The Truth About Lord Stoneville
From The Hellions of Halstead Hall
The Truth About Lord Stoneville
The oldest of the scandalous Sharpes—five hell-raising siblings tainted still by the gossip surrounding the “accidental” deaths of their parents two decades ago—Oliver Sharpe, the Marquess of Stoneville, like his brothers and sisters, has lived life on his own terms. In his case, as an unrepentant rakehell. Or so life had played out until Grandmother Hetty got a bee in her bonnet. Now the five Sharpe siblings face a daunting ultimatum: Marry by year’s end—or kiss their inheritance good-bye.
Oliver vows to fulfill the bargain in true Sharpe style—by bringing home a fake fiancé from a brothel! But his scheme backfires when he foils a robbery and rescues an American beauty instead. Maria Butterfield came to London to find her missing fiancé, but her prior engagement won’t stop Oliver from getting what he wants: Maria in his bed. His rebellious charade may just call Hetty’s bluff, but not before it becomes all too real—stirring up a love that tempts him to be a hellion no more.
They are the scandalous Sharpes, five hellraising siblings tainted by a shocking family legacy. Now each faces a daunting ultimatum, marry soon or kiss their inheritance goodbye.
Thanks to you wonderful readers, the book hit the following bestseller lists:
- #5 on the New York Times (and stayed on three more weeks)
- #18 on USA Today (and stayed on for four more weeks)
- #3 on Publishers Weekly
- #4 on Borders Mass Market
- #1 on Borders Romance List
- #8 on Barnes and Noble Mass Market
- HOLT Medallion 2011 Award of Merit
- Golden Quill Contest 2011 Finalist
- Single Titles 2010 Reviewers’ Choice Award Winner
- Romantic Times 2010 Innovative Historical Romance Nominee
Starred Review: “Jeffries has launched another sparkling series with winning potential. Lively repartee, fast action, luscious sensuality, and an abundance of humor make the first installment of the Hellions of Halstead Hall essential for libraries.” —Library Journal
“The first in a captivating new Regency-set series by the always entertaining Jeffries, this tale has all of the author’s signature elements: delectably witty dialogue, subtly nuanced characters, and scorching sexual chemistry between two perfectly matched protagonists.” —Booklist
4 1/2 stars & Top Pick: “Vastly appealing characters, witty badinage, and a lively sense of fun make this a delightful read and a welcome installment in Jeffries’s latest seriesJeffries’ new series presents the Sharpe siblings, five rakish, roguish, scandalous members of the ton who must marry within the year or lose their inheritance. The author pulls out all the stops with a story combining her hallmark humor, poignancy and sensuality to perfection.”
Oliver stood alone in King’s Courtyard, so called because it had been Henry VIII’s favorite when he’d owned the semi-fortified manor. It had been Oliver’s favorite, too, when he was growing up. Whenever his parents had argued, he’d escaped here, to the expanse of paving tiles between the buildings of roughly hewn ragstone.
Staring up at the stars, he remembered how he used to stand here, wishing he could fly up and away to be consumed in a fiery blaze of glory. Leave everything earthly behind—the estate, his role as heir to a lofty title … the madness that had been his parents’ marriage.
He snorted. What an idiot he’d been. People couldn’t fly, and they sure as the devil couldn’t escape their mistakes by burning them up in stars.
Such a pity. Because right now his biggest mistake was in inviting Gran to come here. He hadn’t counted on her spending her money on the place, trying to make them even more reliant on her than they already were. Trying to lull them into acquiescence with her riches.
He gulped some wine from the golden goblet in his hand. Well, it wouldn’t work. He’d be damned if he let her take over at Halstead Hall. He might hate the place, but it was still his. And he would run it the way he saw fit.
“Your sister told me I would find you here,” came a soft voice behind him.
As he recognized it, he stiffened, then sipped some wine. “I thought you’d be headed to London by now.”
“Why?” Maria asked.
A harsh breath escaped him. “Because if I know Gran, and I do, that little conversation in the parlor was so she could offer to buy you off.”
Maria walked up next to him. He sensed rather than saw her. She had an unusual scent—roses and something he couldn’t place. He’d have to ask her what it was one day.
Right. She’d be long gone before that conversation ever occurred.
“You expected me to take her money?” Maria asked.
He erected the armor of cynicism that always stood him in good stead. “Why shouldn’t you? I would if I were you.”
“And what good would that do me? You said if I didn’t stay tonight you’d have me and my cousin hauled off to the gaol.”
“I’m sure you guessed that Gran has the influence to prevent that.”
“Maybe I’m afraid to risk it.”
He snorted. “Yes, because you’re so timid and all.”
A soft chuckle sounded beside him. “No one has ever accused me of that.”
Slanting a glance at her, he tried to gauge her mood. “You should throw in your lot with Gran. With her money you could hunt for your fiancé, and you’d be well free of this place.” And of me.
“Fortunately for you, I’m not nearly that mercenary. I promised I’d stay tonight, and I will.”
The swift surge of relief that her words provoked unsettled him. Why did he care? She was a means to an end, nothing more. He could find someone else if need be.
