ROMANCE & REINCARNATION SERIES
WITH A REGENCY TIME-SLIP TWIST.
Second chance love
TO LOVE AN EARL TWICE
(Romance & Reincarnation Novella 1)
Can love once forsaken be reborn two hundred years later?
When Charlene finds an old Vicarage for sale she feels compelled to start a new life in a village that causes the oddest sense of déjà vu.
On a visit to the nearby Townsend Manor she becomes infatuated with a portrait of a man dead for two centuries. When she meets the spitting image of the very late Lord Remmington Jacob Townsend in a small grocery store her world becomes a mix of the past and the present.
All his life Jake has dreamed of a woman dressed in Regency period clothing, feeling even love and desire for her when he was nothing more than child. When he meets her living doppelganger, he sees it as fate and pursues her.
But is the love he feels his or that of the long dead?
OUT AUGUST 26TH: Just 99 cents. (available for pre-order now)
FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: ‘
Tail wagging, Chester sniffed and trotted around on the other side of the fence. Charlene stopped pruning the dwarf box hedge, left her garden shears on the stone wall, grabbed the stick she’d been saving for him, and entered the neglected graveyard.
Sunset’s pink-hued farewell to the day tinted the headstones and sculptures as well as her gray leather jacket. Rose tones glowed against the evening sky. Hearing the steady beat of wings, she looked up and saw a pair of swans flying toward Townsend Manor’s small lake.
“Hey, Chester,” she called. The almost-white retriever bounded over to her. “Want to play fetch?” A foolish question to ask a dog who lived for these words.
Chester crouched, butt in the air and wagging madly, while he barked a yes. With a laugh she threw the stick. “I’ve asked around,” she said, continuing her earlier conversation while he raced after his prize, “but no one in Greystone knows of any dog fitting your description.” She wanted to make sure he had an owner. If he didn’t, she’d give him a home herself.
Chester dropped the stick expectantly at her feet. She picked it up and as usual found it dry. “You must be the world’s most careful retriever. How do you manage not to drool on these sticks? It’s almost as if you’re not real.”
Chester ran in a tight circle, his face alive in pure excitement.
She threw the stick, ambled through the graveyard, and brushed her hand over a sun-warmed headstone. Evan James DeWinter, the last person to take up permanent residence in the graveyard, died in 1956. Related to the current 19th Earl of Townsend, Evan was also a descendant of the very gorgeous Remmington Jacob DeWinter, the late Earl of Townsend.
The man whose very image bewitched her.
The skeletal remains of the church destroyed by fire were colorfully highlighted with climbing roses and ivy. The one remaining window framed a twisted oak on a distant hill.
She loved that oak. Had dreamed of sitting under it, picnicking with a blond, hazel-eyed man who looked exactly like Remmington Jacob DeWinter’s portrait. Unfortunately, since the man died two centuries ago, her Remmington crush was pathetic, or bordered on pathological.
Chester, stick clasped in his mouth, hurried down the path toward a large carved stone angel, glancing back, waiting for her to follow as she usually did. With a hand over his heart, the angel’s chiseled features gazed skyward. The other hand rested perpetually on a shaggy dog’s head.
At the sculpture, Charlene placed her own hand on the stone angel’s weather-worn chest.
“Good evening, Remmington Jacob DeWinter.” She crouched and with her finger, traced his year of birth—1788, and death—1818, and read out the line, “May Heaven render your heart whole.”
“What does that mean? That your heart was as cold as the stone I feel under my hand, or did you die of heartbreak?”
She moved on, dodged a small blackberry with sharp thorns, and squeezed past Remmington’s wife, who died a day after the birth of her and Remmington’s only child. Farther down, when she reached the small stone marker, a shiver ran up Charlene’s spine, just as it did every time she came to this spot.
Like Remmington’s grave, Charlotte’s seemed to send out a homing beacon, begging her to read the inscription, to touch the marker, even the ground in which they each lay in their eternal slumber.
