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Introducing Red Door Reads - First Chapters by Ava Stone, Renee Bernard,

Jayne sat as still as she could for a minute trying to ignore the stale timeless environment of her cubicle and the windowless department it sat in. The urge to scream for oxygen wasn’t new and she tried to ignore it. It was a beautiful summer day according to her weather channel screen saver but the frosty processed air churning out through the air conditioning vent in the ceiling above her made a person wonder.
Introducing Red Door Reads - First Chapters
Introducing Red Door Reads - First Chapters by Ava Stone, Renee Bernard, 
Maybe if I just sit here, something will magically improve. “Sorry about the promotion, Hamilton. Tanner’s a fool not to see your potential.” Jayne’s office mate’s sympathy was genuine, but the bad news about being passed over was a little too fresh for her to bounce back with anything resembling perky grace or professional acceptance. “Yeah. I’m the queen of potential, Rick. Thanks.” Jayne picked up her purse out from under her desk and decided that a breath of fresh air was critical. Unless I want to go postal in a public relations firm and really make a name for myself. “Except Tanner, Phelps and Jones doesn’t need executives with potential. Look, I’m going for a walk. If anyone asks, I’m out courting a fat wealthy corporation, okay?” “Sure.” Rick’s eyes had a puppy-dog look of devotion that normally would have soothed her bruised ego, but today, everything stung. She took the elevators down and escaped from the building as quickly as her dignity would allow. After all, crying like a jilted prom date had never helped a girl’s career in the field of public relations. Supposedly it was all about cool-headed organizational skills and masterful marketing… Although her boss, Tyson Tanner, had added another little twist to the game. “If you ever want to be more than an account monkey, you’ve gotta bring in the big fish, Hamilton! Bring in someone new and land us millions, and I’ll let you punch your own ticket, kiddo.” Jayne Hamilton stalked down the crowded city street, fuming. She hated to be called things like “kiddo” or Tanner’s usual favorite, “sweet cakes”, but the man had a point. She’d been the anchor on more account teams than anyone else, delivering award winning campaigns and services. But she’d never really pushed herself on the sales side. Jayne had shied away from the outwardly giddy networking that seemed to go into finding new clients. She’d never liked the look of it, or had the energy to play the “wine and dine” game after hours. After a long hard twelve or fourteen hours in the office, all Jayne Hamilton wanted to do was curl up in her one bedroom loft apartment in flannel pajamas with a cup of tea and try not to lose consciousness before seeing Jon Stewart, a nightly guilty pleasure, and sharing a laugh. Damn. This is it. Either I want to get somewhere in the firm and I give up the love of my life and only source of daily news, or I buy myself a new pair of pajamas and redecorate my cubicle. It was a turning point. No getting around it. Jayne slowed her steps, her emotions leveling out. She was good at her job and she loved the work. She’d allowed herself to start dreaming about corner offices and executive expense accounts in her distant future, and now it was time to admit that it was more than a dream. It was a real, genuine ambition to make more of herself and move up in the world. So much for youthful idealism. I think I just grew up a little bit despite myself. But I swear to God, I sure could use a boost up into the saddle… And that’s when she saw it. It was a skyscraper like no other. Dark reflective surfaces and gleaming steel, it was easily almost seventy stories and striking, jutting up like a black modern katana sword up against the blue sky. It was set back from the pavement with its own miniature plaza, void of any kitsch sculptures or obligatory fountains. But what was most striking about the building was that she’d never seen it before. Not in all her twenty-seven years as a city girl. Not once. And this wasn’t a building a person would miss. This wasn’t a building that wasn’t going to show up on a panoramic cutout of the skyline. No way. She glanced around, mentally mapping her location and setting the familiar landmarks down to get her bearings. Yup, there’s the Transamerica Building and the good ol’ Millennium Tower, and yup, the rest of San Francisco’s biggies just the way they should be. So where the hell did you come from? Skyscrapers weren’t the kind of construction known for being thrown up overnight, but there it was. Tanner wants new fish. I’d say that’s the definition of new fish. Okay. Big girl panties: on. I’ll just take a peek and see who’s home. The lobby was unlike anything she’d seen. Black gleaming surfaces of stone made her feel like she was walking into a weird photo-negative of Wonka’s camera room. There was no bland muzac to cover the click of her heels against the marble floor, and she stopped in her tracks to take it in. Well, this is intimidating. If cartoon villains had a lobby, I’d say I’m strolling into it like an idiot. It was completely deserted without a single chair or bench for would-be visitors. Hint, hint. No visitors welcomed here. Jayne glanced over at the wall next to a bank of what looked like elevator doors for a company directory and saw nothing but more shiny black marble. Really? I’ve never seen a single occupant skyscraper. There’s always a hundred tenants and businesses and even the lobbies are overflowing with Starbucks and sandwich shops, so what the— “May I help you?” She squeaked in surprise and did a terrible imitation of a ninja jump, her hands popping up defensively in a mock jujitsu pose. The voice had sounded as if someone was directly behind her, but Jayne immediately saw that there was no one there. Except the über average looking security guard sitting behind the—you guessed it—black marble desk fifteen yards away that she hadn’t seen just seconds before. Okay, time to prove you’ve earned those big girl panties and just get this over with. You’re already in, Jayne. So running out like a teenager gets you nowhere. Just ask the nice Twilight-Zone lobby attendant what you need to ask him and let’s roll. She did her best to channel someone fearless like Katherine Hepburn or even Duane Jonson and walked over as if this were the most ordinary recon she’d ever done in her life. But as she got closer to the desk, the black wall behind him finally yielded the first clue as to the building’s occupant. Cut from more delightful black were stone letters that were only visible if you stood to the left or right—or if the light hit it properly, she surmised. But there it was. H.E., LLc Wow. There’s an unfortunate name choice for a corporation. I wonder what knucklehead thought of that one. Or what graphic arts school reject decided that black on black was a brilliant call. “Um.” Jayne took a deep breath and decided there was no time like the present to look this guy in the eye and take the plunge. She held out one of her business cards. “I’d like to leave this for your head of marketing. It’s forward to just drop in, I realize, but if they have five minutes, I wouldn’t mind a chance to introduce myself.” There was a long awkward silence before he took the card from her. Then there was a longer, more awkward silence while he studied it, as if business cards were quite the breakthrough, or he wasn’t sure where to put this small white foreign object that obviously ruined the color scheme and pristine emptiness of his universe and the black stone desk he sat behind. “I will see it delivered to the proper person.” Her card disappeared into his front shirt pocket, and Jayne’s stomach churned with an irrational icy fear that made her want to leap across the counter and wrestle her card back. “Great.” Jayne winced when the word came out clipped and tight from fear. “Super. Thanks.” Mission accomplished. Run. No! Don’t run! Maybe it’s like those handouts about mountain lions. You’re not supposed to turn your back on them and run, or they’ll just take you down. The man didn’t blink, and Jayne stopped caring how stupid she probably looked. She put one foot back and then another and like a hiker moving off carefully from a wild animal, she started edging her way away from the desk. Jayne’s nerves got the upper hand as she heard an imaginary beep-beep-beep sound as she backed up. The giggle was stifled into an unfortunate hiccup, but she was starting to feel like she’d achieved a good respectful distance to turn and make good on “not running” as quickly as she could out of this building. So when her backside bumped up against a solid warm wall of person, it definitely wasn’t her proudest moment. It was a cinematic scream of surprise followed by another of her signature instinctive attempts at self-defense—this one involving her purse as a ridiculously slow moving perimeter defense. She swung it out without aiming and nearly lost her balance. Which would have been humiliating enough, but was especially embarrassing when the strap broke and everything from pens to apartment keys went up in the air like confetti. “Whoa!” He put his arms up over his head to try to shield himself from the worst of the fallout, and sidestepped her loose change as it showered down over him. “I’m sorry if I startled you.” Shit! Sure you are buddy! After all, it’s such a crowded lobby and— Jayne finally, really, caught sight of her “assailant” and forgot everything, including her native language. Oh, man… If the Marlboro Man, Fabio and the guy who played Thor were put into a blender, they could be this guy’s ugly sidekick. He was so masculinely beautiful, a burnished gold and tan living statue of David in a three-thousand dollar black suit; patiently looking at her with golden eyes while she gathered her wits that Jayne had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from giggling at him like an eleven-year-old at a teen pop star concert. “Here, let me help you with your things,” he offered, his voice rough warm silk that made her want to sigh. It was all she could do to just nod. Hooray! I’m officially an idiot. The quest for her makeup compact was a welcome distraction from the delectable stranger in her peripheral. Heat flooded her face as she dismally noted that her crap was everywhere, having rolled or skidded on the slick marble floor, so there would be no graceful way to accomplish anything. She knelt humbly to get most of the heavier and closest targets with a soft groan of disappointment. Can’t fix it now. Just get your stuff, crawl back to your office and call it a day. “Ms. Hamilton?” he asked, holding out her purse to drop in her lipstick. “Here, let me help you up.” He held out one hand and waited. “I’m fine. I just…” But as illogical as it was, she found it easy to ignore the mess and took his hand to stand to face him. He really has golden eyes. The electric warmth of his touch was like sweet honey across her skin. “I really should pick all this up before someone does a Chevy Chase on a ballpoint pen.” He smiled and her knees turned to rubber. “You’re kind to worry about others.” “I’m just imagining a lawsuit would top my morning so perfectly, that I’d best not leave anything to chance.” He laughed, and Jayne decided she was as infatuated as any girl could be. “I love your humor.” He politely returned her purse to her. “There, all restored and as it should be.” She felt the familiar heft of it and a small twinge of confusion at the sensation. “Well, yes, but…” The strap was fixed and a single glance inside assured her that everything was back in place. She looked around the lobby and was amazed that not a single object littered its floor. “How did you do that?” He smiled and shook his head. “I can’t see allowing a lawsuit to ruin the rest of your day.” My purse strap broke. My stuff went everywhere. He never moved from that spot. Who is he? David Copperfield? “Thanks, Mr…?” she fished for a name. “Morningstar. But please call me Luke.” “Luke,” she repeated in a daze. Now the instinct to retreat had a completely different flavor and shape. This was more about protecting her tattered dignity before she lost herself in his eyes and started babbling about her eternally single dating status. “I have to go.” He nodded. “I know.” Run. Run, Jayne, run. Okay, feet don’t fail me now. “Goodbye, Luke. It was nice meeting you.” She turned in what she hoped was a brisk but not unfriendly manner and headed toward the glass doors as fast as her high heels could carry her. It was only when she was out in the bright sunshine of the day and three blocks away that a question pushed its way to the front of her brain. Forget the purse trick. How did he know my name? * * * More Devil to Pay About Renee Bernard One Woman Think Tank, USA Today Bestselling Author and Host of The Romance Bookmark on Tuesday nights at Readers Entertainment via BlogTalkRadio. Oh!...and Queen of Crazy! * * * What in the world is a retired Navy chaplain's daughter doing writing scorching hot historical romances and contemporary romantic comedies? Renee Bernard is applying a great education from traveling all over the world to story telling and doing her best to keep her father proud. Truthfully, her father is her number one fan, even though he hasn't worked up the courage to crack one of those red hot romances open yet--but nothing stops him from telling everyone else they need to pick up her latest! Love can make even a minister do strange things! * * * Her debut novel, "A Lady's Pleasure" won the RT Reviewer's Choice award for Best Debut Historical in 2006 and she's never looked back. It's been one Double-Dog-Dare moment after another but she's kept her sense of humor (if not her sanity!) Renee currently lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Northern California. (Note an interesting proximity to great wineries!) * * * Her alter ego, A.R. Crimson, is a wicked writer of erotic modern penny dreadfuls and makes no apologies for it. As Renee Bernard, she continues to write historical romances and more recently paranormal romantic comedies. She has also written a comic book, "Azrael's Girl", and continues to explore new genres because so far no one has told her not to... * * * You can listen to Renee’s live Internet radio show "The Romance Bookmark" at 8:30pm EST on Tuesday evenings at www.readersentertainment.com. Connect With Renee @ReneeBernard ReneeBernardAuthor?fref=ts www.reneebernardauthor.com renee.bernard.fans@gmail.com Jane Charles Lady Admired VALENTINE WISHES LADY ADMIRED The one thing Rose Trent, Dowager Countess of Bentley, has ever wanted was her freedom. Now it’s within her grasp. Or it was, until she is kidnapped on the very first holiday she’s ever taken. What should have been traumatic turns into the most adventurous time in her life, thanks to a handsome Scot named Aiden MacGregor. Unfortunately, she only has a fortnight to thoroughly enjoy herself before her stepsons show up to pay the ransom. * * * Laird Aiden MacGregor usually thinks through everything before taking action. After all, order is necessary to a successful business and home. But now, one rash action throws everything into disorder. He wasn't the one who kidnapped the delightful and beautiful Lady Bentley, but he’s the one who will pay the price. Fearing the worst, he’ll spend his last days on earth making everything right with his family, securing their future, and spending every moment he can with Rose before he swings from the gallows. * * * With a word, or perhaps a promise, Rose might save his neck, but at what cost? Chapter One Near Bonnybridge, Scotland, May 11, 1815 “Why have I been kidnapped?” Rose Trent, Dowager Countess Bentley, was not sure if she was more affronted, frightened or perhaps a tad bit delighted. Truthfully, nothing frightened her any longer. After being marriage to a beast in gentleman’s clothing, Rose believed she could face anything. Even the fierce Scot who now towered over her. His sun streaked brown hair fell to his shoulders and did not look as if it had seen a pair of clippers in a very long time. He may wish to frighten her, but there was not a drop of coldness in his light brown eyes. Not like she had witnessed in her blessedly now dead husband. Any wise lady would be frightened, of course, but Rose couldn’t find it in her. In fact, this might be the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her. Of course, no harm had come to her person yet. “Kidnappin’ is a bit harsh, lass.” She nearly laughed at being called such. That phrase was meant for young girls. She had lost her girlhood a very long time ago. “I’m keepin’ ye ta trade.” Now she was affronted. “Trade?” she nearly screeched. She was not chattel or goods to be passed about and she was dearly sick to death of men who thought to disregard her as if she wasn’t a person at all. Moreover, she certainly was not going to stand here and allow a stranger to belittle her in any way. She was finally free of the past and not about to be relegated back to it. Rose straightened her spine and lifted her chin. For once, she was going to have control over her own destiny. Well, about as much as one could have after they had been kidnapped. “Aye, trade. Yer late husband took somethin’ of mine and I tend to keep ya until it’s returned.” Rose stifled a sigh. “What did he take?” Did she really wish to know? “The family jewels.” This caught her attention. “Jewels?” “Aye. My older brother used them for collateral on a debt. When it was paid, Bentley claimed them as interest and wouldna take more money.” Sadly, this did not surprise Rose in the least. “Well, have your brother go and retrieve them. There’s no reason to keep me.” “I wish it were possible. He died six years ago.” “Oh.” This took her a bit aback. “I’m sorry for your loss.” Why had he waited until now to reclaim the jewels? Her husband had been dead for two years. Surely, Clayton, the heir, would have handed them over if he had known how they had been obtained. “Aye, so am I. Not only did I inherit his debt, but his family as well.” “Debt?” Maybe this man was in more dire straits than she realized. Just because the manor spoke of wealth that did not necessarily make it so. She knew families in London who were a hairbreadth away from debtor’s prison but lived as if Rumplestilskin was spinning gold in their cellar. “Aye.” He nodded sadly. “What do they look like? I’ll be happy to retrieve them for you.” Bentley, nor the Trents, had need of any further wealth, or jewels that did not rightfully belong to them. “Do ya take me ta be a fool?” He slammed his hand down on the desk. Perhaps she should be a bit frightened after all. “Of course not,” Rose managed to stammer out. “I simply thought it a reasonable solution.” “If I let ya leave ta get the jewels, I willna see ya again.” “On my honor. I would do as I promise.” He smirked. “Forgive me if I doona trust the word of Bentley’s widow.” Rose gasped. Now she was most definitely outraged and wagged her finger at him. “I’ll have you know that I am nothing like my deceased husband, and I am insulted you would even make that suggestion.” The Scot reared back, his eyebrow shot up. Good! He would soon learn she was no wilting violet. Never again would she cower before any man, no matter how much he may threaten or try to intimidate her. He shrugged. “For now ya are my guest.” “And exactly who are you?” “Laird Aiden Robert MacGregor.” He stood straighter as he introduced himself, clearly proud of who he was. Rose simply nodded. The name meant nothing to her. “Are these jewels so very valuable?” “Sentimental value. They belonged to my mother, her mother, and her mother before her.” Sentiment was behind her being taken? It wasn’t for the money? She looked around again. There was nothing to indicate he was suffering from an empty purse. He may have inherited his brother’s debts, but Rose suspected Laird MacGregor made good on them. The carpets were too plush and the furniture too fine. “Did any of your step-sons accompany you on this trip?” “No, they are at their country homes.” At least as far as she knew. Though no definite plans were set, there had been discussion of the families returning to their country homes shortly after she and Ada sailed for Edinburgh. However, they could have easily remained in London until the end of the Season. Oh, dear! Ada must be beside herself with worry and wondering what had happened. “Ye had no companion?” He asked with surprise. “My dear friend, the dowager Viscountess Acker.” He nodded, but did not show any reaction to the name. “A letter will be sent to Bentley with a description of what I want.” “That could take weeks,” Rose cried. What if the boys hadn’t gone straight to their country estates? In truth, Clayton was the only concern. He was the earl now and possessed any jewels his father would have possessed. Were they at the estate or in London? It could take a fortnight or longer for Clayton to find the jewels, gather his brothers and head to Scotland. He simply would not send them in hopes of her return. No, her stepsons would most definitely come in search of her and then Laird MacGregor would regret that day he took her. Of that, Rose had no doubt. “Aye, at least a fortnight, I assume,” he said as if it was of no inconvenience or a disruption to her life. “Do you intend to keep me in the dungeon, locked in a room?” She may be standing in a lovely library, but that did not mean there was not a cell waiting for her somewhere. She was his captive. “I’m no’ a barbarian. Ye’ll have a room and be free to move about. Ye jus’ canna leave.” Laird MacGregor laughed. “Yer my guest.” “Guest indeed,” she muttered under her breath. Guests could end their visit whenever they wished. “May I send a note to my friend? I’m sure she is searching and has sounded the alarm.” Laird MacGregor studied her. “I’ll read it before I send it.” Rose straightened. “My correspondence is personal.” “I read it or it willna be delivered.” Rose pressed her lips together as her aggravation for the Scot increased. “It will be delivered today?” “Tonight!” She blew out a breath. “Do you have parchment and a quill?” Laird MacGregor stood and gestured to the chair before his desk. Rose slid into the deep leather chair and tried to sit forward so she could write. It was a big desk for a large man and not at all comfortable for a woman of her stature. He leaned over and put a blank sheet of paper in front of her. Rose took a deep breath and dipped the quill in ink. Dearest Ada, Please forgive me for abandoning you at Stirling Castle. It was not my wish nor my plan. Apparently, once again, my husband’s ill deeds have brought an end to any pleasantness I may have enjoyed. At one time a debt was owed to Bentley and he held onto some jewels as collateral. When the debt was repaid, Bentley kept the jewels, claiming interest. I am to be held until they are returned. Clayton will receive a letter and description and I am sure he will bring them himself. I beg of you not to worry about me. I am being kept as a guest and no ill has befallen me. As I anticipate that my stay will be weeks in duration due to the length of time it will take to get a letter to my step-son and for him to return with the jewels, please have my things packed and delivered to “No names.” Laird MacGregor ordered. Rose glanced up. The man was reading over her shoulder. She knew he was directly behind her, but to read as she wrote was most rude. delivered to send them along with the man who brings you this letter. “Tell her no’ to alert the authorities.” Which will probably make her friend all the more concerned, but Rose did as he asked. It was not as if she had any control over Ada after she received the correspondence and would be quite happy if the whole of the army stationed at Stirling Castle would arrive to rescue her. That would serve MacGregor right for taking her. Please do not tell anyone what has happened. It would be futile for anyone to try to find me, as I am not even sure where I am. Do not worry, my dear friend. I will send word again to assure you that I remain safe and am unharmed. Do try to enjoy your stay in Edinburgh and visit with your friends. I will be fine and will look on this as an unexpected adventure. Your friend, Rose Trent Rose read over the letter one last time before sanding it. She prayed Ada would not worry overmuch and Rose did wish for her friend to continue enjoying her visit to Scotland. Ada’s holiday should not be ruined because of the current circumstances. She folded the parchment and stood, handing it to MacGregor. He was a large man, the top of her head coming to his chin. Perhaps she should be frightened, but Rose was not. Over the years she’d become a good judge of character and none of the repulsive, wariness, loathing or fear she often experienced when meeting her husband’s cronies surfaced in the presence of Laird MacGregor. Of course, he had kidnapped her, so there was that. So, why wasn’t she frightened? Perhaps it was because there wasn’t anything Laird MacGregor could do to her that her husband hadn’t already done, and she survived. She would survive this as well. “Mrs. Murray will show ya to yer room. I hope ye have a pleasant stay.” A plump older woman entered a moment later, as if she were listening at the door. “Right this way, my Lady.” Rose had no choice but to follow. Actually, she could have remained and demanded answers to further questions, but at the moment she wished to be alone to think. If only she knew where she was. After being taken from the walk when she had gone to view Stirling Castle she’d been blindfolded the moment she’d been placed into the carriage. They had ridden for what seemed like hours before it was finally removed, and only because Laird MacGregor announced they were safely on his lands. Still, they rode for another thirty minutes, or so it seemed, but she could not even tell in what direction because the blinds were pulled on the carriage, not allowing any sunlight in. Kidnapped indeed and all because of jewels her late-husband had stolen. Would she ever be free of that blasted man? Aiden MacGregor had given up hope of ever recovering his great-grandmother’s jewels. He had even visited Bentley three times while the man was still alive and sent several letters, but Bentley would not take the money. He wished to keep them for himself. It wasn’t as if they were very valuable. Aiden had spoken the truth. It was sentiment. The one thing his great-grandmother brought to the marriage, and pawned at one time so that repairs could be made to the distillery and manor. When his grandfather finally turned a profit, he had retrieved them, presenting them to his wife before she passed. She had not cared about the jewels as much as her husband, but he had wanted to keep his word to her and to prove that he was honorable and that it was not a mistake to marry a poor Scot who was trying to shake the family reputation of being thieves and outlaws. They were a symbol of family, of giving, sharing, loving and trusting. Something his brother, Beathan, had not understood. When Aiden tried to explain to Bentley, the gentleman had laughed at him, calling him ten times a fool and ordered him gone. Aiden suspected Bentley was more interested in keeping something that someone else wanted. It would not have matter if it were an old shoe or the crown jewels. What he had not expected was Lady Bentley’s fire and confronting him. Of course, he would expect such from a Scottish woman, but not a Sassenach. They were weak and biddable, but there was nothing docile about Lady Bentley. He rather admired her strength, as well as her beauty, and the fire in those crystal blue eyes. The former Lord Bentley was at least sixty when he died. Lady Bentley was no more than thirty, if a day. Then again, she was Bentley’s third wife, and apparently, he preferred young brides. Aiden well understood a first wife being ten and eight, but not a third, when she would have been thirty years younger. Aiden had one young wife, and it was not an experience he would repeat again. Oh, he loved his Meg, but when she was gone, he had no desire to seek another young woman to fill his nursery even more. Though a good woman in his bed and in his home was one thing he did miss. There were none of his acquaintance of the right age and not married. ‘Twas a shame Lady Bentley was married to the man he detested, a Sassenach, and that he kidnapped her. Under different circumstances, he might have sought her out. He rose from his desk and crossed to the sideboard before pouring himself a glass of whisky. He took a sip, closed his eyes, and savored the taste. This was the best his men had created thus far. It had taken time to produce a good whisky and within a month they would break the cask on a fifteen-year old single malt to see how it fared against those that had left for only three, six or ten years. If it was as good as he hoped, then the family would be able to restore the reputation they had once enjoyed of distilling some of the finest whisky in Scotland. “I’m ready ta leave. Do ye have the letter?” asked Ewan, the second son of his brother Beathan, as he came into the library. Ewan was not the brightest of his nephews, and only ten and eight, but delivering the letter to the Trents should not be too difficult, if he wasn’t distracted by a pretty face in the meantime. “Aye, it’s on my desk.” Aiden nodded in that direction. “The sons are at their estates, but the message can be delivered to any one of them. But, make sure ya give it to the Earl of Bentley, Mr. Jordan Trent, Mr. Matthew Trent or Mr. John Trent, and nobody else.” “Of course, Uncle Aiden. I willna make a mistake. I promise.” He dearly hoped not. He would have trusted the letter with someone else, but Ewan was able to travel quicker than anyone he knew. When he didn’t get distracted, of course. Or, lost his way. “Maybe ye should take someone with ya.” “I promise ta do right, Uncle Aiden,” Ewan assured him. “It’ll be delivered to one of the four gentlemen and I’ll return straight away.” “See that ya do.” * * * More Lady Admired VALENTINE WISHES Being a Baxter is all about giving — giving your time, giving money, and giving hope to those who have none. While Jacqueline Baxter has plenty of time, money, and hope to spare, what she lacks is trust. When Brett Robak, the FBI guy determined to win her heart, drops into her life, she has one rule — be there. Be on time. Be present. Be hers. But can Brett live up to her expectations? When tragedy strikes and Brett’s not there, how can Jacqueline ever trust him again? Will she be able to see past her own pain and loss to realize that love is more important than a series of coincidences and hands on a clock? Chapter One Baxter Art Camp – June, 2003 The red lights flash in my rearview mirror and I immediately take my foot off of the gas pedal. “Shit! Shit! Shit!” I grew up here. I know about that speed trap. I didn’t even see the cop sitting there, and it took him long enough to catch up to me. It isn’t like there are any other cars on the road. I flip the blinker on and slowly pull into the parking lot of my grandparent’s plantation, now an art camp. I don’t need this now. Today. Ever. After I lower the window, I turn off the ignition and place my hands on top of the steering wheel, just like my uncle told me, and watch in my side mirror as the door on the cruiser opens and the state trooper gets out. At least it isn’t someone from the sheriff’s department. Those guys are dicks. He stops at the side of my car and looks at me. There’s a bit of humor in his brown eyes and he gives a slight nod. “License please.” I’m glad stopping me has made his day because it hasn’t made mine. I fish it out of my purse and hand it over. Another guy comes up and stands a little behind the trooper. He’s not in uniform, but slacks and a shirt. Is he a supervisor or something? He looks kind of young to be that. Cute too. If anyone should be supervising, I’d think it would be the older trooper. Not that he’s that old, maybe in his mid to late-thirties and wearing a wedding ring. The other one is closer to my age with light brown hair and blue eyes. At least, they seem blue from this angle in the mirror. Lean, fit and young. “I’ll be back.” I look up at smile, noting his nametag. “I’ll sit tight and wait, Officer Q. O’Brien.” As he walks away I switch my focus back on the side mirror. The young one is walking back to the cruiser with the cop. Damn, he looks just as good going as he does coming. Nice, tight ass, narrow waist and wide shoulders. While the older one slides into the driver’s side and talks into the mic on his shoulder, the hot one returns to the front of the squad car and faces me. His feet are planted at shoulder width, arms across his chest, watching me. Those arms are nice too. Firm, tanned, a bit muscular. Too bad he wasn’t the only one to show up. I might just have tried to get out of this ticket. He’s all yummy and I’d be happy to work out a deal. Hell, I’d even let him cuff me. Not that trying to get out of a ticket ever worked. Or, so I assume it never worked. My Uncle Gary is a cop and he’s told me all kinds of stories, and he’s seen more boobs than most guys see in a strip bar. In fact, as far as he’s concerned, the more women try to use their body or tears, the more likely they are to get a ticket. I’ve never tried to get out of them before, and I’ve had a few tickets. Truth be told, I kind of have a lead foot. That’s something I should probably start worrying about more since I just started paying my own car insurance. Ouch, that first bill hurt. Officer O’Brien gets out of the cruiser and stops next to the cute guy and says something I can’t hear. Shit! He’s holding the long metal case that has tickets in it and he takes out a pen. Cute cop nods and returns to the passenger side of the cruiser while the other one returns to my window. “Do you know how fast you were going?” I cringe. “Ten over?” I hope it isn’t more. “About that. Why were you going so fast?” “Late for work.” “Where do you work?” I nod toward the plantation house. “The camp. Our first group arrived this morning.” A smile pulls at his lips. “Oh yeah? What do you do?” Everyone around here is interested in the art camp. “Organizing events, the calendars, displays, performances, paper work, supervising. All kinds of things.” “Well, slow down.” He hands me the ticket. “Miss Baxter.” He practically whispers my name. Weird. “I will.” I take the paper and don’t even look at it before shoving it in my purse. I don’t want to know what he clocked me at or how much this one was going to cost. He gets back into his cruiser and I look into my rearview mirror one last time to see if I can get a look at the other cop. At least I assume he’s a cop even if he isn’t in uniform. Why else would he be in the car? His face is turned to the older trooper, so I only get the profile before they drive off. Which is just fine. Even in profile he’s hot. With a sigh I start my car, pull further into the parking lot, and find my space. My brother, Theo, is standing at the end of the drive leaning against a post, just shaking his head as I get out of my car. “One of these days you’re gonna lose your license,” he warns. “Not going happen.” I brush past him. “Why aren’t you at work?” “They’re at orientation. Thought I’d sneak away.” Theo is my youngest brother at eighteen and is a teen counselor at the summer long art camp my grandparents established at the plantation eons ago. Not that he does much counseling. Just watching, checking to make sure his group of campers don’t get into trouble and he helps with photography, his passion. I glance at the cigarette between his fingers. He gives me a smirk and takes a drag. “You really should quit smoking those vile things.” At least he isn’t smoking in front of the kids. Not that he’d be allowed to. “It’s all I got.” “If grandma sees you,” I start to warn. “She’ll scold, but not do anything.” He’s got that right. Theo could get away with anything where grandma was concerned. Her baby. Theo takes another drag and then tosses the butt into the gravel behind the bushes. I turn and shake my finger at him. “You know animals pick those up and get sick. Don’t you care about the environment?” “I’m finding I’m not caring about much these days,” he says as he saunters past me. That’s the problem. Theo doesn’t care about anything and it worries me. He does have a good heart, but the only time he’s ever happy is when he’s alone with his camera. He turns, and walks backward. “Hey, I hear you have a date tonight.” My stomach flips, but not in a good way. “Yeah.” “Blind date, right?” He laughs. My friend, Ashley, fixed me up with a guy she knows, but won’t tell me a thing about him, other than he moved here about a month ago to temporarily stay with family until he can find his own place. She knows him because he’s been working out at the recreation and fitness club where she works. She’s also said he’s hot, but we don’t always agree on what is hot and what isn’t. Hell, she could have just been describing how he gets when he works out. It’s also her opinion that I don’t date enough, if ever, and need to get out. And, the reason she won’t tell me a single thing, other than his name, is because she knows me too well. The more details I have the more reasons I’ll come up with not to go. “We probably both agreed to it to get her to shut up.” Theo chuckles and shakes his head. “I bet you’re home by the time were roasting marshmallows if he’s anything like that last tool she set you up with.” “Shit!” I slow the car and pull over, the back tire thumping with each rotation. This couldn’t be happening. I hop out of my car and go to the back. “Damn!” The tire is toast. What the hell did I run over? This isn’t a slow leak flat. I hit something. But, I don’t remember hitting anything. The road was completely clear. Maybe there was a leak and I just didn’t notice. Not that it matters right now. I’m still going to be late. The one thing Ashley told me when she set this blind date up was not to be late under any circumstances. She wouldn’t tell me anything else about my date except that her name was Jacqueline Baxter, and to not be late. Apparently, Jacqueline takes offense to people not arriving on time and believes it’s disrespectful. The way Ashely talked, I have a feeling it was a guy that made her so adamant about respect of her time, but Ashely wouldn’t clarify one way or the other. So, on the first time meeting this girl I’m going to be fucking late. I might as well not show if the flat tire is going to ruin everything before it starts. It’s not like I asked for this date. I’m going along so Ashley will quit telling me how perfect she thinks Jackie and I would be together and that I just have to meet her. I can’t even get through a damn workout without hearing about how perfect Jackie is at least five times. Of course, that’s all Ashely ever said besides don’t be late and that this Jackie is pretty, has a great bod, and is smart. The rest I am to learn on my own. If I get a chance now. No. I can’t think that way. Jackie’s got to be reasonable. I get just not showing and being pissed about that, but life does throw curve balls, or at least gives you flat tires, so she’s got to understand. I grab my phone and call Sullivan’s Pub, where I’m supposed to meet Jacqueline in fifteen minutes. I can change a tire, just not that quick. “Sullivan’s,” the guy with a thick Irish accent answers. “Seamus?” I don’t think the guy has ever taken a day off except when the place is closed for a holiday. “Aye.” “Hey, this is Brett Robak and I need a favor.” “What can I do for you, Robak?” “I am supposed to meet a girl there in about fifteen minutes but I have a flat tire. Can to you tell her and ask her to wait.” “Can’t ye call her?” He’s laughing. The man finds humor in everything. “I don’t know her number.” “Ye asked a girl out without her number?” My face is heating. “A friend is fixing us up.” “Ah, blind date.” “Yeah, some first impression, huh.” “I’ll make it right. Who is she?” “Jacqueline Baxter.” “She’s already here.” “Shit!” Seamus just laughs. “I’ll tell her.” “And give her anything she wants to eat or drink. I’ll take care of it.” I thrust my fingers through my hair and pace. “Just keep her there. I’ll get there as soon as possible.” “Will do, Robak.” Not that I don’t trust Seamus to tell her, I still call the club and hope Ashely is working. “Baxter Recreation and Fitness,” a perky voice I recognize to be Ashley’s answers. “Thank God you are still there.” “Who is this?” “Brett Robak.” “You are not going to try and ditch this date are you?” “No, nothing like that, but I’ve got a flat tire and I’m going to be late.” “Uh oh. I warned you.” “Yeah. Yeah. Can you please call her since you won’t tell me anything but her name and make sure she understands?” “Sure thing.” After I hang up the phone, I open the trunk of my car and grab the spare tire. * * * More Valentine Wishes About Jane Charles Jane Charles is a USA Today Bestselling Author and has lived in the Midwest her entire life. As a child she would more likely be found outside with a baseball than a book in her hand. In fact, Jane hated reading until she was sixteen. Out of boredom on a long road trip she borrowed her older sister's historical romance and fell in love with reading. She long ago lost count of how many novels she has read over the years and her love for them never died. Along with romance she has a passion for history and the two soon combined when she penned her first historical romance, and she has been writing since with the loving support from her husband, three children and three cats. She writes both historical (set in the Regency period) and Coming of Age contemporary. Connect With Jane @JaneACharles JaneCharlesAuthor www.janecharlesauthor.com Deborah Cooke Simply Irresistible SIMPLY IRRESISTIBLE Tyler has had enough... Going to his fourth sister's wedding without a date will only encourage his female relations to "help" him find romance. Ty's ready to wait for Ms. Right, and doesn't want anyone meddling in his love life. When he learns that the quiet cute woman who works in his building has the same predicament, he's sure they can each provide a solution for the other. But there's far more to Amy than meets the eye, and Tyler finds himself not only intrigued by her secrets, but falling hard. How far will he go to make their temporary arrangement permanent, and win the heart of a woman he finds...simply irresistible? Excerpt There he was. Finally. Better late than never. Amy peeked over the lip of her book and watched the guy from the wealth management firm upstairs come into the common area, just the way she did five times a week. Her heart was beating faster, even though that was stupid. She was too old to have a crush on a stranger. Even one who looked like this. The object of her attention could have stepped out of the pages of one of her own books. Tall, athletic, handsome, wearing yet another killer suit that probably cost as much as she earned in a month at her day job. No pretension. He was totally at ease and moved with that athletic grace that made her salivate. Confident. Maybe even masterful. Except in one of her books, he’d secretly have a taste for leather and a little kink. Amy bit her lip. He was almost too good to be real. She devoured the sight of him, yet again, seeking the inevitable flaw. She didn’t find it on this day either. Perfectly knotted silk tie, French cuffs, Italian shoes. There was no casual Friday in this guy’s world, and Amy liked it. A lot. Of course, he probably was a straight arrow with a