NextPrevious

Extending along one side of the house, the large library possessed windows facing both the front and back gardens. If either her brother or her uncle had been aware of the outside world, they might have noticed the large visitor walking up the front path.

Leonora assumed they’d both been oblivious.

The sight that met her eyes as she opened the door, entered, then quietly shut it, confirmed her supposition.

Her uncle, Sir Humphrey Carling, was seated in an armchair angled before the hearth, a heavy tome open on his knees, an especially strong quizzing glass distorting one pale blue eye as he squinted at the faded hieroglyphics inscribed on the pages. He had once been an imposing figure, but age had stooped his shoulders, thinned his once leonine head of hair, and drained his physical strength. The years, however, had made no discernible impact on his mental faculties; he was still revered in scientific and antiquarian circles as one of the two foremost authorities in translating obscure languages.

His white head, hair thin, straggling, and worn rather long despite Leonora’s best efforts, was bowed to his book, his mind clearly in…Leonora believed the present tome hailed from Mesopotamia.

Her brother, Jeremy, her junior by two years and the second of the two foremost authorities in translating obscure languages, sat at the desk nearby. The surface of the desk was awash with books, some open, others stacked. Every maid in the house knew she touched anything on that desk at her peril; despite the chaos, Jeremy always instantly knew.

He’d been twelve when, together with Leonora, he’d come to live with Humphrey after the deaths of their parents. They’d lived in Kent then; although Humphrey’s wife had already passed on, the wider family had felt that the countryside was a more suitable environment for two still growing and grieving children, especially as everyone accepted that Humphrey was their favorite relative.

It was no great wonder that Jeremy, bookish from birth, had been infected with Humphrey’s passion to decipher the words of men and civilizations long dead. At twenty-four, he was already well on the way to carving out a niche for himself in that increasingly competitive sphere; his standing had only grown when, six years ago, the household had moved to Bloomsbury so Leonora could be introduced to society under her aunt Mildred, Lady Warsingham’s aegis.

Yet Jeremy was still her little brother; her lips curved as she took in his wide but slight shoulders, the mop of brown hair that regardless of any brushing was perennially tousled—she was sure he ran his fingers through it, yet he swore he didn’t, and she’d never caught him at it.

Henrietta headed across the floor for the spot before the hearth. Leonora walked forward, unsurprised when neither man looked up. A maid had once dropped a silver epergne on the tiles outside the library door, and neither had noticed.

“Uncle, Jeremy—we have a visitor.”

Both looked up, blinked in identical, blankly distant fashion.

“The Earl of Trentham has called.” She continued toward her uncle’s chair, patiently waiting for their brains to wander back to the real world. “He’s one of our new neighbors at Number 12.” Both sets of eyes followed her, both still blank. “I told you the house was bought by a group of gentlemen. Trentham is one of them. I gather he’s been overseeing the renovations.”

“Ah—I see.” Humphrey closed his book, set it aside with his quizzing glass. “Good of him to call.”

Positioning herself behind her uncle’s chair, Leonora didn’t miss the rather more puzzled look in Jeremy’s brown eyes. Plain brown, not hazel. Comforting, not razor-sharp.

Like the eyes of the gentleman who walked into the room in Castor’s wake.

“The Earl of Trentham.”

Pronouncement made, Castor bowed and withdrew, closing the door.

Trentham had paused just before it, his gaze raking the company; as the latch clicked, he smiled. His charming mask very much to the fore, he walked toward the group about the hearth.

Leonora hesitated, suddenly unsure.

Trentham’s gaze lingered on her face, waiting…then he looked at Humphrey.

Who gripped his chair’s arms and, with obvious effort, started to rise. Leonora quickly stepped close to lend a hand.

“I pray you won’t disturb yourself, Sir Humphrey.” With a graceful gesture, Trentham waved Humphrey back. “I’m grateful for your time in seeing me.” He bowed, acknowledging Humphrey’s formal nod. “I was passing and hoped you would forgive the informality as we are in effect neighbors.”

