New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author

of Contemporary Women's Fiction, Romantic Comedies, and Historical Romances

 

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It Happened One Night . . . and nothing was ever the same again!

 

Once upon a time, four superstar storytellers—New York Times bestselling authors Stephanie Laurens and Mary Balogh, along with Jacquie D'Alessandro and Candice Hern—came up with a delicious idea. What if they each wrote a story about a proper young lady stranded at a remote inn away from society's constraints? What would happen? And how long would it take for her to give in to desire?

In these four amazing tales, four heroines will come face-to-face with the men who got away . . . only to discover that, instead of anger, there is still a passionate connection that cannot be denied. And while each of their lives is quite different, and their pasts utterly unique, they will all make a common discovery—that one night can change everything . . . forever.

 

 

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“I’m not the same man I used to be, Cassie,” Ethan said softly, his warm breath touching her lips.  “If we spend the day together, I can’t guarantee I won’t do something we’d both regret.”

“Like what?”

Fire seemed to kindle in his eyes and his gaze wandered down to her lips.  Cassie’s mouth tingled under his scrutiny, but before she could so much as form a thought, his lips covered hers, in a hot, hard kiss that tasted of passion and suppressed need and dark hunger. 

Heat whooshed through her, melting her knees, but then as quickly as he’d started the kiss he ended it, lifting his head and staring down at her with glittering eyes that seemed to breathe smoke.

Dear God.  Shock rendered her immobile.  Except for her heart which thundered hard enough to echo in her ears.  Never, in her entire life, had any man looked at her like this.  Like he was starving and she was a banquet feast.  Like he wanted to devour her.  Certainly she’d never inspired her husband to look at her in such a way. 

“Like that,” he said, his voice a husky growl.

 

 

 

 

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Chapter One

 

     “Stop the coach!” Cassandra Heywood, Countess Westmore, demanded, pounding her fist against the carriage ceiling to gain the driver’s attention.

     “What’s wrong, milady?” asked Sophie, her maid’s pretty face clouding with concern.  “Ye look pale.  Are ye unwell?”

     The carriage rocked to a halt and she heard Mr. Watley, the coachman, clamor down from his perch.  “I’m...” Panicked.  Unsure.  Dear God, am I making a terrible mistake?  “...feeling a bit unsettled.”  A humorless sound caught in her throat at the understatement.

     Mr. Watley opened the door and a blast of cool, sea-scented air swirled into the warm interior.  “Somethin’ amiss?”

     “Lady Westmore is feelin’ peaked,” Sophie said.  “How much further do we have to go?”

     “The Blue Seas Inn is less than a mile ahead,” reported Mr. Watley.

     Less than a mile ahead.  Cassandra’s gloved fingers tightened their grip on the black gabardine of her mourning gown.

     “Perhaps we shouldn’t stop at the inn,” Mr. Watley said, a frown puckering his weathered face. 

     Precisely the words that had repeatedly circled through her mind since they’d climbed into the coach this morning for the final leg of their arduous three-week journey to Cornwall.

     “Gateshead Manor is only another two hours away,” he continued.  “I know ye planned to spend the night at the Blue Seas, but if yer gettin’ ill, might be best to press on and get ye home.”

     It wasn’t illness knotting her stomach, but she couldn’t deny that it might indeed be best to continue.  Coward, her inner voice sneered.  Indeed, she was.  But she didn’t want to be.  Not anymore.  Yet old habits died hard.

“I think...I just need some air,” she murmured.  She accepted Mr. Watley’s large, calloused hand and exited the carriage.  Warm sunshine and cool air fanned over her, and she stretched her back.  Her muscles ached and her temples pounded from the endless jouncing on the leather seats and the monotonous grinding of the wheels.

Walking several yards away, she peered over the hedges lining the narrow dirt road and drew in a quick, delighted breath at the view.  The sparkling wonder of St. Ives Bay greeted her gaze, an expanse of blue that melted into the indigo of the Atlantic glittering on the horizon.  Gulls swooped over the golden sand dunes below then skimmed over the white capped waves.  Golden ribbons of early afternoon sunshine shimmered over the boats bobbing near the shore, awaiting men to draw them out to catch pilchards and haul up lobster pots.

