As the carriage passed the massive stone gates, Alaric McLeod leaned out the window, trying to get a glimpse of his new home. It was a rare show of excitement for him. At nine, he’d already learned the value of self-discipline, of guarding his responses to the world around him. ’Twas a simple fact: what people couldn’t see, they couldn’t hurt.
Yesterday, he hadn’t flinched when his da tossed the single, ratty travelling case—the only one the McLeods owned—onto the carriage and said tonelessly, “That’s that, then. Be a good lad and no trouble to my cousin.”
He didn’t move a muscle when his stepmother bid him a cool farewell.
Yet when his younger half-brother Will cried, “Why is Alaric leaving? I want to go with him!” something hot and unexpected pushed behind his eyes.
He pushed back, forcing the heat to retreat.
“Good bye, William.” He was proud of how grown-up he sounded. “I’m the ward of a duke now, so I shan’t be returning here.” He glanced at the tidy cottage with its blooming hedgerows and vegetable garden—and the old, stupid yearning pierced him. Though his confidence wavered, he lifted his chin. “My new guardian lives in a castle. I’ll have my own bedchamber. And servants to fetch me anything I want.”
“I want to go with you,” Will insisted.
Will’s mother intervened, her arms folding protectively around her little son. She’d never once held Alaric that way. The knots in Alaric’s chest tightened—and he ignored that too. He told himself he didn’t care if his father’s new wife was young and beautiful with her shining chestnut hair and dark brown eyes—Alaric’s own mama had been more beautiful. And his stepmother was a mere milliner’s girl whereas his mother had been a true lady, the youngest daughter of an earl.
Though his mama had died when he was three, she still visited him in fragments. The fading scent of gardenias. The whisper of silk behind a closed door. Dampness upon a cheek as cool and smooth as alabaster. We don’t belong here, Alaric. We deserve better …
“You’ll stay here, Will,” the new Mrs. McLeod said firmly, “where you belong.”
Alaric understood his stepmother’s message. Truth didn’t need to be spoken aloud: he knew who belonged and who didn’t. As if to prove the point, his da came to stand behind his stepmother and half-brother. His chest chafed at the picture the three made. Brown-haired and robust, a proud, loving Scots family. He bore no resemblance to them with his black hair and awkward, gangling build, the pale skin and eyes he’d inherited from his English mama.
You’ve eyes like the blessed cat, his stepmother had once said.
Aye, he had more in common with that mangy stray than the portrait-perfect McLeods. Resentment swelled. They didn’t want him? Fine. He didn’t want to be here anyway. He hated them all—and this backward village, too. The bullies and lack-wits, offspring of farmers who would sooner start a brawl than attempt a math problem. Who’d bloody a lad’s nose just because he had a head for numbers and sums.
Da cleared his throat. “It’s time you’re off. Mustn’t keep your guardian waiting.”
Can’t wait to be rid of me, can you? The dark, swirling thoughts burst through the barriers of his control. Confusion and anger swept through him. Even as his fists balled, ice came to his rescue, flowing through his veins, numbing everything else.
Don’t let them see. They can’t hurt you.
“Yes.” His voice frosted over. “I don’t want to keep his grace waiting.”
“I’ll miss you, Alaric.” Eyes glimmering, Will tugged on his sleeve. “You’ll come and visit soon, won’t you?”
What for? They have you. Their son … the one that matters.
“Goodbye, William,” he said flatly.
He’d boarded the carriage without looking back. What was the point? He already knew what was behind him—what mattered was looking ahead. His hands cold and clammy now, he gripped the window frame of the carriage. If his eyes stung, he told himself it was because of the dust clouds stirred up by the clattering wheels.
Put the past behind you. There’s no looking back—the future is what matters.
The dust settled and then, like magic, a vision appeared. His jaw slackened. Surrounded by lush green hills and cloudless skies, Strathmore Castle sprawled with the grace of an ancient behemoth that had fed off time itself. Sunshine gilded the stone walls, glinted off stained glass and mullioned windows. Power infused the building’s every line from the rugged towers to the sweeping wings. ’Twas a place that could ward off any attack—and provide refuge to a chosen few.
