Authors: Stefanie Sloane
“And my brother?” he asked bitterly, desperate to maintain some sense of dignity though
he knew it to be a pointless struggle. “I would venture to guess Langdon would be
more suitable. Or sober, at the very least.”
“I do not need Langdon. I need you.”
Sophia folded her hands in her lap and stared at Nicholas. When she’d thrown back
the curtains earlier and turned to look at him, she’d been stunned, frozen into stillness
and too distracted to move or speak. The sunlight had arrowed through the window behind
her and directly onto the bed. In that brief moment before Nicholas recognized her,
she’d been shocked at the powerful, dangerous man sprawled on the rumpled bed.
The blankets were pushed to his waist, his upper torso bare. Though she’d known him
since they were children, he was suddenly unrecognizable. She’d been unable to look
away from the flex and smooth ripple of well-defined muscles in his chest and arms
as he pushed himself upright. It was only the sound of his sleep-roughened, deep voice
as he spoke her name that convinced her she’d not wandered into the wrong room by
Now that she was nearer, she could see deep crease marks from the crude inn bedding
that ran the length of the left side of his face. He’d clearly been abed for some
time and yet the dark crescents beneath his eyes intimated exhaustion.
An air of dissipation and soul-deep weariness shrouded his handsome countenance. She
wanted badly to know why he felt driven to drink when it only led to this—a dank room
in a hedge-inn, surrounded by nothing that could hope to bring him any peace. Despite
their shared history, she felt a reluctance to question him. He’d always held some
part of himself back, denying Sophia access for his own personal reasons. And it appeared
his years in India had only increased the territory she was not allowed to traverse.
He rubbed his knuckles over his jaw for the second
time in as many minutes, the muscles beneath the unshaven skin rigid. “I find such
a notion impossible to believe.”
He was clearly exhausted. Still, there was more. There always was with Nicholas. Her
presence at the Primrose wasn’t merely an irritation to the man; was he angry? Or
Sophia felt her nerves tighten with the queer tension that always accompanied their
interactions. She was never quite sure how he would respond to her. He was a wild
animal and she the hapless human who’d had the nerve to disturb him. It could not
be said that Sophia ever felt fearful in Nicholas’s presence, though at the moment
the sudden quickening of her pulse gave her reason to pause.
Theirs had never been an easy friendship. Her unqualified need to be near him was
matched in intensity by his impatience at her very existence. Sophia had come to believe
that he truly disliked her, although she’d never been able to discover what she’d
done to earn his enmity.
Despite the distance he kept between them, she found herself unable to ignore the
inexplicable pull his presence always exerted on her. “Langdon would refuse me. And
as much as I chafe at the very idea, I cannot do this alone,” Sophia replied honestly,
willing her heartbeat to slow.
Nicholas captured her with a look of shock. “I’m sorry, Sophia. I don’t believe that
I heard you correctly. Did you just say that you could not accomplish something on
His eyes glinted with sudden amusement. There he was, the Nicholas she liked best.
Capricious. Irreverent. Clever. He was the only man who could always make her laugh,
no matter the circumstances. “I missed you terribly while you were away in India.
Do you know,
I believe I didn’t laugh once while you were gone,” Sophia countered, relief and an
affectionate smile curving her mouth. “But I will not relent, Nicholas.”
He crossed his arms over his expansive chest. “Do stop wasting my time, Sophia. Tell
me what you’ve come for.”
She peered down at the planked floor, wincing at his impatience. “Very well,” she
began, looking up and fixing him with a somber stare. “Now that Dash is married, someone
will need to help you in the search for my mother’s killer. And that someone, I believe,
must be me.”
Nicholas uncrossed his arms and propped his elbows on his knees, a menacing glint
in his deep brown eyes. “No.”
“I’ve valuable experience,” she explained earnestly.
“Let me see if I understand: a bit of clerking at the Bow Street Office somehow qualifies
you to hunt down a monster—who’s ordered the killings of numerous people, one of whom,
you just found out, was your mother,” Nicholas lashed out, raking both hands through
his hair until the rumpled black locks stood up on end. “Did you know that Smeade
attacked Lady Carrington? Nearly choked the life from her because he’d been paid to
do so. His superior will stop at nothing to preserve his anonymity. And you suggest
I take you on—a woman, for Christ’s sake—of all people?”
Sophia jumped up, kicking back and sending the chair skittering across the scarred
floor. “You’ve no right …” she spat out before forcing herself to breathe deeply.
“I understand the danger, Nicholas,” she started again, her tone controlled. “It’s
precisely why I did not ask for Langdon’s help. He never would have agreed to—”
“But you think I will? Am I that careless, then?” Nicholas interrupted bitterly.
Sophia reached out to him, flinching involuntarily
when Nicholas moved away to avoid her touch. “No, you misunderstand me,” she begged,
her restraint slipping. “Carelessness is not the issue here. I am asking you to do
what you know is right.”
“You cannot ask this of me,” Nicholas shouted, standing up from the bed and roughly
grabbing hold of her arms.