fondness for missionary position and uncomplicated sex. She wrinkled her nose, preferring her fictional skew. The hero in her current erotic fairy tale, the dark prince, bore a remarkable resemblance to Mr. Yum. In her book, he was emotionally scarred, hiding his wounds from the world. He was ruined inside, a wreck of a man because of what he’d endured. Only the love of the right woman would heal him, a woman who trusted him sufficiently to surrender fully to his darkest fantasies. To his needs. She’d given him a scar, but the heroine had looked past that injury to the valor of his heart. He gave vent to his deepest desires in her presence, because of that trust, and by the end of the book, he’d be healed. True love would conquer the obstacles and win the day Amy sighed at the perfection of it all. It was a story she never tired of reading or writing. Beauty and the Beast, with a little pain and a lot of pleasure. In reality, this guy would never notice her, except maybe to excuse himself if she were in the way. He’d certainly never talk to her, and maybe it was better that way. She wouldn’t have to surrender the fantasy before her book was done. She knew he worked at Fleming Financial, the private banking and investment firm on the top floor of the building, not because she’d stalked him or anything, but because she’d been in the elevator with him once. Fleming Financial was on the top floor of the building. They had expensive offices, presumably to encourage the sense amongst their clients that they could be trusted with the management of enormous sums of money. She’d nearly had heart failure when she’d realized they’d be the only two and forgot to push her floor. He’d reached past her to push nine, giving her a delicious whiff of sexy masculinity. She’d been achingly aware of how rare that scent was in her life, frozen to the spot savoring it, when he’d cast her a questioning look. She’d hurried to push five, nearly falling over her own feet, and blushed like a teenager for being an idiot. That he’d bitten back a smile had only made her feel like more of one. The silence had been painful and the ride eternal, especially since she’d been too mortified to breathe. She wasn’t usually an idiot with other people, or even with gorgeous guys. Maybe his aura of power had unnerved her. Maybe it was the things the character he’d inspired had done in her book. Maybe it was thinking about him doing them that threw her game. It certainly led her thoughts in a distracting direction. Amy propped her chin on her hand and kept reading about Melissa’s misadventures with her new dom. It was hard to concentrate, though, when he was so close. Usually, these books were like crack. Amy couldn’t get enough of them, and now she had the excuse of keeping track of the market—and the income to afford it. The erotic romances were vicarious sexual adventures, ending with the promise of eternal happiness. She wrapped them carefully in book covers, the way she’d done in school with her textbooks, to disguise her reading taste. That meant she could read anywhere. She liked print books too much to use her e-reader, even though the keepers had taken over her bookshelves at home. So many of them had a great juicy bit—or twenty. Amy’s particular weakness was when the master said something tender and hot that it turned his submissive’s knees to butter, and her own knees got a bit weak. She liked the descriptions of pain mingling with pleasure. She liked the trust and capitulation—and the transformation. The transition from reading to writing had been an easy one. She’d started to write down her own stories and had been pleasantly surprised to find an audience. No private jets in her life, at least not yet, but she’d had the roof replaced and saved some money for a rainy day. Plus it was just fun. She had a niggling sense that she should do more research, and actually experience this lifestyle instead of just imagining what it was like. Imagining was Amy’s strength, though, while real life wasn’t. Besides, it wasn’t like you looked up BDSM clubs in the Yellow Pages or Googled them. And if you found one, would you just walk in and ask for their prices? If she was dating someone, she supposed she could have introduced it as an option, but Amy couldn’t imagine that it wouldn’t sound bizarre. “So, I was thinking after dessert that we go back to my place and you truss me up, then spank me pink.” Every guy she’d ever dated would have thought she was insane. Come to think of it, if she’d been dating a guy who didn’t think that was insane, that might have been worse. She’d end up thinking he did stuff like that all the time, maybe preferred it rough, and if she didn’t, well, the relationship would be doomed. She’d lay awake thinking about STD’s and secrets you didn’t know about people and curiosity killing cats. Better to just read about it. Some things did belong in fiction. Living vicariously had become her best trick, after all. The really intriguing thing about Mr. Private Banking was that he read, too. Scottoline, Grisham, Cornwell, Patterson—pretty much always a mystery or suspense story, but she liked that he read women authors as well as men. Was it the violence? The mystery? The knowledge that justice would triumph? Did he see himself as the serial killer or the intrepid hero? It was easier to imagine that he was living vicariously too, working out his own tormented past with his choice of fiction. She wanted to ask him why he read what he did. It would have told her a lot about him. It was reassuring that at least one other person was as rabid a reader as she was. It generally took him two days to read a book. She liked that he didn’t cover his up, so she could spy on his tastes. She peeked again to see what today’s choice was, but he was in the line at the sandwich bar. Weird. He usually brought a lunch, just like she did. Maybe the staff at the mansion had called in sick. She smiled at that, and returned to Melissa’s cries of agony and ecstasy. The poor girl was in major trouble this time, having been locked in the dungeon in her master’s house. No one knew where she was, and he had her blindfolded and shackled in nothing flat. At his mercy. Mmmm. Amy already knew he didn’t have much of that commodity, but Melissa was loving it. Who wouldn’t? Oh, the nipple clamps. Amy bent over the book, fascinated by the description of how they felt. Would he use the riding crop? She tried to savor the sensual build-up, admiring that the author had done a good job, but she turned the pages all too quickly, gobbling it up. God, the master was doing that tender-tough thing that just about finished her! Would a man ever talk to her in a gravely voice? Amy shivered at the prospect. “Is this seat taken?” Amy jumped to find none other than Mr. Hot standing behind the seat diagonal to hers, sandwich and book in hand. (It was the newest Patterson.) In the common area and food court, the seats were bolted to tables in fours. She had claimed her usual seat by the fountain, where she could see a patch of sky through the atrium overhead. The other three seats were available, as usual. She was astonished to find him watching her, waiting on her, then pushed up her glasses and cleared her throat. The food court was really full. He just needed somewhere to sit. It wasn’t personal. “No. Go ahead.” She gestured, trying to make it look like a casual invitation. She thought her move looked clumsy or worse, indifferent, instead. “That’s what I get for being late,” he said with an easy smile, then sat down. He had a great voice, just growly enough to make her tingle, even when he said something lame. Amy decided to imagine him saying other things later, when she couldn’t give herself away. He put down his book, gave the sandwich a skeptical glance, then started to unwrap it. The corner of his mouth tightened in a way that made her want to reach out and touch him. Gotta flog that mansion staff, spank a few maids, get lunch made on time. She’d get his lunch packed on time. Or maybe she wouldn’t just to be naughty. Amy fought her urge to giggle. He cracked open his book, conversation over, and Amy returned to the torment of Melissa. Thank God for book covers. My master has such powerful hands, Melissa thought, stealing a glance and nearly swooning... Amy took a covert look at her companion’s hands. They were excellent, as men’s hands went. Strong, slightly tanned, long-fingered. No rings. Maybe he was the kind who didn’t wear one. His cell phone rang and she locked her gaze on her book as if she hadn’t noticed. Of course, she was listening. Any human would have done the same. “Hi Mom,” he said, his patient tone making Amy smile. “No, Mom, I’m not busy.” He sat back to listen, his gaze fixed on the distance, a study in tolerance and patience. Control. Oh, he had it, that was for sure. Amy could hear his mom’s chatter coming through the phone. Even without being able to discern the words, she could tell that his mother was wound up about something. “I think it will be fine, Mom,” he said firmly. Mom clearly disagreed, her voice rising a little higher. “I’m sure Adrienne doesn’t expect any different, Mom.” His tone became soothing. “You’ve done it three times now and beautifully. The fourth will be easy.” Mom declined to be convinced. Her voice rose another notch, although Amy couldn’t make out the words. Her lunch companion straightened ever so slightly. He’d had this conversation before. Maybe a lot of times. He was becoming vexed. What was he going to do about it? His eyes flashed a little and his lips tightened. Amy crossed her ankles tightly. “I don’t want to talk about that, Mom.” Mom clearly did. She was talking faster. Mr. Yum inhaled sharply. Amy could have eaten him up with a spoon. She stared at her book, but read the same sentence eight times without understanding it. She was too busy listening to him, attuned to every nuance of his reaction. Amy told herself it was research and knew that was a lie. To her surprise, he picked up the cellophane from his sandwich and began to crush it in his hand, making a crinkly noise. Amy peeked to find him holding it close to the phone. “Lots of static all of a sudden, Mom,” he said, sounding concerned. “Can you still hear me?” Amy gaped that he would lie like this to his mother. Although she could totally understand it. Her aunt was infuriating when she was worried about something and wouldn’t abandon the issue. “I can’t hear you.” Their gazes met for an instant and she saw the wicked twinkle in his eyes. “Look, if we get cut off, Mom, I’ll call you back tonight.” Green eyes. He had green eyes. Thick lashes. Amy swallowed. He also had firm lips, the kind that look like sculpture when one corner of the mouth lifts in laughter. Like his was doing right now. Bitable, sexy, kissable lips. God, she was a sucker for crooked smiles. Amy looked down at her book, her palms damp. Still she was aware that he frowned, mostly because he crackled the cellophane louder and simultaneously dropped his voice. “Yes, yes, I know why you’re worried...” Then he abruptly ended the call, turned off his cell phone and dropped it into his pocket. He looked at his sandwich as if he’d rather eat road kill, then picked up his book with a sigh. Acting like he hadn’t just hung up on his mom. Amy couldn’t keep silent. “You did that to your mom?” “An act of desperation,” he confided with a grimace. “Don’t worry: I’ll pay for it later.” “But she’s your mom!” “She’s also driving me insane.” “Some people say it’s part of the job description.” His smile was quick and genuine, a flash of perfect teeth that caught Amy off guard. Her heart skipped, then he leaned closer, his eyes sparkling. Amy was transfixed, and that was before he dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. It gave her shivers, that whisper, and could have made some serious progress on melting her reservations. “My sister is getting married,” he confessed. “So’s my cousin,” Amy said, because apparently she couldn’t keep her mouth shut. “Stressful times for moms.” He held up four fingers. “My fourth sister is getting married.” “Four?” “All younger than me, one married every spring for the past three years. My mom has been in wedding preparation mode non-stop for almost five years.” “Ouch,” Amy said, unable to imagine how she’d endure her own aunt’s agitation for any longer than the remaining two weeks until Rachel’s wedding. “The thing is that it doesn’t take a psychic to know what comes after that.” He gave Amy a steady look, inviting her to guess. She did. She had, after all, been there and done that. “You’re the last one.” “And the oldest.” He sighed and picked up his book again. “I’ve had a crappy morning, and just don’t have any spare patience for unfounded concerns about the weather four Saturdays from now. It’ll be what it is.” He flicked her a look. “If it makes you feel better, I’ll call her after lunch and apologize, then listen patiently to the whole monologue again.” “Perfect son?” “Far from it.” That smile made a brief return appearance. “But since there’s only one son, she has to make do with my shortcomings.” He started to read, no doubt finding Alex Cross’s adventures more intriguing than Amy found Melissa’s predicament to be in this particular moment. She was amazed that he’d not only talked to her but she’d been reasonably coherent. It was because he seemed nice, nicer than one would expect a billionaire master book boyfriend to be. Unscarred. Not tormented beyond getting annoyed with his female relations in the last days before a wedding, which Amy could completely understand. He was still gorgeous. His interest in her was clearly non-existent, so she could continue to employ him in her fantasies. The strange thing was that living vicariously through Melissa was a lot less interesting than it had been just ten minutes before. Even going home to explore the desires of her dark prince wasn’t as enticing as it had been. She was intrigued that Mr. Yum had sisters and family tensions, because that made him more real than the men in her books. Duh. He was real. Even more incredible, she and he had something in common. Weddings on the horizon, and moms knotted up with concern. But he was reading and the conversation was done, and Amy couldn’t think of a clever way to get it started again. Rachel would have known exactly what to say, which was why she both loved and hated her cousin. She’d think of the perfect comment in about five hours. She checked her watch, realized she was due back upstairs, and packed her book away. He was so engrossed in his book that he didn’t even glance up when she stood, which proved all her predictions true. That might have been the end of it, if Amy hadn’t dropped her book. It slid out of the protective cover when she made a grab for it, and landed face up, provocative cover fully visible, right on his shoe. Excerpt from Simply Irresistible by Deborah Cooke ©2015 Deborah A. Cooke About Deborah Cooke rah Cooke sold her first book, a medieval romance which was published under the pseudonym Claire Delacroix, in 1992. Since then, she has published over fifty romance novels in a wide variety of subgenres, including historical romance, paranormal romance, time travel romance, fantasy romance, contemporary romance, fantasy with romantic elements and paranormal young adult with paranormal elements. She makes her home in Canada with her husband. When she isn't writing or reading, she can be found knitting, sewing or hunting for vintage patterns. * * * Deborah is currently working on a new paranormal romance series featuring dragon shifters, and a new contemporary romance series, both launching in 2016. She also writes medieval romance as Claire Delacroix and is writing the Champions of Saint Euphemia series. Connect With Deborah AuthorDeborahCookeFanPage www.deborahcooke.com Caren Crane Kick Start KICK START Linda Dowling's husband traded her in for a younger model, and she clung to the only life and home her three kids knew. Easiest thing by far when her heart was broken and her small town was filled with folks who commonly mistook their neighbor's concerns for their own. But even in Cross Springs, NC, time moves on and heals the most grievous of wounds. Linda shakes things up, goes back to school and—gasp!—starts dating a younger man. Suddenly everyone in Cross Springs has something to say about her life, and Linda is faced with hard choices. It would be crazy to turn her back on the life she so painstakingly built—and her ex so abruptly knocked down—for an untried start-up relationship. Or would it? Linda reroutes her journey and decides to make a detour—including side trips to see her hairdresser, her mother, the homicidal Courtroom Barbie who wrecked her marriage and her suddenly psycho ex-husband—and see where else life might take her. All she needs is courage and a good old-fashioned Kick Start. Chapter One I don't know where I thought I would be at 39, but it sure as hell wasn't here. I was too smart, too careful, to let it happen to me. But happen it did, with a capital D-I-V-O-R-C-E. Much like the stages of grief, first came denial. "You can't leave, we have children," I said to my then-husband Rick. Seemed logical to my panicked brain at the time. "Mark's graduating high school and the girls aren't even obnoxious yet. They need you." Rick just shook his head. Second came bargaining. But the look in his eyes—vague sadness, steely determination—was one I'd seen before. In his court appearances. There, as a brilliant criminal attorney, Rick Dowling used it to his advantage. I'd never seen him turn lawyer on me, but turn he did. Unfortunately, he had equally cold and skilled friends in family law who were more than willing to take on his case, and my bargaining efforts went nowhere. Third came anger, which did not follow the established order for stages of grieving, but what can I say? Divorce is not exactly like death. Close, but not quite. Despite his torrid affair with a bottle-blonde, spike-heeled assistant district attorney (one Sandy Meisenheimer) Rick got off owing us only college tuition for Mark, child support for the girls, and a laughable amount of alimony for me. Well, I got the house, the cat and my aging minivan, as well, but those didn't necessarily feel like "assets." Fourth came depression. My house is a gorgeous two-story Tudor: five bedrooms, 3.5 baths, four fireplaces, gourmet kitchen, spacious den, and finished bonus room over the two-car garage, all on a lovely 3/4 acre lot. My dream home—once, our dream home. I've been tempted to sell, something I never thought would happen. The house had been the icing on the carefully constructed cake of my marriage. Now, it was the millstone around my rather stiff neck. I couldn't bring myself to sell it, though. The house had morphed from its role as Symbol of Dowling Success into Symbol of Dowling Triumph Over Divorce. My mother, at 36, had been left with five children, no job training and two mortgages, thanks to my no-good father. Mama managed to hold it together and keep us in our family home, so I could do no less. Selling meant leaving everything behind, and not just the house. It meant giving up the only home—the only life—my kids have ever known. It also meant admitting Rick and that bitch Sandy had broken me down. Had won. I couldn't do it. Pride goeth before a fall and all that, but I couldn't quite manage to put mine aside. So the kids and I have held on, month after grim month. The girls stand at the same bus stop they have since kindergarten, at the corner of Myrtle and Rosebank, with the same kids they have known forever. In a litigious country where marriages are practically stamped with expiration dates, we have the most divorce-averse neighborhood imaginable. The last one before the Dowling Divorce—as ours became known—was the Sullivan Divorce, circa 1979. Moss Rose Farms simply didn't do divorce. So tasteless, so lower class. So what? Rick didn't care. He wasn't much on tradition. I was the one who put up Christmas lights and trimmed the Easter egg tree and erected the Headless Horseman on the lawn at Halloween (complete with dry ice to make fog). Rick never gave a rat's ass about any of that stuff, except when he needed it to burnish the veneer of domestic bliss to impress the partners at his law firm. Of course, the divorce may have tarnished his reputation with some colleagues, but others had stood firm behind him. So shaking up the Moss Rose crowd hadn't bothered him. After all, he was trading up for a younger woman. I weathered the velvet-gloved censure of the neighbors as best I could. For the children's sake, of course. I had as much use for the honey-coated cattiness of Cross Springs, North Carolina as a catfish did for a skateboard. I hadn't grown up in this suburban enclave of in-ground pools, manicured lawns, professional landscaping and par 3 golf holes. I grew up on the working side of Nashville, where the driveways were gravel, sidewalks were non-existent and luxury was a riding lawnmower. But this was home to my children. With Mark heading toward graduation that year, I thought I had made it. I had successfully shuttled one child through the unknowable jungle of Cross Springs society. I had begun to think I might be fooling someone with my self-filed nails and home-colored hair. Then the other-woman bomb dropped. Turned out the only person I was fooling was me. That's when I reached step five: acceptance. That is also when the trouble started. *** When I was 36, Mama joked with me, "All you need is two more kids and for Rick to leave you and you'd be just where I was at your age." Mama should be careful what she says. I had three more years with Rick than she did with Daddy, I suppose, but it made the shock of Rick's desertion all the harder to bear. I considered this as I pulled on my tennis shoes and went out in my suburban mom outfit—khaki shorts and scoop-necked cotton t-shirt—to survey the ruins of my once-perfect yard. The Chemi-Lawn guys hadn't been around since last October. I had to cancel when I realized they were one more luxury I had mistaken for necessity. The girls had left for school half an hour earlier. Mark was safely ensconced in a dorm at North Carolina State. I pulled on my leather gardening gloves and wished I had bought the cheaper, ventilated ones when I had the chance. Late August and not a hint of autumn to break up the sweltering heat and humidity. The impatiens I had planted with so much hope and naívète in the spring, hoping things would somehow magically get better once the weather was warmer, hadn't fared well. The pale green stems ended in brown, shriveled tips that had long ago dropped their blooms and leaves in desperation. They hadn't had a chance against the summer drought and my depression-induced neglect. I decided to pull them all up, ignoring the buds that might be new growth. "Summer's all but over, kiddos. Time to go." I had taken to speaking to the cat, the plants, the mailbox. Anything that couldn't answer back. Still for some reason, I felt less alone now than before Rick left. He had been largely absent the last few years, explaining it away with words like "caseload," "billable hours" and "research." The real reason was Sandy...and possibly others before her. The quality of this alone felt different, though. It might've had to do with Mark leaving for college. I always figured the empty-nest thing would wait until my youngest, Christie, graduated from high school. Guess not. A gold-colored Volvo sedan rolled slowly into view, heading toward the entrance to the neighborhood. Please Lord, do not let her stop. Not now. The car stopped and the window slid silently down. Katie Warren waved an always-manicured hand. "Yoo-hoo! Linda!" Good God, she was perky in the morning. I pulled off my gloves and walked toward the street. "Hi, Katie. How are you?" She ignored my small talk. "I am so glad to see you working on your flower beds. I know it's been hard maintaining this huge place without Rick." She cast an eye over the lawn, sprouting weeds in the absence of the lawn service. Not a particularly sympathetic eye to my mind. "I just don't know how you'll manage with Mark away at school. I would be terribly tempted to sell if I were you." It was uncanny. Katie smiled and seemed, if you didn't know her, perfectly nice. Underneath the patina of polite Southern charm and beauty, though, she was a pit viper waiting to strike. I had been onto her for years, but no one else seemed to see her as I did. Except my best friend Connie, of course. "I'll just have to do my best and see what happens." I gave her what felt like a horribly fake smile, but it seemed to satisfy her. "Good luck with it all, poor thing. See you Sunday!" She waved again and drove off. Sunday. I dreaded Sundays. I used to love our church and my Sunday school class, when Rick and I were both members. Now it was just me. Knowing they had all borne witness to the disintegration of our marriage, while hanging desperately onto their own, weighed on me. "Hello!" A shout from just past my yard pulled me back from the brink of depression. Connie Burns, my best friend and neighbor, speed-walked up the driveway with her dog, Tuck. Connie is Moss Rose Farms' worst nightmare. Married but childless—a career woman with no desire to procreate. Nantucket, or Tuck, is part sheepdog and part Great Dane. Apparently, not the smart part of either breed. He is, instead, a hairy, slobbery horse of a dog with a tendency to lean against people. The sight of them cheered me tremendously. "Hello, yourself. What are you doing bopping around the neighborhood on a Monday morning? Don't you have houses to show or something?" Connie is a real estate agent and, though I rarely witness her working, she consistently has more closings than anyone else in her office. She claims her "psychic gift" helps her match clients to houses, so she rarely has to show a couple more than one house. I should believe it, since she sold us our house and it was the only one we looked at. But I had watched too many episodes of Myth Busters to buy it without hard proof. She waved an airy hand at me now. "Not really. Everyone I showed a house to this weekend made offers, so I'm waiting to hear back from sellers." She pointed to the Bluetooth parked in her ear. "I can do that anywhere." I fought back the wave of envy threatening to crash over me. Connie was successful in her own right, but her husband Tim was a dermatologist. So it wasn't like she even needed to work. She just wanted to and did. I didn't and I was the one who needed money and had no job skills. She cast her professional eye over the yard. "You have a lot of work to do if you plan on selling. Are you considering it?" I yanked a plant out of the ground with unnecessary force. "No, for the hundredth time. I'm not giving up, Connie." She squatted down to my level. "Property values in this neighborhood have increased a hundred percent since you bought this house, Linda. You guys were making well over the minimum mortgage payments every month for twelve years, so you have equity out the ass. If you sell, even with the hit home prices have taken, you'll be able to buy a smaller place outright. You'll be set, and you won't have to worry about money for a while. You'll have time to figure out what to do with your life." "I appreciate you trying to help, I really do, but it's the principle of the thing. I have less than eight years left to pay on this house. With the money Granddaddy left me, I can make the mortgage payments for a while." Connie stood up and towered over me, the effect partially spoiled by Tuck, who inserted himself between us. "For eight years? He didn't leave you that much. How are you going to do it, Linda? You haven't had a job in sixteen years. Even then, you were earning diddly squat doing secretarial work." Okay, I had thought the exact same thing myself, but it sounded so harsh coming from her. I stood and tried my best to tower, but didn't pull it off like she did, especially with Tuck crushing my right foot. "That's true," I said imperiously, "but I have a plan." I hadn't had one until that moment, but felt the need to save face. "I'm going back to school." Her jaw literally dropped. Tuck gave a 'woof' of surprise. "School? At your age?" I pulled off my gloves and stuffed them in the pocket of my shorts. "I suppose so. It's not like I'm a senior citizen. You might as well come in and drink coffee with me. Just put Tuck out back." Connie followed me inside, looking rather dazed. I felt like she looked. She put Tuck in my fenced backyard to bark at squirrels and dig holes under my bloom-spent azaleas, then sat at my farmhouse-worthy pine kitchen table. I plunked the course catalog from the community college in front of her. We had been swamped with college material for the past two years, thanks to Mark. He had looked into community college for his first two years to save money, before we knew Rick was going to have to pay his way. I'd been intrigued enough by the variety of courses offered to keep it. I had even been sneaking peeks at it lately, but hadn't quite worked up the nerve to do anything about it until today. "Figure out what I need to take in order to make enough to pay for the house," I ordered, busying myself measuring coffee beans. She flipped pages as I ground beans and filled the coffee maker. "You just now decided to go back to school, didn't you?" she asked, not looking up. "Uh-huh." The beautiful thing about Connie is that I never need to fake it with her and, when I try, I fail. She knows me too well. She is, though, the most understanding soul in the universe. Good thing, since she can also be a little overly honest at times. "Do you really want to go, or did you say it because I pissed you off?" I considered. "Both. After paying the bills last night, I realized I can't stretch Asshole's money far enough to cover everything on an ongoing basis. I have to get a job and to do that, I need some training." She nodded, still flipping pages. "Good thing for you the economy has reeked so bad the past couple years. This college has short-term training programs for anything imaginable. In eight months you can be," she raised her eyebrows, "a medical assistant, a dental assistant, a network technology professional or a business office administrator." I sat down and scrutinized the page. "Makes me dread going to the dentist even more, knowing they only went to school for eight months. What's the deal with the business office thing? Is that a fancy term for secretary?" Connie frowned. "The program is designed to teach students strong administrative, computer and interpersonal skills, promoting greater efficiency in the office. Sounds like a secretary, huh?" The coffee maker rumbled as it reached the end of the brewing cycle. I went to pour. "Same spiel they gave us at the quickie course I took before Mark was born. How much?" The figure had me sloshing coffee on the granite counter. "For eight months?" "I'm sure they're high quality months," she said, "worth every penny. But the real question is, how much will you earn if you get this certification?" She pulled out her phone and pulled up one of the major job search engines. Her fingers flew over the surface. "I'm narrowing it down to administrative jobs within a ten-mile radius." "If it's bad news, I don't want to know. I'm suddenly pinning a lot on this school thing." Connie scanned, then gestured for a pen and paper. I handed them to her, along with her coffee mug, and she jotted down a couple of numbers. "Okay, if we can count the two years you worked as a secretary two decades ago as 'experience', you should be able to get something making around thirty-five." "Thousand? Dollars?" She nodded. I grabbed the calculator from my built-in desk in the corner of the eat-in kitchen and did some quick figuring. "Even after taxes and Social Security, that's more than enough to pay the mortgage. And Dipshit's money will pay for food and gas and clothes." She shook her head. "It's not that much, these days. I make that much in a quarter." I tossed the green-eyed monster off my back one more time. "It's more than twice what I made when Dickhead was in school." She rolled her eyes. "Language! You don't do that around the girls, do you?" I tried to look prim. This was not easy to pull off. "Of course not. He's their father, after all, and they're forced by court order to see him every other weekend." "He's still showing up?" I shrugged. "So far. I have no idea if he's seen Mark since he left for school. Mark won't talk to me about it. But he's picked the girls up every other Friday night and dropped them off at Sunday school like clockwork." "What does he do with them?" The question was completely warranted. Connie knew as well as I how little time Rick had spent with Ashley and Christine. Ashley was born the year we moved into the house and Christie eighteen months later. At first, I thought the onus of the mortgage payment was keeping Rick at work all the time. Then I figured out he had less than no use for babies. When Mark was little, I attributed Rick's hands-off attitude to his law studies, which took all his time since he was still in school. But with two babies under two, I needed help. It never came. I shrugged again. "So far, there have been a lot of movies and shopping trips. They needed school clothes anyway, so it worked out. Are they having fun? Who knows. The real test will be next year." Connie nodded sagely. Though childless herself, she had a bevy of nieces and nephews. She knew, as did I, that twelve was the threshold age for girls and their teen angst. Ashley was eleven. "True-true." She saw my raised eyebrows at her kid-speak. "Sorry, I spent yesterday evening with Nate." Nate was her nephew, the offspring of her sister-in-law Lacey's affair with an Atlanta DJ/emcee/hip-hop wannabe. MC Smoov Sam was long gone, but Lacey still loved the hip-hop scene and Nate, now 14, did too. Connie's afternoons with Nate generally left her with questionable new music, quasi-cool street lingo and a keen longing for her eyebrow-pierced, spike-haired, undoubtedly cool former self. "Understood," I said. "Thinking about another asymmetrical haircut?" "Hardly. But you can't talk about my hair from back in the day, Lin. I've seen pictures of yours." Ah, the good old days. Wearing enough hair gel to shore up a third-world country and closing down night clubs dancing to new wave music. High times that led me straight into Rick's arms. I should have known I couldn't trust a guy in an alligator shirt who listened to George Michael. Must have been the Paco Rabanne scrambling my senses. "Back to business," I said. "We need to decide what I'm taking. Classes start next week." "You're serious about this?" "I'm not selling the house, Con. I know it's stupid, but whenever I picture Rick finding out about it and having to see his stupid, smug face, it makes me crazy. I should be a bigger person. I should be able to let it go. But I can't. My mother was able to get through this same shitty situation and I will, too. I need a way to make more money, though. And I need to occupy myself, though, before I start trying to redecorate on a shoestring." We shared a collective shudder. Redecorating is the suburban woman's Prozac, a cure for whatever ails you. But I had no money, which guaranteed a discount-store disaster. "Right, then. If you only want to go for the eight months–" "That's all I can afford, I think." "Then your best bet is probably the business thing. Unless you want to try the computer networking stuff? There are lots of entry-level jobs calling for that." I held up a hand. "No. I can operate my word processor, surf the internet and check e-mail. Anything else, I don't want to know about. Plus, the only work experience I have is business-related. Sort of." I didn't really consider typing my ex-boss's self-serving memos, setting up golf dates and lying to callers about how he was "tied up in a meeting" as business. But it was all I had. "Business it is. All you have to do is go down and talk to an academic adviser about getting registered and you're in." A knot formed in my stomach. The same one I faced every time I did something new. It's not that I'm change-averse. I simply need time to adjust. Lots of time. Like when Rick brought home the DVD player. So maybe I kept using the VCR until it developed an obnoxious hum and I realized all my must-see movies were only available for rental on DVD, but I adapted. After Mark showed me how to use the DVD player. At least twice a week for the first month. Of course, I fought Blu-Ray tooth and nail and Rick had given up on our marriage before I gave up the fight. I could do this. It was my choice, after all, and I had incentive. If I needed motivation, all I had to do was picture Rick and Sandy driving up to the house and seeing a "For Sale" sign in the yard. Sandy would probably pop a cap off one of her big teeth she'd be grinning so hard. And Rick's frat boy face gloating beside her... Connie's cell phone rang. After a brief, chirpy conversation, she excused herself. "Gotta run. Got a hot lead on a listing that is perfect for a couple I spoke with on Thursday." She stuck her head out the French doors and called Tuck. "Thanks for helping, Con. You're the best." She reined in Tuck and clipped the leash to his collar. "You're going to go down there, right?" I held up three fingers. "Promise." She shook her head and walked toward the outside door at the front of the kitchen. "You've been hanging out with the Scouts too long." I held the door for them. "Yeah, well, at least this year, I'll be in school when cookie season rolls around. For once, I can just say no." They were off at a clip. I picked up the course catalog and studied the business curriculum. Computer skills were necessary, it said, and you had to have a laptop. Thankfully, I got to keep my laptop in the divorce settlement. I was reasonably sure I could fake the computer skills. I could do this. Confidence bolstered, I headed upstairs to shower and dress. I would go to the school straight away. No time like the present. Full speed ahead. I had nothing to fear but fear itself. I ran out of clichés as I shampooed, and the realities of my decision hit me. Not just school, but working full-time after I finished the course, too. Most likely, I wouldn't be home when the girls got off the school bus. I wouldn't be available for carpool to afterschool activities. I would have to plan menus and haul out my Crockpot so the girls wouldn't become victims of unhealthy drive-through dinners. Lots of mothers lived like this and their kids did just fine. The girls would adjust. It might even help them become a little more responsible. Especially Christie, who loved being the baby of the family and preferred to act like one. We would survive. I entertained only the vaguest doubts about myself as I surveyed the fine lines around my eyes and the pool-and-sun-bleached streaks in my unruly brown hair. I still had "it", buried somewhere under the years of Mommy-ness. I could still conquer the world. I just hoped the girl I had been, the one who believed she could do anything she set her mind to, still lurked in the recesses of my stay-at-home mom brain. I needed her now. One way or another, I was going to make it, even if I had to snow my way into college and lie like a rug until I found a decent-paying job. To borrow from Connie, I was gonna fake the funk until I felt the funky-funky flow of cash into my bank account. * * * More Kick Start About Caren Crane Caren Crane grew up in Nashville, TN, and as a result does not care for country music. However, she cares a great deal about family, friends and men in boots. She blames her love of reading on a childhood devoid of TV and heavy on amusing oneself. Reading books was a lot more fun than playing with Barbies and playing "library" was far superior to playing "school." When she discovered romance novels, the librarians at her local branch were horrified but Caren was delighted. She now lives in North Carolina with her tall, handsome husband and a very chatty, irascible rescue cat. She is sometimes visited by her three grown children, who have their own wonderful lives and only require: beds during college breaks, food, rides back to school (though a bus ticket will do) and cash. Which leaves her with lots of time to write funny, heartwarming stories set in her adopted home state of North Carolina and to investigate the Smoky Mountains, from whence her mother's "people" all came. Caren writes Southern, contemporary romances and fills her books with family, friends and happy-ever-after endings. Which all books should feature, in her opinion. Connect With Caren @CarenCrane1 CarenCraneAuthor www.carencrane.com Claudia Dain Much Ado About Dutton MUCH ADO ABOUT DUTTON It all began in The Courtesan's Daughter and continued through the next four books of the Courtesan Chronicles. The Marquis of Dutton didn't pay the slightest bit of attention to Anne Warren until he found out that she was the daughter of a courtesan. His careless, confident, ill-considered pursuit of her began upon that lurid foundation. Anne had been smitten by the dashing Lord Dutton from her first encounter with him. But to be pursued because her mother was a woman of the demi-monde? No. That was unacceptable. Anne was not going to make the mistakes her mother had made, each decision taking her further down the social ladder. Anne meant to improve her station, not hobble it with an amorous encounter with the nearly irresistible Lord Dutton. Over the course of the London Season of 1802, Dutton pursued and lost Anne again and again. He became something of a drunken sot about it all, even a laughingstock. When Anne married Lord Staverton, his fall was complete. Anne married wisely, and Dutton was befuddled by it. Two years later, in the 1804 Season, Anne is a widow and Dutton is sober. Lady Staverton and Lord Dutton, both available and both still interested, continue the seductive dance they began when she was his social inferior. She is no longer his inferior, and because of that, the tables have turned and Dutton is at her mercy. Or perhaps Anne is at Dutton's mercy. It all depends upon whom you ask. Chapter One London 1804 Anne, Lady Staverton, approached Dalby House on foot, ignoring the threat of rain to dwell instead on the scent of spring in the air and the feel of the cobbles beneath her feet. Anne, as the carefully proper Lady Staverton, had not walked anywhere in Town in recent memory, and certainly not to Dalby House, locked up and nearly deserted since the end of the London Season of 1802. The house on Upper Brook Street had been uncharacteristically still for the past two years. Much had happened in the intervening two years. Two years ago this spring, Anne had been a poor widow of a minor naval officer. She had lived in Dalby House with Sophia, Lady Dalby, and Sophia’s daughter, Caroline. In those two years, Anne had married Lord Staverton and become a viscountess. She was now a widow for the second time. Darling, dear, sweet Staverton had died a year ago, thirteen months, to be exact. He had died without an heir, something that had not seemed to concern him, but a point upon which she could only feel was a painful dereliction of duty. That there was nothing to be done about it now did nothing to alleviate her sense of having failed at her most important duty as a woman and as a wife. In those same two years, Caroline had married Ashdon, heir to the 7th Earl of Westlin, produced a daughter christened Elizabeth, buried the 7th Earl Westlin, and become the Countess Westlin. Caro was now pregnant again, most happily pregnant, and spending another London Season at Chaldon Hall, the Westlin family estate. That the disagreeable 7th Earl was now at his rest in the family crypt was a happy situation for Caroline and Ashdon, though not perhaps for Westlin. It was probably neither wise nor kind to think ill of the dead, but then it might be argued Lord Westlin should have lived a finer life if he wanted to be grieved in proper fashion. That was something very like what Sophia would say and Anne tried very hard to think it, making the thought her own, without guilt. She was not successful. She did so very many things out of guilt and a sense of failed duty. It was an utterly exhausting way to live. She needed to see Sophia. She needed to hear Sophia’s smiling counsel, always pragmatic, always shocking, and always so very, very accurate. She needed to be saved, but from what she would not say. Not even to herself. In those same two years, Sophia had sailed to New York. Some said she had sailed precipitously, that her leaving England so suddenly was the result of the feverish activity of shocking courtships and hasty marriages and that she had inspired in the infamous London Season of 1802. Oh, yes, it was called infamous. It was also called the Famous London Season of 1802. Many upon many girls out for their first or even their second Season wished openly, much to their mother’s dismay, that Sophia Dalby, former courtesan and dowager countess, were in a position to help them achieve the perfect man for them the way she had been so readily involved in the courtships, if one could call them that, and marriages of such high rank and esteem in the 1802 Season. Anne, though it was not widely known, had been a recipient of just such aid. How would she, a poor widow and the daughter of a failed courtesan, ever have married a viscount otherwise? But leave England because of shocking courtships and legal marriages? That Sophia would not do. To what point? Sophia cared nothing for shock and everything for legality, particularly when the marriage contracts were written with a woman’s security in mind. And while that was true, it was also equally true that Anne had no idea why Sophia had left England for America two years ago. Neither did she have any idea why Sophia had returned, but she had. Just two hours ago, Sophia had sent round a note that she was in and that she would be very happy to see Anne whenever it was convenient. It was never an inconvenience to see Sophia Dalby. That much everyone could agree upon. Dalby House, positioned quite nicely upon Upper Brook Street so that a view of Hyde Park was visible from certain windows, was as familiar to Anne as her own home. Seeing it again, its quiet and dignified façade looking quite properly British, brought tears to Anne’s eyes. This place was home in a way that Staverton’s home on King Street was not. Dalby House was the home of girlhood hopes and impossible dreams. Impossible. Yes, impossible. She had married and then loved Staverton, in that not uncommon order, but he had not been her dream. Anne brushed off the thought, sending whatever girlish dreams remained to her to be crushed against the cobbles. She was a woman twice widowed. She had been loved well and she was secure in her place in Society, thanks to Staverton. She had an income. She was safe, finally and irrevocably safe, and she was not going to waste time in dreaming of things, or people, who might put her security in peril. She was far too mature, too worldly wise at the respectable age of twenty-two, for that brand of nonsense. With those thoughts firmly pinned to her heart, Anne, the dowager Lady Staverton, motioned for her footman to knock on the Dalby House door. Fredericks, Sophia’s butler, answered the door before the first knock could raise an echo. “Lady Staverton,” he said, his wrinkled face creasing into a delighted smile. “Welcome home.” Of course it was entirely improper for Fredericks to make such a personal remark, and one that was so hugely inaccurate, and one could and often did hear his being an American credited for his lack of proper protocol. But, nevertheless, Anne burst into tears upon hearing the words welcome home upon his lips. It was not the impression that a very mature, twice-widowed twenty-two year old wanted to convey. “Come now,” Fredericks said, putting a hand on her elbow and ushering her into the house, nodding to the footman behind her. “None of that, Miss Anne. Sophia’ll set you right. She’s in the white salon. In you get.” Completely and utterly improper, every utterance, but Anne grinned through her tears, nodded sloppily, and walked into the white salon as if she still lived in Dalby House, without even Fredericks to announce her. It was unheard of. And it felt wonderful, as if she truly had come home. Sophia rose upon her entry into the room and held out her arms, a smile lighting her captivating face. As Anne hurried into Sophia’s outstretched arms, without a trace of the nobility of carriage and studied decorum she had mentally rehearsed, she fleetingly marveled that Sophia appeared not to have aged a day, then she buried all thoughts and all fears in the embrace of the woman who was more mother to her than her own mother had been. “Darling Anne,” Sophia said into her hair, “how ravishing you look. How proud Staverton would be of you.” Anne, to her horror, burst into a fresh bout of tears. Stepping back from Sophia, she fumbled in her reticule for a handkerchief. “Now, what’s this?” Sophia said, leading Anne to one of the white sofas in the room and urging her to sit beside her. Anne did not so much sit as plop. This was not the impression she had hoped to give Sophia after two years as a lady of the realm. Hardly. “You can’t still be mourning darling Stavey? He would never have wanted that.” “No, truly. I’m so sorry,” Anne said, wiping her nose as delicately as she could manage. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” “A pure excess of emotion and nothing of which to be ashamed,” Sophia said. “If this is not for Staverton, then may I presume that this is for me? You’ve missed me, I daresay. Come, tell me all. What’s been happening whilst I’ve been abroad? You simply must catch me up.” “You received my letter about Staverton? It reached you?” Anne asked, still sniffing and mortified beyond measure. “Of course, darling. They have postal service in America, I do assure you. It’s not quite as barbaric in New York as you might have been lead to believe.” “Oh!” Anne said on a hiccup of laughter. “I hardly thought that.” “Hardly?” Sophia said, her dark brows raised. “I am reassured.” “Oh, Sophia,” Anne said, smiling at her, “I have missed you.” “Have you, darling?” Sophia said, looking across the room to the windows that faced Upper Brook Street. “How gratifying that is. I do adore being missed.” Anne, who had lived with Sophia for many months and who had been privy to many quiet and intimate conversations with her, and who, while not claiming to be Sophia’s equal would have said with some confidence that she was Sophia’s friend, heard something in Sophia’s voice which gave her pause. Sophia, charming, quick Sophia, did not sound quite the same as she had two years ago. The words were the same, but the tone, the sparkling, sharp wit that was the essence of Sophia, was dulled. What had happened in New York? And why had she left England in the first place? “Are you well, Sophia?” she asked. “Is all well with you?” Sophia smiled abruptly and moved to the opposing couch; they were a perfect pair of white upholstered sofas with milk blue trim, and said, “Perfectly. I only despair that I shall never get this room redone. I tired of white years ago now and I simply can’t find the time to do anything about it. I’ve been thinking of red, a nice vibrant crimson. The color of blood, to be precise. I find myself quite drawn to that shade lately.” Anne’s tears quite disappeared at that. Sophia was not as she had been. What had happened? “You know about Westlin, I presume?” Anne asked. Sophia smiled slightly and crossed her legs. “Of course. I received exactly eleven letters telling me of his demise. Naturally, I’m delighted that I was out of the country so that his death could not possibly be laid upon my doorstep. I’m sure many would have liked to do so, not the least of which, myself.” Sophia laughed. “But, alas, he died without any aid from me. How very like him. He always was a most inconvenient sort of man.” The Earl of Westlin had been Sophia’s oldest and most enduring enemy; the fact that Westlin’s heir had married Sophia’s only daughter was seen as proof by some that Sophia was the most devious enemy since the Cassius hailed Caesar. Not a single soul who knew either Westlin or Sophia believed that Caroline had accidentally stumbled into wedlock with Ashdon, and that included Ashdon himself. Of course, Ashdon was hardly complaining. “You are not . . . ” “I am not what, darling?” Anne shrugged and looked down at the floor. “The relationship with an adversary is sometimes the most intimate of all. Such a relationship, once ended, can create a void of sorts.” Sophia smiled and leaned toward Anne, her dark eyes alight in the old, familiar way. Anne, for the first time since she’d entered the white salon, felt completely at rest. “Intimate adversaries? What an intriguing word pairing. How clever of you to think of it. And how is Lord Dutton? He is your intimate adversary, as we both know. I presume he is still unmarried. Is he continuing his practice of drinking himself under the furniture and flinging himself in the way of men’s fists?” Anne, who should have blushed if she had an ounce of moral fiber or proper etiquette, did not blush. She began to cry again. “He is not. He is not married and he is perfectly sober,” Anne said. “And he has been for over a year.” “Oh, my,” Sophia said, ringing for tea. “Things are in an awful state. We simply must bring him round, mustn’t we?” “Oh, Sophia,” Anne said, still crying like a child, a lovesick, heartsick child, which is precisely what she felt like at the moment, and in fact, had felt very much this way since Staverton had died. She had at first thought her appalling lack of self-control was the result of losing Staverton and finding herself a widow again, but as the months passed, Anne had, with sporadic bursts of clarity, realized that it was more than Staverton being gone. It was far worse than that. It was that she’d lost Dutton just as fully as she’d lost her husband. Not that she’d had Dutton to lose, which was another tearful subject altogether. Things were a complete tangle. There was simply no unraveling it, until Sophia came home and made all right with her cleverness and her ruthlessness, for what good was being clever if one weren’t ruthless enough to put cleverness to good use? “I’m quite undone and I can’t think what to do about it.” “Can’t you, darling?” Sophia said, grinning, running her hands gently over her black hair. “I can.” For the first time in months, thirteen months precisely, Anne felt the tug of a true smile on her face and in her heart. She could not possibly have been more delighted. “Can you?” Anne asked. “But of course, darling. You cannot have doubted me.” No, she hadn’t. Anne was not particularly clever and hardly ruthless enough to mention, but she was experienced enough not to waste time in doubting Sophia. “Now, tell me everything. Do you still want him, Anne?” Sophia asked. Put so, Anne did not know what to answer. Did she want Dutton? She ought not to. That much she knew. Lord Dutton was a horrible man. When she had still lived at Dalby House, Lord Dutton had tried to seduce her for the sheer pleasure of it. He had likely simply been bored. He had kissed her ruthlessly (and somewhat cleverly), and had obviously expected her to fall into his bed like an overripe plum. Needless to say, she had not fallen in any fashion whatsoever. She had not even been so tawdry a thing as tempted. But she had thought about it. Lord Dutton, as horrible men invariably were, was brutally handsome and quite certain of his effect on women. It was the only thing that made refusing him at all possible. Anne, whose mother had failed as a courtesan in that she couldn’t find protectors either wealthy enough or interested enough, had starved, and Anne had starved right along with her. As a result, falling into beds was not something that Anne had trouble avoiding. Until Dutton. Avoiding falling into anything with Dutton had been a challenge. Dutton had, quite obviously and with great comic result, been completely unprepared to be denied. In fighting Dutton during the London Season of 1802, Anne had enjoyed the most vigorous and entertaining two months of her life. Of course, she had been engaged to be married to Staverton for half of that Season, and of course she felt as guilty as she ought for such unbecoming behavior, yet, it had been quite an exhilarating time. There was little point in denying that Dutton was distractingly handsome and that she was more than a little interested in what had ultimately become of him. Initially, for some many months, after getting into one fist fight or another, he had turned into a complete drunkard. It had been a most gratifying thing to see. Then she had married Staverton, Sophia had left England, and as Staverton and Dutton did not travel in the same circles without Sophia to guide them, she hadn’t seen Dutton since. She had heard about him, of course. He had stopped being a drunken lout some time ago, which naturally showed the very short length of a man’s attention to any one woman. Then she had heard that he had gone to Redworth, his family estate, where he had proceeded to have lengthy meetings with his estate manager and made improvements to the mill on his lands. Of course no one believed that. What was whispered was that he was keeping a woman of the town in a hunting lodge on his property and that he was very busy seeing to her. No one had any trouble believing that. Anne had maintained her perspective and her decorum through all of that, but what had thrown a boulder at her dignified resolve to live an exemplary life that would bring additional honor to the memory of Staverton and additional respectability to herself was that, just three days ago, she had seen Dutton riding in Hyde Park. He should have stayed a drunken sot. That would have been a kindness to her, but when had the Marquis of Dutton ever shown her any kindness? Lewd and suggestive remarks, yes, he was brimming with those. Or he had been, the last time she had exchanged words with him during the London Season of 1802. Two years ago. Two long years ago, and now, when she should be a respectable widow with respectable thoughts meandering placidly through her mind, she had the ill fortune to see him riding in Hyde Park. Two years ago, without very much effort at all, he had stolen into her thoughts and wrapped himself around her heart like a weed. She had pulled him free and married Staverton, who had esteemed her. Staverton, who had honored her with marriage. Dutton had only wanted to drag her into the nearest bed, or shove her up against the nearest wall. She was a widow twice over; nothing about men and their urges surprised her. She had made the only choice she could possibly make: she had married well and married happily. Being shoved against a wall, her skirts a mess about her waist, was not a choice. It had been something to remember, that long ago kiss, her back against a wall, but it had not been an actual choice. She could not have made that choice, the choice to fall into his kiss, his embrace, and his bed. She was not a woman for that. But now, now she was a woman who was less certain of what she was and what her choices were. How extremely embarrassing. “Do I still want him?” Anne repeated. “How can I answer that, Sophia?” “Honestly, darling. It is just we two. You may speak your heart to me. You know that, certainly. Do you want Dutton?” Anne looked at Sophia, trying not to blush. Anne’s hair was red and her skin fair; she blushed with unwelcome regularity. Sophia looked deeply into her eyes and waited, without censure. Anne took the first full breath she had taken in months. “I think I must,” she said. “Oh, no, darling. You must not must any thing. But do you? It is entirely your choice. Entirely. Never forget that. A man may entice, but he has no power to impel, though they like to convince women otherwise. Whatever you do with Dutton, you must keep your wits about you, and whatever you do with Dutton, you may be assured that he will do all he can to steal your wits from you. Men, as you well know, are quite predictable in that way.” Sophia, smoothed a hand down her skirt, caressing the muslin, “Do you want Dutton? I will think neither better nor worse of you, no matter your reply.” And there was that. Sophia had seen, if not everything, anything worth seeing. She had been a young girl from America, half Iroquois and half English, and she had made her way in London, alone, becoming a very successful courtesan. When she had tired of that, or conquered every man worth conquering, depending upon the source, she had married the Earl of Dalby and given him two children and much joy. Upon Dalby’s death, Sophia, as the dowager countess, had lived her life as she had always lived it: upon her own terms and with a great deal of dash. Sophia, to be blunt, had seen it all, known the best and worst of Society in the best and worst of situations and circumstances, and there was truly nothing that could shock her, least of all Anne’s inconvenient desires. “Yes. I do,” Anne said. “I want Dutton.” “As what?” Sophia asked, without even the delicacy of a pause. “As . . . what?” Anne repeated. Sophia smiled and leaned forward. “As a lover? A diversion? A husband? Though I shouldn’t recommend a husband. You have had two and that should be quite enough for any woman. You have everything a woman could possibly want, and without a man to get in the works and make a muck of it, though I did love darling Stavey and I don’t want you to think for a moment that I think ill of him, but he was a man, wasn’t he? A situation entirely out of his control, yet still, a man for all that.” Yes, a man, and an entirely wonderful man, the kind of man that any sensible woman would prefer over the dissolute and disagreeable Dutton. Anne had been sensible her entire life, deliberately and determinedly sensible. Apparently being sensible was something that could run dry in a woman. “I hadn’t considered that,” Anne said. “Then consider it now,” Sophia replied. “Would you prefer tea or coffee, Anne? Let’s settle in and discuss this fully. We must plan your assault carefully. Lord Dutton is such an intriguing quarry, isn’t he? So volatile, so elusive. He will be a delicious challenge, though nothing you can’t manage.” The hair on the back of Anne’s neck prickled and she felt the hot wave of a flush on her neck and chest. It was just these sorts of comments, these nearly illogically aggressive remarks concerning men that Sophia was in the habit of making that put a woman off and made her think twice and then twice more about engaging Sophia’s help in anything. However, Anne had been already been married twice, and she had seen her mother treat men with such soft passivity and a generally sloppy hope that things would somehow turn out well, meaning, to her advantage, with such dire results. Anne knew that never happened, not when dealing with men. “Tea would be lovely, thank you,” Anne said. “I had no intention of planting myself in your salon, Sophia, taking you away from all others who surely are eager to welcome you back to London. Please, throw me out when I become too burdensome.” To Anne’s horror, her eyes filled with tears at her attempt at humor. The words were too close to the truth. She did want to bury herself in Sophia’s house and Sophia’s care, and she did fear it would take being tossed out bodily for she could not imagine leaving willingly, at least not any time soon. Anne, as much as she had come to love Staverton and had loved being his wife, had never quite settled fully into her role as a viscountess. Staverton hadn’t seemed to notice, and for that she was grateful, but Winthrop, Staverton’s butler, had. Winthrop was far too accomplished in his position to ever say so, but she had felt his censure all the same. Winthrop, having been at the house on King Street for twenty-four years, was as much a fixture of the house as the door knocker. Anne could not even contemplate discharging him. Anne, it was quite clear, was able to think of nothing, to contemplate nothing, to accomplish nothing that did not ultimately involve Lord Dutton. It was humiliating in the extreme, especially since she had not accomplished a single thing regarding Dutton. “Anne, darling, what on earth is wrong?” Sophia said, leaning forward, a curl of black hair sliding forward onto her bosom. “This is simply not like you in the least.” Fredericks opened the door to the white salon at that moment and Sophia said briskly, “Tea, Freddy, if you would.” Fredericks nodded and closed the door behind him. “That’s true, isn’t it?” Anne said, sniffing, holding a small handkerchief to her eyes. “I’m not myself? This is not how you remember me? I vow, I cannot recollect who I am anymore, or who I was, or what I’ve become.” “You’ve become a viscountess, darling. Never forget that. Never let anyone else forget it either,” Sophia said with a smile, patting Anne on the knee. “You are a beautiful woman who has made one adequate marriage and one stellar marriage. You are in the full flush of your beauty, without encumbrances, without enemies, and without equal. You are, darling girl, in the perfect position to play with Lord Dutton. Precisely like a cat with a rat.” Anne laughed and blotted her nose. “Oh, Sophia, I’ve missed you.” “Yes, darling, you certainly have.” “But Dutton is not a rat. Or not much of one. And I am not a cat. I haven’t the claws for it.” “Why Anne, every woman has claws. She merely may have let them grow dull and blunted from disuse. That’s easily remedied. As to Dutton not being a rat, of that I am not certain. He was well on his way to becoming one. What he has become in the last two years I am eager to find out. How we manage him will depend entirely upon what sort of man he has become.” “I think he’s horrid,” Anne said. “Plainly,” Sophia said with a wry grin. “In a wonderful sort of way.” “Which is the most horrid way of all,” Sophia said with a grin. It was as Anne was trying to smile at Sophia, to at least put on the show of amiability and good cheer, that Freddy came back in with the tea cart, but he was not alone. Preceding Freddy was a woman of American Indian blood, that much was instantly obvious. She was tall and slender of form with black curling hair, dusky skin, black eyes, and a prominent, if delicate, nose. She walked into the room as if she owned the house and were alone in it, which was never the way Anne walked anywhere, not even in her own house. At her side was Mr. George Grey, Sophia’s Iroquois nephew, his black hair cut a bit shorter than when last she saw him two years ago and the curls more pronounced. His eyes were as black and as full of laconic humor as they were before, his single dimple on his left cheek as readily apparent, and his nose and mouth . . . why, they were an almost perfect match to the woman at his side. Anne rose to her feet before she knew what she was about and said, “Miss Elizabeth Grey? How perfectly delightful to meet you at long last!” Anne was not precisely the kind of woman to bestow casual embraces upon people, particularly on those she’d never met, but she was half inclined to embrace Miss Grey in the most polite of hugs. Until she looked fully into Elizabeth Grey’s eyes. Elizabeth Grey looked at her like a wolf considering a pampered pet. Anne froze, smiled, backed up a half step, smiled again, and then looked at George, Elizabeth’s twin. George was smiling fully, his single dimple winking at her riotously, his expression amused. “My niece and nephew, Mr. George and Miss Elizabeth Grey,” Sophia said, eyeing them with a somewhat rigid expression. “This is Lady Staverton, a treasured friend.” Miss Grey looked at Sophia, then nodded at Anne, and sat down with economic elegance on an upholstered chair. George, winking at Anne, bowed slightly and sat in a matching chair not far from his sister’s side. Anne was quite beyond knowing what to think, or what to say. It appeared that the relationship between Sophia and Elizabeth was somewhat strained, though she could not think why. Sophia’s family was quite close; they all adored each other as a matter of both habit and principle. George’s response to her was also quite out of character. An Indian he may be, but George Grey had always behaved most warmly towards her, if not a bit flirtatiously on occasion, and even, particularly with Lord Dutton, positively chivalrously. It was George who had, once and quite spectacularly, knocked Dutton out cold. It had been entirely deserved. There was a moment to make a woman blush with pleasure. With that memory uppermost, Anne threw herself into the social breach. “It is so good to see you again, Mr. Grey,” she said. “I had not thought to even allow myself the pleasure of imagining it.” “There is much you must train yourself to do,” Sophia said with a smile, “and the first is to allow yourself the pleasure of imagining things. Just think what you may accomplish.” Anne laughed lightly. “I’m sure that’s true, yet will I want everything I may imagine? Is that not the stuff of nightmares?” “Do not have nightmares. Instead, have dreams,” Sophia said. “Is that not so, Elizabeth? I daresay you do not suffer from nightmares.” Anne shifted her gaze to Elizabeth, wondering how she would respond. “Not nightmares and not dreams. Not here,” Elizabeth Grey answered her aunt. A most unusual reply, quite terse and nearly unfriendly. “Not here? Do you mean in my home? Or do you mean in England? I confess to being bewildered,” Sophia replied as she poured out the tea, handing Anne a cup. “England is your home,” Elizabeth replied. “I confess to being bewildered at the distinction.” Oh, dear. That was not at all pleasant. What could possibly be amiss between Sophia and her niece? Anne hadn’t expected anything of this sort when she’d sobbed her way into Sophia’s white salon. On the other hand, she found this situation far more intriguing that her circular thoughts about Dutton. George made some sort of snorting sound, something in the vein of a muffled chuckle; Anne looked at him, looking quite proper in his English coat and his simple cravat. As to that, Elizabeth, for all her lack of cordiality, was outfitted quite becomingly in a cream-colored muslin gown with fawn rosettes sewn along the neckline. A beautifully becoming gown that was fitted to perfection. Her dark hair was arranged off her face, the mass tumbling down her back to her elbows. Whatever her age, and Anne couldn’t begin to guess it, she truly was of an age to have her hair up and properly dressed. Miss Grey most obviously didn’t care about doing what was proper or not. “I think, perhaps, that I see your point, Elizabeth,” Sophia said, handing her niece a cup of tea with a graceful movement of her arm that had a vaguely serpentine aspect to it. “I do have homes in England, and one in France, though that property is much in dispute now, and I even, if you will recall, have a home on the northern bank of the Mohawk River. You’ve spent some time there, I know. When things become dull in Town, we will naturally remove to Marshfield Park and you may enjoy that home of mine as well. I am, unlike you, a woman of more than one continent.” Elizabeth Grey remained silent against this listing of properties, her gaze frozen into an expression of rigid disinterest and disapproval. George Grey, sitting at her side, looked almost amused. Anne was not amused; she was alarmed. Contention was not an atmosphere she performed well within. Her youth had been far too tumultuous for her to have developed any sort of well-grounded stance when faced with it. She preferred, and indeed required, harmonious relations. Why she was so fascinated by Lord Dutton, a most inharmonious man who sparked nothing less than violent contention wherever he went, was beyond explanation. “But I fear we are making Anne uncomfortable, Elizabeth,” Sophia said, raising her cup to her lips for a sip. The tea service was black porcelain; it looked quite striking against the white walls and white furnishings of the white salon. It also set off Sophia’s flawless ivory complexion, which was no accident. “Perhaps we should have this discussion at another time. I’m quite sure you must agree that it would be rude in the extreme to make a guest in my home feel anything less than at ease.” Elizabeth looked at Anne, a quick glance that held the shadow of honest regret within its dark depths, and then Elizabeth nodded at Sophia. “I beg your pardon,” Elizabeth said, her voice a lovely contralto. “It is not proper to discuss such things. This discussion is for family only.” “As much as I dislike disagreeing with you, Elizabeth,” Sophia said, her tone of voice and the expression on her face making it quite clear she did not dislike any such thing, “Anne is like a daughter to me. Her mother was quite a good friend of mine, consequently, my affection for Anne is quite intimate. Please, look upon her as yet another English cousin. If you can.” By the look on Elizabeth’s face, she did not appear to want another English cousin. “How very kind, Sophia,” Anne said. Indeed, she had felt as much, but she had not expected to hear Sophia put voice to the thought. Elizabeth cast her dark eyes upon Sophia, a small smile flickering along the edge of her mouth. It was not a particularly pleasant smile. “Very well,” Elizabeth said. “Another cousin, then. How do you like being English, Anne? How do you like being a part of this most unusual family?” Elizabeth’s antagonism was so very plain and so very insulting to Sophia that Anne, quite unusually for her, reacted without thought and without hesitation. “I like it very well, Elizabeth, if I may call you that, cousins as we now find ourselves to be,” Anne said, her voice a trifle sharp, but not unnecessarily so, given the provocation. “I consider it a high honor to be counted among Lady Dalby’s friends. She does choose them so very carefully, and so very much regard is showered upon those who have the gift of her trust. To be as a daughter to her? I am flattered beyond measure. As her blood niece, I can but assume you feel the same.” Elizabeth smiled, a cold smile full of ill feeling. Anne had seen the same sort of smile upon Sophia’s face more than once. She knew enough to be wary of such a smile, yet she was too angered to be wary at the moment. “Lady Staverton,” George said, “you have grown teeth.” As he said it with a grin, Anne answered him in kind. “And claws, I fear.” “A woman needs both tooth and claw to survive this world intact.” It was not Sophia who said it, and it was very much like Sophia to have said it. It was Elizabeth. “She certainly does,” Sophia said, setting her cup down upon the small table in front of her, smiling at Anne. “How reassuring it always is to me to see a woman’s teeth so well sharpened. I know you agree, Elizabeth.” “I do,” Elizabeth said, her manner easing slightly. “I had not thought, Anne, to find such sharpness in an English salon. I had, mistakenly, thought that English women would be soft. Vulnerable.” “Useless,” George added with a smile. “I tried to explain to my sister that English women are as varied as the land. Sometimes hills. Sometimes valleys. Sometimes marshland.” “And what am I? I daresay, I cannot begin to guess which delineation would give me greater prestige,” Anne said, holding her tea above her lap. “You seek prestige?” Elizabeth asked. “Of course. Is that not the way of things in an Iroquois long house?” Anne answered. Elizabeth raised her dark brows. “You know of the Iroquois? Our traditions? Our ways?” “As well, or as poorly, as you know English ways,” Anne answered. “I claim no expertise, but I know some little bits of this and that.” “Such as?” “Such as, a valley is more desirable than marshland in Iroquoia?” “It is.” “In England, marshland holds higher value,” Anne said. “Shall I be deemed marsh or valley in your estimation?” “Not hill? Not mountaintop?” Elizabeth asked, a half smile hovering over her lips. “I do not think myself so extraordinary. Mountaintops are rare things in England. I am hardly so inaccessible as a mountaintop,” Anne answered. “You, perhaps, think too little of yourself. That is not the way of women in my land.” “You, then, seek prestige as well.” Elizabeth frowned in mild confusion. “I do not think so. I think only that we, I, take prestige, value, consequence, as my right.” Anne sat back, shocked. She looked at Sophia, who smiled and took a small sip of her tea, her dark eyes shining with delight. “This is so?” Anne asked George. George nodded. “I have much to learn of Iroquois ways,” Anne said. “No, Elizabeth has much to learn of English ways,” Sophia said. “She is in England now and, as a guest here, must learn the customs of this land. That is the way of travelers, is it not? One must adjust. Accommodations must be made.” Anne looked at Sophia, at the dark thread beneath her words, but Sophia smiled and tilted her head playfully, pulling Anne into her warmth, causing her to lose sight of the momentary shadow behind her black eyes. But what accommodations had Sophia’s English mother made as a prisoner of an Iroquois warrior? What accommodations had Sophia made as a child of mixed blood alone in London? Accommodations had never before sounded so ominous a word. “I’m certain that, whatever accommodations Elizabeth must make, she will make beautifully,” Anne said, not knowing what else to say. “Are you?” Sophia said. “How kind you are, Anne. I find I am not so certain, and have discussed my concerns with Elizabeth a time or two. I would hate to see her put a foot wrong in this new world in which she finds herself. That would be most uncomfortable for all concerned.” Oh, dear. That wasn’t the most cordial of comments. “I will not put a foot wrong,” Elizabeth said. “I have never put a foot wrong.” “Not among the Iroquois, certainly. But you are not among the Iroquois now. This is a new game, darling. You must adjust yourself to a new situation.” “I have. I will.” “Have you or will you? I confess, I am confused,” Sophia said, setting her cup down without a sound. Elizabeth also set her cup down, equally soundlessly. Oh, dear. This was becoming quite heated. “I have and I will,” Elizabeth said. “Are you still confused?” “I am,” George said pleasantly. “Darling George,” Sophia said on a laugh, “never that. I will not believe it.” “Believe what you will, or will not,” Elizabeth answered. “There is nothing I fear in this land. I understand the English, what they want, how they get it.” “What they want?” Anne asked, hoping to lighten the mood. “You cannot mean wives, for Englishmen are most averse to wife taking, unless an heir is required, then they are merely reluctant.” George grinned. Sophia chuckled, still eyeing Elizabeth. Elizabeth glowered. Good heavens, what was wrong with the woman? She seemed more inclined to snarl than smile, and in her aunt’s lovely home, too. It was becoming beyond irritating. Anne felt a glower of her own rising to the surface. She tried to stamp it out, truly, but it was difficult. “You have had two husbands,” Elizabeth said. “Is that not so?” She did not wait for an answer. “They cannot be too difficult to snare.” Why, was that an insult? She, the unspectacular Anne had managed to capture two ridiculously stupid husbands, and so, what could there possibly be to it? And this talk of snaring. Really. The woman, Sophia’s niece though she was, was hardly out of the backwoods shadow of a savage and uncivilized land. Oh, yes, it was Sophia’s land and Anne would allow some sentiment to color her thinking, but she was not so blind that she was not aware, that the entire Town was not aware, that Sophia was as savage and uncivilized, in some ways, as the country of her birth. Oh, no. She knew that well enough. This wild and surly Elizabeth Grey could do with a large helping of polish and refinement. As to that, so could anyone. It only helped in life, after all. Hadn’t she been born without it, and hadn’t she worked diligently to attain some small measure of it? She certainly had, and she was not going to be snarled out of the room by a woman who didn’t know how to behave to her own aunt and host. “Elizabeth,” George said, his smile wiped clean, his tone full of warning. “A challenge! How thrilling this shall be to witness,” Sophia said in the same instant. “Will you take her on, Anne? I do believe you fully able to trounce her.” Anne supposed she had the same look of shock on her face that Elizabeth did in that moment. One did have to be so careful what one said in Sophia Dalby’s white salon. “But of course, you, Anne, shall take Lord Dutton,” Sophia said, ignoring their shock entirely. “He is the logical choice for you. Or would you prefer Elizabeth throw herself at Dutton? I shall bow to your preference, Anne, though I do think Dutton should be in this somehow, no matter who is arranged for him. He is the ideal man for this sort of thing.” “Not Dutton, and not Elizabeth,” George said, frowning now. How his good humor had fled at the mention of Lord Dutton. Small wonder. “Of course, I agree with you completely, George,” Sophia said. “Anne for Dutton, though that does give her an advantage since she and Dutton have something of a history, as feeble and wobbly as it is.” Her history with Dutton was not feeble! He had kissed her and pursued her for fully half of an entire Season. The only reason he had fallen off was that she had married Staverton. Certainly, Sophia understood that. Looking at Sophia’s smiling face, Anne did not see any indication that Sophia understood that. “I will not take Dutton. I will not engage in any sort of wager regarding Lord Dutton!” Anne said, a bit shrilly, to be frank. “You’ll give him to Elizabeth then? George seems to have some sort of objection to that, though I do confess to understanding why. He did not have the opportunity to see Lord Dutton in the most positive of situations. Then again, there may not be a situation in which Lord Dutton would create a favorable impression,” Sophia said. “Would anyone like more tea?” “No. Thank you,” Anne said. She was more annoyed than she could ever remember being with Sophia, and she actually had no memory of ever being annoyed at Sophia. Grateful? Yes. Charmed? Yes. Delighted? Of course. This was an entirely new, and an entirely unwelcome sensation. “I am not giving Lord Dutton to anyone, as I’m certain must be absolutely plain to you, Sophia.” “Oh, good. You’ll keep him for yourself then,” Sophia said. “I do think that’s best, don’t you?” Sophia did not give Anne any time to respond to that impossible statement. Anne had no idea what her response should have been in any event. “Now, who shall we pair with Elizabeth?” Sophia said, looking brightly, and only slightly maliciously, at her niece. “Who’s in Town this Season? Do you know, Anne?” “I shall not be paired with anyone,” Elizabeth said. “These games are not to my liking.” Elizabeth did not look at Sophia brightly as she spoke, though she did look quite unrepentantly malicious. “Of course, this game wouldn’t be,” Sophia said soothingly. “It is, of course, much more fun to play at a game one fully expects to win. I can fully understand your reluctance, darling Elizabeth. You are a stranger here and, therefore, at such a severe disadvantage. I suppose it was thoughtless of me to suggest it. Forget I ever mentioned it. Anne, I do hope you’re not disappointed?” Anne was too busy looking at Elizabeth’s sullenly angry face to answer Sophia directly. The look on Elizabeth’s face . . . well, it was the most amusing moment Anne had experienced in months, if not years. “Sophia, no,” George said, shaking his head. “Of course not,” Sophia said in response to George. “I don’t know what I was thinking to believe that Elizabeth could compete with Anne in this simple little test. Anne has, after all, been pursued and married twice. She has a completely unfair advantage. It wouldn’t be at all fair to Elizabeth.” “What sort of test?” Elizabeth said. “No,” George said, a bit more forcefully. Elizabeth ignored him completely. Anne and Sophia did the same. “Oh, something entirely simple and straightforward, I should think,” Sophia said. “A simple test of desirability, for lack of a better word.” “No!” George snapped. “It will be entirely innocent, of course,” Sophia said. “You cannot think I would risk either my niece or my darling Anne to danger of any sort, even the negligible danger of a damaged reputation.” “My reputation cannot be damaged,” Elizabeth said. “It is within my own hands. I hold it.” “Precisely,” Sophia said, beaming a smile at her niece. “How beautifully stated and how perfectly true.” Anne did not feel the same way about her reputation, but she kept that to herself. In her experience, reputations could be torn upon the smallest of points, or the largest ones. “All I suggest,” Sophia said, “is the smallest and most innocent, the most entertaining of diversions. Something to engage the interest and quicken the blood.” “I do not need my blood to quicken,” Elizabeth said. “Nor do I,” Anne said. “Don’t you? Very well, but perhaps it will quicken my blood,” Sophia said, folding her hands in her lap, looking as matronly as possible. It was not at all possible. “Very well. I will agree to that,” Elizabeth said, her dark eyes shining. “We will each engage in this test of yours, including you, Sophia. Whatever you will have of me, I will have of you.” “And what of me?” Anne said, angry at being overlooked. Hadn’t Dutton done that? He certainly had, most thoroughly, until he had discovered that her mother had been a poorly maintained courtesan, then he had been interested. In getting her in his bed, and nothing more. She was beyond all remnants of toleration for being ignored. “Will you, darling?” Sophia said to Elizabeth, her smile soft. “I think that can be managed. And I certainly would never forget your part in this, Anne. You are the center of it, aren’t you? I think that your domination of Lord Dutton will be the measure upon which Elizabeth and I will be judged.” “Domination?” Anne said. She had no desire, and no ability, to dominate Lord Dutton. At least, she didn’t think she did. “Subjugation?” Sophia said. “You must choose your own word for it, but I think that is in the realm of what we are proposing.” “Is it?” Elizabeth asked. “And what Englishman am I to subjugate? And how shall it be proved?” “It shall not be,” George said. “This will not be.” “Oh, come now, darling,” Sophia said, smiling at George. “Don’t you think your efforts are best served by being the judge your sister demands in this contest of ours? I trust you completely not to give her any advantage. You will be completely impartial, won’t you?” “It is not possible to be completely impartial,” Elizabeth said. “I agree,” George said. “I will not allow my brother to judge in my favor. I do not need his help in this,” Elizabeth said. “This thing you propose, it is a simple thing, a luring of a man in some way, isn’t it? There is nothing to that. They are lured by a smile and fall at a laugh. A man is a thing easily conquered.” “I can be impartial enough to make this a fair contest,” George said, looking askance at his sister, his black brows furrowed in displeasure. It seemed Elizabeth had the ability to nettle her