The Silver Lion

The Silver Lion

Lynn Kerstan

November 2012 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-2200

Book Three of the Big Cat Trilogy

A deceptively demure beauty. A man of such breathtaking appeal that women compare him to the angels. Can their sensual attraction overcome a veil of secrets that links her to his bitter enemy?

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Miss Helena Pryce continues her journey through Regency society as an intriguing, modest, and respectable mystery. Confident servant, dutiful secretary, or something far less tame? Her confidence only seems to waiver in the presence of Lord Varden, a worldly bachelor who astounds his vivacious female relatives by deciding to settle down. He’ll marry within the next year. And his intended? The amusingly unsuitable Miss Pryce. She just doesn’t know it.


Can a lowly secretary marry an Earl? And what of his notoriously unpredictable affections? Can she overlook the propriety of society to find her heart’s true desire?


Varden finds himself in quite the predicament when his unlikely temptress insists they avoid romantic entanglements and, instead, find the missing Duke of Tallant. His sworn enemy, the man who took away his only love. Why does Miss Pryce insist he resolve that old animosity before she’ll consider becoming his wife?


Can the two of them move on from past secrets to see a future together?


Coming soon



1823, India

"BUT IF YOU CATCH the Tiger, what the devil will you do with him?” The governor-general mopped his forehead with a soggy handkerchief. "Not that he will let himself be taken. Continue to hound him, and more than likely he’ll put you out of his way.”

"We’ll see.” Derek Leighton, Earl of Varden, had been listening to similar warnings since arriving in Calcutta. But it had taken him awhile to realize the prophets of doom had their own reasons for wanting him to leave their pet criminal alone. "I understand that you dislike interference, especially from an outsider. All the same, the East India Consortium is being bled dry by this outlaw. I mean to stop him.”

"What you really mean is that I should have stopped him. But it is not so simple as that. He is clever. There is little evidence likely to stand up in court. There are no witnesses.”

"Of course there are witnesses.” Exasperation edged Varden’s quiet words. "But half of them profit from his crimes, and the other half fear him. Your government is disinterested because he targets only the Consortium’s cargoes.”

"This is a large and unruly country, sir. We cannot police every mile of it.”

"I understand the difficulties.” Varden managed a smile. "My own success is notable only for the lack of it. The time has come, I think, to move beyond commonplace tactics and civilized ploys. To try something a bit more unorthodox.”

"What do you mean?” Hands planted on his desk, the governor-general regarded him with dismay. "You don’t know Michael Keynes. He is not a gentleman. And I daresay he is the master of unorthodox tactics. No insult, Varden, but you are out of your depth here.”

"Your advice is well-meant, and I do value it.” And I am learning to lie without blinking, Varden thought with a shot of amusement. "I know his brother, the Duke of Tallant. You may be sure I am prepared for trouble. My advantage is that Keynes won’t be expecting trouble from me. Not the sort I have planned for him, at any rate.”

"You’ve found out where he is?”

"I have a lead, from a source I’ve no intention of revealing. If it all goes wrong, Adam, your hands will be clean.”

There was little to say after that, although they drank sherry together before leaving the office and returning to the public rooms at Government House, where an afternoon party was underway. It was someone’s birthday, Varden had been told, although he never found out whose. As always, the mamas with marriageable daughters harried him like horseflies, but he made an adroit escape out a servants’ door in the back.

Action at last. The trap he had set for the Tiger was about to close.

After leading a series of raids in the Carnatic, Michael Keynes had returned to Bengal. He was spotted on the outskirts of Calcutta shortly before noon, and word of it came to Varden by way of a message slipped into his hand at Government House. But having only just arrived, Varden knew better than to hare after his quarry straightaway. Keynes had allies in high places, and if alerted to danger, he would vanish like a ghost.

Leaving the manicured grounds of the British enclave, Varden came onto streets swarming with dust-stained white dhotis and jewel-toned saris as the citizens of Calcutta hurried home in the twilight. Wearing stark British formal dress, he was even more out of place than usual, a raven among smaller, brighter birds that flicked aside to let him pass.

The governor-general assumed he had come to India on behalf of the Consortium and its decimated profits, but he cared nothing for that. And while he did care about bringing criminals to justice, he needn’t have come half a world from England to find them. It was the lure of adventure that had brought him here, an escape, however brief, from his pampered aristocratic life. He relished the chance to prove himself more than the sum of what he had been gifted with at birth.

Even so, he could not shake off a distaste for the bribery and deception that had brought him to this point. Nor was an ambush strictly fair play, but that was next on his agenda.

In his belly, a devil of excitement began to stir.

