Morwellan Park, Somerset
Disaster stared her in the face.
Seated at her desk in the library of Morwellan Park, Alathea Morwellan
gazed at the letter she held, barely seeing the precise script of her
familys agent. The substance of the missive was burned into her
brain. Its last paragraph read:
I fear, my dear, that my sentiments concur with yours. I can see no
evidence that we have made any mistake.
No mistake. Shed suspected, virtually expected that that would be
the case, yet...
Exhaling, Alathea laid the letter down. Her hand shook. A youthful cheer
reached her, borne on the breeze wafting through the long windows. She
hesitated, then stood and glided to the French windows standing open to
the south lawn.
On the rolling expanse separating the terrace from the ornamental lake,
her stepbrothers and stepsisters cavorted, playing an exuberant game of
catch. Sunlight flashed on one fair headAlatheas eldest stepbrother,
Charlie, leapt high and snatched the ball from the air, denying Jeremy,
only ten but always game. Despite his emerging elegance, Charlie, nineteen,
was patently and good-naturedly caught up in the game, indulging his juniors,
Jeremy and Augusta, just six. Their older sisters, Mary, eighteen, and
Alice, seventeen, had also joined in. The entire household was currently
in the throes of preparing to remove to London so Mary and Alice could
be introduced to the ton. Both older girls threw themselves into the game,
ringlets framing innocently happy faces, the serious business of their
come-outs in no way dampening their joy in simple pleasures.
A whoop from Charlie signaled a wild throwthe ball flew over all
three girls and bounced toward the house. It struck the flags of the path
and bounced even higher, clearing the shallow steps to land on the terrace.
Two more diminishing bounces and it tumbled over the library threshold
and rolled along the polished boards. Raising her skirt, Alathea placed
one foot on the ball, stilling it. She considered it, then looked out
to see Mary and Alice racing, laughing and gasping, toward the terrace.
Stooping, Alathea scooped up the ball; balancing it on one palm, she strolled
out onto the terrace.
Mary and Alice skidded to a halt before the steps, laughing and grinning.
"Me, Allie, me!"
"No! Al-a-the-a! Sweet Allieme!"
Alathea waited as if weighing her choice while little Augusta, left far
in the rear, panted up. She stopped some yards behind the older girls
and raised her angels face to Alathea.
With a grin, Alathea lobbed the ball over the older girls heads.
Open-mouthed, they watched it soar past. With a gurgling laugh, Augusta
pounced, grabbed the ball and raced away down the slope.
Flashing Alathea conspiratorial grins, Mary called after Augusta, Alice
cheered, and both set out in pursuit.
Alathea remained on the terrace, the warmth suffusing her owing nothing
to the bright sunshine. A movement beneath a large oak caught her eye.
Her stepmother, Serena, and her father, the earl, waved from the bench
where they sat indulgently watching their children.
Smiling, Alathea returned the wave. Looking back at her stepsiblings,
now headed in a wild melee toward the lake, she drew in a long breath,
then, lips firming, turned back into the library.
Crossing to the desk, she let her gaze dwell on the tapestries gracing
the walls, the paintings in their gilded frames, the leather-bound, gilt-encrusted
spines lining the shelves. The long library was one of the features of
Morwellan Park, principal seat of the earls of Meredith. Morwellans had
occupied the Park for centuries, from long before the earldoms creation
in the fourteenth. The present gracious house had been built by her great-grandfather,
the grounds expertly landscaped under her grandfathers exacting
Regaining the large carved desk, hers for the last eleven years, Alathea
looked at the letter lying on the blotter. Any chance that she would crumple
in the face of such adversity as the letter portended was past. Nothingno
onewas going to steal the simple peace shed sacrificed
the last eleven years of her life to secure for her family.
Gazing at Wiggs letter, she considered the enormity of what she
faced, too practical not to recognise the difficulties and dangers. But
it wasnt the first time shed stood on the lip of the abyss
and stared ruinfinancial and socialin the face.
Picking up the letter, she sat and reread it. It had arrived in reply
to an urgent missive from her dispatched post haste to London three days
before. Three days before, when her world had, for the second time in
her life, been rocked to its foundations.
