It was said that he knew every pleasure a woman desired and exactly how to give it to her. Hart wouldn’t ask what the lady wanted, and she might not even know herself, but she would understand once he’d finished. And she’d want it again.
He had power, wealth, skill, and intelligence, and the ability to play upon his fellow man—or woman—to make them do anything he wanted and believe it to be their own idea.
Eleanor Ramsay knew firsthand that all of this was true.
She lurked among a flock of journalists in St. James’s Street on an unexpectedly mild February afternoon, waiting for the great Hart Mackenzie, Duke of Kilmorgan, to emerge from his club. In her unfashionable gown and old hat, Lady Eleanor Ramsay looked like any other lady scribbler, as hungry for a story as the rest of them. But while they craved an exclusive story about the famous Scottish duke, Eleanor had come to change his life.
The journalists snapped alert when they spied the tall duke on the threshold, his broad shoulders stretching out a black coat, Mackenzie plaid swathing his hips. He always wore a kilt to remind everyone who set eyes on him that he was, and always would be, Scottish first.
“Your Grace!” the journalists shouted. “Your Grace!”
The sea of male backs surged past Eleanor, shutting her out. She jostled her way forward, using her folded parasol without mercy to open her way to the front of the pack. “Oh, I do beg your pardon,” she said, when her bustle shoved aside a man who tried to elbow her in the ribs.
Hart looked neither left nor right as he pulled on his hat and walked the three steps between the club and the door of his open landau. He was master of not acknowledging what he did not wish to.
“Your Grace!” Eleanor shouted. She cupped her hands around her mouth. “Hart!”
Hart stopped, turned. His gaze met hers, his golden stare skewering her across the twenty feet of space between them.
Eleanor’s knees went weak. She’d last seen Hart on a train, almost a year ago, when he’d followed her into her compartment, his hand warm on her arm, and made her take a gift of money from him. He’d felt sorry for her, which had rankled. He’d also tucked one of his cards into the collar of her bodice. She remembered the heat of his fingers and the scrape of the card, with his name, against her skin.
Hart said something to one of the pugilist-looking bodyguards who waited next to his carriage. The man gave Hart a nod then turned and shouldered his way to Eleanor, breaking a path through the frantic journalists.
“This way, your ladyship.”
Eleanor clutched her closed parasol, aware of the angry glares around her, and followed. Hart watched her come, his gaze never moving. It had been heady, once upon a time, to be the center of that very studied attention.
When she reached the landau, Hart caught her by the elbows and boosted her up and inside.
Eleanor’s breath went out of her at his touch. She landed on the seat, trying to slow her pounding heart, as Hart followed her in, taking the seat opposite, thank heavens. She’d never be able to get through her proposition if he sat too close to her, distracting her with the heat of his very solid body.
The footman slammed the door, and Eleanor grabbed at her hat as the landau jerked forward. The gentlemen of the press shouted and swore as their prey got away, the landau heading up St. James’s Street toward Mayfair.
Eleanor looked back over the seat at them. “Goodness, you’ve made Fleet Street unhappy today,” she said.
“Damn Fleet Street,” Hart growled.
Eleanor turned around again to find Hart’s gaze hard on her. “What, all of it?”
This close to him, she could see the gold flecks in his hazel eyes that gave him the eagle look, and the red highlights in his dark hair from his Scottish ancestry. He’d cropped his hair shorter since she’d seen him last, which made his face sharper and more forbidding than ever. Eleanor was the only one among the crowd of journalists to have seen that face soften in sleep.
Hart stretched one big arm across the seat, his large legs under the kilt crowding the carriage. The kilt shifted upward a little, letting her glimpse thighs tanned from all the riding, fishing, and tramping about he did on his Scottish estate.
Eleanor opened her parasol, pretending that she was relaxed and happy to be in the same carriage as the man to whom she’d once been engaged. “I apologize for accosting you on the street,” she said. “I did go to your house, but you’ve changed your majordomo. He did not know me, nor was he by any means impressed by the card you gave me. Apparently ladies make a habit of trying to gain your house by false pretenses, and he assumed me one of those. I really cannot blame him. I could have stolen the card, for all he knew, and you have always been quite popular with the ladies.”
Hart’s gaze didn’t soften under her barrage of words as it used to do. “I will speak to him.”
“No, no, don’t shout at the poor man too much. He wasn’t to know. I expect you tell him very little, in your maddening way. No, I came all this way from Aberdeen to talk to you. It’s really quite important. I called in at Isabella’s, but she was not at home, and I knew that this could not wait. I managed to get it out of your footman—dear Franklin, how he’s grown—that you’d be at your club, but he was too terrified of the majordomo to let me wait in the house. So I decided to lurk and catch you when you emerged. It was such fun, pretending to be a scribbler. And here I am.”
She threw out her hands in that helpless gesture Hart remembered, but woe to any man who thought this woman helpless.
Lady Eleanor Ramsay.
The woman I am going to marry.
Her dark blue serge dress was years out of date, her parasol had one broken spoke, and her hat with faded flowers and short veil perched lopsidedly on her head. The veil did nothing to hide the delphinium blue of her eyes or the spread of sweet freckles that ran together when she wrinkled her nose, all the while smiling her little smile. She was tall for a woman, but filled out with generous curves. She’d been breathtakingly beautiful at age twenty, when he’d first seen her flitting about a ballroom, her voice and laughter like music, and she was beautiful now. Even more so. Hart’s hungry gaze feasted on her, he imbibing her like a man who’d gone without sustenance for a very long time.
He forced his voice to remain steady, casual even. “What is this important thing you need to speak to me about?” With Eleanor it could be anything from a lost button to a threat to the British Empire.
She leaned forward a little, the hook at the top of her collar coming loose from the frayed fabric. “Well, I cannot tell you, here, in an open carriage plodding through Mayfair. Wait until we are indoors.”
The thought of Eleanor following him into his house, breathing the same air he did, made his chest constrict. He wanted it, he craved it. “Eleanor . . .”
“Goodness, you can spare me a few minutes, can’t you? Consider it my reward for distracting those rabid journalists. What I have discovered could border on the disastrous. I decided it best I rush down and tell you in person instead of write.”
It must be serious to make Eleanor leave her ramshackle house outside Aberdeen, where she lived with her father in genteel poverty. She went few places these days. Then again, she could have some covert motive in that head of hers. Eleanor could do nothing simply.
“If it is that important, El, for God’s sake, tell me.”
“Goodness, your face looks like granite when you scowl. No wonder everyone in the House of Lords is terrified of you.” She tilted back the parasol and smiled at him.
Soft flesh beneath his, her blue eyes half closed in sultry pleasure, Scottish sunshine on her bare skin. The feeling of moving inside her, her smile as she said, “I love you, Hart.”
Old emotions rose swiftly. He remembered their last encounter, when he hadn’t been able to stop himself touching her face, saying, “Eleanor, whatever am I going to do with you?”
She popping up here before he was ready would force him to alter the timing of his plans, but Hart had the ability to rearrange his schemes with lightning speed. That’s what made him so dangerous.
“I will tell you in due time,” Eleanor went on. “And give you my business proposition.”
“Business proposition?” With Eleanor Ramsay. God help him. “What business proposition?”
Eleanor, in her maddening way, ignored him to look around at the tall houses that lined Grosvenor Street. “It has been so long since I’ve been to London, and for the Season, no less. I am looking forward to seeing everyone again. Good heavens, is that Lady Mountgrove? It is, indeed. Hello, Margaret!” Eleanor waved heartily to a plump woman who was alighting from a carriage in front of one of the painted doors.
Lady Mountgrove, one of the most gossipy women in England, fixed her mouth in a round O. Her stare took in every detail of Lady Eleanor Ramsay waving at her from the Duke of Kilmorgan’s carriage, the duke himself planted opposite her. She gaped a long time before lifting her hand in acknowledgment.
“Goodness, I haven’t seen her in donkey’s years,” Eleanor said, sitting back as they rolled on. “Her daughters must be, oh, quite young ladies now. Have they made their come-outs yet?”
Her mouth was still kissable, closing in a little pucker while she awaited his answer.
“I haven’t the faintest bloody idea,” Hart said.
“Really, Hart, you must at least glance at the society pages. You are the most eligible bachelor in all of Britain. Probably in the entire British Empire. Mamas in India are grooming their girls to sail back to you, telling them, You never know. He’s not married yet.”
“I’m a widower.” Hart never said the word without a pang. “Not a bachelor.”
“You’re a duke, unmarried, and poised to become the most powerful man in the country. In the world, really. You should give a thought to marrying again.”
Her tongue, her lips, moved in such a sultry way. The man who’d walked away from her had to be insane. Hart remembered the day he’d done so, still felt the tiny smack of the ring on his chest when she’d thrown it at him, rage and heartbreak in her eyes.
He should have refused to let her go, should have run off with her that very afternoon, bound her to him forever. He’d made mistake after mistake with her. But he’d been young, angry, proud, and . . . embarrassed. The lofty Hart Mackenzie, certain he could do whatever he pleased, had learned differently with Eleanor.
He let his voice soften. “Tell me how you are, El.”
“Oh, about the same. You know. Father is always writing his books, which are brilliant, but he couldn’t tell you how much a farthing is worth. I left him to amuse himself at the British Museum, where he is pouring over the Egyptian collection. I do hope he doesn’t start pulling apart the mummies.”
He might. Alec Ramsay had an inquisitive mind, and neither God nor all the museum authorities in the land could stop him.
“Ah, here we are.” Eleanor craned to look up at Hart’s Grosvenor Square mansion as the landau pulled to a halt. “I see your majordomo peering out the window. He looks a bit dismayed. Do not be too angry with the poor man, will you?” She put her fingers lightly on the hand of the footman who’d hurried from Hart’s front door to help her down. “Hello again, Franklin. I have found him, as you see. I was remarking upon how tall you’ve become. And married, I hear. With a son?”
Franklin, who prided himself on his forbidding countenance while guarding the door of the most famous duke in London, melted into a smile. “Yes, your ladyship. He’s three now, and the trouble he gets into.” He shook his head.
“Means he’s robust and healthy.” Eleanor patted his arm. “Congratulations to you.” She folded her parasol and waltzed into the house while Hart climbed down from the landau behind her. “Mrs. Mayhew, how delightful to see you,” he heard her say. He entered his house to see her holding out her hands to Hart’s housekeeper.
The two exchanged greetings, and were talking about, of all things, recipes. Eleanor’s housekeeper, now retired, apparently had instructed her to obtain Mrs. Mayhew’s recipe for lemon cakes.
Eleanor started up the stairs, and Hart nearly threw his hat and coat at Franklin as he followed. He was about to order Eleanor into the front drawing room when a large Scotsman in a threadbare kilt, loose shirt, and paint-spattered boots came barreling down from the top floor.
“Hope you don’t mind, Hart,” Mac Mackenzie said. “I brought the hellions and fixed myself a place to paint in one of your spare bedrooms. Isabella’s got the decorators in, and you wouldn’t believe the racket—” Mac broke off, a look of joy spreading across his face. “Eleanor Ramsay, by all that’s holy! What the devil are you doing here?” He raced down the last of the stairs to the landing and swept Eleanor off her feet into a bear hug.
