There is nothing stable in the world; uproar’s your only music.
Allowing the lady to lure him into her carriage had been a brilliant idea.
Julian Alexander stared at a spider crack in the ceiling of his Mayfair townhome and wondered when he might start to believe it. He could presume encountering a former lover outside Hatchards on an otherwise lonely evening was a fortuitous event if there weren’t the niggling—familiar—pinch of regret the moment his cock settled.
A faint sense of having erred, gone off the path and into a twilight woodland where one could be easily lost.
As lost as he’d felt stepping into her dimly lit carriage.
Julian watched Marianne wrap herself in his silk dressing gown, her chatter lulling him into a state of satiated distraction. Only the first and third word of each sentence filtering through, he found the conversation definitively complete. Earl, garden, tryst, scandal. Titles and the men who held them occupied her undivided interest. Each day spent investigating a riddle that had no solution.
Was not, in fact, worth the attention she devoted to it.
In all fairness, Julian could not judge.
His mystical gift separated him from a normal existence and made the world he’d been born into at times unrecognizable. Out of a sense of duty, he played the part of the gentleman for the solitary purpose of propping up the viscountcy, adhering to society’s rules while struggling to preserve his secrets and the secrets of those he protected. Of course, he tendered his title when it benefited himself or the League. But a barony would have profited as well and knocked him down a notch, perhaps enough to slip beneath the waves and be carried from view.
He closed his eyes and let the waves crash over him.
Then Marianne mucked it up by kicking the door to the past wide open.
He rose to his elbow, knocking the counterpane aside. Dragging his hand through his hair, he asked, “Repeat that, will you?” Alarm vibrated through his belly, like swimming in the sea and realizing a massive wave crested behind you. No, it couldn’t be. “Come again?”
Marianne’s gaze settled where the sheet hung low on his hips. “So, you were listening.” She reached to touch, a stroke on air. Licked her lips in the event he didn’t register her appreciation. “Jules, with you, I never know.”
He slid high in the bed, suppressing his annoyance. Jules. He’d asked her to refrain from calling him that. Too. Many. Memories. “Marianne, the clairvoyant?”
Her smile grew luminous, her delight underscoring the scant attention he offered. Without trying to be a disdainful cad, it seemed he was precisely that. “Oh, darling, it was the most farcical evening! Ashcroft arranged for a fortune teller to entertain, and you know him. For a duke, he pushes the boundaries of propriety while always staying within the limit.” She leaned in, clutching the lapels of his dressing gown to her bosom. “I heard there was absinthe served to the men. Why, the festivities were enough to make a stuffed bird laugh!”
Julian hummed low in his throat and rose from the bed. He didn’t know but could imagine. Hell’s teeth, he thought and reached for his clothes, which lay in a tidy pile next to the chiffonier. Taken off without haste, neatly folded.
He frowned. How little had he wanted this encounter?
“I didn’t glean any outrageous tidbit about my future. Though I tried.” She lifted a delicate shoulder beneath silk. “More the delight just being there.”
He buttoned his shirt, slipped his braces over his shoulders. “You mentioned the woman had an unusual accent.”
Marianne crossed the room, slippers striking the floor in an eager rhythm. “It was dark, too dark to see anything. Very mysterious. Madame wore a veil, and there was candlelight. The ideal setting. Although Ashcroft seemed oddly anxious the entire evening, adding nothing to our merriment.” At Julian’s impatient look, she rushed on, “Madame’s accent came out on one word. She sounded almost...” She twirled her hand in a languid circle, finger pointed toward the plaster ceiling rose. “Ad-ver-tise-ment. That’s what she called the sheet she handed me. She sounded, can you imagine, American? Would that not be a vulgar surprise?” She laughed it away, swept beneath the Aubusson at her feet. “Although I’m sure I misheard. Doubtless, an upstart trying to hide cockney.”
Julian’s fingers twitched, missing a button on his waistcoat. He moved too forcefully across the room as she took a stumbling step back. “Where is it?” He drew a breath laced with the scent of Marianne’s perfume and the acrid aroma rolling in the open window. Soot, sewage. That damned river. Christ, he hated London. “The advertisement.” He extended his hand, controlling the tremor that wanted to travel from his fingers to his heart.
