Long, long ago there lived a powerful prince who had but one child, a daughter.
She was beautiful, haughty, and spoiled, and her name was Rowan.…
—From The Grey Court Changeling
# # #
Had someone asked Freya Stewart de Moray at the age of twelve what she expected to be doing fifteen years later, she would’ve listed three things.
One, writing a pamphlet on the greater intelligence of females compared to males—especially males who were brothers.
Two, indulging in as much raspberry trifle as she pleased.
And three, breeding spaniels so that she might have an endless supply of puppies to play with.
She’d been veryfond of puppies at twelve.
But that was before the Greycourt tragedy, which had torn her family apart and nearly killed her eldest brother, Ran.
Everything had changed after the tragedy.
Which was possibly why Freya’s twelve-year-old self could never have predicted what she was actuallydoing at seven and twenty: working as an agent of the ancient secret society of Wise Women.
Freya hurried along the London street toward Wapping Old Stairs. At the last cross street she’d realized that they were being followed. She glanced at her charges. Betsy was a nursemaid only just turned twenty. The girl was red faced and panting, her mouse-brown hair coming down around her damp cheeks, her eyes wide with terror. In the nursemaid’s arms was Alexander Bertrand, the seventh Earl of Brightwater.
Age one and a half.
Fortunately His Minute Lordship was asleep in Betsy’s arms, round cheeks pink and tiny rosebud mouth pursed.
Behind them were two disreputable men who looked very much as if they were stalking Freya and her charges.
Freya racked her brain, trying to think of a plan of escape. The day was sunny. Seagulls screamed above the Wapping streets. She and Betsy walked parallel to the Thames, only blocks away, and the fetid smell of the river was strong in the air.
She estimated that it was less than a quarter mile to Wapping Old Stairs. The street was busy at this time of day. Carts rattled by, filled with foreign goods brought through the Port of London. Smartly dressed merchants and ship captains bumped shoulders with staggering sailors already in their cups. Working-class women made sure to avoid the sailors, while women who worked the streets made sure to accost them.
Freya chanced another look behind.
They were still there.
The two men might simply be traveling in their direction. Or they might have been sent by Gerald Bertrand, Alexander’s paternal uncle, with orders to bring back the baby earl. If they took him, she wouldn’t have a second chance to rescue the toddler.
Or, of course, they might be Dunkelders.
Freya’s pulse picked up at that last thought. The Wise Women had long been hunted by Dunkelders—nasty, superstitious fanatics who knew about the Wise Women and believed they were witches who should be burned.
If the followers were either Dunkelders or Bertrand’s men, she had to do something soon, or they’d never make it to the stairs.
“What is it?” Betsy asked breathlessly. “Why do you keep looking back?”
“We’re being followed,” Freya told her as a huge black carriage came around the corner, moving toward them at a snail’s pace due to the crowded street.
Betsy moaned and hitched His Lordship higher in her arms.
The carriage door bore an ornate gold crest Freya didn’t recognize. Not that it really mattered. They needed safety and a place to hide from the men. Whoever the aristocrat in the carriage was, Freya was certain she could stall him for a minute or two.
That was all they needed.
She seized Betsy’s arm. “Run!”
Freya darted behind the carriage, pulling Betsy along with her. There was a shout from the men following them, and the carriage shuddered to a stop.
On the far side of the carriage she dragged Betsy to the door, wrenched it open, and shoved both nursemaid and baby inside. Freya leaped in, slamming the carriage door behind her.
She landed on hands and knees and looked up.
Betsy was sitting on the floor of the carriage, cowering away from a large yellow dog, who appeared to be regarding the maid with surprise. Miraculously, Alexander, the tiniest earl in all the land, hadn’t woken.
The gentleman beside the dog stirred. “I begyour pardon?”
At least that was what he said. What he quite obviously meantwas, “What the bloody hell?”
Freya tore her gaze from the dog and looked up into cerulean eyes framed by thick black eyelashes. Lounging on the squabs, his legs stretched clear to the opposite seat, was Christopher Renshaw, the Duke of Harlowe.
The man who had helped destroy her brother Ran.
Freya’s breath seized, her eyes dropped, and she saw something else.
The bastard was wearing Ran’s signet ring.
Her gaze snapped back to his, and she waited for him to shout her name. For her true identity to be revealed after five long years of hiding in London.
Instead his expression changed not at all as he said, “Who are you?”
He didn’t recognize her.
He and Julian Greycourt had been Ran’s best friends. He had seen her every week of her life until the Greycourt tragedy. She’d once vowed to marry the swine. Of course she’d been twelveand that was before he’d nearly gotten Ran killed, but even so.
He didn’t recognize her.
What a complete and utter ass.
Freya straightened her bonnet and glared up at the duke. “You are not Lady Philippa.”
The duke’s eyebrows snapped down. “I—”
“What,” Freya said with rather enjoyable ire, “are you doing in Lady Philippa’s carriage?”
Said carriage lurched and began moving as Alexander woke with a whimper.
Outside a man cursed.
Freya made sure to keep her head below the level of the open window.
Someone pounded on the carriage door.
Harlowe looked from Freya to Betsy and the baby and then back to Freya again.
Holding her gaze, he stood.
Betsy and the baby sobbed.
Harlowe leaned over Freya and glanced out the window before shutting it and drawing the curtain. He resumed his seat, a muscle twitching in his jaw as his right hand dropped to the dog’s head. “I don’t know what trouble you might be in or why those brutes are after you.”
Freya opened her mouth, desperately thinking of a story.
The duke held up his hand. “Nordo I care. I’ll take you to Westminster. After that you’re on your own.”
Harlowe was offering to helpthem, two strangers? That didn’t make sense from the man who had so coldheartedly abandoned Ran.
But she had no time to ponder his vagary.
“Thank you,” Freya said, the words like acid etching hatred on her tongue. “But that won’t be necessary.” She looked at Betsy. “I’m going to jump out when next the coach slows. I want you to wait to the count of twenty and then follow.”
“What of the child?” the duke interrupted imperiously. “Surely you don’t wish to endanger the both of them by ordering her to jump from a moving carriage?”
“Then stop the coach for her,” Freya replied sweetly.
For a second they locked gazes. His face was wrathful. Obviously he wasn’t used to being given orders by anyone—a woman least of all.
Freya leaned close to Betsy and murmured in her ear, “Remember to head for Wapping Old Stairs and to look for the woman wearing a black cloak with a gray hood.”
“But what of you?” Betsy whispered frantically.
Freya straightened and gave the girl an encouraging smile. “I’ll find you, never fear.”
Freya shook her head firmly, bussed the baby earl on his adorably fat cheek, and winked at the duke. “A pleasure, Your Grace.”
Then she leaped from the carriage.
She stumbled when her boots hit the cobblestones, and for a ghastly second she thought she might go under the carriage wheels.
But she recovered.
Just as she heard a shout from behind her.
Freya hitched up her skirts in both hands and ran. She ducked down a road, heading to the river.
Behind her came the clatter of pursuit.
She turned into a narrow alley and skidded to a stop. At the other end was the second man.
The first man was behind her, closing fast.
She darted into an arched opening to her right, coming out almost at once into a small courtyard enclosed on all sides by the surrounding buildings. The stink of the public privy was near overwhelming. She could see, straight ahead, the back of a tavern.
A man opened the door to the tavern and threw slops to the side.
Freya ran up the steps, pushed past him, and rushed into a steaming kitchen. Two maidservants looked up in astonishment as she ran through. The man at the back door belatedly swore behind her.
She found herself in a dark passage. There was a common room ahead and stairs to her right. She could try to hide in one of the rooms above, but that was a dead end. If they chased her up there, she’d be cornered.
Freya ran through the common room, where, except for a single lewd suggestion, no one paid her any mind. She came out of the front of the tavern onto the wharves. She could see the Thames beyond, the water sparkling in the sun prettily. Of course that was deceiving: the privy she’d just run past would empty directly into the river.
Freya turned to the left, heading east with the river on her right hand. She walked rapidly, for she’d gotten a stitch in her side from running. Her pursuers hadn’t emerged from the tavern. Perhaps she’d lost them.
Perhaps they’d caught Betsy and the baby.
Dear God, no.
A figure emerged from the alley just ahead. Freya started before she recognized Betsy. Relief nearly made her stumble.
The nursemaid was wild eyed. “Oh, thank the Lord I found you, miss. If Mr. Bertrand’s men catch me I don’t know what he’d do.”
“Then we shan’t let that happen,” Freya replied stoutly. She glanced at the earl and found him grinning at her around a fat finger stuck in his mouth. She pressed her lips together. “No, I won’t let either of you fall back into his hands.”
Behind them came a shout.
They’d been found.
“Hurry,” Freya urged, breaking into a jog. She could see the alley that led to Wapping Old Stairs just ahead.
Betsy was praying under her breath.
They weren’t going to make it. The stairs were too far, the men behind them too close.
“Give me the baby,” Freya said.
“Ma’am?” Betsy looked terrified, but she did as Freya ordered.
Freya wrapped her arms around Alexander’s little body. He started to cry, his open mouth wet against her neck. “Run for the stairs!”
Unencumbered by Lord Brightwater, Betsy flew.
The earl was wailing in Freya’s ears as she ran, his body shaking, his little face bright red with distress. If they caught her, she’d be unable to fight them off with the baby in her arms. She’d lose Alexander. His uncle would hide him away behind walls and guards and the laws made by men and she’d never get him back.
Up ahead a figure emerged from the mouth of the alley leading to the stairs. She was short and slight and wearing a black cloak with a gray hood.
She raised her arms, a pistol in each fist.
Freya dove for the ground, landing hard on her shoulder so the baby wouldn’t be hurt.
The blasts were simultaneous and so loud Lord Brightwater stopped crying, his mouth open, his eyes wide as he gasped.
He blinked up at her, tears in his big brown eyes.
Freya kissed him and then checked behind them.
One man was on the ground, swearing. The other had turned tail and run.
When Freya looked back, the Crow was striding to her. “You’re late.” She held out her hand to help Freya up.
“Thank you,” Freya muttered, taking the hand.
Together they hurried to the stairs.
Betsy was there, sobbing in the arms of an elegantly dressed woman with a beauty patch on her upper lip.
“Alexander!” The woman turned to them.
The Earl of Brightwater started struggling in Freya’s arms. “Mama.”
Freya handed the baby to his mother.
“Oh, my precious darling.” The Dowager Countess of Brightwater hugged her only child close, pressing her cheek to his. She looked up at Freya, her eyes shining. “Thank you. You cannot know how much this means to me. I thought I’d never see Alexander again.”
The countess’s fears had nearly come true: her brother-in-law, Mr. Bertrand, had barred her from her son so that he could control both the countess and the estate left to his tiny nephew.
Freya nodded, but before she could draw breath to reply, the Crow said, “Best we leave immediately, my lady. We don’t know if there’s other men behind.”
Lady Brightwater nodded and turned to descend the stairs with Betsy. Freya could see a wherry waiting below.
“She and her servants have passage on a ship to the Colonies,” the Crow murmured. “They’ll be out of her brother-in-law’s influence there.”
“Good,” Freya replied softly. “A child should never be raised without a loving mother if it can be helped.”
The Crow cocked her head at Freya, but said only, “Be in the mews at midnight tonight. I have word.”
She turned and swiftly ran down the stairs.
Freya inhaled. Her part of the matter was finished. She watched as the little party got in the wherry and the wherryman pushed off from the steps. Betsy raised a hand in farewell.
Freya waved back. She’d probably never see Betsy, the adorable earl, or his mother again, but at least she’d know they were safe.
And that was everything.
# # #
His morning had been like any other since he’d returned to England—tedious—until a spitting wildcat had hurled herself into his carriage. He found himself entirely unable to stop thinking of her. She’d been like a splash of cold water to the face: shocking, but also refreshing. And like a splash of water she’d woken him up for the first time in months.
The woman had glared up at him from the floor of his carriage with beautiful green-gold eyes and challenged him, indifferent to the disadvantage of her position, literally at his feet.
It had been dumbfounding.
In the two years since he’d rather implausibly gained the dukedom, he’d almost grown used to the awe, fawning, and frank greed his rank prompted in others. Few if any regarded him as a living, breathing man anymore.
And none treated him dismissively.
Except the wildcat.
She’d worn a plain brown dress and one of those ubiquitous white caps with a ruffle around her equally plain face, hiding both the color and style of her hair. She might’ve been a tavern keeper’s wife or a fishmonger, and had she not opened her mouth, he would’ve assumed her accent to be common. Instead he’d detected both education and a hint of Scotland.
And then there’d been that venomous glare, as if she knew him somehow and had cause to loathe him.
Tess leaned against his thigh as the carriage swayed around a corner.
Christopher absently dropped his hand to her head, rubbing the soft points of her ears between his fingers. “Perhaps she’s mad.”
Tess whined and placed her paw on his knee.
A corner of his mouth lifted. “In any case, no doubt that will be the last we see of her.”
He sighed and once again glanced out the carriage window. They were past Covent Gardens and nearly to Jackman’s Club. After a morning spent in Wapping warehouses, overseeing a new venture in shipping, followed by a tiresome afternoon in the city center, consulting with men of business, Christopher had a strong urge for coffee and an hour or so reading the newspapers in quiet.
And, as always, alone.
For years he’d been exiled from these shores. Had lived in a country with foreign sights and smells and people. And he had thought all that time—thirteen years—that when he returned to England, his birthplace, everything would be different.
That he would be home.
Except when he returned it was to a title too grand. To parents dead and friendships destroyed and turned to dust. To grand manors that echoed with his solitary footsteps when he walked through them.
England was no longer home. All that he could’ve built and loved there had been lost as he spent his youth in India. It was too late to find a home now.
He did not belong anywhere.
# # #
Being a duke did have someadvantages.
Jackman’s was fashionable but not too fashionable, and frequented by gentlemen who had lived in India and abroad. The selection of newspapers was one of the best in the city and the main reason he’d become a member.
He found a chair near the fire, had a footman open the window behind him, and was soon immersed in the news, a coffeepot on a small table at his elbow. Tess lay nearly under the table. He’d ordered a plate of muffins with his coffee, and every now and again he dropped a torn-off piece to Tess, who snapped it up.
Christopher was frowning over an account of the battle with the French at Wandiwash in southeast India when someone sat in the chair across from him.
Christopher tensed. No one bothered him at Jackman’s.
He raised his head and saw that idiot Thomas Plimpton looking nervously at Tess.
Christopher snorted. He’d been back in England for nearly two years now and hadn’t seen Plimpton in four, but unless a miracle had occurred, the man was still the worst sort of coward. Plimpton had startled blue eyes, a round face, and a mouth that always seemed to be half-opened. Oddly these features somehow combined to make the man handsome—at least in ladies’ eyes.
Christopher stared at him.
“Ah…,” Plimpton said, sounding nervous, “might I have a word, Renshaw?”
“Harlowe,” Christopher drawled.
“I…beg your pardon?”
“I am,” Christopher said slowly and precisely, “the Duke of Harlowe.”
“Oh.” Plimpton swallowed visibly. “Y-yes, of course. Erm…Your Grace. Might I have a word?”
“No.” Christopher turned his attention back to the newspaper.
He heard a rustling and glanced up.
Plimpton had a piece of paper in his hand. “I’m in need of funds.”
Christopher didn’t reply. Frankly, he saw no need to encourage the man’s impertinence. Plimpton knew well enough that Christopher despised him—andwhy.
But Plimpton must’ve found a shred of bravery somewhere. He lifted his chin. “I need ten thousand pounds. I’d like you to give it to me.”
Christopher slowly arched an eyebrow.
Plimpton gulped. “A-and if you don’t I shall make public this.”
He shoved the piece of paper at Christopher.
Christopher took it and opened what was obviously a letter. The messy handwriting inside was instantly recognizable and brought a small pang to his heart. Sophy.
His wife had been dead four years, but that didn’t end Christopher’s vow to honor and protect her.
He balled up the letter and flung it into the fire.
The paper immediately caught, flaming brightly before dying almost instantly. Gray ash crumpled into the grate.
“That’s not the only one I have,” Plimpton said predictably.
Plimpton still had his chin up, a gallant, defiant look in his eyes. No doubt the man fancied himself some sort of chivalrous knight. He’d certainly cast himself in the role of hero in India. “I have many more letters, hidden in a safe place. A place you won’t be able to find. A-and if something happens to me, I’ve left instructions to publish them.”
Did the idiot think he’d murderhim? Christopher merely looked at the man, but Tess growled again, the sound low and threatening.
Plimpton’s eyes widened, darting to the dog and back up to Christopher’s face. “In a fortnight your brother-in-law, Baron Lovejoy, will hold a house party. I’ve been invited and no doubt you have as well. Bring the money there and in exchange I’ll give you the letters.”
Christopher inhaled and for a moment debated his next action. He despised social events, and a house party by its very premise was a confined affair without respite from fellow guests. He couldrefuse and do something nasty to Plimpton instead, but really in the end paying for the damned letters was the easiest and least complicated course.
“Allthe letters.” Christopher made it a statement.
