The Golden Leopard

The Golden Leopard
Lynn Kerstan

July 2012 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-139-5

Lady Jessica's put the past behind her until one night at an auction when Duran shows up. He's back in England, and he has plans that involve her. Can she resist what he has in mind?
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

LadyJessica "Jessie” Carville gave up on up men six years ago, after being deserted by Lord Hugo Duran, the man she loved beyond all reason. She has carried on with her life and . . . shockingly . . . with her career. Although most of Society frowns upon a woman in business, Lady Jessica is a natural at collecting and selling antiques. She’s put the past behind her until one night at an auction, when Duran shows up. He’s back in England, and he has plans that involve her. Can she resist what he has in mind?

Duran, though willful and mysterious, is a gentleman—when it suits him. Yet he left his lover without so much a note saying why. Now he’s on a mission filled with danger. If he doesn’t succeed, he will die. Can he convince Jessica to help him without endangering her as well?

Lynn Kerstan, former college professor, folksinger, professional bridge player, and nun, is the author of sixteen romance novels and four novellas, all set in Regency England.

A RITA winner and five-time RITA Finalist, her books are regularly listed among the best in the Regency genre. The Golden Leopard and Heart of the Tiger were selected by Library Journal for its Best Books of the Year list (2002 and 2003), and Dangerous Passions was named by Booklist as one of the Top Ten Romances of 2005.


"Delicious regency has the panache and plot of Heyer, mixed with a contemporary sensuality...left me with a huge smile on my face." -- L. Grant, Netgalley

"An expertly written, compelling, highly entertaining read that will please any romantic." -- Hannah Fielding,

"...a mix of thrilling treasure hunt and passionate romance...kept me on the edge of my seat." -- Farrah Sayyed, Imagine a World

"Trust an ex-nun to write the hottest, most desperate and exhilarating romance of the year . . . ” -- Contra Costa Times



India, 1821

There was nothing like the prospect of dying half a world away to make an Englishman long for home.

Hugo, Lord Duran, had been given several months to reflect on his homeland, the one where he’d spent a grand total of eleven weeks of his life, before they came for him—two bearded, turbaned, cold-eyed men forced to bend double when they entered his cramped cell. They dragged him into the narrow passageway and hauled him to his feet.

While a third fellow clamped shackles around his ankles and wrists, Duran focused his attention on the harrowing wail that resonated along the corridor. It had persisted day and night, muffled by the thick walls of his cell, as if the ghosts of the damned stalked the prison. Now he understood what he had been hearing. It was the sound of men gone mad.

Had he howled as well? He didn’t like to think so, but he might have done. Except for marking each day by scratching a line on the moldy stone wall, he had wrenched his thoughts to the past and kept them there, reliving what little was worth recalling of his aimless, dissolute existence.

Nearly always, he found solace, and even a bit of amusement, remembering Jessie.

The first time she floated into his cell, more imperious and seductive than ever, she had startled him. After all this time, why the devil would Lady Jessica Carville come back to haunt him? Theirs had been an insignificant little dalliance, one of... well, he’d long since lost count of his dalliances. He should have forgotten her by now.

A sharp pain at his wrists. He looked down and saw blood. In this humidity, everything made of metal rusted practically overnight, and the nizam’s flunkies were having trouble securing his manacles.

Better to keep thinking about Jessie. That hurt as well, to be sure, but in a different way. He wasn’t sorry to have her with him again. Never mind the trouble he’d taken to exorcize her after returning to India, or the bothersome way she kept popping into his thoughts just when he became certain he was finally shed of her. It had required a year—very well, two or three years—but eventually she’d left him alone.

Until he needed her. Until there was nothing for him but hunger and darkness and regret. From the other side of the world she came to him, all but alive and scrunched up next to him when he was awake, not touching him, but there. When he slept, he dreamed about her.

She had been beside him when he heard voices in the passageway and pressed his ear to the door, trying to ferret out the reason he’d been snatched from his horse and tossed into a small, black hole. At the time, no one had seen fit to explain, and when he’d made a fuss about it, they’d beaten him senseless. But it was important that he find out. India could swallow you up if you weren’t careful, and besides, it wasn’t in his nature to give up without a fight.

Eventually he learned his fate from two guards who paused outside his cell to discuss its occupant. It seemed that the foreign devil, at a time being calculated by the court astrologers, was to be executed. And so far as he could tell, it was for the unpardonable crime of being an Englishman.

A few other snippets of information had come his way, none of any discernible consequence. But he had committed everything he heard to memory and spent all his rational hours playing with the words and phrases, arranging and rearranging them like the pieces of a puzzle. Information, he knew from a lifetime of living on his wits, was the gambler’s edge.

He had been in tight spots before. Always there came a moment when enterprise and intuition made all the difference, and when that moment came, he meant to be ready.

The shackles were finally locked into place. A rough hand shoved at his back, nearly knocking him over. He caught his balance and put one bare foot in front of the other, swearing under his breath with each wobbly step. How long since he’d eaten? Two days? Three? Damn. This was no time to collapse in a heap.

