County of Lincolnshire, 1827
Benedict, Lord Keyes, drew his horse to a halt in front of the dilapidated gates of Alford Park, his ancestral home, and considered his options. He wasn’t quite sure why he was here, but the unsigned letter from a well-wisher had sparked his interest. In his profession, once he was on the trail of something, he never gave up until he’d achieved his goal, or caught his man. Or in this case—possibly his woman.
As he turned into the overgrown drive, he noticed smoke belching out of one of the lopsided Elizabethan chimneys. So his source had been correct about one thing. The ramshackle house was definitely inhabited. He doubted his father had forsaken his mansion in Mayfair and decided to take up residence in the county of Lincolnshire. There was no political advantage to be gained here, or anyone to bully. But if his mother’s latest missive was correct, and not merely a ploy to force him home, the current Marquis of Alford was suffering from a mysterious ailment that kept him tied to his bed.
From what he remembered of the family history drummed into him as a boy, this decaying manor house had once been the seat of his family’s power when trade was with Europe and wool was king. In truth, it resembled a castle rather than a house, ready to repel marauders with its stone towers and partially filled-in moat. The locale was desolate now, and from his observations as he rode north, the population scarce.
The faint sounds of a barking dog reached him from inside the house. He straightened in the saddle and checked that his pistol was primed and ready. This might be his home, but it always paid to be careful. The noise increased in volume as he made his way along the main facade of the timber-and-stone house toward the stables at the rear.
A window swung open above him. He swiveled in the saddle toward the sound, bringing his hand up as the sun struck the multifaceted panes and reflected right back in his eyes. The crack of a rifle shot came a second later. Still blinded by the sun, he could do nothing to stop the shock of pain and the blackness of unconsciousness slamming into him and sending him pitching forward onto the ground.
“Oh my goodness, Mally! You’ve killed him!”
Malinda lowered the shotgun and took a deep, steadying breath. Despite the fact that she was trembling like a willow tree, she’d enjoyed aiming at the man coming down the drive as if he owned the place. Even though, officially, he and his family did.
“I aimed at his shoulder, not his heart, Doris. I’ve merely incapacitated him.” She handed the gun over to Jim, the stable hand, and observed the man on the ground. “He’ll get up in a moment, I’m sure of it.”
She advanced a step, her sister on her heels.
“He’s not moving. What have you done?” Doris whispered.
Malinda walked right up to the apparently unconscious figure and used the tip of her riding boot to roll him onto his back. Even in repose, he was still a handsome devil. Blood stained the upper left side of his immaculately fitted blue coat and was spreading rapidly. His hat had fallen off to reveal the thick corn blond of his hair.
“He’s alive. Otherwise he wouldn’t be bleeding.”
“You’re so callous!” Doris moaned and fell to her knees beside the unconscious man. She drew out her lace handkerchief and dabbed ineffectually at his shoulder. “Perhaps he hit his head when he fell.”
“That’s very likely.” Malinda looked behind her at the small audience now gathered by the side door into the hall. “The window distracted him perfectly, Gwen. Will you take the horse around to the stables, and ask Mr. McFadden to take care of it, but keep it hidden?”
“Yes, Malinda.” Unlike her sister, her cousin, Gwen, showed no signs of squeamishness as she stepped over the unconscious man and took hold of the horse’s slack reins. “Do you want me to help carry him inside when I come back?”
“No, Jim and Malcolm can take him upstairs before he wakes. You can meet me there.” Malinda glanced back at the two men. “Bring him up to the crimson bedchamber, please.” She raised her voice. “And remember, if anyone asks if we’ve seen him, we have not.”
Doris moaned again, but she didn’t say anything. That was all Malinda could hope for at this particular moment. She knew her sister didn’t like her plans for Lord Keyes, but when challenged had been unable to come up with anything better. Justice would be served and Benedict, Lord Keyes, would pay for his sins and the sins of his father whether he liked it or not.
By the time the men carried Keyes up to the already prepared crimson bedchamber, he was stirring. She instructed them to lay him on the large four-poster bed, and dismissed them to their usual duties. As soon as the door closed behind Jim, she lifted the red velvet bedcovers, withdrew an iron shackle, and locked it securely around Keyes’s right ankle. She hoped it would hold him. The chain was old and looked rather rusty in places. It was the best she could manage without going into the village and asking the blacksmith to make her something he would probably wonder why she needed.
She checked his pockets and retrieved a pocketknife, a dagger, his purse, and a very handsome and very lethal pistol.
As soon as his eyes fluttered open and fixed on hers, she raised the pistol. He blinked at her very slowly and licked his lips.
“Where am I?”
“You fell from your horse.”