Eleanor kissed Mac, second youngest in the Mackenzie family, soundly on the cheek. “Hello, Mac. I’ve come to irritate your older brother.”
“Good. He needs a bit of irritating.” Mac set Eleanor down again, eyes glinting with his grin. “Come up and see the babies when you’re done, El. I’m not painting them, because they won’t hold still; I’m putting finishing touches on a horse picture for Cam. Night-Blooming Jasmine, his new champion.”
“Yes, I heard she’d done well.” Eleanor rose on her tiptoes and gave Mac another kiss on the cheek. “That’s for Isabella. And Aimee, Eileen, and Robert.” Kiss, kiss, kiss. Mac absorbed it all with an idiotic smile.
Hart leaned on the railing. “Will we get to this proposition sometime today?”
“Proposition?” Mac asked, eyes lighting. “Now, that sounds interesting.”
“Shut it, Mac,” Hart said.
Screaming erupted from on high—shrill, desperate, Armageddon-has-come screaming. Mac grinned and jogged back up the stairs.
“Papa’s coming, hellions,” he called. “If you’re good, you can have Auntie Eleanor for tea.”
The shrieking continued, unabated, until Mac reached the top floor, dodged into the room from whence it issued, and slammed the door. The noise instantly died, though they could still hear Mac’s rumbling voice.
Eleanor sighed. “I always knew Mac would make a good father. Shall we?”
She turned and headed up to the next floor and the study without waiting for Hart. At one time, she’d become well acquainted with all the rooms in his house, and she apparently hadn’t forgotten her way around.
The study hadn’t changed at all, Eleanor noted when she entered. The same dark paneling covered the walls, and bookcases filled with what looked like the same books climbed to the high ceiling. The huge desk that had belonged to Hart’s father still reposed in the middle of the room.
The same carpet covered the floor, though a different hound dozed by the fire. This was Ben, if she remembered correctly, a son of Hart’s old dog, Beatrix, who’d passed on a few months after her engagement to Hart had ended. The news of Beatrix’s death had nearly broken her heart.
Ben didn’t open his eyes as they entered, and his gentle snore blended with the crackle of the fire on the hearth.
Hart touched Eleanor’s elbow to guide her across the room. She wished he wouldn’t, because the steel strength of his fingers made her want to melt, and she needed to maintain her resolve.
If all went well today, she’d not have to be close to him again, but she had to make the first approach in private. A letter could have gone too easily into the wrong hands, or be lost by a careless secretary, or burned unopened by Hart.
Hart dragged an armchair to his desk, moving it as though it weighed nothing. Eleanor knew better, though, as she sat on it. The heavily carved chair was as solid as a boulder.
Hart took the desk chair, his kilt moving as he sat, showing sinewy strength above his knees. Anyone believing a kilt unmanly had never seen Hart Mackenzie in one.
Eleanor touched the desk’s smooth top. “You know, Hart, if you plan to be the first minister of the nation, you might give a thought to changing the furniture. It’s a bit out of date.”
“Bugger the furniture. What is this problem that made you drag yourself and your father down from the wilds of Scotland?”
“I am worried about you. You’ve worked so hard for this, and I can’t bear to think of what it would do to you if you lost everything. I’ve lay awake and pondered what to do for a week. I know we parted acrimoniously, but that was a long time ago, and many things have changed, especially for you. I still care about you, Hart, whatever you may believe, and I was distressed to think that you might have to go into hiding if this came out.”
“Into hiding?” He stared at her. “What are you talking about? My past is no secret to anyone. I’m a blackguard and a sinner, and everyone knows it. These days, that’s almost an asset to being a politician.”
“Possibly, but this might humiliate you. You’d be a laughingstock, and that would certainly be a setback.”
His gaze became sharp. Gracious, he looked like his father when he did that. The old duke had been handsome, but a monster, with nasty, cold eyes that made you know you were a toad beneath his heel. Hart, in spite of it all, had a warmth that his father had lacked.
“Eleanor, cease babbling and tell me what this is all about.”
“Ah, yes. It’s time you saw, I think.” Eleanor dug into a pocket inside her coat and withdrew a folded piece of pasteboard. She laid this on the desk in front of Hart, and opened it.
Hart went still.
The object inside the folded card was a photograph. It was a full-length picture of a younger Hart, shot in profile. Hart’s body had been a little slimmer then but still well muscled. In the photograph, he rested his buttocks against the edge of a desk, his sinewy hand bracing on the desk’s top beside his hip. His head was bent as he studied something at his feet, out of the frame.
The pose, though perhaps a bit unusual for a portrait, was not the unique thing about the picture. The most interesting aspect of this photograph was that, in it, Hart Mackenzie was quite, quite naked.
“Where did you get this?” The question was hard, harsh, demanding. She had Hart’s full attention now.
“From a well-wisher,” Eleanor said. “At least that is how the letter was signed. From one as wishes you well. Grammar indicating the writer is not an educated person—well, at least educated enough to write a letter, but she obviously didn’t attend finishing school. I believe it a woman from the hand—”
“Someone sent it to you?” Hart interrupted. “Is that what you are coming around to telling me?”
“Indeed I am. Luckily for you, I was alone at the breakfast table when I opened it. My father was out classifying mushrooms. With the cook, who was not so much classifying mushrooms as choosing them for our supper.”
“Where is the envelope?”
Hart obviously expected her to hand the whole thing over to him on the spot. But that would spoil her plans.
“The envelope did not reveal much,” Eleanor said. “Hand delivered, not posted, brought to Glenarden from the train station. The stationmaster got it from a train conductor, who said it was passed to him by a delivery boy in Edinburgh. One line on the envelope—To Lady Eleanor Ramsay, Glenarden, near Aberdeen, Scotland. Everyone knows me and where I live, so in theory, even if the sender had dropped it somewhere between Edinburgh and Aberdeen, it would have reached me. Eventually.”
Hart’s brows drew down as he listened, again reminding Eleanor of his father. A portrait of the man had hung in this room, in the place of honor above the mantel, but it wasn’t there now, thank heavens. Hart must have taken it to the attics, or perhaps burned it. Eleanor would have burned it.
“What about the delivery boy in Edinburgh?” Hart asked.
“I did not have the time or the resources to conduct such an investigation,” Eleanor said, drawing her gaze back from the fireplace. A landscape of a kilted man fishing in the Scottish Highlands, painted by Mac, now hung there. “I plunked the last of our money on train tickets to London to come here and tell you that I’d be happy to look into the matter for you. If you will provide the funds and a small salary.”
His gaze fixed on her again, sharp and gold. “Salary.”
“Yes, indeed. That is the business proposition I mentioned to you. I want you to give me a job.”
Hart went silent, the ponderous clock across the room ticking loudly into the stillness.
It unnerved her to be in the same room with him, the world closed out, but not because he watched her with his assessing stare. No, what unnerved her was being alone with Hart, the man with whom she’d once been madly in love.
He’d been devilishly handsome, teasing and tender, and he’d courted her with a verve that had left her breathless. She’d fallen in love with him quickly, and she wasn’t sure she’d ever fallen out of love with him.
But the Hart she faced today was a different man from the one she’d been engaged to, and that worried her. The Hart who’d laughed so readily, who’d been animated and excited by life—was gone. In his place was a man even harder and more driven than before. He’d seen too much tragedy, too much death, too much loss. Gossip and newspapers had put it about that Hart had been relieved to be rid of Lady Sarah, his wife, but Eleanor knew differently. The bleak light now in Hart’s eyes came from grief.
“A job,” Hart was saying. “What are you up to, Eleanor?”
“Up to? Our ears in debt, of course.” She smiled at her joke. “Quite seriously, Hart, we need the blunt. Father is dear to me but a wee bit impractical. He believes we still pay the staff wages, but truth to tell, they stay and look after us because they feel sorry for us. Our food comes from their family’s gardens or charity from the villagers. They think we don’t know. You can call me an assistant to a secretary or some such, if you like. I’m sure you have several of those.”
Hart looked into the determined blue eyes that had haunted his dreams for years and felt something break open inside him.
She’d come like an answer to a prayer. Hart had planned to travel to Glenarden soon to convince her to marry him, knowing the pinnacle of his career was nigh. He’d wanted to win everything and present it to her on a platter, so she’d not be able to refuse. He’d make her see that she needed him as much as he needed her.
But perhaps this would be better. If he inserted into his life now, she’d grow so used to being there that when he put his hand out for her, she’d take it and not say no.
He could find some nominal employment for her, let her track down who had these photographs—she was not wrong that they might help his opposition make a fool of him—while he slowly closed his fist about her. So slowly that she’d not know he had her in his grasp until too late.
Eleanor would be with him, at his side, as she was now, smiling her red-lipped smile. Every day, and every night.
“Hart?” Eleanor waved a hand in front of his face. “Woolgathering, are you?”
Hart snapped his focus back to her, on the kissable curve of her mouth, the little smile that had once made him determined to have her. In all ways.
Eleanor tucked the photograph into her pocket. “Now, as to salary, it needn’t be large. Something to get us by, that’s all. And accommodations for myself and my father while we’re in London. Small rooms will be fine—we are used to scratching for ourselves, as long as the neighborhood is not too seedy. Father will walk anywhere alone, and I do not want street toughs bothering him. He’d end up trying to explain to his assailants how knives like the one with which they are trying to stab him first came to be made, and finish with a lecture on the best methods of tempering steel.”
“El . . .”
Eleanor went on, ignoring him. “If you do not wish to admit to engaging me for looking into who sent the photograph—and I can see why you’d need to be secretive—you can tell people that you’ve engaged me to do something else. Typing your letters, perhaps. I did learn to use a typing machine. The postmistress in the village was given one. She offered to teach spinster ladies how to type so that they might be able to find a job in a city instead of waiting in vain for a man to take notice of them and marry them. I, of course, could not move to a city without Father, who will never leave Glenarden for more than a few weeks at a time, but I learned the skill anyway, not knowing when it might become useful. Which it has. And anyway, you must give me a post so that I can earn the money to take us back to Aberdeen.”
Hart heard his voice fill the room, but sometimes the only way to stop her flow was to boom over it.
She blinked. “What?”
One curl dropped from beneath her hat and snaked down her shoulder, a red gold streak on her serge bodice.
Hart drew a breath. “Give a man a moment to think.”
“Yes, I know can run on. Father never minds. And I am a bit nervous, I must say. I was once betrothed to you, and now here we are, face-to-face, like old friends.”
Dear God. “We are not friends.”
“I know that. I said like old friends. One old friend asking another for a job. I’ve come here in desperation.”
She might say that, but her smile, her open look, spoke of eagerness and determination.
Once upon a time Hart had tasted that eagerness, her zest for life, and he longed to taste it again.
. . . To unbutton the buttons of her bodice, to open them slowly, to lean in and lick her throat. To watch her eyes go soft while he kissed the corner of her mouth.
Eleanor had been responsive. So loving and strong.
