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Chapter One

August 1817

If the Duke of Robinsworth had known it would be so difficult to raise a daughter alone, he never would have killed his wife. He would have coddled her, wrapped her in lace and taffeta, and put her on a shelf so the whole world could view her beauty.

Even though he’d never admitted it, everyone knew he’d killed her. And though he refused to share the details, they were all correct.

His daughter broke him from his reverie when she stomped her foot and demanded that he purchase not one, but two, sweets from the vendor.

Ashley was quite used to the antics of his daughter, and although they were annoying, they never bothered him overmuch. When she became too unruly, he simply left her with a nurse. If it happened at home, he left the manor. He’d even left the country once. But she was always there when he returned, always just as petulant as she had been the day he left. He’d resigned himself to the fact that she would never change.

Anne was a perfect re-creation of his late wife. Her long blond curls danced around her face. Her porcelain skin and blue eyes reminded him of a doll he’d seen once in a shop window. The only difference: the doll didn’t have a temper like Anne. Yes, she had inherited that from her mother, too.

When Anne was younger, she would drop to the ground and kick and scream when she didn’t get her way, flopping about like a fish out of water. Now she simply scrunched up her pert little nose and screeched.

Ashley winced as she shrieked out the words, “I want it!”

He took a step toward the child, fully prepared to throw her over his shoulder and drag her back to her nurse, who waited on a park bench nearby, when a woman stepped forward. His breath caught in his throat as she entered his line of sight. She was the opposite of his late wife, who’d been blond and thin and fragile.

His gaze traveled over the woman’s rounded hips to her ample breasts, nearly hidden among the frills and folds of her light-blue gown. He lingered there, imagining how she would look in a gown that didn’t have quite so many trimmings hiding her curves. When his eyes finally rose to meet hers, her flashing hazel orbs held censure. Ashley coughed into his hand in a horrible attempt to hide the smile that wanted to erupt. It had been years since he’d been so well scolded. And she’d yet to even speak to him.

Before he could say a word to her, the auburn-haired nymph looked down her nose at his daughter and said, “Ladies do not shriek.”

His own little termagant rolled her eyes in a horrid display of social ineptitude.

The woman raised her eyebrows at Anne and said, her voice a bit crisper, “Ladies do not roll their eyes.”

“But I want another,” Anne snarled, stomping her foot.

The beautiful woman smiled at his daughter, a dimple appearing in her left cheek. People very rarely smiled at Anne because she was so obnoxious that most gentlewomen turned from her in disgust.

“May I tell you a secret?” she asked of Anne. Then she looked at Ashley, who nearly fell over trying to avoid leaning toward her so he could hear her soft voice as she spoke to Anne. “Do you mind?” she asked, smiling as she asked him for permission to speak to the girl.

“No,” Ashley said, waving his hand negligently. “You may disclose all the secrets you wish.” He wanted to add that she could whisper a few in his ear as well, but he assumed she’d take that as an insult.

She knelt down to Anne’s level and whispered in her ear. Anne’s nose turned down slightly until she suddenly smiled. She covered her mouth with her fingertips and giggled.

“Go on.” She nudged Anne forward. “Try it.” She shot Ashley a quick look that encouraged him to play along.

Anne tugged gently on his sleeve. “Yes, Anne?” he said quickly, finding it painful to tear his gaze away from the stranger long enough to look down at his own daughter. But when he did, he was surprised to see the pleasant smile that curled her lips.

“Papa, may I please have another treat? I regret to inform you that they are pitifully small.”

Ashley glanced up at the lady, who smiled at what must have been his perplexed look. He stared at her for a moment, unable to draw his eyes away, until Anne tugged at his sleeve and whispered, “I should like to grow up to be as sweet as the lady someday.”

Ashley turned to the street vendor and asked for two more treats. He promptly gave one to his daughter, who was delighted by her newfound ability to win her father’s favor. Then he looked over at the lady who’d transformed his daughter and winked.

* * *

Sophia felt certain she turned ten shades of red when the man turned and winked at her. It was such a masculine gesture, and not one that was commonly tossed in her direction. Of course, considering that he was the Duke of Robinsworth, Ashley Trimble, to be more exact, it was completely fitting.

It did gratify Sophia a bit to see that the child took her advice and approached her father in a gracious and respectful way. She smiled softly when he placed the treat in the girl’s hands and bent to kiss her forehead.

Sophia turned to walk away but heard quick footsteps behind her. “Miss?” The child called for her. Sophia looked down at her smiling face. She held up a second treat and said, “My papa said this one is for you.”

Sophia hesitated for a moment before she took the wrapped square from the child. “Thank you very much.”

“Wait.” When the girl’s father’s voice reached her, it hit her like a runaway horse, making the hair on her neck stand up and her belly drop toward her toes. His quick footsteps hurried across the cobblestone walk toward her. He stopped, his blue eyes darting to and fro in the nearly empty park. “If your chaperone sees me speak to you, I fear she’ll steal you away almost as quickly as you appeared.” He let the last trail off as he waited for her to fill the empty space.

Quite the opposite. Her grandmother had contrived the scheme so they could meet in the first place. “I appreciate the flattery, but I have not required a chaperone for a number of years. We do things differently where I’m from, you see.”

“And where might that be?” His blue eyes danced at her.

Unpardonable Error Number Three: Never share the existence of the fae. “I’m certain you’ve never heard of it.”

His eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. Should she extend her hand to him? Try as she might, she was unable to remember all the social proprieties this world was based upon. Her grandmother had repeatedly tried to drill them into her throughout the years. And failed. “My name is Sophia Thorne, Your Grace,” she finally provided.

