Lady Belinda Clayton grappled with the
creaking iron gate, which led to the back garden of her family’s London
townhouse. It was not the first time she had used the unconventional route to
make her way back home in the predawn hours. Nor was it the first time her
dress had been ruined or her hair tousled in her rush to make her way through
the streets without becoming a number on the death toll in the city’s
Pushing the gate closed, the rough, cold
metal scratched her gloved palm. Once the latch was secured, she ran her finger
along the jagged tear in her left glove. “Too bad,” she said. She shook her
head at the ruined garment. “I really did like this pair.”
“What pair is that, Lady Belinda?”
Gabriel’s deep, seductive voice cut through the still night.
His blue eyes were the color of the sea
just before a storm and their depths burned into her.
Her stomach did a flip before she had time
to control herself. She was sure she looked flustered and she could have kicked
herself for not steeling her nerves before facing Lord Gabriel Thurston, the
Earl of Tullering.
“Tullering, what on earth are you doing in
my garden in the middle of the night?” The sound of cold detachment in her
voice gave her satisfaction.
“One might ask you the same question, Lady
Belinda.” He ran his hand through his dark hair, loosening it from the ribbon.
His cravat had come open and his evening clothes were crushed. There was
something dangerous about an unkempt Gabriel. The gesture was a sign of
frustration from the earl. She’d seen it many times.
Her heart raced and she swallowed the
panic welling in her gut. “This is my home, my lord. You do not live here. If I
am not mistaken you have a home in London where you should be at this late
“You are my fiancée.” Even in the
moonlight, his face and neck burned red.
“There is no need to remind me.”
He stepped from the terrace onto the
cobbled path where she stood. Looming over her his scent filled the air with a
mixture of soap, spice and something else male and formidable. The scent was
intrinsically Gabriel and entirely delicious.
She was tempted to back away, but forced
herself to hold her ground. Her stubbornness did not stop her heart from racing
or her skin from tingling at his nearness.
“Oh, but I think there is a need.” He
circled behind her, his mouth inches from her ear.
She set her teeth. “I am well aware of the
contract signed between you and my father four years ago, my lord. I was there
when it was signed, and I was also there when you left for the
The day he left for the war came flooding
back, and so did the memories of her unanswered letters, and the tears she had
cried over him. Well, there would be no tears tonight.
“You are angry with me for fighting for
our country?” He took a step back.
“But you are angry.”
“You might have written since your concern
for our relationship is so evident.” She’d wanted to sound flippant, but she
sounded brooding. She’d been hurt by his silence, and had little hope of hiding
“I wrote,” he said.
She was pleased the subject had changed to
something more defensible. “Three letters in four years can hardly be
considered correspondence, my lord.”
“You use to call me Gabriel,” he
She stepped away in spite of the pleasant
shiver his voice produced. “That was a long time ago.” Lifting her skirts, she
climbed the terrace steps away from him.
“There is still the question of why my
fiancée is sneaking through the garden at four in the morning.”
She turned ready to blast him about having
no right to ask her anything. Her words stuck in her throat.
In the full moonlight, he took her breath
away. He was tall and broad and his hair hung loose around his face.
In spite of her anger, she wanted
desperately to touch his hair and see if it was still as soft as it looked. “I
come and go as I please.”
“So I see,” he said. “Perhaps then, you
would be willing to explain why your dress is six inches deep with mud, why
your hair looks as if you’ve been tossing in the sheets, how you got that
smudge of dirt on your lovely face, or the hole in those gloves you were just
She wiped some dried mud from her cheek.
The resulting dull pain told her she had revealed a bruise beneath.
His eyes widened and he flew up the
She stepped back. She couldn’t harm
Gabriel so she lifted one arm as if to dull a blow.
He froze, staring down at her.
It had been instinct. The last few years
had taught her that no one is immune to violence. A woman must learn to defend
herself. If he had been anyone else, she’d have struck him rather than shield
herself against an angry fist. She lowered her arm and looked into his piercing
eyes. Her heart pounded. She had made an error.
“Do you truly think I would strike
Now that she was thinking clearly again,
she hardly knew why she had defended herself. It was foolish. Gabriel would
never strike her. Her environment had tainted her. She attempted to remain cold
in her explanation. “I hardly know what to think, my lord. We no longer know
When he touched the tender bruise, she
winced, but did not back away.
“And this, Bella, would you care to
explain this to me?” His voice was soft and his touch feather-light, but his
eyes narrowed and his posture remained unyielding.
She brushed his touch aside. “Do not call
“You use to like that name.”
“That too was a long time ago.”
“Not so long,” he whispered. He gazed out
into the garden as if lost in some distant memory. His attention returned to
her. “I am waiting for some kind of response from you, Lady Belinda.”
In spite of her need to keep him at a
distance, her heart ached at his use of the formal address. Her first instinct
was to tell him to go to hell and leave her alone, but that would only provoke
him. She lied instead. “I have been at a ball. There was some problem with the
carriage, and I was required to walk part of the way. I fell in the mud and
some of it must have splattered my face when my dress was ruined.”
He frowned. “And the bruise?”
Deep creases around his full lips drew her
in. Desire to tell him everything bubbled in her gut. She shrugged. “I’m sure
it is only dirt. The moonlight makes it seem more dire, and you are
exaggerating the situation greatly.”
“I see. Is this all the explanation I can
“It is what I am willing to say, my lord.”
She turned and walked to the house. The door opened just as she arrived, and
she slipped inside before her fiancé could say more.
“I thought he’d never let you go, milady,”
her maid said. She took the tattered cape from Belinda’s shoulders.
“He is angry, Claire.” Belinda sat down
heavily on the stool so her maid could remove her muddy boots before she
tracked up the entire house. No need for all the servants to begin asking
“He has a right to know what you’ve been
up to.” Claire dropped one boot with a heavy thud.
“Perhaps, but I cannot tell him,
regardless of his rights. He would not understand and probably could not
believe me anyway. He’d have me sent to Bedlam. He will have to remain in the
dark. Besides, what would I say? That while he was away fighting Napoleon, I
was quite busy battling the demons that are taking over England?”
“It’s a start.” Claire shrugged, but her
Irish brogue dripped with reproach.
“I think not. Just run me a bath, Claire.
I’m tired, bruised and I just want a hot bath and a warm bed.
“What happened tonight, milady? We
expected you hours ago. I’ve already sent Tubbs out looking for you.” Claire
tucked all the soiled and torn items into a bundle for laundering, and if possible,
“I hope he does not run into any demons
while looking for me.”
Claire patted her shoulder. “He’ll be
fine. Not to worry. Tubbs can fend for himself.”