“Absolutely not.” The low rumble of the Duke of Upton filtered down the hall, unmistakable in the way the deep baritone echoed off the low ceilings.
Impressive, considering Anna Smith’s Cheapside home did not have the large, vaulted spaces that the residence of an aristocrat would certainly boast. Her home was what she liked to call cozy.
It had small, though comfortable, rooms that her five large brothers had always easily filled. Of course, that was changing. First, because her brothers had all gotten married and most of them had left the family home.
But also because her eldest brother, the new Marquess of Highgrove, was attempting to pawn her off on the duke. That fact hurt. She’d like to believe he just wished to protect her, but…
“Why not?” Ace asked.
“You’re not serious?” the duke rumbled back, giving no ground.
“I am serious, Rath. Deadly serious,” her brother answered, and Anna shifted closer. His voice was harder to hear, it didn’t carry in the same fashion, and she had to sneak forward while still attempting to remain out of sight.
Bent low and leaning toward the open door, she appeared the very picture of a person who might be guilty of eavesdropping. Which she absolutely was.
To be fair, they were discussing her future, a conversation, as usual, she had not been invited into.
“What in the bloody blue bollocks would I do with a woman like Anna at my country estate?”
“Do? Rath, you don’t have to do anything. Other than keep her safe.”
The duke grunted, long and loud, his annoyance evident. “You’re telling me she isn’t perfectly safe here with all you strapping Smiths about?”
Ace cleared his throat. “Fulton’s back in Italy, Rush at his new home—”
“Why not send her to Rush then?”
“You know why. Every friend and enemy seems aware of where Rush lives. Gyla has even attacked the place. She wouldn’t be safe.” Gyla, from what she had gathered from her eavesdropping, was a criminal who’d been trying to steal her brothers’ gaming hells.
Upton made some noise
that she only assumed was a concession of sorts. “Tris?”
“With his wife here in the city. I’d like Anna far away from here.” Those words hurt too.
Another grunt. “Why me?”
Anna dared to peek around the open door, just enough to see her brother shrug. “Because I know you’ve got the strength.”
“Bullshit,” the duke answered. “It’s because you know I need the money from the clubs.”
“It isn’t bullshit,” Ace replied. “No lord is better suited to keeping her safe than you. I know you are uniquely skilled in this regard. You are an excellent fighter and instinctually aware of danger. You’ve stopped several fights at the club because you anticipate them happening.”
Anna dared to crane forward just a bit further to catch a glimpse of him. The duke. She studied his profile where he sat in one of the high-back chairs near the crackling fire. She loved those chairs. The leather was worn but soft, and comfortable on a cold spring morning.
She felt exactly about them as she did her home. She looked above the mantel in the study, where a picture of herself hung on the wall.
She was two in the painting, maybe three, the only one of her siblings to have had such a portrait done. Some might have thought it a privilege, but she knew better.
That painting was part of what made her separate. Different from her siblings. The other.
Which was one of the many reasons she didn’t want to leave. She ought to be here, proving she was as much part of this family as the rest of them.
Well, that, and the Duke of Upton was the last man she wished to travel anywhere with. He was…scary.
Tall, broad, with thick muscles, he had a craggy brow that hung low over his eyes, always masking his intentions. His mop of overlong, nearly black hair didn’t help either.
His cheekbones were strong, almost menacingly so, his jaw lean and hard, and his mouth was nearly always set in a perpetual frown.
She shivered, fear sliding along her spine. Anna was nineteen and, if her family had not been under attack from not one but two nefarious villains, she’d have started her first season this year, an event she was very much looking forward to and another reason she didn’t wish to leave.
Anna was desperate to create a future of her own and that could only happen in London. She was an artist, and everyone in England who might help her succeed was in this city.
After years of waiting, of being overshadowed by everyone in her family, she deserved her own chance to make her dreams come true.
Instead, she was about to be shunted off to the country estate of a man who frightened her half to death. This plan was a terrible idea.
