The Groom’s Gamble
An original novella linked to Jade Lee’s hot new Regency bride series, a prequel to What the Groom Wants.
Caroline Lyncott, great grandaughter of the Duke of Bucklynde, has a secret. Years ago she was attacked and still bears the terrible scars. To escape the scandal and the reminders, she left everything behind to become housekeeper to a Scottish brother and sister.
Gregory Murray, the Earl Of Hartfell, has a secret as well he harbors a deep attraction to his housekeeper, Mrs. Lyncott. He knows she has a past, but doesn’t know how to fix the pain that still haunts her. His investigation leads him to the darkest London gaming hell and a villain too powerful to destroy.
Can his love overcome her desperate past? Can she risk her heart despite the evil that still haunts her nightmares?
The Groom’s Gamble
Breathe deeply, Lady Anne. Relax your mind. Let me see through you to the Great Beyond. The words were sonorous, the intonation mesmerizing. Caroline Lyncott would have been caught just by his toneif the man didn’t have duck feathers dangling from his ears.
Caroline pulled back from her hiding place behind the door frame. His lordship would have a fit if he knew what was happening here. Lord Hartfell and Lady Anne were brother and sister, but a more opposite pair could not be found. Whereas he was a man of science, his sister was fascinated by all things occultand most specifically, by the gypsy with the waterfowl accoutrements.
If nothing else, Caroline thought with a smile, the view was intriguing. Somewhat like watching a monkey colony at the zoological gardens. In the center sat a handsome, dark-haired man with kind eyes and hands that moved too quickly for the eye to catch. Made her wonder what he hid up his sleeves. Lady Anne sat before him in a muskrat cap. Caroline narrowed her eyes. Unless that was a beaver hat. Hard to tell from this distance. Then, in a circle around them, sat the preening biddies, seven members of the aristocracy with an interest in the occult, plus all the servants peering in from the door.
The only question now was whether she stood as part of the colony or as a curious human visitor. She was still pondering the question when the butler, Mr. McTavish, crowded in. Flimflam and folderol, he muttered. If his lordship were home, he’d put a stop to this right quick. Just how much is that gypsy fleecing my lady for?
Caroline smiled and tried to take a compromising tone. As housekeeper here, it was her job to soften the jeers of the outspoken male before he could clash too loudly with the female staff and disturb the main attraction in the parlor. She was used to the task. This wasn’t the first time his lordship’s scientific attitudes and her ladyship’s esoteric studies had collided in one way or another. Sure enough, before she could say anything, Lady Anne’s maid, Marta, spoke up, her voice tight with anger. The gypsies have powersalways have. And who’s to say how a body grieves their loved ones? If he can give her peace
By emptying her wallet? Mr. McTavish interrupted.
By speaking with her dead sister, the maid shot back, and you’ve no cause to criticize.
Mr. McTavish opened his mouth, ready to lambaste the girl where she stood. But Caroline stepped between the pair. His name is Stefan Pike, and he’s only charging a guinea, she said. Lady Anne can afford it.
Doesn’t mean she should be throwing it away. Mr. McTavish glared at the room in general. She should pay me the guinea. I’ll tell her that her sister died quickly and misses her terribly, but hopes my lady can find happiness without her. It’s damned gypsy thievery, I tell you.
Mr. McTavish had any number of diatribes on how England was going to the dogs.
Oh, go on with you, grumbled the maid as she squeezed closer. Let the rest of us watch in peace.
Mr. McTavish rolled his eyes, but after a last dismissive look at the parlor, he walked away. Going to the wine cellar most likely, while the rest of the house crowded around the parlor doors. And it was the whole household, Caroline realized with a bit of shock. With Lord Hartfell away, there was less work for everyone, which meant that the cook, two maids, and one footman all watched the entertainment from the hall. And who could blame them? If nothing else, the gypsy knew how to put on a show.
Truthfully, she wanted to watch too. She needed to know what drew Lady Anne so strongly to this man. He’d apparently followed her from Berkshire to Londonsomething unheard of with the Romaniesand that spoke of a deeper connection to Lady Anne than was proper. But delving into the lady’s personal life wasn’t the job of a housekeeper. And besides, Caroline had work to do: receipts and orders to organize, and all the day-to-day tasks of running a large London establishment. But mostly, she needed a little time to herself in her room. Handsome gypsies were delightful, to be sure, but her thoughts generally wandered elsewhere. Lately, she had discovered a secret attraction to his lordship’s slight Scottish burr.
