Hero of Her Heart, Desperate and Daring Series, Book 8
by Dayna Quince
No more dreaming like a girl…
Miss Charlotte Angelwood promised her father on his deathbed that she would marry Edward Chadwick. But now that her father has died, Charlotte will do anything to break her betrothal to her revolting fiancé. Trapped in Edward’s abusive household, with his father, Lord Shelding, acting as her guardian, she feels powerless to alter her circumstances.
A chance meeting with Christopher Thorn, a handsome American, changes everything. He’s arrived in England to expand his brewing company with Lord Shelding’s help and finds himself enchanted by Shelding’s beautiful ward. He and Charlotte begin a secret affair…but when he discovers Charlotte is promised to Shelding’s son, the truth rips them apart.
Betrayed by Charlotte’s deception, Christopher still cannot abandon her. The closer they become, the more dangerous secrets they unearth…until Lord Shelding’s cruel manipulations force their hand.
To save Charlotte from a life of misery, Christopher must risk everything he’s worked for…or turn his back on the woman who has stolen his heart.
Read an excerpt from Hero of Her Heart.
Charlotte woke as the first rays of dawn pierced the hazy veil of her dream world. There was no storm here, as there had been in her wild dream. But in her dreams, the storms were welcome. The rumble of thunder and flash of lightning brought her comfort, as her hero, the almighty god Thor, came to her to show her how to save herself from her nightmares—and from her fiancé, Edward.
In Charlotte’s mind, Thor was always quite handsome, and inevitably, he would also fall madly in love with her. Her dream hadn’t gotten that far this time, but she hoped that one day she would imagine more than dark storm clouds, and Thor himself would appear to carry her away. One of her deepest fears was that she would never know what it would be like to fall in love and marry a man who loved her in return.
She sat up and rubbed her gritty eyes. Then she shuffled from the bed, not sparing another glance at the window. The pink beams of light served as a warning, urging her to hurry and dress. She was racing the rising of the sun.
Pulling yesterday’s gown over her head, she didn’t bother with the back and threw her black cloak over her shoulders. She stepped into her ankle boots, not tying the laces, and left her room on swift feet. The house was silent, not even the scullery maid could be heard tending to the fires in preparation for the family’s rise.
Charlotte was not sure what her guardian, Lord Shelding, did in the morning. She was happy to see very little of him most days. If Lady Shelding was an early riser, she did not leave her room until half past ten. As for Edward, her betrothed, he always slept past noon. It was a saving grace, and a blessing. Charlotte always had enough time each morning to get outside and breathe without being afraid she would be caught by any of them.
Down the back stairs, through the back door, and forward into freedom. She smiled and sighed as the crisp air touched her cheeks. Her steps were quick, but she wasn’t running. She didn’t look back as she wound her way through Lady Shelding’s box garden, outside the back gate, and finally, into the freedom of the open heath.
Then she hitched her skirts to her knees and sprinted across the open field, gulping down tart, cold air, heavy with dew and salt. She ran until she reached the first crop of trees and then leaned against the bark to catch her breath.
For just this moment, she was free. Her heart and blood sang with sweet relief.
* * *
Christopher Thorn gazed triumphantly toward the harbor. He could taste the success and the good fortune hidden just around the corner. His ship was finally coming in, literally and figuratively. His ship—which he loved saying, because it was indeed his ship—crested a wave and swooped down again.
His head swam until he found equilibrium again. Thorn still grinned, never taking his focus from the shore, as the rising sun at his back struck the windows of the buildings facing him, lighting them like candles.
It was a beautiful and welcome sight after a month-long voyage across the Atlantic. Faversham, England was his destination, and he was eager to see it, the earnest fruits of his labor, and his inevitable rewards.
Thorn pulled his gaze away from the shore and turned to Captain Pruitt. They had been little more than friends when they’d begun this journey, but a month in close quarters had remedied that. It helped that Captain Pruitt was just as ambitious as he was. They had found kinship in their shared experiences.
“’Tis a fine morning.”
Captain Pruitt squinted as he scanned the open horizon and rising sun. “We’ve arrived just ahead of a storm.”
Thorn clapped him on the back. “Luck favors me. Always has.”
The other man raised both brows. “Until it doesn’t?”
Thorn shrugged. “I never waste time worrying about what-ifs. I focus on what is. It is certain we will dock, and it is certain we will find ourselves rooms and beds to sleep in. Not to mention winsome, flirty women to welcome us.”
He winked at the captain.
Captain Pruitt chuckled. “You’re always chasing something, Thorn. If it isn’t a new business venture, or a prime bit of land, then it’s a woman.”