As the carriage rolled onto the circular front drive, two figures emerged from the arched entryway. The tall, black-haired man with hawkish features was Henry McLeod, the Duke of Strathaven, Alaric’s first cousin once removed and now his guardian. He’d met the duke only once before, when the latter had come to offer guardianship to one of the sons of his poor relation. Amidst the clutter of the McLeods’ cottage, the duke had seemed like a king with his fine clothes and pristine elegance. Surrounded by the wealth and power of his ancestral estate, his grace dazzled like a god.
Beside Strathaven was the duchess, thin and slight as a sparrow, lace quivering at her breast. Alaric had never met her. He knew only that her own son had died of a fever, and she could not bear another.
When she waved her handkerchief in welcome, the ice in Alaric’s gut began to thaw. Relief trickled through him.
They want me here. I’ll belong. I’ve come… home.
His lips found the tentative shape of a smile, and he waved back with a boy’s eagerness.
Twenty-seven years later
As the strains of a waltz emerged from the orchestra, Miss Emma Kent took leave of her sister-in-law Marianne, who was chaperoning her this evening, and wove through the mirrored ballroom. Her purpose wasn’t to find a dance partner. With all the ladies eagerly convening like a kaleidoscope of butterflies upon the dance floor, she saw a prime opportunity to visit the necessary without waiting in line.
Born and bred in the country, she was practical by nature. As she nudged a path through the heavily perfumed throng, she thought—not for the first time—that the night’s endeavor was rather pointless. She didn’t belong here amongst the champagne fountains and rarefied guests. Not only did she lack the requisite blue blood, she was also too old, too independent, and too unsophisticated to attract a husband.
These were facts and did not bother her overmuch. She knew her strengths: having managed a cottage and four unruly siblings since the age of thirteen, she was resourceful, efficient, and competent in an array of skills. She loved her family dearly and had never met a man who’d made her want to relinquish her place there—or her firmly established autonomy.
Hence, marriage was not a top priority.
She had bigger, better plans.
The orchestra began to crescendo, eliciting a swell of emotion beneath her peach silk bodice. Her papa had passed over a year ago, and she still missed him with every fiber of her being. As the village schoolmaster, Samuel Kent had dedicated his life to educating the young minds of Chudleigh Crest, and he’d been the wisest man she’d ever known.
It is not living that matters, he’d taught her and her siblings, but living rightly. Follow the wisdom of your heart, and it will lead you to the truth.
The twirling dancers and opulent surroundings faded as Emma contemplated how to put her papa’s moral philosophy into action.
After their father’s death, her eldest half-brother Ambrose had insisted on moving her and their younger siblings from Chudleigh Crest to London. Emma knew that he wanted to give them opportunities not found in the country. Marianne, Ambrose’s beloved wife, had been a wealthy baroness prior to marrying into the middling class Kent family, and she was more than happy to use her social cache to give her husband’s younger siblings entrée into the ton.
Marianne had taken them in hand, polished them up. She’d put in effort and expense, and Emma hadn’t the heart to dissuade her sister-in-law’s good intentions or puncture the bubbling excitement of her younger sisters Dorothea, Violet, and Polly, who’d taken to city life like ducks to water. Tonight was Emma’s first outing in the beau monde, and she was supposed to set a good example for her sisters, who would soon be introduced to Society as well.
She didn’t want to let her family down … but she didn’t want to be here either. For she’d already discovered her true passion; the problem was how to gain her older brother’s support for her plans. As she contemplated the conundrum, she passed through the arched entryway and suddenly tripped, gasping as she hurtled forward. She braced for impact—collided with something firm and solid …
Blinking, she found herself staring up at the countenance of a ruthless god.
She was far from being a fanciful sort, yet there was no other way to describe the stranger with the dark, gleaming black hair and face sculpted with savage perfection. He looked to be in his thirties, his edges chiseled by jaded experience. He had high cheekbones, a blade of a nose, his chin and jaw arrogantly jutting. Beneath the dark slashes of his brows, his eyes were a startling shade of silvery jade, fringed by the thickest, longest eyelashes she’d ever seen on a gentleman. She stared, mesmerized.
Those arresting eyes narrowed. The brooding mouth twisted into a cynical smile.