A sentiment she and the duke seemed to agree upon.
“Although I am better than most at fighting, I am most definitely the worst at spending time with refined ladies. An artist, isn’t she? What would we even talk about?”
“You don’t have to talk. Mira and Boxby will be with you to entertain her. Just keep her safe.”
“Why can’t Boxby babysit her at his country estate? Why do I need to be part of this plan? Don’t you think I’m best for finding Kingsley?” Kingsley, a marquess, was Gyla’s partner, and he’d joined the fight against her family.
Ace grimaced. “I’ve considered that. But both Kingsley and Gyla have attempted to compromise the unattached women close to us. It makes Anna the most vulnerable. And Boxby is distracted with Mira. Newly married men seem only able to attend their wives…”
“Boxby has been my friend for a very long time. He’s smart enough to care for two people, I’m certain.”
Ace glared. “It’s her life you’re betting on. If she were your kin, wouldn’t you want someone dedicated to her care?”
“I wouldn’t know,” the duke grumbled, but she could hear the concession in his words laced with a bitterness that made her cock her head in question.
"Rath. This is important,” Ace said. “Please.”
She watched the duke’s shoulders fall, and she knew that her brother had won—which meant the meeting would be over soon. Straightening up, she began backing away. Best not to be caught.
But she’d only made it a few paces when her brother appeared in the door. “Anna. Just the
person I hoped to see.”
Inwardly, she cringed. Apparently, she’d made it far enough away that he didn’t realize she’d been listening. But the duke was still in Ace’s study and so that meant that Ace would speak to her in front of the other man.
Didn’t Ace respect her enough to at least make the conversation private? Apparently not. Then again, her family never considered what she might like.
Anna walked into the room and Rath felt his frown deepen with growing irritation. How did she always manage to elicit such a strong reaction?
She was pretty enough with her silky blond hair, always neat and artistically arranged. Her features were angelic, with eyes that were crystal blue, like a lake in summer, and her tiny little nose or the way her pink lips always looked like summer berries.
Despite her beauty, however, she was a mouse of a woman, always appearing frightened. Her eyes were wide and frequently averted, her hands clasped in tight balls. She even hid in her own clothes, her dresses forever hanging loosely off her body.
Everything about her was in stark contrast to himself. He looked down at his skin-tight breeches. There wasn’t a single soft edge on him. Which meant he felt this ridiculous need to chase the scared little mouse back into her hole every time he saw her.
Yes, he was a beast. He even looked like one, with his overgrown hair and his craggy features. And everyone knew he acted like one as well.
Taking a gentle and meek female to the country was the very last task he wished to complete.
And he meant the words—absolute last. Mentally, he ticked off the all the things he would rather do: Wrestle with bears.
Recover from an epic night of drinking.
Clean their gaming hell, Hell’s Corner, after a Saturday night.
Fight the villains that had plagued said gaming hell for the last several months. Definitely that last one.
Lord Gyla, a foreign count who’d tried to steal their women, pillage their earnings, and attacked their homes had been attempting to force them to sell their businesses. And while Gyla was on the run somewhere in Europe, his partner, the Marquess of Kingsley, was still in England and very much a threat.
Rath understood why Ace wished for his sister, Anna, to be tucked away. The part of the plan he chafed at was being the man who had to do the tucking.
Did he look
like the fucking type? The answer was a resounding no.
Which might have been the understatement of the century. His father had married his mother in secret and when Rath had been born, he and his mother had been spirited off to live a life so far away from the dukedom and all its trappings that he hadn’t even known his father was the heir until his grandfather had passed. It hadn’t been a difficult secret to keep…Rath barely saw his father. And his mother, who had grown increasingly resentful about being hidden away, had taken her frustration out on the only person available—him.
When the father had finally gained power, Rath had been sixteen, and after spending most of his life in Northern England with a mother who couldn’t stand the sight of him, ...