Authors: Elizabeth Michels
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Copyright Â© 2016 by Elizabeth Michels
Cover and internal design Â© 2016 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover art by Anna Kmet
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All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systemsâexcept in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviewsâwithout permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.
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For Webbâyou're perfect exactly as you are. I love you.
Berkshire, England, 1817
“Any chance you can paint a bit faster there, Stapleton?” Ash leaned out the carriage window to ask. If the young man hunched outside with the small paintbrush didn't increase his pace, the two of them would be in chains by sundown.
It had to be midmorning by now, judging by the stables' shadow cast on the ground outside Ash's window. Stapleton had spotted the cover of the inn from the driver's perch and pulled the carriage off the road from Bath not twenty minutes prior. Paying a groom for his silence, they'd slipped behind the building to make an adjustment to the carriage.
The men giving chase would be gaining ground every minute Ash and Stapleton stayed here, but a change of identity would be more helpful than gaining distance from their enemies.
“Depends,” Stapleton muttered a moment later without looking up from his work. His cap was pulled low over his short blond hair and angular features, but Ash could hear a hint of annoyance in his voice. “Do you mind if the lions you asked for have the general look of large dogs?”
Ash leaned back against the velvet-covered cushions and propped his boots on the opposite seat, crossing his legs at the ankles. It was true that they were in something of a rush, considering the angry mob chasing them. But a lord's seal and emblem said a great deal about his personal attributes. “Lions do give the impression of strength,” he mused, staring up at the tufted fabric on the ceiling. “Lord Crosby should be a strong fellow.”
“Crosby now, is it?”
Ash mouthed the name again:
. It was a fine name, a name that would command respect. It was certainly better than his given name of Ashley Claughbane. Of course, that didn't take much effort to achieve. “Rather rolls off the tongue, don't you agree?”
“As long as you're paying, I'm agreeing.”
Ash ignored the pointed comment on their friendshipâhaving spent every day with the man since they'd left home seven years ago, he knew better. Stapleton wasn't interested in coin beyond what he needed to live, nor was he prone to keeping his opinions to himself. No, Stapleton was in this for the grand adventure of it all and always had beenâunlike Ash. His own reasons were a bit more complicated.
He shot a glance at the inn, visible out the opposite side of the carriage. The scent of eggs and sausage on the fire wafted from the open windows of the inn. Ash might as well have gone inside for a plate of food, considering how long Stapleton was taking with the blasted paint. He hadn't had a bite since some dry cake yesterday at that tea in Bath, the event where everything had begun to fall to pieces.
It wasn't the first time he'd had to abandon his plans in favor of keeping his head. In his line of work, one learned to keep moving regardless of the circumstances. But he'd been careless in Bath; he knew that. He'd grown brazen in his actions. Every job in the last month had left him more irritated than satisfied. Was ennui possible for someone like him?
“On to the next village,” Ash muttered as he reached into his pocket and pulled out the calling card that he'd kept for the past year. He read it over again.
Fallon St. James
The Spare Heirs Society
Perhaps it was time for a change.
As the fourth son in a newly titled family, he certainly met the qualifications. Membership to the secretive London club hadn't appealed to him in the least when he'd met St. James last year, yet Ash hadn't tossed the man's card out. Some part of him had known he would travel this path one day.
Had the time now come?
He rubbed his thumb over the embossed swirls of ink that formed the word
. He would be part of something, like a family. He cringed at the thought of signing up for another family after so long on his own. But if the London job was to be a successâand it must beâhe would need more assistance than Stapleton could provide. He narrowed his eyes at the calling card as though it held the answers to his questions.
Ash had been working toward his goal since his father's death seven years ago. Unceasing travel from village to village, selling schemes and potions, honing his skills of persuasion in preparation for this momentâthe moment when he would take back what his father had lost. He'd scouted the potential for his scheme last year, but he only had one chance to put it to action, only one chance to finally set things right for his family. Was it finally time? What a decision to rush through behind an old inn.
“Where am I taking the much-esteemed Lord Crosby?” Stapleton asked, interrupting Ash's thoughts.