His right hand came up to his left shoulder and he groaned. “There’s no need to point a gun at me. I’m scarcely in a position to hurt you.”
“So you say.”
His head fell back onto the pillow and she wondered if he’d swooned again. Without opening his eyes, he murmured, “I promise not to hurt you if you do me a favor in return.”
“You’re scarcely in a position to bargain, sir, are you?”
“Oh, this is quite an easy favor.”
“I doubt it.” Malinda tightened her grip on the pistol, but her captive made no effort to reclaim his weapon.
His blue eyes opened, and she tensed.
“Am I considered dangerous?”
His brow creased. “What am I supposed to have done?”
“That’s a question for your conscience, sir. None of us are without sin.”
“But I’m trying to understand why I’m bleeding, and why you’re holding me at gunpoint. Have we met before?”
Oh, she wanted to shoot him now. “What do you think?”
“That’s the problem.” His smile was charming. “I can’t seem to think of anything at all.”
She scowled at him. “Don’t try your tricks on me.”
His hand moved gingerly up toward his head. “I’m not.” He winced. “Damnation, this is ridiculous. I can’t even remember who I am.”
Malinda stared at him for a long moment, but he closed his eyes and appeared to lose consciousness again. The door behind her opened. Gwen came in carrying a basin of water and Malinda’s medicinal supplies.
“How is our patient?”
Malinda waved at Gwen to speak softly. “He says he doesn’t know who he is.”
Gwen came to stand alongside her and stared down at the quiet face. “He did hit his head. Perhaps he really doesn’t remember anything.” She glanced at Melinda. “Does that make our task easier or harder?”
“It depends on whether he’s lying or not.” Malinda rolled up her sleeves. “Let’s attend to his wound, and make sure he doesn’t die before we have a chance to confront him with his misdeeds.”
“How are we going to get him out of that coat?” Gwen stroked the sleeve. “It is beautifully made, and clings to him like a second skin.”
Malinda smiled and produced the knife she’d just taken from Lord Keyes. “I think we’re going to have to cut him out of everything, don’t you?”
“The poor man will be quite naked.”
“And thus unable to run away.”
Malinda slit his right sleeve and soon had him out of his shirt, waistcoat, and coat. She was gentle as she moved across to his left side and eased the blood-soaked garments away from his skin. He stirred in his sleep but didn’t awaken. She paused to examine the wound that marred the perfection of his upper arm. From what she could see, the bullet hadn’t lodged in his flesh, but had passed through, not hitting the bone, and exited through the muscle at the rear. She would have to make sure no strands of fabric remained in the wound, but otherwise it looked as if he would survive.
“I told you I was a good shot.”
“I never doubted it,” Gwen said. “After all, you practiced enough.”
“As I said, I didn’t want to kill him, merely incapacitate him a little.”
“Then I think you succeeded in your aim—unless he really doesn’t know who he is.”
Malinda concentrated on washing out the wound and patting some basilicum powder onto the skin. She accepted the bandage Gwen offered her and slowly wound it around Keyes’s upper arm and shoulder. Now that his injury had been satisfactorily attended to, she couldn’t help but notice how well he’d grown into his frame and how little weight he carried around his middle. He reminded her of one of the king’s racehorses, all fine bone and fast thoroughbred mettle.
“Should we take off his boots and breeches?”
Malinda tore her gaze away from the interesting contours of Keyes’s abdomen. “Yes, we should.”
Gwen paused as she noticed the shackle around Keyes’s ankle. “Is that really necessary at this point?”
Malinda’s sense of well-being dissipated. “Trust me. He’s as slippery as an adder and twice as dangerous.” She turned to Gwen. “Don’t let his good looks and pleasant manners deceive you. This man is a survivor. He and his loathsome family will stop anyone or anything that gets in their way.”
Gwen touched her hand. “It’s all right, Malinda, I won’t let you down.”
She tried to smile at her favorite cousin. “Then don’t let your guard slip for a moment. I’ll sit by him until he wakes up, and see if his ‘memory’ has returned. If it has, he should have no difficulty recognizing me this time.”
“Are you sure?” Gwen picked up the bowl of water and the bloodstained clothes.
Malinda smoothed down the unbecoming folds of her oldest brown dress. Had she changed that much? If she had, it was Keyes and his damned family who’d caused it. At some level she’d imagined that the moment he locked gazes with her he’d remember her, he’d remember it all….
She shook off the old memories and concentrated on the present. She held Lord Keyes captive in his own family home. This time, the odds were in her favor, and she intended to win.