His gaze grew shuttered at the words “Your Grace,” almost as though a heavy curtain dropped between them that was difficult to see through. She wished she could bite the words back as soon as they left her lips.

“My reputation must precede me,” he said as he looked away. Sadness suddenly overwhelmed his features. “I’ll let you be on your way.” He bowed slightly and turned from her.

“Your Grace?” Sophia called. He stopped and looked back over his shoulder, no hint of the playfulness she’d seen earlier present in his gaze.

“I’ve never rested much faith upon the opinions of others, Your Grace,” she said slowly. “I prefer to draw my own conclusions.”

A sardonic smile broke across his face. “You could very well ruin your reputation by being seen in my company, Miss Thorne.”

She shrugged. “One must have a reputation in order to ruin it, Your Grace. And to be more succinct, one must care.”

A smile that might be genuine slowly lifted the corners of his lips. “I thank you for the help with my daughter. How did you do it?”

She shrugged again. She’d simply treated the child with respect and firmness, both of which the girl was surely lacking. But that was neither here nor there. “Most women learn to manage men at an early age,” she laughed. “It appears as though your daughter has not.”

“Not until today.”

“I was happy to help.” Sophia held up the wrapped square of candy. “And these are my favorite,” she admitted, unable to keep from smiling at him.

The little girl tugged at her father’s sleeve. “Can we go home now, Papa?”

The duke pulled his watch fob from his pocket and flipped it open. “Actually, I do have some things to attend to,” he said apologetically as he touched the top of his daughter’s head. “Tell Miss Thorne good-bye and thank you,” he instructed her.

Instead of dropping into a curtsy, the girl locked her arms around Sophia’s waist and squeezed. Sophia was almost too surprised to return the embrace.

“Perhaps I’ll see you again another day,” she said to the little blonde.

“I can only hope,” the duke said quietly, his gaze meeting hers only briefly before he turned away, took his daughter’s hand, and started down the lane that led to the entrance of the park.

Sophia took a moment to catch her breath. It wouldn’t do for her to swoon in the middle of the park. Not at a mere suggestion from the dangerous Duke of Robinsworth. The man was a walking scandal. A walking scandal that made her pulse pound so loudly she could hear it.

“Well, that went better than I expected, dear,” her grandmother said as she stepped into her line of sight.

“Better than I thought,” Sophia lamented.

“I wasn’t sure if you’d be able to feign the mannerisms of the British ton. But you did fairly well.”

She certainly still had a lot to learn about this world. The land of the fae might look similar, but none of its magic was present in this world. Here, people wore full clothing, and not a single one of them had wings or pointy ears the way she did. Just willing her own wings away was difficult and not something she usually had to concentrate so hard to do.

“He seemed discontent about my lack of a chaperone,” Sophia said. “Do you think I need one, to look like one of them?”

“Perhaps we should have Margaret shadow you a little more,” her grandmother suggested.

Sophia moaned. The idea of Margaret watching everything she did made her nervous. The house faerie didn’t like this world or anything about it, including its people. The maid wouldn’t say why, but she had a feeling it had something to do with Sophia’s mother. “I need to learn to walk like them.”

“Stiffly and unyielding?” her grandmother said with a laugh. In their world, comfort reigned. Clothing was serviceable. There were no layers worn simply for show. In order to fit through keyholes and slide under doors, one must be appropriately attired.

“Maybe I should have saved this mission for Claire after all.” Indecision rose within her. No. She could do this. She could help the Duke of Robinsworth’s daughter.

“You must learn to use your senses, your mind, and your heart more than your magic. You can do it, Sophia. I wouldn’t have allowed you to come if I didn’t believe it.”

“Oh, come now,” Sophia cajoled. “You wanted an opportunity to come through the portal, to see the fish.”

“I’d love to know their crimes. Knowing they were once fae scares me a little.” Her grandmother shivered lightly.

“They seemed amiable enough.”

“Only because you had something they wanted to trade for passage. Otherwise, we’d still be at home waiting for the night of the full moon.”

The fish that guarded the portal were granted a reprieve on the night of the moonful, the night the midnight wind swirled, carrying passengers from the fae world to this one. Any other night, wary travelers must trade something of value to get past the fish and away from the land of the fae.

“This mission is very unlike my others,” Sophia said, more to herself than to her grandmother.

“Most missions don’t include a handsome duke.” She grinned. “A duke who makes one’s heart go pitter-patter.” For some reason, her grandmother’s mild, cherubic smile sent fear skittering up Sophia’s spine, making her wonder what devious plot was hiding behind her grandmother’s innocent facade.

Chapter Two

Ashley stepped through the front door of his home to find his butler, Wilkins, standing at attention in the entryway. The regal, spry old servant rushed forward to take his hat and coat.

“Any news for me, Wilkins?” Ashley asked absently as he shrugged out of his jacket, took the correspondence the butler placed in his hands, and sorted through the stack of notes quickly.

“Your brother awaits you in your study,” the butler said.

A smile broke across Ashley’s face. “I imagine he’s sampling my best whiskey?”

Wilkins smiled, then added glibly, “Not since I removed all the decanters upon his arrival, Your Grace. You should be aware that he partook of more than his share of spirits before he arrived.”

His brother had never been one for taking spirits in moderation. Ashley chuckled. “That bad, is he?”

“Worse, Your Grace,” Wilkins said, nodding his head slightly.

“Oh,” Ashley said as he turned and held up a finger. “Did you have any luck finding a suitable governess for Anne?”

