“To Napoleon.” Nate Kinlan, Earl of Rainsford and intermittent agent for His Majesty’s Home Office, lifted his snifter of brandy and uttered what he hoped was a convincing lie. A lie designed to entrap Captain Alastair Cressingham in a web of treason. Yet despite their best efforts, the Home Office had been unable to pin Cressingham with solid evidence. The man was more cunning than a fox.
“To Napoleon,” Cressingham said in a deep, gravelly voice. He raised his glass and tossed the contents back, then thumped it down on his large mahogany desk. Cocking a bushy eyebrow, which only exacerbated the lines on his weathered, wrinkly face, he gestured to the marriage settlements covering the surface. “I want to make sure you clearly understand the terms before we draw the ink.”
“Of course.” Nate took a small sip of the amber liquid, then set it down, needing his wits about him. He’d been at this game with Cressingham on and off—mostly off—for three years, only recently having been re-recruited by the Home Office. There was no question he would help, although doing so made him feel like a fish on land. A career spy he was not.
The captain rose, standing for a moment between the two branches of candles on either side of his desk, which barely illuminated the dark, walnut-paneled room. The floor-to-ceiling bookcases that flanked each wall, stripped bare of every volume the Cressingham family had ever owned after he’d taken up residence, reminded Nate of the charred, blackened skeletons he’d seen on the field in Spain, and he shivered involuntarily. This room had once been a place of happiness and light. Now, no number of candles could chase away the penetrating darkness.
The captain’s barrel-chested frame was encased in a well-tailored blue coat, a stiff, white neckcloth tied neatly and without affectation at his slightly jowled throat. He limped around the desk clutching a marble-tipped cane, his gait the result of an old-and-oft-discussed war wound, and stood over Nate, his dark, cunning eyes glistening with intelligence.
Nate had to force himself not to shrink into the worn leather armchair. Damn, the man could be intimidating.
“In allegiance with his magnificence, the Emperor Napoleon, you agree to marry my niece, Susannah, and turn over to me her entire dowry of ten thousand pounds. I will then move her funds to an account on the Continent, where L’Empereur will make use of them to aid his escape from Elba and initiate a return to power.” A sly grin emanated from Cressingham’s lips. “Naturally, that latter bit of information isn’t in the settlements…only that you forfeit her dowry.”
Nate, uncomfortable with Cressingham towering over him, rose from the cracked leather chair, took another sip of his brandy, and set the glass down.“Naturally.” Boot-to-boot, he had only a few inches on Cressingham, but it was enough to dispel his sense of inferiority. “Out of curiosity, when do you expect him to make a go of it?”
Cressingham scoffed. “Oh, not until early summer, at the earliest.”
Nate nodded. He hoped so, for it would give him plenty of time to prepare. He gestured to the settlements. “Once this is signed, we’ll have the banns read. The ceremony will take place at my estate in Sussex, after which I will post up to London to facilitate the transfer of her funds.”
“Very good.” Cressingham’s tone was all business. “Now then,” he said, clapping Nate on the back, “sign this. Make it official.” He held out a quill.
Nate faux-smiled and accepted it. Dipping the quill in the ink pot, he leaned over the desk and scrawled his name at the appropriate spots on both copies of the settlements. Standing, he handed Cressingham the quill and watched as he did the same.
When he was done, Cressingham dropped the quill on the desk, then extended his hand, his large chest proudly puffed out, a smug-yet-sinister gleam in his eyes. “It seems we have an agreement.”
Nate shook Cressingham’s beefy hand as needles of apprehension pricked under his skin. This close. He’d brought the Home Office closer than they’d ever been to catching Cressingham. And Nate was now one marriage vow away from what he considered a much more important goal: keeping his promise to Ben, his best friend and Cressingham’s nephew, to protect Susannah. It didn’t bother Nate that he was marrying her without having seen her for years. He’d known her most of her life. She would make a competent wife.
“Now,” Cressingham said, gesturing to the door, “shall we dine? I have a little something special prepared this evening.”
“Oh? Excellent.” Nate exaggerated his enthusiasm even as he sighed inwardly. What he really wanted was to escape to the comfort of his library at Rainsford House and pour himself a glass of Martell 1795. He did not fancy enduring another poorly cooked meal in a home that harbored uncomfortable memories while sharing the company of a human parasite that not only grated on his nerves but made him long to reach out and strangle him.