Dark need stirred in the places he’d kept it long buried, tantalizing and sharp. It told her he could lean down to Eleanor right now, pin her arms behind her on the straight-backed chair, take her mouth in a long, deep kiss . . .
Eleanor sat forward, the collar of her dress brushing her soft chin. “I’ll look for the photographs while you tell your staff you’ve taken me on to help with your pile of correspondence. You know you need everyone you can to help you with your never-ending goal of becoming prime minister. I gather that you are close?”
“Yes,” Hart said. Such a short answer to summarize his years of work and diligence, his countless journeys to assess the state of the world, the politicians he’d endlessly courted at endlessly dull gatherings at Kilmorgan Castle. But he felt the need, the obsession boil up in his brain. It drove him every day of his life.
Eleanor’s gaze had gone soft. “You come alive when you look like that,” she said. “Like you used to. Wild and unstoppable. I very much liked that.”
His chest felt tight. “Did you now, lass?”
“True, you’ve become a bit cold these days, but I am quite glad to see that the fire is still within you.” Eleanor sat back, practical once more. “Now, then, as to the photographs—how many were there in total?”
Hart felt his fingers press down on the desk, as though they’d go through the wood. “Twenty.”
“As many as that? I wonder if the person has them all, or where they obtained them. Who took them? Mrs. Palmer?”
“Yes.” He did not want to talk about Mrs. Palmer with her. Not now, not ever.
“I suspected so. Though perhaps whoever is sending them found them in a shop. Shops sell photographs to collectors—of all kinds of people and all kinds of themes. I’d think yours would have come to light long ago if so, but. . .”
Hart reined in his temper. “If you’ll stop talking for the space of a moment, I can tell you that I’ll give you the post.”
Eleanor’s eyes widened. “Well, thank you. I must say, I expected much more of an argument—”
“Shut it. I’m not finished. I won’t put you and your father in some crumbling rooms in Bloomsbury. You’ll stay here in the house, both of you.”
Now trepidation entered her gaze. Good. No more surety that she’d breeze in here and have it all her own way.
“Here? Do not be ridiculous. There’s no need.”
There was need. She’d walked in here, into his trap, and he’d not open it and let her go. “I’m not fool enough to turn you and your unworldly father loose in London. I have plenty of room here, and I’m rarely home. You’ll have the run of the place most of the time. Wilfred is my secretary now, and he will be here to tell you what to do. Take it or throw it away, El.”
Eleanor, for possibly the first time in her life, could not think of what to say. Hart was offering her what she wanted, the chance to help him, and—she hadn’t exaggerated—to bring home some much-needed money. Her father rarely noticed their poverty, but unfortunately, poverty noticed them.
But to live in Hart’s house, to breathe the air he breathed every night . . . Eleanor wasn’t certain she could do it without going mad. It had been years since their betrothal ended, but in some ways, the time would never be long enough.
Hart had turned the tables on her. He’d give her money to keep her from starving, but on his terms, in his way. She’d been wrong to think he wouldn’t.
The silence stretched. Ben rolled his big body over, groaned a little, and settled back into sleep.
“Are we agreed?” Hart spread his hands on the desk. Firm, strong hands with blunt fingers. Hands that worked hard but could be incredibly tender on a lady’s body.
“Actually, I’d love to tell you to go to the devil and walk off in a huff. But since I need the blunt, I suppose I must say yes.”
“You can say whatever you wish.”
They shared another stare, Eleanor looking into hazel eyes that were almost gold. “I do hope you intend to be away quite a lot,” she said.
A muscle moved in his jaw. “I’ll send someone to fetch your father from the museum, and you can move in at once.”
Eleanor drew her finger across the smooth surface of the desk. The room was dark with old-fashioned elegance but at the same time unwelcoming.
She moved her hand back to her lap and looked again into Hart’s eyes, never an easy thing to do.
“That should be acceptable,” she said.
“He’s making you do what?” Mac Mackenzie turned from his painting, brush out. A glob of Mackenzie yellow spattered on the polished boards at his feet.
“Papa, do be careful,” five-year-old Aimee said to him. “Mrs. Mayhew will scold something rotten if you get paint all over the floor.”
Eleanor cradled little Robert Mackenzie in her arms, his small body warm against her chest. Eileen, Mac and Isabella’s daughter, lay in a bassinet next to the sofa, but Aimee stood near Mac, hands behind her back while she watched her adopted father paint.
“The idea of the post was mine,” Eleanor said. “I can easily type away and earn money for my and my father’s keep. Father’s books are amazing works, but as you know, no one ever buys them.”
Mac listened to her rationale with a stare equal to Hart’s in intensity. He wore his usual painting kilt and boots, a red scarf around his head to keep paint out of his hair. Eleanor knew that Mac liked to paint without his shirt, but in deference to his children and Eleanor, he’d donned a loose smock heavily streaked with paint.
“But he expects you to work for him?”
“Really, Mac, I do it happily. Hart needs much help if his coalition party is to win. I want to help him.”
“So he made you think. My brother does nothing that is not underhanded. What is he playing at?”
“Honestly.” The photograph weighed heavily in her pocket, but Hart had asked her—and she agreed with him—to keep it secret from the rest of the family, for now. They’d be outraged that someone might be trying to blackmail Hart, but they’d also laugh. Hart had no wish to be a family joke. “I want the job,” Eleanor said. “You know how things are for Father and me, and I refuse to take anyone’s charity. Put it down to my Scots stubbornness.”
“He’s taking advantage of ye, lass.”
“He is Hart Mackenzie. He cannot help himself.”
Mac stared at her a moment longer, then he thrust his dripping paintbrush into a jar, strode across the room, and slammed open the door. Eleanor jumped to her feet, still holding the baby.
“Mac! There is no need . . .”
Her words were drowned out by Mac’s pounding boots on the stairs.
“Papa is angry with Uncle Hart,” Aimee said as the door swung slowly shut again. “Papa is often angry with Uncle Hart.”
“That is because your Uncle Hart is most maddening,” Eleanor said.
Aimee put her head on one side. “What does that mean? Maddening?”
Eleanor shifted Robert, who’d slept soundly through the outburst. Cuddling him filled something empty in her heart. “Maddening is when your Uncle Hart looks at you as though he listens to your opinion, then he turns around and does whatever he pleases, no matter what you’ve said. Your feel your throat closing up, and your mouth tightening, and you want to stamp your feet and shout. And you know that even if you do shout and wave your fists, it will do no good. That is what is meant by maddening.”
Aimee listened, nodding, as though storing the information for future use. She was Mac and Isabella’s adopted daughter, born in France, and hadn’t learned English until she was three. Collecting new words was her hobby.
Eleanor pressed a kiss to Robert’s head and patted the sofa next to her. “Never mind your Uncle Hart. Sit here, Aimee, and tell me all about what you and your mama and papa have been doing in London. And when my papa gets here, he’ll tell us all about the mummies at the museum.”
“I cannae believe you,” Mac shouted, his Scots blazing out with his anger.
Hart shut the cabinet that held the portrait he couldn’t seem to get rid of and looked around in irritation. Mac was in a fair rage, his clothes and fingers paint-streaked, the gypsy kerchief still on his head. Hart had known this would be coming, but still it irritated him.
“I gave her a nominal post with a salary and a place to live,” Hart said. “This is me being kind.”
“Kind? I heard you at Ascot, Hart—you said you were prepared to hang out your shingle for a wife. Is this how you’re going about it?”
Hart moved back to his desk. “This is my personal life, Mac. Stay out of it.”
“Personal, is it? When did that keep you out of my life? When Isabella left me, ye shouted at me something fierce. You all shouted at me—you and Cameron and Ian—”
Mac stopped. “Ian,” he said. A grin spread across his face. So like Mac, jumping from emotion to emotion without a pause in between.
“I don’t have to shout at you, do I?” Mac asked. “All I have to do is explain things to Ian. And then God have mercy on your soul.”
Hart said nothing, but he felt a qualm of disquiet. Ian, the youngest Mackenzie brother, did not understand subtlety. He could spell the word subtlety and give a dictionary meaning for it, but Ian couldn’t assimilate it, or practice it, or recognize it in others. Once Ian decided on a course of action, not all the devils in hell nor the angels in heaven could sway him from it.
Mac laughed at him. “Poor Hart. I look forward to watching that.” He pulled the kerchief from his head, smearing paint through his unruly hair. “I’m glad Eleanor’s come to torment you. But she can’t tonight. I’m taking her and her father home with me for tea, and Isabella will keep her long after that. You know women when they get to talking. They don’t stop for anything but unconsciousness.”
Hart hadn’t planned to be home that night, but he suddenly disliked the thought of Eleanor leaving the house. If he let her out of his sight, she might vanish, back to Glenarden, her refuge. A place that, despite its crumbling walls, always seemed to shut Hart out.
“I thought you had the decorators in,” he growled.
“I do, but we’ll squeeze. I only mind them banging while I’m trying to paint. I’ll give your best to Isabella.” Mac looked pointedly at Hart. “You’re not invited.”
“I’m going out anyway. See that Eleanor gets home safely, will you? London is a dangerous place.”
“Of course I will. I’ll escort her and her father myself.”
Hart relaxed a little—Mac would do it—but then Mac’s smile died. He walked to Hart and stood toe-to-toe with him, looking up the half-inch difference at his older brother.
“Don’t break her heart again,” Mac said. “If you do, I’ll pummel you so hard you’ll have to make your speeches to Parliament in a Bath chair.”
Hart tried to take the edge from his voice but couldn’t quite. “Just see that she gets home.”
“We’re Mackenzies,” Mac said, his gaze steady. “Remember that we break what we touch.” He jabbed a finger at Hart. “Don’t break this one.”
Hart didn’t answer, and finally, Mac went away.
Hart took a key from his desk drawer, returned to the cabinet that held his father’s picture, and locked it tightly closed.
Living in Hart’s house proved to be less distressing than Eleanor had feared, mostly because Hart was rarely in it.
Hart explained Eleanor’s presence to London at large by putting about the fiction that Earl Ramsay had come to London to conduct research at the British Museum for his next book. Hart had offered the impoverished Ramsay a room in his house, and naturally, the earl had been accompanied by his daughter-cum-assistant, Lady Eleanor. Mac and Isabella helped keep tongues from wagging by moving in themselves, children and all, a day after Eleanor’s arrival, their decorators having started on the bedchambers.
Hart told Wilfred that Eleanor was to type letters on the Remington typing machine he’d bought for Wilfred from America. She would also open and sort Hart’s social correspondence, help Wilfred arrange Hart’s social calendar, and assist Isabella in setting up Hart’s lavish entertainments. Wilfred nodded without much change of expression—he was used to Hart’s arbitrary and sometimes bizarre orders.
Lord Ramsay took living in Hart’s Grosvenor Square mansion in stride, but Eleanor found it difficult to get used to all the splendor. In Glenarden, the Ramsay house near Aberdeen, one never knew when a brick would tumble from a wall or rainwater would flood a passage. Here, no bricks were allowed to fall, no water to drip. Quiet, well-trained maids hovered at Eleanor’s beck and call, and footmen jumped to open every door Eleanor walked toward.
