Redemption Excerpt

The following excerpt is unedited and may differ from the final format and/or published work.

 

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Prologue
 

June 1898

“Damn it to hell,” Percy Rockwood muttered under his breath as he emerged from the softly-lit New Library into the near darkness of the British Museum’s main reading room. In the shadows he made out the night watchman sprawled on the floor a short distance away.

Quickly crossing the carpeted floor of the large room, he knelt beside the man. Fingers pressed into the side of the policeman’s neck, Percy breathed a sigh of relief. Alive, but out cold. A small sound in the distance echoed in the large, oval-shaped room museum patrons used daily.

It was the same noise he’d heard while reading the latest Coptic scrolls Wallis Budge had brought back from Egypt. Although how he’d not heard Smythe crash to the floor was surprising. The officer was quite a burly man. He could only surmise that the guard’s assailants had eased him to the floor after subduing the man.

Once more the sound whispered through the air. Percy cocked his head to one side and determined the noise was coming from the Egyptian wing. Without thinking twice, he pulled a small pistol out of his coat pocket. He’d taken to carrying the weapon since he’d had his vision two weeks ago. The vivid imagery of his body lying prone in a dark place wasn’t the type of omen a Rockwood who possessed the an dara sealladh ignored.

Over the years, he’d learned to accept the fact that he’d inherited a small amount of the family’s gift of sight. But the an dara sealladh rarely offered up as much detailed, graphic information as his latest vision had. The vision of the woman had haunted him for the past two weeks. With the exception of her eyes, the woman’s features had been hazy at best. But it had been impossible to forget her eyes. They’d been the dark color of wild violets that grew in the meadows around Melton Park.

He had no idea what the vision meant. Even now, he wondered what the woman and the vision of him lying on a dark floor had to do with each other. But it was the hopelessness Percy had seen in her beautiful eyes he couldn’t forget. She was in trouble. He was certain of it. His tread quiet and cautious, Percy approached the wide archway leading into the Egyptian section of the museum. With his back pressed against one of the ceiling-high columns marked with hieroglyphics, he peered around the cylindrical architecture.

At the far end of the north wing, he saw a light where the pendant of Nephthys was displayed. The jeweled necklace that was said to have once been worn by Nefertiti had only recently been put on display. Other than a glass enclosed display case and the police who guarded the museum night and day, there was no other protection for the precious artifact.

Anger made his jaw hardened. He’d warned Budge this might happen, and the director had agreed. Percy didn’t like being right, but he would love to be a fly on the wall when Budge lambasted the board for their resistance to reinforce security. As Director of the Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities, Budge would not withhold one iota of his contempt for the men who’d blithely discounted his request for more policemen on duty during the night hours. Aside from Smythe, there was only one other policeman on duty tonight as the third one had taken sick and gone home for the night.

A sharp pop followed by the brittle sound of shattering glass confirmed his worst fears. Someone was stealing the pendant. Slowly, he made his way past one of the mummy displays as he headed toward the end of the exhibition hall. The soft murmur of voices drifted toward him, but it was impossible to hear what was being said.

Percy crept forward, avoiding the small stream of moonlight that had found its way past the clouds and through the glass ceiling of the long room. Ahead of him, he saw a small movement in the dark recesses of the exhibition room.

“Whoever you are, come out now before I shoot,” he said quietly.

The sudden loud click of a pistol being cocked made Percy draw in a sharp hiss of air between his teeth. Whoever they were, they’d just called his bluff as nicely as if they were playing a competitive game of brag.

“Then you and I are at an impasse, sir. There are three of us, and only one of you. I think the odds are considerably more in my favor than in yours.”

The disembodied voice sounded different from what one might expect a thief to sound like. He frowned in puzzlement. The voice echoed with the cultured inflections one might expect to hear from someone of noble birth.

A shadow emerged from the pitch dark into the area just on the edge of the patch of moonlight. Percy narrowed his gaze at the dark figure. The fellow stood just a foot shorter than him, and seemed more round than angular. A youngster no doubt, but he knew better than to discount his opponent. Age had nothing to do with criminals and their street savvy. The boy would do what he had to do in order to survive.

“If you’re willing to leave the necklace you’ve taken, I’ll not stop you from leaving.”

“Unfortunately, that’s not possible.” The shadow’s voice reverberated softly in the darkness with a distinct note of regret. Percy scowled in the direction of the voice.

“You’ll find it incredibly difficult to sell the pendant.”

“Perhaps, but that’s my employer’s problem. Not mine.” Despite the nonchalant note in the thief’s voice, Percy could have sworn there was a significant amount of regret as well.

Muscles taut with tension, Percy watched the dark figure slowly walk toward him. Overhead, the clouds opened more widely, and the narrow stream of moonlight widened its path across the museum floor. Almost as if he knew it was dangerous to stand in the moonlight, the other man hesitated. The increased amount of light outlined Percy’s opponent more clearly.

A black mask covered half the man’s face, and although he was in process of committing a crime, there was a politeness to his manner that said he regretted his actions. In fact, the thief projected an image of respectable gentility, despite the patches covering his coat and pants.

In his swift appraisal of the man, Percy realized the distance between them was smaller than he thought. The moment he took a step forward, the other man leveled his gun at him. The light from the moon danced off the barrel of the pistol pointed in his direction.

“Do not mistake me for a fool, sir.” The sharp words made Percy stiffen. A woman—a well-bred woman. The familiarity he’d recognized in her voice earlier was rooted in his knowledge of the female sex. He’d heard the soft, womanly cadence and pitch of her voice, but had unconsciously dismissed them. He took a step closer.

“Stop.” Was that a hint of fear in her command?

“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” he murmured with growing irritation. “I can’t allow the pendant to leave the museum.”

“Then you’re a fool. Your life is far more valuable than a trinket, no matter how old.” Her sharp words made him frown. She almost seemed worried for his safety.

“Nevertheless, I have no intention of allowing anyone to leave the museum with the pendant,” he said grimly.

He’d no more finished speaking than his senses alerted him to a new threat, and the instant the premonition sailed through him, he uttered a soft oath beneath his breath. Someone was approaching him from behind. In a swift move, Percy sprang forward. Behind him a pistol shot cracked loudly in his ears. Surprisingly, the bullet was more of a sting than anything else as it entered his back. The impact of the bullet made him stumble and his gun flew out of his hand. He sank to his knees, and she was there to catch him.

“You are a reckless fool,” she chastised him in a voice filled with agonized regret.

“It’s a family trait,” he rasped as pain slowly seeped its way across his back. He looked up at her and went rigid.

“Bloody hell, it’s you.” The tension in her body pulsed its way into his. He understood her fear. Murder, or even just accessory to the crime, carried a stiff penalty.

“How do you know me,” she whispered as her violet eyes widened with horror.

The dark purple hue of her eyes was even more beautiful than in his vision. His thoughts were suddenly cluttered with all manner of images. The fire at Westbrook Farms, his grieving family at the cemetery at Caleb’s and Devin’s funerals. Sebastian glaring at him. Patience’s bandaged face, Aunt Matilda with an expression of dismay on her lined features. One by one the faces of his family drifted past his eyes. They’d been through so much in the last four months. Now another Rockwood would be dead soon. The thought surprised him somehow. He was dying. He’d never actually believed his vision would have such a negative outcome. Percy had simply expected to be knocked unconscious, not shot. A violet gaze met his. Her eyes shimmered with unshed tears.

“I’m so sorry. This wasn’t supposed to happen.” The sorrow in her voice equaled the pain in her eyes.

“I don’t understand…my vision…” he mumbled as the pain intensified and continued its way across his back. He tried to move, but only managed to increase the searing pain slashing through him. Unable to help himself he closed his eyes and slumped deeper into her arms.

“Leave him.”

The harsh, uncultured voice penetrated the cloud of pain slowly pulling Percy under. Desperately, he fought to remain conscious. If he lived, he needed to remember the man’s voice and everything he could about this miserable incident.

“Why did you shoot him?” The woman’s question reverberated with a fierce anger. “You could have knocked him out like you did the guard.”

“Don’t matter none now, does it? The bloke is dead.”

“You’re a bastard, Ruckley.”

“So you keep saying, my poppet,” the man said in a salacious manner. It made Percy long to get up and pummel the son of a bitch until the man begged for mercy. The thought evaporated as pain tugged him closer to the abyss.

“I’m not your poppet or anything else.”

“Go easy now, dearie. We both know I have a soft spot for you, but unless you want the little ‘uns to suffer ye’ll let me call ye whatever I please.”

“One day I will kill you Ruckley.”

The anger and hopelessness in her voice was the last thing Percy heard as a yawning hole opened up. He struggled not to fall off the cliff into the darkness below. But it was the touch of a warm hand on his cheek that told him he had to live. She needed his help. It was the last thought sinking its way into his head before the black engulfed him. 

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Chapter 1
 

Melton Park
June 1899

“You look lovely, Rhea. I’m glad I insisted we take an extra day to visit Madame Solange before we returned to Green Hill House two months ago,” her aunt said quietly as their carriage rolled up the long drive to Melton Park Manor.

“It was an unnecessary extravagance.” Rhea softened her reply with a smile. “But thank you. At least I have the opportunity to wear it.”

“It was nothing of the sort. It makes me happy to see you looking so beautiful. When I think about the day Mr. Ashford brought you and Arianna to Fremont Place…” The moment her aunt’s voice faded into nothing, Rhea reached across the space between them to touch her hand.

“It’s in the past, Aunt Beatrice. All of it,” she said firmly as she smiled at her aunt. The older woman nodded as she squeezed Rhea’s hand.

“Agreed,” Beatrice Fremont said with quiet determination. “With Arianna firmly settled in her role as Viscountess Sherrington, I think it’s time we concern ourselves with your prospects.”

Rhea ignored the comment and turned her head away to look out the carriage window. A small lake shimmered beneath the moon, while the rolling landscape made her believe daylight would reveal magnificent green pastures with wild flowers adding splashes of color.

Arianna had been fortunate to find a man willing to love her in spite of the horrific years they’d spent under Ruckley’s thumb. Rhea had done her best to protect her sister while Ruckley had controlled their lives, but their past was grim enough to prevent even a commoner from marrying her sister let alone the viscount. In spite of all the odds, Arianna had found happiness and that was all that mattered. She, on the other hand, had no intention of surrendering to a man ever again.

“You might wish to ignore me, Rhea, but I don’t believe your heart is made of ice. It can’t be when I see you with the children.” Her aunt’s words made Rhea slowly turn her head to eye her relative with annoyance.

“I thought we’d settled this. I will never marry,” she replied coolly.

“No matter how terrible the past, denying yourself happiness is wrong, Rhea.”

“I’m quite happy with my life the way it is now,” she bit out between clenched teeth before she looked back out the window and into the darkness.

Obviously, it would take a great deal of time to convince Aunt Beatrice that marriage was out of the question. Nothing would change Rhea’s mind when it came to the subject. The thought of her every move being controlled again made her skin grow cold. She refused to ever go back to that type of servitude.
Marriage would be no better than what she’d experienced at Ruckley’s hand. It didn’t matter how many times she’d stood up to the man, Ruckley had found a way to torment and control her. His threats to Arianna and the children had always made her yield to whichever of his dictates she’d failed to circumvent.

She’d seen how married women in the East End were treated by their husbands as well. They’d been little more than chattel with bruises and marks to prove it. A small voice reminded her that there had been two or three men she’d seen who’d clearly loved their wives despite the hardships they experienced. The past charged out to engulf her, and Rhea closed her eyes in an effort to stop the vivid memories.
The image of Ruckley taking coin from a man who had paid to bed her made Rhea’s stomach lurch as a familiar queasiness swept over her. Fingers curled into tight fists in her lap, she fought back the nausea that always came when thinking about the past.

The soft summer night’s air filled her lungs as she drew in a deep breath. That life was behind her now. She and Arianna had escaped. She’d even made progress beginning to bring several of the children with them to Green Hill House. They were out of Ruckley’s reach. A voice in the back of her head told her none of them would be safe until Ruckley was dead.

Even when she saved all the ones she’d cared for while in Ruckley’s grasp, there would always be more she couldn’t help. She didn’t have the means to save every child no matter how much she wanted to, and it made her heart break every time she had to accept the reality of the situation. Timothy’s face flashed before her eyes, and her stomach lurched as remorse and guilt spread through her veins. Desperately, Rhea pushed the memories deep to avoid crying. She’d not cried since that terrible night, and she wasn’t about to start now.

“Rhea, I cannot begin to imagine what you and Arianna had to…what you endured all those years,” Beatrice Fremont said in a voice filled with pained regret. But you cannot let the past keep you from finding happiness.”

“Taking care of the children and watching them grow will be enough to make me happy,” she said as she looked at her aunt once more.

“Surely you want children of your own, Rhea,” her aunt pleaded.

“Vincent, Lucy, Rufus, and the others are just as much my children as any I could give birth to,” Rhea said quietly as the carriage rolled to a stop in front of the Earl and Countess of Melton’s country manor.

Aunt Beatrice nodded slowly, but in the shadowy confines of the small carriage, the older woman’s lovely face was still dark with misgivings. The door to the carriage was opened by a footman, and Rhea waited patiently as her aunt descended from the carriage. Light streamed out from every window of the manor presenting a welcoming, cheerful atmosphere. As they entered the large house, the sound of music drifted out into the main foyer.

It was a Scottish reel, and in spite of herself, Rhea found herself tapping her foot lightly on the marble floor as they waited in the receiving line. When she was a child, she’d always loved dancing with her mother. Thomas Bennett had disapproved of dancing so her mother had waited for those moments when Rhea’s father wasn’t in the house to whirl her and Arianna around the parlor. In the receiving line in front of her, Beatrice Fremont offered the Countess of Melton a small curtsey.

“Thank you for coming, Mrs. Fremont,” the countess said with a warm smile. “I understand you enjoyed a family reunion just recently. I think it wonderful you have found each other again.”

“Yes, finding my nieces has brought me immense joy. Although, Arianna was only with me for a short time before she married this past March.” At her aunt’s remark, the countess reached out to take Beatrice’s hand. A wistful expression transformed the younger woman’s face, and her green eyes shimmered with a bittersweet sadness.

“I know what it is like to be reunited with a loved one after so long a time. I’m certain nothing will prevent you and your nieces making up for time lost,” she said as she turned toward Rhea. “Welcome, Miss Bennett. I’m so pleased you could join us.”

“Thank you for your kind invitation, my lady,” Rhea said as she curtseyed. The countess nodded at her as she gestured toward the man at her side. “Have either of you met my husband, Lord Melton?”
As her aunt greeted the earl, fear spread an icy layer over her skin. In a fog of confusion, Rhea heard her aunt introduce her as she met the earl’s gaze. Dear God, was it possible the earl was the man Ruckley had shot last year in the museum? The welcoming expression on Lord Melton’s handsome face became one of puzzled amusement as he eyed her with an arched eyebrow.

“Good evening, Miss Bennett.”
The moment he spoke she knew he wasn’t the stranger she’d left to die in the museum. Aware she’d been staring, Rhea’s cheeks grew hot.

