Reuben waited a week before returning the necklace. He had questions about such a unique piece and the lady who claimed it. Fortunately, he had friends and relatives alike in London, all willing to impart every morsel of gossip available.
What he discovered was exceedingly boring.
Miss Iseabail Spalding was a Scottish debutante sponsored by the powerful Dowager Countess of Byrn. So far she’d done nothing exciting except dance with someone who later got himself killed. Yawn. There was a rumor that she had a dowry of 500 gold pieces, but that wasn’t confirmed. Indeed, nothing about her Scottish ancestry was verified in the usual way of things. And though the necklace was an intriguingly shaped dragon with a dark red stone inside, presumably the dragon’s heart, there was little special about it. Any jeweler in London could replicate it, and a new one wouldn’t look half so beaten up.
Which meant he would have to go on his usual gut instinct and educated guesses. That began with this necklace. There was something very important about this particular piece. All he need do was discover it and turn it to his advantage. Which is why he waited until the entire household was outside to wave the future Duke of Aberbeag and his new wife Mairi off to Scotland. Easiest thing in the world to slip inside, find Miss Iseabail’s room, and wait for her to appear.
The first thing he did was search her room. She had little here beyond what had been purchased in London. Not a single item to remind her of Scotland except a well-made dirk kept hidden in her dresser. And here now was the newest piece of the puzzle because knives had a history.
This was an old knife of the Murray clan. Add to that a tale he’d learned as a boy of the most famous witch in Scotland, and he had her true identity or at least a good guess. She was obviously not Witch Mary who had predicted Scotland’s victory at Culloden. The clans had been destroyed quite literally at that famous battle. Iseabail was probably the witch’s granddaughter living in hiding from those who wanted revenge.
He heard footsteps coming up the stairs, so he returned the weapon and settled himself against her bedpost, half hidden by the curtains. He liked surprising people. How they reacted told him a great deal about their character.
She came in and shut the door. Her cheerful expression dropped away, softening her face until he saw high cheekbones worn down with care. It was stark look on her long face and he was struck by the hard elegance of it. She looked to him like a young queen might, one who was raised in hard times and had yet to choose a life of compassion or bitter fury. He rather hoped she went the furious route. What a magnificent creature she would be.
He made a sound by accident. A noisy footfall as he took a step toward her. An extraordinary slip from him and one that forced his hand into brazenness. He might have approached her differently otherwise, but there was no help for it now as she ran to her dresser to grab her dirk.
“I wouldn’t do that, lass,” he said, “else how can we negotiate?”
Her fingers were on the weapon, but she didn’t strike out with it. She was a thinker, this one, not prone to rash actions. But she was also used to fighting because she held the knife with an experienced hand even as she turned to inspect him from head to toe.
Damn, such a thorough inspection had his cock perking up with interest.
“I know you,” she said, her voice polished and nearly clear of her Scottish burr. “Reuben Bates. The man who saved us from the highwaymen.”
She remembered him. That had his lust heating up another notch as he swept off his hat and performed an exquisite bow, even if he did say so himself.
“The very same,” he said. “And you are the honorable Miss Iseabail Spalding, ward of Baron Bain. You’re the granddaughter of the Earl of Spalding, and the only child of his daughter, Lady Alice.” His grin widened. “You’re also dowered with five-hundred gold pieces in a chest brought from the farthest corner of the earth.”
Every word was a guess cobbled together from gossip and fairy tales. But he had a good instinct for guessing secrets, and her shocked dismay confirmed everything he’d said even as she denied it. Or part of it.
“The dowry is long gone. The contents merely rumor.”
“Oh no,” he said with a cheeky grin. “It’s real and a great deal more than a meager five-hundred pounds.” After all, her clan managed a profitable market known throughout Scotland. Whether or not the dowry was there now, it would come eventually. It only needed good management.
Meanwhile she continued to argue. “That’s not possible.”
“But it is.” He fished into his pocket and pulled out her necklace. It flashed in the light, a dragon with a fat belly all done in the vague shape of a shield. “A pretty bauble this,” he said as he turned it over in his hand. “Especially if one knows to do this.” With the tip of his thumb, he twisted the hidden latch. The gold popped open and exposed a polished dark red stone, the dragon’s heart.
“Oh, you found the catch,” she said lightly. “It’s not a very pretty stone underneath. I think that’s why it was covered.”
Well, she was a half-decent liar. Not good enough to fool him, but maybe some others. And the ruby was exquisite. Polished, not faceted, the light compressed into three bright lines that crossed in the middle to make a star.