Dizziness washed over him as the little procession came to a heavy iron door. One of the guards unlocked it and pushed it open, and the sudden blast of sunlight and summer heat nearly sent Duran to his knees. Someone grabbed his arm and shoved him through the door.

He stumbled into a bleak courtyard filled with silent men who had come, he supposed, to watch the execution. Sunbaked bricks scorched the soles of his bare feet. He became aware of the tattered, sweat-stiff shirt open halfway down his chest and the loose trousers hanging low on his hips. They had stripped him of everything else soon after his capture.

It was a long walk to wherever they were going. The guards led him onto a wide street lined with dhoti-clad men, past large buildings he hadn’t sufficient interest to look at, toward a flamboyant palace glittering with mirrored tiles.

He couldn’t help but notice a score of women perched like butterflies on the fretted balconies, staring down at him from behind fluttering veils. He only wished he made a better appearance. Sticky, overlong hair reached past his frayed collar. A ragged growth of beard and mustache itched on his face. What would they think if his precariously suspended trousers dropped to his ankles?

He raised his manacled hands and waved at them, grinning when they gasped in chorus and fled into the zenana.

There was no time to enjoy the moment. Quickening their pace, the guards steered him up a long flight of marble stairs. More people, better-dressed people, lined the wide entrance hall. Like the others, they went silent as he drew closer and whispered to one another when he’d gone past.

He wondered when the fear would strike him. So far he felt mostly bemused, separated from what was transpiring as if it were happening to a man he did not know. But this, surely, was his last day of life. These, the last few minutes he would draw breath. He ought to be paying attention.

At the least, he could make a good show of it. He assembled in his mind the snatches of information he had gleaned from the guards. The nizam of this backwater principality had once admired the English and gone out of his way to attract them to Alanabad for tiger hunts and excessive displays of hospitality. But not long ago, one of the guests had eaten of his salt, sampled his concubines, and repaid him by making off with something of great value.

The reverent voices outside Duran’s cell had used many honorifics to describe it. The Star of the Firmament. The Heart of Alanabad. The Key to the Throne. Or perhaps they were referring to the ruler himself. In any case, whatever the stolen item might be, the nizam wanted it back. Meantime, he was taking revenge on any Englishman unlucky enough to get caught in his web, and right now, that Englishman was Hugo Duran.

They had come to the end of the public reception hall. Two carved doors swung open, and Duran was thrust into a massive room with high ceilings and pink marble walls. Smoke, sweet and heady, curled from strips of sandalwood hung over the copper braziers that lined the aisle. Solemn-faced men were a dozen deep on both sides of him. Soft female voices murmured from behind silk-embroidered screens.

Directly ahead, the local potentate lolled on a gilt throne shaped like the open mouth of a large cat. Ivory fangs descended from the backrest to curve above his narrow shoulders, and the armrests were supported by what looked like sharp, elongated teeth.

Beside the throne, between two tall, unlit candles, stood a marble pedestal encrusted with bright jewels. Nothing lay atop it but a crumpled cloth of gold.

Odd, that.

As a guard propelled him forward, Duran focused his attention on the nizam. The little man was wrinkled and thin, except for a prominent belly left bare to expose a diamond set in his navel. A great beak of a nose arched down to meet an upturned chin, and between them, his narrow lips were set in a rigid line. His black-eyed gaze was directed at a bowl of fruit offered him by a servant.

Duran’s sunken stomach rumbled at the sight of ripe peaches, purple grapes, and fuzzy apricots. One especially plump mango seemed to whisper his name.

They had reached the stairs leading to the carpeted stage where the nizam was enthroned in full durbar, his courtiers and attendants scattered about him like ornamental statues. One of the guards grabbed Duran’s shoulders and drove him to his knees. Another pressed his head to the floor and planted a sandaled foot on his neck.

The tiled floor felt cool against his cheek. He heard the nizam speak to someone who replied in a quiet voice, but his thoughts kept drifting to the mango. He imagined peeling back its skin, slowly and seductively, the way he would remove the clothes from a woman’s body. He would lick it all over before biting in and letting the sweet juices and soft flesh surge into his mouth. For that mango, and for the time to savor it, he would go to his death with a song on his lips.

The guards levered him upright again, grasping his arms when his knees buckled. He cast around for Jessie, for some awareness of her, but the witch had deserted him. Feminine pique, he supposed, and singularly poor timing. She would have enjoyed watching her treacherous lover brought low.

Licking his cracked lips, he managed a teetering bow to the nizam. "Lofty Eminence,” he said, his dry throat producing a frog-like croak. "I am Lord Duran, honored to be your faithful servant and confused at the manner of my welcome.”

The nizam turned to the straight-backed, slender man standing beside him.

Duran, who had pretended from the moment of his capture to speak no other language but English, listened with interest as the translator rendered his words into Hindi and added several of his own. "Star of the Firmament,” he said, bowing to the nizam with uncommon grace. "Heart of Alanabad.”

Politely, Duran kept his attention focused on the nizam, who appeared unimpressed with the proceedings. He spoke briefly, impatience clipping his words.

After a moment the translator took a step forward. "I am Shivaji,” he said in a level voice. "The Powerful One has pronounced you a spy, a thief, and a cur.”

