Secrets, Danger – and love?
Winner Cataromance Reviewers’ Choice Award 2010
(See Book Series: Regency Silk and Scandal for all the titles and authors in this 8-part continuity)
Meet Nell Latham, a milliner who is not all she seems. Her life is hard enough – then a mysterious stranger with vengeance on his mind throws her into the path of the Carlows, a family with enough dangerous secrets of their own without the added complication of Nell and Marcus Carlow developing a tempestuous attraction for each other. At gunpoint.
Nell the milliner is obviously ineligible as a bride for Marcus, Viscount Stanegate. But their fraught courtship becomes lethally dangerous, for Nell’s true identity is a threat to both her and Marcus’s family and is the catalyst for revelations of scandal, murder and treachery that will resonate through all of the books in the series.
The key was in the lock. Marcus turned it and went into the library, braced for almost anything.
The woman who turned from her contemplation of the street was tall, slender to the point of thinness and clad in a plain, dark pelisse and gown. Her bonnet was neither fashionable nor dowdy, the impression she gave was of neatness and of frugality. As he came closer and noticed the tightness with which her hands were clasped before her and the rigidity of her shoulders, he realised that she was under considerable strain.
‘The butler told me to wait for Lord Stanegate. Are you he?’ Her voice was a surprise. Warm and mellow, like honey. Hazel eyes watched him, full of concern. Feigned?
‘I am Stanegate,’ he said, not troubling to blank out his feelings from either his face or voice. For whatever reason, she had made his father very ill. ‘And you?’
Why couldn’t I have thought of something more convincing? Nell stared back into the hard eyes, as dark as wet flint. He was too big, too serious, too male and far too close. She locked her knees against the instinct to edge backwards as she read the anger under the control he was exerting.
‘Miss Smith?’ No, he didn’t believe her. There was scepticism in the deep voice and one corner of his mouth turned down in the reverse of a smile as he studied her face. ‘Why, exactly, have you delivered a silken rope to my father?’
Nell made herself withstand the compelling dark eyes ‘Is that what it was? The parcel seemed innocuous enough. I saw no harm in it.’
‘You are fortunate that he did not die of the shock. The Earl is not a well man, his heart is weak.’ There was the anger again, like fire behind the flint. A man who loved his father and was afraid for him. But what was there to fear in a rope?
‘I had no idea what it contained. It was only a parcel to be delivered.’ Just let me go…
‘Indeed? You hardly look like the sort of female to be employed delivering parcels.’ The viscount – she supposed that was what he was, her grasp of the ranks of nobility was escaping her under stress – folded his arms across his chest and looked her up and down. She knew what he was seeing. Shabby gentility, neatness and decency maintained by sheer willpower and a refusal to give in and allow her standards to slip.
‘I am a -‘ Lie, her instincts shouted, ’dressmaker. I deliver garments for fittings to clients’ homes on behalf of my employer. One gentleman asked, as a favour, if she would have me deliver that parcel here. He has spent a good deal of money at the shop recently, Madame did not like to refuse such a good customer.’
‘His name?’ He did not seem to actually disbelieve her despite the sceptical line of that hard mouth. And it was true. Almost.
‘I do not know it.’
‘Really, Miss Smith? An excellent customer of your employer and you do not know his name?’ He moved closer, just a little, just to the very edge of discomfort for her, and narrowed his eyes.
Nell lifted her chin and stared back, letting him see she was assessing him in her turn, refusing to be cowed. Almost thirty, she guessed, six foot, give or take half an inch, fit, confident, used to getting his own way. Was that because of his station in life or his inherent qualities? All she could tell of the latter, just now, was that he was an angry man who loved his father.
‘No, I do not know his real name, my lord. I know the name he gave: Salterton.’
‘And how do you know that is false?’
‘I assume by the style of what he chose that he was buying items for his mistress. He spent a lot of money. Money, I deduced, that he would not want his wife to know about. I was there when he first came into the shop and I heard Madame ask him his name. He hesitated, just a fraction, and then there was something in his voice. He was lying: one can tell.’
‘Indeed one can,’ Lord Stanegate said, that mobile corner of his mouth twitching up into a fleeting smile that held no humour whatsoever. Nell felt her cheeks grown hot and stared fixedly at the cabochon ruby pin in his neckcloth. ‘What does he look like?’
‘I hardly saw him and I think that was deliberate on his part. I do not think even Madame has fully seen his face. He always seems to come in the evening and he wears a slouch hat, his collar is turned up. He pays in cash, not on account.
‘But one can see he is dark.’ She struggled for remembrance and to assemble her impressions into a coherent description. ‘He is foreign perhaps, because there is something in his voice – not quite an accent, more of a lilt, although he speaks like an English gentleman. He looks fit, he moves well.’ She frowned, chasing the elusive words to describe the shadowy figure. ‘Like a dancer. He is not quite as tall as you and of slighter build.’
