LORD OF DARKNESS
Grand Central Publishing
WHEN STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT
DESIRE IS THE ULTIMATE DANGER
An Online Prologue: Letters Between Megs and Godric
Godric St. John stared into Lord Griffin Reading’s implacable face and felt an unaccustomed emotion: relief. So this was how it ended. Not with a desperate fight through the streets or a fatal plunge from a rooftop or even by the traitorous hand of a servant greedy for money. No, all it needed was one too-clever man. He supposed he ought to fight—better, surely, than the hangman’s noose, but frankly he hadn’t the heart.
He’d been all but dead since the death of Clara anyway.
So Godric merely removed his long-nosed mask and waited for Reading to drag him out of his home and to prison.
Oddly, though, the other man seemed in no particular hurry. He didn’t even rise from where he sat rather comfortably in Godric’s favorite chair. “I confess had anyone asked me to guess the identity of the infamous Ghost of St. Giles, I’d never have guessed it was you, Mr. St. John.”
Godric dropped into a chair—they were in his study, after all, and if Reading was going to be long-winded, he might as well be comfortable. “How did you discover my secret?”
Reading waved aside his query. “I think you’d be more interested in what I plan to do with the information.”
“I suppose you’ll have me brought before a judge, sentenced to death, and hanged.” Godric shrugged and pulled off his gloves.
For a moment Reading stared as if that wasn’t the reaction he’d expected. Then he shook his head and leaned forward. “I had another plan.”
“Do you?” Godric unbuckled his sword belt and laid it gently aside, mindful of his weapons. They were fine swords, and he’d always taken great care of them. The proximity of death didn’t change that.
“Yes.” Reading was beginning to sound a trifle put out. “I want you to marry my sister.”
That caught his attention. Godric stared, trying to remember Reading’s family. He was the younger brother of the Marquess of Mandeville, and they had a sister, a blond imperious woman, whose name he’d forgot, but she was already married to Lord Huff, but there was another girl, younger…
Lady Margaret. He remembered now. The girl he’d caught in his arms as she’d fainted at a ball. They’d never spoken, had never been introduced, in fact, but she’d been warm. Warm and so very vulnerable.
“Why would you want me to marry your sister?” he asked abruptly.
“She’s with child.” Reading’s jaw tightened as if he expected a blow.
Godric merely raised an eyebrow.
Reading sighed, finally laying aside the mask almost as if he were setting down a sword. “The father is no longer available.”
“And yet, that’s not my problem,” Godric pointed out softly.
“It is now.” Reading’s eyes narrowed grimly. “Marry her and I’ll leave your study and we’ll never speak of this again.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then I will drag you to the courts and to Tyburn gallows itself if I have to,” Reading growled. “Don’t think I won’t.”
Godric felt his upper lip curl at the aggression in the other man, his fists tightening without forethought. Clara had been his one true love. After her death almost a year ago, he’d never meant to take another woman as wife. To be blackmailed into such an intimacy by an ass like Reading was an insult so grave he ought to be already at the other man’s throat.
Save for the memory of that warm, vulnerable girl.
He took a deep breath. “Why me?”
Reading smiled tightly. “You’re wealthy and your family goes back to the Conqueror. The match would be a good one even if there weren’t dire circumstances.”
“You’ve described a fair number of London’s elite,” Godric said drily.
“Oh, don’t be so modest. Not that many can trace their family so far.”
“No, and they aren’t masked men wanted for murder either.” Godric watched his unwelcome guest. “I ask again: why me?”
Oddly, the other man glanced away first. “I know St. Giles and I know what you do there. You hunt thieves. You save widows from rape. You prevent murder.” Reading looked back at him, and his eyes were hot and desperate and not quite pleading. “You protect. I want that for my sister. I want that for Megs. You might not love her or even care for her particularly, but you’ll protect her.”
“Swear,” Godric whispered.
Godric pinned the other man with his gaze. He knew how the love of a good woman could bind a man. “Swear on the life of your wife that you’ll never tell another soul of my secret if I do this.”
Reading swallowed. “I swear on my Hero’s life that I’ll not tell another soul that you are the Ghost of St. Giles if you marry my sister, Margaret.”
Godric held out his hand.
Reading took it, squeezing hard. It wasn’t a handshake so much as a battle of wills, neither looking away nor dropping the other’s hand.
Godric smiled faintly. Reading’s grip might be strong, but his own was just as powerful. He wondered for a moment if the other man had any idea what life he’d just bargained his sister into.
But it was too late now. “Very well.”
# # #
One year later…
Godric sat alone in his dark and dreary dining room in Saint House, his London residence, and stared down at his plate. Meals at Saint House were something of a hit or miss affair, which was why he usually chose to abandon his home for the far more palatable fare at a nearby inn. Today however in a spark of optimism—or perhaps merely in a state of blissful absentmindedness—Godric had chosen to take his supper at home.
He poked morosely at the mound of gray material on his plate as the door opened and his butler entered with a bottle of wine. Should’ve gone to the Bird in Hand. “What is this, Moulder?”
Moulder peered at his plate as if noticing it for the first time. “Pigeon pie, sir.”
Godric shot him an incredulous glance. “Surely not.”
Moulder shrugged. “That’s what Cook says.”
Godric sighed and pushed the plate away. “See if Cook has some bread and cheese and one of those apples he brought in the other day.”
“And where is Tilly anyway?” Godric asked irritably. The maid usually served him at supper.
“Puking her guts up in her room, last I saw.” Moulder looked cheered by the thought—there wasn’t much love lost between the butler and the maid, or for that matter between Moulder and Cook. His was not exactly a joyful household.
A house in a perpetual state of mourning never was.
Godric winced. “Ah. Should I send for a doctor?”
Moulder set the bottle of wine down on the table before scratching his ear. “Don’t think a doctor’s needed. She’s eating like a prize hog in between heaving.” He turned toward the dining room door and then stopping suddenly as if remembering something. “Letter for you, sir. Came this afternoon.” Moulder withdrew a rather battered piece of folded paper from his pocket.
Godric took the letter, frowning over the scrawled address. It didn’t look like his stepmother’s handwriting, and aside from various correspondents in matters of philosophy and classical poetry he really didn’t have anyone else that he received missives from.
He cracked the seal and read:
Margaret. Lady Margaret Reading—now St. John. Margaret his wife.
For a moment Godric simply stared at the short letter, remembering the drawn girl nearly staggering from grief at what had to’ve been the saddest wedding in history—theirs.
And that had been before her miscarriage later that same day.
He traced the exuberant swirls of her writing, the scrawl slanted and so large it took nearly the whole page. It was at odds with the memory of the woman he’d married a year ago. She’d looked like a martyr, swaying in front of the vicar as she’d recited her vows. He remembered watching a single curl of dark mahogany hair bobbing against her ear and the strange desire to take it and tuck it back into her coiffure.
Godric blinked and rose from the table, crossing to a small writing desk that had been shoved into a corner. Rummaging in the drawer he found a sheet of paper, a quill, and a small bottle of ink. He held up the bottle and shook it, surprised to find it still held ink.
Then he settled at the dining room table and wrote a reply.
After a minute he corked the ink and set aside the pen. He frowned down at his own neat hand. The letter seemed a little…curt. Perhaps he should include a postscript to the effect that she should write him if she had any needs or wishes he could in any way fulfill. But then she’d had no problem communicating this small request. He was expending too much thought on the matter. In the end he sanded the ink, folded the letter, and sealed it, ready for his franking.
And then Godric St. John went back to his execrable—and lonely—supper.
* * *
“My lady, my lady!”
Lady Margaret St. John was busy scowling at a patch of mint that was merrily running rampant over her garden, but she looked up at the sound of Charlie the bootblack boy’s voice.
Charlie skid to a stop in front of her, waving a letter excitedly. “Mr. St. John wrote back!”
“Goodness, did he?” Megs took the letter and tore it open rather messily, reading swiftly:
Megs turned the letter over, but that was it. Hmm. It seemed her husband was a very concise correspondent.
“What does it say, my lady?” Charlie hopped anxiously from one foot to the other.
“Oughtn’t bother the lady so, Charlie.” Higgins the gardener scowled from where he knelt over the bed doing battle with the rowdy mint.
Charlie stilled mid-hop. “No, Uncle.” He turned wide eyes to Megs. “I’m sorry, my lady.”
“That’s quite all right, Charlie.” Megs noticed that although Higgins’s voice had been gruff, he had his head tilted, waiting for the news just as much as his nephew. She folded the letter carefully. “Mr. St. John says we can take down the grape vine.”
Higgins celebrated the news by grunting, but Charlie ran about the garden yelling, “Huzzah,” and leaping into the air every now and again.
Megs grinned. “You may help your uncle cut down the grapevine, Charlie, whilst I go and send my thanks to Mr. St. John.”
She turned and made her way up the worn gravel path toward the house. Laurelwood had been in the St. John family since the Tudors, and in the year that she’d lived here, mourning the loss of both Roger and their baby, Megs had come to love it. The old brick was mellowed a tan-orange in the late afternoon sunlight, with an old ivy vine scrambling up the western side. She’d had to have the vine cut back about the windows when first she’d come. Apparently Godric hadn’t lived here in years—not since his first wife had taken ill, according to the servants. That explained the state of the gardens as well—wild and shaggy and in desperate need of a loving hand.
