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“That is true.”

“But you still expected something different,” he said, studying her as though she were a specimen under a microscope.

How he knew the truth, she could not comprehend. Long before the storm, her wild imaginings had pictured dark corridors, gloomy rooms, and dusty halls laced with cobwebs.

His penetrating stare did not abate. “My home is my haven. Should I not make it comfortable?”

“Of course.” Desperately, she looked to the elderly gentleman who stood as straight as a mainmast not two feet away. He’d taken Lord Archer’s coat and hat when they entered, and had done so with such quiet efficiency Miranda doubted Lord Archer had truly noticed him.

Lord Archer caught the direction of her gaze and stiffened. “Hullo, Gilroy. Didn’t see you there. You have everything prepared?”

“Good evening, my lord. Yes, my lord.”

Around a network of wrinkles, Gilroy’s kind eyes gleamed deep brown. Miranda nodded in greeting as Lord Archer took the mantle from her shoulders. “This is Lady Archer.” He handed Gilroy the mantle.

“Gilroy is our butler, majordomo, what have you,” he said to her as though the idea of titles irritated him a little.

“I am honored, my lady.” The man gave a short bow. “On behalf of the staff, we shall endeavor to serve you well.”

“I am confident you will,” she said, reaching for the same quiet dignity. The idea that she had a staff was almost enough to send her running to the carriage. Only Lord Archer would assuredly haul her back.

Lord Archer took her elbow once more and they walked down the length of the hall, past artworks of pastoral scenes and portraits of bewigged ladies and gentlemen.

“Do you have a valet?” Miranda asked, turning back toward Lord Archer as they moved past a small front parlor done up in lemon yellow and white with delicate Grecian style furnishings.

“No. I am a grown man, well capable of dressing and shaving myself. Gilroy takes care of incidentals.” He waved his hand in distraction.

Poor Gilroy.

Lord Archer’s eyes cut to her as though hearing the silent criticism. “It isn’t as though I have lacings and coiffures to worry over,” he said.

Childhood lectures from Mother ran in her head. One never speaks of personal grooming. A gentleman should never mention a lady’s toilette. Then again, Miranda had found Mother’s lectures rather stifling. “I admit surprise,” she said, catching a glimpse of a library filled with blue velvet sofas and deep leather wing chairs. “I’ve always thought nobles considered a valet a mark of distinction. Father said if you could, your lot would have someone wipe your…” She trailed off in a furious flush of heat.

Lord Archer looked at her sidelong. “Do go on, Lady Archer.”

She stepped away to peer into a large room of powder blue, rather hoping that the floor would open up and swallow her whole. What had prompted her to speak so basely? She had deliberately tried to bait Lord Archer.

“The ladies’ salon,” he murmured as she gazed up at the ceiling painted like a summer sky with rolling clouds and sunbeams. The décor of the home was old-fashioned. There simply wasn’t enough to appease the modern eye, no wall coverings of ornate patterning, no doilies, needlework, or bric-a-brac to fill the space. White lintels, Grecian pediments over the doors, their dentil moldings foiled with gold. Marble busts and convex mirrors adorned the simple mantels. Gothic architecture, Georgian interior, Regency décor… it was like sinking slowly back in a time long past.

“I shall give you a proper tour tomorrow.” He headed toward a massive staircase of white marble. “For now, you need rest.”

Miranda could wander through a house such as this all day. But she let herself be led, her feet sinking soundlessly into the carpet when they reached the second floor.

The walls were crimson. Golden candle-fed sconces and potted palms made the long hallway cheery, but the absence of servants was odd. “Where are the other servants?” she whispered. It would surely take an army of them to keep such a house.

“I keep a small staff. My privacy is more important. You shall meet most of them tomorrow.”

Feeling lost, she reached out and touched his arm. He pulled away with a low hiss, and her face flamed. “I’m sorry.” She chided herself for touching him, for feeling the need to.

Lord Archer took a long breath. “No. I am.” He cursed sharply. “The accident… my right side. I don’t like to be touched on my right side.” He stilled and then lifted his left arm, offering it to her. “I have offended you, the very thought of which shames me. Take my left arm. It is unaffected. Please,” he added when she hesitated.

