Alec Winters, Earl of Harwich, wanted Miss Regina Rutledge for his wife, but there was one thing standing in his way—her betrothal to another man. Before he could sweep her off to Gretna Green, he lost her forever. It was then that he vowed never to love again. He’d marry only for duty and heirs.
Miss Regina Rutledge loved Alec with all her heart, but her father refused to be moved by emotion. Before she could run away with Alec, her betrothed not only destroyed her home but killed her father. In fear for her life, and Alec’s, Regina needed to disappear, even if it meant that everyone believed her dead. With painful determination, she became someone else—a governess, hiding from Society.
When Alec discovers her living in the home of his cousin, her betrayal cuts deep and Alec isn’t certain that he can ever forgive her. Will they find their way back to each other, or will the love and passion they once shared be destroyed for good?
Prologue London, March, 1815 “Break your betrothal, Regina,” Lord Alec Winters, Earl of Harwich, murmured before he placed his lips against the sensitive spot just below her right ear. He knew she had difficulty arguing when he was bent on seduction and had pulled her into a far corner of the gardens, out of sight and hearing of the other guests. His need to speak with her was urgent. That wasn’t his only urgent need, but until Regina was truly his, he’d remain unsatisfied. “You know I cannot,” she whispered in the darkness. Alec pulled back and stared down “I love you.” He cradled her cheek in his hands. “You are the most beautiful and desirable woman in England. The kindest and most loving.” Regina tried to glance away as her cheeks colored ever so slightly with embarrassment. She was perfect, with her crystal blue eyes, midnight hair, smooth and soft porcelain skin, and perfectly bowed and kissable lips. He’d been struck by her loveliness when they’d first met but it was her heart that had won his. “My father will not allow it,” she insisted. “We will simply run away. We can start for Gretna Green tonight.” “You must return home tomorrow,” she reminded him. She was correct. He’d come to tell her of the death of his cousin and his need to return to Willanton to be with family and attend the funeral. He and his cousin, Preston Ambrose, the younger brother of the deceased, would be leaving at first light tomorrow. But Alec didn’t want to think of Theodore’s sudden tragic death tonight, or the death of Kate, his wife, and the fact that they’d left five daughters behind. Perhaps that was why he needed Regina now, more than ever. One never knew when a life would end, and he didn’t want to waste another moment before making Regina his. He needed her. She was the match to his soul. But he’d not fully seduce her until she was his wife. Before he’d met Regina, he had never believed a deep aching love was real. He’d thought poets only played to the emotions of misses for the purpose of seduction and pleasure. Regina had changed his thinking. He’d met her over the winter whilst visiting with a friend and been smitten immediately. Alec thought himself too jaded to fall so easily, but he had. Then he spied her walking on Bond Street in January, before the Season had even begun and decided then and there that he’d court and marry Miss Regina Rutledge. Except, her father betrothed her to another. A man Regina despised. “Once we are wed, there is nothing he can do,” Alec insisted. “The contracts have been signed,” she murmured. “If I break the betrothal, my father will lose the land.” Her fiancé, Mr. Herbert Vickery, landed gentry and quite wealthy, had agreed to give up the land bordering Viscount Rennick’s estate for the simple fee of Regina’s hand in marriage. Alec didn’t understand why the land was so important, and certainly no more important than his daughter’s happiness, but Rennick would not be moved on the matter. Rennick and Vickery were both greedy, making their fortune in mining. Now Regina would fall victim to their avarice and Alec would not have it. “Think on what I have said. I will return in a fortnight. You will not be married yet and we will still have time to go away together.” “I will not change my mind. I cannot.” Tears welled and her anguish pained him. Alec bent and kissed both eyelids, his hands cradling her face. “You must, for I will not live without you.” Alec kissed her. “You are mine and I am yours.” “If only it were possible.” He stared down. “You love me, don’t you?” “Yes, you know I do.” “As deeply as I love you, and I will not allow you to marry Vickery.” “What if we aren’t given a choice?” This time the tear leaked out of the corner of her eye. “I will think of something. Trust me in this. When I return from my cousin’s funeral, I will have the answers we need, and you will be mine.” Alec pulled Regina close and kissed her deeply. He had one month until she’d be forced to wed, and he needed to make her his before she was lost to him forever. But for now, he was going to hold and love her, share in the few liberties she allowed, the only ones he dare take for fear that his passion may burn too brightly and they’d both forget themselves until it was too late, and they were sated. Her hands snaked around his neck as Alec skimmed a hand up her sides before he cupped the perfect breast. He then pulled away and trailed kisses down her neck and upon the swell of her breast just above her bodice. One day, there would be no barrier of clothing between them. “I will be gone a fortnight.” He pulled her onto his lap. “I do not wish for you to forget me.” She chuckled. “I could never forget you Alec, or the way you make me feel.” They’d had many moments of passion such as this, taking and giving only what they dared in stolen moments. At first, it was Alec who gave, but Regina soon overcame her shyness and found ways to pleasure him without loss of virginity. Soon, there would be nothing that would keep them from being one. “One day, Regina, you will fully be mine and I will love you in ways you could never imagine. You will always have my heart, my love and my protection.”
