No Regrets

June Girls, Book 2

Mari Carr

Prologue

The sound of gunfire was louder as the boom of a cannon roared from somewhere behind him. No matter how many men fell, more were there to take their place. The grass of the field was no longer green—instead it was tainted with a deep red glaze that reflected in the eerie cast of the moonlight. Another flash of fire as the man next to him discharged his weapon and again, the tremendous thunder of the cannon and the crackle of the never-ending gunfire. More men, more blood, more corpses piling up around him until he was the only man left. A lone soldier standing atop a mountain of dead bodies.

A shrill scream pierced his ears, the sound louder and more horrible than all the moaning and sobs that had preceded it. On and on it continued. He covered his ears to block the piteous sound, but to no avail. Grasping his weapon, he raised it to halt the incessant shrieking; to make the cursed noise stop. He pointed his gun toward the sound, his hand trembling, his finger twitching on the trigger. The screaming continued, growing even louder. He had to make it stop, make it all stop. Glancing toward the weapon in his violently shaking hand, he saw a face. Stark terror written in every line, anguish and desolation reflected in the black eyes that met his.

He lowered his weapon. The screaming was coming from him. It was his own face looking back at him.

Chapter 1

V is for Voyage

June 2009

Come for me. Please come. Take me too.

Victoria Hamilton paced around the ancient oak at the edge of her parents’ estate just outside Dover, England, frantically begging for something, anything to happen. Exactly what she wanted to happen she didn’t know. Just something. She’d spent the past year alone and angry, deserted by the only two friends she’d ever had. Deep inside, she knew they were together. Desperate to find them, she focused her attention on the old oak once again.

“Open Sesame,” she chanted to the rough gray-brown bark.

“Abracadabra.”

“I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your…hmm, not door down…how about bark off? No, that just sounds stupid.”

Straightening her frilly hot pink mini skirt, Tori reached for her backpack and bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper. All this pacing, chanting and waiting was making her thirsty. Glancing down, she considered picking up her latest romance novel to read, but she simply couldn’t settle her mind to it. Today was the day, and this was the place. It had to be.

Out of habit, she tugged on her necklace, a gift from the June girls on her sixteenth birthday. She never took off the silver chain with the ornate letter “V” charm. “V” is for Victoria. Or “V” is for Virginia, where she now lived and worked. She loved word games, and sometimes, when Tori was bored or anxious, she would think about all the things her charm could stand for. “V” is for vexed, which certainly described her frame of mind at the present moment.

What if I’m wrong?

It was the tree. It had to be. It was the only connecting factor in Hayley and Erin’s disappearances—one year apart to the day—this day, June twenty-one. Her fellow June girls were somewhere out there without her. Erin had gone missing under this tree two years earlier on her birthday. Hayley disappeared the following year on the same day. The ancient oak with its leaf laden branches was the key, the portal, the time machine, the magic door, the—oh hell; whatever it was called, this had to be it. If she was wrong, well, she didn’t want to think about what would happen if she were wrong.

Actually, Tori didn’t make the connection between the oak tree and her friends’ disappearances until this past Christmas when she discovered an old book in the library of her parents’ home, Fernwood Grange. Edward and Michelle Hamilton had purchased the grand old estate situated near the White Cliffs of Dover shortly after she was born. The previous owner, Philip McCormick, had passed away and her father, ever the opportunist, swooped in immediately to buy the prime piece of property at a steal of a price. McCormick, a hermit, had never married or had children, and the executors of the estate were happy to unload it since the house had fallen into disrepair during the fifty-plus years of Old Philip’s residence there.

Two years ago, the June girls—so named because they all shared birthdays in June—changed their summer routine by coming to Fernwood Grange instead of meeting at camp, anxious to tour the English countryside and spend a long weekend in Paris. It was to be the beginning of a new chapter in their lives as adults and they were excited about traveling abroad together.

Tori slid down the trunk of the tree until she was sitting beneath its branches. At least it was a sunny day. It would be miserable to be biding her time in the rain that was so typical for this country. She felt the adrenaline and enthusiasm she’d felt as she embarked on this adventure draining out of her.

Drowsily, Tori thought back to the chain of events that led her to this tree today…

She had begrudgingly returned to the Grange for Christmas, even though the place held nothing but sad memories for her. Her mother was decorating everything in the house that would stand still long enough for her to plaster it with garlands, greenery, candles, Christmas balls, mistletoe, and so on. The house smelled like a tree farm that had been liberally doused in cinnamon, pine, and cloves; the aroma gave Tori a perpetual headache.

Mother decided she would be in charge of decorating the library. Tori knew this assignment was simply a ploy to get her out of the way as she tended to be rather clumsy whenever she was in her mother’s presence, or anyone else’s for that matter. She knew her ungainliness was a result of the fact her mother made her nervous with her constant criticism. Her clumsiness in front of others she simply couldn’t explain, except she supposed she’d never really lost all the shyness that had plagued her as a child.

Tori constantly struggled with her parents’ huge ambitions for her—their only child. Ambitions she’d realized at a very young age she would never manage to live up to. Her father was a foreign diplomat and her mother a high-powered government attorney. They lived the lives of the super-rich and had every expectation she would follow in their footsteps on the path to wealth, power, and glory. Instead, all their megawatt genes had produced was one painfully shy, chubby little girl with stringy blonde hair whose teeth took four years of braces to correct. A daughter who preferred books over money and whose dream job turned out to be an elementary school librarian.

“Just don’t start reading anything. I know how easily you get sidetracked,” her mother chastised.

“Well, I am a librarian, Mum. Perhaps the library is not the safest place to put me.” She meant her words as a jest, but her mother merely raised her eyebrows in annoyance.

