The Marquess of Shevington’s bleak existence sparks to life after hiring a mysterious governess whose secrets stir his curiosity and whose courage awakens his desire.
A LOVE SO DEEP . . .
Marcus Keene, Lord Shevington, leads a life of idleness and indulgence—or so he would have everyone believe. The illusion he has carefully crafted to protect his country no longer holds the same appeal it once did. His life takes a dramatic turn when a five-year-old girl—his daughter—appears on his doorstep, scared and angry and carrying a missive from his former French mistress.
A SECRET SO DARK . . .
The unassuming, aloof governess Shev hires begins to break through to his daughter while protecting a dark secret of her own. A secret that is tearing her apart, day-by-day. What the governess does not understand is that mysteries are like catnip to Shev. Irresistible. Much like the governess herself. But all is about to change when his daughter’s French family arrives to take her away, and Shev’s faced with the prospect of an empty home once again and his heart’s desire slipping from his grasp.
Shev’s publication marks a bittersweet moment for me. The end of my beloved Nexus series.
Nine years ago, I nervously put pen to paper and started writing the first chapter about a female British spy who endured a rather torturous ending to her career. My heroine’s difficult beginning eventually led to the publication of my debut novel, A Lady’s Revenge.
Back then, historical romantic suspense novels (aka dark historicals) were scarce. Every time I hesitated to travel down the path that spoke to my heart, I would receive advice from a seasoned and trusted friend. Every spark of wisdom emboldened me to step outside the safe historical romance box and write the kinds of stories I longed to read.
It seems I wasn’t alone in my reading preferences.
Many thanks to all the readers who sent me a note or stopped me at a conference to let me know how much they enjoyed the suspense element in my novels as much as the romance. Your kind words encouraged me to continue writing what I love.
I have enjoyed exploring the intricate facets of my Nexus world and am sad I won’t be hanging out with Cora, Guy, Ethan, Sydney, Sebastian, Catherine, Latymer, Shev, or Anne on a regular basis. Though you never know when Sophie and Teddy might crop up again. :)
Don’t worry, you’ll find more murder, mayhem, and romance in my Bones & Gemstones series . . .
Thanks for all your support!
Marcus Keene, Lord Shevington, would have preferred standing in a sweltering ballroom full of pompous aristocrats to sitting in the drawing room of his Mayfair town house with his mother, waiting on the latest in a long string of stiff-necked spinsters to arrive.
Somehow, sifting through endless inane chatter for a morsel of treasonous conversation seemed far less daunting than selecting a governess for a daughter he’d known only a few short weeks.
“Please stop making that dreadful noise,” Lady Shevington said. “My nerves are quite frayed as it is.” To underscore her complaint, she smoothed her hands down her copper-hued skirts and leveled her already-squared shoulders.
Shev halted the gold chain’s rotation around his forefinger with one quick flick of his wrist. “She’s late.”
“Perhaps you should check your timepiece again. Mine indicates she’s not due for another five minutes.”
“Yours is clearly an inferior product.”
“I do hate when you’re in these appalling moods.” She sent him a withering look. “There is no need for nerves. Miss Crawford comes highly recommended by the Hunt Agency. I’ve also been acquainted with Miss Crawford’s aunt for many years, and she only has good things to say about her niece.”
“Well then, if she has her aunt’s endorsement, I suppose I have nothing to fear.”
“Mind your sardonic tongue, Marcus. A mother can find innumerable ways to make her child’s life intolerable.”
Shev pressed his lips together, having learned a long time ago to heed his mother’s warnings. The Marchioness of Shevington did not enter this life surrounded by luxuries and privileges of the aristocracy. No, Gemma Barrow had traipsed the back alleys of London for years while her father clawed his way to the top of a shipbuilding empire. And Shev knew from experience that his mother had an unusual array of survival skills.
“Besides,” his mother said, “you know Sydney Hunt would never send an unqualified candidate to you—not in experience or temperament.”
The two of them had been friends for years. A pity he could never view her as anything other than a friend, for Sydney Hunt was a beautiful, spirited, accomplished, and courageous woman. But he was not in search of a wife.
A knock at the door drew their attention. “Pardon me, my lady. My lord. A Miss Crawford to see you.”
“Show her in, Standish.”
Seconds later, a young lady of average height and build with plain blue eyes and dark brown hair entered the drawing room. She didn’t have a single feature that would entice a gentleman’s attention to linger. Brilliant.
He’d always had an appetite for beautiful women, but he reserved those cravings for outside his household. Inside, he followed a long-standing, unbreakable rule about not bedding members of his staff. It was a hard-learned lesson he’d learned at the age of thirteen after his father caught him spying on one of the housemaids.
“Miss Crawford,” Lady Shevington said, holding out her hands in greeting. “So nice to make your acquaintance.”
