Dark Obsession - Book #1 in Blackheath Moor Series
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Signet (May 6, 2008)
They say that spirits haunt Blackheath Moor.
They wed in haste-Nora Thorngoode, to save her ruined reputation, and Grayson Lowell, to rescue his estate from foreclosure for unpaid debts. Each resents the necessity to exchange vows that will bind them for all time, and yet from the first, passion flames between them. quickly engulfing them in a sensual obsession.
But soon the lover that Nora married becomes a dark stranger to her, a man torn apart by guilt over his brother Tom's recent, mysterious death.and driven half-mad by ghostly specters who demand that Gray expose the truth. Has Nora married a murderer whose wicked deeds blacken everything around them? Or, together, in the secret passageways of Blackheath Grange and along Cornwall 's remote coastline, can Gray and Nora discover what really happened that terrible night.and in setting free the troubled ghosts, free themselves as well?
Today promised to be a day of singular distinction - indeed the finest day of Honora Thorngoode's life. In a few short moments she would finally step out from behind her parents' long and admittedly awkward shadows and become her own person, recognized and possibly even admired by those who had discreetly snubbed their noses at those "upstart Thorngoodes" all her life.
Best of all, she would achieve the one thing she'd craved as long as she could remember, a thing she dreamed about and rehearsed, alone in her bedchamber, since she was a little girl.
Upon arriving at the Marshall Street Art Gallery, however, the upsurge of anticipation that had buoyed her while dressing that morning and prevented her from eating so much as a morsel at breakfast ebbed liked the seaward tug of the Thames.
Two strides in and she sensed an appalling lack of everything she had envisioned for this moment. There should have been exclamations, applause, glasses of champagne....
The gallery should have teemed with admirers of Signore Alessio di Paolo's masterpieces. Oh, the ton had arrived en masse to be sure. Yet the Italian master's oils proclaimed his genius to empty air, while a veritable throng stood crowded into a single corner of the gallery, their huddled figures concealing from view the single artwork that had so utterly captured their attention.
An abrupt and deadening silence blanketed the room as the street door closed behind Nora and her parents. As thick as cheese that silence, as heads turned and stares fell like tumbling dominoes upon her face.
Oh yes, something was very wrong indeed.
As the seconds ticked by she scanned the faces for a smile, a wink of encouragement. She found none, only an awful gawking that scalded from head to toe.
Surely her Portrait of a Southwark Madam, the one Alessio had promised to include in the viewing, could not have engendered so much controversy, so much...enmity. But even as the thought formed, the collective horde of judgment across the room stiffened and, seemingly as one, took a decisive shuffle backward as if to put as much distance as possible between them and her.
Was her painting as wretched as all that?
She darted a glance to her right. Her mother's expression held its usual mingling of self-satisfaction and simpering opportunism. Millicent Thorngoode had never approved of Nora's connection to Signore Alessio. For years now she had bemoaned Nora's dabbling in a man's occupation, as she'd put it, and disdained with wearisome sighs the paint that always found its way beneath Nora's fingernails. Still, Mama had hoped today might present her daughter in a more fashionable light. Might even, with a bit of luck, entice some eligible young bachelor to offer for her.
At the moment Nora wasn't feeling particularly fashionable, nor did a blessed one of those glares seem in the least bit enticed.
Her father, flanking her left side, perceived it too, or his rough-hewn features would not have realigned so instantly from a moue of indulgent pride to one of icy challenge, as if daring the first insult to fly.
"Where on earth is Signore Alessio?" Her mother's query jarred the stillness. A speculative fluster fanned through the crowd.
Where indeed. Alessio should be here to greet his guests and admirers, and to unveil the painting he had praised as Nora's first true masterpiece. What manner of ill fortune would have kept him away today of all days?
She had one choice - only one. Proceed with chin held high across that gallery and learn what everyone else so obviously knew, or at least apparently agreed upon.
The assemblage parted at her approach, slowly opening a narrow path that lengthened with each step she took. Her parents trailed behind. Ahead, through the spreading crowd, the colors and shapes imprinted on a rectangular canvas began to take form - a form categorically not that of A Southwark Madam.
The Madam's portrait contained no sweeping expanses of crimson, nor did its colors fade into dark, velvety oblivion at the painting's edges as this one's did. Within the scarlet tones of this work, strokes of fairest rose blended with smoothest ivory. A sheen of gold added luster to a swath of rich chestnut....
"He's a dead man!"
Zachariah Thorngoode's shout drowned out Nora's strangled cry, an outpouring of dismay that left her mouth agape. Eyes aching in their sockets, she gawked - like her audience - at a portrait depicting, in mortifying detail, her very self sprawled on satin bed linens, as naked as the day she entered the world.
Horror bloomed, ran riot within her. The images seared like molten lead that solidified in the pit of her stomach. Good gracious, the thighs were parted, breasts exposed...one hand cupped her private parts...the other arm - long and slender like her very own - stretched behind her head, fingers tangled in locks of hair....
Within seconds, indignation worked its way past her dumbfounded shock. "I didn't. I never. That is not me."