The crowds thinned as he left the bustling city proper and made his way to Clive Street, a meandering oasis lined with scraggly gardens and dry fountains languishing in the pre-monsoon heat. Yellow light glowed from dusty streetlamps. Tangy odors of dung fires and dinners cooking over them wafted through the smoky air. Although the houses were unpretentious, it was an expensive place to live because of the space and the quiet. This was a neighborhood for people who wanted to be left alone.

He rounded a slight curve, caught sight of his destination, and stepped quickly behind a withered hedge. About fifty yards down, isolated in a little cul-de-sac, stood the narrow two-story house that Michael Keynes had secretly owned for a dozen years. Varden’s men had been watching it for several weeks, and finally the surveillance had paid off. Plain, a dirty light brown, the building had no distinguishing features except a staircase along one side to a landing on the first floor. Like a watchtower, it stood dark, silent, and aloof.

Two men detached themselves from their post behind a wall and approached him, taking no precautions to avoid being seen. Swearing under his breath, he beckoned them behind the hedge with his sword cane.

The smaller man crouched a little distance away, watching the street. He looked like a weasel and answered to anything with money attached. The other hireling, a hairy man whose chest and stomach strained against a filthy shirt and faded red vest, swaggered directly up to him.

"Keynes is gone.” Dasim threw an angry look over his shoulder at the watchman. "About an hour ago. This one followed, but he lost him within a mile.”

"Then we’ll wait in the house. Perhaps our friend will join us later.”

Frustration blistered Varden’s tongue as he climbed to the landing on the first floor, where Weasel had got the door open and was putting away his tools. Inside, a solitary lamp flickered on a table near a narrow bed. He used it to search the sparsely furnished rooms, finding nothing of interest. Then he doused the light and settled in to wait.

Well after midnight, footsteps beat against the wooden staircase. Varden gestured the men to either side of the door and took up his position directly across from it, pistol held at the ready. Fumbling clicks and the grate of a key inserted into the lock. More fumbling and an oath. The door swung open.

A shaft of dim yellow light fell across the barrel of Varden’s pistol. Then a tall, wide-shouldered man filled the doorway.

Keynes erupted into the room and swerved to the right. A swinging kick struck Varden’s wrist, dislodging the pistol and sending it across the floor. In a continuous motion, Keynes whirled and jabbed his eye with a hard left, following through with a powerful right to the midsection.

Varden doubled over, came up with a blow to Keynes’s jaw, struck air with his next try. Keynes sent another sideways kick hard at his chest, hurling him breathless against the wall. He began to slide down it.

Dasim caught up with Keynes and grabbed for him. Another kick, a piercing screech. Dasim collapsed into a ball, clutching his groin, and rolled away.

Then Weasel was on Keynes’s back, clamping him around the waist with his legs, around the throat with his hands. Keynes drove his elbows into Weasel’s ribs. The clinging body dropped off like a singed moth.

Varden pulled himself across the floor on hands and knees, fumbling in the darkness for the gun. His fingers touched metal.

Instantly a booted foot slammed down on his hand. He heard the crackle of splintering bone and his own scream. The gun skittered away.

Nearly blinded by pain, he dragged himself to where he thought it had gone. Sounds of blows and grunts as the other men fought. Something flew past him and crashed against the wall. He heard a familiar slide of metal, the blade being drawn from his sword cane. A shriek. The thud of a heavy body hitting the floor.

He looked over his shoulder. On the other side of the room, Dasim lay on his back, the sword pinning him to the floor through his neck. Beside him was Keynes, knees bent, facing the open door. Footsteps pounded on the stairs, going down. Weasel must have got away.

At last Varden’s good hand closed on the gun. He pulled it awkwardly erect and slouched with his back against the wooden bed. "Don’t move.”

Keynes turned slowly to the sound, arms held out, hands splayed. In the faint light, his eyes glittered.

"Don’t move,” Varden said again, a little more in control.

Then Keynes dove at him, head-on, straight for the pistol.

He seemed to be moving slowly, as if through water. Daring Varden to shoot. Wanting himto shoot. Varden was sure of it.

His finger froze on the trigger.

"Oh, for God’s sake.” Keynes wrenched the pistol away and shoved it in his belt. "Why carry the damned thing if you won’t use it?”

"I don’t shoot unarmed men.”

"And see where that’s landed you. Get up.”

Varden’s hand felt on fire. The room began to spin. "I... don’t think I can.”

"Then stay there. I’ll dispose of the garbage.”

Varden fought the dizziness, but his vision clouded. Next thing he knew, he was lying on the bed with his back and head elevated against a bank of cushions. His right hand, wrapped in what looked to be a soft muslin shirt, rested on a pillow at his side.

