Authors: Maureen Driscoll
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Adult Romance
“Well, I don’t feel comfortable having you roam around
“But it is not your house, is it, Mrs. Warren?” asked
Alex, as he walked around the room. It was the typical study, with animal head
trophies on the wall and decanters of spirits on the sideboard. However, given
the exterior of the house, he would have expected more signs of wealth on the
inside. But there was no art on the walls, no expensive vases or silver on
display. “Mrs. Warren, I noticed the servants boxing up some items when I
arrived. I have to wonder why you would do that if you are to move in here.”
“I would rather like to know, as well,” said a man at
the door, who was drinking a glass of wine. He was of average height, with
light brown hair. He was a bit soft about the middle, with a ruddy
complexion. He nodded curtly at Alex. “Clive Pierce, Emmeline’s younger
brother. I am quite certain she has been spiriting away the expensive items to
ensure I do not sell them to finance some lurid habit.”
“Clive,” said Emmeline. “There is no need to share
our private affairs with a stranger.”
“No, I suppose you wouldn’t like that, would you?
Have you found anything of interest…Lewis, is it?”
Alex had learned much of interest, though nothing in
the way of evidence. “I have not had much of a chance to do so.”
“I cannot imagine there’s much to find in here,” said Clive,
as he finished off his drink, then went to the sideboard to pour another.
“Care for a drink, Horace? I know Emmeline doesn’t. What about you Lewis? Never
met a barrister yet who didn’t appreciate a good brandy, especially if he
wasn’t paying for it.”
“No, thank you. Is there a safe in here?”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Warren. “But there’s nothing much to
see in there.”
Clive snorted his laughter. “Which means you’ve
already gone through it and taken anything of value.”
“I am simply protecting the fruits of our dear
“Our ‘dear brother?’ Is there one I’m unaware of?
You cared for Clarence as little as I did. I daresay the only one who hated
him more was the widow. It’s too bad she was so obvious in killing him that
she got herself arrested so quickly. I wouldn’t have minded having a go at her.”
“That’s disgusting,” said Mrs. Warren.
“And deliciously so, Emmeline. I could never
understand why Clarence spent so much time with the tarty maid when he had such
a luscious wife.”
“Your brother was having an affair with a maid?” asked
Alex as he examined the desk. It looked to be an antique, perhaps French in
origin. It was a large piece and likely had to be broken down then rebuilt
when transported. He sat in the chair and studied the exterior.
“You should not be sitting at Clarence’s desk,” said
“It’s not like Clarence is going to use it,” said
Clive. “Carry on, Lewis.”
“Who is this maid you speak of?” asked Alex.
“I believe her name is Tawny. Not a very discreet
one. She was known for bragging about her liaison with Clarence. Used to go
on and on about it.”
“That’s probably why he used the secret passage so
much,” said Emmeline. “I believe the entrance is somewhere in this room. That
way he could tup the little whore and no one would see her enter the room.”
Alex was shocked by her language. Even the timid Mr.
Warren stared at his wife in disbelief.
“Oh, grow up, Horace,” she said. “We all knew he
wasn’t faithful to that cold fish of a wife. I just wish he’d been more
judicious in his choice of mistress. Tupping a maid is so common.”
“Where is the hidden passage?” asked Alex.
Emmeline shrugged. “I haven’t the faintest idea.”
“Though I’m sure you tried to find it,” said her
brother. “Maybe I’ll talk to the maid and see if I can shake something loose.
So to speak.”
“Where is the key to the desk?” asked Alex.
Mrs. Warren bristled again. “That’s none of…”
“Before you say it’s none of his concern, Emmeline,
simply give him the key,” said her brother. “If you truly want him gone, let
him do his job.”
Mrs. Warren looked none too happy about it, but she
did produce the key for Alex. He carefully opened every drawer and looked
through them. All he found was paper, ink, sealing wax and a picture book of
“I’ll take that,” said Clive.
“Where did your brother do his work?” asked Alex.
“Our brother was not in trade,” said Mrs. Warren. “We
have moved beyond that.”
“Oh, Emmeline,” said her brother. “No need to try and
impress Lewis. From what I hear, he’s not to the manor born. Well, not
officially, anyway. Clarence had an office down by the docks. I don’t think
he ever did anything at this desk other than tup the occasional maid, when he
wasn’t rutting in the secret tunnel. It’s all rather gothic, isn’t it?”
Alex studied the drawers in front of him, then looked
at the size of the desk. He suspected there was a hidden compartment
somewhere. And from the fresh scratches on the exterior of the drawers, he
suspected someone else thought so, too.
