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Where the heart leads, p.1
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       Where the Heart Leads, p.1

           Stephanie Laurens
 
Where the Heart Leads


  Where the Heart Leads

  Stephanie Laurens

  Contents

  The Honorable Barnaby Adair’s Investigations Involving Cynster Connections

  The Fulbridge-Ashford Family Tree

  1

  Thank you, Mostyn.” Slumped at ease in an armchair before…

  2

  Good morning, Mr. Adair. Miss Ashford told us to expect…

  3

  At the behest of Dick’s father, Mrs. Keggs and I…

  4

  Stokes was on his feet behind his desk, tidying it…

  5

  The next morning at nine o’clock, Inspector Basil Stokes stood…

  6

  At three o’clock that afternoon Stokes presented himself at Griselda…

  7

  The following morning, on Barnaby Adair’s arm, Penelope climbed the…

  8

  Penelope had learned long ago that it was never wise…

  9

  He’d parted from her on the steps in Mount Street…

  10

  At eight o’clock the next morning, in the large room…

  11

  Penelope had expected to spend at least a few hours…

  12

  Later that evening, Penelope paced the dark, deserted minstrel’s gallery…

  13

  Everything was in place, yet nothing had happened.

  14

  If it hadn’t been for a feline altercation on a…

  15

  ’Ere, ’Orace? You seen this?”

  16

  Late the next night, Smythe once again darkened the French…

  17

  For what Penelope understood was the very first time, the…

  18

  Investigations are often like pulling teeth.” Barnaby reached for another…

  19

  The next day was Sunday. In the morning, Barnaby and…

  20

  There was no way we could tell the order was…

  21

  As I feared”—Stokes slumped into what had become his usual…

  22

  Penelope spent the next morning struggling to concentrate on running…

  23

  Who is Alert?” Stokes paced slowly before the chair on…

  Epilogue

  Incidentally, Stokes sent word this morning—Cameron has departed these shores”.

  About the Author

  Other Books by Stephanie Laurens

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  The Honorable Barnaby Adair’s Investigations Involving Cynster Connections

  Cornwall, June 1831

  Assisting Gerrard Debbington, brother of Patience Cynster, brother-in-law of Vane Cynster, and Miss Jacqueline Tregonning

  In: The Truth About Love

  Newmarket, August 1831

  Assisting Dillon Caxton, cousin of Felicity Cynster, brother-in-law of Demon Cynster, and Lady Priscilla Dalloway

  In: What Price Love?

  Somerset, February 1833

  Assisting Lord Charles Morwellan, Earl of Meredith, brother of Alathea Cynster, brother-in-law of Gabriel Cynster, and Miss Sarah Conningham

  In: The Taste of Innocence

  London, November 1835

  Assisting Miss Penelope Ashford, sister of Luc, Viscount Calverton, sister-in-law of Amelia Cynster

  In: Where the Heart Leads

  The Fulbridge-Ashford Family Tree

  1

  November 1835

  London

  Thank you, Mostyn.” Slumped at ease in an armchair before the fire in the parlor of his fashionable lodgings in Jermyn Street, Barnaby Adair, third son of the Earl of Cothelstone, lifted the crystal tumbler from the salver his man offered. “I won’t need anything further.”

  “Very good, sir. I’ll wish you a good night.” The epitome of his calling, Mostyn bowed and silently withdrew.

  Straining his ears, Barnaby heard the door shut. He smiled, sipped. Mostyn had been foisted on him by his mother when he’d first come up to town in the fond hope that the man would instill some degree of tractability into a son who, as she frequently declared, was ungovernable. Yet despite Mostyn’s rigid adherence to the mores of class distinction and his belief in the deference due to the son of an earl, master and man had quickly reached an accommodation. Barnaby could no longer imagine being in London without the succor Mostyn provided, largely, as with the glass of fine brandy in his hand, without prompting.

  Over the years, Mostyn had mellowed. Or perhaps both of them had. Regardless, theirs was now a very comfortable household.

  Stretching his long legs toward the hearth, crossing his ankles, sinking his chin on his cravat, Barnaby studied the polished toes of his boots, bathed in the light of the crackling flames. All should have been well in his world, but…

  He was comfortable yet…restless.

  At peace—no, wrapped in blessed peace—yet dissatisfied.

  It wasn’t as if the last months hadn’t been successful. After more than nine months of careful sleuthing he’d exposed a cadre of young gentlemen, all from ton families, who not content with using dens of inquity had thought it a lark to run them. He’d delivered enough proof to charge and convict them despite their station. It had been a difficult, long-drawn, and arduous case; its successful conclusion had earned him grateful accolades from the peers who oversaw London’s Metropolitan Police Force.

  On hearing the news, his mother would no doubt have primmed her lips, perhaps evinced an acid wish that he would develop as much interest in foxhunting as in villain-hunting, but she wouldn’t—couldn’t—say more, not with his father being one of the aforementioned peers.

  In any modern society, justice needed to be seen to be served evenhandedly, without fear or favor, despite those among the ton who refused to believe that Parliament’s laws applied to them. The Prime Minister himself had been moved to compliment him over this latest triumph.

