The rough wooden door splintered under the pounding of her fists, gashing her flesh. She instantly forgot the pain that radiated up her arms as she continued beating at the door, praying that someone, anyone, would come and free her from this place.
Someone, or anyone but him.
Matthew Trent, Fourth Duke of Marshalling, was the reason she was behind these doors, locked in a chamber high in the tower of his castle. He was the cause of her entrapment, unable to escape, unable to leave this place of horrors. The contract having been signed and validated by powerful people, forcing her into marriage and leaving her no recourse but to be brought to this place.
It was her father's fault. If not for his stubborn refusal to quit the life of a debauched gambler and the debts that he had acquired, she would not be here now, a prisoner of the worst rogues that court had ever seen. Lord Matthew had a penchant for seducing young virgins and leaving them, soiled and spoiled, to be rushed into quickly contracted marriages. He drank and gambled, but, unlike her father, Lord Matthew had a way with a wager, never leaving a table as a loser.
His prowess with both women and cards was legendary, as was his skill with the sword and pistol.
He had come to their home, a small, modest manor very unlike the huge castle that was his own residence. He'd come to retrieve what he was owed by her father; money that they did not have and had no way of acquiring, for her father's friends and family had cut them off without a cent. With his high hat and starched cravat, deep claret-colored coat and fawn-colored breeches, Lord Matthew had been the epitome of the dashing young lord.
In this instance, the clothes didn't make the man, though they did frame well what the good Lord had blessed him with. Black hair, rich and thick, curled past his shoulders, clubbed back and tied with a black ribbon. High cheekbones under taut skin, and a thin, aristocratic nose sat above lips just a trifle too wide. Ebony brows slashed across a wide forehead, and thickly lashed eyes a piercing shade of green seemed to see all with barely a glance.
Their one servant, a woman who'd been with them since before Lara's mother's death ten years before, had showed him into their parlor. She'd taken over raising Lara and her little sister Kathleen as her father had lost interest in his daughters with the death of his beloved wife. The servant, Mary, was too old to find a new post and stayed with the family despite the fact she hadn't received payment in years.
If Lara had only known, she would have stayed in her room that day instead of investigating the raised voice of her father. The curse of curiosity stamped on her early in life, always leading her down the path of trouble, and that day was no different.
She had crept down the stairs, carefully maneuvering around the third riser that would have snapped and popped, giving her presence away. Slipping carefully past the door to the parlor, she'd peered inside, staring at the back of her father's head as he yelled and gesticulated to the man who sat in the big leather chair in front of the fire. A fire started just for him.
Lara felt her heart leap in her breast as she stared at the handsome lord, for he truly was a most pleasing specimen to look upon. His eyes were incredible and inscrutable as was his expression while he listened to her father make his many excuses and rage about the hand dealt him.
She must have made some small noise, for he suddenly turned her way, spotting her in the open doorway and freezing her to the spot. She felt a thrill of fear, for his expression was no longer that of the bored lord. No, he stared at her with a smile that spoke of other things than boredom; things that she knew nothing about at her tender age; things that she could only guess. She felt a shiver of terror as his eyes slid down her body.
With a gasp, she forced herself away, turning to flee up the stairs, jumping over that third riser, and rushing to her room. Throwing herself upon her bed, she pushed down her long skirts and buried her heated face into her palms. There had been something there; something in his eyes had made her feel dirty and ashamed. She would have to ask her father who he was. The man had scared her and that was not a feeling she was used to, being the one to whom all the problems of the manor fell upon.
She didn't know how long she laid there before realizing the loud and raucous voice of her father was silent now, though she hadn't heard the door close behind the strange visitor. Getting up, she went to the pitcher that sat on the small stand and poured some water into the basin, rinsing her face and hands with the cool liquid.
As she was wiping them dry on a ragged towel, there was a knock upon her door. Mary opened it at her bidding.
"Milady, you are wanted in the parlor," she said.
"Mary, is that man still here?" Lara asked.
"Yes, milady. A fine gent he is too. A duke or an earl, I believe." She bobbed a quick curtsey and left the room; her message having been delivered.
"A fine gentleman," Lara repeated softly, her hand at her breast as her heart beat rapidly as if trying to flee from her body. Taking a deep breath, she went to her dressing table and picked up her brush, quickly taming the blonde mass of curls that resisted her efforts. She thought of changing her gown for the better one, the one she kept to go to mass or to tea if they were invited but decided against it. Her father would be up here himself to drag her down to the parlor if she didn't come in good time.
Brushing her skirts into place, she took a deep breath and left the safety of her room once more, descending the stairs in a much more refined manner than she had before. She tapped on the parlor door then stepped inside, her head bowed as she waited for her father to bid her to speak.
"Here she is, Your Grace. Here she is." Her father sounded as if he and the duke, or was it earl, had debated upon her arrival. Now that she was here, he was rubbing his hands in glee. "Stand tall, girl. Raise your head and let his grace get a good look at you."
Lara did as bid, lifting her chin and letting her shaking hands clasp in front of her skirt. She felt the eyes of her father's guest upon her and stiffened her resolve. She would not let either man see her fear for her father had a reputation for his little tortures. Lara could sense it would give him much pleasure to break her resolve this day in front of this man.
She didn't know what their guest was thinking, but he took his time with his inspection of her person, finally rising to walk with a limping gait toward her. Lara met his eyes, feeling the power of his green gaze and fought not to turn away. She wanted to for the things she saw there were frightening. As he came toward her, she lifted her chin, finding that he was so much taller than she was, much taller than she had expected.