“Indeed, indeed. Pleased to make your acquaintance. I understand you’re making some changes at Number 12 prior to settling in?”

“Purely cosmetic, to make the place more habitable.”

Humphrey waved at Jeremy. “Allow me to present my nephew, Jeremy Carling.”

Jeremy, who had risen, reached across the desk and shook hands. Initially politely, but as his gaze met Trentham’s, his eyes widened; interest flared across his face. “I say! You’re a military man, aren’t you?”

Leonora looked at Trentham, stared. How had she missed it? His stance alone should have alerted her, but combined with that faint tan and his hardened hands…

Self-preservatory instincts flared and had her mentally stepping well back.

“Ex-military.” With Jeremy clearly waiting, wanting to know, Trentham added, “I was a major in the Guards.”

“You’ve sold out?” Jeremy had what Leonora considered an unhealthy interest in the recent campaigns.

“After Waterloo, many of us did.”

“Are your friends ex-Guards, too?

“They are.” Glancing at Humphrey, Trentham went on, “That’s why we bought Number 12. A place to meet that’s more private and quieter than our clubs. We’re not used to the bustle of town life anymore.”

“Aye, well, I can understand that.” Humphrey, never one for tonnish life, nodded feelingly. “You’ve come to the right pocket of London for peace and quiet.”

Swiveling, Humphrey looked up at Leonora, smiled. “Nearly forgot you there, my dear.” He looked back at Trentham. “My niece, Leonora.”

She curtsied.

Trentham’s gaze held hers as he bowed. “Actually, I encountered Miss Carling earlier in the street.”

Encountered? She leapt in before Humphrey or Jeremy could wonder. “Lord Trentham was leaving as I went out. He was good enough to introduce himself.”

Their gazes met, directly, briefly. She looked down at Humphrey.

Her uncle was appraising Trentham; he clearly approved of what he saw. He waved to the chaise on the other side of the hearth. “But do sit down.”

Trentham looked at her. Gestured to the chaise. “Miss Carling?”

The chaise sat two. There was no other seat; she would have to sit beside him. She met his gaze. “Perhaps I should order tea?”

His smile took on an edge. “Not on my account, I pray.”

“Or me,” Humphrey said.

Jeremy merely shook his head, moving back to his chair.

Drawing in a breath, her head discouragingly high, she stepped from behind the armchair and crossed to the end of the chaise closer to the fire and Henrietta, sprawled in a shaggy heap before it. Trentham very correctly waited for her to sit, then sat beside her.

He didn’t purposely crowd her; he didn’t have to. Courtesy of the short chaise, his shoulder brushed hers.

Her lungs seized; warmth slowly spread from the point of contact, sliding beneath her skin.

“I understand,” he said, as soon as he’d elegantly disposed his long limbs, “that you’ve had considerable interest from others in purchasing this house.”

Humphrey inclined his head; his gaze shifted to her.

She plastered on an innocent smile, airily waved. “Lord Trentham was on his way to see Stolemore—I mentioned we’d met.”

Humphrey snorted. “Indeed! The knuckleheaded bounder. Couldn’t get it through his skull that we weren’t interested in selling. Luckily, Leonora convinced him.”

That last was said with sublime vagueness; Tristan concluded that Sir Humphrey had no real idea how insistent Stolemore had been, or to what lengths his niece had been forced to go to dissuade the agent.

He glanced again at the books piled on the desk, at the similar mounds heaped about Sir Humphrey’s chair, at the papers and clutter that spoke eloquently of a scholarly life. And scholarly abstraction.

“So!” Jeremy leaned forward, arms folded across an open book. “Were you at Waterloo?”

“Only on the fringes.” The distant fringes. Of the enemy camp. “It was a widespread engagement.”

Eyes alight, Jeremy questioned and probed; Tristan had long ago mastered the knack of satisfying the usual questions without stumbling, of giving the impression he’d been a normal regimental officer when in fact he’d been anything but.

