Lord Frederick Aveline, otherwise known as Derick, has successfully kept up appearances as an English nobleman. What no one knows is that he’s a full-blooded Frenchman—a double-agent for the British against the French. But there is something else no knows about Derick. Deciding to leave behind his days of espionage, he’s arrived home to Derbyshire to finish one final order of business: to find and expose a dangerous traitor in the midst.
But Aveline castle holds its own share of secrets—including murder, and an unexpected lure in Emma Wallingford. Brilliant and feisty, her loyalty lies with acting as the town’s magistrate, and she doesn’t welcome an unanticipated, though appealing, intrusion like Derick. As the two of them are drawn closer, the sordid past of Derick’s family comes to light, as does the true nature of his arrival.
But when deception, however sweet, is the name of the game no one can be trusted, and every love—and every life—is at risk.
This excerpt comes from the middle of the book. Emma has lured Derick on a picnic to one of their childhood haunts, where she hopes to seduce the only man she’s ever loved—and who she’s recently discovered didn’t desert her but has lived the last fourteen years as a spy in an ugly war—into coming back home to Derbyshire to stay. With her…
“My God,” Derick said, his voice soft with wonder. “I feel as though I’ve just passed through an enchanted tunnel and been transported back in time.” His gaze fixed on the landscape before them, on the babbling creek that wound through the vegetation until it pooled at the mouth of the cave, some thirty yards ahead of them. He leaned forward in his saddle, as if most eager to get to their destination.
Derick turned to her then and Emma caught her breath. The afternoon sun hung in the sky behind him, casting its light around his head in golden rays. The black of his hair shone in dark relief, the rays lending a glow to his skin and casting shadows that highlighted the chiseled beauty of his features. But it was the boyish grin that had stolen the air from her lungs. Yet at the same time, her heart expanded in her chest until she felt like bursting. This was the Derick she knew, the Derick she’d always loved. Emma had to look away lest she blurt the words too soon. While she knew what was best for him, she expected it would take him some time to come to the inevitable conclusion.
“Then you’re glad you let yourself be tempted?” She phrased it as a question, but it really wasn’t.
His smile faded and his eyes darkened a little, as if he’d been reminded of something he’d rather not think on. When his smile returned, it didn’t seem as genuine as it had a moment before. “Depends on how good those pastries are,” he said, then urged his horse ahead to the cave.
Emma allowed Derick to secure her mount alongside his as she spread out the blanket and basket she’d brought. She picked the softest ground she could find that wasn’t damp from the abundant rains—a soggy blanket seeped through with cold water wouldn’t be at all a good spot for seduction. She had to settle for a rockier patch than she would have liked, closer to the mouth of the cave but it was still near enough to the creek to enjoy the soothing rhythm of the running water.
When she had everything arranged just so, Emma closed her eyes and raised her face to the sun, basking for a moment in the perfection of the day.
“It’s more lovely than I remember.”
Emma’s eyes flew open at Derick’s low voice, just near her ear. His emerald gaze was fixed not on the picturesque scene around them, but on her. Those eyes, always so sharp, that seemed to take in everything at once, roved her face, her body. They grew heavy-lidded. A feeling like gooseflesh, only hotter, skittered over Emma.
Unprepared for the intensity of the moment, outside in the brightness of day no less, Emma stammered. “It—it is.” She took an involuntary step back, then stopped herself. Quit being a ninny, Emma. Isn’t this what you wanted? Yes. Yes it was. She took in a breath, and resolved to play this coolly, as if they were just two old friends having a picnic—at least until she got up her nerve to kiss him.
“It couldn’t be more perfect,” she said brightly. “Only it’s a shame that it’s too cool this summer to swim, as we used to.”
Derick blinked, a slow dip of his lids followed by several rapid ones. He, too, took a step back. “Yes.” And then he laughed, though it sounded a little forced to Emma’s ear. “Although if you think I’d be so easily badgered into merman service these days, you’d be disappointed.”
Emma blushed, remembering the imperious commands she used to give him when she’d insisted he play ‘mermaid princess’ with her when they were children. “It was only fair, given how often I had to play Lancelot.” She hadn’t minded so much when they were very young, but as they’d approached their teens…“When what I really wanted was to be your Guinevere.”
Derick’s head tilted, his eyes contemplative.
Emma felt her own eyes go wide. Dear God, had she said that last bit aloud? Damn her loose lips. She grabbed his arm and pulled him toward the picnic blanket before he could comment on her blunder. “No worries about merman service, today, however,” she said. “In fact, I intend to service you.”
Derick’s step faltered and his muscled arm went tense beneath her hands. A strange choking sound reached her ear.
Had she said something wrong? The way Derick bit his lip as if trying mightily to keep in a guffaw or two certainly indicated she had. She thought back.
“Serve you, I mean.” A wry smile twisted her lips. In her nervousness, she’d magpied the incorrect verb tense.
