Click on image to enlarge.
by Shannon Honea
Category: Historical Fiction/Romance
Description: In a desperate attempt to escape her brutal fiancé, Christina Harris falls straight into the arms of Devon Mitchell. The stunning Texan was what her dreams were made of, yet she had no idea when she'd agreed to let him help her, the treachery and danger she'd soon face. Christina not only had to face the ever-present threat of losing her life, but she also had to guard her heart. The love and passion that she'd dreamed about for her entire life, was ever present in the tall, blue-eyed Texan and she quickly realized that she was helpless against the overwhelming pull of Devon's Desire.
eBook Publisher: DiskUs Publishing,
eBookwise Release Date: January 2011
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [309 KB]
Reading time: 203-284 min.
Sorrow clutched her soul in a painful grasp when Christina Harris saw the guests arriving below. She watched from the small seat next to the window as countless coaches paraded up the drive.
In less than three hours, she would be rehearsing a wedding. Her wedding to a man that she knew nothing about. Tears stung her eyes. This had to be a nightmare. Surely she'd wake and find this was all a horrible dream. She had no interest in marriage, especially to Edmund St. James.
Until a few short weeks ago, she was blissfully happy. She'd been in complete control of her life, attending parties and running her father's household. Then he broke the news that he'd arranged a marriage between herself and a wealthy plantation owner, Edmund St. James.
Why had he agreed to this match with a man she didn't even know? She vaguely remembered hearing rumors involving his name, but never paid any attention to them. A chill rippled down Christina's spine. And now, she couldn't help feeling that maybe she should have listened.
The comforting control she'd once had over her life was gone. Here she was being forced into marriage and planted firmly into her fiance's home awaiting a wedding tomorrow that would change her life forever.
With a firm shake of her head, Christina pulled herself from her troublesome thoughts. Leaving the disturbing view of the window, she rose from the seat and walked toward the bed. She couldn't take her eyes off the magnificent wedding gown. The elegant creation was the only thing Christina had of her mother's, and now it laid spread across the bed like a virgin being led to sacrifice.
She slowly reached out to touch what was now her gown. Satin as smooth as a magnolia in spring caressed her fingers. Memories of her mother flooded her mind. She was the most beautiful and kind person Christina had ever known. The sudden death of her mother had nearly destroyed the Harris family. A sharp knock sounded at the door, abruptly pulling her back to reality.
"Who is it?"
"It's Lily, miss."
The door slowly opened and her maid entered.
"Are you all right?"
Christina turned to see the pleasant-faced servant. She noticed for the first time how worn and wrinkled Lily's features had become. Years of loyal service had taken their toll on her.
"I feel as well as can be expected for a woman facing marriage to a complete stranger," she answered, looking directly into Lily's kind eyes. "What am I going to do?"
"I know, child," Lily said softly and slipped a comforting arm around Christina. "All you can do is obey your father's wishes and see this through."
"Speaking of my father, have you seen him?" Christina had a fair idea of what Lily's reply would be.
"Yes, I saw him in the library. I believe he was having a drink with one of the guests."
Unfortunately, Christina wasn't surprised. Since her mother's death four years ago, her father seemed to care for little except drinking and gambling.
"It looks like it's just you and me again, Lily."
"Well, it won't be the first time I've gotten you through a rough time."
"No. You're always there for me. And I thank you."
"There's no need to thank me, child. You're like a daughter to me." Lily hugged Christina tightly.
"Come on, now. The rehearsal is going to start soon, and we still need to get you bathed and dressed."
Lily had the bathtub delivered to the room and filled with steaming hot water. Christina sank into the tub. The water was soothing, and soon she felt her tense muscles relax.
Leaning back against the rim of the tub she tried to push the thoughts of Edmund St. James out of her mind. He was far from the type of man she had always dreamed of marrying. Her dream man was tall and possessed raven black hair. She'd dreamed of him often enough to know that Edmund didn't possess either of these characteristics. She shook her head. Now, her dreams would be nothing but shattered memories and she would be forced to live her life with a man she didn't find even remotely attractive much less love. Angrily, she opened her eyes and leaned forward.
