The Greek isle of Mykonos: August 1811
Alexander Sylvester Bracken, the Marquess of Tavistock, heir to the Duke of Bedford, on no account considered himself a hero. In all his twenty-five years, he’d never rescued anyone, let alone a young girl. Her sorrowful cry filled the still night air, unsettling creatures both big and small. The sound drifted down the stairs from the rooms above with fear imbued in every note. It was as if she was desperate to be heard over the din from the drunken men in the tavern below.
The girl’s father thought he was here simply to repay a debt of honor. And that was true, but Alex was also here for vengeance.
He knew who would be coming for the girl.
Slowly, so as not to draw attention to himself, he moved his head, easing muscles now corded with tension as he lay on the stained tabletop pretending he was comatose from drink. His tattered clothes were soaked with sweat. At three in the morning the cicadas haunting the evening air were adding to the night’s disturbing symphony. The smell from the nearby dock was overpowering. From under semiclosed eyes, he studied the activities within the tavern. To any casual observer, he appeared to be just another seafaring pirate well into his cups.
It wasn’t until dawn began to set the sky on fire that Paval, the tavern owner, began dispatching all the patrons from the bar. Alex was counting on the Greek being too lazy to bother moving the drunken sailor—him—from the back pew.
Paval glanced Alex’s way, took in his drunken snore, and walked past him to lock the door out onto the dock. Alex silently heaved a sigh of relief: so far, so good.
Within seconds of the door closing, Sultan Murad Bayezid, accompanied by two of his fierce Turkish warriors, entered through the rear.
Alex swallowed the bile threatening the back of his throat and let his consuming hatred at the sight of Murad dressed in his white flowing robes infuse his soul. His hands itched to bury the dagger he had hidden in his palm, deep into the empty cavity of Murad’s chest. He knew from firsthand experience that the sultan had no heart. He would never, for as long as he lived, forget Murad’s cruelty, reflected now in his cold, dead eyes. Alex had a score to settle with the sadistic man, and the opportunity to do so had been a long time coming.
Murad had held him captive three years ago now, and Alex could remember the hell as clearly as if it was yesterday.
His nemesis gestured toward the stairs and one of the warriors bounded up them two at a time. He heard the sound of dragging feet overhead, a muffled slap, and a small, piteous cry. He swallowed his fury; the thought of what could have already happened to the young girl clouded his mind.
The warrior arrived back downstairs with the girl slung over one shoulder like a sackful of grain. Without ceremony, he dumped her on the floor at the sultan’s feet.
Dressed in what had been a virginal white nightgown, now dirty and torn, she looked up from the floor, and her eyes filled with dread. He watched as she gathered herself together and, with more grace and pride than he’d expected from a girl of only six and ten, she rose from the floor like an opening flower to stand tall and erect. Terror was clearly visible on her exquisite features, but what really captivated him was her look of courage. The intake of breath in the room was audible.
He watched Murad’s evil smile break across his thin lips, causing his thick mustache to twitch comically in his fever to possess her. Alex’s hatred for the perverted sultan almost choked him. He was a man built like a gorilla—stocky, solid, and as ugly as one.
The Turk approached the girl and viciously wrapped his hand in her flowing fair tresses. Her silky hair hung so long it looked as if she were wearing a protective mantle of angels’ wings down her back. Cruelly, the sultan tilted her head into the light. His accent was more pronounced in his desire. “Paval, you have outdone yourself. She is indeed a rare beauty. But a face can be misleading. Let us see the rest of her.”
Dropping his hand from her hair, he gripped the top of her white nightgown and ripped it from top to bottom, then threw back the edges, leaving the torn pieces to flutter to the floor.
She gasped in horror and tried to cover herself, cringing where she stood. She attempted to flick her waist-length hair forward to cover her small breasts, but Murad maliciously pulled it back.
Her eyes swept the room before coming to rest on him slumped in the shadows. Lifting his head for just a second, he hoped that his sympathetic look of support would give her strength. Her beauty made him believe, for just a moment, that there was a God. Only a heavenly force could have made something so innocent and so lovely.
Apparently Murad had had the same thought.
“Don’t be shy, my beauty. Let us see what exquisiteness Allah hath wrought on you.”
With hands at her side, she stood trembling, her head lowered in shame, while Murad walked slowly around her, touching her shamelessly.
“There is no need to be scared, little one.”
At the word scared, her shoulders straightened and she lifted her head against the dishonorable onslaught of the sultan’s intrusive hands.
The image of her with her head held high despite her nakedness, her small pert breasts heaving in her attempt to hide her fear, sheen from the heat on her fine porcelain skin, and the curl of disdain on her lips, would be forever imprinted on his brain. He had never seen anything more magnificent.
But Murad’s next words chilled his heart.
“Men would kill to possess one such as you. I am going to have to guard you well. Paval tells me you’re an innocent, and he wants a great deal of money for you.” Murad reached out and squeezed her nubile breasts. It must have hurt, because he caught the grimace that flickered in the depth of her fiery emerald eyes.
