In the quiet English countryside, far from the intrigues of London, Lizzie Carlisle slowly mends her broken heart, devoting herself to her new position as lady’s companion to the Dowager Viscountess Strathmore— until her peaceful life is turned upside down by a visit from “Devil” Strathmore, the old woman’s untamed nephew—a dangerously handsome man whose wicked reputation hides a tortured soul.
Devlin Kimball, Lord Strathmore, has spent years adventuring on the high seas, struggling to make his peace with the tragedy that claimed the lives of his family. But now he has uncovered the dark truth behind the so-called accident and swears retribution. He has no intention of taking a bride—until his eccentric aunt’s will forces he and Lizzie together, and Devlin finds his path to vengeance blocked by the stubborn but oh-so-tempting Miss Carlisle. Her passionate nature rivals his own. But disillusioned once by love, Lizzie will accept nothing less than his true devotion. . . .
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The fanciful cupola-topped pavilion languished in desolation on the frozen marshes south of the Thames, a gaudy ruin, with a gray February sleet blowing against its rusty, fake turrets and boarded-up windows. Some said the place was haunted. Others claimed it was cursed. All that His Lordship’s unassuming little man-of-business knew, however, was that if his glamorous patron did not soon arrive, he was sure to catch his death in this weather.
Clutching his umbrella over his head, Charles Beecham, Esquire, stood wrapped in his brown wool greatcoat, his beaver hat pulled low over his receding hairline, and a look of abject misery on his face. He sneezed abruptly into his handkerchief.
“God bless ye.” Mr. Dalloway, standing nearby, slid him a greasy grin.
“Thank you,” Charles clipped out before turning away from the unkempt property agent with a respectable humph.
Dalloway was the opposition in this matter, determined to bilk His Lordship out of three thousand pounds for the dubious privilege of owning the godforsaken place. Charles meant to advise his patron against the purchase in the strongest possible terms, not the least because it would fall to him to explain the mad expenditure to old Lady Ironsides. Stealing another discreet glance at his fob watch, he pursed his lips. Late.
Alas, his staid life as the Strathmore family’s solicitor had become alarmingly interesting since His Lordship’s return from his high adventures on the seven seas and elsewhere.
Though barely thirty, the viscount had done the sorts of things Charles preferred to read about from the safety of his favorite armchair. Her Ladyship had oft regaled Charles with tales of her dashing nephew’s exploits: battling pirates, chasing down slave ships, living with savages, fending off mountain lions, surveying temples in the wilds of Malaysia, crossing deserts with the nomad caravans of Kandahar. Charles had thought them a lot of cock-and-bull tales until he’d met the man. What on earth could he want with this place? he wondered, then rehearsed a diplomatic warning in his head: This, my lord, is precisely the sort of rash adventure that drove your uncle into dun territory. . . .
Ah, but thinking a thing and saying it to Devil Strathmore were two different matters entirely.
Just then, a drumming sound approached from behind the wintry shroud of pewter fog and needling rain, like thunder rumbling in the distance. Barely discernible at first, it swiftly formed into the deep, recognizable rhythm of pounding hoofbeats.
At last. Charles stared in the direction of the plea- sure grounds’ great iron gates. The ominous cadence grew louder—driving, relentless—reverberating across the marshes, until it shook the earth. Suddenly, a large black coach hurtled out of the indistinguishable gray, barreling up the graveled drive that offered the only safe course through the boggy waste.
The quartet of fine, jet-black horses moved like liquid night, their hooves striking sure over the mud and ice, steam puffing from their nostrils. Stationed fore and aft on the shiny body of the coach, His Lordship’s driver, groom, and two footmen stared straight ahead, impervious to the weather. They were clad in traditional Strathmore livery, a sedate dun color with smart black piping, stiff felt tricornes on their heads, and frothy, white lace jabots at their throats.
Charles looked askance at his opponent as Mr. Dalloway ambled down from his shelter atop the flamboyant curved steps of the pavilion. His wily stare was fixed on the approaching vehicle. Noting the gleam of greed in Dalloway’s eyes, Charles fretted with the unhappy premonition that his rival would win the day, and then what on earth would he tell Her Ladyship? He could only cork his terror at the thought of the formidable dowager’s displeasure by reminding himself of her stern orders seven months ago, upon her nephew’s return to London.