While dusting her fathers room, a maid had discovered a legal document
stuffed inside a large vase. Luckily, the girl had had the wit to take
the paper to the housekeeper and cook, Mrs. Figgs, who had immediately
bustled into the library to lay it before her.
Satisfied shed missed nothing in Wiggs reply, Alathea set
his letter aside. Her glance strayed to the left desk drawer where the
wretched document at the heart of the matter lay. A promissory note. She
didnt need to read it againevery last detail was etched in
her brain. The note committed the earl of Meredith to pay upon call a
sum that exceeded the present total worth of the earldom. In return, the
earl would receive a handsome percentage of the profits realized by the
Central East Africa Gold Company.
There was, of course, no guarantee such profits would ever materialize,
and neither she, nor Wiggs, nor any of his peers, had so much as heard
of the Central East Africa Gold Company.
If any good would have come of burning the note, she would happily have
built a bonfire on the Aubusson rug, but it was only a copy. Her dear,
vague, hopelessly impractical father had, entirely without understanding
what he was about, signed away his familys future. Wiggs had confirmed
that the note was legally sound and executable. That being so, if the
call was made for the amount stipulated, the family would be bankrupt.
Rolled up. Utterly destitute. They would lose not only the minor properties
and Morwellan House in London, all still mortgaged to the hilt, but also
Morwellan Park, and everything that went with it.
If she wished to ensure that Morwellans remained at Morwellan Park, that
Charlie and his sons had their ancestral home intact to inherit, that
her stepsisters had their come-outs and the chance to make the felicitous
marriages they deserved, she was going to have to find some way out of
Just as she had before.
Absentmindedly tapping a pencil on the blotter, Alathea gazed unseeing
at the portrait of her great-grandfather, facing her down the long length
of the room.
This wasnt the first time her father had brought the earldom to
the brink of ruin; shed faced the prospect of abject poverty before.
For a gentlewoman reared within the elite circle of the haut ton, the
prospect had beenand still wasfrightening, all the more so
for being somewhat beyond her ken. Abject poverty she had no more than
a hazy notion ofshe had no wish for either herself or, more importantly,
her innocent stepsisters and stepbrothers, to gain any closer acquaintance
with the state.
At least, this time, she was more mature, more knowledgeablebetter
able to deal with the threat. The first time...
Her thoughts flowed back to that afternoon eleven years before, when,
poised to make her come-out, fate had forced her to stop, draw breath,
and change direction. From that day, shed carried the burden of
managing the familys fortunes, working tirelessly to rebuild her
stepbrothers patrimony, to reestablish the estate and set aside
funds for her stepsisters marriage portions, all the while maintaining
an outward show of affluence. Shed insisted the boys go to Eton,
and then to Oxford; Charlie would go up for the autumn term in September.
Shed scrimped and saved to take Mary and Alice to town for their
come-outs, and to have sufficient funds to puff them off in style.
The household was eagerly anticipating removing to London in just a few
days. For herself, shed anticipated savoring a subtle victory over
fate when her stepsisters made their curtsies to the ton.
For long moments, Alathea stared down the room, considering, assessingrejecting.
This time, frugality would not serve her causeno amount of scrimping
could amass the amount needed to meet the obligation stipulated in the
note. Turning, she pulled open the left drawer. Retrieving the note, she
perused it again, carefully evaluating. Considering the very real possibility
that the Central East Africa Gold Company was a fraud.
The Company had that feel to itno legitimate enterprise would have
cozened her father, patently unversed in business dealings, into committing
such a huge sum to a speculative venture, certainly not without some discreet
assessment of whether he could meet the obligation. The more she considered,
the more she was convincedneither she nor Wiggs had made any mistake.
The Central East Africa Gold Company was, first and last, a swindle.
Alathea leaned back in her chair, her gaze fixed on the note. She was
not at all inclined to meekly surrender all shed fought for, all
shed spent the last eleven years securingall her familys
futureto feather the nest of a pack of dastardly rogues.
Pencil tapping, she stared at the note. There had to be a way outit
was up to her to find it.