Charlotte Anne Thompson (née Black) Born 3rd April, 1792, and passing into the Lord’s hands 5th March, 1889. Beside her lay her husband, who died in 1818. Though long a widow, she’d obviously never remarried. Perhaps Thompson had been her one true love.
But an unknown internal voice told Charlene he hadn’t been.
She tossed Chester’s stick again and strolled back to Remmington’s angel. From there she could just make out one of Townsend Manor’s chimneys. As she’d learned when she took the tour, the manor, a large estate home originally built during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, was still held by the DeWinter family.
Now, to fund the grand house’s constant upkeep, parts of the manor had been transformed into a wedding venue for the rich and sometimes famous, and tours were held every month. The gardens, dotted with trees as old as the manor itself, drew crowds on open days.
The parts of the manor included in her tour, though magnificent, had given her such a powerful feeling of being in another time that she’d become dizzy and disoriented. After being released by the tour guide to browse the public areas on her own, she’d been drawn to the Grand Hall, where she came to an abrupt halt.
An artist herself, who sold her work on occasion, Charlene would normally have been mesmerized by the artwork and analyzed every brushstroke.
Instead, only one painting snared her interest.
A portrait of Remmington Jacob DeWinter at thirty. And it wasn’t because of the artist’s skill that put her into an almost hypnotic trance. Remmington’s light hazel eyes seemed to have locked with hers.
The more she’d gazed into Remmington’s eyes, the more her heart ached. The portrait, nothing more than canvas, oil paint, and deft skill, caught something of the man’s soul, and told her the late earl had been deeply unhappy.
Before she left, infatuation enticed her to pay a sinful sum of money for a photo of the portrait and a book on Townsend Manor’s history. Seeing that painting, experiencing what felt like actual eye contact, left her so disturbed she’d been restless for days. Finally, like a lovesick teen, she’d framed the photo of the portrait and displayed it on her fireplace mantle.
And regularly visited Remmington’s stone angel.
She stretched to run her right hand along the chiseled jaw, imagining the roughness of beard, the warmth of flesh. The feel of the slightly too strong jaw transported her to a fantasy picnic with Remmington under her favorite ancient oak.
“You will never be mine.”
The words came out of nowhere, yet she’d spoken them out loud.
She rolled her eyes at herself. “Well, duh, moron, the man’s dead.”
Obviously she needed to meet a living man. She’d been so focused on purchasing her house, Greyside, and setting up her bookshop and café, it had been a while since she dated.
Come to think of it, it had been over a year since her last date. Wow, pathetic. Time to start flirting with some of her younger male customers. She turned to throw Chester’s stick one more time before leaving and found herself alone. The dog had once again done his disappearing act without making a sound, yet he’d been right beside her just a few seconds ago.
How did he do that?
Jake stretched before putting his arms behind his head and staring out his bedroom’s skylight. He needed to go for a long, hard run. He’d dreamed about that woman again. The one wearing Regency-style gowns. For some reason, those dreams often left him confused and angry, and needing to pound either the pavement or hit the kickboxing ring, his main avenues to work out his frustrations—whether sexual, business, or mysterious dream woman.
It wasn’t until he’d hit his teens that he noticed some of the portraits in the Grand Hall were dressed similarly and asked his mother about them. She, always delighted to waffle on about history, had regaled him with all the eras of fashion worn by the DeWinters lining Townsend Manor’s walls. In the end, after forcing himself to listen when his mother stood near the portraits of interest, he’d come to realize the lady in his dreams wore Regency period clothing.
Why did a then-teenaged boy dream about a woman wearing costume clothing? And why was he still dreaming about her nearly two decades later? The few people he’d found the nerve to ask came up with no plausible explanation.
One suggested he saw a Regency period movie as a child, so Jake hunted down every costume drama he could find that existed thirty-odd years ago and more, and not one caused a glimmer of a reaction. Another person theorized that he read a book which ignited something in his subconscious, but Jake read espionage and political thrillers, had since his teens, and those stories rarely included historical settings. And none of the rare historical thrillers that he could remember were set in the Regency period.