The spoiler of innocents moved closer to his prey.
“Perhaps I will take you here on this table to ensure I’m getting what I paid for. You’re welcome to fight. I like a girl with spirit.” Murad was practically drooling now.
Alex’s stomach heaved. The rage brewing in him at the thought of the man raping the girl almost overwhelmed him. He unclenched his fists but waited; the time for action was not quite here.
Suddenly, the sound of a hand slamming hard against flesh resounded around the shadowed room. His admiration grew. She’d slapped Murad’s face. Her voice when it came caressed him like a cool breeze, swirling around him until he was completely off balance.
“That’s the only fight you’ll get from me, you piece of filth. You may be able to take my body, but you’ll never take my soul.” And then she did the unforgivable. She spat on her would-be rapist.
Alex’s body coiled, ready for action, but it was too late to stop the instant backhand blow Murad dealt her. The force sent her sprawling unconscious across the drink-littered tables. With a cry the sultan fell on her, one hand gripping her face, hunting for her mouth to receive his slobbering kisses, the other fumbling within his robes.
Frantically, Alex looked around. Where were his men? Yet even without them, he had to act. If he didn’t, Murad would take the girl on the table, in front of him.
Without thinking, he stood up and called from the shadows, “So the mighty Murad first has to steal his women and then has to knock them out in order to take his pleasure. It goes to show women have excellent taste.”
At his words Murad swung to face him. A smile began to play across his cruel lips. “What a . . . pleasant . . . surprise, Alexander. I did not know you were back on Mykonos.”
“Forgive me. You weren’t top of my calling card list.”
With an evil laugh, Murad said, “Quite so, but how quickly you forget. I don’t need to knock my conquests out, as it doesn’t take me long to have them begging for my touch.” His leer grew as he added, “You of all people should understand my power. As I recall, you would have done almost anything for me—once.”
Alex shuddered as repressed memories, disgusting and degrading, flashed before him. Out of the corner of his eye, a movement to his left showed the warriors moving to Murad’s side. With a relaxed smile, he leaned against the back wall; they would not take him from behind.
“How long has it been, Alex? Far too long, I think. I have missed your beauty in my palace.” Murad’s tone became cajoling. “I never thought I’d have the pleasure of seeing my altin kole—my golden slave—again.”
He snarled. “Don’t you call me that or I’ll forget my manners. I’m not your slave, not any longer. All I want is the girl.”
Murad stroked his mustache and with a sly smile cooed, “She is a beauty, but are you sure that is all you want?”
Murad gestured toward the tavern keeper. “Paval, bring us a pipe. As I recall, opium was more of an allure for you than even a woman. There is no need for hostilities. Are we not old friends? Come, my Adonis, I have some of the finest opium with me. Let us lose ourselves in dreamland and perhaps, like old times, we can share the girl. I’d even let you have her first. Anything for you, my fair boy.”
Paval approached. At the first waft of the sickly sweet smell from the opium pipe, Alex’s mouth filled with saliva and adrenaline surged through his veins. No, not again. He would not give in to his past addiction. Momentarily, he basked in memories of the ecstasy the narcotic would give him. His hands itched to take the pipe, while the voice in his head thundered no; the rapture was merely an illusion.
He looked at the smirk on Murad’s face and almost retched. He’d die before he let himself become Murad’s plaything again. He might not have fully broken his addiction, but God damn it, he was here to rescue the girl. He owed her father. A river of sweat poured between his shoulders. He would have to master his driving need for the drug’s compassionate relief.
“Come and taste her. You’ll know once you’ve smoked from the pipe what sweet release this innocent beauty can offer.” Murad’s sure voice held a note of triumph. He was not to know that Alex hadn’t touched the drug in almost a year.
Pushing nonchalantly off the back wall, he approached, one slow, considered step after another, returning Murad’s ruthless smile with one of his own.
“Perhaps you are right, she is indeed very beautiful. I’ll even hold her for you once I’ve finished with her.” Alex licked his lips. “But first maybe let’s have just a small puff for old times’ sake.” He pointed to the naked girl on the table behind Murad. “While we wait for our plaything to awaken.”
He watched Murad’s shoulders relax as he motioned for his warriors to step back and pushed the pipe toward Alex.
Murad turned his back on him and stroked high up the girl’s milky thigh with his pudgy, grimy hand.
Briefly he closed his eyes, allowing the fury of Murad’s assault on the girl to fill him, before ultimately giving into his rage and letting his leashed temper explode. In one swift movement he surged forward and seized Murad by the throat, pulling him away from the girl’s naked flesh. Murad let out a cry of alarm and his guards immediately went on the attack.
He held Murad around the throat, his hidden blade pressed into the now madly pulsing vein in Murad’s neck. “Surrender or forfeit your life.”
“Go to hell, my golden boy. You’ll likely kill me anyway,” Murad spat back.
“Call off your men, tell them to back away from the girl and move up the stairs,” he hissed through clenched teeth. It took all his willpower not to sink the blade into Murad’s neck. But he needed to get the girl out first; only then could he think of taking his revenge.