May 6th, 1820
Swirls of mist wreathed Gabriel Cynsters shoulders as he prowled
the porch of St Georges Church, just off Hanover Square. The air
was chill, the gloom within the porch smudged here and there by weak shafts
of light thrown by the street lamps.
It was three oclock; fashionable London laying sleeping. The coaches
ferrying late-night revellers home had ceased to rumblean intense
but watchful quiet had settled over the town.
Reaching the end of the porch, Gabriel swung around. Eyes narrowed, he
scanned the stone tunnel formed by the front of the church and the tall
columns supporting its facade. The mist eddied and swirled, obscuring
his view. Hed stood in the same place a week before, watching Demon,
one of his cousins, drive off with his new wife. Hed felt a sudden
chilla premonition, a presentiment; perhaps it had been of this.
Three oclock in the porch of St. Georgesthat was what the
note had said. Hed been half inclined to set it aside, a poor joke
assuredly, but something in the words had tweaked...an impulse more powerful
than curiosity. The note had been penned in desperation, although, despite
close analysis, he couldnt see why he was so sure of that. The mysterious
countess, whoever she was, had written simply and directly requesting
this meeting so she could explain her need for his aid.
So he was herewhere was she?
On the thought, the citys bells tolled, the reverberations stirring
the heavy blanket of the night. Not all the belltowers tolled the night
watches; enough did to set up a strange cadence, a pattern of sound repeated
in different registers. The muted notes faded, then died. Silence, again,
Gabriel stirred. Impatient, he started back along the porch, his stride
And she appeared, stepping from the deep shadows about the church door.
Mist clung to her skirts as she turned, slowly, regally, to face him.
She was cloaked and veiled, as impenetrable, secret and mysterious as
Gabriel narrowed his eyes. Had she been there all along? Had he walked
past her without seeing or sensing her presence? His stride unfaltering,
he continued toward her. She lifted her head as he neared, but only slightly.
She was tall. Very tall. Halting with only a foot between them, Gabriel
discovered he couldnt see over her head. Which was amazinghe
stood well over six feet tall; the countess had to be six feet tall herself.
Despite the heavy cloak, one glance had been enough to assure him all
her six feet were in perfect proportion.
"Good morning, Mr. Cynster. Thank you for coming."
He inclined his head, jettisoning any wild thought that this was some
witless pranka youth dressed as a woman. The few steps shed
taken, the way shed turnedto his experienced senses, her movements
defined her as female. And her tone was soft and low, the very essence
Mature womanshe was definitely not young.
"Your note said you needed my help."
"I do." After a moment, she added, "My family does."
"Your family?" In the gloom, her veil was impenetrable; he couldnt
see even a hint of her chin or her lips.
"My stepfamily, I should say."
Her perfume reached him, exotic, alluring. "Perhaps wed better
define just what your problem is, and why you think I can help."
"You can help. I would never have asked to meet youwould never
reveal what Im about to tell youif I didnt know you
could help." She paused, then drew breath. "My problem concerns
a promissory note signed by my late husband."
She inclined her head. "Im a widow."
"How long ago did your husband die?"
"Over a year ago."
"So his estate has been probated."
"Yes. The title and entailed estate are now with my stepson, Charles."
"I was my husbands second wife. We were married some years
agofor him, it was a very late second marriage. He was ill for some
time before his death. All his children were by his first wife."
He hesitated, then asked, "Am I to understand that youve taken
your late husbands children under your wing?"
Her nod was decisive. "Yes. I consider their welfare my responsibility."
She paused, then added, "Its because of thatthemthat
Im seeking your aid."
Gabriel studied her veiled countenance, knowing she was watching his.
"You mentioned a promissory note."
"I should explain that my husband had a weakness for engaging in
speculative ventures. Over his last years, the familys agent and
I endeavored to keep his investments in such schemes to a minimum, in
which endeavors we were largely successful. However, three weeks ago,
a maid stumbled on a legal paper, tucked away and clearly forgotten. It
was a promissory note."
"To which company?"
"The Central East Africa Gold Company. Have you heard of it?"
He shook his head. "Not a whisper."
"Neither has our agent, nor any of his colleagues."
"The companys address should be on the note."
