Authors: Stephanie Laurens
A Bastion Club Novel
He should make her wait.
After dining alone and reviewing and digesting the conversations and…
Christian spent the rest of that day trawling through the…
Exactly what he now wanted of Letitia Randall née Vaux…
Later that evening, deliberately later than a gentleman would normally…
He bowled through the Nunchance Priory gates at mid-afternoon the…
Letitia heard Christian’s footsteps an instant before he flung open…
Letitia wasn’t easily shocked, but when she woke the next…
It was just after ten the next morning when Christian…
Later that evening Christian sat in Letitia’s parlor, sipping brandy…
Mr. Meecham arrived in South Audley Street at eleven o’clock…
Christian accompanied Letitia to Montague’s office the next morning.
The following morning, Christian left Letitia sprawled boneless in her…
They gathered at the Bastion Club later that afternoon. Christian…
The next day, Sunday, Christian escorted Letitia, Agnes, and Hermione…
Christian considered it one of life’s great ironies that he…
At ten o’clock that night Christian, with Tristan at his…
The next morning, as he’d promised, Christian woke Letitia in…
Why can’t we just go to his house and put…
Christian sent his whip snaking out to flick his leader’s…
Twilight had taken hold by the time Christian drew his…
Standing in the center of the study in his elegant…
e should make her wait.
Thoughts and wild conjecture roiling in his head, Christian Michael Allardyce, 6th Marquess of Dearne, slowly descended the stairs of the Bastion Club. He’d been nursing a brandy and his despondency in the library when Gasthorpe, the club’s majordomo, had appeared with a note.
A note summoning him to face his past.
That past awaited him in the front parlor, the room he and the club’s other six owners—all ex-members of one of the more secret and select arms of His Majesty’s services who had established the club as their bolt hole against the importuning ladies of the ton—had stipulated as the only room in which ladies were to be permitted. In the months since the club’s opening, that rule had, incident by incident, fallen by the wayside, but Gasthorpe had rightly shown this particular lady into the formal front parlor.
He really should make her wait.
She’d said she would, twelve years ago, but then another had come along, and while he’d been buried deep in Napoleon’s Europe, she’d lightly thrown aside her promise to him, and fallen in love with and married a Mr. George Randall.
She was now Lady Letitia Randall.
Instead of the Marchioness of Dearne.
Deep in his heart, where nothing and no one any longer touched, he still felt betrayed.
She’d been Lady Letitia Randall for eight years. Although he’d returned to England ten months ago, and he and she moved in the same, very small circle, they’d exchanged not one word. They hadn’t even exchanged nods. Even that was too much to expect of him, given their past. She seemed to understand that; coolly detached, haughtily distant, as if he and she had never been close—never been lovers—she’d studiously kept her distance.
I need your help. There’s no one else I can turn to.
That was all the words her note had contained, yet between them those bare words spoke volumes.
His feet continued steadily down the treads. He should make her wait, yet he couldn’t imagine what had brought her there. Nor could he imagine why his staff at Allardyce House in Grosvenor Square had divulged his whereabouts. His butler, Percival, was a paragon of his calling; nothing short of a force of nature would have induced him to disobey his master’s express orders.
Then again, the lady presently occupying the front parlor had qualified as such from her earliest years.
Stepping off the last tread, he studied the parlor door. It was closed. He could turn around and retreat, and let her wait for at least ten minutes. Even fifteen. The desperation in her plea guaranteed she would wait. Not meekly—meek wasn’t in her repertoire—but she would grit her teeth and remain until he deigned to see her.
Some part of him wanted to hurt her—as she’d hurt him,
as he still hurt. Despite the years, the wound was raw; it still bled.
The faint elusive scent of jasmine drew him to the door.
It was curiosity, he told himself, that had him reaching for the handle. Not the incredible, irresistible attraction that had from the first drawn them together—that even after twelve years of neglect and eight years of disillusion still arced across a crowded ballroom.
And made him ache.
Opening the door, steeling himself, he went in.
The first surprise was her weeds. He paused in the doorway, rapidly assessing.
Seated in one of the armchairs flanking the small hearth, the chair facing the door, she was clothed in unrelieved funereal black, dull and…On any other lady it would have looked somber. On her…even fully veiled as she was, the depressing hue did nothing to dim her vitality. It screamed in every line of her svelte form, a humming, thrumming energy, harnessed to some degree but forever in danger of escaping—exploding; she only had to move a gloved hand to instantly attract and fix any man’s attention.