“Y-yes, all the—”
Christopher stood and walked away while Plimpton was still stuttering out his reply, Tess trotting by his side. Better to leave rather than do something he might regret later.
He’d failed Sophy once. He wasn’t about to fail her again.
She had three cousins who were her constant companions. They were named Bluebell, Redrose, and Marigold. Rowan was fond of Bluebell and Redrose, but Marigold she loathed.
Why has never been told.…
—From The Grey Court Changeling
# # #
“Whatever are you embroidering, Miss Stewart?” the eldest of the Holland girls, Arabella, asked, leaning over Freya’s arm. They shared a settee together in the sitting room of Holland House.
Freya had been Lady Holland’s companion ever since she’d come to London five years ago to be the Wise Women’s Macha. From the beginning she’d used her middle name, Stewart—a Scottish name to explain her Scottish accent. The Dunkelders knew that women of the de Moray family had been Wise Women for generations, so it was imperative that no one know she was the daughter of the Duke of Ayr.
“It’s a merlin,” Freya replied now, placing a bright scarlet stitch below the raptor.
“What’s it doing?”
“Tearing the heart out of a sparrow,” Freya said serenely.
“Oh.” Arabella looked a little pale. “It’s quite realistic.”
“It is, isn’t it?” Freya said. She smiled down at her violent artwork before glancing at the mantel clock. It was just after ten, which meant she had another two hours before her meeting with the Crow.
Freya’s job as Macha was to gather information, gossip, and news for the Wise Women, the majority of whom lived at their estate near Dornoch in the far north of Scotland. It was the Wise Women like her and the Crow—the ones who lived outside the compound—who were fighting a war against the Dunkelders. A war for survival.
A war for women in Britain to live freely.
“What did you do on your day off, Miss Stewart?” Lady Holland asked absently. She sat in the armchair to Freya’s left and was frowning at her own embroidery, which appeared to be tangled.
“Not anything very exciting, my lady,” Freya replied. She set down her hoop, reached for Lady Holland’s, and started teasing apart the tangled silks.
“Oh, thank you,” Lady Holland said with what sounded like relief. Freya’s employer was a short lady with an unfashionably rounded bosom and a practical, decisive personality, but embroidery defeated her. “And how was your outing with Mr. Trentworth, Regina?”
“He has a new pair of bays and they were simply gorgeous,” Regina said from the chair across from Freya. “Perfectly matched and so high spirited. I begged him to give the team their heads and race about Hyde Park, but he refused.”
“I should think so,” Lady Holland said, but smiled fondly. “I’m pleased that he’s a young gentleman of sense.”
“Andhe has a classical profile.” Regina looked dreamy for a moment before straightening. “Mama! Mr. Trentworth said today that he’s thinking of calling on Papa.”
“Did he?” Lady Holland’s head came up like that of a greyhound sighting a rabbit. “I shall have to tell your father.”
Regina frowned worriedly. “What do you think he’ll say to Mr. Trentworth?”
“Don’t be silly,” Lady Holland replied. “Mr. Trentworth is of an indisputably good family and has quite a nice income. If he hadn’t your father would’ve sent him packing long before now. He’ll give his blessing to your beau, never fear.”
Regina squealed and Arabella hugged her, but Freya noticed that Lady Holland’s gaze lingered on Arabella. She had a small line between her brows.
“May Arabella and I retire for the night, Mama?” Regina asked, clearly eager to gossip with her sister.
Lady Holland waved her assent and the girls hurried from the room.
Freya handed back the embroidery hoop. There was a silence as Lady Holland frowned down at it.
She cleared her throat, choosing her words carefully. “You disapprove of the match, my lady?” She couldn’t think why her employer would—Lady Holland had already enumerated Mr. Trentworth’s assets, and she’d always seemed fond of the young gentleman. Freya thought that if Regina mustmarry, he was well suited to her.
“Not at all.” But Lady Holland sounded disturbed.
Freya glanced sideways at her. “Then…?”
“I would prefer that Arabella be settled first.” Many mothers wouldn’t particularly care in which order their daughters married, but Lady Holland fretted about Arabella.
“Ah.” Freya bent her head to her own embroidery and reminded herself that the ways of the Wise Women were not the ways of London society ladies—though they really ought to be.
Neither Regina nor Arabella was a great beauty, but both had their mother’s wheat-colored hair and creamy complexion. Regina was the prettier and more vivacious of the two. Arabella had her father’s long face and nose, and his serious manner. She had a dry wit and could speak intelligently on philosophy, literature, and history—none of which were attributes that seemed to attract London aristocrats.
As far as Freya could see, the average London gentleman looked for wealth, a noble lineage, and comeliness.
Things that lay outside a woman rather than within her.
Even dog breeders knew to value intelligence in their animals. Really, it was rather surprising that the English aristocracy hadn’t descended into drooling idiocy.
“If only she had a chance for quiet conversation with an eligible gentleman,” Lady Holland murmured absently. “It’s a pity the London season is ending.”
“Yes, my lady.” Freya hesitated, then said, “Perhaps a country house party?”
“For Arabella, you mean?” Lady Holland narrowed her eyes and then shook her head. “You’re aware Lord Holland dislikes large gatherings. I don’t think I can make him change his mind on the matter, particularly since he considers the country house his retreat.”
Freya nodded thoughtfully. “Then perhaps one of the invitations we’ve already received.”
“Perhaps. We’ll look them over in the morning,” Lady Holland stifled a yawn. “I’m for bed now, though. Are you coming up?”
“Not yet.” Freya indicated her embroidery. “I’d like to finish this bit here.”
Lady Holland shook her head as she rose. “I don’t know how you do it, Miss Stewart. I should be quite blind if I embroidered as well as you.”
Freya permitted herself a small smile. “One must have an interest to occupy one’s time.”
They said their good nights, and then Freya was alone in the sitting room.
She waited, diligently working on the merlin and his meal, and her thoughts turned to the Duke of Harlowe and how she would get the ring back. He’d seemed so certain of his power as he’d sat above her in the carriage, so arrogant. She gritted her teeth. That a man such as he should be able to swan about London while Ran had been all but destroyed by the Greycourt tragedy…
She shook her head. No use thinking of Ran and what he was like now. Better to find a way to bring down the prideful duke. Harlowe had inherited a fabulously wealthy dukedom through sheer luck. Society had been rife with gossip two years ago when the old duke died and Harlowe—a very distant relative—had returned from India. But in all the time since, she’d never seen him at any London social events. Was he shunning society? If so, it might be difficult to run across him again without rousing suspicion. Perhaps if she bribed a servant—
The clock on the mantel struck midnight with a tinkling chime, pulling her from her thoughts.
Freya put her embroidery away in a basket and went into the outer hall.
Everything was quiet.
She crept to the back of the house without a candle—she’d lived here for five years, after all. She slipped out of the door that led to the back garden.
The moon had risen and the garden was cast in black and white, the scent of roses in the air. She took the path straight back to the mews, gravel crunching beneath her slippers. It was chill this late at night and she regretted not fetching a shawl from her room.
The back gate had been oiled and opened smoothly beneath her hand. She made sure to push a rock against the gate to keep it from closing behind her.
It wouldn’t do for prim Miss Stewart to become locked out of the garden after midnight.
Freya stood looking up and down the mews for a minute. She’d just decided to walk toward the road when the Crow emerged from the shadows.
Freya stilled. “You shouldn’t call me that.”
The Crow drew back her hood. An earring glinted in the mass of her thick black hair. “I’m sorry.”
By rights, as the daughter—and sister—of a duke, Freya should’ve been at the pinnacle of power. Should’ve been able to move among the most influential of London’s elite to do the work of the Macha. But the Greycourt scandal had destroyed all that. The de Moray name had sunk into the mud, the ducal fortunes beggared. Not long after the scandal, Papa had died from the shock, and then she and her sisters, Caitriona and Elspeth, had gone to live with their Aunt Hilda in Dornoch.
It was because of Aunt Hilda that Freya was the Macha. She’d vowed to the old woman to preserve the teachings and the ways of the Wise Women.
That thought brought her back to the present. The Crow’s sharp eyes watched her, black and impossible to read.
Freya frowned at her. “What have you to tell me?”
“You are recalled by the Hags.”
“What?” Freya couldn’t hide her shock. The Hags—three appointed women—were the ruling body of the Wise Women. “Why would the Hags recall me? Are they displeased with my service as the Macha? Do they wish to replace me?”
“Not at all.” The Crow pressed her lips together as if she wished to say more but dared not.
“Then why? It’s imperative that I be in London right now. You know that there’s talk of a new Witch Act before Parliament. What has changed?”
“We have a new Cailleach,” the Crow said carefully, naming one of the positions within the Hags. “She feels that ’twere better if the Wise Women all withdrew to Dornoch.”
Freya stared. “You jest.”
The Crow shook her head. “Nay, my lady.”
“Retire and do what?” Freya demanded. “Forget about all the women who need our help? Pretend we don’t have a sacred duty to right the wrongs of a man-led society? Hide like cowering mice in a nest until the Dunkelders finally discover and burn us all?”
The Crow shrugged, watching her.
Freya’s upper lip curled and she hissed, “If the new Witch Act passes we’ll be hunted by everyone, not just the Dunkelders. There will be tribunals and burnings again. The Wise Women will not survive another great witch hunt.”
“I know that,” the Crow murmured, “but I am not the Cailleach.”
“And the other two Hags are growing old,” Freya said bitterly. The Hags ruled equally together, but of course if one was a particularly strong personality she could persuade the others to her cause.
The Crow nodded. “I heard the eldest has taken to her bed. They say she hasn’t long and her successor is of a like mind with the Cailleach.”
“What of the Nemain?” Freya asked. The assassin of the Wise Women was used only in the direst of circumstances. “Is she recalled as well?”
“I will follow you and the Nemain to Dornoch after my work is done,” the Crow said.
Freya squeezed her eyes shut. Think. She’d known there was a movement within the Wise Women to retire entirely from the world of men. She’d just not known how strong it was. If they retreated to Scotland and the Witch Act passed, she truly believed that the Wise Women would be destroyed.
And with them a millennium of knowledge, tradition, and dedication. Aunt Hilda’s knowledge, tradition, and dedication.
She could not let that happen.
Freya opened her eyes to find the Crow waiting patiently, her black gaze fixed on Freya’s face. “Give me a month. Tell the Hags that I’ll return to Dornoch in four weeks. That I cannot leave before then without arousing suspicion.”
The Crow’s brows rose. “What can you do in a month?”
“Listen to me,” Freya said. “Lord Elliot Randolph spearheads the Witch Act in Parliament. I’ve searched these many months for his weakness. He has none that I can find—save possibly one.”
The Crow cocked her head in question.
“His wife,” Freya said. “Lady Randolph suddenly died last year and was buried at his country estate in Lancashire before her family in London was even notified of her death. It seems to me that Lord Randolph might have had a reason to prevent his wife’s family from seeing the body. If I can find evidence that he had a hand in her death, then we can stop him—and with him the new Witch’s Act before it’s ever brought to Parliament.”
The Crow shook her head. “It’s the end of the London season. All the English aristocrats will be deserting the city for their country estates.”
“Yes, they will. Everyone including Lord Randolph.”
“Lady Holland has an invitation to a house party at Lord and Lady Lovejoy’s estate.” She met the Crow’s eyes. “In Lancashire. They’re neighbors. The estates adjoin.”
Understanding dawned in the Crow’s face. “You plan to attend the house party.”
Freya grinned fiercely. “Give me a month. I’ll investigate Lady Randolph’s death—and find evidence to destroy Lord Randolph.”
# # #
Two weeks later Freya winced as the carriage jolted over a rut in the Lancashire road. She sat facing backward with Regina on one side and Selby, Lady Holland’s middle-aged lady’s maid, on the other. Arabella and Lady Holland were across from them.
They’d been traveling for a week, and everyone was heartily sick of dusty roads, inns with dubiously clean linens, and the constant rattling of the carriage.
“We mustbe nearly there,” Regina said, staring hopefully out the carriage window. “If we drive much further we’ll be in Scotland.”
“Perhaps that’s why Miss Stewart was so keen that you accept Lady Lovejoy’s invitation in particular amongst all the others we received,” Arabella murmured, darting a small smile at Freya.
“Not at all,” Freya replied loftily. “For one thing, Lovejoy House isn’t anywhere near Scotland proper.”
Both Arabella and Regina stifled giggles at that—Scotland and all things Scottish had become something of a jest between them and Freya over the years. Freya felt a sudden pang. She’d lived with the Holland sisters for five years. Had watched them grow from gawky young girls into elegant ladies.
It wouldn’t be easy leaving them or Lady Holland in two weeks.
Freya squared her shoulders. Two weeks to find out what had happened to Lady Randolph.
Two weeks in which to prevent disaster to the Wise Women.
“Why did you choose Lady Lovejoy’s house party, Mama?” Regina asked, interrupting her thoughts. “I thought you were set on Bath this summer?”
“There’ll be more than enough time for Bath later in the summer, my darlings,” Lady Holland replied. “Lady Lovejoy is a particular friend of mine. She assures me that Lord Lovejoy has an extensive stable, and the countryside is wild and romantic around Lovejoy House.” She nodded at Freya. “And finally, our dear Miss Stewart was in favor of the idea.”
“Not to mention Mr. Aloysius Lovejoy will be attending with his friends,” Regina murmured.
Arabella blushed rather splotchily.
Freya hid a smile. The younger Mr. Lovejoy had the most beautiful golden hair she’d ever seen, but beyond that he seemed a kind man. Arabella would need a sensitive gentleman to match her quiet intelligence. It was the prospect of several eligible bachelors that had been the deciding factor for Lady Holland in attending the Lovejoy house party in particular.
“We’ve arrived, my lady.” Selby nodded to the carriage window, and all of them leaned forward to look.
The carriage had stopped to let a gatekeeper pull back the massive iron gates. The man touched his hat as the carriage turned in to a gravel drive.
Lovejoy House stood surrounded by a tended lawn, the better to be admired. The house itself was a red stone building that looked at least several centuries old. It rose arrogantly certain of its place in the cosmos, and for a moment Freya had a longing for her own ancestral home. Ayr Castle was older and bigger than Lovejoy House, a stately gray monolith that no doubt looked arrogant to strangers as well.
But not to her. To her it had been home.
“Oh, someone’s come just before us,” Arabella said, bringing Freya’s attention back to the present.
A black coach with a familiar crest stood before the doors, the coachman still in the box.
Freya schooled her features even as her heart began to thud in her ears. If the master of that coach was who she thought it was, she should be afraid. Worried that her identity would be revealed and her mission imperiled.
Instead she felt herself readying for battle. Her muscles tightening, her senses quickening. Oh, this was a divine gift indeed. She’d not expected him here, would never have guessed he would attend. And yet she could see the booted foot emerge from the carriage, the flash of lace at the masculine wrist. She inhaled leather and mud and the scent of her own body warming.
She felt alive.
Oh, let it be him.
She wanted that ring. She wanted to make him pay.
“Perhaps it’s Mr. Lovejoy,” Regina said, darting an impish look at Arabella.
“That’s not Mr. Lovejoy,” her sister replied. “He’s far too broad in the shoulders and too tall.”
The man stood beside the carriage, large and commanding as others scurried around him.
“Do you recognize the crest?” Regina whispered as their carriage drew to a stop.
Lady Holland pursed her lips in thought. “No, but whoever he is, he’s wealthy. That carriage is new.”
Freya’s heart felt as if it had climbed into her throat.
The footman set the step, and then there was the flurry of gathering items and exiting the carriage.
Freya made herself wait. She was the last to leave, ducking her head to clear the carriage doorway.
A male hand appeared before her, wearing Ran’s signet ring. The fingers long, the nails square, and the palm broad and strong.
She inhaled to steady herself and placed her hand in his, stepping down.
“I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced,” the Duke of Harlowe rumbled over her head.
She looked up…into cerulean eyes watching her with complete attention. His gleaming chestnut hair was pulled neatly back from his forehead, and he wore a nut-brown suit that made his eyes nearly glow.
Not that she was particularly noticing. “Are you sure, Your Grace?” Oh, this was playing with fire.
His eyes narrowed. How often did anyone question him? “I certainly thought I was.”
“Have you met our chaperone, Miss Stewart, Your Grace?” Regina asked with innocent curiosity.
He cocked his eyebrow at Freya, murmuring too low for Regina to hear, “Have I, Miss Stewart?”
“I believe we met at the Earl of Sandys’s ball,” Freya replied, pulling a story from thin air. “I’m afraid I was so clumsy as to bump into His Grace.”
“I seem to remember you falling at my feet,” Harlowe said, a too-attractive smile playing about his lips. “I do hope you’ve recovered from the incident?”
She lowered her gaze and imagined disemboweling him. Vividly.
He nodded in dismissal and turned to Lady Holland. “May I?” he asked, offering his arm.
Lady Holland blushed. “Your Grace is so—”
The yellow dog bounded up and shoved her nose into Freya’s skirts.
Regina stifled a shriek—she’d never liked dogs, having been bitten as a child.
Lady Holland said sharply, “Whose dog is that?”