Sophia instinctively jerked back, the sensation of Nicholas so close troubling to
her rattled mind and body. A raw, pleasing heat ignited where his fingers and palms
touched her. Warmth traveled in rivers through her, her skin suddenly tingling with
sensitivity and need. She fought the urge to lean forward, to experience more of the
new, unsettling feeling that quickened her breath and sent her heart pounding. He
loomed over her, too close, too male, and impossible to ignore. She willed herself
to be still, refusing to retreat.
He loosened his grip on her bare skin and closed his eyes. “Please.”
“We’re alike, you and I,” Sophia said with quiet conviction, though her heart raced
with an aberrant thrill. “Somehow Dash managed to escape. And Langdon can see a future—in
the distance, true, but it’s there. As for the two of us? We can’t let go of the past.
And we’ll never be able to until my mother’s killer is captured.”
Nicholas rubbed his thumbs over the sensitive bare skin of Sophia’s inner arm. Her
eyes fluttered closed, the scent of his spiced soap surrounding her. The slow, sensual
drag of his thumb was intoxicating. She ached to feel his skin on hers in more intimate
places. She angled her head slightly so that the slim column of her neck was exposed
“Don’t do this, Sophia.”
Sophia forced her eyes open to find Nicholas staring at her, the potent mixture of
anger and strong conviction that shadowed his face effectively weakening her will.
But not breaking it.
“I have to, Nicholas. You know that I do.”
Nicholas let go of her arms and pointed to the door. “Go,” he ordered, his voice raw.
The sudden release from his hold was disorienting. Her body mourned the loss of his
touch, as if he had held her spellbound, enchanted, for those too brief moments. She
trembled and her mind searched for an explanation that would provide a reason for
her overwhelming response to him. Sophia found none that she could accept.
She stumbled backward, desperate to put distance between them. “You will return to
London?” she asked, bracing herself for rejection. “I’ll have your word.”
Nicholas lifted his hands and began to methodically rub his temples as if in pain,
barely nodding in agreement.
“Your word, Nicholas,” Sophia pressed, regretting the childish demand the moment it
flew from her lips.
“Go!” he roared, pointing savagely at the door.
Sophia started at the guttural cry and ran for the door, not pausing even once to
“You look as if you’ve seen a wraith.”
Sophia glanced nervously out the window of her carriage at the Primrose, then turned
to her companion, Lettie Kirk. “Not a ghost, no. Perhaps a demon? Or a warlock of
The wheels of the carriage began to roll, stuttering briefly in the spring mud before
settling into a slow, steady pace.
Lettie lowered her chin and looked pointedly at Sophia. “You speak of Mr. Bourne,
Sophia held her still trembling hand aloft. “None other.”
Lettie pursed her lips, her fifty-plus years on earth evident in the fine, feathery
lines deepened by her disapproval. “He always did possess the tongue of a viper. What
did he say to upset you this time?”
Sophia peered outside to the rutted road behind them. She was just able to make out
the Primrose’s tidy yard before a copse of yew trees obstructed her view. She appreciated
Lettie’s concern. More than that, she relied on it. For fourteen years the two had
been inseparable, the nanny becoming her maid when Sophia grew too old for the nursery.
Lettie was eventually assigned as a trusted companion when neither could bear to part.
Lord Afton understood little of his own daughter, the heartbreak and mental anguish
caused by his wife’s death keeping
him isolated on his estate in Wales. Lettie knew everything about Sophia. Better yet,
she loved her all the more for it.
“It wasn’t his verbal barbs as much as
,” Sophia replied, lowering her hand though her troubled gaze remained fixed on her
trembling fingers. “I’m not quite sure how to describe … His … Something has changed—no,
he has changed. Nicholas is not the man I knew.”
Sophia looked up at the sound of Lettie’s voice as if she’d been distracted. “I apologize.
I don’t know what, precisely, I expected his response to be. Oh, the yelling and carrying
on was standard fare from him. And he used his usual weapons—sarcasm, self-loathing,
“Well, that definitely sounds like the man I know,” Lettie replied, softly taking
Sophia’s hand in hers.
“It does, doesn’t it?” Sophia agreed. “Maybe I have it all wrong. Perhaps it wasn’t
Nicholas. Perhaps it was me?”
She’d never succeeded in giving up on Nicholas, and he’d offered her ample opportunity
to do so. Throughout the years Sophia had held fast to the idea that she was acting
in her mother’s place, protecting the boy Lady Afton had often referred to as her
young warrior with a heart of glass.
This latest round of feverish quarreling made Sophia angry. And aroused. Never before
had her body betrayed her in such a demanding manner.
“No, my lady. I’m certain Mr. Bourne is to blame. You’ve always had a soft spot in
your heart for that man,” Lettie countered knowingly. “Either way, one thing is clear:
you would do best to stay away from Nicholas Bourne. Let him continue the search for
your mother’s killer alone, as the viscountess requested.”