Laughter burst from Derick’s lips, but his eyes sparked with something more than amusement. “What?” she asked, her smile twisting down a fraction. So she’d bungled a verb. Was it truly that funny?
But Derick only laughed harder, placing his hand over hers on his arm and resuming their walk to the blanket. “Nothing,” he said, still snorting a bit. “Service away.”
Emma left Derick to get settled on the blanket while she knelt before the basket. As she pulled out two crude cups, one of the bottles of wine, wooden plates, a round of cheese and the pastries she’d wrapped in cheesecloth to keep them warm, she was acutely aware of Derick’s regard. Although she wasn’t facing him, it was as if she could feel his gaze on the sensitive skin of the back of her neck. It set off a slow burn.
When she turned with her bounty, however, Derick’s face was raised to the sun much as hers had been earlier. Seated on the blanket, leaning back on his hands, one long leg stretched out before him, the other bent at the knee, he . . . lounged. He seemed relaxed. At ease. And yet . . .
Emma had a sense that he could spring to full alert at any moment. Just like his ability to move so quietly that she rarely heard him before he reached her, she imagined he’d acquired the facility of constant readiness as a means to survive during his years as a spy.
Her gaze traveled over him, taking advantage of the view while his eyes were closed. There was so much about him, about the time he was away, that piqued her curiosity. Who was this man? She remembered what he’d wanted out of life as a boy, but given the much different life he’d led since then, what was important to him now? What drove him? How had he changed, beyond just the raw physicality that had erased any soft lines from his body? Beyond the natural maturity that comes with age?
Part of her itched to pepper him with questions, to learn all. But she had years to rediscover Derick, a lifetime. For now, it was enough for them to have an afternoon out of time.
“Your pastries, good sir.”
An easy smile crossed Derick’s face as he pushed off of his hands and leaned toward her. He accepted a pastry with ill-concealed delight and Emma moved to pour him a cup of wine.
“If these taste half as good as the ones I used to filch from your cook, I shall soon be in raptures,” he said, turning the sweet so that a corner was poised near his mouth, ready to be devoured.
The look of pleasurable anticipation on Derick’s face made every bit of her fumbling about in the kitchens this morning worth it—even her burnt finger. She soothed that finger with her tongue nervously, waiting to see what he thought of her efforts.
Derick’s even white teeth bit into the crust, and his jaw moved to chew. The movement slowed, as if he were savoring the taste in his mouth. And yet . . . if he were savoring, why had his lips just pursed into an almost grimace? And why had his eyes widened? And why did his hand fly up to his mouth to cover a choking cough?
“You don’t like them?”
“No, I—” His words dissolved into a fit of coughing. “I mean, yes, of course I do. They’re just—different than I remember.”
Emma frowned. “You don’t like them.”
He choked again, frantically motioning for the cup of wine in her hand. Emma handed it over, and he took a great swallow. Then another.
“No,” he said when he’d drained the cup. “No, I don’t like them. In fact”—a chuckle rumbled in his chest—“I’d rather eat the mud pies with kelp filling you used to make from the creek floor.”
“But you used to love them!” she cried, dejected. Had she gotten them wrong?
His brows waggled with an amused sort of sympathy. “Maybe I liked them so much then because they were filched. Ill-gotten gains always taste much better than ones that come honestly.” The look on his face told her he was scrambling to spare her feelings.
“They should be perfect. I followed the recipe precisely.” She reached out her hand. “Give me that.” She took the pastry and raised it to her lips, taking a generous bite.
“Argh.” She gagged. She didn’t even bother trying to swallow. Instead, she turned and dove back into the basket, snatching a square of linen so that she could discreetly spit the offensive dessert out of her mouth. “I must have mixed up the salt and sugar.”
Derick’s laughter boomed, sending a white-bibbed dipper flying from his perch on a rock in the middle of the creek with an indignant zit-zit-zit.
“What? The kitchen is not where I am most skilled. And they do look alike,” she insisted, in her own defense.
“Oh, Emma. The look on your face. Didn’t you taste them?”
She wrinkled her nose, sitting back on her heels. “I didn’t need to. I measured every ingredient twice, just to be certain. It should be like plugging numbers into an equation. They should have turned out perfectly.”
“Oh, they did,” he said, rising to his own knees to reach for the bottle of wine. “Perfectly horrid.” His chuckles had become mostly silent, but they still shook his chest in irregular spurts.
Emma couldn’t help sharing in his amusement. It was . . . infecting. She’d never been good at laughing at herself, but somehow she wasn’t able to berate herself with him looking at her so. Still, she tried. “I suppose I’ve spoiled your day, now, haven’t I?”
He sat back on his own heels, facing her, both of them on their knees. In one hand, he still held the wine bottle, but the other reached out and cupped her cheek. She leaned her face into his palm . . . she couldn’t help it.
“No, Emma,” he whispered, his voice and expression gone soft and serious. “You’ve made it.”
FEATURED AUTHOR: Heather Snow
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