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Authors: Holly Newman

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Miss Cruikston smiled.

Maria Sprockett, to Leona's silent wrath, was finding it more and more difficult to maintain an air of gravity.

"Sir, you must have wondered at the suddenness of our visit," she said.

"Oh, not at all, my dear Miss Leonard. My only regret is that it wasn't sooner."

"I have come for your advice. Your advice as a magistrate," she hastily clarified when she saw his overly pleased expression.

"Of course, my dear," he reached out to pat her hand reassuringly.

Leona ground her teeth. "This morning I received a package in the mails. I would like you to see it." She opened up her reticule and took out the small box, handing it to him.

He opened it. "A button, Miss Leonard?"

She leaned forward, one finger reaching out to lightly trace the raised figure on the button. "The design on the face of it is the Leonard family crest. The button came from the suit of clothes I was wearing when I rescued Chrissy—Lady Christiana. I lost the button that night."

Sir Nathan glanced at her sharply, the image of the anxious suitor falling away. Leona relaxed, suddenly more comfortable. Sir Nathan was, if nothing else, a dedicated magistrate.

"I suppose we must assume this is from the Norths. The question is, what does it mean?"

Leona was silent a moment, her lips pursed as she considered what and how much to tell him. One of Maria's fine- lined brows climbed upward. A lightning flash of irritation streaked through Leona. She pursed her lips, then sighed and reached again into her reticule. "This note came with the button," she said reluctantly.

Aware of some tension between Miss Leonard and Miss Sprockett, Sir Nathan glanced from one to the other, perplexed. He unfolded the square of paper.

"What is it, Nathan?" asked Miss Cruikston when she saw the dismayed expression on her brother's face.

"It appears young Deveraux's concerns were well founded," he said heavily. He looked at Leona. "Before he returned to Castle Marin Mr. Deveraux warned me that he felt Lady Christiana's kidnappers were not the sort to abandon their game as bad luck and go on to other endeavors. He expected they might try some form of revenge action. This note proves him right."

"It would seem so on the surface, but I'm inclined to believe it is more in the nature of a ruse. They are trying to scare me, for I ask you, what would they benefit from taking action against me? I have neither money nor position."

"My dear Miss Leonard, from what Mr. Deveraux told me, it doesn't appear that money was the primary motive in the kidnapping of Lady Christiana. You, my dear, have lived a sheltered existence far removed from the cankerous aspects of our great country. You have no notion of the depths of depravity men sink to. Some, regrettably, are forced into it by circumstances in their lives. Others are the devil's minions from birth. I, just as a country magistrate, have seen more horrors than you can imagine, things that are not fit for polite discussion with gently bred ladies."

Leona smiled slightly. "I am hardly the swooning type."

"I know that, Miss Leonard. You have the heart of the lion that graces your family crest." He reached over to press her hand, the steadfast suitor once again. "It is a wonder that you remain unwed, my dear, for you possess elegance and strength of mind. A rare combination."

Leona felt a tide of blush creep up her cheeks.

He smiled gently at her, then again became the magistrate. He grabbed his coat lapels, a heavy frown pulling his cheeks into jowls. "Mr. Deveraux requested that I urge you to go to Castle Marin should any whisper of danger from this incident come to my attention. Now that his people are aware of the danger, they are prepared. It will be no burden to add you and Miss Sprockett to the number they are guarding. As much as it personally pains me to see you leave the district, I concur with Mr. Deveraux."

"That is precisely what I do not wish to do."

"Rose Cottage is too secluded. You need to be surrounded by people."

Leona shook her head. "Why should the Norths risk doing me harm? If, as Mr. Deveraux believes, their purpose was to obtain more than money, isn't it likely they have some grudge against the Deveraux family alone? Particularly against the Earl of Nevin?"

"My dear, what do you have against going to Castle Marin? The Earl of Nevin is wealthy, and the castle is mentioned in the guidebooks as worthy of a visit."

Leona compressed her lips. How could she tell Sir Nathan that she feared Mr. Deveraux more than she feared the Norths? That she feared him as a man? She sucked in her breath sharply. Until now, that was something she'd refused to acknowledge.