twin. How very unpleasant of her. “I knew you could,” Sophia said, smiling at George. This time, George came close to smiling back at her. Anne was not encouraged. She was being thrust into a dare of some sort, a three-way duel that had Dutton at its heart, at least her heart. That was nothing to smile about. “Now, something pleasant, something simple, wouldn’t you say, Anne?” There was nothing pleasant or simple about Dutton. That was the entire problem. “I would prefer it,” Anne said. “Are you certain that Lord Dutton must be involved?” “Aren’t you?” Sophia said. The look in Sophia’s eyes was so full of mischief and delight and hope that Anne was lifted on a surge of joyous expectation not unlike the last time she had sparred with Lord Dutton. In truth, tangling with Dutton was better than living respectably without him, especially now that she was a respectable widow of means. Really, how much did she have to lose? Neither her money nor her position. Her reputation? She would not risk that. Ever. “I think that must depend upon what is proposed. I suppose I must draw the line at drawing and quartering him,” Anne said, to which Sophia laughed outright, and to which Elizabeth smiled in what could only be termed feral anticipation. Anne smiled in return, whether in delight or feral anticipation she refused to speculate. “What are the boundaries to this game of ours?” Elizabeth said. “Boundaries,” Sophia said. “Yes, we must certainly have those.” “And how shall I know when I have won?” Elizabeth asked. “Don’t you mean, how shall I know when you have won?” Sophia said. “It is so lovely to see such confidence, Elizabeth. I know you have come by it honestly.” “I come by all things honestly, Sophia,” Elizabeth said. “As do we all,” Anne said, her anger flaring at the insult to Sophia implied in the words, and at the continued insult to herself, the insult of being over-looked and disregarded. By heavens, but she had endured more than enough of that! Even her own butler, no, Staverton’s butler . . . no, her butler, did not treat her with proper deference. Who was this Indian girl to ignore her so? Was she not Lady Staverton? She most certainly was. “Very well,” Elizabeth said, in a very dismissive tone, Anne thought. “Let us decide this thing. You are to take Lord Dutton. Agreed. But what are you to do with him? And how shall it be determined if you have succeeded or not?” Instead of looking at Sophia for instruction or guidance or encouragement, all three, to be frank, Anne looked Elizabeth Grey straight in the eye and, thinking less of Lord Dutton than of defeating Elizabeth, which was certainly not the wisest of decisions, Anne said, “We shall receive proposals. Public proposals.” Sophia smiled and said, “Proposals to do what?” At that, Anne did not blush. She absolutely forbade herself to blush, and, shockingly, she did not blush. It was all rather remarkable. “To marry, of course,” Anne said. “All other proposals are far too effortless to achieve, aren’t they?” And she looked at Elizabeth as she asked it. How many proposals of marriage had this Iroquois woman received? Even one? Doubtful. She was far too disagreeable a woman to attract a man to any lasting commitment. Possibly. No, probably. Most assuredly probably. “A marriage proposal,” Sophia said. “That might put Elizabeth at too great a disadvantage, Anne. She knows no one in Town. Who would possibly offer for her on such a slight acquaintance?” “Don’t worry about me,” Elizabeth said, crossing her legs. “Name the man I am to conquer. And name the man you are to conquer, Sophia. What man will fight for you in this place?” “Lord Ruan,” George said, staring at Sophia. He did not look particularly malicious, but there was a mischievous twinkle lurking not far below the surface. “He’s always about, isn’t he?” Then Sophia did the most unusual thing: she compressed her lips, giving every indication that she was, if only for the merest moment, uncomfortable. It passed quickly enough, but it had been there, that tremor, and it caused an answering tremor in Anne. “Yes, that would make him a convenient choice,” Sophia said easily, “but whom shall we pair with darling Elizabeth? Anne, has anyone of note married while I was in America?” “Not that I can recall,” Anne said. “Certainly no one who anyone would believe would interest Miss Grey.” Yes, she was calling her Miss Grey again. The cool distance seemed appropriate. “You may call me Elizabeth,” Elizabeth said, turning the entire coolly distant cordiality slap on its head. A most annoying woman, even if she were Sophia’s niece. “Lord Dutton. He’s young?” “He’s old enough,” Anne said. “He’s old? Like your previous husband?” Elizabeth said. Good heavens, was she implying that Anne was only attractive to old men? “The Marquis of Dutton is the approximate age my first husband would have been, had he lived.” “Forty? Fifty?” Elizabeth asked. George grumbled something unintelligible; Elizabeth ignored him. “Lord Dutton was born in 1776, I believe,” Sophia said. “A date I should say that we all remember well, Lord Dutton most especially.” “So. He is young,” Elizabeth said. “I, also, would like a young man. They are more unruly, and more volatile.” True, but why did that make them more attractive as candidates in this contest? “I think you will find, Elizabeth,” Sophia said, “that Englishmen, in their youth, are less inclined to think of marriage than Iroquois men. Youth, in this contest, will likely be a disadvantage.” “Lord Ruan. He is old?” “He is not old. I would say he is of an agreeable age,” Sophia said. “Which will be so very convenient to me, won’t it? I do think he is the perfect choice, and we simply must do the same for you, darling. Find you the perfect man upon which to sharpen your claws.” “George,” Elizabeth said, holding Sophia’s gaze, “can you give me some names?” “George Prestwick,” George Grey said. “Lord Raithby.” “What about Lord Penrith?” Anne said. It was malicious of her, true; the Marquis of Penrith was lethal to women. Lord Raithby far less so, and Mr. Prestwick least of all. Or that was what was rumored. In very many cases, rumors were entirely true. “Is Penrith in Town?” Sophia said. “I had a letter from his mother, Julia, and as of two months ago, he was in Greece with them, examining marble piles.” “Oh. What a pity,” Anne said. She meant every word. Penrith would have easily knocked Elizabeth Grey on her arse. Raithby, who cared only for riding and Prestwick, who cared only for she knew not what, but not gambling and not women and not drink, for that would have been well-documented through rumor, would likely be trampled under Elizabeth’s very large, callused feet. “Prestwick and Raithby,” Sophia said. “What charming choices, George. Trust you to cut to the heart so quickly. Now, whom shall you choose, Elizabeth? They are both young and handsome and available. What more can a woman ask of a man?” “Who is closer?” Elizabeth asked. “Why, how very practical you are,” Sophia said. “Mr. Prestwick, as it happens, leases a house on this very street.” “Then I choose Prestwick.” “Prestwick, Dutton, and Ruan,” Sophia said. “We have our list, our quarry named. Our goal? A proposal of marriage.” “How shall it be made public?” Elizabeth asked. Anne laughed. “In England, a proposal of marriage is always, and nearly instantly, public.” It was the other kind of proposal, the kind Dutton specialized in, especially with her, that was private, often for as long as a single day, if one were very, very fortunate. She had, sadly, never been fortunate with Edward Preston, 3rd Marquis of Dutton. * * * More Much Ado About Dutton About Claudia Dain Claudia Welch/Claudia Dain graduated from the University of Southern California with a BA in English. While there she became a member of Alpha Phi, one of the oldest sororities in America. A two-time Rita finalist, she has won numerous writing awards and honors since her first novel was published in 2000. She has lived for most of her life in Los Angeles, called Connecticut home for a decade, and currently lives in North Carolina with her husband. Connect With Claudia @Claudia Dain Claudia.Dain www.ClaudiaDain.com Claire Delacroix The Crusader’s Bride THE CRUSADER’S BRIDE A company of knights chosen to deliver a sealed trunk from the Templar treasury in Jerusalem to safekeeping in Paris. A group of pilgrims seeking the protection of the Templars to return home as the Saracens prepare to besiege the city. A mysterious treasure that someone will even kill to possess... * * * When the Templar knight Gaston learns that he has inherited his father’s estate in France, he accepts one last quest for the order and agrees to deliver a package to Paris on his way home. A practical man, Gaston knows he has need of a wife and an heir, so when a lovely widowed noblewoman on pilgrimage snares his gaze, he believes he can see matters solved to their mutual convenience. * * * But Ysmaine is more than a pilgrim enduring bad luck. She has buried two husbands in rapid succession, both of whom died on her nuptial night, and believes herself cursed. Accepting this gruff knight seems doomed to result in his demise, but Gaston is dismissive of her warnings, and Ysmaine finds herself quickly wed again—this time to a man who is not only vital, but determined to survive. * * * Neither of them realize that Gaston’s errand is one of peril, for the package contains the treasure of the Templars—and some soul, either in their party or pursuing it, is intent upon claiming the prize at any cost. In a company of strangers with secrets, do they dare to trust each other and the love that dawns between them? Prologue Friday, May 15, 1187 * * * Feast Day of Saint Dympna and Saint Britwyn of Beverley. Prologue * * * Jerusalem Gaston de Châmont-sur-Maine read the missive from his brother’s wife again, unable to believe that he had understood the words correctly the first time. That Bayard should have died so suddenly and at such a young age was incomprehensible to Gaston. That his older brother was not laughing as he rode to hunt was beyond belief. But Marie’s meaning could not be doubted. It was there, before his own eyes. Bayard was dead, and he, Gaston, was now Baron de Châmont-sur-Maine. He touched the red wax seal, embedded with the mark of his family’s house, impressed with the signet ring that he had only to ride home to claim. Châmont-sur-Maine was his. Gaston would have preferred that Bayard yet lived. His older brother had taken the responsibility of Châmont-sur-Maine with ease and grace, with a charm that Gaston did not share. Gaston was a fighting man, a man accustomed to a simple life. Indeed, as a knight sworn to the Order of the Temple, he should not have held this missive himself. Any correspondence addressed to him or any other brother was delivered to the Grand Master, who chose whether or not to have the missive read aloud to the intended recipient. Gaston had thought it might be a jest at his expense when Gerard de Ridefort had read this missive aloud in the common room the day before. So great was his astonishment that the Grand Master had read Marie’s words twice, permitted Gaston to examine the seal, then had finally surrendered it to Gaston with characteristic impatience. Gerard had then ordered Gaston to compile all reports of Saracen movements, before Gaston could submit his request to leave the order. A knight pledged to the Temple could not disobey an order from a superior, so he had to fulfill Gerard’s edict before returning home. It might be a blessing, though, to have a few weeks to plan for his journey. The change to his life would be significant, after all. Gaston looked around the stables of the Knights Templar, situated in the Temple in the Holy City itself, amazed that he would leave this place to become a baron of the realm. He stood in the stall assigned to his own destrier, Fantôme, even as that steed nuzzled in the hay, and read the missive again. His squires had been dispatched to take a meal in the kitchens, and he had come to this place to consider the abrupt change in his fortunes. The son of his father’s third wife, and his father’s third son, Gaston had never expected to be a secular lord. That was why he had joined the Templars. He ached that good fortune came at such a price, and that he would never hear Bayard’s bold laughter again. Gaston wished he found it harder to believe that a man so vital could draw breath no longer, but he had seen lives dispatched with such frequency in this place that he took little for granted any longer. Bayard was gone. As always, the extensive stables of the Templars were bustling with activity. Even though many had gone to the evening meal, still knights returned from errands and from duty, their horses slick with perspiration. Others were preparing to ride out, their steeds stamping with impatience to run. Some great destriers were being brushed down while others were saddled up. The floor was thick with squires, hastening to do the bidding of their knights, and the air was filled with jokes and commands. He could smell the hay in the stables and hear the clang of anvil on steel from the smithy as repairs were made to armor and armament. Fantôme nibbled Gaston’s hair playfully from behind and he rubbed the beast’s nose with affection. Gaston had pledged to the Templars eighteen years before, when he himself had been a youth, and had never expected to leave the order. Well, not while he breathed. Bayard was a mere seven years older than Gaston. He was—or had been—hale and vigorous. Was it strange that Marie had not specified how Bayard had died? Or had Gaston become too suspicious over the years? The fact remained that Bayard had only two daughters. His will decreed that Châmont-sur-Maine pass to Gaston instead of his own children. It was a profoundly sensible choice, and one that no neighbor would argue. Bayard had always been the one who ensured that all continued on a steady course. It was interesting that the dispute in the Latin Kingdoms over the succession was so similar—save that Amalric, unlike Bayard, had put no plan in writing. The daughters of the former King of Jerusalem were locked in a dispute over which of their husbands should gain the crown. The Christians bickered, while Saladin planned his vengeance. Gaston was keenly aware of the differences between himself and his brother. He was accustomed to war and battle, to the company of men and the good care of horses, to calling the bluff of an adversary, and to settling disputes with a blade. He knew little of running an estate, although he had witnessed his fair share of politics and intrigue. He fingered the letter again, astounded at the opportunity, knowing he could not deny it, yet strangely uncertain of what lay ahead. His life had been disciplined, governed by the rule of the order for so long that he could not imagine living otherwise. He would ride to hunt at whim, feast in his own hall upon fine fare, garb himself as he chose, and sleep in the same bed every night. It was impossible to associate his brother’s life with himself, and Gaston doubted he would accustom himself readily to the change. There was no choice, though. It was his responsibility to accept this legacy, and Gaston understood duty. He also was a practical man. He would have to father a son to ensure Châmont-sur-Maine’s future and for that, he would need a wife. A bastard son or one got on a mistress would undo Bayard’s planning. Gaston must ensure he had a legitimate heir. If not two. He read the missive again, his gaze lingering on a detail he had skimmed over earlier for he had been more concerned with Bayard’s death. Marie confided that her oldest daughter, Azalaïs, had been wedded this very year, and to Millard de St. Roux. The timing could not be accident or coincidence. Gaston knew Millard well enough for that man was but a year younger than himself. A younger son, like himself. A man without a holding or a future, and one who had earned his way with his blade. Why had Marie told him of this? To imply that the lordship would be assumed by Millard in his absence? Or to warn him of a feud to come? It was clear that if Gaston wished to claim what was his by right and by law, he would have to return home soon, and with a wife. If not a son. Gaston tucked the missive into his tabard, eyeing the activity that surrounded him. He would find a bride and embark upon the task of making sons. He had seen three and thirty summers, and Bayard’s death made him taste his own mortality. There was not a moment to waste in securing the future. As much as he might feel trepidation, Gaston could not regret that he would no longer have to follow Gerard de Ridefort’s command. He instinctively distrusted those who followed their impulse and were impetuous as Gerard tended to be. The astonishing losses of Templar knights at Cresson this same month showed the merit of that man’s leadership, and Gaston did not imagine for a moment that the Saracen leader Saladin meant to leave matters as they stood. Here was his opportunity to change his own circumstance, and he would take it. Indeed, if he meant to return alive to Châmont-sur-Maine and ensure the future of his family holding—as was now his responsibility above all others—he had best complete his current assignment and leave the order as soon as possible. But where would a man who had long been pledged to chastity and celibacy find a wife? Gaston had no sisters or aunts intent upon finding him a match, nor any friends or fellow knights who maintained connections with women. The rule precluded that. Christian women on pilgrimage oft prayed at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It seemed reasonable to Gaston to begin his search there. His expectations of a bride were minimal. She would have to be of noble blood, unwed, and both young and vigorous enough to bear him multiple sons. It would not be all bad if he found her attractive, for that would make rendering the marital debt more pleasant. Beyond that, Gaston expected little of a wife. He hoped to find a practical woman, for he knew naught of courtship or even of conversing with women. He imagined that his inheritance would offer sufficient inducement to the kind of woman he sought. Gaston de Châmont-sur-Maine left the stables with purpose, certain that all could be arranged sensibly and quickly. This optimism was only possible because Gaston knew so little of women in general, and of Ysmaine de Valeroy in particular. That situation would not last. Chapter One Saturday, July 4, 1187 * * * Feast Day of Saint Odo of Canterbury. * * * Jerusalem Ysmaine de Valeroy knelt in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and prayed yet again. She prayed with a fervor unusual to her, her heart in her entreaty as it had never been before. Indeed, there had been a time when she had been outspoken and rebellious, not devout at all. Two short marriages had compelled her to change her ways. It was not easy. She had tried to atone for her sins, though she feared she had little aptitude for penance. She had donated every item of value she owned. She had given alms and made offerings. She had undertaken a pilgrimage to this most holy of shrines, and she had walked most of the way, letting her maid Radegunde ride the mare. She was certain she had lit a thousand candles, many for her husbands’ souls, many for her own. The leather of her shoes was worn through. Her clothes had faded and were filled with dust. She had been hungry for so long that she had become accustomed to the feel of a hollow belly. But still the challenges mounted before her. Perhaps she was simply doomed. Perhaps she was cursed because she did not believe in her guilt. Perhaps she should accept that it was her responsibility that her husbands had died, instead of believing it a trick of fate. But Ysmaine could not. There was the mark of her stubborn pride again. It was not uncommon for a young bride to bury an old spouse, and only slightly less uncommon for an aged man to become overly excited at the prospect of consummating his nuptials. One did hear tales of men dying on their wedding night, so the death of Ysmaine’s first spouse had been unfortunate, but not that remarkable. At least to those other than Ysmaine. She would never forget being trapped beneath Richard’s corpse for the duration of the night, feeling his body grow cold even as she was helpless to shift his considerable weight. She would never forget the indignity of being released by four servants the following morning, nor the smell of that bed. She had not known whether to consider herself fortunate or not that Richard had not commenced upon the deed, the anticipation alone having overwhelmed him. To have lain naked beneath a man all the night long yet still be a virgin incited curiosity, if not more. The whispers had begun then, though she and her family had turned a deaf ear to them. Ysmaine did not believe that her bold nature invited such punishment. She did not believe that her merry manner required discipline by any authority. She simply regretted that her father’s good intentions had not borne fruit. Her father had not been deterred, although his second match had been less brilliant. All had known Henrik to be fond of his wine, so some were not surprised that he stumbled upon the stairs on his nuptial night and fell to his death without reaching the bed where Ysmaine awaited his amorous attention. Others, though, began to whisper that Ysmaine had pledged her chastity to God, or worse, that she was a witch determined to never let a man between her thighs. The tales had grown over the Yule, taking on a vehemence that had confounded her father’s every effort to make a third match. He had not even been able to find matches for her younger sisters. Believing the fault was her own and that the remedy must be her responsibility, Ysmaine had resolved to depart on a pilgrimage. There could be no half-measures with a curse of such magnitude so she had decided to go to Jerusalem itself. Her parents had initially protested, for her mother had been fearful of Ysmaine traveling so far. Seeing his daughter’s resolve and his wife’s fears, Ysmaine’s father had dispatched her with a party of defenders and much gold coin to ensure her safe passage. Perhaps too much gold coin. But a fortnight from home, Ysmaine and Radegunde had been robbed by the men hired to defend them. Ysmaine had been certain it was but a test, and that if she could make it to Jerusalem, all would be well. They had been compelled to beg for charity and sell every trinket remaining to them, but they had reached the Holy City. And now, cruelest of cruelties, Radegunde lay sick with fever. Sweet, faithful Radegunde, the maid compelled to join her mistress on pilgrimage, the maid driven on by her mistress’s insistence, would pay the price of Ysmaine’s curse. There was no coin for the apothecary’s cure. There was nothing left to sell to raise the coin. And Ysmaine feared it was her fault. She wept at her own failures even as she prayed for divine intervention. There was no more lowly sinner than she, and no one less likely to deserve compassion, yet Ysmaine hoped for it all the same. She knelt before the altar of the Virgin, for she expected no mercy from men. Mary the intercessor was her only hope. Surely Mary would see the repentance in Ysmaine’s heart and have mercy. Just spare Radegunde, Ysmaine prayed. Just let me help her, and I will never desire any other thing in all my days. She was dizzy with hunger, her hands clenched tightly before herself as she prayed with all her might. She cared naught for her own discomfort. If Radegunde died, Ysmaine feared her own soul would be lost forever. At the very least, she would go mad with guilt. Despite her concentration on her prayer, Ysmaine was aware that someone watched her. Surely not another predator? A shiver ran down her spine, and she completed her entreaty, then raised her head to look. It was a knight. A Templar. Ysmaine was slightly relieved, for all knew such men to be honorable. The knight stood to one side of the chapel, his gaze fixed upon her, his arms folded across his chest. He made no effort to hide his interest in her. There was something appealing about a man who had no desire to disguise his deeds. Ysmaine noted that the others in the chapel were aware of his perusal, and only then understood the space around her on this day. People believed him to be her protector. Was he? His surplice was white, graced with the red cross of the Templar order, and it fell to his knees. He was tall and broad of shoulder, his eyes narrowed with a skepticism Ysmaine had seen often on the faces of those who served. The knights in the Holy Land seemed more hardened in comparison to those fighting men she had encountered at home, to the point of appearing emotionless and cold. She was certain they had witnessed much of the weakness of mortal men, and perhaps observing such shortcomings in this holy place pained them. This one’s scrutiny was disconcerting, though. His hair was as dark as ebony and his face was tanned from the sun. His chain mail gleamed, the mark of an attentive squire, and his boots were dark. There were leather gloves tucked into his belt, and both a knife and sword were in scabbards hanging from it. A mail coif had fallen back on his neck. He appeared to be ready to ride to war at any moment, and Ysmaine wondered how close his destrier was. She felt a flush rise over her cheeks at his steady perusal and wondered if he thought her a thief. The Knights Templar guarded the sacred shrines, after all, and accompanied pilgrims on the treacherous length of road between the ports and Jerusalem itself. She stood, genuflected, then made to return to Radegunde, hoping against hope that her prayers had made some difference. There was little else she could do. How she hated the powerlessness of her situation, this new inability to reach into her purse for a coin to make matters better. It was humbling. Ysmaine would not surrender, no matter how dire all appeared to be. She was the daughter of a line of aristocrats with valiant hearts. Somehow, she would find a way to make all come aright. Somehow, she would dispel this curse, see Radegunde healed, and return home with a scheme for her younger sisters to wed well. The challenges before her were daunting when gathered into a list, but Ysmaine had been born with a will of iron. Only now, she could see that she would have need of it. Her pride would be her salvation, not her curse. She started when she heard a step beside her, then glanced down to see a silver penny offered on a man’s lined palm. She looked up to find the Templar beside her, his gaze watchful and more potent with proximity. His eyes were a startling blue that made her think of twilight skies at home. A lump rose in her throat, for she was not certain she would ever see that holding or those beloved faces again. “You mistake my trade, sir,” she said stiffly. She averted her gaze, her heart thumping, and hastened out of the church. He followed her, undeterred, his heavy footfalls audible. He stepped into her path, compelling her to confront him, and offered the coin again. He was taller than she had realized, tall enough that he towered over her. His eyes were yet narrowed, but his expression was not unkind. “I give alms in a sacred place,” he insisted, his voice a low rumble that was uncommonly pleasing. He offered the coin again. “But I would forgo the complication of making my offering through the priests.” Ysmaine found she could not look away from this intent knight. His accent was familiar, and she seized the excuse to study him, wondering whether they had once met. She did not recognize him, though. “Why?” she asked, thinking he might confess to being the son of one of her father’s neighbors. “You are hungry,” he said, his tone practical. “It is not uncommon for pilgrims to arrive in this place with no coin left to their names.” He took her hand in his, his touch both warm and gentle. She knew it was only because she was so surprised by his move that he managed to capture her hand. The warmth of his hand folded around hers, making her feel small and delicate, though she was a comparatively tall woman. He pressed that silver penny into her palm with a heavy fingertip as she watched his hands, his determination evident. “I believe it is the task of men to make a difference in this world, while they yet can. Fortify yourself.” He curled her fingers over the coin, then released her, stepping back out of her path, still observing her. Ysmaine opened her hand, halfway thinking this gift would have disappeared. It might be a mirage, a trick of hunger and of the heat. But the coin was still there, nestled coolly in her own palm. Salvation glinted silver in the sunlight, and even when she blinked, it remained. “You cannot do this,” she protested. “Alms must be given to the church, then dispensed...” “I can give my charity where I so choose,” he corrected, interrupting her with a confidence that she had once shared. Ysmaine heard her father’s warning in her thoughts. Any offer that appears too good to be true must not be true. Doubtless this gift had a price, and she could guess what it would be. Ysmaine was not prepared to surrender her sole surviving asset, not for one silver penny. She stretched out her hand. “I cannot accept such a gift.” “Why not?” The knight seemed genuinely curious, as if it had not occurred to him that she might decline. Ysmaine saw no reason to mince words. “Because you will have expectations of me, and I tell you now that I will not fulfill them for a single penny, nor for even a king’s ransom.” His smile flashed, softening his features unexpectedly. “I do have an expectation, ’tis true, but not the one you anticipate.” His smile weakened her resolve, which frightened her. Ysmaine pushed the coin toward him again. “I cannot accept your charity.” The knight shook his head. “Yet I will not accept its return.” He indicated the people all around them with a smooth gesture. “Drop the coin, if you like. Another will seize it, upon that you can rely.” Ysmaine knew he was right, and a measure of her former boldness returned to her. What harm could come of asking him for the truth? “What expectation do you have of me, then?” she asked, lifting her chin. “Is it too much to ask for the sum of the tale?” “Indeed not. I have the same expectation of you as of any other person to whom I would surrender a coin.” He leaned closer and dropped his voice low, his eyes glinting as if they shared a secret. “That how you spend it will reveal the truth of your nature.” Ysmaine was intrigued by this confession. “Why should you care?” He arched a dark brow. “I am curious.” She sensed that there was yet more than he admitted, but the longer she held the coin, the less readily she could surrender it. He spread his hands, his eyes twinkling in a way that lightened Ysmaine’s heart. “And this curiosity is my burden to bear.” “Are you frequently curious?” she asked, unable to stop herself. “Does it matter?” “Only that curiosity at this price at frequent intervals could see you in my place. You should take care not to expend too much coin on your burden.” His smile was quick, as if she had surprised him, and faded all too soon. He looked ten years younger when he smiled. “I show marked care with coin, my lady,” he assured her, his salute making her heart skip. “You need not fear otherwise.” “Why me?” “You have come daily to pray for intercession. I would grant your request.” “You noticed.” “I did.” There was a shrewdness in his expression then. “In these lands, in my trade, a man who fails to be observant does not survive overlong.” It was easy to believe that this knight had cheated death and deceit, for she doubted he missed any detail. Even as she spoke with him, she was aware that his gaze swept over the area at regular intervals. She did not doubt that he could provide a full description of each person who had arrived and departed while he was there. Ysmaine looked down at the coin. If this was divine intercession, she would not spurn it. She squared her shoulders and looked up at her benefactor. “Will you tell me where I can find the best apothecary?” The knight was visibly surprised. “Are you ill?” “My maid lies abed with a fever.” Ysmaine shook her head at her own role in this. “It would be beyond unkind for her to die, a foul reward for her loyalty and devotion.” “But you are hungry.” If he had been watchful before, he was doubly so with this revelation. “And Radegunde is in need of a cure.” Ysmaine spoke firmly even as she met his gaze. “If any should die on this pilgrimage, it should be me.” He looked startled by her vehemence, but Ysmaine continued. “You are of the Temple. You must abide in this city. Tell me, sir, where I can find the best apothecary, I beg of you.” He nodded once, and she had the sense that he was satisfied with her reply. “Better,” he said in that rumbling low voice. “I shall take you there.” His fingertips were beneath her elbow then, his touch helpful but chivalrous. He fairly cut a path through the crowd, his stature and the mark of his order making the people in the street fall back to let him pass. Ysmaine felt a heady sense that she no longer battled against her fate alone and was grateful. Even if this man was her ally solely in obtaining an apothecary’s potion, it was more, far more, than she had come to expect of the world. It was only as they walked that she noted his slight limp. But then, he was a knight and a crusader. Of course, he had been injured. If a limp was the worst of it, he had been more fortunate than many others. She admired that he did not slow his pace or look for sympathy. It said much good of his nature, in her opinion, that he simply carried on without complaint. Perhaps the injury to his leg was why he knew the best apothecary. Ysmaine wondered what exactly was wrong with his leg, and if the apothecaries in this city were as competent as those she had known at home. If not, she might be able to suggest some means of relief to this unexpected benefactor. Her grandmother had taught her a few remedies and it seemed only fitting that she offer advice in return for his aid. Assuming, of course, that he truly took her to an apothecary. Ysmaine reminded herself to be skeptical until his intent was proven and hastened alongside the knight to a destination unknown. Gaston had noticed the noblewoman several days before. She was slender and feminine, undoubtedly more slender than once for her cheeks showed that she had recently lost weight. He could see that her hair was as gold as sunlight beneath her veil and her thickly lashed eyes were a fine clear green. The striking combination was one to which he was particularly susceptible, never mind when the woman in question was as pretty as this lady. Word had come that Saladin had crossed the Jordan River the day before, and Gaston feared the portent of that. Reginald of Châtillon might have provoked the Saracen leader for the last time. That man, as Lord of Karak by the Dead Sea, had a dangerous habit of attacking Saracen pilgrims on their way to their holy city of Mecca and plundering their wealth. Each time Reginald swore a treaty with Saladin, he broke it again. The previous year, he had broken an oath and captured a caravan with one of the sultan’s own sisters. Saladin had vowed to kill Reginald with his own hand. Gaston knew enough of Saladin from his own past duties as a negotiator to fear that the retaliation would be swift and sure. And so it had been. In March, Saladin had marched toward Karak to defend pilgrims and laid waste to Reginald’s territories. Instead of uniting in their own defense, the Christians were at odds over who should claim the throne of Jerusalem. Reginald had allied with Gerard de Ridefort, Master of the Temple, and others to enthrone Sibylla, the older daughter of the previous king Amalric. Sibylla, in her turn, had crowned her husband, Guy de Lusignan, king of Jerusalem. Raymond of Tripoli, however, supported a rival king, Humphrey of Toron, the husband of Amalric’s younger daughter, Isabella. In the spring, the Masters of the Temple and the Hospital had ridden to Tiberias to negotiate with Raymond, hoping to persuade him to accept Guy as king. Raymond, however, had hoped to win Saladin’s support for his side, so had allowed Saladin’s troops to pass through his lands at Tiberias to avenge the caravan attacks made by Reginald. Although Raymond declared he had warned the Christians, the Grand Master of the Temple insisted they had not known of the safe passage granted to Saladin’s forces. The two forces had engaged at the springs of Cresson on the first of May. The Christians had been soundly defeated, with forty knights and Roger de Moulins, Master of the Hospitaliers, killed. Although Raymond had pled his own innocence and returned to Jerusalem with the retreating Master of the Temple, prepared to support Guy as king, Gerard de Ridefort was not alone in believing him to be a traitor. And so, the Christians were distracted while Gaston gathered impressions of a Saracen force mustering just beyond their borders. Hard details were difficult to obtain, but he knew this region and these personalities well enough to anticipate that Saladin’s reckoning had begun. The King of Jerusalem had ridden out to confront Saladin, the Grand Masters of both the Temple and the Hospital accompanying him. The majority of the Templar knights in Jerusalem had joined the party, and triumph was expected. After all, the Christians had mustered a force of thousands, both knights and foot soldiers. The fortification at La Saphorie was a perfect site to defend, and also the location of a spring sufficiently reliable to ensure that such an army had enough water. Gaston, his departure eminent and his vows dissolved, had been left behind as one of the few knights in the Temple. He was not the only one who expected to have departed by their inevitable return. At this point, there was little that could be accomplished with diplomacy. If Saladin had crossed the Jordon, he would come eventually to Jerusalem. It was time to leave the Holy City, if Gaston meant to do so. It was time to choose a bride, and he would have this one. The lady was a pilgrim, and he admired how diligently she came to pray. He found her in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre several times a day, always kneeling penitent before the altar of the Virgin. She did not follow the pilgrim’s path to pray at the Holy Sepulchre itself, much less the Way of the Cross from the Chapel of the Repose, and her routine did not vary. Gaston admired her resolve. He was more likely to trust people who were constant and consistent, as well as those who did not accept defeat readily. Her kirtle had once been crimson, a costly hue, but had faded to a pale rose. He could see the true color along the seams. The embroidery on the hem had been golden and rich, but now was brown and dusty. He was no good judge of women’s clothing but he recalled his father’s enumerations of the expenses of a wife well enough. This woman’s cloak, too, had once been richest purple, another costly dyestuff, and looked as if the fur lining had been cut out of it. Perhaps she had sold it en route to finance her journey. She held up her chin and did not cast her eyes downward, a mark of her aristocratic status that could not be disguised by grime. He liked her humility, and that she traveled as a true pilgrim. He admired the vigor of her faith and the strength of her devotion to Mary. He respected that she held her chin high, though clearly she faced many challenges. She wore no wedding ring, but kept her head covered, even when she left the church. She had been married then, but was no longer. There was something about her that snared his attention, a blend of vulnerability and strength, perhaps. By this, the third day he had seen her, Gaston was resolved that she was a logical choice of bride. When she rose from her prayers and wavered, apparently so hungry as to be faint, he knew it was time to speak to her. Within moments, she had surprised him thrice: by her conviction that he sought a whore’s favors; by her apparent resolve to decline the coin she so clearly needed; and finally by her request for an apothecary. She thought of her maid before herself, which was both rare and admirable. Indeed, a clever and compassionate wife would suit Gaston well. She walked beside him, as tall as a queen, her manner making people step back to give way. It was past midday and the sun was hot, dust rising from the streets as they walked. Throngs of pilgrims made their way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, though he and his lady companion walked against the tide. The Street of Palms was thick with pilgrims and vendors selling dried palms. On either side of the street, vendors hawked their wares, shouting the advantages of their goods over the human sea of those come to worship. The lady seemed to draw a little closer to him as the vendors took note of them, that coin locked in her grasp even as she ducked the entreaties on all sides. Gaston suspected he would not miss these congested routes once he left the city. Indeed, it would be good to ride over verdant hills again and he knew that his destrier would not miss the heat. The climate was hard upon the great warhorses, and even though his had been bred in this region, he would be glad to take Fantôme to France. It was time for his destrier to graze at pasture, a reward for his years of good service. Home. How curious that he had not thought of Châmont-sur-Maine as home until so recently. Home had been at the Temple, either here in Jerusalem or in Paris. Gaston escorted the lady, as he had vowed, to the best apothecary in the Street of Herbs. He knew he was not the only one to breathe in relief once they stepped into the darkness of the shop. It smelled of dried herbs and the fire from a brazier. One glimpse of the insignia on his tabard and they were ushered into the back room where the old woman held court amid her roots and potions. She had dark eyes and golden skin, and her hair had once been dark as well. Now it was lined with silver, and her eyes were narrowed, her face lined. Fatima had seen much and suffered fools poorly. Her skill was exceptional, though, and her sons allowed her to do some trade with Gentiles, for the coin made their life simpler. Gaston and the knights of the Temple were among those preferred clients. It was not until they stood before Fatima and his companion caught her breath that Gaston realized he might have erred. “She is an infidel,” the lady protested, speaking both in French and under her breath. Gaston feared that this noblewoman might share the views of so many of his brethren. He had no chance to comment, though. Fatima straightened, fixing Gaston’s companion with a stern eye. “Who exactly is the infidel?” she demanded in perfect French, then scoffed. The lady glanced up at Gaston in confusion, and he doubted she had even spoken to a Saracen before. “Our lives are mingled in this place,” he said mildly. “And together we fare better than alone.” Her lips parted, then tightened. “The knowledge of the Saracens, my lady, is much admired in matters of medicine.” Gaston wondered if she would believe him, or whether she would trust him. “And Fatima’s skill is exceptional. You did ask for the best apothecary in Jerusalem.” Fatima nodded, his endorsement restoring her good humor. She nodded at him, indicating his hip. “Better?” He shrugged. “No worse, which is a blessing in itself.” “You are not sufficiently kind to yourself,” Fatima began her usual scolding, but Gaston lifted a hand. “On this day, the