Where the Heart Leads
The Casebook of Barnaby Adair Novels #1
First published in Hardcover in 2008
Paperback and e-book from Avon Books
New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Laurens knows the world of Regency London, especially the exclusive enclave of luxury and wealth in which the aristocracy lived and loved. But beyond that glittering circle lay another world…and in this book Laurens pulls back the curtain that has hidden it from us - until now.
Penelope Ashford, Portia Cynster's younger sister, has grown up with every advantage - wealth, position, and beauty. Yet Penelope is anything but a typical ton miss - forceful, willful and blunt to a fault, she has for years devoted her considerable energy and intelligence to directing an institution caring for the forgotten orphans of London's streets.
But now her charges are mysteriously disappearing. Desperate, Penelope turns to the one man she knows who might help her - Barnaby Adair.
Handsome scion of a noble house, Adair has made a name for himself in political and judicial circles. His powers of deduction and observation combined with his pedigree has seen him solve several serious crimes within the ton. Although he makes her irritatingly uncomfortable, Penelope throws caution to the wind and appears on his bachelor doorstep late one night, determined to recruit him to her cause.
Barnaby is intrigued-both by her story, and her. Her bold beauty and undeniable brains make a striking contrast to the usual insipid ton misses. And as he's in dire need of an excuse to avoid said insipid misses, he accepts her challenge, never dreaming she and it will consume his every waking hour.
Enlisting the aid of Inspector Basil Stokes of the fledgling Scotland Yard, they infiltrate the streets of London's notorious East End. But as they unravel the mystery of the missing boys, they uncover the trail of a criminal embedded in the very organization recently created to protect all Londoners. And that criminal knows of them and their efforts, and is only too ready to threaten all they hold dear, including their new-found knowledge of the intrigues of the human heart.
A New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA-Today & Publishers Weekly Bestseller!
#3 in the Amazon Top 10 Romances of 2008
Nominated for a prestigious RITA® AWARD for Best Historical Romance from ROMANCE WRITERS OF AMERICA® .
"A satisfying blend of mystery and romance." Publishers Weekly
"In an Amanda Quick-style suspense/romance, Laurens never loses touch with her characters' deep emotions or the haunting mystery." Romantic Times
"An interesting and absorbing plot...an exciting and appealing romantic mystery." FreshFiction.com
"The sensual tension simmers...and, as always, Laurens delivers the delicious heat as they fall in love." Michelle Buonfiglio, myLifetime.com
"Another sensuous story worthy of the Cynsters." RomanceJunkies.com
"An outstanding story. Well worth twice the five-rose review I can endow upon it." ARomanceReview.com
"Unique characters, historical knowledge and a flare for dramatic suspense--and great love scenes!--make a great story with depth and breadth, sure to appeal to readers across the genres." Night Owl Romance
"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 instil 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 gentleman, 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 fox-hunting 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 even-handedly, 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 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 Napoleon. 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 whomever 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-"
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 selfassurance 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 natural 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 brazenly, 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 he 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."
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 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."
Barnaby watched as she delved into her memory; her dark gaze turned inward, her features smoothed, losing some of their characteristic vitality.
She drew breath; her gaze fixed on the fire as if she were reading from the flames. "The first was from Chicksand Street in Spitalfields, off Brick Lane north of the Whitechapel Road. He was eight years old, or so his uncle told us. He, the uncle, was dying, and…"
Barnaby listened as she, not entirely to his surprise, did precisely as he'd requested and recited the details of each occurrence, chapter and verse. Other than an occasional minor query, he didn't have to prod her or her memory.
He was accustomed to dealing with ladies of the ton, to interrogating young ladies whose minds skittered and wandered around subjects, and flitted and danced around facts, so that it took the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Jove to gain any understanding of what they actually knew.
Penelope Ashford was a different breed. He'd heard that she was something of a firebrand, one who paid scant attention to social restraints if said restraints stood in her way. He'd heard her described as too intelligent for her own good, and direct and forthright to a fault, that combination of traits being popularly held to account for her unmarried state.
As she was remarkably attractive in an unusual way-not pretty or beautiful but so vividly alive she effortlessly drew men's eyes-as well as being extremely well-connected, the daughter of a viscount, and with her brother Luc, the current title holder, eminently wealthy and able to dower her more than appropriately, that popular judgment might well be correct. Yet her sister Portia had recently married Simon Cynster, and while Portia might perhaps be more subtle in her dealings, Barnaby recalled that the Cynster ladies, judges he trusted in such matters, saw little difference between Portia and Penelope beyond Penelope's directness.
And, if he was remembering aright, her utterly implacable will.
From what little he'd seen of the sisters, he, too, would have said that Portia would bend, or at least agree to negotiate, far earlier than Penelope.
"And just as with the others, when we went to Herb Lane to fetch Dick this morning, he was gone. He'd been collected by this mystery man at seven o'clock, barely after dawn."
Her story concluded, she shifted her dark, compelling eyes from the flames to his face.
Barnaby held her gaze for a moment, then slowly nodded. "So somehow these people-let's assume it's one group collecting these boys-"
"I can't see it being more than one group. We've never had this happen before, and now four instances in less than a month, and all with the same modus operandi." Brows raised, she met his eyes.
Somewhat tersely, he nodded. "Precisely. As I was saying, these people, whoever they are, seem to know of your potential charges-"
"Before you suggest that they might be learning of the boys through someone at the Foundling House, let me assure you that's highly unlikely. If you knew the people involved, you'd understand why I'm so sure of that. And indeed, although I've come to you with our four cases, there's nothing to say other newly orphaned boys in the East End aren't also disappearing. Most orphans aren't brought to our attention. There may be many more vanishing, but who is there who would sound any alarm?"