Lord Ramsay, on the other hand, enjoyed himself hugely. Ignoring the household’s usual hours, Lord Ramsay rose whenever he wanted to, invaded the kitchen for repast when he was hungry, then packed his notebooks and pencils in a little knapsack and strode off alone into London. The majordomo tried to explain that Hart kept the carriage standing by to take Lord Ramsay wherever he wished, but Lord Ramsay ignored him and walked to the museum every day or took an omnibus. He discovered that he loved the omnibus.
“Just imagine, Eleanor,” Ramsay said when he arrived home very late the second night of their stay. “You can go anywhere you wish for a penny. And see so many people. It’s quite entertaining after the isolation of home.”
“For heaven’s sake, Father, don’t tell Hart,” Eleanor said. “He expects you to behave like a peer of the realm and travel about in luxury.”
“Whatever for? I see much more of the city this way. Do you know, someone in Covent Garden tried to pick my pocket? No one’s picked my pocket before. The thief was only a child, can you believe it? A little girl. I apologized to her for my pocket’s being so empty, and then I gave her the penny I was holding for the omnibus.”
“What on earth were you doing in Covent Garden?” Eleanor asked worriedly. “That’s nowhere near the museum.”
“I know, my dear. I took a wrong turning and wandered quite a long way. That is why I am so late getting home. I had to ask many a policeman for directions before I found the way.”
“If you took the carriage, you wouldn’t get lost,” Eleanor said, putting her arms around her father. “Or have your pockets picked. And I wouldn’t worry so.”
“Nonsense, my dear, the policemen are most helpful. You have no reason to fret about your old papa. You just get on.”
He had a gleam in his eyes, the maddening one that told Eleanor that her father knew full well what he was doing but would play the absentminded old man as much as he liked.
While her father busied himself at his museum or riding the omnibus, Eleanor worked on her ostensible duties. She found that she enjoyed typing the letters Wilfred gave her, because they allowed her a glimpse into Hart’s life, albeit his formal one.
The duke is pleased to accept the ambassador’s invitation to the garden party on Tuesday next.
The duke regrets that his attendance at the gathering on Friday night will not be possible.
His Grace thanks his lordship for the loan of the book and returns it with gratitude.
Polite nothings and very unlike Hart’s style of delivery. But Hart didn’t actually write the responses—he scrawled yes or no on letters that Wilfred vetted, and shoved them back at him. Wilfred drafted the replies, and Eleanor typed them.
Eleanor could soon have made up the words herself, but Wilfred, proud old soul, thought this duty was one of his raison d’êtres, so Eleanor never offered to take over.
Just as well. She’d be tempted to type such things as: His Grace regrets he will be unable to attend your charity ball. Of course he won’t come, you silly cow, not after you called him a Scots turd. Yes, I heard you say that in Edinburgh last summer, and it got back to him. You really ought to guard your tongue.
No, better that Wilfred drafted the letters.
As for the photographs, Eleanor pondered what to do. Hart had said there’d been twenty photographs in all. Eleanor had been sent the one—she had no way of knowing whether the well-wisher had them all or only this one. And if only the one, where were the others? At night, alone in her bedchamber, she would take out the photograph and study it.
The pose showed Hart in perfect profile. The hand that leaned on the lip of the desk tightened all the muscles in his arm, his shoulder round and tight. Hart’s naked thighs held sinewy strength, and the head bowed in contemplation was by no means weak.
This was the Hart Eleanor had known years ago, the one she’d agreed without hesitation to marry. He’d had the body of a god, a smile that melted her heart, a sinful glint in his eyes that had been for her and her alone.
He’d always prided himself on his physique, kept fit by plenty of riding and walking, boxing, rowing, or whatever sport took his fancy at the moment. From what she’d glimpsed behind his kilt and coat, Hart had grown even more muscular and solid since this photograph. She toyed with the fantasy of snapping a photograph of him in this pose as he was now, and comparing the two.
Eleanor’s gaze finally roved to the thing for which she pretended she had no interest. In the picture, Hart’s phallus was partially hidden by his thigh, but Eleanor could see it—not erect, but full and large.
She remembered the first time she’d seen Hart bare—up in the summerhouse on Kilmorgan land, the folly that perched on a cliff with a wide view of the sea. Hart had removed his kilt last thing, his smile wicked when Eleanor realized he wore nothing under it. He’d laughed when her gaze couldn’t help but slide down his body to him erect and wanting her. She’d never seen a man unclothed before, let alone such a man.
She remembered the thump of her heart, the flush of her skin, the triumphant warmth to know that the elusive Lord Hart Mackenzie belonged to her. He’d laid Eleanor down on the blanket he’d thoughtfully packed for their outing and let her explore his body. He’d taught Eleanor all about what she liked that afternoon. He’d been right about everything.
Hart’s smile, his low laughter, the incredibly tender way he’d touched her had made her fall madly in love with him. Eleanor believed herself the most blessed of women, and she had been.
Eleanor sighed and tucked the photograph and her memories away, back into their hiding places.
She’d been living in Hart’s house three days when the second photograph came, this one hand delivered directly to her.
“For you, my lady,” Hart’s perfect parlor maid said, executing a perfect curtsey.
The envelope read: Lady Eleanor Ramsay, staying at number 8, Grosvenor Square. Same printing in the same careful style, but no seal, no indication from whence the letter had originated. The envelope was stiff and heavy, and Eleanor knew what must be inside.
“Who brought this?” Eleanor asked the maid.
“The boy, my lady. The one who usually brings messages to His Grace.”
“Where is this boy now?”
“Gone, my lady. He delivers all over the square and up to Oxford Street.”
“I see. Well, thank you.”
Eleanor would have to find the boy and put him to the question. She went back upstairs, shut herself in her bedchamber, drew a chair to the window for the light, and opened the envelope.
Inside was a piece of cheap paper sold by the hundredweight at any stationary shop, and a piece of folded pasteboard. Inside the pasteboard card lay another photograph.
In this one, Hart was standing at wide window, but what showed outside was rolling landscape, not city. His back was to the photographer, his hands on the windowsill, and again, he wore not a stitch.
A broad back replete with muscle slimmed to a backside as firm as firm could be. Hart’s arms were tight, taking his weight as he leaned on the windowsill.
The photograph was printed on stiff paper, much like a carte de visite, but without the mark of a photographer’s studio. Hart had likely had his own apparatus for taking portraits, and his former mistress, Mrs. Palmer had taken them. Eleanor could not imagine Hart trusting such things to anyone else.
Mrs. Palmer herself had told Eleanor what sort of man Hart Mackenzie truly was. A sexual rogue. Unpredictable. Demanding. Thought it all an adventure, his adventure. The woman in the equation was simply means to his pleasure. She had not gone into detail, but what she’d hinted had been enough to shock Eleanor out of her complacency.
Mrs. Palmer had died two and a half years ago. Who, then, possessed these damning photographs, why was he or she sending them to Eleanor, and why had they waited until now? Ah, but now, Hart was poised to push Gladstone out of his seat and take over the government.
The note was the same as the first. From one as wishes you well. No threats of blackmail, no promises to betray Hart, no demand for payment.
Eleanor held the letter up to the light, but she saw no sign of secret messages or clues in the thin watermark, no cleverly hidden code around the edges of the words. Nothing but the one sentence printed in pencil.
The back of the picture held no clues, and neither did the front. Eleanor fetched a magnifying glass and studied the grains of the photograph, on the off chance that someone had printed tiny messages there.
The enlarged view of Hart’s backside was fine, though. Eleanor studied that through the glass for a good long time.
The only way to speak to Hart alone—indeed, at all—was to ambush him. That night, Eleanor waited until her father had retired to his bedchamber, then she went to the hall outside Hart’s bedroom, one floor below hers. She dragged two chairs from the other side of the hall to the bedchamber door, one chair for Eleanor to sit on and one for her feet.
Hart’s house was larger and grander than most in Mayfair. Naturally. Many London townhouses were two rooms deep and one room wide, with a staircase hall opening from the front door and running up through the entire house. Larger houses had rooms tucked behind the staircase and perhaps a second room in front of the staircase on the upper floors.
Hart’s mansion was wide and deep, having rooms on either side of the staircase as well as behind it. The ground floor held the public rooms—a double sitting room on one side, a grand dining room on the other, and a fairly large ballroom running across the back of the house.
The open staircase wound upward through the house in a large, elegant rectangle, the landings forming a gallery around each floor. The first floor above the ground floor held more drawing rooms, a two-room deep library, and another private dining room for the family. The next floor contained Hart’s large study, the smaller study in which Eleanor and Wilfred worked, and Hart’s bedchamber across the back of the house, where Eleanor waited now. She, her father, and Mac and Isabella, occupied rooms above that, with the top floor now holding a makeshift nursery and studio.
Eleanor sat with her back against Hart’s bedchamber door and stretched her feet across to the other chair. A gaslight hissed above her, and she opened a novel from the lending library and started to read.
The novel was a thrilling one, with a blackhearted villain determined to bring down the innocent heroine, the hero always stuck in a jungle fighting tigers or some such thing whenever the heroine was in trouble. Never around when you needed them, heroes. The hiss of the gaslight was soothing, the air warm, and her eyes drifted shut.
She jumped awake, her book falling with a crash, to find Hart Mackenzie standing over her.
Eleanor scrambled to her feet. Hart remained where he was, unmoving, his cravat off and dangling from one hand. He was waiting for her to explain herself—typical.
He was dressed in Mackenzie plaid and formal coat, his shirt open to reveal the damp hollow of his throat. His eyes were red-tinged with drink, his face dark with whiskers. He smelled heavily of cheroot smoke, night air, and a woman’s perfume.
Eleanor hid her dart of dismay at the perfume, and cleared her throat. “I’m afraid that the only way I can speak to you, Hart, is to lie in wait like a tiger . . . in a jungle. I wish to discuss the photographs with you.”
“Not now,” Hart said.
He shoved aside the chair and made to open his bedchamber door, but Eleanor stepped in front of him. “My, you are in a temper. You’d never speak to me about them, if you had your way. The house is asleep. We can be private. I have things to ask you.”
“Tell Wilfred. He’ll set an appointment with me.”
Hart opened the door and moved past her into his room. Eleanor marched in right after him before he could shut the door.
“I’m not afraid of your bedchamber, Hart Mackenzie. I’ve been in it before.”
Hart gave Eleanor a look that made her heart pound. He tossed the cravat and collar onto a chair and moved to a table and a decanter of brandy. “If you want it all over Mayfair that you chased me into my bedroom, by all means, stay and close the door.”
Eleanor left the door open.
“You haven’t changed the furniture in here either,” she said, keeping her voice light. “The bed is positively medieval. And quite uncomfortable as I recall.”
Hart slanted her another glance as he sloshed whiskey into a glass and clinked the stopper back to the decanter. “What do you want, Eleanor?” he asked, an edge to his voice. “I’ve had a hell of a night.”
“To talk about the photographs, as I said. If I’m to find them, or discover what this person means by sending them to me, I need to know more.”