“Good evening, Lord Melton. Please accept my best wishes for a happy birthday.”

“Thank you,” he replied with a congenial grin. With a forced smile, she turned away from the earl and quickly followed her aunt deeper into the ballroom.

“What’s wrong, dearest?” Beatrice asked softly. “You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.”

“It’s nothing. Simply a bad memory.” Her response caused a pained look to cross her aunt’s face. Rhea quickly caught Beatrice’s hand in hers and shook her head with a gesture of reassurance. “The past can’t find me here—not this far away from London.”

“Would you prefer that we go home? We can plead a sudden headache.” Beatrice frowned as if contemplating what reason they could use to excuse themselves.

“Absolutely not,” Rhea exclaimed softly then smiled in a teasing fashion. “You rarely went out while we were in London, and I’m not about to deny you the chance to renew old acquaintances, especially of the male persuasion. I’m of the opinion that you’re in need of a husband more than me.”

The blush darkening her aunt’s cheeks made Rhea laugh. Although her aunt had been a widow for several years, Beatrice was still young and quite lovely. A smile curving her lips, Rhea turned away to survey the large room. From the books lining the far wall, it appeared that the room normally served as a library. Despite its stately, opulent appearance, the room radiated a warmth that said it had seen many happy occasions. Behind her were a row of doors that opened onto a long terrace. They stood open in an attempt to ease the already warm temperature of the room. Something told her that a number of guests would take advantage of the patio’s cooler temperatures as the night wore on.

Across the room, Rhea caught sight of a man with a small amount of silver at his temples who was looking in their direction. She was certain the man was studying her aunt, and Rhea turned her head slightly.

“Do you know the man standing across from us?”

“Where?” Beatrice asked with a curious look of puzzlement.

“It appears he’s headed our way,” Rhea murmured as she saw the man making his way through the throng and moving in their direction.

Oh dear God,” her aunt gasped softly. At the panic in Beatrice’s voice, Rhea jerked her gaze in her aunt’s direction. There was a look of apprehension on her pale features, and Rhea touched the older woman on the arm.

“Are you all right, Aunt Beatrice?”

“I…yes. I’m…I’m quite all right.”

The agitated response made Rhea frown. Before she could probe for a more definitive explanation, the gentleman in question was standing in front of them. He offered a smile to Rhea before bowing in her aunt’s direction.

“Good evening, ladies. Beatrice, you’re as lovely as I remember.”

When her aunt didn’t extend her arm, the gentleman reached out to capture Beatrice’s hand and carried it to his lips. His mouth lingered on Beatrice’s fingers for a fraction longer than was respectable, and her aunt breathed in a sharp breath as she tugged free of his grasp.

“Lionel…I hadn’t heard you’d returned from the continent.” Her aunt’s breathy response made Rhea glance at the woman. The pink in her aunt’s cheeks had returned and Rhea bit back a smile.

“And this must be your daughter. The likeness is uncanny.” A hard glint flashed in the man’s dark eyes as he smiled at Rhea then pinned his gaze on Beatrice again. Startled by the gentleman’s observation, she turned toward her aunt. All the color was gone from Beatrice’s face as she looked at Rhea then back at the handsome man in front of her. With a slight shake of her head, Beatrice exhaled a soft sigh.

“Actually, this is my niece, Rhea Bennett. Alfred and I didn’t have any children.” Regret echoed in her aunt’s voice, but another emotion ran beneath the obvious disappointment. Rhea found it impossible to define what it was. The gentleman’s gaze narrowed as he studied Beatrice closely, and pink color flared in her cheeks.

“Rhea, may I present, Lionel Nesfield.”

“A pleasure, Miss Bennett. And it’s Viscount Foxworth now,” he murmured as he kissed Rhea’s hand before his attention returned to Beatrice whose face displayed no other emotion than compassion.

“I am sorry Lionel. I hadn’t heard that your father was gone.”

“Just a few months ago. I had a great deal of estate business to attend to before I could renew old acquaintances.” Something in the way the man looked at her aunt said Lord Foxworth was specifically referring to Beatrice. Her aunt paled beneath his steady gaze, and Rhea decided to help ease the tension between the older couple.

“Do you live nearby, Lord Foxworth?”

“Yes,” said with a smile as he looked at her. “It’s less than a half-hour ride from Green Hill House as the crow flies. Do you ride, Miss Bennett?”

“I used to before…when I was a child.” She forced a smile as Lord Foxworth’s gaze narrowed at her.

“Then I’d like to offer you one of the horses from my stables. I have far more than I could possibly ride.”

“That’s exceedingly generous of you, my lord, but I couldn’t accept such an extravagant offer,” she said with surprise as her aunt gasped.

“Lionel, you can’t possibly—”

“Possibly what, Beatrice? I’m a wealthy man now. I can afford to be generous.”

There was almost a note of anger in the viscount’s voice as he eyed her aunt with an arched look that was difficult to read. The tone of the conversation had become a silent exchange of something completely different than the words being spoken out loud. Lord Foxworth looked back at Rhea and smiled.

“Well, Miss Bennett? Will you give me the pleasure of presenting you with a mount suitable for riding?” There was a gleam in his dark brown eyes that said he was determined to have his way. Rhea understood the unshakeable resolve in his gaze. She possessed a similar trait.

“Perhaps a compromise,” she said with a smile. “I shall accept the loan of one of your horses.”

“Excellent,” Lord Foxworth said with satisfaction. He looked at her aunt again. “Naturally, I expect you to accept one of my animals as well, Beatrice. I know how much you always enjoyed our afternoon rides.”

“But I…it’s—”

“I no longer accept no as an answer when it comes to something I want, Beatrice,” he said with a quiet authority that even Rhea would have felt compelled to obey.

The older couple stared at one another, and despite the stubborn look that had settled on her aunt’s face, Beatrice Fremont gave way beneath the viscount’s inflexible gaze. Her aunt silently agreed to his demand but not without a sharp nod of defiance. Beatrice’s blatant display of resistance didn’t appear to trouble Lord Foxworth as a look of triumph crossed his distinguished features. A wicked smile tilted his mouth, as he extended his hand to Beatrice in a commanding gesture.

“I believe you still owe me a dance from the last time we saw each other,” the viscount murmured. Her aunt looked in her direction in a silent plea for assistance. With a smile of amusement, Rhea shook her head.

“Go, I’ll be quite all right on my own.” Her encouragement earned her a scowl from her aunt, and a chuckle from Lord Foxworth.

“It appears you’re out numbered, my…dear Beatrice.”

The viscount’s slight stumble over his words made Rhea think the man had been about to express a more fervent endearment. His earlier mention of afternoon rides only reinforced Rhea’s suspicions that her aunt and Lord Foxworth were more than old friends. Now, as she watched the couple’s silent battle of wills, she saw something more than determination in the man’s gaze as he studied her aunt. Lord Foxworth’s fingers flicked in a commanding gesture for Beatrice to accept his hand. Rhea almost laughed at the flush of color filling her aunt’s cheeks as irritation swept across her features. The viscount merely arched his eyebrows at her obstinate glare as he waited patiently for Beatrice to place her hand in his. With obvious reluctance, her aunt accepted Lord Foxworth’s hand and allowed him to lead her out onto the dance floor.

Rhea watched the jovial throng of guests dancing and mingling in the room. When she and Arianna had been reunited with their aunt less than a year ago, it had taken Rhea time to feel comfortable at the few soirees her aunt insisted they attend. She still found social occasions somewhat off-putting.
In the little more than three months since arriving at Green Hill House, the vicar and his wife had been their only callers. It was an arrangement Rhea was quite content with, but she’d seen how much her aunt had enjoyed visiting with the older couple. The soiree at Melton Park had presented the perfect opportunity for her aunt to enjoy the company of people other than Rhea.

The only reason Rhea had agreed to attend the party at Melton Park was because of her aunt. She’d witnessed how much the invitation had excited Beatrice, and she’d not protested attending for fear her aunt would not go all. But there was something different about tonight’s soiree. She couldn’t tell if it was the party’s relaxed atmosphere or the fact that she wasn’t in town and constantly on her guard for some wayward encounter that would reveal her past.

But for whatever reason, tonight the past seemed far behind her. One or two men glanced her way, and she quickly averted her gaze. Even in this relaxed atmosphere, she was unwilling to engage in small talk. She wasn’t interested in fending off the unwanted attentions of a man.

In one corner of the room, she saw two men flanking a woman of medium height. Rhea eyed the trio with curiosity. It was obvious they were standing guard over the woman, but she couldn’t discern why. Like Lord Melton, both men were dressed in formal Prince Charlie jackets and kilts. Tonight was the first time she’d ever seen any man wearing formal Scottish dress, and it was impressive.

Aunt Beatrice had briefly mentioned the other day that the earl’s family was descended from the Stewart line of Highlanders. The woman standing between the two men wore a pale yellow gown with a dark red tartan sash attached to her left shoulder. The two men exuded a commanding, protective nature as they greeted several guests who’d approach the trio. As the man closest to her turned his head to speak with someone, Rhea saw his face fully and sucked in a sharp breath of horror as she froze. Dear Lord, it was him.

A relief unlike anything she’d ever known spiraled through her. He was alive. In the next breath she dismissed the notion. She’d already thought the earl was the man in the museum. She was far too given to fancy tonight. London was more than two hours away by train. The man Ruckley had shot was dead. She bore as much responsibility if not more for the man’s death because he might have survived if she’d stood up to Ruckley. It was a deed she would regret for the rest of her life. But she was allowing an over-active imagination to get the better of her. The likelihood the man across the room was the man Ruckley had shot in the museum a year ago was an outrageous thought. Almost as outrageous as when she’d thought the Earl of Melton was the man she’d left to die. She dragged in a deep gulp of air as she tried to dismiss the notion, but with each subsequent breath she found herself questioning her rejection of the idea. The more she studied the man, the more convinced she became he was the man she’d left to die on the British Museum floor.

Rhea remember her arrival and how she’d found herself staring at the Earl of Melton. The resemblance between the two men was uncanny, and she was certain they were related. But it wasn’t just this man’s face that was so familiar. It was the way he moved. Everything about him reflected a fluid power she’d observed in him a year ago in the museum’s dark hall.
As it had that night, every bit of his tall, well-built frame resonated with a raw, masculine strength. It made her realize how easily he could have subdued her if he’d not had a gun pointed at him. A tremor rocked its way through her body. Even when he’d been rendered helpless by a bullet there had been something strong and powerful about the man. The memory of him falling into her arms made her mouth go dry.

His body had been hard and solid against hers, and she’d been stunned by the connection she’d felt with him. She had been no more capable of explaining the sensation then as she could now. As she studied him, she was amazed the bullet from Ruckley’s pistol hadn’t killed him, let alone allowed him to walk. She’d seen what a bullet wound in the back could do to a man. Almost as if he were aware he was under scrutiny, the man swung his gaze across the room. He reminded her of a dangerous predator ready to strike in a blur of motion that would leave its prey incapacitated.

The moment their eyes met an arrogant amusement curved his firm lips as he studied her with blatant curiosity. The expression on his face said he was accustomed to women falling at his feet. She tried to look away from him, but there was something hypnotic in his gaze. It was suddenly difficult to breathe, and as his eyes narrowed, panic lashed out at her.

Dear Lord, had he recognized her? No. That wasn’t possible. She’d been wearing a mask that night in the museum. In the back of her head, a small voice reminded her of that heart-stopping moment when he’d looked into her eyes. The haunting memory of his exclamation that he knew her still had the ability to make her tremble. She had to have misunderstood. He’d just been shot. It was reasonable to believe he’d been in great pain. He could have easily thought she was someone else. He’d been dying.
It was the only explanation she’d ever been able to rationalize and accept. There wasn’t any other way he could have recognized her that night or now. Fear crashed through her as she dragged her gaze away from the stranger. What was she going to do?

Suddenly, her panic was gone, and a calm serenity wrapped around her like a warm cloak. It was the same collected composure she’d learned to maintain while she’d been at Ruckley’s beck and call. It subdued her fear and panic. Her mask had never come off her face during those few short moments in the museum. There was no reason this stranger might connect a street criminal and Miss Rhea Bennett, let alone think they were the same person.

With a furtive glance in his direction, she saw him speaking with an older woman, and a sigh of relief escaped her. She’d been allowing her imagination to run amok. Rhea retreated slightly into a corner where it was possible to watch the guests without being noticed. Although her foot continued to tap in time with the music, she was content to watch Lord Foxworth spin her aunt around the dance floor for a second dance.

The couple would argue then dance in silence before having words again. She could tell from her aunt’s expression that Lord Foxworth was winning whatever argument they were having. Voices nearby caught her ear and she turned her head to see Lady Melton moving toward her. The woman’s mischievous smile made Rhea respond in kind, but a second later it died as she saw the man behind her. Unable to move, she tried to maintain her composure and quell the urge to run.

“Miss Bennett, my brother-in-law has asked me for an introduction.” The countess glanced over her shoulder with a smile before looking at Rhea again. “He noticed you weren’t dancing and insisted on rectifying that problem. Percy Rockwood, Miss Rhea Bennett.”

“A pleasure, Miss Bennett.”
Amusement made Percy Rockwood arch his eyebrow upward in a manner reminiscent of his brother as he bowed slightly in her direction. No longer shadowed by the darkness of the British Museum, Percy Rockwood was even more handsome than she remembered. Perhaps devastatingly so if she were any other woman.

Rhea tried to swallow the knot swelling her throat shut until it was difficult to breathe. Determined to regain her composure, she reminded herself that he couldn’t possibly connect her to the British Museum robbery. She forced a smile to her lips and nodded her head in a polite greeting.

“Mr. Rockwood,” she murmured coolly. The countess’s curious gaze flitted from her brother-in-law to Rhea then back to Percy.

“I promised my husband this next dance, Miss Bennett. I leave you in good hands. Percy is an excellent dancer.”

With an affectionate peck on her brother-in-law’s cheek and a smile at Rhea, the countess walked away. Silence filled the air in Lady Melton’s wake, and when Percy didn’t say anything, Rhea’s mind screamed at her to flee.

“Shall we?” He stretched out his hand to her, and she jumped. With a shake of her head, she dismissed his offer.

“I think it best you find another partner, Mr. Rockwood. I’ll only step on your toes.” For all that she loved to dance, she knew it was dangerous to remain in this man’s company.

“I insist,” he said in a voice that made her heart skitter out of control.

In the space of seconds, he’d gone from charming rogue to a man unwilling to accept her refusal. His hand wrapped around her wrist, and he led her toward the dance floor. Caught off guard, Rhea gasped at his autocratic action, but it was the electric charge streaking up her arm that prevented her from freeing herself. When they reached the dance floor, Percy pulled her into his arms. A waltz was playing, and with a skillful move, he swung her into the crowd of dancers.

