To save her sister, Crystal Rader must woo Reginald, the Viscount Foxley, obtain the Carthage, an ancient stone of great powers, and give it to their evil father, Tom Mrasek. Tom locked a choking device with clockworks around the sister’s neck. Crystal has two months to get what he wants or else her sister will die.
Both Reginald and Tom are immortals. Over the centuries, Tom has sent many a woman to seduce Reginald into giving up the ancient power, and Reginald nearly succumbed twice.
Since Crystal knows nothing about seduction, and despises her abusive father, she doesn’t plan on following through–although she vows to save her sister. But her father’s spies are watching her so she must try her hand at wooing. It’s a juggling act since she also builds her listening ears disguised in her robomaids to spy on establishments her father frequents in an attempt to discover where he has imprisoned her sister.
Reginald is suspicious of her, and isn’t convinced she is who she says she is. However, his dear Lady Eliot–-a woman who posed as his grandmother before her death–-believed in Crystal, so much so that she named Crystal in her will with the stipulation that Reginald marry the girl in order to obtain Lady Eliot’s fortunes. Crystal claims she had nothing to do with the will, but Lady Eliot befriended her when she most needed it, and she wants to honor her benefactor by trying her hand at courting, which Reginald finds amusing and unusual.
When Reginald discovers her sister is missing, he joins her in the search. He admires her ingenuity with gadgets, and the way she uses her strengths to find her sister. She is both vulnerable and brave, a mixture he finds rare in women. He senses she has secrets. Her attempts to flirt with him in order to honor Lady Eliot captivates him; the mystery of her fascinates him.
Reginald’s determination to find her sister endears him to her. As she gets to know him better, the lies swamp her in guilt. Chivalry shines through from his ancient training as a Knight Templar, with an honor code her father and his acquaintances lack. She never anticipated falling for Reginald herself. Can she keep him from discovering who she is–-the daughter of a man who has been Reginald’s archenemy for centuries?
With a little interference from pixies Allegro and Glissando, magic just might separate the truths from the lies and the horsehair from the crinoline.
A burst of throaty, feminine laughter startled Reginald as he sailed silently over the copse of trees in his gliding machine, the sound perking his weary senses. A child’s squeals of excitement pierced the air. Nearing the bank of the Perrett River just inside the boundary of Blakeleigh, he leaned on the handles to steer the machine toward the commotion. Vegetation impeded his view. He focused on the carefree sound of the woman.
“Botheration,” she said.
“Ha, ha. You didn’t catch it,” a child taunted from the other side of the brush.
“Just wait, Gertie, you haven’t seen a true fisherwoman at work ’til this day,” the woman exclaimed, her tone guileless. A yelp and a splash followed her comment.
He landed the contraption on the meadow about twenty yards away just as more shouts of laughter from the child reached Reginald’s ears, reminding him of his youth, when he’d played in a similar stream with his younger brother. That had been centuries ago. His brother had passed on before Reginald had become a Knight Templar. Had he ever experienced such raucous, joyous behavior since then? As he released the leather harnesses that buckled him onto his glider he realized, with a sinking heart, he hadn’t.
Squinting against the glare of sun on water, he saw girl of about six years watching a woman rise from her face-down position in a pool near the river bank. The woman’s chestnut hair curtained her face, but when she straightened, the sight of her wet dress hugging her petite curves made his breath catch. Her skirts had been pulled up between her legs, the hem tucked under her corset. Although she wore pantaloons, the soaked cotton was translucent. Her clothes clung to her calves and thighs, delineating their lovely lines.
She glanced at the water. “If I hadn’t lost my balance, we would have caught several pollywogs.”
“Speak for yourself, Tollie,” the child retorted. “I got me one.”
“That’s what you said an hour ago.” The woman pushed back her damp hair.
Her high cheekbones emphasized her small chin, giving her an elfin look. She sighed, and Reginald had the feeling she reflected on something sad. Light smudges of lavender ringed her eyes, as if she hadn’t sleep well. What worries kept her up at night? Did she, like him, suffer from guilt of time lost with a loved one, never to be recovered? For he admitted it—he had loved Lady Eliot, her optimism and the manner in which she had embraced life. In ways, she was wiser than he could ever be.
