Read an Excerpt
Moonlight suited him.
Cloaked in the silver light that illuminated the meadow, Gabriel Banner, Earl of Wylde, looked as mysterious and as dangerous as a legend that had come to life.
Phoebe Layton brought her mare to a halt at the edge of the trees and held her breath as Wylde rode toward her. She tried to steady her hands as she gripped the reins. This was no time to lose her nerve. She was a lady on a quest.
She needed the services of a knight-errant and it was not as though she had a great deal of choice. Indeed, Wylde was the only candidate she knew who had the proper qualifications. But first she had to talk him into accepting the position.
She had been working on that project for weeks. Until tonight the solitary, reclusive earl had steadfastly ignored all her deliberately intriguing letters. In desperation, she had resorted to other tactics. In an effort to lure him forth from his lair, she had baited a trap using the one tempting morsel she knew he could not resist.
The fact that he was here tonight on this lonely country lane in Sussex meant that she had at last succeeded in provoking him into a meeting.
Wylde did not know who she was. In her letters she had signed herself only as The Veiled Lady. Phoebe regretted the small deception, but it had been a necessary maneuver. If Wylde had been aware of her true identity at the start of the venture, he would most certainly have refused to help her. He had to be persuaded to take up the quest before she dared reveal herself. Phoebe was certain that once he understood everything, he would comprehend the reasons for her initial secrecy.
No, Wylde did not know her, but Phoebe knew him.
She had not seen him in nearly eight years. At sixteen she had imagined him a living legend, a noble, valiant knight straight out of a medieval romance. In her young eyes all he had lacked was the shining armor and a sword.
Although Phoebe clearly recalled the last time she had seen him, she knew Gabriel had no recollection of it at all. He had been too busy plotting to run off with her sister, Meredith, at the time.
Phoebe tensed with curiosity now as he rode toward her. Unfortunately, the combination of the veil she was wearing and the pale moonlight made it impossible to tell just how much he had changed over the years.
Her first thought was that he seemed larger than she remembered. Taller. Leaner. Harder, somehow. His shoulders appeared broader under the caped greatcoat he wore. Snug breeches outlined the strong, muscular lines of his thighs. The curled brim of his hat cast Wylde’s features into a forbidding, impenetrable shadow.
For an unsettling moment Phoebe wondered if this was the wrong man. Perhaps she was about to encounter a genuine villain, a highwayman or worse. She stirred uneasily in the saddle. If she came to grief this night, her poor, beleaguered family would no doubt feel justified in having her tombstone engraved with something fitting, SHE FINALLY PAID THE PRICE OF HER RECKLESS WAYS would do nicely. As far as her over-protective clan was concerned, Phoebe had spent her entire life getting into one scrape after another. This time she might have taken one chance too many.
“The mysterious Veiled Lady, I presume?” Gabriel inquired coldly.
Relief washed over her. Phoebe’s doubts as to the man’s identity were instantly resolved. There was no mistaking those dark, gritty tones even though she had not heard them in eight years. What startled her was the small thrill of anticipation they sent through her. She frowned briefly at her strange reaction.
“Good evening, my lord,” she said.
Gabriel brought his black stallion to a halt a few feet away. “I received your most recent note, madam. I found it extremely irritating, just as I did the others.”
Phoebe swallowed uneasily as she realized he was not in a cheerful mood. “I had rather hoped to pique your interest, sir.”
“I have a strong distaste for deception.”
“I see.” Phoebe’s heart sank. A strong distaste for deception. She suddenly wondered if she had made a serious tactical mistake in dealing with Wylde. Just as well she had been careful to go veiled tonight, she thought. She certainly did not want him to discover who she was if this night’s work came to naught. “Nevertheless, I am pleased you decided to accept my invitation.”
“Curiosity got the better of me.” Gabriel smiled faintly in the moonlight, but the curve of his mouth held no warmth and his shadowed gaze revealed nothing. “You have become a thorn in my side during the past two months, madam. I expect you are well aware of that fact.”
“I apologize,” Phoebe said earnestly. “But the truth is, I was becoming quite desperate, my lord. You are a difficult man to see. You did not respond to my initial letters and as you do not go into Society, I could think of no other way to gain your attention.”
“So you decided to deliberately provoke me to such an extent that I would finally bestir myself to meet you?”
Phoebe took a deep breath. “Something like that.”
“It is generally considered dangerous to annoy me, my mysterious Veiled Lady.”
She did not doubt that for a moment, but it was too late to retreat now. She had come too far to call a halt to this night’s venture. She was a lady on a quest and she must be stouthearted.
“Is that so, my lord?” Phoebe tried for a cool amused tone. “The thing is, you left me no alternative. Never fear, I am certain that once you have heard what I have to say, you will be glad you finally agreed to meet me and I know you will forgive our small deception.”
“If you have summoned me so that you can gloat over your latest triumph, I should warn you I do not like to lose.”
“Triumph?” She blinked behind the veil and then realized he was talking about the bait she had used to draw him here tonight. “Oh, yes, the book. Come now, my lord. You are as eager to see the manuscript as I am. Obviously you could not resist my invitation to view it, even though I am the new owner.”
Gabriel stroked his stallion’s neck with a gloved hand. “We appear to share a mutual interest in medieval manuscripts.”
“True. I see that it annoys you that I am the one who located The Knight and the Sorcerer and discovered that it was for sale,” Phoebe said. “But surely you are generous enough to give me credit for the cleverness of my investigations. The manuscript was right here in Sussex, after all, practically beneath your very nose.”
Gabriel inclined his head in acknowledgment of her skills. “You seem to be rather lucky in that regard. This is the third such manuscript you have gotten to ahead of me in recent weeks. May I ask why you didn’t simply snatch it up and carry it off, the way you did the others?”
“Because as I explained in my letters, I wish to speak to you, sir.” Phoebe hesitated and then admitted in a soft rush, “And because, to be quite honest, I decided it might be wise to take an escort with me tonight.”
“I have come to the conclusion that Mr. Nash is a very odd sort of man, even for a book collector,” Phoebe continued. “The stipulations he put on the time at which he would turn over the manuscript made me rather uneasy. I do not like doing business at midnight.”
“Nash sounds somewhat more than merely amusingly eccentric,” Gabriel agreed thoughtfully.
“He claims to be nocturnal, rather like a bat. He says in his letters that his household is run on a schedule that is opposite to that of the rest of the world. He sleeps while others are awake and works while others sleep. Very strange, is it not?”
“He would no doubt fit very nicely into the Polite World,” Gabriel said dryly. “Most of the ton stays out all night and sleeps during the day. Still, you were probably right to be careful about meeting him alone at midnight.”
Phoebe smiled. “I am glad you approve of my plan to take an escort.”
“I approve, but I confess I’m surprised by your concern,” Gabriel said with the precision of a swordsman sliding his blade home. “You have not thus far demonstrated much inclination toward caution and prudence.”
Phoebe’s cheeks burned at the sarcasm. “When one is on a quest, one must be bold, my lord.”
“You consider yourself on a quest?”
“Yes, my lord, I do.”
“I see. Speaking of quests, I should tell you that I am here tonight on a small one of my own.”
A chill of apprehension seized Phoebe. “Yes, my lord? What would that be?”
“It was not just the prospect of viewing Nash’s manuscript before you take possession of it that brings me here, my Veiled Lady.”