Earl with the Secret Tattoo (Chapter 1)
When Lady Eleanor Gibbs cracked open a random bedchamber door at the mansion on Grosvenor Square and saw a tattoo on the partially exposed shoulder of the man kissing her stepsister, her entire world tilted.
Heroes don't exist, after all, was her first outrageous thought.
From out in the corridor, she shut the bedchamber door so softly, she was sure neither clandestine lover inside heard the muffled click. Everything in her wanted to lean on that door and slump down its polished mahogany surface until she was sitting on the floor. She wanted to brood. To cry. To raise her fist and shout at the universe that she so obviously didn't comprehend.
Instead, she threw her shoulders back and had her second thought, this one even more outrageous: I've wasted the past five years pining after Lord Tumbridge?
The scoundrel earl?
She despised the man.
And look at what he was doing now. Ruining something yet again--a wedding, for goodness' sake. A wedding that would solve everything she'd worried about for her stepsister Clare, who'd become as self-important and superior as her father, Lord Pritchard, and Eleanor's own mother.
Once you make a decision, don't be halfhearted about it, Papa--the late Lord Kersey--had told her long ago when she'd been afraid to cross the bubbling creek at their country property to meet him on the other side. She'd been eight, barefooted, nervous, and shy.
Now she remembered that creek when she watched her own hand grasp the doorknob and throw open the door. "Stop," she ordered the kissing couple in a voice that even she thought carried some heft.
They pulled apart and stared at her, the Earl of Tumbridge lofting a brow in recognition.
Oh, yes, it is I, she told him with her eyes. Probably the only woman in the world who's immune to your charms.
Or so she'd thought. Until now, she'd never made the connection between the wastrel lord and the mysterious tattooed man who'd held her in thrall all these years. But she saw in the glow of the candelabra that Lord Tumbridge had the same strong chin and bold gaze.
The same insouciance.
And then she registered the blue, narrowed eyes of her stepsister Lady Clare Donovan, the wretched bride-to-be.
"Go away, Eleanor," Clare said with feeling.
Which was highly unusual. Eleanor didn't think Clare had feelings anymore.
"Shut the door," the earl said next, and removed his hands from Clare's curvaceous backside.
"You two should be ashamed of yourselves." Eleanor heard the tremble in her voice. She wasn't used to standing up to genuine flesh-and-blood people. She preferred her characters do that for her in her stories.
"Shut the door, Lady Eleanor," the earl said in weary tones, and stood back from Clare.
Eleanor had assumed--wrongly--that her tattooed hero would show an alert interest in the world, not a jaded resignation.
"You always manage to look and sound bored," she said thickly, recalling the one, painful waltz she'd shared with him in which she'd somehow found his arms around her exciting, despite their differences. "It's vastly rude, especially when you're here wreaking havoc with one of the guests of honor at the ball--who happens to be a member of my own family." She turned to Clare. "What will Mama and Lord Pritchard think?"
"Please stop talking, Eleanor," Clare said in warm, lush tones--
To the earl.
"Look at me, Clare." Beneath her simple ivory tulle bodice, Eleanor's heart pounded so hard, she almost couldn't breathe.
Reluctantly, her stepsister's head swiveled to meet her gaze. "What is it?"
"You shouldn't kiss a man who's clearly not your fiancé." Stating the obvious brought Eleanor no satisfaction.
Nor did it Clare. She wore a gorgeous pout.
"Fine." Lord Tumbridge left Clare and strode past Eleanor, leaving heat in his wake. "I'll shut the door."
When he pulled the massive wooden barrier closed, at once the strains of the waltz in the ballroom became distant and the room, cozy. Too cozy. Eleanor blushed to think what she'd interrupted.
"It's none of your business what we're doing in here." Clare apparently read her mind.
Eleanor pointed to the closed door. "You leave, both of you. Separately, of course, before Viscount Henly sees you." The thought of Clare's fiancé almost brought tears to her eyes. "How could you, Clare? He's so sweet. He loves you."
Clare swished over to her in her elegant pink satin, her patrician nose an inch from Eleanor's own snub one. "If you don't leave right now," she whispered in menacing tones, "I'm going to tell the Palmers to rescind your invitation to their house party."
"So?" Eleanor tilted her chin up, but inside she was unnerved. The Palmers were like her--bookish, in love with writing, and perfectly content to let her sit by their fishing pond and scribble all day if she'd like, rather than flirt and ride and make small talk. She adored them, and seeing them would be the highlight of her summer. She shrugged. "I like London in early summer. I'll be perfectly content here."
"That's so like you." Her stepsister shook her head. "Why do you even care about the viscount? Do you love him? Perhaps you're jealous."
"Don't be ridiculous." Eleanor sighed. "He's kind, and this is your first engagement ball. He's out there right now, beaming, he's so proud to become your husband. And you--"
She gulped, unable to finish the sentence.
Clare crossed her arms over her voluptuous bosom. "It's your own fault for barging in."
"I was only looking for a place to retreat for a moment." She had a new story idea, and she wanted to find a quill and paper to write it down.
But the details of that story escaped her when she peeked at the earl and saw him sitting in an armchair facing their direction. While she and Clare had been talking, he'd lit a cheroot from a lamp and was puffing away, his smoky gray eyes on hers.
"How can you simply sit there and act so uncaring?" Eleanor demanded to know.
He shrugged. "If I'm going to be trapped in here--"
"No one trapped you," she dared reply. "I seem to remember asking you both to leave separately."
"I suppose you did." He blew out a jet of smoke. "But the best idea is for you two to leave together. I'll stay in here a few minutes more, and then I'll slip out the front door. No one will be the wiser."
"Please. You can't leave the ball," Clare begged him.
Eleanor couldn't believe it.
"You've been in here too long already," the earl told Clare. "You should go."
"Not with her." Clare lifted a disdainful shoulder at Eleanor.
Which hurt, of course. There'd been a time when they'd been friends. But Eleanor merely folded her arms. "I can't go first. Because then you two would be in here together again. Alone." She hoped she came across as stubborn as Clare could be.
"All right." Clare rolled her eyes, and Eleanor couldn't help but be elated at her surrender. "I'll go first. And then, Eleanor"--she gazed at her with intense pique--"you follow one minute later. No more and no less. I don't want you to catch up with me."
"Very well." Eleanor didn't want to walk with her, either.
"And I also don't want you to linger here," Clare added.
"Why?" Eleanor was rapidly getting a headache.
Clare smoothed down her bodice. "I don't trust you with the earl."
"Me?" Eleanor heard a chuckle from the chair, and she turned to look at Lord Tumbridge, feeling absurdly insulted. "See?" She sent him a cool stare. "Even he thinks you're mad."
"You are being a tad possessive, Clare," the earl murmured--as if he had any sort of permission to address her in a familiar fashion.
Eleanor bristled while her blond beauty of a stepsister spun around to face Lord Tumbridge. "I don't for a minute think you and she would suit that way--Elly's as prudish as they come--but if anyone discovered you together alone, you'd have to marry her."
"You're right," Eleanor said with a wince. "Hurry and leave, Clare. Exactly sixty seconds later, I'll follow behind." She paused. "Make that fifty seconds."
"All right." Clare sulked, but when she looked back at Lord Tumbridge from the door, her expression softened. "Soon," she whispered. "I'll look for a note from you."
He stood. "Too busy for that, I'm afraid."
The blackguard, Eleanor thought, and tried not to note how manly and handsome he appeared in his evening dress.
"Perhaps I'll see you at the Morton masquerade," he concluded.
Clare, the foolish child, giggled. "I'll have to send you a note to let you know what costume I'm wearing."
A fresh surge of fury in Viscount Henly's behalf made Eleanor bold. "You two are shameless."
"And you're not?" Clare said. "I heard about what you did with Baron Easley."
Eleanor let out a soft gasp. "Did with him? But I don't even know Baron Easley."
She dreaded to think that Lord Tumbridge might be imagining her and the baron together in a wild seduction scene similar to his and Clare's. She tossed him a glance. Heavens, he was imagining her and the baron--either that, or enjoying her discomfiture. One side of his mouth was tipped up, and there was an enigmatic gleam in his eye that sent her heart racing--with indignation, of course.
"Clare, you wouldn't go that far," Eleanor persuaded her. "Surely not."
For a split second, her stepsister's eyes clouded, but then she tapped Eleanor's chest with a sharp-nailed finger. "I've already got all sorts of deliciously bawdy stories invented in my head about you and the baron. I suggest you not say a word about what you saw today if you don't want rumors about you two lovebirds spread about. Lord Andrew definitely won't come up to scratch then."
Oh, dear. Clare was full of herself--possibly too far gone--and her kissing session with the earl hadn't helped matters.
Eleanor opened her mouth to tell her stepsister that she wasn't sure she even wanted to marry Lord Andrew--he was scholarly, yes, but he had a rude habit of finishing her sentences for her and acting like a big baby when he didn't get his tea served with exactly two scant spoons of sugar--but Clare shut the door before she could speak, leaving Eleanor and the earl alone.
"Forty-eight seconds." He appeared far less bored with Clare gone.
Eleanor's heart gave a lurch of recognition: she could see the merest glimpse of the hero in his eyes, sense the supple energy of the hero in the way he flung out his arm to tap the cheroot into a small porcelain dish on a nearby shelf.
But, no, she reminded herself. A hero he was not. Here he'd been ravishing her stepsister not five minutes before.
"I can't believe you are he." She began to pace.
She stopped. "The masked man who saved Clare and me and the Sherwood siblings five years ago from a pack of robbers."
He rubbed his jaw. "What makes you think that?"
"Please. There's a distinctive tattoo on the small of your back." Your very tanned, muscled shoulder, she couldn't help thinking. "Clare had her fingers caught up in your shirt, and I saw, sirrah. I saw. So don't try to pretend you're not he." She stared at him, still incredulous. "I had thought him an angel rescuer. But you, my lord, are the devil incarnate. I feel tricked on a cosmic scale."
"Twenty-five seconds," he said.
She gave an exasperated sigh. "Is that all you have to say for yourself after what you've done today? Which is really only the culmination of several grievances I've cataloged against you, the primary one being your supreme arrogance."
He rose quickly and silently to his feet and placed his hands on her shoulders.
At his touch, Eleanor's heart began to thump even harder.
His gaze was on the door. "Get behind the drapes." His tone was soft, commanding. "Someone's coming."
"No, you." She backed away from him. "I'll pretend I'm here alone if someone comes in."
"Too late." He angled his head at the smoking stick in the dish.
"Dash it all." She scurried behind the royal blue velvet curtain.
The door swung open a second later. She bit her lip and prayed no one could see her slippers or the outline of her form.
"Oh, hello, Tumbridge." It was Lord Andrew. "Have you seen Lady Eleanor Gibbs? Someone said she was walking down this corridor some minutes ago. I wanted to escort her into supper."
"No, I'm afraid not," said the earl. She could tell he'd seated himself in the same armchair again. "Perhaps she's gone back already."
"All right, then." Lord Andrew didn't sound a bit frustrated. He never exhibited any unpleasant feelings--unless his tea was all wrong, of course. But other than that, he never did.
Eleanor was anxious to hear the closing of the door next. But instead, she heard the sound of a body plopping into a chair.
"So what brings you here alone?" Andrew asked the earl in a friendly manner.
Eleanor restrained a sigh.
"I needed to get away from the damned noise," said Lord Tumbridge. "Care for a smoke?"
"Thanks, don't mind if I do."
In her head, Eleanor cursed a blue streak, almost all her annoyance directed at Lord Tumbridge for luring Lord Andrew to stay. A tad of it went to Lord Andrew, as well. He was all too easily abandoning his mission to find her.
A few moments of silence passed. Eleanor blinked into the fuzzy velvet.
"You're looking less than your usual pristine self, Tumbridge," said Lord Andrew. "Your cravat's not in top form, and your hair--"
"Is always a bit of a mess," the earl said in a testy manner. "Are you taking my mother's place tonight?"
Lord Andrew gave a nervous chuckle. "Sorry. It's just that I saw a comely maid down the corridor. I thought perhaps you and she had bumped into each other, if you comprehend my meaning."
Ugh. Eleanor's whole body began to sweat in her velvet cocoon. She'd long thought her studious beau craved being one of the lads, but she'd never had evidence of it until now.
"I'd like to bump into her myself," Lord Andrew added hopefully.
Oh, you poor sod. It took everything in Eleanor not to throw off the curtain and tell him he'd never carry off the brute male act and to stop trying.
The earl responded to his unexpected smoking companion's attempt at bonding with a beat of stony silence, then said, "Let's discuss a more banal topic--marriage." Eleanor seethed. Of course, Tumbridge would think marriage banal. He lived for trifling pursuits. "Are you to offer for Lady Eleanor? Rumor has it you might."
She could barely restrain a yelp of outrage.
There was another pause.
"I think so," Lord Andrew replied without a lot of conviction.
Hot, red humiliation filled Eleanor from head to toe.
"She's a lovely girl," he went on, "and she'll make an excellent mother."
"Admirable qualities in a future wife," murmured Lord Tumbridge.
"Indeed," replied Lord Andrew.
Eleanor decided in that moment that lukewarm was a most unpleasant temperature--in soup and in compliments.
"Of course," Lord Andrew went on, "her stepfather is anxious to get her off his hands--now that he's got his own daughter well situated. Lady Clare's welfare was his priority, as it should be."
That addendum to his reasoning made Eleanor feel even more...beloved.
The smoking, apparently, went on unabated. And suddenly, she had the horrible feeling she was about to sneeze.
"I would've offered for her stepsister myself," Lord Andrew said into the silence. "Her dowry's bigger. And so is her bosom. But I was too late."
Men, thought Eleanor, and closed her eyes tight. The urge to sneeze left her. All that was left in its place was weary disappointment.
She heard someone stand.
"Yes, it's much too late to offer for the stepsister." It was the earl, and he was moving now, toward the door. "But I believe you've made the better choice."
Something in Eleanor brightened at that.
"Oh?" Andrew rose, as well, his shoes squeaking across the floor.
He was the squeaking sort.
"Yes, I think so," said the earl, opening the door. "Although I somehow doubt she'll have you."
She felt a reluctant gratitude.
The squeaking paused. "Why do you say that?"
"Just a hunch. If you want her, you'd best step up your efforts. Perhaps a stolen kiss wouldn't be untoward. Or romantic words. Quote from Shelley. Or even Shakespeare. One of his tragedies, so she recognizes your sensitivity."
Eleanor's hands slowly curled into fists.
"Right." Andrew sounded unsure. "Thanks for the advice."
"You're welcome," Lord Tumbridge said in a pleasant enough voice.