Seeming to recall herself, Tollie pushed a lock of hair off her forehead. “Let’s see it.”
The child held out her hands. “Careful, it might ’scape.” Leaning over the girl’s cupped fists, the woman patted Gertie on the back. “You did it! And what a strange-looking aquatic creature. Surely those are pieces of straw on its head and not hair. And it appears as if it’s already growing legs—but not really frog legs. And look! Are those little curly pointed shoes I see on its feet?”
The child’s eyes widened with awe. “Truly?”
The woman’s ability to entertain the child with fantasy was amazing, but at that moment his flying machine released excess gas fumes with a hiss. The twosome jumped then turned toward Reginald like a startled doe and her fawn. Reginald watched Tollie push her small companion behind her.
Her instincts to protect the child caused a warmth in him. Reginald’s gaze met the woman’s and a bolt of awareness similar to lightning crackled through the air between them. Her generous lips parted as if she sensed it, too.
The child recovered first. She wrinkled her nose—which was sprinkled with cinnamon-colored freckles—as she peered around her protector. “By jingo, mister, you made me lose my tadpole.”
“Good day,” he said as he continued to lean against his flying machine. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
A brilliant smile lit the woman’s features, causing Reginald’s breath to catch again. “We are conducting an experiment from our lessons in biology.”
“Unfortunately, my lessons were never this interesting.” He glanced at her worn dress. Gasping, she fumbled at the hem tucked under her waistband.
The child suddenly pointed at the woman’s knees. “Don’t move. You’ve got something alive caught in your skirts.”
Tollie jumped, then grimaced. “Something is squirming.” Freeing her skirt, she gazed down. “Why, there are at least two dozen tadpoles here. Gertie, go get the glass jar.”
As she cast a sideways glance at Reginald, he threw the woman an indulgent smile. She stumbled and yelped, her feet obviously bare. “Sir, you could be my knight in shining armor and help this damsel in distress rather than ogling her.”
He chuckled. “And ruin my Wellingtons ?”
The comers of her mouth curved in a faint smile, and he realized she was not only pretty; she was beautiful. “Heaven forbid you should destroy your boots.”
He settled against the fuselage. “Besides, I’d rather sit back and enjoy the view.” Silver flashes escaped as she tried to lower her hem.
“I’ve got it! I got the strange pollywog again,” Gertie yelled, holding up a jar. She ran back into the stream, splashing Tollie.
When the woman laughed at the girl’s antics, Reginald marveled at her simple acceptance of her disheveled condition. Water dripped like crystal beads from her lashes.
Reaching for the jar, she stumbled on the river bottom with another yelp. The jar slipped from her hand and splashed into the water. “Clocks on a mantle! I am all thumbs today.”
“Tollie’s all thumbs every day,” Gertie confided to Reginald.
“I heard that, Gertie. Have a care, or I might be tempted to sell you to gypsies.”
The small girl snickered behind her hand. “I’ve been sold three times this week,” she informed Reginald, then caught the jar when it floated toward her. “The strange tadpole’s gone again. Maybe it’s in your skirts.”
Tollie stared intently at the thing trapped in her sodden dress. “Yes, I see the creature. How strange. It looks as if it’s watching me and is staying apart from the other pollywogs. I’ve sat in the river for so long, I suppose I am destined to grow gills and frolic with the thing.”
Beguiled by her playful imagination and her sweet indulgence of the child, Reginald said, “Aren’t you going to get out? I believe you could put the rest of the wiggly creatures in the jar if you did.”
“I think I’ll just sit here.”
He considered helping her out by hovering and using the baggage hauler, then decided not only would the pollywogs perish, but the method was too undignified. The two females stared at him. He groused, “Ridiculous, wouldn’t you say? Very well.” Walking toward the pool, he gingerly waded out to them. Coming close, he reached behind the woman, ignoring the cold water as it seeped through his soles.
She jerked, almost falling forward in the stream again. “What are you doing, sir?”
“Ruining my Wellingtons.” Grasping her under the arms, he hoisted her to a standing position.
She turned her head and looked at him, then frowned. “Exactly who are you?”