For the next fifteen minutes, he conducted a
methodical search of each drawer and panel. There’d been an antique desk such
as this at his college. He’d spent more than a few hours exploring it because
he’d always liked puzzles.
He continued to work as Pierce’s three relations
studied him closely. They dispensed with their glib responses as he moved
closer and closer to what he sought. Finally, there was a loud click and a
whirring sound. The entire side panel slid open, revealing two large ledgers,
some three dozen envelopes and various other documents. Lewis began placing
them in his satchel.
“You can’t take those,” said Mrs. Warren.
“Actually, I can.”
“We should be able to see them first,” said Clive.
“I will return them when I am done. You can do what
you like with them then.”
He spent another twenty minutes trying in vain to find
any other compartments, then went to Pierce’s bedchamber. He was trailed throughout
by Mr. and Mrs. Warren, as well as Clive.
“Did Mr. and Mrs. Pierce share a bedchamber?” asked
“Of course not,” said Mrs. Warren. “It is certainly
not the thing.”
“Truth be told, I’m not sure when he last tupped his
wife,” said Clive. “I think he enjoyed beating her more than bedding her. I
wouldn’t mind trying both.”
And that was quite enough of that. “Mr. Pierce,” said
Alex, “I cannot see how beating a woman is in any way a laughing matter. It is
inhumane and intolerable. And if you were to do such a thing to Mrs. Pierce
you would be breaking the law.”
“But there’s nothing illegal in talking about it, is
“Yet, I begin to have doubts about your respect for
the law. I wonder what I would find if I began an investigation of you.”
That sobered Clive up. “There’s no cause for that.”
This time Mrs. Warren came to her brother’s defense.
“You quite exceed your authority, Lewis. You are here about our brother’s
death. I suggest you stick to that. We have friends who could make life very
difficult if you cross us.”
“Who are those friends?” asked Alex. Everything about
this case was becoming more and more suspect. They had to know someone quite
high in government to take the liberties they were making use of.
“That is none of your concern,” said Mrs. Warren.
“Now, Lewis, it is time for you to conclude your search.”
“I would like to speak to the maid who was involved
“She has gone out. And you may not wait for her.”
As much as he’d like to contradict her, Alex had too
much work to do to waste time cooling his heels at the house. “I will be
back. Leave things as they are. I have a very good memory, madam, and will
know if you’ve disobeyed my directive. There are laws about obstructing an
investigation. And as you mentioned – twice – it is my job to prosecute
Mrs. Warren was livid as Alex took his leave. That
could be to his advantage. Mayhap he’d learn who their connections were if
Mrs. Warren complained about him. But Alex didn’t have time to ponder the
question. He had a long night of reading ahead of him.
Win awoke the next morning feeling more like herself. It
had been heaven spending time with James and getting to know Irene. She’d
sympathized that he’d lost his land in America, but, selfishly, she was
thrilled he would remain in England.
She just hoped she lived long enough to enjoy it.
Violet had given them a tour of Lynwood House, with
special emphasis on her bedchamber. She had asked James if it might be
possible for Anna and Letty to stay with her during their time in London. The
duchess had already declared that all of the Emersons, including Nick, should
stay at Lynwood House, since Win was unable to leave. That arrangement pleased
Win to no end.
At three of the clock, two carriages pulled into the
Lynwood drive. From her sitting room window, Win recognized the Layton crest.
She was both thrilled and nervous. She knew she could not put off telling her
story for much longer, but she would soon see her family again. She just
prayed that her distance of the past six years had not turned them away from
James looked out the window. “They must have started
out well before dawn. But I’m glad they’re here. May I escort you downstairs,
She nodded, but then placed her hand at her bruised
rib. “Did you prepare them for what I look like?”
“I said you’d been beaten,” said James, quietly.
“I do not wish to frighten Letty or Anna with my
“I daresay they are both stronger than that. They are
Emersons, after all. And I imagine Colin prepared them. Please, Win. They’ll
want to see you.”
“I just need to catch my breath for a moment.”
He reached for her hand and squeezed it. “Just let me
know when you’re ready.”
Colin Emerson had been beaten regularly as a child.
He knew very well what it was like. He knew the anticipation could be almost as
bad as the beating itself. James was two years his junior. And if there was
one thing worse than being beaten, it was watching it happen to his younger
brother. It had created a strong bond between them, even as their hatred of
their father had grown. The only thing that had prevented Colin from spending
his life as a bitter, angry young man was the love he felt for his brothers and
His heart had broken when he’d received James’s letter.