“I’d rather not discuss your chosen career path, or the fact that you are wasting your talents in such a silly job surrounded by children.” Her mother said the word children as if it tasted like something particularly nasty.

Tori fought back the spurt of anger that came every time her mother criticized her job. She couldn’t think of any career on earth more rewarding or enjoyable.

Her mother mistook her silence for daydreaming. Fact of the matter was she was biting her tongue off in an attempt not to get into a fight with her mother. She’d only been here a few days, and was determined this holiday would be a peaceful one. Even if it killed her.

“Concentrate, darling, on the task at hand,” her mother purred, in her most annoying cosmopolitan-style voice, snapping her fingers in front of her face as if to wake her up.

“Yes, Mum,” Tori replied.

“Oh, darling, you’ve only been back in England two days and you sound British again. I do wish you would strive to be more consistently American. You know how our European friends simply adore my accent. Why must you revert back to that coarse British one just because we’re on this side of the ocean?”

“Sorry ‘bout that, momma.” Tori made certain to twang every syllable she could in her best southern—and smartass—accent. She was certain her mother didn’t tell her very British father he sounded coarse. Besides, she was a master at adapting her language to whichever side of the ocean she was on simply because she hated standing out, unlike her mother who was only truly happy when she was the center of attention. It was easier to blend in when you sounded like everyone else. Like children of bilingual parents, she could sound like the perfect Brit or American, depending on where she was and who she was with.

“Don’t get smart with me, young lady. Now get started in that room.”

“Yes, Mother.” She rolled her eyes as she turned to enter the library. Closing the door to the library behind her, she was thankful for the chance to get away, as she knew her mother would rather “shop at Wal-Mart—so blue collar,” than spend any amount of time surrounded by dusty, old books.

After an hour of sweat, cursing, and a crushed thumb, Tori had made good headway in the decorating and was about to attach the last garland to the top of one of the ceiling-high bookcases when the ladder began to rock. Reaching out, she grabbed the first thing her hands could find, which happened to be the top shelf of the nearest bookcase. Looking down, she saw the traitorous ladder now lay below her on the floor. The shelf she was hanging on to, already overtaxed with its load of the oldest and dustiest tomes in the room, held her suspended in midair for all of a second and a half before it cracked. The broken shelf sent her tumbling, dumping no less than twenty-five filthy books on top of her.

Shaken and disoriented, Tori shook her head and began to cough uncontrollably thanks to the huge dust storm she’d stirred up. She sat on her sore bum, waiting patiently for her mother to burst in at what must have sounded like a tremendous crash. After several moments, she realized either no one had heard or the servants and her mother, all too familiar with her tendency toward clumsiness, ignored the loud sound not wanting to know what she’d destroyed this time.

Still sprawled on the floor, partially buried in books, Tori surveyed the damage. The shelf, quite old, had splintered in two under her weight, and in her panic, she’d managed to pull down most of the garland she spent the last hour putting up. The most distressing part of the situation was the books. Several of them had torn loose from their covers, others had lost pages and one was ripped completely down the middle. Realizing these books were most likely over a hundred years old, she felt true regret for her awkwardness.

Remaining on the floor, she began to carefully pick up each book, separating them into stacks of undamaged and damaged ones, when the last one caught her eye. It was the most mangled of the bunch. The cover had flown off the body of the book, and several of the pages were ripped or bent. What drew her eye was not its damaged state, but the words written inside the front cover. They were faded and difficult to read, but she could very clearly make out her name—Tori Hamilton.

Glancing back up at the shelf, she couldn’t help but wonder how her name could come to be in this book. It wasn’t hers. Most of the books in the library came with the estate, and in fact belonged to Philip McCormick before his death. The latest additions to the room were on a single lower shelf and consisted of her father’s current copies of P.D. James, Tom Clancy and Dan Brown novels. Tori had never met old Mr. McCormick, so it was highly unlikely he would’ve written her name in this book.

She struggled to make out the other words under her name. The ink was faded and whole portions of the note were gone. The only other words she could make out clearly were oak, past, 1817 and—her heart began to race as she read the signature at the bottom—Erin Delancy. Erin? Her Erin?

Oak, past, 1817. The washed-out writing certainly looked as if it could have been done in 1817. Oak, past, 1817. Tori considered the words again. Erin disappeared from the old oak tree at the edge of the property in 2007. The hair on her neck prickled as she considered the possibility Erin had actually written the note in 1817 as a message for her. She laughed at the idea. God.

The books must have knocked me senseless in the fall. This is what comes from watching repeats of The X-Files all the time.

However, the idea was unsettling enough that she dug into the history of Fernwood Grange. Her research uncovered a passage; a wedding announcement.

“Lord Alex McCormick, Marquis of Dorset, announces his betrothal to Lady Erin Delancy, great-niece of the esteemed Lord Richard Sipe, Earl of Langley on this day, thirty June, in the year of our lord 1817. The two plan to wed at Fernwood Grange, estate of the…”

Finding the Marquis of Dorset’s name opened the proverbial floodgates as there was quite a bit of information to be found on the nobility of the time period, and she continued her research, spending every night in front of her computer doing internet searches.

Then, she hit pay dirt, and her suspicions were confirmed, when she found the name of a Captain Jack Campbell, Earl of Wilshire. According to her findings, Campbell lived at the Homestead, an estate that bordered the Grange’s property at the time. Information about Captain Campbell revealed he was married to one Lady Hayley Campbell, Countess of Wilshire. Convinced she had solved the mystery of her lost June girls, Tori felt strangely happier and lighter than she had in years, even though the very thought they could be living in the past seemed like something out of an H.G. Wells’ novel.