Damn him, thought Eleanor, and sucked in a shaky breath as best she could in the stifling curtain. She never in a million years thought she'd want to damn the man with the secret tattoo. Never. She'd wanted only to be in the same room with him. To thank him. To admire him. To bask in his bravery.
She spit a piece of velvety fuzz from her mouth. Yet here she was, wishing the man of her dreams to perdition.
James Dawbry, Earl of Tumbridge, shut the door behind the idiot Lord Andrew and quickly pivoted on his foot to face the curtains.
As expected, Lady Eleanor came flying out from behind them, her eyes flashing. She strode straight up to him and put her hands on her hips. "I hate you, Lord Tumbridge," she said low. "But you already know that."
"You'd hate Lord Andrew more if you ever had to marry him. I've saved you years of misery." The Brotherhood had had nothing to do with his helping to sabotage this particular romance. That had been a spur-of-the-moment decision on his part. "Perhaps you should consider thanking me."
"Why," she begged to know, "do you keep interfering in my life? What have I ever done to you?"
"Do you mind if I--?" He pointed to the jacket he'd cast off and thrown over a chair in the middle of his seduction of Lady Clare.
"Your hair needs arranging as well." Her tone was disapproving yet also distracted. She held her hands so tightly together, her knuckles were white. And her eyes--big and brown--were clearly troubled.
He kept his eye on her as he tucked his shirt in properly and donned the jacket, glad to see he'd made her blush despite the defiant glare she cast him.
"There's a pattern here," she said. "You--sabotaging my marital opportunities. As of this evening, not once but twice. And now you're after ruining Clare's." She looked around as if wishing for a frying pan with which to knock him over the head. Alas, there were none, so she merely skewered him with a damning look. "Not to mention you ruined my prospect for employment in Yorkshire."
Oh, yes. He had done. She'd never be the governess to a passel of brats on the dales now, nor the latest sexual conquest of their lecherous father.
"I've nothing against you, Lady Eleanor." Quite the opposite, in fact.
"I don't believe you." If her glare were a fire, he'd be nothing but ashes by now. "I'm going to find out why you're doing this," she said with all the passion of a wronged Athena, "with or without your cooperation."
She was shrewd, bold, and persistent. But what did he expect from the daughter of the founder of the Brotherhood?
"This isn't the time," he said coolly. "Go back to the ballroom."
He saw her pause, but then she drew herself up. "Perhaps I won't. Perhaps I'll stay with you."
He girded himself to ignore the heat flooding his veins. "Not advisable, my lady."
"Why? Are you afraid you might be brought up to scratch?"
He admired her bravado. "Not a bit." He moved lazily toward her. "Two can play that game."
His admiration went up a notch when he lifted her chin and she didn't flinch.
"Tell me what's going on," she whispered, her voice a balm to his soul. "It's really not fair."
He wished he could. He wished he could confide everything in her. But that wasn't possible. When he dropped his hand, it was the hardest thing he'd ever had to do.
"What's going on," he said in his practiced, jaded way, "is that you and I must part immediately. Good night."
He ignored the anger emanating from her in waves and held open the door.
Yet still she wavered.
"The longer you stay, the more likely we'll be discovered," he reminded her. "And you know what that would mean."
"Oh, all right." Despite her best efforts to intimidate him with her threatening tone, she let out a gusty sigh he found endearing. "You win tonight. But rest assured, I'm not going to sit back anymore and see you continue to play with me--and now Clare--the way a cat plays with a mouse."
She breezed by him, the scent of gardenias tantalizing his nostrils.
She refused to look back at him, but she did pause.
"I suggest you say nothing to anyone concerning my identity as your masked savior turned arch nemesis," he said quietly.
"Why shouldn't I?" Her tone was deceptively light.
"Because your life might depend upon keeping my identity that long-ago day a secret."
Slowly, she turned to face him. "What?" she whispered.
He looked deep into her eyes. "Things aren't always what they seem. Remember that."
And then he shut the door in her face before she could say anything back.
Heroes didn't exist.
At least, heroes in Eleanor's own life didn't, other than her late father, a quiet genius with a big heart.
And now her life was in danger.
How long had it been so?
The next morning, she felt raw, frightened, and angry. At their ten thirty breakfast, Clare was hostile. Nothing new, really. But she eyed Eleanor over her cup with a trace of fear in her eyes, too.
Clare was never so confident as she put on. In fact, when they were robbed, she'd been shaking all over, her hand clamped around Eleanor's arm--at least until Eleanor jumped out of the carriage.
What did Clare remember about the man on horseback who'd ridden up to save them?
"Tell me your plans this morning," Eleanor's mother, Lady Pritchard, said in expansive tones, looking at each of them in turn as if she were a charming queen and they were her devoted court.
She and Papa had been complete opposites. Eleanor often wondered how they'd come together.
Eleanor's stepfather, Lord Pritchard, was much more like Mother: vibrant, good-looking, sure of himself, politically astute.
"You know very well, dear, that I'm off to save the world." His smile was smug, as was the one Mother returned. "I've a grand speech to present today in Parliament."
"Well, then," said Mother archly. Eleanor knew she fancied herself bewitching.
"Parliament is in for a treat." She swiveled her slender neck to look at Clare and Eleanor. "Girls? Shall you be receiving this morning?"
Clare pushed her eggs about her plate. "No. I'm off to Pantheon Bazaar with Elsa."
Elsa was her best friend, another diamond of the first water a tad less attractive than Clare and not nearly so bright. Eleanor's stepsister wouldn't befriend any young ladies she considered true visual competition, and if it meant she had to endure stupidity, she would.
"I'm to pay a call on the Sherwood household," Eleanor said.
Mother drew in her youthful chin. "And why, pray tell?"
Eleanor shrugged. "I haven't had a good long chat with any of them in a very long time."
Her stepfather put down his cup of tea. "The Marquess of Brady is not a man of whom I'm terribly fond."
"Why is that?" asked Eleanor carefully. She wasn't fond herself of conversing with her stepfather, whom she always addressed as if they weren't related at all.
Mother and her husband exchanged silent glances.
"He's rather dull," said Lord Pritchard.
"Dull?" Eleanor couldn't help exclaiming. "He's one of the most entertaining gentlemen I know."
"It depends on your definition of entertaining." Mother's brow puckered as if they were discussing someone's unfortunate illness.
"Yes, if you call the Irish penchant for exaggeration a gift," said Lord Pritchard with a half-pitying smile.
"Are you suggesting he makes things up?" asked Eleanor between them.
"He does, my dear." Mother gave a great sigh.
"Well, of course, he does," Eleanor replied. "He's known as a supreme joke teller."
"Indeed," said Lord Pritchard on a yawn. "How many more anecdotes about Irishmen, attorneys, and priests meeting Saint Peter at the gates of Heaven must we endure?"
Eleanor pushed away from the table. Mother and Lord Pritchard were entirely jealous. That was the problem. They grasped at straws--and in illogical fashion--whenever someone threatened to cast them in shadow.
Clare was in good company, sadly.
Feeling alone, as she often did after interacting with her family, Eleanor climbed the stairs to her bedchamber to prepare for her visit to the Brady mansion. But dogging her steps was a sense of threat, thanks to the Earl of Tumbridge.
So her life depended upon her keeping his identity a secret?
Fine. She wouldn't tell anyone that she knew who the tattooed man was. But she was intent on going over everything else about that day, and she wouldn't allow the earl to intimidate her into not reexamining it.
She was going to find out what he was about, once and for all, and perhaps then, he'd leave her alone.
On her way back downstairs, she passed Clare coming up. They both stopped on the same step.
"Remember what I said last night," Clare hissed. "You and the baron. I've loads of stories."
Eleanor gripped the stair banister. "Do you remember that day we were stopped by highway robbers?"
"What does that have to do anything?" Clare's delicate brows lowered over her nose.
"Don't you care that I can destroy your reputation in an instant?"
"What do you remember about that day?"
Her stepsister huffed. "Really?"
"Why do you want to talk about it?" Clare pursed her lips in another wondrous pout. "It happened so long ago, and it wasn't pleasant."
"Because occasionally I've dreams about it," said Eleanor. "I did again, last night."
Which was true, although last night Lord Tumbridge had replaced her usual vision of the masked man. "I suppose I want to get it out of my mind, once and for all."
Also true. She especially wanted to purge her mind of dreams of the earl kissing her madly--he with no shirt on; she, caressing his tattoo, which had been inked at a tempting spot on his right shoulder. In the dream, her fingers curled around that shoulder to pull him closer.
"Very well." Clare surrendered with a graceful sigh. "I was excited to go on an impromptu visit to London with the Sherwoods, if only to escape the air of gloom at my house. Your mother stayed behind with my father, both of them mourning the loss of your father."
"Yes." Eleanor still felt a tinge of bitterness. "They made me go with you and the Sherwoods, even though it was the last thing on earth I wanted to do. I wanted to stay with Mother."
"You sulked in the carriage," Clare accused her.
"Of course I did." Eleanor was indignant. "If your father had just died on holiday with you in the Cotswolds, wouldn't you have?"
Clare's brow furrowed. "I suppose so, although I'd never go to the Cotswolds. I prefer Cornwall."
Eleanor couldn't help sending her a flat stare. "Please go on with your story."
"All right." Clare flung a curl off her neck. "You and your mother stopped at our house to find some support before you returned home to an empty house, but you were told you needed to go to London with me and the Sherwoods for some cheering up. You were furious that the Sherwood siblings came to escort us there."
"Yes, I was. We already established that, did we not?"
"But your mother is friends with Lady Brady. It was the least the family could do in your time of mourning. And we were only a brief stop off their regular route."
"I know all that," Eleanor gritted out, "but it doesn't negate the fact that no one cared what I wanted. Let's get to the actual robbery, shall we?"
"Wait. Are you paying me for this?"
"Then why am I--?"
"Because I asked you to," Eleanor reminded her. "What do you remember about the robbery?"
Clare's brow furrowed. "That the carriages suddenly lurched to a halt, which was frightening in and of itself. And then we heard shouting. We looked out the window and saw two robbers pulling Lord Westdale out of the boys' carriage. One began choking him when he fought back and managed to knock the pistol from the robber's hand. Lord Westdale was surprisingly strong for a boy of fifteen."
"Were you frightened?"
"Of course." Clare's eyes flashed annoyance. "I was only thirteen. I remember there was another scoundrel guarding our carriage. Lord Westdale's sisters were screaming and crying out the carriage window, despite the thug guard telling them to shut up. And then the carriage door flew open because the Sherwood girls were pressed against it."
It seemed that Clare had forgotten all about how much she didn't want to speak to Eleanor. "You pulled me toward the opening," she went on avidly, "and we could see much better then. Westdale's brothers jumped out of their carriage and threw rocks, and Lord Peter beat that robber's back with a stick, hard enough that Westdale almost broke free."
She was silent a few seconds.
"What then?" asked Eleanor.
"Both the two robbers and the boys were trying to get to the pistol," Clare said quietly, "while the tutor stayed in the carriage sobbing loudly and their coachman attempted to calm the horses from his box. They were stamping and whinnying when the pistol landed between them. And then you jumped out suddenly from the other door of our carriage, which had been closed, and I--I thought you were going to get killed for being so foolish."
Her face actually turned slightly pink at that point.
"Well, I obviously didn't," Eleanor said, feeling embarrassed at the sudden awkwardness between them. "I only wanted to help get to the pistol, but I couldn't." She paused. "How did you feel when the masked horseman made an appearance?"
"Surprised and impressed. Seeing him thunder up on a horse, throw himself off, and immediately dispatch the two robbers, then their guard...it was like a glorious theatrics enacted in front of us."
"It was," Eleanor murmured in agreement.
For a brief moment, they looked at each other without any animosity between them. There was even the sense that they'd shared in something that would usually bond anyone else.
"I wonder what they were after?" Clare's sincere interest surprised and somehow pleased Eleanor. "They didn't seem to care about the rest of us. Only Lord Westdale."
"I don't know."
"He was wearing that talisman around his neck, remember?" Clare relaxed her shoulders and leaned back against the banister, as if settling in for a coze.
"Yes, he was," said Eleanor, feeling some excitement. "I'd forgotten that he had it."
"Lord Robert found it in the cave by our house. He gave it to Lord Westdale the night before at dinner. We all passed it round first. Your mother said it might be dirty and we should wash our hands."
"She did," Eleanor murmured. "Then Westdale put it on a string around his neck. But it was such a modest token. It hardly seems as if it would be worth holding up two carriages for."
"But the robbers ignored the rest of us, didn't they?"
"Yes, but Westdale was the oldest and most likely to fight back. That could be why they picked on him."
"True." Clare's brow furrowed.
"You don't think--?"
"That the talisman was important somehow?" Clare asked.
"I don't know. I wonder now."
"I do, too."
"Thanks for speaking with me." Eleanor tossed her a light smile--any more, and her friendliness would set up Clare's hackles. "It's been enlightening. Have fun at the Pantheon Bazaar."
Clare didn't smile or speak, but when Eleanor looked over her shoulder at the stair landing, she saw her stepsister watching her thoughtfully.
There was no one else about, not even the butler. He'd gone back to the kitchens, apparently, likely for a quick cup of tea.
A gut inclination gripped Eleanor, and this time she would follow it. "Clare?" she called up the stairs when she opened the front door.
"What?" Clare's tone was resentful again.
"Do you ever question why my mother stayed behind that day? I mean, do you think she and your father were"--she could barely say the word--"together, even before my father died?"
Clare's eyes widened. "I--I don't know. I've often wondered."
"So have I."
They stared at each other a long moment. Clare's eyes grew so shiny, she blinked several times. Eleanor, clinging to the front doorknob, felt as lost and sad as her stepsister appeared.
"I'm your sister now," she told Clare in a firm, loving tone, "however we were brought together. And I have one bit of advice for you. If you want a life of misery, keep acting smug and superior, like our parents. But if you crave true happiness, then consider that Viscount Henly can offer you just that."
Before Clare could answer, Eleanor crossed the threshold into the outdoors and pulled the door shut behind her. It was a magnificent, sunny morning, the perfect climate in which to pull hidden hurts, old secrets, and unsolved mysteries out of the corner, dust them off, and expose them to the light of day.
In the weak light of a single candle in the kitchen of his London town house, James looked at the talisman he kept in his pocket at all times. It had been given to him by the late Lord Kersey, who'd taken him under his wing a few years after James's diplomat father, in talks with the Austrians at Vienna to declare war against France, had been killed in an ambush by an elite French team outside Hamburg on his way back to England.
It was Lord Pritchard, a white-faced Lord Kersey had told James one dark, rainy night, who revealed your father's location to the French. He did it to others, too. But he won't get away with it, James. We won't let him. And he'd put the talisman in James's hand, curling his fingers around it.