“Send all of Devlin’s bills to me,” the old dragon had instructed in no uncertain terms. When Charles had tactfully questioned the command, seeking only to pro- tect the elderly woman, Her Ladyship had pooh-poohed his hesitancy. “It is enough that he has come home at last, Charles. My handsome nephew must cut a dash in Town! You will send his bills to me.”
And so, obediently, Charles had.
His Lordship’s bills, like a flock of ink-smudged doves, had winged their way to the dowager’s elegant villa in the Bath countryside: the handsome house on Portman Street and all its elegant furnishings, Aubusson carpets, French damask drapes, Classical paintings and nude marble statues; the wine cellar; the staff’s wages; the coach, the drag, the curricle; the horses; the clothes; the boots; the club dues for White’s and Brooke’s; the opera box, the parties, the jewels for himself and a number of unnamed women; even the IOU’s from a few unlucky hands at the gaming tables. Dear old Aunt Augusta had paid them all without a peep. But three thousand quid for an old, abandoned pleasure-ground? It seemed excessive even for him.
As his coachman pulled the team to a halt in front of the pavilion, Charles swallowed hard, his heart beating faster. The footmen jumped down from their post in back of the coach and marched forward like soulless clockwork automata, one opening the carriage door, the other producing an umbrella, which he held at the ready. Dalloway cast Charles a nervous glance, no longer looking quite so cocky.
“You haven’t met His Lordship yet, have you?” Charles murmured under his breath, feeling a trifle smug.
Dalloway did not answer. He looked again at the coach, where the footman knocked down the folding metal steps and then held the door, staring forward in stone-faced efficiency.
The first person to climb out of the coach was the amiable Bennett Freeman, a neatly dressed, young black man from America who served as His Lordship’s gentleman’s gentleman, had followed him on his journeys around the globe, and attended the viscount in much of his day-to-day business. Behind his wire-rimmed spectacles, Mr. Freeman’s intelligent brown eyes scanned the bizarre location with a perplexed glance, but when he saw Charles, he waved affably and dashed toward the pavilion to escape the weather.
Next, a dainty, gloved hand emerged from the carriage, accepting the footman’s assistance. Charles sneezed again as His Lordship’s latest elegant ladybird stepped down from the coach and minced toward the stairs, teetering over the mud on her high metal pattens. It was not her clothes but her mercenary eyes and wiggly walk that gave away her profession—these days the top courtesans dressed as fine as the ton’s best hostesses. She wore a tight spencer of maroon velvet and held up her skirts with one gloved hand, while with the other, she tried to shield her magnificent hat with its clutch of ostrich plumes from the steady drizzle.
Gentleman enough to show chivalry even to her sort, Charles hurried over and gave the high-priced harlot his umbrella.
“Oh, thank you, sir,” she responded in a breathy purr.
Dalloway eagerly assisted the hussy in going up the wet stairs.
Last of all came Devil Strathmore.
The footman with the umbrella had to hold his arm higher in order to shelter his towering master from the weather. His Lordship slid out of the coach with a sinuous motion, then paused to adjust the fur-trimmed greatcoat of luxurious black wool that hung carelessly from his massive shoulders and draped his powerful frame. Small, tinted spectacles shaded his eyes from the flat, gray glare of afternoon; he wore his long, raven hair tied back in a silky queue. A small gold hoop adorned his left earlobe. Eccentricity, after all, ran in his family, as did his Irish good looks. His skin was still coppered from that desert he had crossed months ago, but his lazy grin when he caught sight of his loyal family retainer flashed like the white cliffs of Dover.
There was no helping it. Even to a middle-aged fuddy-duddy like Charles, that smile, when Devil Strathmore doled it out, could make a person stand up taller. He looked every inch the hardened, worldly roué—and he was no man to cross, to be sure—but if he liked you, there was a warmth in him that no one could resist.
“Charles, good to see you.” Lord Strathmore strutted toward him with long-legged, confident strides, the umbrella-holding footman hurrying to keep up.
