Authors: Allegra Gray
“Aye, my lord
.” She bobbed a curtsy as she turned back.
Graeme lengthened his stride, heading toward the old quarry at full speed
. He was ill-prepared for the role of parent, and being thrust into the position with a fully-formed, active six year old—make that a fully-formed, active,
six year old—hadn’t helped matters.
“Nate!” he called, approaching the quarry that had once supplied much of the stone for building Leventhal House
. He’d played there as a child too. The place was a natural draw for any adventurous boy.
“Uncle Graeme?” came a
quavering response. “I canna get down.”
eme slowed, spotting his nephew backed against a wall of rock, standing on a ledge about two feet wide and twenty feet up. He blew out a breath, his heart easing its frenetic pace as he realized the lad, while scared, was not in imminent danger.
, now. You’re going to be fine. Ease back down the way you climbed up. Go ahead, now.”
Nate shook his head, a tear streaking down his dusty cheek
. “The rocks are too slippery. I’ll fall.”
“You must, Nate
. You were brave enough to climb up. Show me that same bravery now. Slowly, slowly. One foot at a time…test your footing before you put all your weight into each step.”
It was a lot to ask of a six year old
. Graeme knew, because he hadn’t been much older when his own father had had to give him similar advice.
You can do it, Nate,” he said. “I’m here to catch you if you fall.”
Nate took a shuddery breath, then nodded and inched toward the slippery path down
. Graeme hovered below, tracking the boy’s movement. One step, two. Two more.
Nate’s foot slid, sending a shower of pebbles off the ledge
. He froze.
.” Graeme kept his voice calm.
e moved forward again, making several feet of progress this time. He glanced over at Graeme with a smile, but the sudden movement was careless. His feet slid out from under him and he shrieked as he landed on his bottom, unable to slow his descent.
leapt forward, arms out, and the boy tumbled the last few feet into them, followed by an avalanche of gravel. He hugged the child close, then set him on his feet, checking for cuts and injuries.
Nate brushed himself off, winced and held out scraped palms
“That’s not so bad
. Just a wee scrape. Count yourself lucky.”
The boy wiped his cheek with the back of his hand, smearing dust and tears.
“What were ye doing up there?” Now that he knew the lad was all right, he was not about to let him escape without a scolding. “I’ve told ye before, the quarry is dangerous. Ye’re no’ to come here alone.”
Hearing his brogue thicken with the moment’s emotion, he made a mental note to keep it in check when he reached London
. Tucked away in the north, it was easy to let such things slide. But Londoners would expect an earl’s speech to reflect his education, rather than the location of his primary holding.
Nate hung his head
. “I didn’t mean to get stuck.”
“Of course you
didn’t. No one means for an accident to happen—but that’s why you must be more careful, Nate.”
“I just wanted to hide.”
Graeme frowned. “Hide from what?”
Nate looked away.
Graeme knelt down. “What’s wrong?”
“You said you wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye
. I thought, if ye couldna find me…”
Finally Graeme understood
. “Ah, Nate.” He pulled the lad in close.
“Don’t go, Uncle Graeme,
” his nephew said against his shirt.
pulled back, gazed down at his puppy-eyed, pleading little nephew and truly did have second thoughts. But he’d made his decision—and a Maxwell never went back on a decision. If there was one thing he’d learned in the years since his father’s death, it was that an estate the size of the Maxwell holdings did not run itself. There was always someone who needed his attention, or something that needed to be done. A proud job, but a demanding one. And often a lonely one. He longed for the softness of a woman in his bed, someone to converse with at the end of the day, someone to share the delight of simple pleasures and to hold in times of sorrow. If he waited until all the other demands of life settled down, though, he might very well die a bachelor.
.” Rising, he took the lad’s hand and started walking, still trying to decide how to respond.
” he said, “I know you don’t see it now, but this trip will benefit us both. I can provide more for you by going than by staying here. When I come back, I’ll be bringing a wife. She’ll love you, Nate, I know she will.”
.” Nate trudged toward Leventhal House, its looming mass emphasizing just how small his nephew was.
. “Of course she will.” Never mind that he hadn’t yet met this woman, or even identified a likely candidate. “We’ll build a family. Turn this old pile of rubble into a home again. And someday you’ll have playmates.”
Nate cocked his head, considering
. “I’ll be too old for them.”
. You’ll be the one to teach them the very best games.”
.” The boy tried to hide his smile, but Graeme could tell he liked the idea.
“Be good while I’m gone,
promise? You’ll be the man of the house. I’m counting on you to look after Nana.”
thinks I’m you,” Nate protested.
Graeme tweaked his nose
. “All the more reason to look after her.” His mother spent so much time living in the past she didn’t always distinguish between son and grandson, but that didn’t diminish her fondness for both.
“I mean it, Nate,” Graeme admonished, bringing the boy’s focus back
. “No more adventures at the quarry?”
“What if ye
don’t come back, Uncle Graeme?” Nathan asked, avoiding Graeme’s question with one of his own—one obviously bothering him. “What if something bad happens?”
