(Originally published in Berkley Trade Paperback ISBN: 978-0425-21197-7 or 0-425-21197-5)
(Reissued in a Berkley Mass Market Edition ISBN: 978-0-425-21833-4
Romantic Times "Top Pick"
A powerful Regency historical romance
|E-book coming!||The third book in the Wyldshay trilogy|
“Brilliantly merges suspense, passion and a cast of characters one really cares about. It marks Ross as a remarkable storyteller and a writer whose talents have taken her to the top of the genre.” 4½ Stars - "Top Pick" - Romantic Times
More than meets expectations . a very good book with surprising twists. - Romance Reviews Today
“Ross is in peak form with her latest beautifully told tale of love... the most perfect romance novel I’ve read this year. It features multi-dimensional characters caught up in an unusual situation and is filled with suspense…This is a must read.” - genrefluent.com
“A terrific Regency romantic suspense thriller ... action-packed." - Midwest Book Review
Plot SummaryThe Gentleman
Guy Devoran, without question the most brilliant and charismatic single gentleman in late Regency London, has been busy recently helping his illustrious cousins, the St. Georges of Wyldshay (the dashing sons of the Duke of Blackdown), find happiness with the most unsuitable brides. No one has any idea that behind Guy's equally devil-may-care appearance, he's nursing a broken heart.
She's forthright and redheaded and works as a schoolteacher in Bath. Haunted by memories of nursing her late husband in the last weeks of their short marriage, the widowed Sarah Callaway isn't looking for romance when she accosts Guy Devoran in a London bookstore. She's looking for her missing cousin Rachel, who's just been abducted by an unknown villain, and Guy is the only person who can help her.
No gentleman can refuse to aid a lady in such a mission, especially one who's so sensually attractive. Yet Sarah Callaway seems entirely unaware of her own charms, and she has no idea that Rachel is no longer the innocent young lady she remembers. Forced to hide the truth from Sarah, yet determined to rescue Rachel from her unknown fate, Guy can never let down his guard, however much he wishes to take Sarah to his bed. If there was ever a formula for disaster, this is it!
Their mission will take Guy and Sarah from the ballrooms of London to the smugglers' dens of Devon, where it's close to impossible for either of them to stay focused on their quest. Her darkly handsome companion is so very attractive that Sarah soon falls head over heels in love, though she's hardly a suitable match for a duke's nephew. Yet trying to uncover the truth about Rachel's disappearance while resisting Sarah's sensual appeal is going to be an even greater challenge for Guy. When passion refuses to be denied, every turn of the chase seems destined to expose his terrible secret and destroy forever all of their chances for happiness.
Excerpt from Chapter Three:
After waylaying Guy Devoran to demand his help in her urgent quest, Sarah Callaway attends a masked costume ball the next night at Blackdown House. She expects to meet Guy, but instead finds herself at the mercy of his cousins: first, Lord Ryderbourne; then Wild Lord Jack, who leads her into the orchid house . . .
A tall man in a crimson mask and silk turban walked up to stand beside her. His Oriental robes were flamboyantly embroidered with dragons.
Uncertainty fractured her perception for a moment, as if she were thrust suddenly into a fantasy. Her heart had leaped in a shock of recognition at his expressive mouth and the hint of perfect profile, yet the gilt-brown gaze was most definitely not Mr. Devoran’s.
This man’s eyes were filled with a similar humor and bright intelligence, yet she thought that grim determination—even something of anger—also lurked just beneath the surface.
Sarah smiled with blind courage. “Do I know you, sir?”
“Lord Jonathan Devoran St. George, at your service, ma’am.” He bowed his head. “Guy asked me to take care of you, should Ryder be otherwise occupied. Come! You’ll like this.”
Ah! Lord Ryderbourne’s younger brother, Wild Lord Jack, who had recently returned to England from India. Yet Lord Jonathan enjoyed an oddly terrifying reputation in the popular accounts of his adventures in the East.
Sarah dismissed her stab of apprehension and took his proffered arm.
They ducked together beneath the palm fronds and through a concealed doorway. Trees and vines clustered, some trailing long sprays of blossom, their roots bound in enormous clay pots. The floor disappeared beneath a thick layer of tanbark. Far above their heads, night scattered dark reflections between the stone ribs of a glasshouse.
The music faded as her escort led Sarah ever deeper into the rustling jade silence.
They stepped out into a small open space, dimly lit by a scattering of paper lanterns. A moist eddy carried earthy, flowery scents, with a strange undercurrent of danger, like air stirred by dragon’s wings.
