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The lovely Lydia Kellaway can solve the most complex puzzles. The one challenge she can't top? Managing the most infuriating man she's ever encountered.
Alexander Hall, Viscount Northwood, has purchased a one-of-a-kind locket from a pawnshop, unaware of the priceless sentiment it holds for Lydia. The gentlemanly thing to do would be to simply return it. But ...
The lovely Lydia Kellaway can solve the most complex puzzles. The one challenge she can't top? Managing the most infuriating man she's ever encountered.
Alexander Hall, Viscount Northwood, has purchased a one-of-a-kind locket from a pawnshop, unaware of the priceless sentiment it holds for Lydia. The gentlemanly thing to do would be to simply return it. But Alexander is curious to see just how bold this brilliant beauty will be...
A LOVE UNEQUALED
What begins as a playful wager quickly escalates. As their sizzling attraction grows, even Lydia can't account for the feelings Alexander arouses with his smile, or the fire he ignites with his touch. But when a dark family secret is suddenly thrown into the equation, it just might divide them forever . . .
Every square matrix is a root of its own characteristic polynomial.
Lydia Kellaway clutched the notebook to her chest as the cab rattled away, the clatter of horses’ hooves echoing against the fortress of impressive town houses lining Mount Street. Gaslights burned through the midnight dark, casting puddles of light onto the cobblestones.
Lydia took a breath, anxiety and fear twisting through her. She looked up at town house number twelve, the dark façade perforated with light-filled windows. A man stood silhouetted behind one window on the first floor, his form straight, tall, and so still that he appeared fixed in that moment.
Beneath the glow of a streetlamp, Lydia opened her notebook and leafed through pages scribbled with notes, equations, and diagrams.
She’d written his name at the top of a blank page, then followed it with a numbered list of points, all related to the gossip and suppositions surrounding his family.
As she reviewed her notes, the back of her neck prickled with the strange feeling that she was being watched. She snapped the notebook closed and shook her head. Chiding herself for being unnerved by the shadows, she climbed the steps.
She reached for the bell just as the door flew open. A woman dressed in a vivid green silk gown stormed out, nearly colliding with Lydia on the front step.
“Oh!” The woman reeled backward, her eyes widening. In the sudden light spilling out from the foyer, Lydia saw that her eyes were red and swollen, her face streaked with tears.
Lydia stammered, “I’m… I’m sorry, I—”
The woman shook her head, her lips pressing together as she pushed past Lydia and hurried down the steps.
A curse echoed through the open door as a dark-haired man strode across the foyer, tension shimmering around him. “Talia!”
He didn’t cast Lydia a glance as he followed the woman down the steps. “Blast it, Talia, wait for the carriage!”
The woman turned her head to glare at the man and tossed a retort over her shoulder. Lydia couldn’t discern the words, but the cutting tone was enough to make her pursuer stop in his tracks. He cursed again, then went back to the house and shouted for the footman. Within seconds, the servant raced down the street after the woman.
“John!” The tall man turned to shout for a second servant. “Ready the carriage now and see Lady Talia home!”
He stalked up the steps and brushed past Lydia. He seemed about to slam the door in her face, but then he stopped and turned to stare at her. “Who the bloody hell are you?”
Lydia couldn’t speak past the shock.
Alexander Hall, Viscount Northwood. She knew it was him, knew in her bones that this was the man she sought, though she had not laid eyes on him before now.
Despite the hour and his anger, his clothing was precise, unwrinkled. His black trousers bore creases as sharp as a blade, and shiny gilt buttons fastened his silk waistcoat over a snowy white shirt.
His dark eyes flashed over Lydia. That look—keen, assessing, close—caused her breath to tangle in her throat.
“Well?” he demanded.
Every square matrix is a root of its own characteristic polynomial.
The locket. Jane. The locket.
“Lord Northwood?” she said.
“I asked who you are.”
His rough baritone voice settled deep in her bones. She tilted her head to meet his hooded gaze. Shadows mapped the pronounced Slavic angles of his face, the sloping cheekbones, the clean-shaven line of his jaw.
“My name is Lydia Kellaway,” she said, struggling to keep her voice steady. She glanced at the street, where the footman had stopped Lady Talia at the corner. A carriage rattled from the side of the house and approached. “Is she all right?”
“My sister is fine,” Lord Northwood snapped, “aside from being the most obstinate, frustrating creature who ever walked the earth.”
“Is that a family trait?” Lydia spoke before thinking, which was so contrary to her usual manner that her face heated with embarrassment. Not wise to insult the man from whom she needed something.
She almost heard Northwood’s teeth grind together as his jaw clenched with irritation.
He followed her gaze to where the footman and coach driver had convinced Lady Talia to enter the carriage. The footman gave Lord Northwood a wave of victory before climbing onto the bench beside the driver. The carriage rattled away.
Some of the anger seemed to drain from Northwood, which bolstered Lydia’s courage. Although she had no contingency plan for how to handle arriving in the middle of a family quarrel, she couldn’t possibly leave now.
Her spine straightened with determination as she faced the viscount. “Lord Northwood, I apologize for the lateness of the hour, but I must speak with you. It’s about a locket you purchased.”
“A locket. A pendant attached to a chain, worn as a necklace.”
He frowned. “You’ve come to my home at this hour to inquire about a necklace?”
“It’s terribly important.” She gripped the doorjamb so he couldn’t close the door and leave her standing on the step. “Please, may I come in?”