“If you wanted to dance, pet, you might try asking.”
The deep, mocking tones held a faint lilt, something not entirely English. Then the words themselves penetrated her dazed brain. With dawning horror, Emma realized that she’d literally fallen into the stranger’s arms—and he thought she’d done so on purpose. That she was deliberately throwing herself at him!
Mortified, she tried to disentangle herself. “Let me go.”
“Easy there,” he drawled.
His scent permeated her senses, a blend of wood spice and soap that was ineffably masculine. His muscular arms surrounded her, held her closer than any man ever had. Placing her hands against his silver grey waistcoat, she pushed to no avail. Even through the layers of fabric, his chest felt as hard and unyielding as a slab of marble.
Immobilized, she became aware of his heartbeat, the strong rhythm surging beneath her palm. Its dominant cadence flowed into her, overtaking her own wild pulse, harnessing it. Her eyes drew to the sensual curve of his mouth, and her insides gave a strange flutter. Liquid awareness rushed from her center.
With growing panic, she struggled and said, “Release me at once!”
“If you insist.”
His hold loosened at the same time that she shoved against him with all her might. She toppled backward in a cascade of silk, landing with a thud on the hallway floor. The wind knocked out of her, she tried to gather her breath and the remnants of her dignity.
“Need help?” he inquired.
He towered over her, his broad shoulders tapering to a lean torso and narrow hips. Nary a wrinkle marred his elegant black and white evening wear. His cravat was a study in perfection, a large emerald winking in its snowy folds.
Flustered, she swatted a loose dark curl out of her eyes. “Not from the likes of you.”
His expression turned sardonic. “Just so you know, these ploys of yours have been tried before, and they won’t work with me. I don’t play with innocent misses. The untied slipper ribbon?” He glanced pointedly at her left slipper, where the peach satin lace indeed dangled undone. “’Tis the oldest debutante trick in the book, sweet.”
His mind-boggling arrogance rendered her speechless. Before she could unknot her tongue to give him a proper set down, he swept her a mocking bow, and his tall, virile form disappeared into the ballroom.
Emma stared after him. Unbelievable.
He embodied everything she disliked about the upper classes: superiority and sophistication, contempt toward those deemed below their notice. A man such as this was guided not by morality or purpose but his own jaded amusement and self-gratification. Fuming, she rose and dusted herself off.
The bounder. That better be the last I see of him.
An hour passed in which, thankfully, Emma saw no more of the rude stranger. The event had turned into a crush, however, and the ballroom was more sweltering than ever. When she saw her sister-in-law swamped by a circle of admirers, she took the opportunity to get some air, escaping through the French-style doors that led into Lady Buckley’s famed maze garden.
Outside, she inhaled deeply, the jasmine-scented night air invigorating her senses, and she couldn’t resist wandering farther into the empty garden. Her skirts whispered over the manicured grass as she followed the winding wall of hedges, her pearl-studded reticule swinging from her gloved fingers.
Surrounded by moonlit darkness, she continued to mull over her dilemma: how could she convince her brother to let her join the family business?
The seeds of her destiny had been sown when Ambrose’s private enquiry firm, Kent and Associates, suffered a fire several months ago. Luckily, no one had been injured, but the entire office had needed to be rebuilt. Seeing the strain the situation put on her brother, she’d offered to help organize the new premises; besieged by so many responsibilities, he’d gratefully accepted. With her trademark energy, she’d set about getting everything shipshape, and even after the dust had settled, she’d stayed on to assist the clerk, Mr. Hobson, with the day-to-day tasks.
It felt good to help. She liked supporting Ambrose and his business partners, Mr. Lugo and Mr. McLeod, in their noble enterprise. Then, last week, an astonishing event had occurred, making her destiny bloom into vivid clarity before her eyes.
She’d brought tea to Mrs. Kendrick, an anxious widow returning for the third time in as many days. The lady had tearfully shared that she was losing hope that her lost engagement ring, a memento of her beloved husband, would ever be found. Filled with empathy, Emma had asked the other a few questions—and the conversation had unexpectedly led to the recovery of said ring! Mrs. Kendrick’s joyful gratitude had filled Emma with satisfaction, a momentous sense of achievement. Then and there, she’d had twin revelations.