Now James studied the tiny crouched cat engraved on the talisman's copper surface. "I promise," he whispered to the cat before he put the small disk back in his pocket. To anyone else the practice might seem silly, but he said those two words every day before he left the house.
Lord Kersey had asked two things of him before he died: that James bring Lord Pritchard to justice if he didn't live to do the same, and to protect his daughter Eleanor.
For five years now, James had done his best to watch over his mentor's daughter. As for bringing Lord Pritchard to justice, he still hadn't done so. But as he lived and breathed, he would. It galled him every day to pretend that he didn't know the man had betrayed his country yet enjoyed a fine standing in the community.
Knowing that Eleanor resided under the traitor's roof was the worst part of all.
A mere seven hours after James had kissed Pritchard's daughter and tangled with her fiery stepsister, it was still pitch dark--and that one hour of opportunity between the last of the late-night revelers straggling home and the earliest servants awakening. James shut the gate of his back garden softly and began a purposeful walk down the alley, his cape pulled tight against the fog, his hat brim low on his head. He wended his way through silent streets and slipped into a small bakery as the first cock crowed.
"Pritchard's landed into debt again," he informed his superior in the Brotherhood, Ronald Stubing, proprietor of the Second Bun Bakery Shop, when he walked in. One of James's other Brothers, William Reeves, handed him a cup of coffee, for which he murmured his thanks.
"Lady Clare told me herself last night he's selling her off."
They'd gathered in the cramped back room of the bakery, where Stubing hunched over a worktable and punched dough.
Reeves was the head accountant at a thriving men's clothing store on Bond Street, the one Prinny himself patronized. He was a wizard with numbers and was the first to alert the Brotherhood who among the beau monde was in debt. If they couldn't pay their tailoring bills, that was a significant sign.
Reeves wrinkled his nose. "Could you be a bit less vigorous with the flour?" he asked Stubing and brushed his sleeve. "I've got to go straight to work after this."
Stubing paused in his kneading and glowered at him. "Do you mind?" he shot back in his thick Cockney accent. "We're talking about Satan's right-hand man, a retired Brother turned betrayer who's been sitting pretty and unchallenged for five years. I pity the daughter, shallow bitch that she appears to be, Tumbridge."
He glanced up at James.
"Yes, well, I pity her, too," James said. "Perhaps she'd have turned out differently in other circumstances." He thought about Eleanor, another daughter of a member of the Brotherhood, and of how perfect she was.
There was a rustle at the door, and Lord Patrick Griffin swept in, reeking of stale cheroot smoke and spirits. His eyes were bloodshot and his shirt rumpled. "Sorry I'm late," he said, and took off his slightly dented tall hat.
"We know why." Reeves didn't look a bit envious.
"You toffs and your easy jobs," Stubing muttered. "Either seducing spoiled debutantes or recruiting bits o' muslin to talk about their high-class customers. What a life, eh?"
Stubing had been one of the country's most prized sharpshooters in the war with Napoléon.
"A man has to do what a man has to do," Patrick said with a crooked grin. He'd been recruited into the Brotherhood after his twin brother, a brilliant negotiator with the Portuguese alliance during the Wars, had lost his life in mysterious circumstances. "But the truth is, I tease those lightskirts and don't bed them, Stubing, much as you'd like to imagine so."
Stubing scoffed. "I don't need to imagine nothing of the kind. I got my Mary at home, warm and cheery. She's got none of those diseases your girls do."
"One reason why I'm careful," Patrick said. "Ask James here. Believe it or not, it's challenging work pretending to be a drunken wastrel with a stone-cold heart."
"You learned from the master," said Reeves gleefully, looking at James. "No more sober man exists in London than Lord Tumbridge, yet who would guess?"
"The man's an expert at fake retching into his hat," chuckled Stubing. "Although the stone-cold heart is for real, at least when it comes to women. Ain't it, James?"
Patrick and Reeves laughed.
"Indeed," James muttered into his cup of coffee, and decided to bring the conversation back round to Lord Pritchard. He set his cup on a nearby shelf and leaned against the wide, rough back of the brick oven.
His friends didn't need to know that the warmth emanating from those bricks made him long for Eleanor. He'd give anything to hold her close, to feel the heat of her body pressed to his, to kiss her and make her his own. "I was just telling them, Patrick, that I think we might have caught our man at a weak moment. He's clearly in debt. His daughter's lamenting the fact that she has to marry Viscount Henly. She says her father believes Henly will solve all their money woes."
"It makes sense." Patrick hung his hat and cape on a hook by the door, next to James's.
"The top secret leaks these past eight months--they started after that big loss he had to Dupree on the green baize." He looked round at them all. "He's active again."
"Let me kill him," Stubing said, methodically filling pans with balls of dough, then covering them with a cloth. "It would make everything so much easier."
"No," said James. "Lord Kersey told me in no uncertain terms he'd rather Pritchard receive public condemnation and suffer in prison, and I agree."
"Scandal and prison won't make up for all the loyal diplomats and agents who died because of his greed during the war," Reeves added quietly.
"Nothing will bring them back." James was pensive. "But he craves approval more than anything. Being vilified by his peers and the masses, too, would torture him far worse than a quick death."
"Right," said Stubing, wiping his hands on his apron. He looked around at the lot of them. "We let him live. But we've got to get him. Soon. He's a loose cannon, and he needs to be brought down once and for all."
James pulled the treasured token with the cat engraved on it out of his pocket and held it up. "This talisman's mate is still out there. We don't have it, but neither does he. He's not even looking anymore. He made a quick, messy effort to get it, and when his thugs failed, he gave up because he didn't know what it meant. Or perhaps he did guess its true importance. What better way to make sure it remains lost than to let it stay in the hands of a big, rambling family like the Sherwoods?"
"Exactly," said Stubing.
"But we know what it means," said Reeves.
"And God knows we've been trying to find it," Patrick added.
"It will turn up," James assured his compatriots, "and when it does, Pritchard's life as he know it will be over."
There was a moment's silence as they all looked at the dull copper circle.
James blew a few motes of flour off it and put it back into his deepest pocket. "Today I'm going to risk talking to the Sherwoods about the robbery. I looked over the old reports again, but there's still nothing that leaps out at me. Lord Westdale never mentioned the talisman to the constables. He probably didn't realize it was what they were after."
"But we know he had it," said Reeves.
A bribed servant in Lord Pritchard's house had told James so, the same servant who'd also informed James that Lord Pritchard had sent the thugs after the two Sherwood carriages carrying the six siblings, as well as Lady Eleanor and Lady Clare, to London.
Stubing sighed. "The servants in the House of Brady, even after all these years, are too damned loyal. When I was among them, it was like pulling teeth to get them to say anythin' about the family, much less talk about a talisman that might be tucked away in a drawer in the house."
"And as for speaking with the Sherwood family itself," James said, "I know we've also reached a dead end. But I hope you don't regret now that we drew a line in their case--no seduction of the young ladies. No setting up friendships with the boys only to drop them later."
Patrick scratched his jaw. "Damn us for taking the high moral ground."
"Which we abandon when we have to," James reminded him, and remembered how he'd kissed the selfish Clare, much to his distaste. "We know in our gut when we can and when we must."
"Well, the Sherwood brood can't know you were at the robbery, Tumbridge," Reeves warned him. "Your maintaining cover is more important than our finding that talisman."
"Is it?" asked James. "For five years, I've agreed with you. But now I don't." Eleanor's face came to him. "How much longer can we pretend we're oblivious of Pritchard's perfidy? If I risk being exposed by pushing too hard on the Sherwoods, then so be it."
"You're too clever to bungle this, James," said Patrick. "It's our only hope, really. We've come to the end of the road. We've ransacked the Brady house on Grosvenor Square--what, four times now when the skeleton staff was there?"
They were each expert burglars.
"And if I have to take another bloomin' trip to Ireland to paw through Lord Brady's estate looking for that thing, I'll wind up shooting myself." Stubing made a face. "The blue-smocked housekeeper there don't take kindly to servants with Cockney accents."
"That's not it." James grinned. "She fired you--"
"'Cause I didn't make that soda bread the way the marquess likes it," the baker interrupted him with a great deal of temper. "Damn her for her impertinence. I make the best soda bread in the world!"
"Well, she dismissed me for being too slow with the candlestick polishing." Reeves huffed. "I'm detail-oriented, more than she. I think she was jealous."
"Good thing she takes a few drinks once a year on her birthday," said Patrick. "It's coming up, by the way. Are we making another trip?"
Stubing groaned. "Oh, God, please no. Someday, she'll catch us. I fear her more than I do the end of a rifle. Or Mary when she's in labor."
James chuckled. "All the more reason to call on the Sherwoods this morning. Only Lady Janice and her younger sister Cynthia are in Town, but they and their mother will have to do. Perhaps one of them will drop a clue about the talisman's whereabouts."
"I don't know." Stubing scratched his head. "Maybe we should keep going, wait for him to slip up, or to die--"
"No," said James. "Because Lady Eleanor is next on the chopping block. I doubt Pritchard will be long satisfied with Clare's dupe to settle his debts. He's probably accruing new ones as we speak."
"Yes, Viscount Henly's wealth isn't as vast as he lets on." Reeves shrugged. "He cuts corners at the shop when he can."
"Not a good sign," James said. "Plus Lady Eleanor's caught on that I'm involved in her life a little too much, and she's out to find out more about me."
"That's a bit of a mess, Tumbridge." Stubing stuck out his stubbly chin. "I might have to dock you a week's pay for that. How did that happen?"
James sighed and told them about the night before, from the moment Lady Eleanor burst in on him kissing Clare to her hiding behind the curtain when Lord Andrew Wells showed up. "The fool hoisted himself on his own petard, but she blamed me, as I purposely brought up the whole matter of his proposing to her. She took the opportunity to let me know she hated me for always ruining her life."
"But we've nothing against him," Reeves protested. "The other one who was after her, however--"
"The one we invented a job for in Australia, Rupert Hawthorne--," said Patrick.
"Yes," continued Reeves, "that one was an out-and-out bounder."
"I know," said James. "But Lady Eleanor recently found out through Hawthorne's sister that I'm the one who steered him in that direction. She said she'd have thought nothing of it except that I also ruined her chances for a governess position in Yorkshire six months ago."
Stubing slapped a floury palm to his forehead. "Just what we need. How'd she figure that out?"
"She wouldn't accept the estate owner's letter telling her he'd changed his mind about employing her," James said. "She wrote the housekeeper, who told her that her master was dissuaded from hiring her by a talkative henchman who couldn't handle their potent Yorkshire beer and told her he'd been hired by me. Said henchman has since discovered--with my help--that he's better off in America."
"And what if Lord Pritchard knows you arranged for her to lose that job?" asked Reeves.
"He might," said James. "But I doubt it. Lady Eleanor wouldn't tattle to a man she despises, and he doesn't care enough. Even if he did, I'd tell him I did it as a favor to him to protect his stepdaughter. The baron in Yorkshire was an unfit employer, a seducer of governesses. How angry can Pritchard be with me about that? He'll look cold-blooded if he is, and that's the last thing he wants to appear."
"Understood," said Stubing, "but as for Wells, we've got nothing on him but that's he's a bit lacking in social polish and has an excessive amount of pride." He eyed James balefully.
"You shouldn't have interfered last night. Lord Kersey said protect her, but he didn't mean suffocate her. She's an intelligent young woman. She'd have figured out Wells on her own."
"I know. I took it too far." James said nothing else. What could he say? That he was in love with her? He didn't even want to admit it to himself, much less anyone else.
"You don't want her with anyone, do you?" asked Reeves without a trace of his usual disparaging tone.
Ah, the truth always came out, sooner or later, with or without help. Which sometimes made James's occupation as a expediter of truth feel redundant to him--even hypocritical, because he had to hide his true identity to bring those truths to light.
"No," he admitted to his friends in a low voice. "I don't want her with anyone else."
He fell in love with her during the one waltz they'd shared--the one in which she'd upbraided him for interfering with her goal to become a governess in Yorkshire. During that dance, he'd been everything she expected him to be: aloof, rude. He'd refused to explain his actions in Yorkshire, and she'd been properly angry.
But the spark in her eyes had mesmerized him; her spirit had awakened something in him he'd no idea he possessed: a sense of longing--
For someone who really knew and understood him.
By the end of the waltz, he realized it wasn't just any bright, strong, and kind woman he longed to look favorably upon him--to love him--rather than scorn him.
There was only one woman whose heart he longed to possess, and that was Eleanor.
From the first time he'd seen her as a young girl, she intrigued him. But until that moment in the ballroom, she'd always been just that--a girl. Not a woman. Above all, she'd been an obligation, one he'd undertaken willingly and with a heart dedicated to his mentor's memory.
But after a few spins about the dance floor and a softly delivered but spirited tirade--an entirely reasonable one, if one considered the matter from her point of view--she'd become something precious to him, all on her own.
Something precious he couldn't have.
"It's a bit dicey," he said, "but I'll not let any personal feelings get in my way. Trust me."
"But if you love her the way I love my Mary," Stubing said, "you might lose your head when we need you to keep it."
All three of his fellow members of the Brotherhood looked at him with skeptical concern.
"I said I'd handle it." He was annoyed with himself for confessing. "We've gambled long enough. Pritchard's our priority. All others must fall by the wayside, including my future in the Brotherhood and--" He paused. "--my foolish interest in Lady Eleanor."
"It's not foolish," said Patrick quietly.
"It is when the lady despises you," said James, "for good reason."
"But James--," Stubing began.
James held up his hand. "I'm not at liberty to correct her perception of me. I knew that when I signed up for this duty." He knew he was glowering, but so be it. "Let's move on. Reeves, who's the latest dandy to fall into serious debt?"
The drawing room at the Brady mansion was overflowing with morning callers when Eleanor arrived. She couldn't help feeling a bit nervous. This self-reliant household was one of the most popular among the beau monde, and for good reason.
The blended family the Marquess and Marchioness of Brady had created when they wed was charming, each member colorful and compelling--especially as they refused to kowtow to the bland expectations of the polite world.
It seemed the only approval they required for being who they were was each other's.
No wonder outsiders wanted to become a part of the Brady world in any way they could.
"Lady Eleanor Gibbs," their butler, Burbank, announced to the crowd.
The marchioness, her vivid blue eyes sparkling and her white-blond hair coiled high on her head, looked up from her conversation with a matron in an emerald gown and a peacock feather in her hair. "Why, Lady Eleanor," Lady Brady said, "it's been such a long time!"
