Published by La Loma Elite Publishing on June 26th 2018
Purchase: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo
When happily ever after is the name of the game, gamblers must risk it all in this emotional conclusion to Christina McKnight's bestselling Craven House Series.
WAGERS GO AWRY
Payton Samuels has always known she wants more out of life than being the youngest daughter of the ton's most disreputable family. While her siblings are content to bet their future happiness on marriage, Payton learned early on from her mother that love is fleeting and leads only to disappointment. She's got a different plan: she'll work as a governess for Baron Ashford's children, but only long enough to win her fortune at one of his infamous masked gaming parties. When she loses big, Payton sees her chance at an independent life go up in flames--until Lord Ashford surprises her by paying her debts.
WHEN LOVE IS IN THE CARDS.
Since the tragic death of his wife, Damon Kinder, Lord Ashford, has been a man made of ice. His determination to never be hurt by love again runs so deep that he can't even connect with his children. When they quickly take to Payton, he thinks he's found a solution: she'll give them the affection and support he can't. As he spends more time around Payton, his heart begins to defrost, and he can't stop thinking about the captivating governess.
But every seasoned gambler knows that eventually, luck runs out. Can two souls so burned by past loves forge a new future together?
DAMON KINDER, LORD Ashford, pressed at his temples, attempting to massage away the endless pounding in his head as the shrieks and stampeding feet outside his study continued to assault the quiet he preferred in his home. Blessedly, the noise receded as his children moved farther down the hall and away from his closed study door.
Glancing down at his desk, Damon’s irritation ignited when he noted that everything was in its place, all household matters attended to, and all business correspondence addressed and ready to go out with the late-morning post. Even the missive that had arrived an hour before from his country seat at Falconcrest House was duly reviewed, his response outlining the specific repairs agreed upon by him and his steward.
Falconcrest—the bane of his existence. His country estate, in his family for generations, only caused his insides to churn with guilt each time he had the need to handle anything pertaining to the property. It wasn’t the house or even the surrounding land that opened a hole within him that was impossible to close. No, everything about Falconcrest signified his failure as a husband, a father, and a man. He had no interest in overseeing the maintenance of the property nor the repairs still needed for his enclosed carriage abandoned just within his lands all those years ago.
He’d purchased a new conveyance. He’d created a suitable home for his children at his London townhouse. And Damon was resigned to never see his family estate again.
However, that did not diminish his responsibility to the place. One day, his son Abram would inherit the estate, and it would be Abram’s decision whether or not to inhabit the languishing house.
Damon’s irritation abated at the thought, leaving only his perpetual sense of loss and sorrow—and his tidy desk before him.
To his chagrin, all his work was completed, and the sun had barely risen over the horizon. Most Londoners had just found their beds a few short hours before after long nights out.
The high-pitched, angry cry that pierced the air was one only mastered by that of a young girl. In this case, like many before it, the dreadful, ear-splitting wail was compliments of none other than his youngest child, Joy. A gruff bark of unrestrained laughter followed as Damon’s son, Abram, mimicked the tone of a man ten years his senior. At ages six and eight, his offspring were…spirited. At least that was what his sister called them while in polite company.
Damon longed for them to be spirited in another part of the townhouse, if only to allow his thundering headache the chance to subside.
His fingers twitched as he pressed his palms flat against the polished mahogany of his neatly organized desk. Perhaps he should have remained in his private chambers and requested his morning meal be brought into the one room where no one dared disturb him. He could have had Mr. Brown, the Ashford butler, bring his paperwork to him there, and Damon would have escaped the nuisances currently bickering in the hall.
A sharp pain seized his chest. No man should insinuate, even silently to themselves in the privacy of their study, that their children were bothersome and that they incited headaches even before he’d taken his morning repast. There had been a time when he hadn’t seen the pair as bothersome or so much as an inconvenience—but those days were gone, and no matter how hard he fought to return to that time…he couldn’t.
Sarah was gone. His children and his home were without a mother.
And Damon had only himself to blame.
Though he need remind himself, he had not been charged with teaching Abram and Joy the proper decorum and manners befitting the children of a baron. He glanced at his elbow, resting upon two single-pound notes. He’d agreed that every month, he’d pay his children’s governess two pounds—to educate them, to school them in the art of decorum and manners, and to prepare them for their future in society. Most of all, he was willing to pay twice the normal rate for a servant of her status with the expressed instructions that he not be bothered—and in turn, not be responsible for any future failures. However, the racket echoing throughout Ashford Hall in that moment made it vividly apparent that someone was not earning her keep nor suited to her elevated task.