Keyes came awake into a haze of pain and darkness and immediately knew he wasn’t safe and that someone was watching him. Had he been captured again? He inhaled the scent of lavender and his confusion increased. A soft hand touched his forehead and then withdrew to be replaced by the blessed coldness of a wet cloth. He sighed and attempted to open his eyes. Something was very wrong, and he didn’t know what it was. Instinct told him to remain silent, but he couldn’t remember why.
“Where am I?”
“You’re quite safe.”
He knew that sultry, low-pitched voice, but when had he last heard it? Yesterday, today, ten years ago?
“Where am I?” He repeated his question.
“In bed. You fell from your horse and damaged your shoulder and head. Are you in pain?”
He choked back a laugh. Was he in pain? How could she even ask him that when he was shivering and whimpering like a child?
“I have laudanum to give you.”
Thank God. He hated the stuff, but he was beyond that now as agony sliced through his shoulder. He moved restlessly against his pillows eager to dissipate the pain but just made it worse. The woman raised his head so that he could drink the laudanum from a spoon. He took it gratefully, murmuring his thanks and allowed her to settle him back on his pillows.
Heat flared through his fingers and burned down his spine and he moaned as sweat gathered on his brow. Her hands on him again, stripping back the covers and pressing cold, dripping sponges against his burning skin. He no longer had a sense of time, only that he had to survive this agony because if he died now, he’d die not knowing who he was, or how he’d ended up in this place, and that was simply unacceptable.
The voices changed and he could no longer sense if that was due to his fever, or that more than one woman was caring for him. Only one of them was distinct, she held him to life, her voice a puzzle he needed to solve.
He woke into darkness, the soft glow of candlelight and the crackle of a wood-burning fire. With some difficulty, he turned his head on his pillow, and spotted a small dark-haired woman sitting beside the bed. She was reading something, her shoulder turned to the light, and her spectacles perched at the end of her nose. He must have made a sound because she looked up, a smile breaking out on her pleasant face.
“You are awake! Are you thirsty, sir?”
Without waiting for him to answer, she came over, picked up the mug beside his bed, and offered it to him. He managed to grasp the cup with his right hand. To his chagrin, it proved impossible to gather the strength to raise it to his lips. With a soft sound, the woman helped him, wrapping one arm around his shoulders and her hand around his and the cup.
“There you are, sir. Drink as much as you need.”
He discovered he was extremely thirsty and gulped down the entire cup. She refilled it and he drank more until, with a sigh, he sank back onto his pillows.
His voice sounded rusty with misuse. How long had he lain in this unfamiliar bed?
“How long have I been here?”
“About a week. You fell from your horse and developed a fever from your injuries.” His helper put the cup down and fussed with his bedcovers and pillows.
She smiled at him and hurried toward the door. “I must tell the others that you are feeling better!”
With that, she escaped, leaving him to the comforting crackle of the fire. He looked around the room, noticing the closed red velvet curtains and the matching hangings on the four-poster bed. It was obviously a fairly wealthy household; the ceilings were high and the furniture ornate. There was also a sense of disuse—as if time had stood still and the trappings of a previous generation’s grandeur had never been replaced. Something nagged at his brain, something familiar, but the thought vanished before he could latch on to it.
Tentatively, he sat up, wincing as his fingers grazed the goose egg on the side of his head just above his ear. He’d definitely fallen from his horse. His fingers found the edge of a bandage, and he inhaled sharply and studied his shoulder and upper left arm. He recognized the hot, tearing sensation of a bullet wound beneath the bandages.
But why had he been shot?
He took another look around the room. He wasn’t on the Continent. He had a vague sense that England was no longer overtly at war with France, so this wasn’t the result of a battle. The woman who’d tended him had also been English. Anxiety tightened his gut. He attempted to swing his legs out of the bed only to realize he couldn’t. With all his remaining strength he threw back the heavy covers and discovered he was completely naked apart from the shackle on his right leg.
With a groan, he fell back against the mound of pillows. He didn’t even have the energy to test the strength of the metal. A soft click announced the opening of the door and the return of the woman who’d helped him drink the water.
“Oh, dear, sir, you must be cold!” She drew the covers back over him. “Please try not to set back your recovery with such foolish tricks.”
“Where am I?”
She looked at him, her gaze attentive. “Don’t you know?”
“Ma’am, at this point in my existence, I don’t remember anything.”
She cocked her head to one side. “Not even your name?”
He considered that. “No.”
“You did bang your head quite badly.” She was all sympathy.
“My cousin is going to bring you up some nice broth.”
“Ah, here she is now.”
The door opened again, and he stopped speaking as a tall auburn-haired woman entered carrying a tray. She bore herself like a queen and had a certain air of authority that made him think she was the mistress of the house, and potentially the one who’d planned to keep him chained to his bed. Or was it her bed?