Barnaby stared at her while the scenario she was describing took shape in his mind.
"I had hoped," she said; the light glinted off her spectacles as she glanced down and smoothed her gloves, "that you might agree to look into this latest disappearance, seeing as Dick was whisked away only this morning. I do realize that you generally investigate crimes involving the ton, but I wondered, as it is November and most of us have upped stakes for the country, whether you might have time to consider our problem." Looking up, she met his gaze; there was nothing remotely diffident in her eyes. "I could, of course, pursue the matter myself-"
Barnaby only just stopped himself from reacting.
"But I thought enlisting someone with more experience in such matters might lead to a more rapid resolution."
Penelope held his gaze and hoped he was as quick-witted as he was purported to be. Then again, in her experience, it rarely hurt to be blunt. "To be perfectly clear, Mr. Adair, I am here seeking aid in pursuing our lost charges, rather than merely wishing to inform someone of their disappearance and thereafter wash my hands of them. I fully intend to search for Dick and the other three boys until I find them. Not being a simpleton, I would prefer to have beside me someone with experience of crime and the necessary investigative methods. Moreover, while through our work we naturally have contacts in the East End, few if any of those move among the criminal elements, so my ability to gain information in that arena is limited."
Halting, she searched his face. His expression gave little away; his broad brow, straight brown brows, the strong, well-delineated cheekbones, the rather austere lines of cheek and jaw, remained set and unrevealing.
She spread her hands. "I've described our situation-will you help us?"
To her irritation, he didn't immediately reply. Didn't leap in, goaded to action by the notion of her tramping through the East End by herself.
He didn't, however, refuse. For a long moment, he studied her, his expression unreadable-long enough for her to wonder if he'd seen through her ploy-then he shifted, resettling his shoulders against the chair, and gestured to her in invitation. "How do you imagine our investigation would proceed?"
She hid her smile. "I thought, if you were free, you might visit the Foundling House tomorrow, to get some idea of the way we work and the type of children we take in. Then…"
Barnaby listened while she outlined an eminently rational strategy that would expose him to the basic facts, enough to ascertain where an investigation might lead, and consequently how best to proceed.
Watching the sensible, logical words fall from her ruby lips-still lush and ripe, still distracting-only confirmed that Penelope Ashford was dangerous. Every bit as dangerous as her reputation suggested, possibly more.
In his case undoubtedly more, given his fascination with her lips.
In addition, she was offering him something no other young lady had ever thought to wave before his nose.
A case. Just when he was in dire need of one.
"Once we've talked to the neighbors who saw Dick taken away, I'm hoping you'll be able to suggest some way forward from there."
Her lips stopped moving. He raised his gaze to her eyes. "Indeed." He hesitated; it was patently obvious that she had every intention of playing an active role in the ensuing investigation. Given he knew her family, he was unquestionably honor-bound to dissuade her from such a reckless endeavor, yet equally unquestionably any suggestion she retreat to the hearth and leave him to chase the villains would meet with stiff opposition. He inclined his head. "As it happens I'm free tomorrow. Perhaps I could meet you at the Foundling House in the morning?"
He'd steer her out of the investigation after he had all the facts, after he'd learned everything she knew about this strange business.
She smiled brilliantly, once again disrupting his thoughts.
"Excellent!" Penelope gathered her gloves and muff, and stood. She'd gained what she wanted; it was time to leave. Before he could say anything she didn't want to hear. Best not to get into any argument now. Not yet.
He rose and waved her to the door. She led the way, pulling on her gloves. He had the loveliest hands she'd ever seen on a man, long-fingered, elegant and utterly distracting. She'd remembered them from before, which was why she hadn't offered to shake his hand.
He walked beside her across his front hall. "Is your carriage outside?"
"Yes." Halting before the front door, she glanced up at him. "It's waiting outside the house next door."
His lips twitched. "I see." His man was hovering; he waved him back and reached for the doorknob. "I'll walk you to it."
She inclined her head. When he opened the door, she walked out onto the narrow front porch. Her nerves flickered as he joined her; large and rather overpoweringly male, he escorted her down the three steps to the pavement, then along to where her brother's town carriage stood, the coachman patient and resigned on the box.
Adair reached for the carriage door, opened it and offered his hand. Holding her breath, she gave him her fingers-and tried hard not to register the sensation of her slender digits being engulfed by his much larger ones, tried not to notice the warmth of his firm clasp as he helped her up into the carriage.
She didn't-couldn't-breathe until he released her hand. She sank onto the leather seat, managed a smile and a nod. "Thank you, Mr. Adair. I'll see you tomorrow morning."
Through the enveloping gloom he studied her, then he raised his hand in salute, stepped back and closed the door.
The coachman jigged his reins and the carriage jerked forward, then settled to a steady roll. With a sigh, Penelope sat back, and smiled into the darkness. Satisfied, and a trifle smug. She'd recruited Barnaby Adair to her cause, and despite her unprecedented attack of sensibility had managed the encounter without revealing her affliction.
All in all, her night had been a success.
Barnaby stood in the street, in the wreathing fog, and watched the carriage roll away. Once the rattle of its wheels had faded, he grinned and turned back to his door.
Climbing his front steps, he realized his mood had lifted. His earlier despondency had vanished, replaced with a keen anticipation for what the morrow would bring.
And for that he had Penelope Ashford to thank.
Not only had she brought him a case, one outside his normal arena and therefore likely to challenge him and expand his knowledge, but even more importantly that case was one not even his mother would disapprove of him pursuing.
Mentally composing the letter he would pen to his parent first thing the next morning, he entered his house whistling beneath his breath, and let Mostyn bolt the door behind him.
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