First, Kent and Associates needed a female investigator.
Second, she was the woman for the job.
Emma reasoned that she would bring a unique and valuable perspective to the work of detection. In the case of Mrs. Kendrick, she’d instantly suspected a culprit whom neither Ambrose nor his male colleagues had considered.
Moreover, Ambrose always said that success in investigation relied upon observation, deduction, and creative thinking. Emma had raised four younger siblings, all of whom claimed—ruefully—that she had eyes in the back of her head. She couldn’t count the number of times she’d figured out the location of a missing hair ribbon or boot lace or resolved some knotty household problem. And when times had been lean for the family, she’d relied on ingenuity and determination to see them all through.
Emma knew she had the skills to succeed as an investigator.
Yet how could she persuade her overprotective older brother of her plan’s merits? It was one thing for Ambrose to let her assist in mundane office tasks—and it would be quite another for him to agree to train her as an investigator. What would it take to prove her worth to him and his partners? Perhaps if she were to solve another case, demonstrate her initiative and resourceful nature …
A noise cut through her musings. With a start, she realized that she had meandered deep into the heart of the labyrinth. She heard a murmur from around the next bend—then a cry scraped the night. Heart pounding, she instinctively backed against the nearest hedge, twigs and leaves prickling the exposed skin between her shoulder blades. She waited in the shadows, breath held.
Voices emerged from the other side of the leafy barrier.
“Are you going to hurt me?” a female voice said tremulously.
“I’m going to do whatever I want. And you’re going to enjoy it.”
The coolly arrogant statement jolted Emma. The hairs on her nape shivered to attention, her palms growing clammy within her gloves. Dear God, she knew that deep male voice with the faint lilt.
“Please, I beg of you,” the lady whimpered.
“You like to beg, don’t you? Perhaps if I’m in the mood later, I’ll have you do so … on your knees.”
At the silky menace of the words, Emma’s eyes widened. What did the fiend intend to do? With shaking hands, she searched for a gap in the foliage. There was none. Only dark leaves in the dark night—an impenetrable wall to accompany the sudden, taut silence. Emma’s senses strained for any hint, any sign of what was happening on the other side. Her pulse skittered; her thoughts raced.
Should I call for help—who will hear me out here? Mayhap I should run for assistance?
A feminine plea rent the night. “Oh God. Please, Strathaven, I can’t bear it—”
Oh my goodness, I have to do something. The bounder is assaulting her!
Fear for the woman’s safety propelled Emma into action. She dashed to the other side of the hedge; her frantic gaze landed on the pair by the gazebo. In the silvery moonlight, their profile formed a terrifying tableau. A tall, slim redhead stood trapped against a column, her hands bound above her head. A blindfold covered her eyes, the black silk a wicked contrast to the whiteness of her face and throat, her heaving bosom. A broad-shouldered man towered over her, his hand fisted in her skirts—
“Stop, you blackguard!” Emma cried, rushing at him.
“What the devil—”
He swung around just in time for her reticule to connect with his jaw. His head snapped to the side; he stumbled back with an oath.
Emma wasted no time. She ran to the woman, tore off the blindfold. “I’ll get you out of here!”
“Who are you? What are you doing?” The lady’s frantic blue eyes darted around the clearing. “Be quiet or someone will hear you!”
Emma had to stand on tiptoe to reach the lady’s wrists. She succeeded in untying the rope, which slithered to the ground, coiling like a snake in the grass. A sardonic voice emerged from behind her.
“You again,” he said.
Emma pivoted as the stranger advanced toward her, rubbing his jaw. Only now he wasn’t a stranger—the lady had called him Strathaven … a lord of some sort? She regretted not paying attention to Marianne’s review of Debrett’s Peerage. It was best to know one’s enemy.
Emma’s skin prickled as Strathaven’s gaze roved over her, his icy, intense eyes penetrating her layer by layer. Palpitations gripped her heart. No one had ever looked at her this way before. Had ever made her feel this exposed and bared … Shaking off the alien sensation, she pulled her shoulders back and stood at her full height. Unfortunately, he dwarfed her by nearly a foot; she had to tip her head back to meet his gaze.
