August 6, 1804
London, Somerton House
“Please, my lord,” Catherine Ashcroft said. “If you would only read my husband’s letters.” She indicated the small packet she’d placed on the Earl of Somerton’s clutter-free desk moments ago, willing him to pick it up. Despite her personal misgivings about her humorless neighbor, she had made this godforsaken trip to the city to beg his assistance, hoping her late husband’s friend would know what to do.
With trembling fingers, she pushed the tattered, black beribboned packet across his desk. “These two mention you,” she said. “I have more at Winter’s Hollow. Could you please read them and tell me if anything feels amiss?”
He cast her a level stare. “Aren’t you in a better position to judge such things, Mrs. Ashcroft?”
From the moment she had entered his study ten minutes ago, he had treated her with courtesy and respect, but she had yet to witness a single emotion crease his strong brow or bend his full lips. It had always been so with him. Unlike her late husband, Jeffrey, she had never enjoyed a companionable relationship with the earl. Their acquaintance had always been one of distance and wary glances. A situation she now regretted, for Lord Somerton might be the only one who could help her locate her husband’s murderer. A murder she might have been able to prevent had she been home to receive his numerous missives.
Catherine’s gaze took in the earl’s wide shoulders and six-foot-something frame, both a formidable contrast to Jeffrey’s slighter build. Not for the first time, she noted his calm strength and an almost indistinguishable aura of danger penetrating the air around him.
“Indeed, sir.” Her fingers curled until her nails dug into the tender flesh of her palm. “I have already determined something’s wrong, but what, exactly, I do not know.” Had there been any other way of determining Jeffrey’s state of mind, she would have gladly followed it. Being in the earl’s company made her body hum with restlessness and her mind waver with doubt—a state that likely had her father, a highly decorated naval officer, convulsing in his grave. There had been no getting around this meeting, though. Jeffrey’s virtual abandonment three years ago ensured she knew little of her husband’s activities and even less of his desires.
Lord Somerton’s eyelids lowered a fraction. “What makes these letters different from the rest of Ashcroft’s correspondence?”
This was the difficult part. His lordship was known for his cold logic and his intolerance for theatrics of any sort. How could she explain the tenor of desperation that penetrated Jeffrey’s every word? Its subtlety would be easily missed by those unfamiliar with her husband. Most would think her daft to fault her husband’s written words of love, but Catherine knew them a farce. Would Jeffrey’s friend also read the message beyond the words?
“I’m not sure I can supply you with a satisfactory explanation, my lord,” she said. “It’s complicated, to say the least.”
He tapped his fingertips against the small stack of letters several times and then caught the telling sign of irritation and stopped. “I’ll be sure to listen very closely, Mrs. Ashcroft.”
Emotion, at last. But it came with a cost. His scrutiny intensified and the space between them turned thick and suffocating. Catherine smoothed her damp palms down her black pelisse, and a sudden urge to flee scraped against her nerves. What if she had been wrong about the character of Jeffrey’s letters? Maybe he really did wish to reconcile and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If that were the case, her entire trip to London was nothing more than a humiliating waste of time.
“Mrs. Ashcroft,” he said, “I don’t mean to press you, but I have another appointment at the top of the hour.”
Catherine parted her lips and pulled in a slow, steadying breath while directing her gaze away from the earl. The austere quality of his lordship’s study made her itch to return to Winter’s Hollow. Every room in her country manor was decorated with cheerful colors and warm, inviting furniture to make her guests feel at ease and welcome. But more than that, she ached to return to her six-year-old daughter. Sophie’s limitless curiosity and boundless energy always soothed Catherine’s nerves.
London held nothing for her but pain and loneliness and an acute sense of inadequacy.
She forced the tightness from her chest and the doubts from her mind. She had not been wrong in her assessment. From the disjointed nature of Jeffrey’s letters, she believed he was either suffering at the time he wrote them, or he was trying to tell her something. Both circumstances had kept her up long into the night until she had finally made the decision to seek out Lord Somerton’s help. That, and the knowledge that Jeffrey might still be alive if not for her absence.