“Mine.” The duke snapped his fingers. “Tess, come here.”
Tess ignored him, sniffing with great interest all about Freya’s hem. She remembered now that there’d been a friendly cat at their last stop.
Freya glanced up and said blandly, “I don’t believe Tess knows that you’re a duke, Your Grace.”
He sighed. “No, she most certainly doesn’t.”
Freya’s lips twitched before she regained control of them. She held out her hand to the dog—it wasn’t Tess’s fault that she had such a vile man for a master.
The dog snuffled wetly against her fingers and then looked up, letting her jaw hang open in a friendly canine smile as her tail gently waved. Her ears were upright triangles, her eyes and nose black against the dust yellow of her fur, and her head reached nearly to Freya’s hip. She didn’t seem like an aristocratic dog, but then Freya wasn’t sure she’d ever seen a dog exactly like Tess before.
“She’s quite harmless,” Harlowe said, glancing at Regina. “Would you care to meet her?”
Regina visibly hesitated, her hands clutched to her chest.
Tess turned and trotted to her master.
“V-very well,” Regina said.
“Come. Give me your hand,” Harlowe said, and it was amazing how gentle he sounded when Freya knewwhat he was capable of.
Regina held out her trembling hand. The duke took it and bent with her hand in his to let Tess sniff them both. “That’s my girl, Tess. Softly now. What do you think of Miss Holland, then? Will you be friends?”
Freya swallowed. His voice was deep and rumbling as he spoke to the dog, and the sound made her belly tremble.
The cad. Freya tried to look away but found herself strangely loath to do so.
A smile bloomed on Regina’s face when she petted Tess’s head. “Her ears are so soft.” She glanced shyly at Harlowe. “Thank you, Your Grace.”
He bowed gravely, but a corner of his wide mouth quirked. “My pleasure, Miss Holland.”
“Your Grace! I’m so pleased you could come.” Daniel Lovejoy, Baron Lovejoy stood on the steps of his house. He was a man of forty-some years with gray powdered hair. “And Lady Holland. A pleasure as always, ma’am.”
That seemed to be the signal to go inside the house, Freya trailing behind, all but forgotten.
Just the way she liked it.
# # #
Two hours later Christopher descended the grand staircase of Lovejoy House to the main floor, Tess padding by his side. He’d had a hot bath and changed his clothes and finally felt rested after a week of travel in a confined carriage. He hoped to find Plimpton and settle this matter as soon as possible. It made his skin itch to know the bastard still had Sophy’s letters. The letters were a last chore—a mess he needed to mop up so he could set Sophy’s memory in order.
They came to a larger hallway, and he could hear male voices nearby.
Christopher pushed open a sky-blue door and entered a room with dark paneling and several groupings of chairs—evidently his brother-in-law’s study. Three gentlemen seated by the fireplace turned to him.
Tess huffed, raising her head alertly.
Absently Christopher dropped his hand to her head.
“Ah, there you are, Harlowe,” Lovejoy said, sounding jovial.
The man was nearly two decades older than his sister had been, and yet the resemblance was marked. Fifteen years ago, when Christopher had married Sophy, he remembered thinking that at a distance Lovejoy and Sophy might’ve been twins, both with round, moonlike faces and impossibly blond hair. Lovejoy powdered his now, so it was difficult to tell if it was still that nearly white color.
Lovejoy stared at Tess as Christopher crossed to him. “Erm…perhaps the dog would be more comfortable in the stables?”
“No,” Christopher said, “she wouldn’t. Thank you for inviting me.”
Lovejoy went a delicate pink, though his next words were obsequious. “Entirely my pleasure, Your Grace. May I present my son, Aloysius Lovejoy?”
The younger man sprang to his feet. He had the Lovejoy white-blond hair, worn in a tail and with fussy curls across his forehead and at his temples. If Christopher didn’t know that the color ran in the family, he would swear it was a wig.
“Your Grace.” Aloysius bowed. “It’s a pleasure to meet you at last. At least, I know I met you when I was but ten at your wedding to Aunt Sophy, but it hasbeen fifteen years. Shall I call you Uncle?”
Christopher eyed the man, wondering if Aloysius was mocking him. The younger Lovejoy looked entirely serious. The man was only eight years younger than Christopher, though Christopher felt much older than Aloysius.
In any case, the request was quite inappropriate.
“I think not.”
Aloysius’s eyebrows flew up, but he didn’t seem particularly put out.
The third man in the room snorted. “Shot down at once. That’ll teach you, Al.”
“And this”—Lovejoy indicated the man—“Is Aloysius’s friend Leander Ashley, Earl Rookewoode.”
The earl was thirty-odd and handsome, with sardonic eyes beneath a white wig. Rookewoode bowed elegantly and with a bit of a flourish. “It’s quite an honor to meet you, Your Grace. I fear you’re not much seen in society. You’ve become almost a legend.”
“Have I?” Christopher murmured dismissively. The truth was that he avoided balls and soirees. The press of bodies made him ill at ease, brought a choking feeling of pressure to his throat, and filled him with the urge to escape to untainted air.
On the whole, he’d rather drink poison than attend a crowded event.
Rookewoode narrowed his eyes at Christopher’s tone, though his grin was quick and charming.
“May I present Christopher Renshaw, the Duke of Harlowe,” Lovejoy hastily continued. “My late sister’s husband, of course.” He glanced at Christopher. “We were about to join the rest of the party in the small salon.”
Christopher nodded and fell into step beside Lovejoy, Tess loping by his side.
“Have all your guests arrived?” Where the hell was Plimpton?
“Not as yet, Your Grace,” Lovejoy said. “I know Lady Lovejoy will be ecstatic that you’ve deigned to attend our little party. We’ve hardly seen you since you returned from India.”
The last was said with a stiff little smile.
Christopher supposed he was meant to feel guilty.
“My business affairs have kept me busy,” he replied with complete honesty.
“I’m sure, I’m sure,” Lovejoy murmured. “Ah, here we are.”
They’d arrived at a sitting room painted a deep shade of crimson. At one end a fire roared, making the place stuffy and overheated.
The room felt too small.
He took a slow breath, letting his hand fall to Tess’s head.
Christopher scanned the seated crowd, not realizing he was looking for someone until his gaze snagged on Miss Stewart. Even from across the room her eyes seemed to blaze at him, though her prim face was carefully composed.
What was she up to? She seemed perfectly respectable—even boring—in this setting, yet only a fortnight before he’d seen her fleeing two hulking men and leaping recklessly into his carriage. With a baby no less.
He set his questions aside and brought his attention back to the present. There were other people in the room and Lovejoy was introducing each.
He’d already met Lady Caroline Holland and her daughters. Regina was sitting with her mother. Across from them were Arabella and Miss Stewart, who apparently had no Christian name—at least none that he’d been given.
At right angles to the Hollands, Lady Lovejoy shared a settee with Malcolm Stanhope, Viscount Stanhope. The man looked to be under the age of thirty, but he held himself as rigidly as a cantankerous old man.
Lovejoy finished the introductions and Lady Lovejoy turned to Christopher. “Will you take a dish of tea, Your Grace?”
Christopher indicated he would and selected a chair closest to the French doors. They were shut, but they looked as if they led onto a terrace. The prospect of escape was at least near.
Tess crawled under his chair to lie down. Unlike her husband, Lady Lovejoy didn’t bat an eyelash at her guest’s bringing a dog to a country house party. Either she was more liberal than Lovejoy or—more likely—she’d let Christopher do just about anything because of his title.
People usually did. The moment they realized he was a duke they scraped and bowed and stuttered, as if he pissed gold.
As if he were set apart, alone and immune to human contact.
That is, mostpeople treated him that way.
There were exceptions.
At the thought he felt his pulse pick up. He turned his head and caught Miss Stewart staring at him with loathing in her lovely green-gold eyes.
The horses shied away.
“They say that Fairyland lies in there,” Marigold whispered, and Redrose and Bluebell looked frightened.
But Rowan said, “Bah! A wifes’ tale. Let us explore inside and prove the tale wrong.”…
—From The Grey Court Changeling
# # #
He’d been a skinny boy with a man’s full height at eighteen, but not his weight. He’d looked like a medieval king, his face long, sensitive, and ascetic. And his eyes had been blue, luminous, and beautiful—at least that was how Freya remembered Christopher Renshaw.
She sipped her tea and contemplated the Duke of Harlowe. He was fully formed now, big and solid, his shoulders wide, his calves muscular in his fine stockings as he stretched his legs before him in his chair. His face had filled out into craggy cheekbones and a strong jaw. He was no longer a dreamy poet.
No, now he more closely resembled a warrior king—hardened and merciless. A man who could betray his friend without thought.
A man who still didn’t recognize her.
Well, why should he? she thought rather irritably. When Harlowe had last seen her she’d been a skinny girl in the schoolroom. The younger sister of his great friend Ranulf. Someone he’d had no reason to notice. A child while he’d been a young man and a student at Oxford with Julian Greycourt and Ran.
Freya pressed her lips together to stop them trembling at the memory. They’d been so bright, the three of them, shining like young gods. She’d thought them wonderful, invincible, and now…
Now Ran was crippled because of Julian and Harlowe.
“Does your head ache?” Arabella asked softly beside her.
“No, not at all.” Freya caught herself frowning. She forced a smile and turned to the elder Holland sister. “Have you recovered from the carriage ride this morning?”
“I’m glad to have a bit of a rest from bouncing up and down,” the younger woman replied with feeling.
“What do you think of Lady Lovejoy’s guests?”
“You mean the gentlemen?” Arabella asked with a wry twist to her lips.
Freya winced. “I was trying to be more subtle than that.”
“I don’t know that there’s any point.” The younger woman sounded bitter.
Freya glanced at her quickly.
Arabella gave her a half-hearted smile. “I know Mama wishes me wed before Regina, and with Mr. Trentworth ready to propose…”
Freya tightened her mouth and silently patted Arabella’s hand, which felt like no comfort at all. Ladies of Arabella’s rank sometimes didn’t wed, but the vast majority did, and Freya knew that Lord Holland expected his daughters to not only wed but wed well.
Freya silently gave thanks that she was a Wise Woman. If she wished to, she could certainly marry and have a family, but it wasn’t an imperative. In fact, were she to wed she might be less welcome at the estate in Dornoch. The Wise Women were very careful about which men they let into their sanctuary.
Freya said, “If you truly dislike everyone you meet here, I have no doubt that your mother will give you time to find another suitor.”
“Yes.” Arabella scanned the gentlemen in the room with an oddly dispassionate eye. “But I’ve had three years to find a husband. She and Father cannot wait on me forever.”
“You sound quite grim.”
Arabella turned and gave her a small curl of the lips. “I’m planning a campaign to find a husband, Miss Stewart. Such things should be done most gravely.”
Freya took a sip of tea, trying to cover her own unease. So many things could go wrong in a marriage, and once the vows were said there was no returning to what freedom there was in maidenhood.
A grave business indeed.
Freya cleared her throat, attempting a lighter note. “Lord Stanhope is quite beautiful, don’t you think?”
Arabella sent her an appalled glance.
Freya tried to look innocent.
“You’re awful,” Arabella whispered. “Lord Stanhope looks like he swallowed a toad. And quite recently.”
Freya repressed a smile. “Perhaps he’s shy.”
Arabella widened her eyes disbelievingly.
“Well, he mightbe.” Freya shrugged. “I’ve noticed that sometimes gentlemen who present a forbidding exterior are simply timid.”
“Timid.” Arabella raised a single eyebrow. “Then the duke must be a rabbit. He was kind to introduce Regina to darling Tess, but I would never have guessed him to be so gentlemanly from simply his appearance. He looks as if he might bite one’s head off if his tea wasn’t to his satisfaction.”
Freya glanced at Harlowe before she could stop herself.
He was seated with Lord Lovejoy. Tess was under his chair, watching the assembly alertly, her head on her crossed paws. Harlowe listened with a frown on his face to something their host was saying. As she watched, he glanced at the fire and then the door and shifted in his chair, almost as if he wished to leave the room.
She shook her head at her own ridiculousness. Harlowe was hardly the sort of man to be shyin a gathering. No, Arabella was right.
He did appear rather intimidating.
“I should avoid him were I you,” Freya found herself saying.
“What do you mean?” Arabella asked. “I’ve always thought that when a man has the devotion of a dog it shows his true character, and Tess quite obviously loves the duke.”
The thought of Arabella setting her cap at Harlowe made Freya feel irritable. She glanced back at the girl.
Arabella’s brows were knit.
Freya shook her head. “Dogs are such loving animals, and really it takes little to win them over. Food and companionship, mostly. I don’t think the duke is very nice.” Arabella looked so young in a pretty pale-pink gown. “At least, not nice enough for you.”
“You’re quite cynical on occasion, Miss Stewart,” Arabella said. “Sometimes I wonder if a gentleman hurt you in the past. If there was a beau who spurned you and broke your heart.”
“Alas, nothing so romantic,” Freya said dryly. “What do you think of the younger Mr. Lovejoy? You’ve met him before, I believe.”
Arabella gave her a disconcertingly considering stare. “You always turn the conversation away from yourself. Really, I hardly know anything about your past.”
“There’s not much to know,” Freya said lightly, meeting her gaze.
“Hmm.” Arabella sighed and glanced again at the gentlemen. “As to your question, yes, I danced with Mr. Lovejoy at a ball last winter. Once. He danced with Regina twice.”
Freya ignored the last. “Mr. Lovejoy seems quite nice.”
“Mama would prefer a titled gentleman.”
“Of course,” Freya replied, refraining from rolling her eyes. Naturally the lineage of the prospective groom was more important than whether or not the bride actually liked him. “But Mr. Lovejoy will inherit a barony someday—and quite a wealthy one at that. I think, in the end, Lady Holland wishes above all that you be happy.”
“I know she does, but I also know Papa would like me to marry someone of rank.” Arabella raised her eyes, meeting Freya’s gaze frankly. “I want to make them both proud of me, but I’m not as vivacious as Regina. I don’t know if I canattract a titled gentleman.”
“You can,” Freya said, taking her hand. Arabella’s vulnerability made her heart want to break. “I know you can if you set your mind to it. You are kind and intelligent and very witty when you wish to be. We simply need to find the right gentleman to appreciate you.”
Arabella looked uncertain, and Freya pressed her lips together. She didn’t want to see Arabella hurt.
“Arabella,” Lady Holland called. “Lady Lovejoy has the most intriguing embroidery patterns. Come see.”
Lady Lovejoy had joined Lady Holland on a settee.
“Of course, Mama,” Arabella said obediently, rising to cross and sit with her mother and their hostess.
The fact was that Freya wasn’tcertain the girl could make a suitable match. Titled gentlemen had their pick of aristocratic ladies. What she wished she could tell Arabella was that there was no need to worry. That there was plenty of time for Arabella to find a gentleman who was kind and who loved her for herself.
But the awful reality was that Arabella was expected to marry. To make familial ties for her father and to breed the next generation of aristocrats. The girl really had no choice.
Freya might, on the surface, work as a companion and chaperone—quite near the bottom of aristocratic society—but in reality she had more freedom than any duchess.
Because she was a Wise Woman.
And now she had only a fortnight to save the Wise Women.
She had to find something to hold over Lord Randolph.
Freya sipped from her teacup and scanned the room. Her gaze almost immediately clashed with the duke’s.
He was staring at her, his sky-blue eyes narrowed in what looked like consideration.
The sudden surge of hatred for him caught her off guard. Made her chest so tight it was hard to breathe. Had Harlowe forgotten not only her but Ran as well? It was a thorn in her breast, the knowledge that he was living his life freely and without remorse while her brother Lachlan toiled over the remaining de Moray lands.
While Ran hid himself away from the world.
Across from her, Arabella laughed at something.
Freya glanced over. The girl was smiling at the pattern book Lady Lovejoy was showing her and Lady Holland. If only Arabella could be so relaxed when conversing with a gentleman. Unfortunately she became stiff when—
“Miss Stewart,” a deep voice said next to her.
Freya fancied that she could feel the reverberations to her bones. “Your Grace.”
She turned to find that Harlowe had seated himself in a chair pulled up beside the settee she perched on. He was at a perfectly proper distance. No one could look askance at the fact that he’d sat down beside her. But the point that he was talkingto her might cause comment. She was the hired companion and chaperone. She wasn’t supposed to be noticed at all.
She didn’t wantto be noticed.
And he was well aware of it. There was a gleam in his startlingly blue eyes as he murmured, “I find myself curious, Miss Stewart. I don’t think you are what you seem to be.”
“Are any of us?”
He shrugged. “Perhaps not.”
She smiled, aware that it was closer to a grimace. “What dire secrets do you hide, Your Grace?”
“How do you know I hide any?”
“Intuition?” She tilted her head, studying him, and picked her words carefully. If she mentioned Greycourt, the game would be given away directly. All the same she was tempted to do it. Instead she settled on something more vague. “You’re a gentleman past thirty, widowed, but in the two years since you gained your title you’ve not bothered remarrying.”
“I wasn’t aware that lack of a wife is a suspect state,” he drawled.
