Authors: Michelle McLean
Tags: #Historical romance/Scandalous/Victorian England/Missing treasure/Fake fiance’/Dangerous romance/Entangled/Reformed rake/Rags-to-riches heroine
To Trust a
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 by
. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
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Edited by Erin Molta
Cover design by Jessica Cantor
Manufactured in the United States of America
To Toni Kerr, Kristal Shaff, and Cole Gibsen—for your unwavering faith and support. This book wouldn’t have survived without you!
Fairgate, England 1855
The muddy lanes of Fairgate were hardly a paradise, but to Min they were the welcome escape she needed. When the opportunity to go into the village had arisen, Min jumped at the chance. She needed a break from the constant barrage of suitors her aunt Laura paraded before her, not to mention the looming family tragedy that would soon force her to accept one of them.
The latest letter from her uncle had arrived a few days earlier. Her father’s condition was worsening and her uncle was no closer to freeing him than he had been two months ago. He still insisted justice would prevail, though Min was all for gathering the biggest bribe they could get their hands on. If she had access to the small trust her grandparents had left her, she would have gladly sent it. But she wouldn’t until her twenty-first birthday.
Her best hope would be to marry some wealthy gentleman who might see fit to free his bride’s father from the island prison where he was being held. All she had to do was shackle herself to some loathsome wretch she didn’t love.
Min tried to ignore the growing panic gnawing at her gut. She needed a new book desperately. Needed to get lost in someone else’s world, even if it was just for a short while. She turned into the open doorway of the bookstore and plowed into a solid wall of chest.
“Oh!” she gasped, stumbling backward as her foot slipped on the book the man had dropped. He caught her before she fell and pulled her upright again.
“Are you all right, Miss?” he asked.
She looked up at the man she’d run into and momentarily forgot how to speak. A faint dusting of dark hair ran along his strong jawline, framing full lips that looked like they were made to drive a woman insane. An image of that blend of soft and rough skin rubbing against her own popped into her thoughts, sending a rush of blood to her cheeks.
His hands tightened about her arms and the warmth from his fingers slowly spread through the rest of her. Min pulled herself out of his grasp, shocked at the direction her thoughts had taken. One glance at a handsome face and she’d turned into some bumbling Shakespearean character—like Juliet, struck dumb at the sight of Romeo.
“I’m fine, thank you.” Her irritation at her reaction sharpened her voice and she made an effort to calm down. It certainly wasn’t his fault she’d barreled into him. Nor was he to blame for her ridiculous reaction to his innocent touch.
She forced a smile and tried again. “I’m quite all right. I’m so sorry. How clumsy of me.”
“My fault entirely, Miss…?”
“Sinclair,” Min answered, giving him a little bob of a curtsy.
He smiled. The expression warmed his eyes and softened his face, making him look younger than he’d first appeared. He probably wasn’t much older than she, early twenties at most.
But it was his eyes that made her breath catch. Staring into them, she was struck by a pang of homesickness. They were the gorgeous blue of the ocean. Not the often frigid waters of the English coast, but the warm, brilliant blue of the waters surrounding the island where she had grown up. Seeing that same color made a lump form in Min’s throat. She quickly choked it back. The eyes in question twinkled with amusement and Min realized she was still staring.
She ripped her gaze from his and noticed his book lying on the ground. “I’m so sorry,” she said, bending down to retrieve his book just as he bent to do the same. She stood, knocking her head beneath his jaw with a skull-splitting crack.
“Blast,” Min muttered, gingerly touching the crown of her head. The man’s bark of laughter sent heat flooding into her cheeks.
Oh holy Moses, I said that out loud!
“Oh, I’m… Please excuse… Oh bother,” she said, thrusting the book into his hand.
He laughed again and reached out to take it. His bare fingers brushed against hers and lingered, sparking a warmth that spread through her.
The man wasn’t wearing gloves, leaving his hands clearly visible. A thick, jagged scar ran the length of his left hand and disappeared into his sleeve. His ring finger was missing.
Min bit her lip to stifle a gasp, her shock at the sight spurring instant curiosity.
What caused such a thing?
She let her finger brush against the scar, feeling the silky smooth tissue beneath her touch.
The man jerked his hand away. His smile disappeared, leaving his eyes cold and hard, aged beyond his years.
Min flushed again, her lack of decorum over his deformity shaming her. “I’d better go. My chaperone is waiting with the rest of my group and I only have a moment to finish my errands.”
“Best not keep them waiting, then.” His hard expression relaxed into an amused grin. “Take care where you are walking.”