Murad issued instructions in Turkish, but his warriors made no move toward the stairs.
Alex’s fingers flicked in eager agitation over the knife’s hilt, but his voice remained calm. “I only want the girl. She’s not worth dying over. There are plenty of other girls for you to plunder.”
Murad barked out a harsh order. To his relief the two warriors moved to the bottom of the stairs, but his respite was short-lived.
“Your move I believe, Alexander.” Murad laughed. “Your sleeping beauty can’t walk out by herself so you’ll have to let me go if you wish to save her. If you kill me, I’ve instructed my men to kill her; you’ll never get to her in time.”
Before he could answer, Jacob, his ship’s captain, appeared in the doorway. With a cocked eyebrow and primed pistol, he took in the scene before him. “Need a bit of a hand do ya, my lord?”
He jerked his head at the girl. “Jacob, get her out of here.”
Everything happened at once. In Alex’s moment of distraction, the back of Murad’s head crashed into his nose, splitting it instantly. Blood poured down his face, and his eyes filled with water as pain seared through him.
Murad screamed orders at his men, but rather than staying to fight, he turned and fled, sprinting toward the exit before escaping past his men and out into the night.
One of Murad’s warriors came for him then. With lightning reflexes, he leapt toward the table and scooped up his sword, hidden beneath the bench. He slashed at the first warrior, managing to inflict a deep wound to the Turk’s shoulder.
Jacob was busy fending off the other attacker while Paval had the good sense to run, escaping after the fleeing sultan.
Murad would be organizing reinforcements. They would need to move fast, since he knew the rest of Murad’s men must be nearby.
He pressed on with the attack, advancing on the warrior with a fury at having let his enemy escape. Swords clashed and the loud clang of steel filled the heated night air. From the first blows Alex could feel his enemy was not a skilled swordsman, so he could easily deflect his obvious moves. He hoped Jacob was faring just as well.
The two men circled each other. The Turk charged yet again, his sword high in the air; blood was pouring from his shoulder and Alex seized the advantage as his blade ran the warrior through with one feint and lunge. The man’s death gurgle was muted by the sound of a shot ringing out across the room. He turned to help Jacob, only to see his pistol smoking as the smell of gunpowder hung in the air while the other Turkish warrior slowly collapsed to the floor.
Speed was of the essence. They needed to get to his ship and soon. The last thing he needed was a fleet of Turkish pirates on his tail. Murad would crave revenge just as much as Alex had once craved opium. The sultan would be furious at losing the girl, and more than eager for a chance to capture him again. Alex was the slave who got away.
Breathing hard, he shouted to his friend. “Jacob, rally the men, get the ship ready to sail.”
“You’ll be all right on your own?”
“Yes, I’ll get the girl; hurry, man,” he replied. He turned for the girl, who still lay naked and unconscious on the table.
He looked at the pipe, still full of opium, lying on the floor before him, and watched drops of blood from his split nose land next to it. Sweat ran down his spine, his mouth dried up, and his cravings galloped once more into life. Pain. A few puffs and all his pain would be gone. With shaking hands, he bent and picked it up, enjoying its familiar feel, and allowed the powerful pull to consume him.
The girl stirred.
He looked at her. He was here for her, for her father.
Anger surged within him, and as he regained control, he hurled the pipe across the room.
He picked up the pieces of her torn nightdress and covered her before gently sweeping her up in his arms and carrying her out into the hot night.
Proud that this time at least, he’d been able to leave the insatiable attractions of opium behind.
London 1815: four years later
Even Alex would struggle to describe the euphoria of a woman’s mouth on his cock while lost in a haze of induced bliss. One tiny drop of laudanum in a glass of brandy and every sense heightened, every nerve in his body sang.
The pleasure was indescribable.
Wave after wave of overwhelming satisfaction swamped his body as he lost himself in the skillful ministrations of Lady Dianne’s lips, teeth, and hot mouth.
He’d contrived to spend a wonderful afternoon pleasuring the young widow, his current paramour, as soon as he’d arrived in London for the season. While spending the winter on his estate, Bracken Park, with his young sisters and brothers present, he’d forsworn female company, preferring to work hard and embrace his family.
He’d made up for lost time this afternoon, the laudanum helping his staying power considerably.
It was a pity that tonight he had a previous engagement or he would have suggested she stay. Still, perhaps later he could climb up the ivy hanging below Dianne’s bedchamber and continue her enthusiastic education in the arts of lovemaking.
On that thought he lay back and gave himself over to her. She sucked him so deep he hit the back of her throat, and all too soon he reached his pinnacle. No longer able to resist the sensations, he plunged over the edge into the cavern of self-gratification. The colors of his release blinded his mind and he cried out, his heart almost thundering out of his chest.
As he came down from the heavens he thanked God that she was a fast and eager learner. Dianne too appeared to be making up for the two years she’d been married to a man old enough to be her grandfather.