It had been sent first to Nick, since it was his servants and carriage who had
brought the news, along with a carriage from the Kellington family.
They had arrived at Ridgeway later that night and Colin
had never seen his brother so upset. Once Colin read the note, he could
understand why. It had been short on details, revealing little more than Win
had been arrested for the murder of her bastard husband, but had been released
into Lynwood’s custody. That had been chilling enough. But then James had
added that she’d been beaten, and Colin and Nick should prepare themselves
Colin had had many failures in his thirty years of
life. He’d been unable to stop his father from beating James until shortly
after Colin’s sixteenth birthday when he’d finally been able to fight back
successfully. He’d joined the Guards as soon as he was done with university,
but he’d been unable to save so many of the men under his command. Good men.
Ones with families who loved them.
Then, after his father died, Colin had been unable to
save the family finances. Rose would not have a Season. If she weren’t so
skilled with needle and thread, neither she nor Letty would have clothes that
fit. As it was, they were far from fashionable. It had been his plan to save
them by marrying an heiress. But that hadn’t worked, either. Though,
selfishly, he would never regret his choice of bride. Ava had saved him. And
it was Ava the previous night who’d held him in her arms as he’d wept about his
greatest failure: the failure to keep Win safe.
But he would not fail her again. He would do anything
– anything – to save her life.
As the carriages made the turn into the Lynwood House
drive, he was pleased to see the duke and Ned waiting outside for them, along
with two ladies and a girl who must be Ned’s daughter Violet. Irene was
standing with them, but there was no sign of James or Win.
As the carriages drew to a halt, Anna jumped out. Oblivious
to the cold and ice, she ran across the courtyard, then jumped into Irene’s
arms. Irene was thrilled to see her and soon the two were laughing. They
presented quite a contrast in appearance. Irene had fair hair and blue eyes,
while Anna’s Algonquin heritage graced her with skin the color of tea. They
looked different, but nothing could disguise the strong bond between them.
In his letter, James had not mentioned marriage plans
or whether he was staying in England or returning to America. Irene’s presence
and the love on her face as she held Anna in her arms made Colin think that no
matter where James might end up, Irene would be by his side.
“Matters must be going well with Miss Wallace,” said
“They simply must get married,” said Rose. “We need
one small bit of joy in this horrid business.”
Rose had taken the news of Win’s difficulties hard,
but she’d stepped up to the mark and immediately begun strategizing for Win’s
defense. It was hard for Colin to admit, but Rose was a young lady, no longer
Colin and Nick got out of the carriage and helped the
ladies do the same. Liam and Ned met them, with their families in tow.
“We cannot thank you enough, Lynwood,” said Colin, as
he shook the man’s hand.
“I’m glad I was able to help. We are all united in
offering whatever assistance you need. But first, may I present my dear wife,
Rosalind, as well as my lovely sister-in-law Jane, and our most esteemed
Colin introduced his family. Letty was unusually shy,
clinging to Ava’s skirts. Irene joined them, still holding Anna.
“Anna!” said Violet.
Anna smiled at her.
“Lady Leticia,” said Violet, as she made a perfect curtsy,
“I was wondering if you and Anna would stay with me, if Lord and Lady Ridgeway
For the first time since the journey began, Letty lost
some of her sadness. She turned to Colin.
“May I, Colin and Ava? Please?”
“That’s a lovely idea,” said Colin. “And yet another
kindness from the Kellingtons.”
Rosalind smiled at them. “I am certain you are all
tired from the journey. I asked Heskiss to set out tea in the drawing room for
you, where James and Win are waiting. You may wish to join them, then perhaps
Violet can come get Letty and Anna in a quarter of an hour or so.”
Lynwood’s duchess was both kind and sensitive. He’d
made a wise choice. And as they walked into the house, Lynwood put his hand on
Rosalind’s extreme lower back, just above her bum.
Colin would wager all the money he wished he had that
the duke and duchess were very much in love.
Colin wasn’t sure how he’d react when he saw Win
again, how he could bear to see her injuries. Then Ava took his arm.
“Dearest, everything will work out,” she said.
“I envy your optimism,” he said, kissing her hand.
“You should have the faith in you that I do.” She
smiled at him and he was reminded that he, too, had chosen well in love.
Heskiss showed them into the drawing room and suddenly
Colin was face to face with the sister he hadn’t seen in years. Win and James
were on the settee, but they rose when everyone entered – with James helping
Win to her feet. There was a moment of silence. Colin felt Letty’s presence
by his side, as she leaned into him.