“Please excuse me.” She gave him a slight nod and flounced into the bookstore, pretending she didn’t hear his low chuckle.
Who was he? She’d never seen him in town before, and he was definitely the type of person she would notice. Min kept watching as the man paused outside the shop. He flipped through the small book, briefly reading something in the last pages. His brow furrowed as he leafed through the pages once more before tossing the book in the rain barrel beneath the eaves with a look of disgust.
Min bit back a cry of dismay at the treatment of something so precious and nearly ran out to retrieve the book when someone called out.
The man’s head jerked around, drawing Min’s attention across the lane. A man with dark red hair waved. The man with the missing finger, Bryant apparently, waited for the red-haired man to join him.
“May I help you find anything, Miss Sinclair?”
Min jumped at the sound of Mr. Thompson’s voice behind her. The old bookseller smiled.
“Oh, no thank you, Mr. Thompson. I wonder, would you mind if I ducked out your back door?”
Mr. Thompson’s eyes widened in surprise but he smiled. Min had been coming into his shop at least once a week since she’d arrived in the village several years ago and she knew the old man was fond of her.
“Off on a bit of intrigue, hmm?”
Min shrugged her shoulders and tried to look innocent. Mr. Thompson just chuckled and shook his head. “Go right ahead, my dear.”
“Thank you, Mr. Thompson. I’ll see you next week.”
She didn’t hear his murmured reply as she hurried for the back door. She had to find out who the stranger was. Fairgate was a small town and handsome visitors with missing fingers didn’t happen every day.
Min crept along the back of the building into the alleyway between the bookstore and the bakery next to it. The rain barrel where the man had thrown the book rested at the corner of the building. Min flattened herself along the wall until she was close enough to crouch behind it.
She peeked around the barrel. Bryant stood with his back to her and Min couldn’t help but admire the view. He was several inches taller than his redheaded friend. A small gust of wind plastered the fabric of his suit coat against him and Min could see the defined muscles of his back and shoulders beneath his clothing. He tapped his hat against his leg as he spoke, the rather tight fit of his trousers assuring Min that the rest of his body looked as strong as the broad chest she’d run into.
He swept his hair away from his forehead with a quick jerk and Min clenched her fists against the sudden urge to run her fingers through the thick black strands.
Min gave herself a mental slap. She was supposed to be eavesdropping, not daydreaming about the handsome stranger. She leaned as far forward as she dared.
The men were still talking in hushed tones, but she was close enough to hear them.
“Did you find anything?” Red asked.
“No. There was nothing in the book but the same information we already knew.”
“No matter. I didn’t see how a musty old book would help us anyway.”
“Yes, well, it was just a thought. The Courtlands are a big family around here so it stands to reason something of their legend would have made its way into a book or two. It would be nice to have a little more information to go on. Besides, not all of us like to jump in with guns blazing. Sometimes, Julian, a little research and manual labor lessen the dirty work. You should try it sometime.”
Julian snorted. “I’ve never had any problem finishing a job. Don’t disparage my methods.”
“Your methods nearly got us killed last time.”
Min could hear the exasperation in his voice.
“This time,” Bryant continued, “we’re going to know what we’re getting into. This necklace is more than just a job. I’ve got a lot riding on finding it and I’d like to minimize the bloodshed, if at all possible.”
Bryant laughed. “I’ve got to go. I’ll meet you in a few days. Keep out of trouble, will you?”
“Ah, I promise nothing, my friend.”
Bryant paused. He turned suddenly and Min jumped, pressing herself to the cold stone of the building. She closed her eyes as his footsteps neared.
A shadow stretched from the corner of the building, but no one followed it. Min held her breath, praying he’d leave. The last thing she wanted was to weaken the stranger’s resolve against bloodshed. Her heartbeat pulsed in her throat, so loudly she knew the man could hear it. He took one step closer, and Min’s heart stopped altogether.
Bryant could hear her breathing. He moved nearer.
“Bryant? Where are you going?” Julian called to him.
Bryant waited a second longer before walking back to his friend. He motioned for Julian to follow him and moved farther from the building. When they were a safe distance away, Bryant answered, “We had an audience.”
He nodded. “A young lady I just…met. A bit of her skirt stuck out from behind the rain barrel.” He gave Julian half a smile. “Cheeky little thing. She might prove useful.”
“Are you going to take up stalking her now?”
“I won’t need to. She said she was with a chaperoned group. I saw a few of the other girls and they are all from Thornmont. She must have been part of their group.”
“Well, that’s convenient.”
“Just take care she doesn’t find out what you’re up to, Bryant,” Julian warned. “I may joke, but I’d like to keep the body count down, too, hmm?”
