Unlacing the Innocent Miss, page 1
His hands moved to possess hers, stilling their action.
“How dare you?” she gasped. “You have no right to touch me!”
His pale gaze slid to hers. “We have already been through this, but I’ll remind you as you seem to have forgotten. Until we reach London, you are under my control—completely and absolutely.”
She glared at him. Her heart was racing and it seemed that the skin on her ankles still tingled where his fingers had touched.
“Your feet are cut to ribbons.”
“As I have already said, sir, it is none of your concern.”
Rosalind’s heart was fit to burst and her stomach was a small tight ball of fear. She watched him with the wariness of a trapped animal.
He released her hands, then took hold of her left foot and began to unwind the binding.
“Sir! What on earth do you think you are doing?”
Unlacing the Innocent Miss
Harlequin® Historical #1016—November 2010
A season of secrets, scandal and seduction!
A darkly dangerous stranger is out for revenge, delivering a silken rope as his calling card. Through him, a long-forgotten scandal is reawakened. The notorious events of 1794, which saw one man murdered and another hanged for the crime, are ripe gossip in the ton. Was the right culprit brought to justice or is there a treacherous murderer still at large?
As the murky waters of the past are disturbed, so servants find love with roguish lords, and proper ladies fall for rebellious outcasts until, finally, the true murderer and spy is revealed.
Regency Silk & Scandal
From glittering ballrooms to a Cornish smuggler’s cove, from the wilds of Scotland to a Romany camp—join the highest and lowest in society as they find love in this thrilling new eight-book miniseries!
UNLACING THE INNOCENT MISS
I was reading a book about the history of the English police when I came across the aptly named thief-takers. Men who, before the development of a detective police force, traced thieves and recovered stolen property. They seemed to be represented as a corrupt lot—men who were just as criminal as the thieves they were apprehending. And that set me thinking that there must have been some honest men among them. Dangerous men doing a dangerous job. Tough. Ruthless. Determined. The idea of my hero, Wolf, was born.
Wolf is a gritty Yorkshireman. A thief-taker, who’s had to claw his way out of the gutter and get where he is off his own bat. But the recovery of his next thief is about to turn Wolf’s world upside down and shake the very foundations on which he’s built his life.
My heroine, Miss Rosalind Meadowfield, quiet, timid and skilled in blending in with the background, has spent a lifetime hiding her past. She appears to be the very antithesis of Wolf. But maybe Rosalind and Wolf have more in common than either of them realize, as each overcomes the barriers the other has built around their heart.
I had great fun being a part of the Regency Silk & Scandal series. Here is my humble offering—the story of Rosalind and Wolf and how they come to fall in love. I really do hope that you enjoy it.
Praise for Margaret McPhee
The Wicked Earl
“McPhee skillfully weaves a tale of revenge, betrayal and an awakening love in this emotional and compelling romance about an innocent young woman, a forbidding lord and an evil villain.”
—RT Book Reviews
“McPhee utilizes the atmosphere of the gothic, leading readers through a maze of unanswered questions and underlying terror.”
—RT Book Reviews
Look for these novels in the Regency miniseries
SILK & SCANDAL
The Lord and the Wayward Lady
by Louise Allen—June 2010
Paying the Virgin’s Price
by Christine Merrill—July 2010
The Smuggler and the Society Bride
by Julia Justiss—August 2010
Claiming the Forbidden Bride
by Gayle Wilson—September 2010
The Viscount and the Virgin
by Annie Burrows—October 2010
Unlacing the Innocent Miss
by Margaret McPhee—November 2010
The Officer and the Proper Lady
by Louise Allen—December 2010
Taken by the Wicked Rake
by Christine Merrill—January 2011
May 1815, London
Outside in the darkness of the night a dog was barking.
A necklace of diamonds lay within a nest of black silken rope coiled on Lord Evedon’s desk. The diamonds glittered beneath the light of the candelabra as he picked up the necklace, letting it dangle and sway from his fingers, all the while watching the woman standing so quietly before him across the desk.
‘Well?’ he finally said, and his expression was cold. ‘What have you to say for yourself, Miss Meadowfield?’
A look of confusion crossed Rosalind Meadowfield’s face. The concern that she had felt at being summoned to attend Lord Evedon in his study had become fear. The hour was too late, and they were alone. His mood was not good, and it could be no coincidence that he was holding his mother’s missing jewels.
‘Lady Evedon’s diamonds, they have been found?’ She did not understand what else he expected her to say.
‘Indeed they have.’ He spoke quietly enough, politely even, but she could hear the anger that lay beneath. ‘Do you know where they were found?’ Her puzzlement increased, along with her sense of foreboding. ‘I do not.’
His eyes seemed to narrow and he glanced momentarily away as if in disgust. ‘The crime is ill enough, Miss Meadowfield. Do not compound it by lying.’
