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A Lady Unrivaled
By Roseanna M. White
Bethany House PublishersCopyright © 2016 Roseanna M. White
All rights reserved.
The Cotswolds, Ralin Castle March 1913
Lady Ella Myerston knew more than everyone thought she did — and more than they thought she should. She pressed her back to the warm stones, sliding silently behind an evergreen hedge to avoid a servant. Breath held, she waited for him to pass before daring to take another step.
Silence. Silence was absolutely essential if she intended to go unnoticed. One foot carefully down, and then another. Barely breathing. Reaching out inch by inch until her hand closed around the warm metal latch of the door. Victory!
She pulled open the heavy wooden slab and stole inside. "Drat." Not the room she'd expected — this door brought her nowhere near the library that had been her aim.
Well, she was accustomed to such things. Creeping forward along the hall on silent feet, she reviewed her plan of attack. Get into the library. Find the book she needed. Escape back to her chamber before her friends and hosts, the Duke and Duchess of Stafford, were any the wiser. They didn't need to know that she knew about the diamonds — much less that she intended to intervene before the things could bring more harm to her brother and his expectant wife. If the duke and duchess realized her intent, they'd probably ship her straight back to Midwynd Hall.
Not acceptable. The rest of them had already paid a steep enough price. They needed a reprieve, and if Ella couldn't give it to them openly, she would resort to the underhanded.
A hushed giggle reached her ears, propelling her into the shadowed space behind a suit of armor that looked properly medieval. Not the best hiding place, but the two housemaids who scurried along the corridor didn't notice her. Their heads were bent together, their giggles pulling a grin onto Ella's lips too. Probably whispering about some handsome footman or groom. Were she at Midwynd, where she knew all the maids and footmen, she might have joined them.
Were she not about covert business.
Once their footsteps had faded, she disentangled herself from the knight's shadow and resumed her creeping, making it to the library unhindered. A bit anticlimactic, but she would chalk it up as a job well done and get on with it.
The Stafford library was vast and thorough. Intimidatingly so. She'd known it was big, of course. She'd just forgotten how big.
Well, there was nothing for it but to dive in and pray no one interrupted her — or noticed her absence from her borrowed bedchamber upstairs. Nothing for it, that is, except for the catalog cabinet nestled in the corner, praise be to the Lord. Ella scurried over to it and flipped through the neatly typed cards in the D drawer.
Diamonds. Diamonds. Surely they had books on diamonds. Surely if anyone in this world had books on diamonds, it would be ... "Aha!" Ella did a little jig ... and clamped a hand over her mouth when her outburst echoed back to her.
But no one came bursting through the carved doors, so she took the direction from the card, shut the drawer, and headed to the appropriate section of shelves. One twelve-foot climb up a ladder later and she had it in her hands. The book she hoped would fill in a few of the blanks that remained after her previous attempts. It would certainly tell her about the rarity and worth of red diamonds. It would tell her where they originated. It would tell her all the scientific, factual data she could ever want.
What it wouldn't tell her, she knew, was about the Fire Eyes specifically, and how they had ended up first with Brook and then with Ella's brother, Brice. It wouldn't tell her why Brice and Rowena had fought over them so bitterly in the first months of their marriage. It wouldn't tell her about the curse her sister-in-law had feared would rip apart their world.
And their world had been ripped.
Maybe it was the curse, or maybe it was just the people who so greedily searched for the gems her brother had stashed somewhere or another. Ella didn't much care which was at fault. She just wanted to keep the diamonds from doing any more damage to the people she loved best in the world.
"Ella? I thought you were resting before our ride."
Ella shrieked, spun, barely thinking to clutch the book and its incriminating title to her chest.
Some spy indeed.
Brook, Duchess of Stafford, stood just inside the door. Blond hair coiffed, riding habit impeccable, amusement in her gaze. "Désolée. I didn't mean to startle you."
At least Ella had the wherewithal to laugh at herself. It would have looked beyond strange to her friend if she hadn't. "I was going to rest. But a book makes for the better resting, you know."
Brook flashed a grin right back. "That it does. What have you selected? Did you find the latest Sherlock Holmes novel I told you about?"
"Oh." Ella waved a hand and slid the book around to her back, praying it looked merely dismissive. She headed for the doorway, ready to edge her way around the duchess standing sentinel in it. "No, not yet. You've so many books in here, I thought I'd be adventurous."
"You always find a way to be." Brook's brows lifted. "Though I can't think what might be in these esteemed shelves that would require hiding it behind your back. What have you? Some cautionary tale your mother had forbidden you to read?"
"No, nothing like that." Ella's laugh wasn't forced, exactly — though it may have been a bit more nervous than she wanted it to be.
