The Broken Heart - Unmarriageable, Book 4
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Light, fun Regency romance from Mary Lancaster.
Welcome to the Hart Inn, a lucky house where love always seems to blossom, whatever the obstacles...
Danger, loyalty and loving the enemy…
Shunned by society and even by her own family after the treachery of her late husband, Isabelle de Renarde has long given up any thought of love or remarriage. But desperate loneliness drives her to make an assignation at the Hart Inn – which is where, inevitably, everything changes.
For the Hart is in turmoil once more, captured by a small group of French raiders led by the wildly reckless Captain Armand le Noir - who always succeeds in the end. Dazzled by Isabelle’s beauty, Armand regards her at first much like the task in hand – a distraction from his own pain. But the Hart seems to work its magic and inconvenient attraction gets in the way of both unwise assignation and the search for lost prisoners of war.
With the raiders only partially foiled, the adventure sweeps from the inn to a neighborhood ball and then to France itself.
Amidst the constant danger and the intensity of their growing love, Isabelle and Armand live on the edge of betraying each other or their own countries. But someone is manipulating them, the true enemy is as unclear, and in the end they must both risk everything to be together.
Read an excerpt below
"Love this series"
"Wonderful Love Story!"
"a brilliant read and one you will not want to put down."
"Another great book from Mary Lancaster"
"Riveting... this series is brilliant"
"great fun, and the story will engage you from the beginning."
"simply wonderful, and illustrates beautifully the writing talent of Mary Lancaster!"
"such intriguing characters and storylines...Prepare to be enthralled"
- Amazon reviews
Isabelle de Renarde advanced toward the Hart Inn with an odd, nervous dread.
It might have been the ominous darkness of the evening, or the eternally drizzling rain trickling down her carriage window. But more likely, the feeling was rooted in the past.
The last time she had come here, only three months ago, she had been afraid her treacherous husband had shot her one-time lover. As indeed he had, though it had been Pierre, her husband, who had died.
Isabelle had never regretted the fact. Having discovered what he was and what he was doing—betraying the country that had taken him in when his own would have executed him—her last remaining tatters of affection or loyalty had died with him. But that old shame and alarm seemed to be twisting through her stomach now as she approached a far more pleasurable experience: an assignation of love.
In her heart, she hoped he would not have come. That she would spend the night alone, enjoy one of Mrs. Villin’s excellent breakfasts in the morning, and then leave, alone. Perhaps she would even call on one of the local landowners …though they would probably not receive the traitor’s wife now.
This was not the proper attitude with which to be nearing her tryst. She should be excited, looking forward to a night of intimate bliss. Sir Maurice was a handsome man and his attentions had been balm to her wounded, lonely soul. But at the back of her mind, perhaps she had always known she only considered him because no one else would even speak to her. It wasn’t physical love she truly sought from him but human contact. And she liked that he had ignored her husband’s notoriety and considered who she was, not what Pierre had done.
And yet, the dread remained as the horses slowed, turning into the brightly lit inn yard. She was, deliberately, two hours late. She had tried to tell herself it was so that Sir Maurice wouldn’t think her too eager, but in reality, she had been more than half-hoping he would have given up on her and left again.
Even gone to bed would be good.
No, I should not be here, should I? It is not fair to him or to me. Yet, what else do I have to do to pass the interminable days?
The carriage door opened. For an instant, she contemplated staying where she was and instructing the coachman to drive back to London through the night. Or even to another inn.
I have not sunk so low as this…
But it seemed she had. She could not face another hour of this loneliness. And so, she alighted at the inn’s front door.
Stepping into the house’s warm glow, Isabelle glanced to the taproom on her right. She glimpsed Sir Maurice Ashton among the revelers, and her stomach lurched painfully.
Elegant and fashionable, he was clearly out of place among the rough fishermen and farmers who made up the bulk of the patrons. Just as clearly, he did not care, but sat aloof and superior, a condescending smile on his lips.
Drink with them or don’t drink with them, she thought in irritation. Don’t sit among them, despising them and congratulating yourself for not being one of them.
“Madame de Renarde!” exclaimed Mrs. Villin, the innkeeper’s wife, bustling out of the kitchen. “We were not expecting you! Is everything well?”