The man sighed. “Unfortunately, no. The agency refuses to send another of their applicants. Not after what happened the last time.”

Ashley tried to remember.

“Remind me of what happened last time.”

“Lady Anne set the governess’s hair on fire. On purpose.”

“Oh, yes. I remember. There was a stench for days.” Wilkins’s lip curled as he obviously remembered the same smell. “Are there other agencies you can try?”

“I’ll keep looking.”

“Thank you.” Ashley smiled as he walked down the corridor and turned the corner to enter his study. There, seated in a deep leather chair, was his younger brother, Lord Phineas, or Finn, as his friends called him. “I heard a rumor that you were in my study and that evasive maneuvers had to be taken to keep you out of my stock,” Ashley said, extending his hand.

Finn rose to his feet unsteadily, grasping for the arm of his chair as he lost his balance. The man looked positively miserable, his eyes rimmed with red, his face blotchy and pale. “Ah, yes. But he forgot the bottle you keep in your private stash,” Finn said as he held up a glass, lisping a little on the last word.

Of course, his brother would feel free to invade his private space at will. Never one to mince words, Ashley said, “You look like hell.”

“I feel like hell,” Finn grumbled back.

“Dare I ask what the matter is? It’s a bit early in the day to be so deep in your cups.” He urged his brother to sit before he toppled over. He was nearly as big as Ashley, so it would take at least two footmen to bring him back upright.

“Oh, I had a bit more enjoyment than I’d planned,” Finn groaned as he adjusted himself in the chair.

Ashley sat behind his desk and steepled his hands in front of him, waiting for the man to tell him what the matter was. It didn’t take as long as he thought for his brother to unburden himself.

“Do you remember the chit I set up in Mayfair?”

“Vaguely.” If Ashley remembered correctly, there was nothing truly remarkable about the girl.

“She’s up and left me.”

“And?” Certainly, worse things could happen to a man. Like being shunned for killing one’s wife.

“And she started a bit of a rumor.”

“About?”

“My lack of physical attributes and attention to her needs,” Finn mumbled.

Ashley tried to hide his chuckle behind a cough into his closed fist.

“It’s not amusing,” Finn pointed out.

“Certainly, it is,” Ashley said, laughing a bit louder.

“How do you deal with it? The whispers behind your back? The constant judgment from your peers?”

Ashley shrugged. “One becomes accustomed to it with time.” He’d had seven years to learn to accept his lot in life. The only time it rankled was when he met a lady like Miss Thorne. Then he wished he was anyone but himself.

Finn reached for the whiskey bottle again. Ashley intercepted it and moved it out of his brother’s reach. “Drinking any more will be a waste, because you’ll not remember the taste of it when you wake up.”

Ashley stood and called for Wilkins. The man appeared within moments. “Let’s find a room for Lord Phineas and help him to it, shall we?” he asked of the butler.

Wilkins nodded his head and called for footmen to assist. “If I may be so bold, Your Grace, the rest of London should know what a good man you can be,” Wilkins said.

“I prefer to let them think the worst.” Ashley sighed. “They’ve no expectations of me that way.”

Ashley returned to his study and began to open his correspondence. Despite his sordid past, he was a bit too well connected to be ousted completely from society. For the first two or three years following his wife’s death, he’d been avoided as though he had a communicable disease, as though the propensity to murder was contagious.

Then the few friends he had, namely his brother Finn, Matthew Lanford, and Jonathon Roberts, whom he’d met at Eton many years before, had rallied around him and forced him to resume his place in the House of Lords and step back into society. They all believed him innocent of any wrongdoing. It was unfortunate that they were all incorrect.

The clip of quickly moving slippers in the corridor made him groan and hang his head. Within seconds, the Duchess of Robinsworth flung open his door and burst inside his sanctuary, without even the good graces to knock.

“Mother,” was his only response as he looked down at the note before him. “What brings you to my home?”

“You really should replace that butler,” she scolded.

“And why should I do that?” he asked as he closed his ledger. She obviously had a purpose for visiting. And would most likely get to it as soon as she got over whatever slight Wilkins had given her. He would curse the man, but the butler seemed to be one of the only people who could keep his mother in line.

“He’s impertinent. And rude.”

Said the pot about the kettle.

“He blocked my entrance to the old library. The one in the west wing. He stood right there in the doorway and refused to let me pass. Of all the nerve.” She harrumphed and dropped into a chair.

That wing of the old house had been closed for longer than Ashley could remember. Since before his father had died when he was a boy. “And what purpose did you have for visiting the west wing, Mother?” he asked as he poured himself a liberal dose of the whiskey Finn had left behind.

“It’s awfully early to be drinking, dear,” she scolded.

“It’s awfully early for you to be visiting, Mother,” he returned. His mother never rose from bed before the luncheon hour. “Shouldn’t you be sleeping off the excesses of the night’s activities?”

“I wouldn’t call them excesses,” she mumbled.

He fished a note from the pile of correspondence Wilkins had given him. “You do not find one thousand pounds to be an excess?” he questioned.

“Give me that.” She held out her hand and leveled him with a stare that would have made him quake in his boots when he was younger. With her icy glare and pinched brows, she could freeze him in his tracks when he was a boy, but no longer.

“I think not,” he returned. Then he took a deep breath and dove directly into the issue at hand. “I believe it’s time for you to move back to the Hall, Mother.” He would hate having her underfoot, but he couldn’t keep an eye on her if she wasn’t at hand.

She pulled back and turned up her nose. “I’ll do no such thing. My town house is perfectly acceptable.”

“You mean my town house,” he clarified.