“That’s not why,” he said, humor lacing his tone. “Tell me about your mother, Miss Spalding. Tell me about what this stone meant to her.”
Panic edged her expression, ruthlessly suppressed. “I don’t know what you think you’ve heard,” she began.
“But none of it’s true?” he finished for her. “I think a little bit of it is true. And maybe a great deal more.” He did love a mystery, especially ones that involved jewels and pretty ladies.
“It’s all exaggeration, rumor, and guesses,” she said.
He pushed off the bedpost to saunter forward. He was a big man, but she was tall. He had to step very close to try to intimidate her, and she gave not an inch. Now that was spirit he could admire. He stepped in even closer. Tight enough that she would feel his heat, and he could smell her scent.
She shied backwards as a maiden would, clearly nervous despite her spirit.
“What do you want?” she asked.
He grinned, ridiculously pleased she had asked the very question he’d been tormenting himself with. Fortunately, he had a ready answer. It was glib, but it served his purpose. “What I want is more than you can imagine. What I want from you is something we must discuss.”
She held up her hands as if to push him back. “We have nothing to discuss.”
He heard steel in her voice which told him he needed to tread carefully. But when it involved a beautiful woman, he rarely listened to the voice of caution.
“Nothing?” he taunted, just to see how far he could push her. “I think we do. Tell me, Miss Spalding, what you would give to have this trinket back?”
It was an honest question. Her answer would set the baseline for the minimum he would ask.
“I have my pin money,” she said. “It’s not much—”
She cut off her words when he touched her cheek, trailing his finger down along her jaw. Damn him for wearing a glove. He wanted to feel the smoothness of her cheek and the heat from her blush. Instead, he used his smallest finger to tilt her face up so she looked him in the eye. Would she crumble when they locked gazes?
“What would you give to keep your secrets hidden away?” he asked as he stared into the brilliant green of her eyes. “How many people know the full truth about your mother?”
She didn’t cower. Instead, she faced him down, her expression finally matching the fiery red of her hair. “You imagine things,” she said. “It’s nothing but a—”
“A witch’s talisman. A sorcerer’s amulet. A cursing stone.” He hadn’t heard that about this amulet at all, but such were the things that people said about witch’s talismans. It was a safe taunt.
“It is no such thing!” she exploded, her hand quick as she tried to grab it from his hand.
He was quicker as he lifted it out of her reach.
“Some call it that.” He let his voice lower in threat. “And some would call you a great deal worse for having it.”
“Keep it then,” she snapped.
Did she mean it? He didn’t think so.
“I might,” he returned. “Indeed, I have a mind to study the thing further. But in the meantime, what could you pay me, Miss Spalding, to stop me from telling everyone in London about your mother’s witchcraft?”
He wanted to believe he would never follow through on such a threat. He truly had no desire to hurt the lady. But life took unexpected turns, and he would sacrifice her if it meant someone he loved survived. Such was the business he was in, and she meant nothing to him right now except as someone he could exploit.
“It’s not true,” she whispered. “She was just a woman.”
“The truth doesn’t matter,” he returned. “It never has.” He was surprised she didn’t know that by now.
She softened toward him, using the only weapon she had—her beauty and just enough innocence to appeal to his jaded heart.
“You cannot tell anyone about this,” she said, her eyes luminous. “The rumors alone could get me killed.”
His thumb trailed across her lips. He loved how her eyes darkened at that. She might be an innocent, but she wasn’t cold inside. And if the pulse in her throat was any indication, she was responding to him on a very primal level. Then they were a pair because he was already throbbing with interest.
“Offer me something, Miss Spalding, but choose it well.”
“I don’t have anything,” she cried.
“That’s unfortunate because my silence is very, very expensive.”
“What do you want?” she whispered. “I’ll give you anything.”
He chuckled and felt her shiver. “Imagine that,” he drawled as he snaked a hand behind her. “Anything is exactly what I want.”
He thought she’d collapse then in a weeping mess. That’s what virgins usually did. They got overwhelmed and broke such that he could take whatever he wanted from the shattered girl. Unless she was a saucy girl who melted against him and offered everything but her virginity. He was prepared for that, too.
She didn’t do either. She turned her gaze back up to him, her eyes wet with tears, as she pushed the tip of her dirk into his chin. Or she tried to.
He caught her arm at the last second, holding the blade away from a lethal plunge into his brainpan. It was easy to do. She’d had little force behind the movement, which told him she hadn’t intended to kill him. Yet steely anger flashed in her eyes.