Next to the tub, she found a large bar of rose-scented soap, a washcloth and towels. She picked up the soap and smelled its soft, subtle fragrance. Christina washed thoroughly. When she was finished, both her body and hair smelled sweetly of roses.
She stepped from the tub, wrapped one towel around her hair and dried herself with the other. Slipping on her robe, she entered the dressing room, where Lily stood patiently waiting.
Christina sat in the small chair nervously twisting her hands. Lily took the towel from her hair and gently rubbed the long, wet strands. It wasn't long before the glistening tresses were dry.
Christina watched her image transform in the mirror as Lily pulled the golden waist-length curls into an intricate style atop her head, leaving only a few wispy tendrils hanging around her delicate features to call attention to her flashing emerald green eyes. She looked like a queen. Lily had a gift for styling hair, and this had to be her most beautiful creation.
Dropping the robe to the floor, Christina started to dress. After donning her undergarments, she needed help with the corset. Frowning, she held tightly to the intricately carved bedpost as Lily tightened the laces. With each pull of the strings, she sucked in her breath. Soon, her waist was so small; a man could easily reach around it with his hands. By the time it was tied, her cheeks were hot and flushed pink. She wondered if she'd faint from lack of breath.
Next came the layers of hoops that would frame her gown into a bell. Then, Lily picked a blue silk gown from the wardrobe and carefully slipped it over Christina's head. The smooth fabric fell easily into place, and Lily began the task of fastening the tiny pearl buttons down the back. After the last loop was securely in place, she twirled to see herself in the looking glass.
"Oh, Lord." Lily stared at Christina, her mouth agape.
"What's wrong? Does it have a stain?" She examined the gown for evidence of soil.
"No, child," Lily said and blew her nose on a linen handkerchief. " You just look so much like your mama. It took me by surprise."
"Thank God! You scared me, Lily." It was then that she noticed tears shining in the older woman's eyes.
"You're so beautiful! I hope he realizes how lucky he is."
"Thank you, Lily," she said, admiring the gown in the full- length mirror.
"It's time. Are you ready? Hold your head high like the lady you are."
Christina straightened her posture and although she didn't feel like being proud, lifted her chin just to please Lily.
"There now, let's go down."
* * * *
The wedding march began. As Christina moved slowly down the red-carpeted aisle on the arm of her father, she couldn't help but wonder why they had music playing. This was only the rehearsal, yet the presence of the wedding march seemed to make the nightmare she was in seem to come true that much sooner. She kept her steps small in a vain attempt to avoid the inevitable.
At the pulpit stood Edmund, impeccably dressed in the latest fashion. She was amazed by the way his pale features faded into his slicked-back blond hair, and suddenly wondered, if she would be able to see him at all once he wore the traditional white wedding tuxedo.
Christina looked around at the rows of guests. All eyes were on her. Gazing back at them, she realized most of his friends were total strangers to her. Of course, that was no surprise; she didn't even know this man who would soon be her husband.
Although she wished they weren't present for the rehearsal, logic forced it's way into her brain. She knew that most of the faces that she was now looking into, had traveled great distances to attend the wedding tomorrow and would most likely be staying the entire weekend.
When she finally arrived at the pulpit, Edmund took her hand into the cold, clammy depths of his own. Her stomach turned. She swallowed the bile that rose to her throat and braved a look into his equally cold eyes. A shiver touched her spine.
Reverend Johnson rehearsed the traditional wedding vows, directing the first set to Edmund. Christina didn't hear anything but Edmund's calm response, "I do."
Words sped like June bugs though her brain. This had to be a nightmare. Surely, she'd wake any minute. She was pulled from her trance by a sharp pain shooting up her arm from the hand Edmund clutched. He'd squeezed it so hard, it was difficult to keep tears from flowing. A glance at the minister brought her to realize her reply was awaited. She moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue and managed a meager, "I do."