And didn’t that just make her the biggest, dumbest monkey of the lot? His lordship was a good man and a fair employer. It would be the height of folly to indulge in girlish dreams that could never be realized and would endanger her position as housekeeper. She might be single and female, but she was Mrs. Lyncott here because such was the way with all housekeepers. And it helped remind her that romantic fantasies had cost her dearly before, so she would not indulge in them now. With that in mind, she tamped down her desires as she headed for her room in the topmost corner of the house.
She was on the second floor, climbing toward the third, when she heard the noise. A slight thud followed by a muffled grunt. This was the bedroom floor, and no one should be up here now. His lordship wasn’t due home until late tonight, and her ladyship was downstairs, along with all the staff.
The dog, perhaps? Trapped where she shouldn’t be? Turning, Caroline walked down the hall, listening intently. Most rooms were emptythe nursery hadn’t been used in yearsbut Caroline checked each. Nothing disturbed. And no more sounds either. Had she imagined it? It wouldn’t be the first time her daydreams had gotten the better of her.
She knocked on his lordship’s door, opening it quietly when there was no response. There was Sophie, a golden retriever, just now lifting her head. She’d been sleeping by the banked fire, waiting for her master’s return.
Not yet, my girl, Caroline said as she stroked the animal’s head. The dog was old but still affectionate, and all the staff loved her. In fact, Sophie was the one thing everyone in the household agreed was absolutely perfect. He’ll be home soon. I promise.
Then she heard it again. Another noise, and this time from her ladyship’s bedroom. Caroline strode forward. Not bothering to knock this time, she shoved open the door to Lady Anne’s room and saw a rough-cut man with dark hair and thick hands. He’d knocked over a lampthat was the thud she’d heardas he rifled through her ladyship’s jewelry.
A thief! Caroline drew breath to scream but hadn’t the time. The man was quicker than she thought possible as he sprang across the room to grab her by the throat.
She released a sound, but it came out more a squeak than a scream. She shoved him with her hands, but he was too strong. Then he dragged her into the room, pulling her quickly and solidly, despite how she tried to scramble backwards. Her hands were fists now, beating him about the head and face, but they had no effect whatsoever.
She was going to die here, she realized in horror. Killed by a gypsy thief with no one to discover her for hours. His hands were tightening around her throat, and even worse, he started speaking to her. Crooning as if she were a wild animal.
There, there now, my girl. Can’t have you screaming His words were cut off by barking.
The old dog came scrambling around the corner, her back paws sliding as she lunged at the man holding Caroline.
The thief cursed, blocking the blow with his forearm and ripping the top of Caroline’s dress in the process. But it was enough to ease the pressure on her throat, especially as Sophie grabbed onto his arm, growling and shaking.
Caroline slammed her fist into his face. Her hand exploded in pain, but it didn’t matter. She could breathe! She hauled air into her lungs, though it burned like fire. Beside her, Sophie and the thief were struggling, growls and curses filling the air. She wanted to helpespecially when she heard Sophie’s high-pitched yelp of painbut all her concentration was on dragging air into her lungs.
What the devil! exclaimed a loud voice. His lordship?
Caroline looked up to see the Earl of Hartfell storm into the room like an avenging angel. He swooped down on the thief, punching the man with a blow that seemed to echo in Caroline’s head. So loud, so powerful, and yet the bastard didn’t go down. Instead, the gypsy managed to throw off Sophie, sending the poor dog flying against the wall with a whimper, before slamming forward against the earl.
Caroline tried to call out. She was struggling to her feet, though her legs felt weaker than pudding. If only she could scream, but all she managed was a harsh rasp.
It didn’t matter. The thief was all ugly face and massive fists, but the earl was ready. He blocked the man’s blow, then bam, bam, bam! Three punches, and the blackguard crumpled to the floor.
He dropped right in front of Caroline, blood seeping from his thick lip. She would have screamed if she’d had the breath. Instead, she just stared, horror and gratitude at war within her. The man was down.
The earl was beside her in the next breath, his hands gentle as he supported her. She’d barely managed to get to her feet, unsteady as she was.