“Well, I dinnae want to talk about the be-damned things right now.”
She started to answer, then stopped, taking in his dishevelment, his angry frown. “You are very cross tonight, Hart. Perhaps the lady disappointed you.”
Hart stared at her over the glass he’d started to raise. “What lady?”
“The one whose perfume you positively reek of.”
His brows went up. “You mean the Countess von Hohenstahlen? She’s eighty-two and drenches herself in scents that would make a tart blush.”
Hart drank down the whiskey in one swallow. His face changed as the smooth Mackenzie malt did its work.
He clunked the glass to the table. “I’m tired, and I want to go to bed. We’ll speak in the morning. Ask Wilfred to make an appointment with me.”
Humph. As Eleanor turned to the door, she sensed Hart’s relief behind her that she was leaving. That relief made her angry.
Eleanor went on to the door, but at the last minute, she closed it and turned around. “I do not wish to wait,” she said.
Hart had thrown off his coat, and now, caught unawares, his eyes betrayed his exhaustion. “Christ, Eleanor.”
“Why are you so reluctant to speak of the photographs? They could damage you.”
Hart let himself collapse into a chair, kilt draping over his legs, and reached again for the decanter. A gentleman should never sit in a lady’s presence without asking her to sit first. But Hart simply poured himself more whiskey and rested his elbows on the chair’s arms as he lifted the glass.
“I would have thought you’d like to see me damaged.”
“Not like this. You don’t deserve to be laughed at. The queen would be quite disparaging, and she has much influence—although she and the Prince Consort used to collect photographs of nudes, did you know that? Not many have seen them, but she once showed them to me. She loves to talk about Albert. She rather worshiped him.”
Her words ran out as Hart watched her, his golden gaze hard on her.
“What do I deserve, then, lass?” His words slurred the slightest bit, which meant he was well on the way to being thoroughly drunk. Hart rarely showed any effect of drink, so when he did, he was already far past inebriation. “What do I deserve, Eleanor?”
She shrugged. “You deserved me to break the engagement. At the time. Perhaps you didn’t deserve me not forgiving you for as long as I did, or me being too proud to even speak to you. But it’s done. We both have gone on with our lives. Apart. As it was meant to be.”
“Was it meant to be?” His voice was low, soft, a Mackenzie man’s bedroom voice.
“We’d not have rubbed on well, and you know it, Hart.” She circled her thumb and fingertips together. “Too many sparks.”
“Aye, you’ve got fire in you, lass, that is true. A temper.” The delicious Highland accent broadened as more whiskey went into him. “And fire of another kind. I’ve not forgotten that.”
Eleanor had not forgotten either. Hart had known exactly how to warm her, how to run his hands down her body and draw her to him, how to make her instigate the first kisses. Hart had known how to touch her, what to whisper into her ear, how to let his breath linger on her skin.
A lady should know nothing of men before her wedding night, but Eleanor had known everything about Hart Mackenzie. His well-muscled, hard body, the old scars that crisscrossed his back, the fire of his mouth on hers, the skill of his hands as he’d unbuttoned and unlaced her clothes.
Thrice he’d seduced her, and thrice she’d let him. Once at the summerhouse, once in this bedroom, and once in his bedchamber at Kilmorgan. They were betrothed, she’d reasoned. Where was the harm?
Hart sat in the chair across the room, drinking whiskey, but he might as well have been next to her, drawing his fingers down her spine again, making her shiver like he’d used to do.
Eleanor forced the pleasant memories away. She needed to stay focused, or she’d fall at his feet and beg him to make her shiver again. “About these photographs,” she said. “I saw nothing in either of them to give me a clue as to who sent them.”
He came alert. “Either of them? There’s another?”
“I received it this afternoon. Hand delivered to me here. I haven’t had the chance to question your delivery boy as to who gave it to him.”
Hart sat up in the chair, no longer looking inebriated. “Then that person knows you are here.”
“Gracious, the whole of England must know. Lady Mountgrove will have told everyone in it by now. She saw you bring me here, remember? To be sure, she’ll have been watching this house to see whether I left it again. Which I have, of course, but then I come right back. And stay.”
“I’ll question the delivery boy.”
Eleanor shook her head. “No need. The photographs are being sent to me. I’ll question him.”
Hart set the glass on the arm of the chair. “This person knows who you are and where you are, and I don’t like that.” He held out his hand. “Let me see the photograph.”
“Don’t be silly, I don’t carry it about with me. It’s upstairs in my chamber, hidden with the other. I can tell you that the picture is much the same as the first, except that you are looking out a window. From what I could see through said window, I believe you were at Kilmorgan Castle.”
He nodded. “Busy proving that the house was mine, I suppose. Showing myself that I wasn’t afraid to do anything in it.”
“The house wasn’t precisely yours at the time,” Eleanor said. “Your father must still have been alive then.”
“Alive, but away. A good time to do as I pleased.”
“The photographs are very well done, you know. Quite artistic. The pictures the queen and Prince Albert collected are also very tasteful, though it’s not the same thing. You posed for yours, yourself. The queen would never forgive that—a duke acting as a common artist’s model? Did Mrs. Palmer take all of them?”
“Yes,” the word was terse.
Eleanor opened her hands. “You see? This is exactly the sort of information I need. Mrs. Palmer might have left the collection to someone, or someone might have found them after her death. You really ought to let me into that house in High Holborn where she lived to look around.”
“No.” A loud, blunt, final syllable.
“But it’s not a bawdy house anymore, is it?” Eleanor asked. “Just a property you own. You sold the house to Mrs. Palmer, and she willed it back to you. I looked that up. Wills are public records, you know.”
Hart’s hand clenched around his glass. “El, you are not going to that house.”
“You ought to have put up my father and me there, you know. It would be much handier for the British Museum, and I could search it from top to bottom for more photographs.”
“Leave it alone, Eleanor.” His voice was rising, the fury unmistakable.
“But it’s just a house,” she said. “Nothing wrong with it now, and it might hold a vital clue.”
“You know good and well that it’s not just a house.” The anger climbed. “And stop giving me that innocent look. You’re not innocent at all. I know you.”
“Yes, I am afraid you know me a bit too well. Makes talking to you dashed difficult sometimes.”
Eleanor had a little smile on her face, making a joke of it, and Hart couldn’t breathe. She always did this, walked into a room and took the air out of it.
She stood primly before him in her blue dress that was out of fashion and simply made, her eyes ingenuous as she announced she should look through the house in High Holborn, the existence of which had wedged them apart.
No, not wedged. Batted Hart aside like a cricketer whacking one all the way into the tea tents.
Eleanor had been quite decorous about it after her initial outburst, she with all the right on her side. She could have sued Hart for taking her to his bed, for ruining her, for violating any of the numerous terms in their complicated betrothal contract.
Instead, she’d said good-bye and walked out of his life. Leaving a great, gaping hole in it that had never been filled.
Hart had forgotten all about the pictures until Eleanor turned up a few days ago to slide one across his desk to him.
“If this person is a blackmailer, El, I want you to have nothing more to do with it. Blackmailers are dangerous.”
Her brows rose. “You’ve had dealings with them before, have you?”
Too bloody many times. “Attempting to blackmail the Mackenzie family is a popular pastime,” Hart said.
“Hmm, yes, I can see that. I suppose there are those who believe you’ll pay to keep your secrets out of the newspapers or from being whispered into the wrong ears. You and your brothers have so many secrets.”
And Eleanor knew every single one of them. She knew things no one else in the world did.
“All these blackmailers have one thing in common,” Hart said. “They fail.”
“Good. Then if this is a blackmailer, we will see him off as well.”
“Not we,” he said firmly.
“Be reasonable, Hart. Someone sent the photos to me. Not to you, not to your enemies, not to your brothers, but to me. I think that has some significance. Besides, why send them at all, free and clear, with no demands for money?”
“To show you that they have them and make demands for the rest.”
She nibbled her lip. “Perhaps.”
Hart did not give a damn about the bloody photographs right now. Not with Eleanor rolling her red lip under her teeth and making Hart want to bite it for her.
“You are cruel, El.” His voice went quiet again.
Her brows drew together into a delicious little frown. “Cruel? Why on earth do you say that?”
“You haven’t spoken to me for years. Suddenly you gallop down to London declaring you’re here to save me like some benevolent angel. Did you turn around one day last week and decide that you’d forgiven me?” He could hope.
“Of course not. I began to forgive you years ago. After Sarah died. I felt so horrible for you, Hart.”
He stopped, cold working its way through the whiskey. “That was nearly eight years ago.”
“Yes, I know that.”
“I never noticed you forgiving me,” he said, his voice tight. “No letters, no visits, no telegrams, no declaration to my brothers or Isabella.”
“I said that’s when I began to forgive you. It took much longer than that to make all the anger go away. Besides, you were Duke of Kilmorgan by then, well ensconced behind ducal barriers, and quite on your way to wresting power from anyone who had it. You also returned to Mrs. Palmer—I may live in a backwater, but trust me, I am well informed of all you do. And the third reason I never made indication is because I had no idea whether you’d care for my forgiveness or not.”
“Why would I not care?”
The empty look in his eyes made Eleanor go soft. Going soft was dangerous around Hart Mackenzie, but drink had erased his hardness, giving her a glimpse inside his shell.
She found it alarmingly blank. What had happened to him?
“You courted me to gain influence over my father’s connections and cronies,” she said. “I knew that. It is the same reason you married Sarah, and I imagine the same reason you’ll take your next wife. Whether or not I forgave you all your past sins might not have been of the remotest interest to you.”
Hart came out of the chair. Eleanor backed away. She wasn’t afraid of him, but he was drunk, she knew she easily angered him, and Hart was a very large man.
“I told you,” he said. “Nothing I said to you while I was courting you was a lie. I liked you, I wanted you . . .”
“Yes, I did rather enjoy being seduced by you.” Eleanor held up her hand, palm out, and unbelievably, he stopped. “I forgave you, because we were both very young, very arrogant, and a bit stupid. But life moves on. I am likely one of the only people to know how much of a blow Sarah’s death was to you. And your son’s death. And, indeed, Mrs. Palmer’s. She was rather awful, and I am very angry with her for what she did to Beth and Ian, but I know you cared for her. Losing someone you’ve cared about for a very long time is quite painful. I do feel sorry for you.”
“Mrs. Palmer died two years ago,” he said rigidly. “We are still not up to the present day.”
“I am trying to explain. Why on earth would I think you would be pleased for me to turn up on your doorstep, bleating that I’d forgiven you? The photograph was a godsend, because it gave me the excuse to come here. I did not lie when I said money was a bit tight, so I thought I might as well ask you for a job to go with it. You gave me that hundred pounds last year, but such things don’t last forever, and the house needed many repairs. Going hungry so that your loved ones can eat sounds romantic, but I assure you, it quickly becomes tiresome. Your cook is quite gifted. I’ve feasted well these last few days.”
“But you did ask me . . .”
“For God’s sake, will you stop?”
Eleanor blinked at him, but when he only closed his mouth, she drew a breath.
