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Perhaps it was the necklace. Tory had never believed in the curse, but everyone for miles around the tiny village of Harwood knew the legend of the beautiful dia-mond-and-pearl necklace. People whispered about it, feared it, coveted and revered the magnificent piece of jewelry crafted in the thirteenth century for the bride of Lord Fallon. It was said the necklace—The Bride's Necklace—could bring its owner untold happiness, or unbearable tragedy.
That hadn't kept Tory from stealing it. Or selling it to a moneylender in Dartfield for enough coin that she and Claire could finally escape.
But that had been nearly two months ago, before the two of them had reached London and the ridiculously small amount of money Tory had been forced to accept for the very valuable necklace had nearly run out.
In the beginning, she had been certain she could find a job as a governess for some nice, respectable family, but so far she had failed. The few clothes she and Claire had been able to take along the night they had fled were fashionable, but Tory's cuffs had begun to fray, and faint stains appeared on the hem of Claire's apricot muslin gown. Though their education and speech were that of the upper classes, Tory didn't have a single solitary reference, and without one, she had been turned away again and again.
She was becoming nearly as desperate as she had been before she left Harwood Hall.
"What are we going to do, Tory?" Her sister's voice cut through the self-pity rising like a dark tide inside her. "Mr. Jennings says if we can't pay our rent by the end of the week, he is going to throw us out."
Tory shuddered at the thought. She had seen things in London she wished she could forget, homeless children picking food scraps out of the gutter, women selling their frail bodies for coin enough to last another bitter day. The thought of being tossed out of their last place of refuge, a small garret above a hatmaker's shop, into the company of the riffraff and blacklegs in the street was more than she could bear.
"It's all right, dearest, you mustn't worry," she said, putting on a brave face once more. "Everything has a way of working out." Though Tory was truly beginning to doubt it.
Claire managed a trembly smile. "I know you'll think of something. You always do." At just-turned-seventeen, Claire Whiting was two years younger but several inches taller than Tory, whose build was more petite. Both girls were slender, but it was Claire who had inherited their mother's stunning good looks.
She had wavy silver-blond hair that reached nearly to her waist and skin as smooth and pale as an alabaster Venus. Her eyes were so blue they put a clear, Kentish sky to shame. If an angel dressed up in apricot muslin and donned a warm pelisse, she would look like Claire Whiting.
Tory thought of herself as a more durable sort, with heavy chestnut-brown hair that often curled when she least desired it, clear green eyes and a smattering of freckles. But it wasn't just their looks that set them apart.
Claire was simply different. She always had been. She inhabited a world mere mortals could not see. Tory always regarded her sister as ethereal, the kind of girl who played with fairies and talked to gnomes.
Not that she really did those things. It just seemed as if she could.
What Claire couldn't seem to do was take care of herself in any responsible fashion, so Tory did it for her.
Which was why they had fled their stepfather, made their way to London and now faced the threat of being cast out into the street.
To say nothing of being wanted for the theft of the valuable necklace—and perhaps even murder.
A soft August breeze blew in off the Thames, cooling the heat rising up from the cobbled streets. Comfortable in a big four-poster bed, Cordell Easton, fifth earl of Brant, lounged back against the carved wooden headboard. Across from him, Olivia Landers, Viscountess Westland, sat naked on a stool in front of her mirror, slowly pulling a silver-backed hairbrush through her long, straight raven-black hair.
"Why don't you put down that brush and come back to bed?" Cord drawled. "Once I get through with you, you'll only have to comb it again."
She turned on the stool and a seductive smile curved her ruby lips. "I thought perhaps you wouldn't be interested again quite so soon." Her eyes ran over his body, sweeping the muscles across his chest, following the thin line of dark hair arrowing down his stomach, coming to rest on his sex. Her eyes widened as she realized he was fully aroused. "Amazing how wrong a woman can be."
