Winborough Estate in Yorkshire
FOUR DAYS AFTER his arrival at Winborough’s Whitsuntide house party, Dom rummaged through the drawers of the desk in his half brother’s study. Where in blazes did Tristan keep his sealing wax? So far, Dom had found a penknife, some string, seventeen quills, a lint-clad lemon drop, a stack of foolscap, and a lacy garter, but no sign of wax.
He didn’t even want to think about why the garter was in there. The thought of Tristan and Dom’s new sister-in-law, Zoe, doing . . . whatever upon the desk made him feel like a Peeping Tom.
Just as Dom slammed the top drawer shut, he spotted the sealing wax, set neatly beside an inkpot atop the desk. Right there before his eyes, blast it all. Clearly he was losing his mind.
Dom dropped into the chair. It was all Jane’s fault. Set to inherit the Rathmoor title now that George was dead, he ought to be concentrating on his return to Rathmoor Park today and his attempts to get it out of arrears. Instead, Jane consumed his thoughts.
It was ludicrous. They were nothing to each other now. Certainly, he was nothing to her. After more than twelve years unmarried, she’d finally gone and got herself engaged to Edwin Barlow, the newly minted Earl of Blakeborough.
She would soon be out of Dom’s reach for good, and he couldn’t change that. He didn’t want to change it. That time of his life was gone forever, as well it should be. He was quite a bit older and wiser, not to mention rougher, and she was still an heiress. They had nothing in common. They were different people.
And perhaps if he said it enough, he would finally believe it. He had to believe it. He had to excise her from his mind somehow.
“Zoe wants to know if you intend to join us for services at their church in town.”
He jerked his head up so quickly that he nearly knocked over the Argand lamp. “Blast it, Lisette, don’t sneak up on me like that!”
With a toss of her black curls, his half sister approached the desk. “Don’t blame me if your mind is in the clouds. I’ve been standing here waiting for you to notice me for a good five minutes while you muttered and cursed and scowled.”
“Sorry. I’m a bit . . . distracted, is all.”
She sniffed. “Is that what you call it? And here I thought you were merely rude.”
“You were such a grump at the celebration yesterday! I don’t even know why you bothered to drive the two hours over from the coast for the house party. Even Tristan noticed your foul mood, which takes some doing, since he only has eyes for Zoe.”
Dom snorted. He would never have expected his half brother, of all people, to fall in love. Especially so spectacularly. “I’m surprised he and Zoe even remember we exist, given their billing and cooling.” He narrowed his gaze on her. “Although you and Max are just as bad.”
“Lord, I hope not. We’re parents now; we have to show some decorum.” She tucked a stray tendril of hair behind her ear. “Though it’s difficult since Max likes me a little . . . indecorous.”
“Good God, I don’t even want to think about that,” he said irritably. “Stop talking about all the ways Max likes you.”
“Why? Because it makes you feel lonely?”
“Because you’re my sister.”
“It’s your own fault you’re lonely, you know,” she said, ignoring his answer. “You’ve got Jane right under your nose at Rathmoor Park while she’s staying with Nancy, and instead of taking advantage of that to court her, you’re hiding over here at our brother’s estate.”
“I am not hiding,” he said coolly, though perhaps he was. “Besides, why would I court Jane? She’s engaged to another man. And if you’ll recall, she was the one to jilt me, not the other way around.”
“So you say.”
That brought him up short. “You think I’m lying?”
“I think that the woman I met at your betrothal party years ago was so in love with you she wouldn’t have jilted you over any loss in station or fortune. Which means you must have done something to run her off.”
Damn. Lisette was fishing for information, as usual. And hitting uncomfortably close to the mark.
By the night of that blasted ball where he’d maneuvered Jane into breaking with him, Lisette and Tristan had already fled to France to avoid George’s wrath. So all his sister knew of what had happened was what she’d pieced together from gossip.
Dom wasn’t fool enough to tell her and Tristan the truth. They would never let him hear the end of it. They already brought Jane up more often than he could stand. “None of that changes the fact that Jane is engaged to someone else.”
