Title: A Gentlemen's Agreement
Author: Sheila M. Sharpless
Genre: Paranormal Romance
Excerpt Heat Level: 1
Book Heat Level: 2
A Gentlemen's Agreement depicts a love story at the time of the Regency about an aristocratic family and the trials with which they are faced.
The Marquis and Marchioness are aristocrats living in a magnificent Elizabethan manor, Karidan, with their two daughters, Cassandra and Charlotte. On the surface, the family is wealthy and well respected, but the double life of the Marquis reveals illegal and dangerous activities, although at heart he is a good Christian man. Charlotte is to be wed to the local widowed vicar, but her affections lie elsewhere, namely with the Lord of the adjacent estate who, owing to a long-standing feud, is not welcome at Karidan and harbours his own secrets. Will Charlotte give in to her passions or follow the path her parents have chosen for her?
The moon was full that night, shedding its light on the ripples of the tide, as it covered the fine sand in the cove; a beautiful sight, to lovers a backdrop to a romantic evening; to the artist an invitation to capture on canvas that magnificent prospect. Perhaps, for some, it was simply a pleasurable experience. But there are those who shy away from such beauty, preferring to go about their business in the dark.
For the solitary figure standing on the shore, it was everything he did not enjoy, so, as he turned to view Karidan, the wonderful Elizabethan manor house behind him, set in magnificent parklands, and saw every window ablaze with candle light, he cursed under his breath. He knew the extravagance of so many candles meant the Marquis was hosting another party, perhaps a ball with champagne flowing, beautiful, assured ladies in gowns which would, for some, cost the equivalent of six months' food. He smiled to himself. Little did they know.
But, he caught his breath. For all his envy, he knew the Marquis was good to him, always gave him his due, and sometimes more for his wife and children.
Yet, for all that, he knew that it was people like the Marquis and the Marchioness who were the reason why his life was haunted by shadows, why sometimes the vision of the gallows filled his dreams.
Standing alone, Cooper began to think of what he knew of the history surrounding this place. Built during the reign of Henry VIII while he was still married to the tragic Jane Seymour and intended to be the later home of his heir, it was a beautiful building where nothing had been spared. The walls, the windows, the altar in the chapel on the ground floor were all a miracle of workmanship, lined and fluted in gold. The rooms were spacious, light and there were many. Twenty-four bedrooms, seven sitting rooms, the kitchen in the basement of the building was apparently the largest ever designed with the big fireplace holding a spit big enough to cook a whole ox or deer.
It was said, although he doubted it, that during Elizabeth I's reign, she visited Karidan with her entire household when it was sensible to be away from her home for a while, but finding a very poor deer population, she moved to Berkeley Castle where she knew there were many deer. Before she left Karidan she told the Lord that she would send him a number of deer and because she had been so comfortably housed, she would increase his title from Lord of Karidan to the Marquis of Karidan, and the present Marquis was a descendent of this long aristocratic line.
During her stay at the castle, history books tell us, she used her first skill with bow and arrow and, to the horror of the Lord of the castle, she shot thirty-six of his prize deer.
Shaking his head, Cooper returned to the present and banned those thoughts. What did ancestry mean to him anyway?
If he could see inside that house, however, he would indeed be greeted by music, dancers, the well-bred conversation between men and women, the light laughter, characteristic of the young ladies enjoying themselves at their first ball. Among those young ladies were the two daughters of the house and several of their close friends, feeling alternately grown up, sophisticated or overwhelmed, shy. The Lady Cassandra now seventeen, and her sister the Lady Charlotte nearing her sixteenth birthday, were the daughters of the Marquis and the Marchioness, while the Lord Augustus of Sharpfield, a cousin of the Marquis, held sway among friends, the other side of the ballroom. The other young ladies similarly aristocratic, showed little sign of wonder but were obviously enjoying the party, which this time was celebrating Cassandra and Charlotte's Aunt's fiftieth birthday. She was almost a permanent visitor, although she had her own mansion and staff some fifty miles away. She loved her time at Karidan, enjoyed the company, but, although she would never say it within hearing at her home, the Marchioness's cook was infinitely preferable to her own. She looked now at her two beloved nieces, seeing two beautiful young women, smiling and talking animatedly to their friends. She knew the girls' gowns, as had their mother's, been made by Madame Frederica, a French seamstress, who had created many beautiful gowns for the Marchioness and her friends. The young ladies, of course, had all been presented at Court, welcomed by the Prince who definitely approved of pretty young ladies. Not for nothing had he been called The Prince of Pleasure. Her two young nieces had their dance cards, beautifully engraved, hanging from their wrists and were excited but shy as the young men came to claim their dance.