And yet …
In the starlight, her face held an angelic glow, and her hair, plaited to lie in a circle atop her head, bore a vaguely halo-ish look.
He rolled his eyes. Halos and angels and stars—deuce take it, what had come over him, to be spinning such fancies? “I wouldn’t blame you if you left, you know. You care only about finding Nathan Hyatt, so I could hardly be surprised if you took your chance to flee when Gran offered it.”
“You have a very low opinion of people. But some of us do keep our promises. Some of us have integrity.”
Integrity. He’d long ago forgotten what that was. “Good for you, Miss Butterfield.” He raised his goblet in a toast. “That was probably a first for Gran—finding someone she couldn’t buy off.”
“Oh? Whom has she bought off before?”
He flashed on a dark night when he’d sat shivering in horror while Gran hurried about, silencing servants, bribing whomever might gainsay her. “No one. Forget I said it.”
“You do that a great deal, don’t you?”
He swallowed the rest of his wine. “What?”
“Close up into yourself whenever someone tries to peer into your soul. Make a joke of it.”
“If you came out here to lecture me,” he snapped, “don’t bother. Gran has perfected that talent. You can’t possibly compete.”
“I only want to understand.”
“I want to be consumed by a star, but we don’t all get what we want.”
“Never mind.” Turning for the nearest door into the house, he started to stalk off, but she caught his arm.
“Why are you so angry at your grandmother?” Maria asked.
“I told you—she’s trying to ruin the lives of me and my siblings.”
“By requiring you to marry so you can have children? I thought all lords and ladies were expected to do that. And the five of you are certainly old enough.” Her tone turned teasing. “Some of you are beyond being old enough.”
“Watch it, minx,” he clipped out. “I’m not in the mood for having my nose tweaked tonight.”
“Because of your grandmother, you mean. It’s not just her demand that has you angry, is it? It goes back longer than that.”
He glared at her. “Why do you care? Has she got you fighting her battles for her now?”
“Hardly. She just informed me that I was, and I quote, ‘exactly the sort of woman who would not meet my requirements of a wife.’”
A smile touched his lips at her accurate mimicking of Gran at her most haughty. “I told you she would think that.”
“Yes,” she said dryly. “You both excel at insulting people.”
“One of my many talents.”
“There you go again. Making a joke to avoid talking about what makes you uncomfortable.”
“And what is that?”
“What did your grandmother do, besides giving you an ultimatum about marriage, that has you at daggers drawn?”
Blast it all, would she not leave off? “How do you know she did anything? Perhaps I’m just contrary.”
“You are. But that’s not what has you so angry at her.”
“If you plan to spend the next two weeks asking ridiculous questions that have no answers, then I will pay you to return to London.”
She smiled. “No, you won’t. You need me.”
“True. But since I’m paying for the service you’re providing, I get some say in how it’s rendered. Bedeviling me with questions isn’t part of our bargain.”
“You haven’t paid me anything yet,” she said lightly, “so I should think there’s some leeway in the terms. Especially since I’ve been working hard all evening furthering your cause. I just finished telling your grandmother that I have ‘feelings’ for you, and that I know you have ‘feelings’ for me.”
“You didn’t choke on that lie?” he quipped.
“I do have feelings for you—probably not the sort she meant, though apparently she believed me. But she was suspicious. She’s more astute than you give her credit for. First, she accused us of acting a farce, and then, when I denied that, she accused me of thinking to marry you so I could gain a fortune from her down the line.”
“And what did you say to that?”
“I told her she could keep her precious fortune..”
“Did you, indeed?” He searched her face. “I would have given my right arm to see that.” Maria was proving to be an endless source of amazement. No one ever stood up to Gran. Except, apparently, for this American chit, with her naïve beliefs in justice and right and morality.
It amazed him that she’d done it, considering the way he’d treated her. No one, not even his siblings, had ever defended him with so little reason. It stirred something that had long lain dead inside him.
His conscience? No, surely not. That wasn’t dead; it was nonexistent.
“I admit I now understand why you’re determined to thwart her,” she went on. “She does have a hateful side.”
He stared down into the goblet. “I suppose you’d see it that way. She sees it as protective.”
“Yet you’re angry at her.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, will you stop harping on that? I’m not angry at Gran.” He stepped closer to her. “And if you intend to stand out here all night and plague me with questions about it, I’ll give you something better to do with your mouth.”
She gazed up at him, perplexed. “I don’t under—”
He cut her off with a kiss. Let her knee him in the groin. Let her slap him. Let her do whatever the hell she wanted. Anything was better than having her ask him about things he didn’t want to discuss. Ever.
But she didn’t kick him. She stayed very, very still, but she didn’t fight him.
He drew back to eye her suspiciously. “Well? Aren’t you going to punch me in the kidney? Pull a knife on me? Something?”
A smile played over her lips. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? I kick your shin and march off in a huff, and you don’t have to answer me. But I’m wise to your tricks now, Oliver. I’m not going to stop asking just because—”
He kissed her again. Except that this time he dropped the goblet so he could drag her close and take advantage of her gasp to plunge his tongue into her mouth. Her sweet, silky mouth. So warm and innocent.