You promised Ben.
So Nate allowed himself to be led by Cressingham to the small but well-appointed dining room, resigned to a dull evening of listening to the captain puff up his own consequence and make insipid small talk.
But when Nate crossed the threshold after Cressingham, he was startled to see a person sitting at the dining table, facing away from him…a lady. It took only a moment for him to realize who it was, and his stomach twisted with anxiety. There at the dining room table, her dark, upswept hair shining in the candlelight, sat Susannah Cressingham.
His adversary’s niece.
His best friend’s sister.
His future wife.
Nate could scarce draw a breath, his feet seemingly frozen to the floor. When had she come to town? She was supposed to be in Northumberland, at his great aunt’s home acting as her companion until they wed. He’d made sure of that.
Cressingham didn’t slow down. Leaning heavily on his cane, he entered the dining room and hobbled to the head of the table, barking orders to Bertram, his short, black-haired butler-cum-footman, to hurry up, bring the first course, serve the wine.
“And you, you silly chit.” Cressingham sneered at his niece, pulling a white linen napkin off the table and snapping it at her. “Stand up and welcome Rainsford. Surely no introduction is necessary.”
Turning in the intricately carved chair, she looked up at Nate, and with treacle-like slowness, she stood, her gaze riveted to his.
Nate’s heart nearly stopped dead in his chest.
By God, she was beautiful. More than beautiful. Exquisite. Susannah Cressingham had transformed, shedding her former awkwardness like a butterfly sheds a cocoon. She was a lovely creature. Tall. Pert nose. Creamy skin. Thick, brown hair. Eyes like dark pots of honey. Curves that would make a eunuch hard.
A wave of white-hot desire shot through him. Bloody hell. He was supposed to marry the girl, not desire her. Forcing his mind and body to function again, he stepped into the brightly lit room—such a contrast to the study—until he was within arm’s reach of her. He bowed, the bright candlelight making it impossible for him to ignore the well-cut bodice of her lilac-colored gown or her long, delicate, and very bare arms. “Miss Cressingham. Well…” He noticed the way her brown eyes sparkled with…anger? Suddenly nervous as a schoolboy, Nate was unsure of what to say. How are you? You’re back in London? Have you heard from your sister? “Three years is a long time. Did you miss me?”
Imbecile. Nate gave himself a mental slap. Could he have said anything more stupid?
But Susannah, her face changing from an ever-deepening shade of pink then rose then flush, did for Nate what he’d only thought about. Like lightning, her hand flew, cracking him on the cheek.
The sting radiated down his neck. Nate flexed his jaw and covered his cheek with his hand. He deserved that. He’d never said anything so inane in his life. And the last time he’d seen her hadn’t been under the best circumstances.
Captain Cressingham grabbed Susannah’s arm, dragging her away from Nate. “What the devil do you mean by—”
“Thank you, Captain, but that’s not necessary. You may release her.”
Cressingham scowled but did as Nate asked. “I thought sending for her from that old goat she’s been playing companion to would be a nice surprise.” He harrumphed. “Had I known she’d behave in such a boorish way, I wouldn’t have bothered.”
“I appreciate the gesture.” Nate nodded at Cressingham, then gave Susannah a peace offering smile, but she continued to glare at him, her eyes sparkling with a degree of rage that left him feeling slightly off-balance. Her bitterness certainly made sense, although Nate felt stupid for not expecting it. After what had happened the last time they were all in this house? He chided himself for his lack of foresight. “I suggest we all take our seats.” Nate moved behind Susannah’s chair and held it out. “Miss Cressingham?”
Susannah hesitated, then, with a characteristic lift of her chin he had always found endearing, she resumed her seat. Nate clenched the back of her chair, trying not to get lost ogling her soft, white shoulder or the ample swell of her breast. A rush of heat and pressure flowed to his groin.
How bloody inconvenient. He had to treat this as the business arrangement it was. Nate took his seat, laying his napkin in his lap and silently praying he didn’t make a tent out of it.
Cressingham pointed his fat finger at his niece. “You owe his lordship an apology.”