They had each danced before sitting down at their chosen table, when Lady Charlotte nudged her sister, saying, "Who is that lovely young gentleman talking to Augustus? I've never seen him before."
"Well," replied the Lady Cassandra, "I'm surprised you have not met him. His parents own 'Birkham Manor' not far from here. He is Lord Dominic of Birkham. I believe he has been touring Europe after leaving Cambridge, but he has been home for a few weeks I think."
"I wonder what he has been doing with himself. I am sure we should have seen him before this."
Cassandra went on to say that as far as she knew no-one had mentioned him, although maybe her parents knew him because he was here at Karidan at the ball for dear Aunt Agatha. Cassandra remembered that she had heard of his beautiful horse, a black stallion which was, apparently, the envy of all who knew of him.
"Perhaps Papa or Mama knows the family. I'd like to meet him, wouldn't you?" Charlotte asked.
"Yes, I think we'll find out a little more."
It was while these two young ladies were wondering about him that Dominic began his own story to Augustus and Charles. He was laughing as he said, "I had been looking forward to spending three years at Cambridge. Good company, plenty of fun and opportunities. I was not wrong. There were of course obligatory essays and papers, but the tutors were terrific. More like friends than anything. Like us they enjoyed some fun and a drink or two. Quite frankly they were nearer our age than one could have expected. There were rules of course, but only those which kept the College on an even keel. It was suggested that I should take up fencing and I believed that to be a good idea. I had not tried anything like it before, but it really appealed to me; developing muscles I didn't know I had."
Charles interrupted. "I tried that once but I was absolutely useless; no sense of balance. Naturally, I gave it up as a bad job."
"Bad luck, but you should have kept going, it was good fun. Anyway, I was introduced to the professional and he was happy to tell me a bit about the history of the sport and suggested I came to the exercise class the next morning. So, interested but a little perturbed as to what I had let myself in for, I met the like-minded fellows, a pleasant group of men. Firstly, I was given a rope and was told to skip for ten minutes without stopping. That was taxing to start with, but when I managed to get my breath back, I found I had enjoyed it. It gave me a sense of achievement. Despite the effort, I was looking forward to doing it again. The next session, I was told, would be an introduction to how one handles the foil. I felt confident that I could master that. It seemed easy enough. And I really enjoyed the exercise. I knew then that taking up fencing was a good thing. It was great fun and after our strenuous exercises, it was down to the bar for a well-earned beer."
"Well I was wondering when the beer came in."
"Ha, you would, Augustus. I was feeling quite content with my new life in Cambridge. It was amazing how my interest in fencing grew until I was giving up several seminars a week to attend practice and much to my surprise, I was getting quite skilled and becoming stronger and fitter.Although I never imagined I would progress to professional fencing, it gave me more than I had expected including self-confidence and simply an enjoyment of using my body in a way I had never done before and pitting my strength and skill against an opponent.
"But," Dominic continued, "I haven't mentioned Claire. A rather delightful young lady who had taken my eye. She had two excellent character traits. One a great sense of humour and the other enjoyment of any new activity. Her full name was the Right Honourable Lady Claire Phlemorton-Bragg. She told me that her father had just bought her a beautiful Palomino stallion. She had not had the chance to ride him yet but suggested we take a ride together. Happily, I agreed and so it was, a few days later we set off on a cross-country ride. Her horse was very frisky, but she handled him well but unfortunately, at the third jump he refused, throwing his rider into a muddy puddle. She swore that it was my fault and when she saw me laughing at her, she was not at all pleased and that, my friends, was the end of the romance."