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by Allison Lane
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: Burned out from years of tracking French spies, heartbroken from being jilted, Alex Portland now lives like a hermit on his secluded estate--until a storm blows Eden Marlow into his life. Eden seeks his help to unmask her husband's killer and recover his stolen antiquities. Despite the distracting sparks between them, together they uncover secrets--and a crafty thief. First time published! Regency Historical by Allison Lane, author of 21 Regency romances, historicals and novellas
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 2007
eBookwise Release Date: September 2007
31 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [426 KB]
Reading time: 262-367 min.
Rain lashed the carriage window, driven by wind cold enough to freeze the marrow. Thunder crashed.
Shuddering, Eden pulled the rug closer about her shoulders and wished the brick at her feet retained any lost its heat. She should have listened to Fellows when he'd advised a halt until the storm cleared. But they'd been only ten miles from Cliffside Manor. Two hours. Three at most. Halting would have meant yet another night at an inn, pinching her purse further...
Four hours had already passed, with no end in sight. If only she'd liste--
The carriage tilted crazily, flinging her against the door as the world exploded in a blur of sound and motion.
Her maid screamed.
Fellows's curse abruptly ceased.
An eternity later Eden warily unwrapped her arms from around her head and opened her eyes. She was crammed into the angle where the roof met the door, the seat hovering crookedly above her. Cold water seeped around her hip. A heavy weight pressed against her chest, making it difficult to breathe.
The weight whimpered.
"Are you all right?" Eden demanded, wriggling free of her maid so she could stand. The carriage had come to rest half on its roof, springing the door. Muddy water bubbled through the gap as the carriage slid deeper into the ditch.
"Wh-what happened?" Carver shakily sat up, then stood to avoid the spreading puddle.
"We've overturned." Only turbulent sky filled the window above them. Eden forced it open, letting in sheets of rain that banished her remaining dizziness. The screams of a terrified horse followed. But no soothing voice sought to calm it.
Carver's face turned even whiter. "D-do you think he's d-dead?"
"How should I know?" Eden snapped before reining in her temper. The way her luck was running, he could well be, adding another disaster to a fortnight packed with disasters. Nothing had gone right since--
She shook off the memories and concentrated on this latest crisis.
"Boost me up, Carver."
"But--It's raining, ma'am. You'll catch your death."
"Fellows is injured. The horses are tangled in the harness at the very least. Are you volunteering to tend them?"
Carver recoiled, her skirt stretched to the full as she widened her stance to avoid the rising water.
"As I thought. Either I deal with it, or we must stay here until another carriage happens by. Given the weather and the state of this lane, that could be days. And we've landed in water. I've no idea how deep it is. Can you swim?"
"Exactly. Now give me a boost up, then pray that at least one horse is whole. I don't relish walking for help in this storm."
"Of course, ma'am."
Wishing she wasn't cursed with a timid maid, Eden pulled herself through the window. The sight that met her eyes was daunting.
Angry black clouds boiled overhead. Rain fell in torrents, lashed sideways by the wind screaming through the few trees that grew inland of this desolate coast. Crashing waves topped the cliffs a hundred feet in the other direction. Water was rapidly flooding the road as it sought a way around the obstacle presented by the carriage.
Fellows had been thrown beyond the ditch. He lay unmoving against a boulder, one leg bent at an unnatural angle.
Guilt swamped her for forcing him to continue, but she shook it away. This was no time to wallow in if onlys.
"First things first," she muttered as she jumped to the ground.
Before she could help Fellows, she must see to the horses. The black was down, either dead or stunned. The roan was tangled in the harness. He was not taking kindly to the rising water or the tug on his head every time he tried to turn away from the downed black--the split ribbons connected both horses' bits. He twisted, trying to rid himself of the restraints.
Eden's breath whooshed out in relief when the black inhaled. Her first bit of luck. But she would have to work fast to free the roan before the black awoke. She couldn't fight two terrified animals.