Megs made her way through the back hall to a small sunny room on the right. She’d made this her personal sitting room, even though there were far larger rooms at the front of the house. Something about the ancient blue-and-white-tiled fireplace, the one window overlooking the garden, and the cozy jonquil-yellow settee she’d unearthed in the attic made it a refuge of sorts. She hadn’t needed large, extravagant spaces when she’d moved to Laurelwood.
She’d needed comfort.
There was a small, round table by the window with a single chair. Sometimes Megs took tea here, but at the moment her writing desk lay on the table. She sat and opened the case, selecting paper and carefully trimming a pen before beginning her letter.
Fifteen minutes later Megs sighed and set aside her pen. For a moment she stared at the missive, biting her lip. Would he think her a complete widgeon? But she really couldn’t change what she was.
Nodding, she sealed the letter and rang for the butler.
# # #
Godric had a headache pounding gently but relentlessly at his temple when Tilly slouched into his study and deposited a letter on his desk without a word.
He raised his brows, watching the maid go, thinking absently that he really ought to reprimand the girl, before sighing and turning the missive over. The handwriting nearly brought a smile to his face. He opened it at once.
She’d changed her signature, replacing, ‘sincerely’ with ‘affectionately.’ How could she feel affection for a husband who’d only spoken a half dozen sentences to her—and that more than a year ago? She couldn’t, of course. The signature was merely a social nicety, nothing more, and he realized that his headache, which had abated a bit while he read the letter, was now back in full force.
He set aside the letter and drew a fresh sheet of paper from his desk drawer. He’d already dipped his pen into the ink before he realized he hadn’t a clue what to write her back. His days were filled with the mundanities of coffee shop gossip—much of it not fit for a lady’s ears—and scholarly pursuits, and at night…well, at night he was a masked swordsman most of London thought a murderer—and worse. Godric grimaced. The truth was that he’d never been very good at light-hearted pleasantries, and since Clara’s death he’d fallen out of practice entirely.
Perhaps he should ignore the letter and not bother writing the chit a reply.
And if he did would she cease writing him then? Godric shook his head impatiently. What matter to him if his stranger wife no longer wrote him her breathlessly cheerful missives? He did not know the woman. Her correspondence should make no difference to him.
Still, after another moment’s thought he wiped his pen clean of the dried ink and wet it again before setting it to paper.
* * *
“Cook does make the most divine lemon curd tarts,” Sarah St. John sighed, setting down her fork.
Megs and her sister-in-law were just finishing a particularly delicious luncheon in the little dining room at Laurelwood—the larger dining room being quite uninhabitable at the moment due to damp.
“I knew it!” Megs narrowed her eyes in accusation. “You came to live with me purely for Cook.”
“Curses. Found out at last,” Sarah replied contentedly. “Truthfully, I’d put up with you even if you had a foul temper, beat the maids, and ran screaming through the house on Thursdays, just to be able to eat Cook’s bounty.” A small frown knit itself between her brows. “Although I didn’t much like the cold biscuits last week.”
“Well, even the best cooks do have their quirks,” Megs murmured as she pried open the seal on a letter beside her plate.
“Quirks are one thing,” Sarah stated darkly, “cold biscuits for…”
It took Megs a moment to realize that Sarah had stopped talking. She looked up from the letter to see her sister-in-law staring at the letter in her hands suspiciously. “Who is that from?”
Megs couldn’t quite stop the smile that curled her lips. “Your brother.”
“What?” Sarah squawked. “Godric never writes. Give it here.”
“I shan’t,” Megs said loftily. “It’s personal correspondence.”
“I will read it aloud, however,” Megs hastily amended and did just that.
Megs wrinkled her nose, staring at the letter for a moment, before hearing her sister-in-law sigh.
“He never was a very good correspondent,” Sarah said. “Mama used to nearly have the vapors when she got a letter once a year. And I’ve read recipes for rendering lard with more interest than one of his letters. Still”—she straightened abruptly—“it sounds as if that was at least the second missive he’d written you?”
“You must write him back, then.” Sarah jumped up and began rummaging in a side table. “Good Lord, Megs, do you know what this means?”
“Er, no?” Megs asked.
Sarah widened her eyes in exasperation and slapped down a sheet of paper in front of Megs before shoving a quill into her hands. “Communication. That’s what. We might even get Godric to come for Christmas. Mama would die of happiness. Now write.”
So Megs did.
# # #
Godric fingered the heavy paper, wondering if he could feel the exuberant handwriting beneath his fingertips if he ran them across the letter. Megs’s joy for life seemed to spring from the very page, lighting his darkened study, warming his hand.
He let fall the letter and turned to Moulder. “Have you repaired my spare mask yet?”
“Aye, done a day ago,” Moulder grunted as he took the Ghost’s swordbelt from the hidden panel beside the fireplace and handed it to Godric. “Good as new.”
Godric nodded, strapping on the swordbelt.
He saw Moulder glance at Megs’s letter. “Be writing back to your missus, will you, sir?”
“No.” Godric fitted the mask over his face.
Moulder cleared his throat. “I’m sure she’d like a friendly reply.”
“Are you?” Godric’s lips twisted bitterly. “But then I’m not a very friendly correspondent, am I? Not when I do most of my letter writing to men in their eightieth year. Nothing I have to say would interest a girl like Lady Margaret.”
“Leave it, Moulder.”
The manservant snapped his jaw shut and Godric felt a twinge of guilt. Then he pushed the illogical emotion aside and went into the only place he felt comfortable anymore:
* * *
“I don’t know why I’m doing this,” Megs muttered morosely, looking up from the letter before her. It wasn’t even four o’clock and the maids had already lit the candles in the sitting room. It was nearly dark outside.
“You’re doing it because you’re a wonderful, sweet sister-in-law and you love me,” Sarah St. John replied absently as she took a sip of tea.
Her sister-in-law’s nose was buried in a book and Megs supposed she should be glad Sarah heard her at all.
Still. “I do love you, but your brother hasn’t even replied to my last two letters.” Megs scowled at the half-finished letter before her. “It seems a waste of time to write.”
“He did send you that money.”
“Without a letter!”
“It’s like stalking hedgehogs,” Sarah waved an airy hand. “You must be very patient and pretend you aren’t interested in them until you make the final grab.”
Megs stared. “That makes no sense at all. I don’t believe you’ve ever caught a hedgehog in your life. And why would you want to anyway?”
“I never said I caught one,” Sarah replied, quite illogically, “just stalked them. Hedgehogs are adorable and tempting, especially to eight-year-old girls, don’t you think?”
“Well, yes,” Megs said because she did try to be honest and hedgehogs were adorable, even if ‘tempting’ might be pushing it too far…
“Although,” Sarah added thoughtfully, “one might do well to remember to wear stout gloves to avoid the prickles. On the hedgehog, that is.”
Or on the husband. Megs sighed, staring at her ghostly reflection in the window, feeling stupid and irritated for being so melancholy. She didn’t really know Godric. It hardly mattered if he chose not to write back to her. She had a lovely home, a beloved friend, warmth and comfort…
Why then did she feel so empty? If Roger had lived, if their babe had lived…she inhaled softly, at the insidious thought, and pushed it ruthlessly from her mind. It was only winter and the darkness that made her feel so cold and alone. Nothing else. Nothing she could do anything about, anyway.
Megs bent with renewed determination to her letter.
# # #
Godric St. John sighed and tossed his wife’s letter aside. Why did she persist in this correspondence when he gave her no encouragement? When she hardly knew him?
He pushed his spectacles to his forehead and rose from his desk, crossing to the long windows that looked out over what was once the garden of Saint House. Clara might’ve once made plans for the place, may’ve once caused it to be weeded and cared for, but if she did, it was at the very beginning of their marriage, and all such conservation had long since been lost.
Now he saw only desolation.
Brown tangles nearly covered a sparsely graveled path, brambles crowded out untrimmed hedges, and like the pièce de résistance of a damned landscape, a barren tree stood in the center. Godric frowned, trying to remember if the tree had leaves this last summer, but try as he might, he had no memory of it.
For all he knew it’d been dead for years.
Grimacing he turned away from the dreary view, returning to his desk. There was no reason to reply to her. Nothing he could tell a young, vibrant woman such as she.
Still, he found himself seated and drawing out a piece of paper from the desk drawer…
Excerpts from LORD OF DARKNESS
The night Godric St. John saw his wife for the first time since their marriage two years previously, she was aiming a pistol at his head. Lady Margaret stood beside her carriage in the filthy St. Giles street, her glossy, dark curls tumbling from the velvet hood of her cloak. Her shoulders were square, both hands firmly grasped the pistol, and a murderous gleam shone in her pretty eyes. For a split second, Godric caught his breath in admiration.
In the next moment, Lady Margaret pulled the trigger.
The report was deafening but fortunately not fatal, as his wife was apparently an execrable shot. This did not reassure Godric as much as it should have, because Lady Margaret immediately turned and pulled a second pistol from her carriage.