"You will then kiss your bride," Reverend Johnson announced happily.
Oh, God, Christina thought as Edmund lowered his head toward her. He placed a gentlemanly kiss on her cheek and turned to face his guests. Relief flooded through her.
* * * *
Christina thought when the rehearsal was over, she'd be able to relax. Unfortunately, Edmund insisted that she stay by his side during the meal. With him hovering over her all evening, relaxation wasn't possible.
Edmund dragged her from one group of stuffy people to the next, eagerly introducing his fiancee. Yet, his manner made her feel like he was showing off a prized horse. Her throat tightened uncomfortably, making it difficult to breathe. Surely, his constant presence would suffocate her.
Edmund laughed at some jest the elderly gentleman before them made, then his body tensed. Christina noticed his gaze settle on three men standing near the end of the hall.
"Edmund? Is everything all right?" she asked, trying to get a better look at the men.
"Yes, just perfect." His answer was curt. "I need to speak with someone for a moment. Don't worry, I'll return as soon as possible," he stated, never taking his eyes off the three men.
"Please, don't worry about me. I'll be fine," she replied anxiously.
Edmund excused himself, leaving Christina alone for the first time all evening. Thankful for his absence, she decided to get something to eat and drink. She saw Lily helping the other servants with the buffet. She made her way through the crowded hall to the large food-filled tables.
"Lily?" Christina called, trying to get her attention.
"Yes, ma'am?" Lily looked up and smiled.
"Have you seen my father?" she asked, scanning the crowded room for him.
"No, ma'am. I haven't."
"I'm sure he's around here somewhere. Would you fix me a plate? I'm starving." As if on cue, her stomach growled. Christina chuckled.
Looking at the sumptuous buffet made her mouth water. It was nice to finally feel hunger for the first time in days.
"Yes, ma'am, you just go sit yourself down and I'll have you fixed up in no time," Lily replied.
Christina approached the head table and slid into her seat. Her gaze scanned the room full of guests who'd come to attend her wedding tomorrow. Sadness gripped her heart. If only she could join them in their laughter and happiness. Yet, all she felt was dismay and gloom at being forced to marry.
Christina felt her appetite disappear. She rose from the table and walked toward the gardens. As a small child, whenever she was in trouble or needed a place to think, she would sneak away and sit under the large rose arbor in her mother's garden. The quiet sounds and soft fragrances always seemed to calm her soul.
When she reached the small white-iron gate, she pulled the handle and slipped quietly through. Once the gate was closed behind her, she leaned against the pillar and sighed with relief. The garden looked to be vacant. It was dark and quiet, just what she needed to collect her thoughts.
Christina began walking along the dark path, stopping to admire several different types of roses. She bent and gently lifted the soft blooms to her nose and inhaled deeply of their exquisite scent. After a moment, she stood and continued her journey along the path.
A fleeting light in the sky caught her attention and drew her gaze up to the night sky. She watched as a falling star descended from the sky until it disappeared into the horizon.
With her attention focused on the sky, Christina didn't see the small elephant statue in her path. Before she could react, she found herself falling swiftly over it and onto the soft grass next to the walkway.
She closed her eyes and focused on catching her breath. If she didn't feel that this was just another typical event in the way her life was going at the moment, she would have laughed.
Christina gently tested her arms and legs before affirming that nothing was broken before attempting to sit up. She opened her eyes and let out a squeal of surprise. She found herself looking into the most beautiful blue eyes she'd ever seen.
"I'm sorry if I startled you," his voice was deep and laced with concern. "Are you all right?" He took her by the arm and gently helped her sit up.
"Yes, I think I'm fine. I just stumbled..." Christina couldn't seem to tear her eyes away from his. He looked oddly familiar to her yet she was sure they'd never met because she would have remembered someone as stunning in appearance. Realizing that she must be staring, she lowered her eyes and vainly attempted to straighten her gown.
"I saw you fall, but I couldn't get to you in time. Are you sure you're not injured?"