Swiftly he retreated.
She did not. “What was that … you just did?” she asked in a breathless voice.
Such clear evidence of her arousal made something resonate deep in his chest. And that wasn’t good. “It’s another way of kissing.” He ran his thumb over her lower lip, unable to stop himself. “A very intimate way.”
Maria heard his explanation in a daze. Another way of kissing? There was more than one? Was it supposed to make her pulse jump and her heart thunder? And why had Nathan never done it to her?
Great heavens, Nathan. She had let Oliver kiss her, without a thought for her fiancé!
Still, she wanted to know why kissing was different with Oliver. Was it her? Or was it just that Oliver had experience that the respectable Nathan could never have?
“Do it again,” she blurted out.
Oliver’s eyes, black as the mouth of hell, glittered in the moonlight. “Why?”
“Don’t you want to?” Her heart sank. It was her. She’d been so inept that even a debauched scoundrel like Oliver lacked any urge to kiss her again.
“God preserve me, of course I want to,” he growled. “But I don’t fancy having your knee shoved in my groin again.”
“I won’t hurt you, I just … want to see what it’s like. That’s all.”
He narrowed his gaze on her. “Didn’t your Nathan ever kiss you?”
“Not like that.”
She tipped up her chin. “Not all men are as shamelessly wicked as you.”
The faintest of smiles touched his lips. “True.” Then before she could say anything else, he kissed her again, taking advantage of her slightly parted lips to thrust his tongue inside her mouth.
And it was glorious, a hundred times more thrilling than any kiss Nathan had ever given her. Her skin felt too tight to contain her body, and her body felt too tight to contain her stampeding heart. Every sense was heightened. The taste of tart-sweet wine on his breath intoxicated her, and the smell of his spicy cologne made her dizzy.
When he delved his tongue deep, again and again, all she could do was grab his coat and hold on, sure that she would disintegrate into a million pieces if she didn’t. Tentatively she put her tongue into his mouth, curious as to how that would feel. Groaning low in his throat, he flattened her body against his hard one with the iron band of his arm. Then his mouth became more ravenous, bolder and hungrier, all-consuming.
She reminded herself that this was only a game to him, one of a thousand kisses he’d given a thousand women. There was a reason, after all, that his sister had named a villain after him. It hadn’t all been just in jest.
Still, she kept hearing his grandmother say, He has vulnerabilities that you cannot even begin to imagine.
He tore his mouth free of hers to whisper, “Your fiancé is clearly mad, to run off and leave you to the mercies of other men.” He trailed open-mouthed kisses along her jaw to her neck. “He’s not worthy of you.”
“But you are?” she breathed as Oliver tongued the hollow of her throat.
“God, no. The difference is, I don’t care.”
“You don’t care about … much, do you?”
“I care about this.” His hand slid up to cover her breast, and to her shock, he kneaded it, making the nipple ache. “I care about making love to an angel in the starlight.”
As his words trickled into her haze of desire, she froze. Making love? Oh, Mercy, what was she doing? He had his hand on her breast, for pity’s sake!
She shoved him away. “You mean, making love to a woman in the starlight, don’t you? Any woman will do. I just happen to be handy.”
For a moment, the stark anger in his eyes gave her hope that he would protest her claim. Then he shuddered, and the anger gave way to a cynical arch of his brow. “You do know me well, I see.”
“Yes,” she choked out. “I have your sister’s books to thank for that. I’m very familiar with Lord Rockton’s habits.” She fought to recapture her breath, to quell the violent beating of her heart. He mustn’t guess how deeply he’d dragged her into fancying that he cared. He would use it against her. She was sure of it.
“Then you know Rockton never stops with kissing,” he drawled and reached for her again, but she shied away, crossing her arms protectively over her chest.
She’d poked a stick at a sleeping beast, and now she’d better run before he fully awakened. “That’s enough practice for one night, sir,” she said.
He went still. “Practice?”
“In kissing, of course. Since I clearly have much to learn about it before I marry Nathan, I figured no one could show me the proper way to do it as well as you. Especially after your sister touted Lord Rockton’s talent with women.”
The muscle that ticked in his jaw told her she had struck a nerve. “And did I perform as advertised?”
“No one in life can ever match fiction. Surely even you know that.”
“Yes,” he said coldly. “I believe I do.”
“But it was still a valuable lesson, and for that I thank you.” She actually meant that. He’d taught her not to take him too seriously. Not if she wanted to leave this place with her virtue intact.
He’d made it clear that he had no desire to marry. And despite her uncertainty about Nathan, she wasn’t ready to give up on her betrothed either. So she must tread very, very lightly around his lordship from now on.
“I think we should rejoin the others, don’t you?” she said.
“You go on,” he ground out. “I’ll be along in a moment.”
Grateful for the reprieve, she fled.
Only after she’d reached the dining room did she remember that he’d never answered her question about his anger at his grandmother.