Even the worst shots could get lucky on occasion.
But Godric hadn’t the time to meditate on the odds of his wife actually murdering him tonight. He was too busy saving her ungrateful hide from the half-dozen footpads who had stopped her carriage here, in the most dangerous part of London.
Godric ducked the enormous fist coming at his head and kicked the footpad in the stomach. The man grunted but didn’t go down, probably because he was as big as a draft horse. Instead, the robber began a counterclockwise circle of Godric as his compatriots—four of them, and every one quite as well fed—closed in on him.
Godric narrowed his eyes and raised his swords, a long one in his right hand, a short one in his left for defense and close fighting, and—
God’s balls—Lady Margaret fired her second pistol at him.
The gunshot shattered the night, echoing off the decrepit buildings lining the narrow street. Godric felt a tug on his short cape as the lead ball went through the wool.
Lady Margaret swore with a startling breadth of vocabulary.
The footpad nearest Godric grinned, revealing teeth the color of week-old piss. “Don’t like ’e much, now, do she?”
Not precisely true. Lady Margaret was trying to kill the Ghost of St. Giles. Unfortunately, she had no way of knowing that the Ghost of St. Giles happened to be her husband. The carved black mask on Godric’s face hid his identity quite effectively.
For a moment, all of St. Giles seemed to hold its breath. The sixth robber still stood, both of his pistols aimed at Lady Margaret’s coachman and two footmen. A female spoke in low, urgent tones from inside the carriage, no doubt trying to lure Lady Margaret back to safety. The lady herself glared from her stance beside the carriage, apparently oblivious to the fact that she might be murdered—or worse—if Godric failed to save her from the robbers. High overhead, the wan moon looked down dispassionately on the crumbling brick buildings, the broken cobblestones underfoot, and a single chandler’s shop sign creaking wearily in the wind.
Godric leaped at the still-grinning footpad.
Lady Margaret might be a foolish chit for being here, and the footpad might be merely following the instincts of any feral predator who runs down the careless prey that ventures into his path, but it mattered not. Godric was the Ghost of St. Giles, protector of the weak, a predator to be feared himself, lord of St. Giles and the night, and, damn it, Lady Margaret’s husband.
So Godric stabbed fast and low, impaling the footpad before his grin had time to disappear. The man grunted and began to fall as Godric elbowed another footpad advancing behind him. The man’s nose shattered with a crunching sound.
Godric pulled his sword free in a splatter of scarlet and whirled, slashing at a third man. His sword opened a swath of blood diagonally across the man’s cheek, and the footpad stumbled back, screaming, his hands to his face.
The remaining two attackers hesitated, which in a street fight was nearly always fatal.
Godric charged them, the sword in his right hand whistling as it swept toward one of the footpads. His strike missed, but he stabbed the short sword in his left hand deep into the thigh of the fifth footpad. The man shrieked. Both robbers backed away and then turned to flee.
Godric straightened, his chest heaving as he caught his breath and looked around. The only robber still standing was the one with the pistols.
The coachman—a thickset man of middling years with a tough, reddened face—narrowed his eyes at the robber and pulled a pistol out from under his seat.
The last footpad turned and fled without a sound.
“Shoot him,” Lady Margaret snapped. Her voice trembled but Godric had the feeling it was from rage rather than fear.
“M’lady?” The coachman looked at his mistress, confused, since the footpads were now out of sight.
But Godric knew quite well that she wasn’t ordering the murder of a footpad, and suddenly something inside of him—something he’d thought dead for years—woke.
His nostrils flared as he stepped over the body of the man he’d killed for her. “No need to thank me.”
He spoke in a whisper to disguise his voice, but she seemed to have no trouble hearing him.
The bloodthirsty wench actually clenched her teeth, hissing, “I wasn’t about to.”
“No?” He cocked his head, his smile grim. “Not even a kiss for good luck?”
Her eyes dropped to his mouth, left uncovered by the half-mask, and her upper lip curled in disgust. “I’d rather embrace an adder.”
Oh, that’s lovely. His smile widened. “Frightened of me, sweeting?”
He watched, fascinated, as she opened her mouth, no doubt to scorch his hide with her retort, but she was interrupted before she could speak.
“Thank you!” cried a feminine voice from inside the carriage.
Lady Margaret scowled and turned. Apparently she was close enough to see the speaker in the dark even if he couldn’t. “Don’t thank him! He’s a murderer.”
“He hasn’t murdered us,” the woman in the carriage pointed out. “Besides, it’s too late. I’ve thanked him for both of us, so climb in the carriage and let’s leave this awful place before he changes his mind.”
The set of Lady Margaret’s jaw reminded Godric of a little girl denied a sweet.
“She’s right, you know,” he whispered to her. “Believe it or not, toffs have been known to be accosted by footpads in this very spot.”
“Megs!” hissed the female in the carriage.
Lady Margaret’s glare could’ve scorched wood. “I shall find you again, and when I do, I intend to kill you.”
She was completely in earnest, her stubborn little chin set.
He took off his large floppy hat and swept her a mocking bow. “I look forward to dying in your arms, sweeting.”
Her eyes narrowed on his wicked double entendre, but her companion was muttering urgently now. Lady Margaret gave him one last look of disdain before ducking inside her carriage.
The coachman shouted to the horses, and the vehicle rumbled away.
And Godric St. John realized two things: His lady wife was apparently over her mourning—and he’d better make it back to his town house before her carriage arrived. He paused for a second, glancing at the body of the man he’d killed. Black blood wound in a sluggish trail to the channel in the middle of the lane. The man’s eyes starred glassily at the indifferent heavens. Godric searched within himself, looking for some emotion…and found what he always did.
He whirled and darted down a narrow alley. Only now that he was moving did he notice that his right shoulder ached. He’d either damaged something in the brawl or one of the footpads had succeeded in landing a blow. No matter. Saint House was on the river, not terribly far in the usual way, but he’d get there faster by rooftop.
He was already swinging himself up onto the top of a shed when he heard it: shrill, girlish screams, coming from around the bend in the alley up ahead.
Damn it. He hadn’t the time for this. Godric dropped back down to the alley and drew both his swords.
Another terrified cry.
He darted around the corner.
There were two of them, which accounted for all the noise. One was not more than five. She stood, shaking, in the middle of the reeking alley, screaming with all of her might. She could do little else because the second child had already been caught. That one was a bit older and fought with the desperate ferocity of a cornered rat, but to no avail.
The man who held the older child was three times her size and cuffed her easily on the side of the head.
The older girl crumpled to the ground while the smaller one ran to her still form.
The man bent toward the children.
“Oi!” Godric growled.
The man looked up. “What th—”
Godric laid him flat with a right haymaker to the side of the head.
He placed his sword at the man’s bared throat and leaned down to whisper, “Doesn’t feel very good when you’re on the receiving end, does it?”
The oaf scowled, his hand rubbing the side of his head. “Now see ’ere. I ’as a right to do as I please wif me own girls.”
“We’re not your girls!”
Godric saw out of the corner of his eye that the elder chit had sat up.
“’E’s not our da!”
Blood trickled from the corner of her mouth, making his blood boil.
“Get on to your home,” he urged in a low voice to the girls. “I’ll deal with this ruffian.”
“We don’t ’ave a ’ome,” the smaller child whimpered.
She’d barely got the words out when the elder nudged her and hissed, “Shut it!”
Godric was tired and the news that the children were homeless distracted him. That was what he told himself anyway when the rogue on the ground swept his legs out from under him.
Godric hit the ground rolling. He surged to his feet, but the man was already rounding the corner at the far end of the alley.
He sighed, wincing as he straightened. He’d landed on his injured shoulder and it was not thanking him for the treat.
He glanced at the girls. “Best come with me, then.”
The smaller child obediently began to rise, but the elder pulled her back down. “Don’t be daft, Moll. ’E’s as like to be a lassie snatcher as th’ other one.”
Godric raised his eyebrows at the words lassie snatcher. He hadn’t heard that name for a while. He shook his head. He hadn’t time to dig into these matters now. Lady Margaret would reach his home soon, and if he wasn’t there, awkward questions might arise.
“Come,” he said, holding out his hand to the girls. “I’m not a lassie snatcher, and I know a nice, warm place where you can spend the night.” And many nights hereafter.
He thought his tone gentle enough, but the elder girl’s face wrinkled mutinously. “We’re not going wif you.”
Godric smiled pleasantly—before swooping down and scooping one child over his shoulder and the other under his arm. “Oh, yes, you are.”
It wasn’t that simple, of course. The elder cursed quite shockingly for a female child of such tender years, while the younger burst into tears, and they both fought like wildcats.
Five minutes later he was within sight of the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children when he nearly dropped them both.
“Ow!” He swallowed stronger language and took a firmer grip on the elder child who had come perilously close to unmanning him.
Grimly, Godric stalked to the back door of the St. Giles orphanage and kicked at it until a light came on in the kitchen window.
The door swung open to reveal a tall man in rumpled shirtsleeves and breeches.
Winter Makepeace, the manager of the home, arched an eyebrow at the sight of the Ghost of St. Giles, holding two struggling, weeping girls on his doorstep.