Lightning blasted a tree on the crest of the hill, the concurrent crash of thunder sending new panic through the roan.
Circling to approach his head, she grimaced at the carriage. The front axle was broken. Rolling had damaged at least one wheel and crushed part of the boot. Stifling a sigh--she had no money for repairs--she forced herself to relax. Horses could sense agitation. Though this one was weary from four hours of battling mud and storm, panic made him dangerous.
"Easy, fellow." She pitched her voice low, for his grooms would all be men. "If you give me half a chance, I'll help you."
He plunged, snorting, but his ears pricked toward her.
"That's right, sweetheart. Steady does it." Ignoring the icy rain, she slowly unclasped her cloak and slipped it off. Her soothing murmurs kept those ears pointed firmly in her direction, drawing his attention away from his confinement. But his prancing hooves and twitching skin left no doubt of his continued terror. She waited patiently, talking all the while. Finally his feet paused--
She tossed the cloak over his head.
He shuddered once, then stilled.
"Good," she crooned, arranging the cloak into a blindfold that she could tuck into his harness. "You stand still, and I'll have you free in no time." She caressed his neck, then unbuckled the ribbons from the black's harness so they no longer tugged.
Loosening the rest of the harness was more difficult. It seemed an eternity before her freezing fingers could work the soaked straps to release him from the chains attached to the pole and doubletree. When she finally had him free, she tied him to the back of the carriage, removed the blindfold, then returned to the black.
He lay atop some of the buckles. She freed the chains at the other end, but they would clank against his sides when he stood. Since that might make him too skittish to handle by herself, she dragged a protesting Carver out to help.
"He's coming round," she warned when Carver reached the road. "I'll stay at his head and soothe him, but the minute he stands, you must unbuckle those chains. We can't risk him bolting," she added to forestall another objection. "Having to chase him down will delay me from fetching help."
Carver nodded, swallowing.
But in the end, the black offered little fight. He rolled onto his chest, then paused, panting, before scrambling to his feet. Eden crooned softly while Carver fought the buckles, but she did not need the blindfold. He was dead lame. At least nothing seemed broken. If they'd had to put him down--
Even thinking about the cost of killing a job horse set spots dancing before her eyes, so she concentrated on Fellows.
He hadn't moved.
"He's d-dead," stammered Carver.
"I hope not." Eden waded through the overflowing ditch and bent over her coachman. The good news was that he was breathing. But his leg was broken, one shoulder was dislocated, and several cuts still bled sluggishly. She had to get him warm and dry as quickly as possible. "Get the traveling rugs," she ordered Carver.
Clenching her fists, Eden waded back to the carriage. "Climb in and hand me the rugs," she ordered, boosting Carver up to the window.
This was not how she'd expected to spend the day. * * * *
A quarter hour later, Eden studied the site to make sure there was nothing else to be done. She'd strapped the luggage above the water level in the boot to keep the papers dry. The black was tethered under a tree, as sheltered as she could contrive. She'd tucked one rug around Fellows and arranged the other to provide a modicum of shelter from the rain. He remained unconscious, which was just as well. With luck they could get him to bed before he woke.
"Watch him closely," she ordered Carver, who was stationed at his side. "If he wakes, give him brandy." She'd found a flask in the driver's box, three-quarters full.
"Where are you going?" demanded Carver.
"To fetch help."
"Cliffside Manor cannot be far. The man in that last village told us five miles, and we must have traveled half that. This road goes nowhere else, so I can't miss it."
Allowing no further protest, she rucked up her skirts, mounted the roan, and left, thanking fate that Squire Keeling had given her the run of his stables when she'd been a girl, so she could ride both bareback and astride.
The temperature was falling fast, numbing her hands and cutting through the stockings on her now-uncovered legs--her feet had gone dead some time ago. She was amazed that the rain had not yet turned to ice. That was the way her luck had been running of late.