“I’m not going to hurt the girl. Give me some credit. I’ll find out if she knows anything useful and that’s that. The sooner we get this job done, the better. I don’t like this one, Julian. Rellik wants this too much. Something is off.”
“Yes, well… Perhaps it’s time we went out on our own.”
Bryant said nothing. He’d like nothing more than to be rid of his often violent boss. But he owed the man. Rellik had kept Bryant’s neck from the hangman’s noose once upon a time, and he wasn’t one to forgive and forget. He hoped that finding the prized Courtland necklace would go a long way toward releasing him from his debt.
“I’d better be going. I’ll contact you later.”
“Where are you off to?”
“I’m going to find out how much our little eavesdropper knows.”
“Going to seduce the information out of her?”
The thought had crossed his mind. Her perky mouth fairly demanded to be kissed and her feisty temperament had roused his interest like no other woman had done, even in the few minutes he’d spent with her. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d been genuinely amused by something, yet in the space of just a few minutes, she’d had him smiling and actually laughing out loud. Until she’d seen his hand, that is.
He frowned, his mood darkening at the memory of her pitying curiosity.
“She’s not my type,” he answered, ignoring Julian’s snort of disbelief. Bryant scowled. “You do things your way, I’ll do them mine.”
“My methods are more fun. You might enjoy them, especially with your little schoolgirl.”
Julian ignored his frown and winked at him. “Happy hunting.”
Bryant gave his friend a quick clap on the back and turned to follow his pretty little prey.
Min waited until she was certain the man had left. She leaned into the barrel, nearly climbing inside, her feet dangling in the air, before her fingers grasped the pages of the thin book. She released a shaky sigh and hurried down the alley toward the other side of the village.
What was he looking for in a book called
Fairgate’s Legends and Ghostly Happenings
? Information on the Courtland necklace? Min’s aunt had told her the tale long ago, but Min had always assumed it was nothing more than legend—a local scandal that had warped into myth through the years. But Bryant and his companion were definitely after something.
She flipped past the pages containing the usual stories of haunted houses and possessed farm animals. Near the end of the book, she stopped.
The Legend of the Courtland Necklace.
A crude drawing of the necklace lay beneath a passage describing the priceless treasure. The necklace had once belonged to the wife of a sultan. It was comprised of twenty matching emerald, sapphire, and diamond pendants, all strung together by pearls and pure gold.
“Well, now, that would be nice,” Min muttered.
Just one of those pendants would get her parents off that Godforsaken island and could set them all up for life. Her aunt wouldn’t have to keep running the fledgling finishing school she’d started. And Min would not have to marry a loathsome wealthy suitor.
My family will be safe.
And then I can travel the world
, she thought with a smile. Or, at the very least, buy a comfortable house in a fashionable city where she could do anything she wished. Her life would be her own.
But if the necklace wasn’t real, the legend was not true. Though…the men had obviously thought so.
Min’s hands shook with growing excitement as she read about a sordid affair between the owner of Courtland manor, Lord Edward Courtland, and an unnamed village girl. And the priceless necklace that was supposedly hidden on the Courtland estate, currently owned by her aunt. Min’s home.
What if it
real? What if she could find it? Her problems would be solved.
Min shoved the book into her pocket and hurried toward the inn where her aunt’s lady’s maid, Reilly, and the other girls from Thornmont Grange would be waiting.
What if, what if, what if?
She blew a stray curl out of her face with an irritated puff of air and jumped over a puddle, just catching the edge of it. She paused for a quick moment to kick at her wet skirt and kept moving. Mistress Kellar, her governess-turned-etiquette-instructor, would have a fit if she saw Min hopping about a public street like a frog with its flippers on fire, but Min didn’t care.
The more she thought about the necklace, the more the desire to find it grew. It must be real. Why else would Bryant and his friend be in Fairgate? They must believe they could find it. And if it
real, then Min would stand a better chance at getting to it first. After all, she was related to the Courtlands by marriage and had lived on the property for the past several years. Bryant was a stranger with no ties to the family. He couldn’t even get on the grounds without permission and since Min knew what he was after, she could make sure he wasn’t allowed to step foot near the manor.
She stumbled, the soaked hem of her skirts dragging in the street. The recent downpour had left the wide lanes of Fairgate dotted with puddles. A dangerous obstacle course for the most attentive of travelers—a category in which Min would never belong.
Several soggy minutes later she entered the courtyard of the inn, where the rest of the group waited in the wagon for the return trip to the school. Reilly gave Min an irritated look as she climbed into the wagon.