Despite her trepidation, it was impossible to ignore the way her body reacted to being so close to him. It was as if every inch of her was on fire. The sensation sent tension streaking through her body. A subtle woodsy aroma mixed with frankincense and another spice created an exotic, almost hedonistic, scent in her nose. It was a warm smell that coaxed her to breathe him into her senses more deeply.
Everything about him was raw, potent male. It was a sharp, tactile sensation. The large hand braced against her back emphasized the sinewy strength of the arm that pressed into her as they circled the floor. Chiseled features further accentuated the hard strength of him. Even his beautiful mouth emphasized a resolve that declared him a man of purpose. He was a man capable of bending a woman to his will in the manner that said she wouldn’t know what was happening until it was too late.

Suddenly, she realized her response to him was blinding her as to who he was. The knowledge sent a tremor through her. Percy executed a polish move that carried them past another couple. Chestnut-colored eyes met hers with a look that sent another shiver sliding through her. The minute she was free she intended to seek out her aunt and plead a headache. If she was lucky, Lord Foxworth would see her aunt home, and Rhea would have the carriage to herself.

“I wonder what nefarious plot is being hatched in that pretty head of yours, Miss Bennett.”
Startled, she met his narrowed gaze. Something unreadable glinted in his eyes, and her heart skipped a beat while an icy layer of fear coated her skin. Refusing to show she was afraid, she called upon the steely calm she’d learned on the streets of the East End.

“I’m not in the habit of plotting anything nefarious or otherwise, Mr. Rockwood.” With deliberate precision, she schooled her features into a look of bewildered surprise. Anger flashed in his brown gaze as he pulled her deeper into his embrace. Heat immediately engulfed her skin. Rhea wasn’t sure whether it was from his fierce gaze or the way she was pressed into him. She concluded it was both.
“Your eyes are quite lovely, Miss Bennett,” he said softly. “In fact, they are quite unforgettable.”
Rhea’s heart sank as a wave of nausea rolled through her. He knew. Somehow he’d recognized her from across the room. She didn’t know how, but he knew she’d been in the British Museum a year ago. She stumbled slightly only to have a steely arm lift her off her feet for a brief moment before setting her down once more to continue their dance.

“Have I said something to upset you, Miss Bennett?”

“Not at all. As I warned you I have a tendency to step on toes,” she said breathlessly as she struggled to maintain her composure.

“Yes, you did,” he murmured wryly. His skeptical tone said he knew she was lying. “Tell me, Miss Bennett, have you ever been to the British Museum?”

Panic sliced through her with all the force of a sword cutting its way through her flesh. Her throat closed as she stared up at him. Percy’s face darkened when she remained silent.

“It would appear the cat has got your tongue, Rhea.”

There was a dark, sensual vibration to the way her name rolled off his lips. The sound made her mouth go dry as she averted her gaze from his. The music rose on a final crescendo bringing the waltz to an end. The moment the last note was played, Percy whirled her across the floor to stop in front of the doors leading out to the terrace. As she freed herself from his arms, he caught her by the elbow and ushered her out into the warm summer night.

It happened so fast, Rhea didn’t have time to protest. There were several couples already on the patio, and Percy guided her past them without a break in his stride. In silence, they walked quickly down a small stairway onto a gravel path. Torches lined the walkway, but Percy didn’t stay on the well-lit foot path. Instead, he made a sharp right turn, half dragging Rhea after him. Although something inside her said he wouldn’t harm her, she’d learned years ago never to trust a man when it came to her safety.
“Would you care to explain what you’re doing, Mr. Rockwood?” she demanded in an imperious tone as he dragged her to a halt inside a small gazebo. The moon illuminated one side of the structure, but Rhea deliberately remained in the shadows.

“I’m attempting to solve a mystery, and I believe you can help me.”

The dark drawl in his voice was as silky now as it had been that night in the museum. It made her heart skip a beat. She immediately chided herself for being distracted by his voice and everything else about him.

“I doubt I can be of any assistance to you. My deduction skills are practically nonexistent,” she said with a calm that belied her current state of mind.

Panic was driving a need to run as fast and far as possible. But to leave now would only confirm she had something to hide. Tension held her rigid as she eyed him warily.

“You really do intend to make this difficult, don’t you,” he growled.

“I am not being difficult. I simply can’t help you. Now, I would like to leave.” Rhea took a step toward the open archway of the gazebo, but he quickly blocked her path.

“You underestimate yourself, Rhea. You’re quite capable of helping me solve this particular mystery,” he murmured in an almost seductive manner. Trapped in a web of tension that left her frozen where she
stood, she tried to steady her breathing.

As he closed the distance between them, his slow walk possessed the same raw power she remembered. His stride was reminiscent of a tiger’s lazy gait that belied a deadly strength beneath the relaxed prowl. It was as disturbing as it was beautiful. Her throat closed and threatened to stop the flow of air to her lungs. What in heaven’s name was she thinking? The man had the power to destroy her. Worst of all, he could easily deliver a crushing blow to Arianna’s happy marriage. Rhea would go to hell and back to keep that from happening. Determined to protect her sister at all costs, she straightened her shoulders as she mustered every ounce of disdain she could find inside her.

“You’ve either had too much to drink this evening, Mr. Rockwood, or you’re delusional. I cannot help you,” she said coldly. She was resigned to the fact that her bluff would be a futile effort, but she would do whatever necessary to protect those she loved.

“You didn’t answer me before, Rhea,” his voice was a low growl that heightened the image of him as a predator. “Have you ever been to the British Museum?”

“Yes,” she said quietly and arched her eyebrows at him. “Most Londoners have at one time or another.”

“Have you ever visited the museum at night?” The anger in his voice scraped across her senses.

“As I recall the museum closes well before nightfall.”

“Then allow me to refresh your memory,” he snarled. “How did you put it? Oh, yes—‘I’m so sorry. This wasn’t supposed to happen.’”

Although she’d accepted the fact that he’d guess the truth, hearing her words flung at her made her flinch. In an attempt to hide the way her hands had suddenly begun to shake, Rhea clasped them in front of her. Years ago, she’d learned that silence was the best weapon she possessed when it came to escaping a desperate situation unscathed. This was one of those moments. Warily, she met Percy Rockwood’s hard gaze. When she didn’t answer him, he released a loud noise of disgust and anger.
“Sit down, Rhea.” He gestured toward the bench that curved its way around the gazebo’s interior.

“I prefer to stand,” she said with quiet defiance.

“I said sit down.” His command said she would pay a price for disobedience. Instincts honed on the streets made Rhea sink slowly down onto the wooden seat. Her steady gaze met his as he glared at her.

“I don’t appreciate being held hostage, Mr. Rockwood. I would like to leave. Now.”

“And I don’t appreciate being shot,” he ground out harshly.

The accusation in his voice sent an icy blast across Rhea’s skin. Frozen in place, she was grateful for the ability to remain unflinching in the face of his fury. Percy folded his arms across his chest as he studied her coldly. His stance declared he expected an explanation or at the very least a response from her.

“I’ve never shot anyone,” she choked out.

Although up until tonight that was something she’d not believed, simply because she’d left him for dead. But she’d never actually shot or killed anyone. She’d not even been able to kill Ruckley when she’d had the chance. The thought of killing was abhorrent to her, which was why she’d been so tormented ever since that terrible night in the museum.

She hadn’t wanted to leave him dying on the museum floor. Even if all she could have done was to hold him until he took his last breath, she would never have left him if it hadn’t been for Ruckley. It had been a horrible choice to make when Ruckley had forced her hand.

“But you did leave me on the floor of the British Museum to die.” The brutal contempt in his voice made her jump. She shook her head vehemently.

“No, it wasn’t like that.”

Her sharp denial made Rhea suck in a sharp breath as she saw the triumphant gleam in his eyes. Horrified, she struggled with the extent of her error. She’d just confessed to a crime. One of the first lessons Ruckley had taught her was to never admit guilt. Rhea stared at her accuser in fear as her heart pounded wildly in her chest. The moment his gaze narrowed on her, she experienced the sensation of being pinned to a lepidopterist’s board of butterflies.

“Then explain your actions,” he bit out tersely. “Explain why you would leave me lying on the museum floor in a pool of blood.”

The bitterness in his voice made her close her eyes. How could she possibly make Percy Rockwood understand what had driven her to ignore every universal law of compassion and kindness? She met his gaze for a long moment then looked away.

“I thought you were already dead. If I’d protested any more than I did, Ruckley would have shot me as well.”

“Your desire to live is something I understand all too well,” he said sardonically. At the suggestion that her life was all that mattered Rhea directed a cold look at him.

“My life wasn’t mine to give away. There were others to consider.”

“And yet, here you are, at my brother’s estate, dressed like a woman of means without any encumbrances.” The sarcasm in his words and expression made her flinch as if he’d slapped her. She didn’t know why, but she didn’t want him to think badly of her.

“Leaving you on that gallery floor that night has haunted me ever since,” she said in a hoarse voice.

“How touching. But the fact is you did leave me, didn’t you, Rhea?” The harsh condemnation made her lift her head slightly. She’d wronged him terribly. She knew that, but he didn’t know her reasons, and any explanation would reveal her shame. It would also open up Arianna to a scandal.

“I’m sorry for what I did. I will have to live with that sin until my dying day,” Rhea said softly.

“I’m simply grateful I was wrong in thinking you dead.”

“Of that I’m certain,” he said icily. “Accessory to murder isn’t quite as serious a crime.”
Rhea could feel the blood draining from her face and her body was as cold as if she’d fallen into an ice-covered pond. She swayed slightly and braced herself with one hand against the bench. Accessory to murder. Yes, that’s what she was—an accessory. She’d done nothing to stop Ruckley, and she’d done nothing to save Percy Rockwood. A surreal calm washed over her as she met his angry gaze. She would accept her punishment, and she would see to it that Arianna and the children wouldn’t be implicated. She would lie if necessary to ensure that.

“I understand,” she whispered.

“Understand what?” Percy’s words cracked through the air with viciousness of a bullwhip.

Unable to help herself, she flinched. Ruckley had never used the whip on her or Arianna. He’d not wanted to damage valuable merchandise. But the bastard had not hesitated to use the lash on any of the boys. She’d often thought Ruckley had done so deliberately because he knew how much it horrified her.
Her stomach roiled as she tried to accept the fact that Percy Rockwood was going to ensure she was punished. She would no doubt go to prison. She might even be hung. The thought made her light-headed. Rhea swayed again where she was sitting and felt her head loll backward as she fought to remain conscious.

“Bloody hell.”

In seconds, Percy was seated beside her with his arm around her waist. The warmth of him enveloped her as she sank into his side, and he pulled her close. There was great strength in the shoulder that supported her head. A sudden rush of awareness spiraled through her, and she immediately wanted to sink deeper into his embrace.

The knowledge stunned her. Ruckley had made a fair profit off her as she’d serviced the needs of men who’d paid to use her body for their satisfaction. It had made her numb to all sensation where men were concerned. At least that’s what she had believed. Now, to experience attraction for a man was a startling revelation. But of all the men she might ever have been attracted to, she would never have expected it to be Percy Rockwood. A man she’d left to die in a dark museum.

She stared up into a pair of dark-brown eyes still filled with anger, but there was concern reflected in his gaze as well. Why would he be worried about a woman he intended to hand over to the police? Rhea gulped back her fear, drew in a deep breath, and released it.

“When you summon the police, if you would have them remove me as discreetly as possible I would be grateful. I have no wish to embarrass my aunt.” Her calmly spoken request pleased her. At least she was still capable of maintaining her emotions.

“Damnation, I have no intention of sending for the village constable or the metropolitan police in London,” he ground out almost as if he were angry she’d even suggest such a thing. “However, you are going to tell me how you came to be at Melton Park and where this Ruckley fellow is.”

The mention of Ruckley sent a shudder sailing through Rhea. In a swift movement, she freed herself from the solid strength of Percy Rockwood’s embrace. He didn’t stop her as she slid across the bench to put distance between them. Almost immediately she found herself wishing she could return to his side. There was something about the man that made her think he’d keep her safe from harm. She dismissed the thought with a sigh of silent disgust. He knew nothing about Ruckley or how the bastard thought. Percy couldn’t keep her or anyone else she loved safe from her one-time master. The only person she could trust to do that was herself.

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Chapter 2
 

The moment Rhea slid away from him, Percy missed her soft warmth. His jaw clenched with irritation at the thought. What the hell was wrong with him? The woman hadn’t hesitated to leave him for dead a year ago. In the back of his mind a voice protested his harsh judgement. She’d not done so willingly. He dismissed the thought as sheer fantasy.

Rhea Bennett was a thief. She’d picked more pockets than he’d bedded women. He ignored the voice in his head that objected to the way he’d categorized her. Percy waited patiently for her to look at him. When she did, the horrified look in her eyes was the same now as it had been in the Egyptian exhibit hall a year ago. It eased some of his anger.

For whatever reason, he believed her regret at having left him for dead was sincere. But he couldn’t simply forget why she’d been in the museum in the first place. What had she done with the pendant? There had been no word of the necklace since the burglary. Percy studied Rhea’s profile for a long moment. Her features had been obscured by her mask that night more than a year ago.

But something had registered with him the moment their eyes had met across the ballroom floor. His initial reaction when he’d caught her watching him had been amusement. Whether it was a mother seeking a husband for their offspring, the wide-eyed admiration of an ingénue, or the sultry widow interested in a dalliance, he was well acquainted with the female sex and their behaviors.

But as he had continued to study her from across the expanse of the ballroom, it had been his sudden awareness that Rhea feared him that had startled him. It had been an instinctive knowing that had puzzled him for the briefest of moments before he’d made the connection to the woman in the museum a year ago. It had been the strongest clairvoyant sensation he’d had since the night he was shot. It had been even stronger than the ghosts that had assaulted his senses during his hospital stay. But he’d not trusted his intuition until he’d looked into the deep violet of her eyes when Helen had introduced them. Percy gritted his teeth. One thing was for certain, the woman was distracting him from his purpose. The color of her eyes was irrelevant to the matter at hand.

“I asked you where I can find this man, Ruckley.”

“I don’t know where he is,” she replied without emotion as she turned her head and met his gaze steadily. There wasn’t a trace of deception in those violet depths, but something else flickered there before it was extinguished.

“And if you did know his whereabouts?” His question hung in the air between them for a long moment. With a shake of her head, Rhea looked away.

“I wouldn’t tell you.” The flat response made Percy blow out a breath of exasperation. Again, he wondered why he’d decided not to hand her over to Scotland Yard.

He couldn’t attribute his decision to being blinded by her beauty. Rhea was lovely, but she didn’t resemble the women he usually favored when it came to liaisons. Still, there was something unforgettable about her expressive features. Wisps of dark brown hair had freed themselves from her upswept hair and framed her face in a way that made her look vulnerable. But it was her mouth that captured his imagination. Her full lips were an enticing dark pink. It was a mouth made for kissing. Percy frowned at his fantasizing.

Apprehension shimmered in her eyes as she looked at him again. Percy suddenly realized he didn’t like the idea that she feared him. Surprised and annoyed by the thought, he clenched his jaw. The woman had left him for dead. Yet in true Rockwood fashion, he’d impulsively declared he wouldn’t hand her over to the police.