He stared at her for a minute, then rubbed a hand across his chin.
“Kellaway.” A crease formed between his brows. “Kin to Sir Henry Kellaway?”
Lydia gave a quick nod. “He was my father. He passed away several months ago.” Grief, heavy with the weight of the past, pressed down on her heart.
“My sympathies,” Lord Northwood said, his frown easing somewhat as he glanced over her black mourning dress.
“Thank you. How did you know him?”
“We were both involved with the Crystal Palace exhibition in fifty-one.” He stood looking at her for a moment, his gaze so protracted she could almost see his thoughts shifting. Then he moved aside and held the door open.
She stepped into the foyer, conscious of the fact that he did not allow her more space to pass, even as her shoulder brushed against his arm. The light contact made her jerk away, her chest constricting.
“What makes you think I have this necklace you seek?” he asked.
“I don’t think you have it, Lord Northwood. I know you do. You purchased it from Mr. Havers’s shop less than a week ago, along with a Russian icon.” Her chin lifted. “It was a locket my grandmother pawned.”
Pushing himself away from the doorjamb, Lord Northwood stepped forward. Lydia started before realizing he intended to take her cloak. She pushed the hood off her head and fumbled with the clasp.
He stood behind her, close enough that she could sense the warmth of his body, close enough that her next breath might have been the very air he exhaled.
“Come to the drawing room, Miss Kellaway. You’d best explain yourself.”
Lydia followed him into the room and sat on the sofa, making a conscious effort not to twist the notebook between her fingers. Lord Northwood lowered himself into the chair across from her. A stoic footman served tea before departing and closing the door behind him.
Lord Northwood took a swallow of tea, then put the cup on the table and leaned back in his chair. His long body unfolded with the movement, his legs stretching out in front of him. Although his outward bearing was casual, a tautness coiled through him. He reminded Lydia of a bird of prey elongating its wings, feathers ruffling, poised for flight.
“Well?” he asked.
“I found the ticket in my grandmother’s desk.” She leafed through the pages of her book before finding a small slip of paper. “I hadn’t known she’d pawned any of my mother’s jewelry.”
His hand brushed hers as he took the pawn ticket, the hard ridges of his fingers discernible even through the protection of her glove. She jerked away, curling her hand into a fist at her side.
“Your grandmother had a month to redeem her pledge,” Lord Northwood said after looking at the slip of paper.
“I realize that. And I would have attempted to do so on her behalf had I known about the transaction to begin with. I thought Mr. Havers might not have put the locket up for sale yet, or if he had, perhaps it hadn’t been sold. But when I arrived at his shop, he informed me he’d sold it last Thursday.”
“How did you learn the name of the purchaser?”
Color heated her cheeks. “Mr. Havers refused—rightly so, I suppose—to divulge the purchaser’s name,” she explained. “When he became occupied with another customer, I saw his book of sales behind the counter. I was able to… borrow it long enough to look up the transaction.”
A smile tugged at his mouth. She watched with a trace of fascination as a dimple appeared in his cheek, lending his severe, angular features an almost boyish glint. “You stole Havers’s salesbook?”
“I did not steal it.” She bristled a little at the disagreeable term. “I removed it from his shop, yes, but for less than ten minutes. I gave a boy sixpence to return the book to its proper place without Mr. Havers seeing him. You were clearly listed as the purchaser of the locket. Do you still have it, my lord?”
Northwood shifted, his hand sliding into his coat pocket. Lydia’s breath caught in her chest as she watched him withdraw the silver chain, capturing the locket in his palm.
He studied the locket, rubbing his thumb across the engraving that embellished its polished surface.
“Is it a phoenix?” he asked.
“It’s called a fenghuang, a bird of virtue, power, and grace.”
He flipped the locket over to the design on the other side. “And the dragon?”
“When the fenghuang is paired with a dragon, the two symbolize the union of… of husband and wife.”
His dark eyes moved to hers. “Of male and female.”
Lydia swallowed in an effort to ease the sudden dryness of her mouth. “The… the fenghuang itself is representative of yin and yang. Feng is the male bird, huang the female. The bird and the dragon together speak of marital harmony.”
“And the woman?” Northwood asked.
“The woman is yin, the bird called huang—”
“No.” He flicked open the locket, turning it toward her to reveal the miniature portrait inside. “This woman.”
She didn’t look at the image. She couldn’t. She stared at Lord Northwood. Something complex and strangely intimate shone behind his eyes, as if he knew the answer to his question yet wanted to hear the response from her.
“That woman,” she said, “is my mother.”
He snapped the locket closed between his thumb and forefinger. “She is very beautiful.”
The sine of two theta equals two times the sine of theta times the cosine of theta.
Lydia repeated the trigonometric identity until the threat of disturbing emotions had passed.
“Why did you purchase the locket from Mr. Havers?” she asked.
“I’d never seen anything like it.”
“Nor will you again. My father had it specially made. It is pure silver, though I suspect you know that.”
“I do recognize excellent craftsmanship.” As he spoke, he lifted his gaze from the locket and looked at her. “And this locket must be very valuable, indeed, if it brought you here in the middle of the night.”
Lydia nodded. She slipped her hand into her pocket and closed her fingers around a small figurine. She extended it to Lord Northwood. “My father brought this back years ago from a trip to the province of Yunnan. It’s a jade sculpture of an elephant, quite well crafted. I’d like to offer it in exchange for the locket.”