"Then what?" Brook reached out, fingers wiggling in an unspoken demand. As if Ella were the duchess's small son, to just hand over whatever forbidden object she had discovered. Not that little Lord Abingdon ever did either, come to think of it.
Ella lifted her chin. "You can have it when I'm through, but you'll not be stealing my reading material from me again, thank you very much. Don't think I've forgotten how my copy of The Lost World mysteriously disappeared at Midwynd while you were visiting."
Brook laughed — and lunged for her. "Desperate times. Your library is not so well stocked. Come, Ella. Show me!"
"Never!" Knowing Brook would just think it a game — praying so — Ella squealed a laugh of her own and made a break for it, meaning to sidestep her nosy hostess and make for the door.
She should have known Brook would be too quick. She spent her days chasing an errant toddler, after all, despite having a team of servants to do it for her. And despite one last shriek of protest on Ella's part, the duchess pried the book from her hands.
Ella sighed and turned to face her friend, knowing well what was coming.
Brook was never one to disappoint. The good humor on her face changed in a flash to temper. "Diamonds." She lifted narrowed eyes to Ella. "Do tell me you're just plotting what kind of engagement ring you'd like when you finally decide on a suitor."
As if any of those stuffy men in London — who saw her only as a connection to her brother, the Duke of Nottingham — would ever get so far with her as to present a ring. But Ella smiled. "You're always so astute."
Brook blustered out a growl and raised the book in the air as if in testimony to Ella's insanity. "You know. You know about the Fire Eyes, and your brother is going to kill me for getting you involved in all this, and I'm going to kill him for taking them to begin with after I begged him to leave the trouble to me and Justin, and ..."
From there, the rant moved into Monegasque. Had it been French, Ella would have had at least a hope of following, but not Monegasque. She listened for a moment ... and then tried to snatch at the book Brook wielded like a sword. That just propelled her friend back into English. "You don't understand, Ella! This is not some ... some adventure story. It is real, and it is deadly, and I won't have you involved!"
Ella stiffened, her chin coming up. "I know perfectly well how real it is, and how deadly. You almost died over those gems. My brother almost died over them, and his wife."
Brook visibly drew her emotions back in and took a deep breath. "It was not the diamonds that nearly killed Brice and Rowena."
"No." Ella's nostrils flared as that ache, still fresh, consumed her. "It was my oldest friend who did it. My oldest friend, with whom I'd spent every day last autumn — and I didn't see it. I didn't see what Stella had become."
What else hadn't she seen — didn't she see?
"Ella." Brook slid closer and rested her long, tapered fingers on Ella's wrist. "You can't blame yourself for that. No one saw it."
No excuse — but there was nothing she could do about the past. Nothing except determine to make the future something different. To pay attention. To do whatever she must to protect her family. "It may have been Stella Abbott who pulled that trigger six months ago — but it was the Rushworths who used her because they wanted the diamonds. The Rushworths who used Rowena. The Rushworths who sent that monstrous Highland laird after her."
"And the Rushworths who have retreated altogether now." The fingers squeezed on her wrist. "They are not even in the country. You needn't worry."
Worry was a waste of time, true. But consideration ... Consideration wasn't to be neglected. "They will be back — you know it as well as I. And when they come ..."
Ella shook her head and pulled away. "Brice took the diamonds from you because you were just married, starting a family. Now he is the one who will be a father within a few weeks. I'll not let him pay the price the Fire Eyes seem to demand. I won't let him or Rowena or their child suffer, not when there just may be something I can do to stop it all."
Brook turned back toward the shelf and the ladder Ella had just climbed a few minutes prior. No need for her to check her catalog to know where it belonged. "There is nothing you can do. There is nothing anyone can do — not now."
"But there is! We can learn, Brook. You, of all people, should know that. We can learn more about the Fire Eyes, about this curse, about why the Rushworths want them and —"
"Is that why you invited yourself to Ralin?" Temper sparked again as Brook shoved the book back into place with a thud. "Not to visit me, not to give your brother and his wife some time alone before the baby comes — but to snoop around my library?"
Ella tried on a cheeky grin. "Well, if there's any library in the world that could help me, it's yours. You know it's true."
There — a breath of laughter as Brook gained the ground again. "Let it drop, Ella. I beg of you. Let's just enjoy your time here and forget all about the Fire Eyes. Find your adventure somewhere else, go and get lost in the wood. Imagine a few good stories about the faeries in the hills. Just not the Fire Eyes. S'il te plait."
Everyone in her world thought they had to protect her — that she had to be coddled, that she hadn't the stuff it required to stand up and fight for what she loved. No one ever listened to her when she tried to speak hope into life — they just assumed her naive.