Still, he would not judge others. One did what one must to survive. Years ago he’d learned life was not a fairy tale. It was dark, dirty, dangerous, and hard. People were flawed. He’d always believed no one was perfect—except of course his bloody father, the Perfect Duke, as he’d been called.
Trust the memory of his father to arrive and diminish his euphoria.
He struggled to hold on to his blissful stupor as Dianne crawled up his body and laid her beautiful face against his sweat-soaked chest.
“You’re wonderful, but I’m exhausted. I need to sleep for a week to keep up with you.” She paused before quietly saying, “I missed you so.”
He would not lie and say he missed her. He missed sex, but not her in particular. He was not capable of a deeper emotion. They had begun their affair on one of his sudden trips to London a few months ago. He’d needed release from the dark memories crowding in on him at home. Usually his family and work dimmed his nightmares. He hoped this extended stay would serve him well for the next few months.
“I’m here for the season, sweeting. By the end of the season you’ll understand what it is to be exhausted.”
She giggled and snuggled closer. “I don’t suppose you’d accompany me to Lady Blighwell’s ball on Thursday night.”
He stiffened. He did not go to society engagements with his paramours. That spoke of commitment. Spoke of a relationship. No. What was Dianne thinking? He was not interested in anything other than stolen moments of mutual pleasure. He thought he’d made that clear.
His mother did mention the obligation he had to settle down. Suggesting he needed someone to help him in his duties and give him children. He was in no hurry to marry. The idea of bringing children into this world scared him to death. The world was such a cruel and unjust place.
The imperfect son of the Perfect Duke should not procreate. He had two younger brothers for that. Besides, he was no saint where women were concerned and he’d never fathered a child. He was certain he couldn’t. It did not concern him because he didn’t want to bring any child of his into this desperate and sinful world.
He turned on his side to face her and cupped her chin in his hand. “I don’t want to hurt you Dianne, but I’m not courting you. I thought I’d made the boundaries of our affair clear. Mutual sexual pleasure is all I’m capable of sharing with you.”
He watched her swallow and blink rapidly. She nodded. “I know. It’s just I realize how much I missed you these past months and . . . I’m lonely.”
He pressed a light kiss to her lips. “You’re young and beautiful; any man would be lucky to have you as his wife. If you are lonely then go and find a man who is worthy of you and marry again. You no longer have to choose a husband for money, so chose wisely. But I’m not that man.”
She turned away and sat on the edge of the bed, her back to him. “You’re right. I deserve someone who wants to be with me, not just for pleasure.”
He nodded, even though she could not see him do so.
She looked at him over her shoulder, her face a wealth of sadness. “I don’t think I should be engaged in a torrid affair if I’m looking for a perfect man to wed. That would not be in good taste.”
“No it wouldn’t. I fully understand.”
“You don’t even care that I’m calling this—whatever it is—off, do you?”
He slid over the bed to wrap his arms around her. “I care that you are happy. It looks as though I’m making you unhappy and I care deeply about that. Life is too short to spend it on regrets.”
She sat studying him before finally reaching out and cupping his cheek. “You helped me experience passion, something I never had in my marriage. It means I know what I want in a husband and I’ll not settle for less.”
“You are too beautiful, kind, and”—he could barely say the word—“perfect to settle for anything less than what your heart desires.”
“I’ll never regret my time with you.”
“Nor me, sweeting.”
His hand fell away, and a part of him he tried to keep locked behind a fortress in his chest kicked a thumping beat.
Jumping out of bed he reached for a robe and walked to the door of the bedchamber. He never took his paramours to his room. This room was a guest room, set up because of the discreet access to the servants’ back stairs, which led to the back of the house and his coaching stable. Ladies could come and go unobserved in his unmarked carriage.
“I shall send up my servant Juliette to help you dress. Feel free to stay and bathe if you wish. However, I’m due at the explorers club this evening.” It was more a gathering of like-minded friends than a club. They met to discuss their travels, especially when any one of them had been far afield.
As his hand found the door latch he hesitated. “Thank you, Dianne. In my own way I will miss you.”
“I find you, or should I say men in general, puzzling. Men will fight wars, participate in duels, pummel each other in the boxing ring, all dangerous activities, yet they seem to be petrified of true emotion. You are scared to love.”
A trigger exploded in his brain as memories came crashing in. “That may be true for most men, but not of me. Some of us have nothing left inside to love with.” He was breathing heavily from his outburst and he could not stand the look of pitiful understanding on Dianne’s face.
He merely turned and left the room refusing to ever look back.
His inner voice had warned him to stay away from Lady Dianne; she was too perfect, too unworldly. Normally he shared his amusements with women who were slightly more ravaged by life.
She reminded him of Hestia.
Another reason he should have left Dianne well alone.
An hour later he was bathed and changed, sitting in his library brooding over his breakup with Dianne. Now he’d have to find a new lover for the season, and for once the idea did not titillate him as it should.
He lifted his glass and was about to take a sip when he noticed a smear of soot on the runner. God damn it. Sweat broke on his brow and his hands shook. He was about to bellow for Tompkins when his butler knocked and entered.