“Why didn’t your grandmother pawn that instead of the locket?”
Lying would serve no purpose. Not with this man.
“It isn’t as valuable,” Lydia admitted.
“You expect me to make an uneven exchange?”
“No. My father also has several Chinese scrolls, one or two paintings—if you would consider several items in exchange?”
Northwood shook his head. “I do not collect Chinese art and artifacts, Miss Kellaway, so that would be of no use. As I said, I bought the locket because it was unique.”
“Surely there must be something you want.”
“What else are you offering?”
Although the question appeared innocent, the undercurrent of his voice rippled through her. Warmth heated its wake—not the tenderness provoked by emotions of the heart but something edged with wildness, lack of control. Danger.
Her eyes burned.
The locket. The locket.
“I… I have not the immediate funds to repurchase it from you,” she admitted, “though I’ve been recently offered a position that involves payment, and I can offer you a promissory note in exchange for—”
“I trust no one to uphold a promissory note.”
“I assure you, my lord, I would never—”
“No one, Miss Kellaway.”
Lydia expelled a breath, unable to muster any indignation at his decree. She wouldn’t trust anyone to uphold a promissory note, either. Almost twenty-eight years of life had taught her that well enough.
“Nor would I accept money that you… earned?” Northwood added.
The statement had a question to it, one Lydia had no intention of answering. If she told him she’d been offered a position on the editorial board of a mathematical journal, he’d likely either laugh at her or… Wait a moment.
“Lord Northwood, I understand you are in charge of a Society of Arts exhibition. Is that correct?”
He nodded. “An international educational exhibition, which I proposed well over a year ago. It’s scheduled to open in June. Preparations are under way.”
An international exhibition. Lydia’s fingers tightened on the notebook.
“Is there by chance a… a mathematical element of the exhibition?” she asked.
“There is a planned display of different mathematical instruments used in various parts of the world.”
“I see.” She tried to ignore the shimmer of fear in her blood. If he did accept her offer, she would have no reason to take on any kind of public role. All of her work could be conducted before the exhibition even opened. Perhaps no one except Lord Northwood would even know.
“Lord Northwood, I should like to offer my assistance with your exhibition in exchange for the locket.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I have a talent for mathematics and am quite certain I could be a useful consultant.”
“You have a talent for mathematics?”
He was looking at her as if she were the oddest creature he’d ever encountered. Lydia had been on the receiving end of such askance looks since she was a child and had grown accustomed to them. Coming from Lord Northwood, however, such dubiousness caused an unexpected rustle of dismay.
“Unusual, I know,” she said, attempting to keep her voice light, “but there it is. I’ve spent most of my life with numbers, crafting useful theorems into solutions. I can advise you on the efficacy and value of the mathematics display.”
“We are already consulting with a Society subcommittee composed of mathematicians and professors.”
Lydia’s heart sank. “Oh.” She chewed her lower lip and flipped through the notebook. “What about the books? Do you need anyone to help with your accounting of the books?”
“No. Even if I did, I would not allow you to work in exchange for the locket.”
“Well, I would still like—”
Before she could finish the sentence, Northwood rose from his chair with the swiftness of a crocodile emerging from a river. He crossed to her in two strides and pulled the notebook from her grip. Lydia gave a slight gasp. He paged through the book, his frown deepening.
“ ‘Alexander Hall, Lord Northwood,’ ” he read, “ ‘returned from St. Petersburg two years ago following scandal.’ What is all this?”
A hot flush crept up Lydia’s neck. “My lord, I apologize, I didn’t mean to offend.”
“A bit late for that, Miss Kellaway. You’ve been collecting details about me? For the purpose of retrieving the locket?”
“It was the only way I could—”
“ ‘A pompous sort’? Where did you hear I was a pompous sort?”
Lydia’s blush grew hotter, accompanied by a growing alarm as she sensed the locket swinging farther out of her reach. “Er… a friend of my grandmother’s. She said you were known for moving about in rather lofty circles, both here and in St. Petersburg.”
When he didn’t respond, she added, “She also said you’d done excellent work building your trading company.”
If the compliment mitigated the offense, he gave no indication. He turned his attention back to the book.
“ ‘Scandal involving mother.’ ” Northwood’s expression tightened with anger. “Did your research, didn’t you, Miss Kellaway?”
She couldn’t respond. Shame and dismay swirled through her chest. Northwood leafed through the rest of the book, his expression not changing as he examined the scribbled equations and theorems.
“What is all this?” he asked again.
“My notes. I keep the notebook with me so I can write things down as I think of them.”
Northwood slammed the book shut.
“It’s late, Miss Kellaway.” His voice was weary, taut. “I believe John has returned with the carriage. If you’ll wait in the foyer, he will ensure that you arrive home safely.”
Lydia knew that if she left now, he would never agree to see her again.
“Lord Northwood, please, I’m certain we can come to some sort of agreement.”
“Are you, now?” He stared at her so intently that Lydia shifted with discomfort. His eyes slipped over her, lingering on her breasts, her waist. “What kind of agreement?”
She ought to have been offended by the dark insinuation in his voice, like the low thrum of a cello, but instead a shiver ran through her blood and curled in her belly.
Yet she had nothing more to offer him.
“Lord Northwood,” she finally said, “what do you propose?”