“My lord.” Charles winced at his hearty handshake and nearly tripped forward when the big man clapped him on the back.
He swept an elegant gesture toward the building. “Shall we?”
“Yes, of course, my lord. B-but, first I really must say—”
“Problem, Charles?” He took off his tinted spectacles and stared down at him for a moment with pale, wolf- like eyes.
Charles looked into that fathomless gaze and saw traces of the wilderness still lingering there: leafy shadows; blue vistas; deep, dark canyons. He gulped. “N-no, of course, my lord, no problem. It’s just, well, it’s a terrible expense, don’t you see.” He faltered, seeing he was having no effect. “That is to say, I am not entirely sure Her Ladyship would approve.”
Dev paused, studying him.
As an ardent student of human nature, he appreciated the courage, indeed, the loyalty it took his little solicitor to stand up to him. He truly did. All the same, in this matter, he would brook no denial. Explaining his true motives was out of the question, of course. It seemed he was just going to have to brazen it out and insist on having his way because—well, because he was Devil Strathmore and had always done exactly what he liked.
He slipped Charles one of his most charming smiles and tucked his spectacles inside his breast pocket. “Don’t be daft, Charles. Aunt Augusta thinks I hung the moon.” He turned and jogged up the stairs.
“Well, that is true—” Charles hastened to follow. “But perhaps I could explain it better to her if it would please Your Lordship to inform me wh-why you wish to buy this place?”
Dev laughed. “Why, for the same reason I do everything: because it amuses me. Come, come, Charles, don’t be a killjoy. Let’s have a look.”
“But, sir—she’ll have my head for this!”
“Charles.” He stopped, turned, and sighed, then affectionately fixed the little man’s lapels. “Dear, dear, Charles. Neat, tidy Charles. Very well, I shall tell you what’s afoot, but I am taking you into strictest confidence. Understood?”
“Sir!” His eyes widened at this spectacular show of favor. “Of course, my lord. You have my word a-as a gentleman.”
“Capital.” Dev grasped his shoulder and pulled him nearer, staring firmly at him. “Now, then.” He bent his head toward the shorter man and lowered his voice. “Have you ever heard, Charles, of the Horse and Chariot Driving Club?”
Charles’s eyes widened in scandalized innocence. “Sir!” he breathed.
“Quite,” Dev replied. “You know how I enjoy the sport of driving.”
“Y-yes, sir. The curricle, the racing drag, your silver stallion—”
“Precisely. Well, there are a few . . . shall we say, requirements for entrée into the club, you see.” He ticked them off on his fingers. “First, a prospective member must be of good birth, have no morals and a great deal of money.”
“But—you don’t, sir.”
Dev laughed without humor. “Not yet, of course, but it’s the same as if I did.”
Indeed, he was counting on his aunt’s fortune as critical to his success. Gambling, for example, was how he had gotten close to his targets in the first place, for such sharpers as the boys of the Horse and Chariot Club could always use another deep player to round out the whist table. Curious—the more he lost without complaint, the more the blackguards seemed to enjoy his company. But let them win for now, he thought. Soon, they would lose everything.
Including their lives.
“The second requirement an aspiring member must fulfill is to show his respect by presenting the brotherhood with a suitable gift. This—” Dev glanced around at the building, then gave Charles a conspiratorial wink. “—will knock ’em off their bloody feet.”
At least it would when he had packed the floor with explosives.
“I’ve heard there’s a third requirement,” he added breezily, “but so far, I’ve been unable to find out what it is.” “Yes, but sir—the Horse and Chariot!” Charles whispered in dread. “Everyone knows—well, you have been away from Town all these years—perhaps you have not heard—?”
To Dev’s amusement, his little lawyer glanced from side to side, as though Damage Randall, Blood Staines, or that elegant pervert, Carstairs, might be lurking nearby.
“They are a very bad sort, sir. Very bad. Duels— unspeakable things! I am quite sure your aunt would not at all approve. Not at all!”
“Well, Charles, you may be right, but as I said, I do love the sport. A true aficionado of the four-in-hand is prepared to overlook such things. Don’t you agree? I’m so glad you gave me your word not to mention this to old Lady Ironsides. Shall we?” Dev cast him a silky smile.