Well, she wasn't. Perhaps her judgment had proven faulty in the past, but not anymore. And she would prove it. With or without their help.
"Now." Brook drew near and wove her arm around Ella's. "If you're not going to rest, how about that ride?"
Her hostess certainly wasn't going to leave her alone in the library just now, so why not? Ella produced a mischievous smile and let Brook turn her toward the door. "Can I ride Oscuro?"
Her friend glared, but with a hint of amusement back in the corners of her mouth. "It isn't my decision, mon amie. It is he who will not allow it. But you can take his sister. Tempesta is nearly as quick."
"Ha!" The stallion was indeed finicky about who he would let near. So far as she knew only Brook, Stafford, Brook's father, and one jockey had ever managed to keep their seat in his saddle. She would, frankly, prefer Tempesta, but appearances must be upheld — so she put a bounce in her step as she headed for the library's door. She would come back tonight, when everyone else was asleep.
"There is a reason she isn't the one you take to the races, Brook, and don't think for a moment I'm fooled by your blaming it all on the horse. I am a natural, you know. Utterly irresistible to any living creature. Animals and children all flock to me." She charged through the doorway, Brook's chuckle already following her. "And the gentlemen! We cannot overlook how they all fall —"
"Whoa!" The warning, deep and urgent, came too late.
Ella squealed like a ninny as she plowed directly into a solid, nicely clad chest and nearly tumbled backward from the impact — likely would have fallen had strong hands not caught her about the waist. She looked up, expecting to find Brook's husband, Stafford, or perhaps Brook's father, Lord Whitby, who was also visiting. Embarrassing, but they would have laughed it off — and teased her about the claim she'd been in the midst of making regarding how all the gentlemen fell at her feet.
But she looked up into deep green eyes, not blue or brown. A face somewhat familiar, given its resemblance to Stafford's, but capped with warm brown hair instead of blond or silver-streaked raven.
Lord Cayton, it must be. Stafford's cousin. And his scowl was exactly like the duke's.
Funny though ... Stafford had never made her stomach knot up like it did just now, nor made heat surge when he happened to touch her. Not like it did when Lord Cayton's hands slid from her back to the sides of her waist, testing her balance before releasing her.
Would she be too much a ninny if she swooned a bit, just to force him to hold on a few seconds longer?
Probably. So she forced herself to straighten her spine and say, "Pardon me." At least she tried to say it, though her voice sounded odd — all fluttering and uncertain — to her own ears.
Lord Cayton just stared at her, the scowl deepening, and let her go.
"Hello, Cayton." Brook — probably in the doorway, given the nearness of her voice — sounded only slightly amused. "Looking for Justin, or are you here only to bowl over my friend?"
"Your friend." His voice was exactly what a man's voice should be. Rich and deep, but not too deep. A lovely, honeyed baritone — if tinged with a rather baffling accusation. "I thought I knew all your friends. I don't believe I've met this one."
Ella may have been irritated at being spoken of as if she weren't present, had his gaze not remained latched so unwaveringly upon her face. She could only hope the thundering of her heart wasn't audible. Or visible. Were this one of the romantic tales she so loved, birds would start singing in chorus, Brook would vanish, and Lord Cayton would declare his instant, undying love.
After, of course, he stopped frowning at her.
Brook edged into Ella's periphery. She, too, was frowning.
"Of course you have. Haven't you? This is Nottingham's sister. Lady Ella Myerston."
"Lady Ella." This was usually where the fawning began, where eyes lit with longing — not for her, but for her associations and dowry.
Not Cayton. His eyes flashed some message she couldn't decipher as he took a giant step back. He sketched a quick, abbreviated bow and focused his gaze on the space over her shoulder. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance, my lady. Forgive me for bowling you over."
"I think we all know it was my fault. But I shall graciously forgive you, if you're so determined to accept the blame." Her smile felt a little off, a little shaky. He certainly wasn't behaving like most men. But then, why should he? Lord Cayton was no stranger to dukes — he was grandson to the late Duke of Stafford, after all. She searched her mind for what else she knew about him.
Those knots in her stomach turned heavy. He was the one who had been courting Brook's cousin, Lady Melissa, only to toss her over for a rich, sickly heiress two years ago. His wife had died the very weekend Brice and Rowena wed, if she recalled aright, after giving birth prematurely to a daughter.
Not her type of gentleman. Not at all her type of gentleman, if he cared more for shoring up his bank accounts than for true love.
Excerpted from A Lady Unrivaled by Roseanna M. White. Copyright © 2016 Roseanna M. White. Excerpted by permission of Bethany House Publishers.
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