Amid all the lies and scandals that fuel Society’s gossip mill, one truth has always stood out: House Rothcastle and House Windbury have always hated each other.Lady Ava Windbury prays the feud will someday end, to no avail. One dreadful night, her brother accidentally causes the death of Christian Rothcastle’s sister, a tragedy that leaves both men maimed.
Consumed by grief, Christian makes a grim decision. He will kidnap Lady Ava so that her family will feel the pain of loss as keenly as he feels the loss of his own sister. But once he has Ava in his clutches, desire takes unexpected hold. Even more surprising, she willingly surrenders to his every sexual whim—after haggling over the terms of giving up her virginity.
Too late, he realizes she is using her body for peace, not war. But just as their affair of revenges turns into an affair of the heart, the past rears its ugly head to take matters into its own hands…
In the ranks of the ton, there were dozens of scandals every Season. Over the course of a decade, perhaps a hundred or more. In the course of a century, they numbered in the thousands, of varying depth and destructive influence. But there was one scandal, or rather set of scandals, that had been a subject of whispers for five generations. One that had made two names infamous. That was the war between the House of Rothcastle and the House of Windbury.
How it had begun, no one could say, perhaps not even the parties currently involved. A slight at a ball? A cheat at a game of cards? Perhaps even a betrayal of a friendship (for there was a nasty rumor that the families had once been friendly long ago—no one believed it could be possible). Whatever the cause, once their war had begun, it had never found a truce. At times it had been cold. At times there were years between battles.
But at this current moment it was as hot as it had ever been. And as the current Duke of Rothcastle rounded a corner on his horse at breakneck speed, that war grew only more desperate and heated. As keenly as any of his kin ever had, Christian felt the hatred for his enemy, the current Earl of Windbury, whose friends called him Liam, though Christian would never call him anything but bastard. Windbury was as bad as any of his family. He was cruel, he was greedy, he was wicked to the core and he was a thief. In fact, Windbury had stolen something very precious to Christian, and he intended to get it back at any cost.
He dug his heels into his mount, and the horse responded to the pressure by leaping ever faster, and there Christian saw his quarry. Windbury’s audacious High Perch phaeton was just a few horse lengths in front of him, riding at nearly as fast a speed as Christian could manage on his own with a horse that had been running for over an hour.
Perhaps if he had paused to think of it, Christian might have allowed his cooler mind to prevail, his intellect to examine what was happening. But he did not pause, only leaned in and cut a corner in the road to gain ground on Windbury’s carriage.
Though it was nearly dusk and the world was beginning to be shrouded in shadow, Christian saw Windbury look back toward him. Almost as if he were moving in half-time, the other man’s eyes widened and he leaned over to shout something to his companion over the thundering hooves of his horses and the gaining steps of Christian’s mount. The other passenger in the vehicle, a woman, turned toward Christian, and the fear in her face was evident. As evident as the features she shared with Christian, who was, after all, her brother.
“Matilda!” Christian cried out over the cacophony of sound.
He did not hear her reply but saw her pink lips, chapped by the windy cold, mouth his name in reply. She shook her head, her gaze entreating him to end his chase. He ignored her and swung in until he was next to the driver’s side of the phaeton.
“Stop at once,” Christian ordered, grabbing for the reins in Windbury’s hand. The other man tugged back, and suddenly there was a wild, terrifying sound from the horses. All three animals, riding too fast and too close, suddenly seemed to have feet entangled and the result was chaos that exploded all around Christian.
He was thrown first, spiraling off his animal and hitting the ground with a bonecrunching thud that immediately caused an explosion of pain in his left leg, his arm, his head. But he was not so stunned as to miss seeing the carriage slam onto its side, wood splintering, horses flipping and crying out, followed by a piercing, horrified scream of a woman that was abruptly cut off.
“Matilda!” Windbury’s voice cried out, weak and off in the distance, in the ditch, away from the crushed and mangled carriage.
