War can change a man, and Ross Stanton, Earl of Brynmor, is determined to retreat from life. He’s also determined to protect Emma Hamilton by staying away from her. But his big empty house proves not so empty, when three bickering ghosts take matters – and Brynmor’s love life – into their own hands.
Emma has loved Ross all of her life, but he only sees her as his best friend’s annoying little sister. Her talent for talking to the dead – and suddenly receiving their advice – may be the last hope she has of changing Brynmor’s mind before she is forced into marrying someone else.
He just wanted to be left the hell alone. Was that too much to ask? Ross Stanton, Earl of Brynmor, glared up at the ceiling as doors slammed on the floor above him. Voices whose words he couldn’t quite make out echoed in the hallways, followed by more doors slamming.
Bloody bleeding hell. Apparently, he was asking more than the ghosts, who’d invaded the dark, cold townhouse he’d rented, could give.
More door slamming. More yelling.
“Enough!” he thundered, slamming the flats of his hands on the top of his mahogany desk.
They either didn’t hear him or weren’t listening, because the yelling and door slamming continued.
“I said, enough!” he roared.
Yet again, he was ignored. Pushed beyond his patience, his temper sparked. All the doors in the house blew open and stayed that way.
As the house grew quiet, he relaxed, letting the crackle of energy around him back off to a slow sizzle. The silence was almost deafening. Had he frightened them off? One could only hope. He went back to responding to the correspondence that his man of affairs had left for him.
“Bloody hell,” he muttered as muffled voices floated down from the bedroom directly above his study. The one the servants refused to enter because they swore it was haunted. Lucky for him, he was the only one that could hear the ruckus the ghosts caused or else…
Then, soft female crying.
“Well, well. That was an interesting trick.” A mellow voice with a hint of amusement in it made Ross look up. A medium-built man in rumpled riding attire leaned casually in the doorway of the study with his hands in his pockets. He was obviously a ghost. “And all this time we didn’t think you could hear us.”
“I can hear you,” Ross muttered as he went back to his work. Damn. Now they’d never leave him alone. “How the bloody hell could I not? You made enough noise to wake the dead. Pardon the expression. You’ve proved you’re here, now go haunt someone else.”
“I can’t. You see, I made a bloody mess of things one Christmas Eve, and I’m still paying for it.”
Despite his desire to end this conversation, Ross looked back up at the ghost. “What has that got to do with me?”
“I don’t know, but we’re connected. We have to be or else you couldn’t hear us. None of the others who lived here could hear us.”
Being able to see them didn’t necessarily mean they were connected to him or that he was supposed to help them. He’d seen ghosts most of his life. That, and his ability to manipulate people and objects with his mind, were talents he’d honed as a spy in the military. He’d often met ghosts who could give him information. However, he’d had to be careful not to get caught up in their agendas, a lesson he had learned the hard way. Since then, he usually tried to ignore the ghosts he encountered. If they didn’t know he could hear or see them, they left him alone.
“Since you’re the one who is alive, I supposed it will be your job to figure it out,” the ghost said, bringing Ross out of his thoughts.
“And if I don’t?”
“History repeats itself, and next year you could be haunting someone.”
“Now isn’t that a cheerful holiday thought?”
Laughter filled the room as the ghost vanished.
Ross stared at the note in the bottom of his stack of correspondence, recognizing the familiar handwriting. His heart squeezed, and his fingers shook as he fought the urge to open it, but he finally gave in.
I received the letters you have returned to me, yet I keep hoping you will change your mind, and so I continue to write. However, even I have a limit to my patience, and I tire of this game. Meet me in our garden this afternoon before tea. If not, I will come to you. One way or another, we will talk.
She would do it, he knew. His Emma didn’t flinch at anything.
The first time he’d met her, he’d been fencing with her brother, and she marched in, demanding that they let her play. The little minx had turned on him after the first two thrusts and insisted he treat her like Brock.
He folded the note, putting it against his lips. She was all sunshine and light. How could he ask her to live in his dark world?
“It doesn’t have to be that way.” A soft female voice spoke beside him. A petite blonde in a light blue dress sniffled and perched herself on the edge of his desk with her knees up and arms wrapped around them.