Unfortunately, that initial happiness faded when she uncovered an old article from a newspaper of the time that reported the tragic murders of Lady Dorset and Lady Wilshire on the nineteenth of August, 1819. Tori shuddered to think of the deaths of her two best friends. As insane as it sounded, she refused to lose them after finding them again.

It was now her turn. She booked a flight to England in June. When the doorway to the past opened this time, she was walking through it, certain she could rescue her friends. Together the three of them would find a way to return home.

Tori was dragged from her memories beneath the tree when a strong wind blew open her three-ring binder tearing the pages and scattering her notes and research across the grass.

“No!” She jumped up and frantically tried grabbing six months’ worth of painstaking work. She had only taken a few steps away from the tree when a loud crash of thunder reverberated in the air, stopping her in her tracks.

The wind quickly took on gale force proportions. She struggled to catch her breath, her lungs seizing against the strength of the wind. Frantic to steady herself, she grabbed one of the lower branches of the oak tree, trying to keep from being blown over. She watched with dismay as her romance novel flew out toward the sea.

The current of air picked her backpack up like a feather and she ducked as it went whizzing by her head. She feared the only thing keeping her from flying away was her death grip on the tree branch, and were she not so terrified, she’d laugh about the fact she resembled Dorothy on her way to Oz, sans Toto and house, of course.

All feelings of false security vanished when the branch she clung to began creaking and groaning under the powerful wind. Leaning forward and using all the strength she possessed, she reached out toward the thick, sturdy trunk of the tree. If she could just get her arms around it, she felt certain she could ride out whatever weird kind of storm was occurring.

“So long as lightning doesn’t strike,” she muttered. No sooner had the words crossed her lips, than her worst nightmare came true. A bright light flashed, and a bolt of lightning struck the tree above her head, sending an electrical jolt surging through her entire body. Unable to hold on as the flow of electricity passed through her, Tori felt herself being lifted into the air, the wind tossing her body about like the pages from her notebook.

Strangely, she was no longer afraid. The excruciating pain of being lashed against the branches of the tree was definitely interfering with the proper operation of her fear gene. Covering her face, she screamed as leaves, twigs and branches slapped her unceasingly, each stinging blow more agonizing than the one before.

“Help!” She screamed over the roar of the gale, but the sound of her voice didn’t even reach her own ears. She was being thrashed about, and she quickly lost all sense of bearing.

When the pain became too insufferable, she felt herself being thrown high into the air, away from the tree. She fell hard and fast, everything around her a blur of colors; nothing clear or in focus. Nothing, but the very large, very hard rock toward which she hurtled.

Striking her head, Tori’s last conscious thought was, “Now I’m afraid.”

Chapter 2

V is for Vexed

June 1819

Waaaaaa.” The sound of a baby’s scream pierced the air.

“Perfect. I clearly picked a bad time.” Lord Benjamin Sinclair climbed the porch stairs to Fernwood Grange. As was the custom, the front door opened before he had an opportunity to knock. Giles, the Grange’s ancient butler—efficient to a fault—bowed stiffly, giving what Ben suspected might actually pass for a smile on the old boy.

“Good day, my lord. You come at a very happy time.” Giles motioned for him to enter the house.

“Yes, I can hear that,” Ben replied, as the sound of the newly-born babe’s wailing continued to drift down the hall. “I assume Lord Dorset is with his wife.”

“Yes, my lord. Lady Dorset delivered a daughter, just moments ago. My lord was with her at the time.” Giles said the last with enough disdain that Ben grinned. Alex had written him several weeks ago and mentioned that Erin insisted he be present for the birth of their first child. He was shocked by the idea and even more shocked that Alex seemed to be looking forward to the prospect.

“I’m pleased to hear all is well. I do not wish to impose.” Ben inclined his head slightly. “If you would please congratulate your lord and lady for me, I will call again at a more convenient time.”

“But, my lord, surely you don’t intend to return to London after traveling all this way. Lord Dorset would be very displeased—”

“Oh, no,” Ben interrupted. “I have recently inherited a small estate from my great-aunt Mary. It is quite nearby. Perhaps you have heard of it? Waterplace?”

“Ah, yes sir, very lovely home and not far at all. I daresay my lord will be quite pleased to have you living so close. By any chance, are the Henrys still the caretakers there?”

“Yes indeed. Not sure the place would still be standing without the very capable Mr. and Mrs. Henry.” Actually were it not for the Henrys’ implacable sense of duty and diligent efficiency, Ben would have packed up and returned to London the first night after taking a tour of the once grand home owned by his wealthy, widowed aunt. The house had fallen into disrepair in the last decade, and he suspected it would take too much of his money to restore it to its previous splendor. In fact, he’d forego the splendor and settle for simply habitable.

The older Henrys, while capable, hadn’t been able to do much to prevent the overall decay of the house, as they were the only servants left prior to his great-aunt’s death. Senility had taken hold of Lady Mary in her advanced years, and the only servants who’d remained steadfast despite the aged woman’s ravings and fits of madness were the Henrys.

“Actually,” Ben said, “I am in the process of hiring several more servants now that I have returned to stay. If you know of anyone looking for employment—”

“Ah, yes, my lord, I will certainly pass the word along,” Giles replied. “In fact, I know of several people in the area who would be delighted to join a household staff. I would be happy to send them to you, if that is acceptable.”

“Very much so. Thank you. Please give my regards to the McCormicks. I will return soon to see the newest McCormick.” With a nudge of the elbow, Ben joked, “I do hope she looks like her mother.”

