He wants to bring her to justice, but the secrets she holds may be the end of him.
Shattered by the death of his cousin, Gideon Wells, the Earl of Flint, is determined to prove his cousin’s widow is the one responsible. When Amelia Montgomery finally returns to town on the arm of her new lover, Gideon vows to bring her to justice. But getting close to her sparks a hunger that he can’t ignore. As he begins to uncover the truth about Amelia, he encounters an evil more sinister than he ever imagined. Can he destroy the threat or will he suffer the same fate as his cousin?
The blood spread out like a ruby halo. It was a startling contrast to the white marble floor. It darkened the pink of her skirts, the white lace fringe soaked in a red so dark it was almost black.
We should never have come home.
“This is all my fault,” Amelia whispered. “What have I done?” She pulled her husband’s broken body closer until he was cradled in her arms.
She hadn’t moved from that spot at the foot of the stairs since returning from her round of afternoon calls. That was when she had found him—a nightmare in full daylight.
It was night now. Dusk had come and gone without her awareness. That was as it should be. Her world would be dark now. Her memory of other locations was faulty. Only this spot was solid earth, this and the grand staircase in front of her—the one she had so admired when they first let this house to be near Viscount Worthing.
How many stairs were there? She hadn’t counted them before. How could she not know how many stairs were in her home? And did everybody have this much blood? It covered the stones all around her in an endless pool. She was an island in a sea of blood.
She and Martin should have stayed on the continent, in Italy where they had both been happy. She should have never let him convince her to come home. England was a cursed land, its society full of hypocrites and liars. It had taken her family and her home. And now it had taken Martin, her only solace in a life bereft of love and affection.
She had nothing now.
All around her, chaos reigned, but she barely took note of it. Servants ran to and fro, shouting, some weeping openly. Or was that her? She couldn’t tell. Her face was wet and her throat ached, so perhaps she was also crying. The only sensation in her numb body was in her hands, the ones clutching Martin’s shirt.
Amelia ignored the footman trying to make her let go of his body. Shrugging him off, she tightened her grip on her husband’s thin shoulders.
If she let go, they would take him away and he’d be gone forever.
So, she held on. She was still cradling Martin to her when the great shadow passed over them. Blinking, she looked up into the darkness over the stairs and saw the glowing yellow eyes staring back at her. The next second, they were gone. The darkness was empty.
A year later
Gideon Wells, Earl of Flint, schooled his expression until it had been wiped clean of all emotion. His stomach roiled, but there was no trace of the anger or disdain he felt knowing Amelia Montgomery had re-entered society, her year of mourning at an end.
It was an event he’d been waiting months for, ever since he had been recalled from the continent.
Gideon craned his neck, searching for Amelia’s dark curls, but the ballroom was crowded and he hadn’t seen her in years. He wasn’t sure what she looked like now. The last time he’d seen her she had been little more than a child.
“Lord Worthing is with her,” Clarke whispered.
In a flash, Gideon’s composure was gone. He fisted his large hands and inhaled sharply.
“Steady, man,” Clarke said, raising a fine red eyebrow before casually looking away with a placid expression.
“I’m fine,” Gideon lied, nearly choking on the words.
He was as good as he was going to get knowing the woman who’d murdered his cousin was in this ballroom on the arm of her lover—the bastard who no doubt had helped her kill Martin.
His heart ached at the injustice. His cousin had only been three and twenty when he died. Gideon remembered Martin as a slight and sweetly spoken young man.
Though he had visited the Montgomery estate in Northumberland as a youth, their difference in age had kept them at arm’s length until Martin had gotten older. They had grown close when his younger cousin had attended the Abingdon school, near Gideon’s family home in Oxfordshire. Martin had often come for weekend visits. When he had, he’d spoken warmly of Amelia, his father’s ward. Gideon had liked her on principal. He’d been pleased Martin had a friend at home. Sir Clarence, his uncle, was a dour and cold man, overly concerned with his position in society, the kind who looked down on the those beneath him.
Once upon a time that had included Gideon himself. Sir Clarence hadn’t approved of the match his younger sister Anne had made. But things were different now. A series of accidental and premature deaths on his father’s side of the family had resulted in Gideon inheriting an earldom along with several prize estates. Sir Clarence had been forced to eat his words about his father. In fact, the last time Gideon had seen him, Sir Clarence had even hinted he would like to visit Tarryhall, the Earl of Flint’s family seat in Derbyshire.
Martin had never seen his new estate. He had married Amelia when Gideon was still abroad in France. By the time Gideon returned, his cousin had already departed for the continent with his bride—something Sir Clarence still spoke of with bitterness.
Gideon thought the couple’s return would settle some of his uncle’s ruffled feathers, but the old man was still bitter. Clarence complained they had settled too far from home, choosing to divide their time between London and Kent.
He knew why now of course. Viscount Worthing’s principal estate was in Kent. Somehow, Amelia had manipulated Martin into settling a stone’s throw from her lover’s home. And no doubt his amiable cousin had seen nothing wrong with indulging her.
Now he was dead.
His friend shifted his weight, lifting a glass to hide his lips. “She’s there in that cluster straight ahead, in the cerulean gown. Worthing is the tall blond man on her right.”
Gideon narrowed his eyes, turning to behold his quarry.
The sight of her hit him like a physical blow. He shouldn’t have been surprised—a peacock like Worthing wouldn’t be involved with a homely woman. Nevertheless, he hadn’t expected this singularly beautiful creature.