Besides, dreaming about her was among his earliest memories. Winnie the Pooh and The Three Bears were unlikely to have stimulated his Regency dream sequences. And then there’d been the most ridiculous suggestion of all—reincarnation.
Jake held no spiritual beliefs. You lived, and hopefully lived a good life, then you died, and that was it. Period.
It simply had to be something he’d watched or witnessed as a young child that triggered the dreams. And it obviously either stunned him with wonder or deeply traumatized him, to the point where he had dreamed about her all his life.
No one else he’d ever asked dreamed about one person all their lives. While his friends were having wet dreams about their teenage crushes, or the latest centerfold, he’d dreamed of a woman who wore bonnets and high-waisted, long-skirted dresses.
Hardly the attire to ignite a teen’s horny imaginings.
And it wasn’t the same dream over and over. His Regency woman appeared in so many different ages, outfits, and scenes, it was like watching a television series.
Her running across meadows laughing at him. Her riding a chestnut horse of poor breeding that outran and out-jumped his fine hunter every time. Her lying on her back, the sun shining on her pale skin, the laughter in her green-shot eyes mesmerizing.
His dreams, always at least a weekly event, had over the past few months increased, and over the last fortnight had become a nightly fixation. Almost as though his subconscious was using her like a drug.
And not a sleeping pill-type drug. More a get up, wander the townhouse, and stare out your window type.
As an innocent, he never understood how he could feel desire. When the dreams began, he was so young it was a while before he understood the feelings at all. As an adolescent, he never understood how he could feel love without desire. As a man, he didn’t understand why he felt any of those things for a woman who didn’t exist.
With a final stretch and shudder, he rolled out of bed. At least she was lovely. Wasn’t like he had nightmares about gargoyles or flesh-eating monsters.
His half-packed bag made him smile. Today, after he hit the gym, he’d head home to Greystone and Townsend Manor. He couldn’t wait to introduce the dog he bought from a local rescue organization to his mother. She’d love the goofy crossbreed. Hopefully the furniture in the manor would survive the mutt’s boisterous enthusiasm. The second Jake saw the twelve-month-old crossbreed on the rescue website, he’d known the dog was for him.
The dog woke, shook himself vigorously, and bounded over to Jake.
“We’re off on an adventure today, after I take you for a run,” Jake told him. “One you’ll love, since there’s grass by the acre and trees by the hundreds.” He’d been so busy with his investment company and managing the Townsend estate’s finances, Jake hadn’t been home to Townsend Manor for six months. He looked forward to it with a much lighter heart than usual, almost as if he expected to find something exciting waiting for him other than his wonderful mother and his ancestors’ watchful gazes as he walked along the Grand Hall.
Charlene felt like a true country girl, using her new wicker basket to tote produce from her favorite grocery…which happened to be across the street from her café.
“Getting your dinner veggies?” Emily the cashier and store owner asked. Her smooth black bob swung as she weighed the bag of tomatoes, her long, bright red nails tapping the entry on her computerized cash-register. Her merry dark brown eyes met Charlene’s.
“Yeah, feeling like vegetarian lasagna tonight.” Charlene enjoyed her food, and luckily enjoyed cooking, since her café was taking off. She picked up an organic chocolate and nut bar and put it in the pile waiting to be put through the cash register. “That’s for dessert.” They grinned at each other. “If it makes it home.” Charlene laughed.
Emily shook her head. “Mine never do, unless I buy more than one.”
Charlene tossed another one onto the pile. “If my jeans split when I bend over next week, it’s your fault.”
“Just make sure you’re wearing cute underwear. Nothing worse than flashing granny-undies.”
“Excellent advice. I’ll remember that,” Charlene said in a dry tone that cracked Emily up.
