Beautiful Belle Flambeau relishes her independence even as she
dreams of a family of her own. When a vicious attack leaves her
with an ugly scar, Belle retreats from society, her hopes of love
and courtship dashed. Yet the darkly handsome, wounded stranger
who seeks shelter on her property seems intent on proving
otherwise, beginning a seduction that is slow, delicious, and
Prince Mikhail Kazanov wants—nay, needs—a loving,
nurturing wife, not one of the shallow, empty-headed fortune
hunters vying for his attentions. Drawn to Belle, Mikhail uses
subterfuge to woo her. But though their heated attraction
explodes into sensual bliss, the truth drives Belle
away—and into danger’s path. Now, as an enemy makes
his violent intentions known, Mikhail must find a way to win
Belle’s trust again. For with their love—and her
life—at stake, he cannot afford to fail…
He smelled her fear.
Shrouded in darkness and swirling fog, he watched her glancing
over her shoulder when she reached the sickly yellow glow from
the gaslight . She knew he was there. Somewhere. Lurking. He
loved the hunt, especially when his quarry knew he was watching
Rejecting him had sealed her fate. An insulting laugh and a
toss of her mahogany curls had answered his proposition.
When she rounded the corner, he cut through the next alley to
get ahead of her and leaned against the stone wall. Footsteps
approached, heightening his anticipation.
She was almost here.
She would be his.
She would regret refusing him, if only for a moment.
Leaping out as she passed, he grabbed her from behind and
slashed the blade across her throat. He pushed her to the ground
and stood over her. The gurgling sounds of her struggle to breath
lessened, each beat of her heart pumping the life out of her.
Using his bloodied blade, he hacked a long length of her hair.
Then he pressed a gold sovereign into the palm of her hand and
closed her fingers around the coin.
"Thank you for an enjoyable evening, my dear."
The unmistakable aroma of horse droppings floated into the
garden on a gentle breeze.
Belle Flambeau stood in her blossoming domain and sniffed the
air, a smile touching her lips. The odor of horse dung from Soho
Square shouted springtime.
Wisteria trees bloomed purple against the red brick house
while yellow tulips conspired with purple crocus to startle the
eye with vibrant color. A fragrant lily of the valley ground
cover reclined in front of the silver birch tree guarded by
lilac, gardenia, rose, and pussy willow shrubs. Forsythia nodded
in the breeze at their old friend, the purple pansey that lived
in the shade beneath the oak tree.
The garden goddess promises minor miracles.
The clever business slogan pleased Belle. Her success in
reviving plants had spread to the great mansions the previous
season. Already, gardeners for those wealthy aristocrats had
requested her services.
Belle narrowed her violet gaze on the pansey and walked toward
the oak tree. The pansey's failure to thrive troubled her.
Each day she snatched the pansey from death's grip but found
it wilted again the next morning.
Belle glanced over her shoulder and saw one of her sisters
walking across the grass. Bliss looked disgruntled.
"Why does Fancy insist on keeping the duke's identity
a secret?" Bliss demanded, her voice shrill with anger.
"To which duke do you refer?"
"Our father, of course." Bliss rolled her eyes.
"Investing would be easier if I knew which companies he
owns." Her sister waved in the direction of the house.
"The duke has always supported us in style. Why does our
company need to pauperize him? If he retaliates, the Seven Doves
will fail, and we will live in the poor house."
Belle placed her hand on her sister's shoulder. "Calm
Bliss took several deep breaths and then asked, "Is your
touch making me feel better?"
Belle gave her an ambiguous smile. "Fancy will never
forgive father because, as the eldest, she remembers the
relationship they shared."
"You're only a year younger," Bliss said.
"Don't you have memories?"
"When I think of father," Belle answered, "I
see a tall, darkhaired gentleman holding Fancy on his
"Did he never hold you?"
"At first I was too young to share his lap with
Fancy." Belle shrugged, feigned nonchalance masking her
remembered pain. "When you and Blaze arrived, I suppose I
was too old. The man could only hold one baby in each
"Being born between the oldest and a set of twins is not
the most auspicious position," Bliss said. "Being
ignored could not have been pleasant."