“It is for a gentleman who holds such a lofty title. Shouldn’t you be searching for a young, nubile maiden? One you can tie to your side and who will bear for you your heirs? Duty to the dukedom surely demands it.”
His lips curved cynically. “Are you acting as a pander for the Misses Holland?”
“No.” Her reply was curt. No, this man wasn’t for Regina or Arabella. He was a powerful man—a dangerous man. The woman who married him would have to be not only strong but stubborn, able to hold her ground. Not that she would wish marriage to him on anywoman, of course. “I would not recommend you to any young girl.”
“Should I be offended?” His eyes were so blue it was hard to look away.
“Yes.” She lifted her chin. “You are not good enough for them.”
He was very still, and only the tightening of his jaw gave away his ire before he said caustically, “And am I good enough for you, Miss Stewart?”
“I am a companion, Your Grace. You know well enough that you are not for me.” This was too close to flirtation. She could not be distracted by cerulean eyes, blunt conversation, and her own heightened awareness of him. She turned her hand over in her lap, exposing the vulnerable palm. “Tell me. What are your thoughts on revenge?”
She glanced up.
He was watching her as if she were a cannon poorly primed. “What an odd question.”
“Is it?” she asked carelessly. “I beg your pardon. I shall return to proper subjects of conversation. The weather is quite pleasant, don’t you think?”
He snorted and said seriously, “I think revenge destroys the soul, Miss Stewart.”
She felt an odd thrill. He’d accepted her conversational gambit. “I disagree. If I am wronged, shouldn’t I seek revenge for it?” She leaned a little toward him, wondering how much further she could push him. When he reached his limit, would he walk away—or turn on her? “What would you do, Your Grace, if you were vilely used, terribly hurt, had everything you held dear taken from you?”
“I would be more careful in the future,” he said slowly, but without hesitation, as if he’d actually mused on the topic before. “And I would try to live my life as honorably as I could.”
For the first time it occurred to her that perhaps he hadbeen wronged at some point. After all, it was fifteen years since she’d last seen him. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the sinner was himself sinned against?
“What a paragon of restraint you are, Your Grace,” she said, sweetly mocking. “You would simply let your tormentor free? Wish him a long and happy life?”
“No, naturally not.” He sighed impatiently. “I am only human. I would want to bring him to justice. But justice is not always possible—or for the greater good. Surely you realize this.”
“I realize that to give up the drive for revenge—or justice, as you put it—is to relinquish a part of oneself,” she said far too passionately. “To succumb to the mundanity of life instead of reaching for the most valiant part of ourselves.”
“You think revenge valiant.” He glanced away from her as if he couldn’t bear to see her face. “And after you have revenged yourself, what then, Miss Stewart?”
She didn’t want him to turn from her. “Then I will have peace.”
His expression when he looked at her was sardonic. “Madam. Have you ever sought peace in your life?”
She couldn’t help the wry twist of her mouth. “Truthfully, no.”
He nodded as if unsurprised. “I thought not. So tell me, who is this man you wish to revenge yourself upon? Was it one of the men chasing you through the streets of east London a fortnight ago?”
Good Lord, had anyone heard him?
She caught her breath at her own idiocy. She wasn’t a shallow girl, to have her head turned by a pair of pretty eyes. This was her enemy. “Do keep your voice down, if you please.”
“Why?” He lounged back, watching her with the dispassionate interest of a tomcat playing with a crippled mouse. “Are you hiding something?”
She widened her eyes. “Obviously.”
“Why do you think you have any right to ask?” Talking to this man was far too seductive. She was perilously close to giving everything away. Freya took a sip of tea to cover her disquiet.
“Possibly because I didn’tthrow you and your companions from my carriage,” he replied mildly.
“I am forever in your debt,” she snapped.
He paused, his eyes narrowing. “I could simply ask your employer.”
“You could,” she replied, a tight smile firmly in place, “but by doing so you admit that you are unable to handle me by yourself. And then I should know you for a coward.”
He stilled, and she knew she’d found the line.
Found it and crossed it.
“Most people in your position, Miss Stewart,” he said very quietly, “would be careful not to offend me.”
# # #
She wasn’t cowed by his ire. Quite the opposite—those green-gold eyes were glittering with almost feverish excitement as she replied, “Your pardon. If you want careful argument, then you must seek it elsewhere.”
“I certainly would be a coward if I left the field to you,” he said softly. “And I assure you, madam, that I am not.”
Her smile this time was quick and real, revealing a dimple on one cheek. He caught his breath at the sight. This, this was what he’d been missing without even realizing it: genuine conversation. Genuine feeling.
In the next second her smile was gone, almost as if she were ashamed of the lapse. “I’ll have to take your word for it, Your Grace.”
Another insult. They seemed to spill off her tongue. What was it about this awful woman that held him so? Her appearance didn’t match her personality at all. On the outside she was dowdy and forgettable, her clothes prim and drab. The cap on her head particularly irritated him—it hid most of her brownish hair and distracted from the rest of her.
“You wear the most ghastly cap,” he said.
One never spoke to a lady in this manner. A gentleman always used polite little lies, glossing over anything that might distress a lady.
He remembered once when he’d tried to talk with Sophy about a maid who was stealing. His wife had been so upset over even the thoughtof reprimanding the maid that she’d taken to bed for the rest of the day. He’d dealt with dismissing the maid himself. Sophy hadn’t seemed to notice beyond commenting on the new maid’s lazy eye.
It had been better all around to live a polite fiction with his wife. A sort of make-believe life in which the truth was never mentioned. In which he always cared for her and her worries, and she existed in a childish state of dependence.
Never an equal adult.
Never a real partner.
Miss Stewart’s acid retorts were refreshing.
Her eyes had widened in something like outrage—certainly not shock. Is she shocked by anything? “How rude to say so, Your Grace.”
He tutted. “A miss, I’m afraid. Have you grown weary, darling?”
Her upper lip curled, baring her teeth, and for a moment he thought she might hit him. He inhaled, strangely anticipatory. Would she throw aside her thin disguise and reveal herself to the sedate sitting room as the warrior she was?
To his disappointment she controlled herself and in the next second was looking at him almost serenely. “I can’t think that you’re an expert in ladies’ millinery fashions. At least not respectable ladies’ fashions.”
He wanted to laugh at her restraint. “Are you attempting to imply I’m a roué, madam?”
She pursed her lips, drawing his attention to her mouth. Undoubtedly she was trying to look proper and disapproving, but she was rather betrayed by her own mouth. She might have the personality of a harpy, but her lips were voluptuously lush. Wide and plump and curved. Naturally tinted pink. Her smile would be glorious. And if she were to use that mouth for other, more erotic tasks…
No, those weren’t the lips of a prude.
And they were parting now. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Oh my dear,” he said gently. “Have you lost your nerve? Surely you can do better than that feeble riposte. Perhaps you can imply that I have the pox. Or simply stand up and call me a ravisher of women.” He watched her outraged eyes, enchanted. She had the loveliest dark lashes. “You must admit that if nothing else it would enliven the party.”
If he hadn’t been staring at her he might’ve missed it: a slight twitch of those luscious lips. The sight sent a thrill through him. He wanted to make her smile again—that full-fledged smile that brought out her dimple.
“I’ll do no such thing,” Miss Stewart bit out.
“Pity. I don’t see how you’ll make me face my sins otherwise.”
“Perhaps you need to face your sins on your own.”
“Oh, I already have.” He smiled humorlessly as he met her eyes. “I assure you.”
Her eyes narrowed in what looked like grudging curiosity. “What do you mean?”
“Do you think I’d tell you my weaknesses?” he asked softly. “You, my adversary?”
“I’m not your…” She caught herself before she could say it, blinked, and lifted her chin.
A point to him.
“You are.” He smiled. “You’ve taken pains to impress your antagonism upon me.”
He gazed at her thoughtfully. “I’m not sure how I’ve offended you.”
“Aren’tyou?” Her voice was mocking.
His jaw clenched and he said abruptly, “I’m not, you know. A ravisher of women.”
“I suppose I should simply believe you?” she inquired politely. “Because if you werea libertine that is exactlywhat you’d say, you realize.”
“I don’t recollect ever being so insulted,” he said slowly, “by man or woman. Are you trying to goad me into revealing to the party what you were doing in Wapping?”
She made an abrupt movement, then stilled. Her eyes when she looked at him burned. “You have no idea what I was doing in Wapping.”
“No, but I do know you don’t want me speaking about it,” he mused. “Otherwise I think you would’ve told me to go to the Devil. I don’t suppose you’ll tell me?”
“Tell you my secrets?” She arched her brows. “You, my adversary?”
For a moment he savored her repartee—the bright satisfaction in her eyes, the way she leaned a little forward as if waiting for him to bat back a tennis ball.
He let his lips quirk. “No, you’re right. That would be most unwise. For both of us, I think.”
He should stand and leave her. Go speak to another member of the party.
And yet he found something compelling about her, this seemingly ordinary woman.
Or perhaps he simply found her frank animosity refreshing.
He was about to say something else, see if he could make that dimple appear again, but there were footsteps and voices from in the hallway.
Christopher straightened, his attention entirely on the door. Had Plimpton arrived?
Two ladies entered the salon, and Christopher felt a shock of recognition that went straight to his core.
The nearest, a tall, striking woman with black hair, glanced up. For a second her gaze flickered to Miss Stewart, and then it was on him.
She walked toward them, her hands outstretched as her handsome gray eyes widened. “Christopher, darling, it’s been an age since we’ve seen you. How are you?”
# # #
No matter how old one might be now.
Messalina Greycourt watched as Christopher Renshaw rose from his seat beside Freya. “Messy?”
Her eldest brother, Julian, had christened her with the ghastly nickname when she’d been five and he a very superior eleven. Sadly the name had stuck…at least until the events of her twelfth summer, when they’d lost their sister, Aurelia—and with her Julian’s playfulness.
“Not even Julian calls me that anymore,” she replied. “Do you remember my sister, Lucretia?”
Christopher turned to Lucretia. “Of course, though I would never have known you.”
Lucretia curtsied. “I’m so glad. It would be rather lowering if I still looked the same as I did in leading strings.”
That provoked what looked like a reluctant smile from Christopher.
Messalina glanced from Christopher to Freya de Moray. The two had been deep in discussion when she and her sister had entered the sitting room, and she had a multitude of questions.
The foremost among them: had Freya told Christopher why she was working as a companion? Messalina had been curious about that for years.
Messalina looked away from Freya and nodded at Christopher. “We knew that you’d returned to England, but we never saw you. I think Julian even invited you to tea, didn’t he?”
Christopher simply shrugged. His smile was already gone.
Were he and Julian no longer speaking? If so, she’d not been aware of the rift. Although of course Christopher had been in India for all those years. And Julian was damnably closemouthed.
Messalina cleared her throat. “Do you mind if I call you by your Christian name? I’m afraid habits made in childhood are hard to shake.”
She glanced at Freya and saw her former friend staring at her, a haunted look on her face. Freya turned her head before rising and quietly moving away.
Messalina couldn’t help the pang of hurt. Damn Freya de Moray.
“Not at all,” Christopher replied, bringing her attention back to him. “I can hardly stand on ceremony when you once saw me after a night of veryunwise drinking.”
She recalled her smile. “You did have trouble holding your liquor at sixteen.”
His expression was melancholy, but then it was Ranulf de Moray who’d been his illicit drinking partner that night.
“I’d heard you’d come into the title,” Messalina said to change the subject. “It was the talk of the ton for almost the entire season.”
She’d heard, too, that he’d lost his wife, Lord Lovejoy’s sister. What had been her name? Becky or Molly or Lizzy—some sort of diminutive at any rate. She wondered suddenly if there was anyone to call him by his given name now. Both his parents were dead, he had no brothers or sisters, and as far as she knew he hadn’t remarried.
“Yes, I inherited quite unexpectedly,” he said dryly. “The last duke was a second cousin, and suffered the tragedy of his own sons and grandson leaving this world before him. My cousin was ninety when he died and appeared to have placed far too much trust in a none-too-honest man of business. The title came with two years’ worth of work.”
They both turned at Lord Lovejoy’s interruption.
Their host was looking apologetic. “I’ve word that dinner is ready. Perhaps you’d care to lead us in?”
Of course. Christopher was the ranking aristocrat.
He bowed to Messalina and strode to their hostess, offering Lady Lovejoy his arm. Lord Rookewoode, escorting Lady Holland, followed them. The rest of the company trailed behind.
Lucretia murmured beside Messalina, “Will you ask Lady Lovejoy for help tonight?”
Messalina shook her head. “Tomorrow, I think.”
“Mm.” Lucretia hummed. “He isvery handsome, isn’t he?”
Messalina blinked at the non sequitur. “Christopher?” She’d never thought of him in that way.
“No, not him. It’s strange, I didn’t recognize the duke at all.”
“Well, you were only what, seven when we last saw him?”
“Eight,” Lucretia said with the exactitude for age found only in the youngest members of families, “and in any case, no, that’s not who I meant. I was referring to the earl.” She nodded at Lord Rookewoode’s back. “There’s something about him that just draws a lady’s eye. Though I suppose the duke is quite nice to look at as well.”
“Hussy,” Messalina murmured.
“I noticed that Freya is still ignoring you,” Lucretia whispered.
“Is she?” Messalina replied with feigned disinterest as they came to the dining room.
They had to part to find their seats before Lucretia could call her out. Naturally they weren’t seated together. Jane Lovejoy had done her best to seat them lady-gentleman-lady, and Messalina found herself between Viscount Stanhope and Mr. Lovejoy. Directly across from her was the earl, flanked on either side by Lucretia and Arabella Holland. And down at the bottom of the table was LadyFreya de Moray.
Messalina dipped her spoon into a lovely eel soup and considered Freya. It was rather ironic, really. As the daughter and sister of dukes she was in actuality the highest-ranking lady at the table.
Something that no one knew besides Messalina, Lucretia, and Freya herself.
And Christopher. Hadhe recognized Freya? Messalina was beginning to wonder. She glanced at him speculatively. Would Freya have told him who she was if he hadn’t recognized her?
Considering how matters stood between Christopher and the de Moray family, Freya might’ve kept her identity to herself.
It was a possibility at least that Christopher didn’t know who Freya was. Freya was no longer the skinny, tangled-haired wild lass of their youth. Now she was sedate, her adult curves confined and stifled by boring brown gowns, her red hair hidden and tamed. No doubt she fooled the vast majority of people she met, mostly by simply being overlooked.
Messalina humphed under her breath.
Freya de Moray had neverbeen sedate in their youth, and she very much doubted the other woman had changed so very much in fifteen years. She didn’t know why Freya was presenting herself as such a staid and boring person, but that was almost certainly notwho Freya truly was.
And she could not ask Freya why she was essentially in disguise because, simply put, they did not speak to each other.
Messalina had first seen Freya in London society four years ago. It had been at an afternoon musicale, a quartet of string instruments or perhaps a harpsichord player, she couldn’t remember now. There had been seating on either side of the entertainment, and only a few minutes in, Messalina had found herself staring across the way into the eyes of Freya de Moray.
Her best friend from childhood.
It had been a strange experience. She’d had no doubt it was Freya, even though they hadn’t seen each other in years. She knew those green eyes, the shape of her chin, and the slight slope of her nose.
Freya had stared back without expression. Without recognition.
As if they’d never hidden from Freya’s governess or begged cakes from Cook or lain together in a dark bed, whispering their deepest secrets to each other.
As if they hadn’t loved each other better than sisters.
She hadn’t been the one to lose an older sister that night. Bright, sparkling Aurelia, dead at only sixteen.
That long-ago night Messalina had woken to her mother weeping, Julian’s silent, white face, Lucretia confused and crying, and Aurelia’s twin, Quintus, vomiting again and again until the whites of his eyes were flooded red with burst blood vessels.
No, Freya hadn’t any cause to snub her. If anyone should be snubbing someone, it was Messalina. It had been Freya’s brother Ran who had murdered Aurelia.
Messalina reached for her wineglass and in doing so caught Lucretia’s eye. Her younger sister raised a pointed eyebrow.
Messalina nodded and inhaled to calm herself. She wasn’t here to brood on Freya, their awful past, and what exactly she was doing working as a companion under an assumed name now. Messalina was here to flirt, laugh, and, most importantly, find out what had happened to a very dear friend.
Lord Randolph had buried poor Eleanor without ceremony or even notice. Messalina hadn’t even found out that Eleanor was dead until weeks afterward. The least she owed her friend was to find out how she had died.
Thus recalled to her mission, Messalina turned to her right and smiled at Viscount Stanhope. “I hope your travels were pleasant?”
The viscount swallowed before speaking in a marked Scottish accent. “I would not say pleasant precisely. The inns I was told to stop at were not at all as was expected. Loud and licentious behavior in the first, and in the second bed linens stinking quite terribly of mildew. I had something to say to both innkeepers, I can assure you.”
“Oh, indeed?” Messalina couldn’t quite keep her lips from twitching. Lord Stanhope sounded as if he spent quite a bit of his time complaining to innkeepers and the like. It was a pity really. He was quite a nice-looking gentleman, with wide beautiful eyes and a Roman profile—if only he didn’t have a moue of distaste on his face.
