Per your request to keep you
informed on the whereabouts and activities of Miss Penelope
Markham, I am writing to inform you that she has returned to
England from the continent. As you know, she wasn’t scheduled to
do so for another two months, however an unfortunate situation
arose in Italy, one involving her making a sculpture of a most
inappropriate nature, embroiling her in a scandal that resulted
in her being dismissed as art instructor to Lord and Lady
Bentley’s children. Given the lurid circumstances regarding this
matter, I fear it will be impossible for Miss Markham to find
another position, especially as she will most emphatically not
receive a recommendation from Lord and Lady Bentley. Indeed,
they have informed everyone in their circle of Miss Markham’s
disgrace, and word of the incident has spread like wildfire,
casting her in a most unfavorable light. A shame, as I
understand Miss Markham possesses great artistic talent. Sadly,
she clearly also possesses a rebellious, wayward streak, much to
her detriment. Miss Markham arrived in London yesterday and has
taken lodging at Exeter House in Covent Garden. Her future plans
are unknown at this time, although given Lord and Lady Bentley’s
determination, it is safe to surmise that whatever they are, they
hold little promise.
I shall await further
instructions from you and remain at your disposal.
Harold P. Wheeler, Solicitor
Alec Trentwell stood in the
doorway of a dilapidated coffee house and stared across the
cobblestone street at Exeter House. The faded brick façade and
peeling, dull paint lent the boarding establishment a tired, worn
air, much like the haggard, hollow-eyed prostitute assessing him
from the adjacent alleyway. She tugged her bodice lower in
invitation, filling Alec with a combination of pity and
revulsion. He shook his head and she shrugged, then sank into
He thought of Penelope Markham
and his hands tightened into fists. Bloody hell, this was no
place for an unmarried, unescorted woman. In spite of--or
perhaps because of--the crowds frequenting the nearby market,
danger lurked in every doorway, every shadow. The area was
maybe marginally safe during the day, but at night thieves,
footpads, prostitutes and pickpockets made their living preying
on the hoards of theatre goers. He shuddered to think of what
could happen to a lone woman. Especially to the one particular
woman he sought.
Penelope Markham. Although he’d
never met her, through the strong bond he’d shared with her
brother, Alec felt as if he knew her. Certainly he felt a deep
sense of responsibility toward her. In spite of the gut churning
emotion that gripped him at the prospect of facing her, he’d
intended to do so upon her return to England--an occasion he’d
believed was still months away until this morning when he’d read
his solicitor’s note. He’d planned to spend those months in
seclusion in the small cottage he’d purchased in Little Longstone--another
of his plans that had sadly gone awry. He should have known that
a mere three hour buffer between himself and London and his
well-meaning, but interfering family would be far too easy to
breech. One minute he’d been existing in the solitude he
craved, then the next his brother had descended and Alec’s life
had changed. Again. And not for the better. Again.
Damn it, he was tired of change.
In truth, he was simply tired.
But there were promises to keep.
And he intended to keep them, no matter how much he dreaded the
prospect of doing so.
The door to Exeter House opened
and Alec stilled at the sight of the woman who emerged. Based on
Edward’s description of his sister, and her unmistakable
resemblance to Alec’s former sergeant, he was certain the tall,
bespectacled, dark-haired woman was Penelope Markham. Dressed in
a plain brown walking gown and matching spencer, she clutched
what appeared to be an oversized sketch pad. She glanced in both
directions, as if aware of the dangers lurking about and debating
which route was safer.
She frowned and pushed her
glasses higher on her nose, a gesture that tightened Alec’s
throat. How many times had he seen young Edward doing that exact
same thing? He didn’t know. Only knew he’d give everything he
owned to see his sergeant do it again.
But dead men didn’t push up their
Just then Miss Markham’s gaze
caught his and nailed him in place. Her eyes seemed to pierce
him, making him feel as if she could see his soul. His secrets.
And the countless lies that writhed in the empty darkness there.
For the space of several
heartbeats he couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t do
anything save stare back at her. A wave of hot shame washed
through him, making him feel as if he stood in a ring of fire,
burned by the guilt that had been his constant companion for the
past ten months, since that horrific day at Waterloo.
She blinked several times, then
turned away. Clutching her sketch pad to her chest, she walked
with a purposeful stride toward the muted sounds of the nearby
Covent Garden Market. Alec shook his head, jerking himself free
of the stupor into which he’d momentarily fallen, and started
across the street. He’d taken less than a half dozen steps when
a shabbily dressed man emerged from a shadowed alleyway and
blocked Miss Markham’s path.
“Where’s a pretty piece like ye
off to in such a hurry?” the man asked with a leer.
Miss Markham gasped and stepped
back. Outrage and disgust ripped through Alex. In a single,
swift motion he pulled his knife from his boot and sprinted
across the street. The man reached out to grab Miss Markham’s
arm, but before he could touch her, Alec stepped between them.
“You have precisely two seconds
to disappear,” he said in a deadly voice.
The other man narrowed his eyes.
His lips curled back, showing rotted, broken teeth. “And if I
Alec pressed the point of his
blade under the man’s ribs. “Then I’ll gut you like fish. I may
do so anyway, just because you sicken me. I definitely will if I
ever see you so much as look at this woman again.” He pressed
the knife in harder and the man sucked in a quick breath. “Any
A combination of hatred and fear
flickered in the man’s eyes. He shook his head, stepped back,
then disappeared into the shadowy alleyway from where he’d first
appeared, his footfalls echoing then fading to silence.