Hastily, Isabelle stepped forward to avoid being seen from the taproom. Someone else was coming in behind her. “Good evening, Mrs. Villin. Yes, it was a sudden decision, but everything is fine. A bedchamber, if you please, and your private parlor.”
“Bless you, madame, the parlor is taken,” she said, apparently stricken. “But there’s no one in the coffee room this time of night. I can close the door and make sure you’re not disturbed.”
Isabelle hesitated. Her instinct was to order supper sent up to her bedchamber, simply to avoid Sir Maurice, but that was both unfair and cowardly. Besides, she was very conscious of the people behind her.
“The coffee room is fine,” she said, hastening toward it.
But from behind, one of the newcomers was quicker, striding ahead of her and opening the door. “Ma’am.”
Impossible to tell his station from that one word, or his undistinguished but respectable dress. But one glance at his wild, dancing dark eyes and she doubted anyone would care. He may have been handsome. She thought he was—bronzed skin, straight nose, generous mouth, cheekbones to die for… And those amazing eyes, inviting the fun and laughter that was balm to her soul. And yet, behind them, surely, lay a strange desperation…
But she had stared long enough. She allowed him a faint smile as she inclined her head and swept past him into the room. He bowed, perhaps with slight exaggeration, and strode after his friends into the taproom.
“Who is he?” she asked Mrs. Villin as she followed the innkeeper’s wife across the room to the fireplace and cast off her travelling cloak and bonnet.
“No idea, madame. Never seen him before in my life. Sit here, where it’s warm, and I’ll bring you some supper. I have a good mutton soup and a ham and chicken pie.”
“Sounds delicious,” Isabelle said. This was where she should mention Sir Maurice. Is Sir Maurice Ashton here, perchance? Please tell him I would be grateful if he would wait on me here in the morning.
It was his idea. To let him know she had arrived, after which their assignation would be discreet. He had seemed surprised that she was not the one to suggest this subterfuge. But in truth, she was far less wise in the ways of clandestine relationships than he seemed to imagine. She had only ever taken one lover, and he still made her heart ache.
Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. For it came to her that she was still letting Pierre drive her life and her unhappiness. She had gone to Verne for comfort from Pierre’s serial adultery. And now she had come to Sir Maurice because of Pierre’s treachery. She did not want him. In fact, she’d felt a much stronger tug of attraction to the stranger with the laughing eyes who had bowed her into this room.
She had no excuse for Sir Maurice. And less to dismiss him.
“Is there anything else, madame?” Mrs. Villin asked.
“No,” Isabelle said. “Thank you.”
“Very good. I’ll have your things taken up to your chamber, and Lily will bring your supper directly.”
As the woman bustled off, Isabelle sank into the chair nearest the fire and leaned her head back. She had no idea what she would do next, but the very air of the Hart seemed to relax her into something very close to contentment. She felt as though she were still traveling. And if she had not arrived, no decisions were yet necessary.
The door opened a few minutes later to admit Lily, the innkeeper’s pretty daughter, who greeted her cheerfully and set the nearest table for her supper. Isabelle could count the number of times she had been here on one hand, but it seemed she was always greeted as a friend. Even now, when the Villins knew the worst of Pierre.
“You are busy tonight,” Isabelle observed.
“Yes, the taproom is heaving! But you shouldn’t be bothered in here. Are you on your way to Mrs. Longstone’s?”
“No,” Isabelle replied. Her cousins, the Longstones, had made it clear that although they would not cut her off precisely, she was no longer welcome in their house. Which was undeniably hurtful since she and not Pierre was their blood relation, and since she had acted as governess to Mrs. Longstone’s orphaned granddaughter for no more than her board. She missed the child, Jane. She missed being useful.
Lily poured her a glass of wine and brought it to her. “Are you keeping well, madame?”
Isabelle met the girl’s gaze in some surprise. “I? Of course.”
Just for a moment, Lily’s gaze was uncomfortably perceptive, and Isabelle met it with a somewhat childish defiance.
“And how are you, Lily?” she asked amiably. “Has no handsome young farmer managed to persuade you to marriage?”
“No, I am happy where I am! Though I think my father would like me to accept Ned Bunton at Underton Farm.”
“Don’t you like him?”
“Ned?” She laughed. “Of course I like him. But I have known him all my life. I feel I should marry someone new, not a man I regard as a brother.”