Giles, ever stoic, simply bowed. Ben shook his head as he walked toward the stables. The butler had no sense of humor. The stable boy had only just taken the saddle off his chestnut bay, Scout, and looked a bit annoyed about re-saddling him so soon until he explained the baby had been born. The lads in the stable sent up a cheer at the happy announcement, and soon Ben found himself back on the road.

With a heavy sigh, he silently chastised himself for his depression. His best friend, Alex, and his lovely wife had delivered a healthy baby girl, and given the sound of her newborn wail, he ventured to guess that Alex’s daughter would be as outspoken as his wife.

At least, his daughter would be able to speak. If he were a true friend, he would be feeling jubilant, festive, anything but overwhelmed by this melancholy.

Damnation, I’m in over my head.

Attempting to shake off the blackness that enveloped his mind more and more these days, he considered the wasted trip he’d made. He was no closer to finding a governess for Chelsea now than he had been this morning when he’d left for the Grange. He was becoming desperate. His ward had been with him for nearly two months, and she had yet to utter a single word. Frustrated, he slumped at the prospect of returning to his newly acquired, extremely run-down estate and the stifling silence that echoed off every wall.

He’d placed all his hopes in the marquis and marchioness of Dorset being able to suggest someone in the area who could serve as a governess, nurse and savior.

Who was he fooling? He was failing miserably in his duties to the girl and was simply anxious to pass the daunting task of raising a seven-year-old, self-imposed mute on to whomever else would take up the reins. He had his hands full simply taking care of himself and making the numerous repairs Waterplace needed to become fit for human habitation, despite the fact his true interest lay in the stable.

He’d made the move from London to the Dover countryside, intent on breeding and training horses, while attempting to put his dark past behind him. Instead, the depression he’d begun to suffer from in London seemed to be getting worse, not better, in the damp, sea air. The ocean was supposed to calm and relax him, but instead he couldn’t rouse himself from his bleak office and the bottom of a whiskey bottle. The overwhelming blanket of doom he felt no longer covered only himself, but it engulfed Chelsea and the kind-hearted Henrys as well. The thought of dragging them into his never-ending despair only increased his misery.

“That damn war.” A soldier and spy in the war against Napoleon, Ben hadn’t spent a peaceful night in the three years since the war ended. His friends, Alex and Jack, had served as officers in the army as well, but the years back home had been kinder to them. Both had fallen madly in love and found their niche in life. Alex had taken up the reins as Marquis of Dorset, and Jack had inherited an earldom as well as a shipping business. Ben envied his friends’ happiness and the peace they’d found.

Upon his return from Waterloo, he’d immersed himself in the Home Office, ensuring peace with France continued and stifling any lingering insurrections. When work began to run dry as peacetime prevailed, he started working on cases with Bow Street. As the second son of a duke, his association with the runners was strictly in an “unofficial” capacity. Had his father, the Duke of Pelsham, learned his son was doing such menial and dangerous work, he would surely have suffered an apoplexy.

As a second son, he wouldn’t inherit the dukedom and the numerous responsibilities attached to such a title. Mercifully, his older twin brother, Adam would be the duke and enjoy all the accompanying headaches attached to the haughty title.

Ben’s work with Bow Street, while keeping him busy during the too long nights, had never truly fulfilled him as it most often led him back into the violence he’d been trying to escape after the war. At thirty-two years old, he felt his only true talent lay in being a killer. An expert marksman, feared for his amazing prowess with a sword, he also excelled in boxing. What a sad statement for a life. His years in the army and with Bow Street had honed his muscles and finely tuned his ability to use his fists and brute strength to overpower his foes. Well over six feet tall with broad shoulders and a dark disposition, he was an intimidating force with a reputation for aggression.

As his standing in the underworld grew, so did the violent nature of the cases he was asked to solve. In the past year, he’d tracked down two murderers and a brutal rapist. The end of those cases concluded in the death of the villain, and Ben walked away each time with yet another black mark on his soul. He spent the days following the conclusion of every case buried in the darkness of his bedchamber battling back the demons, existing only on liquor and pain until he could pull himself together enough to do it all over again.

Two events occurring almost simultaneously quickly brought his self-destructive lifestyle to an end. His great-aunt Mary passed away, leaving him in possession of Waterplace, and he’d become guardian of Chelsea Duncan. Chelsea’s father, Ian, had served in his unit and was severely wounded in the battle at Toulouse. As he lay dying, Ian had asked him to see that his young wife and daughter were cared for and Ben, anxious to grant his faithful friend’s last request, had readily agreed. Maggie Duncan’s untimely death in a fire several months earlier had brought Chelsea to his home. The silent, orphaned seven-year-old had been the single witness to the demise of the only family she had left in the world.

Ben realized the only thing he could do was take the girl in as his ward and raise her. Aware he could not rear a child in his bachelor’s apartments and continue to prowl the streets of London all night, he’d decided a move to Waterplace was the best thing for both of them. Of course, he’d been unaware at the time that the cursed estate was probably more dangerous than the worst parts of London, given its rotten floorboards, crumbling walls and overgrown, thorny gardens.

As he approached the edge of the Grange property, a glint of something caught his eye in the sunlight. Years spent as a soldier caused him to proceed with caution. Time to investigate. Turning Scout, he approached the large old oak tree that stood alone at the edge of the woods. He slowed his approach when he saw someone sleeping under its branches.

“Hello,” he called out, but the person didn’t move.

Moving slowly, the person, a woman he could now see, appeared to be sleeping soundly.

“Hello,” he repeated, louder this time. Leery, he glanced around, but he could see no one else.

“Miss?” He cautiously approached her as he reined Scout in. Glancing at the surrounding trees, Ben prepared himself lest the woman’s slumber was a ruse and some accomplice lay in wait in the woods to set upon him. Shaking his head, he realized the foolishness of the thought. This was Dover, not London, and he was still safely on the premises of the Grange estate.

