaped face surrounded by dark red hair tangled with leaves, freshly pinkened cheeks, and sun-kissed skin that contrasted with dark blue eyes shadowed by thick lashes. She was older than he’d thought, although not by much. If she was over twenty, he’d have been surprised. And she was every bit as beautiful close up as she was from a distance.
He’d once seen a painting in Naples of Venus arising from the sea, her long auburn tresses tangled with seaweed instead of leaves, although the goddess’s skin had been paler. The goddess now looking down at him obviously worshipped the sun and it became her greatly.
“Oh dear! Are you injured?”
Am I? He couldn’t breathe, and now he was seeing visions in blue.
“Oh my, you are so pale!” She knelt beside him. “Should I call for help?”
“No!” he managed to say, taking a shuddering breath. “I am fine, damn it.”
Her eyes opened wider at his words and she rocked back onto her heels. “You poor thing.” She spoke softly, as if to a child on the verge of tears, and then compounded his outrage by patting his shoulder.
He caught her wrist. The second his fingers touched her bare skin, a surge of pure, blazing fire ripped through him. His senses roared to life and he gasped, his gaze locking with hers.
Somehow, through a shocked haze of raw passion, they kissed. Later on, he’d wonder who’d started that kiss, him or her, because for the life of him he couldn’t remember. It was almost as if someone had placed a hand on the backs of their heads and pressed them forward until their lips had met. And meet they did, with a furiously hot-blooded passion that roared through them like a wild fire racing through a too-dry forest. They kissed deeply, as if they’d kissed a million times before, his hands buried in her silky hair as she clutched his coat, straining toward each other, desperate for more even as they consumed each other.
Her mount snorted noisily, breaking the moment, and their eyes opened and their gazes locked. The woman flushed and then gasped, her breath sweet on his lips. She broke free and scrambled away. “Oh dear! That’s—" Hand pressed to her mouth, she hurried to her horse, lurching a bit in her hurry. Once there, she clung to the saddle as that was the only thing holding her upright. “I—That was—I don’t—” She placed her hand over one of her flushed cheeks, as if trying to cool it beneath her palm.
Overhead, as if in approval, the owl hooted, and drew the woman’s bemused glance.
“We awoke him when we rode under his tree,” Marco heard himself explain as he climbed to his feet. Dio, what a kiss. He was still bemused by it, a state he was as unfamiliar with as being thrown by his own horse. What in the hell just happened to me?
Finding no answers, he dusted his breeches, newly irked by his clumsiness. He was glad to discover that other than his bruised pride, he hadn’t injured himself. Truth be told, that damned kiss had offset him far more than being tossed to the ground by Diablo.
The woman’s gaze flickered to the woods behind him, her brows arching. “We?”
Marco looked around but saw only Diablo standing a few yards away, stomping the ground to express his displeasure. Pietro and his grumpy mount were gone. That fool. Marco bit back an irritated sigh. “My assistant was here. He seems to have left in the madness.” It was more likely that Pietro’s horse had left, and had taken Pietro with him, but Marcus didn’t feel like explaining.
Marco turned back to the woman. “Of course, were he here, we would not have been able to share that kiss—”
“There was no kiss,” she said sharply.
“There. Was. No. Kiss.” Her gaze pinned him in place. “Not even one.”
“Wasn’t there?” he said in a cool tone, his hackles instantly raised. Why would anyone – this woman, much less – want to deny what had been so pleasurable?
“There was no kiss. There was only a . . . a mistake.”
“There was a kiss,” he replied stubbornly. “I know, for I was there.”
Her cheeks deepened in color and she refused to meet his gaze and instead looked into the air above his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She looked so proud, her chin in the air, her mouth set in a mulish line, that he found himself saying, “Fine. It did not happen.” He removed a leaf that clung to his sleeve. “If that is what you wish, then so be it.”
“I don’t even know how we came to—” Her gaze met his and he wondered if she might burst into flames, her cheeks were so pink. She shook her head. “It should never have happened.”