"I enjoyed Nanny Smudge's attention." Belle
lifted a rectangular gold case from the basket looped over her
forearm. "Search for the duke with the initials MC
and a boar's head crest."
Bliss shook her head. "Admitting ignorance of one's
father's identity is humiliating. Does your illegitimacy
bother Baron Wingate?"
Belle paused before answering, squelching the rush of
irritation. None of her sisters could resist the opportunity to
insult her future husband. "Charles understands that we
cannot control our origins."
"I worry the baron will hurt you."
"I appreciate your concern." Belle watched Bliss
disappear into the house and turned to the ailing pansey. All
thoughts of healing the flower vanished with her sister's
I refuse to become love's victim, Belle told
herself. Like Mother.
Gabrielle Flambeau, the daughter of a French aristocrat, had
escaped the Terror when the citizens slaughtered her family. A
penniless countess, her mother had won a position in the opera
and caught the eye of a married duke. Together, her mother and
her anonymous father had produced seven daughters.
The Flambeaus had wanted for nothing. Except the duke's
love and attention.
The daughter had learned hard lessons from the mother, though.
She refused to die broken-hearted.
Charles Wingate loved her and accepted that she intended to go
to her marriage bed a virgin. She would never consider becoming
any man's mistress.
Turning her thoughts to the pansey, Belle knelt in the dirt
and set her wicker basket beside her. She reached for the white
candle and its brass holder. Next came a tiny bell, followed by
the Book of Common Prayer.
Finally, she lifted the gold case engraved with the initials
MC and a boar's head. The case contained Lucifer
matches and sandpaper to light her healing candle.
Belle traced her finger across the initials MC. A
gentleman's accoutrement, the case had been left behind
fifteen years earlier, and her father had never returned for it.
A wealthy duke could easily replace one gold case, and she had
cherished this momento of her father.
Hearing the door open again, Belle saw Blaze and Puddles, the
family's mastiff, entering the garden. Blaze headed in her
direction while Puddles raced around sniffing for a particular
place. "Are you practicing your hocus pocus for the
season?" her sister asked.
Belle smiled at that. "The garden goddess cannot perform
minor miracles without a bit of showmanship."
"Good Lord, the stench from Soho seems stronger than
usual today," Blaze remarked, pinching her nostrils together
for emphasis. "What is wrong with that sorry-looking pansey?
Is it choking from dung stink?"
"I revive the pansey every afternoon and then find it
wilted again by morning," Belle said. "I cannot
understand its problem."
"The garden goddess fails to save a flower's
life?" her sister teased. "This could ruin your
The black-masked mastiff loped across the garden toward them.
Reaching the oak tree, the dog lifted its hind leg perilously
close to the pansey.
"Puddles, no." Down came the leg, and Belle rounded
on her sister. "Tell Puddles to conduct his business against
the stone wall, not near my pansey."
"Sorry." Blaze gave her a sheepish smile and then
knelt in front of the dog. She stared into the mastiff's eyes
for a long moment and then patted its head. Puddles bounded
across the garden to the stone wall and conducted his business
"Thank you." Belle relaxed and teased her sister,
"If my pansey dies, I will consider you and Puddles its
Blaze crouched down beside her. "Listen, Puddles dislikes
Belle gave her a rueful smile. "Charles has disliked your
dog since the day---"
"Puddles lifted his leg to the baron because he
doesn't trust the man."
"I will not listen to another word against Charles."
Her sisters' disapproval of the baron irritated Belle.
"None of you, including Puddles, needs to like Charles since
I am the one marrying him."
"If you say so." Blaze returned to the house, the
mastiff following behind her.
Banishing all disturbing thoughts, Belle gave her attention to
the pansey. She lifted her right hand to make the beginning
blessing but heard the door slam behind her.
Another visitor? Her pansey would expire before she could
revive it. Perhaps ignoring whoever---
"Belle." The voice belonged to her youngest sister,
who did not sound especially happy.
Raven plopped down on the grass beside her. "I need your
Belle leaned back on her haunches. "What is the
"Constable Black may ask me to use my special gift to
help with that Slasher investigation."