“Take one more step, and I’ll scream,” she warned.
Given the volume of the orchestra and party as well as the present location deep in the garden, she thought it unlikely that her cry for help would be noticed. She prayed the rogue wouldn’t realize it.
“Oh?” One black brow lifted. “Who do you think will hear you?”
Dash it. “I have extremely capable lungs,” she informed him.
“Somehow that doesn’t surprise me.” His lips gave a faint twitch, drawing her attention to the hard line of his mouth and the faint grooves that bracketed it. “Well, pet, you have succeeded in getting my attention, I’ll grant you that.”
The nerve of the man. “Of all the arrogant, asinine—”
“Please keep your voice down.” The lady inserted herself between them. “I beg of you, Miss …?”
“My name is Emma Kent. And you needn’t be afraid because I witnessed everything.” Emma angled her chin up. “I shall be happy to provide testimony to the magistrates.”
“The magistrates? You mustn’t,” the lady gasped.
“The scoundrel was attacking you. Of course I must.”
“Attacking her? Why would I do such a thing?” To her disbelief, Strathaven gave a harsh laugh. “Do you know who I am, Miss Kent?”
“I don’t care who you are. Your rank doesn’t exempt you from rules of conduct, my lord,” Emma retorted hotly.
“Your grace is how one addresses a duke.”
She gritted her teeth at his cool correction. “The point is, your grace, I heard you assaulting this lady and—”
“You have no idea what you heard.” The duke’s mouth formed a humorless smile. “Now run along, pet, and leave us be.”
Pet? As if she were a spaniel trained to do his bidding? Before she could summon a scathing reply, the lady gripped her arm.
“Strathaven is right,” the redhead pleaded. “Nothing happened.”
“But he tied you up and was about to … hurt you.” Had the rogue meant to beat the woman—rape her? Both? Quelling a shudder, Emma said, “If you’re afraid, you needn’t be. My brother is a former member of the Thames River Police, and he knows the Chief Magistrate of Bow Street personally—”
“No.” Her face draining of color, the lady whispered, “I implore you, Miss Kent. If anyone catches wind of this, I’ll be ruined. Lord Osgood, my husband … he’ll never forgive me.” Her voice hitched on a sob. “There cannot be a scandal.”
“Surely if you explain to your husband—”
“My reputation will be destroyed. I would rather die.” Tears streamed down Lady Osgood’s beautiful face, her fingers digging painfully into Emma’s flesh. “If you truly wish to help me, swear on everything you hold dear that you’ll never breathe word of this matter.”
Emma hesitated, darted a glance at Strathaven. He’d propped one velvet-clad shoulder against a gazebo post, his pose utterly unconcerned. Frustration smoldered in her chest. It wasn’t fair that Lady Osgood had to worry about her reputation whilst he didn’t have to answer for his misdeeds. Why should he should get away with assault just because he was a man—a duke?
’Twas injustice of the worst sort.
“Promise me, Miss Kent.” Lady Osgood fell to her knees.
Shocked, Emma tried to pull the other up. “Please don’t—”
“I shan’t move until you give me your word.” More tears slid over the lady’s sculpted cheekbones, her lips trembling. “If you don’t, I shall be forced to do something drastic. I’d rather end it all than—”
“I won’t tell anyone,” Emma said desperately. “Please get up.”
“Truly?” Lady Osgood whispered. “You swear it—on everything you hold dear?”
With lingering reluctance, Emma gave a nod.
Lady Osgood rose, her gaze flitting to Strathaven. Emma couldn’t decipher the duke’s expression. What hold did he have over the lady? Would he threaten or hurt her in the future?
“Stay away from her,” Emma warned, “or I will see justice done.”
Lightning flashed in the duke’s gaze, his expression that of a wrathful god ready to wage war. The air seemed to crackle with his aggression. Swiftly, Emma took Lady Osgood by the arm and dragged her back toward the house. As they traversed the twisting maze, Emma’s heart thudded, sweat dampening her unmentionables even as she kept a quick, determined pace.
With an adversary like Strathaven, it was best to keep going and never look back.