Marco shrugged and went to collect Diablo. He checked the horse’s legs for injuries, glad to see there were none.
Her voice, husky yet clear, broke the silence. “That’s a beautiful horse.”
“Thank you. I trained him myself.”
“What’s his name?”
“Diablo.” Marco led his mount back to the path.
“He is bold, that one. I can see it in his eyes.”
Diablo arched his neck as if he liked the compliment and Marco silently consigned his animal to the devil he’d been named after. As much as Marco wished it otherwise, the woman’s rich voice made him think of red wine that flooded the senses, delicious and intoxicating. Good God. One kiss and I’m befuddled. I must have injured my head in the fall. He ran his hand through his hair, searching for a tell-tale knot, but found nothing.
He realized she was watching him with a concerned expression and he dropped his hand to his side. Her horse whinnied, baring its teeth and then favoring him with a caustic look. “Speaking of horses, yours is exceptional, although she looks to be opinionated.”
The woman chuckled and fondly patted the horse’s neck. “You have no idea. Her name is Angelica.” The horse nuzzled her owner, but then turned its accusing stare back on Marcus.
“She is angry with me.”
“She’s very protective.” The woman’s gaze narrowed. “Your accent . . . You’re Italian.”
“What brought you to Nim—Oh!” Her eyes widened. “Good God, you cannot be the sculptor my mother has been expecting.”
The disbelief in her tone irked him. “I am Marco di Rossi. And you are?”
“Charlotte Harrington. My mother said a sculptor was coming from Italy and, as she had to leave, I was to be on the lookout for you.”
“Your mother is not here?”
“She was called to London, but she left a letter with instructions. I am to see to it that you have everything you need until she returns.”
“I won’t need much. I brought everything with me. The wagon carrying the marble and my tools should have already arrived.”
“I’m sure it has. I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you. You didn’t look the way I expected.”
“Oh? And how does a sculptor look?”
“Like—” She bit her lip. “It’s just that you’re dressed so . . . ” Her gaze traveled over him, touching on the square cut emerald pin set in his cravat, the silk waistcoat embroidered in silver, and the expensive lace that fell over his wrists. “You’re so fancy,” she blurted out.
He choked back an impolite word. Fancy? What in the hell? No woman had ever called him such a thing. “I beg your pardon?” he said stiffly.
“You’re dressed like a . . . a . . . well, a gentleman.”
He was a gentleman, but that was none of her concern. He said in a sharp tone, “Surely a sculptor may dress as he wishes.”
“Of course you may,” Miss Harrington said hastily, her brow creased as she continued to stare at him the same way he imaged she might watch a dancing monkey. “I’ve met only a few artists,” she confessed, “but none dressed so fashionably. It would be so sad to see such lace dirtied.”
“I do not wear this when I work,” he retorted.
“Good, although, if you wanted to, I suppose you could tuck your cuffs up and wear an apron of some sort or even—” She caught his expression and had the grace to flush. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be speaking. I don’t know anything about sculpting.”
“So I’ve noticed,” he returned in a dry tone, although his irritation softened a bit at her honesty. The sunlight filtered through the trees above and shimmered in odd patterns over her hair and face. She had a fascinating face, this awkward woman who seemed determined to blurt out every thought that flickered through her mind. She was beautiful, not in the traditional sense, but in a unique way that drew the eye and captured the imagination.
He curled his fingers against the desire to reach into his saddlebag for paper and charcoal and watercolors, which he used when designing a new project, for everything about her invited him to capture her on paper – the warm color of her skin, the curl of her deep red hair in contrast with the green leaves scattered throughout, the stubborn line of her jaw, her bold nose, the curve of her cheeks, and the delicate line of her neck. Even more fascinating was the hint of sadness to her mouth, a tragedy unspoken. Whatever it is, I must draw her.
She filled his senses like good brandy, smoky and defiant and intriguing. And every second he spent in her presence, his determination grew to capture this wild beauty and make her his own . . .