“It’s mine in theory,” she huffed as she sank primly onto a chair across from him.

“The amount of money you’re losing at the gaming tables is tremendous,” he said as he withdrew more notes from his drawer. They arrived nearly every day. From people his mother had gambled with and lost. They all knew she wasn’t good for the debts. Yet they played with her anyway because the Duke of Robinsworth never left a debt unpaid. His presence in their drawing rooms might not be valued. But his purse certainly was.

“I’ll take those,” she said again.

“Why, Mother? You cannot begin to pay them.”

Her face fell. “I do not know why you feel you have to be so cruel,” she said as her eyes welled up with tears.

“I do not understand why you gamble with money you don’t have.” He tapped the cards on the table. Then he made a clucking sound with his tongue. “But I’m prepared to pay them in full.”

“As you must, Robin,” she said quietly, using his childhood nickname.

“On one condition,” he amended.

Her face contorted slightly. “Which is?” she said from between gritted teeth.

“I’m closing the town house effective immediately. You’ll be moving back to the Hall.”

She jumped to her feet. “I will do no such thing,” she gasped.

He continued as though she hadn’t spoken. “I will reconcile your debts. Every last one of them. Then you will cease gambling with money you do not have. You may use your pin money any way you see fit.”

“But there’s not enough,” she protested.

Still, he continued. “You will spend nothing more than your pin money. You will move back to the Hall. You will assist me with my daughter.”

“Anne hates me.”

Anne hated everyone. “You will assist me with your granddaughter. She could use a feminine presence. You will behave respectably and set a good example for her.”

“You need a wife,” she snapped. “It’s unfortunate that no one of respectable breeding will have you.”

Oh, his mother knew how to throw the barbs that would hurt the most. “Then I am free from the wife search, it seems, since no respectable woman would pay me her favors.” He leveled her with a glare. Though Miss Thorne had graced him with a smile and no fear in her eyes.

“It took years for me to get over your past deeds. To find my way back into society. You have no idea how arduous the task was.” He couldn’t gather sympathy for her, despite the look of anguish in her eyes. “If I move back to the Hall, I will once again be cast beneath your dark cloud of suspicion.”

“Do you think I killed my wife, Mother?” he clipped out.

“Of course not,” she rushed on.

“Then I would assume a mother who finds no fault with her son will be quite content to return to the family estate.”

“My friends won’t know what to think.”

“Quite frankly, Mother, I don’t give a damn what they think,” he drawled. “I’ll have Wilkins begin the preparations to move your household.”

“And just when do you think this will take place?”

“As soon as I bellow down the hallway,” Ashley replied. Wilkins would take great pride in ruffling the duchess’s feathers.

“That man hates me,” she grunted. “When I’m in residence, I’ll expect him to treat me as befits my station.”

“He’ll treat you as well as you treat him, Mother.”

“I’d prefer being dropped into a vat of hot oil over being nice to that man.” She jumped to her feet and headed for the door.

“I’m certain that can be arranged,” Ashley called to her retreating back.

Chapter Three

The duchess arrived the following afternoon in a flurry of activity. Ashley leaned against the newel post and surveyed the staff who scurried up and down the corridors of his home.

“How did you do it so quickly?” Ashley asked, shaking his head in wonder.

“Sheer strength of will, Your Grace,” Wilkins replied with a haughty smirk.

“One would think you’d be hesitant to take on such a task, since doing so means you’ll have to see Mother on a daily basis.” Then Ashley caught the direction of Wilkins’s gaze as he stared at his mother’s housekeeper, whose bottom was in the air as she rummaged through an open trunk. “The effort could come with a boon, it would seem?” Ashley tossed in casually.

The man’s face flushed for a moment. But only for a moment. “I certainly hope it will be worth it,” he finally said with a grin.

“At least one of us might get to enjoy the favors of a benevolent lass,” Ashley lamented.

This caught his butler’s attention. “I can send a message to—”

Ashley held up a hand to stop his offer. The last time Wilkins had arranged for an assignation, Ashley had found himself with a beguiling lady, one who quaked in her slippers at the very sight of him. It simply wasn’t worth the effort. They were all the same, be they barmaids, wenches, whores, or members of the gentry. They all saw him as tarnished. As fearsome. As the dangerous Duke of Robinsworth.

Ashley clapped Wilkins on the back with a smile. “Good luck with that little piece of baggage,” he said with a good-natured chuckle as his very staid and very proper butler picked up a valise and followed the housekeeper down the corridor. Wilkins never carried baggage. It was well beneath his station. Yet, it was quite apparent that performing below his station might yield some results beneath the housekeeper’s skirts.

The very thought brought Ashley’s mind back to the comely little lass he’d met in the park that afternoon. Little wasn’t a good description at all. She was tiny compared to him. Tall by most standards, she came up to his chin. He could probably tuck her beneath his chin and hold her close.

“Robin,” interrupted a voice from the doorway. He turned and found his mother, her face red with what he assumed must be anger. “Why is it that Wilkins insists on interrupting my beauty rest?”

He raised one brow. “Because he enjoys torturing you?”

“He could at least have waited until after luncheon.”

“Where would the humor be in that?”

“I hope you don’t regret your decision to bring me here,” she said.

“Regret having my mother under my roof?” He already regretted it. But he continued smoothly. “Never.”

His mother’s smile suddenly brightened. “I had the most wonderful idea last night when I was discussing my new accommodations with some friends.”

“Crying over” would probably be a more apt description of this discussion. Or “hysterically wailing.” “I assume you plan to tell me of your idea?” he prompted.