Alec released a breath he
realized wasn’t quite steady and ruthlessly shoved aside the
mental pictures bombarding him, accompanied by the terrifying
echo of men’s and horses’ screams...images and sounds he normally
only experienced in the dark of night while lying alone in his
bed. But the threat of bloodshed and the feel of a knife hilt
gripped in his hand had brought the vivid memories sneaking out
into the light of day, rendering them even more starkly
horrifying. He needed several seconds to compose himself before
turning around. When he did, he found himself staring into
startled gold-flecked brown eyes magnified by spectacles. Miss
Markham stood less than a foot away, wide-eyed and pale.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
She moistened her lips.
“Y...yes. Thank you, sir. I--“
“We need to get you away from
here, Miss Markham.” He lifted his hand and whistled for his
carriage which waited at the end of the street.
Her eyes widened further. “How
do you know my name?”
Alec had imagined this moment
when he’d meet her countless times over the last ten months.
He’d prepared for it, running the scenario running through his
mind over and over again. He’d introduce himself then tell her
what he had to say. Quick, impersonal, emotionless. Then he’d
return to his solitude. And try to forget the unforgettable.
Never once had he considered that
he’d be standing on the street, a cold sweat covering his body,
stomach knotted, heart and head pounding, gripping a knife after
scaring off a man who would have done God knows what to her.
Nor had he imagined the impact of
looking directly into those gold-flecked eyes. Or of her
standing close enough for him to notice the pale freckles dotting
her nose. Close enough to detect the subtle scent of flowers
rising from her skin...skin that looked like velvet cream. Nor
had he even once considered that a wayward curl of glossy
mahogany hair might blow across her cheek, begging his fingers to
tuck the spiral back into place. Or that her mouth would look so
lush, yet so vulnerable at the same time, making it nearly
impossible to tear his gaze away from it when she moistened her
He needed to pull himself
together. Escort her to his carriage. Yet his legs felt like
stone. He needed to speak, but all the words he’d planned to say
fled his mind.
Wariness filled her gaze and
she retreated a step. The movement jerked him back to his senses
and he cleared his throat. “Please don’t be alarmed. My name is
Alec Trentwell. I knew your brother. In the army. I was--“
officer,” she broke in. Her expression cleared. “I know your
name well, Captain Trentwell. Indeed, given how frequently
Edward mentioned you in his letters, I feel as if I already know
you.” Confusion again clouded her features. “But how is it that
you are here and know who I am?”
“I...” Once again Alec found
himself at a loss. “I heard you’d returned to England and I
wished to see you.”
Crimson bloomed in her
cheeks. “Oh, dear. Clearly word of what happened in Italy has
reached London. Truly, the entire incident was misunderstood--”
“Miss Markham, I wish only to
talk about your brother. I was with him that last day at
Waterloo, and there are...things you should know.”
His carriage halted beside them
and he nodded toward the black lacquer vehicle pulled by two
matched bays. “As this is not the safest place, would you
consent to accompanying me somewhere else? Somewhere we can
Her gaze roamed his face, and he
was struck by the intelligence shining in her eyes. “Of course,
Captain Trentwell. Edward thought the world of you. I’d be very
interested to hear anything you have to tell me about my
brother.” Her voice quavered and a shadow of unmistakable grief
crossed her features. “I miss him terribly.”
She averted her gaze, but not
before he saw her blink back tears. His hands clenched inside
his gloves. Bloody hell, this was going to be so much harder
than he ever imagined. He forced himself to move, to open the
carriage door bearing the Earl of Crandall’s seal, grateful that
he’d opted to use his brother’s carriage rather than hiring a
hack. He held out his hand to help Miss Markham inside. She set
her gloved hand in his and he frowned at the odd tingle of warmth
that shot up his arm. Before he could fully examine the puzzling
sensation, her fingers slid away and she sat on the pale gray
velvet squabs. Alec shook his head, then looked up at the
coachman. “Hyde Park,” he instructed.
Before entering the carriage,
Alec scanned the area. When he was satisfied no immediate danger
threatened them, he slipped his knife back into his boot then
entered the carriage and settled himself on the seat opposite
Miss Markham. And stilled at her expression. Bloody hell, there
was no mistaking the gratitude shining in her eyes.
“I haven’t properly thanked you
for your intervention, Captain Trentwell.”
“What were you thinking, going
about unescorted--especially in Covent Garden?” The question
came out far more brusquely than he’d intended. Certainly far
more brusquely than could be considered polite. But damn it,
tension still gripped his entire body.
Color flooded her cheeks, but
instead of shrinking into her seat at his rebuke, she hoisted a
brow and raised her chin. “A woman of my age hardly requires an
escort to walk to the market. While I never would have ventured
out alone at night, I believed I’d be safe enough during the
day. Clearly I was mistaken.”
“You quite saved the day and I’m
most grateful for your bravery. Not that I’m surprised--Edward
always referred to you as a hero in his letters.”
The knot in Alec’s stomach
cinched tighter and he barely swallowed the bitter sound that
rose in his throat. Hero. Bloody hell, was there a word
in the entire English language he detested more than that one?
No. In the first few weeks following his return from the war
that damn word had been relentlessly heaped upon him, a weight
falling upon his shoulders until he’d felt crushed. Until he
couldn’t stand it any longer and had escaped to Little Longstone.
To obscurity. And solitude. To a place where he didn’t have to
live a lie. Or pretend he was something he wasn’t.
Like everyone else who’d anointed
him a hero, Miss Markham was wrong. But she would soon know the
error of her ways. The gratitude and admiration currently
glowing in her eyes would quickly dissipate after he told her
what he’d sought her out to say. After she knew the truth. The
truth that ate at him every day. The truth she deserved to know.
That he’d killed her brother.