Duran remembered to put a humble expression on his face. "I am sorry to hear it. Dare I suggest that the Powerful One has been misinformed by his enemies?”

Shivaji, one brow lifted, glanced across the dais to a harsh-featured man who separated himself from a group of courtiers robed, as was he, in severest black. Unlike the others, his fingers were studded with rings. His coned turban, starched and tightly wound, was embellished above his forehead with two entwined silver serpents.

One hand over his heart, he bowed to the nizam, who beckoned him closer. But when he spoke, it was directly to Shivaji. "It is known from Bombay to Calcutta that English devils may not cross the borders of Alanabad. How does he account for his presence here?”

While Shivaji translated, Duran, mordantly amused, cast about for a credible tale. For once in his life he was innocent as a babe, but no one here would believe the truth. What he required was a great thumping lie, a story that could not be verified. And at its heart must be the promise of something the nizam wanted even more than the pleasure of killing an Englishman.

"You see!” The black-clad man jabbed a finger in his direction. "He cannot reply. Lies burn in his throat, but he dare not release them. It is well. Send him to his fate, Excellency. He already stands condemned.”

Duran gave him a bright, befuddled smile and turned to Shivaji for a translation, his mind working furiously. The empty pedestal. He was willing to bet that whatever the Englishman—the one who started all this trouble—had stolen, it used to be enshrined on that pedestal, and that its value was not confined to rupees. But what the blazes had it been?

"Condemned?” he inquired of the nizam when Shivaji had finished. "For what crime, Magnificence? It was not my will that brought me here. Indeed, knowing of your prohibition, I tried again and again to escape my destiny. But every road, by twist and turn, led me to where I would not go.” Lifting his head, he willed confidence into his faltering voice. "I am but a humble instrument of the gods. They have put me like an oiled blade into your hands. How you use me is in your wisdom to decide.”

Shivaji waited, saying nothing.

Duran, feeling the translator’s sharp gaze probe him, concentrated on the nizam’s unreadable face. "I have been sent, O Heart of Alanabad, to serve you. I am charged to return that which has been foully taken from you by one of my miserable countrymen.”

Shivaji paused for a breathless few moments before rendering Duran’s exact words into Hindi.

The nizam, looking bored, reached for a handful of grapes and popped one into his mouth. "Does he think me a fool?” he said, chewing noisily. "This insect has come in search of more plunder. I shall have him flayed alive and fed to the crocodiles.”

Shivaji’s translation was solemn and inaccurate, omitting the threat in favor of a question. "How were you told of your mission?”

A diplomat, this cool-eyed man with the expressionless face and calm voice, and perhaps the brains behind the little fellow who huddled like a toad on his absurdly carved throne. How the bearded chap fit into the equation remained unclear. The nizam paid him no attention, but neither did he order him back to his place.

Duran, sensing rivalries and concealed agendas all around him, was having difficulty focusing on his own thready scheme. "This unworthy one cannot say precisely who it is who sent me, Your Loftiness. The message was given me in a dream.”

Shivaji translated. The nizam made a guttural noise. The black-robed man, his nose scarlet, opened his mouth to speak.

"Naturally, I paid it no heed,” Duran continued in a rush. "A man of traditional European education, I place no credit in signs and visions. And yet, as I made my way on the road from Poona to Mysore, the dream returned each night for seven nights, carried...”

Pausing, he wiped his damp forehead with his sleeve and took a deep, shuddering breath. It was time, past time, for a desperate gamble. He looked at the nizam, pinned on his throne between two rows of powerful teeth, and tossed the dice. "The dream was carried,” he said forcefully, "in the mouth of a great jungle cat.”

Shivaji, translating simultaneously now, raised a hand when the black-clad man tried to interrupt.

Duran, who’d have been glad of time to scratch up his next load of moonshine, would rather Shivaji had not interfered. But they were all looking expectantly at him, so he blundered ahead. "I know not how, O Star of the Firmament, I was able to stumble upon a place I had never been before. Alanabad is a far distance, I believe, from the road I had been on. So I must ask myself this question. How else could I have found you, had I not been sent?”

Shivaji’s tone sharpened when he completed the translation and turned again to Duran. "What has been stolen, Englishman?” The question was his own, because the nizam had not spoken. "And where is it to be found?”

An old hand at lying, Duran knew his bluff was being called.

Chains rattling, he lifted one arm in the direction of the marble pedestal. The nizam and all the courtiers followed his gesture, their gazes focused on the gauzy golden cloth.

So far so good, but time was running out. Big cat. What kind? Images sprang to his mind. Tiger. Cheetah. Leopard. Lion. A one-in-four chance. Closing his eyes, Duran tossed the dice for his life.

"The leopard,” he said in a transcendent voice. "I have been sent for the leopard.”

Without translating this declaration for the onlookers, Shivaji crouched beside the throne and conversed softly with the nizam.

Duran had run out of guesses and theatrical gestures. Muzzy-headed and wildly hungry, he lowered his aching arm and let his gaze wander around the durbar hall.