She demonstrated; raising both hands, long slender palms and delicate fingers encased in fine black pigskin, she gripped the edge of the black veil and lifted it, setting it back over her piled hair.
So he could see her face.
Finely drawn features, a pair of ruby lips sculpted by a master, the lower lush and full and tempting. Large, almond-shaped eyes, their color an infinitely changeable medley of greens and golds, set above high, chiseled cheekbones. Lush dark lashes, a straight, patrician nose, all set in a oval of perfect porcelain skin.
The catalog of her features didn’t do her face justice; it was the epitome of feminine aristocratic beauty not solely because of its composition but also because of her anima
tion. In repose her face was serenely beautiful; awake, her expressions were startlingly vivid.
That afternoon, however, her expression was…contained.
He frowned. Stepping into the room, he closed the door. “Your father?”
He’d assumed the full mourning signified that her father, the Earl of Nunchance, had passed on. But if the head of the House of Vaux had died, the ton would have been abuzz with the news. Not only had he heard not a whisper, but Letitia’s face, naturally pale, held no hint of sorrow; if anything, she seemed to be reining in her temper.
Not her father, then. Regardless of the familial disruptions that were commonplace among the Vaux, she was sincerely fond of her eccentric sire.
Her perfectly arched dark brows drew down, a slight frown that informed him he was being slow-witted.
“No. Not Papa.”
The sound of her voice rocked him. He’d forgotten how long it had been since he’d heard it. Low-toned, with just the faintest natural rasp, it was a voice that evoked visions of sin.
Regardless, today those tones carried a certain tension. She drew in a tight breath, then bluntly stated, “Randall has been murdered.”
As if saying the words had released her from some spell, she finally met his eyes. Hers sparked with undisguised temper. “Randall was beaten to death in his study last night. The servants found him this morning—and the idiot runners have fixed on Justin as the murderer.”
He blinked. “I see.” Moving into the room, slowly, to give himself time to dissect her news, he sank into the armchair facing hers across the hearth. Lord Justin Vaux was her younger brother. She was presently twenty-eight, nearly twenty-nine, making Justin twenty-six. Brother and sister were close, always had been. “And what does Justin say?”
“That’s just it—we can’t find him to ask. But rather than
do so, the authorities have fixed on him as the most convenient scapegoat. They are, no doubt, organizing a hue and cry as we speak.” Letitia bit off the words, her tone acid. Now she’d got over the most difficult hurdle—getting Christian to speak with her—she felt able to concentrate on the matter at hand.
Which was definitely better than concentrating on him.
Watching him stroll, ineffably graceful, across the room toward her—allowing herself to—had been a mistake. All that harnessed power condensed into one male—a male no one with functioning eyes would rate as anything less than dangerous—was a phenomenon guaranteed to distract any living, breathing woman. Her most of all. Yet today she needed to reach past the glamour and deal with the man.
His expression was rarely informative, so did little to soften the hard angles of his face, the edged cheekbones, the long planes of his cheeks, the austere set of his features—large gray eyes set under a broad brow, straight brown brows, surprisingly thick lashes, thin chiseled lips, and the strong prow of his nose. His squared chin bore witness to the stubbornness he usually hid beneath a cloak of easy charm.
To him, charm and grace had always come easily, something she, being a Vaux and therefore attuned to all the nuances of appearance, had always appreciated.
Still did; if anything, the effect he had on her, on her senses, was more pronounced than she recalled. She knew very well just how deeply she still loved him, but she’d forgotten what it felt like, forgotten all the physical manifestations that came with that soul-deep connection.
She hadn’t been this close to him for twelve long years. Her decision to keep her distance when he’d reappeared among the ton had clearly been wise; even with a good six feet separating them, she could feel her rib cage tightening, enough to affect her breathing.
Enough to make her feel just a touch giddy. To have her nerves stretching in telltale anticipation.
An anticipation that would never be fulfilled.
Not after she’d married Randall.
His gray gaze had shifted from her; now it returned, focused and intent. “Why did the authorities fix on Justin? Was he there?”
Relief glimmered; that he was asking questions boded well. “Apparently he called on Randall last night. Randall’s stupid butler, who thoroughly disapproves of all Vaux, Justin in particular, was only too happy to point his finger. But you know as well as I do that, all appearances to the contrary, Justin would never kill anyone.”