“I beg your pardon.” He didn’t need another ghost.
“You don’t have to be as big of an ass as my brother and Ambrose were.”
Ross stared at her. He wasn’t being an ass. Emma just didn’t deserve to be part of his dark world.
“The woman.” The ghost pointed at his desk. “The one who wrote those notes…”
“You don’t know anything about that,” he snapped.
“I know what it is to be shut off from someone you love,” she said softly, moving closer to him. “You think you’re protecting her from hurt, but you’re not. She hasn’t given up on you. You’re the one who gave up on yourself.”
He was protecting Emma. Why was he the only one who saw that? And damn it, why was he explaining himself to a ghost? “I’m not going to discuss this with you,” he replied in a harsh tone that usually sent most people scurrying.
“Of course not. Men know it all.” She waved a hand. “Why am I wasting my breath? History will repeat itself, and this time it will be your turn.”
She rose, floating across the room. “I’m going to go haunt my brother. Although I doubt he deserves it more than you do. Still, he’s more fun. Him, I can provoke.” She giggled as she vanished.
History will repeat itself. Her words echoed through his mind.
How could it?
He hadn’t been in London when the scandal broke about Christopher Dennison, the Marquis of Wilmington, dying in a duel to protect his sister. Ross had heard bits and pieces of the story from his staff after he rented the Dennison house.
History will repeat itself. How? He wasn’t a foolish hero like Wilmington. Nor was he a shameless rake like Dennison’s foe, Ambrose Bingham, Viscount of Aldridge. He had no intention of either rescuing or ruining Emma Hamilton. The situation was totally different. He didn’t even plan to see her again. He snorted, knowing that was an easier promise to make than to keep.
* * * * *
She’d done it, and Emma couldn’t help but wonder how Ross would react to her note. He’d been avoiding her ever since his return from the war. She’d heard he’d been wounded but had recovered. She tried to find out more, but no one, not even Brock, seemed to know the nature of his injuries. All she knew was that Ross had locked himself away in the townhouse he’d rented.
His refusal to attend social engagements had set the tongues wagging. Everyone had their own ideas about what had happened to the Earl of Brynmor. Of course, along with that speculation came the clucking of tongues and comments about how, given the responsibilities of his title, Brynmor should never have entered the military at all.
Emma couldn’t have imagined him doing anything else. It was just who he was. But then, no one understood Ross the way she did.
She had known Ross Stanton, Earl of Brynmor, for most of her life and loved him for at least as long. Exactly when her feelings had changed from sisterly affection to something deeper, she didn’t know. He’d always been simply Brock’s friend, and then one day she saw him differently. Unfortunately, he still saw her as an annoying little sister. She wanted more, but settled for what she could get, hoping his feelings for her would one day change.
When Ross left for the military, she began writing him. He’d reluctantly written back. At first, his letters were stiff and formal, but they had gradually grown more personal. His letters had arrived as regularly as hers had, giving her hope that something was beginning to happen between them. Then all of the sudden they grew formal again before he penned an abrupt goodbye letter.
Emma closed her eyes. The words of his last letter were still burned into her brain.
My dearest Emma,
I feel that it is unfair of me to continue corresponding with you. By doing so, I am giving you false hope of a relationship that can never be. I am sincerely sorry. I hope that by ending this now, you will be able to enjoy your season and find a suitor who is a better match for you.
Ross Stanton, Earl of Brynmor
She racked her memory as to what, if anything, she’d said that would have frightened him away. She’d filled her letters mostly with chatter about her daily life. As far as she could recall, she’d never revealed her feelings for him. At least, she thought she’d never revealed them.
But had he read between the lines? Was that why Ross pushed her away?
She continued to write to him, but he returned her letters unopened. When he’d come home at last, she’d hoped he’d pay a call on her or at least visit her brother, Brock, but he never did. Ross refused her brother’s attempts to pay a call on him. And hers.
When he didn’t promptly return the letter she’d written this morning, her hopes had soared. Would he meet her in the garden? Brock wouldn’t approve, but she had to slip out and talk to Ross.