This one was not so very different from other courts where he had spent more pleasurable time. Two attendants flicked fly whisks made of yaks’ tails to drive away evil spirits, while others fluttered peacock-feather fans for the same purpose. A brawny fellow stood like a monolith, holding the princeling’s golden mace and silver stick, the emblems of his power. Two boys sat cross-legged on the floor, pulling the ropes that waved a damask punkah over the throne.

Incense and silks and spices and the languor of a hot India afternoon swept over him. Black spots danced before his eyes. Fragments of the muttered conversation drifted to his ears, but he could scarcely attend them.

"He lies. Who does not know of the leopard?”

"... all else has failed.”

"... draw out his nails and sever parts of his body one by one...”

"The people have lost faith... insurrection.”

"... secure... centuries.”

"... put him into my hands.”

More blather. Duran grew weary of it. Clearly the nizam rated his tale a crock, which it most certainly was, but Shivaji continued to press his cause. Why the devil would he set himself to spare an obscure aristocrat’s hide? Duran hoped that he’d succeed, but he wasn’t counting on it.

He wanted to go home, though. God but he wanted it. He had unfinished business in England. Unfinished business with Jessie, who would not be at all pleased to see him again. It would be her bad luck if this gamble paid off.

One of the guards pushed him to his knees again. He raised his clouded gaze to the nizam, who was regarding him from a pair of wily brown eyes.

"Where is the leopard?”

Duran barely remembered to wait for the translation before replying. "It is in England, Powerful One.”

"Why not in France or Portugal or Egypt?” the nizam shot back.

"In such a case, a Frenchman or a Portuguese or an Egyptian would be kneeling before you now. I know only that I must seek the leopard in my own country and return it to yours.” He put his hands together in the traditional gesture of respect. "Can a dream reveal the truth, Eminence? Was I sent to you?”

There was a soft rustling from the crowd behind him as Shivaji translated his speech. When the nizam’s eyes narrowed with displeasure, Duran felt a moment’s triumph. His Rotund Majesty’s plan to make a public spectacle of the Englishman’s death had come unraveled. A challenge had been laid at his feet.

The nizam stood, and all the courtiers dropped to their knees. "Hear your fate, wretch.”

Shivaji’s translation followed swiftly.

"You will be put to the Trial of a Thousand Screams. If indeed the gods have chosen you, they will grant you the strength to endure it. No man has done so before.”

Duran wished he had kept his mouth shut and settled for a straightforward execution.

The nizam pointed a long-nailed forefinger in his direction. "The will of the gods is ever disclosing itself in unfathomable ways. I accept the possibility that you have been sent to do their bidding.”

His voice hardened, although Shivaji’s translation rippled like a clear stream.

"As did my forefathers who ruled Alanabad before me, I have the gift to read the hearts of men. You are a creature of lies and false promises, Englishman. I do not trust you. But should you survive the Trial of a Thousand Screams, I shall grant you one year to find the Golden Leopard.”



Chapter 1

London, 1822

On what was supposed to be her night of triumph, Jessica Carville moodily paced the Turkey carpet in Mr. Christie’s office, feeling very much alone.

A dull pain throbbed at her temples, but she recognized it as a safe pain, low and unthreatening. The headache would not interfere with what she had to do. It must be the oncoming storm that had set her on edge. The London air crackled with the heat of late summer, and when she brushed her hand over a brass lion couchant on a side table, sparks shot from her fingertips.

The rumble of distant thunder sent her to a window, where she made an opening in the curtains to look outside. The new gas lamps lining Pall Mall shimmered in the humid air. On the street below, carriages were lined up as far as she could see.

Dear heavens. She’d never dared to hope for such a crowd. Parliament had dissolved weeks earlier, and most of the beau monde had already fled to the country. But it seemed that everyone of note still in the city had decided to attend the exhibition, if only to see what Lady Jessica had got up to now.

They had come here for gossip, of course, but they would be disappointed. Her unsuitable profession had long since been dissected to the bone, and tonight’s reception, while something out of the ordinary, was not at all the stuff of scandal.

Nonetheless, disaster hovered in the muggy air. She sensed it, the way she felt the lightning pulsing in the heavy clouds. For a few minutes, she watched servants push through the crowd of onlookers to open lacquered carriage doors and let down the steps. Gentlemen in sleek evening dress descended, offering their arms to the elegant ladies who followed them. Liveried footmen bearing flambeaux led them across the pavement to the doors of Christie’s auction house.

Jessica recognized most of the guests, but Christie’s had also sent invitations to customers who did not move in her circle. And to her profound displeasure, an advertisement had appeared that very morning in the Times. She had agreed to it when the contract was signed, trusting that Mr. Christie would think better of such vulgar publicity. But he had not, and now any commoner was free to wander through the viewing rooms, rubbing shoulders with aristocrats, wolfing down her lobster patties, and guzzling her expensive champagne.

As voices floated up the staircase to the first floor, she resumed her pacing. It was the infernal waiting that gnawed at her. She could never bear being closed in.

A soft knock sounded at the door and Mr. Herbert, Christie’s chief appraiser, stepped inside, a look of concern in his hazel eyes. "Nervous, my dear?”

"Not in the least,” she said, and it was quite true. "But I should very much like to get on with it.”