His eyes were gray, a true dove gray surrounded by thick black lashes that rivaled any lady’s. It seemed an odd thing to fixate upon but she could not look away. Her heart tapped like a metronome, the palpable thing that was the force of his will and the strength of his body nearly overwhelmed her. Carefully, she placed a hand upon his arm, noting the hardness of it and the way his muscles jumped at her touch.

Her husband nodded in satisfaction, then pulled her along. He stopped before a set of doors where an elderly woman waited.

“This is Eula, our housekeeper,” he said by way of introduction. “You shall want to discuss the household running with her, I should think.”

By the way the elder woman was glaring at her, Miranda had grave doubts as to their working together.

Lord Archer stood stiffly between the women. “Well then, I shall see you at dinner.” He gave an awkward bow to Miranda and left her alone with the scowling woman.

Coming only to Miranda’s shoulder, the thin woman held herself stiffly erect and set her eagle eyes upon her. Miranda stared back squarely as the hairs on the nape of her neck bristled. The woman’s bedraggled bun was the color of old ivory. The lines of her face were cragged and deep but the bones beneath the skin were strong. Something she saw in Miranda must have met her approval. One corner of her colorless lips lifted slightly.

“Well, you’re no mouse. Thank God for that. A mouse has no business coming into a lion’s den.” Her gray brow lifted when Miranda merely held her stare. “Come along then. His Worship has bid me leave you a luncheon. I suppose a skinny bird such as yourself will be wanting some food.”

Over Eula’s shoulder, Miranda spied a tureen of soup and a mound of golden rolls spilling from a ceramic basket. Her stomach almost growled in anticipation.

Eula turned to shuffle into Miranda’s room, leaving in her wake the smell of camphor and old sheets. “He’ll collect you himself come dinner,” she said over her shoulder. “And don’t think of leaving these rooms by yourself.”

“And why not?” Really, Miranda had no intention of wandering this night but Eula’s high-handedness riled her.

“The dark hides all manner of sins here. No telling what horrors you’ll encounter in some shadowed corner.”

Eula’s discordant cackle taunted Miranda as the woman disappeared down the hall. Heart thumping in her chest, Miranda sat heavily on a plush settee. This was not a mistake. The evil woman only sought to scare her. Miranda bit her lip as she stared at the empty doorway, for one thought bothered her above all others: She wished Lord Archer would come back.

Chapter Four

Archer nearly ran down the hall like a frightened schoolboy. Had he some blasted malady that prompted him to act the ass at the very worst instant? Surely he must, for he’d nearly lost her before even having her. He cursed and shoved open the servant’s door. A maid coming up the stairs squeaked in alarm, nearly dropping her pile of linens. Sally, was it? New maid. She’d learn.

He took the narrow stairs upward. The footman on the next landing stepped aside, well prepared for the sudden sight of the master on the backstairs. Archer took the stairs two at a time, tugging at his cravat as he got toward the top.

He burst through the door at the top of the stair and slammed it behind him, setting the panes of glass above his head shuddering. Solitude. Already he felt his disquiet ebb.

His green house. A little glass jewel hidden away on the roof of the house. The rain rattled hard upon the glass, streaking and pebbling, hiding the world from view. It was kinder here, warm and humid. Filled with potted fruit trees and velvet roses, their fresh scent as thick as the air.

The mask first. He tore it from his head, then the inner one, and allowed himself the first fresh breath he’d had in hours. The humid air collided with his sweat-soaked skin, and his nerves twitched. He raked his fingers hard through his flattened hair, scraping his scalp just to feel the blood flow beneath the surface. The rest of his clothes followed in rapid succession. Then he moved to the water tap set high in the wall and opened it.

God it was cold. Good. He needed as much. Being trapped in the dammed coach with her had been torture enough. Archer closed his eyes and let the water pour over his head, down his heated torso. And he was rewarded with the image of that blasted reverend looking at him in the church, waiting for him to kiss Miranda—of all things. Had the man any idea of just how badly Archer had wanted to?

