Seven Years to Sin Page 1

Author: Sylvia Day

Series: Historical #1

Genres: Romance , Historical


There was something irresistibly exciting about watching athletic males engaged in physical combat. Their base, animalistic natures were betrayed by their unmitigated aggression and ruthlessness. Through their exertions, their bodies displayed a power that stirred a woman’s most primitive instincts.

Lady Jessica Sheffield was not immune, as she’d been taught a lady should be.

She could not take her eyes off the two young men wrestling exuberantly on the lawn on the opposite side of a narrow, shallow pond. One would soon be her brother-in-law; the other was his friend, a scapegrace whose wickedly handsome countenance spared him much of the censure he should rightly face.

“I would like to tumble about as they do,” her sister said wistfully. Hester, too, watched from where they sat beneath the shade of an ancient oak tree. A gentle breeze swept by them, ruffling the blades of grass flowing along the parkland to the impressive Pennington manse. The home sprawled beneath the protective shield of a wooded hill, its golden stone façade and gilded window frames catching the sunlight and creating a feeling of serenity for all who visited.

Jess returned her attention to her needlework, regretting that she had to chastise her sister for staring when she was guilty of the same conduct. “Such play is lost to women after childhood. Best not to covet what is beyond our grasp.”

“Why can men be boys all of their lives, but we women must grow old while we are yet young?”

“The world was made for men,” Jess said softly.

Beneath the wide brim of her straw hat, she snuck another glance at the two grappling young gentlemen. A barked command stilled them midscuffle and caused her spine to stiffen. Simultaneously, all their heads turned in the same direction. She found her betrothed approaching the two younger men, and the tension left her in a slow abatement, like the receding of a tide after a crashing wave. Not for the first time, she wondered if she would ever lose the sharp apprehension she felt whenever discord was evident or if she was so well trained to fear a man’s anger that she would never be free of it.

Tall and elegantly dressed, Benedict Reginald Sinclair, Viscount Tarley and future Earl of Pennington, strode across the lawn with the purpose of a man who knew well the power he wielded. She was both reassured by that inherent blue-blooded arrogance and wary of it. Some men were content with the knowledge of their own importance, while others felt the need to wield it indiscriminately.

“And what is a woman’s contribution to the world?” Hester asked with an obstinate pout that made her look younger than her ten and six years. With an impatient swipe at her cheek, she brushed back a honey-hued curl the exact shade of Jessica’s hair. “To serve men?”

“To create them.” Jess returned Tarley’s brisk wave. They would be wed in the Sinclair family chapel tomorrow before a carefully selected and elite gathering of Society. She looked forward to the occasion for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that she would finally be free of her father’s unpredictable and seemingly unprovoked rages. She did not begrudge the Marquess of Hadley his right to stress the value of social esteem and her part in securing it. It was the harsh manner in which he redressed her shortcomings that she deplored.

Hester made a sound suspiciously like a snort. “Those are our pater’s words.”

“And the dominant view of the world at large. Who would know that better than you and I?” Their mother’s ceaseless efforts to bear the Hadley heir had cost her life. Hadley had been forced to suffer through another wife, another daughter, and five years before finally seeing the birth of his precious son.

“I do not believe Tarley looks upon you as a breed mare,” Hester said. “In fact, I think he has a tendre for you.”

“I would be fortunate if that were so. However, he would not have offered for me had I lacked a suitable bloodline.” Jess watched as Benedict chastised his younger sibling for his rough play. Michael Sinclair looked sufficiently contrite, but Alistair Caulfield looked anything but. His posture, while not overtly defiant, was too proud to be remorseful. The three males made a riveting grouping—the Sinclairs with their rich chocolate-hued tresses and powerfully lean frames, and Caulfield, who was said to be favored by Mephistopheles himself with his ink-dark hair and devilishly attractive features.