“Tompkins, I pay you well, do I not?” At his butler’s nod he said, “Have I not stressed how my homes are to be kept spotless?” Another nod. “Get someone to clean up this mess immediately.”
“Mess, Your Grace?”
He pointed. “This soot.”
He watched Tompkins peer through his spectacles at the tiny smudge of black.
“Of course, Your Grace.”
He hated how Tompkins silently judged him. Yes, it was a little spot, but when he’d been in captivity he was kept for so many months in filth that now he could not abide any trace of dirt.
“There is an urgent missive. Shall I see to this first or shall I wait for a reply, Your Grace?”
Alex lifted the perfumed note off the silver platter and instantly knew whom it was from. He remembered her scent. It smelled of goodness and innocence.
He stared at the note in his hand, and the deep clenching in his gut told him what he should do with it.
His fingers ran over the paper. The handwriting flourishes displayed her personality: the larger-than-normal slash for the T, the longer hanging loops of the G . . . bold, courageous, and vivacious. He would have known who had sent the letter before he read her name. The scent that clung to the paper was faint, but his body reacted to it just the same. A deep yearning sent pain ricocheting through his chest and he ruthlessly pushed it away.
Lady Hestia Cary, the Earl of Pembroke’s daughter. Over the years she’d grown into a lovely young woman, the scandal of his rescue of her from Turkish pirates mostly forgotten.
He had to force his hand not to crumple the note in his fist. Only then did he remember his butler, Tompkins, was waiting for a reply. How much had the old bugger seen and understood? He opened the note and read.
“You may inform the messenger that I shall call on Lady Hestia within the hour.”
“Very good, Your Grace.” The tone of Tompkins’s words indicated his approval. “Shall I inform your valet?”
Alex looked down his body as he sat in his favorite chair by the fire, the book on African sea currents sitting in his lap forgotten. He’d been about to head to Lord Foxhurst’s residence, where the explorers club was gathering, and he considered himself respectably dressed for the occasion. Lord Panton had just returned from an expedition to North Africa and he’d longed to hear the news.
“I don’t believe Hessians are appropriate for a house call at this late hour, Your Grace,” Tompkins admonished.
“It is an urgent summons, so her ladyship will have to take me as she finds me. I shall go on to the explorers club afterward.” Formal dress for this meeting would send Hestia the wrong message.
“Very good, Your Grace.”
As he waited for his carriage to be summoned, he recognized the excitement building was not about the tales of North Africa he would hear later. He’d not seen Lady Hestia for over eighteen months. He made it his mission to avoid her when she came to town.
Why Hestia could not ascertain that he did not wish to see her, talk with her, he could not understand. She reminded him of the darkest days of his life, and that’s the last thing he needed to be reminded of.
Why couldn’t she marry like a young lady of quality should? Every time he came back to London he prayed he’d hear the news of her betrothal. He blamed her father. Still gallivanting around the Mediterranean engrossed in history when he should be home ensuring the safety and future of his daughter. Surely she could find someone suitable.
It wasn’t from lack of offers. She was beautiful, had a large dowry, was the daughter of a well thought of, if slightly eccentric, earl, and she could be utterly charming when she wanted to be. Of course there was the scandal of her Turkish pirate abduction, but he had rescued her over four years ago, and her impeccable behavior since meant the incident was virtually forgotten.
Already his gut was churning with building anger, wondering on what pretext she had sent for him. He was surprised her aunt had not forbidden her to contact him. Surely she would not have set up a situation where she could meet with him without a chaperon?
His mouth firmed. If she thought he could be trapped into marriage, the little minx did not know him very well. Hell, that was the problem. Hestia didn’t know him at all. She thought she did, but all she saw was her white knight. A man who rescued her from the clutches of evil.
Little did she know that he had once partnered with that very evil. Done things with Murad that would make the devil faint.
And in his drug-induced haze enjoyed it.
He knew why she had not married. Hestia was waiting for him. Silly girl. The sooner he disabused her of this notion, the better.
On a sigh he snapped the book closed and rose.
He strode out to his carriage and barely noticed the bite in the air. Spring was slow in arriving. Still it felt good to be outside. His leg began its constant jiggle as his impatience to have this meeting over grew. He was only going because he owed her father, and with the earl in the Mediterranean, he could not discount she had a legitimate reason for summoning him.
Blast the girl. Over the years it had not taken him long to conclude her trips to London coincided with his. She had not hidden her infatuation from him, and for the first few years after he’d rescued her, he put it down to the fact he’d saved her from Murad.
He tried to be discreet when it came to his paramours, but Hestia would no doubt have heard gossip. She knew he was not a monk. He had hoped it would lessen her hero worship of him. He was not worthy of such honor.
But her devotion had never faltered, worse luck. So the only safe thing for him to do was to put distance and formality between them. It worked. Lately she was polite when they accidentally bumped into each other, and the light in her eyes when she looked at him had dimmed as the years rolled on.
