Seven Years to Sin

By: Sylvia Day


Prologue



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.”

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