Lisette released an exasperated breath. Clearly she’d been hoping for an explanation. She ought to know better by now.
“So even if I wanted to ‘court’ Jane,” Dom continued, “I could not.”
“Still, she seems in no hurry to marry her fiancé,” Lisette pressed on, undaunted by the facts. “She came running up to Yorkshire almost the minute George died.”
“To be with George’s widow. I would think less of her if she did not try to comfort her cousin.”
“Don’t be obtuse, Dom. It doesn’t suit you. She came because she’s desperate to see you before she marries a man she has to know is wrong for her.”
“Desperate? Hardly. She’s been staying with Nancy at the dowager house a mile away from the manor, and I haven’t come across her once during her entire visit.”
“No doubt you went to great lengths to make sure of that.” When he didn’t rise to her bait, Lisette turned pensive. “How is Nancy doing, anyway?”
“How the blazes should I know? I just told you—I don’t see them.”
“I hope you realize how rude that is. You should at least pay them a visit from time to time. To show there are no hard feelings.”
“Hard feelings? Are you mad?” He eyed her askance. “Nancy doesn’t care about my feelings toward her. She undoubtedly hates me and Tristan both. Because of us, George is dead.”
“He was going to murder you two!”
“A minor detail that she will undoubtedly overlook in the face of George’s death,” he said dryly.
“I always found it odd that they married in the first place. I mean, if he’d been trying to get back at you over your helping Tristan, why didn’t he just go after Jane?”
Because George had believed what he’d seen that night at the ball—that Dom wanted Nancy for her money. So, resentful of Dom as ever, George had set out to gain the woman for himself. That was undoubtedly what Nancy had intended when she’d somehow arranged for Jane to stumble upon them with George in tow.
Though that probably hadn’t turned out as well as Nancy had planned. George couldn’t possibly have been much of a husband, even for someone as shallow and undiscriminating as Jane’s cousin.
Leaning back in his chair, he clasped his hands over his stomach. “George didn’t go after Jane precisely because he knew Jane would never have married him after how he’d cut me off. Besides, Nancy was more his sort of woman—pretty, but vapid and malleable.”
“Nonetheless, even she deserved better. And now she’s a widow beholden to the very man her husband hated. Thank heaven she’s got Jane to help her deal with that.”
“Yes, thank heaven,” he echoed absentmindedly.
And thank heaven Jane had apparently held Nancy blameless for that scene in the library years ago. At least his subterfuge hadn’t torn her from the woman most like a sister to her.
Though sometimes it irked him that Jane had believed the lie so easily. That she’d instantly accepted the picture of him as an unscrupulous fortune hunter. That’s what he’d wanted, of course, but it rankled.
Because he was an arse who wanted to have his cake and eat it, too.
“So,” Lisette said, “are you joining us for services this morning?”
Thank God the inquisition about Jane was over. “Afraid not. As soon as I put the seal on this document that you and Max are carrying back to Victor, transferring the running of Manton’s Investigations to him, I’m returning to Rathmoor Park.”
He sat up and bent over the papers laid out on the desk. “I’m still dealing with those tenants George mistreated. We must reach some sort of agreement about how to compensate them fairly without bankrupting the estate, so I’m meeting with them tomorrow morning.”
“And does this urgent meeting involve Nancy? Might you see Jane?”
Good God, Lisette was like a trickle of water that wore away at the stone until it cracked.
He concentrated on melting the sealing wax onto the parchment. “Actually, Jane is gone. She left from Hull the day before yesterday by packet boat to return to London.” To her fiancé, the man Dom wanted to throttle simply because Blakeborough got to have Jane for the rest of his days.
So much for excising Jane from his mind.
“Aha! That’s why you’ve been so cross.” Lisette huffed out a breath. “I swear, you’re impossible. You’ll let the only woman you ever cared about marry some other fellow, even though you now possess everything you need to support a wife. For a man who’s faced down thieves and murderers unflinchingly, you can be quite the coward, Dom.”
Grimly, he pressed his signet ring into the wax. Lisette would never understand. Jane might have been his once, but she despised him now and that was that. Even if he told her the truth about that night, they’d spent so many years apart that whatever she’d felt for him had clearly withered.