“There is a lot to be said for a man you already know. Less unpleasant surprises.”
“Is that what happened to you, madame? Unpleasant surprises?”
Isabelle gave her a crooked smile. “You are right, of course. Such surprises are always possible, however long the acquaintance. So, if you will not take the estimable Mr. Bunton, what will you do?”
“Follow my heart, or take no husband at all.”
It was a sweet, uncomplicated view of the world. But then, she had a family who loved her, a home, an occupation.
Isabelle raised her glass to the girl. “I wish you every happiness.”
Lily smiled dazzlingly and went out. She returned only a few minutes later with bowls and platters of food. Paying for this night would just about use up Isabelle’s dwindling supply of money. After this… Right now, she didn’t really care.
Thanking Lily, she sat at the table and did justice to Mrs. Villin’s excellent cooking.
Only as she finished her apple and cinnamon tart did she become aware of the voices outside her window. It was more of a low hum than distinguishable words, but something about the tone made her think the conversation was in French.
Curiously, she rose from the table, walked to the window, and drew back the curtain.
Three men, deep in conversation, stood between the front door of the inn and the coffee room window. The rain had gone off, and from the clearing sky, moonlight spilled down on them, joining the glow from the lanterns at the front door. The movement of the curtain, or perhaps the extra candlelight from her window, drew their attention. All three turned in her direction, and she saw that one was the man who had opened the coffee room door for her. He said something, low, urgent, and commanding to the others, who immediately trotted off into the night.
On impulse, Isabelle reached up and threw open the window.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” the remaining man called, strolling toward her. He moved with a sort of wary, controlled grace, quite at odds with his untamed, reckless eyes. A man of intriguing contradictions.
“I was about to ask you the same question,” Isabelle replied. “You and your friends gave the impression of having lost something.”
“Someone,” he corrected. “Our friends should have been here some time ago.” He came to a halt, his gaze flickering beyond her into the room.
“They have probably lost their way. The Hart is not on the main road, after all.”
“It isn’t,” he agreed. “So, what brings so fine a lady as yourself to such an out of the way establishment?”
“I lived near here for some years.”
“Nostalgia is the thief of life,” he observed. “One must move forward.”
“You are entirely right. Is that why you and your friends are here?”
“Of course. You did not see our other friends on the road?”
“I’m afraid I was a little distracted. I saw no other carriages that I can recall for at least an hour before we arrived.”
“They may have been on horseback.”
“If they were there, I’m afraid I missed them,”
A man stepped out of the inn door. A youngish man in the uniform of the royal navy. Without warning, Isabelle’s companion threw himself over the windowsill and into the coffee room. He landed with surprising lightness, rolled, and jumped to his feet.
In shock, Isabelle had stumbled back. Her companion raised one long finger to his lips as he moved purposefully to the window, reached out, and drew it shut.
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said without looking at her. Instead, he was peering through the gap in the curtain toward the front door. “I mean you no harm.”
“Are you hiding from someone?” she demanded.
She hadn’t expected him to admit it quite so freely. “The naval officer?”
He shot a quick grin at her and returned to his observation, “Yes.”
“He seems uncommonly curious, not to say disapproving.”
Enlightenment dawned. She almost laughed. “Are you a smuggler, sir?”
“Sort of,” he admitted, relaxing onto the window seat and adjusting the curtain to watch his quarry with greater ease.
“Do you imagine he will try to arrest you in this place?”
“I’m not sure what he will do. Which is why I watch.”
“Do you think you could do it from a different window?” she suggested.
“Of course.” He dragged his gaze from the window and stood. “I would hate your husband to call me out over a misunderstanding.”
“That would be most alarming,” she agreed.
“He’s gone back inside anyway. Alone.” He walked halfway to the coffee room door before he paused and turned back to her. “You will not give me away?”
“I have no interest in smugglers, sir, and no one would listen to me if I did.”
“Not even your husband?” he asked.
“My husband does not listen to anything any more,” she said dryly. “He is dead.”
Her visitor started back toward her in sudden contrition. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” she said at once. “I’m not.”
He paused, his head tilted to one side as he regarded her. “Well that is honest. Or is it heartless?”
She blinked. “No?”
“You are not heartless. Not with those eyes."