Alexander paused for a moment and stared at the woman before him. Who was she? Why did she make him so… curious? And why was embarrassment flaring in him because she knew about the scandal?
“I propose, Miss Kellaway,” he said, his words clipped, “that you throw your infernal notebook into the fire and leave me the bloody hell alone.”
Her eyes widened. “I’m certain you realize that is not an option,” she said quietly.
He gave a humorless laugh. So much for attempting to frighten her off. “One can hope.”
He could just give her the damned locket back. That would be the gentlemanly thing to do, though he suspected she wouldn’t accept the gesture. For her, it had to be done through payment or exchange.
He rolled his shoulders back, easing the tension that lived in his muscles. His earlier frustration with Talia lingered, and now with Miss Kellaway here… it would be no wonder if he concluded women were the cause of all the world’s troubles.
Certainly they were the cause of his.
“You’re correct about this.” He tapped the book with a forefinger. “My mother ran off with another man. Younger than she, even. Horrified society. Ever since, people have thought of us as rather extraordinarily disreputable.”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know. I give little credence to gossip. It’s not easily proved.”
“You require proof, do you?”
“Of course. Mathematics, after all, is built on foundations of proving theorems, deductive reasoning. It’s the basis of my work.”
“All in this book?” He paged through it again with disbelief. Scribbled equations, lists, and diagrams filled the pages, some smudged, some crossed out, others circled or designated with a star.
“Those are notes, ideas for papers,” Lydia explained. “Some problems and puzzles I’ve devised for my own enjoyment.”
Lydia frowned. “What’s so amusing?”
“Most women—indeed, the vast majority of women—engage in needlepoint or shopping for enjoyment,” Alexander said. “You devise mathematical problems?”
“Sometimes, yes. May I have my book back, please?” Her frown deepened and she extended her hand. “You needn’t find it all so funny, my lord. It can be very satisfying to craft a complex problem.”
“I can tell you a thousand other ways to find satisfaction.”
Her lips parted, shock flashing in her eyes as the insinuation struck her. He held out the notebook but didn’t loosen his grip. Lydia grasped the other end of it and appeared to collect herself, her chin lifting.
“Well,” she said, “I daresay you couldn’t solve one of my problems.”
He heard the challenge in her voice and responded as if she’d just asked him to place a thousand-pound bet. He let go of the notebook.
“Couldn’t I?” he asked. “How certain are you of that?”
“Quite.” She cradled the notebook to her chest.
“Certain enough to wager your locket?”
She wavered an instant before giving a swift nod. “Of course, though I’d insist upon establishing the parameters of a time frame.”
The parameters of a time frame.
The woman was odd enough to be fascinating.
“If you can’t solve my puzzle in five minutes’ time,” Lydia continued, “you must return my locket at once.”
“And if you lose?”
“Then you may determine my debt.”
He gave her a penetrating look that might have disconcerted any other woman. Although she bore his scrutiny without response, something about her demeanor seemed to deflect it, like tarnished silver repelling light.
“Lord Northwood,” she prompted, her fingers so tight on the notebook that the edges crumpled.
What would move her? What would provoke a reaction? What would break through her rigid, colorless exterior?
“A kiss,” he said.
Lydia’s gaze jerked to his, shock flashing in the blue depths of her eyes like lightning behind glass.
“I… I beg your pardon?”
“Should you lose, you grant me the pleasure of one kiss.”
A flush stained her cheeks. “My lord, that is a highly improper request.”
“Not as improper as what I might have proposed.” He almost grinned as her color deepened. “Still, it ought to give you proof of the theorem of my disrepute.” He tipped his head toward the notebook. “You can add that to column four.”
He knew he was being rude, but he’d spent the last two years holding himself, his words, even his thoughts, so tightly in check that something inside him loosened at the sight of this woman’s blush. Something made him want to rattle her, to engage in a bit of bad behavior and see how she responded. Besides, wasn’t bad behavior exactly what society expected of him?
“Do you accept?” he asked.
“All right, then. I’ll tell John to take you home.”
He started to the door, unsurprised when she said, “Wait!”
“My lord, surely there is something—”
“That’s my offer, Miss Kellaway.”
Her hand trembled as she brushed a lock of hair from her forehead. The brown strands glinted with gold, making him wonder what her hair would look like unpinned.
Lydia gave a stiff nod, her color still high. “Very well.”
“Then read me one of your puzzles.”
“I beg your pardon?”
He nodded at her notebook. “Read one to me.”
She looked as if she were unable to fathom the reason for his request. He wondered what she’d say if he told her he liked the sound of her voice, delicate and smooth but with a huskiness that slid right into his blood.
“Go on,” he encouraged.
Lydia glanced at the notebook, uncertainty passing across her features. He’d thrown her off course. She hadn’t anticipated such a turn of events when she’d planned this little encounter, and she didn’t know how to react.
“All right, then.” She cleared her throat and paged through the notebook. “On her way to a marketplace, a woman selling eggs passes through a garrison. She must pass three guards on the way.”
She paused and glanced at him. A faint consternation lit in her eyes as their gazes met. Alexander gave her a nod of encouragement.
“To the first guard,” Lydia continued, “she sells half the number of eggs she has plus half an egg more. To the second guard, she sells half of what remains plus half an egg more. To the third guard, she sells half of the remainder plus half an egg more. When she arrives at the marketplace, she has thirty-six eggs. How many eggs did she have at the beginning?”
