New York Times bestselling author Sabrina Jeffries features an irresistible family in a series to savor, as the grown children of a thrice-married dowager duchess piece together the stories of their fathers–while pursuing passions of their own . . .
Named as one of the upcoming year’s most anticipated romance by Buzz Books Romance!
Lady Gwyn Drake has long protected her family’s reputation by hiding an imprudent affair from her youth. But when her former suitor appears at Armitage Hall, manhandling the heiress and threatening to go public with her secrets, it’s Gwyn who needs protecting. Her twin brother, Thorn, hires Joshua Wolfe, the estate’s gamekeeper, to keep her safe in London during her debut. As a war hero, Joshua feels obligated to fulfill the assignment he has accepted. But as a man, it’s torment to be so very close to the beauty he’s fought to ignore . . .
With handsome Joshua monitoring her every move, Gwyn would prefer to forget both the past and the parade of money-seeking bachelors at her coming out. But Joshua is unmoved by her attempts at flirtation, and the threat of blackmail still hangs over her. With danger closing in, Gwyn must decide which is the greater risk: deflecting a scoundrel’s attempts to sabotage her—or revealing her whole heart to the rugged bodyguard she can’t resist . . .
Armitage Hall, Lincolnshire
Lady Gwyn Drake paced the ornamental bridge like a tigress in a crate. What did it mean when one’s blackmailer was late? It certainly didn’t bode well for the negotiations she hoped to initiate.
Perhaps she was at the wrong spot.
She drew the man’s note out of her pocket and read it again:
To Lady Gwyn,
Tomorrow at 4 p.m., bring fifty guineas to me on the Armitage estate near the bridge that crosses the river if you wish to guarantee my silence. Otherwise, I will feel free to tell such Secrets about you and me as will ruin your good name. You know that I can.
Captain L. Malet
Not the wrong spot, then. This was the only bridge over a river on the estate. Did he realize that the house occupied by the estate’s handsome gamekeeper, Major Joshua Wolfe, was a short distance away? Or did he just not care?
She scowled. When she’d last seen “L.” Malet, ten years before, he’d been only an ensign in the army and she’d been only twenty. But if he was expecting to meet that same wide-eyed, foolish girl, he was in for a surprise.
Balling up the note, she tossed it into the river. Then she slid her hand into her muff to touch the pocket pistol she’d lifted from the closet of her twin brother, Thorn, otherwise known as the Duke of Thornstock. Though the pistol wasn’t loaded—she had no clue how to fire a gun, much less load one—the feel of the carved ivory stock beneath her fingers was reassuring. It should look impressive enough to hold off a coward like Lionel Malet.
She heard the crunch of wheels on gravel just in time to see him descend from a phaeton. He probably owed money on it, but you wouldn’t know it to look at him sauntering down the hill to the bridge without a care in the world.
Hard to believe she’d risked everything years ago for a pair of blue eyes, a smug smile, and a head of raven curls. Even in a mere ensign’s uniform, Lionel had looked incredibly appealing to a woman surrounded by her stepfather’s aging friends—or her teasing brother and half brothers.
Today, dressed even more impressively in gentleman’s attire, he lacked the power to move her. How could she not have seen the truth back then, that he was debonair and slick, the kind of man who slithered his way into a naïve woman’s life, then poisoned her and her future with one bite? If she’d just recognized . . .
It didn’t matter. She recognized his true character now. So as he approached, looking utterly sure of himself, she drew out Thorn’s pistol and aimed it at him. “That’s close enough, sir.”
He laughed at her, blast him. “You mean to shoot me, do you?”
“If I have to.”
“But you don’t.” He cocked his head rakishly. “You merely need to pay my price. Fifty guineas is a reasonable amount for my silence, wouldn’t you say?”
Her hands shook. She hoped he couldn’t see that. “I’m surprised you ask so little, considering what you’d get if you married me.”
“Are you still interested in that?” When she merely glared at him, he shrugged. “I didn’t think so. What a pity. A marriage would suit both of us.”