Where to next? Ash stuffed the card back in his pocket and looked out the window. There was no turning back toward Cornwall or Devon now; the men trailing them from Bath would see to that much.
When Ash didn't answer right away, Stapleton continued, “It's north from here to Oxford. South goes to Hampshire. Hampshire would be nice this time of year. Wouldn't mind finding a house there and staying through the spring. We could see the sights, slow down a bitâ¦”
Ash turned in surprise, but Stapleton was focused on the brush in his hand. Slow down? Why would Stapleton want such a thing? “You know we only have two rules, mate: no staying, and no becoming attached. That would be breaking one of them.”
“Aye, I do.” Stapleton paused in his work, looking up at Ash. “But a bit of a stay would be a welcome change of pace, don't you agree?”
“I hate to dash your hopes, but there's an angry mob chasing us. We can't
“I can evade pursuit faster than anyone in the business,” Stapleton said with a grin.
“And you think a sedate spring in Hampshire would suit the likes of us? What will we do for entertainment? Take strolls along the shore?” Ash laughed at the thought of the two of them on holiday together like a pair of matronly aunts.
“Wouldn't be so bad. Might remind us of home,” Stapleton mused as he rested his arm on the side of the carriage.
“You long for home?” Ash made a face. “There's nothing back there for us. You can't want to return to a servant's life for my brother after all this time.”
“There was this maid there,” Stapleton said, a faraway, dreamy gleam filling his eyes.
“There are many maidsâa country full of them, in factâand none of them require travel back to the blasted Isle of Man for a visit.”
“Aye, but this oneâ¦”
Ash shook his head, putting an end to the other man's dreams of a seaside holiday. No amount of time spent by the water would make him amenable to the idea of returning home. “Hampshire is filled with widows, remember? The old and bitter kind, not the amusing kind.”
“I'd forgotten,” Stapleton said with a chuckle, his momentary bout of nostalgia disappearing in an instant. “Oxford, then, is it?”
“Or it could finally be time,” he said, testing the waters of possibility. St. James's card was a stone weighing down his pocketâand his thoughts.
“Time,” Stapleton repeated, staring at Ash for a second as he considered the meaning of his words. “You can't be serious, Claughbane. London?”
“You want amusement for the spring. I wantâ” Ash broke off at a sound in the front yard of the inn. Craning around to see through the sliver of space between the buildings, he watched Lord Braxton dismounting from his horse and surveying the inn. The men from Bath had arrived. That was the problem with losing someone on an empty span of roadâthey didn't stay lost for long.
“Forget the lions. I find I'm quite fond of dogs.” He was also rather fond of his own head. The men hadn't spotted them yet, but they would soon. If he and Stapleton slipped away now, they might escape for good.
Stapleton nodded and stood, dusting his hands on his breeches. “You're lucky I'm as skilled with a brush as I am with the carriage reins.”
“Indeed. You might want to take up those reins soon if we're to leave here free men.”
Stapleton paused, looking up at Ash through the carriage window. “London, then. You're certain.”
The gravity of the moment reflected in his friend's eyes. They both know what this meant.
* * *
Thank goodness the quadrille offered one room to breathe, because a waltz with this particular gentleman might have led to her untimely death.
Evangeline circled Lord Winfield with practiced steps and offered him her hand, ignoring the overpowering scent of his cologne. Truly, had he taken a swim in the vile concoction before arriving at the ball tonight? She took the smallest breath she dared, focusing on her steps.
The arch of her wrist was in exacting accordance with the dancing instruction her mother had insisted upon. She stepped forward, pointing the toe of her beaded slipper until it just peeked out from beneath her ball gown.
Her mother had this season organized down to the second, and at this second Evangeline was executing the perfect quadrille in spite of a distinct lack of breathable air around her dance partner. She tilted her chin to a pleasing angle and tossed a smile at his lordship. Moving back toward him, she placed her hand on his arm with a featherlight touch. Two more smiles and this dance would be over.
Most ladies allowed the music to dictate dance length, but Evangeline thought of dances as a matter of many practiced steps, two elegant curtsies, no more than one allotted lingering hand on a gentleman's arm, and five smiles.
