She’s in fear for her life. Can she trust a rogue with her safety – or her heart?
Book Three of the Transformation of the Shelley Sisters series.
(This may be read as a stand-alone novel or as part of the series. For more about the Shelley Sisters please go to the Book Series page)
Shy Celina Shelley fled an unhappy home to the aunt she had never met – and discovered that she was the Madam of a high-class brothel. The youngest Shelley sister was happy behind the scenes at the House of the Blue Door until she found herself caught up in scandal and on the run from the law. The remote house in Norfolk that seemed like a refuge became perilous when Quinn Ashley returned home to claim his inheritance – but could the innocent courtesan risk telling a scandalous adventurer her secret?
The swirling skirts of his riding coat filled the doorway and the booted feet stopped just inside, set apart with a confident stance that seemed to come naturally, rather than as a deliberate statement of ownership. Lina found herself staring, not at his mouth as she had expected, but at the carelessly tied neckcloth at his throat. This was a tall man. Her eyes shifted cautiously up to his jaw, darkened with several day’s stubble. When he pulled off the heavy leather gauntlets and slapped them against his coat it became apparent that it was dust-coloured because it was covered in dust.
‘My lord.’ Trimble coughed slightly as he took gloves and hat. ‘On the behalf of the staff, may I offer our condolences at the loss of your great-uncle? I am Trimble, my lord.’
‘But I remember you,’ Lord Dreycott said with a wide smile of recognition, his teeth very white in his tanned face. ‘It is good to see you again, Trimble. Many years, is it not?’
‘It is indeed, my lord. And this,’ he turned as he spoke, ‘is Miss Haddon, his late lordship’s guest.’
Lina dropped into a curtsey. ‘My lord.’
‘Miss Haddon. I was not aware that there were any Haddons in the family.’ His voice was deep and flexible with a faint touch of a foreign intonation and more than a hint of enquiry.
‘I am not a relative, my lord.’ The stubble on his chin was darker than his hair, except for a thin slash of silver that must trace a scar that had just missed his mouth. Be persuasive and open, an inner voice urged. He must believe that you will be no trouble to him and might be useful. ‘Lord Dreycott was an old friend of the aunt with whom I used to live. When I had nowhere to go he was kind enough to take me in. I have been acting as housekeeper and companion for the past seven weeks, my lord.’
‘I see. I am sorry to put you to the inconvenience of my arrival so soon after the funeral, Miss Haddon. The date of my arrival in the country was uncertain, but fortunately I called on my agent at once. He had received the news, but it was, I regret to say, the day of the service. We simply rode on.”’
‘All the way from London, my lord?’ That was more than one hundred and forty miles. She remembered the interminably long stage coach only too vividly.
‘Yes.’ He seemed surprised at the question, as though it was normal for the aristocracy to take to the highroads on horseback rather than in a post chaise or private carriage. ‘The horses were fresh enough and they are used to long distances.’
There was a bustle outside as the grooms arrived and led the animals away, Lord Dreycott’s man striding behind them. The baron half turned to see them go and Lina risked a rapid upwards glance. Overlong hair, deeply tanned skin, and, from the sharp angle of his jaw, not a spare ounce of flesh on him. He was tall, but not bulky: a thoroughbred not a Shire horse, she thought, the sudden whimsy breaking through her anxiety. He radiated a kind of relaxed natural energy as though something wild and free had been brought into the house. Lina felt oddly fidgety and unsettled as though that quality had reached her too.
‘You will wish to retire to your rooms, I have no doubt, my lord. Your er, valet?’ Trimble eased the dust-thick coat from his lordship’s shoulders.
‘Gregor is my travelling companion,’ Lord Dreycott said and turned back. ‘I assume one of the footmen can look after my clothes.’
Lina contemplated his boots. It should have been a safe place to look if were not for the fact that the swirling pattern of stitching that spiralled round them took the eye upwards, leading inexorably to legs that were long and well-muscled. The boots did not look like English work. Where had Lord Dreycott been? She tried to recall what his great-uncle had said about his heir. A traveller, like I used to be. Only one of the family with any backbone, the old man had grunted. Only one with an original thought in his head. Scandalous rogue of course. Shocking! He had chuckled indulgently. Never see the boy. He writes, but he’s the decency not to come sniffing round for his inheritance.
But this was not a boy. This was a man. Her stomach clenched as he moved to stand in front of her. Lina forced herself to look into his face for a second and wondered how gullible he was likely to be. Green eyes, cool and watchful in contrast to the easy smile he wore. Not blue eyes, not bulging, not filled with the need to use and take. The fear subsided to wary tension. But his scrutiny of her face was not indifferent either: it was searching and intelligent and masculine and she glanced away to focus on his left ear before he could read the emotion in her own eyes. No, not gullible at all.
‘I hope the rooms we have made up will be acceptable, my lord,’ Lina managed, doing her best to sound like a housekeeper. That seemed the safest role for now. ‘We I cleared as much as possible into the baroness’s suite, but the room is still very cluttered. The late Lord Dreycott’s idea of comfort was a trifle, um, eccentric.’
She had tried to tidy up after the funeral but soon abandoned the attempt to create anything like a conventional bedchamber. There were piles of books on every surface, rolls of maps, a stuffed bear, a human skull and pots of every kind. Papers spilled from files and from boxes that she felt they should not touch until the heir and his solicitor could inspect them; half-unpacked cases of antiquities and the desiccated remains of an enthusiasm for chemical experiments, perhaps five years old, cluttered every flat surface and half the floor.
The adjoining chambers, last occupied by the late Lady Dreycott until her death forty years past, now held moth-eaten examples of the taxidermist’s art, vases with erotic scenes and dangerous-looking bottles of chemicals.
‘My idea of comfort is also eccentric. I can sleep on a plank, Miss Haddon, and frequently have,’ the amused voice drawled. ‘You will join me for dinner this evening?’
‘My lord, I am the housekeeper. It is hardly suitable – ’
‘You were my great uncle’s guest, were you not, Miss Haddon? And now you are mine. That appears to make it eminently suitable.’ He was quite clearly not used to be gainsaid.
‘Thank you, my lord.’ What else was there to say? And now you are mine. Was it her imagination that shaded that statement with a possessive edge?