She was as tantalizing up close as at a distance. Her rich-as-cream skin gave him the sudden urge to touch to see if it was as silken as it looked. She tilted her head back to look at him. Even drenched in river water, she was a winsome lass. Her guileless manner and natural blush made him realize he had been too long in the company of women with rouged cheeks and artificial manners.
She teetered and yelped, “Ouch! The pebbles hurt my feet.” He held her upright, savoring the feel of her slender back as she leaned against his chest. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Reginald Hale, the viscount Roxford.”
She stiffened. “You’re Eunice’s grandson?”
Eunice? No other young woman would refer to his grandmother in that familiar manner except for... Dread poured through his veins as he realized who she was. This enchanting creature was the interloper he was doomed to wed!
“Tollie. As in Crystal? Lady Crystal?”
Her gaze narrowed at him as if he were a criminal. “That’s correct. Come to marry me for your money, have you?”
“Broken Clocks.” In horror he stepped back and released her, watching her fall backward into the water with a splash.
“By jingo, mister,” young Gertie exclaimed. “You lost all our tadpoles, including that strange one I wanted to keep!”
“You look nothing like your portrait in the Great Hall,” Lady Crystal said. She sounded as if he’d purposely misled her.
“And you look nothing like an encroaching mushroom.”
“Tollie, they’re getting away!” Gertie cried out.
Crystal’s backside burned as she sat, the twisting little pollywogs scattering in the clear water around her. She was glad she’d worn long sleeves to hide the stab wounds from the barbs, wounds from two days ago that had barely started to scab over. She shouldn’t have accused him of greediness. That was no way to woo the man. But to flirt was not in her nature. If only Lady Eliot could advise her….
Guilt twisted her heart over Lady Eliot’s death. To be murdered by Crystal’s elecktropistol. No, she hadn’t been the one to pull the trigger, but Eunice’s demise was her fault nonetheless. If only she had left Blakeleigh as soon as soon as she’d finished cataloguing the library, her dear friend would be alive today. She couldn’t bear thinking on it, because if she did, she feared she would start screaming, and would never be able to stop. Then more adversity would befall her and her sisters.
Gathering the squirmy creatures had been a ploy to lift Gertie’s dragging spirits. But that one tadpole had been truly bizarre. Had agony for Lady Eliot’s death and Ella’s kidnapping caused her to imagine shoes on the creature?
Still, that was the least of her worries. The tall, overbearing Viscount in front of her required all of Crystal’s attention, hovering over her like a mighty warrior, blond hair glittering in the afternoon sun.
As she gazed at his handsome features, a crackle of energy surged down her back. The portraits she’d seen in the mansion were poor substitutes for the power that exuded from the real man. But anger chased her excitement away when he stared at her with an incredulous expression. She tore her attention away from him. “Gertie, return to the cottage. I’ll follow you soon.”
“Tollie, I want to look for the pollywog we liked so much.”
Tollie. Gertie’s nickname for her caused her heart to melt. Usually she would correct Gertie’s pronunciation of her name, because the scamp could say it. But the recent battle with their father over his abusive kidnapping of Ella had caused her youngest sister to revert back to her toddler years. Today they’d been having such a good time that Crystal hadn’t the heart. However, on this she must be firm. “Do as I say and go home. Mrs. Lum can help you with a bath.”
Something in her tone must have alerted Gertie because her eyes widened and she gave the viscount a wary glance before she raced off through the trees.
Crystal turned her attention toward the viscount, who was now glaring at her. His blue eyes had turned as dark and turbulent as the clouds rolling inland off Cardigan Bay.
She fumbled in the folds of her skirt for the new elecktropistol she’d feverishly assembled the day after Lady Eliot’s death, and then realized what she was doing. She couldn’t shoot the Viscount with it, for pity’s sake. For she’d learned the elecktropistol was fatal to normal men, and women.
Don’t think about it.
She didn’t know what her father was, but she knew what he wasn’t. He wasn’t normal.
Building another pistol had given her purpose, for she planned to use it on her father the first chance she got, and save Ella. Then she and her sisters would leave the heartache of Blakeleigh and make a new life far away from London. The pistol wasn’t finished yet because she had plans on improving the weapon. But it was every bit as good as her old one. Even though she would not pull the weapon, relief swept over her when her fingers found the hilt. The holster—of which she was able to keep from her father—was waterproof, but so was the elecktro mechanism in the event she needed to use the weapon in the rain. It hung against her side from a loop sewn to her corset.