“I was very happy to arrive, I can tell you that,” the viscount said. “Although I think that Lady Lovejoy needs a firmer hand with her servants. There was duston the picture frame in my room. Do you think I should inform her?”
“Well…” Messalina darted a glance at Jane Lovejoy. Darling Jane had eyes too small for her round face and a nose too big, making her rather plain. That hadn’t stopped her from becoming a popular London hostess. She was known for her salons and balls, quite packed with the cream of society. Though she was nearly two decades older than Messalina, they’d struck up a fast friendship on first meeting. “Perhaps not tonight. Our hostess no doubt has much to do.”
“Hm.” Lord Stanhope’s brows drew together. “I don’t see what. Surely she simply needs to make conversation.”
Messalina kept her smile intact with difficulty. Obviously the viscount had never planned a house party.
Fortunately she was saved from having to reply when Regina Holland said something to the viscount.
Messalina turned toward her other table mate and her eye snagged on Freya. Her former friend was staring rather intensely up the table. Messalina picked up her wineglass and took a sip to cover following Freya’s line of sight. She was watching Christopher.
Freya had had quite a tendre for Christopher fifteen years ago, but back then she’d been in the schoolroom. Surely Freya hadn’t started something with him now?
Messalina felt a strange pang of hurt. How could Freya forgive Christopher—who had been there that night with Julian and Ran—and not Messalina?
They’d only been children.
Back then they’d told each other everything.
Back then they’d been innocents.
Moss grew up the sides and water dripped slowly, but the cave was quite shallow.
“That’s a disappointment,” Rowan said, and the girls returned to the entrance.
Rowan was beside Marigold, and she noticed the strangest thing. Instead of ducking her head shyly as she’d always done, Marigold stared at her boldly and grinned.…
—From The Grey Court Changeling
# # #
At a little past one in the morning, Freya crept from her bedroom into the narrow hallway outside. As a companion, she’d been given a small bedroom at the very end of the hall, apart from the house party guests.
Her single candle cast a wavering light on the pink-painted walls as she briskly walked to the area of the house where the guests’ bedrooms were.
Where the Duke of Harlowe was.
The rest of the house party was abed early, having spent but a short time in the sitting room after dinner. Freya had watched Messalina all evening in case the other woman should suddenly reveal Freya’s identity. They’d never discussed the matter—never, in fact, talked at all, even on that afternoon when they’d first seen each other in London at a musicale—but for whatever reason, Messalina had always kept Freya’s secret. Sometimes late at night or when she was very tired Freya wondered if Messalina kept her secret out of love for her.
But in the cold light of day Freya knew that couldn’t be the case. How could Messalina still love her when all the world thought Ran had killed Aurelia?
She sighed. This was an old sorrow—one she couldn’t let distract her.
Tonight all her thoughts should be on revenge.
The corridor met another hall and Freya turned. She’d paid a maid earlier in the evening to tell her which room the duke was sleeping in. The maid had been surprisingly forthcoming without undue curiosity about whyFreya needed the information. The maid also hadn’t asked questions when Freya had given her a small satchel of powder to stir into the brandy decanter in Harlowe’s room.
Uncurious servants in need of ready cash were rather a boon in her line of work.
On her right was a painting of dead birds on a table—not very well done—and after that was a portrait of a piebald horse with its groom. Freya nodded in satisfaction. Her informant had said the duke’s room was the one next to the piebald horse.
Freya laid her hand on the doorknob and carefully turned it without making a sound.
Well. A sound a human could hear.
It wasn’t until she saw the eyes at hip height reflecting back her candlelight that she remembered Tess.
Freya froze…or she started to in any case. A large, masculine hand seized her arm and dragged her into the bedroom.
She gasped as the door was closed behind her and she was shoved up against it.
Her candle was plucked from her hand.
Harlowe set the candle on a table by the door. He propped his hand on the wall and leaned over her, smiling a very untrustworthy smile. “Had I known you were coming to visit me tonight, Miss Stewart, I would’ve called for a tray of bonbons.”
Freya glanced at the decanter of brandy, sitting on a table next to his bed.
It was full.
Blast.Why hadn’t he drunk a glass before bed like every other gentleman she knew? For that matter, why ask for a brandy decanter in the room at all if one wasn’t going todrink the brandyin it?
What a maddeningly capricious creature he was.
And that was not excitement rising in her breast at the realization that he was awake and ready to spar.
She put both hands on his chest and pushed.
“Let me go,” she snarled at him.
“Oh dear, I amsorry,” he said with patently false concern. “You must’ve mistaken the room. Were you looking for Lord Rookewoode? Or was it Lord Stanhope?”
Her nostrils flared with rage. “I—”
“No.” His smile disappeared and what remained on his face was an expression that made her shiver involuntarily. “Whatever lie you were about to tell me, darling, don’t.”
For a moment he simply stared at her and she stared back, her breaths coming faster and faster.
Tess sat down and whined under her breath.
“Now,” the Duke of Harlowe said, “why are you in my rooms?”
She raised her eyebrows and said in a voice made steady only through great will, “You’ve already guessed, Your Grace. I find I’m overcome by a sudden tendre for you.”
His mouth twisted into something ugly and for a second—just a hairof a second—she thought he might strike her.
Then he straightened. “Tell me, Miss Stewart, do you loathe all men or am I special?”
“Oh,” she whispered, and this time she couldn’t still the waver of pure hatred in her voice, “you’re very special.”
His brows drew together. They stood only inches apart. Every time he inhaled, his chest nearly touched her unbound breasts beneath her chemise and wrap. They were so close, she could almost hear his heartbeat.
They might’ve been lovers.
Or enemies about to kill each other.
“Do I know you?” he murmured. “Have I caused you harm in some way?”
She couldn’t afford to have him recognize her.
She should apologize. Let him believe whatever he wished so long as he let her go and she left.
That was the smart thing to do.
The responsible thing.
Rings, memories, and revenge shouldn’t matter at all.
She reached up and placed her palm gently—so gently!—against his hard cheek, feeling his bristles, and widened her eyes. “If you can’t remember, I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.”
His eyes began to narrow, but she rose on tiptoe, wrapped her hand around his fingers, and jerked him toward her in a single movement.
She ground her mouth against his.
His lips tasted of betrayal and wine. Night and childhood memory.
Love and loss.
The emotion he aroused in her was so profound she almostlost herself in the embrace.
She opened her mouth, licking across his bottom lip until his own tongue came out to tangle with hers.
Then she bit him.
“Fuck!” He stepped back, blood beading on his mouth, his face twisted in confusion and outrage. “You’re insane.”
The dog was on her feet, whining in distress.
“No. I’m not.” Freya opened the door. She glanced over her shoulder at him. “Oh, and you might want to avoid the brandy.”
Freya closed the door and all but ran down the corridor, her breath coming in shaky gasps. When she reached her own room she shut the door behind her and pushed a chair under the doorknob.
She sat on the side of her bed, trying to calm her heart.
Perhaps she was insane.
For five years she’d been nothing but dull and circumspect, polite and utterly forgettable. She’d served the Wise Women well as the Macha. Every step she took, every word she spoke, was considered carefully so she would not be revealed. She had a mission that was vitallyimportant to the continued existence of the Wise Women.
And yet in less than twelve hours she’d thrown all that away.
Freya opened her hand. Nestled in her palm was Ran’s ring. She’d wrested it from Harlowe’s finger when she’d bitten him.
She held it up, studying the worn gold of the band. It was a signet ring with a carved onyx meant to be used to seal wax. The intaglio was of a bird of prey. The bird, worn about the edges, might’ve been a falcon or even a hawk, but Freya knew that it was a merlin.
The de Moray family symbol.
Merlins were the smallest of the falcons. Swift and ruthless, merlins caught other, smaller birds on the wing before landing and devouring their prey.
This ring had been worn by generations of de Moray men, including her own papa before he’d given it to Ranulf on his eighteenth birthday.
Freya closed the ring in her fist again. No doubt Harlowe would soon realize his ring was gone.
He might be a duke now, but she was a de Moray woman, small, swift, and above all ruthless.
# # #
It was barely light the next morning when Freya slipped out the back door of Lovejoy House. A misty fog lingered just above the wet grass, swirling around her skirts as she walked across the lawn. Last night she’d let herself be distracted by rage and revenge and that damnable kiss.
She touched Ran’s ring, strung on an old silver chain about her neck, then tucked it under her fichu. Memories and regret and whatever that feelingwas that Harlowe provoked in her. Today she had to put aside all of that. She was a Wise Woman, and she had a mission to complete.
To that end she was headed to Randolph lands. Lady Randolph had been buried on unconsecrated ground within the estate—an odd choice—and Freya wanted to see the grave.
The lawn ended abruptly at the edge of an overgrown wood. Freya paused, eyeing the trail that led into the dim interior. It reminded her a bit of the sorts of woods that had featured prominently in her nursemaid’s fairy tales: dark, forbidding, and wild. Nothing good had ever happened in those fairy-tale woods.
She glanced behind her.
The sun had fully risen, shining brightly on the dewed lawn and a formal garden surrounded by a tall hedge. It seemed a bit odd that the woods so close to the house should be untended.
Still. She had only a few hours before the rest of the party rose.
She stepped into the woods.
There was a trail, thank goodness, though it looked little used. Around her the wood was oddly quiet for daybreak. Where were the singing birds? She hastened her step—and not entirely because she was worried about the time.
Five minutes later she saw sunlight and stepped into a clearing. To one side was a small stone structure, and for a moment her hopes rose, though she couldn’t have crossed into Randolph land yet. Then she saw that the building wasn’t a mausoleum. She hesitated, staring at it, but she would run out of time if she didn’t keep going, so she crossed the clearing and continued through the woods.
It was another fifteen minutes before the woods began to thin. Freya emerged onto a small hill overlooking what must be the Randolph estate. She could see a manor, probably half the size of Lovejoy House, but still grand. There were stables behind the house and a garden that looked in need of tending.
She followed the path toward the manor, wondering where Lady Randolph might be buried. Perhaps on the other side of the house? She could see a drive disappearing into trees. It must lead to the same road that passed by Lovejoy House.
A thorn pricked at her calf and she bent to pull it from her skirts.
Someone cleared their throat.
Freya straightened to see a man walking toward her with a musket over his shoulder.
She might’ve been afraid had he not been positively ancient.
“You there,” the man wheezed as he came closer, “what’re ye doin’ on Randolph land?”
“I beg your pardon,” she replied with her most disarming smile. “I had no idea I was trespassing.” Freya gestured to the wood behind her. “I’m a guest at Lovejoy House.”
“Are ye, then?” The old man paused, hawked quite disgustingly, and spit to the side of the path. “Beggin’ yer pardon then, miss. Have to be vigilant-like, as it’s my job as gamekeeper. Right early for a stroll, though, isn’t it?”
“Oh, it is,” Freya assured him earnestly. “But I do so like to take a brisk walk at sunrise. I believe it’s good for the constitution.”
“Argh,” the man replied, rather enigmatically.
“I understand that Lord Elliot Randolph lives here,” Freya said.
“Aye, so he does, though m’lord’s not here now.”
“Really? I’m afraid I’ve not had the honor of an introduction to Lord Randolph, but I didconverse with his wife once or twice,” Freya lied outrageously. She’d seen Lady Randolph at a few social events, but she’d never spoken to her. “I thought it such a pity…” She paused delicately.
The old man snapped up the bait. “Oh aye, ’tis a tragedy one so pretty should die young.” He shifted, placing the butt of his musket on the ground and leaning on it. “Course she weren’t quite right at the end.” He eyed her expectantly.
Freya hastened to prompt him. “Oh?”
“Aye,” he replied with the relish of a good gossip. “Shoutin’ and carrying on and the like as if she were bedeviled. Heard it from the head footman himself. And His Lordship not one to like a fuss. Why ’tis said she was quite mad, the poor lassie. Went running through the stable yard near naked. Wearing just her shift she were, her hair all about her shoulders. They say up there”—he tilted his head to the manor—“that she caught an ague after that. Died the next night, she did.”
“My goodness,” Freya murmured, placing her hand to her chest and hoping she wasn’t overacting. “How shocking! I suppose Lord Randolph must’ve consulted with all the best doctors about his ill wife?”
“Nay.” The gamekeeper shook his head. “Wasn’t time, was there? Caught ague, was abed with fever, and dead the next day.”
“What a tragedy for Lord Randolph. He must be devastated.”
“Well, aye,” the man said, but he sounded doubtful. “The rich do things different, I understand. He left directly after she were buried.” He nodded in the general direction of the house. “She’s right there, across the garden.”
Freya feigned surprise. “Lady Randolph was buried here?”
“She were,” the old man leaned closer. “Afore sundown on the same day she died. They say her body were putrid. Rotted as if it were weeks old rather than a day.” He nodded and straightened. “Most like because of her brain sickness.”
Freya wasn’t sure how madness would make a corpse decay faster, but she wasn’t about to argue. “My!”
“Would you like to see?” The groundskeeper beamed, and at first Freya had the horrible thought that he was talking about Lady Randolph’s remains.
Then her common sense reasserted itself. “Oh yes, I’d like to visit her grave and pay my respects.”
The old man turned without further ado and led her down the shallow slope and to the house.
Randolph House might not be as large as Lovejoy House, but there was something forbidding about it nonetheless. Perhaps it was the dark reddish brown of the stones used to build it, the color of dried blood. Or maybe it was the small, narrow windows. There could be little light let inside the house, Freya thought. It would be a dark, gloomy place.
They rounded the corner of the building, stepping through a sadly overgrown cobblestoned yard. No one stirred. The house in fact seemed empty.
“Are there any staff at the house now?” she called softly to the gamekeeper.
He shrugged but didn’t turn. “The housekeeper, Mrs. Sprattle, the butler—what is her father, old man Deacon—and a maid or two.”
Behind his back Freya raised her eyebrows. Most manors had dozen of servants working, even when the master wasn’t in residence. Lord Randolph must be a parsimonious sort of man.
In the back of the manor was what had once been a formal garden but was now rather sad and messy. To the side was a small stone. Had Freya not been expecting the grave she would’ve entirely overlooked it.
They walked to it and paused, silently regarding the simple gravestone. Under a crude bas-relief of a skull were the words:
Here Lieth the Body of
Who left this World April 2, 1759
May God Grant her Forgiveness
“Forgiveness for what?” Freya whispered.
“Her earthly sins?” The gamekeeper shook his head and spit—fortunately not on the grave. “Mayhap she did something in her madness that needs forgiving.”
“Don’t know,” the man said, suddenly looking cagey. “But she’s a restless spirit, she is. Sometimes at dusk, just when the nightjars come out, I’ve heard a wailing.”
He made a gesture against his side and Freya glanced down.
His fingers were crossed—an ancient sign in this part of the world. To ward off evil and the devil.
# # #
The room was black and he could feel the press of hot, sweating bodies. The stink of urine and wet earth. The sound of panting and moans.
Then Tess stuck her cold nose in his ear and reality came rushing back.
Christopher sagged back against the damp sheets, feeling the sweat chilling on his arms and neck. He reached up and stroked Tess’s warm head.
He ought to order her off the bed, but he hadn’t the heart. She must’ve known he was having another nightmare and crawled up beside him to show her concern.
She whined as if to agree.
“It’s all right,” he said to her, his voice cracking. He cleared his throat. “I’m all right.”
Tess huffed and nosed his cheek.
Obviously he hadn’t convinced her. Perhaps because his fingers weretrembling.
God.This was unacceptable. It’d been four years now. He’d returned to England, he’d become a duke, he held power and wealth in the palm of his hand.
And at night he shook.
He grimaced and looked at the window. There was a sliver of light peeking from behind the drawn curtains, so it must be morning. Early yet, but he wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep again.
He never could.
Christopher sat up and Tess jumped off the bed, making it quake. She stood looking hopefully at him.
“Very well,” he muttered to her, and stood.
She watched him intently as he shaved with cold water and dressed hastily. Gardiner, his valet, would be most disapproving when he found out his master had readied himself on his own.
At the moment Christopher didn’t give a damn. He slapped his thigh and strode out the door, Tess eagerly trotting beside him.
The house was still quiet, except for a few housemaids tiptoeing around with ash buckets. They would be sweeping the grates and lighting fires. A footman showed him the way to a door at the side of the house, and then Tess and he were outside in the brisk morning air.
Lovejoy House was surrounded by carefully tended lawns, but Christopher could see a wood beyond and he started toward it.
As he walked he thought about last night. About Miss Stewart—and that kiss. Her lips had been soft and giving—until she’d bitten his mouth bloody and stolen his ring. How could such a sour woman kiss so sweetly—even when pretending attraction?
He scoffed to himself. He was a fool to be taken in by her for even so much as a minute. She’d made it clear enough that she had no interest in him as a man and in fact loathed him. She’d only been after his ring.
The thought made him melancholy.
Miss Stewart—what was her given name?—had twisted the ring off his finger sometime during their kiss. He’d been so angered by the goddamned bitethat he hadn’t noticed for a crucial few minutes that his ring was gone.