“Oh, dear,” Charles said under his breath, hurrying after him as Dev continued up the stairs. “Very well, but do please take care not to appear too eager in front of this Dalloway creature, my lord. He is a low, sly thing.”
Having traded guns, camels, and spices with the Bedouin caravans in Marrakech, possibly the shrewdest hagglers in the world, he trusted he could manage one ill-groomed Cockney property agent, but Dev hid his amusement and bowed to his solicitor with princely grace. It was the man’s loyalty that mattered, after all. “Thank you, Charles. I stand duly advised.”
Mollified by his acknowledgment, Charles followed him into the building without further fussing. Introductions were quickly exchanged, and in short order, they embarked with Mr. Dalloway on their tour of the pavilion.
Leaving the octagonal foyer with its red-painted ceiling, tainted mirrors, and touches of chipped gilt, they went through a pair of large, ornately carved doors that looked like the product of some opium eater’s fevered fancy. The whole place had an eerie, almost sinister air of intoxication and decay; the lingering odor of stale beer rose up in a fog from the worm-eaten floorboards and mingled with the general musty smell.
As they moved away from the foyer, the gray daylight shaded into darkness, for the windows were all boarded over. Dev’s two footmen carried candles for their party, as did Mr. Dalloway. They ventured deeper into the gloom, the floors creaking like tortured ghosts. One could almost hear the phantom echoes of forgotten laughter; spiders went scuttling across the walls. Even inside, the place was cold enough to cloud their breath.
The blonde shrieked and huddled close to Dev when something swooped over their heads. Lifting the candles higher, they soon discovered the colonies of bats and house martins that had gotten in through one of the chimneys.
In the main corridor, the flickering flames of their candelabra revealed tall columns painted like candy canes, a grimy parquet floor laid out in a dizzying zigzag design. Brightly colored, swirling murals flowed fantastically across the walls. Interior doors led to shadowed galleries and a dozen garish salons. There was even a ballroom with an elevated stand for an orchestra.
“God, it’s hideous,” Ben declared, turning to him.
“Deliciously so,” Dev purred too low for Dalloway to hear. He sent his trusty valet and friend a devilish glance. “It’s perfect.” The twisted lads of the Horse and Chariot would love it. The perfect setting in which to lull their senses so he could move closer to the answers he so desperately craved.
Ben frowned, but Dalloway kept up his lively soliloquy, ignoring the rotting floorboards, the decade’s worth of cobwebs hanging from the lightless chandelier, and the little cascades trickling down here and there where the tin roof leaked.
Charles wiped a chilly droplet off his forehead, his lips pursed in distaste, but Dev saw that his solicitor had been right about the property agent. Dalloway was as slick as oil and cheerful as a rat atop a garbage pile as he led them through the place, extolling its supposed virtues.
“The main pavilion in which we now stand encompasses eleven thousand square feet, with extensive kitchen facilities suitable for feedin’ an army. Mind your step, miss. Here’s the stairs. Ye must see the rooms above. . . .”
On the upper floor, themed chambers led off the main corridor. One was made like a jungle; the Egypt Chamber had a fake palm tree sprouting up from the center of the room and walls painted with a faded trompe l’oeil of the Pyramids. Another chamber represented Caesar’s palace in ancient Rome, with faux-marble nudes in cheap white plaster and sprawling scarlet divans, lately serving as tenement housing for mice. Dev’s survey took in the tattered wall hangings and piles of bat guano.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Dalloway creep nearer, watching him like a stray dog sizing up a ham-bone that someone had left unguarded on the table. “What do you think of ’er, sir? If this property does not suit your needs, we ’ave others ye might like to see. What exactly is it you’re after, if I may inquire?”
Dev stroked his chin, glancing all around him. “I need . . .” Home territory. An environment I can control. After all, he would be surrounded by enemies. He turned smoothly with a smile, playing the role of dissipated rake to perfection. “A place where I can entertain my friends.”
The blonde giggled with excitement at the prospect. Dev smiled at her, rather wishing he could remember her name. So far he had gotten by with darling.