His gnawing unease increased when he acknowledged that this summons was indeed a change in her usual behavior.
Something was wrong.
His pulse sped up and he banged on the carriage roof. “Can we hurry if you please?”
His heart was still pounding as he mounted the steps of the Earl of Pembroke’s townhouse. The last time Alex had set foot in this house, his father was still alive and he’d only had his honorary title, Marquess of Tavistock. Even though at the time he was a duke in waiting, he’d been chewed up and spat out. He did not blame his lordship, but it was all for nothing. He was not interested in Lady Hestia, and never would be.
The front door opened before he reached the top step, but he barely noted who announced him because he simmered with self-directed fury. He couldn’t wait to ascertain the situation and then be on his way again so he could resume pretending she didn’t exist.
In the hall he closed his eyes and summoned control of the last vestige of his temper. He needed his wits about him.
As he was shown into the drawing room, he could feel the heaviness of doom pervading the air. Then he saw her and his breath hitched. His body reacted and that angered him even more. He’d known her for more than four years. He’d watched her grow up. Why was she having this effect on him?
Hestia stood by the fire, staring out the window at the far end of the room. She was dressed in black from head to toe. She was obviously in mourning. Her black silhouette should have doused the immediate desire that flared and heated his blood. Yet it did not. Her fingers were playing with the string of pearls wound in many strands around her neck, and all he wanted to do was unwind them and replace them with his lips.
At his entrance she swung around to greet him, and he could see the worry and exhaustion on her face. He moved quickly toward her, only just remembering to stop and greet Lady Eliza, her aunt, also dressed in black.
Lady Eliza acknowledged him with the tilt of her head. “It’s all right, Your Grace; as you can see we are both a tad overwrought.”
He moved toward Hestia as she held out both her hands to him and he took them in his own. Her voice wavered. “Thank you for coming. I didn’t know who else to turn to.”
Fear stabbed his gut like a pitchfork through hay. “You are in mourning. Who has died?”
He was rewarded with one of her special smiles. A smile that lit up the world and hugged everyone in its presence. His soul warmed simply from being in her presence.
The fortress around his heart always took a hammering at the sound of her laughter and warm smile. She hid nothing of herself. She was open, brave, and giving, all the things he was not. She was perfect. And he hated perfection.
He was sinfully imperfect, but he hid behind his physical image of the handsome, honorable, wealthy duke, but it was all lies. No one really saw his dark depths or knew his sinister vices.
Since his captivity by Murad, his life had been a constant battle, with himself and his own driving needs. He had two great vices in his life: women and opium. Only one of these was entirely under his control: women. Although he no longer craved the opium pipe, he knew if given the chance he’d pick it up faster than a beggar boy finding a gold coin.
His body craved the comfort both provided, a way to forget his dark past and the demons haunting his nights. Over the past few years, in an attempt to break his opiate habit, he’d used his looks, charm, and fortune to bed countless women, to sink and lose himself between soft thighs, to feed off their warmth, until the chill in his heart melted, if by only a fraction. He was a master of managing, seducing, enjoying, and ultimately disengaging from the well-born matrons with whom he habitually dallied.
He should not be craving the woman standing looking so vulnerable and beautiful before him. What was wrong with him?
Still, he hated to see her like this. Her hands trembled in his and he wished he could pull her into his arms and tell her everything would be fine, but he had no idea what trouble she was in.
They stood staring at each other until Aunt Eliza gave a quiet cough and said, “Come, you two, sit. Hestia, could you ring for tea, please, and I’m sure His Grace can see to pouring himself a brandy from the sideboard.”
Alex reluctantly let go of her hands so she could make for the bell to order tea. To his surprise, like a parched man at a fresh spring, his eyes followed her every sway, every step, drunk with her beauty. He let her ethereal spirit calm his soul.
Hestia might look waiflike, but he had witnessed her strength and courage. He’d seen her at her most vulnerable and watched her defy her rapist.
Her beauty drew many an eye, the long golden tresses, the sea-blue sparkle of her eyes, the lusciousness of her lips and her body. She was built for a man’s interest, all curves and full body. Yet it was the warm heart and goodness that attracted him more while proving she was not for him.
He had a blackened soul.
Once seated with drink in hand, he waited for Hestia to speak. He had spent a fair amount of time in this room over the years, yet nothing in this room had changed. He’d not stepped into the earl’s house since the fateful night Hestia’s father had made him promise to discourage her in every way. Alex had been surprised that the earl would think he would encourage a young woman like that. It did not take anything to agree to his vow.
He would never offer for Hestia.
Fine with him. He was never going to offer for any woman. He had nothing but disappointment to give them.
He looked between the two women. “What is this all about, Hestia?” he asked. “You are both in mourning and it’s starting to worry me.”
To his horror, Aunt Eliza’s eyes welled with tears and a dainty white handkerchief appeared. He sat forward in his chair and looked at Hestia expectantly.
“My father has been declared dead.”