"Do you mean the one the newspapers have dubbed the
"My problem is Alex," Raven said, referring to their
neighbor, the constable's assistant.
"A brick is more sensitive than Alexander Blake,"
Belle said, waving her hand in a dismissive gesture.
"I want to help the constable," Raven said,
"but Alex makes me feel... young."
"You are young." Belle studied her sister for
a long moment. "You told him you loved him, didn't
Raven nodded, her misery etched across her face. "How do I
behave around Alex?"
"Men want what they cannot have." Belle touched her
sister's hand. "Treat Alex with chilly politeness and
"Be careful with Baron Wingate," Raven said before
leaving. "I cannot trust the man."
Belle took a deep, calming breath and hoped her other three
sisters did not interrupt. Then she prepared to heal the
As Nanny Smudge had taught her, Belle began with the magic
blessing. She touched her left breast, her forehead, her right
breast, left and right shoulders. Finally, she touched her left
Removing a Lucifer match and sandpaper, Belle lit the white
candle. Then she waved the tiny bell above the pansey, its
tinkling sound breaking the garden's silence.
Belle placed her fingers against the pansey. "Ailing,
ailing, ailing. Pansey, my touch is sealing, and thy illness is
failing. Healing, healing, healing."
Taking the Book of Common Prayer, she held it over the
pansey and whispered, "It is written. It is so."
Belle extinguished the candle's flame, and made the magic
blessing to complete the ritual. The pansey perked up almost
A hand touched her shoulder.
"Enough interruptions," Belle exclaimed, whirling
around. "Charles, what a surprise."
Baron Charles Wingate stared at her, amusement lighting his
brown eyes. "What are you doing?"
Belle blushed at being caught kneeling in the dirt. "My
pansey needed tending."
The baron offered his hand to help her rise. When she reached
for it, he dropped it to his side. "Your hands are
"This is dirt, not dung."
Charles shook his head in disapproval. "Playing in the
dirt is unseemly behavior for a baroness, not to mention
whispering to flowers."
"Ooops, you just mentioned it," she teased him,
rising without his assistance.
"I do not consider that amusing. Once we
"Really, Charles, you are much too particular."
Belle put her hands on her hips. "Do not forget we met when
your gardener hired me to revive that rosebush."
"Darling, I don't mean to scold." He smiled,
suddenly amenable. "Your meeting with my fastidious mother
"Concerns or worries?" Belle touched his arm, trying
to soothe him. "I will behave properly."
"Promise you won't mention working for money."
Charles brushed the dirt off his sleeve where she had
Belle smiled at that. "I promise."
"Do not mention gardening, either."
"My lips are locked." She pretended to button her
"Above all else, do not mention your sister singing in
the opera. Mother dislikes such women."
Belle lost her good humor. Fingers of unease touched her
spine. Was he embarrassed by her family?
"If you cannot be expensively attired," Charles
continued, "then be certain your gown is modest."
Belle narrowed her violet gaze on him and brushed an ebony
wisp off her forehead, leaving a smudge. "Are you
"I have a sterling idea," Charles interrupted.
"We could contrive to mention your father."
Belle gave him a blank stare. Was he serious? Or had he bumped
his head, rattling his brain?
"You know, sweetheart, the duke?"
"That could prove awkward," Belle said, "since
I do not know which duke sired me and my sisters."
"Doesn't His Grace support you and your
sisters?" Charles sounded annoyed. "His Grace's
barrister must mention him when he delivers your monthly
"Percy Howell calls my father His Grace."
"You said your sister knows the duke's
"Fancy refuses to name him."
"Then we will mention your deceased mother was a
countess, albeit a penniless French refuge," Charles said.
"We can only pray that your anonymous noble bloodlines and
your incredible beauty sway Mother into approving our
Belle's irritation rose, inciting her to sarcasm. "I
will pass the whole evening in prayer."
"I must leave now," Charles said, reaching for her
hands. "Mother doesn't like waiting." He lifted her
hands to his lips but dropped them again when he saw the
"Where are you going?" Belle asked, when he walked
in the direction of the alley exit.