  Raising his glass, Barnaby sipped. The success had been sweet, yet had left him strangely hollow. Unfulfilled in some unexpected way. Certainly he’d anticipated feeling happier, rather than empty and peculiarly rudderless, aimlessly drifting now he no longer had a case to absorb him, to challenge his ingenuity and fill his time.

  Perhaps his mood was simply a reflection of the season—the closing phases of another year, the time when cold fogs descended and polite society fled to the warmth of ancestral hearths, there to prepare for the coming festive season and the attendant revels. For him this time of year had always been difficult—difficult to find any viable excuse to avoid his mother’s artfully engineered social gatherings.

  She’d married off both his elder brothers and his sister, Melissa, far too easily; in him, she’d met her Waterloo, yet she continued more doggedly and indefatigably than Napoléon. She was determined to see him, the last of her brood, suitably wed, and was fully prepared to bring to bear whatever weapons were necessary to achieve that goal.

  Despite being at loose ends, he didn’t want to deliver himself up at the Cothelstone Castle gates, a candidate for his mother’s matrimonial machinations. What if it snowed and he couldn’t escape?

  Unfortunately, even villains tended to hibernate over winter.

  A sharp rat-a-tat-tat shattered the comfortable silence.

  Glancing at the parlor door, Barnaby realized he’d heard a carriage on the cobbles. The rattle of wheels had ceased outside his residence. He listened as Mostyn’s measured tread passed the parlor on the way to the front door. Who could be calling at such an hour—a quick glance at the mantelpiece clock confirmed it was after eleven—and on such a night? Beyond the heavily curtained windows the night was
bleak, a dense chill fog wreathing the streets, swallowing houses and converting familiar streetscapes into ghostly gothic realms.

  No one would venture out on such a night without good reason.

  Voices, muted, reached him. It appeared Mostyn was engaged in dissuading whoever was attempting to disrupt his master’s peace.

  Abruptly the voices fell silent.

  A moment later the door opened and Mostyn entered, carefully closing the door behind him. One glance at Mostyn’s tight lips and studiously blank expression informed Barnaby that Mostyn did not approve of whoever had called. Even more interesting was the transparent implication that Mostyn had been routed—efficiently and comprehensively—in his attempt to deny the visitor.

  “A…lady to see you, sir. A Miss—”

  “Penelope Ashford.”

  The crisp, determined tones had both Barnaby and Mostyn looking to the door—which now stood open, swung wide to admit a lady in a dark, severe yet fashionable pelisse. A sable-lined muff dangled from one wrist, and her hands were encased in fur-edged leather gloves.

  Lustrous mahogany hair, pulled into a knot at the back of her head, gleamed as she crossed the room with a grace and self-confidence that screamed her station even more than her delicate, quintessentially aristocratic features. Features that were animated by so much determination, so much sheer will, that the force of her personality seemed to roll like a wave before her.

  Mostyn stepped back as she neared.

  His eyes never leaving her, Barnaby unhurriedly uncrossed his legs and rose. “Miss Ashford.”

  An exceptional pair of dark brown eyes framed by finely wrought gold-rimmed spectacles fixed on his face. “Mr. Adair. We met nearly two years ago, at Morwellan Park in the ballroom at Charlie and Sarah’s wedding.” Halting two paces away, she studied him, as if estimating the quality of his memory. “We spoke briefly if you recall.”

  She didn’t offer her hand. Barnaby looked down into her uptilted face—her head barely cleared his shoulder—and found he remembered her surprisingly well. “You asked if I was the one who investigates crimes.”

  She smiled—brilliantly. “Yes. That’s right.”

  Barnaby blinked; he felt a trifle winded. He could, he realized, recall how, all those months ago, her small fingers had felt in his. They’d merely shaken hands, yet he could remember it perfectly; even now, his fingers tingled with tactile memory.

  She’d obviously made an impression on him even if he hadn’t been so aware of it at the time. At the time he’d been focused on another case, and had been more intent on deflecting her interest than on her.

  Since he’d last seen her, she’d grown. Not taller. Indeed, he wasn’t sure she’d gained inches anywhere; she was as neatly rounded as his memory painted her. Yet she’d gained in stature, in self-assurance and confidence; although he doubted she’d ever been lacking in the latter, she was now the sort of lady any fool would recognize as a force of nature, to be crossed at one’s peril.

  Little wonder she’d rolled up Mostyn.

  Her smile had faded. She’d been examining him openly; in most others he would have termed it brazen, but she seemed to be evaluating him intellectually rather than physically.

  Rosy lips, distractingly lush, firmed, as if she’d made some decision.

  Curious, he tilted his head. “To what do I owe this visit?”

  This highly irregular, not to say potentially scandalous, visit. She was a gently bred lady of marriageable age, calling on a single gentleman who was in no way related very late at night. Alone. Entirely unchaperoned.

  He should protest and send her away. Mostyn certainly thought so.

  Her fine dark eyes met his. Squarely, without the slightest hint of guile or trepidation. “I want you to help me solve a crime.”

  He held her gaze.