He almost dropped his glass. “Why have I not heard? I saw no announcement in the paper.” The earl had saved his life by helping to free him from Murad’s clutches. He respected the man for some things, but not for leaving Hestia to be brought up alone.
He asked, “How, why, where?”
Hestia stopped him by saying, “He’s not dead. I said he has been declared dead.”
“Don’t be disingenuous, dear. Tell His Grace the story properly. Start at the beginning.”
He nodded in Lady Eliza’s direction, somewhat puzzled at her acceptance of him being in this house since she had usually given him a cool reception. Alex was sure she knew of the earl’s dictate, maybe even some of his sordid past. Lady Eliza had been Hestia’s chaperon since her mother died when Hestia was eight. Why was she now so insistent in allowing this discourse?
“Have you heard of our distant relative Fredrick Cary?”
He gave a puzzled nod. “Yes, he is your father’s second cousin.” He was not about to inform them that he knew the man well. Fredrick had been known to frequent the same soirees as Alex: opium parties at particular houses in London’s East End.
“He is Father’s heir. My father is an only child, and he has only me. So his second cousin Fredrick will inherit the title and the estate.”
The thought astounded Alex, as he did not consider Fredrick a good man. It seemed doubly ironic that the earl had forbade Hestia a match with him, when an even bigger despot would be his heir.
“But you just said your father is not dead.”
She blinked back tears and her aunt sighed. “I believe Fredrick is sick of waiting for my brother’s estate. Did you know Fredrick claims to have been to the Mediterranean recently?”
“His ship goes there regularly, to trade,” he confirmed. Fredrick was one of the biggest suppliers of Turkish opium to England. He wasn’t about to admit how he knew that piece of information. It was not often that Fredrick sailed with the ship. He preferred to pay a crew.
“Well, he has just returned from a trip and claims to have brought back my father’s body.”
He shook his head. “Claims?” How did one claim to have a body? Then a thought struck him. Surely she didn’t mean . . .
“Yes, the body is so badly decomposed it could be anyone.” Her soft words pierced his heart.
Her aunt stiffened, looking every bit the imperious daughter of an earl. “It is not my brother. There is no ring and no locket. He would never have been parted from either.”
He hated to point out that if the earl were a victim of pirates, the jewelry would have been the first things taken, then his life. He rubbed his hand over his face.
“Did Fredrick say how he’d died?”
“Then he should still have his ring and locket, unless Fredrick has it.”
Hestia shook her head. “I asked about the locket, and he did not know where it was. And surely Fredrick would be wearing the family crest signet ring as his heir, and he is not. The body was not my father.”
“Am I to believe you think Fredrick has brought a body home, a body that is, in fact, not your father, in the hope of having the title and estate settled upon him?”
“Exactly!” Hestia cried. “I knew you’d understand.”
“Only one problem with that. What happens when the earl does return home?”
He watched the two women look at each other as if they had rehearsed an answer.
Hestia cleared her throat. “I don’t think Fredrick is going to allow my father to return. I suspect he has men hunting for my father right now.” She raised an eyebrow. “I know what you are thinking, but the men sailing with my father would have sent me a letter to tell me of his demise. I do not believe the body Fredrick produced is my father.”
“Did you tell Fredrick of your doubts?”
She scoffed. “I am not stupid. I don’t want him to think we are suspicious. That is why we are dressed in our mourning clothes. I don’t want him suddenly thinking he has to rush to find my father. The longer he thinks we believe his lies, the safer my father will be.”
Suddenly the reason for his summons was clear. “You want me to find your father first and bring him safely home.”
“I know it’s a lot to ask of you given you are now the Duke of Bedford and have so many other responsibilities, but Aunt Eliza believes you are the only man who knows the Greek islands well enough to find my father. I’m so scared Fredrick will kill him, and while I am not close to my father, he does not deserve to be murdered for his estate.”
Alex looked directly at Hestia’s aunt, Lady Eliza. The knowing expression on her face made it clear she understood why he could not refuse. Lord Pembroke had been instrumental in saving his life when he was a young, naïve fool. Alex had thought rescuing his lordship’s daughter in return might have evened the score, but not according to her aunt.
Lady Eliza drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair. “I was given to understand you have a ship berthed at Great Yarmouth, always on standby should you need it.”
He eyed her coolly. She was thorough in her investigations. He did keep a ship fully stocked and manned just in case he could slip away for a month, maybe two. It had been idle for well over a year. His time was no longer his own since his father’s death two years ago, hence why he lived for the tales told with his friends of the explorers club.
“As a matter of fact I’m due to set sail at the end of the season.” He had decided to go to Tunisia and go south into the desert.
“Perhaps there could be a reason to go earlier?” Lady Eliza encouraged.
“I’m off to meet with friends after this. Panton’s back from North Africa. I could perhaps let it be known his talk made me long for an adventure, and I decided to leave the season early.” Men would understand his need to leave. Every mother and her debutante daughter hunted a bachelor staying in London during the season. Plus they would hear of the end of Dianne’s affair.
Lady Eliza sat back satisfied.