“My cogs. You’re the one who bamboozled my sweet grandmother?” He swept a derisive glance over her as she lay sprawled in the stream.
How could Eunice have loved this arrogant aristocrat? She gasped in pure rage as she saw how her skirts hiked up over her knees again, then hastened to draw her legs under her, irate that he would use her dishevelment to belittle her. She rose, doubtful of her footing on the rocky bottom. A sharp pebble gouged her bare heel and she bit back a cry, the pain only doubling her ire. Reaching down to smooth her skirts, she was surprised to see the queer tadpole clinging to the fabric. It wriggled its way into her palm and, if she wasn’t mistaken, actually winked at her. Frowning, she cupped her hand and held the tadpole waist-high. It relaxed in her palm, its eyes closing, its fishy mouth curving into a smile.
Crystal lifted her chin in a manner of which Eunice would have been proud. “Bamboozled? Ha! I had nothing to do with her will.”
In fact, she wished with all her might Eunice had never written that will. Otherwise, Lady Eliot would still be alive.
Roxford drew his bold brows into a scowl. “Either you swindled her or she went senile toward the end. I would wager the former.”
Calm suffused Crystal as she remembered the past two months—how she had cared for Lady Eliot, taken walks with her, helped with the tenants’ disputes and been as close a friend as Lady Eliot had been to her. Eunice had loved her like the granddaughter she’d never had, and Crystal had loved her in return like the grandmother she’d always wanted.
How dare he impugn Lady Eliot’s mental status. She wanted to shout at him, but in fond memory of Eunice, she wouldn’t lower herself to that level. “I didn’t deceive Lady Eliot, and she was quite sound. She happened to love me enough to want me to enjoy luxuries I never had. She knew I would never squander her fortunes away by gambling.”
His eyes widened; his brows arched as he simply stared at her. “And you think to have sway over how my money is spent?” Sleet couldn’t have been any colder than the look he shot at her.
“I don’t want your money.”
“Cogs, with whom has Eunice harnessed me?” Suddenly he sank down on a log, propped his elbows on trousers that delineated muscular legs and rested his forehead in both palms.
Crystal contemplated scooting to the edge of the pond to get her shoes. But the cold water chased away exhaustion that was threatening to swamp over her
“How did she die?” he asked, his head still propped on his hands.
His abrupt question startled her. “What?”
He raised his head. Bleakness colored his eyes. “I know she had an attack of her heart. What I mean is, did she suffer? Did she know she was about to die? If so, did she say anything, have any last words?”
Crystal contemplated whether or not she should tell him, but saw no reason not to do so. “She said, ‘trust Reginald, for he is your answer.’ Then she said she loved me.”
Frowning, he rubbed the glass covering the gears and hands of the pocket watch fastened to the flap of his waistcoat pocket. “What did she mean? I’m your answer to what?”
“All I know is that she wanted us to wed. But I told her I had made a vow to never marry.”
He gave her a guarded look. “You don’t say.”
His tone was full of distrust. Frustrated, she hit her thigh with a fist, splashing water. “Clocks, I told her I didn’t want her to mention my name in the will, or to put such stipulations for you to satisfy before getting your money.” She realized she had dropped her head into her hands as well. “Doing so is no way for anyone to begin a marriage. Besides she knew of my feelings about marriage. She knew I had goals, and that they didn’t include having a husband bolted onto my heels, dragging me down.”
Watery plops sounded next to her. Before she knew it, he had scooped her into his arms. She hadn’t even heard his steps upon the rocky shore.
“What are you doing?”
“You need rescuing.” He carried her out of the water, one hard arm molded to the backs of her legs, the other holding her securely against his chest. His nearness unnerved her. She gulped down the lump that had lodged in her throat, and told herself she was ridiculous to be afraid. The Viscount wasn’t going to hurt her—at least, she didn’t think so. But when he stared at her with such a deep force, another emotion swept over her—one she didn’t recognize. Her heart raced, and threatened to burst out of her chest. Something impalpable passed between them. By the time he set her down on her feet, she was breathless. Shaken.
