SHE WAS BACK.
The thunderous knocking at the front door, followed by the flurry of departing footsteps, could mean nothing else.
With a violent curse, Eric Bromleigh, the seventh Earl of Farrington, shot to his feet, exiting the sitting room and taking the hall in long, angry strides.
He didn’t need to guess the identity of his arrival. He hadn’t a doubt who it was. A visitor was out of the question. No one dared visit Farrington Manor—not since he’d closed it off to the world five years ago.
Except those who came to deliver a universally unwanted package.
Eric kicked a chair from his path, oblivious to the splintering of the lattice-backed Sheraton as it smashed against the wall. Fire raged in his eyes as he bore down on the entranceway door—a menacing warrior set to confront an unshakable foe.
Flinging the door wide, he waved away the cloud of dust kicked up by a rapidly retreating carriage—the second carriage this month and the twenty-second in four years.
The dust settled, and automatically Eric lowered his blazing stare to meet that of the three-and-a-half foot hellion standing on the doorstep, who returned his stare through brazen sapphire eyes that held not the slightest hint of contrition or shame.
“Hello, Uncle. Fuzzy and I”—she gripped a somewhat tattered stuffed cat—“are back. Mrs. Lawley said to tell you I’m beyond … beyond”—she wrinkled her nose—“redamn-sin.”
With that, she shoved her traveling bag aside, shrugged out of her bonnet and coat, and cast them to the floor. An instant later she fired past Eric like a bullet.
“Redemption,” Eric ground out, gazing bitterly at the discarded garments. “Beyond redemption. Dammit.” On the heels of his oath, a crash reverberated through the house.
Eric whipped about and stalked after the sound, confronting it in the green salon, where his niece stood beside the unlit fireplace, a shattered antique vase at her feet.
“Fuzzy wanted to sit atop that side table.” She indicated the now-vacant surface. “Your vase was there. So I moved it. Fuzzy hates to share.”
“Noelle.” Eric’s fists clenched at his sides. “What did you do to the Lawleys? Why did they bring you back?”
An indifferent shrug. “Their dog tried to bite Fuzzy. So I bit him.”
“You bit their …”
“It was only his tail. Besides, he’s fat and ugly. So is his tail.”
“The Lawleys were the last decent family left in the parish,” Eric roared, ignoring the wrenching pain in his gut spawned by Noelle’s uptilted face—an exact replica of her mother’s. “What the hell do I do with you now?”
“Don’t say hell or else you’ll end up there.”
A vein throbbed in Eric’s temple.
“Unless you came from hell to begin with, like Mrs. Lawley says. She calls you the Devil himself. Are you?”
Something inside Eric snapped. Abruptly, he reversed the vow he’d made the day he’d imprisoned himself inside Farrington, never to emerge.
“Come here, Noelle,” he ordered.
“Why?” The keen gaze held no fear, only curiosity.
“Because I command you to. Fetch your coat.”
Clearly intrigued, she arched her brows. “We can’t be going anywhere. You never leave Farrington.”
“I do today. With you. We’re going into the village. It’s time to resolve your living arrangements once and for all. Follow me.” He strode to the door, pausing when he reached its threshold. “I suggest you obey. If I’m forced to repeat myself, I won’t be nearly as pleasant as I’m being now.”
Noelle folded her arms across her chest. “Even if you thrash me, I’m not going anywhere without Fuzzy.”
“Fine,” Eric thundered. “Collect your scraggly plaything. I’m bringing around my phaeton.”
For an instant, Noelle’s chin jutted up, and Eric thought she meant to defy him. Then, shutters descended over her eyes, and she shrugged, picked up her stuffed cat, and trailed silently past Eric into the hall.
He fought the rage that surged inside him like a dark, suffocating wave.
The torment had to end. And, even if making this trip meant rekindling the very fires of hell, he’d ensure that end it did.