Across the room, a brocade curtain swept open to reveal the stout figure of Signore Alessio. With a tug on his tailcoat he stepped forward. One decidedly feminine hand extended toward her, a rose balanced on the ends of his long fingers.
"Now you see how much I love you," he said in his accented English. His gaze shifted. "And now you, Signore and Signora Thorngoode, have no choice but to allow me to marry your daughter."
"Then by the devil she'll be married and widowed in the same instant!"
Her father's pounding footsteps and Alessio's scampering ones muffled but did not entirely mask the swish and thud of Millicent's senseless body swaying then hitting the floor.
Beyond a doubt this had proved the worst day of Nora Thorngoode's life.
"Immediately." Millicent Thorngoode's high-pitched pronouncement reverberated up the parlor's walls. The crystal chandelier above their heads tinkled, a sound as brittle as Nora's taut nerves.
"Now, Mama, we mustn't act rashly."
"Rashly?" Her mother's hand flew to cup her forehead as if in preparation of repeating her earlier swoon. "You're a fine one to speak of acting rashly. Perhaps you should have considered the notion before posing-"
"It wasn't me-"
"Nude and shameless for all the world to-"
"I did not pose for that portrait!"
At a warning twitch of her father's eyebrow, she bit down on her tongue and laced her fingers tight, as if that might rein in her galloping anger, her staggering frustration.
Oh, how could that man have done this to her? Perhaps she shouldn't have raced after Papa at the gallery; perhaps she should have allowed Alessio to meet his just end for disgracing her...
It was several breaths later that she trusted herself to speak. "As I've explained countless times, Mama, that portrait came entirely from Alessio's imagination. I had no part in it. We therefore needn't speak of marriage-"
"There's no other way, Nora." Her father scowled. "Real or imagined, this debacle has struck your reputation an irreparable blow. By Christ, there can be no recovering from this. If only the whoreson hadn't slipped off to God knows where, he'd be supping with the devil this very moment."
Nora reached across the table and slipped her hand over his, the thick-veined, coarse-haired hand of a commoner. "Papa, he did slip away, didn't he? I mean, you haven't..."
Her mother's palm slapped the tabletop. "Of what are you accusing your father, Honora?"
She chewed her lip. Nearly all her life she'd heard whispers about her father's transportation across the world as a young man convicted of thievery; how he'd escaped the Australian penal colony and fought his way back to England via the Americas with the makings of a fortune in his pockets. Once home, he had allowed no one to stand in his way as he forged a veritable golden path from one end of London to the other, or so the rumors had it.
She had always wondered what, precisely, people meant by his not allowing anyone to stand in his way....
With a sigh, she stared into her father's murky blue eyes and answered her mother's question. "I am not accusing Papa of anything."
"Trust me, sweeting." His gravely voice gentled as it once had when he'd soothed her childhood hurts or lulled her to sleep. "Wherever that scoundrel may be, as God is my witness he arrived there by his own power and not mine."
Her gaze fell and she nodded.
"He's likely halfway to Florence by now, if he knows what's good for him." Her mother plucked a pear from the Meissen bowl at the center of the polished walnut table. Juice sprayed as she bit into the fruit; more dribbled onto her chin as she said, "And you, child, will be married just as soon as your father and I can find a suitable groom."
"A suitable groom?" Nora swallowed an ironic chortle. Finding a son-in-law had been her mother's one and only goal these past five years, since Nora's eighteenth birthday. She'd virtually scoured the ton from top to bottom and sideways in pursuit of an eligible candidate - not that there hadn't existed a surfeit of wellborn bucks in the city. There were plenty. Just none that wished to marry Nora.
The dismal fact had once convinced her, despite Papa's sincerest assurances to the contrary, that she lacked the physical attributes necessary to attract a man. And it is true that she'd been a rather late bloomer, with the awkwardness of adolescence lingering several years longer than she would have preferred.
But nowadays her mirror professed the truth, that while perhaps not having achieved extraordinary beauty, time had nonetheless softened a reedy figure, smoothed unruly hair and whitened a freckled complexion. She could only conclude that perhaps it wasn't any deficiency on her part but rather Mama's voracious, often embarrassing efforts - and yes, Papa's shadowy reputation, too - that drove the young men away.
Perhaps they should have allowed her to marry Alessio. The thought barely concluded before a shudder skipped across her shoulders. As a painting master he'd fulfilled her heart's desires. But as a husband....
No, she had never felt so much as a twinge of desire in that respect. Not to mention that the brute had proved himself a scoundrel beyond redemption this very afternoon.
"Perhaps a trip abroad." She brightened at the notion. "What a charming adventure Paris would present, and I could study painting with some of the most celebrated-"
"Painting - bah!" Tiny pieces of pear accompanied her mother's outburst. She leaned as though taking aim from across the table; indeed, she pointed her half-bitten pear at Nora. "You'll never paint again, young lady, not if I have anything to say about it. Art has utterly ruined you! Great bloody heavens, displayed before all of London like a common-"
"Now, Milly, Nora says it wasn't her and I believe her."
"Thank you, Papa."