“I’m sure it would help your finances, but in what possible way could it benefit me?” she asked coldly.
He let his insolent gaze trail down her. “You’re by no means as youthful as you were at twenty. It won’t be long before you’re considered an out-and-out spinster, and then no one will marry you.”
“Good. That suits me perfectly.” Oddly enough, it was the truth. “I’m afraid you have soured me on men, sir.” That, too, was the truth. Or part of it anyway. “Nor am I some green girl to fall for your machinations again.”
“So why do you need the pistol?”
“My brother has been fearful that you might try to abduct me, as you tried to do with Kitty Nickman at Christmastide on this very estate.”
Mention of his failed plan seemed to spark his temper. “I considered it. But I know Thornstock. If I kidnapped you, he would cut you off, and then we’d both be poor. Indeed, he threatened as much years ago.”
The memory of that betrayal settled into her chest like a bad cold. That it still had the power to wound infuriated her. “He was trying to protect me, as any good brother would.” Still, it rankled that her twin had read Lionel’s character so well when she’d been oblivious to it. “And judging from your attempt to blackmail me, he was wise to do so.”
“This is not an attempt.” He took a step forward. “I mean to get my money.”
She steadied the pistol on him. “I don’t have it.”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “Then I suppose I’ll be telling the world about us, starting with your brother.”
A sick fear gripped her at the thought of Thorn—or anyone at all—hearing the truth. “I promise I’ll get you your funds once the family goes to London for the Season. That’s only a few days away. Surely you can wait that long.”
“Ah, but why should I?”
“Because if I ask Thorn for fifty guineas in the City, he’ll think nothing of it, given the ease with which I could spend that on jewelry or clothes. But here in the country, where that would take some doing, he’ll find the request suspicious and demand to know why I really want it. There’s no plausible lie I can give him. And if I answer him truthfully, he might just murder you.”
Lionel chuckled. “You mean you haven’t told your arse of a brother what we did?”
“Of course not. And I know you didn’t tell him either. Because you wouldn’t be here trying to blackmail me if you had. Thorn would have killed you years ago.”
“True.” The amusement faded from his cruelly handsome face, leaving only the cold glitter in his eyes. Now that was the Lionel Malet she knew and hated. “Fortunately,” he went on, “I am better prepared to fight your brother these days. Not for nothing have I trained as a soldier. And Thornstock has undoubtedly grown soft with age.”
“If you believe that, you haven’t had many dealings with him recently.”
“In any case,” he said, brushing off her comment, “I have no intention of waiting for my money. If you can’t pay me today, I’ll just have to take something else by way of payment.”
He stalked across the bridge toward her, and though she backed up swiftly, he was on her before she could get very far. Only when he snatched the gun from her did she realize it wasn’t her he was after.
“You can’t have that!” she cried, her heart sinking. “That’s Thorn’s! It’s not mine to give!” It was Thorn’s most recent purchase, and he was inordinately fond of it. Her brother would never forgive her if she let it be taken.
“I don’t care.” Lionel examined the pistol, then snorted as he realized it wasn’t loaded. “This will fetch a pretty penny in London while I wait for the rest of my money.” He shoved the gun in his greatcoat pocket. “Oh, and the price for my silence has just gone up. It’s a hundred guineas now.”
When he turned to walk away, she grabbed his arm, trying to prevent him from escaping with Thorn’s gun. “I’ll get you your dratted money, but you can’t have the pistol!”
She’d managed to wrestle it halfway out of his pocket before he gripped her upper arms and shook her. “I will have whatever I want of you, make no mistake. So if you wish me to keep your secrets—”
A shot sounded over their heads. Startled, she and Lionel both looked toward where it had come from, up on the rise behind her where the dower house sat.
Its tenant, Major Wolfe, did something to the barrel of his own gun, then aimed it at Lionel’s heart. Honestly, she’d never been happier to see the gruff former soldier in all her life.
“Step away from her ladyship,” Major Wolfe called out as he made his way down to the bridge, somehow keeping his weapon trained on Lionel while maneuvering the uneven surfaces of the riverbank path with his cane.