The tempo of her heart increased. She eyed him warily. ‘I am sorry, my lord, but I do not understand.’
‘Then understand this,’ he spoke abruptly. ‘The diamonds were found hidden in your bedchamber, wrapped within your undergarments.’
‘My undergarments?’ She felt her stomach turn over. ‘That is not possible.’
He did not answer, just stared at her with angry accusation. And in that small pregnant silence she knew precisely what he thought and why he had called her here.
‘You cannot believe that I would steal from Lady Evedon?’ Her words were faint, their pitch high with in credulity. ‘I would not do such a thing. There must be some mistake.’
‘There is no mistake. Graves himself was there when the diamonds were discovered within your chamber. Do you mean to call into question the propriety of the butler who has worked for the Evedon family for over forty years?’
‘I do not, but neither do I know how the diamonds came to be hidden within my clothing.’ She gripped her hands together, her palms sliding in their cold clamminess, and bit at her lower lip. ‘I swear it is the truth, my lord.’
‘And what is the significance of this?’ From the surface of the desk he lifted the rope, and even in the subdued lighting from the candles and the fire, she could see its dark silken sheen. With one end
‘Well?’ One movement of his fingers and the noose swung slightly.
‘I have never seen that rope before. I know nothing of it.’ Her heart was hammering so hard that she felt sick. All of her past was back in an instant—everything that she had fought so hard to hide—conjured by that one length of rope.
He made a sound of disbelief. ‘I warned my mother against taking on a girl without a single name she could offer to provide her with a character. But Lady Evedon is too kind and trusting a spirit. What else have you been stealing these years that you have worked as her companion? Small items perhaps? Objects that would pass unnoticed? And now you become brave, taking advantage of a woman whose mind has grown fragile.’
‘I deny it most fervently. I hav—’
But Evedon did not let her finish. ‘I do not wish to hear it. You are a liar as well as a thief, Miss Meadowfield.’
She felt her face flood with heat, and her fingers were trembling so much that she gripped them all the tighter that he would not see it.
‘The diamonds we have thankfully recovered; with the emeralds we have not been so fortunate. Will you at least have the decency to tell me where you have hidden them?’
She stared at him, her mind still reeling from shock, too slow and stilted to think coherently. ‘I tell you, they are not within my possession.’
‘Then you have sold them already?’ The silken rope slithered through his fingers to land in a dark pile upon the desk. He pocketed the diamond necklace. The clawed feet of his chair scraped loud, like talons gouging against the polished wooden floor, as he pushed the chair back and rose to his feet.
‘Of course not.’ Instinctively she stepped back, just a tiny pace, but enough to increase the distance between them. ‘I have taken nothing be longing to her ladyship.’
‘I doubt you have had time to rid yourself of the emeralds, and they are most assuredly not within your chamber. So where are they concealed?’ He moved out from behind the barrier of the desk and walked round to stand before her, facing her directly.
Rosalind’s throat dried. ‘I am no thief,’ she managed to whisper. ‘There has been a terrible mistake here.’
He ignored her. ‘Empty your pockets, Miss Meadowfield.’
She stared at him all the more, her heart beating a frenzied tattoo while her mind struggled to believe what he was saying, and she could not rid herself of the sensation that this nightmare into which she had walked could not really be happening.
‘I said turn out your pockets.’ He enunciated each word as if she were a simpleton.
Her hands were shaking and her cheeks burning as she removed a handkerchief from her pocket and pulled the interior out to show that it was empty.
‘And the others.’
‘I have no other pockets.’
‘I do not believe you, Miss Meadowfield.’ The logs crackled upon the fire. He stood there silent and still, before suddenly grabbing her arm and pulling her close enough to allow his hand to sweep a search over her bodice and skirts.
‘Lord Evedon!’ She struggled within his arms, trying to break free, but his grip tightened.
‘I will not let the matter lie so lightly. You will tell me where they are.’
‘I did not take them,’ she cried and struggled all the harder.
The dog was still barking and, as if in harmony, came the sound of a woman’s cries and shouts from upstairs within the house.
Rosalind ceased her resistance, knowing that it was the dowager that cried out.
Evedon knew it too, but he did not relinquish his hold upon her.
‘Do not think to make a fool of me so easily, Miss Meadowfield. If you will not divulge the whereabouts of the emeralds to me, perhaps you will be more forthcoming to the constable in the morning.’
From other parts of the house came the sounds of voices and running. And of hurried footsteps approaching the study door.
‘No,’ she whispered, almost to herself, and in that moment, his grasp slackened so that she succeeded in wrenching herself free of him. But the force of the momentum carried her crashing backwards towards the desk. Her hands flailed wide seeking an anchor with which to save herself, and finding nothing but the pile of books stacked upon the desk. Her fingers gripped to them, clung to them, pulling them down with her. From the pale fan of their pages a single folded letter escaped to drift down. Rosalind landed in a heap alongside the books with the letter trapped flat beneath her fingertips.