“Very well,” she said. “If you’d prefer me to be succinct, I am here because: item one, I need the position; item two, I’m annoyed that someone would try to hurt you by means of the photographs; item three, I would like us to be friends, with no hard feelings between us.”
Hart clutched the empty glass until the facets pressed into his fingers. Her eyes were enormous, blue like delphiniums in the sunshine.
Friends, no hard feelings.
She held out a salve, with a smile, offering peace. She knew more about him than anyone else in the world, including his brothers, and she’d just said she was sorry for him. Here he was, then, the beast in the tower with the princess petting his head.
“As for the photographs.” Eleanor’s voice cut through his drink-soaked brain. “Who knew about them besides you and Mrs. Palmer? I still think I ought to go to the house in High Holborn and look about, or talk to some of the ladies who used to live there—”
“No, you will bloody well leave it alone!”
Eleanor looked at him, her lips parted, surprise in her eyes, but no fear. Eleanor had never feared him, something that had amazed and intrigued the young Hart. The entire world thought him dangerous, unpredictable, terrifying, but not Eleanor Ramsay.
Now she was ripping the bandages off his wounds, making the blood flow anew, when Hart didn’t want to feel anything ever again.
“Eleanor, why are you in here, making me talk about all this? Making me think about it?” And he was too drunk to stop the whirling memories.
“Oh, dear.” She took a step toward him. “Hart, I am sorry.”
Eleanor reached for his hand. Hart felt the air between her fingers and his warm, as though they touched before the contact. Anticipation. He needed her touch.
Eleanor stopped the movement and let her hand fall, and something inside him screamed.
His idea that he could coolly court her again was insane. Hart could never be cool with her, never.
Eleanor said nothing. One red gold curl drooped over her forehead, the only strand not tightly braided in place.
Hart wanted to thread his fingers through her hair and pull it loose, feel it tumbling over his hands. He’d scoop her to him and stop her words with kisses. Not tender, sweet kisses but needy, demanding ones.
He needed to taste her, to find her fire, to not let her leave this room tonight. He wanted to loosen the prim bodice and scrape his teeth across her bare shoulder, wanted to leave his mark on her white throat.
He imagined the salt scent of her skin, her pleasant moan as he licked her, the dark jolt in his heart as she put her hands up to protest.
If he kissed her, he’d make her stay, have her bodice crumpled around her waist, her corset unlaced. He’d touch her in slow strokes, hands on her body, relearning her heat.
He’d held back with her when they’d been engaged, but Hart knew that if took her this night, he’d not hold back. He was drunk, frustrated, and in deep pain. He’d teach her things that would shock her, and he’d not let her go until she’d done them back to him.
His need tightened like a net around him, a need he’d not felt in years. His wild sexual yearnings had vanished into the vast emptiness that was Hart Mackenzie, or so he’d believed. That need snaked through him now and mocked his self-control.
The yearnings didn’t go away, he realized. They only went dormant. Until tonight when they were kicked into roaring by black-lashed eyes and a curl against a sweetly freckled forehead.
“Get out,” Hart said in a harsh voice.
Eleanor’s red lips popped open. “What?”
“I said, get out!”
If she stayed, Hart wouldn’t be able to stop himself. He was too drunk for control, and God only knew what he’d do to her.
“Gracious, Hart, you have turned hard.”
She didn’t understand how hard. Picturing himself pinning Eleanor on the bed, holding her by her wrists drawn over her head, feeling her soft breath while she moaned in pleasure—had him hard as granite.
“Get out, and leave me alone.”
Eleanor didn’t move.
Hart snarled, turned, and hurled his crystal goblet into the fireplace. Glass shattered and leftover droplets of whiskey sprayed, the fire catching them and bursting into tiny blue flames.
Hart heard Eleanor’s swift footsteps behind him, felt the draft as the door was flung open, heard the click of her heels in the gallery. Running. Away from him.
Hart let out his breath, closed the door, and turned the key in the lock. He moved back to the decanter and poured another large measure of whiskey into a clean glass. His hands were shaking so he could barely raise the glass to his lips to drink.
Hart opened his eyes to sunshine pounding through the window and a sound in his head like a saw scraping granite.
He was facedown on the bed, still in shirt and kilt, a whiskey glass an inch from his outstretched hand. The last swallow had spilled from it, leaving a sharp-smelling spot on his coverlet.
Hart’s mouth felt as though it had been stuffed with cotton, and his eyes weren’t focusing. He made the supreme effort of raising his head, and discovered that the sawing sound came from his valet, a young smooth-mannered Frenchman he’d hired when he’d promoted Wilfred, stropping a razor over a steaming bowl of water.
“What the devil time is it?” Hart managed to croak.
“Ten o’clock in the morning, Your Grace.” Marcel prided himself on speaking English with no trace of accent. “The young lady and her father are packed and ready. They’re downstairs waiting for the carriage to take them to the station.”
Half of Hart’s staff looked utterly shocked to see His Grace charge down the stairs in kilt and open shirt, his face dark with beard and his eyes bloodshot.
They must not know him well, Eleanor thought. Hart and his bachelor brothers used to get falling-down drunk in this house, sleeping wherever they dropped. The servants either became used to it or found a calmer place of employment.
The servants who’d been with him a long time barely glanced at Hart, going on about their business without breaking stride. They were the ones who’d become inured to working for Mackenzies.
Hart pushed past Eleanor, his clothes smelling of stale smoke and whiskey. His hair was a mess, his throat damp with sweat. He turned in the foyer and slammed his hands to either side of the door frame, blocking Eleanor’s way out.
Eleanor had seen Hart this disheveled and hung over after a night of revelry before, but in the past, he’d maintained his wicked sense of humor, his charm, no matter how rotten he felt. Not this time. She remembered the emptiness she’d seen in him last night, no trace of the sinfully smiling Mackenzie who’d chased twenty-year-old Eleanor. That man had gone.
No. He was still in there. Somewhere.
Lord Ramsay said from behind Eleanor, “Eleanor has decided we should return to Scotland.”
The new, cold Hart fixed his gaze on Eleanor. “To Scotland? What for?”
Eleanor simply looked at him. The splintering of glass, the Get out! still rang in her ears. The words had cut her, not frightened her. Hart had been working through pain, and the whiskey had sharpened it.
Please, something in his eyes whispered to her now. Please, don’t go.
“I asked you, why?” Hart repeated.
“She hasn’t given a reason,” Lord Ramsay answered. “But you know how Eleanor is when she is determined.”
“Forbid her,” Hart said, words clipped.
Her father chuckled. “Forbid? Eleanor? The words do not belong in the same sentence.”
It hung there. Hart’s muscles tightened as he held on to the door frame. Eleanor remained ramrod straight, looking into the hazel eyes that were now red-rimmed and haggard.
He will never ask, she realized. Hart Mackenzie commands. He does not beg. He has no idea how to.
And there they always battled. Eleanor was not meek and obedient, and Hart meant to dominate every person in his path.
“Sparks,” Eleanor said.
Heat flared in Hart’s eyes. Hunger and anger.
They would have stood there all day, Hart and Eleanor facing each other, except that a large carriage rattled up to the front door. Franklin the footman, in his post outside, said something in greeting to the guest who stepped down from the carriage. Hart didn’t move.
He was still standing there, facing Eleanor in tableau, when his youngest brother, Ian Mackenzie, ran into the back of him.
Hart jerked around, and Ian stopped in impatience. “Hart, you are blocking the way.”
“Oh, hello, Ian,” Eleanor said around Hart. “How lovely to see you. Have you brought Beth with you?”
Ian prodded Hart’s shoulder with a large hand in a leather glove. “Move.”
Hart pushed away from the door frame. “Ian, what are you doing here? You’re supposed to be at Kilmorgan.”
Ian came all the way in, swept a gaze over Eleanor, ignored Hart, and focused his whiskey-colored eyes on a point between Eleanor and Lord Ramsay.
“Beth told me to send her love,” he said in his quick monotone. “You’ll see her at Cameron’s house when we go to Berkshire. Franklin, take the valises upstairs to my room.”
Eleanor could feel the fury rolling off Hart, but he would not shout at her with Ian standing between them.
Trust Ian to diffuse a situation, she thought. Ian might not understand what was going on, might not be able to sense the emotional strain of those around him, but he had an uncanny knack for controlling any room he walked into. He did it even better than Hart did.
Earl Ramsay was another who could diffuse tension. “So glad to see you, Ian. I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about some Ming dynasty pottery I’ve found. I’m a bit stuck on the markings—can’t make them out. I’m a botanist, a naturalist, and a historian, not a linguist.”
“You read thirteen languages, Father,” Eleanor said, never taking her gaze from Hart.
“Yes, but I’m more of a generalist. Never learned some of the specifics of the ancient languages, especially the Asian ones.”
“But we are going to Scotland,” Eleanor said. “On the moment. Remember?”
Ian started for the staircase. “No, you will stay here in London until we journey to Berkshire. All of us. We go every year.”
Hart, breathing hard, watched his brother go up. “This year is different, Ian. I’m trying to force an election.”
“Do it from Berkshire,” Ian said, and then he was gone.
“It sounds the best arrangement,” Alec Ramsay said with his usual cheerfulness. “Franklin, take our baggage back upstairs as well, there’s a good fellow.”
Franklin murmured, “Yes, your lordship,” scooped up as many bags as his young arms could carry, and hurried up the stairs.
“My lady?” One of the housemaids came in from the vestibule, looking calm, as though Eleanor and Hart hadn’t started a row in the middle of the front hall. “Letter’s come for you. Delivery boy gave it to me.”
Eleanor thanked her and took it, making herself not snatch it out of the maid’s hand. Aware of Hart’s breath on her cheek, Eleanor turned over the envelope.
For Lady Eleanor Ramsay, staying at number 8, Grosvenor Square. Same handwriting, same paper.
Eleanor burst past Hart and through the vestibule before he could stop her, and ran outside into a cold wind. She looked frantically up and down the street for sign of the delivery boy, but he had already disappeared into the traffic of the morning.
Eleanor sought Ian an hour later and found him in Hart’s study. Hart had left the house already, bellowing at Marcel to make him decent before he’d banged out to his club or to Whitehall, or wherever he’d gone. Hart never bothered telling anybody.
Ian sat at the desk, writing, and did not look up as Eleanor entered. His large frame filled the chair, his kilt flowing over his big legs. Across the room, his valet, Curry, stretched across a divan, snoring.
Ian did not look up when Eleanor approached the desk. His pen went on moving, swiftly, evenly, ceaselessly. Eleanor saw as she reached him that he wrote not words, but strings of numbers in long columns. He’d already covered two sheets with these numbers, and as Eleanor watched, Ian finished a third paper and started a fourth.
“Ian,” Eleanor said. “I beg pardon for interrupting . . .”
Ian continued to write, his lips moving as his hand roved down the page.
Curry yawned, moved his arm from over his eyes, and sat up. “Give up, yer ladyship. When ’e starts with the numbers, there’s no talking to ’im until ’e’s finished. Fibrichi’s sequences or something.”
“Fibonacci numbers,” Ian corrected him without looking up. “That is a recurrence sequence, and I do those in my head. This is not one.”