Last night was a bit of a blur, as well, but he imagined he must have enjoyed himself a great deal, by the look of her. Nevertheless, he had been astonished to wake up and find her still there, especially after he had worked her so hard. It had taken him half the night to come, not that she had seemed to mind. He couldn’t help it. He was losing all interest in these hardened professionals with their bag of tricks and their scheming eyes. Now he merely wondered if the chit ever planned on going home.
“Entertaining, sir? Then this could be just the spot!” Dalloway beamed, determined to make the sale. “This is a capital establishment for private parties! As Your Lordship will ’ave noted, it’s convenient to London by a short drive over the bridge, or the guests can be ferried over the river by the watermen. There’s plenty o’ space and many whimsical outbuildings suitable for all manner o’ charmin’ entertainments.”
“There is also the matter of privacy. My, er, friends prefer to take their pleasures away from the scrutiny of prying eyes. The bloody gossip-writers follow us everywhere, don’t you know, scribbling their little tattletales.” Dev waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “I need a place . . . far from any crowds. An isolated place.” One I can destroy without fear of harming innocent bystanders.
“Well, sir, you passed the gatehouse when you come in—very sturdy, just needs a coat o’ paint. And there’s an admirable wrought-iron fence that runs the perimeter o’ the premises. The property has only one entrance, straight up the drive. To either side is bog. Very treacherous, them mud flats. The only other way in would be by boat, but then, an intruder would have to catch the river’s tide just right or be stranded.”
Dev gave a businesslike nod and feigned indecision, but by the time they returned to the ballroom, his mind was made up. The place would suit his purposes to a tee.
Dalloway turned to him, beaming. “As I said, sir, all she wants is a little tender lovin’ care to be brought back to ’er former glory.”
“That will, ah, cost money,” Charles delicately asserted.
“Hmm,” Dev said in a noncommittal growl. Clasping his hands behind his back, he drifted over to inspect the murals on the walls in all their flowery, faded exuberance, leaving his lawyer to ask Dalloway the appropriate questions.
He gazed at a section of the mural that portrayed the beautiful goddess Flora, wearing nothing but an artfully placed garland of roses.
“Er, my lord?” His solicitor cleared his throat.
“Yes, Charles?” Dev asked in a tone of weary indulgence as he went on studying the picture, but Dalloway interrupted before Charles could speak.
“All the paintin’s you see before you are likenesses of the famous beauties of the previous decade, milord. They all performed ’ere when this place was in its prime. We had water spectacles with fireworks, musical extravaganzas, tightrope walkers—”
“Tightrope walkers, really?” he asked with interest.
“Oh, yes, sir.”
“As I was saying—,” Charles tried again, flicking Dalloway an annoyed glance. “I have doubts, sir. Serious doubts. I—I fear the building is not safe.”
“Life . . . is not safe, Charles.” Dev bent closer to the wall, narrowing his eyes at the figure of Flora as he noticed some marred and faded words etched on the gold ribbon that was painted below the goddess.
Good God. He suddenly raised his arm and snapped his black-gauntleted fingers. “Candle.”
One of the footmen immediately stepped forward and held up the light. Dev scrutinized the awkward calligraphy by the candle’s feeble glow, stunned to make out the name inscribed there: Miss Ginny Highgate, 1803. He stared. By God, ’twas an omen.
“What is it?” Ben asked, joining him by the wall.
“Ginny Highgate,” Dev murmured, turning to him in amazement.
They exchanged a shocked, ominous glance.
“Oh, yes, milord,” Dalloway offered, “Miss Highgate used to sing here every summer. Such a favorite she was with the lads!”
“Who is, ah, Miss Highgate, if I may inquire?” Charles asked.
“A beautiful lady of the theater, sir. Irish, I think,” Dalloway told him. “Such long red hair as you’ve never seen. Aye, all the young gents were mad for Ginny Highgate.”
“What happened to her?” the blonde piped up a trifle jealously.
“Nobody knows,” Dalloway said. “She disappeared.”
Not entirely true, Dev thought, pained by his fairly clear idea of the ugly fate the young beauty had met.