Alexander looked at her for a moment. He rose and went to the desk on the other side of the room. He rummaged through the top drawer and removed a pencil, then extended his hand for the notebook.
He smoothed a fresh sheet of paper onto the desk and read her neat penmanship.
An image of her flashed in his mind—Lydia Kellaway sitting at a desk like this one, her hair unbound, a slight crease between her brows as she worked on a problem she expected would confound people. Perhaps it was late at night and she wore nothing but a voluminous white shift, her body naked beneath the…
Alexander shook his head hard. He read the problem again and began doing some algebraic calculations on the paper.
Odd number, half an egg more, seventy-three eggs before she passed the last guard…
He did a few more calculations, half aware of something easing inside him, his persistent anger lessening. He realized that for the first time in a very long while, he was rather enjoying himself.
Alexander scribbled a number and circled it, then turned the paper toward Lydia.
“She had two hundred and ninety-five eggs,” he said.
Lydia stepped forward to read his solution. A perplexing surge of both triumph and regret rose in Alexander when he lifted his gaze and saw the dismay on her face. She hadn’t expected to lose.
No. She hadn’t expected him to win.
“You are correct, Lord Northwood.”
He tossed down the pencil and straightened.
Lydia stood watching him, wariness edging her expression. Her skin was milk-pale, her heart-shaped face dominated by large, thick-lashed eyes. Her cheekbones sloped down to a delicate jaw and full, well-shaped lips.
She might have been beautiful if it weren’t for the tense, brittle way she carried herself, the compression of her lips and strain in her eyes. If it weren’t for the ghostly pallor cast by her black dress, the severe cut of which could not obscure the combination of curves and sinuous lines that he suspected lay beneath.
His heart beat a little faster. He went to stand in front of her. Lydia swallowed, the white column of her throat rippling. If she was fearful, she didn’t show it. If she was anticipatory, she didn’t show that either. She merely looked at him, those thick eyelashes fanning her blue eyes like feathers.
He reached up and touched a loose lock of her hair, rubbing it between his fingers. Thick and soft. Pity she had to keep it so tightly bound. He lowered his hand, his knuckles brushing across her cheek. A visible tremble went through her.
“Well, then?” Alexander murmured.
He grasped her shoulders, her frame slender and delicate beneath his big hands. He stared down at her, the muscles of his back and shoulders tensing. The air thickened around them, between them, infusing with heat. His heart thudded with a too-quick tempo and a vague sense of unease—as if whatever strange power vibrated between him and Lydia Kellaway contained a sinister edge.
He inhaled the air surrounding her. No cloying scent of flowers or perfume. She smelled crisp, clean, like starched linens and sharpened pencils.
Her lips parted. Her posture remained stiff, her hands curled at her sides. Alexander wondered if she ever allowed herself to lose that self-contained tension. He continued to grip her shoulders, and for an instant they were both still. Then he slipped his hand to the side of Lydia’s neck just above her collar.
She trembled when his thumb grazed her bare skin, brushing back and forth against her neck, the only movement within the utter stillness surrounding them. Color swept across her cheekbones, the same reddish hue as a breaking dawn. Her throat rippled with another swallow, but her expression didn’t break; her posture didn’t ease.
If anything, she grew more rigid, her spine stiffening. Alexander’s thumb moved higher, to that secret, intimate hollow just behind her ear, his fingers curving to the back of her neck. His palm rested in the juncture of her neck and shoulder. Her skin was as smooth as percale; tendrils of her dark hair brushed the back of his hand.
Want. That surge pulsed through him, hot and heavy, the desire to strip her dull clothes from her body and touch her bare skin. As if in response, her pulse quickened like the beat of butterfly wings against his palm.
A soft thud sounded on the carpet as her notebook fell to the floor.
He lowered his mouth to hers. She didn’t move forward, but neither did she back away. Her flush intensified, her chest rising as if she sought to draw air into her lungs. Multiple shades of blue infused her eyes. Her breath puffed against his lips. His hands tightened on her shoulders, the side of her neck.
The cracks within him began to smooth, the fissures closing. Instead he was filled with the urge to prolong this strange attraction, to savor the mystery of what would happen when their mouths finally met.
His whisper broke through the tension like a pebble dropped into a pool of still, dark water. Lydia drew back, her lips parting.
“What?” Her question sounded strained, thin.
Alexander slipped his hand away from her neck, his fingers lingering against her warm skin.
“Later,” he repeated. “I will require the payment of your debt at a later date.”
Lydia stared at him before stepping away, her fists clenching. “My lord, this is unconscionable.”
“Is it? We never determined payment would be immediate.”
“It was implied.”
“Ah, that’s your mistake, Miss Kellaway. It’s dangerous to assume your opponent holds the same unspoken ideas. Dangerous to assume anything, in fact.”
He almost felt the anger flare through her blood. For an instant, she remained still, and then something settled over her expression—a resurgence of control, of composure.
She started for the door, her stride long and her back as stiff as metal. Just before she stepped out, she turned back to him.
“Though I prefer a more systematic approach to proving a theorem, my lord, I appreciate your assistance.”
He watched her disappear into the shadows of the foyer; then he smiled faintly. He picked up her notebook from the floor and slipped it into his pocket.
If the linear differential equation were to demonstrate the emotions of two lovers, the equation would be governed by the variables assigned to each lover: a = Ar + bJ and J = cR + dJ.