Closer investigation revealed an injured woman. Ben sucked in a deep breath as he gazed down into the face of an angel. Long, wavy blonde hair hung over her shoulders. Her cheeks, with the help of the sun, were covered with a tan most English ladies would have been mortified to possess, but Ben found himself admiring. Her lips were rose red and plump while thick, dark lashes hid her deep-set eyes. His fascination with her face ended as he glanced at the rest of her figure.

“My God,” he whispered as he took in her scandalous outfit. She wore a tight shirt, cut low, allowing him an ample view of her more than abundant breasts. Her bare legs were totally exposed from mid-thigh down as he took in what he could only assume was the shortest, smallest skirt he had ever seen. It was bright and colorful, the edge of the hem flared slightly with some sort of lacy ruffle.

On her feet, she wore strange footwear, consisting of only a bottom sole and a strap of leather that stretched across the top of her foot, the end of which disappeared between her first and second toes. Around her ankles were two thin silver chains and there actually appeared to be a ring on one of her toes. Her outfit, or lack thereof, enhanced her generous figure and left very little to the imagination.

The strange woman’s lack of response to his voice sent his eyes back to her face, where he could clearly make out the large purple lump on her forehead beneath her hair, apparently caused by the rock that now served as her pillow. Leaping from Scout and tying the horse’s reins to a low branch in the tree, he bent over the inert form of the injured lady.

“Miss.” He shook the woman’s shoulders lightly. When she didn’t respond, he ran his hands through her flaxen hair, dislodging several leaves and twigs, in search of other injuries. Glancing up, he wondered if she could have fallen out of the tree. Given her state of dress he discounted the idea immediately. Who climbed trees dressed in such a scandalous fashion?

She had deep scratches and cuts on her arms and face, and he could see the beginnings of several large bruises on her legs, as well as one rather nasty looking contusion high on her right cheek. She appeared to have been beaten and knocked unconscious.

Furious someone would abuse a woman so, he tried to choose what course to take. He needed to determine who the woman was and if she had family in the area who would be concerned over her disappearance. Ben had spent a great deal of time in Dover as a child often celebrating holidays with his Aunt Mary. He’d been back quite a few times as an adult as well since Alex and Jack both owned estates in the area. Certain he had never seen this woman before, and sure he would remember if he had, he wondered if someone had simply dumped her here after abusing her.

The woman’s attire led him to wonder if she was a prostitute. It was entirely possible she had been beaten and dumped here by an unhappy lover or perhaps even her madam. During his time working with Bow Street, he’d been sent into many seedy parts of the city and he’d seen all kinds of abuse and violence. What he couldn’t understand was how the hell she had ended up all the way out here. London was several hours away, and Dover was typically a peaceful place with so few visitors that crime of any sort was rare.

Glancing back toward the Grange, Ben knew he couldn’t take the woman there. The McCormicks had become parents for the first time, and he refused to spoil their joyous occasion by placing an injured lady of the night in their care. He also couldn’t take the young woman to the next nearest estate, the Homestead. Although the Homestead now belonged to his good friend the Earl of Wilshire, Jack Campbell and his new bride had traveled to America on a honeymoon voyage and were not due back for another month.

Grimacing, Ben acknowledged the only place left to take the injured woman was to his home.

“Perfect,” he muttered. “Home, sweet home. Complete with a silent child, ancient servants, a whore and the miserable son of a duke. Can my life get any better?”

Chapter 3

V is for Vague Memories

The return trip to Waterplace took twice as long as Ben struggled to keep the unconscious woman on his lap, while moving her as little as possible. He was concerned about the blow she had taken to her head, and he didn’t want to aggravate the injury. As he approached his home, he sent up a silent prayer to the gods no one would notice his return. He could imagine the looks on Mr. and Mrs. Henry’s faces when he carried this lovely, half naked creature into the house. If he could get her to one of the bedchambers, he could…what? What was he going to do with this mystery woman once he got her inside?

His prayers answered, Ben’s return was unnoticed by the two servants and his little ward. Dismounting carefully, he tied his horse to a fencepost and carried the wayward lady into the house. With so many of the bedrooms closed off and in shambles, he climbed the stairs and headed to his own bedchamber trying not to look too closely at the disaster surrounding him. His was the only bedroom in the house that had clean sheets and a sturdy roof besides Chelsea’s room across the hallway and the Henrys’ bedchamber. He had seen to those rooms during his first week in residence. His sleep was disturbed enough with nightmares of unending battles and senseless death without adding the additional worry of the roof falling in on all of their heads.

Kicking the door to his bedchamber closed behind him, Ben crossed to his large bed and laid the injured ladybird in the middle of the feather mattress.

Walking to the dresser, he retrieved a bowl of water and a cloth, studying his unconscious patient as he approached. She was quite beautiful; shapely, with just the right amount of plumpness. Never attracted to thin women, he liked a woman with lots of curves. This lovely lady certainly possessed them. Were he the type of man to dally with whores, he would be drawn to this one. However, he had never and would never pay for sex. Love-making was best shared between two consenting adults, not one consenting male and one starving woman trying to feed herself. No, it was best Ben treat her as he would any unfortunate stranger. He would tend her injuries, give her a hot meal, put some money in her pocket and send her back home—wherever that was.

Dipping the cloth into the lukewarm water, he gently washed the cuts and abrasions on her arms and face. Lifting her chin lightly, he cleaned around her neck and throat, taking note of the delicate chain he had missed in his initial perusal. Further investigation of the necklace revealed a small charm in the shape of a letter “V.”

