Lucien Balfour, the Sixth Earl of Kilcairn Abbey, leaned
against one of the marble pillars bordering the front entry
of Balfour House and watched the storm clouds gather
overhead. "â€˜By the pricking of my thumbs, â€˜" he murmured,
puffing on his cigar, "â€˜something wicked this way comes.â€™"
Though lowering clouds and an ominously darkening sky hung
over the west side of London, that particular storm was not
the one that concerned Lucien Balfour. A larger tempest was
galloping its way over the horizon: he was about to welcome
Satanâ€™s handmaiden and her mother into his house.
Behind him, the front door opened on well-oiled hinges.
Lucien glanced skyward as a long boom of thunder rolled
across the rooftops of Mayfair. "What is it, Wimbole?"
"You asked me to inform you at the hour of three, my lord,"
the butler answered in his usual flat monotone. "The clock
has just struck."
Lucien took another drag of his cheroot, letting the smoke
curl from his mouth and be snatched away by the stiffening
breeze. "Make certain the study windows are closed against
the rain, and provide Mr. Mullins with a glass of whiskey.
I imagine heâ€™ll be needing it, shortly."
"Very good, my lord." The door clicked shut again.
Droplets of rain began plopping onto the shallow granite
steps before him just as a coach clattered onto Grosvenor
Street and turned toward the mansion. Lucien took one last,
long draw on his cigar, snuffed it out against the pillar,
and cast it aside with an oath. The demons had splendid
The front door opened again. Wimbole, flanked by a half
dozen liveried footmen, appeared at his elbow as the great
black monstrosity of a coach rocked to a halt at the foot
of the steps. A second vehicle, less ostentatious than the
first, stopped just behind.
As Wimbole and his troops marched forward, Mr. Mullins took
the butlerâ€™s vacated position on the portico. "My lord, I
must again commend you on your attention to familial duty."
Lucien glanced at the smaller man. "Two dead people signed
a piece of paper, and I am left with the results. Donâ€™t
commend me for getting trapped into something Iâ€™ve simply
been unable to avoid."
"Even so, my lord . . ." The solicitor trailed off as the
coachâ€™s first occupant emerged into the light drizzle. "My
goodness," he choked.
"Goodness has nothing to do with it," Lucien murmured.
Fiona Delacroix stepped out onto the drive and with a flick
of her gloved fingers beckoned Wimbole to return her
walking cane. She didnâ€™t seem to notice the rain, but given
the size of the hat perched on her bright red -- orange --
hair, she likely would have no idea of the downpour until
the weight of the water capsized her.
"Lucien!" She gathered her voluminous pink skirts and
marched forward as he descended the steps to meet her. "How
like you to wait until the last possible moment to send for
us. Iâ€™d begun to think you meant for us to rot in mournful
solitude all summer!"
Mountains of luggage began sailing off the roofs of both
coaches and into the arms of the waiting footmen. Lucien
spared the heap one look, noting that heâ€™d have to give
over another room simply for female wardrobe, before he
took her gloved hand and bowed over it. "Aunt Fiona. I
trust the journey from Dorsetshire was a pleasant one?"
"It was not! You know how traveling upsets my nerves. If
not for my dear, dear Rose, I donâ€™t know how I should have
managed." She swung her rotund, schooner-topped form around
to face the carriage again. "Rose! Come out of there! You
remember your cousin Lucien, donâ€™t you, my sweet?"
"Iâ€™m not coming out, Mother," echoed from the bowels of the
Aunt Fionaâ€™s smile became more radiant. "Of course you are,
my dear. Your cousin is waiting."
"But itâ€™s raining."
The smile faltered. "Only a little."
"It will ruin my dress."
Lucienâ€™s determined good humor began to crumble a little at
the edges. His uncleâ€™s damned will did not in any way
obligate him to catch pneumonia.
"Rose . . ." his aunt trilled again.
"Oh, very well."
The incarnation of hell on earth -- as heâ€™d thought of her
since their last meeting, when sheâ€™d been seven and
throwing a screaming, stamping tantrum at being denied a
pony ride -- emerged from the coach. She stepped down amid
a cloud of pink lace and ruffles that perfectly
complemented her motherâ€™s frothy gown.
Rose Delacroix curtsied, the blond curls that framed her
face bobbing in pert unison. "My lord," she breathed,
rising and batting her long lashes at him.
"Cousin Rose," Lucien responded, suppressing a shudder at
the horrifying thought that some of his gender would find
her angelic appearance attractive. With her great puffy
sleeves and feathered frills she looked more like some
ungainly bird than any angel. "You both look colorful this
afternoon. Shall we go inside, out of the rain?"
