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A Rake To The Rescue Elizabeth Beacon She can’t trust anyone.Yet to survive she has to trust him!When widow Hetta Champion and her little boy are endangered by her father’s hunt for a murderer, aristocrat Magnus Haile is compelled to assist! Hetta’s unhappy marriage has left her just as wary of people as Magnus, but on their adventure in England’s stunning south coast she feels her guard begin to slip.Could she offer Magnus the family he’s long believed impossible…? She can’t trust anyone. Yet to survive, she has to trust him! When widow Hetta Champion and her little boy are endangered by her father’s hunt for a murderer, aristocrat Magnus Haile is compelled to assist! Hetta’s unhappy marriage has left her just as wary of people as Magnus is, but on their adventure in England’s stunning South Coast, she feels her guard begin to slip. Could she offer Magnus the family he’s long believed impossible? “A forbidden kiss, a feisty heiress and a family divided by secrets, make this Regency romance and entertaining read.” —Goodreads on A Wedding for the Scandalous Heiress by Elizabeth Beacon “Beacon’s talents for evoking deep emotions with admirable characters, witty dialogue and sensuality shine once again.” —RT Book Reviews on A Wedding for the Scandalous Heiress by Elizabeth Beacon ELIZABETH BEACON has a passion for history and storytelling and, with the English West Country on her doorstep, never lacks a glorious setting for her books. Elizabeth tried horticulture, higher education as a mature student, briefly taught English and worked in an office before finally turning her daydreams about dashing piratical heroes and their stubborn and independent heroines into her dream job: writing Regency romances for Mills & Boon. Also by Elizabeth Beacon The Scarred Earl The Black Sheep’s Return A Wedding for the Scandalous Heiress A Year of Scandal miniseries The Viscount’s Frozen Heart The Marquis’s Awakening Lord Laughraine’s Summer Promise Redemption of the Rake The Winterley Scandal The Governess Heiress And look out for the next book coming soon. Discover more at millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk). A Rake to the Rescue Elizabeth Beacon www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) ISBN: 978-1-474-08862-6 A RAKE TO THE RESCUE © 2018 Elizabeth Beacon Published in Great Britain 2018 by Mills & Boon, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers 1 London Bridge Street, London, SE1 9GF All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. This edition is published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, locations and incidents are purely fictional and bear no relationship to any real life individuals, living or dead, or to any actual places, business establishments, locations, events or incidents. Any resemblance is entirely coincidental. By payment of the required fees, you are granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right and licence to download and install this e-book on your personal computer, tablet computer, smart phone or other electronic reading device only (each a “Licensed Device”) and to access, display and read the text of this e-book on-screen on your Licensed Device. 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Trademarks marked with ® are registered with the United Kingdom Patent Office and/or the Office for Harmonisation in the Internal Market and in other countries. www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) Contents Cover (#ue4f6e478-d624-508a-8f33-047641c53034) Back Cover Text (#uea6f2658-ac7d-5914-ae8c-1bee6f7c1721) About the Author (#u2550ec30-c415-5de3-851f-573bb01b5112) Booklist (#u6d6d1b87-eb44-5e0f-bb07-5a6a4de96b09) Title Page (#ue69dab45-e888-5739-9094-4539cb097c3a) Copyright (#ucfff7b42-8e2e-57a6-9a6a-502a4dbd4213) Chapter One (#u1422a102-a061-5845-91f1-cd8a08334702) Chapter Two (#ua846db3f-f30f-55e6-a8f5-2c641cf282e7) Chapter Three (#u0ee98fc4-a022-5e15-83b4-77fd97616816) Chapter Four (#u4b3ac9fd-75de-5ed0-8001-fe0860181df0) Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eighteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nineteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty (#litres_trial_promo) Extract (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One (#uc7aa7933-3b6a-5347-a715-6d4c29ac0686) ‘Oh, I am sorry...please excuse me,’ the stranger murmured. How could Hetta have left her toes where a society beauty might tread? ‘It was nothing,’ Hetta lied politely. ‘All this bustle is distracting and I hate the sea,’ the lady explained as if she was grateful to have another woman to talk to, even a travel-worn and weary one dressed in a shabby cloak and old gown. ‘I’m none too fond of it myself,’ Hetta admitted ruefully. The lady grimaced at the mud-grey water. It was calm at the moment, so she would have a far better crossing than Hetta had endured coming the other way, but it was still the sea and she obviously did not want to be on it. ‘I wish I could stay,’ the lady said wistfully, glancing back at the town as if she was having second thoughts about leaving it. ‘Then why go if you don’t want to?’ ‘Because I must,’ the lady said, then seemed to recall Hetta was a stranger and stepped out of her path, looking regal and chilly again. ‘The swell has almost calmed now, so you should have an easy journey,’ Hetta said and turned to go. ‘Thank you,’ the lady said absently, her attention now fixed on a woman walking towards them with a grizzling baby of about eight or nine months in her arms. ‘She needs you, Lady Drace,’ the nurse said. ‘I know,’ Lady Drace replied, with a tender smile for her little girl. Love for the pretty, dark-haired and dark-eyed baby lit her face to a beauty far more compelling than the icy mask she seemed to use to keep the adult world at bay. ‘No, my lady, she needs you,’ the woman insisted. Hetta saw the lady blush as the meaning behind those careful words sank in—Lady Drace must be suckling her child herself. Hetta had been happy to dislike her as a privileged being who stood on other people’s toes and then frowned as if it was their fault. Now she sympathised with a dilemma she knew all too well and warmed to a fellow mother. ‘There is nowhere private enough to feed you, my angel, but I expect you’ll work yourself into a tantrum and refuse to be comforted if I don’t, and the sea is quite enough to contend with without you adding to it, my pet,’ Lady Drace told her fretful infant with a besotted smile and shot a panicked look round the bustling harbour. Her pale blue eyes looked tearful, as if this was the last straw for her. Hetta could not make herself pretend it was none of her business and simply walk away. ‘Over there,’ she said, pointing at a pile of baggage waiting to be claimed and unwilling to admit it belonged to her family since it was much used and had their names on and she had learned to be wary on her travels. ‘That looks a quieter place than most and out of the way of all the hustle and bustle. If you hold your cloak around your mistress on one side, I can do the same with mine on the other, and Lady Drace will be hidden from view. Between us we can make a tent and glare at anyone rude enough to try to overlook us,’ she told the maid. Having to feed Toby in all sorts of odd places when she had been tracking her father across Europe after her husband died, Hetta knew how rude and crude some could be to a lady suckling her baby. ‘You will be nigh as private as at home in your own bedchamber, your ladyship.’ ‘Ah, home,’ the lady said wistfully, eyeing her hungry and fretful baby as if torn between love for her child and her dignity. She must have made up her mind the little girl was more important since she sighed and shrugged. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘You are very kind.’ ‘High time I found Toby,’ Hetta’s father muttered and left the ladies to it. “Coward,” his daughter whispered at his retreating back, but since she was worried where her boy had got to, she hoped her father really did mean to look for Toby. It felt wrong to dismiss this stranger’s dilemma and find Toby herself now she had made her impulsive offer. So once Hetta and the maid formed their circle, Lady Drace sat down to nurse her child while all three of them thought their thoughts and the baby fed. Hetta wished this trip to her homeland was over and she could go back to the warmth of a real summer somewhere more interesting. Now the greyish-brown waters of the Channel seemed to mock her with gentle ripples after the bitter squall on the way over here and she was quite surprised she was still alive. She stared towards Dover as tame little waves lapped at the quayside gently enough to soothe a fretful babe to sleep. ‘And they call this summer?’ she muttered as soft drizzle began to crown her miserable homecoming. She had barely been back in England half an hour and she was wet and chilled and her head ached. She felt dull and weary and almost wished she could go with this almost haughty lady and her child to Paris and beyond, although it would mean crossing the Channel again while her stomach was still heaving from the journey over, and even if she could find her son in time, that felt like a bad idea. ‘I believe you are finished, my little minx. She might even sleep now,’ Lady Drace announced hopefully at last. Hetta heard rustling as the lady got herself back in perfect order then settled her little girl in the crook of her arm and shook her head at the maid as if she didn’t intend letting her child go. ‘You can let the world back in,’ she said resolutely. ‘I wish you well on your travels,’ Hetta said gently, wondering where this blonde, blue-eyed lady was going with the dark-haired, brown-eyed baby now looking about her with wide-eyed wonder and not in the least bit weary. ‘Thank you. It was kind of you to help a stranger,’ the lady said as if she was surprised anyone would put themselves out for her. The lady’s life must have been a hard one to make her put on so much elegant armour to keep it at bay. Hetta was glad the woman felt she could love her child wholeheartedly and she was pleased she’d stopped to help a lone mother. Now a nagging anxiety for her own child was urging her to leave the lady to get on with her journey. Her father had already said Toby should be allowed to run off his high spirits so he would be more bearable on the journey to London, so he would not make much effort to track him down, and Hetta knew her son too well to trust him very far with all this bustle and excitement to intrigue him. ‘And they do say you should be careful what you wish for, don’t they?’ the lady added with a rueful smile. ‘But learning when to ignore the naysayers is half the fun,’ Hetta said as she peered around the dock and saw no sign of her son or father and felt more like an anxious sheepdog than an English lady of gentle birth and unusual education. ‘Do you really think so?’ ‘Travelling is a lot easier if you can see the lighter side of the obstacles in your way,’ Hetta said encouragingly, even if she did think there was little to be cheerful about in the sea crossing her new friend was about to undertake. ‘Paris is on the other side of the Channel, don’t forget, and if you can’t have an adventure there I despair of you,’ she added and found out the lady had a surprisingly earthy laugh. ‘Thank you. I will do my best,’ Lady Drace said, bade Hetta farewell with her baby cuddled close and turned resolutely towards the sea. Hetta turned to go as well, but the noise and bustle of the busy dock faded away to nothing as a furious-looking and ridiculously handsome man strode into view so fast he was nearly running. The sight of Toby wriggling like an eel under one of the stranger’s muscular arms made her gasp in panic and her heart race with anxiety. Protective fury masked fear as she watched her son bundled along so fast he didn’t even have breath left to cry out. Toby was pummelling the man with his fists and kicking out, so at least he was not cowed by such rough treatment. Her heart thundered as she watched furious energy power every line of the man’s body, but there was always a chance Toby was in the right for once—a slim one from the temper in the stormy gentleman’s dark eyes. He was devilishly handsome, though, wasn’t he? She told her inner idiot not to be stupid and glared at the stern force of nature loping towards them like an angry tiger. Her stomach had not got over that appalling sea crossing yet, so the stir of something hot and sharp deep in her belly was caused by it being emptied so often as the ship rode the waves of a vicious summer storm like a cork at the mercy of furious Mother Nature. This tall and formidable man could not stir her sensual instincts back to life without even a smile or an interested look, so there was no other explanation for it. And he had Toby firmly under his arm as if her boy was a mere bundle of faggots, so those instincts would be wrong anyway. ‘Is this yours?’ he barked at her as soon as he was within earshot. As Hetta was the only woman gaping at him with her mouth open, it must be easy enough to pick her out as Toby’s mother. She was vaguely conscious Lady Drace had jumped as if she had been shot at the sound of his deep voice, then turned to stare at him with horror in her light blue eyes. So that made two women scared by the great clumsy oaf roaring and raging as if he had every right to make rude comments about anyone he wanted to, and she wondered why the rest of the world had not stopped to watch him open-mouthed as well. ‘What have you done, Toby?’ Hetta didn’t quite answer the man’s rude question and told herself she was too worried about her son to care about gruff strangers or her new friend’s reaction to them. The Honourable Magnus Haile frowned at the strange woman staring back at him like a simpleton. Given the gasp of relief the boy had given on first sight of her, she was his mother, and what a neglectful shabby-genteel idiot to leave her offspring running loose without a keeper. He didn’t have any time to spare, so why was it his job to chastise a brat who threw himself under his weary horse and nearly killed them both? Luckily his younger brother’s man, Jem Caudle, told Magnus he would stable the exhausted and unnerved beast for him, then reminded him the packet would sail if he didn’t hurry. Jem even told Magnus to leave the lad to him and get to the vessel faster, but Magnus was too shocked and angry to leave the boy to Jem’s mercy. So, he’d grabbed the brat in order to berate the boy’s parents before he thought of some way to stop Delphi and his little girl leaving England without him, even if he had to throw himself aboard the boat and leave his homeland with no more than the shirt on his back. He was a father now, whatever Delphi had to say about it. His frown went fierce again as he grappled with that fact and his helplessness to do anything about it when Delphi refused to marry him. He longed to be able to keep his daughter out of wild scrapes like this when she was big enough to be naughty. Not that his little Angela could ever be as wayward as this brat, but the boy’s parents obviously didn’t know how lucky they were to have the right to protect him from harm. Yet they let him run around like a street urchin! Now the boy was scratching and trying to bite, as if Magnus was the villain, and he was tempted to drop him on the cobbles and walk away. ‘Try that trick again and I’ll dust your backside for you, whether your mama is looking or not,’ he threatened dourly. ‘No, you won’t. She won’t let you,’ the lad shouted, lower lip wobbling and his dirty face scrunched up with the effort of producing a tear. ‘Once she knows what you did she will thank me for saving her the effort of doing it herself.’ ‘No, she won’t. She will skin you alive, then boil you in oil if you even try to smack me.’ ‘Then I won’t need to worry about anything, will I? Least of all a wicked little liar like you,’ Magnus said grimly. ‘Put my son down this minute,’ the sunburnt woman in dull clothes, a drooping bonnet and the most ridiculous pair of eyeglasses he had ever seen demanded furiously as she finally snapped out of her trance. Magnus could now see where the boy got his temper, if not his wild blond curls, wide blue eyes and the daredevil spirit that made him look like a fallen cherub. Perhaps his father was absent for a good reason, but Magnus’s inner sneer felt cheap when he eyed the termagant in petticoats and wished for a brief, mad moment he’d fallen in love with such a tigress in spectacles, instead of the woman hiding behind her, trying to pretend she had never seen him before in her life, even with his baby in her arms chortling at her father with Haile written all over her darling little face like a banner. ‘Gladly, if you promise to keep him under better control in future,’ he told the woman grimly and tried to ignore the pain in his heart when his Angela reached out her arms to him and Delphi snatched her away as if she hated him. ‘A collar and lead should serve. He nearly killed himself running under my horse just now. Luckily for all of us the poor beast was too weary to throw me when I curbed him, or you would have a lot more to worry about than a filthy little thug in a foul temper. A blow from the nag’s iron-shod hooves would have killed him outright.’ The woman went even paler under her unladylike sunburn and Magnus regretted his harshness for a moment. But, no, she needed a shock like this to force her to keep a better eye on the boy in future. He had to harden his heart again when she pushed her spectacles up her nose with a shaking hand and he counted himself lucky she wasn’t having an attack of the vapours. She braced her shoulders instead and he had better things to do than admire her resolution and the fine figure he should not even notice when he had ridden all the way here at breakneck speed to plead with Delphi not to take his child so far away he might never see her again. ‘Stop that ridiculous wriggling and pretend-crying, Toby Champion,’ the boy’s mother snapped at her flailing offspring. Magnus felt the boy still as if she had waved a magic wand. Deciding the brat was not likely to get away with his sins after all, Magnus swung him down. ‘Buy him a chain if you can’t keep him under better control in future, madam,’ he barked. ‘How can you be so harsh, Magnus?’ Delphi broke in as the lad threw himself at his mother so enthusiastically she lurched and nearly fell over. Magnus had been so intent on the boy’s mother he hadn’t noted how Delphi’s wide and horrified eyes were fixed on him as if she expected him to lash out as the late, unlamented Sir Edgar Drace was prone to when something about his young wife did not suit him. It said much for his baby’s sunny nature that she was gurgling and wriggling in her mother’s arms as if this was a fine show, instead of cowering and grizzling as she caught the megrims from her mother. ‘If someone doesn’t check the boy, he will kill himself,’ he explained with an impatient glance behind him to convince Delphi he wasn’t in the least like the straw man she had married for some reason he had never managed to fathom. ‘Only your horror at the idea of doing so could excuse such a wicked display of temper,’ Delphi said, reproaching him with the stiffness in her voice. ‘I could hardly pat him on the head and bid him be more careful next time.’ ‘No, he could not,’ the boy’s mother admitted with a sigh, as if it cost a lot to stand up for such a grim stranger. She turned to Delphi with a resigned shrug and said, ‘He’s right. My son is far too adventurous for his own good. And I want you to see your eighth birthday, despite all your best efforts not to, my lad, so you can take the wounded expression off your face and listen to your elders and betters for once,’ she added as her boy let go of her narrow waist to stare up at her with the wide eyes of a wronged cherub. Magnus revised her age down a decade and decided, if she still had a husband, the neglectful idiot should be here, trying to back up her efforts to keep their child alive so she wouldn’t look elsewhere for comfort for herself and a little help with the lad. A ridiculous, totally unacceptable part of him wanted to be the source of both for her for a moment and hadn’t he already had a harsh enough lesson about throwing himself at complicated and unfathomable women? And what did he know about how to bring up well-balanced and happy children after the childhood he and his younger siblings had endured at their father’s hands anyway? ‘I see,’ Delphi said almost as if she did. Hope leapt in Magnus’s heart for a heady moment as his daughter blew kisses at him as if she would always be on his side. ‘Please, Delphi, let me come with you?’ he begged the child’s mother as softly as he could with all these wild emotions roiling around inside him right now. He would plead in front of the devil himself if it got him a place in his child’s life. ‘I told you before, Magnus. No. Have the manners to listen to me and stay away from us in future, before you do even more damage than you already have.’ ‘Should I send for the Harbour Master?’ the strange woman said as if ready to leap into battle on Delphi’s behalf. Why must she be such an interfering, reckless female? He almost had to admire her for it. All his attention should be focused on Delphi and trying to persuade her to let him have any sort of role in his daughter’s life, but parts of it kept straying to this vital and puzzling stranger who was threatening to get in the way at the worst possible moment. ‘No, although I really do thank you for the offer,’ Delphi said with such horror in her expression a disinterested bystander might laugh at the show they were putting on. ‘He won’t hurt us,’ she explained. Magnus was glad she gave him that much credit and supposed he ought to be grateful for small mercies. ‘I won’t,’ he added shortly. ‘Well then, perhaps you could work harder at seeming a little less threatening in future, Lord Drace,’ the woman said and made it all worse somehow. ‘He’s not my husband,’ Lady Delphine Drace said with such an appalled expression Magnus almost gave up and went home. ‘Oh,’ the stranger said, looking from one to the other and then at the baby in Delphi’s arms as if she had put two and two together and got four. She blushed and looked as if she wished herself a few hundred miles away as well right now, but she still met his eyes with defiance blazing from behind those disfiguring spectacles of hers and his reluctant admiration for her courage fretted like an itch under his skin. ‘It seems to me you have even more reason to leave her ladyship in peace, then, sir,’ she said severely. ‘None of your business, madam,’ he snapped because her words stung all the more sharply for being right. Chapter Two (#uc7aa7933-3b6a-5347-a715-6d4c29ac0686) ‘Stop embarrassing me, Magnus, and go away. I have made it clear to you time and time again I will not marry you. Do me the courtesy of listening for once and leave us be.’ Delphi sounded so weary Magnus’s heart thudded with dread, then slowed to a horrified acceptance that she really meant it this time. Now he would have to watch them both sail away and the thought of it nearly took him off at the knees. ‘What about Angela?’ he said bleakly as he stared at his baby with what felt embarrassingly like tears in his eyes. The baby laughed back at him and gigged up and down in her mother’s arms as if she liked him, even if Delphi didn’t any more. She was so like him his paternity should have been obvious to the whole world at birth and he longed to proclaim it to the rooftops and be her father for life. ‘She will be safe, loved and with her mother. That’s all you need know,’ Delphi said implacably, and defeat had never tasted so bitter for Magnus. ‘Unlike her father,’ he said flatly as his life stretched away from him in a long, slow road he almost wished was over and done with. ‘I am sorry, Magnus. It was never you, you see?’ Delphi said, as if his pain at the idea of never seeing his child again was so plain to see even she could no longer ignore it. ‘You were never the man I really wanted when I had to wed Drace, nor afterwards when he died and I was rich as well as free and he still didn’t come to comfort me for all those wasted years I had to endure without him.’ She spoke as if that grief was the one she might never get over. ‘You look so like him at the age when he loved me back, you see. I admit I could not help myself taking what I could get from one of you Hailes when you arrived, so eager to comfort me after Drace died, and he still stayed away, as if he didn’t care a snap of his fingers about me and how I still longed for all I could not have because he turned his back on me. He said he had to do his duty and never mind where his heart led him, but if I was in his heart he managed to ignore me when it all ended and I still had nothing—not even a child to make the emptiness less cruel.’ ‘So you used me to make one and never mind if I was the wrong man to make it with? I was only ever a poor substitute for another man as far as you were concerned, wasn’t I?’ Magnus said bitterly, a terrible suspicion dragging him back to the shore like a heavy anchor chained to his waist as she turned to walk aboard the ship so she could get on with forgetting he even existed on the other side of the Channel. ‘For my damned brother, I suppose, since you always hated the old man nigh as much as I did,’ he gritted out at her stiff-backed figure and felt as if this last, bitter truth might poison him. ‘You Hailes look so alike, you see?’ she turned back to tell him earnestly, as if he might nod and agree, as if he had been a fool to ever think himself aught but a stand-in for the man she really loved and wanted all along when she’d taken him as her lover for six glorious weeks after her husband died. ‘All except Wulf,’ he said numbly, relieved his favourite brother was both too young and too like their mother to be the man Magnus had been a substitute for when he had helped Delphi make a Haile baby to love so soon after her husband’s death—even the rightful Drace heir had not argued Angela was Sir Edgar Drace’s get. Maybe the man had been so relieved Delphi had birthed a girl he’d made no effort to see the babe in full daylight and Delphi had kept her child very close. She’d had Angela baptised soon after birth on the excuse she might not survive. That lie had sent him galloping all the way to Drace Dower House to discover his child thriving and he’d fallen instantly in love with her as only a father could. Nobody would believe Delphi’s lie about her baby girl’s health if they could see her in her mother’s arms now, laughing at the strange sayings and doings of her elders and so full of life. Magnus numbly marvelled that Delphi’s relief at leaving her native land and him behind seemed to have lulled her into trusting a stranger not to noise her affairs abroad, when she usually kept her feelings so firmly in check. He only wished he shared her confidence in the woman hesitating nearby as if she knew she should leave them to have this very private discussion in as much peace as could be got in such a place, but felt she could not walk away lest he became violent. Couldn’t she tell he would never hurt a hair on either of these two females’ heads if his life depended on it? Luckily her boy had already got bored with such adult puzzles and had gone to create more mischief behind his mother’s back. ‘Marry me anyway?’ Magnus pleaded and to hell with his pride and their audience. Even if Delphi didn’t love him—and he was rapidly going off the idea of loving her back if his elder brother Gresley was truly the love of her life—he was the father of the little darling watching him as if she knew he mattered. Why wasn’t her mother agreeing with her? Delphi must have deliberately lured him into her bed to fantasise he was his elder brother when Gresley stayed sternly away and left her to find comfort in another man’s arms. It was never him she’d wanted and that felt bitter as gall as he nearly choked on the taste of it after all these years of being half in love with a woman he could not have. Delphi had loved and been loved by Gresley for a time before the dutiful heir married money to save the Carrowe estates from bankruptcy instead of lovely, not very wealthy Lady Delphine Bowers. So, she in turn had made a marriage of no affection to keep her true love alive in her heart while she flaunted Drace’s almost legendary wealth in her lover’s face and effortlessly outshone his new Countess at every turn. It seemed a poor reason for marriage, but what room had Magnus to criticise when he’d nearly married a friend for the sake of her fortune only a few months ago? ‘Wed me for her sake?’ Magnus begged huskily even so and leaned forward to kiss his baby daughter before she was snatched away for what could be for ever. The little minx gurgled at him and his heart lurched with love and his need to protect her against every harsh wind that might blow on her for the rest of her life. She was still his child, whether her mother liked it or not. ‘No, I won’t have her watch us tied together only by duty and not love. I lived in a hollow marriage for a decade after I could not marry the love of my life and I swore never to do it again the day Drace died. Angela is mine and her own, but she is not yours, Magnus.’ ‘Explain that to anyone who ever lays eyes on her and has seen one of us Hailes first, then. You can call her by another man’s name as much as you like, but you can’t pretend Drace had any hand in her with those features and dark brown eyes and all that jet-black hair to give you the lie.’ ‘I won’t have to if you stay away from us. If you truly love her, you will go away and leave us to live a good enough life in another country without you. I can afford to give her the best of everything and make sure she has a good education and all the things you can never afford, circumstanced as you are. You have nothing to offer her and I can give her everything. Now my maid is getting frantic and signalling we must get aboard, before she and my worldly goods are forced to cross the Channel without us, so get out of the way, Magnus, and leave us be.’ ‘And that is all you have to say to me?’ ‘Yes. You must live a good life and forget all about us.’ ‘How can I?’ ‘Take lessons from the man who knows how it’s done,’ she said with a thin, bitter little smile and waved a dismissive hand in his direction before she turned away with his child to be scurried up the companionway by the impatient Captain of the packet boat. Then she took herself to the other side to look towards Calais and away from him. At last the boat embarked with Magnus gazing after it like a fool, watching every step and sail they took away from him as if he had a wicked spell laid on him and there was nothing he could do to tell the world his heart had been ripped out. ‘Guv,’ a skinny young man said to the brooding figure Hetta was suddenly so reluctant to disturb. Magnus Haile stood stock-still now and looked as if everything he ever cared about had left him for ever and his life was meaningless and empty without them. She must have caught at his name, like carelessly thrown jewels, when Lady Drace dropped it into her bitter farewell. This man Lady Drace had refused so coldly looked as if he’d been broken by his lover’s final rebuff. Hetta almost cried for him and she was no watering pot and was nearly sure she didn’t like him. ‘We need to get home, Mr Magnus,’ the youth urged, clearly uneasy in the face of such raw emotion which seemed to come off his master in waves as he stood there trying so hard to be impassive and rocklike and failing at it rather badly. At a distance he might look so, but this close to he was clearly spent. He ignored his unlikely-looking rescuer as if his ears had shut down after Lady Drace’s last bitter words stung him to the heart. ‘Mr Haile, your man is trying to get your attention.’ Hetta spoke up at last, and thank goodness she was too much of a stranger to need to search for words of comfort when the man looked back at her as if he knew there was none to be had. ‘Eh?’ he managed to say, as if reluctantly realising he had a new world to live in now the two people he most wanted in it had left him. ‘Oh, yes. There you are, Jem. Horses calmed and dealt with, are they?’ ‘Aye, stabled and fed and asleep already when I left—which you looks as if you ought to be as well, if you don’t mind me saying so, Mr Magnus.’ ‘Wouldn’t that be a handy trick?’ Mr Haile said softly, as if he hadn’t slept properly for longer than he cared to remember. ‘Whatever it is, you needs to come away now. Mr Wulf will skin me alive if I get you home in an even worse state than you was in last Easter when—’ The young man stopped himself and eyed Hetta as if he had suddenly realised she was a total stranger and couldn’t be trusted to keep a still tongue in her head about his master’s family and their obviously very tangled affairs. ‘I am no gossip,’ she reassured him earnestly and turned to meet Mr Haile’s dark eyes. Shock and a terrible weariness looked back at her. There was a faint glimmer of the man he ought to be looking at her with a tepid sort of interest, as if she was a being who knew far too much about him and he ought to care, but could not quite make the effort to do so. He seemed to have shut down all the power and vitality that made him so memorable at first sight, even if her motherly instincts had been on the alert for her son’s welfare at his furious hands at the time. This man now looked as if he was too tired and battle-weary to care what anyone did to him. Toby could dance on the topsail of the next ship to come in and drop on his head to break his fall and he would shake him off after a few stunned moments and go on with hardly even a blink to admit he had a headache. ‘I think you had best find this gentleman a good meal and a clean bed for the night, young man,’ she advised his unlikely companion gently, as if she knew he was being left to deal with a casualty and might need a little advice from a woman who was all too used to wrenching comfort out of spartan lodgings and a sometimes less than perfect life of her own. ‘You’re in the right of it there, missus. Rode here as if the devil was on his tail, he did. Ought to know better, but I can take care of him now,’ the youth said as if he was decades older than the man Lady Drace had just whistled down the wind as if lovers like him were ten a penny. Magnus Haile seemed almost broken and the last thing in the world to make him feel any better would be the pity of a strange woman. A part of her that should be ashamed of itself mourned for him as her fantasy lover. She could only imagine having a man like him in her own bed in her wildest dreams. Lady Drace was obviously made of finer stuff, though, and, since he was used to a lover of such graceful beauty and elegance, he would have no eye for a plain Mrs Champion even if he wanted another lover to comfort him, sensible Hetta argued. Being second-best would feel more hellish than being alone with all these feminine longings and frustration when she sought her lonely bed tonight. No, it was time she got back to real life and forgot Magnus Haile and her odd welcome to a country that had never felt like home to her. ‘Reassure your master, once he is refreshed and well enough to listen properly, that I never gossip,’ she said with a nod to say You can trust me. The lad returned with a wary Maybe I can nod back. ‘Heaven send I never see you or your brat again to test you on that assertion, ma’am,’ Magnus Haile said as if her words had woken him from a stupor. He looked so revolted by the idea that she felt stung, but before she could summon up a sharp answer he marched off as if it was her fault he had suffered such a felling blow at his ex-lover’s hands today. ‘The feeling is entirely mutual,’ she muttered into the damp and empty air even as she gazed at his fast-retreating back and noted his loping stride had already taken him well out of hearing distance, proving he had more energy than she’d thought. ‘Of all the rude, abrupt, bad-tempered m-m-monsters...’ No, that won’t do. Hetta stopped herself in mid-stammer as words failed her. She refused to let him take words away from her, even if he wasn’t here to sneer at her. An ill-mannered, bad-tempered, unshaven and arrogant apology for a gentleman would not turn her back into the silenced little mouse she’d nearly become under her grandmother’s roof when Papa had sent her back to England after her mother had died and he didn’t seem to know what else to do with his only child. Back then the Dowager Lady Porter was determined to turn her skinny, suntanned and rebellious grandchild into a meek and mild young lady who did as she was told without questioning why. Why on earth Hetta’s father thought a stay under his mother’s roof for Hetta and his grandson would work this time, she had no idea. It was a disaster last time and, after enduring two years of being forever in the wrong, Hetta had been desperate enough to elope with the first man who had asked her to in order to avoid spending one more day under her rigid and forever disapproving grandparent’s roof. This time she had a bright and rather rebellious seven-year-old son with her as well and felt no more inclination for polite society than she had last time she had to live with the Dowager Lady Porter. Sir Hadrian Porter had made the arrangement behind Hetta’s back, though, leaving her no chance to refuse and stay on the other side of the Channel while he was in England. He didn’t even tell her about his plans to keep her out of the way this time until France was fading from view and it was too late for her to refuse to cooperate with them. If only he hadn’t been so devious about it, she and Toby could have found refuge from the relentless heat of midsummer on the Normandy coast and let the polite world pass them by, again. But her father had other ideas and Hetta was very suspicious about them now she was actually in England and the pall of drizzle, stilted manners and her dread of being forced into an empty society marriage was on her once more. How she cursed the promise her father had wrung out of her that she would agree to be sent somewhere safe with her son whenever Sir Hadrian thought they could be in danger from one of the secret villains he pursued for his country. This time he had invoked the promise to get her to agree to go somewhere she did not want to be even more than usual. She ground her teeth at the memory of making such a blasted promise when she had finally managed to track her father down after her husband, Brandon Champion, had died and her son was a mere babe in arms. With all the failed romance and blighted hope behind her, Hetta was desperate for the old life she’d lived with her wandering parents until her mother died and had been so desperate to escape England she’d rashly made the promise Papa demanded of her as a condition of her staying with him at all. He had held her to it ever since. Of course, Toby was a wondrous gift from those wretched years and he made every minute of it seem worthwhile. But even though Hetta felt horror at the very idea of being sent back to England, her father knew she would never break her promise to him. Her word was her bond as surely as any gentleman’s and she knew Papa’s trade was a dangerous one, but she was growing very weary of being bent to his will when he chose. It was time to settle into a life of her own making somewhere, she decided, and with a sidelong look at Toby she knew it must still revolve around his needs. He was old enough for school now and she would have to settle for this dull and rainy land at least in term time. He would probably be his grandfather’s heir one day, if Sir Hadrian didn’t make an April and December marriage and beget a direct heir, so Toby would have to learn to be an English gentleman whether either of them liked it or not. To do that he had to go to school here and she would have to live here as well, at least for most of the year. The prospect didn’t please her, but neither did the idea of leaving her son at school and travelling the world without him. Somehow or another this trip to England had to be the start of a new life for both of them. Anyway, never mind all that now. Brought back to the present moment, Hetta refused to let Magnus Haile’s hurtful words make her lose control of her words for the first time since Toby was born. If that was the sort of gentlemen she was likely to meet here she wished herself in France more than ever. Never mind the sea. She would brave it again right now to avoid ever having to meet him again. Probably. ‘Mama, he said he’d smack me himself if he ever heard of me pulling another stunt like that,’ Toby told her as he ran towards her as if sensing her fury with the stranger might outdo her anger with him if he worked at it hard enough. ‘Good. If you truly ran under a horse’s hooves as he said you did then you should be beaten to make sure you never do it again,’ she said briskly and gave him a hard stare to say And stop right there if you’re thinking of denying it. She knew her son far too well not to know when he was lying. However furious Magnus Haile made her with his last contemptuous look, she was still not going to fall for any of her son’s clever tricks. ‘I saw a puppy,’ Toby said sulkily, as if of course that explained why he’d darted across a road just as a high-nosed aristocrat was cantering down it. ‘Well, it won’t be the last one you see in England, so you had best get used to the sight if you want me to think you deserve a dog of your own one day.’ ‘I want one now,’ Toby insisted. ‘I wanted an angel boy for a son and a house in France where we could stay all summer without a care in the world, but instead I got you and the next place we need to be on your grandpapa’s list. Life is hard, my son.’ ‘Why can’t we have a dog?’ ‘Because a dog needs a home and we move around so much the poor beast would never know if it was coming or going.’ ‘Then we should stop moving around and make a home for it.’ ‘You would be bored within a week, Toby, and I would end up looking after the animal. Now that’s enough of the whole subject, unless you would like me to spank you instead?’ ‘No,’ Toby said, eyeing her warily. ‘Then accept the fact your hen-witted conduct makes it less likely I will agree to what you want instead of the other way about and stop trying to look like a waif. I am a wonderfully kind and patient mother and, luckily for you, there is far too much for me to do right now to see that you get your just deserts. We must find our carriage and get to London so Grandpapa can start work. I doubt even you will be bored for long in such a great bustling place as London, although I would quite like you to be right now, so you should spare me a few moments to repent your stupidity in diving under a moving horse when you are nearly eight years of age and quite old enough to know better. You are supposed to be bright, are you not?’ ‘What good is one of Grandpapa’s mysteries without a dog to help us track down the criminal?’ her son muttered disgustedly and carefully ignored her question, as if intelligence had nothing to do with his longing for a pet. Hetta silently gave him full marks for determination, although her headache wished he would accept defeat and be a good, quiet boy for once. Other women did seem blessed with adoring little angels for offspring, though, and sometimes they made her son seem a little devil in comparison. And how boring such perfectly behaved little cherubs must be to live with, her inner rebel whispered. She wished it would be quiet and go away while she got on with her headache and a nice cup of tea in a peaceful and preferably darkened room, but that was never going to happen, was it? No, now she must find Papa and get him and her son to London, then hope for a rest when they got there. ‘Where has your grandpapa got off to now?’ she asked, smoothing Toby’s wildly curling mop like the doting mother he certainly didn’t want her to be. She chuckled when he shrugged her off and made a wry face. ‘Find him for me and I might try to forget you put ten years on my life with your latest duel with death, my son, but first promise me never to do anything so stupid again.’ ‘I promise,’ he muttered with a fine show of reluctance, so she wouldn’t think it was too easy. ‘The man scared me when he shouted, but I suppose he was right,’ he admitted at last. Progress indeed, Hetta decided as Toby scampered off to do as he was bid for once and she organised the transfer of their luggage to the inn where a fast carriage would be waiting to whisk them up to London. At last Sir Hadrian emerged from a ship’s chandler’s shop with a neatly wrapped package in his hands and Toby at his heels like a well-trained sheepdog. Sir Hadrian Porter looked vaguely about him as if he might have forgotten something, but he wasn’t quite sure what it was. His smile when he saw his daughter was genuine, but Hetta did wonder for a moment if he was even capable of the sort of love she had longed for so badly when her mama died and he sent her back to his own mother like an unwanted parcel. Perhaps it was time she made an independent life for herself and Toby? But even though she had loved so many of the places they’d visited over the last seven years, none of them felt quite like home. She sighed at the drizzle now soaking determinedly through her cloak and put it aside as a problem for another day—this one had quite enough trouble in it to be going on with. Chapter Three (#uc7aa7933-3b6a-5347-a715-6d4c29ac0686) If there was a lovely cool room with fresh sheets and a kindly breeze fluttering through it to be had in London, Hetta certainly hadn’t found it, she decided wearily, as the shabby old carriage rumbled along for a few steps, then ground to a halt again. She was being pushed from pillar to post in this confounded country yet again and the headache she’d come ashore with in Dover was still plaguing her three days on. Two days ago, her grandmother had declared she could not and would not endure her great-grandson’s presence in her usually quiet and stately home in Grosvenor Square a moment longer. Henrietta must send the ungovernable brat to school straight away, even if most of them were closed for the summer, or take him away. So Hetta had gone to crumbling old Carrowe House to ask her father for advice on finding suitable lodgings, and the new Earl of Carrowe’s sister, Lady Aline Haile, insisted they stay there while she found somewhere. Then Toby managed to find a way up on to the roofs of the decayed old mansion and Lord Carrowe had been so furious with him they’d had to leave that house as well, so here they were, back on the road again. The traffic was stubbornly blocked on the way to their next temporary lodging for the night. Most businessmen still in London now summer had finally arrived seemed to be fleeing the city for the villages around it to spend time with their family. She promised herself she would find somewhere cool and clean and suitable for a longer stay as soon as she had her breath back and got a decent night’s sleep. She could use the few days Lord Carrowe had offered them at his mother’s nearly restored house to regroup and decide what to do next. ‘I’m glad we had to leave Carrowe House, Mama. It was boring there when Lady Aline left for Worthing. It would be so much better if she stayed with us.’ ‘Not for her,’ Hetta said as she wiped beads of perspiration from her forehead and wished she was enjoying a summer by the seaside as well as her new friend—at least there was one Haile she would like to meet again. ‘Lady Aline’s mama and twin sisters are in Worthing for the summer and who would not prefer to be by the sea on a day like this?’ she said with a gesture at the shouting, overheated drivers and unnerved horses outside the small windows of the ramshackle hackney. ‘Lord Carrowe is very stuffy. I don’t see how I could have harmed his roof when it was already full of holes.’ ‘You could have gone through one of them or fallen off altogether, or been snatched up by one of your grandfather’s foes while you wandered around such a half-empty and insecure place heedless of any danger. I try not to be forever scolding and picking at you, but really, Toby—must you do everything you should not simply because someone forbade it?’ Toby eyed his mama and seemed to consider the question seriously. ‘Probably,’ he admitted at last. ‘How else can I find out why I’m not supposed to do it?’ ‘Ask. Get a rational explanation and listen for once, because right now I have trouble believing you have any brains and never mind being clever.’ ‘Lord Carrowe didn’t give me any reasons at all, let alone a rational one,’ Toby pointed out with his usual ruthless logic and carefully ignored her slight. He was right. The gentleman had lost his impressive Haile temper and ordered them to his mother’s house in Hampstead for the night so he could wash his hands of them with a clear conscience. There was something to be said for being the daughter of Sir Hadrian Porter, the King’s discreet and coolly efficient roving agent, when even an earl didn’t dare risk his wrath and put his daughter and grandson out on the street. It was her father’s job to keep his country’s diplomats and spies safe when the usual threats and dangers they faced became too acute to ignore. Lord Carrowe didn’t know the full extent of her father’s powers, but he knew enough to be careful, Hetta recalled with a frown. She shivered as she remembered the wary and brooding feel of poor, half-ruinous old Carrowe House during the day and the creaks and moans of the crumbling old mansion during the night, not much chance of her sleeping for long amid all the Gothic brooding and unease of an old house where murder stole in and out without anybody knowing how. ‘Hmm, perhaps you’re right,’ she admitted, ‘but now I have the impossible task of finding somewhere for us to stay where you won’t cause chaos before we hardly have our feet over the threshold, my son. You are seven and three-quarters, Toby, but at this rate you won’t live to see eight and I am tired of all these accidents you keep falling into.’ ‘The rat wasn’t an accident,’ Toby muttered mutinously. ‘I know,’ she said dourly. ‘And you didn’t want to stay at the Dowager Lady Porter’s London residence either, Mama,’ he pointed out slyly, imitating her grandmother’s stiff and disapproving butler’s hushed reverence for the place. ‘No, but I would rather we had somewhere to go to next before it became impossible to stay another moment, and I would prefer it if my grandmother was still speaking to me as well.’ ‘Why? You didn’t like her either and we would never have met Lady Aline if we stayed at stuffy Porter House with Great-Grandmama frowning at us all the time and looking down her nose at you. I’m glad I found the poor rat in a trap and let it go in her horrid drawing room when she had her horrible friends to tea. She did nothing but blame you for everything from the moment we got inside her stuffy old house and I never want to see her again. You can’t live there when I go to school, Mama. You would hate it and so would I.’ Hetta met her son’s bright blue eyes and managed a wobbly smile to reassure him she didn’t hold that particular piece of mischief against him and a sceptical lift of her brows to let him know she could fight her own battles, thank you. Toby was offering her something nobody had since her own mother died: unconditional love and real concern for her feelings. ‘Her visitors will spread the story of your misdeeds and I don’t want the world to think you a monster, love, even if you are one.’ Toby seemed immensely cheered by the notion and Hetta didn’t have the heart to berate him for his sins again. She blinked hard at the unfamiliarity of being protected by her own son. Nobody had truly worried about how she felt about the world since her mother died. Her father made sure she was physically safe, then went on with his own life. And her late husband had been a prime example of April when he’d wooed her, December when they’d wed. She winced at the memory of Bran shouting in his cups that she’d ruined his life. At least she’d still had enough spirit left to argue he’d reneged on every promise he made to love and cherish her for life if she would elope with him. Even now she flinched at how desolate she’d felt when he staggered to his feet and glared down at her, challenging her with his superior height and strength to blame him for using his looks and charm to bend a lonely schoolroom miss to his will, even if he had done exactly that. He didn’t meet her eyes and carry on with the lie, but belched and slammed out of the house with a lewd comment about finding a woman with some go in her instead of a useless little milksop who still cried for her mother. At least she had faced him down. It hurt to know he’d wed her because he thought her father and grandmother would relent and advance his career once their marriage was a fait accompli. She was seventeen to his two and twenty when they’d wed over the anvil. Her father had never laid a hand on her in anger, but he seemed to think she was too grown up to need him to tell her he loved her, even when he sent her back to England after his wife died. Hetta was sure he had loved her mother in a vague this woman fills the gap in my life so comfortably I must love her sort of fashion, and he probably loved his daughter as well, but he had no idea of how to comfort a grieving child when he was feeling bereft himself. He was so relieved to leave her with his mother and bury himself in work again that he’d ignored all her letters pleading to be allowed to join him on his travels and escape the constant criticism and disapproval of her grandmother and the stiff-necked governess hired especially to teach her to be the perfect English gentlewoman so she could attract a stern English gentleman one day. No wonder she had spent most of her time at Porter House fantasising about being adored by a dashing hero out of a Gothic romance. Lieutenant Champion had looked like the answer to a maiden’s prayer, but appearances were deceptive. She had been even more lonely in the neat little cottage in Lyme Regis Brandon had bought to store his wife in. Once he realised none of his plans would bear fruit he tried to live almost as freely as if he’d never met and married her. Bran would come home, slake the lust of however many weeks he had spent at sea without a woman on her, then walk away whistling to find the knowing and flirtatious sort of women he preferred to his wife. Never again, she swore to herself as she shook off those uncomfortable memories. Never again would a man woo her, then walk away as if she was nothing. If not for his Admiralty masters’ raised eyebrows Bran would have left her in Lyme that day and never gone back and she would not have Toby. She would not undo a day of her failed romance if it meant losing her son, so she had best forget the past and live for now. The fleeting picture of a man as mighty and passionate as Magnus Haile desperate to share life with her was folly and she consigned that to outer darkness as well. Now the next tangle of wagons and porters and furious drivers snarled the traffic to a halt again and it seemed even more stifling inside the tired old hackney than ever. At least Toby was chastened enough by his latest misadventure to only fidget and sigh and peer out of the small window to listen to colourful arguments being traded all around them. Hetta dreaded to think what gems were taking root in his busy head, but she would have to trust him to save the worst for his peers at the school she must find him before summer’s end. He knew enough insults in several languages to keep a pack of scrubby boys happy, but at least their wandering life had given him a wider view than he would have got in Lyme or at Porter House with her rigidly formidable grandmother. Her son had a robust sense of his own worth. Now she owed him stability, she decided as she eyed the sweaty chaos outside the window and sighed. She would have to endure this benighted country while her son grew up and there was no point having the blue-devils about it. Since before he was even born Toby had been her counterweight against the failings and sadness of the past, and hope for the future, but she had to be careful not to smother him. The fact that most schools were closed for the summer let her put the idea of him going to one at least as a weekly boarder to one side, so she could at least get her breath back and give herself more time to look around for a place that wouldn’t stifle his character and try to turn him into the crushed pattern card of a gentleman. Not that it seemed likely, but the attempt to force him into such a mould would end in disaster for him and his mother, so she would need to be very careful about this school and the place she would eventually settle—nearby, but not too near. The new Earl of Carrowe’s odd behaviour seemed a good way to distract herself from thoughts of her imminent parting from her son, so she let him steal her anxiety about the future, as the ancient vehicle finally trundled on. Shouting at Toby to come down off his less than noble roof had almost shocked her son into the tumble Lord Carrowe had claimed he was trying to prevent. The panic in the dark eyes the Earl shared and yet didn’t quite share with his younger brother Magnus had looked odd as well. Understandable for her to feel her life was hanging in the balance while Toby teetered between safety and a crashing fall, but why had his lordship been so concerned about a boy he didn’t even like? He’d continued to stare at the chimney Toby was clinging to even after he had let go and taken the lesser risk of a jump into the ancient attic below rather than a fall to unkempt grounds far too many feet below. At the time she had been so concerned for her son that his lordship’s odd behaviour had seemed irrelevant, but now she thought about it the more the man had seemed almost as hard-pressed to keep his feelings in check as his younger brother had under very different circumstances at Dover. Hetta sighed and concluded she was making mountains out of molehills. Toby had been exploring where he wasn’t supposed to, so the Earl could hardly pat him on the head and claim it didn’t matter. Her fault for weakening and agreeing to stay there instead of facing a tramp around London looking for suitable accommodation. She should have recalled Haile was the Earl of Carrowe’s family name and steered clear of the rest of them the moment she heard Magnus’s name at Dover. Still, she recalled all the heart and intelligence under the misery in Magnus Haile’s dark brown eyes as he’d watched his little girl sail away and decided he had hopes, dreams and a passionate nature his elder brother must have sidestepped at birth. She marvelled Lady Drace was so obsessed with the current Earl of Carrowe that she refused to see how much less