He didn’t know what to make of his decision. Nor did he understand his need to protect her or convince her that she had nothing to fear from him. Tension flooded his body. What the devil was wrong with him? All he cared about was finding the bastard who’d shot him. The thought almost made him snort out loud in self-disgust. It wasn’t just this Ruckley fellow he was interested in. He wanted to know more about Rhea. Despite his instinct telling him she was innocent of any crime where he was concerned, it was still difficult not to eye her with suspicion. He grunted softly.

“Tell me how you came to be at Melton Park. Are you and your aunt planning to steal something from my brother’s house?” He immediately regretted the question.

“No,” she exclaimed vehemently. Anger reminiscent of a mother protecting her young darkened her violet eyes. “My aunt bears no responsibility for my actions or anyone else’s. If not for Aunt Beatrice…”

She wasn’t just afraid. She was in trouble. He knew it with the same certainty he known it that night in the museum. The knowledge became a deep rooted conviction as the an dara sealladh suddenly crashed through him like a raging river. The features of a beefy man with a pock-marked face and bulbous nose filled Percy’s head. Ruckley. He didn’t question how he knew who the man in his vision was. He simply accepted it as fact.

The flashes of insight were chaotic. Images tumbled through his head as if they were pieces of debris tossed violently about in churning waters. He saw Rhea riding across a meadow with tears streaming down her face. The image vanished to become a vivid picture of Rhea dressed in a gown a decade older than current fashions. While another woman distracted a well-dressed gentleman, Rhea picked the man’s pocket.

Just as quickly, another image filled his head of Rhea arguing with Ruckley. A child clung to her skirts as she argued with the man. He couldn’t hear their words, and while her expression was stoic, her posture was filled with defiance, anger, loathing, and fear. The leering expression on Ruckley’s face said the man could read her emotions as well.

In another flash of changing imagery, he saw Rhea comforting a small child while an expression of despair darkened her features as she’d turned toward someone in the shadows. As quickly as the vision came to him they were gone. Most of what he’d seen made little sense, but that was typical of the an dara sealladh. He knew things would sort themselves out sooner or later. But what he’d seen convinced him Rhea’s theft of the pendant was not by choice.

More importantly, his vision had shown him that Rhea wasn’t the person his eyes and personal experience suggested she was. Sorrow and pain were lodged deep inside of her. From the little he’d seen in his visions, her past had taught her to hide her emotions well. The cool, serene expression she’d worn since Helen had introduced them had barely faltered. Yet despite her ability to hide behind that polite mask, it was her eyes that betrayed her.

“Does your aunt know about your past?” His question made Rhea grow still. Her eyes met his for a brief moment before she turned her head away. Her profile was soft and feminine, but revealed nothing of what she was thinking.

“Yes, she knows.”

“But she doesn’t know everything.”

The statement was a stab in the dark. Percy was certain Rhea had done more than pick pockets. When she jerked and looked at him again, he knew he’d struck a nerve. Her violet eyes were as wide now as they had been the night he’d been shot. The moon cast its light on her pale features. The vulnerability he’d seen earlier flitted across her face before it vanished and her expression became devoid of emotion.

“No, she doesn’t know everything. If Aunt Beatrice knew the whole truth it would break her heart. We couldn’t do that to her.”

Shoulders rigid, Rhea stared down at the gazebo floor. His gaze followed hers, and he noted the uneven boards, which had been due to the inexperience of its builders. He and Caleb had built the small structure when they were younger. The memory was a bittersweet one. He missed his older brother. Percy pushed the thought of Caleb’s death aside as he realized Rhea’s response had been in the plural.
“We?” The single word question made her flinch. Rhea glanced in his direction before her gaze focused back on the lopsided flooring. She hesitated for a moment before her shoulders slumped in defeat.

“My sister, Arianna.” Resignation vibrated through her response. It was obvious she’d not meant to reveal she had a sister. When she didn’t expand on her statement, Percy shook his head with exasperation.

“And where is your sister this evening?”

“She’s at home.” The response was clipped and matter-of-fact. Frustration tugged a sigh of irritation from him.

“So she lives at Green Hill House with you and your aunt.”

“She lives in London.”
“Alone?” Percy raised his eyebrows as he stared at her in amazement.

“No,” Rhea exclaimed. “I would never have left her alone if she and Blake hadn’t married this past March.”

“Blake?” Percy frowned for a moment. It wasn’t an uncommon name, but the combination of the name, the month, and word marriage triggered something in his head. Relentlessly, he searched his memory for a moment trying to make the connection Rhea’s explanation had sparked. Suddenly, disbelief latched onto him. “Blake? As in Blake Hawkstone, Viscount Sherrington? Your sister is Lady Sherrington?”

Rhea jerked in horror and slid further away from him until she was completely out of reach. She didn’t answer, but he knew he was right. He’d gone to school with Blake, and the two of them had become stalwart friends and saw each other quite often at the club, but he’d not seen his friend since his marriage. Only a handful of guests had been invited to Blake’s wedding, and his friend had asked Percy to attend.

Normally, he wouldn’t have missed the occasion, but he’d been at Callendar Abby for the celebration of his nephew Braxton’s sixth birthday. Ever since losing Devin and Caleb in the fire at Westbrook Farms, he and his siblings put family above all other things. The significance of Rhea’s sister being married to a friend of his was not lost on Percy.

Coincidences in the Rockwood clan were viewed as signs the universe had placed them in a certain place and time for a reason. When Rhea didn’t respond, he decided to change the direction of the conversation.

“Exactly what does your aunt know?”

“She knows Ariana and I were pickpockets.”

The finality in her voice said she wasn’t about to expand on her statement with him anymore than she intended to discuss her sister. But it was enough to convince him that their association with Ruckley had involved more than pickpocketing. The memory of Ruckley’s image was more than enough for Percy to come up with any number of things the man had forced Rhea to do. The most unsavory one made Percy’s gut knot with revulsion. As much as he didn’t want to believe it, he would be a fool to think Ruckley hadn’t had his way with Rhea. Anger swept through him. The thought of Ruckley or any other man touching her made his muscles harden with a rage he didn’t understand. Hell, he didn’t know what to make of this entire situation.

“How did you come to be in Ruckley’s employ?”

The question was barely past his lips before Rhea was off the bench in a flash of movement. She stood in the moonlight with contempt darkening her eyes, and Percy frowned. He’d made a mistake to presume she’d willingly agreed to enter Ruckley’s employ. It only emphasized the fact that if he wanted to know all of Rhea’s secrets, he needed to earn her trust. He wouldn’t gain her confidence by bullying her into telling him the truth. Her posture was stiff and unyielding as she stared at him with an icy scorn that would have chilled even his unflappable brother, Sebastian.

“First you drag me into the dark against my will, Mr. Rockwood. Then you have the audacity to assume my aunt intends to steal from your brother. Now you insist on asking questions that have nothing to do with that fateful night at the museum. Questions you have no right to ask.”

She glared at him with an outrage he realized was fear driven. Percy could read it in the deep purple of her eyes.

“The minute you stepped across the threshold of Melton Park, you made it my business.”

“I would never have done so if I’d realized you were going to be here,” she snapped. “I’ll not answer any more of your questions. Even if you change your mind and turn me over to Scotland Yard, I’ll not answer their questions either.”

“Perhaps Lady Sherrington will be more forthcoming,” he snapped.

The moment his words of frustration split the air he bit back a groan of disgust. Rhea’s head snapped back as if he’d slapped her. Abject horror flitted across her features, which had become the hue of white marble. Her entire demeanor was almost deathlike, and for a brief moment he thought she might faint.

Pale as the moonlight pooling at her feet, her features were immobile. The threat had been a cold, unfeeling remark that his family, particularly his sisters, would have condemned him for most vehemently. Regret and self-disgust lashed out at him. For not the first time in his life, he was reminded he was a member of the reckless Rockwoods.

Slowly, Percy rose to his feet. Rhea immediately took a step backward. It seemed out of character for her to do so. He was certain she wasn’t the kind of woman to retreat. Although he barely knew her, he’d already surmised she possessed the strength of a seasoned soldier. It was an apt description. She’d survived what he was certain had been a horrific life under Ruckley’s thumb. It was impossible not to admire her for having lived through such a nightmare without losing her ability to remain loyal to others. Percy cleared his throat.

“My threat was an empty one, Rhea. I said I would not turn you over to the Metropolitan Police, and I will honor that promise. I’ve no intention of denouncing you or your loved ones.”
His statement seemed to have no impact on Rhea as she remained still and non-responsive. Silence spread a tenuous and uncomfortable web between them for several long moments. Percy was about to speak when she relaxed slightly. She eyed him with icy disdain.

“An apology, Mr. Rockwood?” The derision in her voice made Percy grit his teeth. Apologizing didn’t come easily to him, and as much as he deserved her scorn for threatening her, he didn’t enjoy the way it made him feel.

“A concession that as a member of the Rockwood family, I possess the familial trait of reckless conduct.”

“It’s a behavior that can get you killed,” she snapped. “You should be grateful you don’t know where Ruckley is. The man would make sport of you before he killed you.”

“Did Ruckley make sport of you or your sister, Rhea?” he asked quietly.

The moment he asked the question he realized how much he wanted to ease the pain he knew Ruckley had caused her. Percy was accustomed to being protective of his family. But Rhea was the first person outside of the Rockwood clan he’d ever wanted to keep safe from harm. Not even Nellie had aroused such strong protective instincts inside him. But he was certain Nellie hadn’t experienced the horror he was certain Rhea had endured.

When he’d found Nellie, she’d simply been a street urchin in need of care. A skinny girl of ten, she hadn’t trusted him at first. It had taken him several days to convince her that all he wanted was to help her. Nellie had finally agreed to go with Percy to the family orphanage, and there he’d put her under Mrs. Hughes’s tutelage.

Over the years he’d taken an interest in Nellie’s education and taken her for the occasional outing whenever she achieved a certain waypoint of success. Sebastian had once warned him that Nellie might take his interest and friendship to mean something deeper, but he’d brushed off the words of the head of the Rockwood brood. He’d been certain Nellie viewed him as a dear friend, just as he did her. Percy’s muscles knotted with disgust as he shoved his memories of Nellie into the far reaches of his mind. His gaze met Rhea’s, and her stoic expression didn’t surprise him. If he’d lived through the kind of existence she had, he would be just as unwilling to speak of the past as she was.

“I believe I’ve indulged your curiosity quite enough, Mr. Rockwood. I would like to return to the ballroom.” Bitterness threaded through her words as her contemptuous gaze swept over him.
Percy frowned. From the tension holding her rigid he had to believe he’d pushed her to the edge of an abyss. There was more to her story, but he was certain she’d shared far more with him than she had with anyone else. Unfortunately, the little she’d revealed to him had been given under duress. It would never make her trust him, and oddly enough Percy wanted her to feel safe with him—to believe he wouldn’t do anything to harm her. Tomorrow he’d call on her at Green Hill House. He’d find a way to convince her that she needed his help, just as much as he needed hers.

“I’ll see you safely back to the house,” he said quietly as he gestured for her to take his arm.
Rhea appeared ready to protest until he narrowed his gaze at her sternly. With an abrupt bob of her head, she took a quick step forward. Percy never had the chance to warn her about the particularly uneven section of the gazebo flooring in her way. A split-second later, Rhea uttered a low cry of alarm as she tumbled downward. Percy lunged forward and caught her before she hit the floor.

As he pulled her close, the warm scent of her filled his nostrils. She smelled like a honey blossom—sweet, but with a tantalizing note of beguiling heat. The intoxicating essence of her stirred his senses in the way he’d not experienced in a long time. Although fear still shimmered in her violet gaze, there was an awareness darkening her eyes that gave her a sultry look. Instinctively, his body responded to her natural sensuality.

Every inch of him tightened and hardened in the space of seconds. The tip of her tongue flicked out to dampen her upper lip. There was no artifice in the action, and it ignited an acute need to taste her sweetly-shaped mouth. Without thinking, Percy bent his head and lightly caressed her mouth with his. A small gasp of surprise escaped her, but she made no attempt to reject him. Unable to stop himself he slowly deepened the kiss as he pulled her closer. She didn’t resist.

Instead, her fingers splayed across his chest as she leaned into him. It sent a rush of desire coursing through his blood. With a gentle nip on her lower lip, he startled her into parting her mouth beneath his. As he probed the honeyed taste of her warm mouth, she stiffened against him.
For the briefest of moments, he thought she would push herself free of his embrace. But she didn’t. Instead, her tongue tentatively mated with his. With each stroke of his tongue against hers, an unexpected hunger pounded its way into every inch of him. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d tasted a woman so fresh and sweet.

In the back of his head, a warning bell rang out loudly. He ignored the sound as he continued to enjoy the tangy sweetness of Rhea’s mouth. The alarm clanged even louder until it broke through the desire gripping his body and alerted him to the sound of voices close by. With a jerk, he quickly released her, and put a small distance between them.

As the voices grew louder with each passing second, Rhea’s demeanor was one of calm serenity. The only sign she’d just been in a passionate embrace was the soft luminescent hue of her features and her plump mouth darkened by his kiss. The fact that she appeared completely unmoved by what had just transpired between them irritated him.

Most women he kissed still had the look of a lover wanting more when he released them from his embrace. Rhea Bennett looked as though she’d just exchanged a perfunctory kiss with him. In fact, the casual observer would never even contemplate the possibility that she’d just been kissed passionately. And the fact that she’d stirred such a raw desire in him without her experiencing the same emotion pricked his pride.

It had been a long time since he’d allowed himself to become so enthralled with a woman as to lose his head as he had just a moment ago with Rhea. The voices grew louder now, and an expression of dismay crossed Rhea’s features. Percy frowned and turned his head toward the gazebo’s archway.

“If possible, you’re even more autocratic than you were before you left England, Lord Foxworth.”

“And you’ve grown more stubborn,” Foxworth snapped. “Time might have altered us somewhat Beatrice, but you cannot deny you still desire me.”

Percy raised his eyebrows in amusement as he glanced at Rhea. It appeared Foxworth had decided to renew an old love affair. Percy’s amusement changed to puzzlement at the consternation on Rhea’s face. Her expression triggered a sluggish part of his brain. Beatrice. Rhea’s aunt was the woman with Foxworth. Clearing his throat loudly, Percy looked at Rhea and jerked his head toward the gazebo doorway.

“If you are fully recovered from the heat of the ballroom, Miss Bennett, I suggest we return.” The strength of his voice rang out through the air in such a way that there was no doubt the approaching lovers would know he and Rhea were in the gazebo. A look of relief and gratitude softened Rhea’s features as she matched the volume of his voice.

“Yes, thank you, Mr. Rockwood. I’m feeling much better now.” The moment she took a step toward the gazebo’s archway, Percy quickly caught her arm and brought her to a halt.