"Itâ€™s silk and taffeta," Aunt Fiona crooned, fluffing up
one of her daughterâ€™s drooping wings. "They cost twelve
pounds each, and came directly from Paris."
"And flamingos come directly from Africa."
The comment was a mild one, particularly for him, but as he
turned to usher Rose toward the steps, her blue eyes filled
with tears. Lucien stifled an annoyed sigh. Sometimes oneâ€™s
memories remained perfectly accurate, despite the passage
"He doesnâ€™t like my gown, Mama," she wailed, her lower lip
trembling. "And Miss Brookhollow said it was the very
Lucien had meant to behave himself, at least for today. So
much for his good intentions. "Who is Miss Brookhollow?"
"Roseâ€™s governess. She came highly recommended."
"By whom -- circus performers?"
"Good God," Lucien muttered, wincing. "Wimbole, get their
things inside." He returned his attention to his
aunt. "Does all your attire match so . . . vividly?"
"Lucien, I will not tolerate your insulting us five minutes
after weâ€™ve arrived! Dear Oscar would never tolerate such
"Dear Uncle Oscar is dead, Aunt Fiona. And as you well
know, he and my father conspired to see that you would end
up here in the case of that eventuality."
"â€˜Conspired?â€™" Aunt Fiona repeated, in an ascending voice
that could shatter crystal. "This is your familial
obligation! Your duty!"
"Which is precisely why you are here." He climbed the steps
unaccompanied when they seemed content to stand about
bellowing in the rain. "And only until she," and he jabbed
a finger in his soggy cousinâ€™s direction, "is married. Then
you can be someone elseâ€™s familial obligation and duty."
He glanced at his sobbing cousin again. "Would this same
Miss Brookhollow be the one who has taught you everything
necessary to ensure your success in society?"
"Yes! Of course!"
"Splendid. Mr. Mullins!"
The solicitor emerged from behind one of the marble
pillars. "Yes, my lord?"
"I assume dear Miss Brookhollow is cowering in the second
coach. Give her twenty pounds and the directions to the
nearest spectacle shop, and send her on her way. I want a
posting in the London Times. Advertise for a finishing
companion for my lovely cousin. Immediately. Someone
knowledgeable in music, French, Latin, fashion, and--"
"How dare you, Kilcairn!" Aunt Fiona snarled.
"--and etiquette. Have them apply in person to this
address. No names. I bloody well donâ€™t want the world at
large to know that my cousin has the appearance of a poodle
and the stylings of a milkmaid. No one in his right mind
would want to be leg-shackled to either animal."
Mr. Mullins bowed. "At once, my lord."
Lucien left the screeching females behind and strode into
the house. Well, that had deteriorated nicely. The headache
with which heâ€™d awakened resumed with a vengeance. He
should have had Wimbole pour him a whiskey, as well.
At the top of the stairs he paused, leaning his wet
backside against the mahogany railing. A series of
paintings covered the opposite wall, a sampling of the vast
portrait gallery in the Great Hall at Kilcairn Abbey. Two
of them, hung several yards from one another, bore black
ribbons across their top right corners. One was a passing
likeness of Oscar Delacroix, his mother's half-brother.
He'd barely known the man and had liked him even less, and
after a brief moment Lucien turned his attention to the
His cousin, James Balfour, had actually died a little more
than a year ago, so Lucien should have had Wimbole remove
the ribbon by now. The mourning band served as a reminder,
though, of exactly what sort of predicament James had left
"Damnation," he murmured without heat. His nearest male
relation, James would have -- and should have -- inherited
Kilcairn Abbey. His young, headstrong cousin's thirst for
adventure, though, had collided fatally with Napoleon
Bonaparte's quest for power. As a result, he had been left
with dear Uncle Oscar as his sole breathing male relation.
The female cacophony entered the foyer below, and with
another sigh Lucien started again for his bedchamber and a
change of clothes. As the inheritance now stood, once the
weepy pink confection downstairs married, her offspring
would have the Balfour titles, lands, and wealth. But after
setting eyes on her again, he was of no mind or temperament
to allow that to happen.
And so, the inconsiderate mortality of all his male
relations had effectively trapped him into taking the one
road down which he'd sworn never to venture. The Earl of
Kilcairn Abbey needed a legitimate heir -- and so by
logical if unfortunate extension, he needed a wife. But
before he could begin that task, he needed to conclude his
obligation to Rose Delacroix and her mother with all
Alexandra Beatrice Gallant stepped down from the London
hack she'd hired and straightened her pelisse. The blue
morning dress was the most conservative one she owned, and
the high neck scratched at her. Uncomfortable or not,
though, she'd been on enough interviews over the past five
years to know that a conservative appearance and manner
could do wonders for one's employment prospects. And at the
moment she needed all the help that she could get.