"Certainly.” He went to the chair where she had draped her silver-shot gauze shawl. "The Duke of Devonshire has claimed the honor of escorting you downstairs. By your own arrangement, I shouldn’t wonder.”

She smiled at her mentor as he threaded the shawl around her bare arms. "I mustn’t appear to be engaging in trade, you know, and there is nothing like a duke for lending one a bit of cachet.”

Devonshire, waiting at the head of the stairs, greeted her with a bow and their traditional joke. "Tsk-tsk, Lady Jessica. An ape leader still! I swear, there is no accounting for it.”

She put her gloved hand on his sleeve. "Such a notorious pair we are—the Bachelor Duke and the Dedicated Spinster. But I am sworn to wed the day after you do, Hart, if only to confound those who have wagered in the clubs that we shall never relent. Youwill let me know if you take a sudden whim to marry?”

"To be sure. But when afflicted with a whim of that sort, I invariably scurry to my bed and have myself a nap until it passes.” He led her slowly down the stairs. "You are in exceptionally fine looks tonight, Jessica. The crimson is perhaps a trifle startling at first glance, but it suits you.”

"I mean to be noticed,” she said, pleased at the compliment. Years ago the duke had advised her to dress herself in purest jewel tones—sapphire blues and ruby reds and emerald greens. The vibrant colors went well with her dark hair, and the simple lines of the gowns he had helped her choose flattered her tall, slender figure. She was more self-assured now, thanks to his kindness.

For the next half hour she needed every bit of confidence that a few yards of scarlet silk could provide. The duke stayed by her side while she moved around the exhibition hall, answering questions about the items to be auctioned the following day. But the moment His Grace’s attention was diverted, a formidable woman accosted her and practically towed her to a glass case on the other side of the room.

"Two hundred pounds for a supper plate?” Lady Fitzmorris queried in a shrill voice, one intended to be overheard. "Highway robbery, if you ask me!”

A number of people gathered around, scenting an incident.

Jessica gave them a smile of welcome before turning to the dish, and voices stilled as everyone waited for her to speak. She let the silence draw out to the last possible moment.

"Do you think so, Lady Fitzmorris?” she asked gently. "That is the minimum bid we shall accept, but I expect it to fetch a great deal more. It is difficult, though, to place a value on a silver platter, even one that graced the table of Queen Elizabeth. Some would care nothing for that, as you do not, but others will consider it a fragment of history worth preserving in a collection.”

"They might,” Lady Fitzmorris fired back, "were there proof of what you say. But how can you possibly know who owned it centuries ago? Have you an acquaintance who actually saw it on the queen’s table?”

A few people laughed, but most waited for Lady Jessica’s response to the uncivil attack.

"I’m afraid not,” she said, smiling as if Lady Fitzmorris had made a joke. "Before I recommend an item for purchase, I naturally consult with experts. A dinner service in this pattern is recorded in Her Majesty’s household inventory, and Sir Thomas Revenon assures me that the provenance for this particular dish is indisputable.”

She tilted her head, considering the plate. "I can say only that I stake my reputation on every piece in the exhibit. Should anyone buy an item and later discover it to have been misrepresented, I shall immediately refund the price in full.”

"But how are we to be sure of that?” Lady Fitzmorris objected. "Have you ever made such restitution?”

"It has never been necessary. But as you have so wisely reminded us, evaluating art and historical objects is a prodigiously difficult business. I claim only a love for beautiful things and an instinct for matching people with what they will most cherish. Do you see the porcelain lady just there, on the pedestal nearest the door? Her eyes are an unusual and magnificent shade of blue.” She lifted her gaze. "Precisely the color of your eyes, Lady Fitzmorris.”

"Are they indeed? But what is that to the point? I have never been partial to gaudy knickknacks.” Lady Fitzmorris swept through the tangle of onlookers with a disdainful sniff.

Jessica, glad to see the back of her, was reasonably certain that she would eventually meander over to that figurine, imagine a resemblance, and decide to bid on it.

"Well done,” said an unwelcome voice at her ear. "The vanquished harpy flees, leaving the redoubtable Amazon in possession of the field.”

The stink of gin and stale cologne made her stomach lurch. Jessica turned and greeted her brother-in-law with a curt nod. "Good evening, Gerald. How astonishing to see you here.”

"Oh, but I adore these summer parties.” His thin lips curled. "And I am positively agog that your little pastime is developing into a profitable enterprise. It is profitable, I trust? What’s the use of family connections, I have always said, if they fail to put money in one’s purse?”

"And what is the use of gaming, if one consistently fails to win?”

He stiffened. "I game no more than any other gentleman. But let us not pluck that crow again. M’wife has more than enough to say on the subject.”

Jessica’s hand itched to slap his handsome, dissipated face. Her sister never complained, more the pity. "You must excuse me, Gerald. I have guests to attend to.”

"Then I shall trail along. It happens I’ve been dabbling a bit in the art trade—the odd piece here and there—and being seen in company with the dashing Lady Jessica is certain to enhance my reputation.”

Aware that people were watching them, Jessica responded with a delicate shrug. "Link your name with mine,” she said past a false smile, "and I shall grind you to powder.”

