Noah Jordan misses the life he once led as a spy so when he’s asked by his former superior to head to the countryside and investigate a potential murder, he jumps at the chance. He doesn’t expect to meet Marion Hawthorne, a young woman his suspected murderer is interested in taking as his wife.
In an effort to help her… and to get closer to the fascinating lady, Noah asks for her help in his investigation. But as they grow closer, their desire grows and suddenly Noah has a harder and harder time remembering any duty, any promise or any future he ever imagined without her.
“Get your mind out of the game and into the parlor, Woodbury,” Noah Jordan admonished himself as he paced the sitting room of the Ives family.
He groaned. Impossible. He had been trying to focus on the impending arrival of the woman he was courting, but his errant thoughts continually drifted to the letter in his pocket.
He fingered the parchment restlessly before he took a seat near the fire, but he didn’t need to withdraw the envelope to know each and every word that was written inside. They were imprinted on his brain. His former employer, Lord Golding wanted him back in the field. To play the spy just one last time.
It was an opportunity Noah had immediately grasped. After being removed from active duty one year before, he’d been increasingly consumed by ennui. Duty required he participate in the boring practices of the ton. One of which was finding a proper wife. Just the thought made him grimace. Courting was boring as hell. He shuttered to think what marriage would be like. Night after night with the same woman, only escaping to play a hand of cards or discreetly visit a mistress.
He groaned inwardly.
He forced his frown into an awkward smile when the door opened and Lady Charlotte Ives entered. As always, she was the epitome of grace and classic beauty. Every golden lock was in place and her gown matched the blue of her eyes to perfection.
Despite all that, she did very little to make his blood burn.
He rose to place a perfunctory kiss on her perfumed hand. “Good afternoon, Lady Charlotte.”
“Good afternoon, Lord Woodbury,” she replied as she took her place on the settee.
He flinched at the sound of his father’s title coming from her lips. Despite the old man’s death six months before, Woodbury still seemed to belong to him. Noah had always been more comfortable with the title Lockhart. But those carefree days were over. Now he was the Marquis of Woodbury and he had to behave, and marry, accordingly.
“I do hope there is nothing amiss with you.” Charlotte’s smooth voice jerked him from his musings. “When you asked to meet with me you seemed quite urgent. Is everything well with your family?”
“Yes.” With a nod, he took the tea she offered him. “My family is quite well, thank you for asking. Audrey and her husband are here in London for the summer. My mother is still adjusting to life alone, but she has her charitable work in Woodbury. And Ginny and her husband are on their estate in Northern York.”
Charlotte smiled at the quick recounting of Noah’s ever changing family, though it seemed to him that her expression was a little less than interested.
“I’m pleased to hear they are all so well. But I still wonder about your need to meet with me today.” She folded her hands in her lap.
“I wanted to inform you that I shall be leaving London for a short time. I have business to attend to in my shire.”
She tilted her head but he couldn’t read her expression. “How long will you be gone, my lord?”
“Not very long. Perhaps a month.” He leaned forward to stare into her eyes and hoped, not for the first time, that he would see something within their depths that captured him.
He leaned back with a small sigh. “When I return, I will be making an appointment with your father. Then I’d like to speak to you about a matter of great importance.”
A blush tinged her pale cheeks pink. It was clear they both knew the subject of which he spoke.
“I look forward to that discussion then, my lord.”
“As do I.” He hoped he sounded sincere. This assignment would mark the end of his previous life. When he’d done his duty for Lord Golding he would settle into his life as Marquis. One that included a new wife.
He smiled and was surprised when she didn’t return it, but instead seemed distant. “Is there something troubling you about my news?”
She snapped her gaze back to his immediately. “I have no right to question your decisions.”
He arched an eyebrow. “But I value your opinion. Over the past few months I’ve come to rely on your counsel. Tell me what it is that worries you.”
She stood and wrung her hands. “My lord, for the past few months you have courted me in every way that is proper and decent. And I have looked forward to your presence in the ballroom and in this drawing room. But…”
He frowned at her hesitation. Here Charlotte was about to say the only thing that had ever interested him and she paused. “But?”
“You do have a reputation, my lord, that is hard to ignore,” she finished, almost apologetically. “And I wouldn’t like to look the fool in front of my friends or Society.”
His frown deepened. Of course Charlotte knew of his reputation, who didn’t? He’d never made it any secret that he enjoyed the entertainments of London, from horses to drink to beautiful women. Enjoyments made more accessible by his life as a secret agent.