Thorn grinned as he turned back to the harbor. They would soon dock, and he would relish the steadiness of the earth under his feet. He liked his ship well enough. It was big—an old French frigate seized in the Quasi-War. It had twenty guns, or it would, if the cannons hadn’t been auctioned off. With some minor carpentry, it had been converted to a merchant’s vessel, with room for a small crew and lots of space for barrels of ale.
As interesting as it was to imagine himself a privateer as he sauntered across the deck, Thorn was only a simple brewer.
Like a tenacious weed, his brewery business was spreading in all directions, however. He patted his coat pocket now, taking comfort in the weight of the letter folded within it. This was the beginning of a grand adventure. He would soon see how his special breed of hops faired in this English climate.
“You seem agitated,” Pruitt observed from his side.
“Not agitated, precisely,” Thorn replied, exhaling. “I’m just ready. Ready to have soil under my feet again, and to walk on firm ground. I’m also ready for the fragrant embrace of a hops yard.”
Pruitt chuckled. “Rather than the open embrace of the ocean?”
“The ocean is not open.”
Pruitt spread his arms wide, and gestured to the vast water around them. “Then what do you call all this?”
“It’s a cage. I can only walk the length of this boat. The water confines me to this bobbing bit of wood. Open land is freedom. You can walk on it. Run. You can move miles, just on your feet.”
“I suppose. I thought I’d make a seaman out of you, but still you speak with a farmer’s heart.”
Thorn turned to him and scowled. True, he was a farmer’s son, but he’d sell his soul before he settled for being just a farmer. He wanted so much more than that.
“So, what is the first thing you will do once we dock?” Pruitt asked.
Thorn glanced back at the rising sun. The sky overhead was still a deep sapphire, but the sun was cresting the horizon, shooting pink rays into the blue.
“I will walk.”
“I need to move my legs. I need to see how far they will carry me.”
Pruitt remained silent at his side. Thorn didn’t expect him to understand. Some men were born to the sea, and some men were born to the land.
* * *
Charlotte spread her cloak over the damp ground and lay down upon it. She reached her arms wide and peered up at the pale sky. It was clear of clouds and silvery blue, the rising sun chasing away the last of the night. The birds were waking, and the flowers opening. So, too, was Charlotte. If she could place a bet at Weller’s Inn and Tavern, she’d bet there was a storm coming. She was surrounded by a ring of trees, but if she could see the ocean, she might have even seen the clouds coming.
Could this be Thor coming to sweep her off her feet?
She stretched her fingers out into the grass and plucked a small flower. She held it above her face, amazed that something so small and frail could thrive out here in the wild, with no one to protect it, and no one to tend it and make sure it wasn’t trampled. The peach petals and magenta center made quite the statement.
Charlotte tried to recall its name. It was a common flower, a weed, really. Perhaps that was why it survived so well. Though small, it’s delicacy was just assumed. There was more to this little flower than most realized.
She broke off the leaves and tucked the little stem into her bodice. Then she returned her attention back to the sky and watched as it changed before her. She didn’t know precisely how long she had lain there, but it was long enough for determined clouds to eventually invade her view. She should return to the house, but she did not move. It was drowsy and comfortable here, in her little meadow. She was a world away from Shelding Manor. Far from the silent halls and malignant energy.
The risk of a little rain shower was worth the few extra minutes of peace here, before returning to the nightmare. Suddenly, the clouds grew thicker and darker with shades of gray, moving faster as the wind picked up and whistled through the trees.
Charlotte could feel the energy of the storm approaching. The sounds and scents around her changed, the air becoming charged with static. Her pulse accelerated as she fancifully wondered if this was it.
Is Thor coming to claim me at last?
The clouds rolled slowly over the sky, even thicker now than before, and she prayed.
She prayed for a terrible storm, for thunder and lightning. For the deafening crack of sound that came with it. Even the fear.
Something has to happen. Something has to change.
Something damp hit her cheek.
Charlotte sat up and wiped it off. That was the end of her daydreaming. The sky rumbled, a low, ominous growl. She smiled. Even if Thor did not descend from the clouds to take her today, there was still a lovely storm to be had.
“Pardon me, miss?”
She bolted to her feet and spun around. She stared at the man before her, frozen.
“I beg your pardon. I didn’t mean to frighten you,” he said.
Charlotte sucked in a breath. Her chest ached from the sudden blast of cold air.
It’s him! her mind screamed, even as her logical head denied it.
He stood there before her, larger than she could have ever imagined, his strength evident even under an ill-fitting brown coat. His sandy blond hair was unfashionably long and tied back. His eyes took her breath away. They glowed vibrantly blue, like the hottest part of a flame. He appeared exactly as a Norse god ought to. Big, more handsome than any mortal man, and capable of exerting great strength.