Chapter One Regina paused on the stairs as voices rose from her father’s library. He and Vickery were arguing, but she couldn’t imagine why, unless her father had agreed to break the betrothal. Regina had begged these past weeks, ever since her father had made the announcement, but he’d not given in. He wanted that land and as she needed to marry anyway, it might as well be to Vickery. She’d blessedly been without Vickery’s presence these past three weeks while he attended to his estate. In truth, she’d hoped he’d forgotten about her and would not return to London. Regina hadn’t even known he had returned until she heard his voice and her stomach tightened with loathing. Alec had approached her father twice, asking that the betrothal be broken, and that Father give his blessing for Alec and Regina to wed. He had been rejected both times. It was her father’s opinion that Alec had nothing to offer of value, such as precious mining lands, and his financial state was precarious at best. Her father would rather marry Regina to wealthy, landed gentry than an earl, which was in complete opposite of what the rest of Society would want for their daughters. Her father didn’t understand that she couldn’t stand to be in the same room with her betrothed. Vickery may be handsome and wealthy, but he was unkind and selfish. A cold man with a cold heart who wanted her. That’s what he’d told her. He wanted her in his bed and the only means to accomplish such was by marriage. She couldn’t understand why he’d wanted her at all, except that she’d been the only female to reject his advances. She was a challenge and the more she rejected his suit, the more he wanted her. Had she flirted when they first met, he may have lost interest in her long ago, but she hadn’t realized that Vickery thrived on challenges. Maybe he couldn’t accept that there was one woman who didn’t want him, because he’d quickly dismissed the misses who made no secret of the desire for his attention. Tomorrow, Alec would return after being gone a fortnight, and she prayed he had found an answer to their dilemma. She so wanted to be with him. To marry him, and love him the rest of her days, but they were running out of time. Though it may ruin her father, and he might disown her, Regina had to accept the possibility that she may just need to do what Alec asked and run off to Gretna Green with him because she could not marry Vickery. She’d not live a miserable life so that her father could have more land to mine and add to his already overflowing coffers of money. Just thoughts of Alec warmed her. She’d been taken with him almost immediately. There was a challenge and humor in his brown eyes, and he charmed easily. He’d made Regina laugh and she learned quickly that he harbored a contrary streak. The most obvious was that he hated to shave, thus refused to do so regardless of fashion. He stayed within the confines of what was acceptable within Society, but often whispered witticisms to the some of his more ridiculous observations. He wasn’t above teasing her, or his friends and found great humor in nearly any situation. She’d begun to wonder if there was anything Alec took seriously but then they grew closer and she discovered that a thoughtful, intelligent and caring gentleman lay beneath the surface of the jocund persona he showed to those in Society. Tomorrow. He’d be here tomorrow, and she’d see Alec once again. “You assured me that Regina would come to me willingly,” Vickery yelled. “She will. My daughter always obeys.” “Except I heard rumor of her sneaking off into gardens with other gentlemen. There is even a question as to her virtue.” Regina gasped. Alec may have seduced her, and she’d gone along willingly, but her virtue was still intact. Barely, but nobody need know the delights she and Alec had shared. “Witnesses reported their activity as soon as I returned to Town.” “Who are these witnesses?” her father demanded in outrage. “I will not provide their names,” Vickery answered. “Nor does it matter, for I believe them.” “If not their names, then who do they claim she was with?” “They did not say for fear that I’d kill him.” Thank goodness, Regina inwardly sighed. Alec didn’t need the scandal, nor did she. “Without facts or names, I cannot simply accept your accusations. I know my daughter better than you,” her father insisted. Regina suffered a bit of guilt, but it was best that her father never learned that she and Alec had done more than dance. “I can assure you that Regina has behaved no less than respectably.” “You are a fool, for I know better,” Vickery argued. “Had I known she was a light skirt, I would not have agreed to marriage.” If Vickery believed her ruined, then he might break the betrothal. Regina’s heart pounded. Though she didn’t wish to have her reputation tarnished, if it meant that she could be with Alec forever, and marry him, she’d sacrifice. Further, Alec would be happy to truly ruin her if necessary, and she’d be glad to allow him to do so. “My daughter is not a light skirt and if you do not speak of her with more respect, I’ll…” “You will what?” Vickery laughed. “There is nothing you can do. Either you give me back the land, or you give me your daughter. And I will not be marrying her.” “You are breaking our agreement?” her father asked in alarm and hope soared in Regina’s breast. Vickery laughed again. “Our previous agreement is null and void, given what I now know.” “I have already begun mining that land. I cannot suffer such a financial loss at this time,” her father argued, proving once again that wealth was more important than his daughter. “Either return the land, or I will be bedding your daughter and keeping her until I tire of her.” “You will not lay a finger on my daughter without the honor of being her husband!” At least her father would allow Regina to maintain some respect. Ignoring the fact that she was in her nightclothes, and should not be wandering about dressed as such while there were guests, Regina couldn’t ignore the grunts and crashing of objects and rushed down the stairs, afraid of what she’d find. Vickery was younger and stronger than her father. She skidded to a halt just at the