The lady stirred after several minutes of his soft ministrations, and he stepped back from the bed, watching as the wayward angel regained consciousness. As she awoke, the most exquisite eyes he’d ever seen slowly focused on him. Sapphire blue. She gave him a heart-warming smile; a true smile that reminded him of a glorious sunrise. He was taken aback by the genuineness of it, and it dawned on him that people rarely smiled at him. He supposed it was because he usually looked so dark and forbidding, and it struck him as odd that he couldn’t recall the last time a stranger had looked at him without a touch of fear in their eyes. He scowled at the thought and watched her smile dim, uncertainly.

“Hello,” she whispered before lightly clearing her throat. “Hello,” she repeated, her soft voice gaining strength.

“Good afternoon,” Ben answered. “I’m afraid you’ve had a bit of an accident.”

Frowning slightly at his words and glowering face, the woman glanced around the room to take in her surroundings. Raising a delicate hand to her brow, she lightly touched the lump on her head, wincing in pain.

“I…it would appear so. What happened?”

“I was hoping you could tell me,” he replied. “I found you unconscious beneath a tree. Do you remember how you got there?”

Still frowning, the lovely blonde shook her head slowly. “No. I don’t remember anything about a tree. Where am I?”

“In my bedchamber. I hope you will forgive my presumption for bringing you here, but there truly wasn’t anywhere else I could take you.” He chastised himself for apologizing. After all, he had saved the woman. Well perhaps not saved, her injuries certainly weren’t life threatening, but he found himself a bit unnerved by her sweet, almost innocent stare.

“Oh, I’m not likely to complain. You’re my knight in shining armor,” she answered with another smile so bright and guileless his heart began to beat faster.

“Well.” He cleared his throat to cover his embarrassment at her admiring, although incorrect, assessment. “If you’ll tell me your name, I’ll return you to your family. I’m sure they are quite distressed by now.”

Tears formed in her thick lashes as she appeared to fight against the pain in her head. “Don’t you know who I am?”

“No.” Ben was shocked by her question. Had they been introduced before and he’d forgotten? He found that possibility highly unlikely as he would never have forgotten a face as charming as hers. “I’m sorry, but I feel quite certain we’ve never been formally introduced. My name is Lord Benjamin Sinclair, son of the Duke of Pelsham and this is my estate, Waterplace. And you are?”

Biting her lower lip, the woman wiped away the tears forming in the corner of her eyes. After several moments, she whispered, “I don’t know. I don’t know who I am.”

“What do you mean?”

“I c-can’t remember my name.” The tears flowed down her pale cheeks. “Oh, God, I don’t know who I am. How can that be?”

Her shoulders shook as she cried silently, fear and confusion written on her face. Concern washed through Ben as he struggled over what he should do. He couldn’t stand to see a woman cry, yet he didn’t know how to comfort her. Apprehensively, he sank down on the bed beside her and was shocked when she sat up and reached out to him, her small frame leaning into his much larger one. Slowly, awkwardly, he wrapped his arms around her.

“Don’t cry. It’ll be all right. You’ve taken a nasty knock on the head. A good night’s sleep is all you need.” He’d heard of people losing their memory after experiencing head injuries and had actually seen it happen to a fellow soldier during the war. He hoped in this young woman’s case, the effects were temporary. He could barely take care of himself and Chelsea. He had no idea how he would care for a woman with no memories.

Ben murmured comforting words as the young woman wept quietly, her fear and pain escaping in silent sobs that wracked her body. After several minutes, she pulled out of his embrace and looked at him with trusting eyes.

“I’m s-sorry,” she said, her voice breaking. “You’ve been so kind to me and all you’ve gotten in return is a weepy woman in your bed. I can’t tell you how frightening this is, Lord, um Lord, oh, now I’ve forgotten your name too.”

“Ben. My name is Ben.” He didn’t know why he granted this complete stranger the informal use of his name, but something about it felt right.

“Lord Ben?” she asked, obviously remembering his previous introduction.

“No, simply Ben will suffice”

“Ben.” She stifled a yawn.

“I suspect you need to rest.” He rose slowly from the bed.

She began to protest, but then she lay back onto the pillow, sleep taking her quickly.

“Rest well, sunshine.” Ben pulled the blanket over her. Resolute about discovering his mystery lady’s name and returning her to her home, he sat in the chair, watching over her sleeping form the rest of the afternoon and well into the night.

She awakened in a dark, unfamiliar room, the pounding in her head less painful, replaced now by a dull thud that left her dizzy and more than a little nauseous. A stirring next to her alerted her to the presence of another person in the room. Thinking back, she recalled the dark-haired, black-eyed man who’d been with her earlier. She wondered about those dark eyes. They’d seemed so sad, so despondent, she’d found herself wanting to reach out to comfort him as one might an abused child, despite the fact she was the one who was injured.

What had he said his name was? Her mind was groggy from too much sleep and her body felt weary from taking such a beating. Brad? Bill? No, she shook her head trying to clear the fog that seemed to be permanently clouding her thoughts.

Ben. His name is Ben. And my name is…

She couldn’t remember anything before waking up in this room, in this bed.

Swallowing past the lump in her throat, she refused to cry again. Tears wouldn’t bring her memories back. She searched her mind for some scrap of memory until the pressure built up so fiercely she thought her head would explode. Exhaustion started to overtake her once more, but ultimately hunger won out when her stomach growled, betraying her state of consciousness.

“My lady visitor has turned into a tiger,” came a deep voice beside her.

“Ben?” She recognized his gruff voice even in the darkness. Any sane person would be terrified to wake up in a stranger’s room, especially given the man’s large size and dark visage. However, for some inexplicable reason, she felt safe, protected.