"Only my pride," she replied, once again looking at him. His chiseled features were tanned by the sun and seemed to draw attention to those blue eyes. His hair was as black as ebony and was neatly tied at the nape of his neck.
"Well, then, let's see if you can stand. Shall we?" The man stood and offered her his hand. After a moment of hesitation, Christina took his hand and allowed him to help her to her feet.
As she gingerly put her full weight on her legs, her shaking knees buckled beneath her and she felt herself being drawn into the strangers' strong embrace. "I've got you," he said quickly as he pulled her against him until her face lay against his broad shoulders.
He smelled of soap, a hint of tobacco and leather. His nearness caused her heart to pound wildly against her ribs. She felt her cheeks flush and gently tried to push away from him. "I'm fine now. Please release me," her voice sounded as shaky as her legs. "Thank you, but I'm really all right."
The stranger set her away from him but didn't fully release her until he was sure she could stand on her own. After a moment, she gained her composure and met his gaze fully.
"Please allow me to introduce myself. I'm Devon Mitchell," he said, extending his hand.
"I'm Christina Harris." She politely placed her hand in his much larger one and realized the name meant nothing to her even though she was sure she'd seen his face before.
"I'm pleased to meet you Miss Harris." He placed a gentle kiss on the back of her hand.
"Thank you. And thank you for your help Mr. Mitchell." She dared one more glance at his face. "Now, if you'll excuse me..." she turned to leave but was halted by his deep voice.
"Please, call me Devon." He paused before continuing. "If you'd like some company, I'd be happy to walk with you, Miss Harris." His offer was genuine and for some reason Christina felt comfortable with him.
"Very well." Christina allowed him to tuck her hand in the crook of his arm and they proceeded slowly down the path. They walked in silence for several moments before Christina's curiosity got the best of her. She didn't want to seem nosy, but she couldn't seem to stop herself from wanting to find out if indeed she had met him previously.
Christina smiled politely. "Please don't think me rude." She gazed up at him. "But may I ask where you're from? You look familiar to me, yet I don't believe I've ever seen you at any of the local functions."
"Not at all. I arrived in your fair city from Texas last week on business. And I'm sure we've never met. I would have remembered you," he added in a low voice.
After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Christina cleared her throat and continued. "How do you know my fiance?" she asked, as she stopped to pick one of the large red rose buds off the bush next to her.
"Actually, I didn't meet him until today. My family owns a cattle ranch in Texas. We're currently exploring the possibility of shipping cattle to New Orleans. That's why I'm here. Mr. St. James is helping me get support for our idea. He's asked me to stay as a guest and attend the wedding tomorrow.
"The wedding," her voiced sounded hollow as she was jolted from her musings and reminded of the reason she was here.
"Yes. But to be totally honest, I don't feel comfortable here. I'm hoping to go back into town tomorrow."
"I understand your feelings. I've only just met Mr. St. James myself," she blurted before she could stop herself.
"Excuse me?" It was clear he didn't have a clue about what she meant.
After all, she was supposed to be the anxious bride-to-be. She wasn't supposed to be wishing she were anywhere but here. "I mean... I wish you the best of luck with your endeavor, Mr. Mitchell," she corrected, picking another rose. "How long will you be in New Orleans?"
"I still have some details to finish, but I don't think they'll take any longer than a day or two. Mr. St. James has been quite helpful."
"I'm sure." Christina turned to face Devon. "I think I should be returning to my fiance now." As much as she hated to end their walk, she knew it wasn't proper for her to be with Devon without an escort.
"Of course. Thank you for the delightful conversation, Miss Harris. May I escort you back to your table?" He offered her his arm once more.
"Yes, thank you, Devon." She gifted him with a genuine smile as he once again tucked her arm through his and led her out of the garden.
As they approached the table, she noticed Edmund waiting there. From the look on his face, Christina could tell he wasn't pleased. Her belly tightened as tension once again crept into her body.
"Congratulations, Edmund." Devon offered his hand.
"Thank you, Mitchell." Edmund shook his hand, but the expression on his face didn't change.