lady has need of your skills.” He was well aware that his companion listened to this exchange. The noblewoman squared her shoulders again, then inclined her head to the older woman. “I apologize for my rudeness. My mistaken belief that you would not understand me does not excuse my poor manners. I was simply surprised.” Gaston was relieved by this speech, and Fatima nodded. “And you have need of me,” she noted, her gaze flicking over the woman by Gaston’s side. “What ails you?” “My maid has a fever.” “When did it begin? How long has it endured? Tell me all of it.” The older woman bowed her head and closed her eyes to listen, nodding at intervals as the noblewoman provided details. Gaston was impressed that she was so thorough and observant. When his lady companion fell silent, Fatima blew through her lips. “It is as so oft befalls the Franj here,” she murmured, shaking her head as if his fellows should have the wits to stay home. “But worse.” The noblewoman caught her breath in fear. But Fatima reached without hesitation for a number of herbs, crumbling them into a mortar. Her confidence and her rhythmic movements seemed to reassure his companion. Roots were added and all ground together with the pestle, the pungent scent of the herbs rising to tease Gaston’s nostrils. “You noted her symptoms well,” Fatima said as she mixed, her gaze flicking to the noblewoman. “My grandmother knew much of the useful plants. She taught me some of her cures, so I would have some such skills to take to my husband’s household, but mostly, she advised me how to look.” “So that a more skilled healer could aid you.” Fatima nodded. “This is more wise than sharing the cure.” The noblewoman smiled. “She said as much herself.” The two women exchanged a glance, understanding each other, then Fatima hummed as she continued to assemble the ingredients. Gaston and the noblewoman stood silently together, waiting. Fatima then—as was her wont—suddenly glanced up and put out her hand, palm up. Some signs were universal. The noblewoman put Gaston’s silver penny on Fatima’s palm without hesitation. Fatima bit it, nodded at the quality of the silver, then glanced at Gaston as if she understood its origin. She said naught, but poured the dry combination of herbs into a crockery cup and offered it to the noblewoman. “Four times you will give it, one quarter of this each time heated in wine. On the morrow, you will return and tell me how she fares.” The lady shook her head. “This will have to suffice. I have no more coin and I would not beg more charity...” “You have paid for a cure and will have it. You need bring no more coin on the morrow.” The older woman’s dark eyes glinted and she smiled. “Even an infidel can keep a bargain such as that.” “I thank you, Fatima,” Gaston said with a bow. She let the coin flash before it disappeared. “And I thank you, Franji. Take your ease in the evening, instead of striding about the Temple, and your hip will welcome the change.” “It is not always my choice, Fatima,” Gaston acknowledged, well aware that the noblewoman listened avidly. He liked the idea of a wife who could help to ensure the health and welfare of those sworn to his service. They said their farewells and left the shop, the street seeming more hot and congested than it had been before. The noblewoman let Gaston guide her back to the street, then halted to confront him. “I thank you for your assistance...” “You have need of a meal yet,” he interrupted. Her eyes flashed in a most beguiling manner. “I will not be further indebted to you...” He interrupted her flatly. “My lady, no healing can occur when a body is so weakened by lack of food, and you know it as well as I do. Your maid must be as hungry as you are. In the Street of Cookery, which is close by, we will find hot soup.” She licked her lips in anticipation, probably not even aware that she did as much, her hunger undermining her argument. “But...” Gaston shook his head. “I can well afford a pot of soup. I will carry it back to your lodgings for you, so it is not spilled.” Indeed, she was so unsteady on her feet that he scarce trusted her with the herbal remedy, though he already suspected that she would fight him for possession of it. She had a will of iron, this one, which he also liked. “Nay.” The lady did not move and her lips set with resolve. “You cannot take responsibility for me so readily as that. I am not a stray hound to be gathered up, with no understanding of your intention...” He set one heavy finger against her lips and her eyes widened at his bold touch even as she fell silent. Gaston saw no reason to argue with her, and indeed, he suspected that his sensible plan would meet with her approval. She seemed a most practical woman. “I mean to make you my lady wife, and that cannot be done if you are faint with hunger.” He saw her astonishment, knowing that he had fully captured her attention. “As my betrothed, you are rightly my responsibility, and the expenditure of some measure of coin to ensure your welfare, as well as that of your maid, is of little concern.” Gaston turned to walk to the Street of Cookery, fully confident that the lady would follow. He smiled when he heard her footstep behind him, for he was right. * * * More The Crusader’s Bride About Claire Delacroix Bestselling and award-winning author Claire Delacroix is a pseudonym of Deborah Cooke. Deborah has published over fifty novels and novellas, including historical romances, fantasy romances, fantasy novels with romantic elements, paranormal romances, contemporary romances, urban fantasy romances, time travel romances and paranormal young adult novels. She writes as herself, Deborah Cooke, as Claire Delacroix, and has written as Claire Cross. She is nationally bestselling, #1 Kindle Bestselling, KOBO Bestselling, as well as a USA Today and New York Times’ Bestselling Author. Her Claire Delacroix medieval romance, The Beauty, was her first book to land on the New York Times List of Bestselling Books. Connect With Claire AuthorClaireDelacroix www.delacroix.net Susan Gee Heino The Earl’s Passionate Plot Part I THE EARL’S PASSIONATE PLOT Falling in love was never part of the plan... When Miss Mariah Langley inherited beautiful Renford Hall she thought she would stay there forever. Now the Earl of Dovington has shown up to evict her! He's waving legal proof that the property is his and he's arranged to lease it to an eligible heiress. With nowhere to go, Mariah agrees to host his potential lessees in exchange for additional time there. * * * With guests arriving and tempers flaring, there seems but one obvious solution. The spinster and the earl engage in a battle of wits and wooing: they each scheme to find a partner for the other, hoping romance will give the enemy reason to relinquish the house. It's hard to focus on matchmaking, however, when they can't keep their hands off each other! Chapter One Hampshire, England, April 1817 "What do you mean, I cannot stay here? This is where I live," Mariah Langley said, blinking back the prickling tears that she simply would not allow her guest to see. "Renford Hall has been our home since... since I was five years old. My step-father's will is most clear on the matter. How can it possibly be that we have no claim here?" "I understand your confusion, Miss, and I'm sorry." The weary solicitor removed his spectacles and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Indeed, it was very likely the man had developed a headache as she'd pelted him with questions. No headache he could possibly have, though, would in any way compare to the ache inside her soul as she was forced to hear his words. "Your step-father was mistaken, Miss Langley. He did not own the property outright. It remains part of the entail of the Earl of Dovington." "But that can't be. Step-Papa purchased it from the earl years ago. You see the paperwork there, laid out in front of you. You have to be mistaken, Mr. Milson." "I wish I were, miss. But it seems the earl misrepresented things when he entered that agreement with your step-father. The paperwork is fraudulent, to be blunt. Mr. Renford's ownership could be considered, in actuality, nothing more than a life-lease." "But he purchased the property when he married my mother. It has been our home all these twenty years!" "And no doubt he believed his so-called title to it was valid. But it was not. I'm so sorry, miss, but the Earl of Dovington entered into an agreement he was not allowed by law to make. When your step-father died, this property clearly reverted back to the estate." "But my step-father has been gone three full years now and this is the first I'm hearing of this." "No one knew about it, I'm afraid. The old earl was not very... conscientious. He was far more interested in drink than in managing his affairs and... well, to be honest, Miss Langley, he was not a pleasant man to be around and for the last few years of his life he did not even have a steward to oversee matters for him. At his passing, things were in a sorry state, indeed. It has taken the new earl more than a full year to sort through the tangle of legal matters and unpaid bills his father left behind." "And this is one of those matters, I suppose," she grumbled. The situation was all too clear to her, despite her incredulity. Her step-father had been misled and now she and her family would be out on their ears. Drat that old Dovington! And drat the new one, too. He was likely no better than his father. "I'm sure the new earl was thrilled to find that Renford Hall is thriving and at his disposal," she continued her grousing. "It only makes sense that he will now want to pillage what he can from it to save the rest of his destitute estate—never mind that my family and I will be left homeless." "Your step-father did not leave you penniless, as I recall, Miss Langley. He thought you would have the property, but that was not all he left behind, was it?" "No, of course it was not. He did all in his power to see that we were cared for." "Yes, he was a good man. Mr. Renford left more than sufficient funds for you, your mother and your sister to live on quite comfortably." "Indeed he did, but that was before I knew we'd have to live on it somewhere else, Mr. Milson. Since my step-father's passing I have used those funds he left us to modernize operations here. I've replaced barns, had all the roofing redone, and built deeper wells for the tenants. I've had extensive improvements made to this house, invested in new farming techniques and put in orchards and irrigation channels. Oh, but Mr. Milson, you simply don't understand. I dropped every last penny of my step-father's money into this house and these lands. If Renford Hall is not ours... well, then I'm afraid Mamma, Ella, and I truly have nothing." "You really have nothing left?" "Nothing to speak of, Mr. Milson." "Then I am sorry for you. I wish I had come with better news today." "As do I," she agreed, rising from her seat and going to stare out the window over the landscape she still thought of as her own. "And to think, I prided myself on being so sensible. I expected to begin recouping our investment this autumn with the promise of excellent harvest and profit from the increased herds and the flocks. I thought I would have more than enough money to pay for Ella's introduction to society next year, just the way my step-father wanted." "It really is a shame, Miss Milson. I'm sure if he'd had any notion that..." The man's voice trailed off. Clearly there was nothing he could say to take away the sting of reality. Step-Papa was gone, Mamma was fading, and Ella would not have the Season she'd been looking forward to all of her young life. They'd likely end up in a garret somewhere, barely eking by. Somehow. But this was not Mr. Milson's burden to bear. Mariah forced a smile and tried to appear hopeful when she pulled her eyes from the scenery and turned back to the matters at hand. "At least the money Step-Papa put into trust for Ella's dowry is still there. When it comes time for her to marry, she'll have that to recommend her." But Ella was still only seventeen. She'd not been into the world yet and seemed very much a child. Given their circumstances, it was unlikely the girl would attract any sort of decent suitor for some time—if ever. Until then, Mariah simply couldn't see how they would live. "And what of you, Miss Langley?" Mr. Milson asked. "Surely you are of an age to consider matrimony. That would solve things then, wouldn't it?" Mariah hoped the shock did not show on her face. Of course she was of an age—she was five-and-twenty last November. But how could the man suggest such a thing? Unless... perhaps he did not know. She had assumed, since he was managing these legal affairs for them, that he knew of her background. Apparently he did not. She was not about to educate him just now. "As you can see, Mr. Milson, Renford Hall is not crawling with marital prospects, neither for my sister nor for myself. I'm afraid we will have to look to something a bit more immediate for rescue, not some mythical gallant bachelor on a white horse." Mr. Milson nodded. "Well, perhaps the new earl will see your difficulty and agree to share a percentage with you come harvest." She had to laugh out loud at that thought. They were to sit around and wait for alms from the earl? It was nearly as ridiculous as the suggestion of her marrying. "You believe the earl will share? I cannot hold such hope, Mr. Milson, given the man's heritage. Surely if his financial affairs are as bad off as you say then he will hardly be interested in sharing any profit from Renford Hall." "Perhaps things are not as bleak for the man as they were when he first took the title. It's been a year, after all." One glance at Mr. Milson and she knew he did not believe his own words. No, very clearly he knew only too well how desperate this earl was. Even if the new Dovington was the sort given to charitable actions, it was obvious he stood in no position to be charitable toward them. "I think you know as well as I do, Mr. Milson, that my family and I can hardly count on help from Lord Dovington." She would have loved to hear him dispute that, to stand up for the man's character and claim that the new earl was nothing like his dissolute father and would likely help if he could. But he did not. Mr. Milson's silence on the matter told her everything she needed to know about the current Earl of Dovington and his character. Obviously the new earl had none. She supposed she should not be surprised; like father, like son, as they say. "So this Dovington is no better than his dissipated sire." She sighed and turned back to the bright landscape outside, still as fresh and as vibrant as if her world had not just come crashing down on her. How on earth was she going to drag herself away from this place? And worse, how was she going to break this awful news to Ella? This was the only home she'd ever known, her last connection to her dear Papa. And Mamma... her health had been waning since losing Step-Papa. To take them both away from Renford Hall was pure cruelty. "Tell me, then," she asked the solicitor, still gazing at the hills and trees and wishing to memorize every inch of it. "How long do we have?" "For what, Miss Langley?" "How long before this degenerate tyrant, Dovington, shows up here to throw us out to the wolves?" Mr. Milson did not answer. Instead, a low rumble startled her from the doorway. A voice she'd not heard before replied, words sounding more like a growl than actual language and causing her very bones to vibrate inside her. "Not long at all," the voice said. "The degenerate tyrant, as you say, has arrived." She spun quickly and was left gaping in horror. The rare April sunshine spilling in through the window suddenly dimmed. The air in the room abruptly went cold. The doorway was filled by a stranger—a man. He was tall and clad all in black, from his elegant neck cloth to his long traveling coat. He'd not removed his hat and it sat at an angle atop his head, waves of nearly-black hair framing an angular face. His eyes were dark but flashed with fire as they latched onto hers. "Lord Dovington!" Mr. Milson exclaimed, leaping to his feet. The introduction had not been needed. Mariah knew to her deepest core who this gentleman was the instant his voice reverberated through her. Good heavens, but "tyrant" had been far too mundane a word for him. Perhaps "demi-god" suited him better. "As for throwing you out to the wolves," the man said, not being the least bit subtle as his animal eyes roved over her, head to toe. "I suppose we shall see how long that will take." * * * Chapter 2 * * * Dovington had not been in this house for over twenty years, as best he could recall. He knew it well, though. When the footman had opened the door to him and informed him that the solicitor had gone to meet with some Miss Langley person in the study, he'd known just how to find them there. Over the years he'd learned that showing up places unannounced gave him an advantage, and this case was no different. He'd arrived outside the study just in time to hear a beautiful woman disparaging his character. That was not surprising in itself—it had happened before. What made it unique this time, however, was the fact that he had no idea who she was. Generally when women disparaged him, they had good reason. This one, however, was an absolute stranger to him. He could only wonder what he had done to gain such an unwarranted—at least so far—opinion from her. From the looks of her, though, he wouldn't mind giving her reason to warrant those opinions. She was just the sort of spirited armful that might make his unpleasant return to this, his childhood home, somewhat endurable. "I suppose an introduction is in order," he had said, pulling off his gloves and stepping into the room. "I am the Earl of Dovington." "Yes, that's already been established," the green-eyed spitfire replied. He had been none too subtle with his perusal of her person and now she returned the favor. She eyed him as if he were the devil himself, walking into her parlor with mud on his boots. Frankly, he could not recall when distain and disapproval had ever looked so damn fetching on a woman. "Well, then, perhaps you ought to enlighten me as to your identity, miss," he said. The other gentleman in the room—a solicitor he'd met once on matters regarding this estate but whose name was unimportant to him—blustered toward them. "My lord, this is—" He raised up his hand to shush the fellow. "No. Let her tell me." Her eyes went large. Good. He'd offended her. That put her at the disadvantage. "Very well, I shall introduce myself, sir," she said. "I am Mariah Langley." "Yes, so I was told at the door. But who are you? What is your position in this house?" "My position, sir?" Damn it, but she'd seemed much more clever than this. He hated being disappointed this early in his acquaintance with an otherwise desirable female. "Yes, your position. I'm told the leaseholder was a fellow named Renford. You are Miss Langley, so you cannot be his wife nor his daughter. What are you then? His mistress, perhaps?" "Certainly not!" she exclaimed. "Mr. Renford was my step-father, sir." He shrugged. "Doesn't entirely rule out the suggestion of mistress..." She did not rise to his bait. Instead of swooning or going pale at his bold insinuation, she simply glared at him. One elegant eyebrow cocked as if she were above even acknowledging such lewd conversation. The eyebrow itself indicated that she did acknowledge it and did not find it humorous. "Why are you here, sir?" she said with complete composure. "Come to merely inspect your estate, or to throw helpless women out into the street?" Now he had to smile at her. Indeed, his first impression had been accurate. She was both feisty and clever, a potentially dangerous combination. Added to that the fact that she had all her teeth, a most excellent complexion, and the finest bosoms he'd seen outside of London meant he was going to have to tread carefully here. This was a game he dared not lose, but at the same time he was determined to enjoy. "I've not met the other female members of this household, Miss Langley, but I daresay you would never be counted in any collection of helpless women." "I would prefer not to be counted in any collection of women at all, sir. We are not collectibles. But I would very much like an answer to my question." "I daresay it hardly matters what my intent was upon arriving here," he said, impressed that her green eyes met his without hesitation. "You would be a very difficult woman to throw out of any place, Miss Langley." He could easily think of a few places he might like to throw her into, of course. Not that he would mention them to her just now. Boudoirs and beds were likely off limits for discussion, as far as she was concerned. "I do not worry for myself, sir, but for my mother and sister," she said stiffly. "Ah, Mrs. and Miss Renford. But surely they have family they can go to?" "My step-father did not have many connections, sir." "But what of you, then? Surely there are other Langley's you can turn to. Where are your father's people?" "I know nothing of them, sir. Langley was my mother's name and her people have been estranged to her for... well, since several months before I was born." There was only one thing Dovington could make of that statement. The fine-bosomed spitfire was a bastard. Yet here she stood, facing him with her pretty chin stuck up in the air as if she were a royal duchess. How peculiar. And how compelling. She presented herself very much the lady of quality, yet when asked she had looked him in the eye and announced she was not. A very interesting woman, indeed. He should enjoy finding out more about her. So he could use her to his advantage, of course. What became of this chit or her family once he took full possession of the estate was none of his concern. He could not afford to worry over them; he had more than enough of his own worries, thanks to his damnable father and the mess he'd made of what had once been a proud and powerful title. Also thanks to that damnable man, Dovington was well versed in the fine art of using people for his own purposes. He'd had to learn that to survive. Fortunately, he could also thank the man for being heartless and cruel. That meant he'd had none of those useless traits like guilt and compassion to pass on to his son. The current earl could be ruthless and cold and never worry about feeling any remorse for his behavior. Why should he? After all, he was his father's son. No one expected any better of him than that. Clearly the solicitor did not. He was clearing his throat and turning his hat nervously in his hands as he approached the earl. "You must understand Miss Langley's situation," the man began. "It came as a great shock to her that the property was not held in fee simple by her step-father. When the transaction was made years ago, your father led him to believe the property was not in entail and that it could be sold to him outright." "Obviously my father lied," the earl said. His honesty seemed to startle the man. He'd found most people reacted that way when confronted with a harsh truth that would usually be sugar-coated or skirted around. But Dovington never coated nor skirted. That was both a waste of time and a waste of a perfectly good opportunity to maintain the upper hand in a situation. "My father was a liar, pure and simple," he continued, pleased with the look of discomfort and confusion over the solicitor's face. "He squandered his fortune and then cheated and lied to whomever it pleased him in an effort to get his hands on more money to squander. I make no apologies for him." "Then you are willing to come to a solution that will satisfy Miss Langley?" "Indeed, I would be most willing to satisfy Miss Langley," Dovington said, giving her a smile she could in no way misunderstand. "She will be happy to know I can satisfy her here for a full three days before she and her family need to vacate this home." * * * More The Earl’s Passionate Plot About Susan Gee Heino Susan Gee Heino thinks the sexiest thing a man can do is engage in witty banter. If he happens to be wearing breeches and a cravat while he does this, all the better. If he comes with a noble title, a tortured past, and perhaps even dimples, then he is just about perfect. Her lighthearted Regency Romances are full of quirky heroines who tend to feel exactly the same way--at least, they do by the end of the book. Usually it takes a little convincing by the breeches-clad hero. * * * But love's funny sometimes and no matter what adventures ensue, the hero always ends up with his lady. And vice versa. * * * Ms. Heino lives in rural Ohio with her non-breeches-inclined husband, two very remarkable children, and an accidental collection of critters. Connect With Susan @SusanGeeHeino Susan.Gee.Heino www.SusanGH.com Lori Handeland Crescent Moon CRESCENT MOON From the author who brought you the RITA ® Award winning BLUE MOON, comes another book in the USA Today Bestselling Nightcreature Novels! For over a century there have been whispers of a werewolf in the Crescent City. The recent discovery of bodies in the Honey Island Swamp draws cryptozoologist, Diana Malone, to Louisiana. Thrilled to have a chance to prove the impossible to the world, she is soon immersed in a world of danger, intrigue and murder. Something is killing the locals and though no one wants to tell what, Diana is determined to discover the secret. When her first swamp guide turns up dead, sexy, reclusive former Special Forces officer, Adam Ruelle, offers his services. Diana accepts, though local legends label his Cajun family as cursed, deranged, even mad. By night, Adam is everything she ever dreamed of in a lover. By day, Diana has her doubts. Is he helping her or distracting her? What is he hiding? Who is he protecting? Chapter One A life spent fulfilling a vow to a dead man is really no life at all, but I’d loved Simon Malone, and I’d promised. I’m a zoologist by trade, a cryptozoologist by choice. If I’d followed my training, I’d be holed up in a zoo or worse, studying giraffes and pygmy goats. Instead, I trace rumors of mythical animals and try to prove they exist. A frustrating exercise. There’s a reason no one’s captured a Bigfoot. They don’t want to be found, and they’re a lot better at hiding than anyone on earth is at seeking. Or at least that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it Most cryptozoologists attempt to find undiscovered species or evolutionary wonders—real animals, nothing paranormal about them—but not me. I’d made that vow. Foolish, but when a woman loves a man the way that I loved Simon, she does foolish things, especially when he’s dying in her arms. So I follow every legend, every folk tale, every scrap of information, trying to uncover something mythical and prove it real. Though I’ve never believed in magic, my husband did, and the only thing I’ve ever believed in was him. I was having very little luck with my quest until the night the phone rang at 3:00 a.m. Insomnia and a very empty checking account made me answer it despite the hour. “Dr. Malone?” The voice was male, a bit shaky, old or perhaps ill. “Not yet." I needed to find a cryptid—translation: unknown animal—prove its existence, write a thesis. Then I could attach those lovely letters—Ph.D.—at the end of my name. But since the whole vow incident I’d been too busy chasing lake monsters and Sasquatch clones to spend time finding a new breed of anything. “Is this Diana Malone?” “Yes. Who’s this?” “Frank Tallient.” The name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t figure out why. “Have we met?” “No. I got your number from Rick Canfield.” Swell. The last guy who’d said those immortal words, “You’re fired.” Rick was a lawyer who’d gone on a fishing trip with a bunch of other lawyers near Lake of the Woods, Minnesota. In the middle of the night he’d seen something in the lake. Something slick and black and very, very big. Being a lawyer, he was smart enough not to tell the others he’d lost his mind. Instead he’d gone home, searched the Internet and made some phone calls, trying to find someone to help him discover if what he’d seen had been real or imagined. He’d found me. “Rick thought you’d be free to help me,” Tallient continued. I was free all right. Unemployed. Again. A common occurrence in my life. I was very good at looking for things, not so good at actually finding them. However, I was one of the few cryptozoologists willing to travel on a whim for cash. I wasn’t associated with a university—not anymore. Not since Simon had gone over the edge, tarnishing both his reputation and my own. I depended on the kindness of strangers—hell, let’s be honest and just call them strange—to fund my expeditions. Right now I was fresh out of both expeditions and funds. “Since you didn’t locate Nessie—” Tallient began. “Nessie’s the Loch Ness Monster. I was searching for Woody.” Which was the name Rick had bestowed on the thing. People have no originality when naming lake beasts, always opting for some variation of the body of water they supposedly resided in. As usual, the moment I’d arrived at Lake of the Woods with my cameras and recorders whatever Rick might have seen had gone poof. If it had ever been there in the first place. In my expert opinion, an obscenely large muskie was responsible for the tales, not a supernatural lake monster, but I hadn’t been able to prove that, either. “I have a job for you,” Tallient continued. “I’m listening.” I had no choice. Though my parents were incredibly wealthy, they thought I was nuts and had stopped speaking to me the instant I married Simon. After all, what could a handsome, brilliant, up-and- coming zoologist from Liverpool see in a not-very-pretty, far too sturdy grad student unless it was her parents’ millions? He already had a green card. That Simon had told them exactly what they could do with their money had only made me love him more. In truth, I fit into Simon’s world better than I’d ever fit in my own. I stood five-foot-ten in my bare feet; on a good day I weighed a hundred and sixty. I liked the out-of-doors—didn’t mind dirt or sun, wind or rain. I’d joined the Girl Scouts just so I could camp. I’d done pretty much anything and everything I could think of to emphasize my differences from the never-too-rich, never- too-thin lifestyle of my mother. “Can you access the Internet?” Tallient asked. “Hold on.” I tapped my laptop, which sprang from asleep to awake much quicker than I ever did. “Okay.” Tallient recited a www-dot address. An instant later, a newspaper article spilled across my screen. “ ‘Man Found Dead in a Swamp,’” I read. “Not unusual.” Swamps were notorious dumping grounds for bodies. If the muck didn’t take them, the alligators would. “Keep going.” “Throat torn. Feral dogs. Huh.” I accessed the next page. “Child missing. Coyotes. No body. Seems straightforward.” “Not really.” Tallient recited a second address, and I read some more. “Wolf sightings.” My heart increased in tempo. Wolves had been Simon’s specialty; they’d turned into his obsession. Now they were mine. “Where is this?” I demanded. “New Orleans.” If possible, my heart beat even faster. Once red wolves had roamed the Southeast from the Atlantic to the Gulf and west to Texas. They’d been sighted as far north as Missouri and Pennsylvania. But in 1980 the red wolf had been declared extinct in the wild. In 1987 they’d been reintroduced, but only in North Carolina. So... “There aren’t any wolves in Louisiana,” I said. “Precisely.” “There’s a legend, though....” I struggled to remember it. “Honey Island Swamp monster.” “I doubt that Bigfoot-like footprints found thirty years ago have any relationship to death, disappearance, and wolves where they aren’t supposed to be.” He had a point. “Could be an ABC,” I said. The acronym stood for “Alien Big Cat”—a cryptozoological label given to reports of out-of-place felines. Black panthers in Wisconsin. A jaguar in Maine. Happens a lot more than you’d think. Most of the time ABCs were explained away as exotic animals released into the woods when they became too hard to handle or too big to fit in an apartment. Funny thing was, no one ever found them. If they were pets, wouldn’t they be easy to catch? Wouldn’t their bones, or even their collars, turn up after a truly wild animal killed them? Wouldn’t there be at least one record of an ABC being hit by a truck on the interstate? But there wasn’t “This is a wolf, not a cat.” I was impressed with Tallient’s knowledge of crypto-terminology but too caught up in the mystery unfolding before my eyes to compliment him on it. “Same principle. Could be someone dumped a wolf in the swamp. Nothing special about it.” Except wolves weren’t vicious. They didn’t attack people. Unless they were starving, wolf-dog hybrids, or rabid. None of which were a good thing. “There’ve been whispers of wolves in and around New Orleans for years.” “How many years?” I asked. “At least a hundred.” “What?” Tallient chuckled. “I thought you’d enjoy that. The disturbances don’t seem to occur in any particular month, or even a common season. But they always happen during the same lunar phase.” “Full moon.” No matter what the skeptics say, full moons drive people and animals wacko. Ask anyone who’s ever worked in an emergency room, psych ward, or county zoo. “Not full,” Tallient said. “Crescent.” I glanced at the thin, silver, smiley moon visible from my window. “What was the date on those articles?” “May.” Five months ago. “And since then?” “Nothing.” “Could be because the bodies weren’t found.” “Exactly. Things that hunt under a certain phase of the moon do so every month. They can’t help themselves.” I wasn’t sure about “things,” but I was sure about animals. They were nothing if not creatures of habit. “A body was found yesterday,” Tallient continued. “Hasn’t hit the papers yet.” I looked at the moon again. Guess I was right. “What’s your interest in this?” I asked. “Cryptozoology fascinates me. I’d love to go on an expedition, but I’m... not well.” I stood. My feet literally itched. I bounced on my toes as excitement threatened to make me jump at this chance. I had to remember: What seemed too good to be true often was. “You want to pay me to find a wolf where a wolf isn’t supposed to be. Once I do, then what?” “Trap it and call me.” Not an unusual request in my line of work. The people who hired me usually did so in the hopes that they would become famous by revealing some mythical creature to the world, and they wanted to be the ones to do the revealing. I had no problem with that as long as the disclosure took place. All I wanted was to prove Simon hadn’t been crazy. “I can do that." “You do realize this isn’t just a wolf?” I hoped not, but my hopes weren’t often realized. “They call it a loup-garou. That’s French for—” “Werewolf.” The rush of adrenaline made me dizzy. Though I took jobs searching for any paranormal entity—beggars couldn’t be choosers—the true focus of my quest should have been a lycanthrope. As Simon’s had been. The only problem was, I just couldn’t believe. Even though my maiden name was O’Malley and my father’s family hailed from the land of leprechauns and fairies, in Boston, where I grew up, the only fanciful thing was the city’s rabid belief in a curse on the BoSox. In my youth there’d been no nonsense allowed—no Santa, no tooth fairy—I had to fight to read fiction. Which might explain why I fell so in love with a man who dreamed of magic. I glanced around our apartment near the campus of the University of Chicago. I hadn’t moved a book, hadn’t given away his clothes, hadn’t realized until just this moment how pathetic that was. “I find it strange,” Tallient murmured, “that odd things happen under a crescent moon in the Crescent City, don’t you?” I found it more than strange. I found it irresistible. “Are you interested?” Why did he bother to ask? He had to have heard how Simon had died. He had to know Dr. Malone’s sterling reputation had wound up in tatters. Tallient might not be aware that I’d vowed to make everyone who’d scorned Simon eat their words, but he had to suspect it considering what I’d been doing in the four years since my husband had died. My gaze fell on the only picture I had of Simon— knee-deep in a Canadian lake, slim, scholarly, blond, and brilliant—his grin still made me yearn. My stomach flopped as it did every time I remembered he was gone forever. But his hopes, his dreams, his work, lived on in me. “I’ll be on a plane in the morning.” * * * More Crescent Moon About Lori Handeland Lori Handeland sold her first novel in 1993. Since then she has written many novels, novellas and short stories in several genres--historical, contemporary, series, paranormal romance, urban fantasy and historical fantasy--for such publishers as Dorchester, Kensington, Harlequin, St. Martin’s, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster and Penguin. She has been nominated five times for the RITA Award from Romance Writers of America, winning twice, for Best Paranormal and Best Long Series Contemporary. She is a Waldenbooks, Bookscan, USA Today and New York Times best-selling author. As well as writing The Nightcreature Novels, The Phoenix Chronicles, The Shakespeare Undead series, The Luchetti Brothers and several stand alone novels, Lori also writes the gritty, sensual western historical romance series Once Upon a Time in the West under the name Lori Austin. Lori lives in Southern Wisconsin with her husband enjoying occasional visits from her grown sons. Connect With Lori @NightCreatures LoriHandeland www.lorihandeland.com lhandle120@aol.com Jerrica Knight-Catania Learning to Live THE TEMPTATION OF THE DUKE LEARNING TO LIVE Devastated by the loss of her fiance, Jessica Brooks is certain she'll never love again. Hell, she may never even leave her apartment again. But circumstances force her back to her hometown of Atlanta and into the arms of someone who understands her pain. Torn between mourning her fiance forever and finding peace in the midst of her grief, Jess must find the key to her happiness, the cure for her pain, and learn how to move on without the person she held most dear. Learning to Live is a New Adult novel about love and loss, and finding comfort in the company of those you'd least expect. Prologue A pair of strong arms snakes around me, engulfing me in their warmth and pulling me into a comfortable snuggle. I smile. There are few things I love more than cuddling with my boyfriend—sorry, my fiancé—early in the morning. The sun isn’t even up yet. It never is when he has to get up for work. But he always leaves time for a little snuggle before he has to get up and get ready. I moan sleepily and burrow further into him. “Good morning,” I mutter, trying to keep my lips closed as much as I can. Morning breath. “Good morning to you, Future Mrs. Clarke,” he murmurs in my ear. He has morning breath too, but he’s less guarded about it. I don’t care. I roll over so I can see his face. It’s a beautiful face—olive skin, piercing brown eyes, features that are so symmetrical you wonder if they can be real. “Do you really have to go to work today?” “Somebody’s gotta pay for the wedding.” It’s a joke, but not really. I’m a junior at NYU, and even though my parents pay most of my tuition, they don’t cover living expenses. And living expenses in NYC aren’t cheap. I work at a busy restaurant a few nights a week, but I’m only a hostess, so I don’t earn much. Kyle is the moneymaker in the relationship, although it’s still not much, and he has to work a lot. Between his schedule and mine, we’re often like passing ships. That’s why this time in the morning is so precious to me. To both of us. I sigh and touch my hand to the stubble on his cheek. “Are you happy?” He laughs and pulls me closer to him, so my face is against his chest. “Are you kidding, woman?” He squeezes tightly. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.” I smile and squeeze him back. I don’t know if I’ll ever be close enough to him. “Sometimes I wish I could just climb inside of you.” He drops his voice and says, “I love when you get freaky on me.” And then his fingers find my most ticklish spots, just below my rib cage, and we’re both laughing and writhing about, getting more and more tangled in the covers as we do. “Stop it!” I yell, but I don’t really want him to stop. “Never!” he declares, like he’s Spartacus. But I suddenly want more than innocent tickles. I wrap my hand around the back of his neck and draw his head down until our lips meet. His fingers stop tickling, and instead he splays them across my back, pressing me against his bare chest. “No one’s brushed,” he mumbles through tight lips. “I don’t care if you don’t.” His chocolate brown eyes darken and a sly smile comes to his lips. “You’re such a dirty girl.” The kisses go deeper, and my heart gets lighter. He has a way of doing that to me. He makes me forget all about our tight financial state, or the classes I’m just barely passing at school. So it’s probably good we don’t get to see each other as often as we’d like. We’d be in the poorhouse, and I would never graduate college. “I love you,” I whisper when we break the kiss and nuzzle against one another. He smells so good, like the cologne he wore to our dinner last night. Eternity. It’s my favorite on him. And he always says he wears it to remind me that he’s going to love me for all eternity. “I love you more.” He kisses me one last time on the forehead and then pulls away. “I’ve gotta get ready.” “Nooooooo!” I moan, all childlike and insolent. “Five more minutes. I’ll make it worth your while.” He’s already out of bed, and I drink in the sight of him standing there in nothing but his boxer briefs. They hug his ass and his package so nicely. He catches me watching him. “You are nothin’ but trouble, you little tease,” he says, and then he leans over and plants a lingering kiss to my lips. I can feel the strength of his body as he leans into the mattress. He’s tight and lean, with the same kind of definition one might find on a statue of a Greek god. I want more than anything to pull him back to the bed and make him call in sick to work today. But he did that yesterday. So he could propose to me. I smile at the memory of our romantic day together. He took it off, knowing I had no classes and that we’d be able to be together all day. I knew something was up when he started off by bringing me breakfast in bed. Then we took a long shower together that led to other things before he whisked me off for a picnic lunch in Washington Square Park. We napped together in the afternoon, and in the evening, he told me to get all dolled up. I did. And he took me to the Top of the World, the restaurant atop the World Trade Center, where he works the morning shift. And that’s when it happened. Clad in his sexy suit, which he only gets to wear once in a blue moon, he got down on one knee and asked me to be Mrs. Clarke. I, of course, said yes. I thumb the diamond ring that now sits on my ring finger, twisting it around and around, loving the feel of it. I feel like I’ve been branded, and I’m so happy about it. I fall back to sleep while he takes a shower, and I barely feel his lips on my cheek when he says goodbye. “I love you,” he whispers. “For eternity,” I mumble back, and then he’s gone. Chapter One It’s been three months. Three long, painful months since my life changed forever. Since the lives of thousands changed forever, really. I know I’m not alone, so why do I feel that way? Kyle is gone, that’s why. And there’s not a person on earth that can replace him. Not a single person who will be able to fill this empty void that is my heart now. The phone rings for the millionth time, but I ignore it. For the millionth time. I don’t want to talk to anyone. Especially not my family. My parents have called every day since it happened. Every day since the earth shifted on its axis, taking my Kyle and thousands of others away from this world. But I’ve stopped answering the phone. It’s too much, too painful. They say time heals all wounds, but I feel my wound getting deeper every single day. And hearing my mom’s pitying voice over the phone only makes it worse. I wish they could talk about something else, but they don’t even try to distract me. How are you feeling today? The same as I felt yesterday. Don’t you think you should go see someone? No. And then I hang up. Because it’s always the same thing. So now I’ve just stopped answering. A panic fills my chest as the sun starts to set on the horizon. I hate when the sun goes down. I’ll fall asleep eventually, but these hours between sunset and bedtime are complete torture. It wasn’t the case until recently. I haven’t been to a shrink, but I suspect it’s some kind of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. All I know is I want to throw up all the time. I’ve lost a lot of weight in the last few weeks since it started. I sarcastically think to myself that depression is the best diet ever, and after I laugh about it, I burst into tears. Because I’d rather be 400 pounds than feel like this. I’d rather be 400 pounds if it meant I could have Kyle back. But you can’t, you idiot. He’s gone. The tears come and I curl into a ball on the bed. Maybe this will go away soon. I hope. I could just go to sleep, but something inside me forces me to maintain a regular sleeping schedule. If I start sleeping all day, I’ll have to admit I’m truly depressed. I don’t want to admit that. Not to anyone, especially not myself. I’ve always looked at depressed people and thought how weak they must be. How pathetic to let life get you down so much. But it’s not life that has me down. It’s death. A ding sounds on my computer, so I uncurl myself and pad over to the desk to see who it is. It’s Melissa. My best friend. She messages me daily, not to see how I’m doing, but to send me an uplifting quote. Which was really annoying at first, but I know I’d be sad if she ever stopped sending them. I look forward to them now. “The best is yet to be.” –Robert Browning I plop down in the swivel chair, annoyed and comforted at the same time. Clearly, Mr. Browning didn’t ever lose the love of his life in a senseless terrorist attack. Jerk. I immediately regret my thoughts. Robert Browning didn’t do anything to me. He doesn’t deserve that. But then again, did Kyle deserve his fate? Did I deserve mine? I ask myself these questions daily. What did I do to deserve this torture, this never ending pain that plagues and haunts me day in and day out? Answers never come. My computer dings again. You okay? I don’t want to answer. I don’t want to engage anyone in conversation, even on the computer. I just want to make sure you’re still alive. This drags an unwilling snort of laughter from me, and I take pity on my friend. Yes, I’m alive. Just…trying to get through the day, as usual. I wait for her reply. It comes through seconds later. I’ve got Phish Food and The Matrix on DVD. For the first time in weeks, something sounds good: Ben & Jerry’s. I’m not really in the mood to socialize, but I wouldn’t mind staring at Keanu Reaves for a couple hours or stuffing my face with ice cream. Another ding. We don’t have to talk. I smile, and it feels weird. Like I haven’t done it in years. But I know when the last time I smiled was. In the early morning hours of September 11th. I somehow feel like I’m betraying Kyle by smiling now, so I force my lips back into a frown. I’d like that. I get up to go to the bathroom to see what I look like. I haven’t been out of the house in a couple of weeks, except to grab a few groceries, so it’s been a while since I’ve paid any attention to what I look like. But I should probably brush my teeth at the very least. And maybe my hair. I look like hell. I pick up my hairbrush—it was Kyle’s, and I haven’t had the heart to even clean out his hairs from it—and run it through my hair, but it’s hopeless. It just frizzes and sticks out in whatever direction it wants to. It used to be a nice shade of auburn, but now it just looks dull and ashy, like my skin. It might be time to take a shower. The warm water heats up the bathroom, fogging the mirror within just a couple minutes. I slip behind the shower curtain and let the water sluice over me. It’s too hot, practically burning my skin, but I don’t care. It’s the most I’ve felt in a long time. After the initial shock and sadness wore off, the numbness set in, which is way worse. That’s when I started to lose weight and stopped answering my phone. I hate it. I hate it with all my being. I go to sleep every night praying that I’ll just wake up the next morning feeling normal again. But I don’t. I probably never will. Tears come in the shower, but I don’t try to stop them. I just turn my face into the scalding water, hoping it’ll wash away my frustration. Once I’ve composed myself, I get out. Melissa has a key, and I can hear her in the kitchen popping popcorn. I don’t say hi. I don’t have the energy to yell it from the other room. When I’m finally dressed, I go out to the living room. “Hey, you,” she says, her tone gentle but optimistic, like she’s talking to a four-year-old. “Hey,” I reply, giving her a half smile. “Popcorn?” I nod. She brings two bowls to the couch and we both sit down without saying a word. She grabs the remote and hits play on the DVD. She’s been here long enough to get it all set up, and I’m suddenly grateful I didn’t have to do it myself, or walk her through it, because that would require talking, and I’m so not up for that. We munch away at the popcorn. It’s the first food I’ve had in a while, and it feels good on the way down. I chug sips of Coke between bites, and I can feel myself coming alive again. Melissa hits stop on the DVD. I turn to her, confused. “What are you doing?” She shifts on the couch so she’s facing me. She has a really pretty face that I’ve always loved to stare at. Not in a lesbian kind of way, just in a Wow, she’s really pretty kind of way. She has smooth, dark skin and these exotic black eyes with super long lashes. Her smile is halfhearted though, and she’s twisting her mouth up all funny, like she has something to say but doesn’t know how to say it. “Jess, when was the last time you went out?” she asks. I shrug. I’m not interested in an intervention. “Then I guess you didn’t see this, did you?” She procures a piece of paper from behind her back. It has huge red letters on it that spell out EVICTION NOTICE. I’m feeling a lot like an ostrich in this moment. I just want to bury my head in the sand and pretend I didn’t see it. “Jess, what are you doing?” Melissa asks, and her tone is firmer than before. “You said we didn’t have to talk,” I retort bitterly. “That was before I found this on your door.” “It doesn’t change the fact that I still don’t want to talk.” Melissa sighs and shakes her head. “Jessica,” she says slowly and carefully. “They’re going to kick you out. You need to have a plan, somewhere to go.” “I don’t want to go anywhere else.” I’m not leaving this apartment. It’s all I have left of Kyle. No way in Hell am I letting it go. “I know you don’t, sweetie.” She puts her hand over mine, and I choke back the lump that rises to my throat. I don’t want to cry. Not in front of her, or anyone. This is my pain. It’s private, and no one gets to see it but me. Which is why I’ve barely left the house in three months. “It’s almost Christmas, you know?” I do know. But I don’t want to think about it. Kyle and I loved Christmas. Snuggling in the cold temperatures, shopping together, visiting the tree at Rockefeller. And no matter where we were, he always made monkey bread on Christmas morning. I miss his fucking monkey bread. “Are you going to go back home?” “This is my home,” I bite back. “Not for long.” I want to yell at her and kick her out of my apartment, but I lack the energy. Hopefully my surliness will drive her away eventually. “Your parents would love to see you.” I loll my head sideways against the back of the couch to look at her. “What do you know about my parents?” She doesn’t look the least bit sheepish as she says, “I talk to them, since you won’t.” “What the fuck?” The words are harsh, but the tone is droll. I’m annoyed beyond belief. I never should have let her come over. I should have known she had ulterior motives. “They’re worried about you, like any good parents would be.” I can tell by the tone of her voice that she’s starting to get fed up with me. Good. “They call me to make sure you’re okay.” “Well, I hope you’re all very happy together.” I know my sarcasm is just hiding my hurt feelings. If I wasn’t hurt, I wouldn’t feel like bawling my eyes out right now. Yet I still don’t want to talk to my parents. “All right, fine,” Melissa says, turning on the couch to face front again. Then she clicks play on the remote. I want to ask what she’s doing, why she isn’t leaving. Any self-respecting human would leave after this. But she’s just sitting there, watching Keanu emerge from his slime pod. I try to focus on the movie, but all I can think about is that damn eviction notice. Shit. I guess deep down I knew it was coming. I don’t have the money for the rent, and even if I borrowed from my parents for a month or two, it would just delay the inevitable. I’d never make enough to pay for it on my own, even if I bothered to go into work. Kyle’s salary was way more money than I’ll ever see. I’m only good for hostess or receptionist type jobs. Well, I was. Not so much anymore, since my sunny disposition is now buried at the bottom of the World Trade towers. Melissa falls asleep toward the end of the movie after we’ve devoured the entire pint of Phish Food. I don’t have the heart to wake her, no matter how much she pissed me off earlier. Instead, I cover her with a spare blanket and pad into the bedroom. I climb into bed and spend a good fifteen minutes just lying there. Tears come, but I don’t fight them. I let them fall to my pillow as the sobs rack my body. I know what I have to do. I don’t want to do it. I don’t know if I even have the strength to pack this place up or move 900 miles away from the place Kyle and I called home together. Just the thought is stabbing me in the heart, forcing me to curl into a ball under the covers. Maybe if I hide here, no one will find me. Or maybe death will find me. Because surely that would be better than this, wouldn’t it? No. I shake my head against the pillow. Those thoughts sneak in sometimes, but I’m glad I at least have the strength to shove them away. I know what death does to those left behind, and I can’t do that to my parents. Or my friends. I lift myself up to a sitting position. It feels like I’m picking up an anvil. I stare at my computer. I want to wretch. But I don’t. Instead, I scoot off the bed and sit down at my desk. My email is already open. Compose. BILLANDJANE@YAHOO.COM Mom and Dad, Sorry I haven’t taken your calls in a while. It’s been hard. Really hard. But they put an eviction notice on my door today. I can’t fathom leaving here, but I know I can’t stay. And I can’t afford NY anymore. If you’ll have me, I’d like to come home. Please email back. I can’t do the phone right now. Love, Jessica I hit send. It’s done. I’m going home. * * * More Learning to Live THE TEMPTATION OF THE DUKE Grace Clarke is no longer willing to accept the position of "poor relations." Her sister has married well and taken her under her wing, so with her new connections, it ought to be a breeze to find a wealthy, titled gentleman to help elevate her station in life. Of course, she never expects for him to find her. Especially not in such a compromising position. But once she gets over her humiliation, she discovers that the duke next door is far more than just a duke. He's a man that sets her heart--and other parts of her--aflame. * * * Evan Gilford, Duke of Somerset, has spent the last fifteen years trying to avoid his destiny: marriage. But he can't ignore his duty anymore, not with his guilty conscience nagging at him all the bloody time and a betrothed waiting to become his duchess. So he returns to London, only to discover that he has a new and rather enchanting neighbor who soon makes him question where his loyalties lie: with his family or his heart. Chapter One London, 1822 The act of eavesdropping was an art, and no one knew this better than Miss Grace Clarke—she’d been at it for quite some time, after all. Not only was it an art, it was a necessity, especially for a country bumpkin. At least, that’s how she was sure Society viewed her, though she knew, deep down, she was much more than that. She’d grown up in a small cottage in the country, shared with her three brothers and two sisters. Her father was formerly a farmer, but now he worked as head groom at her brother-in-law’s country estate. Still, it didn’t gain her a great deal more status than she’d had before. Not, at least, when one considered that Grace aspired to marry a duke. She knew it was a lofty goal, but if one only aspired to marry as high as a solicitor, one could possibly end up in the arms of a lowly banker. At least if she aimed as high as a duke, she might settle at a baron or viscount even. Other than her fair looks, Grace had her familial connections to recommend her, and those connections were nothing at which to sneeze. Her sister had married into the Wetherby family, after all, which meant their social circle included all manner of titled aristocrats. But so far, those connections hadn’t landed her a single marriage proposal. Granted, she was only in her second Season, and she was still young—barely nineteen—so there was time. She wouldn’t be on the shelf for at least another year or two. Although, that gave jealousy and frustration plenty of time to sink their claws in and make Grace bitter and pessimistic toward the whole idea of love and marriage. She shook her head in order to free herself of those thoughts. It wasn’t yet time to give into pessimism. She would find a husband, and with any luck, she’d find him this very Season. And when she did find him, he’d be mightily impressed with her vast knowledge of things she ought not have knowledge about. That thought made her smile with just a bit of wicked pride. Grace peeked around the corner at the end of the hallway just as the door to the drawing room clicked shut at the bottom of the stairs. A sly grin came to her lips. This was her favorite day of the week—the day when Mrs. Finch hung up her apron as housekeeper and dug into her past as a woman of ill repute to teach proper ladies the ways of the bedroom. The lionesses, as they were known, comprised of Chloe, her sisters-in-law, the Marchioness of Eastleigh and the Duchess of Weston, as well as their friend, Viscountess Hastings. They met under the guise of having tea together. Of course, their tea was doused heavily with sherry and the topics they discussed would make most ladies blush. Perhaps the ladies in attendance did blush, but Grace couldn’t know for sure since she spent the hour outside the room, rather than in. Blasted Chloe. It wasn’t the married women who needed the education—they had their husbands to teach them the ins and outs of the marital bed. But her sister insisted the drawing room was no place for an unmarried young lady on the days Mrs. Finch was in attendance. Little did Chloe know that her clever younger sister had discovered the perfect spot for eavesdropping on their little meetings. On slippered feet, Grace made her way swiftly down the staircase, along the short corridor past the drawing room door, and out to the terrace. Then she descended the few steps into the garden and snuck around the corner of the house until she stood just outside the drawing room windows, which her sister always kept open on nice, sunny days. Grace had missed two and a half meetings due to rain—the half because it started to rain midway through one afternoon. Thankfully, no one had questioned why she was drenched when she returned to the house. Today, the sun was bright in the sky and a cool breeze caressed her cheeks. Chloe, as anticipated, had left the windows open, and the ladies’ voices wafted clearly from inside. “Now, my ladies, what would you like to discuss this week?” Mrs. Finch asked in her thick cockney. Grace held her breath. She prayed every week that Chloe wouldn’t be an active participant in the conversation. There were some things she didn’t need to know about her sister’s marital life. Thankfully, the outspoken Duchess of Hart was the first to speak. “Well, the duke and I tried something…new this last week,” the duchess said, a sly edge to her voice. Grace leaned in so as not to miss a word. “You see, I found this illustration tucked into one of the books in our library…” There was a collective gasp followed by a good amount of giggling. Grace wanted to kick the wall. How unfair she couldn’t see this scandalous picture. How would she know what they were talking about? She really hated it when they brought visual aids. “Good heavens, Katherine,” came the voice of Phoebe, Marchioness of Eastleigh. She may have sounded scandalized, but Grace knew there was very little that could shock the marchioness, based on the stories she’d shared of her own marital relations. “Wasn’t it…uncomfortable?” “A bit, at first,” replied the duchess. “But eventually, I didn’t care. It was so, so…” “Blissful?” Mrs. Finch offered. “Perfectly.” The duchess sighed and Grace was almost certain she’d melted into her chair. Blast it all! What were they talking about? After their giggling died down, the Viscountess Hastings asked with great perplexity in her tone, “So…how does it work?” Grace leaned closer to the window. This was what she needed to know. “Well,” Mrs. Finch began, “of course you have to be standing up, as the picture indicates…” “Standing!” Apparently, Chloe was scandalized by this idea. “Isn’t that what the picture depicts?” Mrs. Finch asked, rhetorically, of course. “And you’d have to bend over, just so…” More giggling from inside; more frustration from out. Grace needed them to describe the details in words, not in gestures. Perhaps she could dare to peek through the window. She had no way of knowing if any of the ladies were facing her, and she’d never, ever, in all her time sitting outside this window, dreamed of peeking in. But she was getting desperate. She elevated herself on tiptoe and strained to see through the bottom corner of the window. Mrs. Finch was bent in an awkward position, her round bottom in the air, as the other women looked on with mixed expressions of both horror and delight. Grace stifled her own giggle as she watched the woman contort herself in demonstration. Goodness, would Grace be able to achieve such a feat? She took a mental note of Mrs. Finch’s position—leg raised, other foot on tiptoe, slightly bent over—lowered herself to her flat feet, and attempted to mimic the move. It wasn’t terribly comfortable. As a matter of fact, Grace was certain she looked downright silly. This couldn’t be right. However could someone perform this act in the nude? And how would anyone derive pleasure from it if they were so concerned about performing such a move? She contorted herself further, trying to make it more comfortable, but she really only felt as if she were in a giant knot. It was in that moment that Tabitha, her sister’s fluffy orange cat, decided to wind herself around Grace’s ankles. “Shoo, Tabby,” she hissed, but Tabby wouldn’t be shoo’d. Instead, she mewled and butted her head against Grace’s shin. “Are you quite all right, miss?” Grace shot up so quickly she sent Tabitha running, then bumped her head on the window ledge and stumbled backwards until her back slammed against the wall of the house. “Ow.” She winced, as she rubbed her throbbing head. Where the devil had he come from? “Dear God,” he muttered. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.” Grace finally looked up and promptly forgot about her aching head. Goodness, he was handsome. No, handsome didn’t quite fit him. Striking, perhaps. Dangerous, for certain. He had long, dark hair pulled together loosely at his nape, and he wore a beard and mustache that were rather unkempt, as if he’d simply forgotten to shave for the last several days. He stood just on the other side of the wall that divided Chloe’s property from the neighbor’s. He must have been on a ladder to be able to see her. Either that or he was a distant cousin of Goliath. He wasn’t at all the type of man Grace would normally pay attention to, but then why did she find herself so tongue-tied and nervous? Heavens, what must he think of her? He was waiting for her to say something, and here she was, staring at him with her mouth agape. “Well, you did,” she finally hissed back, her cheeks aflame with embarrassment. “I swear to you, that was not my intention.” His voice was rather booming, so Grace waved her hands wildly to get him to quiet down. If Chloe discovered she was out here, she’d be livid. “I’m sorry,” he said, lowering his voice. “Is there a reason we need to be quiet?” “Um…well—” She cast a glance toward the window and then back at the stranger. A chorus of giggles rang through the air, and the stranger’s eyebrows shot up. “Ah,” he whispered with an amused grin. “Eavesdropping?” Grace was, of course, eavesdropping, but the way he said the word made it sound so…sinful. She crossed her arms over her chest and stuck her nose in the air. “That, sir, is none of your business.” “…and then his prick will go in this way!” Mrs. Finch’s shrill voice cut through the quiet of the afternoon, sending a flush of heat from Grace’s toes all the way to her cheeks. She was certain her stranger was staring at her aghast, but she’d never know for sure. She was far too embarrassed to look at him again, and instead mumbled an excuse and ran as fast as she could away from that blasted window. Evan Gilford, Duke of Somerset, stared dumbfounded after the curious young woman. She was rather quick on her feet—for a girl, at least—and her silken blonde locks shimmered in the sunlight as she bounded through Wetherby’s garden. Who was that eavesdropping little chit with the most perfect Cupid’s bow lips in all of England? He shook his head. It didn’t really matter, did it? For one, she looked as though she was fresh from the schoolroom. She couldn’t have been more than seventeen—far too young for his advanced years. No, at three-and-thirty, he ought to be looking for someone a bit more mature. Certainly not one who hides in gardens and listens at windows? No. He shook his head again. He ought not to be looking for anyone at all. Damn. Why was it so hard to remember he was already engaged? Perhaps because he’d been betrothed since he was a young boy—too young to understand what marriage and betrothals and all that nonsense meant. Once he was old enough to understand, he begged his father to send him to the Continent for a year or two on his Grand Tour. He got as far as Paris, fell in love with the city and his freedom, and those two years turned into fifteen, despite pressure from all sides to come home and marry his betrothed. He should have listened. Better yet, he never should have left England. He could have found a way to break off the engagement all those years ago, before she was even of age to marry. But now she’d been waiting for him—the poor, pathetic woman—for nearly eight years. If he abandoned her now, at the ripe old age of six-and-twenty, he’d be the worst sort of cad, wouldn’t he? He would condemn her to a life of spinsterhood. And he would break the bond their families had shared for three generations. Or perhaps his family would only break their bond with him. He couldn’t imagine his mother ever forgiving him for such a thing. And his father would surely spin in his grave. Evan ignored the tugging and twisting in his heart at the thought of his father. Was it his fault the old man had decided to die suddenly of a heart condition while Evan was abroad? By the time his sister’s letter found him, Father had been weeks in his grave already. There was nothing to be done. He could only hope his father died knowing how much his son had revered and respected him, despite him embracing a culture his father had long despised. “Evan, are you out here?” His sister’s voice rang from the veranda of their townhome, and the raucous laughter inside the neighbor’s home died down a moment later. Surely those women knew they could be heard from out here, didn’t they? “Evan?” “Coming,” he called back, and then chuckled at the gasp he heard from inside Wetherby’s house. That was, he chuckled until he realized they might think he was the one eavesdropping on them. Damn it all. He hopped down from his bench and walked quickly down the garden path, toward the house. His sister stood at the top of the garden stairs. He might have been biased, but he’d always thought she was the very picture of loveliness. Her mahogany hair was swept into a loose chignon at the base of her neck, and as always, she wore a pleasant smile upon her rosy lips. She was a most agreeable creature, with a lovely disposition and a heart of pure gold, which was why Evan hated that she’d married the greatest prig in all of England. Yet another mark upon his already guilty conscience. He never would have let Mother force Hannah’s hand to Beeston. He could have prevented the marriage had he been here, but there was nothing for it now. Only to mentally flog himself for his extended absence. “I didn’t want you to miss tea,” Hannah said as he climbed the staircase toward her. “Mother is waiting for us in the drawing room.” “Many thanks, Bunny.” He winked, knowing that she both loved and hated her childhood moniker. As a child, he’d thought of her as gentle and fragile as a baby rabbit, and so the nickname had stuck. “I’m not as sweet and innocent as I once was, you know?” She turned on her heel as Evan reached the top step and they walked toward the house together. “Don’t I know it,” he replied, not bothering to hide the bitterness that laced his tone. “Will Beeston be joining us?” He knew the answer, but he never missed an opportunity to speak the blackguard’s name with disgust. Hannah huffed as she preceded him over the threshold. “You’ll be happy to know Beeston is busy this afternoon.” She stopped suddenly and turned to Evan. “I know how you feel about him. You don’t have to needle me at every turn.” “But, I—” “I am the one who has to live with him, not you. I know what he’s about—I’m not naïve. But what would you have me do?” Murder him in his sleep? Hannah narrowed her eyes. “I know what you’re thinking and it’s not amusing in the least.” Damn. “All that time at the card tables perfecting the perfect look of impassivity, and my sister can read me like a bloody open book.” His sister raised her eyebrows. “Perfect look of impassivity?” She gave a tittering laugh. “You might want to keep practicing, dear brother.” She turned and began walking again toward the drawing room. Evan followed, slightly dejected by his usually sweeter-than-sugar sister. What had happened to her? Of course, he had been gone for fifteen years. Long enough for her to grow and mature into a woman. She was thirty now—no longer a child—and Evan couldn’t help but regret that he’d left when he did. Especially knowing she’d been left to her husband’s mercies, God help him. Regret, regret, regret. That seemed to be his whole life now. Just a string of regrets, and every time he thought of one it made the guilty pit in his stomach that much bigger. But he had to shove it down—ruthlessly ignore that feeling. One could never show weakness to the Duchess of Somerset. Or, as he called her, Mother. Evan followed his sister through the open doors of the drawing room. Their mother sat at the small round table, which was draped in a hideous floral tablecloth, her back ramrod straight and her eyes filled with disdain. “I’m glad you could finally join us,” she said pointedly to Evan. “I’ve something I wish to discuss with you.” Oh, Lord. It was never good when the duchess had “something to discuss” with them. It meant she had orders to dictate, which she expected the other person to carry out in as efficient a manner as she would fulfill the orders herself. Protesting was pointless. “Good afternoon, Mother.” Evan attempted to needle her for her lack of manners. Of course it never really worked. Mother didn’t tend to care what her children thought of her—only what Society thought. And what they thought was the Duchess of Somerset was one of the most fearsome creatures on the planet. Evan had to agree. Even at his advanced age, the woman still incited a good deal of terror in his heart. He wasn’t exactly sure why, though, when it came right down to it. She had never beat him or humiliated him or thrown him in a dungeon for days on end. It was just…her. Her entire demeanor said she could do those things if she felt so inclined, so most everyone held their tongues in her presence, wait out the proverbial storm, and pray she wouldn’t speak ill of them in the aftermath, which she almost always did anyway. “Sit down.” Evan did as he was told. She waited a moment, obviously in an attempt to drive him mad, and then said, “Lord Hedley wants you to set a date. Immediately.” The fact she said these words with so little emotion as she dropped a cube of sugar into her tea sent a cold chill up Evan’s spine. How could she be so nonchalant about this? It was his wedding day, not an evening at Vauxhall, for God’s sake. A day he’d been avoiding for fifteen years. It sounded like such a very long time, yet here he was, so close to the day he’d been dreading all that time. When he said nothing, his mother continued. “Lady Alicia and her father will join us for supper tonight. The decision will be made by the time they leave.” A pit formed in Evan’s stomach. He hadn’t seen Lady Alicia since she was a girl—eleven to be exact. She’d been pretty and agreeable enough then, but what was she like as an adult? What had fifteen years of waiting done to her? Would she still be agreeable, or would she take her first opportunity to deliver a swift kick to his manhood? Either way, he couldn’t put it off any longer. They were coming to dinner, and short of being struck with an ailment that would put him on his deathbed, Evan wasn’t getting out of it. “Fine, Mother,” he finally replied. “I look forward to seeing them both.” She eyed him warily. Did she know he was lying? He shrugged. What did it matter? He would do his duty by Lady Alicia, no matter what. He’d spent fifteen years being less-than-honorable, but he was the duke now. It was time to become the man his father always hoped he would be. “What were you doing outside before, Evan?” Hannah asked from her seat beside him. What was he doing? Hmm. How to answer that. Watching a strikingly beautiful young woman contort herself in awkward positions while eavesdropping on a most inappropriate conversation? “Just taking some air,” he said with a tight half-smile. “It is a lovely day, isn’t it?” Hannah smiled back with a pointed look. She knew he was lying, but she would never give him up—at least she was still the same in that regard. They’d always looked out for one another, until he’d left, of course. Then poor Bunny was on her own and had fallen prey to that blasted Beeston. Evan resisted the urge to kick his own leg under the table. “Bright sun, a cool breeze—one cannot ask for more in terms of weather.” “Perhaps. But one could certainly ask for more in terms of conversation.” Mother heaved a sigh laden with annoyance at her dull children. “Evan, I trust you’ll be taking up your seat in the House of Lords now that you’re back.” Evan shifted in his seat, trying to alleviate the squirming in his stomach. Yet another thing he had dreaded in coming back to England—another reason he’d stayed away so long—he had no interest in politics or bumbling around Westminster with his peers. He ought to have been studying diplomacy and government while he was in Paris, but he just couldn’t avail himself of such topics. He much preferred to sit in a coffee shop and listen to poetry or talk about art with his friends. But he couldn’t tell his mother that. His father had been hugely involved in politics, and he’d groomed his son to be as well. Evan just couldn’t muster the passion for it, though. “Yes, of course, Mother,” he lied. “Just as soon as this wedding business is settled.” “You needn’t wait. Lady Alicia and I will take care of the details. Just make sure you’re at St. George’s on time.” She took a dainty sip of her tea through pursed lips and set the cup down again. “Now, Hannah…” His sister shifted in her seat beside him. “Yes, Mother,” she replied, her tone meek and full of dread. “Have you any plans to give Beeston an heir? Whatever is taking so long?” Uncomfortable silence fell over the room. Evan shifted his gaze from his mother’s hardened features to his sister’s fallen expression. Poor Bunny. She didn’t deserve this. She had the worst husband any woman could ever want, and one would argue the worst mother too. Then a small smile came to her lips. Evan narrowed his eyes at her, but she wouldn’t look at him, only at Mother. “Actually…” she said softly, “I was going to wait to make the announcement, but…” For the first time that afternoon, the duchess broke out into her version of a smile. It was more like a grimace, as if it caused her great pain to contort her lips in an upward fashion, but Evan knew it was a smile nonetheless. “Well, it’s about time.” She straightened her spine—as if it could have gotten any straighter—and took another sip of tea. “I’m just glad that’s settled. I was beginning to wonder if you were barren. What a shame that would have been for Beeston.” Evan looked to his sister. She still wore the pleasant smile on her lips, but it didn’t quite meet her eyes. Mother was a harsh, unfeeling woman, and he was sure Hannah was disappointed in her reaction to the joyful news. He grabbed his sister’s hand, which rested on the table, and gave it a squeeze. “Congratulations, Bunny,” he said tenderly, attempting make up for Mother’s cold response. “You’ll make a wonderful mother.” “Not that it matters,” Mother put in. “You’ll have nursemaids and governesses to raise the children.” “And what will I do?” Hannah wondered. The duchess looked at Hannah as if she’d suddenly sprouted three heads. “Do? Why, oversee a smooth household, of course. Didn’t that finishing school teach you anything? I knew I should have sent you to Mrs. Darniere’s, but you were so insistent on that blasted Bloomsbury school. Ladies Eton, indeed. If your father hadn’t been so soft of heart you would have had a much better education.” Silence fell over the room again, during which Evan prayed his mother wouldn’t stay in London for the entire Season. Perhaps if he set the wedding date sooner rather than later, she would retreat to Ballyston Court early. One could only hope. “Well,” the duchess said, dabbing her mouth and setting her napkin on the table. “I’ve had enough. Kitty—” she gestured to her companion who, Evan only just realized, sat quietly in the far corner of the room— “I shall retire for my nap now.” Kitty rushed to her side, and took her arm. Evan could feel the tension easing from his sister as Mother left the room, and they both sighed in relief when Kitty pulled the door closed behind her. Evan was about to open his mouth to console his sister in the aftermath of Mother’s harshness, but she spoke first. “I think I’m rather exhausted myself,” she said. “I want to make sure I’m well rested before tonight’s supper.” “Oh, of course, Bunny. You need your rest.” She gave him a half smile and a slight nod before taking her leave. Evan watched her go, and it wasn’t until she was completely out of sight that he realized he’d not had a chance to ask about the neighbor girl. Oh, well. It was no matter. Lady Alicia was his betrothed, and she was the only girl he needed worry about. * * * More The Temptation of the Duke About Jerrica Knight-Catania USA Today Best Selling Author, Jerrica Knight-Catania, knew from an early age that she was destined for romance. She would spend hours as a young girl sitting in a chair by an open window, listening to the rain, and dreaming of the day Prince Charming would burst in and declare his undying love for her. But it wasn't until she was 28-years-old, tired of her life in the theater, that she turned her focus toward writing Regency Romance novels. All her dreaming paid off, and she now gets to relive those romantic scenes she'd dreamt up as a child as she commits them to paper. She lives in sunny Palm Beach with her real life Prince Charming, their Princess-in-training and their aristocat, Dr. Snuggle. * * * Visit Jerrica's official website to learn more about her other books, the Wetherby family and to see what's new in her writing world! Connect With Jerrica @JerricaKC princess.jewel www.JerricasPlace.com Michelle Marcos Knave Vs. Spy KNAVE VS SPY Priscilla Pembroke is the perfect spy—female, forty, and practically invisible. No one would ever suspect a proper American lady of carrying seditious documents that could well become a prelude to war with England. But when her ship is cannonballed to splinters—and she is unable to swim—both her mission to end slavery and her life are about to come to a tragic end. At twenty-five, Camran Slayter is set to become captain of a Royal Navy ship. The scars on his body offer a tour of his hard life, but the sea allows him to escape his troubled past. When he rescues the tantalizing woman from drowning, he never suspected it would put his entire naval career in peril. The American agent proves more trouble than she is worth…until he starts to fall for her. That’s when it becomes really dangerous. Priscilla is involved in a deadly chess game, one which makes her a traitor on two continents. But when she is captured and interrogated by the ruggedly handsome Scotsman, and he strips her of her secrets one by one, she realizes that the most dangerous threat of all is yet to come… Prologue FIVE MILES FROM RAVENS CRAIG HOUSE ROSS-SHIRE, SCOTLAND TWENTY YEARS BEFORE He tried. But even a murderer like him couldn’t kill a child. His breath made white puffs in the chill Highland night as he paused to hear if anyone was following him. The little boy remained perched in the crook of his elbow, making not a sound. Fair is fair. All he was entitled to—all he’d demanded—was the death of MacAslan’s oldest sons. And he’d had his pound of flesh…both of the eldest lay dead by his hand. But the clan required more of him. They wanted all the MacAslan males exterminated. Even the five-year-old. He’d do anything for his clan. But murder a boy? It breached the limits of his loyalty. The moonlight lit his steps as he ran, the boy bouncing in his arms. Mayhap the boy would die anyway. After all the child had been through—seeing his mother, father and brothers slaughtered on the kitchen floor, and having his wee hand branded with the sign of the slaighteur—mayhap the good Lord would take him just to free him from the agony of reliving this horrific night. But if the boy was to die, it was for the good Lord to do. The boy would not die at the hands of Angus Buchanan. The child remained quiet. Tears still glistened in his eyes, but bless him, he made not a sound. Mayhap he sensed that Angus was trying to save his young life. Bah. It’d be a lie, and Angus well knew it. Angus wasn’t trying to save the boy so much as himself. Faces of the men Angus had killed throughout the years still haunted his dreams. But he’d be damned if he’d let this child’s ghost be added to his night terrors. The ground began to vibrate with the thunder of horses’ hooves. The Buchanans saw him steal the boy, and now they were looking for him. He had to hide. Forsaking the path, he ran through the dark forest, leaping over the dense undergrowth and swerving around the deer traps. He cut through his own farmland, his ghillied feet squashing turnip plants and snapping barley stalks. Exhausted, he fell against his front door. “Beatrice, let me in!” he shouted in a hoarse whisper. A lit lantern swung in the darkened house as his common-law wife came to the door. He bolted past her and set the child upon their kitchen table. She wrapped a thin shawl around her night frock. “Angus? What the de’il’ is going on? Whose bairn is that?” He struggled to catch his breath. “He belongs…to the…MacAslans.” “The MacAslans?” She spat the name. “But didn’t ye go there to—” “Aye. ’Twas my knife that took the lives of Thomas and Hamish.” The news of his revenge didn’t seem to please her. “Then what’s that boy doing here?” He gripped the wooden pitcher with a bloodied hand and downed the stale ale in two swallows. “’Twas a bloodier battle than I’d expected. John MacAslan and his woman tried to protect their family, but the clan overpowered ’em. Another of John’s sons, a young lad named Malcolm, attacked Seamus. He was killed too.” “Just as well. The McCullough said only the lasses were to be spared.” “The lasses were no’ harmed. But…there was this wee one. God help me, I couldna cut down this wee one.” “What the de’il is the matter with ye? Do ye know what would happen if The McCullough found out ye had disobeyed him?” “I know, I know!” His raised voice broke the stillness of the house. “Just let me think, won’t ye?” “He’d destroy us, Angus. He’d take everything we own and our lives too, make no mistake. If The McCullough wants all the MacAslan boys dead, then dead ye should make ’em.” Angus shot a beleaguered glance at the child. Camran, that was his name. His mother had shouted it during the scuffle before they sliced her throat. The boy had the most mournful eyes…eyes that were bleeding innocence with every passing second. Aye, those eyes would surely torment his dreams. “I canno’.” Her back arched like a viper about to strike. “Ye’re a craven coward. Because of those MacAslans, I lost both my sons in battle yesterday.” “Don’t ye think I know that? They were my sons too. I weep for ’em as much as ye do.” “Then the MacAslan seed must no’ be allowed to thrive. If the bodies of my sons must fill the ground, then so will theirs. I want justice!” “Damn it, woman! An eye for an eye, that’s justice. We killed their three eldest sons, and John and Fiona lost their lives protecting ’em. That’s five of theirs for two of ours. How much more blood must be shed before ye’ll stop yer wailing?” She tightened her night shawl around her shoulders, the deep circles under her eyes darkening. “For my two sons, ’twill never be enough.” With as much dignity as she could muster, she marched toward the bedroom. In the doorway, she halted. “Get rid of that boy,” she spat over her shoulder. “He’ll draw The McCullough here like flies to shite.” Through the open window, Angus heard the horses’ hooves pounding on the dirt path leading to his farm. They were not far off now. And they were coming for him. He lifted the boy in his arms and ran to the woodshed out back. Piles of firewood littered the room, and axes and scythes hung from the walls. Angus plopped the boy down on a wooden table. The boy looked at him with the most bewildered expression. So much ugliness had entered those large green eyes in the last two hours, more ugliness than any one soul should know in ten lifetimes. He would grow up scarred from this ordeal. But by heaven, he would grow up. With lightning speed, he ripped off all the boy’s clothes. Though naked and shivering, the boy hardly