Alex asked the obvious questions. “Do you know your father’s last known location?” There was no point racing off if he had no idea where Lord Pembroke was. The Mediterranean was a watery maze of islands. It could take months to find him. He hoped they had more information than Fredrick Cary did.
“You’ll help us?” Hestia clapped her hands. “Oh, thank goodness. I did not know what I would do should you not come to our rescue.”
Alex knew. She’d try to find someone else to help her and they would likely take her money and produce nothing.
Lady Eliza spoke. “The last letter we received indicated he was excavating on an island called Kos.”
Hestia visibly exhaled. “His base was Delos, one of the most important mythological, historical, and archaeological sites in Greece. It’s only a few miles from the isle of Mykonos. But no one has heard from him since he left for Kos. I don’t even know if he arrived there safely.”
They both looked at each other, tension filling the air. The mention of Mykonos brought back all the memories of her ordeal at the hands of Murad. Her rescue had started her hero worship of him. A familiar longing gripped his innards. The trip back to England had been the most wonderful few months of his life. Her innocence and joy of life had brightened his dark countenance, making him forget his deadly past, making him hope he could be redeemed.
Then reality hit: Kos. Of course her father would have to be on one of only a few Ottoman-controlled islands, one near the Turkish coast and the fortress city of Bodrum.
Nerves drew taut and his hand almost crushed the glass in his hand. At last he’d have a chance to get his revenge against Murad.
“Do you know it?” Hestia asked.
“Yes.” He knew that area very well. He sat back in his chair and took a large gulp of his brandy.
A frown crossed Hestia’s pretty features. “You will help us?” She looked stricken. “I know it’s such an imposition, but Father thinks of you as a son.”
He heard Lady Eliza clear her throat. “I’m sure His Grace knows exactly what your father thinks of him. He will do what he knows is right.” She raised an imperious eyebrow.
“Of course I will help.” They didn’t need to know that the idea of avenging his captivity was the main reason he would agree to go. He’d never have another chance, what with his duty to his title. He’d also wanted to wait until his younger brother Harris turned one and twenty. Alex would be about six months short of this target, and he could live with that. Harris was almost one and twenty and old enough to handle becoming the Duke of Bedford should Alex die in his attempt for vengeance.
The look her ladyship sent his way had the effect she wanted. Guilt rose swiftly to eat at him. He did owe his life to his lordship.
The main reason adrenaline surged was Murad. Alex longed for revenge. He thought about what traveling into Murad’s territory would mean. He would finally get the chance to kill the man who’d cost him so much. But surely one of Murad’s rivals would have killed him and taken over by now.
His mind folded in on him and black visions seared his mind. He almost hoped Murad was still alive. Perhaps if he could take his revenge and kill him, he could put his past behind him instead of letting it continually torture him. Certainly he suspected his opiate use would have been conquered.
“I’ll have to have a good reason for leaving London that does not raise eyebrows. If Fredrick learns I’ve left England, he’ll likely know you suspect him. It will be difficult to hide the fact that my ship, the Angelica, has left port.”
“It does sail without you occasionally?”
He could not deny Hestia’s words. The Angelica sailed to France on occasion for trade. His estate’s wool would be traded for French silks and brandy to resell in England. “However, if I leave London as well . . . don’t underestimate Fredrick. He is clever and devious.”
“Then we shall have to be more devious.” She smiled. “For instance, the ship could leave while you are still in London. Then you could leave London to go back to your estate, but head south to Portsmouth and embark from there.”
“It might work. What reason did you give for coming to London when you are in mourning?” If Fredrick knew they had come to see him . . .
Lady Eliza said, “I told him I had to see the family lawyer about Hestia’s and my settlements and to employ a man to look for a property for us to buy.” She shrugged. “I also told him I wished to put a notice in the paper regarding my brother’s death and his burial at our Pembrokeshire estate in Wales.”
Hestia’s face looked as if she’d like to kill someone. “He had the cheek to say we could take our time finding another residence in which to live.” Alex watched a shudder run through her. “Fredrick even suggested that I should marry him so I would not lose my home.”
“So he could keep your dowry, more like. I think Fredrick was shocked to learn he gets the estate but not the money. The money came from Hestia’s mother’s dowry on the condition that if Lord Pembroke died before Hestia marries she inherits whatever money is left.”
Alex sat up straight in his chair. “You get all the money?”
Hestia frowned. “Yes, well, there is not much except for my dowry. My father’s love of exploring takes a large amount, but he does make some money back by selling the treasures he finds. However, he keeps so many of his statues as he hates being parted from them.” Her mouth grew taut. “I loved seeing Fredrick squirm when he learned the details of the entail and the financial aspects of the estate.”
A cold fear rippled in Alex’s gut. “Did Fredrick propose before or after he learned this little tidbit?”
“After,” Lady Eliza breathed out in a rush.
All of Alex’s senses roared to life. “What happens to the money if you die before you marry?”
“It goes to the estate—oh no.” Lady Eliza turned scared eyes his way. “You have to take her with you.”