"That disreputable dog growled at me." And then he
disappeared into the alley.
The baron's snobbishness made Belle uneasy. She feared his
mother was worse. After all, the woman had raised him. Beneath
that haughty exterior beat the heart of a decent man. If only she
could snatch him away from his mother's influence.
Belle sighed, knowing that was impossible. She only wished
Charles was not so concerned with appearances.
One mile and a world away from the Flambeau residence stood
the great mansions in Grosvenor Square. Offensive street odors
did not dare assault aristocratic nostrils in this enclave of the
wealthy. Here, fragrant gardens masked the occasional whiff from
Prince Mikhail Kazanov sat at his thirty-foot dining table set
with the finest porcelain, crystal, and silver. Perched on the
chair beside his was his four-year-old daughter, Elizabeth.
Mikhail stared at his plate, his grim expression mirroring his
mood. Instead of beef, the prince saw his former
sister-in-law's coy eagerness. The roasted potatoes bore a
striking resemblance to his former mother-in-law's determined
He felt hunted.
His year of mourning had ended the previous month. Lavinia,
his late-wife's younger sister, had made her come-out two
weeks earlier and immediately targeted him for her husband.
Even his former mother-in-law had become dangerous company. At
the opera the previous evening, Prudence Smythe had reminded him
that Lavinia had come of age and then proceeded to extol her
He had barely escaped entrapment. Thankfully, his brother
Rudolf had seen his panicked expression during intermission and
interrupted the woman's dialogue.
Lavinia and Prudence Smythe were not alone in their ambition.
Every maiden and widow in London were bent on tempting a prince
He wanted a wife to give him an heir, and his daughter needed
a loving stepmother. The society ladies of his acquaintance were
shallow and greedy, unfit to mother his daughter.
"Daddy, your elbows are resting on the table."
"Excuse my lapse in manners, Bess."
Mikhail sliced a piece of beef, raised it to his lips, and
then glanced at his daughter. Elizabeth had stabbed a piece of
beef with her fork and raised it to her lips.
He winked at her. She winked in return. Slowly, he chewed the
beef and swallowed. His daughter did the same.
Mikhail set his knife and fork on his plate and reached for
his wine goblet. Elizabeth set her fork on the plate and reached
for her lemon water.
Lifting his napkin, Mikhail dabbed at each corner of his
mouth. His daughter lifted her napkin and dabbed at her
Mikhail leaned close to her and puckered his lips. Elizabeth
puckered her lips, too, and gave him a smacking kiss.
"Thank you, Bess. I needed that kiss."
Elizabeth gave him a dimpled smile. "You are welcome,
"What should we do before visiting Uncle
"I want to go to Bond Street."
That made him smile. "What do you want to
"I want a mummy," Elizabeth said, her disarming blue
eyes gleaming with hope. "Cousin Sally got a new mummy, and
I want one, too."
His heart ached for his only child. "The Bond Street
shops do not sell mummies."
Her expression drooped.
Mikhail lifted her delicate hands to his lips and proceeded to
kiss each of her tiny fingers. Then he pretended to gobble them,
eliciting her giggles.
"Daddy, does the stork bring mummies?"
A smile flashed across his features. "Who told you about
"Cousin Roxanne said storks bring babies so I
thought---" Elizabeth lifted her small shoulders in a
"Come, Bess, sit on my lap." When she did, Mikhail
wrapped his arms around her. He wanted to protect her and make
her dreams and wishes come true. "Tell me about this mummy
"The best mummies know lots and lots of stories,"
"Bedtime stories are very important." Mikhail
nodded in agreement. "Anything else?"
"My new mummy will like laughing and playing in the
Except for his brothers' wives, no lady of his
acquaintance played in the dirt. Finding this mythical mummy
could take years.
"My mummy will make tea parties for me." Her blue
eyes sparkled with excitement as she warmed to her topic.
"And happiness cakes, too."
"Happiness cake?" he echoed.
"Cousin Amber makes happiness cakes for her little
girl." Elizabeth placed the palm of her hand against his
cheek. "Mummy will love me."