Several lamps had been lit. He could see that Dasim’s body was gone. He thought Keynes had gone as well, until the door opened.

"Done with your nap?” Keynes was carrying two bottles. "I’ve been to the cellar for refreshments. Archangel or not, I think you need to get stinking drunk.”

Varden grimaced at the reference to a nickname he loathed. "You know who I am?”

"You’re hard to miss, all that bright hair and luminous self-righteousness. I had you followed the first weeks after you got here, but gave it up as a waste of time. You didn’t seem likely to cause me any trouble.”

"It appears you were right.” Speech came hard. So did thought. The fire in his hand seemed a living thing, torturing the rest of him with glee. Then the bottle was brought to his mouth and brandy poured inside, flowing down his throat like lava. He choked. Coughed. Accepted another drink.

"In fact, I miscalculated,” Keynes said. "What you lacked in experience, you made up for with sheer doggedness. Who betrayed me?”

"You can’t expect me to answer that.”

"I suppose not. Aristocratic honor and all that twaddle. But what the devil did you hope to accomplish with an ambush?”

"I intended to interrogate you.”

"Good God. What was I to tell you? The plans for my next attack on a Consortium riverboat? The names of my associates? Not bloody likely. Did you imagine your bully boys could beat a confession out of me?”

"They were to restrain you, that is all. Clearly I should have brought several more of them.”

Keynes laughed and gave him another drink. "Well, if it’s any consolation, you’ve opened the lid on some of the government’s dirty little secrets. To protect themselves, the authorities will have to stop letting me run wild.”

"That’s something, then. No more raids.”

"Not on the boats or the cargoes. I’ve no choice now but to carry the fight back to England and the man who sent you here. Just as well. It’s past time I disposed of my brother.”

Varden began coughing in earnest, sending a blast of pain down his arm. "You shouldn’t have told me,” he said after a time. "I’ll have to stop you.”

"You can try.” Keynes stuffed the bottle of brandy into the crook of Varden’s good arm. "You’ll be here alone for perhaps an hour. I don’t think you’ll be disturbed, but I’m going to lock you in anyway. If you have company, use this.” He pulled the pistol from his belt and laid it across Varden’s stomach. "I’m sending Hari Singh to play nursemaid. When you see something that looks like a bear with a beard, don’t shoot him.”

Shadows closed in, and the room began revolving again. "Why are you helping me?”

"Because I’m an idiot. But only this once. Stay clear of my affairs, Archangel. Meddle again, and you’ll lose more than a wing.”



Chapter 1

January 1824, England

SINCE THE DAY the women of the Leighton family first gathered around his cradle to discuss a prospective bride for the squalling newborn heir, the Earl of Varden had been plagued by marriage. Not his own marriage, which, to his family’s dismay, had yet to occur. But a friend’s marriage, an enemy’s marriage, even the upcoming marriage of a servant, inevitably found a way to cause him trouble.

In this case, his secretary’s wedding and removal to the north of England had left him without assistance just when most he needed it. After eighteen months away from home and an adventure now consigned to his nightmares, he was about to take up his life again, or whatever he could reclaim of it. Unfortunately, that included all the routine matters he’d rather not deal with himself, including a formidable amount of paperwork. Blaine’s marriage was also his divorce from his employer, who was having difficulty replacing him.

After the latest rejected applicant had slumped out of the study, Varden turned his attention to the last packet on his desk. Eight prospective candidates come and gone, and the ninth, now waiting in the anteroom, had a nose the shape of a cauliflower.

Not that it made the slightest difference. He had hoped for someone presentable, but considering his reclusive plans for the future, even a pug-face would do.

He sifted through the thick stack of credentials. Impressive indeed, as befitted an earl’s private secretary. The candidate boasted too many skills for one person to possess, a dozen recommendations from impeccable sources, and had provided almost nothing in the way of personal information.

Just as well. He had lost his taste for personal relationships of any kind.

A tug on the bellpull brought Quill to the door, his brows waggling with agitation. Staring meaningfully at his employer, the butler jerked his head in the direction of the anteroom as if robbers had invaded it.

"What is it, Quill? Did the last applicant give up and go away?”

Lips clamped together, the butler went on jerking his head. His hands waved Xs in front of him, signaling No.

"AmI about to be shot? Speak up, man.”

"He is trying to warn you,” said a clear, crisp voice. "About me.”

With a sigh, the butler withdrew to admit a slender, pale-skinned woman wearing a steel-gray dress, a matching bonnet, and darkly smoked spectacles.