Leaving the stool, she walked toward him, long black hair swinging forward, the only thing hiding her very seductive body, making him harder than he was already.
Olivia was a widow—a very young and tasty widow whom Cord had been seeing for the past several months—but she was spoiled and selfish and she was fast becoming more trouble than she was worth. Cord had begun to think of ending the affair.
Not today, however.
Today he had stolen a couple of hours away from the stack of papers he had been poring over, badly in need of a diversion. Livy was good for that if nothing more.
She tossed her black hair over her shoulder as she climbed up onto the deep feather mattress. "I want to be on top," she purred. "I want to make you squirm."
What she wanted was the same thing she always demanded, rough, hard-pounding sex, and he was just in the mood to give it to her. The problem was, once they were finished, he had begun to feel oddly dissatisfied. He told himself he should cast about for some new female companionship. That always raised his spirits— among other parts of his body. But lately, he simply couldn't get into the thrill of the hunt.
"Cord, you aren't listening." She tugged on a tuft of curly brown chest hair.
"Sorry, sweeting." But he wasn't really contrite, since he was certain nothing she had to say would interest him in the least. "I was distracted by your very lovely breasts." To which he directed his full attention, taking one of them into his mouth as he lifted her astride him and slid her luscious body the length of his powerful erection.
Olivia moaned and began to move and Cord lost himself in the sweet charms of her body. Livy peaked and Cord followed, then the pleasure began to fade, disappearing as if it had never existed.
As Livy climbed from the bed, the thought he'd been having of late began to creep in. Surely there is more than just this.
Cord shoved the thought beneath the dozens of other problems he had been facing since his father had died and he had inherited the Brant title and fortune. Following Olivia out of bed, he began to pull on his clothes. There were a thousand things he needed to do—investments he needed to consider, accounts he needed to review, tenant complaints and shipping invoices.
And there was his ongoing worry about his cousin. Ethan Sharpe had been missing for nearly a year and Cord was determined to find him.
Still, no matter how busy he was, he always found time for his single great vice—women.
Convinced a new mistress was the answer to his recent bout of gloom, Cord vowed to begin his search.
"What if it's the curse?" Claire looked at Tory with big blue worried eyes. "You know what people say—
Mama told us a dozen times. She said the necklace could bring very bad fortune to the person who owned it."
"You're being ridiculous, Claire. There is no such thing as a curse. Besides, we don't own it. We just borrowed it for a while."
But it had certainly brought misfortune to her stepfather. Tory gnawed her bottom lip as she remembered the baron lying on the floor next to the bureau in Claire's bedchamber, a trickle of blood running from the gash in the side of his head. Dear God, she had prayed every night since it happened that she had not killed him.
Not that he didn't deserve to die for what he had tried to do.
"Besides, if you remember the story correctly," Tory added, "it can also bring the owner good fortune."
"If the person's heart is pure," Claire put in.
"We stole it, Tory. That's a sin. Now look what is happening to us. Our money's almost gone. They're going to throw us out of our room. Pretty soon we won't have even enough to buy something to eat."
"We're just having a little bad luck, is all. It has nothing to do with the curse. And we're bound to find employment very soon."
Claire looked at her with worried eyes. "Are you sure?"
"It might not be the sort of work we had hoped for, but yes, I am extremely sure." She wasn't, of course, but she didn't want Claire's hopes to plummet any lower than they were already. Besides, she would find work. No matter what she had to do.
But three more days passed and still nothing turned up. Tory had blisters on her feet and there was a rip in the hem of her high-waisted dove-gray gown.
Today is the day, she told herself, summoning a renewed determination as they headed once more for the area she believed most likely to provide employment. For more than a week, they had knocked on doors in London's fashionable West End, certain some wealthy family would be in need of a governess. But so far, nothing had turned up.
Climbing what must have been the hundredth set of porch stairs, Tory lifted the heavy brass knocker, gave it several firm raps, then listened as the sound echoed into the house. A few minutes later, a skinny, black-haired butler with a thin mustache opened the heavy front door.