Godric hadn’t time for explanations.
“Here.” He unceremoniously dumped the children on the kitchen tiles and glanced at the bemused manager. “I’d advise a firm hold—they’re slipperier than greased eels.”
With that, he swung shut the home’s door, turned, and sprinted toward his town house.
Lady Margaret St. John started shaking the moment her carriage left St. Giles. The Ghost had been so large, so frighteningly deadly in his movements. When he’d advanced on her, his bloody swords gripped in his big, leather-clad hands and his eyes glinting behind his grotesque mask, it had been all she could do to hold herself still.
Megs inhaled, trying to quiet the quicksilver racing through her veins. She’d spent two years hating the man, but she’d never expected, when she finally met him, to feel so…so…
She glanced down at the heavy pistols in her lap and then across the carriage to her dear friend and sister-in-law, Sarah St. John. “I’m sorry. That was…”
“An idiotic idea?” Sarah arched one light brown eyebrow. Her straight-as-a-pin hair varied from mouse-brown to the lightest shade of gold and was tucked back into a sedate and very orderly knot at the back of her head.
In contrast, Megs’s own dark, curly hair had mostly escaped from its pins hours ago and was now waving about her face like a tentacled sea monster.
Megs frowned. “Well, I don’t know if idiotic is quite—”
“Addled?” Sarah supplied crisply. “Boneheaded? Daft? Foolish? Ill-advised?”
“While all of those adjectives are in part appropriate,” Megs interjected primly before Sarah could continue her list (her friend’s vocabulary was quite extensive), “I think ill-advised might be the most applicable. I am so sorry for putting your life in danger.”
Megs blinked. “What?”
Sarah leaned a little forward so that her face came into the carriage lantern’s light. Sarah usually had the sweet countenance of a gently reared maiden lady—which at five and twenty she was—belied only by a certain mocking humor lurking at the back of her soft brown eyes, but right now she might’ve been an Amazon warrior.
“Your life, Megs,” Sarah replied. “You risked not only my life and the lives of the servants, but your life as well. What could possibly be important enough to venture into St. Giles at this time of night?”
Megs looked away from her dearest friend. Sarah had come to live with her at the St. John estate in Cheshire nearly a year after Megs’s marriage to Godric, so Sarah didn’t know the real reason for their hasty nuptials.
Megs shook her head, gazing out the carriage window. “I’m sorry. I just wanted to see…”
When she didn’t finish the sentence, Sarah moved restlessly. “See what?”
Where Roger was murdered. Even the thought sent a shard of dull pain through her heart. She’d directed Tom the coachman to drive into St. Giles, hoping to find some lingering trace of Roger. There hadn’t been, of course. He’d been long dead. Long lost to her. But she’d had a second reason to look about St. Giles: to learn more about Roger’s murderer, the Ghost of St. Giles. And in that, at least, she’d succeeded. The Ghost had appeared. She hadn’t been adequately prepared tonight, but next time she would be.
Next time she wouldn’t let him get away.
Next time she’d blast a bullet through the Ghost of St. Giles’s black heart.
“Megs?” Her friend’s gentle murmur interrupted her bloody thoughts.
Megs shook her head and smiled brightly—perhaps too brightly—at her dear friend. “Never mind.”
“Goodness, are we here already?” Megs’s change of subject was not subtle, but the carriage was slowing as if they’d finally arrived at their destination.
She leaned forward, peering out the window. The street was dark.
Megs frowned. “Maybe not.”
Sarah crossed her arms. “What do you see?”
“We’re on a narrow, winding lane and there’s a tall, dark house up ahead. It looks very…um…”
Megs glanced at her companion. “Yes?”
Sarah nodded once. “That’s Saint House, then. It’s as old as dust, didn’t you know? Didn’t you see Saint House when you married my brother?”
“No.” Megs pretended to be engrossed in the dim view out the window. “The wedding breakfast was at my brother’s house and I left London a sennight after.” And in between she’d been bedridden at her mother’s house. Megs pushed the sad memory from her mind. “How old is Saint House?”
“Medieval and, as I remember, quite drafty in winter.”
“And not in the most fashionable part of London, either,” Sarah continued cheerfully. “Right on the riverbank. But that’s what you get when your family came over with the Conqueror: venerable old buildings without a lick of modern style or convenience.”
“I’m sure it’s quite famous,” Megs said, trying to be loyal. She was a St. John now after all.
“Oh, yes,” Sarah said, her tone dry. “Saint House has been mentioned in more than one history. No doubt that’ll comfort you when your toes turn to blocks of ice in the middle of the night.”
“If it’s so awful, then why did you accompany me to London?” Megs asked.
“To see the sights and shop, of course.” Sarah sounded quite cheerful despite her gloomy description of Saint House. “It’s been forever since I was last in London.”
The carriage jerked to a halt at that moment, and Sarah began gathering her needlework basket and shawls. Oliver, the younger of the two footmen Megs had brought with them, opened the door to the carriage. He wore a white wig as part of his livery, but it didn’t disguise his red eyebrows.
“Never thought we’d make it alive,” Oliver muttered as he set the steps. “Was a close one with them footpads, if’n you don’t mind me saying so, m’lady.”
“You and Johnny were very brave,” Megs said as she stepped down. She glanced up at her coachman. “And you, too, Tom.”
The coachman grunted and hunched his broad shoulders. “Ye an’ Miss St. John best be gettin’ inside, m’lady, where ’tis safe.”
“I will.” Megs turned to the house and only then noticed the second carriage, already drawn up outside.
Sarah stepped down beside her. “It looks like your great-aunt Elvina arrived before us.”
“Yes, it does,” Megs said slowly. “But why is her carriage still outside?”
The door to the second carriage popped open as if in answer.
“Margaret!” Great-Aunt Elvina’s worried face was topped by a cloud of soft gray curls intertwined with pink ribbons. Her voice was overly loud, booming off the stone buildings. Great-Aunt Elvina was rather deaf. “Margaret, the wretched butler won’t let us in. We’ve been sitting in the courtyard for ages, and Her Grace has become quite restless.”
A muffled yelp from inside the carriage emphasized the statement.
Megs turned to her husband’s house. No light betrayed human habitation, but obviously someone was at home if a butler had earlier answered Great-Aunt Elvina’s summons. She marched up to the door and lifted the great iron ring that served as knocker, letting it fall with a sharp bang.
Then she stepped back and looked up. The building was a hodgepodge of historical styles. The first two floors were of ancient red brick—perhaps the original building. But then some later owner had added another three stories in a paler, beige brick. Chimneys and gables sprouted here and there over the roofline, romping without any seeming pattern. On either side, low, dark wings framed the end of the street, making a de facto courtyard.
“You did write to tell Godric you were coming,” Sarah murmured.
Megs bit her lip. “Ah…”
A light appearing at a narrow window immediately to the right saved her from having to admit that she hadn’t notified her husband of their trip. The door opened with an ominous creaking.
A lone servant stood in the doorway, stoop-shouldered, his head topped by a flaking white wig, a single candlestick in one hand.
The man drew a slow, rattling breath. “Mr. St. John is not rec—”
“Oh, thank you,” Megs said as she walked straight at the butler.
For a moment she feared the man wouldn’t move. His rheumy eyes widened and then he shifted just enough so that she could glide by.
She pivoted once inside and began removing her gloves. “I am Lady Margaret St. John, Mr. St. John’s wife.”
The butler’s shaggy eyebrows snapped down. “Wife—”
“Yes.” She bestowed a smile on him and for a moment he merely goggled. “And you are . . . ?”
He straightened and she realized his posture had made him look older than he really was. The man couldn’t be past his midthirties. “Moulder, m’lady. The butler.”
“Splendid!” Megs handed him her gloves as she glanced about the hallway. Not impressive. There appeared to be a veritable village of spiders living in the beamed ceiling. She spotted a candelabra on a table nearby and, taking the candle from Moulder, began lighting it. “Now, Moulder, I have my dear great-aunt waiting in the carriage outside—you may call her Miss Howard—as well as Miss St. John here, Mr. St. John’s eldest little sister…if that makes any sense at all.”
Sarah grinned cheerfully as she deposited her own gloves in the bemused butler’s hands. “I haven’t been to London in several years. You must be new.”
Moulder’s mouth opened. “I—”
“We also have our three lady’s maids,” Megs continued, handing the candle back to the butler as he snapped his mouth shut, “four footmen between ours and my great-aunt’s, and the two coachmen. Great-Aunt Elvina would insist on her own carriage, although I have to admit I’m not sure how we’d have all fit in only one carriage anyway.”
“It would never have worked,” Sarah said. “And your aunt snores.”
Megs shrugged. “True.” She turned back to the butler. “Naturally we brought Higgins the gardener and Charlie the bootblack boy because he is such a dear and because he’s Higgins’s nephew and rather attached to him. Oh, and Her Grace, who is in a delicate condition and appears to take only chicken livers well minced and simmered in white wine these days. Now, have you got all that?”
Moulder goggled. “Ah…”
“Wonderful.” Megs shot him another smile. “Where is my husband?”
