Knave of Hearts, Four
Arundel, The South Downs
West Sussex, England, Summer 1830
Lacey Ashton, unnoticed in the midnight shadows, fixed her hungry gaze upon Gabriel Kendrick, the most formidable of the ghosts she had come home to face.
Dwarfing his surroundings, Gabriel bent to keep his head from an intimate encounter with a raw-oak barn beam while protecting the newborn lamb in his keeping, a smile in his eyes, if not on his face . . . until he saw her. Gabriel the indomitable—named for the bright angel, when he should have been named for the dark—stood frozen in vulnerability.
A heartbeat, no more, and the scoundrel narrowed his eyes, stepped forward, stretched to his full staggering height, and squared his shoulders to a stunning span. Lucifer, sighting prey, spreading charred wings.
His chiseled features, graven in shadow, sharpened to unforgiving angles as his dark-fire gaze singed her.
Lacey stepped back. In that moment, despite her resolve, she wanted nothing more than to turn tail and run . . . except that she could not seem to move.
Here stood the father of her child, while between them stood the lie she’d told to deny it—saving him and tormenting him in one horrific stroke.
A horse snuffled and shuffled in its stall, freeing the scent of hay musk into the grip of silence, injecting reality into unreality, replacing the past with the present, and allowing her finally to draw breath.
As forbidding as her nemesis appeared in lantern light, dressed entirely in black, the tiny white lamb tucked into his frock-coat humanized him, the contrast bringing his cleric’s collar into conspicuous and bright relief.
A Vicar’s trappings, a scoundrel’s heart, and no one seemed to know, save her.
He no longer fit the image of the young man she had carried in her heart. His features familiar, despite the firmness of his jaw, had been lined and bronzed by time and parish responsibilities to a mature and patrician air. His leonine mane, still an overlong tumble of sooty waves, thick and lush, bore strokes of gray at the temples. No phantasm here, but the bane of her existence in the flesh, more daunting, more vitally masculine. More a threat to her sanity than ever.
As if he could read her, Gabriel shifted his stance, on guard, watchful, yet before her eyes, a hard-won humility replaced his natural arrogance. But he did not do humble well, and his attempt jarred her.
He’d always been proud, even when they were children—he, the indigent Vicar’s son, she, the daughter of a Duke. But now, their roles had been reversed, and the Duke’s daughter stood, impoverished, disowned, before the boy who’d adored her, then hated her, with all his heart, face to face for the first time in five years. “Gabriel,” she said, wishing her voice did not tremble and her body did not remember.
Gabe foolishly wondered if the sum and substance of all his dreams, good and bad, could hear the sound of his cold stone heart knocking against his ribs, bruising him to his core. “Lace,” he said, her name emerging raw and raspy.
Mortified at his self-betrayal, he cleared his throat to try again, but a shadow fell between them cutting the anguish of the moment.
Gabe focused on the newcomer, Yves “Ivy” St. Cyr, stood there beaming, his little red dog at his heels, Ivy, whose puppet wagon they’d once chased giggling down High Street. The happy vagabond grasped Gabe’s hand and pumped it, making him feel the dolt for failing to extend it. “Ivy,” Gabe said, relieved his voice worked again.
The puppet master beamed. “I see you found the surprise I brought you.”
Found it? Gabe could not take his eyes from it.
“Yes, Gabriel,” Lacey said. “I have come home.”
As was her habit, and his curse, she answered his unspoken thought. Whether her words eased or deepened his anxiety, he could not decide, but he hoped fervently that his shock and yearning were not as plainly writ on his brow for her to read.
“She’s staying with me for now,” Ivy said. “Helping with my puppet shows until she finds a place here in Arundel to live. There’s plenty of room in my wagon.”
Gabe worked to comprehend Ivy’s words and form a coherent response, while the horrible gladness burgeoning inside him begged release to the point it constricted his chest and stole his breath. He found concentration necessary to fill his lungs. “You’ll stay at Rectory Cottage,” he said. “Both of you. More room than in that gypsy wagon.” Gabe raised a hand while Ivy prepared what would be nothing more than a token protest.
Gabe shook his head. “No argument, now.” He had always suspected that Ivy enjoyed making people as well as puppets dance, though with the best of intentions. So of course the puppeteer offered no argument, but he did grin and wink at Lacey. “Took pity on my old bones, he did.”
As Lace had once commanded, Gabe bowed before her. “Lady Ashton.” His insolent use of her title, a reminder of her status before her fall from grace, pierced her, he saw, and for that reason, it pierced him as well.
“I apologize,” Gabe said. “That was . . . unforgivable.”
“Yes, it was.”
She tried, and failed, to mask her distress.
Gabe watched, heart racing, as she turned to their friend. “Ivy,” she said, “I can’t stay. I’ll sleep in the wagon while I look for— No, I’ll take the morning coach back to Peacehaven in Sussex. This won’t do.”
Handing the lamb to Ivy, Gabe placed the flat of his hand against Lacey’s back to stop her retreat, turn her, and propel her toward the vicarage before she objected further.