Otherwise, she wouldn’t be marrying Blakeborough. Dom, of all people, knew that Jane wouldn’t get engaged to a man she didn’t love.
When he didn’t respond to his sister’s barbs, her gaze grew calculating. “You know, you ought to carry that document to London in person. I’m sure Victor has hundreds of questions about the running of the agency. Besides, you still haven’t met little Eugene. I know he’d be delighted to see his Uncle Dom.”
He chuckled at her blatant attempt to manipulate him. “I doubt little Eugene delights in anything but being nursed and having his swaddling changed. He’s what, two months old? Has he even learned how to sit up yet?”
She glared at him. “Sometimes you can be so . . . so . . .”
“Unsentimental. He’s your very first nephew. Don’t you want to see him?”
So he could be reminded of all he’d lost because of George? No. Though he supposed he must, eventually. “I will happily come to visit little Eugene once he’s old enough to recognize me. But I do have a meeting tomorrow, so I can’t run off to London.” He patted the document on the desk. “Would you make sure Max gets this before you leave?”
With a murderous glance, she whirled on her heels and headed for the door.
“Don’t I at least get a goodbye kiss?” he called after her. “I probably won’t see you for some weeks.”
“Foolish gentlemen who don’t know what’s good for them don’t get goodbye kisses,” she said as she kept going.
Her peevish tone made him grin. “I suppose I should be glad you’re not stabbing me toward Jane with your embroidery needles.”
She halted to cast him an arch glance. “Would that work?”
Good God, she might actually do it. “It would not. And don’t be angry. I’m fine as I am, really.”
“Liar. Anyone can see you’re not the least bit fine.”
It frightened him sometimes, how well she knew him. “I’m content, at least. I inherited the estate I never expected to own. What more can I ask for?”
“A wife. Children. Happiness.”
“Those three don’t always go hand in hand, dear girl.”
“Especially if you make no attempt to acquire the first one.”
“Lisette, give it over,” he said softly. “Being angry at me won’t change the past.”
An oath escaped her. “I’m frustrated by your obstinacy, stymied by your reserve, and perplexed by your acceptance of this ridiculous state of affairs between you and Jane.” She apparently noticed the tightening of his jaw, for her expression softened. “But not angry. I could never be angry at you.”
She marched back to plant a kiss on his cheek. “There. That should prove it.” With a fond smile, she said, “Do take care not to work too hard, will you?”
“Certainly,” he lied.
He waited until she left before wandering over to the window to watch the family leave. She didn’t understand that he welcomed the work. It kept his mind off the “ridiculous state of affairs” between him and Jane.
An image of his former fiancée as she’d looked in London a few months ago sprang into his mind. He’d been shocked to encounter her at the soiree thrown by Zoe’s father. It had only been the second time he’d seen her in their years apart, and the first had been so fleeting he’d scarcely had time to register that she was there before she was gone.
Not so at the soiree.
He’d been unable to look away from the glory that was Jane in a blue evening gown. In the time they’d been apart, she’d filled out just enough to have lusher curves. Wrapped in expensive satin, those curves had been quite enticing.
It had been all he could do to keep his gaze on her face. Especially since her brown eyes had sparked fire at him. It was as if no time at all had passed since that horrible night at Blakeborough’s.
He had expected her to lose her anger over time, but her eyes had been hot, her words cool, and her tone a mix of condescension and implied meanings he couldn’t decipher. He’d only endured the encounter by taking on his investigator persona—aloof, unruffled, and always certain of his position.
But her enigmatic comment about tiring of waiting for her life to begin had rattled him. It still did. What the blazes had she meant? Surely she hadn’t been waiting for him, not after what had happened.
Her remark had plagued him for months. Because if she really had been waiting all these years . . .
God, the very notion was idiotic. She hadn’t. And if she had, it didn’t matter. He couldn’t have renewed his attentions toward her, even if she would have accepted them.
He’d spent his first two years at Bow Street proving himself. His next few, during the years of political unrest, had been an endless series of missions for Jackson Pinter and occasionally even Lord Ravenswood, undersecretary to the Home Office—secret, dangerous missions.