“How much?” A rich baritone voice rumbled through the door.
Emma flattened herself against the wall outside her brother’s study, listening and trying to put a face to the voice.
“Pardon me?” Her brother, Brock Hamilton, Duke of Rutledge, replied in his most chilling tone.
“How much would you offer me to take her off your hands?” The other man repeated. “I need blunt to pay off my gambling debts, and your sister is…well…not bad to look at. I know you don’t want to bring her out for another disappointing season, so I’m…”
She closed her eyes as the speaker’s face flashed through her mind. It was Harry Winston, Marquis of Welsford. They’d danced at the last couple of balls. Damn him. She should never have accepted those dances. Now he thought there was something between them. Would her brother set him straight? Or would he…
“If you listen at doors, you might not like what you hear.”
She jumped at the sound of a deep, male voice behind her. She turned around to face a man, well, really a ghost, who leaned back against the wall with a drink in his hand. The man was beautiful in a rakish sort of way. His hair was mussed, cravat loose, and his shirt half open.
He took a sip of his drink and then stared down into the full glass. “I can’t even taste the bloody stuff. So this must be hell. But you’re here, so perhaps it’s heaven. They don’t have angels in hell, do they?”
“I’m hardly an angel, but I have to confess that you look like the devil in more ways than one.”
The rake blinked, staring at her. “Egad you can hear me? I’ve been used to saying anything I want without fear of anyone listening.” He shook his head. “I’ll be damned. You can really hear me?”
She nodded. “Now be still. I’m trying to figure out what my brother is up to.”
“Bloody hell, I wonder who else has heard my snide comments?” he muttered as he vanished.
“How can you even think I would consider such an insulting offer?” Brock snapped on the other side of the door.
“Because desperate men seek each other out. Besides…” Welsford’s voice lowered and shook. “…it would solve our little problem.”
What little problem? Emma tensed. Was her brother desperate to get rid of her? She almost couldn’t blame him if he was. It had to be embarrassing for him to bring her out year after year without offers.
However, Welsford had a respectable title that he was all but ruining with his reckless behavior. Surely, Brock wouldn’t see him as suitable candidate for her husband. Especially knowing what was in her heart. Or would he? Everyone said Welsford was a good man who just needed to settle down with the right woman.
“I’m not desperate.” Brock’s voice rose in anger. “So you have misread the situation. I’m not putting my sister in the middle of this.”
“At least I’d get to sleep with one Hamilton,” Welsford retorted.
“You’re not going to goad me into agreeing, so get the hell out of my house before you make a further ass of yourself,” Brock snapped.
Emma let out the breath she was holding, jumping back as the door crashed open.
Welsford paused in front of her. His brown eyes held hers for a moment. In them, she saw regret and something else she couldn’t quite read. “I’d say I’m sorry, but I need the funds. No hard feelings, eh, love? I had to ask. You and I would have a good time together.”
Maybe he would have a good time, but she doubted there would be much fun involved in being married to a philandering rake. Well, maybe at first—until the novelty of her wore off and he moved on to his next conquest.
He turned back to Brock. “It’s a good offer. Probably the best one you’ll get since she is so far on the shelf. Other than no money, I’d take good care of her. I’d keep her happy in the bedroom.”
Brock paled slightly at that comment.
The man had the gall to wink at her. “More than happy.”
Really, the man had quite a high opinion of himself.
“You think on that, love,” Welsford said in a low, throaty tone. “There are some things that are worth the price.”
Easy for him to say, since she’d be one paying the high price. “I suppose, if I don’t mind sharing you with all of London.” She held his gaze, daring him to deny what everyone in the ton knew.
A slow grin spread across his face. “So you’ve heard all that, eh?” He put his hand over his heart. “You wound me to the quick that you could believe such things about me. I can be faithful if I have the right inducement, love. Just ask Brock.”
Although he said the words to her, he was looking over her head at her brother. Something passed between them that she couldn’t quite read. But she could swear her brother winced.
“I’m—” began Welsford.
Brock grabbed his shirt before he could finish. “Get out and don’t bother coming back.” He shoved the man toward the door. “And if you repeat one word of this to anyone, I’ll call you out. I should do it now, but I can see you’re foxed.”