She drew a slow, deep breath and briefly closed her eyes, savoring the hint of salt that scented the summer air.  Nostalgia tightened her throat, and for the first time in ten long years the vise-like grip of homesickness for her beloved Cornwall loosened just a bit.  Gateshead Manor in Land’s End, the childhood home she hadn’t seen in a decade, was only another few hours away.  A place she looked forward to seeing with both anticipation and trepidation.  A place saturated in memories, the site of some of her happiest days, and her most heartbreaking.

The place where she’d be forced to come face to face with her uncertain future.

Yet no matter how uncertain that future remained, it couldn’t be worse than the past she’d left behind three weeks ago when she’d escaped from the nightmare into which her life had deteriorated.

But should she continue on to Land’s End today?  She’d planned to spend the night here in St. Ives, but now that the moment was upon her, misgivings plagued her.  Her better judgment, her common sense warned her that stopping here was unnecessary.  Was foolhardy.  Wrong.  Highly improper.  And might even prove dangerous.  That the past could never be recaptured.  Yet despite all those warnings, her heart...her heart refused to listen.

And then the single question that had haunted her during the entire three-week journey whispered through her mind once again:  would he be at the inn?

She tipped her head back to capture the sun’s warmth and squeezed her eyes shut.  There’s only one way to find out, Cassandra.

Opening her eyes, she looked out at the water, and allowed the memories to overtake her.  Memories that, after several minutes, dispelled her doubts, making her choice clear.  For years decisions had been made for her, regardless of her feelings.  This was her chance to find the answers she sought.  To finally do what she wanted.  What she needed.

God knows when she might have such a chance again.

And what she wanted, needed was to stop at the Blue Seas Inn.

Would he be there?  And if so, would he remember her?  A long sigh escaped her.  Of course he would remember her.  But in what way?  With fondness--or indifference?  Most likely he hadn’t thought of her in years.  He undoubtedly had a wife.  Children.  A happy, fulfilling life.  They’d probably run out of conversation within five minutes.

Yet, something inside her insisted that if she allowed this opportunity to pass her by, she’d regret it.

And she’d promised herself no more regrets. 

Her decision made, she straightened her spine and walked back to the carriage where Mr. Watley and Sophie awaited her with questioning expressions.

“We shall spend the night at the Blue Seas Inn,” she said, proud of how sure and steady her voice sounded.

“As you wish, milady,” said Mr. Watley.

He handed her and Sophie back into the carriage and they resumed their journey.  A quarter hour later the carriage jerked to a halt.  Slipping on the mantle of outward calm that for years she’d worn like a second skin, Cassandra once again placed her hand into Mr. Watley’s and stepped from the coach. 

Bright sunshine flooded her eyes beneath the short brim of her bonnet and she lifted her hand to shade the glare. 

Two stories of aged stone, mellowed to shades of soft gray, indicated the Blue Seas Inn dated back at least one hundred years.  Yet the building was beautifully maintained, its mullioned windows sparkling clean, the modest flower beds flanking the walkway well tended and blooming with a profusion of colorful wildflowers.  A livery, clearly a fairly recent addition, stood directly next to the original building.

Looking at those stables, a memory flashed through her mind, so strong, so vivid, it nearly stole her breath.  Ethan’s dark eyes smiling down into hers as they shared a joke while currying her chestnut mare, his strong hands sure yet infinitely gentle with the animal. 

She blinked away the image and her gaze shifted to rest on the hand-painted sign swinging gently in the salt-tinged breeze.  It depicted a gull gliding over white-capped waters, the bird’s gray-tipped wings reflecting the shimmering sunshine.  Blue Seas Inn was scripted in indigo letters, the perfect name for this charming setting, with the smaller letters beneath: Ethan Baxter, proprietor.

Her gaze riveted on the name and she had to grip her fingers together to keep from brushing their tips over the letters. 

"Shall I accompany you inside to arrange your rooms, my lady?" asked Mr. Watley.

