"You'll love Lenora Bell!" —Eloisa James
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LOVE IS A ROGUE

Love Is a Rogue: Chapter One

Chapter One

 

Cornwall, 1830

Lady Beatrice Bentley was meant to be researching word origins for her etymological dictionary, not making a study of wild rogues.

One wild, untamed rogue in particular: Stamford Wright.

Carpenter. Distraction. Bane upon half-finished dictionaries.

How could she concentrate on scholarship with such an overbearingly virile specimen of manhood disturbing her tranquil literary idyll?

All summer long, and well into autumn, she’d watched from behind the safety of the library curtains as he hammered, heaved, and dominated her brother’s Gothic mansion in Cornwall into submission.

The crumbling crenellations and bricked-up windows of Thornhill House proved no match for Mr. Wright. By sheer force of personality and person, he’d helmed a group of workmen in the rapid renovation of the great house’s facade.

While Beatrice had only managed the woefully inadequate addition of two hundred new words to her dictionary.

When her brother Drew, Duke of Thorndon, arrived back from his honeymoon on the Continent with his lovely new bride, he’d be thrilled with the progress Wright had made.

Beatrice was less than thrilled—in fact she was livid. She’d bargained with her mother for these precious months of blissful solitude in which to be as scholarly as she pleased, without fear of her mother’s scolding or London society’s ridicule. Was that too much to ask?

Apparently.

At every turn she’d been perturbed, nay, overset by the ungovernable force of nature known by the name of Wright.

She’d tried stuffing cotton batting in her ears. Humming to herself as she wrote. Swathing the library in thick velvet hangings.

Nothing made a jot of difference. Even if she couldn’t see him, she could still hear his gruff, commanding voice, and that was enough to shatter her peace of mind.

Take today, for example.

Wright and his men were building a pergola in the gardens. She could hear him barking orders and whistling jaunty melodies—quite tunelessly, she might add.

And when she gave up on studiousness, crept to the window, and shifted just an inch of curtain aside, the sight of him immediately unnerved her.

He stood with his leather boots firmly planted, shouldering the burden of a heavy length of timber as one of the workers, the giant one they called Tiny, maneuvered the log into place.

“Hold her steady,” Wright ordered. “A little to the left. Your other left. Steady on . . .”

His wavy dark brown hair gleamed in the late afternoon sun. He wore no coat, and his shirtsleeves were rolled to the elbows. Sweat-dampened white linen did nothing to hide the outline of his bulging arm and shoulder muscles.

“Easy does it, now. Nearly there.” Wright released his hold as the beam was nailed into place. “Well done!”

An odd little shiver traveled the length of her spine. He was so very commanding, so unquestioningly confident. Even though the air was brisk and cool, he tugged his shirt free from his trousers, fanning the fabric away from his torso.

Her breath caught in her throat. She stared, transfixed, as he lifted the hem of his shirt and used it to mop his brow. The newly revealed landscape of his abdomen rippled with ridges of muscle. A dusting of brown hair trailed down the center of his stomach, disappearing into his trousers.

He couldn’t mop his brow with a handkerchief like other people. Oh no, he must display his uncommonly flat and finely sculpted abdomen for everyone to see.

For her to see.

She covered her eyes with her hands to block out the discomposing sight. Her spectacles fogged over and she wiped them clean with her skirts, setting them back in place, unwilling to miss a ripple or a ridge because . . . because she was making a list of Wright’s infractions to present to her brother upon his return.

Tuneless whistling. Ribald jokes. Flagrant displays of sculpted musculature. Refusal to modulate or modify his work habits to suit hers.

When she’d instructed Gibbons, her brother’s land agent, to request that Wright work more quietly, Wright had sent back a brief, impolite missive informing her that he had a job to finish, limited time with which to accomplish it, and that the noise and debris simply couldn’t be helped. He’d then suggested that she might wish to repair to the comfort and luxury of her London townhouse until the work was complete.

Thornhill House was meant to be her sanctuary from London.

Beatrice had work to complete as well, but Wright couldn’t care less. All he cared about, besides finishing the renovations at a breakneck pace, was gulping pints of ale and striking manly poses for the benefit of the housemaids.

He was the most maddening of men.

Another infraction to add to her list: transforming sensible housemaids into breathless scatterbrains.

She overheard them twittering about Wright’s handsome face and brilliant blue eyes. They all fancied themselves in love with him. They said that he was a ship’s carpenter with the Royal Navy and was only here because his father, the duke’s long-term retainer, had suffered an injury falling from a ladder.