"Its notjust the name of the firm of solicitors who drew
up the document."
Gabriel juggled the pieces of the jigsaw she was handing him, aware each
piece had been carefully vetted first. "This notedo you have
From beneath her cloak, she drew out a rolled parchment.
Taking it, Gabriel inwardly raised his browsshed certainly
come prepared. Despite straining his eyes, hed caught not a glimpse
of the gown beneath her voluminous cloak. Her hands, too, were covered,
encased in leather gloves long enough to reach the cuffs of her sleeves.
Unrolling the parchment, he turned so the light from the street lamps
fell on the single page.
The promissors signaturethe first thing he looked atwas
covered by a piece of thick paper fixed in place with sealing wax. He
looked at the countess.
Calmly, she stated, "You dont need to know the familys
"That will become evident when you read the note."
Squinting in the poor light, he did so. "This appears to be legal."
He read it again, then looked up. "The investment is certainly large
and, given it is speculative, therefore constitutes a very great risk.
If the company had not been fully investigated and appropriately vouched
for, then the investment was certainly unwise. I do not, however, see
"The problem lies in the fact that the amount promised is considerably
more than the present total worth of the earldom."
Gabriel looked again at the amount written on the note and swiftly recalculated,
but he hadnt missed digits nor misread. "If this sum will clean
out the earldoms coffers, then..."
"Precisely." The countess nodded once, with that decisiveness
that seemed characteristic. "I mentioned that my husband was fond
of speculating. The family has for more than a decade existed on the very
brink of financial ruin, from before I married into it. After our marriage,
I discovered the truth. After that, I oversaw all financial matters. Between
us, my husbands agent and I were able to hold things together and
keep the familys head above water."
She looked at the parchment. "That note, however, would be the end."
Her voice hardened in a vain attempt to hide her vulnerability. "Our
problem in a nutshell is that the note does indeed appear legal, in which
case, if it is executed and the money called in, the family will be bankrupt."
"Which is why you dont wish me to know your name."
"You know the haut tonwe move in the same circles. If any hint
of our financial straits, even leaving aside the threat of the note, was
to become common knowledge, the family would be socially ruined. The children
would never be able to take their rightful places in our world."
The call to arms was a physical tug. Gabriel shifted. "Children.
You mentioned Charles, the youthful earl. What others?"
She hesitated, then said, "There are two girls, Maria and Aliciawere
in town now because theyre to be presented. Ive saved for
years so they could have their come-outs..." Her voice suspended.
After a moment, she continued, "And there are two others still in
the schoolroom, and an older cousin, Seraphina; shes part of the
Gabriel listened, more to her tone than her words. Her devotion sounded
clearlythe caring, the commitment. The anxiety. Whatever else the
countess was concealing, she couldnt hide that.
Raising the note, he studied the signature of the companys chairman.
Composed of bold, harsh strokes, the signature was illegible, certainly
not one he knew. "You didnt say why you thought I could help."
His tone was vaguehed already guessed the answer.
She straightened her shoulders. "Weour agent and Ibelieve
the company is a fraud, a venture undertaken purely to milk funds from
gullible investors. The note itself is suspicious in that neither the
companys address nor its principals are noted, and theres
also the fact that a legitimate speculative company accepting a promissory
note for such an amount would have sought some verification that the amount
could indeed be paid."
He shot her a sharp look. "No check was made?"
She shook her head. "It would have been referred to our agent. As
you might imagine, our bank has been in close touch with him for years."
The countess gazed at the note, still in his hands. "Weve checked
as far as we can without raising suspicions and found nothing to change
our view. The Central East Africa Gold Company looks like a fraud."
She drew in a tight breath. "And if thats so, then if we can
gather enough evidence to prove it and present such evidence in the Chancery
Court, the promissory note could be declared invalid. But we must succeed
before the note is executed, and its already over a year since it
Rerolling the note, Gabriel considered her; despite the veil and cloak,
he felt he knew a great deal of her. "Why me?"
He handed her the note; she took it, slipping it once more under her cloak.
"Youve built something of a reputation for exposing fraudulent
schemes, and..."lifting her head, she studied him"youre
He almost laughed. "Why does that matter?"