Eleanor pulled a straight-backed chair to the desk. “Ian, I very much need to ask you a favor.”
Ian wrote more numbers, pen moving steadily, without pause. “Beth isn’t here.”
“I know that. She couldn’t help me with this anyway. I need the favor from you.”
Ian glanced up, brows drawing together. “I am writing Beth a letter, because she isn’t here.” He spoke carefully, a man explaining the obvious to those too slow to keep up with him. “I’m telling her I arrived safely and that my brother is still an ass.”
Eleanor hid her smile at the last statement and touched the paper. “A letter? But this is all numbers.”
Ian redipped his pen, bent his head, and went back to writing. Eleanor waited, hoping he’d finish, look up again, and explain, but he did not.
Curry cleared his throat. “Beggin’ your pardon, your ladyship. When ’e’s at it like that, you’ll not get much more from ’im.”
Ian didn’t stop writing. “Shut it, Curry.”
Curry chuckled. “Except for that.”
Eleanor drew one of the finished pages to her. Ian had written the numbers in an even, careful hand, each two and five and six formed in an identical manner to all the other twos and fives and sixes, the rows marching in exactitude down the page.
“How will Beth know what the numbers mean?” Eleanor asked.
“Don’t get the pages out of order,” Ian said without looking up. “She has the key to decipher it at the other end.”
Eleanor slid the paper back where she found it. “But why are you writing to her in code? No one will read these letters but you and Beth, surely.”
Ian gave Eleanor a swift glance, his eyes a flash of gold. His lips twitched into one of his rare smiles, which vanished as he bent over the numbers again. “Beth likes it.”
The smile, the look, tugged at Eleanor’s heart. Even in the fleeting glance, she’d seen great love in Ian’s eyes, his determination to finish this letter and send it to Beth so she could enjoy decoding it. A way to tell her sweet nothings that no one else could understand. Private thoughts, shared between husband and wife.
Eleanor thought back to the day she’d first met Ian, when Hart had taken her to the asylum where Ian lived. She’d found a scared, lonely boy, arms and legs too large for his body, Ian enraged and frustrated because he could not make the world understand him.
Hart had been amazed that Ian had actually talked to Eleanor, had even let her slide an arm around his shoulders—briefly. Unheard of, because Ian hated to be touched.
That terrified youth was a far cry from the quiet man who sat here composing letters for his wife’s delight. This Ian could meet Eleanor’s eyes, if only for a moment, could let Eleanor in on a secret and smile about it. The change in him, the deep well of happiness he’d tapped, made her heart swell.
She also remembered the time that she and Hart had worked out a secret code between themselves. Nothing as elaborate as Ian’s number sequences, but a way for Hart to send Eleanor a message when he would be too busy to meet her that day. In whatever city they happened to be in, he’d leave a hothouse flower—usually a rose—lying in the corner of a garden where it would not be seen by the casual passerby. In London, it would be in Hyde Park at a certain crossing of paths, or in the garden in the middle of Grosvenor Square, under a tree nearest the center of it—Hart had made certain Eleanor had been given a key to the gardens very early in their courtship. In Edinburgh, he left them at their meeting spot in Holyrood Park.
Hart could have sent a note, of course, when he had to back out of an appointment with her, but he said he liked knowing she’d walk by their meeting spot and see the signal that he was thinking of her. Eleanor realized, of course, that he must have sent someone, an errand boy perhaps, to leave the rose for her, but it had never failed to melt her heart. She’d pick up the flower and take it home, keeping it to remind her of him until they met again.
The charmer, Eleanor thought. A way to disarm my anger whenever he had to put business first. The little flower with its hidden meaning had warmed her heart more than any apologetic note could have done, and he’d known that.
Even nowadays, the rare times she found herself in Edinburgh or London, she’d glance to that spot in Hyde Park or Holyrood, still looking for the sign. The pang when she did not see it always surprised her.
Eleanor sat for a time, letting the lump in her throat work out, while Ian went on writing, oblivious to her thoughts.
“I don’t see your key,” Eleanor said when she could speak again. “How do you know what numbers to write down?”
Ian shrugged. “I remember.”
Curry chuckled again. “Don’t look so amazed, your ladyship. ’E’s got a mind like a gearbox, and ’e knows every click it makes. It’s right frightening sometimes.”
“I can hear you, Curry,” Ian said, pen moving.
“Aye, and you know I don’t tell lies about you. Best just ask ’im, yer ladyship. ’E’ll be here awhile.”
Eleanor yielded to Curry’s wisdom. “The thing is, Ian, I want you to help me do something, and I don’t want you to tell Hart. I must ask that you promise to keep it from him. Will you?”
Ian said nothing, his pen scratching in the stillness.
“I’ll tell ’im to come ask you what you need,” Curry said. “When ’e’s come out of it.”
Eleanor rose. “Thank you, Curry. But not a word to His Grace, please. Hart can be . . . well, you know how he can be.”
Curry got himself to his feet and straightened his shirt. He cleared his throat. “A bit of advice, your ladyship,” he said. “Begging your pardon, and your pardon too, your lordship.” He turned his full gaze on Eleanor. “’Is Grace is a ’ard man, and ’e gets ’arder by the year. If ’e gets the prime minister-ship, the victory will make ’im like steel. I don’t think anyone will soften ’im then, not even you, your ladyship.”
Curry’s dark eyes held truth. He was not a finely trained servant from an agency, but a pickpocket Cameron had rescued from the streets years ago. Curry got away with his rudeness and outspokenness because he looked after Ian with as much tenderness as a father would a son. The brothers believed that Ian had survived the asylum because Cameron had sent Curry to him.
Ian finally set down his pen. “Curry doesn’t want to lose forty guineas.”
Eleanor stared at him. “Forty guineas?”
Curry turned brick red and didn’t answer. Ian said, “The wager that Hart will marry you. We made it at Ascot in June. Curry wagered forty guineas that you will say no. Ainsley wagered twenty on yes, and I wagered thirty. Mac said he bet thirty-five that you’d plant your heel in his backside. Daniel said . . .”
“Stop!” Eleanor’s hands went up. “Are you telling me, Ian Mackenzie, that there’s a wager going around about whether I will marry Hart?”
“Sorry, your ladyship,” Curry said. “You wasn’t supposed to know.” He shot Ian a glare.
Eleanor curled her hands to fists. “Is Hart in on this?”
“’Is Grace declined to participate,” Curry said. “So I’m told. I wasn’t there at the original wager. I came in after, like, when it went ’round the servants. But what I heard was that ’Is Grace mentioned the possibility of marrying, and your name came up.”
Eleanor lifted her chin, her heart pounding. “Absolute nonsense. What was between me and Hart was long ago. Finished.”
Curry looked embarrassed but not ashamed. Sorry he’s been caught, but not sorry he made the wager. “As you say, your ladyship.”
Eleanor made herself march to the door. “Please send word when you’re finished, Ian, and we’ll talk then.”
Ian had gone back to writing. Whether he’d heard Eleanor, she couldn’t be certain.
Curry made a perfect butler’s bow to her. “I’ll tell ’im, your ladyship. Leave it to me.”
“Thank you, Curry. And I will see to it that you win your wager.” With another glare at the small man, Eleanor lifted her chin, swept out of the room, and closed the door with a decided click.
Blast you, Hart Mackenzie, Eleanor thought as she strode down the Strand, the maid assigned to look after her hurrying in her wake. Starting a wager that you’ll marry me. She gathered from Curry’s explanation that Hart had thrown out the announcement like a fizzing bomb and stood back to watch what happened. That would be just like him.
She stopped and looked into a shop window, trying to catch her breath. She’d hopped out of the landau near St. Martin’s Lane, to the maid’s dismay, hoping a brisk walk would soothe her temper. It hadn’t quite worked.
As she looked at the secondhand clocks displayed, Curry’s exact words came back to her—’Is Grace mentioned the possibility of marrying, and your name came up.
The Mackenzie brothers had been quite keen that Eleanor should marry Hart when Hart first courted her, had rejoiced when Eleanor had accepted him. They’d been vastly sorry when Hart and Eleanor had parted, but Mac and Cam had told her, privately, that though they were unhappy about her decision, they completely understood. Hart was an arrogant bully and an idiot, and Eleanor was an angel for putting up with him as long as she had.
Perhaps the brothers had taken Hart’s suggestion that it was time he married again to mean he’d set his sights on Eleanor. Wishful thinking and high hopes. Hart, she was certain, had never mentioned a name. He’d have been too careful for that.
She would have to quiz Isabella closely about it. Isabella had much to answer for over this wager, and so did Ainsley, Cameron’s wife. Ainsley was one of Eleanor’s oldest friends, but neither she nor Isabella had bothered to mention this family betting pool to Eleanor.
Eleanor walked on, her anger somewhat lessened but not quite. She decided to push her troubling thoughts aside and focus on her errand at hand.
She’d decided to follow up on her idea that the photographs might have been found in a shop. People sold off photographs all the time to collectors or photography enthusiasts either privately or through shops dedicated to photos or photographic equipment. The Strand had several such places. Eleanor decided it worth her while to find out, subtly, whether any of them had acquired a collection of photographs of Hart Mackenzie in his altogether, and if so, to whom they’d sold them on to.
The first two shops Eleanor entered turned up nothing, though she found a landscape photograph she bought for tuppence to put in a little frame for her desk.
A bell tinkled as Eleanor pushed open the door of the third shop, which was dusty and dim. Her maid, a young Scotswoman called Maigdlin, plopped herself down on a chair just inside the door, sighing in relief. She was a bit plump and disapproved of tramping through streets when there was a perfectly good landau handy.
Eleanor seemed to be the shop’s only customer. The sign on the window announced that the proprietor specialized in photographs and other ephemera of actors and famous aristocrats. Boxes upon boxes stood on long tables, and Eleanor started patiently looking through them.
Stage actors were popular here, with entire boxes devoted to Sarah Bernhardt and Lillie Langtry. Photographs of Wild West traveling shows livened up one corner, with Buffalo Bill Cody and a string of dancing girls and trick ropers filling one box, another holding American Indians of various tribes in exotic costume.
Eleanor found pictures of prominent Englishmen on a table against the far wall—an old one of the Duke of Wellington with his characteristic nose, quite a few of Mr. Gladstone and the now-deceased Benjamin Disraeli. Pictures of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort were popular, along with photographs of the Princess Royal, the Prince of Wales, and other members of the queen’s large family. Another box was filled with photographs from The Great Exhibition.
Eleanor found several of Hart Mackenzie, Duke of Kilmorgan, but they were formal portraits. One was fairly recent—Hart standing tall in full Scottish dress, old Ben at his feet. One was a picture of him from the chest up, his broad shoulders filling the frame. The last was of Hart seated regally on a chair, his arm resting on the table beside him. He focused his eagle stare on the camera, eyes catching anyone who looked at him.
“Duke of Kilmorgan, miss? He’s very popular with our customers.”
Eleanor jumped as a tall, narrow-limbed young man with a pointed face and dark eyes looked at the photographs in her hand. She couldn’t help noticing that the angle of his glance took in the curve of her bodice and lingered there.