He stroked the scar carved into his right cheek. More dangerous than he’d ever imagined.
Those years were a blur. But they’d earned him the respect of the other runners and better chances at more lucrative cases. He’d saved enough to open Manton’s Investigations. And then he’d had new challenges to contend with, new missions to absorb him, all of which kept him from starting up again with Jane.
You can be quite the coward, Dom.
He clenched his jaw. It wasn’t cowardice—not a bit. He’d been busy, damn it. And too aware of how deeply he had hurt Jane to want to risk it again.
Now she was betrothed, and that was that. So he would put her behind him—put that part of his life behind him—and learn to be happy with what he had. It was more than he’d expected, after all.
With that settled, he returned to the desk. He penned a quick note to Max and set it atop the document for Victor, weighing them both down with a paperweight. Then he tidied up his mess and headed out the door. He’d called for his equipage earlier, so his bag should already be stowed. He merely had to—
“If I give you my name,” said a painfully familiar voice from the foyer, “will you promise to make Lord Rathmoor come out here to talk to me? And not put me off with some nonsense about how he’s not here? I know he’s here. I saw his phaeton out front. And it’s imperative that I speak with him.”
Dom’s stomach knotted. How could it be? Why would she be here?
“I understand, madam,” the butler was saying as Dom hurried toward them, “but if the matter is so urgent, why will you not tell me what name to announce—”
“It’s all right,” Dom said as he approached. “I know Miss Vernon.”
Jane started, her pretty eyes widening as she caught sight of him. Today she wore a riding habit of purple wool that nipped in at the waist, ballooned at the hips, and accentuated every curve to good effect. Looking agitated and windblown and heartbreakingly beautiful, she sucked the air quite out of his lungs.
God save him.
“I need to speak with you at once.” With a furtive glance at the butler, she added, “Privately.”
He nodded and gestured for her to precede him toward an open door down the hall. The second they entered, he wished he’d chosen another room. Jane looked so lovely against the backdrop of gold and red silk that his blood ran hot.
“What the blazes are you doing here?”
She lifted an eyebrow. “How delightful to see you, too.”
Damn, he hadn’t meant to sound annoyed. “Forgive me. I’m merely surprised to find you still in Yorkshire. I assumed you’d be well on your way to London by now. Weren’t you supposed to leave by packet boat the day before yesterday?”
“The spring rains washed out the bridge on the road to Hull, so I had to return to Rathmoor Park.” Something indecipherable glinted in her eyes. “I was unaware you were paying such close attention to my schedule.”
Blast. He hadn’t meant to give that away. “I pay attention to everything regarding my estate and those in my charge,” he said smoothly. “Which includes any visitors to the dowager house.”
Was that disappointment in her face? No, surely not.
“I see,” she said in a colder tone. “Then it’s a pity you haven’t been around the past two days. Because while you’ve been gone, one of those ‘in your charge’ has gone missing.”
“Nancy. According to the servants, she headed off alone on the mail coach to York to visit her great-aunt, Mrs. Patch, directly after I left for Hull. Nancy told them she was going only for the day, but she hasn’t returned.”
He let out a breath. Was that all? “York is only half a day’s journey from Rathmoor Park. Nancy probably decided to remain in town a day or two with her aunt, and since she assumed you were on your way to London, she didn’t bother to inform anyone at the estate.”
“Well, she did, actually. Indeed, it’s what is in her letter to the housekeeper, which arrived late in the evening on the day she left, that alarms me.”
She held out the missive and he moved close enough to take it from her, which, unfortunately, was also close enough to smell her lavender scent. God, why must she still be wearing lavender after all these years? It conjured up memories of their far-too-brief kisses under the arbor behind her uncle’s house, the ones he’d refused to think of in their years apart.
Determinedly he retreated out of smelling distance and forced his attention to the letter. Obviously Jane thought she had cause for concern, though he couldn’t imagine why. She probably wouldn’t even have known Nancy was gone, if not for having missed the packet boat to London.
