From The London Times Society page: Lord
and Lady Malloran’s annual soiree promises to be more exciting this year than
ever as the entertaining services of the mysterious, much-sought-after
fortuneteller Madame Larchmont have been secured. As Madame’s provocative
predictions have an uncanny knack for accuracy, her presence at any party
guarantees its success. Also attending will be the very eligible Viscount
Sutton, who recently returned to London after an extended stay at his Cornwall
estate and is rumored to be looking for a wife. Wouldn’t it be delicious if
Madame Larchmont told him whom it is in the cards for him to marry?
Alexandra Larchmont pinned Lady Miranda Dobbs
with the intense stare she knew lent her predictions extra credence. As Lady
Miranda was a distant cousin to Alex’s hostess, Lady Malloran, she wanted to
make certain the young woman was pleased with her card reading.
“While I divine from your card reading and aura
that you suffered pain in your past, your present is filled with bright
promise--parties, jewels, fabulous gowns.”
Lady Miranda’s eyes glittered with delight.
“Excellent.” She leaned closer to Alex. “What about my future?” she
She was about to look down to consult the cards
when the crowd of milling party guests separated a bit and her attention was
caught by the sight of a tall, dark-haired man.
Panic rippled along her nerve endings and her
muscles tensed, for in spite of the fact that four years had past since she’d
last seen him, she recognized him instantly. Under the best of circumstances,
he wouldn’t be a man easily forgotten--and the circumstances of their last
encounter could never be described as “best.” While she didn’t know his name,
his image was permanently etched in her memory.
She dearly wished that’s where he’d remained--not
standing a mere dozen feet away. Dear God, if he recognized her,
everything she’d worked so long and hard for would be destroyed. Did he
normally move in these exalted circles? If so, more than her livelihood was at
risk--her very existence was threatened.
Her every instinct screamed at her to flee, but
she remained frozen in place, unable to look away from him. As if trapped in a
horrible, slow-moving nightmare, her gaze wandered down his form. Impeccably
dressed in formal black attire, his dark hair gleamed under the glow of the
dozens of candles flickering in the overhead chandelier. He held a crystal
champagne glass, and she involuntarily shivered, rubbing her damp palms over her
upper arms, recalling in vivid detail the strength in those large hands as
they’d gripped her, preventing her escape. Out of necessity, she’d learned at a
young age how to master her fears, but this man had alarmed and unnerved her as
no one else ever had, before or since their single encounter.
The cards had repeatedly warned her about
him--the dark-haired stranger with the vivid green eyes who would wreak havoc
with her existence--years before she’d ever seen him that first time. The cards
had also predicted she’d someday see him again. Unfortunately the cards hadn’t
prepared her for someday being now.
Looking up, she noted with a sickening sense of
alarm that his gaze moved slowly over the crowd. In a matter of seconds that
gaze would fall upon her.
“Are you all right, Madame Larchmont?
You’ve gone completely pale.”
Lady Miranda’s voice jerked Alex’s attention away
from the man and she found herself the subject of the young woman’s narrow-eyed
Digging deep to locate the well-practiced
inscrutable mien that had always served her well, Alex said, “I’m a bit
overheated, which sadly disrupts my psychic energies.” The well-modulated,
even-toned voice she’d perfected long ago gave no indication of her inner
turmoil. “A bit of air will set me to rights and allow me to once again commune
with the spirits. If you’ll excuse me...”
Her gaze flicked back to the man. A stunning
young woman she recognized as Lord Ralstrom’s daughter Lady Margaret approached
him, smiling in unmistakable greeting. She had Alex’s undying gratitude.
Surely a beauty like that would keep his interest engaged long enough for her to
She quickly wrapped up her cards in her square of
bronze silk, slipped the deck into the deep pocket of her gown then hastily
rose. Apprehension shivered down her spine and she felt the weight of someone’s
stare upon her. Her gaze snapped up and her breath stalled.
Vivid green eyes assessed her with a piercing
intensity that simultaneously chilled and heated her. And rendered her as
immobile as his hands had four years ago. Her heart seemed to stutter and it
flashed through her mind that there were undoubtedly dozens of women who would
go to great lengths to be on the receiving end of this man’s attention. She,
however, was not one of them.
Did he recognize her? She couldn’t tell as his
expression gave nothing away. But she did not intend to wait to find out. “The
spirits are calling, I must go,” she said to Lady Miranda, then executed a quick
turn and melted into the crowd with an expertise born of years of practice.
Unfortunately she didn’t know where she was
going, her entire being consumed with only one thought: escape. The very same
thought the stranger had imbued in her the last time they’d met.
