unnoticed in the midnight shadows, fixed her hungry gaze upon
Gabriel Kendrick, the most formidable of the ghosts she had come
home to face.
surroundings, Gabriel bent to keep his head from an intimate
encounter with a raw-oak barn beam while protecting the newborn lamb
in his keeping, a smile in his eyes, if not on his face . . . until
he saw her. Gabriel the indomitable—named for the bright angel, when
he should have been named for the dark—stood frozen in
A heartbeat, no
more, and the scoundrel narrowed his eyes, stepped forward,
stretched to his full staggering height, and squared his shoulders
to a stunning span. Lucifer, sighting prey, spreading charred wings.
features, graven in shadow, sharpened to unforgiving angles as his
dark-fire gaze singed her.
Lacey stepped back.
In that moment, despite her resolve, she wanted nothing more than to
turn tail and run . . . except that she could not seem to move.
Here stood the
father of her child, while between them stood the lie she’d told to
deny it—saving him and tormenting him in one horrific stroke.
A horse snuffled and
shuffled in its stall, freeing the scent of hay musk into the grip
of silence, injecting reality into unreality, replacing the past
with the present, and allowing her finally to draw breath.
As forbidding as her
nemesis appeared in lantern light, dressed entirely in black, the
tiny white lamb tucked into his frock-coat humanized him, the
contrast bringing his cleric’s collar into conspicuous and bright
A Vicar’s trappings,
a scoundrel’s heart, and no one seemed to know, save her.
He no longer fit the
image of the young man she had carried in her heart. His features
familiar, despite the firmness of his jaw, had been lined and
bronzed by time and parish responsibilities to a mature and
patrician air. His leonine mane, still an overlong tumble of sooty
waves, thick and lush, bore strokes of gray at the temples. No
phantasm here, but the bane of her existence in the flesh, more
daunting, more vitally masculine. More a threat to her sanity than
As if he could read
her, Gabriel shifted his stance, on guard, watchful, yet before her
eyes, a hard-won humility replaced his natural arrogance. But he did
not do humble well, and his attempt jarred her.
He’d always been
proud, even when they were children—he, the indigent Vicar’s son,
she, the daughter of a Duke. But now, their roles had been reversed,
and the Duke’s daughter stood, impoverished, disowned, before the
boy who’d adored her, then hated her, with all his heart, face to
face for the first time in five years. “Gabriel,” she said, wishing
her voice did not tremble and her body did not remember.
wondered if the sum and substance of all his dreams, good and bad,
could hear the sound of his cold stone heart knocking against his
ribs, bruising him to his core. “Lace,” he said, her name emerging
raw and raspy.
Mortified at his
self-betrayal, he cleared his throat to try again, but a shadow fell
between them cutting the anguish of the moment.
Gabe focused on the
newcomer, Yves “Ivy” St. Cyr, stood there beaming, his little red
dog at his heels, Ivy, whose puppet wagon they’d once chased
giggling down High Street. The happy vagabond grasped Gabe’s hand
and pumped it, making him feel the dolt for failing to extend it.
“Ivy,” Gabe said, relieved his voice worked again.
The puppet master
beamed. “I see you found the surprise I brought you.”
Found it? Gabe could
not take his eyes from it.
Lacey said. “I have come home.”
As was her habit,
and his curse, she answered his unspoken thought. Whether her words
eased or deepened his anxiety, he could not decide, but he hoped
fervently that his shock and yearning were not as plainly writ on
his brow for her to read.
“She’s staying with
me for now,” Ivy said. “Helping with my puppet shows until she finds
a place here in Arundel to live. There’s plenty of room in my
Gabe worked to
comprehend Ivy’s words and form a coherent response, while the
horrible gladness burgeoning inside him begged release to the point
it constricted his chest and stole his breath. He found
concentration necessary to fill his lungs. “You’ll stay at Rectory
Cottage,” he said. “Both of you. More room than in that gypsy
wagon.” Gabe raised a hand while Ivy prepared what would be nothing
more than a token protest.
Gabe shook his head.
“No argument, now.” He had always suspected that Ivy enjoyed making
people as well as puppets dance, though with the best of intentions.
So of course the puppeteer offered no argument, but he did grin and
wink at Lacey. “Took pity on my old bones, he did.”
As Lace had once
commanded, Gabe bowed before her. “Lady Ashton.” His insolent use of
her title, a reminder of her status before her fall from grace,
pierced her, he saw, and for that reason, it pierced him as well.
“I apologize,” Gabe
said. “That was . . . unforgivable.”
“Yes, it was.”
She tried, and
failed, to mask her distress.
Gabe watched, heart
racing, as she turned to their friend. “Ivy,” she said, “I can’t
stay. I’ll sleep in the wagon while I look for— No, I’ll take the
morning coach back to Peacehaven in Sussex. This won’t do.”