Christian caught her eye, read therein both her temper and her worry. Her anxiety. “You don’t believe he would. I might not believe he would. That doesn’t mean he didn’t.”
Baiting a Vaux was a dangerous pastime, but this time she didn’t bite back.
Which told him how deeply worried she was.
And despite the histrionics that were her Vaux heritage—the family weren’t known as “the vile-tempered Vaux” without cause—she wasn’t a female who worried unduly.
Which explained why she was there, appealing to him.
To the man she knew him to be.
One who had never been able to refuse her anything. Not even his heart.
She’d held his gaze steadily. Now she simply asked, in her low, raspy—seductive—voice, “Will you help?”
He looked into her eyes, and realized she didn’t, in fact, know how he would answer. Didn’t know how deeply in thrall to her he still was. Which meant…
He arched a brow. “How much is my help worth to you?”
She blinked, then searched his face, his eyes; hers narrowed. After a pregnant pause during which she assessed and considered his true meaning, she replied, “You know perfectly well I’ll do anything—
—to clear Justin’s name.”
Absolute decision, total commitment, rang in her tone.
He inclined his head. “Very well.”
He heard himself urbanely agree; he hadn’t known he would, certainly hadn’t thought what he might ask of her in return. Wasn’t even sure of his motives in pressing such a bargain on her, but “anything” gave him a wide field.
Revenge of a sort for all the years of hurt might yet be his.
At the thought, he stirred, whether in discomfort or anticipation not even he could say. “Tell me what happened—the sequence of events leading to Randall’s death as you know it.”
Letitia hesitated, then gathered the black reticule that had sat throughout in her lap. “Come to the house.” Rising, she reached up and flipped down her veil. “It’ll be easier to explain there.”
She’d thought it would be easier—having places and things to point out to distract him—but having him by her side again kept her nerves in a state of perpetual reactiveness. Ready to respond to any touch, however slight, to luxuriate in the steady warmth that radiated from his large body, luring her closer.
Gritting mental teeth, she pointed to the spot on the study floor of the house in South Audley Street where she’d been informed her late husband had lain. “You can see the bloodstain.”
The spot in question lay between the fireplace and the large desk.
She wasn’t particularly squeamish, but the sight of the reddish-brown stain had her gorge rising. No matter what she’d felt for Randall, no man should die as he had, brutally bashed to death with the poker from his own fireplace.
Christian shifted closer, looking down at the stain. “Which way was he facing—toward the fire or the desk?”
He felt like a flame down one side of her body. She frowned. “I don’t know. They didn’t tell me. And they wouldn’t let me in here to see—they said it was too…gory.”
She raised her head, fought to concentrate on what they were discussing—struggled not to close her eyes and let her other senses stretch. She’d forgotten how tall he was, how large—forgotten he was one of the few men in the ton who towered over her, who could make her feel enclosed, shielded…protected. That wasn’t why she’d turned to him, but at that moment she could not but be grateful for his size, his nearness, for the reminder of virile life in the presence of stark death.
“They’ve taken away the poker.” Drawing in a tight breath, she turned and waved at the table by one of the armchairs flanking the hearth. “And they’ve cleared the table—there were two glasses on it, so I’ve been told. Brandy in both.”
“Tell me what you know. When last did you see him?”
The question gave her something to focus on. “Last night. I went to dinner at the Martindales’, then on to a soiree at Cumberland House. I returned rather late. Randall had stayed in—he sometimes did when he had business to attend to. He waylaid me in the hall and asked me in here. He wanted to discuss…” She paused, then continued, knowing her voice, hardening, would give away her temper. “…a family matter.”
She and Randall had been married for eight years, but there’d been no children. With any luck, Christian would imagine that had been the subject of their discussion, the subject she’d so delicately refrained from mentioning.
His gaze on her face, Christian knew—just knew—that she was hoping to lead him up some garden path. Declining to follow, he made a mental note to return to the subject of her late night discussion with her husband at some later point. For now…“Discussion?” With a Vaux involved, “discussion” could encompass verbal warfare.
“We had a row.” Face darkening, she continued, “I don’t know how long it went for, but I eventually swept out”—a gesture indicated the force of her sweeping, something Christian could imagine with ease—“and left him here.”
“So you argued. Loudly.”
He let his gaze travel the room, then looked back at her. “No broken vases? Ornaments flung about?”