"I have my duty to my family. There is much to do at Lion's Gate this spring. New tenants to find, fields to be planted, repairs to be made. I cannot see to those things if I am immured in Castle Marin."

"Brother, could not Miss Leonard and Miss Sprockett stay here at Furleigh House as our guests?" suggested Miss Cruikston. She smiled warmly at Leona.

Leona's eyes opened wide. She had not calculated on that as a solution. She looked at Miss Cruikston. The woman had matrimony in her eyes. Though bound by duty to care for her widowed brother and his family, she was not content to reside in the country. If she could see her brother suitably wed, she would be free to resume her life in London.

"Oh, I could not possibly," Leona demurred.

"Of course you could, Miss Leonard. We should be delighted to have you as our guest. You should have no fear for your safety here—Nathan would guard your life well."

Too well and too closely, Leona thought acidly. "If the Norths are as merciless as Mr. Deveraux believes, I could not bear to put your children's lives in danger as my presence well may. What if they were to get the notion to kidnap one of them? No, no. I am most touched by your kind offer, but I must decline. My conscience would never forgive me if anything should happen."

"But weren't you just arguing that nothing would happen?"

Hoisted by my own petard.
"And so I still believe, but I will admit to you I would not sleep well at night here for wondering if. I might be wrong."

Pleased to see they had no response to that argument, she began to breathe easier.

"There Is also her sister and brother-in-law," Maria said slowly, the gleam of mischief in her eyes.

Leona glared at her.

"Brother-in-law? I didn't realize you had other relations in the country, Miss Leonard, what with the estate management left to you," Sir Nathan said.

"I manage the estate because it is my duty to do so," Leona said shortly.

"But surely your brother-in-law—"

"I prefer to handle Lion's Gate in my brother's absence. It is my duty to the family. I shall speak candidly with you and admit there is a blot on the Leonard family escutcheon that I am trying to remove. My eldest brother, Edmund, ran through most of our fortune and ultimately came to a bad end."

"You're that Leonard?" Miss Cruikston's horrified expression pleased Leona like no mention of her brother's name had ever done before or, to her mind, was ever likely to do. The heavy pall that had begun to hang over her lifted a little.

"What's this?" asked Sir Nathan.

Miss Cruikston's former warmth chilled. "It is a subject not discussed in polite circles," she said repressively.

Leona smiled for the first time since she had arrived at Furleigh House. "So, we have dealt with and dismissed all my options for leaving Rose Cottage. My purpose today was merely to acquaint you with this latest bit of information, not to beg shelter. Leaving is not something I have ever contemplated. I thank you for your kind hospitality today."

Sir Nathan rose to his feet to pace the room. "No, we have not dismissed all options. We have expanded them. It is for you, Miss Leonard, to chose. I will grant you that much. As I see it, you have three choices, and staying at Rose Cottage is not one of them. I cannot allow you to. As you spoke of your conscience bothering you if you stayed here, so would mine if you remained at Rose Cottage." He stopped pacing in front of Leona and stared down at her. "So, you may go to Castle Marin, be our guest here, or go to stay with your sister and her husband."

Miss Cruikston looked as if she would say something else, but her brother quelled her with a glance.

Leona looked from one to the other. All she-wanted to do was scream. She was neatly cornered. None of the choices Sir Nathan offered her were acceptable. It was a matter of determining which was less unacceptable than the other two! Staying with George and Rosalie Sharply was out of the question. Her dislike for George Sharply ran long and deep. She was certain the feeling was mutual. Staying at Furleigh House would be uncomfortable in the extreme. Regardless of whether Miss Cruikston continued her cold demeanor, there was still the matter of Sir Nathan's attraction to her. Being under his roof would create too many problems. That only left Castle Marin. In truth, her reticence to go to Castle Marin was in good measure due to her own reaction to Nigel Deveraux. That reaction was, however, a private affair, something to be kept hidden from everyone. He did not look on her with the eyes of a suitor, as Sir Nathan did. On the other hand, neither did he look at her as some silly widgeon without a thought in her head. There was that in his favor. Nonetheless, he was a man used to people obeying him without question—something Leona strongly doubted herself capable of doing.