Are you all right? Mrs. Lyncott? When she didn’t answer, his hands tightened. Caroline!
She opened her mouth to speak, but again, all she could manage was a harsh rasp.
The earl’s expression grew worried as he gently tilted her head to inspect her neck. Don’t speak. It’s not crushed. You can breathe, can’t you?
She nodded, then made the mistake of trying to swallow and winced.
Bet it hurts like the very devil. You need a doctor. Then he twisted around and shouted, his bellow loud enough to be heard throughout the house. McTavish! Henry! Someone get up here immediately!
Now there was the true call of the colony head, she thought with a near-hysterical giggle. One command and immediately came a rush of heavy feet. Even poor Sophie responded with a weak bark. Caroline turned enough to see the old dog struggle to her feet. Her teeth were bared as she stood unsteady guard over the unconscious thief.
Good girl, Sophie, the earl said as he smiled at the dog. Very good girl. Then he turned back to Caroline. Why don’t you sit down, Mrs. Lyncott? Right here.
She wanted to refuse. Indeed, she shook her head, but she felt so unsteady. Fortunately, he insisted, and so she all but dropped onto the bed. Meanwhile, people appeared at the door: Henry, Marta, then Mr. McTavish.
The earl began issuing orders the moment they arrived, his voice hard and clipped. Rope to restrain the thief, a doctor sent for, and the watch summoned. Marta went to the dog, cooing over the animal as she pronounced her merely bruised.
Then came one more order, spoken in a tone that brooked no argument. And bring me that charlatan gypsy immediately. Clap him in irons if you have to, but I will
No need, came Mr. Pike’s voice. I am here.
And a second after that came Lady Anne’s horrified gasp. Oh no! Caroline, are you all right?
The earl stepped forward, his eyes blazing as he glared at Mr. Pike. She was nearly strangled to death. If I hadn’t been just coming home, she would have been murdered. Fury radiated in his voice, and it was the only thing that kept Caroline from collapsing as the reality of what had happened began to sink in. She wouldn’t think about it, she told herself. Monkey colony, she thought. Nothing of import. Just monkeys jumping around doing inconsequential monkey things. And if she felt any fear, all she needed to do was focus on the solid strength of the zookeeper. His lordship towered in her thoughts as the voice of civilization in a very dangerous world.
Is that your man? the earl snapped at Mr. Pike.
Yes, I brought him here, the gypsy answered, his voice thick with disgust. Surprisingly, the hatred wasn’t aimed at his lordship. Mr. Pike stepped into the room to tower over the now tied-up thief. On the recommendation of my cousin, the damned idiot.
Your cousin! the earl nearly exploded. You brought this man here
Yes, and as such he was my responsibility. Mr. Pike’s jaw clenched as he glared down at the thief. I swear that he will answer for his crime.
He certainly will, the earl said. The watch will be here in a moment.
Mr. Pike looked as if he was going to say something, but then he gave a quick nod. So be it. He will answer to your justice, as will I. But I swear, I had no idea he would do such a thing. I left him with the horses. He wasn’t even supposed to come into the house.
That’s true, Lady Anne spoke up. I heard him say so myself.
That means less than nothing, her brother retorted, his opinion of the gypsy’s word obvious. Then he looked at Caroline, his eyes haunted. His gaze roved over her features to where she held a hand to her burning throat. She didn’t do it to hide the bruises. In truth she was keeping her torn dress up to cover scars that were a great deal uglier than whatever the thief had done to her throat. The doctor will be here in a moment, Mrs. Lyncott.
I’m fine, my lord, she whispered. It was easier than speaking aloud. It will heal. There is no need for a doctor.
The devil there isn’t! Then he flushed. My apologies.
She smiled. She didn’t think anything could make her smile right then, but there he wasan earlapologizing because he thought a curse was too uncivilized for her to hear. It warmed her enough that she managed to get to her feet. Or at least she tried to.
Sit back down, he said sternly. You will not move an inch until the doctor has declared you able to do so.
Meanwhile, Mr. Pike glanced over. My sister makes a posset that will aid in healing.
The earl nearly growled his response. We’ll have no more of your gypsy nonsense
Gregory! Lady Anne snapped. Don’t be nasty. He’s only trying to help.