Lionel sneered at him. “Or what? A mere gamekeeper wouldn’t dare to shoot a viscount’s son.”
Gwyn frowned. “How did you know he’s a game— Oh. Right.” She’d forgotten that Major Wolfe had helped thwart Lionel during that abduction at Christmas. Not that it mattered. “The major is a duke’s grandson and a crack shot besides. Not only would he dare to shoot you, he wouldn’t miss.”
Major Wolfe’s gaze flicked to her. He seemed surprised by the remark, though she couldn’t imagine why. She’d flirted often enough to make it clear what she thought of him. Then again, she’d ended that after getting more than one surly response. No man was going to make a fool of her. She had let Lionel do that, and it had ended disastrously.
The major steadied his aim on Lionel. “You’re standing on my land, trying to assault a member of the family I work for. So you’d best release the lady, or I swear I’ll make you regret it. Not a magistrate in the county would blame me for shooting an armed man on my own property.”
Lionel started. “I’m not armed.” When Major Wolfe nodded to Lionel’s coat pocket, where the ivory handle of Thorn’s pistol still hung out, Lionel paled. “The gun isn’t loaded,” he said, though he had the good sense to release her.
“Not to mention that it doesn’t belong to you.” She met Major Wolfe’s gaze. “It’s Thorn’s. Mr. Malet took it from me.”
Major Wolfe arched one dark brow at her. “And what were you proposing to do with an unloaded pistol?”
“Never mind that. I’m merely saying I want it back.”
“Ah.” Major Wolfe gestured to Lionel with his firearm. “You heard the lady. Give it to her.”
Lionel’s eyes narrowed, and Gwyn’s heart nearly failed her. What if he chose to reveal her secret to Major Wolfe? It would be just the sort of thing he’d do to revenge himself on her. And she would die of mortification, which was saying something, because there was little that mortified her these days.
She edged closer to Lionel. “Hand it over.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “I promise you’ll have your money once I reach London. But not if you say one word to him about our past together.”
Lionel glanced from Major Wolfe’s weapon to her ashen face. “I’ll hold you to your promise,” he murmured, then gave her Thorn’s pistol and backed to the end of the bridge and onto the path that led to where his phaeton was waiting.
Major Wolfe, who’d been watching their exchange intently, fortunately didn’t ask what they’d talked about. She was fairly certain he couldn’t have heard them over the roar of the river below, but she still shook from the knowledge of how narrow an escape she’d made.
And would continue to make as long as Lionel was about.
“I wish you’d killed him,” she muttered as Major Wolfe approached her, keeping his eye on the retreating Lionel.
Once Lionel climbed into his phaeton and drove away, Major Wolfe relaxed his stance. Then he shoved the large, odd-looking pistol into the capacious pocket of the ragged greatcoat she’d always seen him wear when working on the estate.
“I’ll accompany you back to the hall.” When she opened her mouth to protest, he added, “Just in case Malet is lurking nearby, waiting to get a chance at you again.”
Oh. That was certainly a good point. “Thank you for coming to my rescue.”
He nodded, taciturn as always, and gestured for her to go ahead of him. They crossed the bridge and climbed the hill for some time in silence, with her casting him furtive glances every few steps. Lord, but the man was handsome—unfashionably so, with his long black hair tied in a queue by a simple leather cord—but handsome nonetheless.
Some would say his jaw was too jutting and his lips too thin to be called attractive, and that might be true. Personally, she found the combination arresting. But it was his hazel eyes that distinguished him from every other man she’d ever met, even Heywood, whose eyes were also hazel. The major’s were the color of dark honey, a golden color so unusual that she could stare at them all day.
Not that she’d had many chances. When his sister Bea had been on the estate, Gwyn had seen him more often, but once Bea had married, he’d seemed determined not to associate with anyone who lived in Armitage Hall.
That didn’t keep the maids from whispering about him—how he looked, what he said, what he did. One had even stated that she would marry Major Wolfe in a heartbeat, lame leg or no. Yet he seemed to have no idea of his appeal to the female sex, or surely he’d have taken a wife by now. According to his sister, he was already thirty-one.