She shook her head and sighed, the beginnings of a headache throbbing in her temples. She looked at Maria. Maria's mouth twisted wryly. Despite herself, Leona smiled at her wily companion. She'd wager this was just the turn-up Maria was expecting.

She turned back to Sir Nathan and shrugged. "I guess we'll be going to Castle Marin."

It is an often observed fact of life that those people who are of a "managing" temperament seldom acquiesce gracefully to being managed in turn. Thus it was with Miss Leona Clymene Leonard that March of 1815 when, despite all manner of fervid argument to the contrary, she at last found herself traveling in the company of Maria Sprockett to Castle Marin. Their journey was made in the first style of elegance, a situation which instead of gratifying Miss Leonard served to inflame her. The elegance and comfort irked her because the carriage was the property of the Earl of Nevin, placed at her disposal by the Honorable Nigel Deveraux.

Sir Nathan Cruikston, in the manner of an unusually efficient civil servant, wrote Deveraux the same day Leona came to call on him and appraised him of Miss Leonard's receipt of the fateful button. Deveraux acted swiftly. He sent the carriage with postilions to Rose Cottage accompanied by a strongly worded letter, lacking both sympathy and hesitation, in which he informed her the carriage would convey her the next morning to Castle Marin.

Leona, though reluctantly agreeing to go to Castle Marin as the least of all evils proposed for her, was determined to follow her own course for she did not take kindly to the type of autocratic pronouncements Mr. Deveraux seemed in the habit of making. By inventing last minute chores and obligations in the neighborhood, she managed to delay the departure one full day and part of the next. It was a small victory for her rebellion, but one that brought a satisfied smile to her lips.

She was drowsing against the plush squabs when one of the maroon-and-blue-liveried servants called out to her that Castle Marin was visible ahead. She opened her eyes and leaned toward the window to catch a glimpse of what she could only think of as her future prison. To her astonishment, it appeared they were indeed approaching an actual medieval castle rather than some large stone manse with pretensions to greater grandeur as had many homes dubbed "Castle."

A silver-gray curtain wall some two to three stories in height and studded with mural towers dominated the landscape. It appeared to be encircling an old Norman motte, or hill, for beyond the wall and above I,t silhouetted against a gathering tumbling mass of afternoon storm clouds, could be seen the crumbling darker gray stonework of an old keep. In front of the curtain wall, she thought she caught the silvery green glimmer of a substantial moat. She shook her head as awe and amusement battled each other.

"Maria, look!"

Maria Sprockett shifted in her seat to look over Leona's shoulder. "Oh, my. Gracious, I do see why Mr. Deveraux was confident we should be safer here than at Rose Cottage," she observed dryly.

Leona laughed. "It hardly looks real, does it?"

"Hmm-m. It looks like something Lord Byron or Shelley might rhapsodize over in one of their long poems. I almost expect to see archers along those walls and in those mural towers."

"Look! There is a gatehouse ahead guarding a bridge across the moat to the barbican."

"Do you think it is a working drawbridge?" Maria mused.

"No, it appears to be made of stone."

"Pity."

Leona laughed. "Yes, but take heart. I do believe I see the iron bars of a portcullis in the gatehouse."

The carriage turned right toward the gatehouse, and soon Leona and Maria heard the sound of the horses hooves rattling on stone as they passed under the great bars of the portcullis and over the bridge. The wind picked up as the clouds gathered above, whipping around the castle curtain walls. Wind shuddered against the carriage and set it swaying, threatening to toss it into the moat. Leona pulled the lap robe provided by Deveraux closer about her.

Maria glanced up at the darkening sky. "I hope the rain waits until we are safely in the castle. I fear it will be a deluge."

The carriage turned right again to follow the inside curve of the castle wall. Leona and Maria slid to the other side of the carriage to look up at the old keep. It stood stark and alone against the gathering gloom. Closer, it was easy to tell it was no longer habitable for one third of its walls were tumbled ruins. It was, nonetheless, an effective and arresting landmark for the property.