Any further discussion was stopped by the arrival of the watchman. Caroline tried to keep track of it all, but there were too many people. In the end, she simply focused on the earl, who was never farther than three feet from her side. He stood beside her as she explained to the constable what had happened.
By the time the doctor arrived, both gypsies were being taken away despite Lady Anne’s objections. His lordship declared that Caroline would be seen in Lady Anne’s bedroom, and everyone but the doctor and poor Sophie were shooed away.
The diagnosis was exactly as Caroline had expected. Her throat was bruised, and she’d be eating nothing but thin gruel for a day or so, but beyond that she would be fine. In truth, Sophie had fared worse with bruises all over her body, but at least the old girl would get a bone and some fine meat to eat.
The doctor stepped out of the room as Caroline righted her clothing. There was little she could do to repair the tears at her bodice, but at least there were pins to cover her scars. The doctor, of course, had inquired about them, but she had passed them off with the same lie she told everyone: a childhood accident, nothing more. Everyone knew she was lying. One look showed that the marks had been as deliberate as they were disfiguring. No one accidentally gave themselves scars that spelled DP. But the kind ones let her lies pass without challenge.
So when she stepped out of Lady Anne’s bedroom, she was able to put a serene smile on her face and nod to both lord and lady.
The earl spoke first. The doctor said you need rest and soft food. So you will stay in your bed and allow the staff to wait on you.
She opened her mouth to argue, but he held up his hand.
And no speaking either. Not until you’re well.
Lady Anne stepped forward. I shall tend to you myself. In fact, I shall get a tea tray immediately. I cannot express how sorry I am for this.
Her brother released a harrumph while Lady Anne disappeared for the tray. Then Caroline was escorted to her own bedchamber as if she were a veritable princess. She kept trying to tell them she would be quite well, but his lordship would not hear of her saying a word. He insisted on seeing that she made it to her bed, and then he shooed everyone out with the order that she needed to rest.
Really, my lord, she whispered, but he cut her off.
Hush, Mrs. Lyncott. No speaking. Then he fell silent as he simply looked at her. Only now did she see how very pale he was. And when he rubbed his hand over his face, she noticed that his knuckles were bloody.
She gasped, reaching forward to grab his hand. The doctor had already left, she knew, but he could be called back.
Meanwhile, the earl looked down as she captured his fingers. He had a large hand with callouses and scars from his scientific experiments. But he was an earl, a learned man of study. He should not have bloodied knuckles.
What is it? he asked. Then when she lifted his hands to the light, he chuckled. Oh that. It’s nothing, I assure you. Then he sobered. I only wish I had done it quicker or arrived sooner. When I think of what might have happened
She straightened, pressing her fingers to his lips. She felt the curve of his lips and the moist heat of his breath as it caressed her palm. It had been familiar enough just to touch his hand, but now her heart stuttered, and her belly went liquid.
I am fine, she whispered. You saved me.
His mouth twisted beneath her fingers, and he drew back. Then he caught her hands in his. I rather think it was Sophie who saved you. I would not have run upstairs had it not been for her barking.
She shook her head. It was you. And when he raised his brows, she shrugged. It was both of you.
It should never have happened, he said, his expression suddenly dark and intense. Then abruptly, he squeezed her fingers. No more speaking, Mrs. Lyncott. There isn’t time. They could hear the tread of someone coming up the stairs. After you are better, I should like it if you came to speak with me.
She looked into his eyes and felt her heart sink to her feet. He was waiting until she was better, of course, but she could read the determination in his dark, angry eyes. He blamed herin a small partfor the events of this evening. After all, they all knew his lordship’s opinion of the gypsies. Any decent housekeeper would have either found a way to prevent those men from coming here or gotten him word of Lady Anne’s intentions. She had done neither, so she would likely be expelled from the household.
Fighting the lump in her throat, she nodded slowly. Of course, but if I am to be let go, perhaps you had best tell me now.
His expression shifted, and she saw raging emotions on his normally impassive face. Anger, frustration, and horror flashed across his face but centered on his mouth. His lips thinned before he gave a heavy sigh.
Mrs. Lyncott, why would you allow Lady Anne to bring those men here? I believe I made my opinion of the gypsies quite clear some time ago.
She folded her arms across her chest. Did he not understand anything about his sister? I did not know about the event before yesterday
And it is because of me that she brought them here. She intended to meet at his vardo or campfire or whatever she called it.
