Shropshire, England December 1832
She hadn’t expected it to be so cold. Troth Montgomery shivered as she stepped from the shabby hired carriage, pulling her cloak more closely against the bitter December wind. She’d known that Britain lay far to the north, but a life spent in the tropics had left her ill-prepared for this bone-chilling climate.
Though she had yearned to reach the end of her long journey, now she was frightened at the prospect of meeting these strangers. Delaying, she asked the driver, “This is really Warfield Park? It is not what I expected.”
He hacked a cough into his gloved hand. “Aye, it’s Warfield, right enough.” He hauled out her single carpetbag, dropped it onto the driveway beside her, then wheeled his horses to make a fast return to his home in Shrewsbury.
As the carriage rumbled past her, she caught a glimpse of herself in the window. Though she wore a sober navy blue gown, the most respectable and English-looking garment she owned, the reflection she saw was still hopelessly ugly, her dark hair and Oriental eyes blatantly foreign.
But she could not turn back. Lifting her carpetbag, she trudged up the steps of the sprawling, gabled structure. In summer the gray stones might appear mellow and warm, but in winter twilight, Warfield looked stark and unwelcoming. She didn’t belong here—she didn’t belong anywhere.
She shivered again, this time not from the wind. The owners of this house would not welcome her news, but surely, for Kyle’s sake, she would be granted a bed for the night, if nothing else.
Reaching the door, she banged the massive knocker, which was shaped like a falcon’s head. After a long wait, the door was opened by a uniformed footman. His brows arched at what had turned up on his doorstep. “The servants’ entrance is on the other side of the house.”
His scorn made her raise her head in a show of defiance. “I am here to see Lord Grahame, on behalf of his brother,” she said icily, her accent at its most Scottish.
Grudgingly he admitted her to the hall. “Your card?”
“I haven’t got one. I have been . . . traveling.”
Plainly the footman wanted to throw her out, but didn’t quite dare. “Lord Grahame and his wife are dining. You shall have to wait here until they are done. When his lordship is free, whom shall I say is calling?”
Her numb lips could barely form the name that did not seem as if it really belonged to her. “Lady Maxwell has arrived. His brother’s wife.”
The footman’s eyes widened. “I shall inform him immediately.”
As the servant hastened away, Troth pulled her cloak about her and paced the unheated hall, almost ill with nerves. Would the brother have her whipped when he heard? Great lords had been known to pun-ish the carriers of bad news.
She would have bolted from the house and taken her chances with the evil northern winter, but in her head she could still hear his rasping voice: Tell my family, Mei-Lian. They must know of my death. Though Kyle Renbourne, tenth Viscount Maxwell, had some fondness for her, she didn’t doubt that his ghost would haunt her if she failed to perform his last request.
Bracing herself, she pulled off her gloves to expose the Celtic knotwork ring that Kyle had given her, since it was the only evidence of her claims.
Steps sounded behind her. Then an eerily familiar voice asked, “Lady Maxwell?”
She turned and saw that a man and woman had entered the hall. The woman was as petite as a Cantonese, but with a glorious sweep of silvery blond hair that was striking even in this land of foreign devils. The woman returned Troth’s stare, her expression curious as a cat’s, but not hostile.
The man spoke again. “Lady Maxwell?”
Troth tore her gaze from the woman to look at him. Her blood drained away, leaving her chilled to the marrow. It wasn’t possible. The man was lean and well built, with chiseled features and striking blue eyes. Waving brown hair, a hint of cleft in his chin, an air of natural authority. The face of a dead man. It wasn’t possible.
That was her last, dizzy thought before she fainted dead away.
Macao, China February 1832
Kyle Renbourne, tenth Viscount Maxwell, concealed his impatience as he politely greeted dozens of members of Macao’s European community who had gathered to meet an honest-to-God lord. Then, his social duty done, he slipped outside to the veranda so he could contemplate the last, best adventure that would begin the next morning.
The sprawling house stood high on one of South China’s steep hills. Below, a scattering of lights defined the sweep of Macao around the eastern harbor. An exotic little city at the southeastern corner of the Pearl River estuary, Macao had been founded by the Portuguese, the only European power to find favor with the Chinese.
For almost three centuries the enclave had been home to merchants and missionaries and a rare mixing of races. Kyle had enjoyed his visit. But Macao wasn’t really China, and he was eager to be on his way to Canton.
He leaned against the railing, enjoying the cool breeze on his face. Perhaps it was his imagination, but the wind seemed scented with unknown spices and ancient mysteries, beckoning him to the land he’d dreamed of since he was a boy.
His host, friend, and partner, Gavin Elliott, came through the shuttered doors. “You look like a child on Christmas Eve, ready to burst with anticipation.”
“You can afford to be casual about sailing to Canton tomorrow. You’ve been doing it for fifteen years. This is my first visit.” Kyle hesitated before adding, “And probably my last.”
“So you’re going back to England. You’ll be missed.”
“It’s time.” Kyle thought of the years he’d spent in travel, moving ever eastward. He’d seen the Great Mosque of Damascus and walked the hills where Jesus had preached. He’d explored India from the brilliantly colored south to the wild, lonely mountains of the northwest. Along the way, he’d had his share of adventures, and survived disasters that might have left his younger brother heir to the family earldom—and wouldn’t Dominic have hated that! He’d also lost the angry edge that had marked him when he was younger, and about time, since he’d be thirty-five at his next birthday. “My father’s health has been failing. I don’t want to risk returning too late.”
“Ah. Sorry to hear that.” Gavin pulled out a cigar and struck a light. “When Wrexham is gone, you’ll be too busy as an earl to roam the far corners of the globe.”