Leona looked back out her own window to try to see the true Deveraux home. They came upon it suddenly when the curtain wall was turning back upon itself. Leona felt her breath ease in her chest. She smiled. The face Castle Marin showed the world was that of an imposing fortification, but the reality was so different as to be farcical and made the pretensions she previously considered weak by comparison. The house was a large, rectangular, gray stone edifice with circular towers at all corners. The curtain wall was the rear wall of the manor house. The exterior was not ornate. Its restrained appearance, in contrast to one's first impression of a romantic medieval pile, could only have been deliberate. Perhaps the house's simplicity was a way to tell visitors to look at the keep and other more important visual aspects of the estate.

Nonetheless, it was a welcoming house. Light streamed out of the ground-floor windows promising warmth and shelter from the approaching storm. The carriage drew close to the wide stone steps that led up to the entrance, and one liveried servant hustled to let down the steps and hand his charges out while another ran up the steps to appraise the inhabitants of their arrival.

The coach creaked and swayed in the heavy wind, the coachman and the groom at the horses' heads nervously holding the restive and pawing animals while on guard against the chance that a stray tumbling branch or scrap of paper might spook the horses. Leona shivered as she stepped down and aside to wait for Maria. Lightning cracked the black sky, and thunder rumbled across the countryside. The wind wrapped her skirts about her ankles, threatening to trip her, and fretfully slapped her bonnet ribbons against her cheeks.

The large carved oak door to the manor opened, spilling a stream of light down the steps to Leona's feet. In the open door stood a tall black silhouette with legs planted apart and arms akimbo, hands on his lean hips. Leona had no trouble identifying the black form. It was Deveraux. She shivered again, though on this occasion not from the cold. She straightened and took Maria's arm to walk with unhurried dignity up the stone steps just as the first mad rush of rain fell.

Quickly Leona ducked her head down, abandoning dignity, as she propelled Maria up the stairs before her. The silhouetted figure stepped back before their headlong dash for shelter.

Leona laughed as she reached the warmth and dryness of the entrance hall. She was soaked in that brief distance from carriage to house, and a glance in an ornately carved pier glass mounted between columns informed her that her often refurbished bonnet would never be refurbished again. She flipped back green and gold feathers hanging limply over the brim and turned with undisguised interest to survey her surroundings.

Once more she was surprised, for the plain exterior of the house gave no hint of the lavish elegance waiting inside. The entrance hall was done in red-veined Italian marble. Columns set six feet from the wall rose up three stories to a domed roof which on a clear day would flood the entrance hall with light.

Wide eyed, she turned around again, this time to confront Nigel Deveraux leaning against the closed door, his arms crossed over his chest. He was dressed in a dark mulberry jacket that strangely suited his complexion. Still, Leona was surprised to see him in a colored jacket. After meeting him at Rose Cottage she had formed the impression that he only wore black. Her eyes traveled to his face, and her smile faltered at the sight of his rigidly set jaw and half veiled eyes. Black was the color more suited to his expression, she decided dismally. Nevertheless, no matter his mood, she was not going to allow him to ride roughshod over her! She straightened and tipped her head up, her jaw unconsciously thrusting forward.

Deveraux noted her challenging chin, and his eyes narrowed farther. This woman needed to learn a few sharp lessons, he decided. A curious excitement churned in his loins at the prospect. He almost smiled. "You're late," he growled instead, languidly straightening and walking toward her.

"Late? I don't see how. It cannot be much past four, can it?"

"You were to arrive yesterday."

"Oh. Are you upset because your people were forced to put up at the Golden Goose last night? My apologies, but there was much too much to do to come harrying off on such short notice."

"You should have left the minute you received that confounded package! You made a promise, Miss Leonard."

Leona winced at the knife thrust to her conscience. That blasted promise was a treacherous subject best avoided. "If you'd written first," she said through strained patience and clenched teeth, "I would have told you when we could leave. And there was really no reason for you to send a carriage. We were quite prepared to post down, weren't we, Maria? But, if it would mend fences, I will pay for your peoples' lodging."

"Damn it, woman, that is not the point, and well you know it!"

"Nigel!" A tiny woman with gray-streaked black hair and eyes nearly as blue as Deveraux's walked briskly into the hall from one of the rooms off to the left. "
Imbecile!
They are here to live, not to die of pneumonia!
Les pauvres!
They are drenched to the skin. They must have hot baths and a brandy—for the medical purposes, mademoiselle," she assured Leona on a quick breath. The scent of roses clung to her.