Shakespeare, her white Skye terrier and most faithful
companion, jumped down beside her. Without a backward
glance, the hack driver turned his coach back out into the
light midday traffic. Alexandra looked up and down
Grosvenor Street. "So this is Mayfair," she mused, eyeing
the staid facades of the massive homes on either side of
Though sheâ€™d taken positions with landed gentry and minor
nobility in the past, nothing compared with this. Gilded
Mayfair, the favorite haunt of Englandâ€™s wealthiest and
highest born, bore little resemblance to the rest of noisy,
crowded, dirty London. Sheâ€™d passed a section of Hyde Park
just a moment ago, and from the hackâ€™s window sheâ€™d spied
what seemed to be numerous pleasant walking paths for her
and Shakespeare to explore. Finding employment in Mayfair
could have definite benefits, provided the young lady and
her mother werenâ€™t completely reclusive.
She pulled the folded newspaper advertisement from her
pocket and read the address once more, then tugged on the
terrierâ€™s leash and strolled up the street. "Come along,
This would be her second interview of the day, and the
ninth of the week, with one more prospect in Covent Garden
remaining. If no one wanted to hire her in London by the
end of the week, her scanty savings would have to see her
up north. Perhaps they had never heard of her in Yorkshire.
Lately, though, sheâ€™d had the sinking feeling that every
household, or at least those needing a governess or a
companion, knew every blasted detail of her life. In light
of that dismal fact, the best she had come to expect was a
polite refusal to offer her employment.
The first interview sheâ€™d sat through had been less than
pleasant; three mewling children all under the age of ten,
and none of them possessing the least bit of self-control.
She hadnâ€™t minded all that much when Mrs. Fenning had asked
about her last employment. After that, sheâ€™d made an easy
escape. The problem was, though, that she was running out
of places to which she cared to escape.
"Ah, here we are, twenty-five." Alexandra paused to survey
the mammoth townhouse that stood at the far end of a short,
curving drive. What seemed like half a hundred windows
peered toward the street and overlooked the small, simple
garden on the east side. Bordered by a carriage run to the
west, not much distinguished it from the other splendid
houses with which it shared the way. So far, so good.
Taking a deep breath, she walked up the carriage drive
around to the back of the house and climbed the three steps
to the rear entry. Before she could even rap on the door,
it swung open.
"Good afternoon." A tall, thin man dressed in impeccable
gold and black livery dating from the height of George
IIIâ€™s reign, stood just inside the kitchen entry and gazed
at her. The dusting of silver at his temples served as an
exclamation point to his declarative statement of
dignity. "I presume you are here in answer to the
"This way, miss."
Without even a glance at Shakespeare, the butler turned on
his heel. Alexandra followed him through the huge kitchen,
down two long intersecting hallways, and into a large,
spacious study tucked beneath a winding staircase of carved
mahogany. She took in the scattered, tasteful paintings by
artists as celebrated as Lawrence and Gainsborough, the
ornate Far Eastern carvings in ivory and flawless ebony
wood, and the gold-inlaid cornice running along the top of
the walls. Tasteful, elegant, interesting, and very
wealthy, the house seemed curiously unfeminine for the
residence of a young lady and her mother.
"Wait here, miss."
Alexandra nodded, absorbed in her observations. Shakespeare
found an interesting scent beside the massive mahogany
desk, while she approached the fireplace to warm her hands.
A carved elephant stood guard on the mantel, and
tentatively she touched its smooth, ebony leg.
Footsteps padded down the stairs that curved above her
head. With a start she abandoned the hearth and seated
herself in the chair placed opposite the desk. A moment
later, the door opened. Alexandra affixed her best look of
professional yet sincere interest on her face, ready to
begin her well-rehearsed speech about her experience and
mostly impeccable references, and looked up. And then
forgot everything sheâ€™d been about to say.
He stood in the doorway, gazing at her. At first all she
took in were his eyes -- a fine light gray beneath dark,
sardonic brows. Gradually the rest of him sank into her
senses. Tall, with dark hair curling at his collar and an
athleteâ€™s lean build, he had a French aristocratâ€™s high
cheekbones and arrogant, shamelessly sensual mouth. He
remained where he was, unmoving, for several long seconds.
"Youâ€™re here for the governess position?" he asked in a
deep, cultured drawl.
"I . . ." Alexandra nodded, shivering a little as the sound
of his voice resonated down her spine in electrifying
spirals. "I am."