Lydia stared at the page of equations on her lap, then put it aside and wrapped her arms around her waist.
The emotions of two lovers…
Emotions were one thing. Sensations were something else entirely. A memory tried to fight its way to the surface—the memory of how it had once felt to be wild, naked, and unfettered.
She remembered that it had felt astonishing. That all those years ago she’d felt free for the first time in her life—until she learned that the price for indulgence was one no person should have to pay.
… governed by the variables assigned to each lover…
She would never be able to assign a variable to the sensations that still bloomed through her body after her encounter with Lord Northwood.
Every thump of her heart resounded through her, the slow unwinding of something sweet and rich. Her breasts felt full, heavy, her skin stretched tight over her body, her thighs tense with anticipation.
She closed her eyes. Shame trickled beneath her skin, smothering some of her lingering desire for a man she hardly knew. A man she could never have. Should never want.
Three, four, five: the first Pythagorean triple.
Her heartbeat slowed, her breath stabilizing into a smooth, even rhythm. The unnerving sensations of the previous night began to sink beneath the precise form of a perfectly constructed right triangle.
“You’re up early.”
Lydia’s eyes flew open. Charlotte Boyd stood in the doorway of the study, her hand clenched around her cane. Her white skin was creased with only scant evidence of her age, and her fine features retained vestiges of youthful beauty.
“I couldn’t sleep.” Lydia pushed her hair away from her forehead, hoping her expression bore no evidence of her thoughts. “Mrs. Driscoll said breakfast will be ready in a half hour.”
Mrs. Boyd settled into the opposite chair, her blue eyes sharp. “You’re not still upset about the locket, are you?”
Lydia suppressed a rustle of irritation. “Of course I am.”
“For heaven’s sake, Lydia, I told you to forget the locket. It is a foolish, sentimental thing, and neither you nor Jane should attach any meaning to it except for its value. Mr. Havers gave us quite a bit for it.”
“It belonged to my mother,” Lydia said, stung by her grandmother’s dismissive words. “Surely you understand why that’s important to me. Why it’s important to Jane. Papa would never have wanted it sold.”
“Your parents would have been far more supportive of Jane attending a proper school than they would about keeping a piece of jewelry.” Mrs. Boyd frowned. “I’d hope you would be as well.”
“You didn’t need to pawn the locket to send Jane to school,” Lydia muttered.
“You know how expensive Queen’s Bridge is, Lydia. We need to procure all possible funds for her initial enrollment. And we do not need an old locket.”
Lydia’s hands flexed, her chest tightening as she looked at her grandmother. Now was not the time to fight about Jane’s schooling. Lydia had other matters on her mind. “I learned the locket was purchased by Alexander Hall. Lord Northwood.”
Mrs. Boyd stared at her with pursed lips, a faintly perplexed expression in her eyes.
“Viscount Northwood? You must be joking.”
“I’m not. He bought the locket from Mr. Havers. He said he thought it was interesting.”
“You spoke to him?”
“I went to his house yesterday evening. I asked him to return the locket.”
Mrs. Boyd’s eyes widened. “You went to Lord North—”
Lydia held up a hand to stop the imminent scolding. “Before you chastise me, no one saw me, no one heard. I was careful.”
“Really, Lydia, there’s nothing careful about meeting a man like that in private! Have you learned nothing over the years? What on earth is the matter with you?”
“You should have known I’d never let that locket go,” Lydia said. “Especially after Papa died.”
“You’ve not even looked at it in ages!” In her agitation, Mrs. Boyd rose and began to pace, leaning heavily on her cane. “Honestly, Lydia, now Lord Northwood knows we visited a pawnshop and that we… Oh heavens, what if this becomes known?”
“He won’t tell anyone.”
“How on earth do you know?”
She didn’t. And yet, somehow, she did. “He’s not a gossip. He would not deliberately besmirch another person’s reputation.”
“You’re so certain of that?”
“Would you do such a thing?”
“Of course you wouldn’t. Because you know the possible consequences. So does Lord Northwood.”
She eyed her grandmother with wariness. Mrs. Boyd’s lips pressed together, but she didn’t appear inclined to argue. Perhaps because she knew Lydia spoke the truth.
Lydia shivered and rubbed her arms, pushing aside the threatening darkness of the past. Although she lived in dread of any form of gossip, she could not resist the desire to know more about Lord Northwood.
“Is it true?” she asked. “Did his mother run away with another man?”
“Oh, such unpleasant rumors.” Mrs. Boyd waved a hand. “It’s why most people still want nothing to do with them, even though they’re quite wealthy. But yes, as far as I know, the countess, who everyone believed exceedingly proper, was caught having an affair with a young Russian soldier. She ran off with him, and the earl petitioned for a divorce. Quite rightly, I must admit. Northwood returned to London in the midst of the whole thing. Terrible, really, that he had to contend with the aftermath of such a scandal. They’ve never recovered, that family.”
“What happened to the countess?”
“She’s been banned from the estates, though I don’t think she ever tried to return. I imagine she’s still living in sin, probably in the wilds of Russia.” Curiosity narrowed her grandmother’s eyes. “So what was he like?”
“Lord Northwood?” Lydia searched for words. “Polite, I suppose. Implacable.”
Compelling. Handsome. Tempting…
Lydia cut short the thought. She must not think of any man in that way, least of all Lord Northwood.
