April 17th, 1820
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 family’s 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. She’d 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 head—Alathea’s 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 throw—the 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 Allie—me!"
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 angel’s 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 earldom’s creation in the fourteenth. The present gracious house had been built by her great-grandfather, the grounds expertly landscaped under her grandfather’s exacting eye.
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. Nothing—no one—was going to steal the simple peace she’d 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 wasn’t the first time she’d stood on the lip of the abyss and stared ruin—financial and social—in 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 father’s 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 she’d 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 didn’t need to read it again—every 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 family’s 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 this impasse.
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 wasn’t the first time her father had brought the earldom to the brink of ruin; she’d faced the prospect of abject poverty before. For a gentlewoman reared within the elite circle of the haut ton, the prospect had been—and still was—frightening, all the more so for being somewhat beyond her ken. Abject poverty she had no more than a hazy notion of—she 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 knowledgeable—better 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, she’d carried the burden of managing the family’s 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. She’d insisted the boys go to Eton, and then to Oxford; Charlie would go up for the autumn term in September. She’d 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, she’d 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, assessing—rejecting. This time, frugality would not serve her cause—no 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 it—no 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 convinced—neither 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 she’d fought for, all she’d spent the last eleven years securing—all her family’s future—to feather the nest of a pack of dastardly rogues.
Pencil tapping, she stared at the note. There had to be a way out—it was up to her to find it.
May 6th, 1820
Swirls of mist wreathed Gabriel Cynster’s 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 o’clock; fashionable London laying sleeping. The coaches ferrying late-night revellers home had ceased to rumble—an 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. He’d stood in the same place a week before, watching Demon, one of his cousins, drive off with his new wife. He’d felt a sudden chill—a premonition, a presentiment; perhaps it had been of this.
Three o’clock in the porch of St. Georges—that was what the note had said. He’d 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 couldn’t 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 here—where was she?
On the thought, the city’s 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, descended.
Gabriel stirred. Impatient, he started back along the porch, his stride slow, easy.
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 the night.
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 couldn’t see over her head. Which was amazing—he 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 prank—a youth dressed as a woman. The few steps she’d taken, the way she’d turned—to his experienced senses, her movements defined her as female. And her tone was soft and low, the very essence of woman.
Mature woman—she 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 couldn’t see even a hint of her chin or her lips.
"My stepfamily, I should say."
Her perfume reached him, exotic, alluring. "Perhaps we’d better define just what your problem is, and why you think I can help."
"You can help. I would never have asked to meet you—would never reveal what I’m about to tell you—if I didn’t know you could help." She paused, then drew breath. "My problem concerns a promissory note signed by my late husband."
She inclined her head. "I’m 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 husband’s second wife. We were married some years ago—for 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 you’ve taken your late husband’s children under your wing?"
Her nod was decisive. "Yes. I consider their welfare my responsibility." She paused, then added, "It’s because of that—them—that I’m 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 family’s 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 company’s address should be on the note."
"It’s not—just 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 note—do you have it?"
From beneath her cloak, she drew out a rolled parchment.
Taking it, Gabriel inwardly raised his brows—she’d certainly come prepared. Despite straining his eyes, he’d 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 promissor’s signature—the first thing he looked at—was covered by a piece of thick paper fixed in place with sealing wax. He looked at the countess.
Calmly, she stated, "You don’t need to know the family’s name."
"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 your problem."
"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 hadn’t missed digits nor misread. "If this sum will clean out the earldom’s 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 husband’s agent and I were able to hold things together and keep the family’s 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 don’t wish me to know your name."
"You know the haut ton—we 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 Alicia—we’re in town now because they’re to be presented. I’ve 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; she’s part of the family, too."
Gabriel listened, more to her tone than her words. Her devotion sounded clearly—the caring, the commitment. The anxiety. Whatever else the countess was concealing, she couldn’t hide that.
Raising the note, he studied the signature of the company’s chairman. Composed of bold, harsh strokes, the signature was illegible, certainly not one he knew. "You didn’t say why you thought I could help."
His tone was vague—he’d already guessed the answer.
She straightened her shoulders. "We—our agent and I—believe the company is a fraud, a venture undertaken purely to milk funds from gullible investors. The note itself is suspicious in that neither the company’s address nor its principals are noted, and there’s 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. "We’ve 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 that’s 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 it’s already over a year since it was signed."
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. "You’ve built something of a reputation for exposing fraudulent schemes, and..."—lifting her head, she studied him—"you’re a Cynster."
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 family’s 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 don’t 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 women—only that could account for this charade, well thought out, well executed. The countess had all her wits about her; she’d studied her mark and had laid her plans—her enticements—well.
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 he’d considered—once he had, he inwardly raised his brows at the ‘we.’
"The company’s solicitors. Or at least, the ones who drew up the note—Thurlow and Brown. Their name’s on the note."
"But not their address."
"No, but if they’re a legitimate firm—and they must be, don’t you think?—then they should be easy to trace. I could have done that myself, but..."
"But you didn’t think your agent would approve of what you have in mind once you discover the address, so you didn’t want to ask him?"
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 wasn’t so sure—he’d know once he located Thurlow and Brown.
"We’ll need to learn who the principals of the company are, and then learn the details of the company’s business."
"Prospective business." He shot her a look, wishing he could see through her veil. "You do realize that any investigating risks alerting the company’s 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. That’s how swindlers will react—they’ll grab what they’ve got and disappear before anyone can learn too much."
They’d 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 wasn’t cold. Despite her heavy cloak, the countess was—at 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 burned.
Her head rose; her spine stiffened. Her veiled gaze locked on his face. "If I don’t investigate the company and prove it’s 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 you’ve made the decision to investigate the company, then yes, I’ll help you."
If he’d expected gushing thanks, he’d have been disappointed—luckily, he’d had no such expectation. She stood still, studying him. "And you’ll swear...?"
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 whisper.
"You’re 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, lush—pure 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 career—instead, it was a spark set to tinder, prelude to a conflagration. The knowledge—absolute and definite—shook 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. "I’ll find out where Thurlow and Brown hang their plaque and see what I can learn. I assume you’ll want to be kept informed. How will I contact you?"
She stepped back. "I’ll 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 horse’s 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 his house.
He felt energized, ready to take on the world. The previous morning, before the countess’s note arrived, he’d been sitting morosely over his coffee wondering how to extract himself from the mire of disaffected boredom into which he’d sunk. He’d considered every enterprise, every possible endeavor, every entertainment—none had awakened the smallest spark of interest.
The countess’s note had stirred, not just interest, but curiosity and speculation. His curiosity had largely been satisfied; his speculation, however...
Here was a courageous, defiant widow staunchly determined to defend her family—stepfamily no less—against 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, she’d told him.
So what did he know?
She was an Englishwoman, unquestionably gently bred—her 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 Cynster instincts.
Gabriel swung into Brook Street. One thing the countess didn’t know was that he rarely reacted impulsively these days. He’d learned to keep his instincts in check—his business dealings demanded it. He also had a definite dislike of being manipulated—in any field. In this case, however, he’d 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...he’d already decided they’d be his.
Occasionally, liaisons happened like that—one look, one touch, and he’d know. He couldn’t, 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. This—the countess and her problem—was 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 Burke’s Peerage.
Lips quirking, he strode for the stairs. If he hadn’t 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 couldn’t 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.
He’d promised he wouldn’t seek out her identity—he hadn’t promised he wouldn’t persuade her to reveal all to him.
Her name. Her face. Those long legs. And more.