Which had been enough time for her to disappear.
Was she some sort of thief disguised as a companion? Was that why the bullies in Wapping had been chasing her—because she’d stolen something from them? But he discarded the thought as soon as it came. A thief with any intelligence would hide the theft. Miss Stewart had made no attempt to.
It was almost as if she were goading him.
He grimaced as he entered the wood with Tess running ahead.
In his rage he’d nearly chased Miss Stewart down last night.
He inhaled and kicked a rock in the path. Something about her prodded him to the very edge of his control as no one—no woman—had ever done before. Her hostility, the excitement of their clashes, his curiosity about what she was doing, something, made him feel as if he were waking from a long, drugged sleep. Opening his eyes wide to the light of her pure passion.
Thankfully his reason had ruled last night. No point in causing an uproar in the wee hours.
Besides. He didn’t know which room was hers.
He snorted now at his own stupidity. That ring—Ran’s ring—was important.
Tess came running up, her tongue hanging half out of her jaws, panting happily. He absently fondled her ears and she went racing off again.
Julian had given him the ring on that night at Greycourt. It must’ve fallen off Ran’s hand as he was beaten. Julian had bent down and picked up the ring after the Duke of Windemere’s toughs had dragged Ran away, after the duke had sauntered off, and after Christopher had realized—far too late—what a terrible mistake he’d made. Ran could never have killed Aurelia. Christopher had known that then as he knew it now, but he’d been paralyzed by the sudden violence and the urgent way that Julian had told him not to interfere.
There had been fear in Julian’s eyes that night.
No, someone else must have murdered poor Aurelia—perhaps a stranger or a servant. That was the best conclusion, for if it hadn’t been a stranger or servant that terrible night, then a person far closer to Aurelia had snatched away her life. Perhaps Julian.
Perhaps the Duke of Windemere himself.
Christopher shook his head and remembered the way Julian had looked at Ran’s ring that night. His face had been both sad and determined. Then he’d drawn back his arm as if to throw the ring. Christopher had caught his hand and Julian had looked at him and then given him the ring.
Christopher had meant to give it back to Ran. But he’d been immediately caught up in his arranged marriage and shipped off to India still bewildered, and by then he’d grown used to the ring on his finger.
Like a criminal’s brand.
The beating was so long ago now, but at the same time it was forever near. That night—that damnable night—had changed him forever.
Had changed them all.
The ring was a reminder of that. Of how utterly he’d once failed as a friend and a gentleman, and how he had to spend the rest of his life making sure he never did so again.
He had to get his ring back from the harpy. He could simply inform Miss Stewart’s employer of her theft. Her rooms would be searched and the ring found, and no doubt she’d be let go without reference.
Somehow that method seemed unsporting. Miss Stewart was brave, if nothing else. Quite possibly mad, but brave.
No, the matter was a personal one between the two of them, and he’d handle it the same way: personally.
Tess barked and continued barking in that joyful way dogs had to signal they’d found something important. She was out of sight beyond a turn in the path, and Christopher quickened his step. Just in case she’d done something silly such as cornered a badger.
He rounded the bend and saw that what Tess had found was a bit bigger than a badger. She was circling an ancient building, like a stone house for Lilliputians, squat and immovable. Strange. It was standing here all alone in a clearing.
But as he approached, Christopher discovered stones half-hidden in the leaves under his feet. He scuffed aside the leaves and could see that the buried stones were the remains of walls. Something had once stood beside the little structure—a house, perhaps? He reached Tess and followed her around the building. There were no windows, and the doorway was only to his shoulder. Christopher peered at the padlocked door and saw that over it was a crude carving of a waterspout.
Of course. This must be a well house, built over a well both for safety’s sake and to keep the water untainted.
He glanced at the ruined walls he’d uncovered. The little building appeared to have survived the house it had belonged to.
Christopher shook his head and whistled for Tess. She raised her head from where she was sniffing the foundation, but she wasn’t looking his way. She was focused on something farther in the woods.
Suddenly Tess was off, dashing ahead on the trail.
Christopher swore under his breath. If she was on the scent of a rabbit he might lose her in the trees.
“Tess!” He loped after her. “Tess!”
A single bark came from ahead of him, and then he rounded a bend in the trail and saw the dog’s quarry.
His idiot dog was standing by Miss Stewart’s side, tongue lolling happily, as the woman ruffled Tess’s ears.
Miss Stewart glanced up and saw him. “Good morning, Your Grace.”
She seemed perfectly composed, as if the events of last night had never happened.
As if he hadn’t tasted her mouth. As if she hadn’t taken his lip between her teeth.
As if she hadn’t stolen his ring.
“Miss Stewart.” He wondered if her heart beat as savagely as his beneath the layers of wool and linen. “I believe you have something of mine.”
“Do I?” she answered carelessly, and he wanted to either laugh or strangle her.
“You know you do,” he said, advancing on her. “I don’t want to bring your unconventional activities to the attention of your employer, but don’t think I won’t.”
That got her attention. Her head went back and she stared at him with loathing and defiance in her eyes, which, oddly, made his cock twitch.
Before she could reply, though, Tess barked once, staring behind him.
Christopher turned, hiding his irritation at the interruption.
Messalina Greycourt was approaching along the path. “Christopher! I had no idea anyone else was about this morning.”
Her gaze went beyond him, and a strange expression crossed her face.
He glanced at Miss Stewart, but she was merely standing there, her hand on Tess’s head and her face blank.
When he looked back at Messalina, her expression was calm.
Did she think he was having an assignation with Miss Stewart? Surely not. They weren’t even standing near each other.
“And…Miss Stewart, is it not?” Messalina asked.
“It is,” the chaperone replied, almost with significance.
What the hell?He whistled to Tess and both ladies jumped.
Tess trotted over.
He fondled her ears before saying to Messalina, “I’m thinking Tess will be wanting her breakfast. Will you walk back with us?”
“Yes,” Messalina said, a smile suddenly lighting her face. “I will.”
They tramped back side by side with Tess running ahead, but Christopher was aware at every moment of Miss Stewart, trailing behind like a malevolent cloud. It was strange. Messalina had grown into one of the loveliest ladies that Christopher had ever met. Her conversation was amusing and he knew her to be intelligent. She was, in fact, a beguiling lady.
But it was the silent termagant behind him who made him want to shove her up against a tree and taste her mouth.
It made no sense, and he found his mood turning black. Why should he be so viscerally attracted to a woman who couldn’t stand him?
And why did she refuse to soften to him?
By the time they made it back to Lovejoy House the sun was well into the sky and Christopher was using all his determination not to turn and confront Miss Stewart again—even with Messalina as witness. He glanced up as they turned the corner of the house and saw a rather old-fashioned carriage enter the drive in front.
“Oh, who do you suppose that is?” Messalina asked. “It seems a strange time to arrive to a house party, doesn’t it?”
A man in a rumpled bottle-green suit descended. He turned, and Christopher couldn’t stop his upper lip from curling. For a moment all thought of Miss Stewart fled his mind.
Thomas Plimpton had finally arrived.
Rowan began to think that Marigold was no longer the same girl.
That she wasn’t Marigold at all.
But the strangest thing of all was that no one else seemed to notice.…
—From The Grey Court Changeling
# # #
“I do hope you all won’t consider it too rustical, but I thought we’d take a stroll into Newbridge today,” Lady Lovejoy announced at breakfast an hour later. “There’s a rather lovely Norman church and today is market day. Nothing like London, of course, but quite quaint.”
Freya spread a slice of bread with fresh butter—sweet and lovely—and wondered if she might gather more rumors about Lady Randolph in Newbridge.
“Oh, let’s!” Regina exclaimed, leaning forward eagerly and imperiling her teacup.
“A country market can be so interesting sometimes,” Lucretia Greycourt observed. “I once was offered what I was assured was a potion to arouse lust in gentlemen by a wrinkled old woman with quite a staggering amount of moles on her chin. The kind that sprout hairs. I do believe she thought herself a witch.”
Lord Lovejoy cleared his throat portentously. “One oughtn’t discount the evil of witches in this part of England.”
Freya found herself glancing at Harlowe and caught him staring back, a smoldering intensity in his eyes.
She swiftly averted her gaze, realizing as she did so that she was holding her breath. He’d threatened to expose her. At the time she’d felt only rage, but now cold fear made her back prickle. She hadn’t completed her mission.
She needed more time.
“Real witches?” Messalina asked with polite skepticism. “The sort who dance about fires naked at midnight?”
Young Mr. Lovejoy chuckled, but he sounded a tad nervous.
Lady Holland frowned—probably at the mention of nude cavorting.
But Lord Lovejoy was quite grave. “Nearly every year a woman is brought before me as the local magistrate and charged with witchcraft.”
The Earl of Rookewoode arched a black eyebrow. It made a stark contrast to his snowy wig. He wore an elegantly cut dark-blue suit today and looked exceedingly handsome and urbane. “But Parliament has made witch-hunting no longer legal.”
“Oh, indeed, my lord,” Lord Lovejoy replied. “But these are provincial people who adhere to the old ways. They care not for London’s laws.”
“London’s laws will soon change,” Lord Stanhope said importantly. “A new Witch Act is to be put before Parliament in the autumn, making witch-hunting once again both legal and encouraged.”
There was a short silence as everyone at the table digested that.
Freya’s hands were clenched in her lap, where no one could see them. She only hoped her expression didn’t give away her unease at this discussion.
“And thus we descend back into the superstitious Dark Ages,” Rookewoode drawled.
The viscount pursed his lips together as if cutting off a nasty reply.
Lord Lovejoy looked troubled. “Hunting witches is no step back in these parts. Not when nearly everyone believes in them.”
The earl’s lips twitched as if he were amused by the discussion, but he asked gravely, “What do you do when you’re presented with such a supposed witch, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Naturally I have to dismiss the cases, but that doesn’t keep the people from believing most sincerely in witchcraft,” Lord Lovejoy replied. “You have to understand that these people blame witches for sickened sheep, blighted crops, and miscarriages. Even if I can’t convict them, often the accused witch’s house is burned or they meet with some other misadventure.” He shrugged. “It’s a sort of rough justice, I suppose.”
“But surely these women are innocent, my lord?” Messalina objected, looking quite appalled.
“One shouldn’t discount the strength of the devil or his subjects,” Lord Stanhope muttered. “No doubt these people have reasons for chasing away these ungodly women.”
Freya glared at him from under her eyelashes. What a horrible man. She’d met his sort before, and though she should be wary of him, what she truly felt was indignant anger.
The door opened and a pleasant-faced gentleman entered.
“Ah,” Lord Lovejoy exclaimed. “Our newest guest. May I present Mr. Thomas Plimpton?”
Mr. Plimpton smiled and bowed and then took a seat next to Arabella, saying something to her as he sat that made her blush.
Once again Freya glanced at Harlowe without conscious thought. This time, though, she was not the center of his attention. Now he was staring malevolently at Mr. Plimpton.
Freya took a sip of tea. Whatever had the rather nondescript Mr. Plimpton done to offend the duke? She was almost piqued that his attention was divided.
“We had just made plans to visit Newbridge today,” Lady Lovejoy said after an awkward pause. “Would you care to join us, Mr. Plimpton? We have a lovely Norman church and other country sights.”
“Of course,” that gentleman replied.
Which was how, half an hour later, they all set off to the little town nearby.
Freya walked behind Arabella and Lucretia Greycourt. The two girls hadn’t met until the day before, but had somehow already found a close bond.
She was aware of Messalina in quiet conversation with Lady Lovejoy, slightly ahead and to the side. Messalina wore an elegant walking dress, the rose-pink overskirts pulled back and bunched in deceptively casual disarray in the back. Her yellow underskirt was revealed, scattered with tiny knots of embroidered roses.
It was a beautiful dress, although with her olive complexion and black hair Freya privately thought Messalina would do better in richer colors. But yes, she was beautiful.
She could admit that.
Her childhood friend had grown into a strikingly handsome lady only a little taller than Freya.
In another life they might be walking arm in arm down this country road.
“I hadn’t taken you for a thief,” Harlowe growled in her ear, and Freya was hard-pressed not to jump.
She took a deep breath, trying to slow the wild beat of her heart. Stupid to have lost track of where he was in their little party. “I’m not a thief.”
He waved his hand in front of her nose, and it took her a moment to realize it was the hand he’d worn Ran’s ring on.
She could feel heat enter her cheeks, which only made her defensive. There was no reason for her to feel guilty. “I’m not.”
“Then you won’t mind returning to me myring.” He faced forward, his aristocratic profile cold and heartless.
“It’s not yourring,” she replied, her voice calm. They trailed the rest of the house party, but she didn’t want to draw anyone’s attention.
Harlowe stalked along beside her, a dark cloud on an otherwise beautiful day. The sun was out, not too hot, not too cold, and with a gentle breeze. The hedges along the road were full of wild roses, exuberantly in bloom, and the sky was blue and wide.
She’d grown up in the country. In the Scottish Lowlands just across the border. She and Messalina had loved to walk or ride through the Scottish hills, and for a moment longing filled her breast—whether for Scotland or the innocent days of her childhood she wasn’t entirely certain.
Beside her, Harlowe cleared his throat. “I can lend you money if you’re in need of it.”
Her brows rose. “I don’t need your money.”
“Don’t you?” He glanced at her quickly. “Then why steal my ring?”
“I don’t intend to sellit,” she snapped.
“You are the most irritating woman,” he said softly, his expression not changing at all. “Admit you need my help and I’ll give it to you.”
“Even if I didneed your help,” she replied through gritted teeth, “I would never ask you for it.”
“Darling,” he rumbled, his deep purr raising the hairs on the back of her neck. “Don’t press—”
He was interrupted by his dog bursting from beneath a hedge and running straight into his legs.
Freya couldn’t help it; she laughed.
“Get down, Tess,” Harlowe muttered, but his hands were gentle as he scrubbed her ears.
The dog shook herself happily, then shoved her nose into Freya’s skirts.
“Tess,” Harlowe growled.
“She’s all right,” Freya murmured. She might dislike the master, but she had nothing against the dog.
She scratched Tess beneath the chin.
Tess wagged her tail.
“She’s dirty,” Harlowe said gruffly.
“Dogs like being dirty,” Freya replied, scratching Tess’s ears now.
Harlowe looked at her oddly.
Tess’s ears perked, and then she wheeled and went running off into the shrubbery again.
“What sort of dog is she?” Freya asked impulsively, wiping her hands on a handkerchief. The dog had been rather muddy.
Freya’s brows rose. “You brought her all the way back from India?”
He shrugged. “She’s my dog. I couldn’t leave her there.”
She stared at him. Of coursehe could’ve left Tess across the sea when he’d returned home to England. Gentlemen did it all the time. “Is she a special sort of dog? An Indian dog of aristocratic breed?”
He turned his head and grinned at her, two dimples incised into his cheeks.
Freya blinked, feeling as if she’d been hit in the chest. Harlowe was absolutely devastating when he smiled.
But he didn’t seem to notice her reaction. “She’s a street dog, quite common in India. Her dam whelped in the fort three years ago. Tess was the sole survivor of the puppies. She was only two months old when her mother disappeared—too young to survive on her own—so I brought her into the house and a year later to England.”
She stared at him. “Didn’t your wife object? Many ladies prefer small lapdogs to larger animals, let alone a stray dog.”
A muscle in his jaw flexed. “Sophy died a year before Tess was born.”
“Oh.” It was obviously a topic he didn’t want to talk about. His voice held sadness when he said his wife’s name.
Which shouldn’t bother her at all.
Up ahead someone laughed loudly. Mr. Plimpton had angled himself between Arabella and Lucretia.
Harlowe cursed beneath his breath.
Freya threw him a startled glance. “I collect you don’t like Mr. Plimpton.”
“He shouldn’t be allowed near ladies,” the duke replied, not bothering to lower his voice. “You should warn Lady Holland.”
Freya’s brows drew together. Arabella was well dowered and Freya had no doubt that Lucretia, as the niece of a duke, was as well.
In fact both girls were heiresses and thus prime pluckings for a fortune hunter.
“Why do you say that?” Freya asked worriedly. “What do you know of him?”
He shook his head. “He once dallied with the heart of a lady I knew.”
Freya frowned. “I’ve never heard anything against him. Why isn’t this common knowledge if what you say is true?”
“You needn’t take my word for it, madam.” He glanced at her, his eyes no longer friendly. “I’m losing patience. Give me back my ring by midnight tonight or I’ll tell Lady Holland how I first met you.”
And with that he lengthened his stride, drawing ahead of her.
Freya stared after him, angry, frightened, and a bit disappointed that he so obviously didn’t care to walk with her anymore.
The last thing she wanted was to become further involved with His Grace the Duke of Harlowe. He was her enemy. And now she must find a way to put him off without giving him Ran’s ring.
Messalina happened to look over her shoulder at that moment and caught Freya’s eye. She smiled tentatively.
Freya glanced away and felt a shard of pain through her breast.
It was so tiring. So useless and fraught, and it would never end, would it?
What had happened at Greycourt fifteen years ago would reverberate forever in their lives.
The thought was a weight on her shoulders. If only she could put it down. Forget.