Cassandra dragged her gaze from the sign and turned toward the coachman.  Her initial reaction was to pounce upon the offer, to grasp the excuse not to venture inside the inn alone.  But she firmly shoved aside the yes that rushed to her lips.  She’d come too far to hide behind anyone now.  Still, nervousness had her swallowing to locate her voice. 

"No, thank you."  She turned to Sophie. "Please show Mr. Watley which pieces of luggage we'll require for our stay."

"Yes, milady."  Sophia turned her attention to the carriage and Cassandra forced her less than steady legs to move up the cobblestone walkway toward the front door, her mind swirling with that haunting question.  Would he be here?

                     * * * * *

Ethan Baxter wiped at his sweaty brow with an equally sweaty forearm then rolled his aching shoulders.  Nothing like an afternoon spent mucking out the stalls and currying horses to exhaust the body.  But it was a good exhaustion, one that came from an activity he loved, one he didn't do often enough since he'd hired Jamie Browne to run the livery.  But when word had come at noon that Jamie’s wife’s labor had begun, Ethan had sent the young man home.  A smile tugged at his lips, recalling Jamie's expression--a combination of awe, excitement, and complete, utter panic.  A fissure of envy seeped through Ethan, fading his amusement, echoing thru the hollow space inside him, the space that longed for what Jamie and Sara had--a loving marriage.  A child on the way.  A real family.

His jaw tightened with annoyance.  That cursed hollow space.  ‘Bout bloody damn time he did something about it.  And after much soul-searching, he believed he knew just the thing.

Ethan left the livery and walked into the bright sunshine.  He immediately noted the unfamiliar carriage outside the inn, the coachman removing a portmanteau from the stack of luggage, a lady's maid pointing to another for him to remove.  As the carriage was empty, the rest of the party was clearly already inside to inquire about rooms, of which, based on the coachman and the maid, they'd require at least two.  Excellent for business, which he always welcomed.  The Blue Seas had a reputation for being a clean, respectable, well-run establishment, and it was a distinction he’d worked hard to establish over the past four years since he’d first opened the inn’s doors.

Having no desire to greet the newcomers smelling like horse and feeling gritty with sweat, he headed toward the inn’s side door, intending to make immediately for his own room to make himself presentable.  Certainly Delia was fully capable of handling things and seeing to their comfort.  Indeed, the inn’s housekeeper was so efficient, Ethan could probably leave St. Ives for a month and not be missed.  Not that he had any intention of leaving for so much as a minute.  St. Ives, the Blue Seas, was home--a place he’d searched long and hard to find.  A place where he’d finally located a measure of the impossible-to-find tranquility he’d desperately sought.  And if at times his work didn’t exhaust his mind and body enough to forget the past, it at least brought him a modicum of peace he hadn’t found anywhere else.

Of course, he suspected that Delia would note his absence if he were to leave.  He huffed out a breath and dragged a hand through his sweat-dampened hair.  Suspected?  Hell, he knew it.  Over the past year--and more frequently of late--she’d made comments, looked at him with a certain expression, both of which left no doubt that she wouldn’t mind being more to him than an employee, more than a friend.  She was an attractive woman and God help him, he’d been tempted more than once to quit pretending he hadn’t noticed her subtle hints.

Up until now he’d ignored them.  Delia Tildon was a good, decent young widow who certainly deserved better than him.  He was damaged goods, on both the inside and the outside.  He liked and respected her too much to take advantage of her kind nature and use her to slake his loneliness.

Yet lately...over the past few months the temptation to do just that was proving nearly overpowering.  The ache of emptiness eating at him seemed so much more acute lately, the memories bombarding him so hard, so fast, it was a daily struggle not to drown in them.  A fact which never ceased to annoy him.  Why the bloody hell couldn’t he just forget?

Yet no matter how strong the temptation, he’d thus far resisted Delia’s lure.  A woman like Delia would want--and deserved--a man’s whole heart.  And he simply didn’t have one to give.  To offer her any less would be unfair to both of them. 