“In the end, the allies deserved to win, and the French deserved to lose. Superior strategy and superior commitment won the day.”

And lost altogether too many lives in the process. He glanced at Leonora; she was staring into the fire, patently distancing herself from the conversation. He was well aware that prudent mamas warned their daughters away from military men. Given her age, she’d doubtless heard all the stories; he shouldn’t have been surprised to find her pokering up, determinedly holding aloof.

Yet…

“I understand”—he returned his attention to Sir Humphrey—“that there’ve been a number of disturbances in the neighborhood.” Both men looked at him, unquestionably intelligent but not connecting with his meaning. He was forced to expand, “Attempted burglaries, I believe?”

“Oh.” Jeremy smiled dismissively. “Those. Just a would-be thief trying his luck, I should think. The first time, the staff were still about. They heard him and caught a glimpse, but needless to say he didn’t stop to give his name.”

“The second time”—Sir Humphrey took up the tale—“Henrietta here raised a fuss. Not even certain there was anyone there, heh, old girl?” He rubbed the somnolent hound’s head with his shoe. “Just got the wind up—could have been anything, but roused us all, I can tell you.”

Tristan shifted his gaze from the placid hound to Leonora’s face, read her tight lips, her closed, noncommittal expression. Her hands were clasped in her lap; she made no move to interject.

She was too well-bred to argue with her uncle and brother before him, a stranger. And she may well have resigned the battle of puncturing their detached and absentminded confidence.

“Whatever the case,” Jeremy cheerfully concluded, “the burglar’s long gone. Quiet as a grave around here at night.”

Tristan met his eyes, and decided to agree with Leonora’s judgment. He would need more than suspicions to convince Sir Humphrey or Jeremy to heed any warning; he consequently said nothing of Stolemore in the remaining minutes of his visit.

It drew to a natural close and he rose. He made his farewells, then looked at Leonora. Both she and Jeremy had risen, too, but it was she he wished to speak with. Alone.

He kept his gaze on her, let the silence stretch; her stubborn resistance was, to him, obvious, but her capitulation came sufficiently fast for both her uncle and brother to remain transparently unaware of the battle conducted literally before their noses.

“I’ll see Lord Trentham out.” The glance that went with the clipped words held an arctic chill.

Neither Sir Humphrey nor Jeremy noticed. As, with an elegant nod, he turned from them, he could see in their eyes that they were already drifting back to whatever world they customarily inhabited.

Who stood at the helm of this household was increasingly clear.

Leonora opened the door and led Trentham into the front hall. Henrietta lifted her head, but for once didn’t follow; she settled down again before the fire. The desertion struck Leonora as unusual, but she didn’t have time to dwell on it; she had a dictatorial earl to dismiss.

Cloaked in chilly calm, she swept to the front door and halted; Castor slipped past and stood ready to open the door. Head high, she met Trentham’s hazel eyes. “Thank you for calling. I bid you a good day, my lord.”

He smiled, something other than charm in his expression, and held out his hand.

She hesitated; he waited…until good manners forced her to surrender her fingers into his clasp.

His untrustworthy smile deepened as his hand closed strongly about hers. “If you could spare me a few minutes of your time?”

Under his heavy lids, his gaze was hard and clear. He had no intention of releasing her until she acceded to his wishes. She tried to slip her fingers free; his grip tightened fractionally, enough to assure her she could not. Would not. Until he permitted it.

Her temper erupted. She let her disbelief—how dare he?—show in her eyes.

The ends of his lips quirked. “I have news you’ll find interesting.”

She debated for two seconds, then, on the principle that one shouldn’t cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face, she turned to Castor. “I’ll walk Lord Trentham to the gate. Leave the door on the latch.”

Castor bowed and swung the door wide. She allowed Trentham to lead her out. He paused on the porch. The door shut behind them; he glanced back as he released her, then met her gaze and waved at the garden.