“I wish I was foxed. It makes disappointment so much easier to swallow.”
She could feel the anger rising off of her usually even-tempered brother. He wasn’t even trying to hide it. Which was odd for him, since he was typically so in control.
Welsford must have felt it, too, because he raised his hands. “I’m going. But think long and hard about what I said. You’re not going to get a better offer for a spinster. Even if she is a bleeding lovely one.”
He straightened his coat, following their butler out.
Brock ran his hand through his hair. “You aren’t a spinster or on the shelf.”
“I know, and even if I was, I’d hardly be desperate enough to accept Welsford’s offer.”
“I know Harry was an ass just now, but he has his moments. Although lately there have been fewer of them.”
She stiffened. Was he defending Welsford? “Are you are considering his offer?”
“Hell, no.” Brock snorted. “I can’t believe he came over here like that.”
“What I can’t understand is why he thought you’d be so desperate to get rid of me.” She tried to read Brock’s expression, but couldn’t. That left her feeling uneasy. Usually she understood what he was thinking, but this time she felt she was missing something. “Are you? Is that what this is all about?” Oh, please, don’t let it be.
Her brother let out a long breath. “It has nothing to do with that.” His voice sounded tired. “Yes, I would like to see you get married, but I’ll not force a husband on you. Especially one I know wouldn’t make you happy.”
“That’s a relief, because there is only one man I’ll accept.”
“Then you’ll be on the shelf for the rest of your life, Emma. How much is it going to take for you to realize that Brynmor doesn’t want you?”
“If I truly believed that, I’d walk away.” Or at least that was what she kept telling herself. That was why she had to see Ross. Only by talking to him face to face could she really understand what was in his heart.
Brock sighed, running a hand down his neck. “I’m not handing you over to Brynmor. Even if he’d take you. Which he won’t. He doesn’t feel that way about you, Emma. You can’t make someone love you. It’s time for you to move on.”
“You’re wrong. He just doesn’t know it.”
“Seeing the future is not one of your gifts,” he said.
She folded her arms, jutting her chin up defiantly. “Oh, and it’s one of yours?”
“You know bloody well it’s not. But it doesn’t take a gift of sight to see that this will end badly. Now let go of it, Emma.”
“What if I can’t?”
He leaned wearily against the wall. “Isn’t there anyone else who turns your fancy?”
“You know that there’s not. You, above all people, should know that we can’t control who we love.”
“But Brynmor?” Brock shook his head. “Surely you’ve gotten past that childhood crush you had on him.”
“It wasn’t a crush.”
“How can you be so sure? It’s been a long time since you’ve been together.”
“We wrote to each other.”
“I let that happen against my better judgment. I should have known you’d get hurt.”
“Why don’t you trust him? I thought you were friends.”
“We are friends. So I know him well enough to say that he’s not the man for you.”
“And Welsford is?” Then she was really in trouble. Harry was handsome and likeable enough when not foxed or carousing, but she didn’t love him.
His mouth tightened. “No. I’m not even considering that. But you really need to give other suitors a chance.”
He shot her a disbelieving look. “Giving them instructions from their dead father is not a good way to start a conversation. Knowing that you communicate with ghosts scares the hell out of people.”
“I can’t help it. Reynolds’ father wouldn’t quit following me around until I told his son where the money was hidden.”
“That should have been discussed privately and not on the dance floor. You should have seen Reynolds’ face. I swear all the color drained from it.”
“I’ll admit my timing was bad. But it would have been equally as bad to be caught talking alone together. So what was I to do? He needed to know.”
“I disagree. If you’d just stop talking to spirits, they would stop talking to you. They have no right to put you in such a position. Damn it, Emma, no one wants a wife whom the rest of the ton is afraid of. If you’d stop this nonsense, then maybe more men would come around. Serious men. Not like Welsford.”
“It’s not nonsense. I help people pass over and give their loved ones peace. Anyone who can’t accept that shouldn’t be married to me. Besides, I don’t scare Brynmor.”
“Oh, you do, angel, in ways you don’t even begin to understand.”