I was so excited to have two wonderful pieces of good news this last week. The first was that Her Gilded Prison, the first in my erotic Regency Romance series, now has a release date of March 15. That means it’ll be available by the time I go to the Romantic Times Convention in Kansas City in May.
The second piece of good news was getting my new cover for my September release with Choc-Lit, The Reluctant Bride, written under my Beverley Eikli name. In my next post I’ll reveal the beautiful, winsome heroine against a lovely background that hints at the pull of loyalties she’s battling.
So, below is an extract of Her Gilded Prison, which is about an older woman and a younger man who form an unusual alliance to protect the family heritage falling into the wrong hands.
It will be released by Ellora’s Cave on March 15. Or did I already say that? Well, it’s late here in Australian and Valentine’s Day has had to be postponed until the stars are aligned and DH is on the same continent so I can be forgiven for not being as sharp as usual.
Sybil, Lady Partington, clasped her hands in her rabbit-fur muff as she watched the congregation file into their pews.
With her fortieth birthday looming, she felt old, as she watched proceedings through clouds of frosted breath. Particularly today. Old and superfluous. A failed wife. A failed mother.
Araminta had been dismissive of her well-meaning attempts to reassure her that the disgrace of her curtailed London season would not dash her chances of a good match. No, Araminta already had her mind up in that regard. She knew exactly who she was going to marry, and had done since she was twelve.
There’d been an exchange of words before they’d walked to church. Or rather, Araminta had flounced off ahead while good-natured Hetty had stayed back to keep her mother company.
Sybil slanted a sideways look at the two girls now, neatly turned out in the family pew beside her. Araminta looked proud. Expectant. Sybil repressed a sigh. That’s all she’d been doing lately. But perhaps everything would all work out.
Beside her, Hetty smiled at several new arrivals.
Nobody noticed her.
On her other side, her husband made a remark about the floral arrangement. Too flamboyant, he thought.
Sybil nodded distractedly. Nothing seemed to please Humphry unless he was with his beloved mistress, she thought bitterly, slanting a surreptitious glance across the aisle to see if Mrs. Hazlett and her family had arrived yet.
They had. She snapped her attention back to her neat rabbit-fur muff.
At least Humphry had pledged to play the dutiful host and mentor when Cousin Stephen arrived.
The heir apparent.
Not that young Mr. Stephen Cranbourne’s imminent arrival was anything to get excited over. It merely reinforced Sybil’s sense of superfluity through her failure to provide Humphry with an heir. Or rather, a spare, since the death of their darling boy, George, from the measles four years ago.
In those interim four years, Humphry’s nephew Edgar had been next in line. Humphry had refused to recognize him. Edgar was a clodpoll, he said, and the mere fact he was Humphry’s heir was incentive for Humphry to live to one hundred so he could outlive his cork-brained nephew.
Sybil supposed the bullet that had knocked poor Edgar out of the succession was rather fortunate for everyone, not least this unknown Mr. Cranbourne. But really, it changed nothing for her. She was still the unwanted wife and, as far as Araminta was concerned, the superfluous mother.
Thank goodness Hetty still needed and appreciated her.
A rustle went through the congregation. Sybil opened her hymn book and stared unseeingly at the lines designed to bolster her joy in God’s world. Once again she tried telling herself everything would work out. Humphry would take a liking to young Stephen, young Stephen would be the perfect match for Araminta, and wedding bells would ring out by the end of the year, a lusty son cementing the succession nine months later.
On painful joints, Reverend Bicklefield climbed the steps to the pulpit while old Mrs. Henshaw shuffled in on her handsome nephew’s arm. Sybil glanced up at the whiff of camphor and glimpsed the flare of interest Hetty sent the young man from beneath her sandy lashes as she focused attention upon her hymn book. Poor Hetty, for it was Araminta, sitting beside her, who caught his eye.
Araminta. Sybil sighed. Araminta was, without doubt, the most arresting young woman in the region. She’d turn anyone’s head, however the man who won her would have a tussle on his hands from the outset. Araminta was only happy when she had her own way.
She wondered what kind of man Mr. Stephen Cranbourne was. She knew nothing of him and had had little time to prepare for his arrival.
Reverend Bicklefield cleared his throat and hymn book pages rustled. Glancing at her youngest daughter, Sybil did not miss the smile Hetty flashed at Thomas Hazlett in the pew almost directly across from them. He nodded briefly in acknowledgement before his stern young countenance refocused on his own hymn book.
As far as Sybil knew, the young people had never spoken, although they crossed paths each Sunday.
A chill of foreboding made her shiver and she touched her knee to Humphry’s.