Lord Jonathan released her arm, stepped away, and slipped off his crimson mask. “Well, Mrs. Callaway,” he said. “How do you like our little domestic jungle?”
Her heart beat hard. Orchids she had never seen before nestled among the other plants.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “Yet I wonder if a real jungle is anything like this.”
“No, it’s not.” His eyes studied her as if he would peel away her skin. “This fantasy is missing the darker scents, the secrets—and the tigers, of course. The real jungle is neither so pretty, nor so tame.”
Prickles danced down her spine as she looked back at him. “It doesn’t feel particularly tame to me. It feels quite real, though the water must be piped in from somewhere.”
He laughed, though he still seemed on edge. “What a very practical mind you have, Mrs. Callaway! You must be a bluestocking.”
A sudden splashing started somewhere nearby, as if someone had just turned on a fountain. Sarah’s unsteady pulse skipped a beat.
“We’re not alone here, my lord,” she said quietly.
“No, but you’re quite safe with me, Mrs. Callaway.”
Lord Jonathan took her arm again to lead her deeper into the trees. The plash of falling water grew louder. . . .
He stopped to pluck a blossom. Fragrant white petals offset the golden-yellow heart—Coelogyne cristata, the Combed Coelogyne.
“Beautiful, is it not?” His intense gaze fixed on her face as he twirled the orchid in his fingers. “Yet this plant’s a parasite, I believe.”
Her sense of threat deepened, as if suspicion or dread underlay every casual comment. Perhaps all those lurid accounts about this powerful aristocrat were true?
“That’s not a parasite, my lord,” she said. “It’s an orchid. It feeds mostly on air.”
“The host plant isn’t harmed?”
“No, not at all.”
“Then I’m very glad to hear it. I hate to think that something so apparently fragile might be dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” another man’s voice asked with a distinct note of humor.
Sarah spun about as if she were cleaved to the heart.
One booted foot propped on a fern-covered stump, his crossed forearms resting on that taut thigh, a masked corsair lounged beneath a riotously flowering vine. A live parrot sat on his shoulder.
A wave of heat spread down Sarah’s spine, tingling into every limb, as if her veins melted beneath the onslaught.
“Mr. Devoran!” She swallowed hard and bobbed a small curtsy.
His open-necked shirt offered shocking glimpses of a powerful male throat and chest, smooth and perilous. A scarlet belt beset with daggers and pistols emphasized his trim waist.
The parrot flew off to perch on a branch several feet away, where it began to preen its feathers.
Guy Devoran stripped off his black mask and bowed. “Good evening, Mrs. Callaway.” His eyes held a wild glint, as if he often spoke with angels or demons. “I see you’ve just had the misfortune to meet my other cousin, Wild Lord Jack. I trust the experience was entertaining, at least?”
Lord Jonathan laughed. The family resemblance was striking, both in bone structure and intensity—and in that perilous intelligence.
“Yes, indeed.” Though she was floundering to understand the strange undercurrents, a little rush of rage straightened her spine. “His Lordship was kind enough to show me a glimpse of the tigers in the jungle.”
Lord Jonathan raised a brow. “That was hardly my intention, ma’am.”
“Oh, I think that it was, my lord. After all, they say that you can transform yourself into a tiger to kill with one blow.”
“Good God!” Lord Jonathan laughed with real gaiety. “Do they?”
Her apprehension and anger almost evaporated. Perhaps her nerves were so frayed that she read menace into everything?
“You’re a romantic figure in the penny circulars, my lord. Stories about the St. Georges provide plenty of entertainment for the masses.”
“Then may I reassure you, Mrs. Callaway,” Lord Jonathan said. “There are no tigers here. Even the canaries are caged. See! Up there!”
Sarah glanced up. Gilt cages swung from the ceiling. A soft twittering trickled through the quiet, then several birds broke into song.
Yet for a split second as she first looked up, Guy Devoran had met his cousin’s gaze. Energy sizzled between the two men, as if they shared some terrible, silent dread—and tigers stalked the room as clearly as if they truly gazed out from the greenery.
Sarah sat down on the stump. Her pulse pounded, alarm roaring in flood.
“The birds are charming,” she said. “Yet I fear that you haven’t yet had a chance to exchange family news with your cousin, Lord Jonathan. I’d be quite content to rest here for a moment.”
“Then if you would kindly excuse us, Mrs. Callaway?” Guy Devoran said. “Jack?”