“Your gardens are amazing—who planted them, and why?”

Assuming that, for some reason, he wished to ensure they were not overheard, she went down the steps by his side. “Cedric Carling, a distant cousin. He was a renowned herbalist.”

“Your uncle and brother—what’s their primary interest?”

She explained as they strolled down the winding path to the gate.

Brows rising, he glanced at her. “You spring from a family of authorities on eccentric subjects.” His hazel eyes quizzed her. “What’s your specialty?”

Head rising, she halted. Met his gaze directly. “I believe you had some news you thought might interest me?”

Her tone was pure ice. He smiled. For once with neither charm nor guile. The gesture, strangely comforting, warmed her. Thawed her…

She fought off the effect, kept her eyes on his—watched as all levity faded and seriousness took hold.

“I met with Stolemore. He’d been given a thorough thrashing, very recently. From what he let fall, I believe his punishment stemmed from his failure to secure your uncle’s house for his mysterious buyer.”

The news rocked her, more than she cared to admit. “Did he give any indication who…?”

Trentham shook his head. “None.” His eyes searched hers; his lips tightened. After a moment, he murmured, “I wanted to warn you.”

She studied his face, forced herself to ask, “Of what?”

His features once more resembled chiseled granite. “Unlike your uncle and brother, I don’t believe your burglar has retired from the field.”

*   *   *

He’d done all he could; he hadn’t meant to do even that much. He didn’t, in fact, have the right. Given the situation within the Carling ménage, he’d be well advised not to get involved.

The next morning, seated at the head of the table in the breakfast room of Trentham House, Tristan idly scanned the news sheets, kept one ear on the twitterings of the three of the six female residents who’d decided to join him for tea and toast, and otherwise kept his head down.

He should, he was well aware, be reconnoitering the social field à propos of identifying a suitable wife, yet he couldn’t summon any enthusiasm for the task. Of course, all his old dears were watching him like hawks, waiting for any sign that he would welcome assistance.

They’d surprised him by being remarkably sensitive in not pushing their help upon him thus far; he sincerely hoped they’d hold to that line.

“Do pass the marmalade, Millie. Did you hear that Lady Warrington has had her ruby necklace copied?”

“Copied? Great heavens—are you sure?”

“I had it from Cynthia Cunningham. She swore it was true.”

Their scandalized accents faded as his mind returned to the events of the day before.

He hadn’t intended to return to Montrose Place after seeing Stolemore. He’d left the shop in Motcomb Street deep in thought; when next he’d looked up, he’d been in Montrose Place, outside Number 14. He’d surrendered to instinct and gone in.

All in all, he was glad he had. Leonora Carling’s face when he’d told her his suspicions had remained with him long after he’d left.

“Did you see Mrs. Levacombe making eyes at Lord Mott?”

Lifting one of the news sheets, he held it before his face.

He’d shocked himself by his readiness, unquestioning and immediate, to use force to extract information from Stolemore. Admittedly, he’d been trained to be utterly ruthless in pursuit of vital information. What shocked him was that by some warping of his mind information pertaining to threats against Leonora Carling had assumed the status of vital to him. Previous to yesterday, such status had been attained only by king and country.

But he’d now done all he legitimately could. He’d warned her. And maybe her brother was right and they’d seen the last of the burglar.

“My lord, the builder from Montrose Place has sent a boy with a message.”

Tristan looked up at his butler, Havers, who had come to stand by his elbow. About the table, the chatter died; he debated, then inwardly shrugged. “What’s the message?”

“The builder thinks there’s been some tampering, nothing major, but he’d like you to view the damage before he repairs it.” Holding Tristan’s gaze, Havers word-lessly conveyed the fact that the message had been rather more dramatic. “The boy’s waiting in the hall if you wish to send a reply.”