It was customary for the lady of the house, or a housekeeper when the position was not occupied, to distribute the household wages. Though, after losing seven governesses in four years, Damon had made the decision that his sanity was worth two pounds per month. And how could he explain to Mrs. Brown, who happened to be wed to his butler, that a mere governess was collecting a higher wage than she?
He could not risk having another governess flee the position, however. Word had long ago spread through the agency’s gossip mills about the heathens that resided at Ashford Hall in Hanover Square. He’d had to contact his solicitor to secure a governess from a highly dubious location—the famed Craven House. The rumors had spread through London many years ago that the house no longer acted as a brothel, catering to the illicit needs of men, but was operating as a staffing agency—and a safe haven, of sorts.
Not that Damon was one to buy into town gossip. Besides, he’d had little other option. He’d had no other choice but to hastily write the proprietress of Craven House the previous month and had since been rewarded with the appearance of an adequately dressed young woman of obvious genteel upbringing.
Miss Samuels, though Mrs. Brown had told him she barely looked old enough to be out of the schoolroom, came highly recommended and was, in fact, nearing her nineteenth year. The exact age his Sarah had been when they wed ten years prior. He’d never thought Sarah too young and unprepared for marriage, so there had been no need to believe Miss Samuels not adequate to serve as a mere governess.
Memories pushed to the forefront of his mind, and Damon’s head pounded anew as he tried to keep them from overtaking him. It had been four years since his beloved Sarah passed, leaving their children to grow up without a mother.
To be raised by a succession of obviously unqualified and easily frightened governesses.
The agreement was simple enough—Miss Samuels would care for the children in a befitting manner, and he would leave them to their tasks. So far, in her month of residing at Ashford Hall, he’d not come directly face-to-face with the governess. He’d watched them pass his study when he neglected to close the door all the way, he’d happened by their schoolroom and took in the sight of his children’s heads lowered over their studies with the governess’s back to him.
Avoiding the governess was becoming increasingly difficult as the days passed.
Damon craved a drink, his parched throat begging for a long swallow of scotch; however, he was well aware that his aching head was not entirely attributed to the ever-increasing volume of his children but also because he’d imbibed one—or three—too many tumblers the previous night. It had been a rare moment of weakness for Damon…a day when the memories had been too overwhelming, and he’d given in to the dark past that tried at every turn to pull him back into the black days directly following Sarah’s passing. He didn’t deserve the escape too much drink provided—not after all he failed to do.
A loud thump, followed by Joy’s melodic giggle, and Abram’s deep, hysterical laughter, shook the windowpanes in their frame as the pair raced past his study once more. At least they were no longer arguing and bickering. Their feuding of late was becoming increasingly worrisome, and though he had listened from afar since their new governess took command, Damon was uncertain how long he could refrain from stepping in to halt their quibbles.
Glass shattered from somewhere near the foyer, and a blood-curdling scream tore through the house, abruptly halted by a deathly silence that descended in its wake.
His entire body coiled with tension, Damon pushed from his seat and strode to the door. It slammed against the doorframe, and he stalked into the hall, his shoulders stiff with a reprimand ready to be shouted at the offending party—or parties.
There was no need to go far to discover the source of the commotion.
A vase had shattered, and its splintered glass lay covering the polished floor with Miss Samuels standing perfectly frozen in the middle of the mess. Though her back was to him, Damon noted the rise and fall of her shoulders as she breathed in deeply and exhaled slowly. It appeared he would no longer be afforded the luxury of avoiding the woman.
“What is going on here, Miss Samuels?” Damon did his utmost to keep his tone level as he spoke her name aloud for the first time. “Please, tell me that is not my dearly departed mother’s prized vase shattered on the floor…and that you are not ruining my hardwood with pooling water.”
Damon took in the mess littering the foyer. He didn’t care a whit about the broken vase, the ancient thing was atrocious and should have been tossed away a decade before; however, he also did not relish the notion of things being broken and destroyed at will within his home.
His children’s muffled laughter rained down from the landing above the foyer as Miss Samuels’ fists clenched at her sides, and her shoulders straightened, but she remained quiet, his question going unanswered.
“Miss Samuels?” Damon prodded, his tone turning severe at the woman’s continued silence.
With aching slowness, the governess turned to face Damon as another round of laughter burst from above. His pointed glare pivoted to his children to keep from settling on Miss Samuels’ clinging, soaked bodice.
Joy and Abram hastened from view and moved into the shadows of the first-floor landing.
He brought his glare back to the governess as he took in everything about her. Her eyes lit with irritation, and her long, dark tresses were matted and wet hanging over her shoulder.