“Careful, this floor is quite uneven. I wouldn’t want you to take a spill.” His words caused her cheeks to darken with color, and he bit back a grin. Rhea Bennett might present the façade of a woman unmoved
by his kiss, but she’d just betrayed she’d not been quite as unaffected as he’d thought.

“Why on earth don’t you have this floor repaired,” she bit out in a low voice.

“Because my brother and I built it when we were younger. The somewhat perilous footing has been a family joke for years.”

“Has it never occurred to the two of you to correct the problem?”

“That’s no longer possible. Caleb died last year,” Percy said with an almost crippling sense of sorrow he’d not felt in months. Her hand touched his arm in a consoling gesture.

“I’m terribly sorry, Percy.” The gentle way she said his name was pleasing to his ear. “I would never have…”

“You didn’t know. How could you?” he said with a shrug. “Come, I’ll see you safely back to the house.”

Together they walked toward the arched opening of the gazebo. In the moonlight he saw Foxworth and Beatrice Fremont walking toward them.

“Rhea, dear, what on earth are you doing out here.” There was a somewhat breathless note in Beatrice Fremont’s voice as she looked at the two of them, but there was disapproval in her voice as well.

“I have a small headache and felt a bit faint in the ballroom,” Rhea said quietly. “Mr. Rockwood was quite accommodating in finding me a place to sit down away from the heat and noise. I’m surprised to see you as well. I know how much you love to dance.”

“I convinced your aunt to take a walk with me in the gardens,” Lord Foxworth said.

“Ordered is more like it,” Beatrice Fremont said fiercely beneath her breath.
Beside him, Rhea made a small sound that Percy thought might be laughter. It made him want to hear what her real laugh sounded like. Beatrice frowned as her gaze flitted from Rhea to Foxworth to Rhea again. Like her niece, Beatrice Fremont could mask her emotions with great skill. Clearly it was a family trait.

“If you’re feeling unwell, dearest, perhaps we should go home.”

Beatrice Fremont’s suggestion made Lord Foxworth frown with irritation. The sudden thought of not being able to hold Rhea again, if only on the dance floor, sent disappointment shooting through Percy. He didn’t care for the sensation. It meant something he didn’t want to acknowledge.

“And ruin your evening?” Rhea shook her head slightly. “No, I’ll manage.”

“Might I offer a solution,” Foxworth said silkily as he cast his gaze on Mrs. Fremont. “I’ll escort your aunt home later, which will allow you to leave without worrying that you’ve interrupted Beatrice’s enjoyment of the evening.”

“I couldn’t possible stay knowing Rhea is ill.” Beatrice Fremont had the look of someone attempting to avoid a punishment. The viscount’s recommendation clearly appalled the woman.

“I think it’s a perfect solution, Aunt Beatrice,” Rhea said quietly as the merest hint of a smile touched her lips. “It would make me unhappy to know I was taking you away from the party.”

“But I—”

“It’s settled then,” Lord Foxworth said with satisfaction. “If it makes you feel better Beatrice, we can see your niece to the carriage.”

“No,” Rhea said with a pained expression that made Percy wonder if she might really have a headache. “I can fend for myself.”

“I’m happy to see your niece to her carriage, Mrs. Fremont.” At his offer, Beatrice Fremont narrowed her gaze at him. She studied him for a moment before she nodded.

“Very well.” Beatrice turned toward Rhea and stretched out her hands. “Are you certain you wouldn’t like me to go home with you?”

“No,” Rhea said as she clutched the older woman’s hands and kissed her cheek. “I’ll feel better in the morning, and I won’t feel guilty for having made you leave early.”

With a sigh, Beatrice Fremont nodded then locked arms with her niece and urged her down the path leading back to the house. Left behind to follow the women, Foxworth muttered something beneath his breath. The man was exhibiting the same frustration Percy had been experiencing with Rhea. A wry smile twisted Foxworth’s lips as met Percy’s gaze. The viscount shook his head and grimaced with exasperation.

“Beatrice is far more stubborn than I remember. Does Miss Bennett possess the same trait?”

“Although I’m newly acquainted with Mrs. Fremont, I would be willing to stake money that Rhea’s tenacious manner is the same as her aunt’s.” His reply made Foxworth nod as a thoughtful expression darkened his face.

“It’s not just their temperaments that seem quite similar. They look a great deal alike,” the man murmured softly. Percy arched an eyebrow in contemplation.

“Now that you mention it, I would have to agree,” Percy said quietly. “They could almost be mistaken for mother and daughter. However, it’s not unusual for aunts and nieces to be so similar in looks and temperament.”

“Yes, and I understand her sister Olivia looked remarkably like Beatrice,” Foxworth said with an odd note of skepticism echoing in his voice.

Although Percy didn’t question the man, his curiosity was aroused as he watched the two women in front of them step onto the torch-lit path leading to the house. Rhea’s head was bent slightly, and her aunt had wrapped her arm around her niece’s waist. It was a clear sign Rhea was feeling unwell. Guilt nudged at Percy. He was certain the inquisition he’d subjected her to was the cause of her distress. It couldn’t have been easy for her to be interrogated the way he’d questioned her.

“It would appear you find Miss Bennett quite interesting.” The man’s quiet observation made Percy glance at the viscount who was studying him with a narrowed gaze. Puzzled by the sternness on the man’s distinguished features, Percy tipped his head slightly.

“I’ll not deny that she intrigues me.”

“Intrigue where a woman is concerned can be a dangerous path, Rockwood,” the viscount said in a voice that made Percy think the man was issuing a warning. Puzzled he frowned as he saw a calculating gleam in Foxworth’s eyes.

“I think any path where Rhea is concerned could be treacherous in more ways than one.”

“All the same, I urge you to tread lightly. While I’ve only been back in England for a few months, I’ve heard you have a particular reputation for breaking hearts,” Foxworth said quietly. This time Percy was certain the man was issuing a warning to take care with Rhea’s feelings.

“My intentions are quite honorable where Rhea is concerned,” Percy said in a stilted voice.

It irritated him that Foxworth was cautioning him to take care where Rhea’s feelings were concerned. He’d been more than considerate of her emotions tonight. A voice in the back of his head immediately decried that conviction. He shoved the thought into a dark corner of his mind. If anything, he was Rhea’s best chance at redemption.

She might not realize it yet, but he knew he could help her break free of the hold Ruckley had over her. Rhea might think that being out of Ruckley’s reach meant freedom, but it wasn’t. That kind of freedom would only be achieved when she no longer feared Ruckley, which meant one of two things had to happen, either the man ended up incarcerated or dead. Somehow he didn’t think either option would undo the harm the bastard had done. Beside him, Foxworth cleared his throat.

“Forgive me for speaking so bluntly, Rockwood. I have feelings for Beatrice. Therefore, I am protective of her and anyone she cares about even if Beatrice hasn’t granted me that right as of yet.”

“I understand completely,” Percy nodded in acceptance of the Viscount’s apology.

It was clear that the man was determined to make Beatrice Fremont his, but also obvious that the woman would not accept his suit willingly. Whatever the past history between the two, Foxworth seemed determined not to let it stand in the way of obtaining the woman’s surrender. As they reached the top of the steps to the terrace, Percy quickly strode forward to stop Rhea from entering the ballroom. As he caught her elbow, she turned her head toward him. Self-reproach tightened his muscles. She was clearly unwell, and he knew his interrogation was responsible. Fear was a draining emotion, and he’d dredged up her past in all its ugly glory.

“Why don’t you say your goodbyes here. I can take you through my brother’s study to the front hall. It will save you from the noise and heat of the ballroom.” At his offer, relief swept across Rhea’s pale features, and she nodded.

“Thank you.”

When Rhea and her aunt had kissed each other’s cheek in farewell, Foxworth bid Rhea good night as well. The man’s remark as to a horse he was loaning her made Percy tuck the odd fact away in his brain. A few short moments later, he guided Rhea through Sebastian’s study and into the main entryway. Here the music was still loud, but not as clamorous as in the ballroom. Percy ordered Rhea’s carriage brought to the front of the house then turned to face her. Wan and forlorn-looking, she sank down onto one of the Queen Anne chairs situated against the entryway’s wall. Frowning, he moved to her side.

“Are you feeling faint again?”

“I’m fine,” she said with just a hint of annoyance. “I don’t faint.”

“Perhaps,” he acknowledged with a bob of his head. “But you came close to doing so earlier.”
Rhea’s only response was a sniff of exasperation. The wait for her carriage was a short one. When the footman informed them her vehicle was ready, Percy escorted Rhea out the front door to the vehicle. As he opened the carriage door, her hand lightly touched his arm.

“Is it really your intention to find Ruckley?” There was a small note of panic running beneath the quietly spoken question.

“Can you blame me?” Percy said with suppressed anger at Ruckley’s callous, cowardly act. “The man shot me in the back. That’s not something I’m willing to walk away from.”

“I understand your desire for justice, but you’ll not find it. Not where Ruckley is concerned.” There was a conviction in her voice that infuriated him. He wasn’t about to let Ruckley escape responsibility for any of his crimes, and he found it damned frustrating that Rhea was unwilling to bring the man to justice.

“I don’t understand why you’re so hell-bent on protecting a man who clearly forced you to do things against your will.”

“I am not protecting Ruckley.” Her sharp reply held the sting of a whip cracking through the air between them. “I’m trying to save lives.”

“Elaborate.” His demand made her features become devoid of emotion.

“I don’t deny the terrible crime Ruckley inflicted on you, but you were one of the lucky ones. He’s done far worse than you could possibly imagine to others,” she said fiercely as a look of horror flickered in her gaze. “There are lives at stake. Lives that are precious to me, and I’ll not help you if it means jeopardizing their safety.”

With a sharp gesture Rhea silently asked for his assistance to enter the carriage. The moment her hand slid into his, an intense need to keep her with him crashed through him. There was a possessiveness to the sensation that startled him. He’d experienced the desire to keep Nellie safe from harm, but that emotion paled in comparison to what he felt where Rhea was concerned. It was primal and territorial at the basest of levels. The knowledge made him uneasy.

Percy caught a glimpse of a decidedly feminine ankle and calf as Rhea entered the carriage. A knot formed in his throat until he was forced to roll his head slightly to alleviate the pressure his collar was applying to it. Every inch of him was taut with tension, and he suddenly realized his fingers were wrapped tightly around the side of the carriage door. Vaguely, he noted his knuckles were white before he met Rhea’s violet gaze.

Her icy expression had softened to one of resignation. As they stared at each other, color rose in her cheeks. Once more the need to pull her from the carriage and keep her with him barreled through him like a wild bull. Rhea leaned forward slightly to touch his hand that still gripped the vehicle’s door frame.

“Finding Ruckley isn’t the problem, Percy. It’s what will happen when you do,” she said softly. There was a look of concern on her face that said she wasn’t simply worried about others. She was apprehensive for his safety as well. “Ruckley is not to be underestimated. He won’t hesitate to shoot you a second time, and this time he will kill you.”

“Your concern for my safety is appreciated, but unwarranted,” he said as he heard the fear in her voice. It pleased him that she was worried about him.

Percy released his grip on the carriage door to capture her hand in his. With his gaze locked with hers, Percy carried her hand to his mouth. He caressed her fingertips with his lips before he slowly turned her hand over. As his thumb brushed over her skin then pressed down to feel her pulse, Rhea inhaled a sharp breath.

The sound stirred the devil in him as he proceeded to kiss the inside of her wrist. A tremor reverberated out of her and into his hand. He looked up at her to see an expression on her face that said she’d enjoyed the caress. The moment her gaze locked with his, she tugged against his grasp, and he released her with great reluctance.

“I shall remind you of your concern for my welfare the next time we meet.” Percy stepped back and closed the door of the carriage.

“There will not be a next time, Mr. Rockwood,” she snapped.

“Oh, you can count on it, Miss Bennett,” he said mockingly before he ordered the driver to move along.

The carriage rocked forward, and he saw a look of dismay on Rhea’s face as the vehicle disappeared into the dark. Rhea Bennett would be seeing a great deal more of him than she realized. The cheerful thought made him grin as he returned to the house. He was looking forward to paying a call at Green Hill House tomorrow.

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Chapter 3
 

Rhea pressed her fingertips against her temples as the hackney cab rolled toward Arianna’s London townhouse. The headache she’d developed last night after her confrontation with Percy still throbbed, although lack of breakfast was no doubt contributing to the pain. Rhea knew Aunt Beatrice would find her early departure odd, simply because Rhea had not planned to leave for London for another three days.

At least her aunt knew her primary reason for traveling to London was to meet with Ashford. The private detective had made arrangements for Peter’s escape from Ruckley’s street gang, and she insisted on shepherding her charges back to the country. They’d been taught to trust no one. They would be skittish enough with Ashford if she wasn’t there to reassure them.
She could only hope the note she’d left for her aunt would make the older woman believe she’d wanted to visit with Arianna for a couple of days. But if Percy Rockwood held true to his word appeared at their front door, her aunt was certain to believe otherwise.

Instinctively, she knew the man had no intention of leaving the issues between them unresolved, which meant he would call at Green Hill House. The last thing she wanted was to be there when he paid a visit. She needed time to collect her wits.

Last night he’d been an unstoppable force that had buffeted her senses on every front. He’d been a mixture of anger, kindness, and seduction. It had been easy to shield herself from his anger. Seven years of bearing the brunt of Ruckley’s foul temper had taught her to remain silent until the storm had passed.

She’d even managed to block herself off from Percy’s kindness, although that had been far more difficult. What had been the most alarming of all was her reaction to the man. Ruckley had sold her body many times, but Rhea had never allowed the men who bought her to kiss her. It had allowed her to distance herself from the horror of being used for a man’s pleasure. The handful of men who objected, had found a knee pressed threateningly between their legs or her fingers pressed into their jugular. Their protests had died quickly.

But last night Percy had broken through that barrier. When he’d kissed her, she’d experienced no repugnance. For those few moments in the Melton Park gazebo, she’d believed herself capable of giving herself to a man without hesitation—freely offering herself in a mutual exchange of pleasure. The realization had haunted her through the night. She’d slept fitfully with Percy intruding her dreams in such a way that it frightened her.

This morning, the memory of that seductive kiss to her wrist when they’d said goodbye had only reinforced her need to flee. While Percy frightened her for what he knew about her, it was the feelings he aroused in her that were even more terrifying. She liked the way his touch warmed her. Something about his strength made her feel safe, and that made him dangerous. She couldn’t afford to believe someone else could keep her safe. Not even Percy Rockwood.

While the man hadn’t said he would protect her from Ruckley, she knew he would attempt to do so. Rhea wasn’t sure how she knew that. She’d certainly done nothing to deserve his protection. Yet, instinct told her he had decided to champion her. Why else would he forgive her for leaving him to die in that dark museum? But Percy couldn’t protect her from Ruckley any more than she’d been able to keep Timothy safe from the sadistic brute. The thought of the boy made her throat close with tears. She’d failed him, and she could never forgive herself for it.