Everyone else in the room seemed to stop and stare. Eleanor wasn't exactly a social butterfly. Much like her father, she enjoyed her own company. When she wasn't occupied with obligatory social functions, she preferred to meet one or two friends at the circulating library or for walks through the park. And when she was entirely alone, her favorite pastime was to sit at her desk and write stories about a mysterious tattooed hero and his daring lady love.
So far, she'd sold three, anonymously, to a small publisher in London.
"It's lovely to be here," she said as two golden-haired young ladies sprang from their chairs, came one on either side of her, and took her elbows.
"You must sit by me, Eleanor," the younger one said. She was Cynthia, and probably no more than fourteen. "Mama said I could join her today. The Jensen sisters always demand toast and need help preparing it. And Mrs. Pepper is here. She always talks Mama's ear off--"
"Cynthia," said the other young lady--Janice, a lithe beauty who must have been home between terms at her boarding school in Switzerland. As Eleanor recalled, she probably would make her come-out the following year.
Cynthia blushed. "Sorry," she whispered.
"You can sit between us, Elly," suggested Janice, and gave her arm a squeeze. "You know we always love to see you. You're like a sister, you know."
Their enthusiasm touched her heart. Eleanor didn't know what it was like to have a sister who genuinely cared for her.
"Yes, we've all taken baths together," said Cynthia stoutly, and plopped down on the sofa. "At least that's what Mama told me. I don't remember. I was too young."
Eleanor and Janice laughed.
"Yes, we did bathe together," said Eleanor lightly. "How we all managed to fit into the copper tub is beyond me. Marcia and I took turns holding you. That was the secret to our success."
Janice and Eleanor exchanged a fond look. Those days were long ago, when Eleanor's father had been alive and he and Mother had often taken her to stay with the Sherwoods.
"It really has been too long," Eleanor said, laying her hand on both girls' arms. "I'm sorry I've been so...distracted."
She had. Nothing was the same since Papa had died and she'd had to get used to her stepfather.
But the sad truth was, Mother had not been a great friend to the marchioness, especially after Papa died. It was as if a wall had sprung up between them. The Sherwoods had made overtures, but Mother and Lord Pritchard always seemed to find something else to do.
And time had passed. Happy childhood memories faded.
But today, it was as if it were old times again.
"Janice, I want to hear all about boarding school," Eleanor said. "I long to see the Swiss Alps. Are they as beautiful as paintings portray them? And Cynthia, what are you studying these days?"
Both Janice and Cynthia were happy to relate their latest news and interests and catch her up on family gossip. Marcia was still at her school in Surrey, having just achieved the status of headmistress. Peter and Robert were away at Exeter, Peter in his final year before he was off to Cambridge. And Gregory, Lord Westdale, had recently finished his studies at Oxford.
Eleanor sighed. "My goodness. And Lord and Lady Brady? How are they?"
"In fine health and very happy," said Cynthia. "They always act as if they got married yesterday."
Janice bit her lower lip. "Yes, they do. Sometimes we feel quite de trop."
"What does de trop mean?" asked Cynthia.
Eleanor leaned down to her ear. "It means your mother and stepfather are very much in love."
Cynthia grinned. "Oh, I knew that."
The tea tray was brought round by a helpful footman. After Eleanor had fixed hers, she looked between her two companions. "Girls, it's been five years now since we had that high adventure on the road back to London from Dover."
Janice sat up higher. "What a scene."
"Yes," said Cynthia. "I'll never forget it."
"Neither will I," said Eleanor. "I'd like to hear your memories of that day."
"You would?" Cynthia's eyes were wide.
"Not if it's too painful for you," Eleanor added hastily.
"Oh, no, it's not that," Cynthia said. "It's just that Lord Tumbridge has already called on us this morning and asked about the very same thing!"
"He did?" Eleanor felt her whole body heat.
Janice gave a vigorous nod. "He didn't mean to, really. But he was telling Mama about a friend of his who'd recently been robbed on the road to Dover, and Mama told him that once all her children, you and Lady Clare, and Gregory's tutor had been robbed, too, on the same road and near the same place."
Eleanor's heart began to thump. "So what did you tell Lord Tumbridge?"
"Everything," Cynthia said with relish. "Especially the part about the unlucky talisman."
Eleanor grinned. "I believe we could have called everything that day rather cursed."
Except for the wondrous appearance of the masked man with the secret tattoo, she couldn't help thinking, despite everything she knew about him now.
Janice laughed. "So you remember the talisman Robert found?"
"Oh, yes," said Eleanor. "He was so excited, he tripped at the mouth of the cave on his way out and cut his jaw."
"He still has a scar," said Cynthia.
"And then Peter," Janice went on, "dropped it in the stable at your house, and a stallion kicked him."
"Cynthia," remonstrated her big sister. "He limped for a week."
Cynthia bowed her head, but then she looked quickly up. "But we still hadn't figured out that it was bad luck. Gregory put it on a string and wore it around his neck that night--remember?"
"Yes, he showed it to the entire table at dinner," Eleanor said. Her stepfather had gazed at it a long while. Mother had simply passed it on. Unless an item of jewelry was made of gold or precious gems, she wasn't interested.
"And when we left the next day," Janice went on, "Gregory was still wearing it on a string around his neck when we were robbed."
"Do you recall how the robber was choking him and he couldn't breathe?" Cynthia asked her.
"Yes," said Eleanor in a whisper. She remembered all too clearly.
"The boys and I think it was the bad luck of the talisman that made that happen," Cynthia said. "Which is why Janice got rid of it."
"You did?" Eleanor saw a little old lady across from them demanding attention with her toast.
"The elder Miss Jensen needs you," Janice whispered to Cynthia.
"All right," Cynthia said reluctantly, and went to assist her with the spreading of jam on her toast.
Janice rolled her eyes. "You can make the argument that the talisman actually saved Robert from a worse gash, or perhaps prevented Peter from being kicked in the head. As for Gregory, it might have protected him from being killed by those robbers." Janice smiled and shrugged. "So Marcia and I only pretended to get rid of it."
"I like how you think." Eleanor smiled back. "Do you have it here?"
Janice nodded. "Would you like to see it?"
They made excuses to Lady Brady. Cynthia sent them burning looks as she sat dutifully attending the Jensen sisters. Upstairs, Janice led Eleanor to a bedchamber with three beds.
"We're all three in the same room still," she said with a laugh. "We've never bothered to move mine or Marcia's things, and we enjoy the rare times we can still be together." A small wrinkled formed on her smooth brow. "Although the few days Marcia has come to London the past several years, she's never stayed over."
"Really? She's only in Surrey."
"I know." Janice sighed. "But she's terribly busy during the school year. We see her in Ireland in the summers, and that's it. But I'm busy, too, so I can't complain about her absence. I have one more term to go at my boarding school in Switzerland. Perhaps next year when I make my come-out, I'll have my own bedchamber."
"I think it's lovely," Eleanor said, feeling wistful. She and Clare had never slept in the same bedchamber, ever. When the Sherwood girls were together, did they talk at night? Laugh? Share stories?
Of course, they must. She remembered those long-ago nights when she'd been among their number. She'd squeezed in with Marcia, usually, as they were the closest in age.
Quickly, before loneliness could grip her, she focused on what Janice was doing.
"I have a key here," Janice murmured, and opened a jewelry box. "It goes to a tiny tin satchel I gave to Cynthia long ago for her favorite doll, Kitty."
"No," said Eleanor. "The talisman's in Kitty's satchel?"
"Yes." Janice giggled. "That's my latest hiding place. I usually keep it with me at boarding school." She took the key and opened the little satchel. "It's wrapped in rice paper, and Cynthia hasn't guessed it's there. She doesn't play with Kitty anymore, but she likes having her nearby. Am I entirely awful for hiding the token there?"
"Yes." Eleanor chuckled. "You're wicked."
Janice blushed. "I think Cynthia's old enough that right before I leave and take it back with me to school, I'll tell her about it. I want to prove to her that one shouldn't let superstitions rule a person. A woman has a mind as sharp as a man's, and she should use it. They've plenty of superstitions in Switzerland, and I refuse to believe any of them. As for my brothers and their silliness over the matter of the talisman, I think most of that was put on to frighten Cynthia--the blackguards."
"Indeed," said Eleanor, but she could tell Janice didn't really think they were. She didn't, either.
"We tease each other quite a bit," Janice explained. "It's all in fun."
"I like that about your family. Things are never dull."
When Janice handed Eleanor the engraved copper circle, she felt an instant connection with it. She remembered now how excited they'd all been that Robert had found it near the mouth of the cave in a small recess beneath a rock he'd lifted to examine.
The disk was cold in her fingers, a dull green color, and on its surface was a primitive cat in a pouncing position. A crude hole was bored in the circle's top, perfect for attaching a leather string or chain.
"It looks somehow familiar to me," she said slowly. "And not because I saw it five years ago. I'm almost sure I recognize--"
And then she stopped speaking.
"What?" Janice's voice was insistent. "What is it, Eleanor?"
"Nothing," she said lightly. "It was merely a trick of the light."
But it wasn't. The earl's tattoo was composed of cat figures just like this one.
Janice peered at her. "Are you sure you're all right?"
Eleanor gave a quick nod. "Simply intrigued, that's all."
She wouldn't have been able to explain to Janice, even had she wanted to. Eleanor had been the only one to see the tattoo on the Earl of Tumbridge's shoulder during the robbery. It had been a circular image of three cats in pouncing positions, their tails entwined at the center of the design.
She turned the talisman over to examine the underside, upon which were etched some peculiar marks, almost like Egyptian hieroglyphs or Eastern script.
"I wonder what it means?" She looked at Janice, who was watching her with interest.
"Yes, it's fascinating, isn't it?"
"Have you ever wanted to take it to a jeweler or a museum curator?"
"I thought about it but never bothered. It seems so modest an object in every other way." Janice looked vaguely worried. "Do you think it might be very old?"
"I don't know," said Eleanor. "Perhaps it's a freemason's badge, which means it could be fairly new." She still felt shocked at recognizing the cat figure; her mind raced with possibilities.
"Take it," Janice said out of the blue. "You can return it to me next year when I come back from Switzerland. Meanwhile, if you want to get it examined by an expert on relics or even a freemason, please feel free." She laughed. "Wouldn't it be marvelous if it were actually of some importance?"
"It would be quite ironic." Eleanor smiled. "Thank you. I will take it. Were you and your brothers and sisters carrying anything of value that day?"
"No. The carriage holding our trunks went ahead of us. We had only a few small bags, as you know, between us, to tide us over until we got to London. And Mother always insisted we not travel in a garish manner."
"Could the robbers have been after the talisman?"
Janice let out a small squeak. "What if they were? It never occurred to me. You really must get it examined now."
"It's a good thing no one was able to steal it from you," Eleanor said.
"Why?" Janice's eyes were wide.
"I think you're right. I believe it's of some importance--if not to us, to someone else, at the very least."
What did the cat and the odd symbols mean? And what did the talisman have to do with Lord Tumbridge? He must have wanted to procure it that day and had followed the Sherwood carriages--him and those robbers. Had they been working together? Or separately?
Then again, perhaps no one had wanted the talisman at all. Perhaps Eleanor's imagination was running away from her. She'd come today to the Brady mansion hoping for answers, and surely, she was deluding herself into thinking she was getting some.
But Lord Tumbridge must have had a reason for following their carriage--and for wearing a mask to protect his identity.
And that strange code must mean something.
Eleanor hoped that particular something would bring her closer to understanding why the earl had been interfering in her life ever since that robbery happened--and why her life might be in danger now.
She closed her hand over the supposedly unlucky copper disk and prayed that her father was watching over her.
Almost as soon as James returned to his house from his visit to the Brady mansion on Grosvenor Square, he turned back around and headed there again. He'd promised Lady Brady to show her his father's last painting. It was in James's hands now, and he was inordinately proud of it. It depicted him and his father fishing, one of their favorite pastimes. He knew the marchioness hadn't asked to see it right then, but why not?
He raced up the stairs just as the door opened at the Brady house and Lady Eleanor Gibbs came out, tying her bonnet under her chin.
"Lord Tumbridge!" she exclaimed.
"Lady Eleanor!" He was one step below her.
She gave a last tug on her bow, her face framed beautifully within its straw brim.
He held up the painting. "My father painted this. Lady Brady wanted to see it."
She looked at the painting with a great deal of interest, then back at him. "Lord Tumbridge?"
"It's a lovely painting." Her tone was warm, admiring.
"It is, isn't it?" He grinned at her, foolishly pleased that she liked his father's work.
"Yes." But then she bit her lip and looked at him as if he were someone she'd never seen before. "It--it's something I'd long to have in my own house."
Her face, he noticed, was paler than usual.
And then he realized what was happening. His heart sank, and he looked down at the painting to compose himself. When he looked up again, his expression was cynical and bored. "I suppose it's all right for an amateur."
Her eyes instantly clouded. "Who are the man and boy? You and your father?"
He shrugged. "I've no idea. Excuse me, my lady. I've a commitment to fulfill."
He hoped he'd made it sound the veriest chore to visit with Lady Brady. With a quick, careless movement, he slung the beloved painting under his arm and walked past Eleanor into the house.
Lady Janice stood on the stairs. "Back for more, Lord Tumbridge?" She laughed. "Aren't you brave!"
He looked over his shoulder. The butler was approaching the door to shut it. But before he did, James saw Eleanor looking back up at him, her brown eyes puzzled, and then scurry off, her reticule swinging madly from her hand.
That night, Eleanor was off to another ball in a luxurious carriage with her mother, stepfather, and Clare. Viscount Henly would meet Clare at the gathering, where Eleanor hoped to see Lord Tumbridge, as well. All afternoon and evening, she'd secretly replayed their meeting on the steps at the Brady mansion.
She'd almost literally been bowled over by the earl's charm, his happy grin, and his warmth. But then it had all disappeared in an instant, and she had to wonder if she'd imagined it.
Not that she had time to daydream about handsome, mysterious earls. In the carriage, Lord Pritchard sat directly across from her, his large knees knocking into hers. He made no effort to turn sideways, even a little, to alleviate the situation, as most gentlemen did.
"How was your visit to the Sherwoods today?" he asked her.
She sent him a tight smile. She'd never liked him, not from the very beginning, when he'd come visit Papa and Mother and pretend to be fond of her. She could see in his eyes that he wasn't at all. Yet when she'd mentioned it to her parents once at dinner, Mother had scolded her for being unfriendly. And Papa hadn't contradicted Mother. He'd sat with an uncertain look in his eye and hadn't say a word in Eleanor's defense.
Her parents' lack of belief in her that day--Mother's insistence that she carried unnecessary hostility toward Lord Pritchard and Papa's silence on the matter--had gone far to making Eleanor the quiet girl she became. Never again had she shared with her parents or any close friends her perceptions of people--in case she were mistaken about them.