Mikhail turned his head and kissed the palm of her hand.
"I love you, Bess."
"I love you, Daddy." She gazed into his dark eyes.
"Mummy will love you, too."
Julian Boomer, the prince's majordomo, appeared in the
doorway and hurried to his side. "Your Highness?" The
man shifted his gaze to the little girl and then arched a brow at
"Bess, tell Nanny Dee you will be leaving in a few
minutes." Mikhail kissed her cheek and let her slip from his
"Nanny Dee is gone for the day."
"Tell Nanny Cilla to wash your face," he instructed
her. "I will wait in the foyer."
Mikhail watched his daughter disappear out the door. Then he
looked at the majordomo.
Boomer passed him a calling card. "Ladies Prudence and
Lavinia request an interview."
Mikhail groaned, his expression long-suffering. He was not
safe in his own home. His daughter's mythical mummy had
better appear soon, or he would fall to the husband hunters.
Boomer cleared his throat. "I told them you had left for
a business meeting, and Princess Elizabeth had gone with you to
her tea party."
Mikhail grinned at the man. "You are worth your weight in
"Thank you, Your Highness," the majordomo drawled.
"Would that gold be literal or figurative?"
Mikhail laughed, rose from his chair, and clapped the man on
the back. "Boomer, I do see a hefty raise in your
Belle Flambeau sat alone in the coach that Sunday afternoon
and fumed, her anger directed at the baron and his mother.
Charles knew she felt nervous but had opted to send his coach
instead of escorting her himself, and Belle had no doubt his
mother had done this purposely to prove her influence over her
Insensitive and disrespectful were the most appropriate words
to describe Charles Wingate at the moment. Sending his coach
insulted her. She would tell him that when they were alone.
Knowing she had one chance to make a good impression, Belle
had taken more than an hour to dress for the occasion. Her
high-waisted, white gown had been embroidered with pink flowers
beneath her bosom and around the hem. Her sisters had decided she
appeared pleasingly virginal.
Belle ran her palm across the worn leather seat cushion. She
wondered the reason the baron did not refurbish his carriage or
The coach halted in front of a town house in Russell Square, a
neighborhood more familiar with barristers than barons. The
liveried coachman opened the door and helped her down.
When she banged the knocker, the majordomo opened the door. He
stared at her, his expression haughty.
"I am Miss Flambeau," Belle said. "Baron
Wingate is expecting me."
The majordomo stepped aside to allow her entrance. "The
family is taking tea in the drawing room."
Belle gave the foyer a quick scan. She had expected something
more lavish, but this foyer was lacking when compared with her
own. She followed the servant to the stairs.
"You will wait here," the majordomo ordered,
Belle looked at him in surprise. The servant's attitude
stoked the flame of her simmering anger.
Would the Wingates keep a countess, a duchess, or a princess
waiting in the foyer? The baron's mother had engineered this
to make her feel inferior, and if that was true, she doubted this
meeting would have a happy outcome.
Making a good impression did not seem so important now.
Self-respect demanded she return insults in kind.
"Come now, miss," the majordomo said, returning to
the foyer. "Do hurry. The baroness dislikes
"I dislike waiting, especially in
When she stepped inside the doorway, Charles smiled and
crossed the room. "I'm glad you've come." He
escorted her across the room. "Meet my family."
A man resembling the baron sat in a highbacked chair. His long
legs stretched out, and a cane rested against the side of the
chair. His expression registered boredom.
The middle-aged woman on the settee was another matter. Mild
distaste had etched across her face.
"Mother, I present Miss Belle Flambeau," Charles
introduced them. "Belle, my mother and Squire Wilkins, my
"I am pleased to make your acquaintances." Belle
looked from the mother to the half-brother who was perusing her
Lifting his gaze to hers, Squire Wilkins rose from the chair
and reached for his cane. "A pleasure to meet you, Miss
Flambeau." With that, he left the drawing room.
"Please be seated."
Belle glanced at his mother and then chose the highbacked
chair. Charles sat beside his mother on the settee.