of a man he was than his younger brother. Perhaps ten years ago the eldest Haile brother had been as dashing and deliciously dangerous as the Honourable Magnus was now, but Hetta couldn’t imagine it. There was coldness in the Earl’s gaze his brother would never share, and if she was lucky enough to have a lover as potent and passionate as Magnus Haile, she hoped she wouldn’t be as big a fool as Lady Drace was by whistling him down the wind. No, close off that notion right now, Hetta Champion. One failed love affair in a lifetime is enough. She refused to be second-best ever again and Magnus Haile wouldn’t even notice if she fell at his feet and begged him to take her instead of his precious Lady Drace. A week after he had to watch Delphi and his daughter sail away Magnus was halfway down a second bottle of cognac and still the memory refused to fade. He’d felt so hollowed out and despairing that day he had been trying to fill the void ever since. ‘Oh, no, what the devil are you doing here?’ he asked when he heard rapid footsteps outside, then looked up and only just managed to silence a groan of protest. Maybe he was asleep and dreaming. He blinked and the apparition still didn’t go away. The boy glared back as though Magnus was somehow at fault. Well, he was drunk and noxious in his mother’s newly decorated dining parlour. He needed a hot bath and someone to shave him, then push him into clean clothes, since he was too cast-away to do it himself. He didn’t think he deserved a hallucination as ill timed as this one, though. ‘Mama! Mama! It’s the man from Dover and he’s got horns,’ the boy’s treble voice yelled and managed to make Magnus jump as if he’d been struck by lightning. He put up a shaky hand to feel his hair standing up in two peaks where he’d run his fingers through it and smoothed them down as best he could. He still didn’t see why the boy had to trumpet his sorry state to his mother when she was standing right behind him and could see for herself. ‘Oh, the deuce, please get him out of here,’ Magnus begged, putting his hand over his eyes and hoping the boy would disappear if he pretended not to be here hard enough. He thought he’d done quite well not cursing his imagination for dreaming the boy up, but next time he looked the brat from Dover was glaring at him as if he was the interloper here. Even thinking about the day they’d met made Magnus’s stomach give a heavy roll of nausea in protest. He only just managed to force it back and go on glaring at them owlishly. The sight of him glowering must have made the bespectacled lady hesitate in the doorway, far more daunted by the rough welcome than her appalling offspring. For a moment Magnus felt guilty about making it so plain he didn’t want them here, but she shouldn’t march into strange houses if she wasn’t prepared for a rebuff. Before he could repent his harshness and recall his manners, she raised her chin, braced her shoulders and sailed further into the room as if she had every right to be here as well. He was almost ashamed of himself and could see the effort it cost her to brazen this out, but he was three-parts drunk and looking forward to adding the last quarter as soon as she and her son left, preferably as fast as their feet would carry them. She was eyeing the chaos Magnus had wrought during his day of drunken misery instead of obliging him, though. A tidal wave of sickness ground again in Magnus’s belly as dread of Delphi and his little girl being unmasked by this woman who knew too much joined all that brandy and very little food, if any, he recalled hazily. This woman knew things he didn’t want anyone knowing and here she was expecting... Exactly what was she expecting of him? ‘We did knock, but nobody came to see who was at the door, so I dare say they thought it was you being loud and ridiculous,’ she explained frostily. She looked tired and pale even to Magnus’s jaundiced gaze and shame got a little stronger under the dread she might have tracked him down somehow and come to extort a price for her promised silence. ‘And why the deuce were you knocking on my mother’s door?’ he barked harshly. ‘Lord Carrowe told us to stay here until I find more suitable lodgings.’ Magnus felt more at sea than ever as he wondered why Gresley had sent this woman, of all the women he could find and send to the Dowager Countess of Carrowe’s Hampstead home, in their mother’s absence. She didn’t look like a member of the muslin company and the boy couldn’t have an ounce of Haile blood in him if she turned out to be another of Gres’s guilty secrets he was shuffling about the country now she was on these shores, in the hope his wife never found out about her. ‘Who the devil are you, then?’ ‘Mrs Champion.’ ‘And who the deuce is she?’ he said, still uneasy with the notion Gres could have had anything to do with her or her son. ‘Sir Hadrian Porter’s daughter,’ she said flatly, as if that was all he needed to know about her. The name sounded vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t dredge the man out of his memory to go with it. So, who was Sir Hadrian Porter and where was he while his daughter was running wild about the countryside with her brat knocking on doors where she wasn’t wanted? ‘So now I know?’ ‘My father was called back to England to track down your father’s murderer,’ she told him wearily, as if she was quite accustomed to being unwelcome among Sir Hadrian’s victims, or should that be his clients? ‘Lord Carrowe sent me here when he decided Carrowe House was unsafe for adventurous boys. We had nowhere else to stay at the drop of a hat,’ she explained reluctantly, and even in this state he thought she was probably skimming over a chapter of disasters. Another wave of guilt washed over Magnus as he looked round his mother’s dining parlour and wondered if it looked any better than Gresley’s ancestral wreck in town at the moment, thanks to him. Not much of a welcome to be had here nor any comfort. Wouldn’t his mother be ashamed if she could see him? He heard himself groan as if he’d been kicked by his uneasy conscience, then glowered at them for hearing it and seeing him like this. Though, if they thought him objectionable enough they might go away and leave him to find oblivion in a bottle at last. He eyed them with disfavour and wondered if he ought to go on with his potations to underline how little he wanted them here. ‘I beg your pardon for interrupting, Mr Haile,’ Mrs Champion said. ‘But the front door is open and this one was ajar.’ She carried on as if that was a good enough excuse for rushing in here even when his glare argued it wasn’t. ‘Your son would march into hell to argue with the devil uninvited, if you ask me,’ he said harshly. Unfair, but he might as well try to get drunk in a busy London street and he didn’t feel like being fair. ‘You are the devil,’ the boy argued, chin out and a fine glare of his own. For a moment Magnus almost smiled and might have managed to laugh at himself if those words hadn’t hit home so hard. It was devilish of him to speak to a child like this. He had sworn never to be like his father at a very early age, but he caught the glower and meanness of the man in his own frown and gruff unfairness now and felt his sins grind in his gut all over again. A cold sweat broke out on his forehead and he hated the man he’d become with a bitter passion close to despair. He heard an unearthly noise, more like an animal in pain than a human being, and realised he had made it as the awful fear he was about to disgrace himself washed over him like icy water. Desperate to prevent the final disgrace of having them see him spew, he lurched to his feet and shot past them at a speed he didn’t know he had in him. A brief image of the woman and her boy staring as he fumbled blindly past them haunted him as he ran for the back of the house, blessing the fact the door was open as he dashed past the kitchen. Lingering cooking smells didn’t help, but he was vaguely aware of Cook and Peg, the middle-aged maid who stayed with his family through thick and thin, staring after him open-mouthed, but they at least must have been expecting it after the amount of time he’d spent in the darkened dining room trying to drown his sorrows. At last he was outside and in the kitchen garden, gulping in clean air, and dared to hope he had managed to overcome his ills. Wrong, an evil little voice in the back of his mind chortled triumphantly. Heat and icy chills washed over him in waves and he managed to stumble as far as the stable midden before casting up his accounts as the smell hastened wave after wave of wretched sickness, so he doubled over in self-inflicted misery and gave in. No effort of will could halt the cramping nausea now and he hardly had time to moan his woes into thin air between bouts as brandy scorched out of him a lot faster than he had put it in. Magnus had no idea how much time passed before he finally dared hope he was done. A wonder if there was anything left in his belly to retch on now and he dearly wanted to believe it was empty. The cold of his own sweat on his skin belied the glorious summer day all around him and he had a horrible suspicion he might be about to faint. The threat beat in his ears as the world seemed to come and go with an angry buzz every time he moved his head, so it would be foolish to straighten up just yet. Not that, he silently pleaded with the gloating voice of his conscience. Don’t let me be found lying on a muck heap by a nosy boy. Determined to save a small scrap of dignity from the wreck of fashionable and almost Honourable Magnus Haile, he straightened up slowly and carefully and waited for the world to stop spinning. ‘Come on, Mr Magnus. Let’s get you under the pump.’ He heard Jem’s resigned voice behind him and he realised Peg or Cook must have run to fetch the lad so he could deal with Magnus while they welcomed their unexpected visitors. ‘I am a damned fool, Jem,’ he managed to mutter as he lurched towards the pump in the far corner of the yard and felt better as the smell of manure faded a little. ‘There’s a lot of it about,’ Jem said wisely, and Magnus felt like a child with a patient and resigned adult telling him boys will be boys. Then even thinking was impossible as ice-cold water rushed over his still-reeling head and shoulders and soaked him to the skin. Feeling as miserable as sin, he made himself stay under the relentless flow while Jem pumped and he shivered. At last he called a halt and shook like a great, misguided and miserable dog. Standing still for a long moment, he signalled Jem to pump again and made himself gulp icy handfuls of water to test his still-complaining belly. Shaking water from his sodden hair, he dared stand back and strip off his soaking shirt. ‘Finished?’ Jem asked. ‘Aye.’ ‘Best have this, then,’ Jem said and first presented him with a towel, then exchanged it for a pristine shirt Magnus pulled over his head, at the same time wishing he’d never even heard of brandy as the thunder of it rang in his temples. Why had he thought getting drunk would solve anything? ‘Cook said you was to drink this,’ Jem said glumly and passed over a concoction that smelt of peppermint and something a lot less tempting, so Magnus gulped it down as fast as he could and grimaced as the taste clashed with everything else he’d put into his belly lately. ‘I will do now, go and help Peg,’ Magnus managed to say gruffly, and Jem took one last look at him, then nodded as if he agreed the worst was over, before leaving him. Magnus felt his stomach give one of those ominous rolls as it objected to whatever the drink was before it settled and felt surprisingly better. At least he had the taste of peppermint in his mouth now instead of the sour aftermath of his sins. He stood still for long moments like a chastened dog bathed after a really good roll in something awful. After a while he dared hope he might be himself again in a week or two and the sturdy wall at the end of the kitchen garden looked just the right height to support a failed gentleman in a fragile state of health. Somehow, he made his way there without toppling over, but he could not face going back inside to apologise to the woman from Dover and her unruly boy quite yet. It would make sense to build this wall higher and block out the wind, he reasoned to distract himself from the thunder of his own pulse in his ears at the thought of her and all he had to be sorry about this time. Peaches and grapes and apricots could shelter under its sunny warmth and fruit almost as happily as they would in their Mediterranean home, but why would anyone wall out such a view even for those natural riches? And where did grapes and apricots and peaches come from originally if not those warm and sunny lands? Magnus leaned on solid stones under a benign July sun and gazed across wide acres of blessed space as the Heath spread out before him. Out there was real life—the glory of nature he ought to have clung to as his world fell apart, instead of trying to lose himself in a brandy bottle. He listened to the quiet buzz of bees happily occupied among the bean flowers and mused on the origin of garden plants in an attempt to forget his troubles. His shirt was still clinging to him like a lover and his head was thumping as if Thor’s hammer was busy inside it, but the world was wondrous again and he needed to remember how small a part of it he was. Soft footsteps sounded from behind him and he heard the rustle of feminine skirts. His brief moment of peace was over. ‘Can’t I be spared even one indignity?’ he pleaded with nobody in particular under his breath. He knew she heard when she met his aching eyes with a hint of hurt behind the eyeglasses he suddenly suspected were there to keep him and the rest of the world at a distance. Regret nagged at him as he caught sight of her flinching and a feral nag of attraction to this sharp, yet somehow vulnerable, female dug into his conscience like a hot whip. He groaned in audible protest that she took the wrong way from the look of that poker back and her best antidote’s glare. She should know what a contradiction all the pretend hardness was against the soft fullness of her mouth and a figure not even the most determined attack of dowdiness he had ever come across could quite disguise. A true rake would be so intrigued by the contrast between the faulty disguise and a warm, desirable woman underneath it and try all the tricks in his armoury to seduce her. Luckily he was an uneasy seducer and in no state to undo any sane female with his mythical charms right now. Chapter Four (#uc7aa7933-3b6a-5347-a715-6d4c29ac0686) ‘I am sorry to disturb you, Mr Haile, but your manservant said you were feeling a little better and I wanted to talk to you before we go,’ Hetta said with more sympathy than he deserved after calling Toby a little devil and greeting her with such revulsion she almost turned tail and ran, until weariness and common sense took over and reminded her what a challenge it would be to find somewhere else to go this late in the day. But then he’d stared at Toby with what looked suspiciously like a sheen of tears in his bloodshot dark eyes before dashing outside to be disgracefully ill, as if her son was a painful reminder his own child was gone. Her heart went out to him even as she fought an impulse to run after the hired carriage she could hear trundling down the drive and forget she had set eyes on him again. She noted the sunlight played on his wild, wet black curls as they dried in complete disarray, but highlighted his starkly handsome features more acutely than ever as he squinted against the light with a flinch that gave his headache away. Even after seeing how drunk he was when she got here she still had to fight a ridiculous flutter of enthusiasm for the dratted man. He could have walked straight out of one of Lord Byron’s epics and he wasn’t to know she had peeped through the window on the half-landing and glimpsed him bare-chested and rather magnificent as he reeled back from his dousing under the pump. Bran had been five years older than her, but he’d lacked the sleekly muscled power of this mature man even when he died. And Magnus Haile managed to look deliciously masculine even when shivering like a drowned rat in the July sun. With sunlight merciless on his ashen face now and those darkly shadowed eyes showing how little he had slept since she saw him at Dover, a dangerous sort of pity softened her heart. Despite his dissolute ways and low opinion of her and Toby, he was clearly a deeply lonely and bereft man and at least he had a heart to be broken by a lover’s desertion. Her late husband would have shrugged and found the next willing female if she had left him. Heart or no, Magnus Haile had no feelings for her, though, so she ordered herself not to be more of a fool than she could help and waited for him to argue. ‘Why?’ he obliged, producing one of his best frowns especially for her. ‘My son and I need a safe place to lay our heads for the night. The jarvey has demanded his fee and driven back to town. I could not persuade him to take us to the nearest respectable inn. He said his horse wanted its stable and he did as well, so I need your advice on where I can find a respectable and clean place to stay for the night. Oh, and I also wanted to remind you I never gossip.’ ‘Everyone gossips in the right circumstances, Mrs Campion.’ ‘Champion,’ she told him impatiently. Getting her surname wrong wasn’t an insult even if it felt like one. ‘And I don’t.’ ‘What did you say you are doing here, Mrs Champion?’ he demanded sharply as a man could when he was suffering so many self-inflicted ailments. She should wait until he was completely sober, but she really must find lodgings for the night and, once she had, they need not meet again. Even now she would leave him to his misery and his favourite glower, but he was ghost pale under the tan even she knew a dandy would condemn as bucolic. Maybe the rumours she claimed not to listen to were right about the Honourable Magnus Haile after all, then. Perhaps he had been trying to turn over a new leaf since his father was murdered and wanted to live a more useful life. She reviewed Mr Haile’s solitary drinking spree and decided, no, he was quite happy with the old one. ‘My father came to England to find your father’s murderer,’ she told him. ‘You said that before as well,’ he said impatiently. ‘Drunken gentlemen rarely recall what was said five minutes ago,’ she said and cursed her own stupidity for trying to reason with him. ‘I suppose you are so used to being one you have developed an obliging memory.’ ‘If you say so, but if your father is Fat George’s Bloodhound he will need an exceptionally hard head to keep up with his master,’ he said with the suggestion of a sneer in his voice. She could imagine him backing it up with a quizzing glass in his heyday as a dandy. ‘Like his royal patron Sir Hadrian Porter doesn’t seem to take much interest in his immediate family, does he? Even I know he doesn’t spend more time in his home country than he can help, yet he is supposed to catch the killer who has confounded our efforts and half of Bow Street as well? Forgive me if I doubt it, ma’am.’ ‘Papa has solved all the mysteries His Majesty’s Government set him so far, I will have you know. He does important work, so why should he worry about things I am capable of sorting out myself? We go on very well together, Mr Haile, and, if I were you, I would be glad he is here to unmask your father’s murderer and he always refuses to listen to rumours. Because of my father your family has a chance of finding true justice instead of some cobbled-together tale made up to satisfy his masters.’ ‘I hated my father, so no wonder the gossips whisper I must have killed him, despite my valet’s evidence I was even more drunk that night than I managed to be today.’ ‘Your mother and sisters have my sympathy, then. Two drunks in the family must have been almost too much to endure,’ Hetta said bluntly, but he had insulted her and her family first, so why not? ‘I am not a habitual drunkard and I would never hurt them if I was,’ he protested, and deep down she felt guilty for implying it. She knew he would never use his strength to coerce or dominate a woman. If ever a man was tempted to do so he must have been when Lady Drace walked away with his child. Now, instead of one of Lord Byron’s devil heroes, he looked like a weary knight who had defended too many lost causes for the good of his soul. Fanciful nonsense, she told herself, and it came of being in the wrong place at the wrong time to witness his darkest moments, but what on earth was she going to do with herself and Toby now? The idea of trying to find a hired coach to heaven knew where at short notice nearly overwhelmed even her sturdy determination never to allow a man to order her life again. ‘Why are you here instead of in Worthing?’ she asked impulsively, because it was easier to think about him than worry about where to spend the night. ‘Guess,’ he said wearily. ‘This summer by the sea is supposed to be a much-needed tonic for them and it won’t be if they spend it worrying about me.’ ‘Honestly, men,’ she said disgustedly. ‘Do you really believe your mother and sisters won’t worry if they can’t actually see you drunk and miserable? If you truly believe we women live on fluffy clouds of ignorance about what men get up to behind our backs, I am sorry for you. I took you for less of a fool than most of your sex, Mr Haile, but apparently I was wrong.’ ‘Obviously, and why would you give me so much credit when my idiocy was writ large the day we met, Mrs Champion?’ he barked as if he meant to drive her away and never mind if she had to sleep under a hedge tonight. ‘Your sister Lady Aline has such a high opinion of you I must have fallen into the error of thinking she knew you better, despite all evidence to the contrary. She seems such a rational being and really should know better.’ ‘No doubt she will see through me in time, but what I can’t understand is why my elder brother sent you here and your father let him. Your husband must be deranged to let you and his son visit England in his father-in-law’s so-called care.’ ‘My husband is dead,’ she said, indignant he thought she ought to have one to take charge of her when Bran was as irresponsible as a cuckoo whenever he was far away from his command and the sea. ‘I am sorry for your loss,’ he said so soberly she almost believed him. ‘As I am for yours,’ she replied, and if he chose to think she meant the death of his father he was welcome. ‘I don’t deserve pity,’ he said harshly. ‘Yet your dilemma was made by two people,’ she said with a brutal frankness she refused to regret even when he glared at her, then shook his head as if silently admitting she might be right. ‘Most of them are,’ he said with a half-weary, half-wolfish smile that made her heart skitter, then race on in panic. No, she refused to be a fool for a handsome face ever again. She had been one for Bran for a heady, brief time, and now this man was baiting her she almost wanted to flirt back. Luckily, he waved a hand as if he was being more unworthy than usual in using such tactics to deflect her. ‘I cannot deem my child a mistake, then shrug and carry on with life untroubled, Mrs Champion, even if her mother wants me to,’ he added bleakly. Her heartbeat sped up again as she put herself in Lady Drace’s elegant shoes for a moment and decided she would say yes to almost anything if he asked her to in the right way. ‘Why would you?’ she managed to argue even so. ‘You heard Lady Drace, Mrs Champion. I have been dismissed from their lives and I hope you and Champion did a better job of being parents, for all your sakes.’ ‘He died before Toby was born,’ she said, frowning at the prickly memory of how little Bran wanted the baby in her belly during his last shore leave. ‘That explains a lot,’ Magnus Haile said as if it might well. ‘And do you always use rudeness to deflect personal questions, Mr Haile?’ ‘Only when frigid politeness fails me, Mrs Champion. None of which explains why my elder brother sent you here when our mother is from home and the place half-finished,’ he persisted. He waved an impatient hand at the lovely little Queen Anne manor house behind them. It was obviously still undergoing improvement from piles of sand and gravel and a dusting of sawdust, and Hetta wondered if he had sent the builders and carpenters away for the day, so he could get drunk in peace. The strength and elegance of his long-fingered hand caught her feral imagination and painted her a picture of him sensually rendering parts of her helpless with longing and melted to the core. She was so shocked she glared at him to make up for the shameful image and thought she saw a reluctant echo of her own fascination in his dark brown eyes for a moment before they were sternly guarded again. This will not do, barked her inner puritan, so she grasped at the reason she was here to divert them both. ‘Lord Carrowe caught Toby climbing the roof at Carrowe House, despite all the nailed-up doors and windows and his dire warnings not to go anywhere near the worst parts of the poor old place. His lordship suggested I get Toby out of London before he killed himself in such a deathtrap and it was kind of him to suggest we came here for a few days, given Toby’s mischief. I would have had to stop him bothering the builders here, I suppose, but we cannot stay now, so at least that’s one less thing to worry about—and that reminds me. I must find somewhere to stay tonight before the inns are full, so I shall bid you good day, Mr Haile.’ ‘Wait, there’s no need to quit the place. I am in the way of the builders and upholsterers anyway and of my mother’s cook and housekeeper, who insisted on staying to be sure the builders do not make a mess. My mother hired servants for the summer season because she wanted those two to enjoy an easy summer after years of devoted and often unpaid work, so looking after me is hardly a rest.’ ‘They don’t seem unduly worried, rather the opposite, in fact.’ ‘Peg was our nursemaid and playmate when I was young and we still had a few servants willing to stay in such a decaying old wreck as long as my mother managed to scrape together their wages. By the time my youngest sisters came along, Peg and Cook and a very ancient butler were the only staff left. Peg is more a member of the family than a housekeeper and Cook is too happy with her new kitchen to complain about anything much.’ He smiled and looked as if his memory had taken him back to more innocent days, before he recalled Hetta was a stranger in his home and snapped back to the present. ‘This business with the old Earl must have made my elder brother think harder about his responsibilities if he got you out of the old dust heap before your son did himself permanent damage,’ he said as if it almost explained her presence. ‘And I ought to leave this place, not you. There are plenty of low dives where I can stay and you cannot.’ ‘No, finding a new place to stay is hardly a great hardship and we will soon be back on the Continent and back to a proper summer, so it hardly matters where we stay for now.’ ‘Is this an improper one, then?’ he asked with a ghost of rakish innuendo in his naturally husky, fascinatingly deep voice. The sound of him reciting a laundry list would make goosebumps rise on her over-sensitised skin, so his almost-suggestion they misbehave together made her shiver with something very far from cold. ‘No, just a British one,’ she said flatly. ‘Aye, the rain must have found all the holes in the roof and made Carrowe House even more uncomfortable than usual,’ he said as if he had already repented his lighter mood. It was wrong of her to wish he hadn’t changed his mind and his mood, she reminded herself, as she tucked away a fantasy of being locked in his arms until they both forgot the season and everything else on a lazy afternoon in the middle of the sun-sleepy Heath. Magnus had been brought up at Carrowe House with a bullying father and a mother wilfully mired in scandal by her own husband, so it was silly of Hetta to feel sorry she had never had a real home to go to. Her father’s country house had been let out ever since he inherited it in order to cover the costs of his mother’s grand London home. And Magnus Haile’s own home was so tumbledown and faded she wouldn’t wish it on her worst enemy. She kept her suspicion that someone was slipping in and out of Carrowe House to herself. It was only a prickly feeling of being watched from shadowy corners and once fancying she heard a soft footstep where feet should not be able to go. She had no proof and if she mentioned it the impulsive idiot could gallop off there to lie in wait for a murderer. Hetta shivered and was more glad than ever to be out of the poor old house, despite Magnus Haile’s drunken revulsion at the sight of her. ‘Yes, I suppose it did feel damp and a little depressing in the rain yesterday, but I doubt you need a stranger to confirm its shortcomings,’ she said almost politely. ‘Gresley says most of it was habitable when he was a boy, but nobody should have to endure the place now if they don’t really need to.’ ‘Although you wish he had sent us somewhere else?’ she asked, and as he said nothing she knew she was right. ‘I suppose you will be glad when Carrowe House is torn down,’ she said to fill an uncomfortable silence. ‘Aye, and Gres will have to pay someone to do it and that will delay matters. There isn’t a shred of gold leaf worth more than a farthing to salvage after my father stripped it bare to fund his excesses, so at least my brother and your father should be safe from thieves there since there’s precious little left to plunder.’ ‘Couldn’t your brother stop your father doing so? He was the heir.’ ‘You never met our father,’ he said with a gesture of that fine-boned hand to distract her again. ‘Although Gres was wild in his youth and closer to our father than the rest of us back then. Shortly before he married he seemed to wake up to the folly of it all, though...’ He paused and they avoided one another’s eyes as Lady Drace’s bitter parting words reminded them of a possible reason why. ‘As the heir he was the only one who could rescue the rest of the family fortunes from the same ruin. Our father would have picked everything clean and mortgaged the land as well and I have to admire Gres for stopping him, but I’m not so sure about the way he did it now.’ Hetta could hardly agree out loud, but she managed to school her features to her best imitation of a marble statue in spectacles. She would never have agreed to stay under the new Lord Carrowe’s roof if Lady Aline Haile had not made it virtually impossible to refuse until something more suitable came along. The Earl’s sister was back for a fleeting visit when Hetta had called to ask her father’s advice on suitable lodgings when the affair of the rat made her and Toby homeless at short notice. She had been away from England so much of her life she had no idea which areas were respectable and which only looked so by daylight. At the time it seemed sensible to seek his help, even if her father would rather not be distracted when he was hunting a murderer of aristocrats because the King thought the idea might be catching and he must be next on any revolutionary’s list. Sir Hadrian and the Earl of Carrowe had been out when Lady Aline insisted Hetta and Toby stay at Carrowe House rather than take the first place on offer. Lord Carrowe had tried to pretend they were welcome when he returned, but Hetta never quite managed to believe him. This morning Lady Aline left for Worthing and Toby grew bored in the small range of rooms the family had kept watertight and nailed up against the ruin everywhere else. Of course, she should never have fallen asleep in an almost comfortable chair after a disturbed night, but it could have been worse. The dream she had been having about sneering ghosts and stalking murderers could have come true. Instead she woke up to hear Lord Carrowe shouting and ran out of the room just in time to watch her son take that fall into the attics as their reluctant host stood looking horrified and stared up at the chimney where Toby had been clinging. To give him his due, his lordship soon awoke from his horrified stupor and ran upstairs while she was still trying to make her legs stop wobbling long enough to follow. Before she could stop shaking like a leaf Lord Carrowe had come downstairs as fast as he could go whilst towing her son behind him with every last iota of the fine Haile temper he must share with his brother flashing from his dark eyes and a scowl even Magnus Haile could not outdo. What a relief to find the worst damage her son had suffered was to his pride—oh, and a few scratches and bruises he richly deserved and yet another set of his clothes waiting to be patched and mended when she had time. Lord Carrowe let her know he had only kept his hands off her boy because Toby fell through his lordship’s rotten roof on to his lordly rotten floor and landed on his merely genteel backside. Even in a fine Haile temper Lord Carrowe could hardly give the boy a beating for going where he was expressly told not to go when he was already bruised and a little bit chastened. Once she had got over her reluctant host’s impressive show of temper and made sure her son wasn’t really harmed, Hetta had been secretly delighted to leave Carrowe House. If not for her father’s vague order to go where she was bid and keep the boy out of trouble, she would have resumed her hunt for another lodging straight away. That wretched promise again. Why the deuce had Papa invoked it simply to get them out of his way as fast as possible? She frowned at the thought there was something real and a little bit anxious behind her father’s irritation today. She was almost glad Magnus was staring at the wall as if he wished he was alone, so he couldn’t read her thoughts. However hard she tried to tell herself he and his family mysteries were nothing to do with her, she felt involved. Somehow, she couldn’t simply put the Haile family to the back of her mind and carry on with her life as if she had never met any of them. And poor old Carrowe House had felt so oppressive and strange she could easily believe a man was murdered there. It felt as if the tremors of such a violent crime lingered there like the aftershocks of a great earthquake. Fanciful to even think such a thing and she blamed her fascination with Gothic romances she picked up during long, lonely nights sitting up with Toby as a baby as he grew teeth or was fretful or simply his usual ravenous self. A series of shocking events happening at a distance to timid, yet recklessly curious, heroines seemed an ideal diversion when the rest of the world was fast asleep and hired lodgings could feel soulless by candlelight. Except last night, as she lay listening for the next creak or moan the old house made as if it tried to settle on its ancient foundations and couldn’t get comfortable, her secret vice had not seemed such a good idea. Even the latest chilling tale she had picked up could not divert her from the fancy she was living inside one and could be silently, watchfully observed from places that looked perfectly innocent in daylight. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/elizabeth-beacon/a-rake-to-the-rescue/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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