“Tell me you will be happy with him,” Hester entreated, leaning forward. Her irises were the same brilliant green as the lawn beneath their feet, and they were filled with concern. Her eye color was a trait inherited from their mother along with their pale tresses. Jess had taken their father’s gray eyes. It was the only part of himself he’d ever given her. That was not a lamentable circumstance in her opinion.

“I intend to be.” There was no way to ensure that, but what point was there in worrying Hester needlessly? Tarley was their father’s choice, and Jess would have to become accustomed to it, whatever the outcome.

Hester pressed on. “I want neither of us to leave this world with the pitiful relief our mother did. Life is meant to be savored and enjoyed.”

Jess twisted on the marble half-moon bench upon which she sat and placed her needlepoint carefully in the bag beside her. She prayed Hester would always retain her sweet, hopeful nature. “Tarley and I respect one another. I have always enjoyed his company and discourse. He is intelligent and patient, considerate and polite. And he is an extremely fine specimen of a man. One cannot overlook that.”

Hester’s smile brightened their shady location better than the sun could have. “Yes, he is. I can only pray that Father will make an equally handsome choice for me.”

“Have you set your cap for a particular gentleman?”

“Not entirely, no. I am still in search of the perfect combination of traits that will suit me best.” Hester looked at the three men, now talking with some seriousness. “I should like a husband of Tarley’s station, but with Mr. Sinclair’s more jovial personality and Mr. Caulfield’s appearance. Although I do believe Alistair Caulfield is likely the handsomest man in all of England—if not farther reaches—so I will have to settle for less in that regard.”

“He is too young for me to assess in that manner,” Jess lied, eying the object of discussion.

“Stuff. He is mature for his age; everyone says so.”

“He is jaded from lack of guidance. There is a difference.” Though Jess was plagued by too much restriction, Caulfield suffered from none at all. With his three older brothers taking up the expected roles of heir, military officer, and clergyman, there had been no role for him to fill. An overly doting mother had only worsened his prospects of learning any responsibility. He was infamous for his risk taking and inability to walk away from any bet or challenge. In the handful of years Jess had known him, he’d grown wilder with every passing season.

“Two years’ gap is no gap at all,” Hester argued.

“Not when comparing a score and ten to thirty-two, perhaps. But comparing ten and six to ten and eight? That is an age.”

Jess caught sight of Benedict’s mother hurrying toward her, a sure sign that her brief respite from the whirlwind of final-hour preparations was over. She stood. “In any case, your admiration is best directed elsewhere. Mr. Caulfield has little chance of serving a useful purpose in this life. His lamentable position as the superfluous fourth son practically ensures he will achieve little consequence. It is a shame he has chosen to cast off the benefit of his good name in favor of reckless pursuits, but that is his mistake and it should not be yours.”

“I have heard it said that his father has given him a ship and a sugarcane plantation.”

“It is highly likely Masterson did so in the hopes his son would take his dangerous proclivities to a distant shore.”

Hester sighed. “I sometimes wish I could travel far, far away. Am I alone in such longings?”

Not at all, Jess wished to say. She thought of escape in passing, but her station was so narrowly defined. In that regard, she was at a greater disadvantage than women of common birth. Who was she if not the Marquess of Hadley’s daughter and the future Viscountess Tarley? If neither of them wished to travel extensively, she would never be given the opportunity. But sharing such ruminations with her impressionable sibling would be inappropriate and unfair. “God willing,” she said instead, “you will have a spouse eager to indulge you in all things. You deserve it.”

Jess untied the leash of her beloved pug, Temperance, and gestured to her abigail to collect her bag. As she moved to pass her sister, she paused and bent to press a kiss to Hester’s forehead. “Cast your eye upon Lord Regmont at supper this evening. He is comely, most charming, and recently returned from his Grand Tour. You will be one of the first diamonds he meets since his return.”

“He would have to wait two years for my presentation,” Hester retorted with more than a little disgruntlement.

“You are worth the wait. Any man of discerning taste will see that straightaway.”

“As if I shall have a choice in the matter, even if he was to find me intriguing.”