“I plan to have a house party,” she answered, the smile on her face evidence that she was immensely pleased with herself.

“Absolutely not,” he bit out. Of course, she would want a house party. His mother had always lived to entertain.

“You could allow me to tell you why, Robin,” she sniffed, “before you say no.”

He took a deep breath. A room full of nosy gentlemen and ladies, all of whom would attend if for no other reason than to get a glimpse of the dangerous Duke of Robinsworth. “Why do you want to have a house party at my home, Mother?” he acquiesced.

“So that my friends can see what a dear boy you are, of course,” she explained. “They see so little of you that naturally everyone is curious.”

Now he was a carnival attraction. Fabulous. “No,” he clipped out.

“My friends have been led to believe by many who are in Town for the season that you are more than just a recluse. That you’re a murderer. That you killed your wife. That you have two heads. That you have a curved backbone that twists your body into absurd proportions.” She stopped and took a deep breath. “Yes, all of those things have been whispered about. I want to show them that you’re none of those things.”

More likely, she wanted to show off the Hall. Show off her position in society. Show off her wealth. Or his wealth, actually. But, to her, it wouldn’t matter. “And just who do you plan to invite to this gathering?” That would make all the difference in the world.

His mother began to tick off names of prominent members of society, many of whom had marriageable daughters.

“Absolutely not, Mother!” he said, throwing his hands in the air. “I will not allow you to play match-maker.” Truth be told, none of those women would have him. They’d quiver and stare and stammer when he came into a room. They’d pretend to be interested in him, but only long enough to gather fodder for the scandal sheets.

“Don’t you think a house party sounds like a grand idea?” She beamed with pride as she glanced around the marble entryway of their ancestral home. “The estate has been much too quiet of late. It’s like a great sleeping beast and only needs someone to breathe some life into it.”

“No more than ten guests, Mother,” he sighed. “And I will not be attending. So, do not think you will find a wife for me.” He turned on his heel, trying to avoid his mother’s frantic clapping and shrill shriek, but she reached for his sleeve.

She patted his arm. “I could find a mistress for you, if you prefer. It would help your temper greatly.”

A mistress? Good Lord. “I have no need of a mistress, Mother,” he ground out.

“How long has it been, Son?” she whispered dramatically. “Years? Months?” She nodded to herself, a silly smile playing about her lips. “A paid woman would accept you.”

“Mother,” he snarled.

“Oh, never mind,” she said with a wave of her hand. “I promise not to even try to make a match for you.”

“No courtesans. No widows.” If he kept going, the party would cancel itself simply by lack of participants.

She mulled it over, tipping her head from side to side. “I accept,” she finally said.

He turned to walk back to his study. “No matchmaking, Mother,” he called back to her.

“You won’t regret this, Robin,” she called to him.

He already did.

* * *

Sophia cringed as her grandmother placed a vial of shimmery pink dust in her hand. “This one is for truth. Use it sparingly, Sophia,” she said with a frown.

“I am not certain I’m ready for this one.”

“I completely agree, but you’ve been taxed with unlocking the secrets in a little girl’s mind. They’re secrets she’s not even aware she’s carrying.” Her grandmother took Sophia’s hands in hers and squeezed. “Use it with great caution. Because if you use it for the wrong reason, the results can be disastrous.”

“Disastrous? In what way?”

“In a way that will affect your life forever,” her grandmother warned.

Sophia tucked the dust vial into her reticule and stood. She glanced quickly around the rooms her grandmother had let upon their arrival in London. The accommodations weren’t too different from the land she came from. But the clothing certainly was. Sophia tugged at her bodice. She wasn’t used to wearing so many layers of clothing. She turned to face the family matriarch. “What type of dust did you use to coerce the dowager duchess into inviting us to her house party?”

“None at all, my dear.” Her grandmother smiled benevolently at her. “I simply paid her a visit. She was deep in her cups at the time, but she still remembered me.”

“You’ve walked between the two worlds enough that you have old friends?” How odd that her grandmother had never told her of her escapades.

“Indeed, I have,” she said cryptically.

“How long has it been since you’ve been on a mission? I don’t remember you traveling when we were younger.” In fact, she remembered her grandmother as always being a solid presence in her life. Much more solid than the parents she’d never met.

“My own travels were before you were a light in your mother’s eye,” her grandmother said softly.

“Do you plan to see her while we’re here?” Sophia asked, instantly hating the way her voice quivered.

Grandmother’s face softened. “Do you?” she returned.

Tears pricked at the back of Sophia’s lashes. She tried to blink them away. She had no memory of her mother. Perhaps it was best that way.

“It’s all right if you want to go and see her,” Grandmother advised. “I can help you find her.”

“I’d rather not.” Sophia swiped a hand across her nose. Her mother probably wouldn’t even recognize her.

Her grandmother closed and locked the last trunk and turned to face Sophia. “That’s enough lamenting about the past.”

No one had ever told Sophia or her two siblings why their mother had to leave the land of the fae, never to return. Why she wasn’t a part of their lives. But in the quiet times at night, she’d heard whispers of her mother’s misdeeds from the other beings who occupied the land where she came from. Those fireflies were a blasted nuisance. And, despite their beauty, they liked to tell tall tales. Tall tales full of doom and gloom. And remorse.

Sophia shook the thoughts away. She’d long since given up her search for answers about her mother. This was certainly not the time to rekindle them. This was the time to work her fae magic for a little girl. And she might even get to help the dangerous Duke of Robinsworth in the process.