Premonition clanging, instincts alert, Tristan tossed his napkin on the table and rose. He inclined his head to Ethelreda, Millicent, and Flora, all elderly cousins many times removed. “If you’ll excuse me, ladies, I have business to attend.”

He turned, leaving them agog, the room wrapped in pregnant silence.

The twittering broke in a storm as he stepped into the corridor.

In the hall, he shrugged into his greatcoat, picked up his gloves. With a nod to the builder’s boy, standing in awe, eyes wide with wonderment as he drank in the rich trappings of the hall, he turned to the front door as a footman swung it wide.

Tristan strode out and down the steps into Green Street; the builder’s boy on his heels, he headed for Montrose Place.

 

“You see what I mean?”

Tristan nodded. He and Billings stood in the rear yard of Number 12. Leaning down, he examined the minute scratches on the lock of the rear window at the back of what would, within days, be the Bastion Club. Part of the “tampering” Billings had summoned him to see. “Your journeyman has sharp eyes.”

“Aye. And there were one or two things disturbed like. Tools we always leave just so that had been pushed aside.”

“Oh?” Tristan straightened. “Where?”

Billings waved indoors. Together, they entered the kitchen. Billings stumped through a short corridor to a dark side door; he waved to the floor before it. “We leave our things here at night, out of sight of prying eyes.”

The builder’s gang was working; thumps and a steady scritch-scratch drifted down from the floors above. There were few tools left before the door, but the marks in the fine dust where others had lain were clearly visible.

Along with a footprint, close by the wall.

Tristan hunkered down; one close look confirmed that the print had been made by a gentleman’s leather-soled boot, not the heavy working boots the builders wore.

He was the only gentleman who’d been about the house recently, certainly within the time the coating of fine sawdust had fallen, and he hadn’t been anywhere near this door. And the print was too small; definitely a man’s, but not his. Rising, he looked at the door. A heavy key was in the lock. He took it out, turned, and walked back to the kitchen where windows allowed light to stream in.

Telltale flecks of wax were visible, both along the key’s shank and its teeth.

Billings peered around his shoulder; suspicion darkened his face. “An impression?”

Tristan grunted. “Looks like it.”

“I’ll order new locks.” Billings was outraged. “Never had such a thing happen before.”

Tristan turned the key in his fingers. “Yes, get in new locks. But don’t fit them until I give you the word.”

Billings glanced at him, then nodded. “Aye, m’lord. I’ll do that.” He paused, then added, “We’re finished with the second floor if you’d like to take a gander?”

Tristan looked up. Nodded. “I’ll just put this back.”

He did so, carefully aligning the key precisely as it had been, so it wouldn’t impede another key being inserted from the outside. Waving Billings ahead, he followed him up the kitchen stairs to the ground floor. There, the workmen were busily preparing what would be a comfortable drawing room and cosy dining room for the finishing touches of paint and polish. The only other rooms at that level were a small parlor beside the front door that the club members had agreed should be set aside for interviewing any females they might be forced to meet, a boothlike office for the club porter and another larger office toward the rear for the club’s majordomo.

Climbing the stairs in Billings’s wake, Tristan paused on the first floor to glance briefly at the painting and polishing going on in the library and the meeting room before heading up to the second floor where the three bedrooms were located. Billings conducted him through each room, pointing out the finishes and specific touches they’d requested, all in place.

The rooms smelled new. Fresh and clean, yet substantial and solid. Despite the winter chill, there was no hint of damp.

“Excellent.” In the largest bedroom, the one above the library, Tristan met Billings’s eye. “You and your men are to be commended.”

Billings inclined his head, accepting the compliment with a craftsman’s pride.

“Now”—Tristan swung to the window; like the library below it commanded an excellent view of the Carling’s rear garden—“how long will it be before the staff quarters are habitable? In light of our nighttime visitor, I want to get someone in here as soon as possible.”

Billings considered. “There’s not much more we need to do in the attic bedrooms. We could finish those up by evening tomorrow. Kitchen and belowstairs will take a day or two more.”