Damon wasn’t certain what he’d find when he came face-to-face with the woman for the first time, but this was nothing close to what he’d expected. It was as plain as his white linen shirt that she was young—though not too young to take on a position in a baron’s household; however, something in the way she glared at him, her chest laboring as she breathed deeply in and the air gushed from her lungs with each exhale, had him taking notice. She was far taller than he’d thought, her hair not a simple dark brown but laced with both lighter strands and hints of red that should seem out of place but only accentuated the blue of her eyes.
His immediate instinct was to avert his stare and return to his study; however, his better judgment won out, and he remained stoic with the precise amount of disdain lingering in his stare.
When her eyes finally met his, the woman was barely restraining her fury as her face burned red with a mix of what could only be deemed shock…and a healthy dose of embarrassment. Her eyes sparkled in a way he hadn’t thought possible before that moment.
“Do explain what is going on,” Damon gritted through clenched teeth.
“Your children”—her fists tightened at her sides with each word—“thought it comical to drop a vase full of—”
“We thought it downright hilarious, actually,” Abram all but sang from above. “Cook had red cabbage brought in from Suffolk, and the color was…”
“Quiet!” Damon slashed his hand through the air, cutting off his children’s latest burst of giggles. His glare never left Miss Samuels where she stood doused in blue dye from her bodice to the toe of her half boots, peeking out from under the hem of her morning gown. Her white apron was saturated, and droplets of blue-colored liquid fell to the floor from her tightly clenched fists.
He could not halt his appraisal as his stare landed on her bodice and slowly traveled to her waist. Her dress was stained and soaked and clinging to her shift below as the distinct stench of ammonia travelled through the air. Apparently, his son had taken heed of his chemistry studies and was employing the lessons learned.
With much effort, Damon lifted his eyes, thankful that despite the havoc wreaked on her dress and boots, her face was stain-free. Her dark tresses were pinned high atop her head with a single curl hanging over her shoulder, luckily impervious to the blue coloring.
Despite his children’s many governesses, none had even remotely resembled the lady before him. Miss Samuels was far younger than any governess he’d had as a child or any he’d employed for his own children. And the uptick of her chin as her eyes held his, said that she belonged in a ballroom instead of his foyer.
Clearing his throat, Damon was hard-pressed to determine who was more deserving of his reprimand: his wayward, unruly children or the woman who’d been hired to make certain his children were not wayward and unruly. He did not risk the wrath of his other servants to pay a governess twice the normal wage for a job that was not being successfully accomplished.
It was not his responsibility to tame his children. Bloody hell, that was exactly why he’d hire
d a string of governesses after his wife’s death. Sarah had tended to Abram and Joy as if it were her lifelong dream to raise children. She had provided them with love and nurturing, holding their small family together. And after she was taken from them, Damon had struggled to find his way. Raising a family without Sarah had never crossed his mind.
As with any hired post, there were certain expectations to be met—both his and society’s. Joy and Abram were far from the orderly, polite children of other ton members. And as much as he could be blamed for their lack of decorum, Damon was unwilling to accept censure.
Damon’s deep breaths mirrored the governess’s labored inhales and exhales.
“Miss Samuels,” he said before pausing to think through his next words. He could not, would not, allow the woman—as inept as she appeared—to flee her post before he’d secured another governess. “I would’ve thought twice the going wage would be incentive enough to handle two small children.”
Her fists landed on her hips. “Twice the going wage for each would not adequately cover it.”
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~~Reviewed by Lisa~~
How wonderful! The story is a journey through pain, feelings of guilt and worthiness. Both our hero and heroine are conflicted about what they want, need and deserve. Watching each struggle and come out the other side whole and filled with joy and love was heartwarming.
I have been waiting for Payton Samuels to have her chance at a HEA. Hers was an interesting childhood, but one filled with love. Her wanting to prove her abilities and worth to her siblings is based on a partial conversation she overheard as a child of nine. Her approach was unorthodox, and I was curious about her motivation through the other books in this series. All was answered here. As Payton was on her journey to love she discovered a depth of understanding and empathy she was unaware she possessed.
Damon Kinder, Lord Ashford, is such a lost ad wounded soul. As the father of two children he is completely unprepared and ill equipped to raise them. His guilt over his wife’s death adds to his pain and disconnect from the children. His approach to parenting is to ignore his children so he is not reminded of their mother and they don’t ask him any questions.
Each of the sisters have found their HEA and I hope we will see their brother, Lord Garrett Davenport gets his HEA.
I voluntarily read and reviewed an advanced copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own.