For two years, through various hired agents, he had been covertly investigating the fateful night of the fire that had taken his family from him. He had run from his guilt for a decade, sailing from one end of the globe to the other, but on the ten-year anniversary of his family’s deaths, he had resolved himself to examine every last detail of that night, something he had not been able to face as a shattered youth.
It had not taken long before he had begun to notice that many of the facts about the fire did not add up. Since then, he had chased down every lead, had spent a fortune in bribe money, and had collected a trunkload of documents on the case—newspaper obituaries, indeed, full background investigations of every person who had died in the fire, interviews with the intimidated fire official, depositions from a few useful witnesses, logbooks from the stagecoach companies whose vehicles had traveled that stretch of the road that night. Everything he could lay his hands on.
Unraveling the knot thread by meticulous thread, Dev had finally traced his way through the disappearance of Ginny Highgate, aka Mary Harris, to the Horse and Chariot Club, and it was there that he had met a brick wall. It seemed the murdered redhead was the club’s best-guarded secret.
To learn it, Dev had spent the past six months infiltrating the group, slowly attempting to gain their trust, even though doing so was akin to playing roulette with his life, for they knew full well who he was.
Why they hadn’t killed him already, he was not exactly sure; he could only conclude that, so far, they had bought into his highly convincing facade as a dissipated rogue of the first order. He made them believe he was such a thoughtless pleasure-seeker that it had never crossed his mind that his family’s destruction was anything but the tragic accident that it had been ruled.
They surely suspected him, he mused, but he supposed they let him near because it helped them to feel that they were keeping an eye on him. The thing required the utmost finesse, but Dev was prepared to chance it, for the prize was the one thing he craved more than anything else in the world: peace.
Answers. There could be no peace until he had answers. Why? How? All he really wanted was for life to make sense, but it didn’t and it wouldn’t. Not until he had the answers to the question, nay, the furious demand, that had burned in his brain for twelve long years and had turned the heart in him to ashes.
What had really happened on that terrible night his family had been taken from him? Who was to blame? If there was one shred of hope that there was someone, anyone else that he could blame instead of himself, he was willing to go to any lengths to find it.
By God, if it cost him his life and every last penny of his inheritance, he would find the truth, lay hold of the answers—answers that only his enemies could give him. And when he had the truth in his grasp, when he finally knew who had set that blaze, he would wreak vengeance on them in an orgy of violence the likes of which they had never seen.
Rising once more to his full height, he moved restlessly away from the painting of Ginny Highgate and sent Dalloway a brisk nod. “Right. I’ll take it.” Charles looked at him in alarm. “However, there is the question of price,” he conceded. “It’s much too high. Charles?”
He left his solicitor to negotiate with Mr. Dalloway and sauntered back out to the foyer, where he leaned in the battered doorway and stared out at the frozen swamp, feeling moody and pensive with the return of old memories.
Ben joined him, his large brown eyes full of sensi- tive intelligence behind his rain-flecked spectacles as he searched Dev’s face. “Are you all right?”
He shrugged, lost in his thoughts. Folding his arms across his chest, Dev cast a jaundiced eye over the ragged gardens. “I look at this place and see something of myself,” he said, his voice low, edged with bitter irony. “Sinking into the swamp.” His stare wandered across the lifeless marsh, the stubbled grasses, grayed and stiff with frost. He cast Ben a cynical half-smile. “They say it’s haunted, have you heard? And cursed.”
His friend stared earnestly at him. “I wish you would not do this, Dev. You can still walk away.”
“No, I can’t.” His wry smile faded, the cold hatred darkening his eyes once more, like a cloud shadow moving across the face of a sun-swept hill. “I pay my debts.”
“Even in blood? Even if it costs you your life?”
“What life?” he whispered.
He walked back to rejoin the others, leaving his loyal valet staring after him in distress. As Dev strolled back into the gaudy ballroom, Charles turned to him brightly.
“Ah, there you are, sir!” he said, looking pleased with himself. “Mr. Dalloway has agreed to a new price of thirteen hundred pounds. If this is acceptable to Your Lordship, the deal is done.”
“You think it fair?”
He nodded. “It is reasonable.”
“Well done, Charles.” He snapped his fingers. “Cheque.”