“Hmm.” Mrs. Boyd tapped her cane. “From what I understand, Lord Rushton’s sons have something in their blood, Cossack ancestors and all. The earl has an ancient family that extends back to the Normans, I believe, pure English lineage there. Not from their mother, though. It accounts for their roughness, that Russian blood. Even before the scandal, Lady Chilton was concerned about the prospect of her daughter marrying Lord Northwood.”
Lydia blinked. An unpleasant emotion rose in her chest, something greenish brown, the color of slimy grass beneath a layer of slush.
“Lady Chilton’s daughter is going to marry Lord Northwood?” she asked.
“Not anymore, no. They were affianced at one time, but then after Lady Rushton behaved so abominably, Lord Chilton called off the engagement. He refused to have his daughter associated with the Halls, despite their wealth.”
Lydia let out her breath, realizing that her hand was trembling slightly.
“All those brothers, and the sister, too, have spent a great deal of time in Russia,” Mrs. Boyd remarked. “It’s no wonder they’re not much in demand. I’ve heard they’re a bit uncivilized.”
Lydia bit her tongue to prevent a retort. Although she was loath to admit it, she thought her grandmother’s commentary on Alexander Hall had some merit.
Despite his impeccable appearance, something feral and turbulent gleamed in the viscount’s eyes—something that called to mind Cossack soldiers, silver sabers, and the wide plains of the Russian steppes.
Certainly Lord Northwood’s behavior had been anything but proper, though Lydia wouldn’t go quite so far as to deem it uncivilized.
“Sophie!” Jane Kellaway whispered.
The maid turned from the stove, her eyes widening. “Miss Jane, you oughtn’t be down ’ere! Your grandmother—”
“Is there another letter? Did the boy deliver one?”
Sophie sighed and pulled a creased paper from her apron pocket. She handed it to Jane and shooed her toward the door.
“If she finds out, I’ll be sacked, you know,” Sophie hissed.
“She won’t find out.”
Clutching the letter, Jane hurried upstairs to the schoolroom. Anticipation sparked in her as she broke the seal. She unfolded the paper, which contained a block of precise handwriting that reminded her of black ants marching in a row.
Thank you for your recent discourse on fairyflies, which I find a very lovely name for what—as per your description—is quite a disagreeable little insect.
It is, however, interesting that female fairyflies fly more adroitly than males. Perhaps therein lies a lesson for us all.
Enclosed is a riddle called an acrostic. I find myself a bit disgruntled that you solved the last one with such alacrity.
Jane grinned. She’d been rather proud of herself for solving that last riddle so quickly. She slipped the letter behind the second page and studied the latest riddle.
My first is in tea but not in leaf.
My second is in teapot and also in teeth.
My third is in caddy but not in cozy.
My fourth is in cup but not in rosy.
My fifth is in herbal and also in health.
My sixth is in peppermint and always in wealth.
My last is in drink, so what can I be?
I’m there in a classroom. Do you listen to me?
“Jane, have you seen my notebook?”
Jane fumbled at the sound of Lydia’s voice, tucking the letter under her arm. She glanced at her sister to see if she had noticed the clumsy movement, but Lydia was looking distractedly around the room.
“Your notebook? You’ve lost it?”
“I’ve misplaced it,” Lydia corrected.
Jane glanced out the window to see if pigs were flying, because surely the universe had gone mad if Lydia Kellaway had misplaced her notebook. “When did you have it last?”
“Oh… last night.” Lydia bit her lip, an odd distress appearing in her eyes. “Well, no need to worry now. I’m certain it will turn up.” She gave Jane a smile. “Mrs. Driscoll says there will be Savoy biscuits for tea.”
“That will be nice.” Jane injected a note of enthusiasm into her voice. She liked Savoy biscuits, but tea was dreadfully boring—even more so since Papa was no longer here to play Chinese tangrams.
“Perhaps we can even persuade her to let us have some of her precious strawberry jam.” Lydia smiled again, though the tension remained in her expression—likely because of the lost notebook, but also because it was just always there.
Jane remembered a lesson in geology during which they’d studied rock veins—lines of quartz or salt that split through the middle of a rock. She thought her sister contained a vein like that, except with Lydia it wasn’t shimmering and shiny. The vein running through Lydia was made of something hard and brittle, a material that appeared on the surface only in unguarded moments.
Jane still didn’t know its cause—never had—but she suspected it had something to do with their mother.
“Did you water the fern?” Lydia asked.
Still clutching the letter underneath her arm, Jane went to the small bell glass on a table beside the window. A scraggly fern, the edges of the fronds turning brown, grew from a bed of rocks and soil. She removed the glass and poured a few drops of water around the base.
“It’s a bit pitiful, isn’t it?” Jane remarked, plucking a few dead fronds.
Lydia joined her to peer at the plant. “Perhaps we ought to move it somewhere else? Or does it need more air or a different soil? I must say, Jane, I’ve never quite understood how ferns are expected to thrive while encased in glass.”
Jane pushed open the window a crack to let the breeze in. She and Lydia studied the fern for a few moments.
“I suspect we need to do more research,” Lydia said. “I’m going to the library tomorrow, so I’ll see if they have any books about fern cultivation. Now shall we continue our work on long division?”
Lydia began spreading a workbook and papers out on the table that dominated the tiny room first set aside for use as Jane’s nursery and then as the schoolroom.