And her voice. It no longer held that high, girlish pip, but was warm and soft—like honey in the sun. Archer shivered. That voice, haunting him for three years. He took a shuddering breath, closed the tap, and reached for a towel.

The rain petered out to a light mist as he walked to the long cot by one of the glass walls. He reclined on it with a sigh and blinked up at a cluster of peach roses in full, audacious bloom. This wasn’t how he’d imagined facing her, still trapped in a mask, snapping at her like an arrogant bastard solely because, for the first time in years, he’d felt true embarrassment over his appearance. What must she think of him?

His forearm fell over his eyes. Ah God, and that utter rot about wanting her for an heir. Right-ho, when he couldn’t even show her who he was. What he was. His mind had gone blank when she’d asked him for an explanation. The truth was ridiculous, and the height of selfishness. Because he wanted her, despite all logic, all caution. Though he could never fully be with her, he needed her near. And now? Being near her wasn’t nearly enough.

How could he hide what he was from her indefinitely? His desolate laugh sounded like a stranger’s. Impossible. What he wanted was impossible.

Not impossible. Only hopeful.

Archer smiled tightly as he heard the voice in his head. “Ah, Elizabeth. If only it were you.”

It was a game he played with himself, talking to her as though she were here. Sometimes he wondered if talking with a memory was the final push into madness. Or the only thing that kept him sane.

You deserve happiness, Benjamin.

It was what he wanted to hear. But was it true?

A teardrop of dew rolled along the velvet edge of a rose. It hung for a suspended moment, glimmering diamond bright, before falling on his temple to skim over his brow like the stroke of a fingertip. He couldn’t remember the last time human hands had willingly touched him.

Not true. Miranda had. She had touched him as if he were just a man. He had lived on those moments ever since, pulled them to the fore when loneliness threatened to suck him down and drown him. He hadn’t meant to be away from her for so long. What ought to have been a year had drifted into three.

He took a deep breath. The air around was still, wet, and thick. Past the sweetness of roses came the heady scents of exotic orchids, strange plants acquired on his trips down the Amazon. All in search of a cure. His gaze drifted to the cluster of fire-pink flowers resembling a feather duster. That one had turned his piss red for a week. The purple seeds from some dark pit in Brazil that would have killed a normal man had him hunched over begging for mercy for twenty-four hellish hours. So many experiments. Trips to forgotten places. Strange concoctions made by tribal medicine men. Failures all. But he had been close.

Daoud, his valet, his trusted ally, had found it. The man’s clear script burned bright in Archer’s memory.

My lord, our suspicions prove correct. Alexandria held the key. I have found the answer. To be conveyed in the agreed-upon venue.

And so Archer’s hope and salvation was tucked into a lacquered box and sent out on his fastest vessel, The Karina, only to be set upon by Hector Ellis’s pirates and lost to the sea. Two days later, Daoud’s body was found, his throat slit, silenced forever. Archer’s return trip to Egypt to discover what Daoud might have found yielded nothing.

Frustration made him want to crawl out of his skin. “Damn it all,” he hissed.

Elizabeth’s voice filled his mind. You have her now. All will be well.

“Now who sounds hopeful?” he said, blinking up at the glass roof. But there was hope. His sources told him his box might not have sunk to the bottom of the sea, but made it to England. Thus he had returned, and had been unable to keep from claiming his bride.

Sunlight broke through the gray clouds. Shafts of light hit the glass house and filled it up. And when the first rays touched him, a familiar tingling shivered over his skin. He inhaled sharply, at once feeling the surge, the heat—and the bitter failure—for he had not been able to stay away from the light. His body hummed, the light pouring through him. God help him, he was weak. He thought of Miranda, and his fist curled tight. He needed to be stronger. For her.

Then get back down there and be with her, coward.

For a moment he thought he heard gentle laughter. Then it was silent.

Chapter Five

Sir Percival Andrew, Second Baronet of Doddington, old as he was, had certain rituals preceding his afternoon nap. First, a kiss from his wife, Beatrice, who then drew the heavy brocade drapes closed and helped him don a dressing gown before retiring for a nap of her own. Marks, his valet, might have attended him but, as Bea often teased, his kiss was not half as sweet.

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