Winner of an RT Reviewer's Choice Award: Best Historical Romantic Gothic of 2008!

Dark Temptation - Book #2 in Blackheath Moor Series
Paperback: 368 pages
Publishers: Signet Eclipse
Language: English
ISBN 10: 045122552X
ISBN 13: 978-0451225528

Synopsis:

On desolate Blackheath Moor, made treacherous by swirling mist and ghostly cries, a young woman finds refuge in a mystical churchyard-and in the arms of a handsome stranger.

Exiled to her aunt's home in Cornwall after provoking a London scandal, irrepressible Sophie St. Clair knows that something is wrong in the village of Penhollow . Mysterious lights, phantom ships--are smugglers once again plying their illegal trade along the coast? Or, as local legend insists, have the spirits of long-dead pirates returned to wreak their vengeance? Too much remains unexplained to satisfy Sophie, including her passionate response to the rakish nobleman whose help she seeks, whose embrace she can't resist.

Following his father's death, Chad Rutherford, Earl of Wycliffe, returns to his family estate near Blackheath Moor tormented by guilt for his reckless past and haunted by terrifying ghosts that demand retribution for their innocent murders. When Sophie St. Clair materializes out of the mist one fateful night, he is drawn to her with a desire beyond reason. But as Chad and Sophie embark on a dangerous quest to uncover the secrets of both past and present, they must fight powerful specters working against them. Will the spirits of Blackheath Moor hold them in their eternal grip.or can they vanquish the evil-doers and claim their future together?

 

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CHAPTER ONE

Cornwall

September, 1830

Where the stark expanse of Blackheath Moor met the rocky thrust of the Cornish coast, Sophie St. Clair hurried along a dusty road to the one place in the windswept countryside that was expressly forbidden to her.

The air today shivered with an intense, startling sort of light she had never experienced before coming to Cornwall , as crisp and sharp as spring water on a winter's day, brightening colors, deepening outlines and rendering futile any attempt to be inconspicuous.

Sophie knew she presented an all-too-apparent blotch on the nearly treeless landscape, a small, dark figure scrambling along a pitted road bordered by a patchwork of autumn-darkened heather and faded gorse, miles and miles of it, beneath a sky so thoroughly unblemished as to rival the brilliant blues of her mother's most prized Sevres porcelain.

Only minutes ago, after calling out a quick reassurance that she was only going for a walk along the beach, she had put as much distance as quickly as possible between her and Aunt Louisa's house. One hand gripped her bonnet brim to fight the tug of the wind; the other steadied the satchel slung over her shoulder.

As she topped a rise, the gray slashes of four stone chimneys and a bit of peaked roof sped her steps. She was almost to Edgecombe, a sprawling property perched between the moors and the sea, abandoned these two years since the death of its previous owner. The fourth Earl of Wycliffe had tragically succumbed to a fire that had broken out in one of the rooms, and apparently his heir, having no desire to spend time here, had shut the place down.

Sophie's interest in the estate lay, not in its recent history, but in the legends that connected Edgecombe to a married pirate couple who used the place for their headquarters three centuries ago. The tales of the Keatings had long since captured her fascination, and as a child she'd spent many a happy hour poring over the details of their exploits. Oh, but never had she thought she'd have a chance to see the rambling estate first hand. Not until the incident last month that altered the course of her life.

Her first glimpse of the place had been little more than a jagged shadow thrust across the evening landscape, framed by the window of her grandfather's barouche, whose driver had conveyed her from London and summarily dumped her at Aunt Louisa's front gate. But from that first glance, she had felt the somber stone gables beckoning with an invitation that could not be ignored.

"Stay away from there, girl," her aunt had warned when Sophie broached the subject yesterday. "Don't you so much as point your toes in the direction of that old wreckage of a house. The place is abandoned, falling apart."

"It appears solid enough from the road. And so dark and brooding, poised so precariously at the edge of the land. And the history.."

"Is one of violence, whether deliberate or no. An ill-fortune hangs about the place. Some say." Aunt Louisa had leaned closer and whispered, "Some say that sort of bedevilment never entirely leaves a place, even when its occupants have long since gone to their graves."

"Are you speaking of curses, Aunt Louisa? Or ghosts? I know it's said the Keatings haunt Edgecombe, but surely you don't believe-"

"What I believe is that the place is best avoided. You'd do well to put it out of your mind at once."