Immediately, the other footman stepped forth bearing a portable desktop, which he held for him. Dev opened the hinged top and pulled out his draftbook. Dipping his quillpen into the tiny inkbottle, he scratched out the promissory note, chuckling darkly to himself. Cursed. Haunted. How very apropos. “See that the place is properly insured before work begins on it, Charles.” He handed Dalloway the cheque. “We’ll need a reliable contractor to coordinate the repairs. Carpenters, roofers, painters, plasterers.”
“You need the rat-catcher first,” Ben muttered, walking in with a disgusted glance at the ballroom while Charles blanched at the expenditures.
“Right. Summon the exterminator to rid the place of pests. As always, thank you for your time, Charles. Mr. Dalloway, you’ve been most helpful. Darling.” He beckoned impatiently to the woman and then stalked out, his entourage falling into ranks.
Behind them, Dalloway silently danced a jig over the rotting floorboards.
Upon walking back out into the cold, Dev heard the cadence of galloping hoofbeats and looked over to find someone riding hard up the drive.
“What an ugly horse,” Ben remarked, also watching the rider.
“Fast, though. Good, long stride,” Dev murmured. “Are we expecting someone?”
“No, my lord,” Charles offered, “I believe it is an herald.”
And indeed, as the rider came closer, they could see the cockade in his hat and the uniform that marked him as an express messenger. Dev helped the blonde into the coach, and a moment later, the rider reined in nearby, his horse’s hooves kicking up a clattery spray of gravel.
“Lord Strathmore?” he called out.
“Express for you, sir!” The messenger held out the letter.
“Thank you.” He quickly took the letter before the ink ran and nodded to Ben to pay the messenger for the delivery. bath, read the outer fold of the envelope.
A twinge of guilt stabbed him. He knew he owed the old girl a visit. More than that, he wanted to see her. The dragon had been like a mother to him. She had even saved his life back when he was twenty-one, half-mad with grief, and destroying himself with the bottle. She had bought him a ship, put him on it, and sent him off to see the world in the care of their gruff Scots gamekeeper, Duncan MacTavish. Hang it, he missed the old girl, he thought as he broke the wax seal, but each time he thought of going to see her, everything in him shied away again like a spooked horse refusing a jump.
He couldn’t help it. The love in him was so tied up with loss and pain that he could scarce separate one from the other, and so tended to avoid the whole situation. Like a coward, his conscience readily supplied. He ignored it, his lips twisting in broody self-annoyance while Ben counted out the messenger’s charge.
Dev opened the neatly folded letter and read. As his gaze skimmed the page, the blood promptly drained from his face:
9 February 1817
Dear Lord Strathmore,
Though we have never met, I trust you will forgive my presumption in writing to you on a matter of greatest urgency. Necessity compels me to set propriety aside to convey to you a most alarming intelligence.
My name is Miss Elizabeth Carlisle, and since August, I have been serving in the capacity of lady’s companion to your esteemed Aunt. It is my sorrowful duty to advise you of a change in the excellent health Her Ladyship has always heretofore enjoyed, and to implore you, if you love her, to come with all due haste . . . before it is too late.
Godspeed, E. Carlisle
For a moment, Dev could only stand there, his face draining of color.
No. Not yet. She’s all I have left.
“My lord?” Charles ventured in a worried tone. “Is aught amiss?”
Without a word, Dev strode over, reached up, pulled the messenger down bodily from his horse, and swung up into the still-warm saddle.
“What the devil—!”
“Pay him, Charles. I’ll leave this brute in the stable at home. I must to Bath.” His voice sounded odd and tight in his ears. “I’ll take the curricle—it’s fastest.” He gathered the reins and wheeled the roan around, glancing over his shoulder. “Ben, follow with my things.”
“But, Devlin!” the blonde protested, poking her head out the carriage window in that ridiculous feathered hat.
He rolled his eyes, losing patience. “Would someone please take that woman home or wherever it is that she goes?”
She let out an angry gasp, but he was already gone, galloping off, hell-for-leather, down the drive, his stomach knotted with panicked dread and guilt for neglecting his only living kin. The despairing knowledge spiraled through his mind that when Aunt Augusta finally left him—never mind his vast inheritance—he would be left completely and unutterably alone.