"Not likely, sister-in-law.” He seized a glass of champagne from a passing servant. "For Mariah’s sake you will pretend to be in charity with me, as you have always done. But to preserve goodwill between us, I’ll wander about a few minutes longer and then take a quiet leave. Cooperation, Jessica. That’s the key.”

He sauntered off, sipping at his drink and nodding to acquaintances, most of whom turned away. Sir Gerald Talbot was bad ton, a minor baronet who had married into a good family and spent most of his time gambling and evading his creditors. But he was clever, too, and ruthless. Jessica loathed him.

She closed her eyes for a moment. Could anything more go wrong? The storm had hit full force, resonating through her body like a strike of lightning. Rain pounded against the windows, and a blast of thunder rocked her on her heels. Mingle, she instructed herself. Be charming. This is what you have worked for these last many years. She forced her eyes open.

And saw him.

Time melted away. Of a sudden she was one-and‑twenty again, recklessly besotted with a handsome scoundrel.

He was standing between the open doors of the exhibit hall, regarding her lazily from a pair of copper-colored eyes. She felt the heat blazing behind those eyes and sensed it coiling around her as his lips curved in a familiar, knowing smile. His mocking gaze efficiently stripped the clothes from her body.

Nothing had changed.

He had not, except that a strong sun had darkened his skin and streaked his tawny hair with pale gold. Otherwise he was just as she had tried not to remember him—tall, lean, exotic, and self-assured.

Hugo Duran. Invitation to sin.

No. Not everythingwas the same. Jessica Carville was all grown up now. A patented woman of the world. She would be accepting no more invitations from heartless men.

Soon Duran would approach. They would exchange civilized pleasantries while she made her indifference to him quite clear. Then, with exquisite politesse, she would turn her attention to her guests and deliberately ignore him. She looked forward to the pleasure of ignoring him.

But he only gave her a slight bow before entering the room, not moving in her direction at all. He wandered instead to the exhibits along the opposite wall, pausing occasionally to examine a painting or a snuffbox or a jade dragon, never looking at where she continued to stand like a fence post.

How dare he?

Cheeks hot with mortification, she recalled that it was precisely the sort of thing he woulddo. Duran invariably made it clear that he was in control, whatever the circumstances. It was why she feared him.

No. Feared her response to him. The way he made her feel. The man himself was perfectly harmless, if dealt with in the proper way. He had surprised her, that was all, and she would be firmly in control of herself after a few moments to catch her breath. She ordered her feet to carry her to a safe place.

Devonshire smiled warmly when she appeared at his side. "Tomorrow’s auction will be a splendid success,” he assured her. "Everyone I have spoken with has promised to be here, and Stevesbury is saying that he will have the Florentine chest no matter the cost. I mean to bid against him until he pays three times its worth.”

"That is most kind of you, Hart. Do raise the price if you can. The owner is in need of the money, and I ought not have tied her good fortune to my own shaky venture at Christie’s.”

"Ah, but you have always gambled against the odds. It is what I most admire about you.” He tilted his head, examining her more closely. "You are remarkably pale, Jessica. I saw you speaking with Lady Fitzmorris. Was she horrid?”

"No more than usual. But it has been a long day,” she said with a return of spirit, "and I’ve always loathed the dreg ends of parties. Better I go now, while the guests are still enjoying themselves.”

"Have you an escort?”

"Of course I do. Let me slip out unnoticed, Your Very Proper Grace, before I begin to give the appearance of a street seller flogging her wares.”

Devonshire was frowning as she moved away. She took her time about it, pausing to exchange greetings with people she knew, searching the room for Duran.

He had vanished.

And good riddance, she was telling herself when Lord Philpot planted himself in front of her and began to drone on about an Etruscan necklace he had almost bought for his wife thirty years earlier.

As if it mattered now, for pity’s sake. But she had trained herself to appear interested, as a woman of business must do when dealing with potential clients. Her profession was all she had, the only thing that she cared about, and her unruly temper was never permitted to get in the way of a sale.

"Would you buy the necklace if it were offered you tonight?” she asked when there was a brief pause in his monologue.

"Indeed I would! My sweet Clarissa longed for it, but I was so very certain that it was a fake. And what if it was? She rarely asked anything for herself. I ought to have leaped at the opportunity to give her the pleasure of it.” He released a small sigh. "Now it is too late, you see. Her mind is gone, or near to. She recognizes me only one day in seven of a week, and then for the briefest moment. But I would drape that golden chain around her neck in a heartbeat, aware she’d not know it from a hemp string, if a miracle put it into my hands again.”

She looked more closely at his florid cheeks and doughy jowls. At the glowing eyes, welling with tears, and the tension in his shoulders. Lord Philpot had come to Christie’s hoping to discover that long-lost necklace in one of the exhibit cases.

Jessica nearly forgot the urgency of escaping before Duran pounced on her. It was no coincidence, his presence here tonight. He did nothing without calculation and some devious purpose of his own. But at this moment, Lord Philpot’s quest seemed vastly more important than evading a confrontation with Duran.

Envy clouded her gaze. This pudgy little man, for all his eccentric hair and pillowy face and tiresome conversation, had known a great and abiding love. His wife might not remember him, but he would remain steadfast to the end, searching for ways to make her happy.