Sophie had tried questioning her cousins about the estate, but eighteen-year-old Rachel had echoed her mother's admonishments, while Dominic, two years older, had merely scowled, grumbled something unintelligible and stalked away.

The admonitions had only strengthened her desire to see the house first hand. Reaching the drive, she halted before a pair of wrought iron gates - closed, locked, doubly secured by a boat chain coiled several times around and held by a padlock twice the width of her palm.

Keep out. The gate's message echoed Aunt Louisa's words of warning. The two flanking stone pillars and the high granite walls that marched away in either direction issued the same command. Stay away.

"I hardly think so," Sophie whispered.

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The house itself stood but a stone's throw beyond a short drive that opened onto a cobbled forecourt. An imposing pair of gargoyles stood guard on either side of an elaborate portico, topped by a gothic arch. The windows were shuttered, emphasizing the air of abandonment permeating the property.

A property likely to have more than one entrance. Sophie set off to search.

Past the carriage house along the south boundary wall, she discovered another, smaller gate half hidden behind a tangle of hawthorn. She shoved the spiky branches aside and found the latch. No chains barred her way. With a fluttering breath of excitement, of refusing to take no for an answer, she slipped inside.

A slate path took her through a narrow gap in a box hedge, past a gardener's shed and onto the slopes of a tiered garden. A hothouse stood not far away, an octagonal structure that resembled a giant gazebo, much of its paint peeled away to reveal the wood beneath. At the apex of its steep roof, a weathervane in the shape of two crossed swords topped by a sail whimpered on its rusty pin.

The path led her past a dry fountain and across a wooden footbridge. Bushy fern and tall, bristly spikes of bulrush choked the narrow brook below. From there she made her way beneath a stand of fruit trees and up the garden slopes. A set of steps mounted a grassy surge to a terrace, onto which several sets of French doors opened from the house. Sophie climbed the steps and enjoyed a private laugh at Aunt Louisa's superstitions. Edgecombe was only a house, after all. Filled with history and misty legend, yes. But ghosts?

She perched on the top step, removed the satchel from her shoulder and reached inside for her quill, pot of ink and leather-bound writing tablet. Tucking a wind-blown lock of hair beneath her bonnet, she flipped to a blank page.

"A house crouched at the edge of the world," she wrote, "defying the elements - wind, storms and sea - to attempt their worst and be damned."

Well. She'd need to modify that last word, of course. Grandfather St. Clair, owner and editor-in-chief of The Beacon , one of London 's most popular weekly newspapers, would never set it to print. Just as he never published any of Sophie's feature pieces under her true, decidedly feminine name. No, if she wished to continue writing occasional articles for The Beacon, she must do so under the pen name of Silas Sinclair and, further more, must stick to such topics as her family deemed appropriate for a lady.

Sophie St. Clair, nice girls do not ask bothersome questions.nice girls leave news reporting to men.nice girls spend their time in appropriate endeavors, such as needlework, sketching and playing the pianoforte.

Sophie, can you not for once behave like a proper young lady?

How she loathed proper. Despised appropriate. Detested nice. Despite a lifetime of trying to emulate all three concepts and more, she had always fallen a lengthy stride short of success. If curiosity killed the cat, as her mother always warned, then Sophie had flirted with death all her life.

Besides, she was no lady, certainly not in the strictest sense. The St. Clairs could boast no titles, and owned no land other than what had been purchased in recent years with the fortune Grandfather had amassed through his newspaper and business investments. The St. Clairs were working people, hawks in peacock feathers, and Sophie saw no shame in that.

Pen hovering above the page, she studied the house. A quick count of the shuttered windows suggested fifteen or so rooms, laid out on either side of a square tower that had, three centuries earlier, served as the seaside fortress of Sir Jack and Lady Margaret Keating.

According to the legends Sophie had read as a child, the pair had ruled the seas for ten years, from Cornwall to northern France to Ireland and back, dispersing goods among people who could not afford the excise taxes. In reality, their methods had not always been benevolent. The Keating's brutally attacked any who opposed them, naval vessels included, employing the horrific practice of tying wounded victims together and throwing them overboard to drown.