“Do you know how many times I have been threatened in my life?”
“Enough that they aggravate me as so much noise.”
He still had one arm around her back, holding her close enough to feel the tension in her body while the other kept her head back. It was a balance of a sort where she stood like a vibrating string on a fiddle.
He really needed to decide how to play her.
“Shall I tell you what I want?” he asked. Rare for him to give up his wants first. Bad choice in a negotiation, but she deserved something for being unusual.
“That would be lovely,” she said. Was there a purr in her voice? More likely her Scottish burr, but his cock liked it nonetheless.
“You attend the Finley ball tomorrow night.”
She didn’t react to his statement, but then again, she didn’t need to. He already knew her schedule.
“I should like you to reserve a dance for me. The second waltz, I think.”
“The Countess will have my head. She insists she must approve—”
“Do not insult my intelligence.” Stupid lies set him off. They wasted time and energy. “You have gotten around her all season.”
“I haven’t,” she said with a sniff. “Sadie is the one who takes risks.”
Sadie was the third Scotswoman in this house. Well, the second one now that Miss MacAdaidh was off to become a duchess. Apparently, Sadie was the bold one. Of course, she wasn’t the one who tried to shove a dirk up his chin. “Then Sadie will happily dance a set with me as well. The one after you, I think.”
“I can’t force her to dance with you,” she said.
“I think you can.” And then, so she understood a little more of who she was bantering with, he pressed his fingers hard into her wrist. She needed to drop that weapon now.
She tried to fight him, but her slender wrist was no match for his strength. Eventually her fingers weakened, and the knife dropped heavily to the floor. He covered it with his boot and slid it just beneath his heel. It was a good weapon, and he intended to keep it.
With the dirk gone from her, she tried to jerk back. He didn’t want to release her, so he pulled her flush against him. He knew she would fight him, but he wanted to measure her skill. Just how many tricks did this lady have up her Scottish sleeves?
Several, it appeared. She fought like one who had been taught close combat, but there was a panic in her movements that undermined her training. He subdued her easily, but her fear touched him. He did not need to terrify her to get what he wanted. Once he had her pinned against him, her breath coming fast and her cheeks smudged with tears, he whispered in her ear.
“I’m releasing you now, Iseabail.” He stretched out her name to taste every letter in it. “Don’t attack me again. You won’t like the result.”
Then he opened his hands and she scrambled back. “I could still scream,” she said as she rubbed at her wrists.
“But then we wouldn’t be able to waltz tonight.”
“You aren’t the type to get an invitation,” she drawled. ‘You won’t be allowed in.”
He grinned. “Leave that to me. Just save the dance. And mind that Sadie gives me one as well.”
She shook her head. “Sadie’s been in enough trouble. She cannot afford any more scandal.”
Ah yes. The murdered dance partner. She might have been cleared of the crime from the constabulary, but society could be a lot less forgiving. “Then you best buy my silence. Accusations of witchcraft against either of you could bring all that ugliness back up.”
She stiffened. “It’s not true. None of it is true!”
He didn’t bother repeating what he’d said before. Truth never mattered, only the strength of the story around a person made the least bit of difference. “I just want a dance,” he said. A waltz with a well-sponsored girl at a high society ball. It was the toehold he needed into the ton.
“And you’ll return my necklace?”
He grinned. “I’ll put it on your neck myself.” Right in front of the entire haut ton if he could manage it. Then he swooped down and pocketed her dirk.
“That’s mine!” she exclaimed.
He shook his head. “I make a habit of keeping every weapon that is used against me.” He spun it between his fingers as he grinned at her. “And this is a lovely one.”
“But it’s the only thing I have,” she whispered.
He cracked the door to her bedroom. The hallway was quiet now, but he couldn’t tell how long it would stay that way. Still, he couldn’t resist her outraged expression. She was gathering her fury but was still off balance. That meant he had enough time to steal a kiss.
A quick press of his lips against hers. A tease of his tongue against her soft lips.
She gasped in surprise—the opening he needed—and he was swift to slip inside. Not a bold thrust. He was not a man who stole such things from a lady. But a slight press, a flick of his tongue to give her the idea, and then a retreat.
He grinned. “Now you have something else,” he said. Then he slipped out her bedroom and down the stairs. He was light on his feet and fast, gone out the front before any of the servants looked up from their tasks.
The only thing left was to figure out how he was going to break into a ball, dance with not one but two debutantes, and not get arrested or thrown out on his very handsome arse.