Or so he’d thought until he’d spent the last few days pondering the reality that loneliness was also unfair.  The thought of having someone to share his life with, someone to talk to, to listen to, had taken root in his mind and in spite of his best efforts to dislodge it, it refused to budge.  He didn’t want to hurt Delia, but bloody hell, he was so damn tired of being alone.  Perhaps affection and respect were enough.  Enough to make a marriage.  Enough to make him forget.  Or at least make him stop wanting, yearning for things he could never have.

It was time to give in to temptation.  To discuss the matter with Delia.  Let her decide for herself if affection and respect were enough.  And maybe, if he were very, very lucky, they would be.  And he wouldn’t be alone any longer.

Feeling more lighthearted than he had in a long time, he entered the inn through the side door, closing the oak panel softly behind him.  He stood for several seconds to allow his eyes to adjust from the bright sunlight to the sudden dimness, and he heard Delia’s voice drift toward him from the inn’s front room.

“So it’s two rooms ye’ll be needin’ my lady?”

“Yes, please, Mrs. Tildon.  One for me, and one for my maid.  For one night.”

Ethan went perfectly still at the sound of the newcomer’s voice, his heart seeming to stall in his chest as myriad images flashed through his mind.  Shiny hair the color of freshly harvested honey, laughing blue eyes, a mischievous smile.  He blinked away the mental pictures, then with a sound of disgust, he shook his head.  Bloody hell, bad enough that even after all these years he couldn’t erase the thought of her, but now he was imagining her voice as well.

“The coachman will require a bed as well,” continued the soft, slightly husky voice that sounded so much like her he found his feet moving of their own volition toward the front room.  His mind, his common sense knew it wasn’t her, that she lived hundreds of miles away, yet he walked toward that voice, drawn to it like a thirsty man to an oasis.

“We’ve beds available for your coachman in the livery,” came Delia’s voice.  “Finest stables in St. Ives we have here at the Blue Seas.”
     “With Mr. Baxter as the proprietor, I’m not surprised.”

Ethan rounded the corner and halted in the doorway.  He vaguely noted Delia’s raised brows, heard her ask in a surprised tone, “Do ye know Ethan, my lady?” but his attention was riveted on the other woman.

She stood in partial profile to him, the upper half of her face obscured by her bonnet’s brim.  But his heart lurched at the glimpse of honey-colored hair, at the curve of her chin, the shape of her lips.  The slight indent in her cheek next to her mouth, one that he could almost see deepening if she smiled. 

Her head jerked in a nod.  “Yes, I know him,” she said softly.  “Or at least I did, a long time ago...”

Her voice trailed off and she seemed to go perfectly still--just as his heart began to pound in hard, fast thumps, as if he’d sprinted across a decade’s length of time to arrive from very far away.  And then, as if feeling the weight of his stare, she turned slowly toward him.  And he found himself gazing into eyes he never thought he’d see again, beautiful blue eyes that reminded him of the sea and that had haunted his nights and days for more years than he could recall.

Cassie...

Her name reverberated through his brain then rushed to his lips, but he couldn’t speak.  Couldn’t do anything save stare.

Her skin paled then flushed crimson before his disbelieving eyes and for several long seconds the only sound he heard was the frantic beat of his heart.  And then, in that same soft voice he still heard in his dreams, she broke the silence.

“Hello, Ethan.”

 

 

Top of Page

Excerpt

Chapter One

Reviews

Reader Comments (coming soon)

Awards

Reviews

 


 

Top of Page

Excerpt

Chapter One

Reviews

Reader Comments (coming soon)

Awards

 

Reader Comments

 

Coming Soon

 

Top of Page

Excerpt

Chapter One

Reviews

Reader Comments (coming soon)

Awards


Awards

 

 

 

Top of Page

Excerpt

Chapter One

Reviews

Reader Comments (coming soon)

Awards

You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, and blogging with the Whine Sisters -- stop by and say hi!

         

Home || My Books || Connected Books || What's Next || JacquieD Recommends || Printable Book List || Around The Globe || Email Me || Buy My Books Online

 

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