By the time she turned between ancient stone gateposts, her teeth were chattering so hard she feared they might shatter. * * * *
Alex Portland unwrapped the latest package from his book dealer, wondering what the man had chosen this time. Moore sent anything he thought Alex would enjoy--an easy task since Alex read copiously to keep his mind occupied and hold melancholy at bay. Retirement was nothing like he'd expected.
Of course, he'd expected to have Helen at his side, caring for his needs, filling his hours and his senses, turning Cliffside Manor into the Eden he'd envisioned during the worst moments of his career.
He shook his head. Two years of loneliness made it hard to forgive her for jilting him. She'd been all he'd had left after--
He stifled the memories. Regret always worsened his blue-devils, which were bad enough after ten days of rain. To banish them, he studied his library, letting its coziness seep into his soul.
There was no better place to be during storms. The crackling fire was made up with logs today so he could lose himself in dancing flames. Shelves laden with leather-bound volumes surrounded him. He'd added comfortable chairs and the finest brandy, then hung a portrait of his grandmother above the fireplace.
She was the only one who'd supported him against his father's tyranny. The only one who had never condemned him. The only one who'd known that his job with the Home Office had involved far more than copying letters and reports. She'd kept him focused, contributing to his many successes.
Now he was truly alone. She'd died three years earlier, leaving him Cliffside Manor and enough money to support him in style. A year later, he'd lost Helen, then retired, unable to face another assignment.
His father had been furious. The man knew nothing about him, but that didn't stop him from passing judgment on every word and deed. Even now, his charges echoed. Lazy ... trouble seeker ... profligate ... no gentleman...
Alex slammed the door on that despised voice. His father's hatred didn't matter. Retiring had saved his sanity by letting him retreat to Cliffside to lick his wounds, renovate the house, and relax.
It had worked. His scars were fading, Cliffside now boasted modern conveniences, and he no longer jumped at the slightest sound or kept a pistol always within reach.
His satisfaction hadn't lasted, of course, for solitude bred loneliness, a problem he'd yet to resolve. He couldn't return to the Home Office, no matter how much Home Secretary Sidmouth begged, and turning away all callers meant his neighbors now ignored him. Cliffside was so isolated that even liaisons were hard to arrange.
That was his biggest problem, he admitted, recognizing the familiar restlessness. Lovemaking had long helped him relax, so he hadn't cared that it had also earned him a reputation as a libertine--another of his father's complaints. Liaisons had kept him on an even keel through the worst assignments of his career.
Raking was another activity he'd left in London. There were too few opportunities for acceptable dalliance in the wilds of Devonshire. He'd never approved of seducing servants, and he was fastidious enough to eschew the services of tavern wenches who accommodated every fisherman and passerby with a free penny. He was long overdue for a trip to Exeter.
Yet a few days in Exeter would not truly help, he admitted as wind rattled the windows. The loneliness would remain until he found someone to share the manor.
He needed a wife.
Staring into the fire, he castigated himself for not recognizing the truth sooner. Why had he thought that living alone might be possible? His plans for retirement had included a wife. Someone who would oversee his household and keep him comfortable. A sweet-tempered, conformable girl who would entertain him when he wished, yet fade away when he was busy. The sort of girl Helen had pretended to be...
He leaned closer to the fire, propping his chin on his hand.
Finding the ideal wife would be difficult, for everyone hid behind social masks. And falling prey to Helen's deceit called his judgment into question, something Boney's most devious agents had failed to do. So he must be more cautious this time, making absolutely certain that the girl would not become a demanding shrew the moment she accepted his hand. The only place to find multiple candidates was the London Season.
Even without his antipathy to ballrooms, the prospect was daunting. His reputation would work against him. His own fault, of course. He'd not only allowed exaggerations to stand unchallenged, but had added outright falsehoods to cover his frequent absences from society. The practice had protected him from speculation that might have betrayed his real activities, but the sticklers looked at him askance whenever they met.