Her familiar heat warmed his palm and spiraled like smoke from a chimney to surround his icy heart, causing a painful thumping nudge in the center of his chest.
He retrieved his hand and fisted it in self-preservation as he looked about him as if for an answer to his dilemma.
The vicarage kitchen, friendly, welcoming, pleased him absurdly, seeing it as he was through Lacey’s eyes. But she stepped away from him. “I won’t stay. I won’t.”
Gripped by panic, Gabe knew he could not let her go. Not again. Just thinking about the possibility seared him deep, like a knife had sliced him open and left him bleeding.
To save himself, he turned and bent on his haunches to stoke the fire in the grate, chase the damp, and warm the undersized lamb.
Ivy’s pup, a German Dachshund, placed her front paws against his thigh seeking attention, its tail beating an amiable tattoo, yet Gabe could concentrate on nothing, save Lacey.
Lacey was home, here, in his house, where he’d pictured her a hundred times. A thousand.
His Lacey. As beautiful as ever. More beautiful. His.
No, not his. Never again his. That was past.
He was a proper Vicar now, staid, unemotional, his passion, a vice overcome. Long-buried. Dead. Except that it was not.
Gabe turned to the sound of a throat being cleared, almost surprised to find Ivy standing there, exhausted, a sleepy lamb in his arms.
“It’s late; I’ll prepare your rooms,” Gabe said, rising from the hearth. “Mackenzie’s asleep.” The lamb bleated and Gabe reached to stroke the downy-soft head against Ivy’s arm.
“She’s hungry, the wee thing,” Lace said.
“I was planning to fix a bottle.” Gabe felt stupid, overlarge, oafish beside Lace, and remembered a time that hadn’t mattered.
“Did she lose her mother?” Lace asked.
Gabe relieved Ivy of his burden, feeling more comfortable with the lamb in his arms, like a shield, he thought fleetingly, but against what? “She’s a twin,” he said, “and a runt to boot. Her mother rejected her.” He stroked the fragile neck and the mite closed its eyes in ecstasy.
Lacey watched, transfixed by the action.
Gabe thought he saw . . . yearning? in Lace’s emerald eyes. The kind that had once made him lower her to the grass and—
The fire crackled, breaking the tension between them.
They both stepped back, set free by the sound.
Lace looked anywhere but at him. “I’ll fix her a bottle. Just tell me—”
“I’ll get you—” They spoke together, stopped together.
He gave a half nod and set the lamb on its wobbly legs. Then he proceeded to take everything from the scullery that Lace would need to feed the mite.
Not sure what more he could say without exposing old wounds, Gabe nodded and headed out to get their bags. The click, click, click of puppy paws on the slate floor behind him assuring him that Ivy and his pup followed.
Once Gabriel quit the room, Lacey nearly swooned from the effort she’d expended pretending indifference while jolted out of mind.
She glanced about her at the room that had been a haven for half her life. Twenty years ago Gabriel’s mother taught her to make jam tarts and sew her first stitch by this very hearth. Happy memories.
Here, tonight, she came face to face with the stormy, soul-deep longing that led to her downfall—memories she could not classify; she had not come to terms with them, after five years. In her mind, they were not wicked, though not quite righteous, either. Nevertheless, she’d brought upon her family the ultimate disgrace.
After the birth, and death, of her child, Ivy had taken her from here, where she grew up, to the Peacehaven Home for Downtrodden Women, in Newhaven on the Sussex Coast. There, she’d tried to hide. But she’d been brought back to life with a vengeance and with love, first from Jade, and then her girls. Marcus, too, eventually.
There she’d regained her self-respect, grown strong, confident, assertive. She’d discovered, and finally accepted, that she must face her past before she could hope for a future.
This morning she’d set boldly forth, carrying heart-flags of purpose and determination, eager to brave the world she’d left behind . . . and ended trembling in a vicarage kitchen, fragile as the lamb butting her leg.
Despite herself, Lacey smiled at its antics. “What makes you think I have milk? Do I look like your mama? Oh.” Lacey placed a hand to her aching chest. She was no-one’s mother. The self-inflicted wound, unexpected and sharp, hurt the more amid the ruins of her loss.
Determined to calm herself before Gabriel returned, she poured milk into a pan to warm as she rinsed a lambing bottle and nipple. She reminded herself that her purpose in returning stood at hand—her niece, Gabriel’s step-daughter, asleep upstairs, the child she would save . . . as soon as she saved herself.
So near, yet so far. So possible, yet not. Only Gabriel stood between her and success, between joy and despair.
Some things never changed.
Lacey sat on the floor near the hearth and coaxed the lamb into her lap by tugging gently as it followed its grip on the nipple.
She was home. To face her ghosts. An entire village of them, specters who’d condemned her and turned their backs on her, Gabriel at their head, she sometimes suspected.
While his flock considered him a saint, they considered her a sinner. About the latter, they were correct. About the former—Gabriel himself—however, they were mistaken. He was human, all too human. Flawed. No one knew that better than she.