The maids opined about the hearts that Wright must break at every port he visited. Their fondest hope was that he would decide to stay in Cornwall, marry a village girl, become the lead carpenter at Thornhill upon his father’s retirement, and settle down to raise a large and happy family.

All the man had to do was flash that roguish grin and levelheaded maids melted into quivering puddles of ninnyhood.

Ninny. Late sixteenth century, English, meaning simpleton, or fool, possibly derived from innocent, or the Italian ninno, “baby, child.”

It was a very good thing that Beatrice had not one ounce of ninny in her.

“I could use a frothing pint about now,” Wright said, restoring his person to a semblance of civility by tucking in his shirt and donning a coat.

“All this heavy lifting makes a fellow thirsty,” agreed one of the younger workmen, a wiry fellow named Preston.

“Reminds me of the load I ’ave to lift every time I take a piss,” said Tiny.

“Got a big tallywhacker, have you?” asked Preston with a cheeky grin.

“Naw, lad. Got to move me stomach out of the way first.”

Wright broke into loud laughter.

Beatrice rolled her eyes. Men.

What she’d gleaned from eavesdropping on several such exchanges was that they had an inordinate preoccupation with their . . . with the aspect of their anatomy that differentiated them from females.

Wright squinted at the sky. “Light’ll be gone soon.” He glanced toward her window.

Beatrice stepped backward, nearly stumbling in her haste to hide. She flattened against the wall, her heart attempting to leap into her throat. Had he seen her?

The lonely spinster in her tower, watching life pass beneath her window.

She knew how the world saw her. But she wasn’t a spinster, at least not yet. She’d promised her mother that she would go back to London for her fourth and final attempt at the marriage mart. Mama was determined to find her a brilliant match.

Beatrice was determined to remain a wallflower.

All she had to do was endure one last wearisome round of social engagements, grating gossip, and insincere suitors, and then she could return to the magnificent library at Thornhill House. For good this time.

She’d be well and truly on the shelf by next summer.

And what was so bad about being on the shelf? Most of her dearest friends lived on shelves.

Her gaze swept the library’s vast expanse of bookshelves, punctuated by sliding wooden ladders.

She’d learned very early in life that books were her most trustworthy companions.

Books never stared. Never whispered or snickered.

Never called her Beastly Beatrice.

You’re beastly inside and out.

Pushing away the unwelcome memory, she feasted her eyes on the library instead. Mahogany shelves hugged every wall and rose to embrace a domed ceiling painted with scenes from Greek mythology. Every available surface was piled high with books and papers, filling her mind with the soaring promise of endless possibilities.

All of those new words just waiting to be discovered, mapped to derivatives and cognates, defined and annotated.

Words were her sole passion in life. She explored their origins in the way a painter mixed pigment to render a stormy sea, or a symphonic composer chose reed instruments to re-create birdsong.

She explored words in the way that lovers explored love.

There’d been a time when she’d entertained foolish romantic notions about true love and fairy-tale endings, but she’d discarded her girlhood dreams after they’d been dashed against the rocks of reality.

This was her future: this library, and her dictionary, which might very well take decades to complete. The most comprehensive and well-researched etymological dictionary of the English language ever compiled by man . . . or wallflower.

The dictionary that, once again, she was sadly neglecting. She settled back at her writing desk determined to make some forward progress. Regrettably, the desk was situated near the open windows and she could still hear Wright and his men talking and laughing.

She dipped her pen resolutely in ink.

Let’s see; she’d finished intercede and interim. Now on to interloper. Late sixteenth century, she wrote, a hybrid of Latin inter and the old Dutch landloper, or vagabond.

She tapped her chin with the feathered quill. Mr. Wright is an interloper upon my peaceful countryside retreat.

Thump. Thump. Thud!

The hammering sounded as though it were inside her head.

Stamford Wright, she wrote. See Rogue. Born and bred in Cornwall. Ship’s carpenter in the Royal Navy. Heavy of hammer and brawny of shoulder. Characterized by excessive virility and boundless arrogance. Believes he’s God’s gift to womankind. Highly distracting and irritating to the scholarly female.

Well that wouldn’t be going in her dictionary. She drew a line across the page.

“Oh, Mr. Wright,” Beatrice heard a lilting female voice call. “Would you care for some cider?”