Could. Not. Be. Piper was tucked away in Gloucestershire. Under armed guard. Protected. Safe. Their enemies had been searching for her since she’d arrived from New York all those years ago. But they wouldn’t look in Gloucestershire. She knew this. He’d cautioned her more times than he could count. Had been advising her for years, it seemed.
Marianne regarded him through eyes the color of fresh cow dung. “Why, darling, I fear I’ve not seen you react…to anything. Appetites fed but the heart untouched.” She waved away her discomfiture and a statement she likely wished she’d kept to herself. Turning in a crimson whirl, she moved to rifle through the reticule sitting atop the chaise lounge, one just the shade of emerald eyes Julian had tried with little success to forget. “Lucky for you, I saved it. As proof, I experienced such an evening. Who would believe otherwise?”
Julian flexed his fingers, preparing for the transmission. His gift didn’t marry well with a lack of sleep. Touching an object and being pulled into the otherworld of someone who had touched it previously was brutal enough. Stepping into that world when exhausted was reckless and allowed the experience to control him.
Maybe it wasn’t Piper, and this endeavor would be nothing more than supernatural experimentation. He’d sent Finn to visit her last month. Or had it been May? A headache moved to the base of his skull. Lifting his hand to his brow, he pressed hard.
Blast it, had they not visited since the spring?
Marianne thrust the advertisement at him, and he hesitated. Taking time to notice she’d only secured an ear bob, and it dangled there without a partner, bouncing as she did. Her lips canted, though he’d bet a half-sovereign the smile would disappear if she fathomed the source of his reluctance. If she had any idea who he truly was and how his gift of sight forever separated them, she would run screaming into the misty night. “If you’re interested, Julian, and I’m shocked you are, Madame DuPre is doing a reading tonight. The address is listed.”
His breath seized. Madame DuPre. The name conjured forgotten summers of youth. Running through fields of grass so tall the blades hit his thigh; swimming in shallow lakes on moonlit nights; climbing trees until he was breathless surveying all that fell below. Laughter and foolishness—even love by some arcane definition—on a scale he and Piper could no longer afford.
Julian huffed a sigh and grabbed the sheet before he could think better of it. Or stop himself, which he would not, because it appeared Piper had jumped off another goddamn ledge.
And he was her rescuer. Her caretaker.
I’m going to throttle her, was all he managed as he crushed the foolscap in his hand and stepped into the otherworld.
Shadow and candlelight bathed the room. The curious combination of burnt ashes, spice, and lilac. Piper was settled over a desk, her gown as golden as the Kingcup scattered along Harbingdon’s riverbank each spring. Moonlight carved a path along the floor and Julian followed the dazzling footpath of silvery blue. The walls surrounding her were covered in tattered wallpaper, peeling at the ceiling and seams. The furniture was scuffed, the rug threadbare. The dwelling was nothing like Finn’s description of the modest but opulent manor in Gloucestershire.
His heart thumped desperately against his breastbone. She was more vivid than any model he’d ever painted, and he had tried to recreate her, a thousand strokes of brush to canvas.
Her vibrancy eluded him.
Stumbling back, he tried to step out of the trance. It was a problem lately that he had trouble doing so. The otherworld had a voracious claim on him. Through eyes drawn to slits, he observed Marianne’s lips moving, but he was too entrenched in another space and time to respond.
Too entrenched in her.
Independent of his gift, Piper Scott had a stronger hold over him than any woman could ever hope to have.
Muttering a harsh oath, he dropped the advertisement like it burnt his skin and the image of Piper spiraled away, water down a drain. Forcing him from the room with the tattered wallpaper and the girl he’d sworn to protect with his life but never touch again to preserve hers.
The woman for whom he hungered.
Dear God, Piper, what have you done?
He was through the door and into the hallway before another breath had passed, ducking as a vase accompanied Marianne’s shriek of rage.
She could only determine events had gotten out of control rather quickly.