"I’m afraid the necklace you seek is unlikely to be found,” she said gently. "Would not another, one of a similar style, do as well?”

"No, no.” He shook his head, dislodging the few gingery strands of hair combed over his bald pate from both sides. Sticky with pomade, they lifted up and perversely remained aloft, creating something like a Roman arch over his shiny scalp. "It must be the real necklace.”

For his pride’s sake, Jessica wished she could smooth down those raised hairs. But of course she could not. Everyone would remark on it. "Will you come with me to Mr. Christie’s office?” she asked, striking out in that direction and trusting him to follow her.

Still grumbling, he joined her in front of the large mantelpiece mirror where she was waiting for him. "I wish you to draw a picture of the necklace,” she said. "Try to remember how it looked and send the picture to me.”

"Bless you,” he mumbled, his gaze fixed on the carpet. "I wish above all things to put a light into Clarissa’s eyes. Sometimes she tells me stories about our life together as if I were a stranger listening to them. She recalls the old days, when I courted her, far better than I do. I mostly remember the times when I let her down. It is the regret that eats away at us, Lady Jessica. The things not done that torment us in the night.”

The things done torment us as well, she thought. Especially when they come back in person.

She gave Lord Philpot a card with her direction inscribed on it. "Do not count on me finding the necklace you seek, sir. Resign yourself to a substitute. It will be Etruscan and of similar design, if such is to be had, but that is the best I can do. It will be up to you to make Lady Philpot believe it is the one she desired. She’ll want to believe that, you may be sure.”

"But I cannot pretend such a thing,” he objected. "It would be a lie.”

"Only a very little lie, sir. A kind one. But you must do as your conscience tells you.”

"I—” He cleared his throat, glancing around the room with obvious discomfort. "Yes, yes, but undertake no special search. None at all. Notify me if you come upon... That is, sorry to disturb you.” He made a vague gesture. "You’ll want to return to the exhibit hall.”

She couldn’t help herself. Lifting her arms, she combed her fingers through his sparse hairs and smoothed them back into place. "Do pardon me, sir, but the electricity in this stormy air has set your locks aflying. My own as well, I expect, but since I am about to take my leave, I shall cover them with my bonnet.”

Not looking at him, knowing he wouldn’t want her to, she went to the peg where her cloak had been hung. "You must sample the prime beef at the buffet supper, which is laid out in the room adjoining the exhibit. But before you join your friends, sir, will you be so kind as to inform Mr. Herbert that I require my carriage?”

It was what he needed after the embarrassment of her rearranging his hair—a place to go and a task. He gave her a courtly bow. "My pleasure, Lady Jessica. And I do thank you, on every count.”

When he had left the room, she removed her shawl, folded it into a neat square, and laid it on the desk while she donned her satin cloak. She had always meant to take an early departure, after all. And if she was leaving a trifle earlier than she’d planned, without so much as a word to Mr. Christie or Mr. Herbert, it was only because of the storm and her headache. Nothing whatever to do with Duran.

She returned to the mirror, bonnet in hand, and gazed at her reflection. The only person she had ever lied to with any success was herself. Given time and persistence, she could make herself believe almost anything. She had lied herself into confidence, talked herself into independence, and stampeded herself into a profession wholly unsuitable for the daughter of an earl. And always she wondered when the fraud would catch up with her, as it was bound to do. Sooner or later everything would collapse around her, and she would be altogether alone.

She brushed back the tendrils of hair that had pulled loose at her temples and placed the bonnet on her head. Really, the evening had gone exceptionally well. She ought to be elated. She would muster the right amount of enthusiasm on her way back to Sothingdon House, where her secretary was waiting up to hear a report.

There was a click as the door latch lifted and a creak from unoiled hinges. She watched in the mirror as Duran entered the room with his usual indolent grace, closed the door behind him, and leaned his shoulders against it. She knew that pose all too well—one leg crossed over the other below the knees and arms folded at his chest.

Well, she had expected this, or something much like it. And better the scene play out here, in private. She was no longer so careless of her reputation as she once had been.

Deliberately, she took her time tying the ribbons of her bonnet.

"Hullo, Jessie.” His voice was smooth and dark. "You are even more beautiful than I remembered.”

"Lord Duran.” She turned, making no hurry of it, and favored him with the polite, disinterested smile she reserved for clients who were unlikely to buy anything. "So it wasyou I glimpsed in the exhibition room. I had imagined so, but what with the crush, I could not be sure of it. You were certainly the last person I was expecting to see.”

"Glimpsed?” He chuckled. "Confess it, princess. You stared as if I’d begun to sprout two horns and a tail.”

"Did I? How rude of me.” She moved a few steps closer so that he would not imagine she feared to approach him. "My mind must have been elsewhere at the time, but I do apologize for not making you welcome. It is always delightful to come upon a former acquaintance, especially in the summer. London is so thin of company this time of year. Remind me, will you? How long has it been since last we met?”

"Precisely six years, two months, eighteen days, twenty-three hours and—” he drew out his pocket watch and flicked it open—"seven minutes.”

