New York Times bestseller Candace Camp, a feisty commoner and a ruthless aristocrat spar in all the right ways.
Noelle Rutherford would do anything for her young son, Gil. A fiercely independent woman recently widowed, Noelle is determined to raise Gil alone. After all, her late husband Adam Rutherford married her for love, which infuriated his aristocratic family. Gil is Noelle’s whole world, and she will not have him wrested from her by haughty nobles.
But she may not have a choice unless she’s prepared to run.
One awful night, Noelle is confronted by Carlisle Thorne, a handsome yet severe, irascible man sent by the Rutherfords. Noelle is horrified when Carlisle offers her money in exchange for taking Gil to be raised at the Rutherford estate, Stonecliffe. Knowing that Carlisle will use any means necessary to take her son from her, Noelle flees, Gil at her side.
Thus begins an epic rivalry that spans five years—a battle of wits between two unforgettable characters bound together by fate and fortune. However, when danger threatens, these enemies must come together to protect what matters most… even if it means losing their hearts.
Noelle gazed down at the sleeping baby. How were they to live?
At first she had been too numb to think, moving through the past few days in a dazed state, unable to believe that this was real. Adam was too young, too full of life to die. Why had he been so reckless? And why, dear God, why had she argued with him that night?
She shivered. Their home was still and silent, empty of his laughter, his words, even his scowls or curses when his work went badly. Noelle wished she could return to her earlier befogged state. But this morning, as she had stood at his graveside, the Paris sky fittingly gray and drizzling, her heart had accepted what her mind refused to the past three days. Never again would she see her husband’s smile or feel the touch of his lips on hers.
But she could not allow herself to sink into a morass of grief. She had a baby to care for. As she watched her child sleep, a fierce surge of protectiveness rose in her. She must face the harsh truths, the bitter reality, for Gil’s sake. There was no one to solve her problems—or even to give her advice.
Adam’s artist friends? His models? They were all as penniless as she was. Her father was far away in Oxford, and in any case, he was an impoverished academic who could barely manage to support himself. Even less likely to help was Adam’s aristocratic father, who had been so opposed to Adam marrying “beneath him” that he cut his son out of his life.
Noelle glanced around their flat, forcing herself to take stock of her situation. There was no money here. Noelle had used the pittance she had stashed away just to pay for Adam’s burial and the small headstone—and oh, how it hurt that a man of his artistry should have so little to mark his passing! The butcher refused to sell anything to her until she paid their bill. The wine merchant was already dunning them—that was what set off her argument with Adam and sent him storming out into the night. The flat itself was paid only through the end of the next week, and their landlord was a hard man who would not care that he was tossing a widow and a fatherless baby into the street.
It was enough to make her dissolve into sobs, but Noelle had cried so much the last few days that she was utterly drained of tears, and in any case, it would do no good. Crying never solved anything. She must think of what to do. Madame Bissonet would take her back at the millinery where Noelle had worked before Gil was born. Noelle had been a good clerk as well as an excellent model for Madame’s hats, not to mention the added benefit of being able to converse with English customers.
But how was she to work there—or anywhere—with a small baby? She could hardly carry an infant about the showroom with her or take time from making bonnets to feed and tend to him. Even if she could find a way to do so, the money she could earn would be very little. They had always lived on the stipend Adam’s family sent him despite his estrangement from them. Noelle’s salary had merely helped make ends meet when Adam’s extravagant spending sent them into dun territory. It wouldn’t be enough to live on. And she had no hope that the Rutherfords would continue to provide Adam’s much-disliked widow any aid after his death.
She could sell Adam’s work. She looked across the room to where his easel stood by the window. Finished paintings crowded all around it—the fruit of his genius, the rich glimpses into his soul—some dark and stormy, others visions of stunning beauty, and all of them compelling. It made her heart ache to think of letting them go, but she would have to try to sell at least some of them. That would bring in enough to live for a while, but he had been able to sell too few of them in the past for her to think she would be able to reap any great sums. They were worth far more to her than they ever would be to someone else.