protested. Angus had no time for gentleness. What he was about to do, it had to be convincing. The Buchanans had to believe it, or there would be hell to pay. He went to the paddock and brought back a suckling goat. He lifted the bleating animal and set it down roughly upon the boy’s clothes. Pulling a hatchet from the wall, he chopped the animal’s head off. Blood splashed on the boy and this time, he whimpered. Angus shushed him. When the clothes were soaked through with the blood, he shoved them into the satchel hanging from his belt. “Now listen to me, boy. There’s them ootside who’d have ye dead. And that’s what they’re going to hear from me. I’ll tell them I’ve killed ye and left ye oot in the woods. These bloody clothes will bear my witness. So don’t ye make a sound. If ye bleat, then it’ll be yer head lying next to the goat’s. Do ye ken?” The boy nodded, staring at the beheaded goat. Silent tears screamed his anguish. The boy’s expression tore something up inside Angus. “Do no’ fret, lad. Tonight ye’ll be no more. But tomorrow, ye’ll live again.” Chapter One SOMEWHERE ALONG THE ATLANTIC OCEAN 1819 * * * Priscilla Pembroke had a secret between her thighs. Two, actually, if she counted the one that she’d be willing to offer the handsome gentleman in first class. She shoved a windblown strand of black hair back into her wide-brimmed leghorn bonnet. Mr. Lonnigan, architect of Boston, Massachusetts, was just the sort of man she’d always fancied—a touch of gray silvering the blond hair at his temples, crinkles at the corners of his blue eyes, and immaculate clothing that bespoke a goodly fortune. A glass of aged whiskey in his hand, he chatted amiably with the captain on the deck of the packet ship. He had the deep voice and thunderous laugh of an actor on a theatrical stage, and her gaze sought him out like a compass needle points true north. Goodness, what a delicious-looking specimen of masculinity. He was making her go quite giddy. Giddy? What on earth was the matter with her? She was a woman of mature years, decades past her coming-out. Ladies of her age did not go giddy. And yet here she was, eyeing Mr. Lonnigan voraciously from behind the rim of her teacup. The salty ocean breeze lifted the tails of his hunter green double-breasted coat, revealing a hard curve to his derriere. The wind flattened the panel at the front of his trousers until she could just about see the generous bulge of his— A flash of buttercup yellow darted in front of Mr. Lonnigan, blocking Priscilla’s view. The pretty nineteen-year-old smiled up into his face, apologizing seductively for bumping into him. Priscilla growled discreetly into her Darjeeling. Damn that girl! It was bad enough that Priscilla had to pretend to be Brigitte Bessette’s abigail as a cover identity for her mission. But a whole flock of chaperones wouldn’t be enough keep the libidinous chit in check. Brigitte twirled a finger around a blond curl at her nape, and Mr. Lonnigan was mesmerized. The little tart. Just look at the scandalous way she squeezed his forearm with her ungloved hand, and the way she batted her long dark lashes so fast that it could send a gale-force wind blowing into his hair. French girls! Priscilla didn’t know which made her more nauseous: the movement of the ship on the choppy water, or the revolting way that her charge flirted with anything in trousers. If she got any closer to the man, she may as well take his surname. The Mercury crested a wave, making Priscilla’s insides leap and plummet. The westerly journey to New York from Le Havre would already be torturous enough without the harsh weather and the close quarters and the mal de mer, but watching Mademoiselle Codpiece-Chaser coyly flirt with Mr. Lonnigan was going to make the voyage seem to last for centuries. “Brigitte,” she said archly. “Please do me the goodness of joining me at tea.” A chaperone worth her salt would discourage a young lady’s unsupervised discourse with an unmarried gentleman. Yet if she was honest with herself, what demanded that Priscilla pull the girl away from him was not duty or scruples. It was something altogether less noble. Brigitte shrugged her pert shoulders and whispered something to Mr. Lonnigan. Whatever it was she told him, he grinned expansively, which made the crinkles around his eyes deepen. Anger flamed in Priscilla chest. If Little Miss French Drawers was making fun of Priscilla to Mr. Lonnigan, she’d toss the doxy overboard when no one was looking. Brigitte turned her back on Mr. Lonnigan and sauntered toward Priscilla’s table. The little cat’s hips swayed provocatively beneath the Parisian yellow muslin, sending an unspoken invitation to whoever cared to watch. And Mr. Lonnigan watched. Just as Brigitte slid into the bench, Mr. Lonnigan began to stroll over to their table. Priscilla held her breath as his boots pounded upon the boards of the deck. When his shadow fell upon the teapot, Priscilla gazed up into his handsome face. Mr. Lonnigan tipped his hat. “Good afternoon, Miss Parsons.” “Good afternoon, Mr. Lonnigan,” she answered. Dear Lord, please don’t let there be any shortbread crumbs on the bosom of my dress. “How do you this day?” “Very well, thank you. Miss Brigitte was telling me that the first mate intends to hold a reel tonight for the passengers’ pleasure, right here on the upper deck.” “Really?” The giddiness was returning in full force. “Do you enjoy an interest in music, Miss Parsons?” “Yes, I do, Mr. Lonnigan. In fact, I was taught to play the piano as a child. Of course, I can’t claim to have any great talent at it. I once asked my piano tutor how I might improve the sound of my playing, and he responded, ‘Sell the piano.’” To Priscilla’s great joy, Mr. Lonnigan laughed. A delightful, deep-chested, masculine laugh. “You do have a wonderful sense of humor, Miss Parsons. Perhaps you’ll be kind enough to share it with me tonight. I intend to attend the reel, and as you two are the only unmarried ladies traveling in first class, I was hoping you might accompany me.” Priscilla’s stomach started catapulting inside her, only this time it had nothing to do with the rocking of the ship. “I don’t know, Mr. Lonnigan.” “Please. Dancing is a great passion of mine.” He smirked at her. “One of them, anyway.” A merry titter escaped her. Oh, heavens—did she just giggle? “Well, I see no reason why we should deny ourselves a little enjoyment. I’d be delighted.” “Outstanding.” He turned to the girl. “Miss Brigitte, it appears we are going to be able to dance after all. I shall take my leave for the time being, but I’ll be counting the moments until tonight.” There was a seductive charge in the lingering kiss he gave the girl’s naked hand. As he strode away, he stopped and turned on his heel. “Oh, and you must save me a dance, too, Miss Parsons.” Priscilla’s heart sank to familiar depths. Foolish woman. Of course Mr. Lonnigan only wanted to dance with the beautiful nineteen-year-old. Why would any man of good looks and sound fortune be interested in a woman of forty? She inhaled sharply, the breath seeping into her crushed chest. It happened every time she began to fancy a gentleman. First hope, then disappointment. If she would only give up the dream of being pursued, she would no longer have to endure the crushing blow of being passed over. It’s why you’ve been chosen, Senator Danforth had told her. You’re a clever, daring and resourceful woman, Mrs. Pembroke. But to put it bluntly, you’re also female, forty, and forgettable. No one would peg you for a spy. Your greatest asset is that you are invisible. She stared into her dishwater-colored tea. Invisible. That was the quality that had characterized her entire life. And when sitting next to Mademoiselle Brigitte Bessette, she of the milky skin and kittenish eyes, Priscilla may as well be a cast-iron skillet. Brigitte’s full pink lips spread across her straight white teeth. “Sank you so much, Mees Parsons. I want very much to dance. And ’e is very ’andsome, is ’e not?” Priscilla glanced at the sly smile on Brigitte’s face. Just like many young ladies her age, Brigitte was too absorbed in her own emotions and desires to be mindful of anyone else’s. One of the curses of youth was its utter selfishness. Still, she’d be petty to begrudge the fluffy young girl her irrepressible joy. Youth and beauty may be behind Priscilla now, but not her memory of them. “Very handsome indeed,” she replied, placing a third piece of shortbread on her plate. If she was going to be invisible, then it didn’t matter if her hips spread just a hairsbreadth more. “But ought you to set your sights on such a man as he? After all, Mr. Lonnigan is even older than your father.” “Yes, but it is very—’ow you say?—ennuyeuse aboard zis ship. Ze dance tonight will be ze only exciting zing to happen on zis entire voyage. And zere are so many interesting gentlemen.” Perhaps it was for the best. The girl was a lightning rod for masculine attention. The more interest Brigitte drew, the less Priscilla would attract. For a spy, that was a strategic advantage. Beneath the table, Priscilla clasped her hands daintily at her lap. The tip of her gloved finger outlined the corners of a letter sewn into the secret panel of her petticoat. It was a message of such monumental import that its successful delivery would impact the history of nations on three continents. Her mission was to see it conveyed safely into the hands of the President of the United States. Whatever the cost. Just then, the first mate ran past their table. He hurriedly whispered something to the captain, and then both men ran across the deck. Priscilla put down the shortbread, her senses bristling instantly. She may possess the dubious asset of being invisible, but she always benefitted from a keen instinct which warned her of impending danger. “Brigitte, stay here. I’ll be right back.” “Where are you going?” Brigitte’s tawny eyebrows drew together. “To stretch my legs. Have your tea while it’s still hot.” Priscilla followed the two men to the ship’s stern. On the horizon, another ship was speedily approaching. The mate raised the telescope to one eye. “A brig-of-war, sir. She’s flying the colors of Spain.” “Navy or privateer?” “I cannot tell,” he replied. “But she’s coming straight for us.” In no time, the superior size of the warship’s sails drew her alongside the smaller packet ship, until both ships were cutting through the water about twenty yards apart. A man on the deck of the Conquistador shouted through a speaking trumpet. “En el nombre del rey de España, preparen a ser abordado!” “He means to board us, Captain,” said the mate. “He has no authority to do so. Maintain our course and speed.” “Aye, sir.” The brig cruised closer to the packet’s starboard side, dwarfing it. The Spaniard’s voice carried even more clearly now. “Detenganse inmediatamente! Aferren las velas!” “We most certainly will not,” muttered the captain. He cupped his hands on either side of his mouth and shouted his response. “This is a private transport vessel of the United States traveling in international waters. On what grounds do you intend to detain us?” The Spaniard translated for his superior officer. Then he raised the trumpet back to his mouth. “Espionaje.” The captain turned incredulous eyes on his first mate. “Is he insane?” As the captain argued with the man on the other vessel, Priscilla’s heartbeat raced. Unconsciously, she feathered a hand down the front of her dress. How on earth did the Spanish find her? Suddenly, Priscilla’s world began to close in on her. Prominent people in several countries, if they knew what she’d been doing, would surely want her dead. Escape, if it came to that, was impossible. Miles of ocean surrounded her on every side. “Este es su ultimo aviso. Recojan velas o le disparamos.” “What in hell—?” The captain lowered his telescope. “Stubbs! The Spanish are threatening to fire on us. Ready the ship’s cannons!” A bell on the deck clanged repeatedly. Crewmen ran for battle stations. By now, some of the steerage passengers had surfaced to the deck, wondering what all the commotion was about. Mr. Lonnigan leaned on the railing a few feet away from Priscilla. “Do not fire,” shouted the Mercury’s captain to the warship across the water. “This is not a spy ship. We are carrying civilians and parcel mail only. We are not harboring any spies.” Priscilla cast a worried glance over the railing and down the hull of the Mercury. Three black cannon muzzles were pushed out of the gun ports toward the Conquistador, which was armed with no less than twelve on each side. In the span of a heartbeat, Priscilla waged war with herself. Her orders were to stay incognito and deliver the secret dispatch to Washington, DC. After all, many good American men had risked all to make this exchange with the French government. She herself was fully prepared to give her life for the mission. But she could not in good conscience wager the lives of innocent people. She had neither the right nor the desire to sacrifice them for the cause. And yet if her letter was discovered by the enemy, the cost to her countrymen would be catastrophic. The question now became this: Should she risk lives now, or risk lives later? Priscilla hiked up her skirts and ran to the quarterdeck. “Captain! Captain!” The captain turned his weathered face upon her. “Not now, Miss...er—” Priscilla suppressed her irritation. She’d had three conversations with the man since they left port. “Parsons, I’m traveling with Brigitte Bess—.” “Yes, yes. The chaperone.” He turned his attention back to the threat across the water. For a tortured moment, Priscilla contemplated what surrender would mean. Her arrest and execution, surely, but also the secret mission that so many had undertaken and risked all for. Everything that she had believed in and worked toward…gone. But if she didn’t turn herself in to the Spanish, they would certainly attack the Mercury. There were innocent children aboard the ship. “Captain, I have to tell you something.” “This isn’t a good time, Miss Parsons.” “You don’t understand, Captain. I know why the Spanish—” “Not now, damn you!” “But captain!” And then she heard it. It was in Spanish, but she knew exactly what it meant. “Apunten…fuego!” She felt it before she heard it. The ship jolted as a cannonball ripped through the hull. Priscilla’s gloved fingers slipped the railing and she fell backwards down the stairs. She landed with a thud on the deck as screaming passengers scurried past in blind panic. The Mercury’s cannons fired back in quick succession, hoping that a volley of fire would compensate for the questionable destructive power of its six-pound cannonballs. It didn’t. The Conquistador delivered a broadside of twelve-pound cannon fire, splintering the Mercury’s hull. The ship keeled as it began to take on water from the jagged holes. Screams came from down below. Panic gripped Priscilla. The Spanish had no intention of seizing the ship. They wanted it sunk, taking every life on board. And if the ship sank, she’d be the first under the water, because she was completely unable to swim. Chaos broke out on the deck. Passengers scrambled to find their family members. She had to find Brigitte and get aboard one of the longboats that were being unleashed from their moorings. It was foolish to have come this far to both lose her life and fail at her mission. She spotted Brigitte near the mainmast. Fear twisted her beautiful features, paralyzing her into inaction. She looked like a small child lost in a crowd. Priscilla ran up to her and grabbed her hand. “Come with me. We have to get to one of the dinghies.” She slipped her hand out of Priscilla’s. “Wait. My bagage.” “There’s no time to get your luggage!” As if to affirm Priscilla’s statement, another blast rocked the ship, and they both fell to the ground. This time the ship tilted sideways into the water, dropping people into the Atlantic. They were aboard a floating coffin. Priscilla and Brigitte slid across the deck, but managed to latch onto ropes hanging from the mainmast. The ship fought valiantly to stay afloat, but there was no hope now. Half the deck was submerged, and seawater frothed at the surface. Priscilla’s heart pounded in her throat. The danger of her predicament hit her full force. That they were going into the water was now a dead certainty. That she couldn’t swim was a regrettable fact. But if they clung to the mainmast, they’d get swept under the large sails, trapped like birds in a sinking net. “Brigitte, listen to me. We have to jump.” Tears streamed down her dewy cheeks. “Non! I cannot swim!” “I know how you feel. But when this ship goes under, it’ll kill us if we’re anywhere near it.” Slowly, the deck began to disappear into the water. “Aidez-moi!” she cried. “No one can save us!” Priscilla yelled. “You’ve got to trust me. When you fall into the water, move as far away from the ship as you can or it will pull you under. Find something to cling to. Do you understand?” She nodded, but remained unconvinced. Priscilla heard the rushing of water, and realized that they had only a few seconds left. “On the count of three. Ready?” Brigitte nodded. “One—two—three!” Terrified, Priscilla took a deep breath and released the rope. She crashed into the chilly water. And vanished beneath the vast ocean. * * * More Knave Vs. Spy About Michelle Marcos Michelle Marcos has finally reconciled herself with being thought eccentric. She lives with an unlucky number of cats and struggles with a debilitating Starbucks addiction. How a child of Cuban parents living in Miami could become such an Anglophile is still anybody’s guess. She graduated several centuries ago from the University of Miami with degrees in English and Education. Afterward, she spent several years being one of the “cool” teachers in a middle school, and had a brief but illustrious acting career playing roles like Lusty Housekeeper, Death, and (perhaps prophetically) Author. Connect With Michelle @Michelle_Marcos michelle.marcos www.michellemarcos.com Deb Marlowe An Unexpected Encounter AN UNEXPECTED ENCOUNTER Tall, practical girls might not be worth much in man's world, but Miss Lisbeth Moreton knows she's worth more than the squire's prized heifer. To change her fate, she's run off to a date with destiny at the British Museum. Her would-be swain never shows, but an unexpected encounter with Lord Cotwell and his lonely ward might lead to altogether new prospects . . . and perhaps to love. Chapter One Lisbeth Moreton was a listener. True listening was, in fact, a harder feat to accomplish than most people realized—and a far more valuable asset. Really listening when someone talked gained one more than knowledge. It allowed Lisbeth to see more than others wished to reveal. It gave her insight into intent, motivation, and occasionally even truth. She tried to truly listen as often as she could. Which was why she now had to stop putting off the inevitable and listen to the truth that had been trying to make itself heard for the better part of the afternoon. He wasn’t coming. Lisbeth stopped watching the faces of the people moving around her. She leaned against a great window and let the awful certainty wash over her with the late afternoon sun. She’d put all of her faith in the Honorable James Vickers, heir to Lord Bridgeford—and he had failed her. The steady stream of visitors moving up and down the Grand Staircase slowed to a trickle, as did the blood in her veins. Three hours ago they were to have met. Another bit of excited hope and expectation died with each tick of the clock since. She clutched numb fingers about her portmanteau. Her hands had gone freezing, despite her best gloves, despite the fact that the rest of her was flushed hot and perspiring beads of fear, anger and panic. Silently she cursed the one person she had steadfastly refused to listen to. Her wretched stepfather disguised insult as concern, even as he labeled her as headstrong, impetuous and too forward in her ways. She let out a long, shuddering breath. Now she’d gone and proved that he’d been right all along. She’d known it was a gamble, writing to James for help. But she’d been frantic, and it had largely been a symbolic gesture. Even as she’d posted the letter, she’d expected it to go unanswered, as had nearly all of her earlier communications. His swift reply had been a shock, but his outrage on her behalf had been a balm to her soul. His precise instructions—to meet him here, on this landing, on this day, at noon—well, they had felt like an answer to her prayers. So she’d tossed aside a lifetime of sensible, practical behavior. She’d followed her flighty mother’s example, ignored the needs of others and thought only of herself. She’d rolled the dice. Packed her things, taken her pin money and a bit extra from the household accounts—she’d more than earned it—walked to the next village and hired an enterprising farm boy and his wagon to carry her through the night and deliver her to London. But her toss had come up empty. James was not here. She was alone, in London, without friend, family or a place to go. She’d risked all and lost. Her legs trembled, but she looked down and past them to her boots, now set firmly on the path to ruin. She could not, would not go back. She must come up with an alternative. James’s rambling letter had mentioned his mother. It would have been lowering enough to allow James to present her as a charity case, in need of support against her miserly, manipulative stepfather. She’d have done it, though, to escape his plans for her. No chance of that now. She could hardly present herself on the woman’s doorstep without even the dubious sponsorship of her son. What else was there for her to do? Her mind wandered to the other, unanswered letter she’d posted. Now there was a London address that should have been a refuge. But darkening that doorway would only gain her a speedy trip back home. She shook her head. She had James’s address, but did she dare go to his rooms? A lone young woman, showing up at a gentleman’s bachelor’s quarters—she would truly be sunk beyond reproach. But was she not already? What choice did she have? “Excuse me?” Lisbeth started and turned. She knew it was not James behind her, but still her breath caught as her eye fell upon the stunningly beautiful woman, standing close and smiling at her. Late sun streamed over her, highlighting porcelain skin and burnishing her hair to angelic gold. Lisbeth’s mouth dropped open. Surely no real female had ever looked so perfectly . . . perfect. She suffered the foolish notion that before her stood one of the museum’s pieces of art, come to life. The vision frowned—and the appearance of a small wrinkle in that flawless brow relieved Lisbeth of her fancies. “I do beg your pardon, but I couldn’t help noticing that you appeared to be looking for someone.” Shifting, the woman gestured to the other side of the landing. “You wouldn’t happen to be searching for that young girl, would you?” “No.” Lisbeth craned her neck to look. “I’m afraid I’m not acquainted with the girl.” She clenched a fist. “And it appears that the person I was to meet has forgotten our appointment.” “Oh, dear. I was hoping that you were the one responsible for her.” The other woman offered a friendly smile. “Forgive the presumption, but I’m Hestia Wright.” Lisbeth curtsied. “Miss Elisabeth Moreton.” Lowering her tone, the woman leaned in. “I have an appointment myself shortly, one that must be kept, but I can’t help worrying about the child. It seems she’s been left alone here for the entire afternoon.” A flash of sympathy jolted through her. “Oh?” She glanced over at the girl again. She stood very close to the rail separating viewers from three massive, stuffed giraffes. “That is worrisome.” “I knew you would understand!” Hestia Wright beamed at her. “I wish I could take the child with me, but I cannot bring her to a business appointment. And yet, neither can I just leave until I know she has not been abandoned.” The woman raised her brows. “I know it must be a dreadful inconvenience, but perhaps you would keep an eye on her . . . just until I can get back?” Lisbeth bit her lip. “I . . . I hardly—” “Oh, do say yes?” the other woman pleaded. “I fear if I come back and find her gone I’d be haunted, wondering if she’d been found by her people or if she’d come to some harm. But if you will just watch over her, then I’ll come and take her over when I’m free. And if you agree, and if I were to return and find you both gone, then I’ll know that you saw her safely seen to.” Lisbeth hesitated. She had her own troubles. She should be making plans, trying to find lodgings for the night, attempting to figure out where she could go from here. But the thought of the girl’s plight stiffened her spine. Who better than to protect the child than she, who knew how damaging neglect could be? It was strange that the child had been left here, on her own, where anyone could take note of her vulnerability. Where it was possible she might encounter any number of unsavory people. She winced. Likely the girl’s family would consider her one of those unsavory numbers, now that she’d gone and nearly ruined herself. But what sort of family were they, allowing her to remain alone for hours in such a place? An indignant wave of empathy drowned out her sensible objections. She gave a nod. “Of course, Mrs. Wright. I’d be happy to help.” “Oh, thank you, my dear.” The other woman flashed a bright smile. “But it’s not Mrs. Wright.” She held up a hand to stall Lisbeth’s stuttered apology. “No, nor Miss, either. I’m just Hestia. And you may call upon me for help at any time, dear.” She began to move toward the stairs before Lisbeth could ask what she meant. “I shall see you shortly, shall I?” Lisbeth saw a porter give the woman a nod as they passed at the bottom of the stairs. Climbing up, he took Hestia’s place upon the landing. “Make way!” he called, with a clang of a small bell. “Finish your tours and make way toward the exits. The museum will close shortly!” He moved on and Lisbeth heard him take up the cry further down the main passageway. A quick glance showed the girl unmoved by the call, but Lisbeth suffered a moment’s panic. What if they were forced to leave before Hestia Wright returned? Where would the child go? Lisbeth had no wish to follow her through the unknown streets of London. A chill went down her spine. Worse, what if the streets were the only place either of them had to spend the night? She crossed over to stand behind the child, who had reached a hand through the rails to tentatively stroke a giraffe’s patchy hide. The delicate little face bore a serious mien and an intense focus better suited to someone well beyond her years. Lisbeth looked the worn specimens over, but could find no good reason for such dedicated attention. Nevertheless, she felt she had to make a connection. Breathing deep, she plunged in. “These markings are wonderfully distinctive, are they not?” The child jerked her hand back, but after a glance askance at Lisbeth, she poked it through the rail again. “None of the other animals has them.” That answer had a definitive ring to it. “Have you checked them all? The ones the museum has on display, I mean?” The girl nodded, still solemn. “I’m not all the way through the prints. Yet.” Lisbeth recalled the densely packed books in the Print Room and blinked. “Do you come here often, then?” Her shrug was noncommittal. “I like the days when no tour guide is required, like today.” “I hadn’t realized they were ever required,” Lisbeth confessed. “This is my first visit. There are so very many interesting things to see.” The child went back to her contemplation of the animals. After a moment, Lisbeth tried again. “You must live nearby, to come so often?” “Not so far away,” the girl answered with a shrug. She cast a single, lingering glance at Lisbeth’s portmanteau and let the conversational ball drop once more. Lisbeth rocked back on her heels and hoped that Hestia Wright’s business would conclude quickly. Surreptitiously, she watched the girl, her curiosity growing. The child was a puzzle. Dress of a quality wool, but in an unflatteringly pale grey, and in need of letting out a good inch. Shoes sturdy, but scuffed. Long chestnut hair that needed a good brushing. She spoke well and though her face was thin, she did not display that peaked, pinched look that hunger so heartbreakingly lent. Clearly there was a story here. But how to learn it? Lisbeth pursed her lips and looked up into the glassy eyes of the nearest giraffe. “Do they have names, I wonder?” Relief coursed through her as the child suddenly lit up. “They do have names,” the girl answered, her words colored prettily with an air of confession. “Not real ones, I guess. At least, not officially real. But my mama gave them names.” Her smile faded a bit. Lisbeth found herself wanting to see it come back. “Can you share them? Would your mama mind, do you think?” The girl bit her lip. “This one is Stubb. She pointed overhead. “Because of his stubby antlers. Do you see?” Looking up, Lisbeth smiled. “I do see them, now that you’ve pointed them out.” “And that is Swivel.” “Because of the position of his ears?” The child nodded, pleased. “And this one,” she reached out and touched the largest specimen. “This is Stretch.” “For obvious reasons,” laughed Lisbeth. “Your mother has quite a talent for names.” She grimaced. “Unfortunately, I’m terrible at it. It’s a terrible confession to make, but once, when given a chance to christen the family cat, I chose to call him Puss.” No reaction. Lisbeth valiantly continued. “But I admit, I’m marvelous at guessing games—and I’ll wager your mother gave you a lovely name as well.” She grinned. “Shall I try and guess it?” There it was, a spark of interest in the child’s eyes. She worried her lip again, but nodded. “Fine. Let me think a moment.” Lisbeth frowned and stepped back. She made a show of narrowing her eyes and searching the girl from head to toe. “Yes. I think I have it. You look like your name must be . . . Ermengarde.” She announced it triumphantly. There, I’ve guessed correctly, have I not?” The girl’s eyes widened. “No.” “Dash it—I should have gone with my first instincts. They tell me that your name is . . . Hortense?” She surprised a girlish giggle out of her audience. “No!” “Oh. I’ll get it this time. You simply must be named . . . Theodora. That is it, isn’t it? You look just like a Theodora.” “No!” The child laughed outright. “That isn’t right either!” “Oh, fiddlesticks. I must be losing my touch. Will you tell me your name, then?” “My name’s Aurelia!” Lisbeth basked in the sudden light shining through the child’s whole countenance, and let it chase some of the chill away from her heart. “I was right about one thing. Your mother has a wonderful talent. That is the perfect name for you.” She summoned up a mock frown. “But only the one name? How unusual!” “I’ve more than one,” Aurelia assured her. “I’m Miss Aurelia Fredericka Tierney.” Belatedly, she gave a quick, credible curtsy. Lisbeth returned it. “Fredericka? That was going to be my next guess—and I would have been partially right, at least.” She heaved a sigh. “Alas, my own mother, who is fanciful in nearly every other way, gave me quite the plainest name imaginable. I am Miss Elisabeth Mills Moreton.” She leaned close. “But as I count you a friend, you may call me Lisbeth.” But a good deal of the brightness had faded from Aurelia’s face. “Where is your mother?” she asked. And as the question emerged on such a ginger note, Lisbeth knew to answer carefully. “She is at home, in Sussex.” Likely flitting about the house like a deranged butterfly, berating her eldest daughter for her duplicity and callous disregard of her own feelings. Her sister Celia, on the other hand, would be stomping about in a fury, throwing random objects and reducing the servants to tears. And her stepfather? Lisbeth hoped the tempest had driven him from the house. She wanted to picture him alone and miserable in the barn, staring forlornly at his prized roan Shorthorn bull and dreaming of calves that would never be. She pushed that wickedly satisfying image away, focused on Aurelia, and gentled her tone. “And where is your mother?” One of her little hands gripping the railing tight, she turned back to the stuffed figures. “She went on a trip.” Lisbeth tensed, but kept a light note to her response. “How nice! Has she traveled to visit family?” “No, she traveled to see animals.” “Animals?” Lisbeth frowned in confusion. “She was very sad, you see, and sick too, for a long time after my baby brother died. Papa said she needed sun on her face and good air to breathe. She loved animals, dogs and cats, horses and even mice, and we dearly loved to learn all about the strange animals abroad. Papa said it would cheer her to see new places, people and animals in person. They went on a boat. She was going to see donkeys and camels and perhaps a monkey. I was to stay at school this trip, but go along next time. Papa promised that when it was my turn we would go far enough so that I could ride an elephant.” She tilted her head. “Have you ever seen a picture of an elephant?” A picture was forming in Lisbeth’s mind, one colored darker by Aurelia’s unconscious use of the past tense, but she forced a smile. “I have seen them in the caricatures. Such strange, large creatures they look to be. Did your mother see one in person? Did she send you a picture?” “No, I saw it in a little book we had at home. She didn’t see an elephant, although she met a darling burro named Willful, saw a hundred bright and colorful birds and rode some beautiful and dainty horses, fast as the wind.” “It sounds lovely.” Aurelia’s fingers continued their caresses, her gaze fixed firmly upon that one patch of stiff hide. “She died. And Papa, too.” Lisbeth had to bend close to hear her soft words continue. “A terrible sickness came on their boat. All of the passengers and nearly all of the crew died of it.” Lisbeth crouched down. She laid her hand over Aurelia’s where she still gripped the rail. “I’m so sorry to hear that, Aurelia.” “She never saw a giraffe, or a camel.” She stopped her rhythmic stroking. “Now she never will.” How well she recognized that flat note of despair. “I know it is hard to lose a parent. My own father passed on, not so long ago. I cannot imagine losing both together.” Frowning fiercely, Aurelia turned to her. “How did he die, your Papa?” “His heart gave out.” Lisbeth sighed. “He was in the fields with his men, as he always was with the early planting. They were fussing over some piece of broken equipment. Sometimes it comforts me to think he was doing what he loved most.” She squeezed the small hand still resting under hers. “I am sorry for your loss, Aurelia.” The little face contorted as she began to chew at her lip once more. “Can I ask something?” “Of course.” “How do you feel? When you think of him, I mean.” She pulled her hand away from the railing and Lisbeth’s. “I know you must miss him, of course.” Understanding dawned. “Yes. Of course I do miss him dreadfully. It hits me at odd times. In the early morning, when we used to breakfast together, or when I hear his hounds out on a run, it feels like a great weight on my chest. I’m sure you know what I mean, just as I’m sure you miss your own parents.” She leaned forward confidingly. “But do you know what? Sometimes I am angry as well.” “You are?” There was no mistaking the plea in her tone. In the distance she could hear the porter’s bell again. All of the day’s troubles still lingered, unsolved, and she still didn’t understand Aurelia’s circumstances, but nothing was as important right now as easing this child’s burden. She nodded. “It can’t be helped sometimes, especially when I think about how much my life has changed because of his passing, and how I’m forced to deal with the changes alone.” Aurelia sucked in a breath. “Sometimes it makes me so angry I want to stomp my foot and have a regular tantrum. How could he do this to me? I want to shout it at the sky and hope he hears me.” Horror and fascination collided on the little girl’s face. “Do you? Stomp your foot and yell?” Lisbeth shook her head. “No.” But then she grinned sheepishly. “Well, perhaps I’ve stomped my foot, a little.” She breathed deep. “I thought myself a horrid daughter for even thinking in such a way, but I had a long, comfortable coze with our vicar and he assured me that it is normal to feel such things. It is part of learning to let go, he says.” Aurelia looked skeptical. “Do you believe him?” “I do.” Lisbeth smiled at her. “Do you know why? Because even if I am angry sometimes, it doesn’t mean that I don’t miss him. It doesn’t mean that I love him any less. I will always love my father. I will always remember him and all that he gave and taught to me, through all of my days.” She reached out and took both of the girl’s hands. “Just as you will love and remember your parents, always.” The tightness in those thin shoulders had eased a bit and her eyes shone bright. Lisbeth swallowed. Celia always said that everything happened for a reason. Of course, she usually said it in a snide tone while remarking how Lisbeth’s unfeminine height and sturdy disposition made her the perfect fit to take on the burdens of the estate, but the sentiment held. Perhaps all of Lisbeth’s troubles had happened so that she would be here today, able to bring this girl a measure of relief. Aurelia’s gaze had strayed to her portmanteau once more. “Miss Moreton, I wondered if perhaps . . .” Her words trailed away as her gaze shifted over Lisbeth’s shoulder. Suddenly her spine stiffened and her lips pursed. Flat and dismal once more, she gave a nod to someone behind Lisbeth. “Good afternoon, my lord.” * * * More An Unexpected Encounter About Deb Marlowe Deb Marlowe loves History, England and Men in Boots. Clearly she was meant to write Regency Historical Romance! * * * Deb grew up in Pennsylvania with her nose in a book. Luckily, she’d read enough romances to recognize the true modern hero she met at a college Halloween party—even though he wore a tuxedo t-shirt instead of breeches and tall boots. They married, settled in North Carolina and produced two handsome, intelligent and genuinely amusing boys. Though she spends much of her time with her nose in her laptop, for the sake of her family she does occasionally abandon her inner world for the domestic adventure of laundry, dinner and carpool. Despite her sacrifice, not one of the men in her family is yet willing to don breeches or tall boots. She’s working on it. Connect With Deb @DebMarlowe Deb-Marlowe-70397149702 www.DebMarlowe.com Deb@DebMarlowe.com D.M. Marlowe Eye of the Ninja EYE OF THE NINJA Blink—and you’ll miss her. Mei Barrett has been hiding all of her life. Raised in solitude by her beloved father, she’s been trained to fight, to adapt, to defend. She couldn’t prevent his death, however, when it comes at the hands of a mysterious creature straight out of legend. She could only run—and learn how to hide in plain sight. For four long years Mei has lived alone on the fringes of a society still recovering from the devastation of quakes and disasters along the infamous Ring of Fire. Mei’s concerns are more immediate however. She must hide her eyes and their despised mutation, and she must stay one step ahead of the strange wind demon that continues to hunt her. Detection was inevitable. But Mei begins to make some discoveries of her own. For it seems that her old enemy is not the only mythical creature on the loose. Nor is she the only one fighting them. And perhaps her own tragedies are not as far removed from those the world is facing, after all. Chapter One Knees pumping, I ran straight toward the wall. Almost. At the last possible second I breathed deep and gave a little hop. One foot hit the low ledge on the perpendicular wall and I pushed off hard, launching straight up. There. My fingers just caught the highest rail atop the wall. Easy enough to pull myself up and over, after that. Whistles and clapping echoed up from below. “Nice, Mei!” I grinned, careful to keep my gaze lowered. Nodding a quick acknowledgement of the praise, I move away so the next freerunner could take a stab at this particular obstacle. “Not bad for a girl!” someone called, teasing. Pulling my cap low, I flipped a casually insulting gesture in their general direction. The late afternoon sun beat down and I took refuge in a shaded corner, crouching down to watch the ever-shifting group below. My family was gone now. Close friends were not really an option. But these free-spirited parkour dudes? They might possibly be overly dedicated to the ‘art of motion’ and a few of them were definitely far gone in love with their oversized sweatpants—but still, as friends went . . . well, they came as close as I could allow. Once everyone who was interested had taken a stab at the wall, we moved on, ranging over the university campus. I vaulted over a low wall, shook my head over Ben’s tumble pass between buildings, and managed a halfway decent copy of Alan’s wall spin. It felt good to move, to train. I’d been more tense than usual lately. On edge. Fighting to not look over my shoulder. But the first rule, when you are being hunted, is not to look like prey. So I carried on with my usual routine. And now I allowed myself to relax, just the smallest bit. No judgment here, no prying, insistent curiosity. I let the tightness in my chest ease and tried to remember what it felt like to be at ease and happy instead of wary, bitter and sad. The group spread out when we hit the Stoneyard. I took up a position on the edge and watched a kid named Chris make a complicated, spinning double cork look easy. “You’ve got to teach me how to do that,” I breathed. It looks like a nice way to dodge an arrow, or a thrown dart. I froze. Though the thought had been my own, I’d heard it in my father’s distinctive accent and thoughtful tone. I clenched my fist hard, welcomed the bite of nails into the flesh of my palm. That was not the thought of a normal teenaged girl. I was in no way a normal teenaged girl—but I had to appear as one. At all costs. Chris just grinned. “You’ve already got your cheat gainer. All you need to do is tighten up and get some more pull.” We worked on it a bit. “Do you want to try it without the extra weight?” He gestured toward my backpack. I shook my head. I always kept my pack close. He shrugged and didn’t seem to mind the normal stance I took when I was in contact with people; cap pulled low and tight, eyes down, but ear cocked to show I was paying attention. I knew the guys wondered about me. I’d once heard someone speculate that I was vision impaired, but had highly developed other senses, like a real life comic book character. I didn’t think that any of them had guessed the truth—that I was a real life freak. Over and over, I crouched low and threw myself into the air. One benefit to a lifetime of training—I usually pick up new stuff quickly. After a few tries and a couple of pointers I was managing a credible cork, if not the graceful double that Chris was throwing. “Let’s finish over at Centenary,” someone suggested. “At the bridge.” A chorus of agreement rang out. We set off, flowing across campus like water. We got some attention from other students, catcalls and taunts along with cheers and whistles whenever someone broke out a flip, trick or vault. At one point we passed by a group of protesters, all wearing the designer masks that were so widespread just a few short years ago. The Filters are a Lie! Their signs shout it. Protect Yourself from the Poison in the Air! I ducked my head and settled my cap low and firm over my brow. It’s surprisingly easy to go through life without meeting anyone’s