“Nonsense.” Nate affected nonchalance with a shrug. “She was merely expressing her overwhelming emotion at seeing me.” He smiled politely at Susannah, but she refused to meet his gaze. Smart girl. It was best he ignore her, too, lest he get lost in her beautiful brown eyes.
Bertram entered the dining room from a side door, his arms laden with a silver tray carrying three bowls of steaming liquid. He set the tray down on the sideboard with a clatter.
Nate smelled beef and his stomach roiled. Cressingham’s cook left something to be desired, like taste. Or flavor.
Cressingham prodded Bertram. “Be quick about it, man.”
“Yes, Captain.” Bertram set the bowl of soup down in front of Nate. He bowed, then did the same for Cressingham and Susannah. Turning back to Nate, he asked, “Would you like wine, my lord?”
Nate nodded and Bertram filled both his glass and Cressingham’s, then filled Susannah’s glass with what looked like lemonade.
“Will there be anything else, Captain?” Bertram asked.
“No. You may go.”
With a swift bow, Bertram left the room.
“At last.” Cressingham reached for his glass of wine. Forgoing a customary toast, he took a large gulp and set the glass down with such force that wine sloshed out, smattering the white tablecloth with dots of red. “Now we can talk business.”
Susannah, who’d kept her eyes down and her hand moving mechanically from her bowl to her mouth, suddenly set down her spoon, wiped her lips with her napkin, and rose from the table.
Cressingham frowned. “Where the devil do you think you’re going?”
She looked at her uncle and shrugged. “You wish to discuss business. Females are rarely privy to that. Besides, I’ve lost my appetite this evening.” She spared a glare at Nate, making his heart skip a beat or twelve, despite her damning look.
Her uncle harrumphed, the sound something akin to a dog with a hairball, his eyes sharp and greedy and amused. “Well, dear niece.” Sarcasm dripped from his voice like tallow from cheap candles. “Seeing as the business concerns you, you will stay.”
She stood still for a moment, as if weighing what to do, but then resumed her seat, delicately laying her napkin in her lap. “Very well.” Her behavior was genteel, but her voice cut like a diamond. “What is this business?”
Nate’s hand, halfway to his mouth with a spoonful of the tasteless soup, froze in place. Hell. Hadn’t Cressingham told her they were marrying? He lowered his spoon and looked around the epergne at the center of the table to his host.
Cressingham, his fat hand clasped around his wine glass, ate up the scene before him with hungry eyes, which darted from Nate to Susannah, then back to Nate. He looked like a child ready to burst with a secret.
Bloody hell. If Susannah didn’t know Cressingham had promised her to Nate, he certainly didn’t want the captain spilling the news. Turning to her, Nate said, “Miss Cressingham, I am glad to be able to tell you—”
“You’re getting married, chit,” Cressingham shouted, cutting him off.
Susannah sucked in a breath. Quick, sharp, punctuated. Then all at once, the color left her face, leaving her looking as if she’d succumbed to typhoid or the grippe or an overzealous blood-letter.
Nate had seen that look on her face once before. Instantly, he was transported back in time to that day three years ago when he left this very house, taking her brother Ben away to protect him from Cressingham’s imminent threats, yet forced to leave Susannah and her sister, Isabela, under the captain’s dubious guardianship. He remembered her…a frightened sixteen-year-old, eyes round and wide and uncertain, her face pale as linen. She’d kept a death grip on his hand as she ran through a litany of questions about where he was taking Ben, why she and Isabela couldn’t leave with him, and when they would see their brother again.
Nate also remembered that he’d made a promise to keep her brother safe, and a pang of guilt shuddered through his body. The expression on her face that day had been ironed in his mind like newsprint, never fading, never rubbing off. Now he was seeing it again, and it ripped his heart to shreds.
But then…her color returned. And so did the look she’d given him when he first entered the room. Eviscerating him with her eyes. Her spine was so stiff, her body so hard, she could have shouldered the pyramids.
Tension vibrated off her in waves, and Nate’s instincts went on alert. She was going to run, and if she did, he would follow her. He didn’t want her to leave before he explained the arrangement as best as he could without telling her the truth.
Her eyes took on a tenacious gleam, her countenance a mix of incredulity and something Nate didn’t like.
She directed her glare at Nate. “I’m to marry you?”