Though passably pretty as a child, Amelia had grown into a diamond of the first water, one who easily eclipsed every other woman in the room. Amelia’s complexion was pure, with rose-tinted cheeks. Her lips were a darker shade of pink, lush and full. A dark crown of jet curls gleamed in the candlelight. He was too far to see the color of her eyes, but her lashes were a thick fringe against her ivory and rose skin.
Though her birth was low, Amelia Montgomery was captivating, a true siren whose looks and grace could lead a man to his doom. That fact, combined with her immense fortune, and he no longer wondered at the interest society had taken in the young widow.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Clarke muttered in an aside. “I know you feel you need a purpose now that your title prevents you from helping the war office, but is this how you want to spend your time? Chasing after a notorious widow? She’s been barred from the best houses. It’s only Lady Anderson’s interest in salacious gossip that won them entry here tonight.”
Gideon scowled at his friend. Clarke was exaggerating, and he knew it. A few houses might be snubbing Worthing and his “friend,” but society loved a scandal. Having the season’s most disreputable couple attend one’s ball or soirée would be a feather in the cap of most of the ton’s hostesses.
“I won’t let this go. Martin was an innocent, too trusting. He deserved better than this.”
Clarke frowned. “Sending a young woman to the gallows is not the same thing as disarming an enemy agent or intercepting a spy’s intelligence. I know you are restless now, but I don’t believe this will satisfy your craving to serve your country.”
Gideon took exception at the implication that he was trading one mission for another. “This has nothing to do with being recalled home,” he muttered, his eyes following Amelia’s movement across the room. “My new lands and tenants are my chief concern, which is why I spent the last few months buried with estate agents and stewards, untangling the messes my predecessors have made. But I also have a duty to my family—what’s left of it. I will have justice for my cousin.”
Clarke sighed. “I just don’t think this is what Phineus had in mind when he asked you to come home.”
Gideon snorted. “Phineus didn’t ask. It was an order—one I couldn’t disregard.”
He’d tried to reason with his superior at the war office, but Phineus had been adamant. The Earl of Flint’s holdings were in chaos. Contradictory efforts at improving the lands, combined with the sheer number of times the title had changed hands in so few years, had rendered the old but valuable estates unproductive. Despite how much Phineus valued Gideon’s efforts on behalf of the crown, he had recalled him home to care for his unexpected inheritance. His reasoning had been that a strong economy at home was just as important as one spy’s efforts abroad, even when the country was on the brink of war.
Deep down, Gideon knew the decision had been the right one, but…Clarke may have been right about the reality of coming home. Gideon now had wealth and position, but also responsibilities he had never expected. Though his work for the war office had played a small but pivotal role in ensuring the safety of the nation, being a landholder meant people depended on him far more directly. His obligation had been transformed from a strong but formless concept of duty to king and country to a tangible demand in the form of his tenants. His burden now had a face, or rather, many faces.
In some ways, it was true he was chafing under the restraints of his new position, but proving Martin was murdered wasn’t a distraction. He’d worked himself ragged the last few months to get his properties and other holdings back on sound financial footing. Though he hadn’t had time to implement all the agricultural improvements he wanted, he’d at least ensured his tenants wouldn’t starve this winter.
Now that Amelia was out in society, he had a much better chance of getting close to her than when she was cloistered in the requisite year of mourning society demanded of widows.
And I’m not the only one who wants to get closer.
A fop named Binton was bending over Amelia’s hand, presumably asking for a dance. With a charming tilt of her head, she agreed, pairing with him for a Scottish reel while Lord Worthing observed with approving, but watchful, eyes.
Viscount Worthing’s view of the dance floor must have been obscured momentarily by some other guests. Without appearing too obvious, he stepped a few paces to one side, drawing the woman he was speaking to with him. From his new vantage point, he could see Binton and his partner once more, never breaking off his conversation.
“He rarely allows her out of his sight,” Clarke observed.
“So it would seem,” Gideon muttered in agreement.
“It may be difficult to speak to her alone under these circumstances.”
Gideon narrowed his eyes at the dancing couple, dismissing Worthing entirely. “Her lover won’t be a problem.”
“And just how to you plan on speaking to her alone?”
“The same way I got the French officer’s wife to follow me into the garden that night in Rouen,” he said, signaling for a waiter to bring him some wine.
Clarke smiled sardonically and appeared ready to say something else, but Gideon forestalled him with a heavy glance. He recognized the last strains of the reel. Moving into position, he got ready to intercept Amelia at end of dance before Worthing could reclaim her.
His plan was to sweep her into the next dance without missing a beat. It was a maneuver that had worked very well with the French officer’s wife, but, in this case, the musicians didn’t oblige him by launching into the next song.
The music ceased just as Amelia saw him. Her lips parted in surprise as she recognized him. Gideon smiled and inclined his head in her direction. Her answering smile was hesitant. She stepped toward him, pausing as Worthing hurried toward her.
But Gideon reached her first. With a warm welcoming expression, he took her hand and bowed.
“Hello, cousin,” he said in a soft tone, turning her slightly so their backs were to Worthing.
“Gideon,” she breathed.
Her eyes, a deep blue, caught the candlelight and seemed to shine brighter as she looked up at him. If he didn’t know any better, he would have guessed she was pleased to see him. Something told him that wasn’t going to last.
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