His brows drew downward in fury. The devil you say!
She returned his look measure for measure. He was furious, but now that her terror was fading, she had her own fair share of anger. How dare he take her to task for this evening’s debacle? Did he not see that no woman could preserve order in this house?
He must have seen the determination on her face. Either that, or realized the stupidity of dismissing a woman an hour after she’d been attacked. He rubbed a hand over his face and stifled a curse. It is not the time to discuss this.
If I am to be dismissed
He held up his hand, shock in every line of his face. You are not! I swear that was never in my thoughts.
She exhaled a sigh of relief. One less worry then, at least for today.
But we must discuss this, Mrs. Lyncott. Neither of us is having the least success in moderating my sister’s behavior.
He was having no success. She, on the other hand, had managed to bring the gypsies here. Whichin retrospecthad not been her best idea. The very thought made her knees go weak. Had she truly almost died tonight? The world began to tilt and swirl around her.
She blinked, brought back to the present with a gasp. The sound sent fresh fire down her throat, and she clenched her teeth against the pain. He was beside her in an instant, cupping her elbow and guiding her to a seat. She took it gratefully, her heart still beating with too frantic a pulse.
She felt his hand on her face, large and gentle. Caroline, he said, his voice growing urgent. Caroline, look at me.
She focused on his hazel eyes and the green flecks she saw there. They made her think of meadows and sweet grass, and nothing at all of monkeys. Do all Scots have such amazingly colored eyes?
She watched as the corners of his eyes crinkled with his smile. Nay, luv, they’re all mine. His thick burr sent lovely shivers down her spine, though she could barely understand a word he’d said. Normally, he adopted a proper English accent.
Still, she held his gaze, watching as his pupils dilated, losing the green into darker tones. She raised her hand to touch him in some way. She wanted to know the texture of his skin, the width of his mouth, the feel of a man.
Here you go, said Lady Anne as she rounded the corner carrying a tea tray. And suddenly, his lordship was two steps away from her. In the blink of an eye, Caroline’s view went from the man’s eyes to the shiny brass buttons on his coat. She glanced at Lady Anne but saw nothing amiss. If her ladyship had seen anything untoward, she gave no sign of it. Meanwhile, the earl took another step back and executed a handsome bow. I shall leave you to it then, Anne. Mrs. Lyncott.
Caroline looked up, unsure what to say. Their gazes caught and held, and in the silence she heard a strange sounda shush, like the wind through the trees or the touch of a hand through meadow grasses. It was quiet and powerful, and yet she could barely hear it, much less feel its caress. She was so focused on trying to understand the sensations that when he spoke, the words startled her. His tone was too formal, too superficial, and not at all the subtle whisper she’d almost heard. You will tell us if you need anything, he said. If you are distressed in any
I am merely bruised, my lord. She pushed through her confusion. I have suffered much worse, I assure you. She hadn’t meant to say that, though the knowledge was clear upon her scarred chest. But he didn’t know that so she flashed him a smile. Of course, I will tell the staff if I need something.
He studied her a little longer, as if trying to judge whether she lied. In the end, he had no choice but to withdraw. Caroline turned her attention to Lady Anne, who was pouring the tea, her hands steady though her expression was deeply troubled.
Don’t speak anymore, the lady said. I am simply horrified by what happened. I cannot express how sorry I am. To think that it happened in our own home. In my bedroom!
Caroline took the teacup, sipping obediently as Lady Anne settled in a chair across from her. In truth, the hot liquid did feel good on her throat.
I am going to get you that gypsy tea. I know my brother is furious with me, and rightly so, but I cannot believe that Mr. Pike knowingly brought that horrible thief in here. He expressly told him to stay in the stable. I heard it myself, but She swallowed and looked away, but then a moment later, she was looking into Caroline’s eyes, her expression pleading. I am so very sorry, she whispered. I don’t know how to help.
Caroline set aside her tea with a smile. I am fine, my lady. Then she reached forward and squeezed her ladyship’s hand.
That motion was her undoing because it pulled at the pins that held her bodice in place. A single breath later, the tear in the dress fell open to reveal her scars.
Lady Anne’s gasp of surprise echoed in the room. Caroline tried to cover herself quickly, but there was no help for it. The woman had seen.
Caroline, she breathed. What happened?
Damnation. What was she supposed to do now?