“What did Malet want?” Major Wolfe finally asked.
She was glad she had a plausible explanation ready for him. “To make me go with him. That’s why I brandished the pistol.”
Major Wolfe searched her face. “Since when do you carry a pistol with you on Armitage land?”
“Since Mr. Malet told Heywood that he meant to kidnap me in revenge for something Heywood and his friend did abroad,” she snapped.
“Malet made that threat four months ago,” Major Wolfe pointed out. “It’s odd that he waited until now to attempt it.”
“Perhaps he was waiting until our guard was down,” she said dryly. “Or perhaps he had tried courting an heiress who wouldn’t know all about his wicked intentions, and she didn’t prove viable, so he fell back on his old ways.”
“And you just happened to be roaming the estate with your brother’s unloaded pistol when Malet came looking to kidnap you.”
She knew perfectly well that Major Wolfe wasn’t credulous enough to believe that. Then an idea struck her. “Thorn heard that Mr. Malet was nosing around in Sanforth, so he warned me to keep an eye out.”
“Your brother is presently in residence at the hall?”
“Yes. And he gave me his pocket pistol for protection.”
“A valuable, unloaded pistol that he didn’t teach you how to load or shoot? That seems reckless of him, and your twin has never struck me as the reckless sort.”
“You’d be surprised,” she muttered. A pox on Major Wolfe and his military mind. This was not going well.
“What’s more, you and Malet seemed to know each other, at least well enough to be exchanging confidences.”
“Confidences! Don’t be silly. Whatever you think you saw isn’t what you’re implying.”
“Hmm. If you say so.” Major Wolfe moved along the path through the woods at a surprisingly good pace given his damaged leg. “Why is your brother here anyway? Doesn’t he have an estate of his own to run?”
“Of course, but he decided to accompany me and Mama to London for the Season. I am to be presented at court and have my debut in society, you know.”
“I’m well aware,” he said tensely.
What was that supposed to mean?
Oh, he must be thinking of his sister Bea, and the fact that she was being presented as well, but as Grey’s new wife, the Duchess of Greycourt.
“Fortunately,” he went on, “today’s incident will impress upon Thornstock the need to keep a closer eye on you and your suitors in London.”
The statement was so typically male and arrogant that she was about to blister his ears over his presumption when the greater implications of his words hit her. “Surely you don’t mean to tell Thorn about this.”
Major Wolfe lifted a brow. “Of course I do. He needs to know so he can make arrangements to accompany you everywhere.”
She stepped in front of him to block his path. “But you can’t! I don’t want Thorn mucking about in my personal affairs. I had enough of that growing up with him in Berlin.”
In the darkness of the forest, the major’s eyes looked as brown as oak and just as hard. “You cannot expect me to keep silent on this matter.”
“Why not? It’s none of your concern. I’m a grown woman. I can handle the likes of Mr. Malet in good society, where I will never be alone.”
“Never? Even in the Armitage town house? Or going out onto a balcony at a ball for a breath of air? Or—”
“I will be careful everywhere, I assure you. And anyway, there won’t be nearly as many situations in which he could effect a kidnapping without drawing attention to himself.”
And there’d be even less if the major told Thorn about Lionel and her twin decided to dog her heels wherever she went. Then she’d never get to meet with Lionel privately to give him his money.
Nor could she tell Thorn about the blackmail. He would either kill Lionel outright and end up in gaol, or challenge Lionel to a duel and end up in gaol. No, Thorn could never know what Lionel was up to.
“Please, Major Wolfe, you must not tell my brother—”
“Your brother may heed your pleas, Lady Gwyn, but I know better than to do so. Either you tell him in my presence, or I will tell him myself. But one way or the other, he is going to hear what Malet attempted. That’s the end of it.”
Good Lord, he was like a dog with a bone. And now, thanks to him, her ability to pay Lionel his money and put an end to this madness had just become ten times harder.