Varden had seen her before—the spectacles were unmistakable—but he couldn’t think where. Rising, his habit in the presence of a female, he watched her stride purposefully to the desk and stand before him, her back straight as a lance.

"You were expecting a man, of course. I apologize for the mild deception, but it couldn’t be helped.”

"What became of the pugilist fellow I saw waiting in the anteroom?”

"Finn is my driver. I cannot bear to be idle for any length of time, so he held my place while I explored the grounds. Now he is with my carriage, expecting me to arrive there momentarily. I, on the other hand, believe you are fair-minded enough to grant me an interview. We have a bet on it.”

He rarely encountered that degree of self-confidence outside the House of Lords. "I fear you are about to lose your wager, Miss Pryce. Or is it Mrs. Pryce?”

"I am unmarried, sir. The H is for Helena.”

"Well, it appears you have made the journey to Richmond in vain. For all your considerable experience, I require absolute integrity in the man who will become my secretary.”

"In a good cause,” she said, "I have been known to prevaricate, or dissemble, or tell a downright corker. My references introduce me as H. Pryce in order to mislead you. I instructed my driver to pretend he had come for the interview, and when the next-to-last applicant emerged, I entered the house and presented myself to your butler. Had you known H. Pryce to be a female, my lord, I should never have been admitted to your study. Will you deny it?”

"Certainly not. But what made you think that bluffing your way into my presence would secure you a hearing?”

"Regard for your character. Confidence in my abilities. The certainty you would find no one better suited for the position.” A little curve, the shape of a parenthesis, winked at the corner of her mouth. "You think me vain. Perhaps I am.”

They were still standing on opposite sides of his desk, immobile as pillars, and he realized with a shot of astonishment that he was beginning to enjoy himself. It seemed a long time since he had enjoyed himself.

"Very well, Miss Pryce.” He gestured to the chair where the other applicants had sat, nervous and inadequate, which this female was decidedly not. "If you insist on prolonging a futile endeavor, please be seated and tell me about yourself.”

She lifted her skirts and sat, with graceful precision, on the edge of the chair, folding her hands on her lap. "All you need to know is contained in the papers on your desk. For the last several years I was secretary to Lady Jessica Sothingdon, but since her marriage, she has required less of my time. In consequence, I have accepted temporary commissions from several clients, including the Duke of Wellington, Mr. Huskisson, Mr. Canning, Lord Philpot, and the Duke of Devonshire. You have their testimonials.”

It occurred to him he should sit down as well. When he did, he found himself looking directly at the spectacles that entirely obscured her eyes. Crafted to cup her eye sockets, they were hinged at her temples to bend back another inch or so. He found it disorienting, the inability to read her thoughts by looking into her eyes. She might as well have been wearing a mask.

"But you seek a permanent position with me?” he said, because it was his turn to speak. She had the unnerving capacity to let a silence drag on.

"Little in life is permanent. I wish employment with you for so long as I find the experience rewarding. I should advise you now that my services are prodigiously expensive.”

He bit back a laugh. "You continue to deflect my questions. What is your background? Your education? Your family?”

"I am an orphan, sir, and if I have living relations, they do not know of my existence. I spent my early childhood in London and was sent to be educated at the Linford Sisters’ Academy for Young Ladies in Surrey.”

"Your age?”


"Where have I seen you before?”

"At Palazzo Neri, most like. I am acquainted with Beata Neri’s companion, Signora Fanella.”

He couldn’t have said why he persisted. None of this signified. But she interested him, if only because she posed a challenge he could appreciate without having to deal with it. And because she wouldn’t be hurt when he sent her away. Miss Pryce, he suspected, had made herself impervious to insult and rejection. For that, he envied her.

"What is wrong with your eyes?” he asked with uncharacteristic bluntness.

"When it comes to seeing, very little. Nothing that impedes the performance of my duties, unless you require my opinion of a sunset or the quality of a painting. I cannot distinguish colors with perfect accuracy.” That beguiling hint of amusement. "Not to be overly dramatic, but the world presents itself to me as through a glass darkly.”

It often came to him the same way, without the barrier of smoked glass. "Spectacles so encompassing,” he said, "are rather out of the ordinary.”

"They are designed for protection. I have a rare disorder of the eyes that makes them excruciatingly vulnerable to light. The merest glimmer causes a burning that is all but unendurable. Exposure for any length of time would result in blindness. You will understand, then, why I take care not to remove the spectacles.”

"Are they painful to wear?”

The barest pause. "Uncomfortable. But I have grown accustomed to them, as one must when there is no choice.”

He glanced down at his leather-gloved right hand, lying flat and motionless on his thigh. "Yes.”