“Yes.” He leaned forward into the shaft of dim moonlight coming through the window. “Venus awakes.” While his words were light, his face was serious, full of concern and again she sensed the rather frightening undercurrent that seemed to flow from him. Had she been strong enough she would be fleeing from him like the plague.

Smiling shyly, she wondered if this man ever smiled. He always seemed so grave. She took in his rumpled hair and wrinkled clothing and immediately felt guilty for stealing his bed. “You’ve been reduced to sleeping in a chair for showing compassion to a stranger.”

“I spend many nights like this. Don’t worry about my sleeping arrangements. It would seem a much more important matter that we feed you. I would hate to have you expire from hunger after all my tender care.”

What kind of man sat up at night in a chair rather than sleeping in a nice comfortable bed? She grinned at his words. “I may not remember who I am, but I do know I’m starving.”

Ben bowed solemnly as he rose and crossed the room to a table by the fire. Lighting a candle, he took the cover off a tray. “As luck would have it, I have some food. I took the liberty of having a small repast prepared while you were resting. I thought you would be hungry upon waking.”

She gratefully accepted the tray of bread, cheese and meat he presented her. After several silent moments of eating, she looked up to see him watching her as if he could see into the depths of her soul.

“Thank you for all you’ve done. Bringing me here and caring for me, giving up your bed, feeding me.” She paused, glancing down at herself. “And changing my clothes?”

Now it was Ben’s turn to flush. While she’d slept, he’d removed her scandalous outfit and put her in one of his aunt’s cotton night shifts. “Ah, I, um, your clothing was torn and very dirty, and I thought perhaps you would be more comfortable thus. I assure you I was a perfect gentleman about it.” He hoped the fact he was lying didn’t show on his face. He simply couldn’t resist taking one small peek at her luscious body. Besides, Mrs. Henry would raise the recently repaired roof if she knew he’d brought a woman, who in all likelihood was a prostitute, into the house. She was already beside herself with curiosity about the woman sleeping in the master’s bed. Ben’s responses to her unending questions had been vague at best.

Clearly mortified at the thought of him seeing her undressed, she merely nodded.

“Well,” he started, anxious to change the subject, “now that you’ve had something to eat, perhaps you would like to get some more rest?”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t sleep anymore. Not yet anyway. I wonder, I mean, I was hoping perhaps you would keep me company for a little while?”

“Of course.”

“Since I don’t know anything about myself, why don’t you tell me about you?”

Ben hedged. He rarely, no, that wasn’t correct, he never spoke of himself. Thinking about his life in any detail generally sent him running for the nearest bottle of whiskey. “There isn’t much to tell.”

“Oh, there must be something.” She gave him little chance for escape. Given his suspicions about the woman’s background, perhaps it would be best to fill her in on his family connections, so she would fully understand their vast social differences once her memory did return to her.

“My father is the eighth Duke of Pelsham. He is extremely active in Parliament and played an important role during the war with France. My mother was a Bradshaw before she married, of the Yorkshire Bradshaws. My twin brother, Adam, is the Marquis of Shropshire, and upon my father’s death, will become the next duke. My family has numerous connections in the government and is even related to Prinny himself, though rather distantly, of course.”

Throughout his family tree recital, the blonde woman nodded politely.

“You have a very impressive family.” Her tone suggested she was actually less than awed. That surprised him, given that most of society was daunted by his high-ton, supremely aristocratic bloodlines. “But that really doesn’t tell me much about you. Where you’ve been. What you do now. Things like that.”

“Me?” Why would she be interested in him? He’d yet to smile at the woman and was fairly certain he must appear downright ghoulish to her. He was too tall and broad, too dark. He’d once been told by an associate at Bow Street his success in tracking down villains was due to the fact they were so frightened upon seeing their captor they simply lay down and surrendered. “As I said before, there isn’t much to tell.”

He shifted uncomfortably in the chair. In all his life, he couldn’t recall ever being asked about himself as a person. Most of the ton was only interested in his father and, as his father aged, his brother—the heir apparent and therefore the more powerful son. His brooding nature generally discouraged most people from trying to get too close. The fact this odd woman wanted to know about him shocked and even annoyed him as he had no suitable response.

“I find it hard to believe nothing of any importance or interest has ever happened to you. Your face betrays you, you know.”

“Pardon me?” He could hear the surliness in his tone. He was insulted by her comment. He knew he wasn’t what anyone would deem handsome, but for some foolish reason he wanted this woman to find him so.

“Your face is full of character and mystery. So many things written in your eyes. Your home—actually your bedroom since that’s all I’ve seen—also betrays you. So many fascinating things,” she added in a light tone. “I believe you can tell quite a lot about a person simply by studying their possessions.”

Glancing around the room, he noticed her eyes had landed on a large weapon in the corner. Before he could direct her attention elsewhere, she asked, “Like that sword in the corner. It’s well used. Is it yours?”

He nodded, not sure how to respond to her astute observations and her lack of fear.

“Not some crazed killer?” she asked with a light-hearted titter.

Ben shook his head, again wondering why she wasn’t running from the room as fast as she could.

“Well then, that says you are either a weapons collector, a soldier of some sort or perhaps a pirate?”

Ben genuinely struggled not to grin as she sounded almost hopeful when she asked if he was a pirate. What a strange woman. “I was a soldier,” he responded before he could call the words back. “An officer in the war against France, Napoleon.”

“You were? That must have been frightening.”

The accuracy of her answer amazed and quite frankly offended him. Did she think him a coward? “I was honored to serve my country, and I did so to the best of my ability.” He winced at the curtness of his reply.