“I would never make you look a fool,” he said. “Have I behaved in some way that has done so?”
“No, at least not yet. But I wonder if this trip to your shire is really a way to…to finish off your days as a rake and a bachelor.”
He leaned back in surprise. He hadn’t thought Charlotte would even have such observant thoughts in her pretty head, let alone dare to voice them.
“My dear Lady Charlotte-” Standing, he dared to lean over and touch her hand. “You believe I’m off to carouse in the country as a last-ditch celebration of my bachelorhood?”
She delicately pulled her hand away. “Perhaps. My lord, I am not as naive as I may appear. I realize after you marry…whomever you marry…you will have your dalliances. But they will be private, not something that would shame your wife. But a public display when it is well-known you seek my attentions could lead to great embarrassment. And I do fear that is what you seek while you travel.”
He smiled his reassurance. “I am going to Woodbury to take care of some business for a friend, a man who has helped me in more ways than I can ever repay. I assure you my visit is not to sow any wild oats.”
At least not the kind she meant. Instead, he was sowing the wild oats of adventure. He could only hope one last turn as an unofficial spy would help him shake the desire for excitement from his blood so he could be a good Lord and Master to his estate and family.
“And what if I hear otherwise, my lord?” Her voice was suddenly very soft.
“You won’t,” he guaranteed. “My days as a rake are over, and my days as a respectable Marquis have begun.”
She nodded slowly. “I hope that is so, my lord.”
Then her directness faltered and she dipped her head to return to the subservient miss who he had courted over the past few months. “And now our allotted visit has passed. I wish you good fortune on your trip to Woodbury and a swift return to London.”
“Charlotte, if you wish I could stay and we could talk more about this.” Somehow he hoped she would say yes and perhaps hold his interest.
Instead, she crinkled her eyes as if confused by such a request. “And why would I wish such an improper thing?”
It was clear she truly didn’t want him to remain. With a sigh, he bowed deeply and wished her a good day.
The moment he was back in his carriage and speeding toward his London estate, he dismissed Charlotte from his thoughts. Already his mind spun on the mission ahead of him. A simple one really.
One of his tenants had been married to a much younger woman who was the only daughter of an associate of the head of the War Department. The woman had died under strange circumstances, and her father wished to know if she’d been murdered. Though it wasn’t a matter of national security, Lord Golding had taken an interest in helping his friend and called upon Noah. He was the natural choice of investigator. He could return to Woodbury and ask questions without raising suspicions.
As Noah swung down from the carriage and strode into his house to make the final preparations for his departure, the final wisps of concern over Charlotte Ives and the prison of marriage faded from his mind.
For now he was totally focused on solving a murder.
Marion Hawthorne shoved at the creaking carriage window with all her might.
“Open,” she ordered with a groan as she cast a sidelong glance toward her father. He was buried in his paperwork and didn’t seem to notice her struggle, let alone offer to help with the uncooperative window. Typical.
Finally it opened a crack and a thin stream of cool air blew into the stuffy vehicle. Marion swiped at her brow as she drew in long gulps. How she hated travel.
Why had her father dragged her along on his business to Woodbury? Usually he couldn’t have cared less how she passed her time. She had given up being hurt by that fact a long time ago, and taken advantage of the freedom his lack of interest afforded her.
“There it is, my girl,” he said across from her, as he set his papers to the side. He wiped some of the dust from the interior window with his shirtsleeve. “There is Josiah Lucas’s home, Toppleton Square. Isn’t it a beauty?”
Marion looked outside with a shrug. It didn’t seem to be anything special to her, only a big house on a modest plot of land. Just like a hundred others they had passed in their recent travels. “It appears fine enough. Though I doubt if anyone cares what my opinion of his estate is.”
Her father looked at her hard. “You should be more concerned with your betters and your equals, Marion.” He turned his fat face away. “You never know where fate will lead you.”
“Fate,” she muttered under her breath. She was confident her father couldn’t hear her. Not with his bad ear turned her way. “I-I’ll make my own fate, thank you very much.”
“What was that?”
“Nothing.” She gave him a sweet and utterly false smile. “I was just saying how right you were.”
He arched a disbelieving eyebrow. “You mind that willful tongue, my girl. Josiah Lucas is an important man, and I don’t want you offending him.”
“Then why did you bring me?” she asked, again just under her breath.