She must be mad, or dreaming—or even dead. Somehow, she had died here in her meadow, and this was her afterlife. That was the only plausible explanation for the beautiful man standing before her right now.
He was Thor, in the flesh.
He cocked his head to the side and scratched his short beard. “Are you all right?”
Charlotte nodded stiffly. She couldn’t yet remember how her tongue worked.
“Are you alone out here?” he asked, glancing around the meadow.
She took in his attire. He was wearing buff breeches, worn black boots, and a plain brown waistcoat over a white linen shirt with no cravat. The buttons at his neck had been left scandalously undone. He was rather disheveled, now that she thought about it.
She licked her dry lips and shook head, hoping to gather her wits into place. A cool blast of air at her back reminded her that her dress was unfastened, as were her boots. She was equally as disheveled. In fact, if someone should happen upon them here, alone in the meadow, both of them haphazardly dressed, and her cloak spread upon the ground, they might think…
A full body blush washed over her skin.
He was staring at her strangely now, as if he thought she might be a bit addled, which Charlotte couldn’t argue at this point.
“I’m fine,” she said, at last. “You caught me unaware, is all.”
She snapped up her cloak and swung it around her shoulders.
“I’m sorry. I’m not from here.”
“Yes, I gathered that.”
Charlotte was intrigued by his voice. She’d never heard such a strange accent before.
“I’ve recently arrived from America.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “You’re an American?”
She’d never met one before.
Do they all look like this?
Are American women used to such startling masculinity?
He smiled crookedly. “Christopher Thorn, at your service.”
He stepped forward and extended his hand.
Charlotte stared at it. “Thor-n?”
She couldn’t help but giggle. It was surreal.
He pulled his hand back, and she met his gaze again. She felt the same shock as before.
“Have you heard of me?”
She shook her head. “No. I’ve never heard a name like it.”
He nodded politely. Charlotte knew he was waiting for her to introduce herself.
“Why have you come to England, Mr. Thorn?”
He adjusted his stance and tugged on his jacket. “Business. I’m a brewer.”
“Then you’ve come to the right place,” she mused. “Faversham is widely known for its fine ale.”
He grinned. “You haven’t tasted fine ale until you’ve tasted mine.”
Charlotte bit her lip to stop herself from smiling back. “Oh?”
“I’ve come to see how my hops have fared in English soil.”
She was familiar with hops. Many of the farmers grew them for local brewers. It was a profitable crop if all went well, but it could ruin a person financially if it did not. Charlotte knew that personally. She swallowed, a little of the magic of the moment fading.
Her feet were firmly planted in the meadow once again, and not in the thunderclouds above her. She was standing before a stranger and should fear him, but Charlotte had had a lot of experience with fear now, and she instinctively knew this man would not harm her. He was strong and capable, and not just because he had exceptionally broad shoulders. There was something about his face, his eyes, his very essence. She could tell he was a good man, an honest man. She saw none of the shadows of deceit in him she’d learned to recognize over the last two months.
“I’m working with a local lord. If my hops are growing well, he will invest in my brewery, and I will build a brewery here in Faversham. Do you know of Lord Shelding?”
Charlotte closed her eyes as all the air quit her lungs. She nodded and prayed he didn’t notice her reaction. She peeked up to see him peering out over the meadow again. “I know of him.”
His gaze returned to her. “England is more beautiful than I realized, and I think I’ve lost my way. Could you direct me to Shelding Manor?”
She hoped her panic wasn’t visible. She must have learned something about hiding her emotions from living there.
He didn’t appear alarmed by her expression.
“It’s that way.”
She pointed back the way she had come. She couldn’t recall the exact direction.
He squinted up at the sky. “A storm approaches. It’s early, but I hope Lord Shelding will offer me refuge and a ride back to the port, once it passes.”
“You’re going to Shelding Manor now?”
Charlotte was amazed her voice came out so calm.
He shrugged. “I’d rather not walk back in the rain.”
She regarded his clothing. Lord Shelding was a peculiar man, and he’d take Mr. Thorn’s present state of dress as an insult. She had to warn him of the snake’s nest he was about to enter.
“You cannot go dressed as you are. Lord and Lady Shelding are very strict about appearance. Their criticism can be harsh.”
He shrugged. “I care not what they think of my clothing.”
Charlotte’s jaw fell slack and then she pulled herself together. “Well… You still cannot go at this hour. It would be the height of rudeness.”
He sighed, and she was prepared to argue further. This American needed a primer in English decorum. It was obvious he was completely out of his depth.
“I take it you know them fairly well, then?”
“May I know your name?”
Charlotte swallowed. She dared not tell him. If Lord Shelding knew they had met, or that she was out of the house to begin with…
He waited expectantly.