Still sniggering, Emily keyed up the last of the items. “Mr. Turner said you’ve been buying lots from the garden center.”
“A person certainly can’t keep a secret around here. The vegetable garden won’t produce much for a while, but at least it’s started, and this morning I found my first egg.” She was so amazed at finding an egg that wasn’t in a carton, she said the last as if she found the Golden Goose. “It was delicious. At this rate, I’ll be self-sufficient in no time.” She winked and laughed with Emily.
“Told you those three Rhode Island Reds would be laying soon. My gran doesn’t sell duds.”
“And they’re beautiful, friendly, and sweet. In London I would have said I was happy in my little one-bed apartment. I never imagined I’d enjoy gardening, or thought of having hens, but my acre screamed to be used, and I just love it. Turns out I’m made for the country life.”
“Good thing since you live here now. Hope you get another egg for breakfast.”
When Charlene turned, her basket swung out and caught on the pullover sleeve of a tall man behind her. She stopped dead still. “Oh, God, I’m so sorry. Let me try and unhook you without pulling a thread.” It was an expensive-looking knit, so she didn’t want to try and find a replacement. With care she balanced the basket so she didn’t move it, hooked her fingers under the knit, and very carefully lifted away the lacquered cane.
“Phew. That was close.” She smoothed the soft knit flat over a warm arm hard with rippling muscles.
She stopped herself from going for a second stroke over those bulges and looked up. “There, all…” She shut her mouth with a click of teeth and, her eyelids, contracting a sudden twitch, fluttered rapidly. Remmington Jacob DeWinter stood before her. Right there. Alive. Hugely, gloriously alive.
“You—you, youyou.” Her voice a shocked mouse’s squeak, she lifted her hand to touch his chest the way she did with the graveyard’s angel but barely an inch away remembered herself in time to stop. She snatched her hand away as if she’d put it too near a flame. Heat swamped the back of her neck and face.
“Pardon,” she mumbled and, with a quick glance at a smirking Emily, scooted around the dead man’s look-alike, making sure her basket was well clear of his clothes.
At the shop’s double-door entrance, she glanced back and saw the man staring after her with a stunned expression. More heat scorched her face. Jesus, she must be as red as the strawberries in her basket. On legs made of long-past al dente spaghetti, she stumbled outside.
Two doors up, Charlene stopped and drew in a shaky breath, letting the afternoon breeze cool her cheeks. She’d behaved like a teenager who’d bumped into a movie star. Hopefully the man didn’t live locally. Good grief, he’d not only looked just like Remmington DeWinter’s portrait, he’d been drop dead, undo a button or two of your blouse, gorgeous. Raw sex appeal fairly floated around the man like an aura of potency.
She could do with a good dose of raw.
Near her, a large, shaggy, pale gold dog hung half out the window of a Range Rover, panting happily.
“Chester. You do have an owner.” Chester panted at her harder, his tail lashing the cream leather seat. Around his neck he wore a wide blue collar with two tags. A collar and tags that were way flashier than the unadorned wide tan one he normally wore.
“Wow, a new collar. Hang on.” She looked harder at the dog. A dead ringer for Chester, except he was younger. “Oh, you’re not Chester.” The dog wagged madly every time she spoke.
“You know my dog’s name?” A deep, casually cultured voice, a sensuous stroke sliding down her spine, called to her libido.
Charlene spun. Remmington? No, no, this was the other man. Remmington was dead. “Oh. No, I don’t.”
She took a steadying breath and gave the man a smile, hoping she looked natural instead of like an insane person trying not to swoon over a dead man’s look-alike. “He looks a lot like a dog that visits me regularly. Since I see him every day, I had to name him, so I, um, called him Chester.”
She pointed to the younger dog and looked up at the man’s face. Boy, was he tall and broad and… “Your dog?”
The man nodded, ruffling the dog’s ears with a large hand. “And his name is Chester. Got him two weeks ago from the animal rescue near where I live. Name just came to me.”