“You go on ahead to the pub, lads,” she heard Wright say. “I’ve something to take care of first.”

“Oh, aye,” came Tiny’s answer. “Something by the name of Miss Jenny.”

More guffaws. Probably some thumping of shoulders and winking.

They must be talking about Jenny Hughes, one of the kitchen maids.

“You’re a sight for sore eyes, Jenny,” said Wright, much closer now by the sound of it.

“I thought you’d be thirsty, working so hard and so long,” Jenny replied.

The sound of cider being gulped. A soft giggle.

“Mmm. Exactly what a man needs after a hard day’s labor. Did you sweeten this cider with your smile, Miss Jenny?”

“Go on with you now.” Said in a tone that conveyed precisely the opposite instruction.

Of all the infuriating occurrences.

Instead of going to the pub and giving Beatrice a well-deserved respite from his outsize presence, Wright was flirting shamelessly beneath her window.

Beatrice pushed her spectacles up the bridge of her nose. Enough was enough.

You’ve met your nemesis, Wright. From the Greek for retribution. The goddess of vengeance. The personification of divine wrath.

She marched to the windows and opened them wider. She’d drop an inkpot on his head—that ought to douse his ardor. Better yet, a flowerpot.

She peered over the ledge. Divine wrath had carried her thus far, but the sight of Wright’s massive shoulders scrambled her thoughts and sent them running in opposite directions.

He stood directly below her, one dusty black boot propped on a stair to better display his heavily muscled thighs. His white shirt was open at the collar, revealing a triangle of sun-kissed chest.

If he untucked his shirt from his trousers at this moment, she’d have a direct line of sight down his . . .

Lady Beatrice Bentley! exclaimed her mother’s scandalized tones in her head. Stop gawking this instant. He’s not an eligible gentleman. He’s not a gentleman at all and therefore far beneath your notice.

True. But he was also beneath her window and she couldn’t look away.

Not now. Not when he was cradling the cider mug in one of his huge hands, stroking a finger around the rim.

Watching him gave her the most unsettling tingling sensation in her belly. Must have been something she ate for luncheon. There’d been a rather questionable leek and cod pie.

Jenny took the empty glass from him. “Will you be wanting more refreshment?”

There was no mistaking the suggestive inflection in her words. She wasn’t offering cider; she was offering kisses.

Beatrice peered over the ledge. Wright had moved closer to Jenny and away from Beatrice’s line of vision. All she could see was the taut curve of his backside and his long legs.

Whispers and . . . smacking noises? Were they kissing? And, incidentally, what would a kiss from him be like?

She stuck her head farther out the window.

Too far.

Her spectacles slipped off her nose and plummeted straight for his head.

She dropped into a crouch beneath the window, cheeks flaming and heart thudding. She could only hope that he was too occupied to notice a pair of spectacles falling from the sky.

Silence from below. She risked a quick glance out the window.

Egad.

She dropped back to a crouch.

Wright had found her spectacles, and apparently he meant to return them to her.

He was climbing straight up the rose trellis like a pirate scaling the rigging of a ship, making a beeline for the library window.

He couldn’t climb the stairs like other people. Oh no, he must display his brute strength by climbing hand over hand.

Mortification. Noun. Late fourteenth century. From Late Latin mortificationem, “putting to death.”

Could she make a dash for the library door? Not without her spectacles.

Nothing for it but to face him.

She’d faced humiliation before. Stared it down. Dared it to break her.

This would be a very brief interaction. He would hand over the spectacles; she would thank him, and then send him on his merry way back down the trellis.

“Greetings, princess.” His voice was velvet-wrapped gravel.

Beatrice rose on wobbly knees. He was fuzzy without her spectacles, a huge shape blocking out the sunlight, a hulking blur with azure eyes.

A blue to drown in, she’d heard one of the upstairs maids say swoonily. Beatrice’s brain sank beneath water. Her thoughts went blub, blub, blub. Which wasn’t like her at all. Words were her stock-in-trade, were they not?

Apparently, when confronted by the sudden appearance of a far-too-handsome rogue at her window, she lost the ability to form words into sentences . . . or even to speak at all.

Pull yourself together. Not an ounce of ninny, remember?

He balanced easily on the trellis, gripping the wood with one enormous hand and dangling the wire loop of her spectacles from the fingers of his other hand.

“Good day, Wright.” She spoke in the most nonchalant and unconcerned tone she could summon. “Lovely day for climbing rose trellises, what?”