Alarm seemed to break through the butler’s confusion. “Mr. St. John is in the library, m’lady, but he’s—”
“No, no!” Megs patted the air reassuringly. “No need to show me. I’m sure Sarah and I can find the library all by ourselves. Best you deal with my aunt’s needs and see to the servants’ supper—and Her Grace’s. It was such a very long journey, you know.”
She picked up the lit candelabra and marched up the stairs.
Sarah trotted up beside her, chuckling under her breath. “Luckily you’ve started in the right direction, at least. The library, if I remember correctly, is on the first floor, second door on the left.”
“Oh, good,” Megs muttered. Having once screwed her courage to this point, it would be fatal to back down now. “I’m sure you’re looking forward to seeing your brother again just as much as I.”
“Naturally,” Sarah murmured. “But I won’t be so gauche as to ruin your reunion with Godric.”
Megs stopped on the first-floor landing. “What?”
“Tomorrow morning is soon enough to see my brother.” Sarah smiled gently from three steps below. “I’ll go help with Great-Aunt Elvina.”
Megs’s feeble protest was made to the empty air. Sarah had already scampered lightly down the stairs.
Right. Library. Second door on the left.
Megs took a deep breath and turned to face the gloomy hallway. It’d been two years since she’d last seen her husband, but she remembered him—from the little she’d seen of him before their marriage—as a nice enough gentleman. Certainly not ogrelike, anyway. His brown eyes had been quite kind at their wedding ceremony. Megs squinted doubtfully as she marched down the corridor. Or were his eyes blue? Well, whatever color they’d been, his eyes had been kind.
Surely that much couldn’t have changed in two years?
Megs grasped the doorknob to the library and quickly opened it before any last-minute second thoughts could dissuade her.
After all that, the library was something of an anticlimax.
Dim and cramped like the corridor, the room’s only light came from the embers of a dying fire and a single candle by an old, overstuffed armchair. She tiptoed closer. The occupant of the ancient armchair looked…
He wore a burgundy banyan frayed pink at the hem and elbows. His stockinged feet, lodged in disreputable slippers, were crossed on a tufted footstool so close to the fireplace that the fabric nearest the hearth bore traces of earlier singeing. His head lolled against his shoulder, casually covered by a soft, dark green turban with a rather rakish gilt tassel hanging over his left eye. Half-moon spectacles were perched perilously on his forehead, and if it weren’t for the deep snores issuing from between his lips, she might’ve thought Godric St. John had died.
Of old age.
Megs blinked and straightened. Surely her husband couldn’t be that old. She had a vague notion that he was a bit older than her brother Griffin, who had arranged their marriage and who was himself three and thirty, but try as she might, she couldn’t remember her husband’s actual age being mentioned.
It had been the darkest hour of her existence, and, perhaps thankfully, much of it was obscured in her mind.
Megs peered anxiously down at the sleeping man. He was slack-jawed and snoring, but his eyelashes lay thick and black against his cheeks. She stared for a moment, oddly caught by the sight.
Her lips firmed. Many men married late in life and were still able to perform. The Duke of Frye had managed just last year and he was well past seventy. Surely Godric, then, could do the deed.
Thus cheered, Megs cleared her throat. Gently, of course, for he was the main reason she’d come all the way to London, and it wouldn’t do to startle her husband into an apoplectic fit before he’d done his duty.
Which was, of course, to make her pregnant.
Godric St. John turned his snore into a snort as he pretended to wake. He opened his eyes to find his wife staring at him with a frown between her delicate brows. At their wedding, she’d been drawn and vague, her eyes never quite meeting his, even when she’d pledged herself to him until death do they part. Only hours after the ceremony, she’d taken ill at their wedding breakfast and been whisked away to the comfort of her mother and sister. A letter the next day had informed him that she’d miscarried the child that had made the hasty wedding necessary.
Now she examined him with a bold, bright curiosity that made him want to check that his banyan was still tightly wrapped.
“What?” Godric started as if surprised by her presence.
She swiftly pasted on a broad, guileless smile that might as well have shouted, I’m up to something! “Oh, hello.”
Hello? After two years’ absence? Hello?
“Ah…Margaret, is it?” Godric repressed a wince. Not that he was doing much better.
“Yes!” She beamed at him as if he were a senile old man who’d had a sudden spark of reason. “I’ve come to visit you.”
“Have you?” He sat a little straighter in the chair. “How…unexpected.”
His tone might’ve been a trifle dry.
She darted a nervous glance at him and turned to aimlessly wander the room. “Yes, and I’ve brought Sarah, your sister.” She inhaled and peered at a tiny medieval etching propped on the mantel. Impossible that she could make out the subject matter in the room’s dimness. “Well, of course you know she’s your sister. She’s thrilled for the opportunity to shop, and see the sights, and go to the theater and perhaps an opera or even a pleasure garden, and…and…”
She’d picked up an ancient leather-bound book of Van Oosten’s commentary on Catullus and now she waved it vaguely. “And…”
“Shop some more, perhaps?” Godric raised his brows. “I may not have seen Sarah for an age, but I do remember her fondness for shopping.”
“Quite.” She looked somewhat subdued as she thumbed the crumbling pages of the book.
“Why have you come to London?” he inquired.
Van Oosten exploded in her hands.
“Oh!” She dropped to her knees and frantically began gathering the fragile pages. “Oh, I’m so sorry!”
Godric repressed a sigh as he watched her. Half the pages were disintegrating as fast as she picked them up. That particular tome had cost him five guineas at Warwick and Sons and was, as far as he knew, the last of its kind. “No matter. The book was in need of rebinding anyway.”
“Was it?” She looked dubiously at the pages in her hands before gently laying the mess in his lap. “Well, that’s a relief, isn’t it?”
Her face was tilted up toward his, her brown eyes large and somehow pleading, and she’d forgotten to take her hands away again. They lay, quite circumspectly, on top of the remains of the book in his lap, but something about her position, kneeling beside him, made him catch his breath. A strange, ethereal feeling squeezed his chest, even as a thoroughly rude and earthly one warmed his loins. Good Lord. That was inconvenient.
He cleared his throat. “Margaret?”
She blinked slowly, almost seductively. Idiot. She must be sleepy. That was why her eyelids looked so heavy and languid. Was it even possible to blink seductively?
“How long do you plan to stay in London?”
“Oh…” She lowered her head as she fumbled with the demolished book. Presumably she meant to gather the papers together, but all she succeeded in doing was crumbling them further. “Oh, well, there’s so much to do here, isn’t there? And…and I have several dear, dear friends to call on—”
She jumped to her feet, still holding Van Oosten’s battered back cover. “It simply wouldn’t do to snub anyone.” She aimed a brilliant smile somewhere over his right shoulder.
She yawned widely. “Do forgive me. I’m afraid the trip has quite fatigued me. Oh, Daniels”—she turned in what looked like relief as a petite lady’s maid appeared at the doorway—“is my room readied?”
The maid curtsied even as her gaze darted about the library curiously. “Yes, my lady. As ready as ever it can be tonight anyway. You’ll never credit the cobwebs we—”
“Yes, well, I’m sure it’s fine.” Lady Margaret whirled and nodded at him. “Good night, er…husband. I’ll see you on the morrow, shall I?”
And she darted from the room, the back cover of poor Van Oosten still held captive.
The maid closed the door behind her.
Godric eyed the solid oak of his library door. The room without her spinning, brilliant presence seemed all of a sudden hollow and tomblike. Strange. He’d always thought his library a comfortable place before.
Godric shook his head irritably. What is she about? Why has she come to London?
Theirs had been a marriage of convenience—at least on her part. She’d needed a name for the babe in her belly. It’d been a marriage of blackmail via her ass of a brother, Griffin, on his part, for Godric had not fathered the child. Indeed, he’d never spoken to Lady Margaret before the day of their wedding. Afterward, when she’d retired to his neglected country estate, he’d resumed his life—such as it was—in London.
For a year there’d been no communication at all, save for the odd secondhand bit of information from his stepmother or one of his half sisters. Then, suddenly, a letter out of the blue, from Lady Margaret herself, asking if he would mind if she cut down the overgrown grapevine in the garden. What overgrown grapevine? He hadn’t seen Laurelwood Manor, the house on his Cheshire estate, since the early years of his marriage to his beloved Clara. He’d written back and told her politely but tersely that she could do as she wished with the grapevine and anything else she had the mind to in the garden.
That should’ve been the end to it, but his stranger bride had continued to write him once or twice a month for the last year. Long, chatty letters about the garden; the eldest of his half sisters, Sarah, who had come to live with Margaret; the travails of repairing and redecorating the rather decrepit house; and the petty arguments and gossip from the nearby village. He hadn’t known quite how to respond to such a flurry of information, so in general he simply hadn’t. But as the months had gone by, he’d become oddly taken with her missives. Finding one of her letters beside his morning coffee gave him a feeling of lightness. He’d even been impatient when her letter was a day or two late.
Well. He had been living alone and lonely for years now.
But the small delight of a letter was a far cry from the lady herself invading his domain.
“Never seen the like, I haven’t,” Moulder muttered as he entered the library, shutting the door behind him. “Might as well’ve been a traveling fair, the bunch o’ them.”