She revealed her observations in stories. She followed her intuition only on the page.
"It was a lovely visit," she said now to her stepfather. "Lady Brady was her usual gracious self. Thank you for asking."
"Did you find out anything more about the talisman?" Clare asked her, their hips and shoulders touching as the carriage swayed.
"The talisman?" Lord Pritchard asked sharply.
"Yes, Father," said Clare. "Remember the copper talisman Lord Robert found in the cave near Summer's End?"
"I do," interjected Mama, her gold-spangled shawl setting off her beautifully rounded shoulders. "It was a bit crude, wasn't it?"
"Yes," said Clare. "There was an etching on it of some sort. I don't remember what it was. But it was distinctly primitive."
"It wasn't much of a talisman, if you ask me," said Lord Pritchard. "It could have come from a penny shop." He looked at Eleanor. "Why would you want to ask the Sherwoods about it, especially all these years later?"
"No good reason, really," she said. "I've had occasional dreams about the robbery. I was asking Clare what she remembered about that day--"
"We wondered if the robbers were after the talisman," said Clare, excitement in her voice. "They didn't take anything else."
"Oh?" asked Mother.
"But perhaps they might have," Eleanor said, "if the masked man hadn't shown up and scared them off."
"True," said Clare.
"Masked man? I never heard about him," protested Lord Pritchard.
"Oh, I told you," Mother replied breezily. "One of the robbers wasn't working with the others; that's what Eleanor described in her letter. Remember?"
"No," said Lord Pritchard in short, clipped fashion. He always hated being the last to hear gossip or news.
"Mother, I didn't actually say that," Eleanor corrected her gently. "I said there was a separate man who came upon the scene. He was there to frighten away the robbers."
"But, Eleanor, I read your letter," Mother insisted. "He was a robber, too. He wore that mask."
Mother crossed her arms and lofted one finely arched brow. "I know of what I speak, young lady. You were a mere child at the time. I was, and am, your mother."
Eleanor suppressed a sigh. She couldn't tell Mother anything. First, Eleanor had been fifteen at the time of the robbery--hardly a mere child. And her mother didn't really care what Eleanor ever did and probably had given only a cursory glance to the letter. Second, even if Mother were wrong, she'd never admit it.
"Enough," said Lord Pritchard, scowling. "This whole story sounds like a theatrical drama gone bad. It's over and done with."
"I do admit we might be getting away with ourselves," Eleanor admitted sheepishly to Clare.
"True." Clare's cheeks turned pink. "The talisman might have come from a fair, for all we know."
"Or a gypsy caravan," Eleanor suggested.
Absurdly, they both burst into giggles. Eleanor wasn't usually a giggler. But perhaps it was because she'd rarely had anyone with whom to giggle. It was rather nice, actually, especially as Clare's eyes twinkled when she looked at her.
Eleanor felt a burst of happiness. And hope.
But when she looked up, Lord Pritchard was stony-faced.
"It's good to see you two getting along," Mother said with a tentative smile.
"I fear you both have too much time on your hands." Lord Pritchard was being quite the grump, worse than usual. He put on a sanguine air for the world, but at home he could be quite surly.
"Oh, it's nothing, Father." Clare waved a gloved hand. "I've got the wedding to occupy my thoughts anyway."
"Good." He sounded slightly assuaged, although his pique was still evident in his ruddy cheeks and downturned mouth.
An awkward thirty seconds passed. The carriage rumbled on, past the stately townhomes and shops of Mayfair, London's wealthiest district.
Mother sighed and flung the end of her shawl over her shoulder. Clare examined her delicate fingers, one of which was soon to wear a wedding ring.
Eleanor couldn't help thinking of the Earl of Tumbridge. Would he ever marry? And if so, what kind of woman would he deign worthy of his regard?
She'd no idea. He was an enigma to her.
One thing she was certain of, however, was that she longed to catch a glimpse of his tattoo again.
But she never would, would she? It was an act of fate that she'd opened the door at the ball at the precise moment Clare ran her hand beneath Lord Tumbridge's shirt and caused it to slip and expose his shoulder.
Eleanor bit her lip to restrain another entirely extraneous giggle. Thank God Clare was a bit of a hussy.
And then she sobered again. Without her stepsister, Eleanor would still be in the dark about the fact that her life could possibly be in danger--at least according to the earl--and that there were secrets she must uncover. And without Clare, she'd never have discovered the identity of the man she'd fallen in love with at age fifteen.
Her masked hero didn't out to be who she imagined him to be, but at least the mystery had been solved. That was something.
When she'd woken up this morning, Eleanor tried to convince herself that it was best for her not to live in a fantasy world, outside of her stories. But her heart still hurt, and her disappointment in her hero's current behavior weighed heavily on her spirits.
"You look prettier than I've ever seen you," she whispered to Clare now.
Clare tossed her a grin. "Thank you. And you look lovely, too." She cocked her head.
"I've never seen you in such a becoming blue. When did you get that gown?"
Eleanor shrugged, feeling embarrassed. "I happened to find it in a shop, already made, this afternoon, on the way back home from my visit to the Sherwoods. I--I was a bit impulsive and bought it on the spot. It needed only the slightest alteration."
"I agree with Clare," said Mother in that knowing voice she loved to adopt at every opportunity. "You look striking." She peered closer. "Indeed, I'd say you look lovelier tonight than I've ever seen you. You have the rosy look of a woman in love. Has Lord Andrew captured your heart?"
Eleanor blushed. "No, Mother. Not at all. I think perhaps I'm overheated, that's all. The carriage is a bit stuffy, isn't it?"
Mother didn't look at all convinced. Neither did Clare.
"I promise you," Eleanor said in firm tones, "I'm not in love with Lord Andrew." She paused. "Or anyone else."
She looked out the window and thought of Lord Tumbridge--heated, inappropriate thoughts of him--but then she remembered him kissing Clare.
She released an inaudible sigh. Where are the heroes? she asked herself.
And where is home? She'd felt a glimmer of it with Clare, here in this carriage. But it wasn't to be found with Mother and Lord Pritchard.
Yet somewhere, she reassured herself--because she was her father's daughter, ever optimistic, ever hopeful--somewhere, home still existed.
She needed only to find her way back to it.
"Who's got the blasted talisman now?" her stepfather asked out of the blue.
Eleanor suppressed a stab of annoyance. Hadn't he only just now told them to stop going over the subject? But all three occupants of the carriage looked expectantly at her.
"I--I don't know," she said, not sure why she felt compelled to lie.
Lord Pritchard's eyes bored into hers. "Did you not see it today?"
An odd sense of caution dancing lightly down her arms made a tight wall of her belly. There was something about the way he'd asked the question.
What did her stepfather care about the blasted talisman?
"No," she said lightly, and wished Clare had never brought the subject up. "I think the Sherwoods must have lost it."
His facial expression didn't change, but she sensed rather than saw a relaxing of his back against the luxurious black leather squabs.
Once again, Eleanor had to fight hard to suppress her loathing of her stepfather. After the carriage stopped, he got out first, then reached up to take her hand and help her alight on the pavement.
When he released her, for a moment their gazes met, and she saw unfettered dislike in his eyes.
The feeling is distinctly mutual, she said back with her expression, and turned to walk up the pavement to the mansion blazing with candlelight. The sounds of laughter, talking, and violins poured forth from its open windows and front doors.
But the closer she got to the house, the more nervous she became that she'd let her guard down.
She'd no idea why she should be worried. And what could her mother's husband do to her anyway?
Soon she'd be gone. She'd written several other families and was only waiting to hear if one of them would require her services as a governess. This time, however, she'd have to warn the Earl of Tumbridge not to interfere again, for whatever strange reason he was doing so.
Once again, she wondered if he would be at the ball. A part of her craved to see him, and it wasn't the part that wanted to censure him. Whatever her mind told her, her body longed to feel his touch again but closer this time. She wanted to feel his body against hers, to know what it would be like to bury her own fingers in his hair and kiss him, openmouthed and with abandon, the way she'd seen Clare kiss him. She longed to feel his hand caress her own back and bottom.
Eleanor wanted the man with the secret tattoo, and the man on the steps at the Brady mansion, and even if it meant she had to kiss the rude, aloof Earl of Tumbridge--the man who had no honor, no shame--to get him, she was severely tempted.
But much to her disappointment, Lord Tumbridge never appeared. She had to content herself with seeing Clare smile at the bedazzled Viscount Henly as if she meant it when he asked her to waltz with him for the third time.
Love, Eleanor thought, her heart warming at the vulnerable expression on her stepsister's face. It could start as a whisper. Or a glance. Or the feel of someone's hand clasping your own in the middle of a waltz--
Even a waltz in which you're haranguing someone for interfering in your life.
"No, it can't," Eleanor murmured aloud into her glass of sparkling wine.
But one glance down at the blue satin gown she'd so carefully donned in the hopes that the earl would see her in it mocked her words.
Late that night, Eleanor was yet again caught in a dream with the man with the secret tattoo--he was the earl again, masked, and he had her up against a wall and was kissing her--when she felt a rough, large hand upon her mouth, pressing hard.
Her eyes flew open, and the hand was still there. Panic made her rigid, her heart beating so hard and fast, she thought she might die then and there of her own accord.
This awful moment was real.
"Mmmm!" she screamed, but no one could hear. Certainly, they couldn't. The closed bedchamber door was heavy and thick, the carpet on her floor and in the corridor muffling any sound.
When she felt the prick of a knife at her throat, she screamed louder. This time, the hand went over her nose, too.
Her instinct for survival made her go limp and silent to show her compliance, although everything in her longed to rage, fight, and flee.
It seemed as if eons passed, but finally, the hand moved lower, allowing her to breathe. She sucked in a huge amount of air through her nose, but slowly, one hitching breath at a time.
She would remain calm.
She flicked her eyes to the right and saw a black shadow crouched by her bed.
"Where's the talisman?" a rough male voice asked. His accent was slightly foreign, but she couldn't place it. "And don't scream, or I'll kill you and whoever comes in to save you."
He lifted his hand from her mouth.
"I--I don't know," she whispered. Her temples throbbed so loudly, she couldn't hear her own voice.
The knifepoint pressed deeper into her throat. "Tell me."
What if he killed her after she told? He'd have no need of her anymore, would he?
"I really don't know." She hoped he'd believe her.
He growled in his throat, like a beast. "If you're lying--"
"I'm not," she said hurriedly. "But if you give me a chance, maybe I could find it."
The black shadow sighed. "Very well. I'll be watching you. And I can get into any room you decide to sleep in at night. You'll look for it, and when you find it, you'll sleep with your window open."
"All--all right," she said, tears slipping out the corners of her eyes.
Her entire body jolted when he stood. He wasn't as tall as she expected, but he was stocky, no doubt strong enough to kill her with his bare hands if he so wanted.
"Now close your eyes," he said. "And don't open them for several minutes."
"All right," she whispered again.
There was no moon, so she left her eyes open. She watched the intruder silently open her bedchamber door and slip out.
She lay still and prayed he would go straight downstairs and out from whatever door or window he'd opened to get inside--and leave the remaining residents of the house alone, especially Mother, Clare, and the female servants, all of whom she hoped were snug and safe in their beds.
Five minutes passed.
Her body began to shake. Violently. She could have been murdered. So easily.
The Earl of Tumbridge had warned her not to let anyone know he was the man with the secret tattoo--but he hadn't said she couldn't talk about the actual robbery. Yet here she was, queasy with fear and nerves, having been assaulted the very night after she'd begun doing just that.
With whom had she discussed that fateful day? She made a mental list: Clare, the Sherwood sisters, Mother, Lord Pritchard--
Her gut seized at the thought of him. She remembered how agitated he'd been in the carriage on the way to the ball, how she'd felt a whisper of caution that had compelled her to lie to him about the talisman's whereabouts. She was almost sure he had something to do with this--her own stepfather!
But she'd never trusted him.
Yet there was also Lord Tumbridge. He'd seen her at the Brady mansion. He'd gone back inside the house with that lovely little painting. Perhaps Janice and Cynthia had told him she'd been asking after the robbery. Had Janice told him she'd given Eleanor the talisman? Or had he simply suspected she might have it?
Had he sent someone to frighten her?
She was in terrible trouble, and she needed answers.
Slowly, she sat up and put her feet over the side of the bed. An awful decision must be made: Should she trust her mother--and thus Lord Pritchard--to help her, or force more answers out of the Earl of Tumbridge, who'd shown himself to be a dangerous man with his own secrets?
The latter, she decided, and knew it was the right decision. Her heartbeat's frenetic pace subsided to a more steady one. It was a gamble, yes, to confide in the man. She was almost sure she'd have to show him the talisman. But it was the right decision. Somehow, she knew.
She got up, wrapped her navy blue cape around her night rail, and put on her navy blue bonnet, all very quietly.
But a fresh doubt assailed her. She'd have to trust the man who'd brazenly kissed her stepsister when she was clearly engaged to another man.
Could she trust Lord Tumbridge? Should she?
Hesitating a fraction, Eleanor picked up her reticule, which hung from the side of her full-length looking glass and still held the talisman. Heavens! She'd come so close to losing the small token.
And then she crossed to her dressing table, where she took her sharpest hat pin and stuck it into the flimsy velvet pouch. Yes, she told herself. She'd have to trust Lord Tumbridge; she'd have to focus on the part of him that had saved her and her friends during that robbery.
But she didn't have to be naïve about it.
When she opened her bedchamber door, she stood for a very long time and listened to the sounds of the house. What she was about to do tonight was far scarier than crossing that creek Papa had long ago urged her to do.
Finally, when she was as sure as she could be that everyone was abed, she stepped out into the corridor, walked swiftly past Clare's bedchamber, down the stairs, and out the front door, shutting it quietly behind her.
It was time. Time to trust her instincts.
James was in the middle of a dream about fishing with his father, but Lady Eleanor was there, too. A fish kept knocking into the boat, a big fish, one he wanted to catch to impress Lady Eleanor and Father. But he couldn't see it--
Knock, knock, knock.
Knock, knock, knock!
His eyes flew open and he jumped out of bed. Literally sprang out and landed on his feet like a cat.
Someone was at the front door.
He wrapped a silk banyan around him and opened his bedchamber door. There was a candle in the hallway--one of the servants was already on his or her way.
"I've got it, Michael," he said to the footman.
"Very well, sir," said Michael, and handed him the candle.
Knock, knock, knock!
James hurried down the stairs and opened the front door. Lady Eleanor Gibbs landed against him with a light thud.
He put out his arms to stop her fall. Catching her was much better than landing a big fish.
"Oh, no," she said. "I--I'm so sorry. I'd put my ear against the door to hear if someone was coming, and then you opened it--"
"It's all right," he soothed her.