The drawing room held an air of genteel shabbiness. Age had
yellowed the armchair's doily, and the chair beneath it
appeared threadbare. Even one of the teacups was chipped.
The Flambeau residence was more comfortably and expensively
furnished. Her anonymous father had taken good care of them.
"My son did not exaggerate your beauty," the
"Thank you, my lady." Belle sent Charles a serene
smile, masking the knot of nervousness gripping her body.
"Beauty fades," the baroness said, "and
"Indeed, beauty does fade," Belle agreed, giving her
a pointed look. She knew the baroness would not appreciate that
comment, but the woman's expression screamed disapproval.
Belle did not appreciate being treated like an inferior, and
self-respect demanded reciprocity. Perhaps she should leave now
before the situation worsened.
The baroness flushed with obvious anger. "As I was about
to say, couples need more than love for a successful
Belle flicked a glance at Charles and wondered at his silence.
"I would agree with you," she said, "but riches do
not guarantee a happy marriage."
The baroness gave her a frigid smile that matched the coldness
in her eyes. "Tell me about your family."
Belle had prepared herself for this particular topic. "My
late mother was a French countess, and my father is an English
"Can you prove that?"
Belle had not prepared herself for that unexpected question.
"I do not carry birth or baptismal certificates in my
"How about a marriage certificate?" the baroness
asked, her tone sneering.
"Mother, I object to this," Charles found his voice.
"She cannot help---"
"Be quiet, Charles. This needs discussion." Then the
baroness looked at Belle. "Your parents never married which
"---the daughter of a French countess and an English
duke," Belle interrupted.
"Please Mother," Charles whined.
The baroness ignored him. "I mean no
"Of course you don't," Belle drawled, her voice
dripping sarcasm. She could not decide who was more despicable,
the mother or the sniveling son.
"Mother," Charles whined again. "I asked you
"Be quiet," Belle snapped, surprising him. Ready for
battle, she refused to cower or retreat. "What about your
family, my lady?"
The baroness dropped her mouth open in surprise.
"I mean no disrespect," Belle said, "but my
blood is a mingling of the French and English aristocracy, which
I would not wish to dilute." She looked at the baron.
"Didn't you tell me your maternal grandfather was a
vicar and your mother's first husband a squire?"
The older woman found her voice. "You impertinent piece
Belle bolted out of her chair, startling the other woman, and
looked at the baron. "I want to leave now."
"The coachman will drive you home," his mother
Charles had stood when Belle did. "I will escort
Miss Flambeau home."
The coach ride to Soho Square was completed in silence. Belle
stared out the window without seeing anything. She had expected
the baroness to oppose the match but refused to be intimidated.
The baron's behavior was an entirely different matter. His
failure to defend her had been a surprise, and she should
reconsider their relationship. His mother would never approve of
her, and a less than loyal husband was unacceptable.
"Darling, we have arrived." Charles walked her to
the front door and raised her hand to his lips. "I apologize
for Mother. You should not have argued with her, though. Now we
will need to placate her before moving forward with our
Belle managed a smile but refused to apologize for her
behavior. The baron would need to choose---her or his mother.
"May I come inside?" he asked.
"That would be too tempting," she said in refusal.
"My sisters are gone for the day."
"I did mention to Mother that Prince Stepan was
picnicking with your sisters." Charles gave her a wry smile.
"I had hoped that would impress her."
Belle unlocked the door. "Good day, Charles."
He grabbed her hand again. "I promise to speak to
Belle stepped into the foyer. Turning around, she smiled at
the baron once more before closing the door.
Someone grabbed her from behind. When she tried to scream, a
hand covered her mouth, and only muffled squawks came out. Her
attacker yanked her against his muscular frame, and she kicked
Something sharp stung her cheek, and she bit the massive hand
covering her mouth. With a masculine yelp, the man pushed her
away, and she landed face-down on the floor, the breath knocked
from her body.
Unable to move, Belle turned her face in time to see her
assailant hurrying down the hallway toward the rear of the house.
When she tried to stand, Belle saw the droplets of blood where
her face had hit the floor. She touched her right cheek and
stared in a daze at her bloody fingers.
The bastard had sliced her cheek.