"My son," she confided in Leona. "He is too much in the army with men, men, men. The only women—bah, nothing. You must be Mademoiselle Leonard,
non
? Ah—my dear granddaughter has told me much of you, and you, too, Mademoiselle Sprockett. So, Nigel, what do you stand there for? Ring for Madame Henry. She shall take care of you with hot baths and scents and soaps. I have tried to get the secret for her family's scent, but she is a stubborn one. Ooh, so stubborn, you know?"

"You are well matched," drawled her son.

"Bah, what do you know? You don't even introduce us or see to their comforts. What have I done wrong?" she pleaded, her eyes to heaven and her hands clasped before her.

"Married father?" he suggested with teasing lightness. It was an aspect of Deveraux Leona did not expect.

Lady Deveraux glared at him. He laughed and, surprisingly obedient, crossed to a narrow alcove to ring a bell pull connected to the servants' domain in the nether regions of the house.

"
Ma petite
, I am Lady Veronique Deveraux, the Dowager Countess of Nevin and, to my embarrassment, that mannerless oaf's mother. I cannot tell you how I have longed for the day I speak to you and Miss Sprockett of my gratitude, but alas, I see it is not to be now. Madame Henry is coming, so we must wait. When you are warm and comfortable, we three shall have a comfortable coze,
ne c'est pas
? I am glad you are here!" She hugged Leona, kissing either cheek, and then did the same to Maria.

Unused to physical demonstrations, Leona stumbled backward, surprise writ large on her face. She turned her head to see Deveraux noting her reaction and laughing at it. Leona's lips pursed as she pointedly turned her back on him in order to greet the housekeeper and follow her upstairs. She did not look back as she followed Mrs. Henry's stately tread up the wide marble staircase, but she felt his eyes boring into her spine the entire way.

"Nigel,
mon fils
, why are you so rude to Mademoiselle Leonard?" demanded Lady Nevin as he took her arm to lead her back into the Chinese drawing room.

"Why are you so French when you are angry, Maman?" he countered.

She raised one black brow and gave her son a quelling, haughty look.

He laughed. "You do that so well. No one would know you were not born and bred to be a countess."

"One learns what one must, and I've over thirty years of practice," she said placidly, her French accent now less distinct. "Still, I am waiting. . . ."

"You have the persistence of a bee. To answer your question, I do not know. Something about the way she thrusts that little stubborn jaw of hers forward and looks at me with those strangely mottled green and gold eyes of hers has me wanting to throttle her. She is an irritating little creature. Full of pluck but much too given to going her own way and to hell with the world."

He walked over to a silver tray on the sideboard that contained a decanter of sherry and several glasses. He picked up the decanter and opened it then paused, musing almost to himself. "I've seen that sort of independent stubbornness in a few soldiers, and they were al-ways the first to die."

Had she been a man, no doubt an heroic early battlefield grave would have been her fate. But she most definitely and delightfully was not a man. But how did a man control a woman possessed with her brand of waywardness? An interesting puzzle.

"You are that afraid Miss Leonard is in danger?" she asked as she watched her son pour the sherry into two glasses.

"What? Oh, pardon, Maman, my mind was wandering. Do I think Miss Leonard is in danger? Yes. You've seen the text of that note she received. From what Cruikston said, it is obvious she does not take the danger seriously. She has to be made to realize there is danger, but not just in this instance. She has to learn her own limitations. I doubt she believes she has any!" His voiced reflected astonishment and disbelief. He tossed off the last of his sherry.

Lady Nevin smiled. It appeared her son had at last discovered a woman worthy of him—not that he recognized that, of course. It should prove an interesting visit.

"Fitzhugh and Lucy will be down soon. You've not told Lucy of the reasons behind Miss Leonard's visit?" Deveraux asked.

"You requested I not do so. So I merely told her Miss Leonard decided to accept the long-standing invitation you extended in December. I do believe you are being unfair to your sister. She is no longer a child. Her discretion can be trusted."

Deveraux shook his head. "The fewer who know the truth, the safer for all."

Lady Nevin shrugged gallically. "Oh, I have given permission for Chrissy to join us at dinner this evening. She is excited."

BOOK: A Heart in Jeopardy
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