Yet when her husband glanced across at her, she could not put into words her fears.
Thomas and his two sisters were Humphry’s children by his mistress Elizabeth Hazlett. That made Thomas Hetty’s half-brother yet surely Hetty had no idea the Hazletts, who sat quietly and modestly through Rev. Bicklefield’s sermon every Sunday, were her father’s “other” family.
Further study of Hetty reassured Sybil, even after Thomas, looking up and locking eyes with the girl, grinned self-consciously.
Thomas Hazlett would know, of course. Perhaps he was consumed by impotent rage, knowing Hetty and Araminta, his half-sisters, enjoyed an easy, privileged life while he and his sisters, as Lord Partington’s side-slips, must navigate a hurdle-strewn path, denied social acceptance. He’d be especially outraged if he knew—as he presumably did—the reason he was not Lord Partington’s heir. His mother would surely have told Thomas that his father had buckled under family pressure and reneged on his marriage proposal to her. Shortly after Humphry had unexpectedly inherited the title he’d reluctantly married the much more “suitable” Miss Sybil Green. Yet even after such betrayal and after all these years Humphry and Lizzy Hazlett remained desperately in love.
Two generations had suffered the unhappy consequences—and always would. It was of no account that Humphry had regretted his marriage almost immediately, or consolation to Sybil that he’d told her it was not her fault.
She glanced at her husband’s impassive profile. Hard to believe they’d been married twenty years and produced four children, two of whom had died. Both sons. One stillborn, the other, George, only fourteen. Four years had passed but the pain still sliced through her with the rawness of lemon in a fresh cut.
It had taken Humphry another three years before he’d come to her bed. For so long she’ been half expecting it, for of course dear George’s death meant that without a direct heir The Grange and the fortune that went with it would go to Edgar.
The memory of Humphry’s visit to her bedchamber made her cringe with shame. What a debacle it had been—Humphry plied with drink, mumbling that he felt like an adulterer as he tried to coax his unresponsive nether regions to perform.
It didn’t work. Nothing did, including Sybil’s extensive efforts to entice him with her dubious charms before she’d resorted to some crass pumping of Humphry’s flaccid member.
Oh God, this was not a reflection for church, but the embarrassment of being woken by her husband’s drunken snoring just as her maid had come in to draw the curtains still burned.
She looked at Araminta. Perhaps it helped to have no heart, she thought, immediately chastising herself for her uncharitable thoughts. Araminta was still so young. She’d learn.
Besides, Sybil had everything she could wish for. Except love.
Humphry didn’t love Sybil but he’d been kind in his way and he’d always tried to spare her discomfort. Not pain, for nothing could quite erase the hopelessness of knowing one would never know the love of a man.
Nor could she hate Lizzy Hazlett although on more than one occasion she’d wished her dead, wondering if perhaps then Humphry might be able to form for Sybil some small affection.
As the years passed, Sybil realized Humphry would never love anyone but Lizzy Hazlett, who had returned Humphry’s love by eschewing the respectable marriage she might have made as a solicitor’s daughter in order to become Humphry’s mistress. Her punishment had been social ostracism and she’d condemned her children to a dubious future. For what future was there for a bastard?
No, Sybil wasn’t the only one to suffer.
A ripple of interest stirred the congregation and Sybil turned her head as the door blew open to admit a new arrival. He was a stranger, she realized, taking in his large bulk, a dark, faceless cut-out against the sun, which lit him from behind.
As he progressed down the aisle, he paused as if suddenly uncertain, and a shaft of sunlight from one of the side stained windows lit up his face.
It was a handsome face, sensitive and finely rendered rather than rugged. Although young he had creases near his eyes denoting both good humor and experience. Active service perhaps. That turned a boy into a man, and this young man seemed both as his mouth, which had been pressed into a diffident straight line, curved up in recognition upon seeing Humphry.
Stephen. It could be no other.
The young man bowed, his broad shoulders filling out his sober dark coat nicely; certainly in Araminta’s opinion, it would seem. Sybil registered the girl’s sudden awareness, the flare in her eye as she locked glances with the stranger, who was now looking directly at them, the first family of the district sitting according to their station in the front pew.
And at the expectation in his eye Sybil’s heart began to beat rapidly while her breath caught in her throat. Humphry was staring, a wary smile of welcome softening his features. It was impossible to determine his thoughts, even though he’d invited the newcomer here.
Stephen Cranbourne, Humphry’s heir, had finally arrived, having been summoned from the other side of the country after much searching.
And on first impressions he did not disappoint.
END OF EXTRACT
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