She nodded. What an odd coincidence. That aura of his had her reaching out to touch him again. She yanked her hand down to her side, telling it to have some restraint. Yes, nice, touch and stroke the stranger. Just in case it had more inappropriate ideas, she tucked her wayward hand behind her back. Say good-bye, Charlene.
“You know you look like someone I have a picture of…er, I know.” Way to make it worse. Tell the sexy guy he looks like a dead man. Such an irresistible pickup line.
“Really? Do you like him, this man?” The man kept staring at her face. Damn, she must have flour on it. With the palm of her hand she quickly gave it a wipe. Hopefully whatever he was staring at had rubbed off.
“Well, he’s sort of dead.” The man met her eyes. His weren’t sad like the portrait’s…in fact, this very much living gaze looked both confused and amused.
“What’s your name?” she blurted out. Oh, yes, Charlene, show off your manners, too. Dad would so proud.
He gave her a crooked smile. “Jake DeWinter. And you? You’re not from around here. I’d definitely remember you.” He placed an odd inflection on the second “you.”
Thud, thud, thud…her heart did its best to beat its way out of her chest. “DeWinter. As in…? The 19th Earl of Townsend?” She was surprised her voice came out almost like a normal person’s, its pitch only slightly high on the strangled soprano scale.
He gave her what she assumed he considered his reassuring, I’m-one-of-the-gang smiles. “Townsend Manor. And you are?”
She shifted her basket to her front and hugged the wicker shield. “Charlene Black.” New village idiot. “You look just like your ancestor’s portrait. It’s uncanny.” And her fixation on a dead man might be just a tad creepy. But portraits didn’t ooze sex appeal.
“So I’ve been told. I hope I don’t look as remote.”
Considering this man was obviously trying not to laugh, no, he didn’t look remote, though he was larger than she’d imagined Remmington. Taller, broader, more athletic. Fit. “I thought in his portrait he looked haunted, sad. Like he’d lost something vital and didn’t know how to get it back.”
A motorbike roared past, making Chester bark. Jake DeWinter put his hand on Chester’s head to quiet him and gave a thoughtful nod. “When he had that portrait done, he’d just returned from fighting in the Napoleonic wars, and a particularly nasty battle. I imagine living through that would have depressed any man.”
He unlocked his Range Rover’s door. “Are you visiting Greystone?” The question sounded overly offhand.
“No. I live here.” She pointed across and down the road. “That’s my café.”
He looked at the café, then back at her, and grinned in a way that made Charlene smile back. “So you’re the one who started the Bites, Beans, and Books. My mother has mentioned it, and you, several times.”
Charlene’s smile widened, thinking of the elegant and friendly Lady Evelyn. “Your mother’s been wonderful. I think she’s sent in almost everyone she knows.”
“Mother always embraces local business.” He stared at her a moment and gave his head a shake. “I’d better get going, Mother is expecting me, but I’ll be in to see you very soon.” As he drove off she thought she might have heard him mutter, or see you in my dreams.
She watched the Range Rover disappear around a corner. Not only was he huge, but Jacob DeWinter moved with a raw energy that activated an alarm, waking her hibernating sex drive. Oh, yes, nothing like a touch of animal attraction to go with the looks. She turned and headed for her elderly Camry. A small thrill ran a cheeky hand down her back. Remmington DeWinter’s in town. No, his descendant, the very much alive and drop-your-panties-hot Jake DeWinter.
Charlene’s insides played dolphin, rolled, and flipped.
Both dead and alive, the DeWinter men sang the note that called to her inner prehistoric woman. And, my God, but Jake DeWinter could hit that note—with nothing more than his voice, his looks, his very aura and essence.
She considered the way he watched her while she stared openmouthed at him. He was either interested in her, found her hilarious, or he was a psycho sussing out his prey.
She really hoped it was the first, without much of the second. Being laughed at by a man you found so compelling kind of sucked. But not as much as the third choice.
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