Read an Extract
The key was in the lock. Marcus turned it and went into the
library, braced for almost anything.
The woman who turned from her contemplation of the street
was tall, slender to the point of thinness and clad in a plain,
dark pelisse and gown. Her bonnet was neither fashionable
nor dowdy, the impression she gave was of neatness and of
frugality. As he came closer and noticed the tightness
with which her hands were clasped before her and the rigidity
of her shoulders, he realised that she was under considerable
‘The butler told me to wait for Lord Stanegate.
Are you he?’ Her voice was a surprise. Warm
and mellow, like honey. Hazel eyes watched him, full
of concern. Feigned?
‘I am Stanegate,’ he said, not troubling to blank
out his feelings from either his face or voice. For
whatever reason, she had made his father very ill. ‘And
Why couldn’t I have thought of something more convincing?
Nell stared back into the hard eyes, as dark as wet flint.
He was too big, too serious, too male and far too
close. She locked her knees against the instinct to
edge backwards as she read the anger under the control he
‘Miss Smith?’ No, he didn’t
believe her. There was scepticism in the deep voice
and one corner of his mouth turned down in the reverse of
a smile as he studied her face. ‘Why, exactly,
have you delivered a silken rope to my father?’
Nell made herself withstand the compelling dark eyes
‘Is that what it was? The parcel seemed innocuous
enough. I saw no harm in it.’
‘You are fortunate that he did not die of the shock.
The earl is not a well man, his heart is weak.’
There was the anger again, like fire behind the flint.
A man who loved his father and was afraid for him. But
what was there to fear in a rope?
‘I had no idea what it contained. It was only
a parcel to be delivered.’ Just let me go…
‘Indeed? You hardly look like the sort of female
to be employed delivering parcels.’ The viscount
- she supposed that was what he was, her grasp of the ranks
of nobility was escaping her under stress - folded his arms
across his chest and looked her up and down. She
knew what he was seeing. Shabby gentility, neatness
and decency maintained by sheer willpower and a refusal to
give in and allow her standards to slip.
‘I am a -‘ Lie, her instincts shouted,
’dressmaker. I deliver garments for fittings to
clients’ homes on behalf of my employer. One gentleman
asked, as a favour, if she would have me deliver that parcel
here. He has spent a good deal of money at the shop
recently, Madame did not like to refuse such a good customer.’
‘His name?’ He did not seem to actually
disbelieve her despite the sceptical line of that hard mouth.
And it was true. Almost.
‘I do not know it.’
‘Really, Miss Smith? An excellent customer of
your employer and you do not know his name?’ He
moved closer, just a little, just to the very edge of discomfort
for her, and narrowed his eyes.
Nell lifted her chin and stared back, letting him see she
was assessing him in her turn, refusing to be cowed.
Almost thirty, she guessed, six foot, give or take half an
inch, fit, confident, used to getting his own way. Was
that because of his station in life or his inherent qualities?
All she could tell of the latter, just now, was that he was
an angry man who loved his father.
‘No, I do not know his real name, my lord. I
know the name he gave: Salterton.’
‘And how do you know that is false?’
‘I assume by the style of what he chose that he was
buying items for his mistress. He spent a lot of money.
Money, I deduced, that he would not want his wife to know
about. I was there when he first came into the shop
and I heard Madame ask him his name. He hesitated, just
a fraction, and then there was something in his voice.
He was lying: one can tell.’
‘Indeed one can,’ Lord Stanegate said, that mobile
corner of his mouth twitching up into a fleeting smile that
held no humour whatsoever. Nell felt her cheeks grown
hot and stared fixedly at the cabochon ruby pin in his neckcloth.
‘What does he look like?’
‘I hardly saw him and I think that was deliberate on
his part. I do not think even Madame has fully seen
his face. He always seems to come in the evening and
he wears a slouch hat, his collar is turned up. He pays
in cash, not on account.
‘But one can see he is dark.’ She struggled
for remembrance and to assemble her impressions into a coherent
description. ‘He is foreign perhaps, because there
is something in his voice - not quite an accent, more of a
lilt, although he speaks like an English gentleman.
He looks fit, he moves well.’ She frowned, chasing
the elusive words to describe the shadowy figure. ‘Like
a dancer. He is not quite as tall as you and of slighter
As she spoke, she realised she was letting her eyes run over
the man in front of her, assessing the elegant simplicity
of expensive tailoring and the fit, well-proportioned, body
under it. He was dressed for driving in a dark plain
coat and buckskin breeches with glossy high boots. She
dragged her gaze back to the tie pin: there was something
about the set of the strong jaw above the intricate folds
of the neckcloth that suggested he was aware of her scrutiny
and did not relish it.
‘You are a good observer, Miss Smith, considering
you only glimpsed him and had no reason to take an interest.’