Handing the lamb to
Ivy, Gabe placed the flat of his hand against Lacey’s back to stop
her retreat, turn her, and propel her toward the vicarage before she
Her familiar heat
warmed his palm and spiraled like smoke from a chimney to surround
his icy heart, causing a painful thumping nudge in the center of his
He retrieved his
hand and fisted it in self-preservation as he looked about him as if
for an answer to his dilemma.
kitchen, friendly, welcoming, pleased him absurdly, seeing it as he
was through Lacey’s eyes. But she stepped away from him. “I won’t
stay. I won’t.”
Gripped by panic,
Gabe knew he could not let her go. Not again. Just thinking about
the possibility seared him deep, like a knife had sliced him open
and left him bleeding.
To save himself, he
turned and bent on his haunches to stoke the fire in the grate,
chase the damp, and warm the undersized lamb.
Ivy’s pup, a German
Dachshund, placed her front paws against his thigh seeking
attention, its tail beating an amiable tattoo, yet Gabe could
concentrate on nothing, save Lacey.
Lacey was home,
here, in his house, where he’d pictured her a hundred times. A
His Lacey. As
beautiful as ever. More beautiful. His.
No, not his. Never
again his. That was past.
He was a proper
Vicar now, staid, unemotional, his passion, a vice overcome.
Long-buried. Dead. Except that it was not.
Gabe turned to the
sound of a throat being cleared, almost surprised to find Ivy
standing there, exhausted, a sleepy lamb in his arms.
“It’s late; I’ll
prepare your rooms,” Gabe said, rising from the hearth. “Mackenzie’s
asleep.” The lamb bleated and Gabe reached to stroke the downy-soft
head against Ivy’s arm.
“She’s hungry, the
wee thing,” Lace said.
“I was planning to
fix a bottle.” Gabe felt stupid, overlarge, oafish beside Lace, and
remembered a time that hadn’t mattered.
“Did she lose her
mother?” Lace asked.
Gabe relieved Ivy of
his burden, feeling more comfortable with the lamb in his arms, like
a shield, he thought fleetingly, but against what? “She’s a twin,”
he said, “and a runt to boot. Her mother rejected her.” He stroked
the fragile neck and the mite closed its eyes in ecstasy.
transfixed by the action.
Gabe thought he saw
. . . yearning? in Lace’s emerald eyes. The kind that had once made
him lower her to the grass and—
The fire crackled,
breaking the tension between them.
They both stepped
back, set free by the sound.
Lace looked anywhere
but at him. “I’ll fix her a bottle. Just tell me—”
“I’ll get you—” They
spoke together, stopped together.
He gave a half nod
and set the lamb on its wobbly legs. Then he proceeded to take
everything from the scullery that Lace would need to feed the mite.
Not sure what more
he could say without exposing old wounds, Gabe nodded and headed out
to get their bags. The click, click, click of puppy paws on the
slate floor behind him assuring him that Ivy and his pup followed.
Once Gabriel quit
the room, Lacey nearly swooned from the effort she’d expended
pretending indifference while jolted out of mind.
She glanced about
her at the room that had been a haven for half her life. Twenty
years ago Gabriel’s mother taught her to make jam tarts and sew her
first stitch by this very hearth. Happy memories.
Here, tonight, she
came face to face with the stormy, soul-deep longing that led to her
downfall—memories she could not classify; she had not come to terms
with them, after five years. In her mind, they were not wicked,
though not quite righteous, either. Nevertheless, she’d brought upon
her family the ultimate disgrace.
After the birth, and
death, of her child, Ivy had taken her from here, where she grew up,
to the Peacehaven Home for Downtrodden Women, in Newhaven on the
Sussex Coast. There, she’d tried to hide. But she’d been brought
back to life with a vengeance and with love, first from Jade, and
then her girls. Marcus, too, eventually.
There she’d regained
her self-respect, grown strong, confident, assertive. She’d
discovered, and finally accepted, that she must face her past before
she could hope for a future.
This morning she’d
set boldly forth, carrying heart-flags of purpose and determination,
eager to brave the world she’d left behind . . . and ended trembling
in a vicarage kitchen, fragile as the lamb butting her leg.
Lacey smiled at its antics. “What makes you think I have milk? Do I
look like your mama? Oh.” Lacey placed a hand to her aching chest.
She was no-one’s mother. The self-inflicted wound, unexpected and
sharp, hurt the more amid the ruins of her loss.
Determined to calm
herself before Gabriel returned, she poured milk into a pan to warm
as she rinsed a lambing bottle and nipple. She reminded herself that
her purpose in returning stood at hand—her niece, Gabriel’s
step-daughter, asleep upstairs, the child she would save . . . as
soon as she saved herself.
So near, yet so far.
So possible, yet not. Only Gabriel stood between her and success,
between joy and despair.
Some things never
Lacey sat on the
floor near the hearth and coaxed the lamb into her lap by tugging
gently as it followed its grip on the nipple.
She was home. To
face her ghosts. An entire village of them, specters who’d condemned
her and turned their backs on her, Gabriel at their head, she
While his flock
considered him a saint, they considered her a sinner. About the
latter, they were correct. About the former—Gabriel himself—however,
they were mistaken. He was human, all too human. Flawed. No one knew
that better than she.