The man looked haunted behind those sky-blue eyes, and pain rolled from him in waves when she was in his company. She’d very nearly swooned from the power of it when he’d realized she knew about the stigma attached to his name. It wouldn’t do for her to go reeling into the bushes at the mere presence of the man. She’d have to work on her response to him. To his pain. To his daughter. To his past.

Unpardonable Error Number Two: Never let your dust fall into the hands of the untrained. She opened her reticule and glanced inside, wondering about the vials of dust she had stored in the small space. Each had a different purpose, most of which were benign. Yet the dust for truth, the newest one, made the hair stand up on the back of her neck. What if the truth was too burdensome to bear?

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Chapter One of What She Didn’t Know

What-She-Didnt-Know-Kindle

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“I thought what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her… until it did.”

Chapter One

 

The buzzer on my desk phone went off and I ignored it, preferring to push papers around on my desk, pretending to look busy. I had patient charts to review, medications to approve, and a plethora of patients who were waiting for me to make my rounds. But first…first I had to find her. I had to find Lynn.

I had to at least try, although in my heart of hearts I knew she wouldn’t be found until she was good and ready.

The phone buzzed again, and I hit the appropriate button to mark myself busy so no one could buzz me anymore. I had too much on my mind. I knew I might even have to take a few days off so I could get my shit together.

I’d checked her bank accounts. I’d checked her credit cards. Her social media profile. Her phone. I’d checked everything, and I still had no idea where she was.

Suddenly, the door of my office flew open, slammed hard against the opposite wall, and in rolled a ball of fire.

Ash.

My secretary followed her, trying to stop her forward trajectory, to no avail.

“What the fuck did you do?” the intruder snarled, bending over my desk so she could slam her fist on the wood in front of me.

My heart eased a little. If Ash was here, things would be okay. She could help me find Lynn. She might already know where she was.

I sat back in my chair and made a steeple of my hands in front of me. “Ash,” I said with a nod. “Always a pleasure.”

“Dr. Peterson, I’m so sorry,” my secretary stammered from behind Ash. “I told her you didn’t want to be disturbed, but she wouldn’t listen.” She reached for Ash’s arm, but Ash jerked back and then made a move like a charging bull at the poor woman. Mrs. Anderson blanched and backed up against the wall, her hand upon her heart.

“It’s okay, Mrs. Anderson,” I said calmly.

“I told her, Dr. Peterson, I really did,” she said, her voice shaking in the presence of the fury that was Ash.

“It’s okay,” I said again calmly. “She can stay. Can you close the door on your way out?”

“Do you want me to call security?” Her gaze dragged up and down Ash’s clothing, stopping on the torn jeans where we could all see a little too much of Ash’s thigh. Then paused again on the cropped shirt that was short enough to show a strip of soft, supple stomach. The lace of her bra, which stuck out the top of the ripped shirt she wore, was torn and frayed. The dirty, scuffed, overfilled backpack she carried had all her worldly possessions in it, I was sure. Ash liked to travel light. And dirty.

“No,” I said, still not moving. “You can close the door. We have a little business to take care of.”

“Are you certain, Dr. Peterson?” she insisted, her gaze jumping from me to Ash and back.

Ash lifted her voice high and mocked Mrs. Anderson. “Are you certain, Dr. Peterson?” she chimed. “Of course he’s certain, bitch. Now get out.” Ash made a move like she was going to jump toward Mrs. Anderson, and Mrs. Anderson scurried quickly to the door. Ash slammed it shut behind her.

“So nice to see you, Ash,” I said slowly.

“Where the fuck is she?” Ash perched her curvy little ass on the edge of the chair on the other side of my desk. She rested her arms on the desk and glared at me.

“What makes you think she’s gone?” I asked. I pretended to be occupied with the papers on my desk, stacking them into organized piles.

“I just left your house. She’s not there.”

“Lynn’s not a prisoner, you know,” I reminded her. Although, if I was truly honest, I knew she kind of was. She didn’t leave home, not unless something was terribly wrong, or one of her closest friends was with her, or unless I was with her.

“Lynn’s not a prisoner,” she parroted. “What did you do?” She glared at me.

“When was the last time you had a shower?” I countered.

She froze, but didn’t answer my question.

Ash was a friend of Lynn’s, and she lived on the streets most of the time when she was in town. She did odd jobs, a little waitressing when she could find someone with poor enough standards to hire her. With her heavy eyeliner, deep-black lipstick, and combat boots, she was a study in contradictions. Deep down, I knew she was good. But on the surface, she was bad. Very, very bad.

“Where have you been sleeping?” I asked mildly.

“Here and there.” She kicked back in the chair and lifted her scuffed and worn combat boots to rest on the edge of my desk.

“While Lynn’s gone, I want you to stay at our house.” I got up and walked around to her. “Take a shower. Get cleaned up. I’ll come home later and we can talk.” I sat on the edge of the desk and scooted over until her feet were against my hip. She softened as soon as I touched her, just like she always did. She might be tough as shoe leather on the outside, but on the inside, she was as soft as cotton. “We can make a plan. Find her.”

“Do you want her back?” she asked. Her eyes skittered around, looking everywhere but at me, so I bent over and captured her chin with my fingers.

“I always want her back,” I said. “Always.” The vehemence of my words startled even me.

“What did you do?” she asked again.

“I didn’t do anything.” Not this time.

“The last time she vanished like this was when you asked her to marry you,” Ash reminded me.

“I know.” She was gone for almost two weeks. I had to deal with Ash then, too. And several of Lynn’s other friends. “She came back, though. She always comes back.”

“I’m worried about her,” Ash whispered.