Noelle turned away, going to the alcove that served as their bedroom, and began to take off the black dress she had worn to Adam’s funeral. Adam would have hated that; he had always said she was suited only for color. She had but one black dress. It was old and uncomfortably tight across her breasts, so full now since the baby was born. Tossing it onto the bed, she pulled on the bright silk wrapper Adam had bought her. It was far too extravagant, as were so many of the things that he bought, but it was soft and comfortably loose, and it made her feel closer to Adam.
Taking an ornate box from the dresser, she sat down on the bed and opened it. The jewelry Adam had bought her was the most valuable asset she possessed. She began to pull out the pieces, laying them out on the bed beside her. The diamond earrings Adam had given her when Gil was born. Gold bangles. An enameled brooch. A jeweled hairpin that looked like a dragonfly. Pendants, earrings. That foolish narrow ruby-and-diamond tiara that Noelle would never attend anything formal enough to wear.
Indeed, she would never wear most of them. She had protested time and again that Adam spent too much on jewels and clothes for her; it would have been far more useful for him to pay the rent. But Adam was the son of an earl, and he’d never completely adjusted to his new financial circumstances. He would complain about his lack of funds and call the monthly payment he received from England “blood money.” He would make periodic vows to follow a budget. But then he would see something he wanted, and he would buy it on the spot, without regard to the price.
That first bracelet he’d given her, she had promptly handed back to him, saying heatedly that she was not the sort of girl to accept such a present from a man. She smiled to herself, stroking her finger over the delicate chain of sapphire flowers. Adam had kept it and presented it to her again after they married, smiling in that irresistible, mischievous way of his and saying he believed she could accept it now.
Noelle swallowed the lump in her throat and fastened the bracelet on her wrist, holding her arm out to admire it. She pulled out the matching necklace that he’d given her on their first anniversary. Going to the mirror, she fastened it around her neck. She smoothed her finger over the delicate stones, remembering the way he looked as he gave it to her. Tears welled in her eyes.
A thunderous knock sounded at the door, breaking into her reverie. Whirling, she ran for the door in the futile hope she might keep the visitor from waking the baby. But, naturally, Gil began to howl, his tiny face screwing up and turning red. In exasperation, she flung the door open.
A tall, lean man stood outside her door, his strong-boned face set in a stony expression and his eyes the cold gray of a winter storm. His brown hair had no silver to it, but his fierceness gave him an authority that his age, and even his obvious peerage, didn’t.
Noelle took an instinctive step back. The man’s eyes flicked down her and beyond to the cradle. “I believe your child is crying.”
“Not until you started banging on the door.” Her temper flashed at his tone. Turning, Noelle scooped Gil up and held him against her chest, murmuring soothing noises. When she pivoted back to the door, she saw that the man had walked into the room uninvited and closed the door behind him. He stood there silently, his coolly assessing gaze roaming over the small living quarters.
His eyes fell on the unmade bed, the contents of the jewelry box spread across it, and his lips lifted in a sneer. “Sorry to disturb you. I can see that you are deep in…um, sorrow.”
His tone gave a sarcastic twist to the words that made them sting and brought a flush of embarrassment to Noelle’s cheeks even as they angered her. “Who are you? What do you want?”
Suspicion of the man’s identity was already tickling at the back of her mind. English, aristocratic, contemptuous…and surely she had seen a charcoal drawing of this man among Adam’s sketches.
“I am Carlisle Thorne. I am a friend of the Rutherford family.”
“I see.” Adam had spoken of him several times. Though not related to Adam by blood, Thorne had been the earl’s ward. He had lived with Adam’s family for some time and had been something of an older brother to him. When Adam first mentioned him, it had been with affection, but after their marriage, his references to the man had turned bitter. Adam had believed Thorne would intercede with his father, but instead he had, like the earl, opposed the marriage.