“I know them because I’ve lived in this village my whole life. It is that way, by the way.”
She pointed to the east, where the sun was now cresting the trees and quickly being smothered by clouds.
“And your name?” he pressed.
“I should not tell you my name. We shouldn’t even be speaking, you see. Propriety dictates that we be properly introduced while in polite company.”
He raised a brow. “Should I have ignored a young woman sitting in a meadow by herself? What if you were injured?”
“I’m not injured. If I was, that would change things, but I’m not, and I’ve spent too much time here already. I must go.”
She should have turned and left him at once, but his lips moved into a slow smile, and her feet couldn’t seem to move from the spot.
“So many rules to follow. How tiring it must be.”
“They are there for a reason.”
“To spoil all the fun?”
Charlotte had an odd sensation around her mouth. She realized she was smiling. It felt so strange, she immediately suppressed it.
“I’ve never enjoyed rules, myself. I don’t like to be told what to do and who to be. My life is my own, and it is what I make it.”
She didn’t have a response for that. “Good day, Mr. Thorn.”
She willed her feet to move, and they reluctantly turned her toward the forest from where she had come.
“I must know your name!” he called out from behind her.
She glanced back and shrugged one shoulder. “We may never meet again.”
“Even so. I don’t ever intend to forget the day I met a woodland nymph.”
She giggled, surprising herself. Have I forgotten what laughter feels like in so little time?
He started to follow her. “I should escort you home.”
“You can’t.” Charlotte stopped and turned to face him. “We cannot be seen alone together.”
He was directly in front of her now, and his closeness devastated her senses. Her wits simply scattered to the wind. She smelled the tang of ocean salt on him. The wind gusted and swirled, and she could feel the cool mist of light rain on her cheeks.
“Don’t be frightened,” he said, his voice deeper and somewhat soothing to her ears. “I won’t hurt you. I cannot in good conscience let you roam wild and alone. There’s no telling what havoc you will wreak upon the unsuspecting.”
Charlotte giggled again. It felt so lovely, she had the sudden urge to cry. Something was blooming inside her, a warmth that seeped through her chest. It scared her in a way she’d never felt before. He was so close to her now, she couldn’t take in all of him. She could only focus on his face, and the backdrop of storm clouds behind him.
“It’s raining,” she said.
“I like the rain. It brings good things.”
And now she was holding her breath. She was holding herself completely still, because she suddenly felt as wild as he claimed her to be. Is this the moment I have been waiting for? Is he my desperately needed change?
She didn’t know what to do. She was usually quiet and meek. Not wild and…whatever he thought her to be. But she wanted to be those things; she just didn’t know how. All her life she had wanted to be stronger, tougher, louder than she was, but she was missing all of those things insider her. And he…
He embodied everything she wanted to be; he was strong and fearless. She knew it deep inside herself.
She needed him. She wanted him. He was her Thor, even if he didn’t have godlike powers. He still had the power to set her free.
“My name is Charlotte,” she whispered.
He raised his hand slowly, and his thumb stroked her chin. “It suits you perfectly.”
She took a much-needed breath of air. Her head swam. She’d told him her first name. If he knew who she truly was, they would never meet again, not like this. She thought frantically.
“Miss Charlotte Woodhouse, to be precise.”
“Miss Woodhouse, it is a pleasure to meet you,” he said, smiling.
That smile curled around her insides, like a warm wisp of smoke. She wanted to melt into her feet and languish like a puddle. “Your name suits you, as well.”
He dropped his hand. “Does it?”
“It does to me.”
He was silent for a moment. Then his gaze moved over her face slowly. “I did not realize what beauty England had to offer.”
Her cheeks filled with warmth, but she could not look away from the heated blue of his eyes. They were like a vibrant sky, too beautiful and rare to miss.
“May I see you again?” he asked.
She bit her lip. “I can’t say…”
He stepped away then, and it almost hurt not to be under his warm gaze.
“My parents are very strict. They don’t know I come here. But I do it every morning. It’s the only time I’m free.”
His brow furrowed and then eased. “I think I understand.”
“Perhaps we will meet here again?” she asked, with what she hoped was not obvious desperation.
“I’d like that very much, Miss Woodhouse.”
“I really must be going now.”
Her heart raced. Did I just ask to meet a complete stranger again? Yes, she had, because it was him, and there was something very special about him.
“Until we meet again,” he said.
Charlotte smiled at him in return and then hurried into the woods. She was relieved he didn’t follow her. She stopped behind a tree and watched him exit the meadow more slowly. He didn’t head to Shelding Manor directly, thankfully, but to the village.
Her heart skipped about wildly. Her body flushed with warmth, like a fever, but she also felt as if she could run back to Shelding Manor, laughing all the way.