He did not believe her, but she was not going to admit that
the dark man had both intrigued and repelled her from the
start. He had seemed to bring danger into the frivolous
feminine world of the shop. ‘What is the name
and direction of your employer? Doubtless she will remember
‘I prefer not to give it. Madame would not be
pleased if she found I had involved her in an awkward situation.’
And that, my girl, is where you get yourself when you
lie. I cannot tell him now, not without admitting I
do not work for a dressmaker, and then he will believe even
less of what I say.
‘And if she is displeased, what is the worst she can
do to you?’ The viscount moved away a few steps
and half sat on one corner of the library table. Nell
let out her breath, then realised that he had simply moved
back to study her more closely, head to toes.
‘Dismiss me.’ Which would be, quite simply,
a disaster. Not, of course, that a man like this would
realise how precarious the life of a working woman was with
no family, no other means of support.
‘Hmm.’ He regarded her from under level
brows. Nell had the impression that he spent rather
a lot of time frowning. ‘And what can I do,
do you suppose? I will tell you - I can hand you in
at Bow Street as an accomplice in a conspiracy to murder my
‘What! Murder? Why that is simply ridiculous!’
The shock of the threat propelled her into motion, pacing
away from him in agitation. Nell came up against a large
globe on a stand and spun back to face the viscount.
‘The earl is obviously in bad health and he must have
over-strained himself getting out of his chair or something.
Conspiracy? That is nonsense. What is there is a length
of rope to harm a grown man? What is it anyway?
A curtain tie?’
‘A silken rope,’ he said slowly, with a weight
to his words that made her feel she should read some significance
into them. And at the back of her mind, sunk deep in
her memory, something stirred, sent out flickers of unease
as if at the recollection of a childhood nightmare.
Nell shrugged, sending the discomfort skittering back into
the darkness. Somehow she did not want to explore that
elusive thought. ‘Take me to Bow Street then,’
she bluffed, as though that in itself were not enough to have
her instantly dismissed without a character. ‘See
if the magistrates think that innocently delivering a parcel
justifies being locked up and abused.’
‘Abused? In what way do you consider yourself
abused, Miss Smith?’ Lord Stanegate sat there,
hands folded, apparently relaxed, looking as unthreatening
as six foot of well-muscled and angry man could look.
‘I can ring for a cup of tea for you, while you consider
your position. Or I could send for my sisters’
companion, should you require a chaperon. If you are
cold, the fire will be laid. Only I will have an answer,
Miss Smith. Do not underestimate me.’
‘There is no danger of my doing that, my lord,’
she responded, keeping her voice calm with an effort.
‘I can see that you are used to getting your own way
in all things and that bullying and threatening one defenceless
female, however politely, is not something you will
‘Bullying?’ His eyebrows went up.
‘No, this is not bullying, Miss Smith, nor threatening.
I am merely setting out the inevitable consequences of your
actions - or rather, your inaction.’
‘Threats,’ she muttered, mutinous and increasingly
‘It would be threatening,’ he said, getting to
his feet and walking towards her as she backed away, ‘if
I were to force you back against the bookshelves, like this.’
Nell’s heels hit wood and she stopped, hands spread.
There was nothing behind her but unyielding leather spines.
Lord Stanegate put one hand either side of her head and glanced
at the shelves. ‘Ah, the Romantic poets, how very
inappropriate. Yes, if I were to trap you like this
and to move very close -’ He shifted until they
were toe to toe and she felt the heat of his thighs as they
brushed her skirts. ‘And then promise to put my
hands around your rather pretty neck and shake the truth out
of you - now that would be threatening.’
Nell closed her eyes, trying to block out the closeness of
him. Behind her, leather and old paper and beeswax wood
polish were comforting scents from her early childhood.
In front of her, sharp citrus and clean linen and leather
and man. She tried to melt back into the old, familiar,
library smell but there was no escape that way.
‘Look at me.’
She dragged her eyes open. He had shaved very close
that morning, but she could tell his beard would be as dark
as his hair. There was a tiny scar nicking the left
corner of his lips and they were parted just enough for her
to see the edge of white, strong teeth. As she watched
he caught the lower lip between them for a moment, as though
in thought. Nell found herself staring at the fullness
where his teeth had pressed, her breath hitching in her chest.
‘No.’ The thought of his hands on her,
sliding under her chin, his fingers slipping into her hair…
And the memory of Mr Harris came back to her and she shuddered,
unable to stop herself, and he stepped back abruptly as though
she had slapped him.
‘Damn it -‘
‘My lord.’ The butler was in the doorway.
‘Dr Rowlands is here and Lady Narborough is asking for
you. She seems a little anxious, my lord.’
Nell saw, from both their faces, that a little anxious
was a major understatement. Without a word Lord Stanegate
turned on his heel and strode out after the man. The door
banged shut behind him.