"You're welcome, child. You're a good girl and I never doubted you. But London will, make no mistake. And if you think to escape by running off to Paris, think again. Scandals are fleet of foot, my dear. This one will arrive in any city of consequence long before you've even packed your bags. No, the only way to diffuse the barrage is for you to marry - marry well and marry swift."
"Yes, but with whom? A butcher's son?" Millicent shut her eyes and groaned as if about to be ill. "After all my efforts to see her well-connected..."
"No, my dearest, she'll marry neither a butcher, baker nor candlestick maker. Our Nora will have her nobleman yet, for I believe I know just the man we seek."
"Who?" Nora and her mother exclaimed as one.
"Sir Grayson Lowell."
A gasp flew from Nora's lips but Papa didn't notice. No, he was too busy leaping from his chair and running to aid his wife, slumped over onto the table in a dead faint for the second time that day.
Grayson stood at the edge of the headland, renamed Tom's Tumble by the villagers as if this outcropping of dirt and stone confronting the Atlantic Ocean were a site of frolicsome sport, rather than a place of death and the personal hell it had become for him. But even to those who had devised the moniker, the term held no jest, was merely a simple, grim remembrance of what had occurred here nearly a year ago.
Squinting against the winds shuddering off the water, he peered out at the whitecaps riding the sea like ghosts on a midnight gale. His brother, Thomas, Earl of Clarington - dead these many months. Right from this spot he slipped, among the heather and gorse and bluebell, on a sparkling summer's day, a day the ocean shone so bright it seemed the sky itself had drifted to earth in a billowing waft of silk.
The sun hadn't shone its weary face since, or so it seemed to Grayson. No, a perpetual dusk had descended over Blackheath Grange that day, over the hills, the moors and the sea. Over him. And over ten-year-old Jonathan, orphaned and silent ever since, little more now than a shadow and a huge pair of eyes that slid over Grayson to imprint his guilt deeper and deeper still...
He backed away from the cliff, intending to head home. He'd found no answers here, not that he'd expected any. Tom was dead and it was his fault. His.
The knowledge fanned an ember inside his chest, a constant, searing reminder of those last awful days...the despicable things he had blurted upon his discovery that the estate was bankrupt, the Lowell family nearly penniless. He might have offered his understanding, his compassion, his assistance in rectifying his elder brother's disastrous financial decisions. Instead he'd....
Young Jonny was earl now, but of what? An empty title, a shell of an estate. And who to look after him but his shell of an uncle, haunted, guilt-ridden and shriveled of heart.
"Ah, Tom, forgive me...forgive me..."
A thrash of his heart tore the whispered words apart. A chill slithered beneath his skin, raked the hairs on his arms and neck. He whipped around to view the headland behind him, gripped by a sense of being watched.
Pulse lashing in his wrists, he scanned the rocks and wildflowers, the hillocks that cast craggy shadows into the grassy hollows. Once more he felt the oppressive weight of a presence that watched him, that seemed always to hover just over his shoulder.
Limbs trembling, he raised a reluctant gaze to the more distant trees. In their summer-heavy branches he saw movement, an assemblage of shape and form that was not tree, not shadow, neither solid substance nor a figment of the wind.
And it was, indeed, watching. As it had twice before.
Dread pooled thick in his throat, cutting off breath. His legs fell out from beneath him and he landed on his knees in the weeds, head slumped between his shoulders. His right hand fisted and, as though to yank the pain from his being, he rent purple blossoms from the earth.
But the pain and the horror of that day had become his boon companions. What would he be without them? His quaking fingers opened, offering a token to the wind.
The flowers spiraled from his palm and soared above the water as if intent on meeting the gulls and cormorants flapping over the tossing waves. But the breeze faltered and the flowers dipped, disappearing over the cliff to float gently to the rocks below.
Tom hadn't floated gently down. No, he'd....
Grayson sucked a breath through his teeth and stumbled to his feet. He stared into the trees and saw nothing, not even the trees themselves, only shadows and emptiness. Had he truly seen something, or merely taken a glimpse inside himself?
Sleep. He sorely needed some, but ever since that day he hadn't been able to steal more than two or three hours slumber at a time, and restless ones at that.
Slowly the breath began moving freely in and out of his lungs. His vision cleared. His resolve, like the apparition itself, reaffirmed and took shape inside him.
"I'm going to marry her, Tom. For Jonathan's sake. Her dowry will restore the Grange and the earldom and give your son a future - the grand one he deserves. He'll have everything a boy can want. And he'll never know how close we came to losing everything. That's my promise, Tom. I swear it on my life."
Ah, such paltry security for his pledge, for what worth did his life hold now? Soon to be shackled to a woman he didn't know, much less love. And while the optimist might hope love would grow over time, Grayson held no such illusions.
He had appealed to Zachariah Thorngoode for a loan. He'd come away with unlimited funds...and betrothed to the man's daughter.
London's notorious Painted Paramour, as the ton dubbed her. Rumor held her to be bold enough to make the most seasoned demimonde blush. He deserved her. They deserved each other. A sardonic chuckle broke from his lips.
Ah, what a glorious couple they would make.
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