“Yes.” Marriage to Susannah was not only part of the scheme to catch Cressingham, but also a sacrifice he was willing to make to fulfill his promise to Ben. Although, to be honest, after seeing her again in all her unexpected beauty, Nate didn’t think he was sacrificing anything. “Your uncle and I have already signed the settlements. After all, a long-standing friendship exists between us. We thought it an excellent match.”
“And an excellent deal.” Cressingham’s whispered remark made it to Nate’s ears.
Susannah’s head whipped around. “I beg your pardon?”
Cressingham reached for his wine, taking a dignified sip. “Nothing that concerns you.”
She frowned, her hands gripping the edge of the table. “Of course this concerns me. You said so yourself. I am entitled—”
“You are not entitled to anything.” Cressingham’s tone was low but forbidding, as if he were daring her to challenge him.
Susannah inhaled through her nose. “Very well. I wish to know what his lordship”—her voice was laden with derision—“is gaining from this ‘arrangement,’ for I’m getting nothing.”
“As I said, niece, that is not your concern.”
“Then I see no reason to sit here and be a part of this.” She threw her napkin down and rose to leave.
Nate jumped out of his chair, nearly knocking it over, and raced to the doorway, propping his arm against the wooden doorframe to block her in.
She gasped at his quick move, stopping just shy of touching his arm. She did not raise her eyes to his, but kept them focused on the floor.
He leaned down to whisper in her ear and caught her scent. Roses and lavender and everything feminine and sweet, and for a moment, a sense of lightheadedness overcame him. It was unexpected, unavoidable, and almost more than he could bear. In a low voice only she could hear, he said, “This will work out, Susannah. I promise you. But you have to trust me.”
Susannah shook her head even as her eyes glistened, her lips trembled, and her throat worked repeatedly. He watched her swallow, swallow, swallow, as if their betrothal was somehow stuck in her windpipe.
Dammit. He could handle her anger better than her tears. He needed her alone. Taking her by the arm to escort her out of the room, he immediately wished he hadn’t. Heat coursed up his arm, sending a shock-like kick to his heart, which began pounding in double-time.
He could not lose control over his emotions now. Leaning behind Susannah, he spoke to Cressingham. “If you would please excuse us, I think your niece and I need a few minutes to get reacquainted. May we go into the sitting room?”
“Yes, of course. Take all the time you need. And do whatever you must in order to ‘acquaint’ her to you.” Cressingham laughed, clearly amused at Susannah’s discomfort.
Nate fought the overwhelming urge to plant him a facer.
He steered her across the hall and slid open the pocket doors to the sitting room. One branch of lit candles stood on a table in the middle of the powder-blue room, and another on a side table, casting grey shadows in the corners. He gestured for Susannah to enter, but when her feet didn’t move, he put his hand on the small of her back and propelled her forward, then closed the doors behind them.
“Susannah, I…” God, what should he say?
But Susannah turned to face him and narrowed her eyes. Any trace of tears was now gone. She crossed her arms under her bodice, which should have made her seem formidable, but merely drew Nate’s attention to her breasts.
“My lord,” she said, her voice hard. “My uncle may have arranged this”—she flung a hand out wildly—“betrothal. But he has not asked me my opinion on the subject, and I assure you, I have one. There is nothing you can offer that would induce me to accept your hand. You possess no qualities that I would find suitable in a husband. You lack honor and integrity. You have betrayed my family. But perhaps, most significantly, I cannot marry a man I do not trust.”
Nate’s gut tensed, but he pushed the anxiety aside. What mattered right now was that she willingly accepted him as her betrothed. His ability to catch Cressingham depended on her not being a hostile fiancée, for sparks between them would attract too much attention from the ton, attention Cressingham wished to avoid.
“You don’t have a choice,” he said matter-of-factly. “You are not of age. Your uncle, as your guardian, is the sole arbiter of your fate.”
Her eyes flashed in the dim candlelight. “Hear me, my lord. My answer will be no. Always. I will never trust you again. I don’t care what my uncle does, but I will never marry you.” She turned away.
Nate felt a pang in his chest, her words stabbing him like a knife in the heart. But the feeling was quickly swept away by another, more resolute one—he would have Susannah whether she wanted him or not. For if she didn’t accept him, Cressingham would give her to someone else, just as he had her sister.
And that was not a fate Nate could live with.