"Rubbish!” She had a misbegotten urge to laugh. "You are making that up.”

"Probably. It felt much longer than that. But I do remember most explicitly the time we spent together. I remember, in splendid detail, what we did together.”

"Then your memory is far more vivid than mine, sir.” She was pleased to have said that with commendable nonchalance, given the mental images he had conjured with a few simple words.

What we did.

"Cat got your tongue, princess? Or have you decided to pretend that we were never lovers?”

Ice gathered at her spine. A blessing. It held her erect and kept her cold. "Lovers? Well, I suppose so, although I have always thought that to be a ridiculous euphemism. But I have never been one to refine upon the past, and I certainly do not mean to revisit it. Were you hoping otherwise?”

He lifted his hands in a gesture of mock protest. "Not I. Hope is for those who will not seize what they want. Should I still desire you, Jessie, I would do whatever it required to have you.”

"Short of force, I trust?”

For the first time, one of her arrows struck home. His eyes narrowed, and his arms dropped to his sides. "That would be out of the question. As you very well know.”

"Yes.” What she most hated about Duran was the ease with which he could wring honesty from her. "I’m sorry. It was a mean-spirited thing to say.”

"Indeed. But you have every right to wish me to the devil. I expect you are doing so at this very moment.” He cast her a benevolent smile. "It may console you to learn that your wish will be granted within a year. As a matter of fact, I could peg out at any time.”

Had he picked up some deadly sickness in India? The very thought of it sent her heart plummeting. He might be a vast nuisance at close range, but a world without Duran somewhere in it would be oddly colorless.

He looked healthy enough. If anything, he was more tautly muscled than the man who used to sweep her up in his arms. But she sensed a different sort of strength in him now, as if he’d been tempered on an anvil.

"If you are ill,” she said with studied calm, "I am sorry to hear it. Is that why you have returned to England?”

"You are concerned for my health? How very kind. But I’m perfectly well, save that my life is no longer my own.” He made a sharp gesture as if dismissing the subject and slouched back against the door. "For the time being, my intentions are entirely honorable. The only proposition I have for you at the moment concerns a matter of business.”

Business? Unaccountably insulted, she twisted the strings of her reticule between her fingers. "I already have more clients than I can possibly manage. But I’m sure that if you explain your requirements to Mr. Christie, he will refer you to someone who can be of assistance.”

"I have, and he did. That’s why I followed you upstairs. Christie has informed me that you are acquainted with every important collector of antiquities in England. By his account, you are the only one who can provide me the information I require.”

"Mr. Christie said that?” A thrill of pride tingled at her fingers and toes. For the briefest moment, she let herself enjoy it.

"He added that I should expect no more from you than a list of names. In his opinion, you know everyone in Society and nothing whatever about the profession you aspire to enter. More to the point, you are a female and therefore not to be taken seriously. He only indulges your hobby because of your connections.”

Trust Hugo Duran to slam her back to earth without mercy.

At the least, he was consistent. The goodwill of others, he had always said, should never be taken into account when making important decisions. But at the time, she had thought he was referring to himself, warning her not to rely on him.

She had since learned to rely only on herself, and credited him with teaching her to survive even the most crushing disappointments. In another thirty or forty years, she might be grateful for the lesson. Meantime, the ice at her spine had begun to melt. Her confidence was seeping away. He was still so beautiful, damn him, and she was still so weak.

"I can certainly provide you a list,” she said, pleased to hear an assured voice emerge from her clogged throat. "Put in writing a description of what you are looking for and post it to my secretary. Mr. Herbert will provide you her name and direction.”

"I shall call on you tomorrow,” he said, as if she hadn’t spoken. "Perhaps in time for breakfast. Do you remember how it used to be, Jessie? We could never have breakfast together.”

"But that, I believe, is commonplace when engaging in a clandestine affair. And you needn’t bother dropping by, for I shall not be at home.”

He closed the space between them, moving so near she felt his breath against her forehead when he spoke. "Don’t run away, Jessie. I promise you’ll not succeed.”

When she tried to dodge around him, his hand grasped her forearm with just enough pressure to keep her in place. She looked down at the long, white-gloved fingers curled below her elbow, shocked that he was touching her and astonished at what she saw.

His black coat sleeve had pulled back from his cuff, exposing a heavy gold bracelet coiled around his wrist. Not quite meeting at the center, the bracelet thickened on each side to form two knobs, each crowned with a large cabochon gem. An emerald and a ruby. Her gaze lifted to meet his eyes.

He looked amused. "Do you like it?”

"A charming bauble,” she replied, withdrawing her arm. He did not try to hold her. "But a most peculiar affectation, Duran, even for you. Unless you wish to be laughed at?”

"Oh, I think no one will laugh at me, princess. Certainly not to my face. And I cannot remove it, you know. Not even when I bathe.”

A flash of memory. Steam rising from the water. His lean body lounging in the copper tub while she rubbed lemony soap over his chest...

She shook her head, willing the vision gone. "I wish to leave now, Duran. Please step out of my way.”

He bowed and moved aside. "Don’t forget what I said, Jessie. When I call on you tomorrow, be there. Hear me out. And when you agree to help me, you may name your reward.”


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