After a brief second, she suppressed the urge to cry and swallowed her emotions. Percy Rockwood was a problem she’d have to deal with soon, but she needed time to think before she faced him again. It was imperative she warn Arianna, especially since she had a strong suspicion Percy knew her brother-in-law quite well. The hackney rolled to a halt with a jerk, and Rhea winced as her head protested the abrupt stop.

In minutes she was standing inside Sherrington House with her small collection of luggage. Arianna emerged from the morning room with a look of pleased surprise on her face. The viscountess quickly crossed the entryway to greet her.

“Rhea.” Arianna kissed her cheek warmly then stepped back to study her. “I wasn’t expecting you until Wednesday.”

“I needed to speak with you about a matter that couldn’t wait.”

“All right, why don’t you freshen—”

“No. I need to speak with you now.”

Arianna raised her eyebrows in concern, but nodded her head in understanding. Quietly instructing the footman to take Rhea’s things upstairs, her sister gently pulled her into the morning room and closed the door behind them. A tray with tea and scones rested on a table in front of a dark blue couch. Gently, Arianna pulled Rhea toward the sofa.

“Come. Have a cup of tea. I’m certain you’re parched. When did you last eat?”

“I don’t want tea.”

“Well, you’ll drink a cup all the same. You look as though you’ve not slept in days. I’ll not have Aunt Beatrice chide me if you fall ill.” The stern reprimand in her sister’s voice made Rhea stare at Arianna in startled amazement. “Don’t look so surprised, Rhea. You’re not the only one capable of giving orders or taking care of those we love.”

“I’m simply unaccustomed to seeing you so strong-willed,” Rhea said with a sense of bewilderment. Almost overnight, it seemed her sister had gained a large measure of confidence, and she found it surprising. Arianna urged Rhea to sit down.

“That’s simply because you’re older than me, and you believed you had to be the strong one.”

Satisfied Rhea wasn’t about to leave her seat, Arianna turned and proceeded to pour a cup of tea. Her sister added a delicately-made scone to the saucer of the tea cup she handed to Rhea. As she took a sip of the hot brew, Rhea silently admitted she was glad her sister had insisted she eat something. The scone melted in her mouth, and without thinking, Rhea reached out to pick up another one of the treats as she sipped the hot beverage in her cup. Arianna sat opposite her in silence, only moving to refresh Rhea’s tea. Two more scones disappeared from the serving platter before Rhea picked up her fifth scone. She stared at it in surprise for a moment before putting it down on her tea cup’s saucer.

“I didn’t realize how hungry I was,” she murmured as she set her tea down on the table in front of her. Vaguely she noted the soft, polished sheen of the furniture and the scalloped, laced edging that formed a low barrier around the entire top of the table.

“I think it comes from going hungry for almost seven years,” Arianna said in a somber voice. “I often find myself stuffing bite after bite into my mouth whenever I eat. It troubles Blake because he understands why I do so.”

“How much have you told him about Ruckley? Does he know…” Rhea’s words trailed off into thin air as her sister paled and a look of intense pain swept across her beautiful face.

“That I was a whore?” Arianna choked out. “Yes, he knows.”

“And Lucy? Have you told him about her?”

“No.” She shook her head in a barely perceptible movement. “I don’t know what he’ll say.”

“He loves you, Arianna. He’ll understand.”

“I lied to him. I told him I had no more secrets.”

“Why would you do such a thing?” Rhea said with a shake of her head.

“I didn’t want to lose him, Rhea. I was afraid he…it’s one thing for him to accept that I was far from chaste. But to forgive my bearing a child without knowing who her father is…that was too much to ask of him.”

“I think you misjudge Blake’s love for you, Arianna.” She leaned forward to touch her sister’s hand.

“I’ve seen the way he looks at you. If you asked him to give you the world, he would move heaven and earth to do so.”

“I wouldn’t be asking for the world. I’d be asking him to take my bastard daughter into his house. Love or not, what man would be willing to do that?” Arianna closed her eyes for a brief moment before
looking at Rhea again. “Even if he agreed to Lucy being here, how would we explain her presence?”

“I don’t know, but he deserves to know the truth, Arianna. She’s not even one yet, but she already looks like you. Do you really think he won’t figure it out eventually? What will you do then?”

“I shall cross that bridge when I come to it,” Arianna bit out as a stubborn expression settled on her face. The look warned Rhea not to press further on the topic. “Now then, why don’t you tell me what was so important that you had to arrive three days ahead of your scheduled arrival?”

Her sister’s abrupt change in subject made Rhea flinch as she remembered why she’d come to London earlier than planned.

“He’s alive.”

“What?” Arianna looked at Rhea in puzzlement. “Who’s alive?”

“The man from the museum.” An image of Percy popped into her head. As alarmed as she’d been last night, there was a sense of peaceful relief to know he hadn’t died. “The man Ruckley shot is alive.”

“Dear God,” Arianna’s face drained of color. Relief swept across her face then pained dismay. “Did he recognize you?”

“Yes.” The instant Rhea saw her sister’s hand clutch at her throat, Rhea rushed to kneel at her side. Arianna’s knuckles were white as she gripped the wood arm of her chair, and Rhea gently wrapped her hand over her sister’s.

“It will be all right, dearest. Percy said—”

You know him by name,” Arianna exclaimed in horror.

“It seemed rather absurd to call a man I left for dead by his last name.” Rhea deliberately omitted the fact that he’d kissed her as well.

Arianna leapt from her chair to pace the floor. The look of panic on her sister’s face was the same emotion Rhea had experienced last night. But her panic had dissolved into something else when she’d been in Percy’s company. For all his arrogant, demanding questions she’d never sensed anything from him other than a desire to help and his determination to find Ruckley. It was obvious he wanted to bring the criminal to justice. And she trusted him not to reveal her part in the museum incident. In truth, everything about him encouraged her to trust him.

The sudden realization stunned her. She’d learned never to trust a man, but for some unfathomable reason, she believed she could confide in Percy Rockwood without risk of betrayal. However, his insistence on finding Ruckley was troubling.

The man didn’t understand the danger in doing so. Worse, any effort he made to find Ruckley posed a great risk to the children she’d rescued and the ones she intended to save as soon as Mr. Ashford arranged it. Last night when she’d told Percy she didn’t know where Ruckley was, it had been a small lie.

While Rhea didn’t know where Ruckley was, Ashford did. Their aunt had hired the private investigator to find Arianna and Rhea after their father had died almost two years ago. A bitter taste filled her mouth at the thought of her father. The loathing and hate that welled up inside her threatened to overwhelm her senses, but she quickly buried the emotions beneath the rubble of pain and anger in the recesses of her mind.

When Ashford had found her and Arianna, they’d been picking pockets with Vincent. With Lucy in her arms, Arianna had been the distraction, while Vincent and Rhea worked their mark. Ashford had not wanted to bring Vincent with them, but Rhea’s stubborn refusal to leave the boy behind forced the private investigator to reluctantly agree.

After being reunited with their aunt, Rhea had approached the man to ask his help in her rescue efforts. Ashford had agreed more readily than she’d expected. Her decision to ask the investigator’s help had been a good one. The man exercised great caution in his efforts to rescue the children she’d cared for the entire time she was at Ruckley’s mercy. His methods had proven successful more than a month ago when Jack had raced into her arms with tears of gratitude on his cheeks. Luke Ashford hadn’t said why he was so eager to assist her, but the man clearly had a big heart, and she was grateful for his help.

Perhaps she should have explained to Percy what she was doing. Somehow she was certain he would approve of her actions. The moment the thought flitted through her head she brushed it aside. If she’d told Percy about her efforts to rescue the rest of the children, it could easily jeopardize her efforts to rescue the remaining children. She understood Percy’s desire to see Ruckley punished. No one, with the exception of perhaps Arianna, wanted to see Ruckley swinging from a gibbet as much as she did. She wanted to see the bastard held accountable for all the crimes she’d seen him commit. Achieving that end wasn’t a simple matter to resolve. The man’s power in the London underworld was far greater than Percy knew. Ruckley was second only to Thomas Gray when it came to power. Trying to bring Ruckley to justice would be like trying to enter Buckingham Palace uninvited.

It was difficult and dangerous enough just spiriting the children out of the man’s clutches without revealing she was behind the scenes giving the orders. One of the conditions Aunt Beatrice and Arianna had demanded of her was that Ruckley would not be able to trace the rescue of the children back to her. That had been an easy promise to make.

Rhea had no intention of letting the bastard learn she was working to rescue the children. It was just one more reason it was imperative to prevent Percy from finding Ruckley. She couldn’t risk Ruckley doing something to the children. The crime lord wouldn’t hesitate to harm them simply because he knew how much it would hurt her. He’d proven that time and time again.
But none of those thoughts confused or troubled her as much as the emotions Percy had aroused in her with his touch. The memory of his kiss sent a wave of heat washing over her skin. Unsettled at the vivid recollection, Rhea pulled herself back into the present as she watched her sister pace the floor. Slowly she rose to her feet.

“Arianna, it will be all right. You must believe me,” Rhea pleaded softly. “Percy made it very clear he’ll not report me to the Metropolitan Police. He gave me his word, and I believe him.”

“Won’t report you?” Arianna snapped fiercely.” Why would the man agree to such a thing?”

“I… I don’t know,” Rhea said hesitantly as she contemplated her sister’s question. Why had Percy said he wouldn’t go to the police?

“And what will we do if he goes back on his word?” Arianna stood tall and rigid with tension.

“He won’t do that,” Rhea said with a conviction that surprised her.

“You seem remarkably certain of a man we left to die on that museum floor,” her sister snapped viciously

“I’m the only one he knows was there. You know I would never betray you or Vincent.”

“I’m not suggesting you would, but what if the man decides to go after that bastard? If this Percy of yours goes after Ruckley, we both know what will happen. Ruckley will do whatever it takes to save himself. He won’t hesitate to name us as the guilty party when it comes to that night in the museum.”

“It won’t come to that,” Rhea said firmly, despite her fear of Percy’s determination to find the crime lord. “I’ll do whatever it takes to prevent Percy Rockwood from finding Ruckley.”

The minute the words were out of her mouth, Rhea knew what would be called for when it came to distracting Percy from his search. It startled her that the idea of seducing Percy Rockwood didn’t appall her. Not because she was incapable of doing so. Over the years, and simply out of self-preservation, she’d learned how to control the men who’d paid to use her body. Entering Percy Rockwood’s bed wasn’t a frightening thought. It was that she wanted to seduce him that made her heart skitter wildly in her chest. Rhea didn’t want to feel anything for any man. Yet Percy Rockwood did make her feel things. Sensations she’d never felt before. Arianna met her gaze with a look of horror on her face.

“Never. You’re never to do such a thing again, Rhea Bennett,” her sister spat out with a vehemence that would have alarmed someone who’d not known what they’d been through. “Do you hear me? Never. Not even if you think it will save me or someone else.”

“Whatever choices I make are mine, but your concern is unwarranted,” Rhea said quietly. “I honestly believe Percy will not break his word. I don’t know why. I just do.”

The anger on her sister’s face slowly disappeared from her features before she nodded with a reluctant understanding. Fingertips pressed into her forehead, Arianna grimaced. Rhea immediately closed the distance between them. She wanted to avoid distressing her sister any further, but she knew that was impossible. Rhea swallowed the knot in her throat.

“There’s something else.” She hesitated slightly as her sister’s already pale face became almost deathly in pallor. Arianna shook her head and waved her hands in a gesture of defeat.

“I doubt it can be much worse than what you’ve already shared with me.”

“Have you told Blake about that night in the museum?”

“No, I’ve already told you that he only knows a small bit about my past. I’ve never even mentioned Ruckley’s name, simply out of selfishness. I know Blake would hunt the bastard down. I’ve lost too much in my life to Ruckley already.”

“Well, you may have little choice but to tell him now.”

“I don’t understand,” Arianna said with confusion.

“Percy knows Blake.” The words seemed to have little impact on her sister as Arianna stared at her in confusion before shaking her head.

“A great many people know who Blake is simply because of his work in Parliament.”

“No, I think he knows Blake better than that. In fact, I think he knows Blake quite well.” Rhea’s stomach lurch slightly as she remembered Percy’s reaction to her brother-in-law’s name. There had been a look of astonishment on his face that had made Rhea believe he was friends with the Viscount. “I could be mistaken, but I don’t think I am. I had the distinct impression he and Blake are good friends.”

Arianna pulled free of Rhea’s grasp and moved to stand at the window. There was an air of defeated resignation about her that made Rhea’s heart ache. When Arianna had married the viscount, Rhea had been certain the past would never touch her sister again. The vanquished expression on Arianna’s face reminded her how fragile the wall was between their past and the lives they led now. She had hoped never to see her sister look so overwhelmed with fear again. Suddenly, Arianna swayed like a drunken sailor and grabbed at the window drapery to steady herself. Alarmed, Rhea hurried to her side.

“You’re unwell.”

“No, I’m fine.” The quiet response made Rhea frowned.

“Are you certain?”

“I’m perfectly fine, Rhea,” Arianna snapped. “It’s just a slight headache brought on by all this talk of Ruckley.”

Taken aback by her sister’s abrupt reply, Rhea stared at her in surprise. Her sister winced, but before she could speak, the door to the morning room opened. They both turned to see the Viscount Sherrington entering the room. The moment she saw her husband, the troubled expression vanished from Arianna’s face. In its place was a look of intense relief and happiness as Arianna hurried forward to greet her husband.

“Blake, I thought you would be gone until late this afternoon,” Arianna said as she kissed him then drew back to look up at his amused expression.

“I finished my business much earlier than I expected.” Blake gently caressed his wife’s cheek then looked over her shoulder to smile at Rhea. “Good morning, Rhea. This is an unexpected, but pleasant, surprise. Arianna said you wouldn’t be here until Thursday.”

“I thought I’d come early so Arianna could take me shopping.” The moment she saw Blake raise his eyebrows in amazement, Rhea realized her mistake. Her brother-in-law was well aware of her aversion for dressmakers. She winced and shrugged.

“Actually, Aunt Beatrice threatened to order something made without my being present.” Rhea grasped at the first thing she could think of to hide her real reason for arriving at Sherrington house so early.

“I decided to circumvent her efforts.”

“I think you made a sound decision,” Blake chuckled. “I’ve witnessed your aunt’s undaunted perseverance when it comes to achieving a goal. It’s a trait I’ve witnessed in other members of your family as well.”

“We’ve not even been married six months, and you’re already taking me to task for one of my idiosyncrasies,” Arianna said with a sniff of false anger at the teasing note in her husband’s voice.

“It is those very idiosyncrasies that make me love you all the more, my darling.”

As Rhea observed the couple’s playful banter, she noted Arianna’s fear had completely disappeared. In its place was a happiness that Rhea envied. The moment the emotion swept through her, Rhea viciously destroyed it. Arianna was lucky, and she was content to be happy for her sister without feeling the need for a similar happiness.