Meeting the earl’s gaze, she said, “I don’t know that I can explain how they’re different, my lord.” She nodded toward the stack of letters. “In those words, I do not recognize the voice of my husband.”
When his features flattened, revealing the smallest hint of skepticism, Catherine knew she had failed. She closed her eyes briefly in disappointment before gathering what was left of her pride and then stood. She would have to find another way to decipher Jeffrey’s final scribblings. “I’m sorry for wasting your time, sir. I thought my word on the odd nature of my husband’s correspondence would be enough for you to at least read them, especially since your name appears more than once. But I can see I was wrong.” She held out her hand. “If you’d be so kind as to return my property?”
He scooped up the packet and strode around his desk. The closer he came, the smaller, more insignificant she felt. Then he stood before her, and the heat from his body reached through the layers of her clothing to her flesh.
Slowly, almost painfully, she lifted her gaze to meet his, and awareness stabbed through her center, splintering her mask of sophistication. An old weakness, one she had long since conquered, but not forgotten, washed over her. Oh, dear Lord.
Catherine’s intimate relations with Jeffrey had been sweet and calming, beautiful in their perfection. Not primal or compelling. Not hot and wanting. The earl’s big body and his I-can-see-into-your-soul eyes made her yearn for a night of mindless, unrestrained lovemaking.
She tore her attention away from his unusual luminescent eyes and focused on the letters. Always, she had sensed a volatile power lurking behind his cool facade. One that drew her, one that resisted all arguments of morality. Several years without a man’s caress had obviously taken a toll on her starving body.
Lord Somerton stepped closer. “Are you unwell?”
Yes. Never had her attraction for this man overwhelmed her senses so completely. Her urge to flee trebled. She gestured again toward the packet. “My lord?”
His hold tautened. “You no longer require my help, Mrs. Ashcroft?”
Catherine’s pulse jumped. Something unpredictable and menacing prowled behind his words. Dropping her arm to her side, she said, “Of course I do. But I sense your hesitance and I have no more time to persuade you to my cause.”
Her plain speaking caused both his eyebrows to arch high, and his eyes, a light blue mixed with steel gray, appeared to glow and pulse with an inner life. She had never seen such a startling eye color on anyone else and had always thought the uncommon hue haunting and beautiful. And impossible to forget.
“No more time?” he asked. “Why the hurry? Your husband was killed a month ago.”
Guilt slammed against her chest. Her love for Jeffrey might have vanished long ago, but she still cared enough to mourn his death, for her loss and for Sophie’s. “I know,” she said between gritted teeth. “My reasons don’t concern you.”
His lips thinned. “I am trying to understand the situation. I don’t often have a dead man’s wife sitting in my study asking me to read her private correspondence.” He waved the packet in the air. “So I must ask once again—what makes these letters any different from the others you had received from Ashcroft?” His features returned to their placid position. “I cannot assist you if you refuse to communicate the full extent of your concerns.”
“Please, my lord.” Not thinking, she gripped his arm. “Won’t you read my husband’s letters and tell me what you make of them?” She had come prepared to divulge the full scope of Jeffrey’s transformation and to confess the appalling circumstances of her marriage before his death, but now an unexpected embarrassment trapped the shameful words in the back of her throat.
He studied her face for several seconds before his gaze shifted to her hand. Catherine freed his arm, discomfited and shocked by her rash action.
Releasing a breath, he waved toward her chair. “Please, won’t you sit?”
Not until that moment had Catherine noticed the dark patches beneath his eyes and the deep grooves bracketing his full lips. Fatigue pulled at his handsome features, and Catherine felt an answering tug of empathy.
What would cause the Earl of Somerton to lose sleep? A family crisis? He had no close living relatives, only his two wards. Former wards, for they were both adults now. She found it hard to reconcile that the detached man before her was the same individual who had taken in two young children after their parents were brutally slain by thieves. All in the name of friendship.