Shaken, she dragged her gaze free. No, she had never been heartless, but she had spent so long convincing people she was that the words of this stranger threw her.
“I imagine your eyes tell a more interesting story,” she accused. “Though I doubt it would be fit for the ears of a lady.”
He raised his straight black eyebrows. “What makes you think that?”
“Nothing,” she admitted. “But I have always found attack to be an excellent defense.”
A flash of amusement lit his restless face. “I wish we had time to compare stories. But I fear that is doomed to remain one of my life’s regrets.”
“Of course, you are in a hurry to return to your smuggling.”
“Also,” he reminded her, “you dismissed me.”
“So I did, and yet here you still are.”
As though he took her words as a challenge, he walked back toward her. “You distracted me.”
“If so, you are too easily distracted.”
A breath of laughter shook him as he halted before her. “Not easily enough.” His warm, dazzling smile raised sudden butterflies in her stomach, taking her by surprise.
He was tall, forcing even Isabelle to look up. “What do you mean by that?”
“It’s part of the story we have no time for.” Unexpectedly, he took her hand. The touch of his fingers was electric. “Thank you for hiding me from your Royal Navy.”
His eyes, those wild, laughing, yet almost desperate eyes, were not those of a rake, a seducer. So why did she feel she was being seduced?
“It is not my navy,” she said nervously. “Or my country, in truth.”
He blinked. “It isn’t?”
Her eyebrows flew up, for although she spoke fluent English, no one had ever accused her of doing so without a trace of a French accent. “I think you are not as observant as you imagine. I am an émigrée.”
His gaze held hers. “I suppose I hoped you were not.”
His lips curved. “Many reasons.” He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it, a light, brief caress that stirred every nerve in her body.
Then he released her. “Mostly, because you are much too delightful to have anything to do with a man like Maurice Ashton.”
Her mouth fell open. By the time she had shut it again, the door was closing softly behind him.
She sank onto the nearest chair, then jumped up, frowning, and began to pace around the room.
What the devil had he meant by that? Was he a friend of Ashton’s? Could Sir Maurice possibly have been blabbing about his assignation? In the public taproom of an inn?
Her face flamed, and she covered it with her fingers in a vain attempt to cool it. It seemed she had made many mistakes in coming here. Only her instinct to stay silent about Sir Maurice in Lily’s presence had been correct.
She would leave tomorrow at first light. Though why she should care about her reputation still, she had no idea. Pierre had already made that pointless. No, it wasn’t so much her reputation that moved her. It was more outrage that she had been duped. Shame from many sources curled her toes.
She needed to get away from this wretched country. Perhaps she could go to America, if she could only scrape together enough money for her passage. Though, of course, there was war there, too. She felt suddenly trapped in the Hart, in the country, in her whole life as she had made it.
Fortunately, perhaps, Lily came in then to clear away the supper leftovers.
Isabelle watched her for a little in silence. Then she said abruptly. “Lily, have you been in the taproom this evening?”
“Yes, helping Dad out when I can.”
“I thought I saw Sir Maurice Ashton there when I arrived.”
“Fashionable gent?” Lily asked. “Yes, he’s there. Is he a friend of yours?”
I very much doubt it. “Merely an acquaintance. Tell me, did you happen to notice if he is with friends?”
“He arrived on his own,” Lily recalled. “Well, with his valet and groom, which is about as close to alone as a gentleman gets! He’s been sitting with Lieutenant Steel, the navy officer. Well, both gentlemen together, I suppose. And the other strangers—they’ve been sitting at Sir Maurice’s table, too.”
“What other strangers?”
“Gentlemen who arrived right about when you did, madame.”
“And are they friends of Sir Maurice?”
Lily shrugged. “They may be now. Weren’t when they arrived, for I heard them all introducing themselves to each other.”
“And who are they?” Isabelle asked curiously. “What are their names?”
Lily thought. “Black. The one who talks most, with the eyes, is Black. Can’t remember the others, if I heard them, which I doubt.”
With the eyes. It could only be her visitor. Mr. Black. “Lily, I wonder if you—”
Before she could finish her sentence, several shouts blasted from the taproom, followed by an almighty crash, such as furniture falling. Lily dropped her tray and as one, she and Isabelle bolted out of the coffee room to see what on earth had happened.