"I should like to speak to the mistress of the house, if you please."
"In what regard, madam, may I ask?"
"I am seeking employment as a governess. One of the kitchen maids down the block said that Lady Pither-ing has three children and may be in need of one."
The butler's gaze took in the frayed cuffs and the rip in her hem and lifted his nose into the air. He opened his mouth to send her away when his gaze lit on Claire. She was smiling in that sweet way of hers, looking for all the world like an angel fallen to earth.
"We both love children," Claire said, still smiling. "And Tory is ever so smart. She would make the very best of governesses. I am also looking for work. We were hoping you might be able to help us."
The butler just kept staring at Claire and Claire kept on smiling.
Tory cleared her throat and the skinny man dragged his gaze away from Claire back to Tory. "Go round to the back door and I shall let you speak to the housekeeper. That is the best I can do."
Tory nodded, grateful to have gotten even that far, but a few minutes later, when they returned to the front of the house, she was filled with an even deeper despair.
"The butler was ever so nice," Claire said. "I thought for certain this time—"
"You heard what the housekeeper said. Lady Pither-ing is looking for someone older." And there never seemed to be a job for a servant as lovely as Claire.
Claire gnawed her bottom lip. "I'm hungry, Tory. I know you said we have to wait till supper, but my stomach is making all sorts of unladylike noises. Can't we have a little something now?"
Tory closed her eyes, trying to resurrect some of her earlier courage. She couldn't stand the look in her sister's eyes, the worry mingled with fear. She simply could not tell her they had spent their very last farthing, that until they found work of some kind they couldn't buy so much as a dry crust of bread.
"Just a bit longer, darling. Let's try the place the housekeeper mentioned down the block."
"But she said Lord Brant doesn't have any children."
"It doesn't matter. We'll take whatever jobs we can find." She forced herself to smile. "I'm sure it won't be for long."
Claire nodded bravely and Tory wanted to cry. She had hoped to take care of her younger sister. While Tory had often worked long hours at the day-to-day task of running Harwood Hall, Claire wasn't used to the hard work done by a servant. Tory had hoped to spare her sister, but fate had led them to this dismal place in their lives and it looked as if they would have to do whatever it took to survive.
"Which one is it?" Claire asked.
"The big brick house just over there. Do you see those two stone lions on the porch? That is the residence of the earl of Brant."
Claire studied the elegant town house, larger than any other on the block, and a hopeful smile blossomed on her face.
"Perhaps Lord Brant will be handsome and kind as well as rich," she said dreamily. "And you shall marry him and both of us will be saved."
Tory flashed her an indulgent smile. "For now, let us simply hope the man is in need of a servant or two and willing to take us in."
But again they were turned away, this time by a short, bald-headed butler with thick shoulders and beady little eyes.
Claire was crying by the time they reached the bottom of the stairs, which was a rare thing, indeed, and enough to make Tory want to cry along with her. Funny thing was, if Tory cried, her nose got all red and her lips wobbled. But with Claire, it just made her eyes look bigger and bluer and her cheeks bloomed with roses.
Tory grabbed her reticule and began trying to dig out a handkerchief for Claire when one magically appeared in front of her face. Her sister accepted it gratefully. Dabbing it against her eyes, she turned her sweet, angelic smile upon the man who had provided it.
"Thank you ever so much."
The man returned the smile as Tory could have guessed he would. "Cordell Easton, earl of Brant, at your service, dear lady. And you would be…?"
He was looking at Claire the way men had since she was twelve years old. Tory didn't think he realized there was anyone else there but Claire.
"I am Miss Claire Temple and this is my sister, Victoria." Tory silently thanked God that Claire had remembered to use their mother's maiden name, and ignored her sister's disregard of the proper rules of introduction. The man was, after all, the earl, and they were desperately in need of his employment.