"Did you enjoy yourself, my dear?" Edmund asked, his voice laced with jealousy.
"Yes, very much, thank you," Christina replied, taking her seat.
"Well, if you'll excuse me." Devon politely bowed, turned and left.
As soon as Christina sat down, she noticed Lily coming from the buffet with a plate. She must have been waiting for her to return to the table.
"Here you are, miss." Lily placed the food in front of her.
"Thank you, Lily. It looks wonderful," she said, smiling brightly.
"Do you enjoy flirting like a whore, my dear?" Edmund badgered her under his breath.
Shocked, Christina looked up at him. The look on his face was deadly.
"When you become my wife, I will not tolerate you behaving like a tramp Christina."
Her hunger left as quickly as it had returned. Christina placed her napkin on the table and rose from the chair.
"If you'll excuse me, Edmund, I'd like to retire now." His rude accusation tested her self-control; she wanted to reach out and scratch those cold eyes from his head. How dare he accuse her of such a thing?
"Of course." Edmund stood as Christina left the table.
She left with as much grace as possible. This man was deplorable!
Once Christina found Lily, they made their way through the hall to the large circular staircase. As they climbed the stairs, she prayed with all her might that the Devil would take Edmund St. James.
* * * *
Just as she reached the top of the stairs, away from Edmund's view, her stomach growled, Christina stopped and turned toward Lily. "Would you mind getting me something to eat? I'm suddenly very hungry."
"Yes, ma'am." Lily replied, eyeing her mistress wearily. "I'll be back in a moment to help you undress." The older woman hurried down the stairs to the kitchen.
Christina continued through the halls until she reached her own room. Once inside, she walked over to the bed, sat down and waited eagerly for Lily's return. Christina longed to get out of the gown and cumbersome undergarments.
She shivered. Even though she knew the temperature of the house was warm, she had felt chilled since the day of her arrival. The ominous feeling just wouldn't go away, especially after the way Edmund had just behaved.
She was exhausted to the depths of her being. The wedding preparations over the last couple of weeks had been a nightmare that drained her very soul. Now that it was finally coming to an end, Christina wanted nothing more than to sink into the soft-down mattress and try not to think of her uncertain future.
It wasn't long before her maid entered the room, holding a tray full of delicious smelling food. She quickly placed the tray on the corner table and walked over to the dresser. She pulled a dainty cotton nightgown from the drawer and laid it on the bed.
"Let me help you out of that dress, miss," Lily offered, walking over to her tired mistress.
Christina offered no protest and gladly turned to allow her maid access to the buttons.
After Lily had unfastened the row of pearls on the back of the dress, she lifted it and the hoops over Christina's head. Then she hung the dress in the wardrobe and returned to untie the strings of the constricting corset.
Grateful to be free of the tight garments, Christina sighed deeply. It was nice to be able to breathe again.
She picked up the nightgown and slipped it over her head. She loved the feel of the soft cotton against her skin. While Lily put away her underclothes, Christina removed the many tiny pins from her hair, allowing the long golden curls to fall freely down her back.
"Is there anything else you need, miss?" Lily asked.
"No, I don't think so. I'm going to eat and then I'm going to go to bed. Thank you." She watched Lily leave the room. The moment she was alone, she sat down at the table and quickly devoured nearly every bit of food Lily had brought. Feeling full for the first time in what seemed like days, Christina slipped beneath the cool cotton sheets and sighed, clearing her mind of the recent events, she looked forward to a good night's sleep.
* * * *
A loud noise pulled Christina from slumber. She sat straight up in bed and stared at the dark figure framed in the doorway. Her heart beat a fierce rhythm in her chest, and she clutched the sheets before her like a meager shield.
"Who are you?" Her voice was almost a shriek.
"Who am I? Don't you recognize me? Or perhaps you thought I was Devon Mitchell."
The figure staggered forward into a shaft of moonlight. She recognized him instantly. Lord, he was drunk.
"What do you want?" Panic inched up her spine as he moved further into the room.