“Are we all here?” Reilly answered her own question with a quick inventory of the girls and then climbed up beside the driver.
As soon as Min had taken her seat on the bench, the cart lurched forward. She hoped to escape the attention of her classmates but had no such luck.
“My, my, the uncivilized little savage has gone and made a spectacle of herself yet again.”
Min cringed at the chorus of delighted giggles from Katherine’s horde of loyal followers.
“You know, dear,” Katherine continued, her perfect ringlets bouncing as she shook her head, “you will never catch a husband if you continue to traipse about covered in muck. Though, perhaps you will do for the local pig farmer. I hear he is looking for a wife.”
Min opened her mouth to put the odious Lady Katherine in her place, but Charlotte, Min’s best friend and roommate, leaned forward, her eyes alight with cheerfulness. “Oh, ignore her. The pig farmer is already spoken for, so you have nothing to worry about.”
“Charlotte!” Min tried to glare at her, but Charlotte was impossible to resist. Although exquisitely tiny, she was so full of life and laughter it seemed to bubble from every pore.
“Are you all right?”
Min shot Katherine a scathing look and swallowed the decidedly unladylike retort that trembled on her lips. “I’m fine. I’ve just had a rough morning.”
“You should be used to those by now.”
Min stuck out her tongue but couldn’t help smiling. Charlotte could always pull her out of a mood.
“So what happened this time?” Charlotte asked.
“I…ran into a gentleman outside the bookstore.”
Charlotte tried unconvincingly to hide her grin. “A gentleman? Who is he? Is he handsome?”
Min blushed. “I don’t know who he is and what difference does it make if he’s handsome?”
“He is! I knew it. Tell me everything.”
“Charlotte, that isn’t what’s important. I followed him—”
“Minuette! You followed some strange man around town?”
“Shh! Just listen. I overheard him speaking with another man. They were talking about finding the Courtland necklace.”
Min filled her in on the legend, keeping her voice low so the other girls wouldn’t hear.
When she’d finished, Charlotte leaned back with a confused frown. “I don’t understand why such an old legend is important.”
going to find the necklace,” Min whispered.
“Min, it’s just a story. It probably doesn’t even exist.”
“But what if it does? The men obviously believe it does and I’m in a much better position to find it than they. It would solve everything.”
Charlotte frowned. “I don’t want to see you pin all your hopes on a make-believe treasure.”
“The necklace is
make believe,” Min whispered. “And I
Charlotte patted Min’s hand with the “sure you will, you poor dear” attitude she usually adopted when Min began spouting off about one of her schemes. While Charlotte usually proved to be right, like when Min had found an alchemy book and tried to turn a lump of lead into gold,
time was different. Charlotte would see. Min closed her eyes and angled her face upward, welcoming the warmth of the afternoon sun. She’d prove the treasure real.
A grateful sigh escaped Min’s lips as the wagon rumbled over the pebbled, tree-lined path leading to the grand manor house of Thornmont. Surrounded by expansive gardens and a small wood, the property, which had been in the Courtland family for generations, was quite beautiful.
Min climbed from the coach and made her way toward the large double doors of the manor. She stomped up the front steps, trying to remove as much mud from her boots as she could. A deep laugh stopped her short.
Min’s chest grew tight. The four-fingered man stood next to one of the grooms. He turned his head, and his eyes locked with Min’s. He tipped his hat to her. Min shifted from one foot to the other, not sure if she should give in to instinct and run or stay where she was and see what he was up to.
“Charlotte.” Min kept her eyes riveted on the man’s and groped blindly for her friend. She yanked Charlotte to her side the second her hand made contact. “Charlotte, it’s him! He’s followed me!”
“What?” Charlotte followed Min’s gaze. “My, my. You were right. For a bloodthirsty thief he certainly is handsome.”
“Well, it’s true. Though”—Charlotte frowned—“it is rather odd he’s here. Let’s go ask around. Maybe someone knows who he is.” Charlotte joined the gaggle of girls swarming into the manor.
Min remained frozen on the front steps, unable to tear her gaze from his. She brought her hand to her throat, finding it suddenly difficult to breathe.
Her shortness of breath had nothing to do with the way the man’s gaze raked over her as if he’d devour her. Nothing to do with the fact that she would willingly drown in the eyes that reminded her so much of home. Nothing at all to do with the smiling lips that she couldn’t help but imagine brushing against her own.
It was because he was there to steal a treasure she’d decided was hers and she would be damned if she let him get to it first.
She sucked in a ragged breath and marched into the manor, repeating the lie to herself until she almost believed it.