“Thank you for inviting me, my lady.”
Despite the disparity in their social status, confidence wove through the young woman’s voice, as if she shared greetings with the upper crust every day.
“Please allow me to introduce my son, the Marquess of Shevington.”
Miss Crawford performed a well-executed curtsy. “Good morning, my lord.”
Shev nodded. “Please make yourself comfortable.”
Selecting the chair adjacent to Shev’s, she sat on the edge, feet together, back erect, chin set at an attentive angle. His mother resumed her seat on the nearby sofa, her posture more relaxed than before Miss Crawford’s arrival.
“How is your dear aunt, Mrs. Kettlestone?”
“Quite well, my lady.”
“Is she still walking a mile a day—rain, sleet, or shine?”
“Indeed, she is. Aunt is convinced regular exercise and a daily glass of sherry will see her into her nineties.”
“I couldn’t agree more with your aunt,” Shev said. “Except for the exercise part. The very thought exhausts me.” His mother’s piercing gaze landed on him, narrowed in warning. “Why don’t you begin, Miss Crawford, by detailing your work experience?”
She took an almost imperceptible deep breath before launching into her credentials. “I gained the majority of my experience while caring for the daughters of my first employers, Mr. and Mrs. Stevens.”
“How long were you with the Stevenses?” his mother asked.
“Eight years, my lady.”
“Your reason for leaving their employ?” Shev asked.
“The girls reached an age where they no longer required a governess.” Miss Crawford opened her reticule, pulled out a sealed missive, and placed it on the side table near her chair. “Mrs. Stevens kindly provided a letter of reference.”
“When did you leave the Stevens household?” Shev asked.
“Six months ago, my lord.”
“Where did your next position take you?”
She clasped her hands together in her lap. “Lord and Lady Whitfield hired me to watch over their young son.”
“Your tenure with the Whitfields did not last nearly as long. Did young Whitfield place a frog in your boot?”
“No, my lord.”
“A mouse in your bed?”
“Snake in your wardrobe? Manure in your—”
“Shevington,” his mother scolded. “Not all boys are as unruly as you were at a young age.”
His lips twitched. “What a shame.”
“Do you have a letter of reference from Lady Whitfield?” his mother asked.
“I’m afraid not, my lady.”
The absence of a reference combined with the small fracture in her confidence awakened Shev’s insatiable curiosity. Those close to him knew of his compulsive need to solve even the smallest mystery. Even now, his mother cast glances in his direction. “Why did you leave Whitfield’s employ?”
Looking down at her clasped hands, she rubbed the pad of her thumb over her knuckles. “I could not perform all the duties Lord Whitfield required of me.”
A heavy hush fell over the room. “Well, my dear,” his mother said in a quiet, firm voice. “You won’t need to worry about that sort of thing here. Will she, Shevington?” She caught—and held—his gaze, a fierce motherly warning burning in her green eyes.
With an exaggerated show of indifference, Shev eyed their guest before turning a devilish grin on his mother. “If I’m overcome by desire while in Miss Crawford’s presence, I’ll make haste to Madame Rousseau’s.”
“Shevington! A simple ‘no’ would have sufficed.” His mother shifted her attention back to the governess. “Please excuse my son. He does enjoy his shocking comments.”
Instead of being appalled as he’d expected, Miss Crawford appeared relieved. Curious. A sudden restlessness had him out of his seat and striding toward the sideboard for a drink. “Anyone else?”
Lady Shevington glanced uncomfortably at their guest before shaking her head. “Perhaps later.”
“No, thank you, my lord.” Miss Crawford turned to his mother. “There are a few details I’m not quite clear on, my lady. Miss Hunt assured me this situation would suit me perfectly; however, she seemed hesitant to share any information beyond what was in the advertisement.”
His mother sent him a cutting look before settling a conciliatory smile on her face. “My apologies for the secretive nature of our posting, Miss Crawford. I assure you we did so to protect the child, not for any nefarious reasons.”
“May I ask the child’s age and gender?”
“Jacqueline turned five years old a little over three weeks ago.”
Shev asked, “Do you have any experience with children so young?”
Miss Crawford considered her bloodless knuckles a moment before subtly unrolling her fingers. Lifting her chin, she said, “No, my lord. The Stevens girls were eight and nine when I joined the household.”
“Do you have any reservations in that regard?” Lady Shevington asked.
“None, my lady. My cousin has two small children, ages two and four. I find their unconditional love and curiosity enchanting and, if I may be so bold as to say, refreshing.”
“You may indeed be so bold, Miss Crawford. I too love being around the little ones.”
Though he did not sit, Shev returned to stand near his seat and noticed the governess’s shoulders tense. “How is your French?”
“Very good, my lord. I would venture to say teaching the language is one of my strong suits.”
His mother smiled at the news.
“What do you think about banshees?” he asked.