"Because Cynsters like challenges."
He looked at her veiled face. "True," he purred.
Her chin rose another notch. "And because I know I can entrust the
familys secret to a Cynster."
He raised a brow, inviting explanation.
She hesitated, then stated, "If you agree to help us, I must ask
you to swear that you will not at any time seek to identify me or my family."
She halted, then went on, "And if you dont agree to help, I
know I can trust you not to mention this meeting, or anything you deduce
from it, to anyone."
Gabriel raised both brows; he regarded her with veiled amusement, and
a certain respect. She had a boldness rarely found in womenonly
that could account for this charade, well thought out, well executed.
The countess had all her wits about her; shed studied her mark and
had laid her plansher enticementswell.
She was deliberately offering him a challenge.
Did she imagine, he wondered, that he would focus solely on the company?
Was the other challenge she was flaunting before him intentional, or...?
Did it matter?
"If I agree to help you, where do you imagine we would start?"
The question was out before hed consideredonce he had, he
inwardly raised his brows at the we.
"The companys solicitors. Or at least, the ones who drew up
the noteThurlow and Brown. Their names on the note."
"But not their address."
"No, but if theyre a legitimate firmand they must be,
dont you think?then they should be easy to trace. I could
have done that myself, but..."
"But you didnt think your agent would approve of what you have
in mind once you discover the address, so you didnt want to ask
Despite her veil, he could imagine the look she cast him, the narrowing
of her eyes, the firming of her lips. She nodded, again that definite
affirmation. "Precisely. I imagine some form of search will be required.
I doubt a legitimate firm of solicitors will volunteer information on
one of their clients."
Gabriel wasnt so surehed know once he located Thurlow
"Well need to learn who the principals of the company are,
and then learn the details of the companys business."
"Prospective business." He shot her a look, wishing he could
see through her veil. "You do realize that any investigating risks
alerting the companys principals? If the company is the sham you
think it, then any hint of too close interest from anyone, particularly
and especially me, will activate the call on promised funds. Thats
how swindlers will reacttheyll grab what theyve got
and disappear before anyone can learn too much."
Theyd been standing for more than half an hour in the mausoleum-like
porch. The temperature was dropping as dawn approached; the chill of the
mists was deepening. Gabriel was aware of it, but in his cloak he wasnt
cold. Despite her heavy cloak, the countess wasat least half the
tension gripping her was due to the chill. As for the rest...
Lips tightening, he suppressed the urge to draw her closer and ruthlessly,
relentlessly, stated, "By investigating the company, you risk the
note being called in and your family being made bankrupt." If she
was determined to brave the fire, she needed to understand she could get
Her head rose; her spine stiffened. Her veiled gaze locked on his face.
"If I dont investigate the company and prove its a fraud,
my family will definitely be bankrupt."
He listened but could detect no hint of wavering, of anything less than
informed but unshakeable resolution. He nodded. "Very well. If youve
made the decision to investigate the company, then yes, Ill help
If hed expected gushing thanks, hed have been disappointedluckily,
hed had no such expectation. She stood still, studying him. "And
Stifling a sigh, he raised his right hand. "Before God, I swear"
"On your name as a Cynster."
He blinked at her, then continued, "On my name as a Cynster, that
I will not seek to identify you or your family. All right?"
Her sigh fell like silk in the night. "Yes." She relaxed, losing
much of her stiff tension.
His increased proportionately. "When gentlemen reach an agreement,
they usually shake hands."
She hesitated, then extended one hand.
He grasped it, then changed his hold, fingers sliding about hers until
his thumb rested in her palm. Then he drew her to him.
He heard her in-drawn breath, felt the sudden leaping of her pulse, sensed
the shock that seared her. With his other hand, he tipped up her chin,
angling her lips to his.
"I thought we were going to shake hands." Her words were a breathless
"Youre no gentleman." He studied her face; the glint of
her eyes was all he could see through the fine black veil, but with her
head tipped up, he could discern the outline of her lips. "When a
gentleman and a lady seal a pact, they do it like this." Lowering
his head, he touched his lips to hers.