Finally, Sir Jack's luck ran out. After his death just off the coast here at the hands of the Royal Navy, they say Lady Meg snapped. In a ship of her own, she embarked on an indiscriminate, high seas rampage of murder and pillage until she was caught, tried and hanged.

Be a nice girl, Sophie.

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Oh, very well. Today she would try to think architecture, not violent pirate history. She set her pen to paper.

"A gaunt sentinel whose granite walls seemed quarried from an ancient haze, with mysteries and memories trapped within each chiseled block."

The whirling breezes abruptly dropped, replaced by an utter stillness that immediately felt.unnatural. A weighty silence fell over the trees while the birds roosting in their boughs seemed caught in a state of hushed expectancy.

Uneasy. Apprehensive. She glanced up at the house.

A cloud covered the sun, plunging the stones and timbers into gloom and raising prickles down her spine. A sense of nervous expectancy quivered in her stomach. Had the shutters on the bay window in the far corner been open all along?

She sat quite still, watching. Waiting...for the wind to pick up; for the sprawling rowans and dogwoods and unkempt fruit trees to resume their creaking; for the house to remain as dark, empty and unchanging as ever.

The house did not comply. As Sophie watched, a curtain in the exposed window flicked to one side and then fell back into place.

In an instant she was on her feet, hand flying to her mouth as her writing tablet slapped the terrace. Her quill fluttered down the steps. Her pulse trouncing, she backed away until her foot met with insubstantial air. She nearly tumbled down the stairs but for a quick maneuver that restored her balance.

Quickly she retrieved her notebook and ink. Hooking the satchel over her shoulder, she straightened, and found herself staring directly into a male face on the other side of the window. Through the mullioned panes she could make out a tumble of fair hair, darker brows knotted over piercing eyes and a full mouth bracketed in lines of displeasure.

He stood in shirtsleeves and a waistcoat, one hand fisted against the buttons. He glowered long and hard at her, rendering her immobile, locked in a silent battle of scrutiny. Good heavens, she was caught!

A whisper of logic brought a measure of reassurance. She was a neighbor, after all, or at least a guest of this man's neighbor. There was nothing for it but to offer a friendly apology for trespassing and hope the man, be he servant or nobleman, possessed a forgiving nature. Or a sense of humor.

She raised her hand to wave, but he had vanished. The sun burst from the clouds and the wind picked up, plucking at her skirts and whipping loose hair in her eyes. She shoved it back under her bonnet and waited, expecting the man to come walking out of a terrace door. A minute passed, and another, with no sound or sign of movement issuing from the house.

Confused, Sophie descended the steps, was about to turn and leave when an impulse sent her back up to the nearest set of doors. Rapping several times on the glass, she called out, "Good morning. Is anyone here? I'm dreadfully sorry to be trespassing. I believed the place to be empty. My name is Sophie.Sophie St. Clair, and I'm a guest of the Gordons down the road. Perhaps you know them?" She knocked again. "I say, won't you come out and become properly acquainted?"

Nothing.

She crossed the terrace to where the bay window jutted, and peeked into a room whose walls were lined from floor to ceiling with books. She spied a settee, a roomy wingback chair, a large desk upon which several books lay open. But no man.

"How insufferably rude." She turned to go.

At the bottom of the stairs a realization brought her up short. Only moments ago clouds had blocked the sun, but as she scanned the sky now, she detected not the faintest trace of a cloud, not in any direction. She shielded her eyes with her hand and peered out at the horizon. Nothing but unending blue stretched above the sea.

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She made it as far as the footbridge when a rustling sifted through the bulrush along the banks of the brook. The sound brought her to a halt. It was more than the wind stirring the plants, more.solid. The rub of fabric, the catch of a thread.

Sophie stood motionless, listening, searching her surroundings. "Is.is anyone there?" she asked in a small voice. Her knuckles whitened where she gripped the rail. Leaning out over the stream, she scrutinized the bank. At the thud of a footfall on the wooden planking beside her, she pulled back with a gasp. Seeing nothing, panting for breath, she braced to run.

And then she felt, quite plainly, a graze against the back of her hand. Not the wind, not a falling leaf, but fingertips - cool, slightly rough as if from an old callus and then the sound of her name tingling in her ear.

"Sophie."

 

 

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