"I want what every husband wants. I want what's legally mine." Edmund slurred, staggering closer to the bed.
She smelled the stench of alcohol; it turned her stomach. She clutched the covers closer. "We aren't married yet! You're intoxicated, Edmund. You need to go to bed. I'll get someone to help you."
Edmund staggered a few steps closer.
Christina got out of bed and headed for the door to summon a servant. Edmund blocked her path and grabbed her arm in a cruel hold. Panic gnawed at her belly.
"What are you doing? Let me go!" she cried, trying to release herself from his grasp.
"Your bed or mine, it makes no difference to me." He tightened his already brutal grip.
"You're hurting me. Let go of my arm!"
"I don't think so. You see, you're bought and paid for, my dear. That means I can do whatever I want with you."
"What! You don't mean..."
Before she could fully comprehend his words, he pulled her to him and lowered his head. The odor was overwhelming, and her stomach turned. She pushed against him, trying to free herself. It was useless. In a panic, she dug her fingernails into his cheek. He bellowed in pain and released her.
"You little bitch!" he spat.
Before Christina had time to move, he struck her sharply across the face. Stunned, Christina swayed beneath what surely must have been Edmund's fist. Her head throbbed and blackness beckoned her.
She felt herself being picked up and carried to the bed. Full consciousness came back to her instantly and she kicked wildly, screaming for help.
He flung her onto the bed and slapped her across the face. "Shut up, you slut, or I'll make it even worse for you! I can, you know!" With one hand, he pinned her arms above her head while tearing the thin cotton nightgown from her body with the other. In one swift move, he immobilized and exposed her. She was now completely vulnerable.
A look of greedy lust spread across his drunken face as he drank in her nakedness. Dear God, don't let him rape me.
Above the pounding of her heart, she heard each button of his trousers spring free, and then his heavy torso crushed her tiny frame. Panic-stricken, she wriggled and twisted in an awkward attempt to dislodge her assailant, her fiance.
All her efforts to escape were futile. He outweighed her by at least a hundred pounds. She felt brutal fingers dig into her skin as his sharp teeth tore at the tender flesh of her breasts.
"Damn you! Hold still!" he growled, continuing his assault on her body.
"No! No! Not like this, Edmund, please!" she begged, but he wasn't listening.
In a pitiful attempt to avoid his kisses, Christina flung her head wildly from side to side. Suddenly, she felt his fingers dig into her throat.
"When we're married, I'll see to it that you never defy me again," he hissed, his drunken breath assaulted her senses.
He was going to choke the life out of her! Panic flooded through her like a raging river. She tried to scream, but the sounds coming from her throat were meager at best. She kicked violently. Releasing her arms, he placed his hand over her mouth and nose.
Her arms now free, Christina struck his face and head as hard as she could. She scratched wildly at his eyes, and felt his grip tighten. She couldn't get a breath of air; she felt her life slipping away. She was going to die!
In a final attempt to save herself, she used every last bit of energy she could muster and jerked her knees upward.
She heard him let out a cry of excruciating pain and his body went tense. One of her knees had hit its mark. Christina pushed him off her and tried to scramble from the bed. He lay curled in a ball, cursing.
Before Christina had time to get completely off the bed, she felt his hand reach out and catch her ankle.
"I'll kill you, you little bitch!" he shouted, still trying to nurse his injured groin.
She could think of nothing but finding a weapon. Something, anything she could use to defend herself. She grabbed the empty pitcher from the washbasin.
In one swift move, she landed it directly on top of his head. The vessel shattered into a thousand tiny pieces, rendering its victim unconscious. His limp body lay sprawled across her bed.
Christina dressed quickly. Her heart was still pounding. Paying no attention to her battered appearance, she grabbed her carpetbag, stuffed a few pieces of clothing into it and ran out of the room.
She hurried down the stairs to find Lily. She had to leave this never-ending nightmare. If she stayed, her monstrous bridegroom would surely kill her when he awoke. She had to go someplace he'd never find her.