“I am too.” I laid my hand on her shin and gave it a squeeze. Her eyes fell closed and a tiny tear escaped, streaking across her black makeup, leaving a sooty trail down her cheek.

“I need for her to come back. It’s been a long time since she’s done this.” Ash laid her head back against the back of the chair, following her words with a damp, tear-stricken groan.

Two years, four days, and twenty-two hours since the last time Lynn vanished. “Did she say anything to you? Give you any indication she was stressed over something?”

She shrugged. “It’s not like she talks to me every day.”

“I know.” I patted her leg again, lingering just a little too long. Her eyes flew open and her gaze met mine. “Go home. Take a shower. You stink. I’ll be there later. We’ll talk.”

She glanced toward where my hand rested comfortably on her leg. “Talk,” she repeated.

“Yes, talk.” I couldn’t keep the corners of my lips from tipping up into a grin.

She lowered her feet to the floor and slowly stood up beside me, pressing her lithe body against mine. “Last time she was gone, we did more than talk.”

I remembered. “That was a mistake.”

Her eyes roamed up and down my body. “A mistake that tasted like it was right.” She licked her lips. “Damn. I missed you.”

In my own fucked-up way, I missed her too. “Go home. I’ll be there in a few hours. I have some things I have to do here.”

She nodded. Then she stepped onto her tiptoes and waited, her face tilted up toward mine. I bent and kissed her lips quickly and softly. “Later,” I whispered. “I’ll see you later.”

She nodded and walked toward the door. I opened it for her and stepped to the side, my back against the open door. She lifted her hand, each finger tipped with black nail polish, and stroked her finger down my tie.

“Not here,” I whispered.

“I know,” she whispered back. “Because I’m not her.”

I studied her face, searching for the features I knew so very well. “No, you’re not her.”

She nodded sadly and left.

I closed my door and rushed across the room to pick up the phone. I dialed my mom’s emergency number.

“Mason,” my mom said as soon as the phone rang once. She sounded out of breath. “Did you find her?”

“No, but Ash was here.”

Silence was the only response. “Mom?” I prompted.

“If Ash was there, Lynn’s okay.”

I knew that, but it didn’t make it any easier. “I want Lynn back.”

“I know you do, son. Just give it time. These things have a way of cycling around.”

“Mom…” I heaved out a sigh.

“I know,” she said softly. “But you know she’s safe. That’s what matters.”

What mattered was getting Lynn back, and I’d do anything to make that happen.

Available Nov. 1, 2017

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Chapter One of I’m In It

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Im-In-it-Kindle

 

 

Wren

 

I push through the doors of the tattoo shop with my heart in my throat. Paul Reed looks up, and I’m stunned, just like every other woman who looks at him is immediately taken aback by all his ink, the piercings over his eyebrows, the metal in his ears, and the blue of his eyes. Startling. There’s no other word to describe him. Except for kind. Kindness seeps from Paul Reed’s pores. You just have to be willing to look past the gruff exterior to see it.

His back is bent over a client as he works on a tattoo for a man who has almost as much metal on his face as I have on my car.

Paul smiles at me. “Hey, Wren,” he says. “What’s up?” He lifts his tattoo machine for no more than a moment, and then he looks back down and keeps working.

“Hey, Paul,” I reply. I swallow hard.

“What can I do for you?” Paul asks. He’s the only one in the shop today, since it’s early in the morning.

“I was hoping Friday might be here,” I say tentatively.

He tilts his head toward the back of the shop. “She’s cursing in the office right now, trying to balance the bank account.”

I hear a filthy curse come from the back room, and I bite back a grin. “Is it okay if I go back to talk to her?”

He nods. “If you’re brave enough.” Then he lets out a heavy sigh. “She threatened to chop my dick off when I took her a cup of coffee. So proceed at your own risk.”

“Thanks.” I walk toward the office and stop when I see the door is cracked. I rap my knuckles lightly and call out her name. “Friday?”

She looks up and blows a lock of dark hair from her eyes as the door opens just a little. I’m always startled when I see her looking like this. She doesn’t have a swipe of makeup on and she’s in jeans and a t-shirt. There are no high heels, no short skirts, no fishnet stockings, and no kissable red lips. She’s just Friday.

“Hey,” she says. She smiles at me. “Come on in.”

“Are you sure I’m not interrupting?” I step into the room and drop hesitantly into a chair across from her desk.

“I needed a break anyway.” She puts her pencil down and crosses her hands on her desk. “You doing okay?” she asks, her voice soft.

“Oh, yeah,” I say with a breezy wave. “I’m fine.”

“Good,” she says with a nod. “I’ve been worried about you.”

I bite my lips together.

“So, I’m guessing you didn’t just come here to shoot the shit.”

I scratch the tip of my nose. “I was wondering…” I heave in a breath. “I was hoping you might draw a tattoo for me.

Her brow rises. “What did you have in mind?”

“Just something simple to remember the…you know.”

“The baby?” she clarifies, her voice a lot stronger than mine.

“The miscarriage,” I say, clearing the lump that’s suddenly clogging my throat.

“The baby,” she says again, staring hard at me.

“Yeah, that.” I lift my thumbnail to my teeth and rip a piece of it off. I was almost three months pregnant when I miscarried. That was two months ago.

“Did you have something in mind?”

“Well, there’s no marker, no grave…no baby. Not really. So I want something simple. Just something to mark that he was here. It was an early miscarriage, so some people might even argue that he never existed. Since he never took a breath and all that.”

Her eyes narrow. “He may have never taken a breath, but he existed, and you were one hundred percent pregnant. You’re allowed to feel one hundred percent of the grief.”