Then the silence was broken by an ecstatic Anna, who
was still in Irene’s arms.
“Papa!” she said. “I missed you so much.”
James crossed the distance between them in an instant,
taking her into his arms. “I’m so happy to see you, love. I’ve missed you
Perhaps it was that emotional reunion which set in
motion another one. For in the next instant, Colin, Nick and Rose all swarmed
Win, gently hugging her and trying unsuccessfully not to cry.
Only Letty held back, clinging to Ava’s skirts.
James put Anna on her feet, though he still held her
hand. “Win, may I introduce Anna to you? Anna, this is your Aunt Win.” He
also motioned for Letty to join them. She did, but it was obvious she was scared
to go closer.
Letty had been just two years old when Win had been
married off. It was only natural she would be nervous. Colin just hoped Win
wouldn’t take offense.
“Letty, I am so happy to see you again,” said Win
carefully. “And Anna, I cannot believe I’m finally meeting you.”
There was a moment of awkward silence until Anna said,
“I had a chicken pox in my mouth.”
That made Win laugh through her tears.
Letty stepped forward. “She did! I saw it!”
“Well, that must have been awful for both of you,”
said Win. “Would you like to sit next to me and tell me about it?”
The girls went to her, then proceeded to tell the tale
of Anna’s illness and recovery, punctuated by comments from everyone who’d
witnessed the events. The girls lost all their reticence as Win drew them
out. Colin didn’t think it was possible to laugh under such circumstances, but
it was a welcome respite.
“Will you come back to Wiltshire with us?” asked
Letty. “You can meet Jasper, our cat.”
“I hope so,” said Win, with a glance at Colin. “But
there are a few things I must clear up here first.”
“I want you to come,” said Letty shyly.
Win pulled her close and hugged her.
“I want you to come to Wiltshire, too,” said Anna.
“I think it would be lovely if everyone came back to
Wiltshire,” said Colin with a meaningful look at James.
His brother sighed. “Anna,” he said. “I have some
Anna sat up and looked at her father nervously. She
bit her lip. “Are you sick?” she asked softly.
“Oh, love, no,” said James as he reached for his daughter.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have scared you that way.” Anna’s mother had died only
a little more than six months earlier. “My bad news is that we’re not going
back to America. I lost our farm.”
This time James looked at Colin meaningfully.
“I am sorry to hear that,” said Colin sincerely, for
he knew how much his brother’s dream had meant to him.
“Where will we live?” Anna asked.
“Well, if it’s all right with everyone here, I was
thinking we could move to Wiltshire.”
Letty’s high-pitched shriek of joy nearly deafened
everyone. But there was no mistaking the happiness in the room.
“Would you like that, Anna?” James asked, once the din
had died down.
“Yes,” she said with a big smile. Then she leaned toward
him and whispered, “Will Irene come, too?”
“Well, that is a conversation I was hoping we’d have
“Just pretend we’re not here,” said Colin with a grin.
James shot him a look which said he’d pay for that
later. “Anna, what would you think if Irene and I got married?”
Anna nodded her head solemnly. “I would like that.”
After a moment, she added, “Where will I be?”
“Where will you be?” asked James. “You’ll always be
by my side. Only now you’ll have Irene on your other side.”
“Really?” There was no mistaking Anna’s joy.
“Truly,” said James.
“Anna,” said Irene carefully. “I know I can never
replace your mother. She loved you very much. But I was hoping you’d consider
letting me be your English mama. You don’t have to call me that, of course.
But it would make me very happy if you would be my daughter. For I love you
very much and I already consider you the daughter of my heart.”
Anna climbed on Irene’s lap and whispered something in
Irene hugged her close. “She said yes.” Then Irene
Win reached for her handkerchief and the entire room
was in tears.
Heskiss chose that moment to knock and let Violet in.
“Oh, no!” she said. “Why is everyone crying?”
“I have an English mama!” announced Anna.
“That’s wonderful!” said Violet. “We should eat
biscuits! Lord and Lady Ridgeway, can Letty come, too?”
Noting his sister’s enthusiasm, Colin said, “Of
Then with one more hug for Irene and James, Anna
followed the two older girls out of the room.
After a few moments spent toasting the happy couple –
Lynwood had left his best brandy for them – they all returned to the matter at
“I suppose,” said Win as she took a deep breath, “that
I should tell you about my life.”
Victor Stemple had been shocked and greatly saddened
to hear what had happened to Lady Winifred when Lord James’s note had reached
the family in Wiltshire. He’d never met the lady. In fact, he’d only known
the rest of the family for a few short months. But he shared their sorrow.