“What are you talking about?” Godric asked as he stood and doffed the banyan.
Underneath he still wore the Ghost’s motley. It’d been a near thing. Both carriages had been drawn up outside his house when he’d slunk in the back. Godric had heard Moulder trying to hold off the occupants even as he’d run up the hidden back stairs that led from his study to the library. Saint House was so old it had a myriad of secret passages and hidey-holes—a boon to his Ghostly activities. He’d reached the library, pulled off his boots, thrown his swords, cape, and mask behind one of the bookshelves, and had just tugged the soft turban onto his head and wound the banyan about his waist when he’d heard the doorknob turn.
It’d been close—too damn close.
“M’lady and all she brought with her.” Moulder waved both hands as if to encompass a multitude.
Godric arched an eyebrow. “Ladies do usually travel with maids and such.”
“’Tisn’t just such,” Moulder muttered as he helped Godric from the Ghost’s tunic. In addition to his other, vague duties, Moulder served as valet when needed. “There’s a gardener and bootblack boy and a snorty sort o’ dog that belongs to Lady Margaret’s great-aunt, and she’s here too.”
Godric squinted, trying to work through that sentence. “The dog or the aunt?”
“Both.” Moulder shook out the Ghost’s tunic, eyeing it for tears and stains. A sly expression crossed his face just before he glanced up innocently at Godric. “’Tis a pity, though.”
“What?” Godric asked as he stripped the Ghost’s leggings off and donned his nightshirt.
“Won’t be able to go out gallivanting at all hours o’ the night now, will you?” Moulder said as he folded the tunic and leggings. He shook his head sorrowfully. “Right shame, but there ’tis. Your days as the Ghost are over, I’m feared, now that your missus has arrived to live with you.”
“I suppose you’d be right”—he took off the silly turban and ran a hand over his tightly cropped hair—“if Lady Margaret were actually going to live with me permanently.”
Moulder looked doubtful. “She sure brought enough people and luggage to take up residence.”
“No matter. I don’t intend to give up being the Ghost of St. Giles. Which means”—Godric strode to the door—“my wife and all her accouterments will be gone by next week at the outside.”
And when she was gone, Godric promised himself, he could go back to his business of saving the poor of St. Giles and forget that Lady Margaret had ever disrupted his lonely life.
Godric woke the next morning to the sounds of feminine voices in the room next to his. He lay in bed, blinking for a moment, thinking how foreign it was to hear activity from that direction.
He slept in the ancient master’s bedroom, of course, and the mistress of the house had the connecting room. But Clara had occupied the rooms for only the first year or two of their marriage. After that, the disease that had eventually eaten away at her body had begun to grow. The doctors had recommended complete quiet, so Clara had been moved to the old nursery a floor above. There she had suffered for nine long years before she’d died.
Godric shook his head and climbed from his bed, his bare feet hitting the cold floor. Such maudlin thoughts wouldn’t bring Clara back. If they could, she would’ve sprung alive, dancing and free from her terrible pain, thousands of times in the years since her death.
He dressed swiftly, in a simple brown suit and gray wig, and left his room while the female voices were still chattering indistinctly next door. The realization that Lady Margaret had slept so close to him sent a frisson along his nerves. It wasn’t that he ran from such signs of life, but it was only natural to be unused to the presence of others—female others—in his gloomy old house.
Godric descended the stairs to the lower level. Normally he broke his fast at a coffeehouse, both to hear the latest news and because the meals at his own home were somewhat erratic. Today, however, he squared his shoulders and ventured into the little-used dining room at the back of the house.
Only to find it occupied.
For a disconcerting second, he hadn’t recognized her, this self-possessed lady, dressed in a sedate dove-gray costume. How many years had it been since he’d last seen her?
She turned at her name, and her calm face lit with a smile of welcome. His chest warmed and it caught him off guard. They’d never been close—he was a full dozen years older than she—and he’d not even known that he’d missed her.
Apparently he had.
She rose, moving around the long, battered table where she’d been seated alone. She hugged him, swift and hard, her touch a shock to his frame. He’d been in solitude so very long.
She moved back before he could remember to respond and eyed him with disconcertingly perceptive brown eyes. “How are you?”
“Fine.” He shrugged and turned away. After nearly three years, he was used to the concerned looks, the gentle inquiries, especially from women. Sadly, though, he hadn’t become any more comfortable with them. “Have you already eaten?”
“As of yet, I haven’t seen anything to eat,” she observed drily. “Your man, Moulder, promised me breakfast and then disappeared. That was nearly half an hour ago.”
“Ah.” He wished he could feign surprise, but the fact was he wasn’t even sure there was anything edible in the house. “Er…perhaps we should decamp to an inn or—”
Moulder burst through the door, carrying a heavy tray. “Here we are, then.”
He thumped the tray down in the center of the table and stepped back in pride.
Godric examined the tray. A teapot stood in the center with one cup. Beside it was a half-dozen or so burned pieces of toast, a pot of butter, and five eggs on a plate. Hopefully they’d been boiled.
Godric arched an eyebrow at his manservant. “Cook is…er…indisposed, I perceive.”
Moulder snorted. “Cook is gone. And so is that nice wheel o’ cheese, the silver saltcellar, and half the plate. Didn’t seem too happy when he heard last night that we had so many guests.”
“Just as well, I’m afraid, considering the unfortunate way he handled a joint.”
“He was overfamiliar with your wine stock, too, if you don’t mind me saying so, sir,” Moulder said. “I’ll go see if we have any more teacups, shall I?”
“Thank you, Moulder.” Godric waited until the butler left the room before turning to his sister. “I apologize for the paucity of my table.”
He held out a chair for her.
“Please don’t worry,” Sarah said as she sat. “We did descend on you without any notice.”
She reached for the teapot.
“Mmm,” Godric murmured as he lowered himself to a chair across from her. “I wondered about that.”
“I was under the impression that Megs had written to you.” His sister lifted an eyebrow at him.
He merely shook his head as he took a piece of toast.
“I wonder why she didn’t tell you of our arrival?” she asked softly as she buttered her own toast. “We’d planned the trip for weeks. Do you think she was fearful that you’d turn her away?”
He nearly choked on his toast. “I wouldn’t do that. Whatever gave you the notion?”
She shrugged elegant shoulders. “You’ve been separated since your marriage. You hardly write her or me. Or, for that matter, Mama, Charlotte, or Jane.”
Godric’s lips firmed. He was on cordial terms with his stepmother and younger half sisters, but they’d never been especially close. “Ours wasn’t a love match.”
“Obviously.” Sarah took a cautious nibble of her toast. “Mama worries for you, you know. As do I.”
He poured her tea without answering. What could he say? Oh, I’m all right. Lost the love of my life, don’t you know, but the pain’s quite bearable, considering. To pretend that he was whole, that rising every day wasn’t a chore, became exhausting. Why did they ask anyway? Couldn’t they see that he was so broken nothing would fix him?
“Godric?” Her voice was gentle.
He made the corners of his mouth twitch upward as he pushed the cup of tea across the table to her. “How are my stepmother and sisters?”
She pursed her lips as if she wanted to prod him more, but in the end she took a sip of tea instead. “Mama is well. She’s in the midst of preparations for Jane’s coming-out. They plan to stay with Mama’s bosom bow, Lady Hartford, for the season in the fall.”
“Ah.” Godric felt a twinge of relief that his stepmother didn’t want to stay at Saint House. Guilt followed immediately thereafter: He should’ve been aware that his youngest half sister was old enough to make her debut into society. Gads! He remembered Jane as a freckle-faced schoolgirl running about with a hoop and stick. “And how is Charlotte?”
Sarah cast her eyes heavenward. “Fascinating all the young men of Upper Hornsfield.”
“Are there many eligible young men in Upper Hornsfield?”
“Not as many as in Lower Hornsfield, of course, but between the new curate and the local squire’s sons, she has a fair coterie of young men. I’m not sure she even knows that wherever she goes, she’s followed by longing male eyes.”
The thought of little Charlotte—who he’d last seen arguing with Jane rather heatedly over a piece of fig tart—becoming a rural femme fatale made Godric smile.
The door to the dining room opened at that moment and he looked up.
Straight into the eyes of his wife, poised in the doorway like Boudicca about to storm some poor, unsuspecting Roman general’s camp.
Megs halted on the threshold to the dining room, taking a deep breath. Godric looked different somehow than the man she remembered from just last night. Perhaps it was simply the daylight. Or it might be the fact that he was properly dressed in a well-cut but somewhat worn acorn-brown suit.
Or maybe it was the tiny smile still lingering on his face. It smoothed the lines of care and grief on his forehead and about his gray eyes, and drew attention to a mouth that was wide and full, bracketed by two deep indents. For a moment her gaze lingered on that mouth, wondering what it might feel like on her own…
“Good morning.” He rose politely.
She blinked, hastily looking up. She’d decided last night—quite logically!—to wait until the morning to begin her planned seduction. Who would expect to jump straight into bed with one’s stranger-husband after a two-year absence, after all? But now it was morning, so…
Right. Seducing the husband.
Her silence had caused his smile to fade entirely, and his eyes were narrowed as he waited for her response. He looked altogether formidable.