  She returned the favor.

  A pregnant moment passed, then he gestured elegantly to the other armchair. “Please sit. Perhaps you’d like some refreshment?”

  Her smile—it transformed her face from vividly attractive to stunning—flashed as she moved to the chair facing his. “Thank you, but no. I require nothing but your time.” She waved Mostyn away. “You may go.”

  Mostyn stiffened. He cast an outraged glance at Barnaby.

  Battling a grin, Barnaby endorsed the order with a nod. Mostyn didn’t like it, but departed, bowing himself out, but leaving the door ajar. Barnaby noted it, but said nothing. Mostyn knew Barnaby was hunted, often quite inventively, by young ladies; he clearly believed Miss Ashford might be such a schemer. Barnaby knew better. Penelope Ashford might scheme with the best of them, but marriage would not be her goal.

  While she arranged her muff on her lap, he sank back into his armchair and studied her anew.

  She was the most unusual young lady he’d ever encountered.

  He’d decided that even before she said, “Mr. Adair, I need your help to find four missing boys, and stop any more being kidnapped.”

  Penelope raised her eyes and locked them on Barnaby Adair’s face. And tried her damnedest not to see. When she’d determined to call on him, she hadn’t imagined he—his appearance—would have the slightest effect on her. Why would she? No man had ever made her feel breathless, so why should he? It was distinctly annoying.

  Golden hair clustering in wavy curls about a well-shaped head, strong, aquiline features, and cerulean blue eyes that held a piercing intelligence were doubtless interesting enough, yet quite aside from his features there was something about him, about his presence, that was playing on her nerves in a disconcerting way.

  Why he should affect her at all was a mystery. He was tall, with a long-limbed, rangy build, yet he was no taller than her brother, Luc, and while his shoulders were broad, they were no broader than her brother-in-law Simon’s. And he was certainly not prettier than either Luc or Simon, although he could easily hold his own in the handsome stakes; she’d heard Barnaby Adair described as an Adonis and had to concede the point.

  All of which was entirely by the by and she had no clue why she was even noticing.

  She focused instead on the numerous questions she could see forming behind his blue eyes. “The reason I am here, and not a host of outraged parents, is because the boys in question are paupers and foundlings.”

  He frowned.

  Stripping off her gloves, she grimaced lightly. “I’d better start at the beginning.”

  He nodded. “That would probably facilitate matters—namely my understanding—significantly.”

  She laid her gloves on top of her muff. She wasn’t sure she appreciated his tone, but decided to ignore it. “I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but my sister Portia—she’s now married to Simon Cynster—three other ladies of the ton, and I established the Foundling House opposite the Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury. That was back in ’30. The house has been in operation ever since, taking in foundlings, mostly from the East End, and training them as maids, footmen, and more recently in various trades.”

  “You were asking Sarah about her orphanage’s training programs when we last met.”

  “Indeed.” She hadn’t known he’d overheard that. “My older sister Anne, now Anne Carmarthen, is also involved, but since their marriages, with their own households to run, both Anne and lately Portia have had to curtail the time they spend at the Foundling House. The other three ladies likewise have many calls on their time. Consequently, at present I am in charge of overseeing the day-to-day administration of the place. It’s in that capacity that I’m here tonight.”

  Folding her hands over her gloves, she met his eyes, held his steady gaze. “The normal procedure is for children to be formally placed in the care of the Foundling House by the authorities, or by their last surviving guardian.

  “The latter is quite common. What usually occurs is that a dying relative, recognizing that their ward will soon be alone in the world, contacts us and we visit and make arrangements. The child usually stays with their guardian until the last,
then, on the guardian’s death, we’re informed, usually by helpful neighbors, and we return and fetch the orphan and take him or her to the Foundling House.”

  He nodded, signifying all to that point was clear.

  Drawing breath, she went on, feeling her lungs tighten, her diction growing crisp as anger resurged, “Over the last month, on four separate occasions, we’ve arrived to fetch away a boy, only to discover some man has been there before us. He told the neighbors he was a local official, but there is no central authority that collects orphans. If there were, we’d know.”

  Adair’s blue gaze had grown razor-sharp. “Is it always the same man?”

  “From all I’ve heard, it could be. But equally, it might not be.”

  She waited while he mulled over that. She bit her tongue, forced herself to sit still and not fidget, and instead watch the concentration in his face.

  Her inclination was to forge ahead, to demand he act and tell him how. She was used to directing, to taking charge and ordering all as she deemed fit. She was usually right in her thinking, and generally people were a great deal better off if they simply did as she said. But…she needed Barnaby Adair’s help, and instinct was warning her, stridently, to tread carefully. To guide rather than push.

  To persuade rather than dictate.

  His gaze had grown distant, but now abruptly refocused on her face. “You take boys and girls. Is it only boys who’ve gone missing?”

  “Yes.” She nodded for emphasis. “We’ve accepted more girls than boys in recent months, but it’s only boys this man has taken.”

  A moment passed. “He’s taken four—tell me about each. Start from the first—everything you know, every detail, no matter how apparently inconsequential.”

 
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