Tears sting my eyes and I blink them back.

“I’ll draw something up for you and let you take a look. Want me to text it to you?”

I nod. “That would be great.” I get up and start for the door.

“Hey, Wren,” Friday calls out.

I turn back and look at her, waiting for her to speak. “Yeah?”

“Why didn’t you ask one of the guys to draw something up for you?”

I look everywhere but at her. “Well,” I start. But then I stop and bite my lips together.

“Well?” she prompts. But her face is all kindness and affection.

“You’re a mom,” I say.

She nods, her head going up and down slowly. “I am.”

“And I thought you might, you know, know a little something about loss.” I play with the corner of a poster on the door.

“I do,” she says with another nod. She heaves out a sigh. “I’ll draw something up for you, okay? If you don’t like it, we can go back and forth until we find the right memorial tattoo for you.”

“Do you think it’s stupid?” I ask quickly. I want to bite the words back as soon as they leave my lips. “Never mind.”

She gets up and comes to stand in front of me. She’s about six inches shorter than I am, but she looks dead into my eyes. “Some tattoos are about the past, and some are about the future. Some are about healing, and some just let the pain out. Some mark happy moments, and others commemorate the sadness. No tattoos are stupid. Well, except for ones people put on their dicks. I never did understand those. And since you don’t have a dick…” She finally grins and squeezes my shoulder. “I’m glad you’re doing okay.”

“It was good to see you.” I turn to walk out.

“Hey,” Friday calls out to me again. “Give your sisters a call. I know they’re worried about you too, okay?”

I nod and leave the shop, the bells over the door tinkling as the door closes behind me.

I step out onto the busy street and take in the hustle and bustle of morning in the city. I pull my phone out of my pocket and text my four sisters all at once.

 

Me: You guys want to go to karaoke tonight?

Finny: Bitch, it’s about time you texted us. And yes. I’m in.

Star: I’m in, if Marta can watch the baby.

Peck: Sam says we’re in.

Finny: Are we bringing men?

Peck: Sam says we are. LOL

Lark: We’ll meet you there at 7

Me: See you then!

Lark: Umm…Ryan wants to know if Mick can come.

Star: That’s up to Wren. Wren?

Me: It’s fine.

Star: It won’t be too weird for you?

Me: No. It’s fine.

 

It’s not fine. Not fine at all. But he’s Ryan’s brother. I can’t avoid him forever, can I?

I have four sisters. They are all blissfully happy.

Sam, one of the Reed brothers, met my sister Peck and they have a son and another baby on the way.

Josh, who works at the Reed brothers’ tattoo parlor, married my sister Star and they have a new baby, a little girl.

Tag is living with my sister Finny, and she’s pregnant. Tag already has a little boy, Benji. Tag wants to marry Finny, but she swears she doesn’t need a piece of paper.

Ryan, who also works as a tattoo artist at Reeds’, married my sister Lark. She’s not pregnant yet, but they’re trying. Lots.

And then there’s me.

And then there’s Mick.

And he was with me the day I lost my baby. And I haven’t seen him since.

And he’ll be at karaoke tonight. Shit.

 

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Something new! Finally!

Im-In-it-KindleWhat do you get when you put together one matchmaking doorman, some Reed brothers with good intentions, and five sisters, one of whom is a little lost? You get Tammy Falkner’s newest book, I’M IN IT.

Mick fell in love with Wren at the worst possible time. She was in the midst of something wonderful, and then she wasn’t. Her life changed in the blink of an eye. And in this situation, it wasn’t a change for the better. He can still remember when she felt the first cramp. When she pressed her knees together tightly in the front seat of his car as though she could hold that life inside herself by sheer will alone. And if will were all it took, she’d have succeeded.

But she didn’t succeed, and they were over before they began. She was too hurt. She was too raw. She was wishing for what could have been, while he was wishing for what was. And what was… well, it was nothing. At least not to her.

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Progressive Dinner – Eggplant Parmesan Recipe

I only make this once a year, since it’s quite a production. It’s my sister’s favorite food, so I make it every Thanksgiving.  If you’re in a crunch for time, you can fry the eggplant a day or two ahead of time, then assemble it on the day of.

If you have a favorite sauce, you can use that instead of tomato and garlic.  Or use your favorite sauce from a jar.  I find that a ton of basil and oregano overpower the subtle flavor of the eggplant, so I only use tomato and garlic.

Ingredients:
2-3 large eggplants, peeled and sliced into one inch layers
3 eggs
½ cup of milk
Italian bread crumbs
Olive oil
Cheeses of your choice (I like mixing cheddar, mozzarella and parmesan) (And I like LOTS of cheese.)
Tomato sauce
Garlic Powder
Rice to serve it over

Once you’ve salted your eggplants and left them to sit on paper towels for a few minutes (it makes them less bitter), rinse them well.

Beat the egg with the milk. Put it in a bowl right beside your bread crumbs. Dry your eggplant slices, dip them in the egg mixture, then in the breadcrumbs, then drop them into a hot pan of oil. Brown them on both sides on a medium heat until they’re crispy on the outside. Drain them on paper towels.

Layer the eggplant slices in a large baking dish, alternating between eggplant, a layer of cheese, enough tomato sauce to cover the layer, and sprinkle the tomato sauce with some garlic powder. Repeat until your pan is full. Top with lots of parmesan cheese. Bake until bubbly. Serve over rice.

 

The next stop on our progressive dinner is at DM Marlowe’s house.  She’s making Good Thyme Lamb Chops:  http://www.dmmarlowe.com/progressive-holiday-dinner.html