While Lydia was distracted, Jane picked up a book and tucked the letter between the pages, then pushed the book onto a shelf between two encyclopedias.
She was struck with the sudden urge to tell Lydia about the other letters that lay folded and hidden on the bookshelf, but the purposeful way her sister was moving about the room made her lose courage.
Besides, she didn’t want to disobey the sender’s instructions about secrecy—these anonymous letters and the accompanying riddles had been a welcome distraction after Papa’s death, and she didn’t want them to end.
She went to join Lydia at the table. “Is everything all right?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t it be?”
“You seem a bit upset.”
“I’m not upset. Now come and sit. We’ll review dividends and divisors.”
Jane sat and picked up a pencil. “Is it Grandmama?”
“Jane, honestly, nothing is the matter.”
But Jane saw the irritation rise in Lydia’s eyes. She didn’t know what Lydia wished their grandmother would or wouldn’t do, but she wished everyone would stop being so stern and start to enjoy things a bit more.
Every day it was the same—breakfast, lessons, lunch, an outing, tea. And it wasn’t as if the outings were anywhere terribly interesting, only to the park or library or shops.
Jane glanced up. “Sorry. I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Do you remember what a remainder is?”
“A number left over.”
“Good. This problem will have a remainder, but start with the whole number, then multiply it by the divisor. See, what’s so interesting about long division is that you’re able to do division, multiplication, and subtraction all in the same equation.”
“Is it wrong to keep a secret?”
Lydia looked almost startled. “A secret? What kind of secret?”
“Oh, nothing that would hurt anybody. Just… you know. A secret. Something no one else knows. Like that you’ve got a bag of bull’s-eyes tucked beneath your bed.”
“Well, I… I suppose it depends on what the secret is. But if it doesn’t hurt anybody to keep it, then no. I don’t think it’s wrong.” Lydia reached out and pushed a lock of hair from Jane’s forehead. “Do you have sweets stored away somewhere?”
“No.” Jane gave her sister a winning smile. “If I did, I’d share them with you.”
“Lovely.” Lydia gave Jane’s cheek a gentle pinch. “But you’d still have to figure out how to share them equally. And for that, you need to learn how to divide.”
Jane made a face of mock irritation before turning her concentration to the problem. Although she liked mathematics, the way her sister sometimes talked, one would think the world revolved around numbers.
Jane supposed in some ways it probably did, though she had the sense the world was driven by something far more mysterious than sums.
Something like riddles, conundrums, puzzles.
The locket swung back and forth, sunlight captured in the silver casing. Alexander lifted the chain to study the engraving. Edging his thumbnail into the seam, he opened the little compartment.
The miniature image of a woman with sparrow-brown hair stared back at him, the hint of laughter that curved her lips mitigating the imperiousness of her pose. The other side of the locket’s casing bore a picture of a man, his features narrow and strong, a neat beard covering his jaw and a serious expression in his eyes.
Alexander had a sudden image of Lydia Kellaway wearing this locket around her neck, enclosing it in her hand every so often as she thought of her beloved parents.
Not an emotion he would ever have extended to his own parents—his iron-fisted father, his cold-as-glass mother, who’d shocked them all with her shameful affair.
Sometimes Alexander still couldn’t believe it. The Countess of Rushton, imperious to a fault with her dulcet tones and porcelain skin, debasing herself with a common soldier.
At least she’d had the sense to run off, Alexander thought. Otherwise he’d have thrown her out himself after the affair came to light.
A grunt made him look up. His twenty-nine-year-old brother Sebastian slumped into a chair, his eyes heavy lidded and his jaw unshaven. He dragged a hand through his messy hair and yawned.
“Late night?” Alexander asked, his voice tight.
Sebastian shrugged, staring at the table as if he expected breakfast to appear. He yawned again and headed to the sideboard and the coffeepot.
“Where did you go?” Alexander asked.
“Concert at the Eagle Tavern. Their pianist canceled, so they asked me to fill in. Thought I’d sleep here so’s not to disturb Talia or the old bird.”
“You thought performing at the Eagle Tavern was a good idea?”
Sebastian groaned and took a swallow of coffee. “It’s a respectable enough place. Besides, no one cares, Alex.”
“You’re the only one, then.”
Frustration tightened Alexander’s chest. For all his efforts following their parents’ divorce, his siblings had failed to do a single thing to help restore the family’s reputation. Sebastian cared nothing for what others thought, and if Talia had the choice, she would seclude herself at their country estate and never visit London.
Alexander, on the other hand, lived within the thick of it—attending social events, clubs, and business meetings as if nothing had gone wrong, as if their mother had not left them in disgrace. As if their deep association with Russia were not an increasing burden.
“I sent word to Father yesterday that I wish to speak with him about the management of the Floreston estate,” he told Sebastian. “There’s been some discrepancy between income and expenditure, and I’ve several tenant issues with which to contend.”
“If you wish to speak with Lord Rushton, I suggest you call upon him.” Sebastian scrubbed a hand over his face. “He can be found at Forty-five King Street, Piccadilly, in the event you’ve forgotten. Likely he’s spending the morning in his greenhouse.”
“And Talia? What are her plans for the day?”
“I think she’s got a meeting with the Ragged School Union.” Sebastian eyed him over the rim of his cup. “Told me yesterday you were haranguing her about marriage again.”
Excerpted from A Study in Seduction by Nina Rowan Copyright © 2012 by Nina Rowan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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