§ § §

The stairs and lobby of the Lyceum Theatre were crowded as Rhea followed Blake and Arianna out onto the sidewalk. With a confident gesture, Blake pointed toward their carriage, which was a short distance away. Cheerfully, he urged his wife and Rhea along the sidewalk toward the vehicle. In the process of moving through the throng, Rhea found herself falling behind. As she continued to make her way through the crowd, she bumped into a man moving past her. Thrown off balance, Rhea stumbled backward into a solid object and a strong arm wrapped around her waist to steady her.

“Careful now, we don’t want you to end up on the sidewalk,” the stranger said cheerfully as he helped Rhea regain her balance. As she brushed aside a wisp of hair that had fallen into her eyes, Rhea turned to face her good Samaritan.

“Thank you,” she replied as she regained her composure. “I’m afraid I wasn’t paying attention.”

“I think you’re being too kind to the boor who pushed his way past you a moment ago.” The man suddenly grinned. “However, I shall be eternally grateful for his rude behavior as it presented me with the opportunity to introduce myself. Colonel Dewhurst, at your service—miss?”

“Rhea Bennett,” she said with a restrained smile at his jovial temperament. He repeated her name as if testing the sound of it on his tongue. He directed another broad grin at her as a pretty woman appeared at his side.

“Really, George, must you accost every young woman you meet?” The words were uttered with affectionate exasperation. Dewhurst turned his head toward the woman before looking back at Rhea.

“You must forgive my sister. She thinks I am too forward.” Dewhurst waggled his eyebrows at her as he turned his head toward his sister. “Matilda, this is Miss Bennett, who I saved from falling.”

“How do you do, Miss Bennett. I take it you are unharmed.” Matilda Dewhurst nodded in Rhea’s direction as her expression indicated sisterly surprise at her brother’s gallantry.

“Thanks to the colonel’s quick action I am quite free of injury.” Rhea smiled at the woman before casting a glance in Dewhurst’s direction. “I am quite grateful for his assistance.”

The sound of someone calling her name made Rhea look over her shoulder. Blake was pushing through a stream of theatergoers in his effort to reach her. She waved to her brother-in-law then returned her attention back to her new acquaintances.

“I must be going. Thank you again for your help, Colonel Dewhurst. I am truly grateful.” Rhea extended her hand and the gentleman brushed his lips over her fingertips.

“It was my pleasure.” His grip firm, he refused to let go of her hand. “Would you allow me to call on you tomorrow?”

“I’m not certain —”

“The day after then, unless of course the gentleman approaching will object.”

“Blake?” Rhea looked at the colonel with puzzlement before she laughed. With another glance over her shoulder, Rhea shook her head. “No, the viscount is my brother-in-law.”

“Then say you will allow me to call on you.”

“I really don’t think —”

“Surely you’ll not deny your rescuer the chance to ensure you are fully recovered from your harrowing experience.” The playful plea made her laugh again.

“Very well, tomorrow morning. Sherrington House.” Rhea pulled her hand free of Colonel Dewhurst’s grasp, and he bowed slightly.

“I shall count the hours,” he quipped. Rhea laughed at his roguish manner. Still smiling, she said goodbye and turned to make her way through the crowd. A few seconds later, she reached her brother-in-law.

“We were worried about you.” Blake’s voice held the slightest note of rebuke, and Rhea touched his arm in an apologetic manner.

“I’m sorry, Blake. The crowd was so thick, and I almost fell. Colonel Dewhurst saved me.” At her explanation, she looked over her shoulder in the direction of the colonel who was already guiding his sister in the opposite direction. As Blake’s gaze followed hers, an apologetic expression swept over the viscount’s face.

“Forgive me for chastising you, Rhea. It was simply that Arianna was frantic when we reached the carriage and you were no longer with us.”

“I’m sorry I worried you both.”

“All is well,” he said as relief eased his frown into a pleasant smile.

In moments they reached the carriage, and with Blake’s assistance, Rhea climbed into the coach to see Arianna’s cheeks were wet with tears. Appalled she’d upset her sister, Rhea sat opposite her and caught Arianna’s hands in hers.

“I’m sorry I made you worry so, dearest.”

“What happened to you? One minute you were with us and the next…”

“I almost took a tumble,” she said with a frown as she studied her sister’s ashen features. It was unlike Arianna to exhibit such distraught behavior. “A Colonel Dewhurst rescued me from harm.”

“Colonel Dewhurst?” Arianna turned to her husband as Blake closed the carriage door and tapped on the ceiling of the vehicle to notify the driver to head home. “Do you know him, Blake?”

“Not that I recall,” her brother-in-law shrugged as he met his wife’s panicked gaze. The Viscount wrapped his arm around Arianna and pulled her close. “What’s wrong, sweetheart? This is not like you at all.”

Arianna didn’t answer him, and simply buried her face in her husband’s chest. Over his wife’s head, Blake stared helplessly at Rhea. With a shake of her head, she indicated she had no explanation for his wife’s behavior. Her brother-in-law turned his attention back to his wife, his voice inaudible as he sought to comfort Arianna. Rhea stared at the couple for a long moment before she looked out the carriage window.

No doubt she was to blame for her sister’s anguish. If she’d not gone to Melton Park last night she wouldn’t have needed to tell Arianna about Percy. Arianna hadn’t said it out loud, but Rhea knew her sister well enough to know she was worried Percy Rockwood would lead Ruckley right to them. Rhea closed her eyes for a moment. She would have done anything to spare her sister pain. This morning when she’d shared her news, Rhea had expected Arianna to be upset. But her sister’s reaction was far more extreme than she’d expected, and it worried Rhea.

Arianna had been in such a state of sheer panic this morning she’d nearly fainted. Rhea could recall only one other time when her sister had been so irrational and emotional. Tension streaked through her body, and her muscles locked up in a painful manner. Pregnant—Arianna was pregnant. It was the only explanation for sister’s excitable state and wan appearance.

It was apparent she’d not told Blake yet, and the fact troubled Rhea. Why hadn’t her sister told her husband she was with child? As the carriage rolled to a halt, Arianna straightened upright and accepted Blake’s handkerchief to dry her tears. Moments later, they were inside the house. In silence, Rhea watched her brother-in-law help Arianna up the stairs. At the earliest opportunity, Rhea intended to ask her sister to explain why she’d not told Blake she was carrying his child.

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Chapter 4
 

The next morning, the quiet murmur of conversation reached Rhea as she walked down the hallway and halted just outside the dining room. Arianna and Blake sat at the table, their heads together in a moment of tender affection. Feeling like an intruder, Rhea was about to retreat when Blake saw her standing in the doorway.

“Good morning,” Blake exclaimed with an expression of excitement on his handsome face. “Congratulate me, Rhea. Your sister has informed me that I am to be a father.”
Relief swept through Rhea as she took in the viscount’s jubilation. He grinned broadly as she quickly circled the table to hug her sister and kiss her brother-in-law’s cheek. Delighted for them both, Rhea couldn’t stop smiling as she took a seat across the table from her sister. The flush of excitement and joy on Arianna’s face warmed Rhea’s heart. She loved seeing her sister so happy. It was as if the news she’d brought yesterday and their painful past had never touched Arianna.

“I had planned on telling Blake sooner,” Arianna said. “But I never found an opportunity to do so until last night.”

“It explains her overwrought behavior last night at the theater.” Blake smiled at his wife with such adoration that it made Rhea want to kiss the man again for caring so deeply for her sister. Arianna took her husband’s hand in hers as Blake shook his head in happy bemusement. “I should have guessed her condition sooner. She’s been quite irritable and prone to tears of late.”

“And I should have recognized the signs more than a month ago. It’s not as if—”

Arianna flinched as her voice broke off in mid-sentence. Rhea saw the flash of fear and panic in her sister’s gaze. As Blake eyed his wife in puzzlement, Rhea quickly filled the breach to allow Arianna time to regain her composure.

“I’m surprised I didn’t recognize the signs myself when I arrived yesterday,” she said with a smile.
“We shall have to watch you closely to ensure you don’t overtax yourself.”

“Agreed,” Blake nodded his head in concurrence. “I’ll have Marston send for the doctor immediately.”

“Is that really necessary?” Panic flitted across Arianna’s face again.

“I must insist, my darling,” Blake said with a slight frown.

Fear darkened Arianna’s blue eyes as her gaze locked with Rhea’s. Her sister’s obvious trepidation made Rhea stiffen. Arianna was afraid a doctor would know she’d already borne a child, and might tell Blake. Rhea leaned forward slightly in a silent effort to comfort and calm her sister’s fears.

“Will it make you feel less anxious if I’m present during the doctor’s visit?”

At Rhea’s offer, relief swept across her sister’s face. They both knew Rhea would ensure the doctor would not report any evidence of Arianna’s previous pregnancy. Although relief lightened her features, Arianna still clung to her desire to avoid the doctor paying a house call. A stubborn expression on her lovely features, Arianna shook her head as she looked at her husband with a look of pleading.

“What can a doctor do other than to tell me what we already know?”

“He’ll offer advice as to what you should or shouldn’t do to ensure you and the babe come to no harm.” Arianna opened her mouth to argue, her husband eyed her sternly. “This is one battle you will not win, my love. I indulge you far too much as it is.”

Something silent passed between the two, and Arianna blushed. When her sister didn’t speak or protest, the viscount looked at Rhea with a wicked glint of mischief in his eyes. The man clearly knew he’d won the argument. Arianna blew out a breath of aggravation to which Blake simply raised an eyebrow. Frustrated, Arianna glared at her husband. Her reaction made both Rhea and the viscount laugh at his wife’s disgruntled frown. With a small sound of disgust, Arianna reached for a piece of toast and buttered it as she cast looks of exasperation at her husband and sister.

The remainder of the meal was filled with laughter as Arianna’s rebellious manner quickly evaporated, and the discussion focused on preparations for the baby. Blake mentioned his desire to see his old nurse come to care for the baby, and a haunted look crossed her sister’s face. Arianna had hesitated at the suggestion, but when she’d seen her husband’s disappointment she quickly ended her protest. Although she made it clear she wouldn’t allow their child to be raised by others. There was a soft shimmer of pain in Arianna’s eyes, and Rhea knew her sister was thinking of Lucy and her inability to raise her daughter.

Breakfast finished, Blake left them to attend to several business matters, while Arianna and Rhea moved to the morning room. With her sister occupied with responding to daily correspondence, Rhea wrote a quick letter to their aunt then retrieved a book from the small library across the hall. Engrossed in her book, Rhea jumped as Arianna touched her arm more than an hour later.

“You have company.” At her sister’s words, Rhea’s heart skipped a beat.

Percy. Anticipation spiraled through her and her mouth went dry. A second later, when Arianna said Colonel Dewhurst’s name, the disappointment Rhea experienced made her stiffen. She knew it was inevitable Percy would arrive on her sister’s doorstep, but she didn’t like the fact that she found the prospect a pleasurable one. The man posed a danger to her loved ones, but an even greater danger to her sensibilities. As she met Arianna’s gaze, she nodded her understanding and rose to her feet to greet her caller.

Colonel Dewhurst proved to be an entertaining visitor with the stories of his military service in Egypt. Rhea and Arianna were laughing heartily more than an hour later when Marston entered the room to announce Percy’s arrival. Until she heard his name, Rhea hadn’t realized how on edge she’d been anticipating his arrival. Every part of her grew rigid, and she wasn’t sure if it was from alarm or anticipation. She refused to answer her own question as a mixture of emotions swept through her.

The delight she’d experienced earlier at the sound of his name had returned. It was a reckless emotion. Even her heart was pounding as if she’d run a long distance, and she berated herself for it. Percy Rockwood had come here to continue a conversation she had no intention of finishing. She’d said all she had to say on the subject of Ruckley and her past. But if there was one thing she’d already learned about Percy, it was his determination to have his own way.

Beside her on the sofa, Arianna grew still, and without thinking Rhea reached out to touch her sister’s hand. Across from them, Colonel Dewhurst noted Arianna’s consternation and Rhea’s protective gesture. The man’s eyebrows arched upward as he eyed her with curiosity and concern. Rhea forced a smile to her lips as her sister instructed Marston to show Percy into the room.

“As you can tell, my sister is a bit unsettled by Mr. Rockwood’s arrival. The last time they saw each other there were unpleasantries exchanged.” Rhea looked at Arianna as she squeezed her sister’s hand again. “I’ve told her that Percy bears neither of us ill will.”

“As if anyone could be unforgiving of you or the viscountess,” Dewhurst said with a sympathetic smile.

Before she could reply, fire danced across her skin. She didn’t need anyone to tell her that Percy had entered the room. Tension pulsated through her, and her heartbeat quickened to a frantic pace. It was disconcerting how easily his presence could throw her into a state of confusion simply by entering the room. A shiver skimmed down Rhea’s spine as she rose to her feet and faced him.

Arianna made a small sound, and Rhea touched her sister’s shoulder in a gesture of reassurance. Satisfied Arianna’s composure was intact, she moved toward Percy with her hands outstretched in an effort to ensure Colonel Dewhurst’s curiosity didn’t deepen. She didn’t know the colonel well enough to know whether he was prone to talking out of hand. While it was unlikely any gossip about her or Arianna would reach Ruckley’s ears, she wasn’t willing to risk the possibility.

“Percy, how lovely to see you.” Her enthused greeting made him arch his eyebrows slightly before his sensual mouth quirked upward slightly.

“When your aunt told me where you were, I decided I’d have to call on you as soon as I arrived in town.” His words made Rhea’s heart skip a beat. She’d been right to think he would call at Green Hill House after the Melton Park affair.

In the light of day, he seemed even taller than she remembered. A knot formed in her throat the instant her gaze focused on his mouth. The memory of his kiss sent her heart skittering out of control. Almost as if he could read her mind, an unreadable emotion darkened his brown eyes. His gaze narrowed as he studied her with an intensity that only heightened the unexpected excitement suddenly streaking through her.

Amusement curved Percy’s mouth upward slightly, and she swallowed hard as his smile broadened. He wore the expression of a man accustomed to convincing others to do his bidding before they realized what had happened. She refused to be one of those people. But Rhea was forced to admit that she could easily succumb to his persuasive manner if she didn’t take care. With his height and penetrating gaze, the man projected a powerful strength that was as comforting as it was intimidating.

The instant Rhea placed her hands in his, an electric shock of awareness made every inch of her tingle. Shaken by her reaction, she drew in a sharp breath. Rhea tried to draw her hands free from his, but Percy tightened his grip. He bent his head to kiss her cheek as one might an old friend, and she barely managed to suppress the tremor threatening to sail through her.

“I can easily forgive your efforts to avoid me, when your sweet lips utter such a warm welcome,” he murmured for her ears alone.

The sinfully husky note in his voice caused a vibration of something hot and enticing to slide across her skin. As he drew back from her, heat flushed her cheeks at the laughter she saw dancing in his eyes. It reminded her of the warmth and comfort of his embrace when he’d reassured her that he had no intention of turning her over to Scotland Yard. Flustered and fighting to control the sensations engulfing her, Rhea choked out a laugh.

“I’m glad you came. I’m having difficulty convincing Arianna that you’re no longer put out with either of us. You must reassure her.”