He dangled the spectacles closer to her. “I presume these are yours?”

“Er . . . yes. I lost them while”—trying to see down your trousers—“watering the roses.”

Ludicrous. If she’d been watering the roses, she would have poured water on his head.

“Really?” His voice dropped to a rough, conspiratorial whisper. “Because I thought you might have been spying on me.”

“Don’t be silly. I needed a breath of air. I opened the window and I . . . I don’t have to explain myself to you. Hand over my spectacles immediately.”

His laughter was low and intimate. “A lofty lady would never spy on a carpenter, is that it?”

“I wasn’t spying.”

“I see,” he said with a smirk.

“I don’t.” She held out her palm.

Instead of giving her the spectacles, he reached forward and set them on her nose, using one thumb to gently hook the wires over each of her ears in turn. She was so startled by his touch that she froze in place.

His thumb brushed her right ear. Somehow the tip of her ear was connected to the pit of her belly. Which was connected to . . . everything.

His face sharpened into focus.

She’d known his eyes were blue. What she hadn’t known was that his left eye contained an uneven patch of golden brown, like a sunflower silhouetted against a summer sky.

His chin was hard-angled, and there was a cleft slightly to the left of center. Dark whiskers shadowed his strong jawline.

Don’t do it, Beatrice. Do not melt into a puddle of quivering ninnyhood.

She took a steadying breath. “You’d better climb back down before that trellis breaks under your prodigious weight.”

“Don’t worry about me, princess.” He winked. “Repaired this trellis myself. It’s built to last.”

“Do stop calling me princess,” she said irritably, the nonchalance she’d been striving for making a fast retreat.

“You’re imprisoned in a tower.”

“I’m here quite by choice. I’m writing, or I would be if you weren’t making so much noise.”

“Is it the noise that distracts you?” He flexed the muscles of his free arm. “Or the man.”

Beatrice gulped for air. Why must the man incessantly call attention to his physical endowments? “Such an ostentatious display might be efficacious where housemaids are concerned, but it has no effect whatsoever on female scholars.”

“You’re not fascinated by me.” His voice swirled from velvet to smoke. “You never watch me from behind the curtains.”

He caught her gaze and held it.

He’d seen her watching.

A fresh wave of mortification washed through her mind. “If I happened to glance out the window from time to time, it was due to sheer frustration. You’ve ruined what was meant to be a tranquil literary haven.”

“And here I thought I’d been inspiring you.”

“Inspiring? Hardly!”

“I was sure you were scribbling away at a romantic novel and needed inspiration for describing your hero. That’s why you were always gazing at me from the window.” He gave her a smoldering look. “I’d be happy to provide a more up close and personal study.”

“You conceited peacock!”

“Admit it. You enjoyed the view.”

“I’ll admit nothing of the sort.”

He plucked a single red rose and offered it to her through the open window. “For you, princess. It matches your cheeks when they’re flushed from my proximity.”

“You . . . you . . .” Beatrice sputtered.

“Scoundrel?” he suggested.

“Malapert rapscallion!”

He tilted his head. “That’s a new one.”

“Have you considered that your renovations might progress more swiftly, Mr. Wright, if you did more carpentering and less flirting? First Jenny and now me—don’t you ever exhaust your store of vexatious trifling?”

He propped his elbow on the window ledge and leaned closer. “I thought you weren’t spying on me.”

“I wasn’t. I was watering the roses.”

“I think you were watching.” His gaze dropped to her lips. “Because you wanted to see what a kiss from me would be like.”

Beatrice wasn’t accustomed to men perusing her with that hooded, hazy look in their eyes. She was no beauty. She never incited desire.

She never experienced desire.

And yet . . . the glow in her belly was spreading. She still felt the soft brush of his fingers along the edge of her ear.

“This conversation is over. Be on your way.”

“Not yet.” He wrapped his hand over the window ledge. “I have a question to ask you.”

“Well?”

“I don’t want anyone to overhear me ask it.”

“That doesn’t sound proper.”

“I’m never proper. Don’t even know what the word means.”

“It’s from the Latin proprius meaning ‘one’s own, particular to itself.’ It’s not until the mid fourteenth century that we see the usage meaning ‘by the rules’ or ‘correct and acceptable.’”

“I don’t play by the rules, either.” He slid one knee onto the ledge. “I’m coming in.”

“No. Wait—!”

Too late.

Her sanctuary had been invaded by a rogue.