But there was no forgetting, was there?
Aurelia was murdered.
And Papa dead from a broken heart.
The world could not go back from that one point in their history.
Freya inhaled and straightened, looking up. Messalina was no longer glancing back, and she saw that they were at the outskirts of the town.
There were wagons on the road, laden with goods to be sold at the market, and a boy driving a half dozen geese in the same direction.
Their little group moved off the road and onto a walking path, and in the shuffle Freya found herself beside Lady Holland.
Freya leaned close. “I’ve heard that Mr. Plimpton is not a suitable gentleman.”
Lady Holland’s dark eyebrows shot up at the news. “Good gracious. I can’t believe Lady Lovejoy would invite the man if she knew of such a thing.”
“Perhaps she doesn’t, my lady.”
Lady Holland frowned at Mr. Plimpton’s back. He was whispering something to Lucretia now. “She dashed well should. Drat. That reduces the eligible gentlemen to only four.”
Freya murmured, “I’m not sure Lord Stanhope is…”
Lady Holland waved a hand. “I know. I know. The man’s a toad. I shouldn’t count him and that makes only threenow and with the Misses Greycourt in attendance hardly a level playing field for my Arabella.”
“Arabella has much to recommend her,” Freya said.
“Not least her dowry,” the older woman murmured. “Oh, don’t look at me like that, Miss Stewart. I love my daughter, but I’m also a practical mother. Arabella doesn’t shine in company—particularly vivacious company.” She shot another look at the trio ahead of them. Mr. Plimpton was laughing at something Lucretia had said while Arabella looked on with a faint smile. “I want her happyand with a gentleman who will care for her.”
Freya cleared her throat delicately. “Have you thought what you will do if we cannot find a gentleman good enough for her?”
“I can’t let myself do that, Miss Stewart.” Lady Holland said. “A lady of Arabella’s rank without a husband lives but a half life—at least I’m sure that’s what Lord Holland would say.”
“She’d have to live with Regina eventually, wouldn’t she?”
“Quite. And that, I’m afraid, is a recipe for discord.”
Freya frowned. There was another option for Arabella, of course. Freya could offer her sanctuary with the Wise Women in Dornoch. Arabella could learn their ways, perhaps find a calling in silversmithing, weaving, beekeeping, or any of the many other traditional Wise Women occupations. She could even find something entirely unique to do—all were welcome as long as they contributed to the community. But in exchange Arabella would have to give up her present life. Live in faraway Scotland and never, ever tell her family or friends about the Wise Women.
Lady Holland looked up as they entered the crowded town square. “Oh, here we are at last.”
Ahead of them, Arabella and Lucretia had stopped by a woman selling hot buns while Mr. Plimpton had moved on to charming Messalina and Lady Lovejoy. The man was a menace, and Freya felt grudgingly thankful to Harlowe for warning her. She knew that Lady Holland would have a quiet word not only with her own daughters, but also with Messalina and Lucretia tonight.
“Would you like one?” Arabella smiled, indicating the currant buns, as Freya came abreast of them.
“Thank you,” Freya replied. She met Lucretia’s curious gaze and looked away. Lucretia had been only eight when the Greycourt tragedy happened—a mischievous girl who had often tagged along with Freya and Messalina, determined not to miss any excitement. They’d sometimes hid from little Lucretia in that cruel way older children had, but there had been other days when Freya had spent whole afternoons teaching Lucretia to look for bird’s nests in the heather.
The stab of melancholy? longing? regret? was sudden and overwhelming.
Freya turned to survey the market.
On one side of the square was an inn with a painted sign proclaiming it the Swan. In the center of the square was an ancient fountain. And on the other side was the Norman church. Stalls and carts were crowded all the way around the fountain, the owners bawling their wares. Here was a woman selling onions and leeks, there a man with a string of fresh sausages, and farther on a man sharpening knives, his foot furiously working his grindstone. People crowded the little town square, no doubt come from several miles around.
Someonemust have information about Lady Randolph here.
Freya trailed behind Arabella and Lucretia, eyeing the various stalls. She decided on an elderly woman hawking vegetables, berries, and small bunches of flowers.
“Fine strawberries I have,” the woman cried as Freya stopped before her.
Freya smiled as she looked at the berries, temptingly displayed. “You must be the strawberry woman my friend Lady Randolph told me about. She spoke highly of you.”
The old woman’s toothless smile faltered before she rallied. “Aye, I have the sweetest strawberries of any in a day’s ride.”
Freya glanced up, meeting her eyes. “That’s exactly what Lady Randolph said. But I’m thinking of buying one of your posies today.”
The woman had been eyeing her nervously but perked up at the prospect of a sale. “Pick the one you like, mistress, only a halfpenny a bunch.”
“Well, then I’ll have three,” Freya replied, opening her purse. She held out a shilling. “Someone told me that my friend died of a strange disease. Do you know aught of it, mother?”
The old woman eyed her hand for a second. Then with a quick look right and left she snatched the shilling. “Weren’t disease what killed her, my lady.”
“Witchcraft, then?” Freya murmured to test her.
The old woman surprised her with a derisive snort. “No, nor witchcraft, either. ’Twas the sins of a man that laid her low. And now you must move away, mistress.” She tilted her head in the direction of the stall next to hers. A young man was openly staring at them. “This talk is dangerous.”
Freya nodded and took her posies, sticking one in the top of her fichu where the ends crossed over her chest. Then she wandered away from the old woman’s stall, handing the other two posies to a couple of small girls who giggled at the gift.
Sins of a man. Had Lady Randolph taken a lover before she died? If so, it would give Lord Randolph one of the oldest reasons for murder.
She glanced at the crowd, looking for the best person to approach next, and glimpsed Arabella’s bright gold hair. She was standing next to Lord Rookewoode, her face tilted up, her expression painfully open. The earl was handing her some sort of pastry from the stall in front of them, his smile framed by devilish dimples.
The man was dangerous.
Freya bit her lip. No doubt Lady Holland would be pleased if that resulted in a match.
Freya was less certain.
She turned away and saw Harlowe, standing at the edge of the market crowd, his hand on Tess’s head. He was looking around the marketplace as well, and even from across the square Freya thought he looked tense.
She started in his direction and then heard a particular cry.
“Ribbons and trim! Pretty ribbons and trim I have!”
She glanced at the crier.
It was a woman dressed in a ragged black cloak with a gray hood. She stood beside a cart drawn by an enormous dog, a shaggy gray-and-white lurcher. The cart was filled with her wares. The woman looked up, and Freya recognized the Crow.
What was she doing here? Freya had had no notice of a meeting.
She strolled over.
“Will ye have a pretty blue ribbon, mistress?” the Crow called loudly, her black eyes glinting. “I have sky blue and sea blue and robin’s-egg blue.”
Freya peered in the cart. She fingered one of the ribbons tied loosely to a pole. “Have you green? A nice grass green?”
The woman met Freya’s eyes. “O’ course.”
She bent over her cart to rummage in a box and Freya leaned closer, taking care that her expression remain the same when the Crow whispered, “I’ve news that someone at the house party is a Dunkelder.”
“Who?” Freya murmured as she held up a ribbon, squinting at it.
“I don’t know,” the Crow said, and then louder, “Only two a penny, mistress. An’ if you buy four I’ll give you the fifth free.”
“Does the Dunkelder know who I am?” Freya asked, ducking her head as her breath came faster.
The Crow murmured, “I don’t think so. But should he find that you’re a de Moray he’ll know all.” Her black eyes flicked up. “And this is Dunkelder territory. There’ll be others. Walk softly.”
Freya stared blindly at the colorful ribbons in her hand.
“Lady Macha,” the Crow whispered. “I cannot stay here. I’ve other business to see to. You’re on your own.”
Freya met the other woman’s worried gaze. “I’ll be fine.”
She fumbled for a coin from her purse and took the ribbons.
“Be careful,” the other woman warned as Freya turned to go. “If the Dunkelder finds out who you are, he’ll kill you.”
# # #
Christopher watched as the members of the house party scattered about the town market. He followed, winding through the crowd, keeping an eye on Plimpton and trying to ignore the press of all the bodies around him. Plimpton was ushering Lady Lovejoy about as if he had not a care in the world, damn him.
Someone jostled his elbow.
Christopher turned, his upper lip pulled back in a snarl, and the youth who had run into him stepped back. “Beg your pardon, m’lord.”
The boy hurried off.
Christopher closed his eyes and took a deep breath, smelling the stink of too many bodies, feeling the pounding of a headache start.
When he opened them again, he saw Miss Stewart across the square staring at him. Damn her.
He turned away, shame making his neck hot. Why must it be she to see his weakness?
Tess whimpered and pressed against his leg.
He dropped his hand to her head, letting her soft fur calm him. This was England. The crowd wasn’t pressed together here. There was no danger of suffocation. And he shouldn’t care one whit what the bloody little thief thought of him.
Still. Coming along on this outing hadn’t been a good plan.
He blew out his breath and searched for Plimpton. Lady Lovejoy was walking ahead, arm in arm with Messalina now, while Plimpton had fallen behind as he peered at a stall selling penknives.
Christopher pushed his way through the crowd to get to Plimpton.
“Do you have them?” he asked when he reached the other man’s side.
Plimpton started as if a gun had gone off beside him.
He turned, wincing delicately as if Christopher had made a particularly egregious faux pas. “I think we need privacy for this discussion, don’t you, Your Grace?”
“I think I want this done with as soon as possible,” Christopher retorted. “When we return to the house, for example.”
He saw Plimpton swallow. Evidently the man hadn’t expected Christopher to demand the letters immediately.
“Erm…b-but that won’t do.”
“Why not? Do you have the letters or don’t you?” Christopher’s upper lip curled.
Plimpton’s gaze slid away. “A-as a matter of fact, I shan’t have them until another few days, when the post delivers them to me.”
“What game are you playing?” Christopher snarled quietly.
“No game!” Plimpton licked his lips nervously. “Truly! I thought it safest to travel separately from the letters, that’s all. I’ll have them very soon and then I’ll send you a note to meet.”
It sounded like a load of balderdash, but then Plimpton had never struck Christopher as very bright. Perhaps he hadchosen such a convoluted way to bring the letters to Lovejoy House.
“Take care you don’t forget,” Christopher said through gritted teeth. “Else I’ll take matters into my own hands.”
“Is that a threat?” Plimpton’s face had gone white. “Are you threatening me?”
He leaned forward and flicked a nonexistent speck off Plimpton’s coat front, murmuring, “If I’ve left you in any doubt, I do apologize.”
Christopher pivoted to make his way through the mass of people and saw, not half a dozen feet away, Miss Stewart hastily turning away.
Had she overheard their conversation?
It was the last straw in a trying morning. He wasn’t about to let Miss Stewart’s curiosity mar Sophy’s name.
He strode to Miss Stewart and pointedly offered his arm. “Will you walk with me?”
She opened her mouth, looking mulish.
He stretched his lips in a parody of a smile, all his teeth bared. “I won’t ask again.”
She snapped her mouth shut and placed her hand on his arm. “How boorish.”
“Am I?” He guided her to the edge of the crowd, Tess close by his side. “Were you spying on me?”
“No!” She looked so indignant he considered believing her. Then her expression turned to one of speculation. “Were you and Mr. Plimpton discussing something you didn’t want heard?”
“That’s my own business.” He felt his temples begin to throb. He needed a reprieve from this crowd. “As it happens I don’t particularly enjoy self-righteous spinsters listening in on my private conversations.”
A quick glance around showed that no one was paying attention to them. He steered her in the direction of the church, away from the marketplace stalls and the gathered people.
Miss Stewart huffed, saying rather breathlessly, “I don’t particularly enjoy being accused of nefarious doings by a man so stupid he’d conduct private business in a crowd.”
“What a little witch you are,” he said absently—and felt her stiffen. He glanced down at her and saw that her green-gold eyes had widened in something that looked almost like fear. “What is it?”
“You threatened poor Mr. Plimpton,” she said.
Christopher snorted and pulled open the door to the Norman church. Tess darted in with them. “He’s only poor in pocket, I assure you.”
Inside, the church was cool and dim, and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust from the bright sunshine outside. It was a pretty little church. The inverted U-shaped arch of the door was repeated in the arch between the nave and chancel, and both were decorated with a chevron pattern.
He glanced down at Miss Stewart and saw that her face was upturned as she studied the windows. Less than an inch of her hairline peeked beneath her cap. Her hair might be dark blond or dusty brown—impossible to tell—and he had the wild urge to rip the cap from her head.
“Do you think they were smashed during the Reformation?” she mused.
The windows were all clear glass. If there had once been stained glass in the church it was all gone. “Probably. Or by Cromwell’s Roundheads.”
“Men do seem to enjoy smashing things—even beautiful things.”
“Not all men, surely.” He watched her with her prim little mouth, her sad eyes, and said gently, “Besides. Women can be just as destructive, I find.”
He felt her stiffen and was glad. Here was a proper opponent to take his ire out on. She might be a virago, but she was also strong and strongly opinionated. He needn’t fear that she would collapse into a weeping heap at the slightest comment.
She made a scoffing sound. “Do you really think so? When the destruction that men wield results in wars? Death and maiming?”
“You don’t count women such as Helen of Troy?” he murmured, watching her. She couldn’t speak this way with every man she met—otherwise she’d be without a job. What made her so confrontational with him?
“Helen of Troy is a myth,” she said with scorn. “Butcher Cumberland isn’t.”
He raised his eyebrows. The Duke of Cumberland had been the English commander at the bloody slaughter of the Scots at Culloden only fourteen years before. “You’re a Jacobite.”
“No, of course not. They were idealistic fools fighting a war they had no hope of winning.” She blew out an impatient breath. “I just don’t approve of wholesale butchery.”
“And you hate men,” he said slowly.
“Don’t be silly.” She walked away from him, up the little nave, her heels echoing on the flagstones. “I don’t hate everyman.”
Him. She hated him.
He intended to find out why. He felt heat rising in his chest as the pain in his head returned full blast. “What have I ever done to you, madam?”
She threw a mocking glance over her shoulder. “You still don’t know?”
Suddenly his patience was at an end.
He took two strides and grasped her arm, halting her. Swinging her around to face him. “No. I can only imagine that your brain is inflamed and you’ve dreamed up some injury. You’ve been waspish to me since the moment I laid eyes on you—despite the fact that I helped you.”
“I didn’t need your help.”
“No? You and the lass and baby would’ve been fine against those bullies had I tossed you from my carriage?”
Her lip curled. “I can’t think how an animal like you is allowed into polite society.”
The heat, the weeping, the stink of sweaty bodies. Did she know somehow? How once he’d been reduced to the nearly subhuman?
He gritted his teeth. “Can’t you?” He bent over her, breathing in the scent of honeysuckle, of home, enraged beyond what the circumstance required. “I’m a duke, while you, madam, are merely a thief.”
“Give me back my ring,” he growled. “I’ll no longer wait for tonight. Give it to me now or I’ll tell them all.”
“Never,” she hissed.
Something within him snapped. Perhaps it was the scent of honeysuckle, perhaps it was the way her soft lips curled in a sneer.
He took both her upper arms, drawing her so close he could feel the heat of her skin. “You will give me back that ring.”
“If I were a man, I’d call you out,” Miss Stewart said with complete earnestness. “I’d meet you with swords and gut you.”
“What a bloodthirsty little thing you are,” he drawled, knowing his indifference would provoke her the more. He was aware that his cock was half-hard.This is madness. “As if you could best me at swords—or any combat, armed or not. You’ve the inflated pride of a child in the nursery.”
“I’m not a child.” Her glare was full of scorn.
He let his gaze drop pointedly to her bosom, heaving beneath her fichu and a silly little bouquet of flowers. He cocked his head, slowly appraising her figure. “No, I suppose you’re not.”
For a moment he thought she might explode, like a dueling piece poorly primed.
Then she said, low and deadly, “Tomorrow morning. Five of the clock. Name the place.”
He hauled her against his chest, so close he felt her breath brush his lips. “You want an assignation with me, madam?”
She ignored his double entendre. Her gaze was direct and fiery. “I want your blood.”
“For God’s sake.” He sneered.
“If you can best me at swords, I’ll give you the ring,” she said softly, her voice shaking—though he knew it wasn’t from fear. “If I win, you’ll not ask for it again and you’ll not tell anyone of what happened in London.”
“Do you really think I’d take up a sword against a woman?”
He let her go, stepping back so suddenly she staggered. He’d wanted to shake her—or fuck her, he wasn’t entirely sure which.
For a moment they stood there, chests heaving, glaring at each other.
He should ignore her and her ridiculous goading. Should turn and simply walk away. But he was tired of her insults. She needed to be put in her place.
And he needed his ring.
“Very well. But when I win, you will hand over my ring without further ado.” He pulled his lips back in a grin. “I accept your challenge, Miss Stewart.”
But when she arrived it was exactly the same, green and mysterious, with the sound of water dripping and apparently leading nowhere.
She turned away in disappointment and only then saw a man standing watching her.…
—From The Grey Court Changeling
# # #
Jane Lovejoy, wearing a gold silk wrapper with butterfly embroidery that Messalina was notat all envious of, slipped into her room.