"In every other way,” she said, "I am in excellent health.”

Something had troubled him since first she appeared. "You could not have been sent by the agency, Miss Pryce. How did you learn of this position?”

"My predecessor, Mr. Blaine, is soon to be married, and his bride recently inherited a property in Northumberland. On Monday last, he gave you his notice. Presuming you would quickly replace him, I posted my credentials and, as you see, presented myself for an interview.”

My predecessor? After hearing that, it took some time for the rest of her speech to register. "Mr. Blaine’s marriage and departure are scarcely public information. How the dev—How do you know allthat?”

"I have made a study of you, my lord. I am acquainted with your family history, your financial assets, your education and interests, your political activities, and your prospects. After assuring myself it was in your best interest to employ me, I sought an opportunity to bring myself to your notice.”

"Well, you have certainly done that.”

"I have no doubt you resent my intrusion into your affairs, and I cannot justify what I have done in terms that will satisfy you. On the other hand, I needn’t have admitted to investigating you at all. Be assured, Lord Varden, that your welfare is my sole concern.”

"Good God. I already have a battalion of female relations meddling in my affairs. Was it my mother who recruited you, Miss Pryce? The grandmothers? One of the aunts? My pestilential sisters? Or did the lot of them conspire to inflict you on me?”

The trace of a smile on her wide mouth, so fleeting he could not be sure he’d seen it. "I am here because of my conviction that a gentleman raised in a household of women will have learned to respect the intelligence, determination, and capabilities of the female sex.”

"And to beware them as well.” Helena Pryce had swept in like a force of nature, and he kept wondering what she would do next. His life was already complicated beyond measure. "Whatever your talents, it would be unthinkable for me to employ a female secretary. The scandal—”

"Did not concern my previous employers. The foreign secretary and the Dukes of Wellington and Devonshire managed to emerge with their reputations intact.” She sat forward on her chair. "You have been treated to the edges of my sharp tongue, sir. You have examined my appearance. It must be obvious that I am not a woman capable of enticing a man. The very notion that the Archangel Earl of Varden would pay me the slightest attention is absurd. No one would credit it.”

What was he to say to that? She had striking features, to be sure—a smooth complexion, high cheekbones, firm chin, a flawless nose. But her diabolical attractions lay beyond the reach of common understanding. Valor. Wildness. Leashed energy pulsing beneath that rigid self-control. She gave no sign of these things, but he felt them. They vibrated in his bones.

They made her dangerous.

With his left hand, he began to fold up the documents and letters of recommendation she had provided. "I am sorry, Miss Pryce, but for all your accomplishments, you do not suit the requirements for this position.”

She said nothing. Neither did she look away as he struggled to assemble her papers and slide them into the leather case. From the tilt of her head, he could tell she was observing his every move. Analyzing the means by which he adjusted to having only one workable hand.

But she didn’t try to help, or take over the job for him, as he might have expected from such a managing female. Instead, she left him to get on about it. And that, more than anything she had said or done, impressed him.

It changed nothing, though. Approving her, feeling unaccountably drawn to her, made her dismissal all the more urgent.

At the end, he was forced to bring up his throbbing right hand to hold open the case while he slipped the papers inside. It required several tries, but at last he was able to rise and hold out the packet.

She rose as well, took it, and curtsied. For a moment, just before she turned away, he caught his own reflection in the polished glass of her spectacles. Light hair, troubled eyes, a face that struck him as severe and overbred. He didn’t like what he saw.

She moved calmly to the door. Her hand was on the latch. A sense of loss, the certainty he was making a mistake, took hold of him.

"There is one thing,” he said, "that you might do for me.”

She held still for several heartbeats before turning to face him. "A temporary hire?”

"More of a test. I could hardly refuse to employ a secretary who can do the impossible. I wish to purchase a partly restored castle located in the Mendips, but there is some dispute about the title to the land. In consequence, I am willing to settle for a lease and the right to continue the restoration of the castle until the legalities are worked out, at which point ownership must be signed over to me at an equitable price. Can you accomplish all of that, do you suppose?”

Silence, save for the ticking of the clock. Her full lips tightened as she thought it over. "What if I can?”

"Then you may have the position you came here to secure.”

"On my terms?”

"On negotiated terms. You must know I will deal fairly, or you would not be considering my offer.”

"Yes. But it is not dealing fairly to assign me all the risk. Even if I fail, Lord Varden, I expect to be paid for my time. The price will be high.”

He had a mental image of shoveling gold into a volcano. A vivid image of flames rising up to consume him.

"Very well, Miss Pryce. You want to be my secretary, and I want you to buy me a castle. Let us see if you can work miracles.”




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