Oddly enough, she believed she’d forgiven him a long time ago. ‘Twas herself she could not seem to pardon.
Gabriel returned to the kitchen after bringing Ivy and their bags upstairs, and Lacey tried to appear composed, as she sat before the fire, the greedy newborn in her lap suckling lustily.
Gabriel stopped beside her, hands behind his back, a paradox of a scoundrel, bigger than life, deadly handsome, stirring her just by looking at her.
As if he realized it, he stepped away, fixing his gaze on the old oak table, with its slab of a top and legs as big as tree trunks. Then he sat, confused for a moment as to what to do with his beefy hands and placed them finally on his thighs.
“Where’s Ivy?” she asked, her dratted voice a wobbling croak.
“Fell asleep while I was showing him his room, the pup beside him. I took off his shoes and threw a blanket over them. Is he getting old, our Ivy?”
“The pup’s name is Tweenie; she’s his shadow. And he’s not as old as he is stubborn. He insisted on driving through, all the way from Newhaven. I’m sorry we arrived so late; we made a late start. Your friend Marcus Fitzalan, a knave of your club, I’ve been told, married my friend Jade today, and we stayed to celebrate. I’m glad we didn’t awaken you.”
“Marc, married. Imagine that.” To her dismay, he rose and dropped down beside her to stroke the drowsing lamb’s lanolin-soft wool.
Too close. Oh, God, he was too close. The Duke of Ainsley and the Marquess of Andover send their best. They said you were a holy scoundrel in school.
As if she hadn’t spoken, the mite roused at Gabriel’s attention and suckled, again, as if it hadn’t eaten in a week, until it was pulling loudly on air-bubbles.
Lacey tried to wrest the empty bottle from the lamb’s grip, and as she did, Gabriel’s big brown hand stroked too far and grazed her breast.
The two of them froze at the contact, gazes locked, a primitive, unnamed energy rising hot and thick between them—an intangible yet undeniable force, savage.
Lacey’s heart raced, her nipple budded, her womanhood flowered. To keep from crying out at her body’s betrayal, she bit her lip, and tasted blood.
No wonder Jade’s eagerness for Marcus, Abigail’s for Garrett. Love had surrounded her, not just lust. Not like this hot rush between her and Gabriel.
His breath left him. He struggled for air. Lust flared in him, molten and heavy. He’d controlled passion for years, the more so with his wife Clara’s staunch approval, after their sorry wedding night. But a minute in Lacey’s company and passion long-dead reared up wild and alive.
Trapped. By weakness.
Strength lay in denying passion—a hard-won lesson for him. But around Lacey, desire overcame determination, and strength became a wisp of smoke where once had burned a zealot’s fire.
Lacey. Lace. Home. His Lace.
No, and again, no.
She used to make him call her Lady Ashton when he wanted to call her Lace, like the rest of her friends did, except for the day that he’d come home a new-minted parson, when he’d finally called her . . . his.
Why did he still feel like that worthless boy with the torn shirt and dirty nails? Why, when his clothes were new and his home comfortable and clean, elegant even? Why, when the gray dress Lace wore, which must once have been blue, had been mended and pressed to a pauper’s shine?
Trapped. By passion. By Lacey. Gabe wanted to swear, to rage. He wanted to pull her into his arms and kiss her until she gave passion back, as good as she got, as only Lacey could.
If it were not for the fact that he wasn’t the only man to know—
Gabe rose to his feet and crossed the kitchen, to be as far away from her, from captivation, as possible.
He wasn’t certain he could bear to be near her without taking her into his arms, any more than he could bear the constant reminder of her betrayal, of his foolishness.
“I’m looking forward to spending time with my niece,” she said, her nervous rush of tumbling words pulling Gabe from pain and shivering him to his bones. He gazed at Lace across the room, hoping he would see no greater significance than her words betrayed. “My daughter,” he said, desperate, for some strange reason, to stake his claim.
Lacey rose, lifting the lamb in her arms. “Stepdaughter,” she corrected. “I hope she hasn’t forgotten her real father.”
Gabe approached her, then. He’d face any and all demons, real or imagined, for Bridget. “Her father died before she was born. Her mother and I married before Bridget turned two. I am the only father she knows.”
“I am her aunt, kin by blood.”
“Blood, as we know, does not always tell.”
Lacey stepped back under the pain of his verbal blow.
As unexpected to him as to her, his barb had been born of instinct and self-preservation, but as always, her pain became his. He might just take to bleeding on her behalf, and then how foolish would he look?
Frustrated over his callous behavior, over how brutish he must appear to her, he reclaimed the lamb with more force than he intended, yet he could not seem to compose himself. He wished to the devil he didn’t bloody well care how he appeared or how Lace felt. “I’ll show you to your room.”
Preoccupied by his demons, Gabe made for the stairs, then he realized he’d committed the unforgivable and gone before her. He should have allowed a lady to precede him, as he would the lowliest in rank . . . except that Lacey was no longer a lady, he hated to remember.
Neither was he a gentleman, as she had often reminded him.
He stopped to let her pass.
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