Winking, Jess lowered her voice and said, “Regmont is a close associate of Tarley’s. I am certain Benedict would speak highly of him to our pater should that become necessary.”

“Truly?” Hester’s shoulders wriggled with the fevered anticipation of youth. “You must introduce us.”

“For a certainty.” Jess set off with a wave. “Cast your eyes away from ne’er-do-wells until then.”

Hester made a show of covering her eyes, but Jess expected her sister would return to her perusal of the men as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

Jess certainly would.

“Tarley’s tension is high,” Michael Sinclair noted, dusting himself off and staring at his brother’s retreating back.

“You expected otherwise?” Alistair Caulfield collected his jacket from the ground and shook off the few blades of grass clinging to the superfine. “He gains a leg shackle tomorrow.”

“To the Diamond of the Season. Not such a bad fate. My mother says Helen of Troy could not have been more beautiful.”

“Or a marble statue more cold.”

Michael looked at him. “Beg your pardon?”

From across the shallow terrace pool separating them, Alistair watched Lady Jessica Sheffield cross the lawn toward the house with her little dog in tow. Her slender figure was encased from neck to wrist to ankle in pale floral muslin that clung to her with the breeze. Her face was turned away from him and shielded from the sun by a hat, but he knew her features from memory. He was irresistibly drawn to stare at such beauty. Many men were.

Her hair was a delight of nature, the strands longer and thicker than any other blonde he had ever seen. The tresses were so pale as to be almost silver, with streaks of darker gold adding richness to the whole. She’d worn it down on occasion before her presentation, but now it was as restrained as her deportment. For someone so young, she had the cool demeanor and reserve of a more mature woman.

“That pale hair and creamy skin,” Alistair murmured, “and those gray eyes …”


Alistair noted the amusement in his friend’s voice and strengthened his own. “Her coloring suits her temperament perfectly,” he said briskly. “She is an ice princess, that one. Your brother had best pray she breeds quickly or risk losing his cock to frostbite.”

“And you had best watch your tongue,” Michael warned, repairing his dark brown hair with a quick combing with both hands, “lest I take offense. Lady Jessica is soon to be my sister-in-law.”

Nodding absently, Alistair found his attention once again drawn to the graceful girl who was so perfect in both physical and social deportment. He was fascinated with watching her and waiting for some crack in the porcelain-smooth exterior. He wondered how she bore the pressure at her age, the very pressure he had grown intolerant of and now rebelled against. “Apologies.”

Michael studied him. “Have you some quarrel with her? There is an edge to your tone suggesting so.”

“Perhaps there is a slight sting,” he admitted gruffly, “from her failure to acknowledge me the other evening. Her cut direct was a marked difference in manner from that of her sister, Lady Hester, who is quite charming.”

“Yes, Hester is a delight.” Michael’s admiring tone was so like Alistair’s when speaking of Lady Jessica that Alistair raised his brows in silent inquiry. Flushing, Michael went on, “Likely Jessica did not hear you.”

Alistair shrugged into his jacket. “I was directly beside her.”

“On the left side? She is deaf in that ear.”

It took him a moment to absorb the information and reply. He had not imagined any imperfections in her, although he felt some relief to know there was one. It made her more mortal and less Grecian goddess. “I was not aware.”

“For the most part, no one takes note. Only when the noise is high, during large gatherings, does it become a hindrance.”

“Now I see why Tarley selected her. A wife who only half listens to rumormongers would be a blessing indeed.”

Michael snorted and started toward the house. “She is reserved,” he conceded, “but then the future Countess of Pennington should be. Tarley assures me there are hidden depths to her.”

“Hmm …”

“You sound doubtful, but despite your excessively comely face, your experience with women is not equal to Tarley’s.”

Alistair’s mouth curved wryly. “Are you certain?”

“Considering the irrefutable fact that he has ten years’ advantage on you, I would say so.” Michael threw his arm around Alistair’s shoulders. “I suggest you concede that his greater maturity likely gives him a superior platform from which to note hidden qualities in his own betrothed.”

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