Megs squared her shoulders. “Good morning!”
Her smile might’ve been a trifle too wide as she strove to cover her lapse.
Sarah, who’d turned at her entrance, arched an eyebrow.
Godric rounded the table and pulled out a chair for her next to Sarah. “I hope you slept well?”
The room had been damp, dusty, and smelled of mildew. “Yes, very well.”
He glanced at her dubiously.
She walked toward him—and then around the table to the chair next to his vacant one.
“I’d like to sit here, if you don’t mind,” she said throatily, lowering her eyelashes in what she hoped was a seductive manner. “Close to you.”
He cocked his head to the side, his expression inscrutable. “Do you have a cold?”
Sarah choked on her tea.
Drat! It’d been so long since she’d done anything like flirting. Megs shot an irritated glance at her sister-in-law, repressing the urge to stick out her tongue.
“As you wish.” Godric was suddenly beside her, and she nearly started at his rasping voice in her ear. Good Lord, the man could move quietly.
“Thank you.” She sank into the chair, aware of his presence behind her, looming large and intimidating, and then he returned to his own seat.
Megs bit her lip, glancing at him from the corner of her eye. Should she rub against his leg under the table? But his profile was so very…grave. It seemed a bit like goosing the Archbishop of Canterbury.
And then she caught sight of breakfast and her dismal seduction attempt abruptly fled her mind.
Megs squinted at the plate in the middle of the table. It held a few burned fragments of toast and some hard-boiled eggs. She scanned the room but saw no other signs of nourishment.
“Would you care for some toast?” Sarah murmured across from her.
“Oh, thank you.” Megs widened her eyes in question at her.
“It appears the cook did a runner, as Oliver would say.” Sarah shrugged infinitesimally as she pushed the plate over. “I believe that Moulder is searching for another teacup for the tea right now, but in the meantime, do feel free to have a sip of mine.”
“Er…” Megs was saved from having to reply by the dining room door being flung open.
“My dears!” Great-Aunt Elvina swept into the room. “You’ll not credit the ghastly room I slept in last night. Her Grace was quite overcome by the dust and spent the night wheezing horribly.”
Godric had risen at Great-Aunt Elvina’s entrance and now he cleared his throat. “Her Grace?”
A small but very rotund fawn pug waddled into the room, glanced perfunctorily at Great-Aunt Elvina, and plopped down onto the rug, rolling immediately to her side. She lay there, panting pathetically, her distended belly rising and falling.
Her Grace’s flair for the dramatic was almost as well honed as her mistress’s.
“This is Her Grace,” Megs hurried to explain to her husband, adding perhaps unnecessarily, “She’s in an interesting way.”
“Indeed,” Godric murmured. “Is the…er…Her Grace quite well? She looks rather worried.”
“Pugs always look worried,” Great-Aunt Elvina pronounced loudly. Her ability to hear came and went with disconcerting irregularity. “She could do with a dish of warm milk with perhaps a spoonful of sherry in it.”
Godric blinked. “Ah…I do apologize, but I don’t believe we have any milk on the premises. As for the sherry…”
“None o’ that neither,” Moulder said with dour satisfaction as he entered the room behind Great-Aunt Elvina. In his arms he carried an array of mismatched teacups.
“Quite,” Godric murmured. “Perhaps if I’d been informed in advance of your arrival…”
“Oh, no need to apologize,” Megs said quickly.
He turned and narrowed his eyes at her. This close she could see the small lines fanning from the corners of his eyes in an altogether alluring way, which made no sense because why would crow’s-feet be alluring?
Megs shook herself mentally and continued. “After all, your house hasn’t had a feminine hand managing it in quite some time. I expect once we employ a new cook and some scullery maids—”
“And a housekeeper and upstairs maids,” Sarah put in.
“Not to mention some footmen,” Great-Aunt Elvina muttered. “Big, strong ones.”
“Well, we did bring Oliver and Johnny,” Megs pointed out.
“They can’t be expected to do all the heavy lifting required to clean this place,” Great-Aunt Elvina said with a frown. “Have you seen the upper floors?”
“Er…” Megs hadn’t in fact explored the upper floors, but if the condition of the rooms they’d slept in last night were any indication… “Best we hire at least half a dozen strapping lads.”
“I doubt I’ll need a veritable army to run Saint House,” her husband said in a dry tone, “especially after you all leave, which will, I’m sure, be soon.”
“What?” barked Great-Aunt Elvina, cupping her hand behind her ear.
Megs held up a finger to interrupt because a thought had occurred to her. She addressed Moulder. “Surely you have some help running the house?”
“There was a couple o’ strong lads and some maids, but they left a while back, one by one, like, and we just never hired others.” Moulder cast his eyes up as if to address the spiders lurking in the cobwebs dangling from the ceiling. “Did have a girl name o’ Tilly, m’lady, but she got in the family way ’bout a month back—not my fault.”
All eyes swung toward Godric.
He raised his brows in what looked like mild exasperation. “Nor mine.”
Thank goodness. Megs returned her gaze to Moulder, very aware of her husband glowering at her shoulder.
The butler shrugged. “Tilly up and left not long after. Think she was chasin’ the butcher’s apprentice. Maybe he was the father. Or it might’ve been the tinker what used to come ’round the kitchen door.”
For a moment there was silence as they all contemplated the mystery of Tilly’s baby’s paternity.
Then Godric cleared his throat. “How long, exactly, were you planning on staying in London, Margaret?”
Megs smiled brilliantly even though she’d never really liked her full name—especially when it was drawled in a gravelly voice that seemed somehow ominous—for she really didn’t want to answer the question. “Oh, I don’t like to make plans. It’s so much more fun to simply let matters take their own course, don’t you think?”
“Actually I don’t—”
Good Lord, the man was persistent! She turned hastily to Moulder. “Then you’ve been managing the house all by yourself?”
Moulder’s great shaggy brows knit, causing a myriad of wrinkles to form in his forehead and around his hangdog eyes. He was the very picture of martyrdom. “I have, m’lady. You have no idea the work—the terrible job ’tis!—to keep up a house such as this. Why, me health is much the worse for it.”
Godric muttered something, the only words of which Megs caught were “laying it on thick.”
She ignored her husband. “I really must thank you, Moulder, for taking care of Mr. St. John so loyally, despite the toil involved.”
Moulder blushed. “Aw, it weren’t nothin’, m’lady.”
Godric snorted loudly.
Megs hastily said, “Yes, well, I’m sure now that I’m in residence, we’ll have the house in order in no time.”
“And exactly how long will it take to—” Godric began.
“Oh, look at the time!” Megs said, squinting at a small clock on the fireplace mantel. It was hard to tell if it still ran, but no matter. “We must be going or we’ll be late to the meeting of the Ladies’ Syndicate for the Benefit of the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children.”
Sarah looked interested. “At the orphanage in St. Giles you told us about?”
Great-Aunt Elvina glanced up from trying to tempt Her Grace with a bit of toast. “What is it?”
“The Lady’s Syndicate meeting at the orphanage,” Megs said in a sort of muted shout. “It’s time we go there.”
“Good,” Great-Aunt Elvina pronounced, stooping to pick up Her Grace. “With any luck, they’ll have some tea and refreshments at the meeting.”
“That’s settled, then.”
Megs finally turned to look at her husband. His face was rather stern and she was suddenly aware that he’d been watching her.
He glanced away now, though. “I suppose you’ll all return for supper, then.”
His tone was lifeless, nearly bored.
Something inside her rebelled. He’d taken her invasion into his home and their plans to hire new servants and clean up his ratty old house without turning a hair.
She wanted to see him turn a hair.
And, more importantly, she reminded herself: baby. “Oh, no,” she purred, “I expect you’ll see us again in ten minutes.”
He turned slowly back to her, his eyes narrowed. “I beg your pardon?”
She opened her eyes wide. “You are coming with us, aren’t you?”
“I believe it’s a ladies’ syndicate,” he said, but there was a whisper of uncertainty in his tone.
“I’d like your company.” She let the tip of her tongue nudge the corner of her mouth.
And there—finally!—she saw it. His gaze flickered oh so briefly to her mouth.
Megs had to bite back a grin as he said with surly suspicion, “If you wish.”
Godric sat in the carriage watching Lady Margaret with what he very much feared was a brooding air. He wasn’t entirely certain how he’d come to be here. Usually at this time of day he’d be at his favorite coffeehouse engrossed in newspapers or barricaded in his study perusing his latest classical tome. Except that wasn’t quite right. It’d been weeks since he’d lingered at Basham’s Coffeehouse and longer still since he’d found the energy to read his favorite books.
More often he’d found himself simply staring at the damp walls of his study.
And yet today his whirlwind of a wife had persuaded him to accompany her on a social call.
He narrowed his eyes. If he wasn’t a man of reason and learning, he might suspect some type of sorcery. His wife sat across from him, talking animatedly with her great-aunt next to her and Sarah who was beside Godric. Lady Margaret was very careful to avoid his eye as she kept up a running stream of chatter about London and the history of this ladies’ syndicate.