. The lad had seen too much for his six years. He’d already lost both parents. It was pointless to assure him such things couldn’t, or wouldn’t, happen. But at the moment, the distressed look in the boy’s eyes, the way his little brows knit together, told Graeme he needed comfort more than logic.
sighed, then bent down and swung his nephew up onto his shoulders for the rest of the distance to the house.
“I’ll come back, lad
. I promise.”
London, 2 weeks later
Priscilla Medford, Miss Charity Medford’s mother, had expressly forbidden her youngest daughter to attend the annual masquerade held by Lord Madrigal—the rakish young lord otherwise known as “the Wicked Baron.”
Charity, of course, was going anyway.
Where else but a masquerade could she pretend, if only for a night, that she was someone—anyone—else? Someone who didn’t attract stares and whispered speculation everywhere she went. Some of the gossip was innocent enough—the usual wonderings about the exact size of her dowry, for example. But others…others suspected, at least, her connection to the capture of the French spies last year. Though her family had done its best to keep her name out of the papers, one intrepid reporter from the
had noted her presence on several visits to the British Foreign Office. No further details had leaked, but even that tidbit was enough to spark the curiosity of the
, whose members’ appetite for scandal knew no bounds.
Yes, Charity longed for escape
. The only impact of her mother’s decree regarding the masquerade was to make her choose her disguise, and her exit plan, more carefully.
It wasn’t that Charity didn’t love her mother
—it was just that she didn’t see a reason to
her. Family was family. But everyone in London knew her dowry had been provided by the Duke of Beaufort, her older sister Elizabeth’s husband, since her own father had died with naught to his name but a mountain of debt. Even her mother’s home had been paid for by the duke, allowing the family to maintain a modicum of dignity. If Lady Medford couldn’t even manage her own life, why should she manage her daughter’s?
“Penny, come help me dress,”
Charity called to her maid. “I cannot manage my evening costume alone.”
course, Miss Medford.” Penny bustled toward her. “Where are you off to this eve, miss?”
“Oh!” the maid began brightly, then stopped in her tracks as she saw the folds of cloth Charity held out.
Clearly, Penny knew what any qualified ladies’ maid should know: unmarried females did not attend Almack’s dressed as sultry Indian princesses.
Charity gave Penny her most brilliant smile, dumped the beaded silk into the maid’s hands, and slipped out of her shift. Her costume had been ordered weeks ago, and even then she’d had to part with an outrageous portion of her allowance to convince the
to complete it in time. The daring designs of Madame Bleu were sought after by proper ladies and the
alike. It was debatable whether the jade and turquoise confection made to accentuate every nuance of the female body—Charity’s body, to be precise—had come from the design pages meant for the proper clients or the not-so-proper ones. But as long as no one knew who she was, the costume was perfect.
The problem was the mask
. A tiny confection of jade-colored silk with holes for her eyes, it would fool no one. That would never do. Anonymity was essential to her plan. Not to mention that life would be infinitely easier if reports of her whereabouts that night did
get back to her mother.
gulped, then smiled in return and began expertly draping the folds as though she wrapped her mistress in a sari every day.
Charity smiled in anticipation
. The Wicked Baron’s parties were legendary. He spared no expense, it was said, to entertain his guests in exotic, tantalizing fashion. The guests themselves sought pleasure above all else. Few unmarried young ladies received invitations to the baron’s masquerade—and among those, almost none were expected to attend.
It probably wasn’t worth dwelling upon
the fact that since she
received an invitation, her reputation might not be as pristine as it ought to be. She lifted her arms as Penny pinned the tiny bodice she wore beneath the costume, leaving tempting glimpses of exposed skin above the curve of her hip.
Then again, she no longer counted herself among the innocents
. She might not be married, but she’d left her childhood behind the previous June as surely as though a door had slammed on her girlish dreams.
before her looking glass, Charity dipped a finger into a tiny pot and patted the cream beneath her eyes while Penny worked. She frowned. The circles were getting darker. It had been so very long since she’d had a restful night’s sleep.
The doctor had told her the best thing was to forget
. Well, she’d
to forget…God help her, she’d tried. She just couldn’t. During waking hours she could keep busy enough to keep her mind off the horrible memories, but every time she closed her eyes, it all came rushing back.
When what her family referred vaguely to as “the incident” had first happened, the doctor had given her several doses of sleeping draughts
. For months, he’d prescribed more—until Charity, fearing he would deem her incurable, had lied about her recovery and told him to stop coming. Those sweet little vials of mercy were long since gone, and she’d had nary a restful night since. She’d been too ashamed to ask for more.
What was wrong with her, her well-meaning family would ask
. She was alive, she was whole. Disaster averted. She should be happy.
Except they hadn’t seen
—or felt, rather, since her underground prison had been utterly dark—what she had. Even Alex and Philippe, who’d rescued her, had not lingered in that awful space long enough to examine the contents of its deepest corners. Nor had they heard the whispered French as her captor slipped her a single, tiny vial before locking her away. She’d flung it away in disgust, but how many more hours would she have lasted before crawling on hands and knees through the utter dark, searching it out with fingertips already bloodied from clawing at the door?
She shuddered, the movement causing Penny’s carefully-aimed pin to poke her in the ribs
. Sorry, miss.”