Noelle remembered well the letter Adam had received from Carlisle Thorne. He’d torn it up and flung it on the ground, but Noelle had pieced it together and read it: It is entirely understandable, even expected, that you should dally with the lasses while you are at university, but it is out of the question for a man of your heritage to marry one of these common girls.
It had only exposed the man’s arrogance and narrow mind, but the words had made Noelle feel ashamed. Even now, she could remember the pang of hurt, assuaged only partially by Adam’s fierce denouncement of Thorne.
It was not surprising that this icy man was the author of that missive. She felt sure his opinion of her had not changed. Certainly, she had no liking for him. But still, she could not help but feel a quiver of hope. Thorne had been something of an emissary between Adam’s father and his renounced son in the past; the earl had sent Adam his monthly stipend through Thorne. If the earl had sent Thorne himself to pay a visit, surely that meant he would help his son’s widow and child, no matter what he thought of Noelle herself.
Thorne’s gaze went to the bundle in Noelle’s arms. Gil had once again fallen asleep against her chest. Thorne shifted awkwardly, tilting his head to look at the baby’s face. “Is this…”
“Yes. This is Gil. Adam’s son.”
He gave a short nod and turned away. For a moment Noelle thought he was about to simply walk out the door, but then he swiveled back to face her. “I am here to return Adam to his family.”
“Return him to his family! They would not accept Adam when he was alive, but now that my husband has died, they want his body?” Noelle flared. “It’s a trifle late, isn’t it?”
His eyes darkened and for the first time it was fire, not ice, that flared from them. “I am well aware that I did not arrive in time to save Adam from the disastrous consequences of his marriage to you.”
Noelle drew in a sharp breath, shocked. “Are you implying that I harmed Adam?”
“I am implying nothing. I am saying plainly what we both know—if he had not run off with you, Adam would be alive today.” His words pierced her, and Noelle could say nothing as he continued, “I will regret to my dying day that I did not keep him out of your clutches. But I am not too late to save his son.”
Tears sprang into her eyes, and Noelle turned away to hide them from him. She laid Gil back in his little bed, buying herself time to force down the pain and anger that threatened to swamp her. She hated this arrogant man. But she had to think of her son. She must take care of him, and Carlisle Thorne was the only person who might do that. If he was offering to provide support for Adam’s baby, then she must accept it, no matter how humiliating, no matter how much it galled her.
Not looking at him, carefully keeping her voice drained of emotion, she said, “And how do you propose to do that?”
“Ah. Yes. Now we are at the heart of the matter, aren’t we? No need for any pretense; you are ready to bargain. What is your price?”
“My price?” She turned to face him, confused. Was she supposed to figure out how much it would cost to raise her child? And what an odd way to put it. “I—I’m not sure—”
“You must have a number in mind. What will you take to give me Adam’s son?”
Noelle stared at him, stunned. “You want to buy my baby?”
“If you want to call it that.” He frowned. “Did you expect me to hand over a pile of banknotes and leave him here with you? To let the earl’s grandson be raised in…” he gestured vaguely around the apartment “…in this? In the sort of life you will lead? No. I can assure you I will not. The earl is his legal guardian, as you must know. The child will be earl one day, and he shall be raised at Stonecliffe, just as Adam was, in the care of his grandmother and grandfather. You will take the money and be on your way. A thousand pounds.”
“No,” Noelle said weakly. She was too shocked to put her thoughts into order. He could not really expect her to sell him her child.
His mouth tightened. “Two thousand, then. You’ll have money, your jewelry, your clothes, and you won’t have the burden of a child. Even a woman of your face and form would find it difficult to attract a protector with a baby in tow. Here.” He reached inside his jacket to pull out a small pouch. “I haven’t that much in coin with me. I will have to visit the bank. But here is a deposit on that.” He tossed the pouch down on the table. “I’ll return tomorrow for the boy.”
Excerpted from An Affair at Stonecliffe by Candace Camp. Copyright © 2022 by Candace Camp. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.