His gaze on Leonora strolling the rear garden with her hound at her heels, Tristan nodded. “That will do admirably. I’ll send for our majordomo—he’ll be here late tomorrow. His name’s Gasthorpe.”

“Mr. Billings!”

The call floated up the stairs. Billings turned. “If there’s nothing else, m’lord, I should tend to that.”

“Thank you, no. Everything appears most satisfactory. I’ll make my own way out.” Tristan nodded a dismissal; with a deferential nod in reply, Billings went.

Minutes ticked by. Hands in his greatcoat pockets, Tristan remained before the window, staring down at the graceful figure drifting about the garden far below. And tried to decide why, what it was that was driving him to act as he was about to. He could rationalize his actions, certainly, but were his logical reasons the whole truth? The real truth?

He watched the hound press close to Leonora’s side, saw her look down, lift a hand to stroke the dog’s huge head, lifted in canine adoration.

With a snort, he turned away; with a last glance around, he headed downstairs.

*   *   *

“Good morning.” He turned his most beguiling smile on the old butler, adding just a hint of masculine commiseration in the face of feminine waywardness. “I wish to speak with Miss Carling. She’s walking in the back garden at present—I’ll join her there.”

Title, bearing, and the excellent cut of his coat—and his bald-faced boldness—won through; after only the slightest hesitation, the butler inclined his head. “Indeed, my lord. If you’ll step this way?”

He followed the old man down the hall and into a cosy parlor. A fire crackled in the grate; a piece of embroidery, barely started, lay on a small sidetable.

The butler gestured to a pair of French doors standing ajar. “If you’d like to go through?”

With a nod, Tristan did, emerging onto a small paved terrace that gave onto the lawns. Descending the steps, he strolled around the corner of the house and sighted Leonora examining blooms on the opposite side of the main lawn. She was looking the other way. He headed toward her; as he approached, the hound scented him and turned, alert but waiting to judge his intentions.

Courtesy of the lawn, Leonora didn’t hear him. He was still a few yards away when he spoke. “Good morning, Miss Carling.”

She whirled. She stared at him, then glanced—almost accusingly—at the house.

He hid a smile. “Your butler showed me through.”

“Indeed? And to what do I owe this pleasure?”

Before answering the cool and distinctly prickly greeting, he held out a hand to the hound; she inspected, accepted, nudging her head under his palm, inviting him to pat. He did, then turned to the less tractable female. “Am I right in thinking that your uncle and brother see no continuing threat arising from the attempted burglaries?”

She hesitated. A frown formed in her eyes.

He slid his hands into his greatcoat pockets; she hadn’t offered her hand, and he wasn’t fool enough to push his luck. He studied her face; when she remained silent, he murmured, “Your loyalty does you credit, but in this instance, might not be your wisest choice. As I see it, there’s something—some action—which the two attempts to break in here are part of. They’re not finite acts in themselves, but incidents in a continuing whole.”

That description hit the mark; he saw the flare of connection in her eyes.

“I suspect there are incidents which already have followed, and there will almost certainly be incidents to come.” He hadn’t forgotten there was more, something in addition to the burglaries she’d yet to tell him. But that was the closest he dared come to pressing her; she was not the sort he could browbeat or bully. He was accomplished in both roles, but with some, neither worked. And he wanted her cooperation, her trust.

Without both, he might not learn all he needed to know. Might not succeed in lifting the threat he sensed hanging over her.

Leonora held his gaze, and reminded herself she knew better than to trust military men. Even ex-military; they were assuredly the same. One couldn’t rely on them, on anything they said let alone anything they promised. Yet why was he here? What had prompted him to return? She tilted her head, watching him closely. “Nothing has happened recently. Maybe whatever”—she gestured—“whole the burglaries were part of is no longer centered here.”

He let a moment elapse, then murmured, “That doesn’t appear to be the case.”