Piper lifted her veil as she stumbled along the smoke-filled hallway, drawing a breath tasting of charred wood and scorched velvet. Baron Audley’s aura had been so startling. An unusual shade: darker than lime, lighter than moss. Jealousy? Envy? Questions she would have asked had she not shifted rather suddenly in her excitement, bumping the table and sending the candlestick to the floor. She should have known better than to use such a tall taper, but they were very atmospheric.
Now the modest parlor in the hotel where she’d held her readings was ablaze for the second time in one week. Both could not be due to her negligence, could they?
She tripped over a crease in the runner and halted in place. Was this the way out? She focused on calming her mind and placed her hand on the wall to steady herself. The wallpaper felt a bit sticky, and though she realized time was limited, her mind returned to the Baron’s aura. Determining the emotion associated with the color took deliberation; it was not a simple process. She needed her research journals, which were upstairs in her room.
Damnation. The papers would be of little use if she burned to a crisp trying to retrieve them.
A strip of light marked the floor at the end of the hallway. Piper’s lungs stung, her vision graying as she dashed toward the exit. This would win the grand prize as her worst blunder yet. Frankly, dying would be the easier option. Because surviving this debacle to find herself, Lady Elizabeth Piper Scott, daughter of a viscount and granddaughter to an earl, exposed as a clairvoyant would be bleaker than any previous error in judgment.
Julian would, quite truthfully, kill her.
She could admit to fleeing Gloucestershire to gain his attention. She’d not had contact in months. Four, at least. Running hadn’t worried her, even with the danger to her person, because Julian, the most prudent man she’d ever known, would eventually find her. Before their enemies, she trusted. Naming herself Madame DuPre was like waving a cape before a bull. And although he wouldn’t believe it, posing as a clairvoyant was for her research.
For the most part.
The other reason was loneliness, which she would never, ever admit to feeling. Not when Julian had enforced their separation after explaining why hiding in Gloucestershire was the most judicious plan for her protection. Always choices provided for her protection, not her happiness, until she became so disheartened and experienced that little jab of rebelliousness that made her do silly things.
She nodded her head—go with research when he asks why you did it—and shoved against the door at the end of the hallway with all her strength. The garden was spring-lovely and blessedly vacant, moonlight splashing the brick path she dropped to her knees upon. There was a shout from inside the hotel, the screech of windows being raised to invite fresh air.
She coughed and hung her head, bowing close to the ground, brick biting into her palms. No matter how hard she tried to contain it, chaos followed her as closely as a beloved family pet.
The polished Wellington entered her vision before she sensed his presence. A knee hit the ground beside her, fingers skimming her cheek and lifting her face into the light. She felt the veil being slipped free. Thought scattered as she curled into the contact.
Forever since anyone had touched her with even the slightest regard. All at once, she felt as diaphanous as the smoke surrounding her, dissolving in his arms.
“We have to leave this place.” His hand tensed, fingers trembling against her jaw. “Open your eyes, Piper.”
Julian’s voice. Rich, deep, captivating. To look in his eyes would break the spell. Disappointment. Censure. Evasion.
His aura, however, would be magnificent.
He swore beneath his breath and lifted her into his arms.
“A mistake,” she whispered, her cheek settling against fine wool with a sigh of surrender. “The papers. My research.”
As he strode through the garden, she breathed, dismissing smoke and summoning Julian. He was surprisingly luminous, the feel, sound, and scent of him. Memories swirled, years and years of them. She couldn’t shake the calm that settled over her, the completeness.
How utterly foolish.
Nothing had changed in her heart.
When everything had changed in his.
“You have no idea how much rests on my protecting you,” he hissed in her ear, rage vibrating from him like ripples from a pebble tossed in a pond. On an oath, his arms shifted, bringing her closer. She crumpled into him, his heat warming her to the depths of her soul. This was all Julian, a gridwork of contrasts. Resentment and tenderness, irritation and concern.
He wanted the lines clearly drawn when they were muddled, every last one of them.
“You have no idea,” he repeated.
Actually, she had quite a fine idea.
Other little girls had gone to sleep listening to stories of fairies and princesses, gods and knights, towers rising amidst fields of lavender. Her stories had been filled with mystics and the supernatural, magical gifts that set her apart.
And those who sought to use those gifts to destroy her.