“Of course you did. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise.” Her response was quick. She was obviously aware he had taken offense.

He was becoming unbearably warm and cursed the roaring blaze coming from the fireplace.

“Actually, it was quite frightening at times,” he admitted after several moments of awkward silence. “War is not a pretty thing, regardless of how people attempt to glorify it. It is hard to describe the true horror of it, and I would not venture to try in a woman’s presence. Men have spent fortunes and lifetimes creating countless ways to brutally harm and kill other men while no one takes the time to figure out how to bring these bodies back to life. And always it’s in the pursuit of an ideal that no one ever seems to be able to keep within their grasp.”

“Peace? Freedom?”

“Power.” His chest suddenly filled with the pain, fear and damn shadows that never allowed him a moment of sunlight. He clearly spent too much time alone with his dark thoughts. Neither of them said anything for a long time and he struggled to close the door to the inner thoughts he’d opened merely a crack for her. He wasn’t the kind of man to tell tales. He was always in control of his emotions and his thoughts. He kept his own counsel.

“Are you married?”

He was startled by her blunt speaking and unexpected change of subject. “I hardly think my wife would approve of you sharing our bed if I were. No, I am not married. Thank God.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Pardon me?”

“What’s wrong with marriage?”

“Well,” he stammered, “nothing really. For others. It’s simply not for me.”

“Why not?”

“Why not?” Her frank questioning no longer amused him.

“It’s seems a straightforward enough question. You’re a handsome man with your own home, all your faculties—so far as I can see—and a kind disposition, given your willingness to care for a stranger. Why wouldn’t you want to get married?”

She thought he was handsome and kind? The thought flattered him until he remembered himself. Christ. Chances were good she was a prostitute, well versed in making men feel good about themselves. Hell, if this nighttime conversation was any indication of her usual charms, she probably did quite well in her profession as her forthright manner and compliments were intriguing and unique.

“I’ve never found a woman with whom I would like to spend the rest of my life. I don’t find it comfortable sharing myself with another person. My friends have found love and companionship in their marriages, and I’m happy for them. However, I wouldn’t be able to give so much of myself to another person. I realize it’s not a typical attitude, but I wouldn’t marry without love, and love is something I don’t have to give. It’s simply not within me.” He leaned back in the chair chagrined at the words he’d uttered. He had never shared such private thoughts with anyone. Yet this lovely lady had him spilling his most personal feelings in the dark of the night like a condemned man confessing to a priest in hopes of redemption.

Unwilling to reveal more, he walked to the fire, under the guise of building it up, when in fact he needed to escape her penetrating gaze. The woman was too perceptive and too intelligent for his comfort.

Oblivious to his distress, she giggled. “What a load of crap!”

“Pardon me?” He glanced back at her darkly.

“You say that quite a lot, you know? Pardon me,” she mimicked playfully. “I said what a load of crap.”

“I don’t understand what you mean.”

“Well, I had cleaned it up, but if you prefer I’ll simply say what a load of shit.”

“Mademoiselle, I find your language offensive.”

“No, you don’t,” she said with a wicked grin. “I have a feeling you’re a connoisseur of offensive language yourself.”

“Something else you can read in my face?” He felt the ends of his lips turning up slightly, despite his desire to look stern.

“Yes, actually, but you’re changing the subject. You say you’re unsuited to marriage because you can’t share yourself with one person, but in the past few minutes you’ve shared quite a lot with me. I think you’re only afraid.”

“Afraid?” He was offended by her continual attempts to paint him a coward. “What, pray tell, would I be afraid of?”

“Afraid of commitment.” Her answer oozed such self-assurance he longed to wipe the smirk off her lips, perhaps with his own. Good God, where had that thought come from? Although her lips were plump and full, he had no intentions of ravishing an injured woman in his own bed, even if her appealing nature begged to be kissed.

“You’re afraid of those five little words.”

“And what words are those, if I may be so bold as to inquire?” He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

“’Til death do us part.” Her reply was delivered with such an innocent, sweet smile it was all he could do to stay on his side of the room. The urge to kiss her into silence was creating an uncomfortable tightness in his breeches. Then she giggled again, pleased with her own jest.

“Ah, I see, and you find that particular character flaw in gentlemen humorous?” He turned back to the fire, away from her radiance, her pleasant countenance. The morning sun never lit up his room as brightly as her warm smile did in the dark of the night.

Good Heavens, I’ve been too long without a woman. I sound like a damn poet.

“No, not really.” Her voice was still laced with mirth. “Don’t worry, Ben. I’m only teasing you. I have every faith you will meet and marry the perfect woman one day. You were made for marriage.”

Made for marriage? What on earth could she mean, and how could she determine that after only a few moments of conversation? The foolish chit had hit her head too hard. No one of his acquaintance thought him made for marriage. He was too serious, too angry, too lost.

“Well,” he said after a few moments of silence, unwilling to continue the conversation and desperate to escape. “I have no wish to keep you from your rest. Why don’t you sleep more? It will be morning soon and you’ll need your wits about you if we’re to figure out who you are and where you belong.”

With a small yawn, she confirmed that she was tired. “I suppose you’re right, even though I’m well aware you are avoiding the conversation. I feel bad taking your bed from you. Where will you sleep?”

“There is a very comfortable settee in my office. Don’t worry about me. Good night.” He crossed the room and opened the door, turning to look at her one last time. Her breathing was already heavy, and he suspected she had fallen asleep the instant she closed her lovely eyes. Her face at rest still held the trace of a smile. The corners of his mouth twitched in reply.

Stepping into the hallway, it occurred to him he hadn’t enjoyed someone else’s company quite so much in a very long time.