direct gaze. I live on the fringes, barely seen, hardly noticed. I am a creature of the shadows. It’s only with these guys that I take the risk of discovery—and it’s worth it. It feels so good to be part of a group, to be easily accepted into the larger dynamic, even though I don’t say much. To train and run and sweat and work with people who understand the joy of it. My movement speaks for me, in this group. “The filters are a fraud. The filters are a fraud.” The group chanted now. One girl stepped forward, her passion ringing clear in the air. “Don’t let the government trick you into birthing mutant babies!” she shrieked. I kept to the middle of the pack, blending in until we rolled down into a grassy valley and approached the bridge. I held back at that point. That sucker is high—tree top high. And I’m short. Vertically challenged, these guys called it. A handful of guys tried to get up the smooth-faced pillars supporting the bridge. A couple of them made it. Watching closely, I saw the secret. There were a few tiny hand and foot holds worn out of the stone, but the kicker was a crack or a ledge pretty far up. Too high for me to reach, even with a good vault. “You should try it.” I glanced sideways, under the safety of my hat brim. Ken Sato is Asian, like me. It had been a couple of months, hadn’t it, since he’d hooked up with the group? I’d seen him a couple of times, and then suddenly he was a regular. I’d watched him a bit, noticed his unusual green eyes, his square jaw, the hard muscles that adorned his rangy frame, and most especially, the unusual grace with which he moved. I thought I could count on one hand the number of times I’d heard him speak out loud. “Have you made it?” I hoped I didn’t sound defensive. He nodded. “With help.” I quickly look away as he gives me a once over. I knew what he was seeing—half-Asian girl in casual student grunge, long ponytail of thick dark hair emerging from beneath a broad brimmed cap. He didn’t wait for me to look up and meet his eyes as most people did. Instead I felt him focus on my flexible Feiyue shoes. “I could show you.” I hesitated. I shouldn’t, really. But Ken had become a staple of the group, a calm influence. He was easily one of the most skilled freerunners, but he didn’t showboat. I’d seen him helping others before, in his quiet way. I wanted to trust him. That’s what scared me the most. “Sure,” I said abruptly, standing up. “Let’s do it.” I felt the weight of his gaze upon me again, but I stepped out ahead of him and focused on the bridge. The wind picked up, I could feel it against the nape of my neck, rustling my ponytail. “You’ve noticed the ledge? On the left most pillar?” I nodded. “All I need to do is get high enough to reach it, then I can foot match my grip and stand tall enough to make it to the top.” “I can get you up there. Using the futari jinba. Do you know it?” I shook my head. I knew a bit of Japanese, but the phrase was not familiar. My mother had been my only link to my Asian heritage, and she’d died when I was young. “It’s easy enough. I’ll crouch down at the base. You run for me, hit my cupped hands, and I stand quickly, using my momentum and yours to launch you high. Understand?” “Got it.” He didn’t question or instruct me further. “Hold up, guys,” he called, moving toward the bridge. “We’re going to try something.” The others drew back, watching expectantly. Ken got himself into position. He gave a small nod. What was I doing? I should have made an excuse and slipped away when he first singled me out. But I didn’t want to sneak off alone again. I was tired of being lonely, of being careful. And perhaps, just for once, I wanted to strengthen my connection with this group. So I sucked in a deep breath and took off at a hard run. Another gust of wind hit me from behind, stronger than before. I kept going, aiming for Ken’s laced fingers. Feet braced, he watched my feet intently, preparing for the moment of contact. I saw the wind rustle his hair, saw him look up in surprise. I was almost on him. He stared suddenly up at me. It happened. Our eyes met. Straight on. I wrenched my gaze away and stepped into his hands. Disaster. My father’s voice roared the warning. Ken had seen. I cringed inside even as he stood and launched me hard and high. Cursing a thousand times over, I reached for that one good-sized crack. Found it with my fingers. Scrabbled for another tiny hand hold and shifted my weight for one terrifying second as I pressed tight to the wall, lifted my left leg high and made the switch with my left hand. Toes wedged in the crack, I stood up. From here I could reach the crosswalk. Breathing hard, I scrambled up and over. Whoops and shouts erupted from below, and from those already up and resting in the shade of the covered bridge. I ignored them all, intent on leaning over the rail. Ken had seen. Anger and nausea roiled in my gut. Why had I been so stupid? Taken such a risk? I was sick with disappointment in myself, resentment at him, and a sudden, overwhelming grief. This was it, then. The end. I gripped the rail tight, fighting the knowledge that I would have to move on, to leave the small semblance of normalcy I’d claimed here and never see this band of guys again. He stared up at me, visibly upset. He made a sharp motion with his hand. “Yokai!” he shouted. I had no idea what he meant. But suddenly—I didn’t care. My head came up and grief and anger faded in the face of something much, much worse. “Storm’s coming,” remarked one of the guys who’d made it up earlier. The wind was stronger and cooler here. Up high, the breeze blew steadily. Oh, no. I let go of the rail, stumbled back a step. I knew then, what had been bothering me. It was in the wind, slightly charged with the sting of power, rich with the promise of moisture, laden with a faint, sickly sweet scent. It swirled in my hair, dragged horrid memories from my subconscious and brought tears to my eyes. I knew the taste and the texture of that breeze. It carried something bad. Something terrifying and not of this world. The creature that rode that wind had murdered my father. And it was looking for me. Panic jump-started my heart. Adrenaline dumped into my system. I glared down at Ken. And then I whirled on my heel and took off at a run. * * * More Eye of the Ninja About D.M. Marlowe D. M. Marlowe lives in North Carolina with her family and two cats. When she is not spoiling them all, she is probably writing. Failing that, she's likely lost in a book or movie, on a long walk, gardening or hanging with her friends. In another life, she is a USA Today Bestselling Author of Regency Historical Romance. Connect with D.M. @DebMarlowe Deb-Marlowe-70397149702 www.DebMarlowe.com Deb@DebMarlowe.com Laura Scott A Soldier’s Promise Part I A SOLDIER’S PROMISE Reeling from a broken engagement that resulted in a small town scandal, ER nurse Julie Crain just wants to be left alone over the Fourth of July Holiday weekend. But when single dad, Derek Ryerson and his young daughter need a place to stay to recuperate from a car accident, Julie can't ignore their plight. She knows she needs to protect her heart, but little Lexi needs love and support. But soon she realizes the former soldier has a secret that could tear them apart forever. Chapter One “Hey, Jules—we have two trauma patients on the way, ETA less than five minutes.” ER nurse Julie Crain stifled a groan. She’d just returned from taking her previous patient down to the morgue, and she was emotionally drained from dealing with his grieving family. She forced her exhaustion aside. “Okay, what’s the story?” she asked, glancing up at Merry Haines, the ER charge nurse at Hope County Hospital. “A two-vehicle crash, T-bone on the driver side. From what I hear, the drunk driver who ran a red light and caused the crash wasn’t hurt-but the guy in the SUV and his young daughter are being brought in.” Julie caught her breath as her heart thumped painfully in her chest. Oh, no. Not a young child. She couldn’t handle an injured child. She closed her eyes and prayed. Please God, keep the little girl safe. And her father, too. “I hope they lock up the drunk driver and throw away the key,” Merry muttered. She understood where Merry was coming from. Working in the ER, they’d both seen more than their fair share of alcohol- or drug-related injuries and deaths. Dr. Gabe Allen came into the room in time to catch the last part of their conversation. “The driver was Tommy Hinkle,” he said with a dark scowl. “So yeah, I think that scenario is highly likely.” Not a tourist then, but one of their own. Tommy Hinkle was the Crystal Lake troublemaker, picking up where his father had left off. At nineteen, he wasn’t even legal to drink at all, much less drink and drive. Tommy would end up in jail this time, for sure. Just like his father. The only good thing was that his mother, Annie Hinkle was still recovering in a Madison rehab center from a terrible car crash and wasn’t here to see her son behind bars. Before she could check over their supplies, the doors from the ambulance bay burst open, and a bevy of paramedics wheeled in two gurneys. Julie was relieved to be in position to take the first patient, which happened to be the father. “Thirty-year-old Derek Ryerson, suffered loss of consciousness at the scene,” the paramedic announced. “We placed two eighteen-gauge PIV’s and gave a liter of fluid so far. His vitals remained stable throughout transfer.” She quickly connected the heart monitor leads to his chest, reassured by the steady beat of his heart. She leaned over to perform a neurological assessment, noting an abrasion on the side of Derek Ryerson’s left temple that was easily seen, considering his military-short dark hair. Concerned about a possible head injury, she carefully lifted his eyelids and peered at his pupils. She flashed her penlight, grateful to note they were both equal and reactive. She continued her assessment, listening to his heart and his lungs. The right side of his lungs didn’t sound as clear as his left side, and there was an angry red band across his chest from where the seatbelt had held him in place, likely preventing additional and more serious injuries. When she brushed a hand over the right side of his ribcage, he let out a low groan. Bruised or broken ribs? Or something worse? She glanced up again at the heart monitor, but his vitals continued to be stable. Before she could call over to Dr. Allen, a large hand reached out to grab her wrist. She gasped, her gaze clashing with his as he stared at her intently. His hard, blue, uncompromising gaze caused a spurt of fear. “My daughter. Lexi,” he said hoarsely. His pain-glazed eyes bored into hers, and his grip on her wrist tightened painfully. “Where’s Lexi?” The flash of fear faded when she realized he was concerned about his daughter. She glanced over to where Merry and Gabe were examining the young girl. “Don’t worry. Lexi is right here in the gurney beside you. My name is Julie and I’m your nurse. Merry and Dr. Allen are taking good care of your daughter.” The little girl must have heard her father’s voice, because up until now, the silent child created a sudden commotion from the gurney next door as she struggled to get away from where Merry was trying to hold her down. “Daddy! Let me up! I wanna see my daddy!” “Lexi.” Derek dropped Julie’s wrist and struggled to push himself upright as if intending to go to his daughter. He didn’t get far before he let out a harsh sound and grabbed the right side of his chest, swaying dangerously. His face went pale, beads of sweat popping out on his forehead. “Take it easy. You’re going to hurt yourself more,” Julie told him, trying to keep calm, knowing she didn’t have the strength to hold him down if he chose to get up. Derek Ryerson was a big man, at least six feet tall and broad shouldered—his entire body was solid muscle. Whatever he did for a living, he kept in shape. “You have a couple of bruised or broken ribs, and we haven’t cleared your spine yet, either. We also need to make sure you don’t have a head injury.” For a moment, he stared into her eyes, as if trying to decide whether or not to believe her. Considering the strength with which he’d grabbed her wrist, she thought he couldn’t be too badly injured. She waited, simply looking back at him, secretly amazed at how brilliant his blue eyes were. Good thing she was immune to good-looking men. After what seemed like a long time, he dragged his gaze from hers. “Lexi, listen to what the doctors and nurses are telling you to do, okay, honey? They’re only trying to help. I’m right here next to you. I promise I won’t leave without you.” “Daddy, I want my daddy,” the girl cried out between heartbreaking sobs, repeating herself over and over again, seemingly inconsolable. The poor child must be traumatized from the accident. “Gabe? I might need a chest X-ray here,” she called out, doing her best not to be distracted by Lexi’s sobbing mantra, even though she wanted nothing more than to cross over to offer comfort. Gabe walked to her side. “His vitals, along with his oxygen saturation, are stable, so let’s do a CT scan of his head, neck, chest, and abdomen. That way we’ll have the big picture.” “Sounds good.” She picked up the phone and called over to radiology to put in the request for the CT scan. When she finished, she turned back to Derek. “How does your head feel?” “Fine,” he said through gritted teeth. The lines bracketing his mouth indicated suppressed pain, but whether from just his ribs or his head, too, she couldn’t say for sure. He closed his eyes, as if he couldn’t stand the bright lights. “I’m fine, just take care of my daughter.” She frowned. Was his head injury worse than she thought? Hadn’t she already told him that his daughter was being cared for? “Merry and Dr. Allen are taking good care of Lexi, remember? Does your back hurt anywhere? I need you to be honest with me, because if you have a cracked spine that goes undiagnosed, you could become paralyzed.” He opened his eyes and glared at her, but she refused to back down. She couldn’t understand why he was downplaying his injuries. “No, my back doesn’t hurt. My neck is sore, and my head hurts a bit, too. The right side of my chest feels like it’s on fire, but nothing hurts as much as listening to Lexi cry.” She smiled gently, feeling bad for him. She could only imagine how difficult it would be to stay on a gurney if her niece had been injured. “I know, and I’m sorry. But the best thing you can do for your daughter is to make sure you’re all right. She needs you.” “I’m fine, nothing a little aspirin won’t cure. Bruised and battered from the airbag and the crash, but fine.” There was no point in arguing. She glanced over at the next gurney, where Gabe and Merry where in deep conversation. “I don’t see any sign of serious injury,” she heard Merry saying to Gabe. “The paramedics believe she was likely in a proper booster seat in the back on the passenger side, opposite from the point of impact. When they arrived, they found her out of the seat and clinging to her father. Apparently, they had a heck of a time getting her away from him, and they had to give her a mild dose of Versed to get her onto the gurney. She’s probably fine, but we should get a chest and abdominal CT scan, just to be sure there is no internal bleeding from the straps of her car seat.” Julie waited until Merry finished. “Since they both need CT scans, I should take them down the hall to radiology together. I think Lexi will be calmer if she can be with her father.” “She can’t go into the scanner with him,” Gabe pointed out with a frown. “No, but I could sit with her in the viewing room, behind the lead glass,” she argued. “And once Lexi sees her father going through the scanner, maybe she’ll cooperate when it’s her turn.” Gabe and Merry looked at each other and shrugged. “Fine with me,” Gabe finally agreed. Satisfied, Julie waited for Gabe to finish his exam of Derek and then entered the necessary radiology orders for both patients into their respective charts. She made the arrangements and then quietly told Derek the plan. “I’m going to put Lexi in a wheelchair and have her sit with me in the viewing room to watch you go through the scanner first. The machine makes some loud noises, which can be scary. I want to reassure her it doesn’t hurt.” His expression was guarded. “Are you sure she’s well enough to sit in a wheelchair?” His protectiveness for his daughter made her smile. “Amazingly, Lexi doesn’t seem to have any injuries at all,” she assured him. “But we’d like to get a body scan just in case there’s some internal bleeding. Kids aren’t always good about being specific with their aches and pains. Or maybe she gets that streak of stubbornness from you.” For a moment, a flicker of grim amusement flashed in his eyes in response to her gentle teasing, and he subtly relaxed. “All right,” he agreed. “If you think it will help. Can I talk to her while I’m in there?” “Not while they’re scanning. You’ll need to stay still and hold your breath when they tell you to. You can talk to her before and after, though.” “Okay.” He lifted his hand and gingerly rubbed the right side of his chest. “Show me exactly where it hurts,” she said, noticing the gesture. The stubborn look came back into his eyes, and she feared he was going to deny any pain at all, but he gently fingered the area where his lowest ribs were. “Right here, mostly. You were probably right about the cracked ribs.” “Maybe. Or you could have some damage to the lower lobe of your lung or damage to your spleen.” She figured blunt honesty was best, so he would understand the seriousness of his situation. “Your breath sounds were a bit diminished on the right side, but the CT scan will tell us everything we need to know.” He reached out to grasp her wrist again. “If they have to take me to surgery, I need you to promise you’ll look after Lexi.” Stunned, she gaped at him. Look after Lexi? What on earth did he mean? “Is there someone I can call for you? Her mother? Grandparents? Friends?” “There’s no one to call,” he said flatly. “Lexi and I are on our own.” She swallowed hard and nodded, desperate to reassure him. “All right, but try not to worry. I’m sure you’ll be fine.” He didn’t let it go. “Promise me. If something happens, I want you to look after her. Don’t let strangers take her away. Promise!” Derek knew he probably sounded like a lunatic, but he didn’t care. The pain along the right side of his chest was bad, far worse than he’d let on, and after what the petite brunette nurse had said about the possible damage to his lung, he was very much afraid that, once they’d completed the scan, they’d whisk him off to surgery. He’d downplayed his injuries because he didn’t want to stay overnight in the hospital, unless, of course, Lexi needed to be observed. No matter what, he was not going to leave his daughter. Lexi had already been through so much, more than any six-year-old should have to handle. With her mother dead and buried, she needed him now, more than ever. If only he’d stopped for something to eat earlier, he wouldn’t have been driving through the intersection at the same moment as the idiot who’d run a red light, slamming into them. “Daddy?” He turned his head, hiding a wince, to look at his daughter. True to her word, the pretty nurse—what in the world was her name?—had gotten Lexi into a wheelchair and brought her over to the side of his gurney. He forced a broad, reassuring smile. “Hey Lexi, how are you feeling?” Her solemn gaze didn’t waver from his. “Fine,” she whispered. “Can we leave now?” If only they could. He’d been all set to leave without the scans until the nurse had mentioned the possibility of a cracked spine. At this point, he needed to know exactly what he was dealing with. Besides, he needed to be sure Lexi was all right, and if that meant getting a scan first, so his daughter could see it wouldn’t hurt, then that’s exactly what he’d do. He held his daughter’s gaze, holding his smile in place. “Afraid not, baby-doll, first we have to get checked out by the kitty-cat machine.” Lexi wasn’t easily distracted, especially when she wanted something. But that didn’t stop him from trying. “I don’t want to stay here.” Lexi’s eyes, blue like his, revealed a hint of fear. “It’s scary.” The pretty nurse, he couldn’t read her name on her ID badge because his vision was blurry, another tidbit he hadn’t fessed up to, came over. “Lexi, we need to make sure your daddy’s not seriously hurt. So we’re going to take him for a CT scan, but you can watch from behind the glass the whole time, all right?” Lexi barely spared the nurse a glance. He wanted to apologize for his daughter’s behavior, but there was no point, since Lexi had no idea she was being rude. “Okay, let’s go,” the woman said in a cheerful voice. She went behind Lexi’s wheelchair to push her forward, while his gurney was maneuvered by a tall guy who was likely some sort of orderly. When the gurney went over a bump, he had to clench his teeth against a surge of pain. He focused on the nurse, who was talking to Lexi. “We’ll be finished with these scans in a half hour, Lexi,” she was saying in that same cheery tone. “See the clock on the wall up there? It’s seven o’clock in the evening. Do you know how to tell time?” Derek was surprised when Lexi’s head moved in a barely discernible nod. His daughter was listening, even if she didn’t appear to be paying attention. “The big hand is on the twelve, and we’ll be all finished before the big hand gets down to the six.” Lexi glanced at the clock but said nothing more. The lack of response didn’t stop the nurse’s rather one-sided conversation, and he was grateful she didn’t pass judgment on his daughter the way so many others had. The way Lexi’s grandparents had. The CT scan didn’t take long, and as soon as they were finished looking into his head, he talked briefly to Lexi, reassuring her. Then he had to stay quiet until the rest of the scan was completed. When the scan was complete, he heard the nurse encouraging Lexi to take her turn. His daughter, bless her stubborn heart, wasn’t too keen on the idea. When he saw Lexi’s wheelchair come closer, he turned his head toward her. “Lexi, we can’t leave until I know you’re safe and healthy. The kitty-cat machine doesn’t hurt. All you have to do is to close your eyes and let them take pictures. Once I know you’re fine, we’ll leave.” He could see the instant flare of protest in the nurse’s eyes at his rash promise, but he glared at her, silently threatening her not to contradict him. She pressed her lips together firmly but didn’t say anything. Lexi finally agreed to the scan, and he watched protectively as the nurse allowed his daughter to climb down from the wheelchair and up onto the CT table by herself. He had to give the woman points for being astute—she seemed to instinctively know that Lexi wouldn’t tolerate being touched or carried by a stranger. After the orderly came back to push his gurney out of the way, his nurse crossed over. She locked her gaze on his and spoke in a low tone. “Derek, the lower lobe of your right lung has collapsed. Dr. Allen needs to put a small catheter in between your ribs to re-inflate your lung.” “Can he do that right here? Or do I have to go to the operating room?” he asked, dreading the answer. “He can do that right here, but it’s going to hurt.” Her large chocolate-brown eyes held sympathy. “Let’s get it done fast, then, before Lexi is out of the scanner.” “That’s what I thought, too,” she confessed. When she leaned closer, her nametag came into focus. Julie. He remembered now, her name was Julie. The pretty name somehow fit her dainty frame and cheerful personality. “I need to prep the side of your chest, first, okay?” “Go for it,” he said. “Just hurry.” She hadn’t been kidding about the pain, but surprisingly, once the procedure was over, the fire in his chest felt better. The pain wasn’t gone, not by a long shot, but breathing was certainly was easier. “Now just a quick X-ray of your arm and your chest to make sure your lung has re-inflated, and you’ll be set for a while,” Julie informed him. “No other internal bleeding?” he asked. Even though he had no plans of staying, he wanted to know exactly what was wrong with him. “You have a hard head, but luckily, no sign of intracranial bleeding, although you do have a small concussion. You also have two cracked ribs and a bruised spleen, but no other internal bleeding was found. And Lexi’s scan is complete too. Rick, our orderly, is bringing her back here momentarily. Her scan was completely clear. You and your daughter are very lucky to have escaped serious injury.” “Great.” The relief was nearly overwhelming. Once he would have thanked God, but not anymore. Not that he thought God would listen to him anyway, considering the way he’d taken Lexi and bolted out of St. Louis in the dead of night. But no matter what, he wasn’t going to take Lexi back. The urge to keep moving was strong. They couldn’t afford to stay in one place for too long. He focused his gaze on Julie. “We are lucky, but we’re finished here. I suggest you get our discharge paperwork started, because we’re leaving as soon as possible.” * * * More A Soldier’s Promise About Laura Scott My name is Laura Scott and I enjoy writing Christian Romances. I have several books that I've written for the Love Inspired Suspense line and recently I've written several contemporary novels in my Crystal Lake Series. I especially love writing books with pets in them. I grew up reading Grace Livingston Hill books and have always wanted to write. I'm also a nurse working at a level one trauma center in Milwaukee Wisconsin. I hope you enjoy my books as much as I enjoy writing them. Connect With Laura LauraScottBooks www.LauraScottBooks.com lauraiding13@gmail.com Ava Stone A Scandalous Deception LIVE LIKE YOU MEAN IT A SCANDALOUS DECEPTION Everyone knows Lady Felicity Pierce has been widowed the last three years, except she hasn't been. Lissy escaped the clutches of her dangerous husband but lost any chance for a happy-ever-after in the process. No one can ever know the secret she keeps hidden, the secret she wishes she could forget. Her harrowing escape would be for naught should anyone ever learn the truth. If only her husband had been the man she thought he was. If only he'd been more like Fin... * * * Phineas Granard, Viscount Carraway, might still be nursing a broken heart, but he has responsibilities that require his attention. Responsibilities to England and to his late-finace's family which never seem to end. But looking after Lissy is an exercise in futility. She's flightily. She's impetuous. She can drive the sanest man mad. And she's keeping something from him. If only she trusted him enough to love her, to keep her safe, to share the secret that haunts her. Chapter One Astwick House, London – May 1816 Lady Felicity Pierce could not quite believe her eyes. Was that Phineas Granard? Viscount Carraway? At an actual ball? Heavens, was someone blackmailing Fin, or was there a dueling pistol to his back? He certainly wouldn’t be here of his own volition, that was for sure. The overly serious viscount hadn’t been remotely social in years, despite Lissy’s best prodding that he stop sulking and get on with his life. Fin started across the ballroom and greeted Lord Liverpool with an outstretched hand. Ah, that explained everything. Fin wasn’t being blackmailed, and he hadn’t suddenly become social. He was doing what he always did - politicking. “The dolt is more starched than his cravat.” Came a deep voice from behind her. Lissy glanced over her shoulder to find the decidedly despicable Marquess of Haversham, standing just a few feet away. Handsome devil that he was, the marquess’ light blue eyes twinkled as he cast her a smug expression, one that a more foolish girl might have found charming. But Lissy had endured more than her share of that sort of man to last her a lifetime, so Haversham’s attention was completely wasted on her. She gave the marquess the back of her head, but said loud enough for him to hear, “I’m entirely certain Lady Astwick didn’t invite you, my lord.” Lord Haversham chuckled, moving closer to Lissy, so close the scent of his citric shaving lotion invaded her senses. “She never does,” he agreed. “An intelligent man might make something of that. His continual lack of invite, that is.” And yet the scoundrel attended every last event the dowager Marchioness of Astwick hosted anyway, as though daring the old dragon to personally drag him, kicking and screaming all the way to her front stoop. Haversham laughed once more. “You are more direct than most chits your age. Do you know that?” “My widowhood allows for a certain directness.” “Among other things,” he added silkily. “But I imagine your directness stems more from being one of Prestwick’s daughters. Not certain you’re quite as direct as Lady Juliet, but she does possess a fortune you do not, doesn’t she?” Lissy didn’t need her sister’s fortune. Fin had made certain her allowance from Prestwick’s holdings was more than generous. She glanced back at the staid viscount across the ballroom. He was starched. Haversham was right about that. And while she had accused Fin of that very thing herself more than once over the years, she hated hearing the disreputable Haversham voice the same criticism. She tilted her head to the side in order to better see the marquess. “Shouldn’t you be off chasing after Lady Staveley’s skirts?” The lady in question wouldn’t have a thing to do with him, but at least it would get the rogue away from Lissy. Haversham’s rakish grin spread wider. “I have no need to chase anyone’s skirts, I’ll have you know.” No, he probably didn’t. The man was more than handsome with his dark hair and light, piercing eyes. He exuded masculinity and raw sexuality. Despite his fascination with Lady Staveley – a most happily married woman who was quite devoted to her husband - Haversham most likely had a throng of widows and unhappily married women lining up for a turn in his bed. Widows. Lissy narrowed her eyes on the libertine. Her widowhood did allow for a certain directness. However, it also had been the source for more than one inappropriate suggestion to her over the years. “I am so happy to hear that, my lord. Perhaps you can go entertain one of your many paramours then and leave me to myself.” Haversham chuckled. “You are charming, Lady Felicity.” “And here I’m trying so hard not to be.” “A word of advice?” His light eyes twinkled once again. “Could I possibly stop you?” she countered. “If you smile a bit more, Carraway might actually notice you.” Lissy’s mouth fell open. Did he think she wanted Fin’s attention? Fin was like family. He was, in fact, her half-brother’s uncle. He had, in fact, almost married Lissy’s oldest sister before her untimely death. He would have been her brother otherwise. He was nearly like her brother as it was, for heaven’s sakes. A rigid, humorless brother who liked to tell her what to do, but a brother just the same. “I doubt it would take much encouragement. You are supremely more beddable than Liverpool, after all.” What a perfectly ridiculous thing to say. “Well, I am so relieved to hear it as I’d considered Lord Liverpool my main competition on the marriage mart this year.” Haversham laughed once more, a sound Lissy was quickly coming to despise. “Something tells me the last thing you’re looking for is another husband.” For a moment, Lissy’s heart stopped, and a dreadful chill washed over her. At her tender age, everyone assumed she wanted to marry again, to have a second chance at a happily ever after, but even if that was a possibility, she would never willingly go through such an experience ever again. But how in the world did Haversham know that? Was she so very transparent to everyone or just to him? “That is, I’d wager you’re as anxious to find another husband as I am to find another wife.” “Your own wife or someone else’s?” she asked. “Touché.” His eyes danced with mirth, then he sobered a bit, cocking his head toward the dance floor. “One of your suitors, I’m sure.” Lissy glanced in the general direction Haversham had indicated and suppressed a groan when she spotted Lord Richard Shelley approaching her. “I’ll give Carraway this. He’s more interesting than him,” the marquess said under his breath, just loud enough for Lissy to hear. She looked up at the scoundrel beside her and said, “I’m not certain you’re the best judge for what constitutes an interesting gentleman, my lord.” “My dear Lady Felicity—” he smirked “—I am more qualified than most to make such assessments.” “Lady Felicity,” Lord Richard began softly once he reached her. “I had hoped I might persuade you to stand up with me for the next set.” Lissy smiled, as warmly as she was able, at the far from interesting gentleman before her. “Thank you, my lord, but I’m not dancing this evening. I am a bit parched however, if you’d like to bring me some punch.” A bit crestfallen, Lord Richard nodded and then started off for the refreshment table. Haversham slid so close to Lissy she could actually feel him chuckle beside her. “I think you wounded that poor man’s heart.” “I’m certain he’ll survive.” “Heartless wench. I’m liking you better and better.” “Good God!” Phineas Granard, Viscount Carraway, couldn’t quite see straight as the edges of his vision were tinged slightly red. “Beg your pardon, Carraway?” Lord Liverpool replied, but Fin barely heard the Prime Minister. Honestly, with the ringing in his hears, he couldn’t even hear himself think. What the devil was Lissy doing? Had she lost her fool mind? Was she actually flirting with the Marquess of Haversham? Fin gritted his teeth. Keeping that chit out of trouble was a never-ending chore. He cursed Lucas Beckford for holing himself up in Derbyshire. The blasted man should be here keeping an eye on Lissy, not playing nursemaid to Juliet. All right, so the man’s wife was expecting, Fin begrudgingly acknowledged. Beckford did have a perfectly reasonable excuse not to be in Town for the season, but why the devil he and Juliet had allowed Lissy to stay in London alone made no sense at all. They knew what a flighty little thing she was! And now she was cavorting with Haversham, of all the damned people in Town. Truthfully, Lissy probably didn’t know how dangerous the marquess was. Very few ladies her age did, but she was most definitely aware Haversham possessed a blackened reputation. Everyone was aware of that. Good God, Georgie would roll over in her grave if she knew the company her little sister was keeping this evening. Georgie. Fin took a steadying breath. One would have thought that sometime within the last three years, he’d have gotten over her, that pain of losing her would have dulled a bit, that he’d have made a step or two towards getting on with his life. But he hadn’t. Fin wasn’t certain how to move forward or if he even wanted to. Georgie had been everything to him. She was perfect. Perfect for him. He could search the world over a hundred times and he’d never find a woman like her in his lifetime. Fin’s gaze stayed on Lissy, her flaxen curls bobbing up and down as she laughed at something her scurrilous companion had said. How the devil she and Georgie were sired by the same man was a complete mystery. The two of them must have inherited the traits from their respective mothers. That was the only answer. They didn’t think the same, behave the same or even look the same. Yet, Georgie had fretted over all of her younger siblings, more like a mother than a sister. If she was still here, she would have been more than upset by Lissy’s sudden friendship with Haversham. “I say, Carraway,” Lord Liverpool’s voice pushed through the deafening roar in Fin’s ears. “Are you all right?” Fin shook his head, not wanting to go into the particulars, but he didn’t really have a choice. “It looks like my nephew’s sister is in over her head, is all.” Lord Liverpool turned his attention towards Lissy and Haversham across the room. “Prestwick’s sister?” Fin nodded. “I am sorry, sir. I’d love to continue this conversation, but I really—” “I completely understand, Carraway. I have female relations my own.” Lissy wasn’t really his relation, but there was no point in wasting time explaining the intricacies of his connection to the chit. Not when she was looking up at Haversham as though he’d personally hung the moon in the sky. “Thank you. I’ll see you soon, sir.” Fin started across the ballroom, his temper rising with each step. Foolish girl. What in the world was Lissy thinking? Was she even thinking at all, that was a better question! Spending time in Haversham’s company could ruin nearly any girl’s reputation. Just because she was a widow didn’t mean she didn’t have her good name to protect. “Lissy,” he grumbled in way of greeting when he reached her. “What exactly do you think you’re doing?” “Carraway.” Haversham nodded. Fin speared the malevolent marquess with a look that said better than words ever could what the man could go do with himself, then he turned his attention back to Lissy, whose blue eyes flashed with something Fin couldn’t quite identify. Annoyance, humor, mischievousness. A combination of the three, perhaps. “Uncle Fin.” She smiled innocently, though she knew full well he hated it when she called him that. “I’m not your uncle,” he said, and if he had a farthing for every time he’d had to utter those words to her… “You can call me Uncle Marc, if you’d like,” Haversham tossed in, the suggestive tone to the man’s voice grated Fin’s nerves like an electric jolt to his nether regions. “She’ll call you no such thing,” Fin growled. He narrowed his eyes on the marquess. “In fact, she shouldn’t even be seen in your presence.” Then he gestured towards the main entrance with his head. “So why don’t you take your leave, Haversham?” A Scandalous Deception LIVE LIKE YOU MEAN IT Bad boy rocker Brody Campbell won't let anyone stand in the way of his pursuit for a music career, nonstop parties and arena tours. But when he meets single mom, Leah Willett who is struggling to put herself through school, his outlook on life and his future start to change. Leah falls hard and fast for Brody, even though she knows that a guy like him can never be who she needs at the end of the day. But she can't help herself. He makes life exciting for the first time in forever. But does she love him too much to keep him from his dreams? Chapter One Fucking frat parties. I hate them, but they pay better than most gigs, which is why we play them. Still, they’re a pain in the ass. Dickhead undergrads with more money than sense. And shit-faced sorority girls who wear next to nothing. That last part isn’t so bad, the wearing next to nothing part. The shit-faced part I can do without. It took me a good month to get the smell of puke out of my jeep interior after the last Greek gig we’d played. No more drunk sorority girls. Especially not the blonde in the see-through shirt who kept licking her lips whenever I looked in her direction. She was trouble, I could sense it. And when you’ve played enough of these parties, you can sense a lot. Daniel, Cade and I harmonized backup as Jason leaned into the mic. Just like clockwork, the jackass hit the wrong chord on his guitar. It was all I could do not crash my bass into the back of his head. If he could be bothered to show up for practice more than once a week, he might hit the right fucking chords every once in a while. Daniel rolled his eyes, clearly just as annoyed as I was. But as usual, Jason didn’t give a shit. He shrugged off my glare, then moved even closer to the mic and hit the high note he might as well have trademarked. This earned him a cheer from a group of frat boys in the far corner as they whistled and lifted their plastic beer cups in a mock toast. Prick. If someone else could hit that note, Jason and his shitty attitude would be long gone. As luck would have it, however, he had an amazing fucking voice. Better than any other lead we’d ever had. So like it or not, we were stuck with him. At least for now. Cade launched into his solo, pounding out against his toms and snare like there was no tomorrow. Eyes closed, he seemed like he was an extension of his drums, that the rhythm and beat were part of his soul. From behind the keyboard, a look of worry flashed in Daniel’s eyes. What the hell was wrong now? But before I could really finish that thought, I saw her step into the crowd. Fuck. What was she doing here? Cade was just starting to get over the crazy redhead, just starting to get his head back in the game and now… Cade hit the cymbal at the end of his solo. His eyes opened and sure enough he spotted Kelsey a half-second later, just like she wanted him to. His mouth fell slightly open and he missed the next beat. Come on, Cade! I pleaded with my eyes. Get it together. Don’t let her fuck with you. We’re in the middle of a set. Just ignore her. Please, just ignore her. But, of course, he couldn’t. She’d gotten beneath his skin. Fucked with his mind. Broke his heart. Left him for dead, at least emotionally. The beat was off. Even Jason seemed annoyed as he glanced over his shoulder at Cade. As though Jason had a right to be annoyed with anyone. Some beefy Pi Kapp slid up behind Kelsey and nuzzled her neck. Cade’s face turned purple. He missed the next beat and the one after that. We were crashing and burning, and there was a house full of drunk Wheston students watching it happen live. Jason turned all the way around to glare the drummer. “What the fuck?” he hissed. But Cade didn’t seem to notice. He didn’t seem to notice anything as he stared like a beaten puppy into the crowd. Fucking Kelsey. She was always a bitch, but now… What was the fucking point? It wasn’t like she wanted Cade back. She just wanted to torture him some more. But with an audience. The Pi Kapp went up under her shirt, and Cade pushed out of his stool, knocking his hi hat and snare onto the ground in the process. The dull thud echoed across the room and the rest of us gave up the pretense of playing. “She’s not worth it,” Daniel muttered, starting from behind his Korg. But it was too late to do anything other than watch mild-mannered Cade Bishop launch himself off the riser into the crowd and crash his fist into the Pi Kapp’s jaw. And the rest of the night was blur. Frat boys piling on Cade. Daniel and me trying to break up the brawl. Fists and beer cups flying in all directions. Sorority girls screaming, laughing and a few capturing the entire event on video with their iPhones. And… Kelsey looking quite satisfied with herself a few feet away. Sadistic bitch. It didn’t take the cops long to show up. Citations for underage drinking and public drunkenness were just the beginning. They hauled Cade down to the station for assault. And Daniel and I just stood there, shell-shocked. How had such a normal night turned into this? “Oh!” The blonde in the see-through shirt appeared suddenly at my side. ”Your hand!” She laid her hand on my chest and stared into my eyes. “Are you all right?” My hand? I lifted my hand up to inspect it, and damn if it wasn’t pouring blood through a gash across my knuckles. I didn’t even know I’d been hurt. But I knew it now. My hand started to pulse with pain and I shook the blonde off. “Yeah, not all right,” I grumbled. “God,” Daniel said looking at my fucked-up hand. “How did that happen?” “No idea,” I muttered. “Man, you gotta go to the ER and have someone look at that.” He frowned. Like there was time for that. I gestured toward instruments and equipment. “We gotta get all this packed up first.” “Fuck that. Jason and I can do it.” He shook his head. “Go to the hospital, Brody.”


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