Turning, he faced the house, scanned its bulk. It was the oldest house in the street, built on a grander scale than the terrace houses that in later years had been constructed on either side, walls abutting on both left and right.

“Your house shares walls, presumably basement walls, too, with the houses on either side.”

She followed his gaze, glancing at the house, not that she needed to to verify that fact. “Yes.” She frowned. Followed his logic.

When he said nothing more, but simply stood by her side, she set her lips and, eyes narrowing, glanced up at him.

He was waiting to catch that glance. Their gazes met, locked. Not quite in a battle of wills, more a recognition of resolutions and strengths.

“What’s happened?” She knew something had, or that he’d discovered some new clue. “What have you learned?”

Despite its apparent mobility, his face was difficult to read. A heartbeat passed, then he drew one hand free of his greatcoat pocket.

And reached for hers.

Slid his fingers around her wrist, slid his hand around her much smaller one. Closed it. Took possession of that much.

She didn’t stop him; couldn’t have. Everything within her stilled at his touch. Then quivered in response. The heat of his hand engulfed hers. Once again, she couldn’t breathe.

But she was growing used to the reaction, enough to pretend to ignore it. Lifting her head, she raised a brow in distinctly haughty question.

His lips curved; she knew absolutely that the expression was not a smile.

“Come—walk with me. And I’ll tell you.”

A challenge; his hazel eyes held hers, then he drew her to him, laid her hand on his sleeve as he stepped closer, beside her.

Dragging in a tight breath, she inclined her head, fell into step beside him. They strolled across the lawn, back toward the parlor, her skirts brushing his boots, his hand over hers on his arm.

She was screamingly aware of his strength, sheer masculine power close, so close, by her side. There was heat there, too, the beckoning presence of flame. The arm beneath her fingers felt like steel, yet warm, alive. Her fingertips itched, her palm burned. By an effort of will, she forced her wits to work. “So?” She slanted him a glance, as chill as she could make it. “What have you discovered?”

His hazel eyes hardened. “There’s been a curious incident next door. Someone broke in, but carefully. They tried to leave as little as possible to alert anyone, and nothing was taken.” He paused, then added, “Nothing bar an impression of the key to a side door.”

She digested that, felt her eyes widen. “They’re coming back.”

He nodded, his lips a thin line. He looked at Number 12, then glanced at her. “I’ll be keeping watch.”

She halted. “Tonight?”

“Tonight, tomorrow. I doubt they’ll wait long. The house is nearly ready for occupation. Whatever they’re after—”

“It would be best to strike now, before you have servants installed.” She swung to face him, tried to use the movement to slip her hand free of his.

He lowered his arm, but closed his hand more firmly about hers.

She pretended to be oblivious. “You’ll keep me—us—informed of what transpires?”

“Of course.” His voice was subtly lower, more resonant, the sound sliding through her. “Who knows? We might even learn the reason behind…all that’s gone before.”

She kept her eyes wide. “Indeed. That would be a blessing.”

Something—some hint not of laughter, but of wry acceptance—showed in his face. His eyes remained locked with hers. Then, with blatant deliberation, he shifted his fingers and stroked the fine skin over her inner wrist.

Her lungs seized. Hard. She actually felt giddy.

She would never have believed such a simple touch could so affect her. She had to look down and watch the mesmerizing caress. Realized in that instant that this would never do; she forced herself to swallow, to diguise her reaction, to turn her locked attention to good effect.

Continuing to look at his hand holding hers, she stated, “I realize you have only recently returned to society, but this really is not the done thing.”

She’d intended the statement to be coolly distant, calmly censorious; instead, her voice sounded tight, strained, even to her ears.

“I know.”

The tenor of those words jerked her eyes back to his face, to his lips. To his eyes. And the intent therein.

Again moving with that deliberation she found shocking, he held her stunned gaze, and raised her hand.

To his lips.

He brushed them across her knuckles, then, still holding her gaze, turned her hand, now boneless, and placed a kiss—warm and hot—in her palm.