With one look at the letter, he had memorized it, part of his peculiar talent for remembering words and images at a glance. He gave it back to her. “This only proves that she’s not missing at all. She writes that she’s decided to travel with her great-aunt to Bath.”
“Yes, but that’s not true!”
This got more perplexing by the moment. “How do you know?”
“Because I sent an express to Mrs. Patch to ask if Nancy wanted her maid to join them, and this is what I received in reply early this morning.”
Jane jerked another letter from the pocket of her riding habit and thrust it at him. It was written with a formality that Nancy’s had lacked:
Dear Miss Vernon,
I believe there has been some misunderstanding. I have not had the pleasure of my dear Nancy’s company since before her husband’s demise. She is certainly not here, nor had we made any plans to travel anywhere. Have you perhaps confused me with another relation of hers?
If I can be of any further assistance in this matter, do let me know. I would be very happy to see you when next you are in York.
Very Sincerely Yours,
Mrs. Lesley Patch
A twinge of unease slid down his spine. “Blast it all.”
“Exactly. And you read Nancy’s letter. She was clearly referring to her great-aunt in York.”
“One of them must be lying.”
“Yes,” she said in a tone of pure exasperation, “but what reason would Mrs. Patch have for doing so? From what I understand, Nancy has been visiting her for years. They are very close.”
“And what do they do when she visits?” he asked, falling easily into his role as investigator, though it had been months since he’d had anything to investigate other than what crops worked best in Yorkshire soil.
“I don’t know.” Jane tapped her foot impatiently. Obviously investigative techniques were rather lost on her. “Gossip. Discuss their dogs—between them, they have seven. I think one of the footmen said they used to go shopping together. According to him, George encouraged Nancy’s trips when he was alive. He even let her use the carriage, which is why it’s so odd that she took the mail coach this time.”
“She didn’t have a choice,” he pointed out. “I’ve got the phaeton, and I assume you took the family carriage to Hull the day she left.”
“I did, but why didn’t she just wait to set off for York until you were back or the family carriage had returned? For that matter, why not just get off at the village here while on her way, so she could get the phaeton from you? Nancy doesn’t like being crowded, so why go all the way to York in the mail coach? She had no reason to rush if this was just some little shopping venture.”
“Perhaps it was more than that. You said she went without her maid. Is that usual?”
“I don’t think so, but Nancy’s regular maid, Meredith, left service for a while to help her ill papa in London, and the present maid hasn’t been with her long enough to go on one of her jaunts. I don’t have any firsthand knowledge about the York trips, because Nancy has never taken one, with or without me, while I was at Rathmoor Park.”
How peculiar. “Why not?”
“How the devil should I know?”
Why were his perfectly logical questions annoying Jane? She eyed him as if he were a half-wit.
“But don’t you see?” she went on. “This visit is clearly different. Her going off on the mail coach, and without her maid. Her letter to the servants about her supposed trip to Bath, which didn’t mention any requests for clothes. Or, for that matter, her dogs.”
“You expected her to take her dogs?”
“Absolutely. She never leaves them at home for days at a time. They go everywhere with her—to London, to Brighton, anywhere she travels. At the very least, she would have mentioned them in her letter. The fact that she didn’t is worrisome.”
He eyed her closely. “So, what are you saying, Jane?”
“Something dreadful must have happened to my cousin. She obviously had a mishap between here and York.”
“And then wrote a letter to lie about being off on a jaunt to Bath?”
She huffed out a frustrated breath. “The letter has to be forged, don’t you see? Nancy wouldn’t create such a tale out of whole cloth. She isn’t capable of perpetrating such a falsehood.”
He bit his tongue to keep from admitting that Nancy had been more than capable of perpetrating falsehoods twelve years ago. But Jane didn’t know about that, and now wasn’t the time to tell her. First he must soothe her concerns.
“Do you have any reason for thinking that the letter is forged?” he asked. “Is there anything in the handwriting that you find suspect?”
“Not to the naked eye, but—”
“So you assume that a master forger has learned to copy Nancy’s hand well enough to fool her own cousin.”
A look of desperation flickered in her eyes. “It’s possible, isn’t it?”
“Possible? Yes. Probable? No.”