For a brief second, he got the feeling she didn't want him to let her go. He didn't want to, either. It was the last thing in the world he wanted, in fact.
But he must.
Gently, he placed her upright on the scarlet-and-gold carpet. "My dear Lady Eleanor, what's wrong?"
Concern filled him, followed swiftly by fury. Who'd put her in such a state?
She swallowed, and then she began to tremble.
"Steady." He put his hands on her small, soft shoulders, so temptingly hidden beneath a navy blue cape.
"Please just give me a moment." Her tone was staunch. "I'll be all right."
"May I take your cape?"
"I--I can't," she said, and put her arms through the slits in the fabric to show him that they were encased in pink muslin and lace. From her left wrist dangled a small reticule with a pearl-tipped pin stuck through its folds. "I'm afraid I'm in my night rail."
"That's all right," he said as if it weren't significant in the least that she'd appeared at his door en déshabillé. "Keep it on, then."
But he did ask for her bonnet.
"Of course." When she removed it, she looked more vulnerable than ever. Her hair fell over her shoulder in a braid, and it was slightly mussed--as if she'd run to his house straight from her bed.
Good Lord. What had happened? "Let me get you a chair," he said. "A glass of ratafia. Something."
"A chair would be lovely. And perhaps a fire, if you still have one. And I'll say no to the ratafia, but thank you."
He took her arm, and she didn't object. Michael was still at the top of the stairs.
"A fire, Michael," said James. "In the library. And some tea, if you don't mind."
"Yes, my lord." Michael hastened down the stairs, a jacket thrown over his nightdress.
James paused to let the servant pass ahead of them. When they got to the library, the footman was already crouching at the hearth, fanning the embers and adding coal.
Lady Eleanor sank into the depths of the most comfortable chair in the room and placed her reticule on a small table at her elbow.
Michael left for the tea, and she looked up at James with those expressive brown eyes.
"I'm all right now," she said--his pulse picked up its tempo at the word now--"but a man came to my room tonight and held a knife to my throat--"
"Good God." James sank to his knees and gripped her hands. "Are you sure you're all right?"
She nodded. "I really am."
"Tell me what this man looked like." A desire to kill filled him, hot and intense. "Perhaps he hasn't gotten far. I'll make sure he never hurts you again."
Her mouth tipped up in a small, grateful smile. "You're very kind. But it's too late for that. He looked like a black shadow to me, and he's long gone." She withdrew her hands from his, and it was like losing his favorite Christmas gift only moments after receiving it. "But there's another way you can assist me."
"Tell me." Spoiled by the feel of her palm in his, he dared to take her right hand again. When he raised it to his lips and kissed her knuckles, he lingered there far too long.
Her face was flushed, her pupils wide and black. "I need answers, Lord Tumbridge," she said in a breathy but determined voice. "I don't know where else to turn. You have me at your mercy. It's a place I never wanted to be, as you well know."
"You've nothing to fear from me, my lady. I'm at your service." His tone was gruff, and it wasn't simply desire that made it so.
It was astonishment.
His love for her wasn't a feeling. It was a fact. The same way the sun's rising, the blue of the sky, and the changing of the seasons were. He couldn't wish it away, even had he'd wanted to.
"You're not the same Lord Tumbridge I usually know," she whispered. "Right now you're more like him--the man with the secret tattoo."
James dropped back onto the rug, his hands stretched out behind him. "Sometimes something feels fated," he said. "I tried very hard not to let you know the truth, but the truth will out when it must out. And in our case, I think I've lost control of when that will be."
"I don't understand."
He gave a soft laugh. "You trusted me tonight, and so now I'm going to trust you." He paused a moment, wondering how it would feel to tell someone outside the Brotherhood the truth of his secret life. "I'm not that cold, aloof man you see, the one you believe delights in ruining your life."
Her eyes widened. "Who are you, then? I think I caught a glimpse of you on the steps at the Brady mansion. I hope you are that man. And I hope...you're still the man who rode up and saved us from those robbers."
He stared at her a very long time. "I'm both," he said, and prayed she believed him.
But her eyes registered confusion. "Then why were you kissing Clare? Why do you present yourself as a useless man of leisure? And why have you meddled in my affairs so egregiously?"
"That man," he said quietly, "is an illusion necessary for my job--my mission, really. And Lady Eleanor, you must believe me when I say it's an honorable one. That mission will end soon, I believe. And when it does, I'll be ready to move on."
"This is all very hard to take in," she whispered.
"I'm sure it is." He gave her an encouraging smile. "But it's imperative we now talk about you. Tell me more of what happened tonight."
Slowly, haltingly, she related to him every harrowing detail of her evening.
The fury in him grew more entrenched. "I can't allow you to go back."
"Let's not speak of that right now." Her mouth was firm, her gaze resolute. "I need to know if you were after Lord Westdale's talisman that day you came upon us being robbed. I must know."
"I did want the talisman, yes," James confessed. "But then I found out others were after it as well. I followed those thugs with the intention of disbanding them before they got to you. But I was too late."
"Would you have set upon us, as well, had they not been there first?"
"I had every intention of stopping the boys' carriage and politely requesting the talisman.
"So you really were a robber." She sounded horribly disappointed.
He reached for her hand and held it tight. It was becoming a delicious habit. "I never would have allowed the distressing events that happened to you that day to occur. I'd have been brief, polite, but demanding. But when I saw how traumatized all of you were, I couldn't do it."
He could tell she was listening intently as she watched the flickering flames of the fire.
"It was the one time that I truly failed in my mission." Her fingers felt small and delicate in his grip, the French lace at her cuffs a tantalizing reminder of her femininity. "But when I saw you"--she tore her gaze away from the hearth and looked at him--"when I saw you running from the girls' carriage, your hair flying out behind you, your face determined to save the day and get that pistol from beneath the horses' hooves--" He gave a short laugh. "--something twisted in my heart. I knew instinctively that the best thing to do at that point was be a hero to you, that brave young girl throwing caution to the wind. And to your friends. Not worry about the talisman. Retrieving it would have to wait."
Michael came in with the tea, and Eleanor thanked him profusely before he left. Without demurring, she poured James a cup in silence and then one for herself, the perfect lady of the house despite her irregular choice of attire.
"Would you care for a little brandy in yours?" James reached for a decanter on a nearby shelf. "It might help."
"Why not?" She gave a shaky laugh.
He poured a dollop into her cup. Together, they sat a few minutes sipping their tea, he at her feet, both of them facing the fire--and dare he think it?--enjoying each other's company.
It was almost too much to bear, knowing he could turn, push the fabric of her cape and night rail up her leg, and press a kiss to her calf--she was that close. That tempting.
He may have been imagining it, but as the seconds passed, the ambiance went from cozy to tantalizingly intimate.
"Eleanor--," he said without looking at her.
He had to tell her how much he longed to kiss her. But it would require turning. Looking directly at her.
Speaking the truth.
From his heart.
He swiveled his shoulders. "There's something I must tell you--"
"I, too," she said into the charged atmosphere, and put her cup and saucer on the nearby tea tray. "I have the talisman."
All his planned words slipped away.
"Do you?" He heard the croak in his throat.
"Does it mean that much?" she whispered.
"Yes. You don't know how much." But not as much as she did. Nothing mattered as much as she did.
She retrieved the primitive copper circle from her reticule and handed it to him. When their fingers touched, they both paused.
Did she feel it, too? That there was something between them? Something momentous, even vital?
"I hope it's what you need," she said. "For your long-delayed mission."
"It is," he said. "Thank you."
The crackle of the fire in the hearth was the only sound in the room. Her expression was vulnerable. Brave. Honest. And she was beautiful because of who she was, he thought--even apart from the fact that she was a classic English rose.
Something powerful and mysterious--something that almost frightened him--pulled him toward her.
She had it all wrong. Dear God, he was at her mercy. Love owned him. And not the other way around.
Slowly, gently, he laid a kiss on her lips.
And it was like coming home. He'd never felt so moved by a simple kiss, nor by the hunger he felt to be near her--this woman. No other.
She let him caress her mouth with his own, part the seam of her lips with his tongue. He sensed her shyness. But then she was kissing him back--with warmth and passion--their hands gripping tightly, their tongues colliding as each explored each other.
James reeled with pleasure, drunk with the knowledge that he'd move heaven and earth to make her his own.
If she'd ever have him.
If she ever would.
Still kneeling, he pulled back, not wanting to take advantage of her riled state and afraid to build up his own hopes. Those, he knew, he couldn't have--not so long as his mission in the Brotherhood went unfulfilled. And even if he were to succeed, who was he to hope when he knew all too well how easily tragedy could carry the day?
But she reached out.
Touched his forearm.
Laid her hand on it.
He looked down at that sweet hand enveloped in lace and then back up at her.
"I--," she whispered. And then swallowed.
"You don't need to say another word." He stood and drew her hand up so that she was forced to stand, too.
And then he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her the way he'd always wanted to, the full length of her soft, rounded body pressed against him. "You're exquisite," he said against her mouth.
She gave a little moan in her throat and wrapped her arms tightly around his neck.
But very gently, he pulled them down. "Let me remove your cape. Please."
She cast her eyes to the floor. "Very well," she said, her cheeks pink. "I'd like that." And when she looked up at him, he saw that she desired him as much as he did her.
Good God, he was a lucky man. There was no luckier man on earth.
With careful fingers, he pulled the cape from her shoulders and cast it onto a nearby sofa.
She stood before him, her body outlined by the light of the fire. He saw the dusky rose of her nipples beneath her night rail. And when he glanced farther down to bask in her beauty, he caught a glimpse of a darker shadow between her legs.
He basked in the sight of her, queenly yet unguarded, and lifted her in one swift, sure motion to kiss her madly.
Ahh, how perfectly she fit in the crook of his arm!
Somehow, without looking, he managed to back up against the seat cushion of the chair she'd only just occupied and lower himself into it. All the while, their lips never came unlocked. She was snug in his embrace, where he wanted her to be, her soft, pliant breasts pressed against his chest, her fingers tangled in his hair.
His hand caressed the curves that made up her hourglass figure, lingering at her waist and inching up until his thumb brushed lazily across the underside of her left breast.
Her heard her intake of breath and ceased his explorations.
"Don't stop," she whispered. Looking straight into his eyes, she put her hand over his and moved it to lie directly over her heart.
He felt it beating wildly beneath his palm. His was just as fast, of course, and it didn't help that she was sitting directly on top of his erection, her lush weight teasing him every time she moved even a fraction of an inch.
He cupped her breast through the thin muslin. "Perfection," he murmured back, and stroked her nipple.
She arched into him, their kisses growing more heated, and he slipped his hand under her gown and caressed her calf. When his palm moved to stroke her thigh, she stopped kissing him a moment and looked up at him. "I've never done anything like this before," she said. "Especially not with Baron Easley."
James laughed. "I knew Clare was blowing smoke. But I quite liked imagining you teasing the baron."
"I knew it!" she cried. "I could see it in your eyes."
He kissed her--the most shameless kiss he'd given her yet. "You're the only woman I want to kiss, Lady Eleanor Gibbs. The one and only. And I don't want any other man enjoying that privilege."
"I don't know," she said, a warm smile on her lips. "I like this kissing business very much."
"Do you?" His voice was husky; he was barely in control. But control he must maintain, even as his fingers slid to touch the warm, wet haven between her thighs.
She slowed her kissing then and moaned against his jaw. "Oh, my," she whispered.
He teased the small nubbin of flesh he found in the midst of her curls with his thumb.
"Oh, my," she said again, a look of wonder on her face.
The longer he explored, the more her head fell back--an inch at a time, seemingly against her will--against the chair arm. Her eyes fluttered shut. Her lips parted.
James ran his tongue over the hollow at the base of her neck while playing with her womanly core, his fingers slipping in and out of her while his thumb continued its sensual ministrations.
"Relax," he said. "Simply...let go."
And she did. Moments later, she cried out, her back arched like a bow, her slick femininity pulsing around his fingers, all while he marveled at her unbridled beauty.
When she sank back down, her cheeks were rosy and her eyelids heavy. Much to his delight, she gave a great sigh, as if she'd been on a long, wondrous journey and was reluctant to return.
And then she sat up, gently took his face in both her hands, and kissed him hard on the mouth. "Thank you," she said earnestly. "I didn't know it, but that's just what I needed."
He chuckled. "I'm glad. I want to do it again."
She smiled and shook her head. "I can't. Not now. You need to look at the talisman."
She was right, of course. It was a damned shame she was, but she was correct, nonetheless. And because he loved her and wanted to keep her safe, he ignored the throbbing in his loins, stood with her still cradled in his arms, and put her down.
"All right, then," he said, aching for her. "I'll look at the talisman."
You did the right thing, a breathless Eleanor told herself, and watched the earl examine the copper token closely. On both counts. Not just about the talisman but about the kiss--and about what happened afterwards.
Oh, the afterward!
It was her very first encounter with a man...and not a boy.
She'd had her share of youthful tendres--a few stolen kisses behind the rosebushes or a shady tree--but never before had she experienced something that made her feel as if she'd lost control, was no longer directing her own fate but was instead being whisked away by a powerful force that defied logic and time.
Something that was eternal and mysterious and much bigger than herself.
It frightened her. It frightened her so much, she sat primly with her hands laced and her heart leaping willy-nilly within her chest, like a playful colt.
"This is it," Lord Tumbridge murmured. "This is what we need."
"For what?" she managed to say. She'd forgotten all about...everything. She needed her head back. But it was difficult when she was dealing with the man who'd brought her to the greatest pleasure she'd ever known.
He looked down at her, his expression keen with purpose, concern, and something else--something warm and wonderful that made her lace her fingers even tighter even as she longed to lean forward and kiss him again.
"I don't want to tell you tonight," he said. "You've already been through enough. But I will, eventually. I promise. Meanwhile, you'll have to stay here."
"Here? I can't do that."
"You'll have to trust me. You can't go back."
"Please--before you start making outrageous plans, I need to hear the truth. I can bear it, whatever you have to say. Tell me now. You owe me that."
And it will distract me. It will distract me from how much I want to land in your lap again and return to what we were doing before.
"Lady Eleanor, believe me, it's much too--"
"Enough, Lord Tumbridge. Tell me."
"Very well." He paused. "It won't be easy."
"As you wish, my lady. But I'll need you to take a seat again."
"Very well," she said, feeling impatient as she did so.
The earl fixed his gaze on hers. "The talisman you brought me is what was needed to bring down the man we believe responsible for the death of several people doing their duty to the Crown, his last victim being--" He paused again, looking terribly grim.
"Who?" She was getting impatient now.
He sighed and held her gaze. "Your father."