The way he sucked in a shuddering breath made her think he was just as stunned over their close proximity as he carried her to shore. Breaking eye contact, he looked toward the trees, then asked abruptly, “Don’t you have another sister?”
“Hm?” Still rattled, it took her a few moments to process his question.
“Camlen said you had two sisters.”
Ella. How to explain her absence? She swallowed hard. “I—I do. Ella is at school.”
“Ah, I didn’t know.” Hesitating, he seemed to consider. “Would you like a ride?”
“No.” She jumped backward.
When he raised his brows, she realized she’d been too emphatic. “That is, I want to take my time so that I dry off before reaching Shelton Cottage.”
“Very well.” With a bow, he reached for her hand, which she hid behind her back. The other she kept against her waist as she cupped the strange tadpole.
Childish, she knew. Her cheeks burned with embarrassment over her knee-jerk reaction to avoid a man’s touch. Eunice had worked with her on that reaction, but she sometimes relapsed.
He gave her a perplexed look. “There is an air of mystery surrounding you, Lady Crystal. And I plan to discover every detail about you.”
Ooh, she hoped not—at least, not until she, Gertie and Ella were united once more. The possessive look he gave her vibrated the air around her. As he made his way back toward his flying contraption, she realized what a formidable gentleman he was. She could very easily imagine him in armor as a Knight Templar. He strapped himself into his hydrogen-powered gliding machine, his movements sure, an economy of motion.
“Be prepared for your wedding vows one month from today,” he warned.
“Not so fast. To do so would be unseemly,” She called out. But the hiss of the hydrogen drowned her words. Small balloons attached to the wings inflated with the gas and lifted the glider over the trees. The wind puffed under the wings, giving the glider lift. She could see him pulling on different lines to shift the nose toward Blakeleigh. As the glider turned, buoyed by the breeze, the hydrogen hissed again and the balloons were once more flat against the sails. Amazing. Had he designed the craft? She would have to question him about the contraption some time.
As she retrieved the net she and Gertie had used to catch the guppies, she thought about what she’d said to him. Unseemly? She snorted over her silly excuse. As if she cared what the haute ton thought of her. She simply refused to get married. But could she afford not to, now that her father had coerced her to woo the viscount? Was she jeopardizing Ella? How to get out of the situation? Especially when her father had spies? Would word of her hesitancy reach her father’s ears?
However, to postpone the marriage was the only thing she could think of to minimize the damage—to her life. She would merely have to think of a reason for her postponement. Then, after she saved Ella, she and her sisters would quietly disappear. She had some money. But she once her savings were depleted she would need more, and she didn’t know how long that would take. Oh, she would use her listening ears and any other devices she could to spy on her father. But to cover all the ground she could, she would have to rely on others. Bribing the kind of cutthroats who would know her sister’s whereabouts would be the only way she could get the information. And the funds would have to be considerable since by divulging such information would be going against her father. Most people, even the worst criminals in London, took a wide berth around Tom Rader, Lord of the Rookeries. Getting them to overcome their fear of his retaliation if he ever discovered they had helped her would cost her. But she would pay anything to get Ella back.
She thought about the ear device she had been forced to leave when she’d fled two months ago. That is had been used against her to be the instrument that ultimately caused Eunice’s death… Tears burned the backs of her eyes even as anger shot through her. She would be clever in disguising them.
She would outwit Tom Rader.
Since she had lived with him most of her life, she knew the places he tended to inhabit since he moved frequently to keep his enemies guessing as to his location. And she knew of the brothels he tended to frequent, and a couple of the women he visited. She would enlist a couple of reliable pick-pockets she knew to help her install the listening devices, men who had no love for her father. She would start by sending a postal pigeon to Itchy Knows where he frequented in the hovels near Old Pye Street.
What was happening to Ella? Was she being tortured? Were her father’s men abusing her? The thought made her eyes burn with tears. She felt as if she were splitting apart at the seams, like one of her robomaids that had made too many passes across dirty wood treading. She thought of Gertie, and their brief respite here at the river.
Was fear for Ella causing her to imagine strange tadpoles with curly shoes? Crystal glanced down at her palm, the palm that she still held cupped next to her waist to hold the strange little tadpole.
But it was gone.