After navigating her way to the edge of the room,
she halted, and frustrated dismay filled her. Damnation, in her panic, she’d
fled the wrong way. Her fortunetelling table had been set up near the French
windows leading outside and was therefore now on the opposite side of the large,
crowded room. And dozens of party guests stood between her and the corridor
leading to the front door--a situation made all the more vexing as succumbing to
panic was simply not like her. Yet, she couldn’t deny the agitation gripping
She quickly scanned the crowd. Her heart
stuttered when her gaze settled on the green-eyed man. His features were set in
a dark scowl as he, too, scanned the crowd. Looking for her?
Spurred by the desperation she couldn’t control,
she slipped into the nearest corridor. Heart pounding, she forced herself not
to run, not to show any outward signs of alarm in case she met someone. An open
door on the left offered the hope of sanctuary, but as she drew closer, she
heard masculine voices coming from within and moved on. She passed other
doorways, but didn’t pause, determined to put as much distance between her and
the man as possible. Surely he wouldn’t search the house for her, if indeed he
even looked for her.
Her mind raced. All she needed to do was find a
room...preferably one at the back of the house. She’d slip out the window into
the garden, then disappear into the mews. Lady Malloran would most assuredly be
annoyed and Alex would no doubt lose the entire evening’s wages, a troubling
prospect as she badly needed the money. She’d have to plead her case to Lady
Malloran, claiming a loss of the spirits or deep psychic fatigue or some such so
her reputation wasn’t damaged. Of course, her efforts might well be for naught,
thanks to the stranger. The ramifications of what running into her past might
mean for her future--
She sliced off the disturbing thought. The
future she needed to worry about right now encompassed the next few minutes.
Once she escaped here, she’d worry about tomorrow.
The corridor made a series of turns, and the
light dimmed to near darkness. The sounds of the party--laughter, chatter, the
tinkling of crystal--faded to a dim, indistinguishable murmur. After rounding
another corner, she noted a closed door and inwardly smiled. Excellent. Based
on what she knew of Mayfair town houses, the room was most likely a library or
study, and clearly wasn’t being used for the party. Moving swiftly, she pressed
her ear against the wood door panel, then dropped to her knees and peered
through the keyhole. Satisfied the room was empty, she turned the brass knob,
eased the door open just enough to slip through, then closed the door behind
Leaning back against the polished oak panel, she
sucked in a deep, calming breath and conducted a quick survey of the room which
was, as she’d suspected, a study. Based on the dark, wood paneling, and
masculine maroon leather sofa and chairs, clearly Lord Malloran’s domain. Her
gaze riveted on the window on the opposite side of the room through which
silvery moonlight glowed--the room’s only illumination, and she allowed herself
to relish an instant of relief. Escape beckoned, no more than twenty feet away.
Just as she was about to push off from the door,
however, a noise stilled her. Relief vanished and tension gripped her anew, and
she pressed her ear to the crack between the door and the jamb.
“The study is just ahead,” came a low, deep
voice. “We can talk there without interruption.”
Dear God, could her luck this night get any
worse? Spurred to action, Alex raced across the room. With no time to escape
out the window, she dashed behind the heavy velvet drapes, simultaneously
blessing the darkness of the room and cursing her foolishness for hesitating
even a second to catch her breath. She pressed her back against the cool glass
window panes. Her escape hatch.
For all the good it did her.
The soft swish of the door opening was
followed seconds later by a click as it closed. Then a louder click, indicating
the door was now locked. She went perfectly still and reminded herself that
over the years she’d successfully escaped tougher spots than this. More times
than she cared to recall. Just remain calm, quiet, and patient.
“The date and place are set.” She instantly
recognized the rough, masculine voice as the same one she’d heard seconds ago
through the door crack.
“When?” came another voice, this one a barely
audible raspy whisper.
“Wexhall’s party. On the twentieth.”
“All the arrangements are in place?”
“Yes. No one will suspect it were more than a
“Make certain of that,” came the soft, raspy
whisper. The person’s real voice--or an attempt at a disguise? Most likely a
disguise, she decided. One never knew when one might be inadvertently overheard
in a house swarming with guests and servants. Or fortunetellers hiding
behind draperies. “No mistakes. His death will assuredly give rise
“No need fer worry. Ye’ve hired the best.”
“You’ll be compensated as such. Provided all
goes as planned.”
“It will. And speakin’ of compensation...I’ll be
havin’ another bit of blunt now that the arrangements are made. As we agreed.”
“I’ll see that it’s delivered tomorrow. There’s
to be no further contact between us after this.”
“Understood. Now I’ve got to get back to servin’
the fancy folks drinks ‘fore I’m missed.”
“With the money I’m paying you, soon you’ll be
the one throwing the fancy parties.”
A sound of disgust filled the air. “Bah, I won’t
be wastin’ no blunt on parties. Soon as this is over, you’ll never see me in
“That is, undoubtedly, for the best,” came the
silky, whispered reply.
“Gonna get my own place. By the sea. Hire
myself a servant. Be the one gettin’ waited on fer once in my life.”
No reply other than the sound of muffled
footfalls came and Alex, scarcely daring to breathe, visualized the pair
crossing the room. Seconds later the click of the door being unlocked sounded.