Tears blurred her vision. She'd gone from utter fright to absolute happiness and was now in the depths of misery and shock.
"Lady Eleanor, I'm so sorry." Lord Tumbridge's expression was anguished when he handed her a monogrammed handkerchief from his pocket.
She gave a little sob and accepted it. "I--I thought he'd died in his sleep." She wiped her eyes with the linen square. "Oh, Papa. You poor, poor man."
And she began to cry in earnest, thinking of all that was wrong with the world.
Lord Tumbridge hovered over her and smoothed her hair back from her eyes while she cried. "I knew it was too much."
"No," she said fiercely, and wiped at the tears brimming over. "It was not too much. Tell me everything, and I mean, everything." She felt angry now. "Don't dare hold a single fact back. Papa would want me to know."
The earl kept smoothing back her hair, over and over, his gaze troubled and fixed on the wall behind her.
He finally looked down at her.
"You can stop now," she said, not really wanting him to but needing him to--so she could think clearly.
"Very well." Lord Tumbridge's eyes were sad. He dropped his hand but not before gently fixing a loop of hair back behind her ear.
"I'm grateful for your sympathy," she said, "but I need to hear more about my father."
"You're his daughter," the earl replied softly, "his legacy to the world. So I'll be glad to speak with you about him."
He resumed his seat on the floor in front of her.
"Thank you," she said, feeling more collected. "What do you mean, Papa was doing his duty to the Crown? Who killed him? And why?"
Over the next few minutes, it was as if Eleanor had entered another world, a world she never dreamed existed. She couldn't believe that her sweet, docile father had founded an organization whose mission was to track down any threats to the security of the those who served the Crown in the diplomatic corps.
She felt pale and shaken. But the longer she thought of it, the more she realized it would have been very like her father. He was a man of principle--and action, when he felt the need.
He was a hero, not only to her but also to their country.
That thought brought her tremendous comfort. And pride.
"And you're in this clandestine organization?" she asked the earl.
"Yes, I am. Although if you asked the English government, they'd say we didn't exist."
"Goodness. So you're a hero, too."
"I wouldn't say that." His modest rebuttal sounded perfectly sincere. "I'm only doing my duty. Your father was the visionary, the one who uncovered the enemy within our ranks, and the one who sacrificed his life."
"One who does his duty is a hero, whether he makes the ultimate sacrifice or not."
Lord Tumbridge began to speak, but she laid a finger on his mouth. "I must beg you not to contradict me on that point." Her tone was firm, even as he grabbed her finger and placed a soft, sweet kiss on it. She blushed and pulled her hand back. "Now, please tell me more about my father's heroics. I shall bask in them, as it is only right that a daughter should."
"I'll be happy to," the earl said kindly. "Ever thorough, your father left behind two matching talismans with codes that when put together would lead to documents implicating a high-ranking peer as a double agent during the war with Napoléon. One of them he gave to me to hold until he was sure of his case. When he realized he was in serious danger, he wrote me a letter alerting me to the location of the other talisman, but it was too late on all counts. The double agent managed to kill him, and the Sherwood boy found the other talisman first."
"Yes, in the cave by my stepfather's house. It was before he was my stepfather, of course." Eleanor was getting a very bad feeling. "Why ever would Papa have hid it there?" She leaned forward. "Who, pray tell, is this double agent and murderer?"
Although she wasn't sure she wanted to know.
The earl's mouth thinned. "Pritchard."
There was a long stretch of silence.
Eleanor swallowed. "Heaven save us," she finally managed to say. "Mother and I--Clare--have been living with a traitor and...a murderer? And not only that, he killed Papa?" It seemed incomprehensible. "I've been sitting at a table with him. And Mama shares his bed--"
She put her knuckles to her mouth. Perhaps all this horrible news was too much. It was terrible, ghastly, so devastating that Eleanor wasn't sure she knew up from down anymore, black from white--
Good from evil.
Yes, you do, a voice in her head told her. You do know. When she'd had to decide whether Lord Tumbridge was good or bad, she'd made the right decision, hadn't she? And hadn't she known in her heart that there was something very, very wrong with Lord Pritchard?
And as a result of her stepfather's diabolical actions, Papa wasn't here to speak for himself.
She would have to be his voice.
"Are you all right?" the earl asked, his eyes filled with concern.
She dug her nails into the cushion she sat upon. "I've always hated my stepfather, long before he married Mother. I sensed something was off about him--but no one would listen."
"You can't go back to that house."
"I have to."
"You can't. You were safe as long as you didn't ask questions. The thug who came to your room tonight was no doubt from him. If Pritchard knows you've left the house, and if he finds out you've been here, he'll kill you."
"But if I don't go back, he'll know I found out too much. He'll figure out that I had the talisman, after all. And then he'll flee." She stood.
Lord Tumbridge stood, too.
"I want you to get him," she said.
"We will. I'm going to wake up the right people, and we'll have those damning documents by morning. He probably won't even be aware you're not there. Do you sleep late?"
"No," she said miserably. "We're both early risers and are usually at breakfast together."
The thought of ever sharing breakfast again with that wicked man made her ill. But she would if she had to, if it helped the earl and his colleagues snare him.
"It doesn't matter," Lord Tumbridge said. "You'll stay with me. We'll get the documents. If for some reason it takes longer than expected, if he notices your absence in the morning and decides to flee, he won't get away. Whatever port town he intends to escape to, we'll follow."
"That's too risky. I have to act as if nothing has happened. It's not too late. I can go back tonight and wake up and pretend everything's all right in the morning. That will give you the time you need."
"Lady Eleanor, I'm afraid I can't allow it."
"You'll have to," she said, brooking no argument. "I won't leave my mother. Vain as she is, there's no way she'd condone the murder of my father. She must be completely unaware. Nor can I leave Clare. It's not her fault her father is a villain. I want to be with them in case he's arrested later today. I need to be with them. And if for some reason, the arrest is delayed and life goes on as usual until justice can be done, I'll have done my duty by my father, which is to watch over our family."
"You're already done your duty--by him and your country," Lord Tumbridge insisted.
"You brought us the talisman." He took her by the shoulders. "Your mother and stepsister will be fine. They've been fine all along. They're not the ones asking questions."
Lady Eleanor sighed. "I appreciate your concern, but you know what I advise is the best move. You don't know for sure you can get those documents this morning. It might be more involved than you thought. And if he decides to run, you don't know who might help him get away."
"But I promised your father to keep you safe." The earl's voice was low.
"What do you mean?"
"You wonder why I've interfered in your life." He told her about her former suitor Rupert Hawthorne and how he beat women; about the baron in Yorkshire who wanted to hire her as a governess. "He was fond of seducing governesses, actually."
"I can't believe it," Eleanor said, feeling utterly overwhelmed. "And I was so angry at you."
"If only I'd known." She wanted to kiss him again. But she wouldn't. She couldn't. There were too many important matters to discuss, too many shocking pieces of news swirling in her head. She picked up her reticule, wrapped it around her wrist, then reached for her cape on the sofa and put it on.
"Thank you," she told the earl, and meant it from the bottom of her heart. "I'm sure my father would have appreciated all your efforts to keep me safe, too. But you left out the robbery. You started there."
"Yes," Lord Tumbridge said, "but I was still after that talisman. Don't give me too much credit."
"I give you all the credit," she said with a smile. "You were after that talisman to unmask my father's killer. But what about Lord Andrew? You know you set him up to reveal his own foolishness to me. But he was in no way dangerous."
"I agree there was nothing terribly wrong with Wells." Lord Tumbridge managed to appear abashed, which was difficult, Eleanor thought with wry amusement, when one had such a commanding presence. The pucker in his brow and the slightest softening around his eyes gave him away. "I intervened where I shouldn't have, but I don't regret it."
She felt herself blush at the look he was sending her: half heat, half boyish yearning. "You--you don't?"
"I wanted to keep you safe"--he cupped her jaw with a strong, warm hand--"for me."
There was complete and utter silence.
"Really?" she whispered.
He nodded, and then he kissed her again, her body pressed to his, and his to hers. They turned in a slow circle, balancing each other as the kiss deepened.
"Eleanor," he whispered.
She felt that frightening feeling again. "Lord Tumbridge--"
"James," he whispered in her ear, and kissed the nape of her neck. "Please call me James."
"James," she said, and that was all it took for the floodgates to open between them.
He picked her up, kissed her openmouthed, hungrily, and she twisted her arms about his neck and kissed him back.
She pulled back. "I had no idea I'm the type who lifted like a sack of potatoes and spun about. Not until this evening."
"Damn your bloody cape," he said back. "And you're more like a sack of feathers. Definitely not potatoes."
They returned to kissing.
A few heady moments later, he said, "I want you with me. In my life. In my bed. At my side. And you're never going to wear a cape again."
They smiled at each other.
"I want the same." But she felt her eyes begin to sting.
"What is it?" His tone was so concerned, a tear came out.
He kissed it away.
"I don't know," she whispered. "So many things are happening. Frightening things, too, things that could knock me off my feet--even kill me--if I'm not careful. But it all seems to fade away when I'm with you. There you are, standing in the middle of the chaos, strong and sure and...and there."
His mouth tipped up. "That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me."
She chuckled, and the fear retreated. "I'm a writer, you know."
"Are you? Was that supposed to be poetic?"
She winced. "I've never been good at poetry, I'm afraid."
"I'm afraid I have to agree." He grinned and dropped her to the floor in a quick move that required her to find her feet right away. "But I like everything about you, Lady Eleanor Gibbs. Even your bad poetry."
"Thank you." Her whole face burned with pleasure. "I'm going back now, and you know I should. So please, simply wish me well. And I have total faith that you'll be arriving at the house sometime after breakfast--before my wretched, hideous stepfather leaves for Whitehall. I'll delay him as long as I can."
She put two fingers on his lips. "You've fulfilled your promise to my father. Now let me show him that I am my own protector, thanks to everything he taught me about bravery and about taking chances. And everything he didn't. There was one time, I'm sorry to say, that I observed him rolling over and playing coward--not that I judge him ill for it. In his own way, he was trying to protect me even then."
"Yes. He was trying to hold his family together. Mother, I believe, was infatuated with Lord Pritchard. Papa knew this, I'm guessing, and did what he could to maintain family harmony."
"He deserved better," James said grimly.
"Life's not fair, is it?" Eleanor sighed. "But we still need to fight for what's right. Give me a chance to prove to myself--and not to anyone else--that my intuition is my best guide. It brought me to you, didn't it?"
"So it did." James leaned his forehead against hers. "All right, then. You go. I'll follow at a distance, of course, until the very last minute. And when this is over, I intend to continue this discussion," he added softly, and kissed her temple.
"I'd be happy to, my lord. But only--"
"Only if I'm allowed to get a closer look at your tattoo," she said, feeling bolder than she ever had before.
Which led to another long kiss and numerous assurances that the tattoo was hers to peruse at her leisure.
"Signal me when I can come see you," he said. "I'll be watching."
So she told him exactly which window was hers facing the front street--she had a corner room--and said she'd put a blue vase with a flower in it on the sill at the right moment. "That will be when I have Mother and Clare settled. This will come as quite a shock to them."
Eleanor took one last kiss back with her, but she left her heart in Lord Tumbridge's house that night.
James could hardly stand it. His lady love was at risk. Every minute he delayed in getting those documents could be the minute in which Lord Pritchard harmed or even killed Eleanor.
So he roused everyone who could expedite matters, including the Brotherhood's code master, whose fine work on Lord Kersey's instructions on the talismans led James to awaken Meryl, his friend in the diplomatic corps, and Charlie, his contact at Scotland Yard, who served as his envoy in matters of procedure.
At seven in the morning, Charlie was forced to visit an exhausted madam who, unbeknownst to her, held a secret key to a bank vault behind a mirror in her house of ill repute. As a consequence, Charlie then had to knock upon the residence of the president of a bank--with a formal letter of request and apology from the government, written by Meryl--to open his bank early. Charlie then had to track down a very harried security guard, who was forced to come in an hour and a half before regular opening time with his keys to give Charlie access to the bank vaults and total privacy to explore them.
James entered at this point, his cape wrapped around him, his hat brim down.
By eight o'clock in the morning, the damning documents containing Lord Pritchard's correspondence with a French agent--stolen by Lord Kersey himself from Pritchard's desk--had been retrieved from a locked deposit box, and Prinny himself had been alerted.
By nine o'clock, the arresting officers had been assembled and had converged on the home of Lord Pritchard. They were inside now, making the arrest.
Eleanor was there, too, James knew, but where? In the same room as the villain? Or hidden away with her mother and stepsister?
Everything in him ached to abandon procedure and go after her. But he didn't. He was still a member of the Brotherhood, at least for the nonce. He wondered when he'd tell Stubing he was going to resign.
Later, he thought. But it would be done, and he felt at perfect peace about it.
Nevertheless, he was on edge as he watched from a café across the street with his Brotherhood friends. Reeves sat at another table, reading. Stubing was with his wife, Mary, arguing at the counter over what confection to buy. And Patrick sat with James. Their being together wouldn't be remarked upon. They were both idle gentlemen with nothing better to do than sit about a café, half-drunk, weren't they?
The front door of the Pritchard house burst open.
"James Dawbry, Earl of Tumbridge--you bastard!" shrieked Lord Pritchard, his hands bound behind his back.
"There goes your cover," murmured Patrick.
James shrugged. "It was the right time, actually." And it was.
"But why you and not us?" Patrick didn't look at him.
"Lord Kersey was like a father to me," murmured James. "Pritchard knew it. It's his last chance to hurt him, through me. But he still doesn't understand that Gibbs didn't need any of this. Nor do I. Nor does anyone doing it for the right reasons."
"And his were always wrong," said Patrick. "Sorry the game's up for you."
James's heart rather broke. "I'll miss you, friend."
"And I, you. See you around Town. From afar, of course." Without any hesitation, Patrick got up and left the café without looking back at him.
Ah, well. At least, if James had to go, he'd go out well. He'd made amazing friends in the Brotherhood he'd never forget, and he'd completed his last mission before being thrust back into the ordinary--yet extraordinary--world of the beau monde.
He fully intended to take up life as a new, improved earl who'd seemingly grown up overnight, a transformation that could happen to the merriest partygoers, everyone knew, particularly ones who fell in love.
But he would relish these next few minutes--his last as a member of the Brotherhood--as the highlight of his career.
It was with great relief and deep satisfaction that he watched Lord Pritchard put into an open wagon and surrounded by officials ensuring he wouldn't go anywhere. The vehicle rumbled down the street and around the corner, its wicked captive sitting with bowed head and shoulders.
And it was over.