She bit down on her bottom lip as she heard how breathless she sounded. Percy studied her for a moment longer then slowly released her hands. His strong fingers gently gripping her elbow, he escorted her across the room to where Arianna stood. With a smile, he nodded at Rhea’s sister as Arianna offered her hand to him.

“What Rhea says is true, my lady,” he said quietly and kissed Arianna’s hand. “I’m happy to say that all is well between us.”

“I’m happy and relieved to hear you say so, Mr. Rockwood. I’m very pleased that we can put the past behind us.” At Arianna’s soft greeting, Percy smiled reassuringly at her sister, and Rhea saw her sister’s anxiety ease slightly.

“As am I, my lady. My friendship with your husband would be in jeopardy if I allowed any discord to continue between us.”

“Have you met Colonel Dewhurst?” Arianna gestured toward the other man in the room.

“I have. Dewhurst and I met at a museum benefit several months ago.” Percy turned toward the man and nodded a polite greeting. Although his tone was pleasant, something about his manner made Rhea think he was far from happy to see the colonel. “His contributions to the Egyptian wing had just been put on display.”

“After a rather lengthy and arduous authentication process,” the colonel said with restrained acrimony as he rose from his seat and shook hands with Percy.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Percy murmured politely, but his manner indicated he was far from sympathetic.

“As was I,” Dewhurst said with a distinct note of pique. “It seems there were questions as to the validity of my ownership.”

“Whatever the questions, the artifacts are now on display for others to enjoy,” Percy said with a small smile.

An awkward silence filled the air for a brief moment. In an effort to ease the tension that had taken root in the morning room, Arianna encouraged the two men to sit down. Rhea returned to her seat next to her sister, and she darted a look in Percy’s direction. He was watching her intently, and it was impossible to read the emotion she saw glittering in his eyes. In his chair a few feet away, Colonel Dewhurst cleared his throat.

“And how do you know these lovely ladies, Rockwood?” Dewhurst smiled warmly at Arianna and Rhea.

“Lady Sherrington’s husband and I have been friends since our days at Radley.” Percy turned his head toward the colonel, his tone nonchalant. “Rhea and I have known each other slightly longer than my acquaintance with Lady Sherrington.”

Percy leaned back in his chair in a relaxed manner, projecting the image of a man completely at ease. But Rhea could see the tension in his body. She was certain he wasn’t happy to find the colonel here. Almost as if sensing her gaze on him, Percy turned to look at her with a wicked gleam in his eyes, while out of the corner of her eye, Rhea saw Dewhurst’s expression darken.

“Then you’re more fortunate a man than I,” the colonel said with a warm smile in Rhea’s direction.

“Quite fortunate, I can assure you.”

Percy’s response implied his relationship with her was something far more personal than the troubled history they shared. Percy’s gaze swung to her, and the wicked glint in his eyes slowly darkened. Immediately, her mouth went dry at the seductive gleam in his dark brown eyes. A taut web of tension hovered between them as everything in the room faded away and only Percy filled her senses. It was an unsettling sensation, and when the corners of his mouth tipped upward slightly, a slow fire rose to heat the skin beneath her cheeks. Her gaze flitted back to Colonel Dewhurst to see him watching her and Percy with suspicion. Her cheeks still burning, Rhea darted a glance at her sister who was staring at her with barely disguised horror.

“You mustn’t let Percy mislead you. I’m certain he’s found me to be little more than a thorn in his side for most of our…friendship.” Rhea prayed the breathless note in her voice would go unnoticed, but one look at Percy’s face said it had been quite noticeable.

“Despite Rhea’s somewhat obstinate nature, colonel,” Percy said as he held her gaze. “I can say without a doubt that our friendship, as she refers to it, has been a delight.”

Flustered by Percy’s words, she jerked her gaze back to the colonel who was clearly disappointed at the implications Percy had made. Eager to end the awkward moment, Rhea smiled at the man and immediately sensed Percy’s displeasure. The fact that she knew he was unhappy about her conciliatory manner with the colonel startled her. Even more surprising was the small part of her that took pleasure in knowing he didn’t like her attention being focused on Dewhurst. At the almost hopeful look on the man’s face, she took pity on him.

“Colonel Dewhurst saved me from injury last night, Percy. If not for him, I would have fallen and quite possibly been trampled by the theater crowd. He was quite gallant in coming to my rescue.” She smiled warmly at the colonel.

“Then I am in his debt for rescuing you,” Percy said with a condescending smile in the colonel’s direction. “Not only for his efforts in keeping you safe from harm, but for ensuring that our afternoon plans to visit the orphanage and have lunch with my sister need not be postponed.”

“I don’t—”

“Patience will no doubt be grateful for the colonel’s efforts to keep you safe. She will also be delighted to see you in spite of your mishap.”

The autocratic interruption made Rhea glare at him, but the moment their gazes locked, the air in her lungs disappeared. Something in his expression made her realize things had changed between them. The sudden memory of his reference to visiting her aunt made her grow cold. Had Aunt Beatrice told him about her efforts to rescue the children?

Dear God, had he met Vincent and Jack? Ginny? Worse, had he seen Lucy? Would he think her niece was her child? That she even asked the question made her stomach lurch. Percy Rockwood had become a dominating figure in her affairs in less than forty-eight hours. Even more troubling was her desire that he not think ill of her because of her past. The sudden need for his approval horrified her. Fear closed her throat until she was struggling to breathe. When she remained silent, Percy leaned forward to pin his gaze on her. The look caused her heart to pound violently in her chest.

“As I’ve already promised, I will keep Patience’s sisterly interrogations in check,” he drawled with amusement, which belied the hard light of determination in his eyes.

Suddenly, Rhea realized it was a two-prong attack to get rid of the colonel. The mention of his sister suggested to Colonel Dewhurst that her relationship with Percy was far more serious than she’d initially indicated. It was a clean warning shot across the colonel’s bow to ensure the man understood Rhea was otherwise engaged. Perhaps most disconcerting of all was the silent confirmation that Percy had no intention of letting her escape him or his questions. With one simple statement, Percy had eliminated the colonel as competition, while silently confirming he wouldn’t let her escape him or his questions.

“You must forgive Percy, Colonel Dewhurst. His penchant for arrogance is only outweighed by his sometimes reckless behavior.”

“Indeed,” the colonel said with a smug smile as he looked at Percy. “Doesn’t the Set refer to your family as the reckless Rockwoods?”

“They do. But there are few who dare to say it to me publicly.” Percy said softly. Once again Percy took the wind out of Dewhurst’s sails as the man blanched then cleared his throat.

“Forgive me, Rockwood. It wasn’t my intent to insult you or your family.” The man’s apology sounded sincere but Rhea heard something else she couldn’t decipher running beneath the colonel’s words. Percy studied Dewhurst for a long moment before breaking the tense silence with a sharp nod. The moment he put the colonel out of his misery, Percy turned to Arianna.

“The colonel’s reference to my family reminds me that my sister-in-law, the Countess of Melton, sends her greetings.” Percy’s charming smile coaxed Arianna into returning his.

“That’s most gracious of her ladyship.”

“She also encouraged me to invite you, Blake, and Rhea to supper Friday night before the Earl of Hardwick’s ball.”

“That’s very thoughtful of her—” Arianna was unable to complete her sentence as Percy interrupted her, his expression becoming even more persuasive.

“Then I’ll be happy to tell her you’re coming? Helen will be delighted,” Percy said with quiet confidence. “She was quite taken with Rhea and your aunt at Melton Park the other night. She’s eager to meet you as well.”

Clearly surprised by the unexpected invitation, Arianna glanced in Rhea’s direction. With a shake of her head, Rhea immediately rejected the idea. Ashford intended to bring the children to her aunt’s small Mayfair townhouse Friday night. Their plans had been in place for more than a week. She refused to be attending a dinner when the children would need her reassuring presence.

“That’s very kind of the countess,” Rhea said. “But I’ll be returning to the country Saturday morning and shall retire early.”

Percy’s mouth tightened, but he didn’t argue with her. His gaze shifted to Arianna and he arched his eyebrow in an imperious manner. It was a look that dared her sister to refuse the invitation. The man hadn’t even flinched when she’d refused his invitation on the behalf of this brother and sister-in-law. He was up to something.

“Blake and I would be delighted to join the Earl and Countess for dinner on Friday,” her sister said with a small smile.

“Excellent,” Percy said with immense satisfaction. “We dine at six.”

“Six,” Rhea exclaimed softly. At her surprise a shadow darkened Percy’s face. It was an expression of deep sorrow, and she experienced the urge to reach out and comfort him. As his gaze met hers, Percy’s expression became unreadable.

“Since losing my brother and brother-in-law more than a year ago, the family makes every effort to dine with the children whenever we can. Percy replied without emotion. “We realize how fleeting life is, and we no longer take things for granted. It’s actually the reason why I was unable to attend your wedding, Lady Sherrington. The family was in Scotland for my nephew’s birthday celebration.”

“I understand completely, Mr. Rockwood. Family is everything.” Sympathy softened her sister’s features as she nodded in agreement and touched Rhea’s hand in a gentle gesture of affection. As if suddenly aware the colonel had been shut out of the conversation for far longer than was polite, Arianna looked at the man. “Would you not agree, Colonel Dewhurst?”

“I do indeed, Lady Sherrington. My sister means the world to me. She’s the only family I have.”

The colonel bobbed his head in agreement, and Percy’s gaze settled on the man as he studied him with narrowed eyes. His dislike of the colonel puzzled Rhea. With a sudden movement, Percy reached into his breast pocket and produced a pocket watch. He flipped open the lid to check the time then snapped the timepiece closed and looked at Rhea.

“It’s almost noon, shall we?” The nonchalant arrogance in his voice made Rhea frown, but she reluctantly nodded her head in acquiescence. At her silent agreement, Colonel Dewhurst rose to his feet.

“I believe I’ve out-stayed my welcome, Lady Sherrington, Miss Bennett. Thank you for an enjoyable morning’s conversation.”

“It was kind of you to call, Colonel Dewhurst,” Arianna said as she rose to her feet. Rhea stood up as the colonel kissed her sister’s hand.

“Let me walk you out,” Rhea said with a smile.

The instant she spoke, she saw Percy scowl. His frown darkened as the colonel directed a smug look in Percy’s direction. She didn’t know whether to be amused or dismayed at Percy’s obvious displeasure. With a smile at Dewhurst, she walked the man out of the morning room into the hallway. As Marston offered the colonel his hat, Rhea smiled.

“Thank you for calling on us this morning, Colonel. And thank you again for your kindness last night.”

“It was my pleasure,” he said with a cheerful look that faded into an expression of rueful contemplation. “I would ask if you would take a ride with me tomorrow afternoon, but it’s obvious you are otherwise engaged.”

For a brief second, Rhea stared at the man in puzzlement before she realized he was referring to Percy. She grimaced. Percy’s earlier insinuations had been high-handed and unwelcome. But at the moment she was grateful for an excuse to avoid any entanglements. As much as she found the colonel’s company quite pleasant, she had no wish to encourage him.

It would be unfair to do so considering she had no desire to pursue a romantic relationship with any man. A small voice in the back of her head scoffed at her. She silenced the intrusive thought with calculated precision. The question now was how to explain Percy’s blatant suggestions that she was unavailable without backing herself into a corner and confirming his remarks. With the sigh, she shook her head.

“Mr. Rockwood and I have a…complex relationship.”

It was a truthful statement. She knew full well she was on a slippery slope with Percy. Even if she’d had the inclination to do so, a relationship with Colonel Dewhurst would shift the balance of her precarious connection to Percy. For some unfathomable reason, she knew Percy wouldn’t break his word, but another small part of her questioned why she had placed her trust in him. Colonel Dewhurst met her gaze with a fatalistic one then bobbed his head in comprehension.

“I understand. However, should the complexities of your current situation become more…simplified…I hope you will consider me a friend you can rely on.” The sincerity in his voice made Rhea step forward to take his hand and squeeze it in gratitude.

“That is a generous offer, and I will not forget it if I should have need of a friend.”

A wistful look on his face, Dewhurst kissed her hand and walked out of the house. Rhea closed the front door behind him and pressed her brow against the warm wood. When had her plan to rescue the children and retire to the country changed so dramatically? The sound of voices echoed into the main entryway, and she turned to see Percy and Arianna emerge from the morning room. Although her sister’s expression still held a trace amount of trepidation, Percy had managed to make her laugh. It was a sound that made Rhea feel indebted to him. Percy had obviously recognized Arianna’s wariness where he was concerned. As a result, it appeared he’d made a concerted effort to ease her sister’s fears and succeeded. As the two of them stopped in front of her, Percy met Rhea’s gaze.

“Your sister tells me you enjoy riding, Rhea.” Assessment and curiosity crossed his handsome features, and she bit down on her bottom lip. She needed to warn Arianna that she would have to be less forthcoming with the man. Percy Rockwood clearly had a talent for making people reveal their secrets.
She’d already fallen into that trap herself.

“I did as a child,” she said crisply.

“Then it’s time you did so again. Why not join me tomorrow morning for a ride in the park. If Blake doesn’t have a suitable mount, then I’ll arrange for one to be at the doorstep.”

A stark memory of Bluebell galloping hard across the fields with her clinging to the small mare as tears streamed down her face filled her head. It had been the last time she’d ridden. A day later Bluebell had been sold. Rhea was certain her father had deliberately sold the horse. There had been a number of horses in the stables at the time, but her father had chosen Bluebell. The painful memory made her flinch. As her gaze met Percy’s penetrating one, Rhea schooled her features into an unreadable expression.

“Thank you, but I must decline. I haven’t ridden in a very long time, and I doubt my skills will allow me to ride even tolerably well.”

“You underestimate yourself, Rhea. If I recall, you also said you weren’t a very good dancer, and we both know that’s not the case.”

The gentle note in his voice made Rhea stiffen. What was it about this man that made her feel as though she could go to him with a problem, and he’d find a way to solve it for her? She quickly cast the thought aside. She might trust him not to betray her, but it was a narrow ledge she was on when it came to relying on Percy Rockwood.

With a shake of her head, she silently refused his invitation. It was bad enough he’d coerced her into the luncheon appointment with his sister. Heaven knew why he would feel the need for her to meet the woman. She could only assume Percy’s obvious antipathy for Colonel Dewhurst had been the driving force behind his subterfuge.

“I believe you indicated earlier that we have an appointment?”
At the accusatorial note in her voice he nodded without any sign of remorse for his coercive methods. The smile curving his lips made her grit her teeth. Confidence was the one thing Percy Rockwood possessed in abundance.

“I did. If you’re ready?”

“I simply need to retrieve my hat,” she bit out crisply.

His smile became a charming grin, which made some of her irritation disappear. On the verge of smiling back, Rhea quickly turned away and hurried upstairs to fetch her hat. She’d known from the moment she’d seen Percy in the ballroom at Melton Park that he would be trouble. She’d been right. But the question now was exactly what kind of trouble. The answer that flitted through her mind wasn’t one she wanted to consider.

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