Lifting his head, he hesitated. His nostrils flared slightly, as if he was breathing her scent. Then his eyes flicked to hers. Captured them. Held them as he bent his head again, and set his lips to her wrist.

To the spot where her pulse leapt like a startled hind, then raced.

Heat flared from the contact, streaked up her arm, slid through her veins.

If she’d been a weaker woman, she’d have collapsed at his feet.

The look in his eyes kept her upright, sent reaction rushing through her, stiffening her spine. Had her lifting her head. But she didn’t dare take her eyes from his.

That predatory look didn’t fade, but, eventually, his lashes swept down, hiding his eyes.

His voice when he spoke was deeper, murmurous thunder rolling in, subtly yet definitely menacing. “Tend your garden.” Once again he caught her gaze. “Leave the burglars to me.”

He released her hand. With a nod, he turned and strode away, over the lawn toward the parlor.

 

Tend your garden.

He hadn’t been speaking of plants. “Tend your hearth” was the more common injunction directing women to focus their energies in the sphere society deemed proper—on their husband and children, their home.

Leonora didn’t have a husband or children, and didn’t appreciate being reminded of the fact. Especially on the heels of Trentham’s practiced caresses and the unprecedented reactions they’d evoked.

Just what had he thought he was doing?

She suspected she knew, which only further fired her ire.

She kept herself busy through the rest of the day, eliminating any chance of dwelling on those moments in the garden. From reacting to the spur she’d felt at Trentham’s words. From giving rein to her irritation and letting it drive her.

Not even when Captain Mark Whorton had asked to be released from their engagement when she’d been expecting him to set their wedding day had she permitted herself to lose control. She’d long ago accepted responsibility for her own life; steering a safe path meant keeping the tiller in her hands.

And not allowing any male, no matter how experienced, to provoke her.

After luncheon with Humphrey and Jeremy, she spent the afternoon on social calls, first to her aunts, who were delighted to see her even though she’d purposely called too early to meet any of the fashionable who would later grace her Aunt Mildred’s drawing room, and subsequently to a number of elderly connections it was her habit to occasionally look in upon. Who knew when the old dears would need help?

She returned at five to oversee dinner, ensuring her uncle and brother remembered to eat. The meal consumed, they retreated to the library.

She retired to the conservatory.

To evaluate Trentham’s revelations and decide how best to act.

Seated in her favorite chair, her elbows on the wrought-iron table, she ignored his edict and turned her mind to burglars.

One point was unarguable. Trentham was an earl. Even though it was February and the ton correspondingly thin on the London streets, he’d no doubt be expected at some dinner or other, invited to some elegant soirée. If not that, then doubtless he’d go to his clubs, to game and enjoy the company of his peers. And if not that, then there were always the haunts of the demimonde; given the aura of predatory sexuality he exuded, she wasn’t so innocent as to believe he wasn’t acquainted with them.

Leave the burglars to him? She stifled a dismissive snort.

It was eight o’clock and pitch-dark beyond the glass. Next door, Number 12 loomed, a black block in the gloom. With no light gleaming in any window or winking between curtains, it was easy to guess it was uninhabited.

She’d been a good neighbor to old Mr. Morrissey; irascible old scoundrel that he’d been, he’d nevertheless been grateful for her visits. She’d missed him when he’d died. The house had passed to Lord March, a distant connection who, having a perfectly good mansion in Mayfair, had had no use for the Belgravia house. She hadn’t been surprised that he’d sold it.

Trentham, or his friends, were apparently acquainted with his lordship. Like his lordship, Trentham was probably, at that moment, preparing for a night on the town.

Leaning back in the chair, she tugged at the stiff little drawer that clung to the underside of the circular table. Wrestling it open, she considered the large, heavy key that rested within, half-buried by old lists and notes.

She reached in and retrieved the key, laid it on the table.

Had Trentham thought to change the locks?

Close

This is a web preview of the "The Bastion Club" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App