His wife’s cheeks were lightly flushed with her excitement, making her dark eyes sparkle. A curling strand of hair had already escaped her coiffure and now bobbed seductively against her temple, as if to tempt some unwary male to try and contain it.
Godric pressed his lips together and faced the window.
Perhaps his wife had a lover.
The thought was not a pleasant one, but why else would such a vivacious girl seek his company except that she had a secret lover in London? It hadn’t occurred to him before that his absent wife might take a lover, but after all, was it such a strange thought? She was no virgin and he’d never attempted to consummate their marriage. Just because he was resigned to a solitary, celibate life didn’t mean she was. Lady Margaret was a young, beautiful woman. A woman of high spirits, if this morning was anything to go by. Such a lady might even have more than one lover.
But no. Godric’s sense of logic broke through his melancholy thoughts. If she had a lover, surely he would reside near Godric’s country estate. After all, Lady Margaret had left Laurelwood Manor only a few times in the last two years—and then only to visit her family. She must have some other reason for suddenly descending on him.
“Here we are at last,” his wife exclaimed.
Godric glanced out the window and saw that the carriage was indeed drawing up outside the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children. The building was only a couple of years old, a clean, neat edifice several stories high and taking up most of Maiden Lane. The bright brick stood out, fresh and new, against the other, older and destitute buildings in St. Giles.
Godric waited until Lady Margaret’s footman had set the step and then jumped down to help the ladies. Great-Aunt Elvina rose precariously. The lady was at least seventy, and although she disdained the use of a cane, Godric had noticed that she was at times unsteady on her feet. She held her pregnant pug in her arms, and Godric swiftly realized he would have to do the gentlemanly thing.
“If I might take Her Grace,” he enunciated into her ear.
The elderly lady shot him a grateful glance. “Thank you, Mr. St. John.”
Godric gingerly took the warm, panting little body, pretending not to notice when the animal drooled on his sleeve. He held out his free hand to Great-Aunt Elvina.
The lady descended, then frowned, glancing around. “What a very disreputable area this is.” She brightened. “Won’t dear Lady Cambridge be scandalized when I write her about it!”
Still holding the pug, Godric helped Sarah out and then took Lady Margaret’s hand, warm, trembling, and alive, in his. She kept her gaze lowered as she stepped from the carriage, the curl of hair bobbing gently against her face. The scent of something sweet lingered in the air. She made a show of shaking out her skirts when she stood on the cobblestones.
Damn it, she wasn’t looking at him. On impulse, he reached out and took that wayward tendril between thumb and forefinger, firmly tucking it behind her ear.
She glanced up, her lips parted, so near he could see the swirls of gold in her pretty brown eyes, and he suddenly identified her scent: orange blossoms.
Her voice was breathless when she spoke. “Thank you.”
His jaw flexed. “Not at all.”
Godric turned and mounted the steps to the home, knocking briskly.
The door was opened almost at once by a butler who looked haughty enough to be attending a royal palace rather than an orphanage in St. Giles.
Godric nodded to the man as he entered. “My wife and her friends are here for the Ladies’ Syndicate meeting. I wonder if Makepeace is about?”
“Certainly, sir,” the butler intoned. He took hats and gloves from the ladies as they entered in a flurry of skirts and chatter behind Godric. “I’ll fetch Mr. Makepeace.”
“No need, Butterman.” Winter Makepeace appeared in a doorway farther down the hall. He wore his usual black, although the cut of his clothes had improved noticeably since his marriage to the former Lady Beckinhall. “Good morning, St. John. Ladies.”
“Oh, Mr. Makepeace.” Lady Margaret caught his hand, smiling brightly, and Godric frowned, feeling a flicker of jealousy—which was completely ridiculous. His wife seemed to smile at everyone brightly. “May I present my sister-in-law and my dear great-aunt?”
Introductions were made. Makepeace inclined his head gravely to each lady rather than making the more usual sweeping bow, but neither Sarah nor Great-Aunt Elvina seemed at all put out.
The manager of the home turned to Godric and the panting pug in his arms, his eyes lit with a gentle amusement. “Who is your companion?”
“Her Grace,” Godric said curtly.
Makepeace blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
Godric began to shake his head when a small white terrier came barreling down the hallway. The animal was making a sound rather like a bumblebee, but on sight of Her Grace, the terrier erupted into hysterical barking.
Her Grace yipped back—very shrilly—while both Lady Margaret and Sarah made futile shushing noises, and if Godric wasn’t mistaken, Great-Aunt Elvina aimed a surreptitious kick at the terrier.
Makepeace stepped to the side, opened a door into the sitting room, and cocked an eyebrow. Godric nodded and in a few brisk movements deposited the pug back in Great-Aunt Elvina’s arms and ushered the three ladies into the sitting room where the meeting was being held.
Makepeace shut the door so swiftly the terrier nearly lost her nose. He glanced at Godric. “This way.”
The home’s manager turned toward the staircase at the back of the hall. “Really, that was most inhospitable of you, Dodo.”
The terrier, trotting adoringly by his side, tilted her head, perking up one ear as if listening attentively.
“You’re quite lucky I don’t lock you up in the root cellar.” Makepeace’s voice was calm and reasoned as he chided the dog.
Godric cleared his throat. “Does, er, Dodo always attack visitors?”
“No.” Makepeace shot Godric a sardonic look. “Only canine visitors receive that welcome.”
“Two new girls came to our home last night,” Makepeace continued as he mounted the wide marble staircase, his tone bone-dry. “Deposited here by the notorious Ghost of St. Giles.”
Makepeace flashed him an intelligent glance. “I thought you might like to meet our newest inmates.”
“Naturally.” At least his trip to the home wasn’t without purpose.
“Here we are,” Makepeace said, holding open a door to one of the classrooms.
A glance inside showed rows of girls sitting on benches, dutifully copying something down on their slates. At the far end of one of the rows sat Moll and her elder sister, their heads together. Godric was glad to see them whispering to one another. Chatting seemed to be a uniquely feminine sign of happiness—Lady Margaret talking with the other ladies in the carriage flashed through his mind—and he hoped it meant the girls would settle happily at the home.
“Moll and Janet McNab,” Makepeace said in a low voice. “Moll is too young for this class, but we thought it best not to separate the sisters in their first few days here.” He closed the door and strolled farther along the deserted hall. All the children appeared to be at lessons behind the closed doors. “The girls are orphans. Janet has told me that their father was a night-soil man who met an unfortunate end when one of the mounds of…er…dirt on the outskirts of London fell and buried him.”
Godric winced. “How awful.”
“Quite.” Makepeace paused at the end of the corridor. There were two chairs here, arranged beneath a window, but he made no move to sit. “It seems the McNab sisters were on the streets for nearly a fortnight before they ran afoul of the lassie snatchers.”
“Lassie snatchers,” Godric repeated softly. “I seem to remember that name being bandied about St. Giles a while back. You dealt with them, didn’t you?”
Makepeace glanced cautiously down the hall before lowering his voice. “Two years ago, the lassie snatchers kidnapped girls off the streets of St. Giles.”
Godric raised his brows. “Why?”
“To make lace stockings in an illegal workshop,” Makepeace said grimly. “The girls were made to work long hours with very little food and with frequent beatings. And they weren’t paid.”
“But the lassie snatchers were stopped.”
Makepeace nodded his head curtly. “I stopped them. Found the workshop and cut off the head of the snake—an aristocrat by the name of Seymour. I haven’t heard of them since.”
Godric narrowed his eyes. “But?”
“But I’ve heard disturbing rumors in the last few weeks.” Makepeace frowned. “Girls disappearing off the streets of St. Giles. Gossip about a hidden workshop manned by little girls. And worse: my wife has found evidence of the lace silk stockings they make being hawked to the upper crust of aristocratic society.”
Isabel Makepeace was still a formidable force in society, despite her marriage to the manager of an orphanage.
Godric said, “Did you kill the wrong man?”
“No.” Makepeace’s look was grim. “Seymour was quite proud of his crime, believe me. He boasted of it before I ended his life. Either someone else has started up an entirely different operation or—”
“Or Seymour wasn’t the only one in the original business,” Godric murmured.
“Either way, someone must find out who is behind the lassie snatchers and stop them. I’m out of the business since my marriage.” Makepeace paused delicately. “I assume that you’re still operating. Although, with your wife now in town—”
“She won’t be for long,” Godric said crisply.
Makepeace arched an eyebrow but was far too discreet to inquire further.
Godric’s lips thinned. “What about the other?”
Makepeace shook his head. “He hunts only one thing in St. Giles; you know that. He’s been monomaniacal for years now.”
Godric nodded. They were all loners, but the third of their bizarre trilogy was near obsessive. He would be no help in this matter.
“It’s up to you alone, I’m afraid,” Makepeace said.
“Very well.” Godric thought a moment. “If Seymour did have a partner, do you have any idea who it might be?”
“It could be anyone, but were I you, I’d begin with Seymour’s friends: Viscount d’Arque and the Earl of Kershaw. All three were as thick as thieves before Seymour’s death.” Makepeace paused and looked at him intently. “But, St. John?”
Godric raised his brows.
Makepeace’s face was grim. “You also need to find this workshop. Last time, some of the girls nearly didn’t make it out alive.”
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