entry. Her father held a fire poker, and Vickery clutched a knife. Her father swept the poker, but Vickery deflected it with his arm. Still, it must have hurt. Her father swung at him again, but this time he missed Vickery and struck the lamp, sending it careening off the desk before it shattered on the wooden floor. Lamp oil spread everywhere along with the flames. The carpet caught and Regina watched helplessly as flames raced toward the curtains. “Father!” Regina cried. If they didn’t leave the library, they’d be stuck within the flames. She yelled his name again but neither gentleman seemed to hear her as her father kept trying to hit Vickery. Just as the flames reached the curtain, Father raised his arms to bring the poker down onto Vickery’s head. Her fiancé stepped forward and drove the knife into her father’s chest. Regina gasped and stumbled back, searching madly for something to assist her father, but she couldn’t gain access to the library. Flames had engulfed the curtains and raced to the ceiling as chairs began to smoke and burn. Vickery pulled the knife out and plunged again. “I will bed your daughter and take back my land. She will pay for the humiliation she’s caused me. I will make her pay over and over.” With each “over” he plunged the knife a third and fourth time. Regina watched in horror as her father grasped his wounds and crumpled. The life was gone from his eyes before he reached the floor. Vickery turned. The very devil himself, surrounded by flames, but he didn’t care. His smile was evil as he took a step in her direction. Regina backed away and fled up the stairs, screaming for the servants. Smoked filled the corridors as the heat built and the flames spread beyond the library. Soon, the entire house would be engulfed. Disoriented, she grasped the balustrade and tried to make her way back down the stairs, coughing as smoke filled her lungs. The flames now burned the floor and the paper on the walls. Heat scorched her arm as the fire nipped and the sleeve of her wrap caught. She tried desperately to smother the flame, all the while knowing that she was caught in the inferno, with no escape. Tears flooded her eyes both from the smoke and knowing that she’d never see Alec again. *** The rumors had reached Alec as soon as he arrived in London, but he didn’t believe what he’d been told. His mind couldn’t accept what he was hearing. Of course, nobody knew that when they were telling him of the tragic loss that they were talking of the woman he loved. Their love had been a secret because Regina had been betrothed. He had promised never to reveal her name or their relationship until she was free. There was also an accounting of the fire in the newssheets, though with no details of how it started, just the names of who had died. Still, Alec couldn’t accept the loss and had to see for himself. Now he stood on the street, staring at the smoldering ruins of what had been the home of Viscount Rennick and his daughter. The stone frame remained but was scorched, blackened. Inside, smoke still rose from the ashes. Some walls held, but anything not made of stone or marble was gone. An empty, blackened frame, littered inside with much of what had fallen. A few of the servants stood outside, weeping, and Alec recognized Regina’s maid, Beth. She was the only person who knew the truth of their relationship. Alec approached. “Is it true?” “Lord Harwich, I am so terribly sorry.” Tears filled her eyes and Alec feared that she’d fall into hysterics. “Are you certain Miss Regina did not get out of the house?” He had to know. If the servants were safe, why wasn’t Regina? “She had fled up the stairs because we could hear her calling. Then we smelled the smoke and were able to go down the back stairs, the servants’ stairs, and out through our entrance,” she explained. “She never came out?” he asked. “We did not see her leave from the back, and nobody saw her leave from the front. The first of those who got out had gone around to the front, but the fire was already filling the entry and the stairs. His stomach tightened as he glanced over to the ruins. Regina was likely in there, and he couldn’t bear it. “Are all the servants accounted for?” Alec asked. “Everyone except Humphrey, Lord Rennick’s butler.” “And Lord Rennick, I understand he is gone as well?” Beth nodded. “It is a horrible tragedy.” “Does anyone know how the fire started?” She shook her head again. “No. Had Miss Regina not been awake, and yelled up to us, it is likely we would all be in there.” If nobody knew for certain then there was still hope. There had to be hope. Regina couldn’t be gone. He’d not accept it. Bow Street Runners had arrived to investigate, and they were picking through debris. Alec noticed that one was Lord Matthias Strotham, the third son of Marquess Shomberg, who had chosen to pursue being an investigator over the church or military. He and Alec had attended Eton together. “Is there any chance Lord Rennick and his daughter were able to survive?” Alec asked him. Lord Matthias shook his head. “Did you know the family?” Alec wanted to confess that he was in love with Regina, but he’d protect her reputation always. Even in death. “Acquaintances,” he lied. “It is impossible that father, daughter or the butler to have survived,” Lord Matthias confirmed. “Are you certain?” Alec pressed. His mind couldn’t accept the possibility that she was gone forever, and it took everything in his being not to march inside and start digging through the rubble, hoping to find Regina alive. He'd not been there to protect her. He’d vowed to protect her, yet he hadn’t been here when she had needed him the most. Alec willed himself not to cry. He couldn’t. Not in front of so many people, most of them strangers. He might not have been able to protect her life, but he was not going to destroy her reputation in death. His heart squeezed painfully. She was dead. Gone. Lost to him forever. The aching pain was so deep that his heart must have shattered. There was nothing for him any longer. Slowly he walked back to his set of rooms, packed his belongings, and returned to Willanton.
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