With a sigh, she turned to look out the window again. The house now loomed up before them. Her father’s eyes lit up with anticipation…and what she was sure was a touch of fear. But the fear couldn’t have been real. She had never known her father to be afraid of anyone before.
When the carriage stopped, he hardly waited for the footman to open the door. He didn’t turn to aid his daughter, so she took the hand a servant offered and stepped down with a sigh of relief. She did hate a carriage.
As her father shifted his considerable weight from foot to foot in anticipation, the massive mahogany front door swung open. A man appeared in its shadow. Marion squinted in the afternoon sun to see him better, curious about this man who could agitate her father so.
When he stepped onto the wide, covered terrace, she was disappointed to see he was just an ordinary man. An older man, at that. At least her father’s age, but probably a handful of years older. His dark eyes were hard to read from so far away, but they were most definitely focused on her rather than his business associate. It gave Marion a strange shiver and she adjusted her lacy shawl to better cover her arms.
“Mr. Hawthorne,” Lucas said with a thin smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “You have arrived at last. And I see you’ve brought the item we discussed.”
“Yes.” Her father’s voice suddenly grew cold. “I brought it.”
“Well, come inside out of the heat and we’ll make a proper greeting.” Lucas motioned them through the door.
To her surprise, Marion’s father offered her his elbow. It had been years since he’d shown her anything that resembled civility. After a wary pause, she took his arm and they followed their host inside.
Mr. Lucas led them to a sitting room where tea was already laid out for them. The small party sat and a maid poured the fragrant brew.
“Now that we are comfortable, Mr. Hawthorne, do introduce me to your charming companion,” Lucas said.
Marion shivered under the other man’s scrutiny. At closer proximity she could see his eyes were steely gray and at the moment very focused on her. His hard gaze made her uncomfortable, and she turned to look at a large painting above the mantelpiece. It was of a girl about her age. Marion wondered if this was their host’s daughter and if the young lady still remained at home. Any company would be better than that she currently shared.
“This is my daughter, Marion Hawthorne,” her father said. “Marion, this is Josiah Lucas, a…business associate of mine.”
“I’m very pleased to meet you.” Marion gave him the expected smile, then took another sip of her tea.
“As I am to meet you. I must say, Walter, if you had told me just how lovely your daughter was, I would have sent for you earlier.” Lucas nodded in her direction as if she were to take the comment as a compliment. When she didn’t smile at his pretty words, his nostrils flared a bit.
Her father’s ruddy face darkened an even brighter red, but he said, “Thank you. She gets her looks from her mother.”
Marion winced at the bitter way he said the word mother. Fourteen years after Ingrid Hawthorne’s death, Marion’s father continued to despise her, though he’d never given Marion a reason why.
“Well…” Her father seemed anxious to change the subject. “How are things in Woodbury, Josiah? I hear your new Marquis has not yet paid a visit to the shire.”
Lucas’s face fell. “No. The old Marquis has been dead and in the ground for six months now and yet the young man hasn’t come to Woodbury to inspect the property nor visit the tenants or the villagers. Still, we may be happy for Noah Jordan’s absence.”
“Why is that?” Marion asked.
It wasn’t that she was particularly interested, but she’d heard a malice in her host’s voice that surprised her. Her natural curiosity made her wonder what would cause such strong emotions.
Mr. Lucas gave her another of those leering smiles. They practically dripped with lurid interest.
“Well, my dear, if you must know, our new Marquis has something of a reputation both in London and abroad. Seems he is good with racing and women of a certain type. Those men are seldom as talented with the running of an estate. We’ll find out soon enough. He has sent word he will be arriving any day now.”
“Perhaps we shall have the pleasure of meeting him,” Marion’s father chimed in. His face lit up at the thought of rubbing elbows with an important person in the ton.
“Perhaps.” Lucas’s face transformed to one of conceit. “After all, he is interested in touring the shire and making the acquaintance of the important people who reside here. What am I, if not a vital part of Woodbury’s future? He’s already sent a letter wishing to meet with me.”
Marion stifled a yawn. Here she’d thought she was going to hear something interesting about the Marquis, something to pass her time thinking about while she spent a few dreary weeks in Woodbury. Instead all she’d learned was that the new Marquis was nothing more than a washed up rake that could most likely barely stay on a horse in his inebriated state.
“…a captivating combination of danger and romance …” – Pearl’s World of Romance