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Historical Romance Author Christina Brooke
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Book 1 in the Ministry of Marriage Series

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JANE OPENED HER EYES and a large form filled her vision—or at least, he filled the doorway—dark hair tousled beyond any recognizable style, heavy-lidded eyes trained on her, and a cigarillo clamped between very white teeth.

She gasped. The rider she’d seen from the upstairs window.

Now, he was close enough to reach out and touch. He smiled at her around that horrible cigarillo, Jane realized with dismay. Her heart lurched into a frantic dance.

Jane’s mind fixed on the source of that smoke as a drowning woman might clutch at a rope. She shoved Rosamund’s handkerchief into her pocket and scowled up at him. “I hope you aren’t going to puff on that disgusting thing in here.”

The man’s green eyes narrowed, observing her for a moment. Then his lips closed around the repellant object. The hollows in his cheeks deepened; the end of the cigarillo glowed amber. Deliberately, he removed the cigarillo from his mouth, tilted his head and blew smoke upward. The stream of cloudy gray passed between his well-formed lips, lifting, clouding, curling in tendrils to caress the plasterwork.

In that attitude, the slightly stubborn jut of his chin became pronounced. Despite her annoyance at his studied disregard for her wishes, Jane’s fascinated gaze traced the strong lines of his throat as they disappeared into a stark white cravat.

The stranger turned and pitched the butt off the terrace in a sailing arc, into the rain.

As if the heavens resented this wanton act, they opened, hurling water down in sheets. The wind gave a ghostly howl. Blood red curtains billowed around him, and the fanciful image of a devil stepping out of hell popped into her head. The gentleman moved inside and closed the long window behind him, shutting out the storm.

Jane shot from her chair, which brought her within discomfiting distance of the stranger’s tall form. He smelled—not unpleasantly—of horse leathers and rain and the exotic hint of Spanish smoke.

They both moved at once, and she fetched up against him in a heady brush of palm to chest, side to muscular thigh. Two large, strong hands gripped her upper arms to steady her. “Whoa there.”

The heat from his palms and fingers seeped into her chilled skin. He seemed even larger than he’d appeared from beneath her window. She had to crane her neck to look up at him and his decided chin.

A sudden fire glinted beneath those lazy eyelids. She almost expected him to hold her longer, but he unhanded her almost before she’d regained her balance. She took a hasty step back and the backs of her knees hit her chair.

The stranger smiled, another flash made brighter by the contrasting swarthiness of his face. “No, no! Don’t go on my account.” His voice, a husky tenor, plucked its way down her spine.

Jane frowned. Who did he think he was? A gentleman did not barge into private rooms without an invitation. “Oh, I’m not going anywhere. You’ll find the other mourners in the drawing room, sir.”

“I know. That’s why I’m in the library.” The corners of his eyes crinkled. “You don’t have the faintest idea who I am, do you?”

She was beginning to think she did. “Of course not. We haven’t been introduced.” Despising her priggish tone, she turned slightly and picked at the armrest of her chair with fingers that weren’t quite steady.
But surely he wasn’t… He couldn’t… If the stranger was Roxdale, he’d have attended the will reading, wouldn’t he?

Before he could speak again, she said, “I don’t care who you are. It’s improper for us to be here alone together. You must go.”

“Must I? But we are getting on so famously.” Without a by-your-leave, he reached past her to move her chair from where it blocked his path and stepped farther into the room.

Prowling by bookshelves and globes and maps, he rounded a large drafting table and homed in on the drinks tray that sat, stocked and ready, on the sideboard. He poured himself a brandy from one of the crystal decanters.

She marched after him, blustering. “Just what do you think—”

“It seems I have the advantage.” Turning, he wrapped his long fingers around the glass and tilted it toward her. “For I know who you are.”