“If I’ve come at an inconvenient time, my lord,” she said in a gentler tone, “I apologize. Would you prefer that I return tomorrow?”
“That won’t be necessary.” He indicated her chair again. “Please.”
Catherine resumed her seat, and the earl followed suit.
“I am persuaded to read your husband’s letters, madam.”
“But I must know what about their contents compelled you to travel all the way to London to seek me out.”
He was nothing if not persistent. Pulling in a fortifying breath, Catherine said, “Not long after my daughter was born, Jeffrey became involved in several reformation issues that required him to spend a good deal of time away from us.” She plucked at the soft fabric of her reticule. “At first, I applauded his passionate belief that he could make a real difference and even encouraged him to build political relationships that would aid his many causes.”
The earl nodded. “Ashcroft was well respected among his peers. He had distinguished himself as a man of honor and principle.”
“Yes, well,” she said, “during the first year, he wrote to us at the end of every week and came home as often as his schedule would allow. By the second year, his correspondence dwindled to once a month and his visits to three or four times a year. After the third year, he no longer bothered to make an appearance, not even for my daughter’s birthday or for Christmas, preferring to send gifts instead.”
“And his correspondence?”
“Nothing more than beautifully written instructions on estate management.”
“I see,” he said in a low voice. “Go on.”
Catherine forced herself to maintain the earl’s gaze. “Until my husband’s funeral, my daughter had not seen her father in three years and I hadn’t received a personal note from him for the same length of time.” She glanced away then, swallowing back the bitterness that rose to the top of her throat. “My husband’s silence came to an abrupt end a month before his death.”
He glanced at the packet. “Are you saying Ashcroft sent these, and the ones you have at home, all within the last month of his life?”
“Yes, my lord.” Her throat closed around the damning words.
“You are only now reading them?”
“When they first arrived,” she said, finding it difficult to speak, “I was burying my father, and my staff chose not to forward them. By the time I had a moment to read the letters, I received word that my husband had been stabbed to death by footpads.”
“I am sorry for your loss, Mrs. Ashcroft. On both accounts.”
“Thank you.” Her heart ached, not for her husband or even her father, for both had forsaken their families for their careers, but for her daughter, who would live the rest of her days without a father. “I regret the lengthy delay. However, once you read Jeffrey’s odd ramblings, you will see I was right to bring them to your attention.” She pressed on, knowing he would indeed think her a featherbrain after her next words. “My husband was in some kind of trouble before he died, sir. I can feel it in the depths of my soul. I no longer believe a random criminal killed Jeffrey. This situation has the stamp of something far more deliberate.”
Her declaration did nothing to disrupt the earl’s pensive expression. What was he thinking? Was he devising ways to get her out of his study? Was he measuring her words and wondering if he could trust her judgment? Or did he worry he was dealing with the illogical thought patterns of a woman scorned? Her knee began to bounce beneath her skirts.
“A rather sensational view of the matter, Mrs. Ashcroft.”
Catherine clenched her teeth against a sharp retort. She had prepared herself for his mockery, but that did not stop the sting of his words. “Read the letters and see if you still think so.”
He studied her for an interminable amount of time before he finally asked, “How long will you be in London?”
“Not long,” she said. “I must get back to my daughter.”
Nodding, he rose to his full height, and Catherine experienced the same sensation of smallness—no, delicacy—when his large frame towered over her. On one level, his presence was disconcerting, but on another, he calmed her, made her feel safe and secure.
“I have another pressing matter I must attend first, Mrs. Ashcroft.” His crystalline gaze roamed her face with a thoroughness that sucked the breath from her lungs. “Go home to your daughter. I will join you in a few days to review the rest of Ashcroft’s correspondence.”
Her limbs sagged, heavy with relief. “Thank you, my lord. I appreciate your assistance. Grayson and Mrs. Fox will be happy to hear of your return.”
“Do not bother informing my staff of my imminent arrival,” he said. “I do not plan on staying long.”
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