Beneath the silk, they were soft, resilient, lushpure temptation.
They barely moved under his, yet their inherent promise was easy to sense,
very easy for him to read. That kiss should have registered as the most
chaste of his careerinstead, it was a spark set to tinder, prelude
to a conflagration. The knowledgeabsolute and definiteshook
him. He lifted his head, looked down on her veiled face, and wondered
if she knew.
Her fingers, still locked in his, trembled. Through his fingers under
her chin, he felt the fragile tension that had gripped her. His gaze on
her face, he raised her hand and brushed a kiss on her gloved fingers,
then, reluctantly, he released her. "Ill find out where Thurlow
and Brown hang their plaque and see what I can learn. I assume youll
want to be kept informed. How will I contact you?"
She stepped back. "Ill contact you."
He felt her gaze scan his face, then, still brittlely tense, she gathered
herself and inclined her head. "Thank you." She turned; the
mists swirled. "Good night."
The mists parted then reformed behind her as she descended the porch steps.
And then she was gone, leaving him alone in the shadows.
Gabriel drew in a deep breath. The fog carried the sounds of her departure
to his ears. Her shoes tapped along the pavement, then harness clinked.
Heavier feet thumped and a latch clicked, then, after a pause, clicked
again. Seconds later came the slap of reins on a horses rump, then
carriage wheels rattled, fading into the night.
It was half past three in the morning, and he was wide awake.
Lips lifting self-deprecatingly, Gabriel stepped down from the porch.
Drawing his cloak about him, he set out to walk the short distance to
He felt energized, ready to take on the world. The previous morning, before
the countesss note arrived, hed been sitting morosely over
his coffee wondering how to extract himself from the mire of disaffected
boredom into which hed sunk. Hed considered every enterprise,
every possible endeavor, every entertainmentnone had awakened the
smallest spark of interest.
The countesss note had stirred, not just interest, but curiosity
and speculation. His curiosity had largely been satisfied; his speculation,
Here was a courageous, defiant widow staunchly determined to defend her
familystepfamily no lessagainst the threat of dire poverty,
against the certainty of becoming poor relations, if not outcasts. Her
enemies were the nebulous backers of a company thought to be fraudulent.
The situation called for decisive action tempered by caution, with all
investigations and enquiries needing to remain covert and clandestine.
That much, shed told him.
So what did he know?
She was an Englishwoman, unquestionably gently bredher accent, her
bearing and her smooth declaration that they moved in similar circles
had settled that. And she knew her Cynsters well. Not only had she stated
it, her whole presentation had been artfully designed to appeal to his
Gabriel swung into Brook Street. One thing the countess didnt know
was that he rarely reacted impulsively these days. Hed learned to
keep his instincts in checkhis business dealings demanded it. He
also had a definite dislike of being manipulatedin any field. In
this case, however, hed decided to play along.
The countess was, after all, an intriguing challenge in her own right.
All close to six feet of her. And a lot of that six feet was leg, a consideration
guaranteed to fix his rakish interest. As for her lips and the delights
they promised...hed already decided theyd be his.
Occasionally, liaisons happened like thatone look, one touch, and
hed know. He couldnt, however, recall being affected quite
so forcefully before, nor committing so decisively and definitely to the
chase. And its ultimate outcome.
Again, energy surged through him. Thisthe countess and her problemwas
precisely what he needed to fill the present lack in his life: a challenge
and a conquest combined.
Reaching his house, he climbed the steps and let himself in. He shut and
bolted the door, then glanced toward the parlor. In the bookcase by the
fireplace resided a copy of Burkes Peerage.
Lips quirking, he strode for the stairs. If he hadnt promised not
to seek out her identity, he would have made straight for the bookcase
and, despite the hour, ascertained just which earl had recently died to
be succeeded by a son called Charles. There couldnt be that many.
Instead, feeling decidedly virtuous, not something that often occurred,
he headed for his bed, all manner of plans revolving in his head.
Hed promised he wouldnt seek out her identityhe hadnt
promised he wouldnt persuade her to reveal all to him.
Her name. Her face. Those long legs. And more.
© Savdek Management Pty Ltd.