James looked over at Reeves for the briefest moment. Reeves nodded his own farewell, his expression entirely neutral, except for the lines of sadness around his eyes, which he quickly erased by yawning.
Stubing and his wife walked to the door with a box of baked goods--the last thing the sharpshooter-turned-baker needed. He looked over his wife's head a second too long, but it was long enough for James to read thank you in his gaze.
They'd never speak again.
James's heart swelled with so much feeling that he had to stand. And once Stubing left and Reeves did the same, he was glad to walk. He lingered in the neighborhood as long as he could without looking obvious, his eyes flicking occasionally to Lady Eleanor's window as he browsed a few shops.
And then he saw it, the flower in the blue vase.
His heart caught in his throat. Eleanor was safe--his Eleanor was safe.
It was a week later, and what a week it had been for Eleanor. Her mother had been thrown into a profound depression. But seven days after Lord Pritchard had been hauled off in a most ignominious manner, Eleanor felt a glimmer of hope when she brought in her mother's tea tray.
"You must eat today, Mother," she told her.
Mother sat up, her face still slack with grief and shock. "I can't."
"Yes, you can. You will."
"Ah, Elly. You must hate me." Mother closed her eyes, but little tears squeezed out anyway. It was the first time she'd cried since her traitorous husband had been arrested.
"I don't hate you." Eleanor sat on the bed next to her. "I love you."
Her mother opened her eyes and placed her hand on Eleanor's arm. Eleanor saw the first signs of aging in her mother's hand. The skin was thinner, her fingers more gaunt, and there were several brown spots sprinkled on her flesh. But that fragile hand only made Eleanor feel more tender toward her parent, despite all the sadness and wrongs that had come between them.
With great love, Eleanor placed her hand over Mother's.
"I've been wicked," Mother said. "Wicked. But I can't tell you why."
"I already know," Elly replied softly. "You were in love with Lord Pritchard long before Papa died, weren't you?"
"Yes," Mother said. "Yes, I was." She clutched her coverlet with her free hand and let out a long moan. "Oh, Elly, I was blinded by his charm. We were the same, both of us...shallow, selfish people. And I didn't appreciate what I had in your father--a man of substance. A man who loved me. I should go to hell. I should keep Pritchard company there."
And she burst into real tears.
Eleanor held her tight and let her cry. "Mother, you should not go to hell. You might have been selfish, but Pritchard's evil."
"I had no idea I was sleeping with a murderer," Mother said into her shoulder. "How will I ever hold my head up again? How will I look at myself in the mirror? How will I face you?"
Eleanor leaned back and took both her hands. "By killing off the silly character you've adopted all these years. Be the woman of substance Papa recognized in you when you married."
Mother sniffed. "It's true. I used to be quite...nice. And clever, too, in a simple way. Not showy. I beat your father at chess often, and it wasn't because he let me." She chuckled. "We had fun in the old days."
Eleanor laughed. "You can still be that way, and I'll be the proudest daughter in the world when you are."
"I feel I want to be a mother much more than I want to be acclaimed." Mother sounded surprised.
"I'm glad," Eleanor said. "Because I want to be your daughter. Very much. We need each other, Mother."
They shared a long hug and talked of smaller things, too, such as the state of the weather, which Mother hadn't seen in seven days, as well as the numerous calling cards that had been left in the tray for her downstairs by concerned friends--the genuine friends that Mother still had, including the Marchioness of Brady.
Then Mother got out of bed and decided to visit the lending library, not to see her friends but because she had a great urge to read Plato. She wasn't sure why, but she planned on doing so immediately.
But to do it in Bath.
Clare decided to go to Bath with her. Eleanor was surprised that Clare had withstood the drama of the past week with such élan--but she had. She'd already apologized to Eleanor several times, as well.
And now she was doing it again from the carriage window. "He's my father, Eleanor, and he did horrible wrongs. I'm so sorry. But Henly refuses to let me take any responsibility for Father's deeds. Henly loves me anyway."
"As well he should," Eleanor said. "You're not at all to blame."
"Thank you." Clare's face softened. "Henly's the only man I care to impress. And you're the only woman." She reached down her hand, and Eleanor gripped it. "I love you, sister."
Eleanor's eyes filled with tears. "I love you, too. And when you get back from Bath, you'll be married soon after, and to a wonderful man. You've loads to look forward to, so stay strong."
"I will." And Clare had waved to her and the chaperone Mother had arranged to come stay with Eleanor--Aunt Phillipa, Mother's very plain spinster sister, who lived in Kensington but who'd graciously agreed to come to stay now that "that fool Pritchard was gone for good."
When James paid his usual call that afternoon--the highlight of Eleanor's day--Aunt Phillipa stood up in the drawing room (James immediately stood as well) and said, "Children, my eyes need a rest. Forgive me, but I'm going to the attics for a nap. And Lord Tumbridge, I hope you'll also forgive us for allowing every single servant an afternoon off. I'm afraid you'll have to do without a second cup of tea."
And then before they could protest, Aunt Phillipa walked out and left them alone.
When the last of her footsteps faded away, James moved a step toward Eleanor. "She sleeps in the attics?"
"She feels most comfortable in a cramped space." Eleanor stood and took a step toward him, too.
There was a low table between them holding the tea tray.
James took a step over the top of the silver teapot and landed right next to her.
"You couldn't go around the table?" she asked him softly, her brow arched high.
"No," he said with a grin, and pulled her close. "It would have taken too long."
And then he kissed her, turning her world completely upside down. They sank to the carpet and leaned against the couch, kissing all the while.
"James," Eleanor said, and rubbed her hand on his back. She couldn't help remembering what had happened between them the last time they kissed--and hoping it would happen again.
"Eleanor," he said back, kissing her face, her earlobes, her neck. "Your aunt is either hopelessly naïve or the shrewdest member of your mother's family. I suspect the latter."
"You'd be right." She put her hands on his chest and snuggled up to him.
And then he lowered his head to the tops of her breasts and kissed them, all while rubbing her back and caressing her waist and stroking her hair with his long, agile fingers.
How did he manage everything at once? Eleanor wondered.
He was also working hard on lowering her bodice, but she distracted him by yanking on his jacket. And then her hands were all over his chest. Somehow, with much fumbling and only the tiniest ripping sound that came from a seam at his shoulder, she was able to get his shirt off.
"Could I please ask you to turn around?" she said. "I'd like to see that tattoo. Up close."
"All right." He kissed her chin and cupped her right breast at the same time. And then his fingers were playing at her lacy neckline.
But she reminded him: "Please? Your tattoo?"
"Are you sure? Right now?" His voice was the husky tone she remembered it being the first time they'd kissed.
A marvelous sense of anticipation welled up in her.
"Yes," she said, adoring every visible inch of skin she could see on him. His chest was a work of art. "Right now."
She could tell he was striving for patience. Slowly, reluctantly, he turned around.
And there was the tattoo.
"Oh, my," she said, on her knees. "It's a stunning picture." She fumbled with her own ties and shimmied out of the top of her gown. Silent as a mouse, she removed her stays. "A circle of three cats, their tails intertwined in the center of the circle. Tell me about them."
And so he did. He told her a wonderful story about how the Celtic cat design had come to her father in a dream and he'd woken up and quickly sketched it to represent the men of the Brotherhood. The cat was the legendary guardian of the secrets of the hidden realm--clever, silent, and stoic. Three cats with their tails intertwined represented the unity of those who'd chosen to serve their country without public recognition.
"How fitting for Papa and you. Did everyone in the Brotherhood get the tattoo?"
"No," James said, warming to the subject. "Only I."
"Really?" she said, feeling a bit breathy. "It makes a special bond between you and Papa, doesn't it?"
"That was my intention."
"Ah! That makes me very happy. But for now let's not talk about the Brotherhood or the tattoo." What she was about to do was extremely daring. And naughty. "Let's talk of you. Of us."
And she wrapped her arms around James's back and squeezed him tight. The feeling of her breasts pressed against his hot, naked form was exquisite.
He almost flinched but caught himself. Instead, just like a man, he tried to get control of the situation by grabbing her forearms. "You minx," he said on a groan. "What happened to your gown?"
"It's around my hips," she said, and kissed the back of his neck.
"Not for long," he said, and twisted around to kiss her.
Ah, she thought. Love was a heady, wondrous banquet--and she had James with whom to share it. She reached for the hard length of him beneath his taut breeches and squeezed gently.
"What shall I do with it?" she whispered as she stroked him with a slow, burning anticipation.
"Nothing," he croaked, and kissed her. "It's you I want to touch, you I want to bring to pleasure again."
"I want that, too," she said. "But I also want to do the same for you. I want to see you as euphoric as you make me." Without asking permission, she went to work on unfastening his breeches, which annoyed her at the moment as they were preventing her further explorations of his athletic form.
"Don't," he said.
She laughed. "That was the most insincere don't I've ever heard."
He chuckled. "Perhaps it was." Then he grabbed her wrist and pulled it up. "Fine," he whispered. "But you first."
He took her other wrist, too, and laid her down on the carpet. His eyes sparked with an appealing masculine triumph that sent shivers through her.
"Have it your way, then," she said softly.
"I shall." His tone was silky.
A thrill went through her.
She couldn't help a nervous giggle when he pulled her already rumpled gown off her body and then her silky drawers. His next surprising move was to spread her legs with sure hands and kiss the inside of her thighs, pausing only to run his tongue in light, lazy circles that moved ever closer to her most sensitive flesh.
The next thing she knew, Eleanor was in Heaven, or as close as she could come to it while still on earth.
Beneath Aunt Phillipa's attic bedchamber.
And in Mother's stuffy drawing room, which would never look the same to her again.
Eleanor was in a love stupor. That was all she could think to call it when she and James strolled through Hyde Park an hour later. Could anyone tell how happy they were? Did they sense that mere moments ago, the two of them had been naked and prostrate on the rug in her mother's very proper drawing room?
Could they tell that she'd kissed the Earl of Tumbridge's tattoo? That she'd managed to get his breeches off, after all, and stroked that marvelous creation between his legs until he'd lost complete and utter control, much to her delight and satisfaction--and his?
That he'd kissed her thighs?
And then he'd adored the very vulnerable center of her femininity with his mouth, tongue, and fingers, sending her into even more paroxysms of pleasure than she'd experienced the first time he'd brought her to utter bliss at his house?
If anyone could tell, she didn't care.
"When I met your father, I was drunk, bleary-eyed, and hopeless," James was telling her now.
His nearness, the way the sun glinted through his hair, was driving Eleanor mad with the desire to kiss him again.
"I was at a pub outside of Oxford," he said, seemingly oblivious of her frustration, "and it was the third time I'd been sent down from the university for bad behavior and failing grades."
"Goodness," said Eleanor.
"No, badness," he replied with a chuckle. "I was very, very bad."
"I don't believe it," she said lightly. "You said it yourself that the aloof, cold, bad Earl of Tumbridge was an illusion."
"Yes, he was, but illusions prop us up when we're too afraid of the truth. And the truth was, at that time of my life, I was a lonely young man with no direction."
"All right," she said, "I'll grant you that."
He wouldn't be lonely anymore if she had anything to do with it.
He pulled her arm closer through his, which made her very happy.
"At any rate," her beloved said, "I was asked by the dean never to return. So I began contemplating jumping off a bridge."
Eleanor gasped. "No."
"Yes. I told you how my diplomat father had been killed in the wars, brought down by a French team informed of his whereabouts by none other than Lord Pritchard."
"We both have that in common, don't we?" Eleanor said sadly.
"Yes. And my mother had recently died, as well." James's profile was sober. "My sister would have none of me, and I don't blame her. But in one of the most profound moments of my life--which also happened to be one of the lowest and neediest--Lord Kersey appeared at my table, dragged my inebriated body to his coach, put me to bed for two days at an undisclosed location near London, and when I was perfectly sober on the third day, urged me to join the--"
"The group," Eleanor supplied.
"Exactly." James grinned. "Your father said he knew I was better than the way I was behaving. He'd known my father, and he even remembered me as a little boy. He said he refused to give up on me, and he wouldn't let me give up on myself. And for that, I'll be forever thankful to him."
Eleanor's eyes began to burn. "We both had excellent fathers."
James gripped her hand. "We did."
She stopped and faced him. "I received a letter today."
"From a family who wants me to serve as governess to their children." Her chest constricted with worry. What if she were imagining everything? What if this love she felt for James wasn't returned? Yes, he liked to kiss her--and he did it exceedingly well--but what if she were simply a distraction from the fact that he had nothing exciting to occupy himself with anymore, except the regular duties of an earl?
"This family is in Devon," she continued. "So...it's not too far from London. And my mother. Which is a good thing, now that she's improving."
"Really." James didn't look terribly happy for Eleanor.
Hope rose up in her, like a butterfly.
"Yes," she said. "The family wants me to start in two weeks." She began walking again.
"Will you interfere again this time?" She kept her tone light.
He didn't say anything for a long time, his eyes on the one fluffy cloud in the sky. "No," he answered firmly. "I won't."
They continued strolling, and Eleanor's heart fell so hard to her feet, she couldn't feel them anymore. It felt as though she were walking through sludge.
But she wouldn't show it. "I'm glad," she managed to say without sounding as if her world were ending.
"I'm done protecting you, remember?" He squinted at her as the sun was behind her head.
She nodded, hating that he looked so handsome, so rough-and-tumble. "I don't need you to protect me anymore, much as I appreciate the sentiment."
They walked on and on, and it grew harder and harder for Eleanor to breathe.
And then James stopped. "But I wondered something...."
"Yes?" There was a big gust of wind. The leaves on the trees rustled; their branches swayed. Eleanor's heart didn't know how to beat at this point. It simply did. First, fast. And then slow. And then somewhere in between fast and slow, the longer she looked at James and recognized what a good, good man he was.
"Would you be interested in protecting me?" he asked her, and her heart took off again at a ridiculous pace.
"From what?" she asked.
He pulled a strand of hair out of her eyes. "From a broken heart, you see. Because if you go, Eleanor, I'll never be happy again."
A robin swooped down on a nearby branch and flitted off again on another gust of air.
"You won't?" she whispered.
"I won't," he said, and wrapped his arms around her waist. "Not unless you're with me. I love you. You're my heart. And soul." He kissed her. "Marry me, Eleanor. Please, my darling."
She smiled so broadly, she caught another strand of hair, this time in her mouth.
James pulled out the wisp of dark gold and held it to his lips for a kiss of its own.
"Yes, I'll marry you, James Dawbry," Eleanor said.
And in his eyes, she saw their story--its beginning, its vast, as-yet-unknown middle that she longed to write with him, but no ending.
Because love, Eleanor knew, was forever.
Earl with the Secret Tattoo copyright © 2012 by Kieran Kramer.