Caught off guard by his question, she raised her eyebrows, revealing a pair of deep blue eyes. Their color was so pure and intense that he found himself staring, searching for one imperfection. He found none. How could he have ever mistaken them as plain?
“Pardon, my lord?” Miss Crawford asked, snapping him out of his trance.
“Banshees. Little screaming terrors of the night.”
His mother produced a high, thin laugh. “Do not mind my son, Miss Crawford. He is unaccustomed to a child being in the house and is prone to dramatics.”
“The little girl is yours, my lord?”
Shev bolted back the last of his drink. “So it would seem.”
She glanced around as if looking for clarification. “And your wife is…?”
Amusement he hadn’t felt since grasping Jacqueline’s trembling hand a fortnight ago resurfaced at the look of concern on the governess’s face. “Nonexistent,” he said, with an inappropriate amount of relish.
Miss Crawford closed her eyes for a brief moment before she lifted her full lips into an apologetic—and if he wasn’t mistaken, defeated—smile. “Thank you for the opportunity to come and speak with you, Lord Shevington.” Her voice gained its former strength. “I regret to say I’m not the right candidate for this position.”
“Because of Jacqueline’s illegitimacy?”
His mother glanced at him, unaccustomed to the harsh quality of his voice. Unlike most people, his emotions never raged, spiked, or plummeted. They flowed with an even rhythm beneath the surface. He never cried, never brooded, never laughed beyond a chuckle, and never loved past warm affection.
“No, my lord.” Rising, she nodded to his mother. “A pleasure, Lady Shevington.”
Miss Crawford’s gaze feathered over him with the lightest of touches. More cursory than attentive. Definitely not meant to engage. “Lord Shevington.”
Eyes wide, his mother rose to her feet. “Are you certain?”
Halfway to the door, Miss Crawford paused to glance over her shoulder. “I’m afraid so, my lady.”
Shev followed her determined exit with a combination of confusion and desire to stop her. If Jacqueline’s illegitimacy was not the issue, what about his lack of a spouse spooked the governess? Mysteries were to him like catnip was to felines. They awakened what he could only term as a primal instinct to hunt and capture. To unravel and explore.
And Miss Crawford’s unexplained refusal had his nose twitching.
The governess opened the drawing room door and drew up short. On the other side stood a small, beribboned, curly-haired girl with a pixie nose and devilish flames sparking from her narrowed eyes. A groan rumbled up from the depths of Shev’s throat.
“Hello,” Miss Crawford said.
“I don’t want you,” his daughter pronounced in heavily accented English.
“Jacqueline, dear,” Lady Shevington scolded. “Do not be rude to our guest.”
In answer, the little tyrant crossed her arms over her reed-thin body and planted her feet wide, blocking the governess’s exit. A rather contradictory stance, given the girl’s demand for the governess to leave, Shev thought.
Undeterred by the girl’s mutinous stance, Miss Crawford bent down. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss Jacqueline.”
Rather than softening, Jacqueline’s features went from petulant to stormy. “I don’t need you! Maman’s coming for me.”
“Jacqueline.” Shev infused enough warning in that one word to attract his daughter’s attention. He switched to French. “Your grandmother told you not to be rude to Miss Crawford. Now apologize.”
The rigid lines marring the girl’s unblemished face swirled into a mass of apprehension. She dropped her gaze to the floor, and Shev was certain she was about to disobey. He sighed.
Before he could take a step forward, she whispered, “Je suis désolée.”
Miss Crawford brushed a hand over the girl’s mop of curls. “All is forgiven, Jacqueline.” The governess bent and whispered something in her ear.
Tears welled in Jacqueline’s deep brown eyes as she fixed them on Miss Crawford. The governess smiled and tapped one long, slender finger against Jacqueline’s nose. And then she left.
Jacqueline followed the governess’s progress before leveling unreadable eyes on him. A single tear trailed down her flushed cheek. She swiped it away and dashed off in the opposite direction without another comment.
Shev lifted a brow toward his wide-eyed mother. “That was rather interesting, don’t you think?”
She motioned frantically in the direction of Miss Crawford.
He raised his eyebrow higher.
His mother flapped her hand faster.
When he did nothing, she commanded in a low, urgent whisper, “Do something, Marcus. Don’t let that governess get away.”
Considering that Miss Crawford marked their fifth unsuccessful candidate, Shev had to give his mother’s demand its due. None of the others had panned out for one reason or another. And the last candidate who had come face-to-face with Jacqueline’s tantrum had displayed an unreasonable temper. Quite unlike Miss Crawford’s reaction.
He set down his empty glass, cracked his neck, and braced himself for the challenging conversation ahead.
The indifference that had numbed his mind dissolved the moment he turned to give chase. For the first time in years, every nerve in his body was alert and alive with anticipation.