Eleanor took a step to the side. “You don’t have many of him.”
“Because his photographs sell as quick as we get them in. The young ladies, they find him handsome.”
Of course they did. How could they not? Even the stiff poses didn’t mar the attractiveness of Hart Mackenzie.
“I have others if you want to see them.” The clerk winked. “More discreet photographs, as they say. In the French style.”
Eleanor’s heart beat faster. The clerk was a bit repulsive, but Eleanor could not afford not to check what he had. She pulled the veil of her hat over her eyes and tried to appear shy. “Perhaps I ought to have a look at them.”
“In the back.” The clerk gestured toward a curtained doorway. “This way, miss.”
Eleanor looked at the heavy velvet draperies that blocked all view of the back room. “Can you not bring the photographs out to me?”
“Sorry, miss. Shopkeeper would have my head. He sells the things, but they stay in the back.”
He kept his arm out, pointing at the curtain. Eleanor drew a breath. She needed to know. “Very well. Lead on.”
The shopkeeper grinned, charged over to the doorway, and held the curtain up for her. Eleanor made a staying gesture to the maid and ducked into the back room, trying not to sneeze at the dust when the clerk let the drape fall.
The dim room looked innocuous—nothing more than a jumble of tables and boxes and much dust. Eleanor tried, and failed, to stop another sneeze.
“Sorry, miss. Here we are.”
The clerk pulled a pasteboard box out from the bottom of a haphazard stack and opened the lid. Inside lay a cluster of photographs, all of Hart, all showing much skin. Eleanor shook the box, scattering the photographs across its bottom and counted about a dozen of them.
Eleanor looked up and found the clerk standing an inch from her. He was breathing hard, his face perspiring.
“Are there any more?” she asked him in a businesslike tone.
“No, miss, that’s all.”
“Did you have more before? I mean, has someone else bought any others?”
The clerk shrugged. “Don’t think so. Shopkeeper bought these a while ago.”
“Who sold them to him?” Eleanor tried to keep the excitement from her voice, not wanting to arouse his suspicions. Or arouse anything else for that matter.
“Don’t know. I wasn’t here then.”
Of course not. That would have been too helpful.
Why no one had found or purchased these since their arrival was explained by the chaos of the room. The photographs would have been difficult to chance upon in this jumble, and if the proprietor refused to bring them to the front, a person would have to ask for them specifically.
“I’ll take them all,” Eleanor said. “These and the three I found in front. How much?”
“A guinea for the lot.”
Her eyes widened. “A guinea?”
“Told you, His Grace of Kilmorgan is popular. Now if I could find some of the Prince of Wales in his altogether, I could fund my retirement.” He chuckled.
“Very well. A guinea.” Hart had already started giving her wages for typing, but Hart could pay her back for this.
The clerk reached for the box. “I’ll just wrap that up for you.”
Eleanor reluctantly put the box into his hands and stood by while he folded brown paper around it and secured it with twine. She took the package he handed her and headed for the curtain, but the clerk stepped in front of her.
“The shop shuts for tea, miss.” His gaze roved down her primly buttoned bodice. “Perhaps you could stay and share it with me. We could look at more photographs together.”
Most decidedly not. Eleanor gave him a sunny smile. “A kind offer, but, no. I have many errands to attend to.”
He put his arm across the curtained door. “Think about it, miss.”
The clerk’s arm was thin, but Eleanor sensed a wiry strength in this young man. She was highly aware that only she and Maigdlin were in the shop, aware that she’d voluntarily gone alone into the back room with him. If Eleanor screamed for help, passersby were as likely to condemn her as to help her.
But for years, Eleanor had dealt with the inappropriate advances of gentlemen who thought her fair game. After all, she’d been engaged to the notorious Hart Mackenzie and afterward had retreated home to look after her father, never to marry anyone else. Had Mackenzie ruined her? Not a few people speculated on this. On occasion, a gentleman would do his best to find out.
Eleanor smiled up at the clerk, putting on her best innocent expression. He started to bend to her, lips puckered in a ridiculous way. He even closed his eyes, the silly man.
Eleanor ducked under his rather musty-smelling arm, spun herself out the doorway, and slammed the heavy velvet drape back into him. The clerk shouted and fought the dusty folds. By the time he’d untangled himself, Eleanor had slapped her coins onto the counter and was heading out the front door.
“Come along, Maigdlin,” she said as she hurried to the street. “We’ll go and have some tea.”
“My name’s Mary, my lady,” the maid said, panting behind her. “Housekeeper should have told you.”
Eleanor set a brisk pace west along the Strand. “No, it isn’t, Maigdlin Harper. I know your mother.”
“But Mrs. Mayhew says I should go by Mary. So the English can pronounce it.”
“Absolute nonsense. Your name is your name, and I’m not English. I’ll speak to Mrs. Mayhew.”
The maid’s disapproving look softened. “Yes, my lady.”
“Now, let us find some tea and sandwiches. And heaps of seedcake. His Grace will pay for it all, and I intend to enjoy myself.”
The house in High Holborn looked the same as it had the night Angelina Palmer had died, the night Hart had walked out of it forever.
The house was to let, but none had taken it this Season, perhaps because it lay too far from fashionable quarters for the rent Hart was asking. Or maybe he’d set it so high because he truly did not want anyone here. The house should sit empty until its ghosts died.
Hart told his coachman to return for him in an hour. The town coach rumbled away, and Hart opened the front door with his key.
Silence met him. And emptiness. The downstairs rooms had been cleared of furniture, save for a stray piece or two. Dust hung in the air, the cold heavy.
He’d not wanted to come here. But Eleanor’s assertion that a clue to the photographs might be found in the house made sense. Hart did not trust anyone in his employ enough to confide in them about the photographs, and he certainly didn’t want Eleanor there, so he’d come himself.
As he climbed the staircase he’d lightly run up as a younger man, he fancied he heard whispers of laughter, the trickle of whiskey, deep voices of his male friends, the high-pitched chatter of ladies.
The house had at first been a nest for Angelina Palmer, when Hart had been proud to be only twenty and yet to have caught such a ladybird. The house had then become his refuge. Here, Hart had been master, his brutal father far from it. The old duke hadn’t even known of the existence of the place.
The house had also become a point of contact during Hart’s rising political career. Hart had hosted gatherings here in which alliances had been formed and plans made, which resulted in Hart now being at the head of his coalition party. Here Hart had celebrated his first election to Commons at the tender age of twenty-two, he unwilling to wait until he inherited his seat in the Lords to start telling Parliament what to do.
Here, also, Angelina Palmer had lived to please Hart. When Hart’s friends had gone, and he and Mrs. Palmer were alone, Hart had explored the darker side of his needs. He’d been unafraid to experiment, and Angelina had been unafraid to let him.
Angelina at first had assumed that Hart, still at university, would be too young and inexperienced to prevent her from straying with whatever gentleman she wished. But when Hart discovered her transgressions, Angelina for the first time had seen Hart change from laughing, devilish rogue to the hard, controlling man he would become. Hart had looked her in the eye and said, “You are with me, and no other, whether I see you every night or once a year. If you cannot obey that simple stricture, then you will go, and I will advertise the vacancy of your position.”
He remembered Angelina’s reaction—irritation, then surprise, then shock when she realized he meant it. She’d humbled herself, begged his forgiveness, and Hart had taken his time about granting it. Angelina might be the older of the pair, but Hart held the power. Angelina was never to forget that.
Later, when Angelina had sensed that Hart was growing bored and restless, she’d brought in other ladies to keep him entertained. Anything, Hart realized now, to prevent him from leaving her.
Hart reached the first floor of the house, fingers skimming the banisters. The day Angelina had ruined his betrothal to Eleanor, Hart had quit the house and never lived there again. He’d sold it to Angelina—through his man of business—telling her to do whatever she liked with the place.
Angelina had turned it into an exclusive bawdy house that accepted only the best clientele, and had done very well out of it. Hart had returned for the first time five years later, right after Sarah’s death, seeking refuge from his grief.
Hart walked down the hall toward the bedroom where one of Angelina’s girls had died, his footsteps reluctant. Behind that door, he’d found Ian asleep and smeared with the young woman’s blood. He remembered his dry-mouthed terror, his fear that Ian had committed murder. Hart had done everything in his power to protect Ian from the police, but he’d let his deep-seated fear blind him for years as to what really had happened in that bedroom.
He shouldn’t have come here. The house held too many memories.
Hart opened the door to the bedroom, and stopped.
Ian Mackenzie stood in the middle of the carpet, gazing up at the ceiling, which was painted with nymphs and cavorting gods. A mirror hung on the ceiling, right over the place the bed used to be.
Ian stared up into the mirror, studying his own reflection. He must have heard Hart come in, because he said, “I hate this room.”
“Then why the devil are you standing in it?” Hart asked.
Ian didn’t answer directly, but then, Ian never did. “She hurt my Beth.”
Hart walked into the room and dared put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. He remembered finding Angelina with Beth, Beth barely alive. Angelina, dying, had told Hart what she’d done, and that she’d done it all for Hart. The declaration still left a bitter taste in his mouth.
“I am sorry, Ian,” Hart said. “You know I am.”
Eye contact was still a bit difficult for Ian with anyone but Beth, but Ian took his gaze from the mirror and directed it at Hart. Hart saw in Ian’s eyes remembered fear, worry, and anguish. They’d almost lost Beth that night.
Hart squeezed Ian’s shoulder. “But Beth’s all right now. She’s at your house in Scotland, safe and sound. With your son and baby daughter.” Isabella Elizabeth Mackenzie had been born late last summer. They called her Belle.
Ian ducked out from under Hart’s hand. “Jamie walks everywhere now. And he talks. He knows so many words. He’s nothing like me.” His voice rang with pride.
“Why aren’t you in Scotland with your beloved wife and children, then?” Hart asked.
Ian’s gaze drifted to the ceiling again. “Beth thought I should come down.”
“Why? Because Eleanor was here?”
Dear God, this family. “I wager Mac rushed out and sent Beth a wire as soon as Eleanor turned up,” Hart said.
Ian didn’t answer, but Hart knew the truth of it.
“But why have you come here, today?” Hart went on. “To this house, I mean?” Ian was sometimes pulled to places that had frightened or upset him, such as his father’s private study at Kilmorgan, where he’d witnessed their father kill their mother in a fit of rage. After Ian’s release from the asylum, Hart had found him in that room many times, Ian sitting huddled behind the desk where he’d hidden that fateful day.
Ian kept his gaze on the mirror as though it fascinated him. Hart also remembered that, because Ian had trouble with lies, he’d learned to be very good at simply not answering questions.
Oh, bloody hell. “Ian,” Hart said, his rage boiling up with nightmare force. “Tell me you didn’t bring her here.”
Ian finally looked away from the mirror, but he never looked at Hart. He wandered across the room to the window and peered out at the fog, his back firmly to his brother.
Hart swung away and strode into the hall. He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted. “Eleanor!”
End of Excerpt
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Excerpt of The Duke's Perfect Wife Copyright © 2012 by Jennifer Ashley