And they weren't his only problem. There were too many people in town he wished to avoid. Sidmouth. His family. Helen ... Granted, society knew nothing of the jilt, for he'd kept their betrothal secret lest his enemies strike at him through Helen. Thus he needn't fear embarrassment, but still ... Could he survive even a month in town with his sanity intact?
Shaking his head, he slit the first folio of the new book and turned to the title page.
He cursed. Why the devil did Moore think he would be interested in this? Granted, Alex enjoyed reading about other countries. But real ones. Not myths.
The table of contents listed the usual fabled places--Atlantis, the Mountains of the Moon, Prester John's Kingdom, the Nation of Satan, Lyonesse, Sarsos, the Land of the Dogmen--
Sarsos. He snapped to attention.
He hadn't thought of Sarsos in ten years.
Setting the book aside, he stared into the red-hot core of the fire. A log collapsed, its fragments sinking into the coals just as Sarsos had supposedly sunk into the sea.
He'd first heard the legend while investigating a Leicestershire robbery and murder for the Home Office--the assignment that had established his reputation for brilliant deduction, ultimately elevating him to chief investigator by his twenty-sixth year.
Sir George Marlow's daughter-in-law Christine had stolen the Sarsos staff from his antiquities collection, then eloped with Sir Harold Iverson. Two days later, her body had turned up, shot in the head. Sir George had asked Sidmouth for help--calling in runners would have broken his habit of secrecy, inciting enough speculation about his extensive collection to put other family members at risk.
Alex had succeeded, of course, thanks to his grandmother, who could recite family trees as easily as breathe. She had pointed him to the cousin who had stirred Sir Harold's interest in an object reputed to have magical powers.
Snorting at people's gullibility, Alex locked the memory back in its box--his mind was cluttered with such boxes--and reached for a treatise on electricity. The Marlow case had destroyed any interest in legends. Men were base enough without filling their heads with fantasies that triggered greed or a lust for power.
You are turning into a curmudgeon, his conscience grumbled.
Probably. But what could he expect? He'd dealt with greed too often. His brilliant handling of the Marlow case had moved him into a new office charged with preventing English military information from reaching the French. For eight years, he'd used his talent for disguise to work in secret, tracking down spies and unmasking traitors. By the end of the war, he'd desperately needed peace.
Now he needed a wife. It was time to reopen his town house. With luck, he could finish the business quickly. Then, at last, he could enjoy his retirement.
A sudden clatter drew him to the window as a horseman halted before the steps.
Not a horseman, he realized as skirts swirled on the dismount. A female. Riding astride. In a rainstorm.
This was no innocent maiden.
The wind ripped her cloak open, plastering her dripping gown against a shapely body that included a nicely rounded bosom. His groin stirred, banishing his blue-devils.
Had Fate just delivered dalliance to his doorstep? Perhaps it was time to rescind his policy of turning away all callers. * * * *
Eden pounded on the door a second time, wondering where the devil the butler was. Or the footman. Or a maid. The manor wasn't large, but it ought to have a staff of at least a dozen. Light glowed behind several windows, so someone was home. But there wasn't even a groom to take her horse.
Another gust of wind tried to steal her cloak. Wiping water from her face, she again plied the knocker.
The two miles she'd ridden felt like two hundred, leaving her ice to the bone. Her hands were now as numb as her feet, and her face would crack if she smiled. But Carver and Fellows were likely in worse shape. At least she'd derived a little warmth from the horse.
Again she knocked.
When the porter at the Home Office had finally admitted that Mr. Portland had retired, she'd insisted on going to Devonshire to speak with him. Now she had to wonder if the doddering old fool was competent enough to understand her problem, let alone solve it. For all she knew, he might be deaf as a post, and his servants with him.
The door finally creaked open.
"Are you lost, miss?"
"This is Cliffside Manor, isn't it?"
The butler's mouth tightened, but he nodded.