Lord Evedon’s face paled. She saw the sudden change in his expression—the undisguised horror, the fear—as he stared, not at her, but at the letter. He reached out and snatched it back, the violence of his action startling her.
A rap of knuckles sounded against the study door.
‘Lord Evedon.’ She recognized the voice as Mr Graves, the butler.
Evedon stuffed the letter hastily into his pocket. She saw the glimmer of sweat upon the skin of his upper lip and chin as she scrambled to her feet.
‘Attend to your appearance,’ he hissed in a whisper.
Only then did Rosalind realize that her chignon had unravelled, freeing her hair to uncoil down her back. She crouched and began searching for the missing hairpins.
‘M’lord,’ Graves called again. ‘It is a matter of urgency.’
Lord Evedon quickly smoothed the front of his coat and waistcoat.
‘Up.’ And with a rough hand, he yanked her to her feet by the shoulder of her dress, ripping it slightly in the process. ‘You will speak nothing of this to my mother. Do I make myself clear?’ She nodded.
At last he granted Graves admittance.
‘Forgive me, m’lord, but it is Lady Evedon.’
‘Another of her turns?’
Graves coughed delicately. ‘I am afraid so, my lord. She requests Miss Meadowfield’s presence.’ The butler did not even glance in Rosalind’s direction, and yet she could not help but remember what Lord Evedon had said about Graves overseeing the discovery of the diamonds. He had searched through her possessions, sparing nothing, not even her undergarments, and he thought her a thief. Her cheeks heated with the shame and injustice of it.
‘Very well.’ Lord Evedon’s gaze moved from Graves to Rosalind. ‘You will attend her ladyship, and this other matter will be concluded upon the morning.’
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak, aware of her burning cheeks and her unkempt hair and of what Mr Graves and the small collection of maids and footmen gathered in the hallway all thought her. She could see the accusation in their eyes and the tightening of their lips in disapproval.
She wanted so much to deny the unjust accusation, to say that she was as shocked at what was unravelling as they, but all turned their faces from her. She had no option but to follow Mr Graves up the staircase, aware with every step that she took of Lord Evedon at her back and of what the morning would bring.
Lady Evedon was no longer crying by the time they reached the room. She lay there so small and exhausted and frail within the high four-poster bed, her face an unnatural shade of white.
‘I saw his face,’ she cried. ‘He was there, right there.’ She pointed to the window where she had pulled the curtain back.
‘Who was there?’ Rosalind followed the dowager’s terrified gaze.
‘The one that follows me always. The one that never leaves me,’ she whispered. ‘He was no gentleman. He lied…Robert lied and I believed him.’
Rosalind glanced nervously at Lord Evedon.
‘There is no one there, mother. It is only you and me and Miss Meadowfield.’
‘You are quite certain?’ Lady Evedon asked.
‘I am certain. It was another of your nightmares.’ He pressed a hand to his mother’s, his face filled with concern. ‘I shall send for Dr Spentworth.’
‘Then we will request the doctor’s presence in the morning, to ensure that all is as it should be.’
‘I understand well your implication, Charles; you think that I am going mad!’
‘I was not suggesting any such thing. I am but concerned for your health.’
Lady Evedon nodded, but Rosalind could see in the lady’s face that she was not convinced. ‘Of course. I am merely tired, and the barking of that wretched animal outside woke me with a fright.’ She seemed almost recovered. ‘You may leave us now; Miss Meadowfield will read to me until I fall asleep. Her voice soothes my overly excited nerves.’ She turned to Rosalind with a little smile. ‘You look rather pale, my dear. Are you feeling unwell?’
‘I—’ Rosalind opened her mouth to speak and, feeling Lord Evedon’s hard gaze upon her, quickly closed it again. With a sinking heart she realized that he had been right in his caution as they left the study. She could not tell Lady Evedon of the accusation of theft or any of the rest of it, not with the dowager’s state of mind.
‘I am quite well, thank you, my lady.’
‘Your book.’ Lord Evedon lifted a small book from the bedside table and handed it to his mother.
Lady Evedon smiled. ‘Thank you, dear Charles.’
‘I will leave Stevens outside the door to ensure that you two ladies are kept safe.’ Lord Evedon’s gaze met Rosalind’s and she knew his words for the warning they were.
‘I shall be glad to know that we are being so carefully protected.’ Lady Evedon seemed reassured by the knowledge.
‘Mama…Miss Meadowfield.’ He bowed and left.
‘Miss Meadowfield,’ Lady Evedon held the copy of Wordsworth’s poems out to her.
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