Messalina shut the door and turned to see Jane watching her, arms akimbo. “Now what is so secret you couldn’t tell me on the walk to the village today? And why must we meet in the dead of night to talk? You’re quite lucky that Daniel drank so much brandy after dinner—he’s snoring like a fleet of drunken sailors.”
Messalina winced. “I do apologize—I hadn’t considered how you would explain your absence to Lord Lovejoy.”
Jane let her militant stance slip. “Yes, well, as it happens it doesn’t matter, so please tell me what is so urgent.”
“It’s Eleanor Randolph,” Messalina said. “I want to know what happened to her.”
Jane frowned, slowly sinking into one of the chairs grouped by the fireplace. “What do you mean? Eleanor died last spring.”
“Yes, I know,” Messalina said, beginning to pace. “But the thing is, how did she die?”
“I think it was a fever—or at least some illness that took her suddenly.” Jane watched as Messalina turned at the door and walked back across the room. “Why are you so interested now?”
“I’m not entirely sure.” Messalina glanced quickly at Jane and away. “You know that Eleanor and I were friends? We met when we were eighteen and newly out, you see.”
For two years she and Eleanor had giggled together and discussed gentlemen and their relative assets until Eleanor had inevitably married Randolph. Inevitablybecause Eleanor was kind and intelligent, the niece of an earl, and had a very nice dowry. Randolph was a big handsome man, a little older at five and thirty, but very powerful in the House of Lords.
Since Messalina was the niece of a duke, one might think she’d be married by now as well. But Messalina had been…picky.
She still was, in fact.
But that was neither here nor there.
Messalina drew a breath. “We used to send each other regular letters, Eleanor and I, but it had been several years since I’d actually seen her in London. She wrote that she liked the countryside and found London too wearying.”
She stopped and looked at Jane’s reaction.
Jane shrugged and shook her head.
Messalina grimaced. “I know! It doesn’t seem like much, but the thing you have to know about Eleanor was that she loved to dance. And to go to balls. And shop. When I thought about it, this sudden urge to rusticate seemed…odd.”
“Well, people do change,” Jane said practically. “When I first married Lord Lovejoy he was the most dreadful prig.” She looked thoughtful. “Actually, he still is. But you wouldn’t believe how much better he’s become—or perhaps I’m more tolerant of his foibles—which is the point. One changes when one marries. In a good marriage, you no longer make decisions on your own—you do it as a partnership. If Lord Randolph liked rusticating, perhaps Eleanor found out how much she enjoyed the country as well—particularly once she had her own house to manage.”
“Perhaps,” Messalina said reluctantly. “But there’s another thing.” She dropped into the chair next to Jane’s. “You mustn’t tell anyone because I might be simply mad.”
Jane nodded encouragingly.
Messalina took a deep breath. “In the last letter she wrote me, Eleanor said she was going to leave Lord Randolph.”
Jane blinked. “Leave as in…?”
“Leave as in cause a huge scandal. She asked if she could seek refuge with me and I replied that of course she could, but I wasn’t sure for how long. It’s Uncle Augustus, you see. We might not live with him, Lucretia and I, but we’re rather beholden to him.” Messalina delicately chose each word to describe her relationship to the man she knew to be the devil. “If he took a dislike to Eleanor, or-or disapproved of her running away from her husband, he could make things very difficult for all concerned.”
Which of course was a great understatement. Dear Uncle Augustus was capable of much worse than merely causing difficulty.
Fortunately Jane didn’t seem to notice Messalina’s unease in regard to Uncle Augustus. She merely asked, “What did Eleanor reply?”
“She didn’t,” Messalina said. “She died a fortnight later.”
“Oh, my dear,” Jane said with awful gentleness, “I realize her death was a shock to you, but might your worry that her death was unnatural simply be, well, guilt that you weren’t able to offer her permanent refuge?”
Messalina’s eyes welled up all of a sudden, which was most annoying and really not at all helpful. Of course she’d considered that her disquiet over Eleanor’s fate was merely her own guilty conscience. She’d even—horribly—thought it was possible that her own letter informing Eleanor that she had no place to run to permanently might’ve led her to take her own life.
“The thing is,” she told Jane now, resuming her pacing, “I didthink about that. I thought about it for months, and I eventually decided that it was all my imagination. That Eleanor was dead and I merely felt grief and guilt about her passing.”
“Then why are you here?” Jane asked.
Messalina halted at the far end of the room and turned. “Last month I saw Elliot Randolph at a ball. I hadn’t seen him since the news of Eleanor’s death, so I went to him to offer my condolences.” She inhaled, remembering that cold face, emotionless, inhuman—or nearly so. “He looked at me and smiled. I knew in that instant. I knew without doubt.”
“Knew what?” Jane asked.
“Lord Randolph murdered Eleanor.” She met Jane’s wide eyes. “I have no evidence—he said nothing at all suspicious—but the look he gave me was…was…monstrous, Jane. He was gleeful, I could tell. What’s more, I’m sure he let me know. He thinks that there’s nothing I can do about her death. That Eleanor is dead and he’s won.”
“But even if your suspicion is true—and you must know it’s very far-fetched, my dear—what can you do?” Jane asked, her brows knit. “It’s been a year. Eleanor is buried.”
“I know.” Messalina came and knelt before her friend, grasping her hands. “I know it will be difficult, but I want to know what really happened to Eleanor. And I need your help to do it. I’m a stranger in these parts, but youaren’t. People will talk to you as they might not to me. Will you help me find out if Eleanor was murdered by her husband?”
“Yes.” Jane straightened her shoulders. “Yes, I will.”
# # #
They’d decided on the well house clearing. Even as Christopher made his way through the gloomy woods to their rendezvous the next morning he knew that this was a mistake. There was no way that Miss Stewart—short, delicate, and female—could best him in a sword fight. The very fact that she thought she could was evidence that she was mad.
She was a woman ruled by her emotions—as all women were supposed to be. Many men thought women little more than children who must be guided and guarded.
Except that he didn’t believe women were such base creatures. Certainly Miss Stewart wasn’t. She seemed perfectly intelligent and not particularly emotional—except when it came to him.
Were he a simple man he might think her explosive anger merely a symptom of sexual attraction to a man she didn’t like.
He wasn’t a simple man, though.
He was a man who had lived among strangers in a strange land for nearly half his life. He’d long ago learned not to believe what was only on the surface.
The best he could hope for was that he’d beat her quickly and regain his ring. If he did so she’d merely hate him even more than she did already.
The worst possibility was that she’d somehow hurt herself during their so-called duel.
He was scowling over that thought when he walked around the last turn and saw her already waiting for him.
Tess took off galloping toward Miss Stewart as if the woman were the dog’s long-lost friend.
She looked down at Tess and smiled.
A bright, beautiful, easy smile, and he was struck with jealousy.
For his own dog.
She glanced over the dog’s head—she was fondling Tess’s ears—and the smile disappeared at the sight of him.
He refused to be disappointed.
“Do you still mean to go through with this, madam?” he asked, unwrapping the swords he’d brought with him.
“Yes,” she said without hesitation.
Of course. Christopher decided he would beat her as swiftly as possible so as not to prolong her humiliation.
Were she not so stubborn, he’d let her decline gracefully and find another way to retrieve his ring. But he knew her well enough by now to know she would not back down.
Therefore, best to get it over with.
He placed both swords over his forearm, the hilts toward her, so she could choose her weapon.
She stepped forward and examined them carefully before picking the slightly shorter one. The one a smaller, weaker swordsman—or woman—would be better able to handle.
That was his first hint.
She swept the sword through the air and then brought it before her and looked at him. “Ready?”
He nodded. “Call it.”
His second hint was when her sword nearly took his nose off.
He leaped back. Thrust his sword before him to block her next attack. He watched how she moved as he defended.
Perhaps Miss Stewart wasn’t insane after all.
She fought like someone familiar with a sword.
She fought like a woman who might very well best him.
Her sword sang as it scraped along his. She disengaged before their swords could catch.
Bared her teeth and went for his belly.
Christopher wheeled back, barely bringing his own sword up in time.
Her face was set and determined—too determined. She truly wanted to beat him.
Perhaps kill him.
He had no intention of wounding her. He’d meant to simply disarm her. Teach her a lesson about better reach and stronger muscle.
But agility and better skill also came into play—unfortunately.
He was a fool to ever have agreed to this.
She darted at him, her sword flashing, her eyes intent and furious.
He turned away a stab meant for his shoulder. Stepped into her next attack.
And was rewarded with a pink to his left arm.
She flashed him a triumphant grin.
There was something familiar in that grin.
She lunged for him.
Forcing him to dodge.
He circled her.
She whirled to follow, and her cap fell from her head.
“Stop this,” he commanded.
“Not good enough?” she mocked, trying to impale him, the wildcat. “Perhaps you prefer to stand aside and let others do your gory work.”
He stared, confused. Aroused.“What?”
Her gaze was nearly feverish. Her hair coming down about her shoulders. “You’re a coward who orders others to beat a man nearly to death.”
She lunged again, past his guard, the tip of her sword at his throat. He felt the needle prick of pain.
She stood, panting, her hair wild about her shoulders. Her redhair—not dusty brown at all. Red, fiery curls, waving in the breeze as if they had a life of their own, and he saw her as if for the first time.
“Yield,” she demanded, an avenging fury.
His world tipped upside down. “Freya?”
Her eyes widened.
He knocked her sword tip away from his throat. Caught her wrist and twisted.
She yelped and dropped her sword.
Her lips parted—most likely to curse him.
He didn’t care anymore. He yanked her into his arms and kissed her.
She opened her mouth to him. Teeth clashing, lips snarling together. Anything but yielding.
How could this be? That slim girl, running wild over hills so long ago, her flaming hair a banner. This woman, voluptuous and furious, her hair still a flaming banner.
He thrust his tongue into her mouth, confused and angry. How had this happened? Why was she here?
But those thoughts melted away as he explored her hot mouth, felt her hands clench in his hair, pulling him closer.
Her passion was exhilarating. He wanted to strip this drab gown from her body. Find out how plush her breasts really were. If her sweet hips would cradle him.
He caught her glorious hair and held her, taunting her tongue. Licking at her teeth.
Drinking her—Freya—memory and reality.
He felt a change in her body, a stiffening of her shoulders as her hands left his hair, and he broke the kiss just in time. Her teeth clicked together on the bite she’d meant for his lip.
“Why are you here?” he rasped. He was still hard, despite her effort to bloody him more.
“Why shouldn’t I be here, Kester?” she mocked.
No one had called him that in…
It had been a nickname—a shortening of Christopher—that Ran and Julian had given him. Kester had meant friendship, warmth, Scotland. A place where he could relax from the constant pressure to be correct that his father put on him.
Where he could be himselfwithout apology.
He was almost brought to his knees by longing.
But he wouldn’t let himself show weakness. “You know what I’m asking. Why are you working as a chaperone? You’re the daughter of a duke.”
“And the sister of one,” she growled, low. “Have you completely forgotten Ran?”
He inhaled, letting her go. “I could never forget Ran.”
“No?” She bent for her sword where he’d dropped it at their feet.
He stepped on the blade.
She straightened, glaring. “He lost his hand, did you know that? Gangrene set into the wounds and they had to amputate.”
“I…” He swallowed, remembering when he’d heard that ghastly fact. A stranger in a tavern had mentioned it. He’d had to walk outside to cast up his accounts. “I didn’t know until I returned to England.”
“He’s crippled,” she whispered as harshly as a shout. “It was his righthand. He can’t draw, can’t write. Can you imagine that? Ran unable to draw?”
He felt ill. Ran, tall, whip-thin Ran, laughing as he sketched comic faces. Frowning as he drew glorious trees and mountains. “Oh God.”
He felt her blow against his chest, but didn’t register the physical pain.
His soul was shattering.
“I wanted to punish you,” she whispered. “You deserve it for what you did to him.”
He closed his eyes. “Freya.”
“He doesn’t go out anymore,” she hissed, tears glittering in her eyes. “Not for years and years. We used to try and corner him in his town house in Edinburgh. Try to draw him out, or simply talk. He refuses to converse with anyone. Lachlan spent a year, screaming at him, pleading with him, begging—”
She choked and he opened his eyes.
Freya was weeping, her green-gold eyes wide open even as the tears leaked out. Her face ruddy with her wrath.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
She slapped him.
His head jerked back as his jaw began to burn. He pulled her into his arms even as she hit him open handed, pummeling him.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He didn’t know what else to say.
Knew at the same time that there was nothing he couldsay to make this right.
It would never be right again.
Ran was gone—destroyed—and it was his fault.
He waited, holding her, as she sobbed and struggled and gasped. Clutching at his chest when she gave up hitting him.
After a bit he sank to the cold, damp ground, still holding her. He stroked her hair, letting her weep on his chest, and continued to murmur his sorrow.
At last she heaved a great breath and grew silent.
The sun was all the way up now, shining in the sky. Tess had come to lie beside them, her head on Christopher’s knee. They’d have to return to the house soon or risk being found to be missing.
He took a breath. “Did Ran tell you what happened?”
She shook her head. “He was brought home by Julian’s uncle the Duke of Windemere’s men. They said he’d tried to elope with Aurelia but had murdered her instead in a fit of insanity—”
“But did he tellyou?” he asked.
She frowned, a small crimping of her red lips. “He was too injured. He caught a fever almost at once.”
He nodded. “Then please listen.”
He felt her tense and prepared himself to hold her, but she did nothing.
She was listening.
He watched as Tess got up to dig at the foundation of the well house. “We were young. That is the most important thing. We were too young.”
She scoffed, but didn’t interrupt.
“Ran came to Julian and me and said he needed to marry Aurelia.”
He shook his head. “Apparently her uncle was against the union for some reason. Ran was determined to marry Aurelia before her uncle could make another match for her.”
She hadn’t known that—he could tell by the frown incised between her brows. “That’s why he was going to elope.”
“Yes.” He carefully stroked her hair. The last time he’d seen Freya she’d been eleven or twelve. A sweet younger sister.
She was no longer sweet.
And he didn’t feel at all brotherly now.
“Wasn’t Julian upset?” she asked. “After all, Aurelia was his sister and only sixteen.”
“No.” Christopher considered. “He was irritated that Ran was so insistent that they elope right away, but I don’t think he was angry. If anything he wanted to make Aurelia happy. You were young. Perhaps you don’t remember how…vitalshe was. How charming. We all adored her.”
“I remember,” she said in a stiff little voice.
He hugged her closer. “Then you know that once Aurelia had made up her mind to elope with Ran nothing would’ve dissuaded her. No onewould’ve stopped her. She was beautiful and spoiled and young.”
She moved to look at him, and he saw that her eyes were swollen and red.
The sight struck a chord within him—an urge to protect and shelter, though she was the last woman to need protection. An urge to lay his mouth against hers again, though she would surely bite him if he did.
“How did she end up dead? Murdered?” she demanded.
Christopher shook his head. He could feel sweat running down his back. It might’ve been from the duel, but he thought it more likely it was the memories.
The awful memories. “I don’t know exactly.”
Her lip curled. “How can you not know?”
He took a breath, knowing that whatever he might say, it would never be enough for her. “You have to remember that we were all only eighteen. All of us beside Aurelia, but she was probably the most certain of us. We thought it was a lark. A grand adventure. We made plans to meet at Greycourt House, by the stables at midnight, and ride away, over the border to Scotland, so they could wed. But…”
She frowned. “What happened? What changed?”
“Aurelia,” he said and swallowed. “Something happened to Aurelia and she was killed.”
Freya sat up straight. “You don’t know how she was murdered?”
“That’s my mistake,” he said, watching her. “I got there after Ran. There was shouting and I almost turned away, but I saw Ran being beaten in the courtyard and I went to him. Julian came forward and held me back. His face was so white it was near gray and he said, “Don’t.” Just that. Don’t.He told me that Aurelia was dead. That her bloodied body was in the stables and that Ran had killed her.”
“He didn’t,” Freya said fiercely. “Ran wouldn’t kill anyone, let alone Aurelia. He worshipped her.”
“I know,” Christopher said, his heart leaden with old, old grief. “I knew that then. But in the night, with Julian telling me that Ran was a murderer, with the Duke of Windemere bellowing and his men beating Ran…”
She shook her head wearily. “Ran was your friend. How could you betray him so?”
“I was weak.” He looked at her and told her his shame without any hope of sympathy. “I failed him that night. That’s why I wore his ring: to remind me of my failure. To remind me to do what is rightno matter the personal cost. To remind me to never retreat when I can and should take action to help another.”
She pulled away and he let her, watching as she stood and shook out her skirts.
Freya looked at him, beautiful and stern. “Your regret can’t restore Ran’s severed hand. It won’t give him the ability to draw again or to forget what happened. He’s spent fifteen years entombed just as surely as if he’d died that night.”
“Freya,” he whispered, and bowed his head, feeling the weight of her censure.
But still she wasn’t done. “I cannot forgive you.”
Her footsteps were quiet as she left him.
New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Hoyt brings us the first book in her sexy and sensual Greycourt Series!