"Then I'm not lost. Tell Mr. Portland that Mrs. Marlow must speak with him on a matter of g-great urgency. I also need a groom to t-tend to this b-beast"--she gestured at the horse as she stepped inside--"and a c-carriage to fetch the rest of my p-party. We slid into a d-ditch. My c-coachman and a horse are injured. My maid is t-t-tending them, b-but with this storm--" She shrugged, or tried to. Her teeth were chattering worse than ever. The unheated hall was so much warmer than the storm that pain lanced her body.
"Of course, madam." His irritation gave way to competence. "If you will step this way, the housekeeper will see you warm and dry. I will discover whether Mr. Portland is receiving." His tone declared that it wasn't likely. The villager had used the same tone. Apparently Portland was a hermit.
It was on the tip of her tongue to demand an immediate audience, but she bit back the words. The longcase clock on the landing read half past seven. For all she knew, he might have retired for the night. Many elderly men kept early hours. If not for the storm, she would have arrived before dinner, but ten days of rain left even turnpikes muddy, and the lanes that served this corner of Devonshire were all but impassable. If time had pressed less heavily--
But if the errand were less urgent, she wouldn't be here at all, she admitted, accepting her relegation to the lower orders as she followed the butler to the kitchen. Beggars couldn't take offense at snubs, and the kitchen would be warm. Besides, if she balked, she would likely never see Portland.
She couldn't risk it. Her husband had followed Portland's career and often sang his praises. If anyone could help--
The kitchen's warmth doubled her over in pain. Darkness engulfed her, numbing her to the hands that caught her collapse. * * * *
"What is it, Tweed?" Alex asked when his valet entered the library. His needs were minimal, so Tweed doubled as butler. A housekeeper, two maids, and Cook rounded out his staff.
Not for long, murmured his conscience. A wife will demand a full staff, frequent entertainments, Seasons in town...
Cringing at the very thought, he modified the description of his ideal wife. She must prefer the country and never make demands.
"A Mrs. Marlow to see you, sir," announced Tweed, crossing to close the shutters. "She claims her errand is urgent."
Tweed continued to speak, but Alex stopped listening. Was she connected to Sir George Marlow? The family didn't frequent London, so Alex had heard nothing of them in ten years--except for a note from the younger son outlining his suspicions of a neighbor. It had helped Alex unmask a spy ring that included a high-placed traitor at Horse Guards, adding the biggest feather of all to his cap. He owed the son a favor.
But if John needed assistance, he would have written, as he'd done before. Any other Marlow who wanted his services would learn that they were no longer for hire. He had abandoned interest in other people's problems two years ago.
A grateful wench is easy to seduce, whispered his libido.
True. So it wouldn't hurt to listen. It might even be entertaining. He had nothing better to do this evening.
His groin stirred more forcefully. She had to be a widow. A wife would let her husband solve her problems. She would never address them alone and would certainly never call on a notorious rake. So Mrs. Marlow might be available. And if she was connected to the very priggish Leicestershire Marlows, she was likely as frustrated as he was.
"Feed her," he ordered. "I will see her when she is dry. And have Mrs. Crump prepare a bedchamber."
Tweed raised his brows, but left without further comment.
Again Alex opened his mental box on the Marlow case.
She might have married any number of men. Sir George's grandsons had been unwed ten years ago. They all belonged to the heir, though, so if that was her connection, he would see that she left by morning. Richard Marlow was not a man he would willingly assist, a feeling that extended to his sons, who had been opinionated bores then and had likely grown worse with time.
Or she might have wed one of the cousins. There were dozens, all scrappers. In truth, he didn't wish to see any of them. The family had complicated the Marlow case by arguing constantly over what had happened, how to resolve it, and who deserved the blame. They'd been so vocal it was a miracle he'd kept the facts from becoming public knowledge.
She might have no connection, of course, for Marlow was a common name. It was mere coincidence that he'd been thinking of Sir George when she arrived--for the first time in years...