As she spoke, she realised she was letting her eyes run over the man in front of her, assessing the elegant simplicity of expensive tailoring and the fit, well-proportioned, body under it. He was dressed for driving in a dark plain coat and buckskin breeches with glossy high boots. She dragged her gaze back to the tie pin: there was something about the set of the strong jaw above the intricate folds of the neckcloth that suggested he was aware of her scrutiny and did not relish it.
‘You are a good observer, Miss Smith, considering you only glimpsed him and had no reason to take an interest.’ He did not believe her, but she was not going to admit that the dark man had both intrigued and repelled her from the start. He had seemed to bring danger into the frivolous feminine world of the shop. ‘What is the name and direction of your employer? Doubtless she will remember even more.’
‘I prefer not to give it. Madame would not be pleased if she found I had involved her in an awkward situation.’ And that, my girl, is where you get yourself when you lie. I cannot tell him now, not without admitting I do not work for a dressmaker, and then he will believe even less of what I say.
‘And if she is displeased, what is the worst she can do to you?’ The viscount moved away a few steps and half sat on one corner of the library table. Nell let out her breath, then realised that he had simply moved back to study her more closely, head to toes.
‘Dismiss me.’ Which would be, quite simply, a disaster. Not, of course, that a man like this would realise how precarious the life of a working woman was with no family, no other means of support.
‘Hmm.’ He regarded her from under level brows. Nell had the impression that he spent rather a lot of time frowning. ‘And what can I do, do you suppose? I will tell you – I can hand you in at Bow Street as an accomplice in a conspiracy to murder my father.’
‘What! Murder? Why that is simply ridiculous!’ The shock of the threat propelled her into motion, pacing away from him in agitation. Nell came up against a large globe on a stand and spun back to face the viscount. ‘The earl is obviously in bad health and he must have over-strained himself getting out of his chair or something. Conspiracy? That is nonsense. What is there is a length of rope to harm a grown man? What is it anyway? A curtain tie?’
‘A silken rope,’ he said slowly, with a weight to his words that made her feel she should read some significance into them. And at the back of her mind, sunk deep in her memory, something stirred, sent out flickers of unease as if at the recollection of a childhood nightmare.
Nell shrugged, sending the discomfort skittering back into the darkness. Somehow she did not want to explore that elusive thought. ‘Take me to Bow Street then,’ she bluffed, as though that in itself were not enough to have her instantly dismissed without a character. ‘See if the magistrates think that innocently delivering a parcel justifies being locked up and abused.’
‘Abused? In what way do you consider yourself abused, Miss Smith?’ Lord Stanegate sat there, hands folded, apparently relaxed, looking as unthreatening as six foot of well-muscled and angry man could look. ‘I can ring for a cup of tea for you, while you consider your position. Or I could send for my sisters’ companion, should you require a chaperon. If you are cold, the fire will be laid. Only I will have an answer, Miss Smith. Do not underestimate me.’
‘There is no danger of my doing that, my lord,’ she responded, keeping her voice calm with an effort. ‘I can see that you are used to getting your own way in all things and that bullying and threatening one defenceless female, however politely, is not something you will baulk at.’
‘Bullying?’ His eyebrows went up. ‘No, this is not bullying, Miss Smith, nor threatening. I am merely setting out the inevitable consequences of your actions – or rather, your inaction.’
‘Threats,’ she muttered, mutinous and increasingly afraid.
‘It would be threatening,’ he said, getting to his feet and walking towards her as she backed away, ‘if I were to force you back against the bookshelves, like this.’ Nell’s heels hit wood and she stopped, hands spread. There was nothing behind her but unyielding leather spines.
Lord Stanegate put one hand either side of her head and glanced at the shelves. ‘Ah, the Romantic poets, how very inappropriate. Yes, if I were to trap you like this and to move very close -’ He shifted until they were toe to toe and she felt the heat of his thighs as they brushed her skirts. ‘And then promise to put my hands around your rather pretty neck and shake the truth out of you – now that would be threatening.’
Nell closed her eyes, trying to block out the closeness of him. Behind her, leather and old paper and beeswax wood polish were comforting scents from her early childhood. In front of her, sharp citrus and clean linen and leather and man. She tried to melt back into the old, familiar, library smell but there was no escape that way.
‘Look at me.’
She dragged her eyes open. He had shaved very close that morning, but she could tell his beard would be as dark as his hair. There was a tiny scar nicking the left corner of his lips and they were parted just enough for her to see the edge of white, strong teeth. As she watched he caught the lower lip between them for a moment, as though in thought. Nell found herself staring at the fullness where his teeth had pressed, her breath hitching in her chest.
‘No.’ The thought of his hands on her, sliding under her chin, his fingers slipping into her hair… And the memory of Mr Harris came back to her and she shuddered, unable to stop herself, and he stepped back abruptly as though she had slapped him.
‘Damn it -‘
‘My lord.’ The butler was in the doorway. ‘Dr Rowlands is here and Lady Narborough is asking for you. She seems a little anxious, my lord.’
Nell saw, from both their faces, that a little anxious was a major understatement. Without a word Lord Stanegate turned on his heel and strode out after the man. The door banged shut behind him.