Christian stared at the violent aftermath of the crash scattered across the country road and was suddenly aware that all the loud sounds had ended abruptly. They’d been replaced by a foreboding, horrible silence that was as cold as death.
He dragged himself from the middle of the road where he had landed toward the twisted metal and splintered wood, ignoring the crushing pain in his body, the difficulty of breath. His need to chase was gone now, replaced by a far different need. He needed to see Tildy. Tildy was all that mattered. If he and Windbury were alive, surely she was alive as well. Surely she…
His thoughts cut off abruptly as he reached up for a piece of wood and shoved it aside. He peered over the mangled bits that had once been the driver’s side of the rig and there, to his horror, lay his sister.
Matilda was trapped beneath the larger remnants of the carriage, her arm twisted unnaturally behind her, her eyes wide and glassy as she stared out at nothingness. Blood tangled in her blonde hair, trickled down her face from a gash that ran along her hairline. It was deep and devastating.
“Matilda,” Christian called out as tears began to block his vision.
She did not respond at first, but after a second too long she blinked once and her gaze focused on him.
“Christian,” she whispered, her voice rough and nothing like her normal light and lovely tones. “I hurt so much, Christian.”
He squeezed his eyes shut and ignored all his own pain to try to move some of the wood that pinned her. She cried out when he touched it, and he yanked his hand away to stare at her helplessly.
Touching anything hurt her, but leaving her like this would kill her. And yet he was too weak for anything else. Even if he could remove the crushing beams and wheels from her body, where could he take her? The carriage animals lay dead in the road, his own horse had limped off into the wilderness around them. He could not carry her and there was no one nearby even if he could. “Windbury,” he whispered. He rolled away and looked for him. He had heard Windbury call out after the crash, so he had to be close by. Christian found him in the ditch, curled in a fetal position without moving. He could not tell if the other man lived.
“Windbury!” he called out, for once praying that there was air in that bastard’s lungs. “Great God, Windbury, please wake up.”
Relief filled him as the other man moaned, then rolled toward Christian’s voice. “Matilda,” he groaned. “Matilda.”
“Shut up,” Christian ordered. “She’s hurt. Come to your senses and help me. Help me, for all that is good!”
Windbury coughed and blood flew from his lips. He had a massive gash on his face from his forehead to his chin and by the rasping of his breath, there was even more wrong with him than that. But somehow he managed to drag himself toward the wreckage in what seemed like great pain and effort.
“Matilda,” he murmured, still half senseless. His murmurs turned to sobs when he saw the state Christian’s sister was in, trapped and bleeding.
“Shhh, my darling,” Matilda soothed him, her air coming in labored gasps between each syllable. She stirred her hand as if to reach for him, but couldn’t. “I…I am dying.”
“No!” both men cried at once. She smiled weakly first at Windbury, then at her brother. “You are more alike than you would ever admit,” she managed in slow, broken breaths. “I…love…you…both…”
The last word was said on her last breath. It whispered out into the night and she took no more to replace it. Windbury began to scream as he reached for her, trying to take her limp hand as he begged her to wait, to stay, to breathe.
Christian did nothing of the kind. He stared at the broken body of his dead sister and then he looked at Windbury. Windbury, who had seduced her. Windbury, who had stolen her from her family. Windbury, who had refused to return her. And the hatred that had festered between their families rose in Christian like an inferno that could not be controlled. If he had been able to reach the pistol tucked in his boot, he would have shot the man in the head in that very moment. But he was too broken to try.
Instead, he leaned in, met Windbury’s gaze and growled, “You did this. You killed her. Murderer!” Windbury shook his head, but Christian did not allow him to deny it. “And I will see you suffer as you have never imagined suffering before my life is over. I swear this to you on her blood.”
And then a horrible, painful darkness began to swirl before his eyes and he collapsed against the broken remnants of the carriage into unconsciousness that gave him no respite from his pain, his grief or his hate.