“Why not? I read about kidnappers in the paper all the time!”
“Yes, and they have reasons for their actions.” He fell back on what usually worked with sensible people whose panic kept them from thinking straight: simple logic. “What would be a kidnapper’s purpose in sending a forged letter?”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “To put off anyone who might grow alarmed when she didn’t return. He had to throw possible pursuers off his trail.”
Dom flashed her a tight smile. “This mysterious kidnapper already had a day’s head start. By the time the servants grew alarmed enough to head to York after her, he could be in another county. So why trump up some tale about her traveling to Bath?”
“I don’t know!” Her cheeks bloomed a fetching shade of pink. “Sadly, my education didn’t include how to think like a kidnapper.”
“Ah, but mine did. Some of those cases you read about in the papers were ones I solved.” When that made her frown, he softened his tone. “This isn’t how kidnappers operate. If a man carries off a woman, it’s usually for one of three reasons: to elope with her, to force himself on her, or to ransom her off.”
Her lips began to thin ominously, but he pressed on, ticking each reason off on his fingers. “In the first case, Nancy can marry whom she pleases, so there’s no need for evasive letters. In the second, he’d simply force her; again, no reason for evasive letters. In the final and most rare case, which you seem to be considering, the only letter he’d send would be a ransom request. Have you received any?”
“Not yet,” she said sullenly.
Clearly, she wasn’t fond of simple logic. “Kidnappers don’t generally send evasive forged letters in the victim’s hand and then notes of ransom. They want to strike fear, not confusion, into the hearts of the family.”
She thrust out her chin. “I’m beginning to remember how sanctimonious you can be.”
He regarded her coldly. “I’m being logical. You simply don’t like my logic.”
“Because you keep dwelling on what couldn’t have happened. I need to know what could.”
“Fine. Instead of conjuring up criminal assaults, you should consider the possibility that Nancy merely wanted to get away. She did just lose her husband, after all.”
“That makes it sound as if she misplaced him somehow, instead of his being killed by your half brother.” When Dom tensed, she let out an exasperated oath. “I realize that Tristan was merely defending himself. If anyone is aware of how vicious George could be, it’s me. I’m simply . . .”
“Angry at me because I’m telling you what you don’t want to hear.”
She advanced on him with a dark light in her eyes. “And what exactly is that? Your theory that Nancy merely wanted to get away? Why should that bother me? Unless you’re implying that it was me she wanted to escape.”
“Certainly not. She thought you were gone off to London and unlikely to return anytime soon.”
“Well then, according to your logic, whom might Nancy have been trying to escape?” She started ticking possibilities off on her fingers, mimicking him. “The servants? The villagers? The tenants? You, perhaps?”
Her rapid-fire questions unnerved Dom. He wasn’t used to this new Jane, who threw his logic back in his face and didn’t simply accept his opinions. She was maddening.
She was magnificent.
Damn her. “Don’t be absurd—you know perfectly well that I never see Nancy. She would have no reason to escape me. But that’s not the point.”
“Oh? Then what is the point, Lord Rathmoor?”
Her use of his title added to his irritation. Officially he wasn’t even viscount yet, although everyone behaved as if he were, since George had sired no sons. “I never said she was trying to get away from anyone. It’s more likely she was trying to get away to someone.”
That stole the color from Jane’s face. “To. What do you mean?”
“Come now, you aren’t a girl anymore. After several years of marriage, Nancy has, well, certain needs. Her husband is dead, and she’s alone. Since either you or I have been at Rathmoor Park from the day George died, this would have been her first chance to get away to be with someone.”
Jane just kept gaping at him as if he were some foreigner newly alighted on English shores.
“It would explain her mysterious jaunts to York,” he went on. “And why Nancy concocted her ruse of a trip to Bath and left her maid behind. She wants to preserve her reputation before her staff, which is perfectly understandable.”
Thunderclouds wrought her brow. “Are you saying that my cousin would be so unprincipled, so shameless, so deceptive, as to run away to consort with a . . . a . . .”
“Paramour. Yes. It’s the only thing that makes sense. Nancy has obviously been having an affair.”