Oddly enough, she
believed she’d forgiven him a long time ago. ‘Twas herself she could
not seem to pardon.
Gabriel returned to
the kitchen after bringing Ivy and their bags upstairs, and Lacey
tried to appear composed, as she sat before the fire, the greedy
newborn in her lap suckling lustily.
beside her, hands behind his back, a paradox of a scoundrel, bigger
than life, deadly handsome, stirring her just by looking at her.
As if he realized
it, he stepped away, fixing his gaze on the old oak table, with its
slab of a top and legs as big as tree trunks. Then he sat, confused
for a moment as to what to do with his beefy hands and placed them
finally on his thighs.
“Where’s Ivy?” she
asked, her dratted voice a wobbling croak.
“Fell asleep while I
was showing him his room, the pup beside him. I took off his shoes
and threw a blanket over them. Is he getting old, our Ivy?”
“The pup’s name is
Tweenie; she’s his shadow. And he’s not as old as he is stubborn. He
insisted on driving through, all the way from Newhaven. I’m sorry we
arrived so late; we made a late start. Your friend Marcus Fitzalan,
a knave of your club, I’ve been told, married my friend Jade today,
and we stayed to celebrate. I’m glad we didn’t awaken you.”
Imagine that.” To her dismay, he rose and dropped down beside her
to stroke the drowsing lamb’s lanolin-soft wool.
Too close. Oh, God,
he was too close. The Duke of Ainsley and the Marquess of Andover
send their best. They said you were a holy scoundrel in school.
As if she hadn’t
spoken, the mite roused at Gabriel’s attention and suckled, again,
as if it hadn’t eaten in a week, until it was pulling loudly on
Lacey tried to wrest
the empty bottle from the lamb’s grip, and as she did, Gabriel’s big
brown hand stroked too far and grazed her breast.
The two of them
froze at the contact, gazes locked, a primitive, unnamed energy
rising hot and thick between them—an intangible yet undeniable
Lacey’s heart raced,
her nipple budded, her womanhood flowered. To keep from crying out
at her body’s betrayal, she bit her lip, and tasted blood.
No wonder Jade’s
eagerness for Marcus, Abigail’s for Garrett. Love had surrounded
her, not just lust. Not like this hot rush between her and Gabriel.
His breath left him.
He struggled for air. Lust flared in him, molten and heavy. He’d
controlled passion for years, the more so with his wife Clara’s
staunch approval, after their sorry wedding night. But a minute in
Lacey’s company and passion long-dead reared up wild and alive.
Strength lay in
denying passion—a hard-won lesson for him. But around Lacey, desire
overcame determination, and strength became a wisp of smoke where
once had burned a zealot’s fire.
Lacey. Lace. Home.
No, and again, no.
She used to make him
call her Lady Ashton when he wanted to call her Lace, like the rest
of her friends did, except for the day that he’d come home a
new-minted parson, when he’d finally called her . . . his.
Why did he still
feel like that worthless boy with the torn shirt and dirty nails?
Why, when his clothes were new and his home comfortable and clean,
elegant even? Why, when the gray dress Lace wore, which must once
have been blue, had been mended and pressed to a pauper’s shine?
Trapped. By passion.
By Lacey. Gabe wanted to swear, to rage. He wanted to pull her into
his arms and kiss her until she gave passion back, as good as she
got, as only Lacey could.
If it were not for
the fact that he wasn’t the only man to know—
Gabe rose to his
feet and crossed the kitchen, to be as far away from her, from
captivation, as possible.
He wasn’t certain he
could bear to be near her without taking her into his arms, any more
than he could bear the constant reminder of her betrayal, of his
“I’m looking forward
to spending time with my niece,” she said, her nervous rush of
tumbling words pulling Gabe from pain and shivering him to his
bones. He gazed at Lace across the room, hoping he would see no
greater significance than her words betrayed. “My daughter,” he
said, desperate, for some strange reason, to stake his claim.
Lacey rose, lifting
the lamb in her arms. “Stepdaughter,” she corrected. “I hope she
hasn’t forgotten her real father.”
Gabe approached her,
then. He’d face any and all demons, real or imagined, for Bridget.
“Her father died before she was born. Her mother and I married
before Bridget turned two. I am the only father she knows.”
“I am her aunt, kin
“Blood, as we know,
does not always tell.”
Lacey stepped back
under the pain of his verbal blow.
As unexpected to him
as to her, his barb had been born of instinct and self-preservation,
but as always, her pain became his. He might just take to bleeding
on her behalf, and then how foolish would he look?
Frustrated over his
callous behavior, over how brutish he must appear to her, he
reclaimed the lamb with more force than he intended, yet he could
not seem to compose himself. He wished to the devil he didn’t bloody
well care how he appeared or how Lace felt. “I’ll show you to your
Preoccupied by his
demons, Gabe made for the stairs, then he realized he’d committed
the unforgivable and gone before her. He should have allowed a lady
to precede him, as he would the lowliest in rank . . . except that
Lacey was no longer a lady, he hated to remember.
Neither was he a
gentleman, as she had often reminded him.
He stopped to let