Even while her strong sense of self-preservation screamed at her not to move,
she peeked around the edge of the curtain and for an instant caught sight of the
back of a tall, dark-haired man who was dressed in the unmistakable elaborately
gold-trimmed Malloran livery. Obviously the rougher, less educated speaker. To
whom had he been talking? She craned her neck, but the door shut, ensconcing
her in tomb-like silence.
She remained behind the curtain, pulling in slow,
careful breaths in an effort to quell the sick dread snaking through her.
Someone was going to be killed...on the twentieth. But who?
It’s not your problem,
the inner voice that had successfully helped her survive the mean streets of
London warned. You have your own problems to worry about.
Yes, she did. And she well knew what happened to
people who stuck their nose where it didn’t belong--they tended to lose their
noses. Or worse.
She squeezed her eyes shut and cursed herself for
wondering if this evening could get any worse, for clearly it could. Everything
inside her screamed at her to forget what she’d overheard. Ignore it. Flee.
Now. While she had the chance. Before the Malloran servant or the person who’d
clearly hired him to kill discovered her absence from the party and wondered
where the entertainment had disappeared to. Then looked for and found her.
Hiding in this room. Where they’d just discussed their murderous plot.
But she knew that no matter how hard she tried,
she’d never be able to forget what she’d heard. Her conscience, that
inconvenient inner voice that plagued her when she most wished it not to, would
eat at her.
Yet what to do with this information? Clearly
the intended target was someone important. His death will assuredly give
rise to inquiries. Someone had to be told. Someone who could stop this
crime before it took place. Someone who wasn’t her.
But who? A magistrate? She swallowed the bitter
sound that rose in her throat. She’d spent her life avoiding magistrates and
Runners and anyone of that ilk, and given her past, she definitely preferred to
keep it that way. Besides, who would believe her? A woman who barely scraped
together a living telling fortunes? The instant the murder of this important
person was committed, they’d believe her guilty--of something. Didn’t matter
what. They’d hunt her down like a fox. Toss her in a cell. Her stomach turned
over. Never again.
Yet she’d be forced into her own private prison
if she didn’t at least try to warn whoever was in danger. But how, when
she didn’t know who was the intended victim? And how to report the information
without involving herself? There was only one way. And it had to be done now.
Risky as it was to remain here, it was more so to try and impart the information
With a wistful glance at the window that beckoned
with the sweet temptation of freedom, she moved from behind the curtain and
walked swiftly to the elegant polished wood desk. Quickly extracting a piece of
vellum, she dipped the quill into the inkpot and penned a swift note. Not
wanting to spend time melting wax, she simply folded the vellum in quarters then
wrote “Lord Malloran--urgent and private” on the outside. She set it on the
desk, securing it by placing an egg-shaped crystal paperweight on the corner,
then blew out a long breath and told her conscience to cease grumbling.
She’d done what she could to save the intended
victim. Now she needed to save herself.
Moving to the window, she looked through the
glass at the small garden, which was thankfully empty, no doubt due to the
unseasonably chilly weather. Finally, something was going right this evening.
Noting the fifteen foot drop to the ground, she grimaced. Last time she’d made
such a jump, she’d slipped and strained her ankle. She briefly considered
retracing her steps and exiting through the front door, but a sore ankle held
infinitely more appeal than running into either the green-eyed man or the
murderous duo roaming the party. No, the window offered the only way out of
After one last look to ensure the garden below
remained free of party goers, Alex opened the window and nimbly swung her legs
over the sash. Bracing her palms on the ledge, she gave her body a deft twist
then carefully lowered herself until she held on, her fingers curled over the
sill, facing the rough stone exterior. Drawing a deep breath, she pressed the
toes of her soft leather boots against the stone wall, kicked off, and let go.
Her stomach rushed upward. For the space of a
heartbeat she felt as if she were flying, then she landed lightly, bending her
knees and touching her palms to the cool, moist earth. When she stood, she
nearly laughed from the sheer exhilaration of her feat as she brushed off her
hands. She was free. Now all she had to do was melt into the shadows. She
turned, intending to head toward the mews.
And found herself staring at a snowy white
A snowy white cravat that was mere inches from
her nose. She sucked in a startled breath and caught the scent of freshly
starched linen mixed with a whiff of sandalwood. She took a hasty step back but
halted when her shoulders hit the rough stone of the town house. Strong hands
gripped her upper arms.
“Steady,” came a deep, masculine voice.
Dear God, when had her luck turned so
horrendously...unlucky? This night just went from bad to worse.
Fingers flexed against her skin left bare by her
gown’s short, puffed sleeves and she noted he wasn’t wearing gloves. A heated
tingle that was surely nothing more than annoyance skidded through her.
Determined to quickly talk her way out of this irritating further cog in her
escape plans, Alex lifted her chin. And looked into the hauntingly familiar
eyes of the stranger.