The two men strode away and stopped to talk at the edge of the trees. Cloaked in green darkness, they glanced back at her once. Without question, some gathering peril had become too strong to ignore.
Sarah took a deep breath. Alien orchids bloomed all around her. Tantalizing scents wavered on the moist air. Water droplets fell from mysterious leaves to patter onto her face.
Her ears burned, though the noise of falling water drowned every word of that intense conversation. How could she possibly understand these aristocrats? Men with such casual power—but with all that restless energy dedicated, perhaps, only to hedonism?
She glanced back at the men. Concentration and concern stamped each handsome face. Any idea that they were dedicated only to pleasure fled instantly. Yet they strolled over to rejoin her at last with no obvious sense of urgency.
Sarah stood up, her heart in her mouth, as Lord Jonathan bowed over her hand.
He laughed up at her as if he had never known anything but merriment. “I regret that I cannot further our acquaintance, Mrs. Callaway. My wife, Anne, will bear our first child very soon, so I return home immediately. However, you’ll be in equally safe hands with my cousin.”
“Thank you, Jack,” Guy Devoran commented dryly. “After all that talk of tigers, I’m sure that your personal recommendation will go a long way with Mrs. Callaway.”
“I’m honestly not concerned for my safety,” Sarah said.
“Then the only question that remains, ma’am,” Wild Lord Jack replied as he bowed, “is whether Guy is safe with you.”
The dragon robes rippled as he strode away through the trees.
Mr. Devoran leaned one shoulder against a stone pillar.
The parrot flashed back to clutch its feet onto his shirt. Its bright yellow eyes surveyed Sarah. “Safe with who? Safe with who?”
Guy Devoran laughed and walked the parrot down his arm onto his fist.
“There’s no distressing family news, I hope,” Sarah said.
“You’re kind to ask, but no, not at all, though Jack and I were glad to catch up. Thank you for allowing us the chance.”
“Yet I thought—”
“No,” he said. “Come, ma’am! I must adjust that loud fountain.”
He carried the bird away. Her mouth dry, Sarah followed.
They brushed past some trees into an inner court. Falling water shimmered in the glow of a handful of lanterns. No one else was about.
His shirtsleeves stretched over taut muscles as Mr. Devoran thrust the bird into a cage on a stand, then bent to adjust a valve hidden behind some greenery. The water subsided into a quiet ripple.
“You turned on this fountain to hide your voices?” she asked.
He glanced up. “As a signal to Jack that I’d arrived, that’s all. The guests won’t wander in here until they’ve all eaten supper. Then several couples will take advantage of the seclusion to indulge in a little naughtiness with other people’s spouses. Are you hungry?”
“Only for some truth,” she said. “I don’t really like being played with.”
“There’s something important that you’re not telling me, Mr. Devoran. Was Lord Jonathan truly concerned about my intentions? Did he take me in dislike?”
He dropped a green cloth over the parrot’s cage. “Not at all, though Jack certainly wondered if you might not be another orchid.”
“Difficult, dependent, and out of place?” She smiled, though her heart felt raw. “Not many of these plants will survive here, will they?”
“Torn as they are from their natural habitat? Probably not.” He gazed at a Cattleya orchid, then glanced back at her. “But perhaps Jack only meant that you’re exotic, lush, and enticingly sensual?”
Surprise shocked her into laughter. “Good heavens! Is that why he asked me if orchids are parasitic?”
Mr. Devoran plucked a hanging blossom and touched her cheek with the cool petals. Transfixed, Sarah gazed up at him, her pulse hammering. She was painfully—absurdly—aware of the beauty of his mouth: the perfect white teeth and firm, expressive lips.
“You truly have no idea of your real effect on men, do you, Mrs. Callaway?”
He trailed the flower past the curve of her ear to stroke beneath her jaw. The petals lay soft and moist against her throat . . .
A tiny spasm tightened the muscles around his mouth, almost as if he’d received a small blow.
The silence sang, humming like a thin wire vibrating just beyond the range of her hearing.
For the length of a heartbeat they stared at each other, while streamers of heat unfurled in her veins.
Thick lashes rimmed his eyes. Each iris was a perfect dark chocolate, rimmed in the thinnest of black circles. His gaze smoldered—burning with power, and passion, and some dark, wicked knowledge—as if he were willingly consumed for her, as if his very soul were abandoned to desire.
No man had ever looked at her like this, as if he would burn directly into her heart to plumb straight into those confused depths. . .