If she accomplished every step as rehearsed, she would find a match her family would approve of. The gentleman's identity didn't matterâeven his lordship of the cologne. If Evangeline Green had any skill, it was that of dressing for a part and then playing it flawlessly. The role of wife would be no different from the others she had played in her life: daughter, sister, cousin, and friend. She would wear the proper gowns, offer the perfect responses to those who would call upon her, and always have a warm smile for her lord.
What more could a man want? For that matter, what more could she want?
There had been a time last season when she'd thought she desired a different path, but she'd been wrong. Her mother had been correct after allâEvangeline could not be trusted to choose her own future.
“I do so enjoy the quadrille, Lord Winfield.”
“The pleasure is mine, Lady Evangeline. Your ability to conduct yourself properly at a ball is certainly as Lady Rightworth promised. You were the finest lady on the floor tonight. I must admit, though, I find the glass ceiling of the Dillsworths' ballroom to be a bit concerning.” He glanced up as he spoke, sneering at the elegant transparent roof, which danced with merry dots of light. “All those candles suspended from such a small amount of roof seems dangerous.”
Her mother's list of rules for conversation circled through Evangeline's mind.
Never offer an opposing view
Always honor your hosts
collided into a gray area with his last comment. She took a breath, considering the appropriate response. “I suppose some might say it adds a bit of excitement to the average dance. I'm pleased we survived.”
“Excitement isn't an ideal I hold in much regard. Predictability gives one comfort for years to come,” he intoned as he led her from the floor.
“I too enjoy knowing what is to come.” She supposed that was a true statement, in a sense. She did enjoy knowing that in a moment she would be away from Lord Winfield's excessive scent. And she enjoyed knowing her next dance was free and she would have a few minutes to chat with her cousins. Of course, the twins were anything but predictable.
She forced her attention back to the conversation at hand. She was ever so close to ending this encounter without a single misstep. With the correct phrases and the execution of a perfect dance, she would be wed in but a few months' time if she could simply maintain her performance. “What if summer couldn't be trusted to be warm, or winter cold? It would be quite a mess to cope with.”
“Winter warm as though it were summer. Such fanciful thoughts, my lady.” He chuckled and shook his blond head, studying her for a moment.
Evangeline maintained a serene look on her face, hoping he didn't now think her overly whimsical. She'd stepped over the line with her comment, and after trying so to be the lady Lord Winfield would want for his wife. Perhaps she did require more practiceâ¦
“I believe I prefer the seasons as they are,” he finally continued.
“As do I, my lord,” she offered as relief flooded through her body. “As you said, some things should be able to be relied upon.”
“You make quite agreeable company, my lady. May I rely on the promise of a dance with you at the next ball?” He leaned in a fraction too close to ask, the stench of his cologne filling the air around her.
She resisted the urge to pull away to breathe. He was pleased with her company. Everything was as it should be. She smiled the final smile of the encounter. Then she allowed her hand to trail over his arm in the one allotted lingering touch to make him remember her before letting it fall back to her side. “One in which we will remain quite safe from falling ceilings, I hope.”
“Lady Evangeline,” he offered in farewell as he bowed and took his leave.
Evangeline was still taking breaths to keep from coughing when her cousins joined her, pulling her back toward the wall of the ballroom where they couldn't be overheard. It was a precaution deemed necessary near the end of last season after the unfortunate incident with Lady Smeltings. The woman had heard Victoria's rather loud opinion that her ladyship's new style of hair made her look like an angry bee about to move in for the sting. It had taken far too many smiles over tea to settle that score, and the three of them had agreed to be more careful of their talk in the future.
Her mother appeared none too thrilled by their move away from the action of the room, but she was thankfully locked in conversation with two other ladies and wouldn't be able to berate Evangeline until later. But that didn't stop her narrow-eyed glare. Busy ignoring the scowl that burned into the back of her head over the abandonment of her previously prominent location at the side of the ballroom, Evangeline took a glass of lemonade from a passing footman.