Lord Hunter – Tiffany Green

Emma pressed her forehead against the cool marble, her finger tracing the carved name: Jonah Sutton, Earl of Hartford. A tear skated down her cheek. Why did they leave her behind? If she had been there, she could have helped. Her finger slid along a gray vein in the polished stone. She might have saved Jonah. Another tear followed the first and she straightened, breathing in the musty air of the Hartford mausoleum. A crisp, white handkerchief appeared before her and she took the scrap of cloth with a whispered thanks. “The new earl has arrived, piyaa,” Samir said, his quiet voice comforting the sting of the news. “Thank you, Samir.” She blotted the wetness from her cheeks and handed back the handkerchief. Although she had been expecting the new earl for the last few days, facing him would be difficult. There would be questions. Many questions. And she had so few answers. With one last look at Jonah’s grave, she followed Samir from the gray brick structure into the dazzling May sunshine.

She held up a hand to shield her eyes and trailed the beloved family servant up the stone path that led to the mansion. Her nerves frayed more with each step and she nibbled on her bottom lip, hating not knowing what was to come. How would the new earl react? Would he send her away? Of course, he would. Emma had no right to be in the man’s home, after all. But, what of Sean? Emma’s steps faltered, and Samir glanced over his shoulder, worry pressing his thick, dark brows. “You well, nuurii?” “Yes.” She placed careful steps on the uneven stones to prove her words. Samir narrowed his dark eyes a fraction before turning back to the path. The sweet smell of roses grew heavy in the air as they approached the garden. Emma waved to the gardeners pulling weeds, the three waving back with smiles.

“There be fresh roses awaiting ye, miss,” Will said, rising to his feet. He doffed his wide-brimmed hat and smoothed the few gray strands over his bald pate with a weathered hand. “And they are the best roses in all of England, I vow.” She gave the men a sunny smile as she walked by. “My thanks to all of you for your hard work.” “Aw, miss, it be our job,” Will said, his face growing red, even though pleasure lit his eyes. She gave them another wave then headed toward Samir, waiting at the conservatory door. He nodded his head, his gray turban perched over black hair threaded with equal measure of silver, and opened the door as she approached. “The earl waits in the blue salon. Tea has been called for.

” Emma took a deep breath and nodded. Having gotten rid of all her black, gray, and lavender dresses after the mourning period ended for her father two months ago, she had nothing left but the dark brown she now wore. She hadn’t expected to need mourning garb again so soon. Smoothing her sweaty palms down the front of her dress, she headed for the front of the mansion, Samir at her side. Joe, a footman, opened the door before she thought to ask Samir anything of the new earl. Too late, she realized, and patted her hair, making sure not a strand slipped from her chignon. Throwing back her shoulders, she stepped into the room and came to an abrupt halt. A wayward curl skipped down her cheek as she stared at the man turning from the windows. Expecting the new earl to resemble Jonah, who had fair wavy hair and light-blue eyes, Emma found the opposite. Dark hair fell past his collar in a straight curtain and black eyes swept over her before lifting to her face, calculating, no doubt trying to figure out who she was.

His right brow lifted a fraction. A silent question. Before Emma could speak, the rattle of dishes and squeaky wheels of the tea cart interrupted. The housekeeper appeared in the doorway and Emma stepped aside before getting overrun. “Mrs. Farley,” the new earl said, his voice rich and deep, “I am glad to see you.” The rotund lady’s cheeks went pink as she stopped the cart. “It has been far too long, Master Lucian, er, my lord.” She shook her head and had to straighten her mobcap for the trouble. “And under such terrible circumstances.

” Glancing to Emma, Mrs. Farley’s gray brows rose to her hairline before turning back to the earl. “You have met Miss Wickham?” The earl’s dark eyes skidded to her. “I have not,” he said, his brow inching up once again. “Dear me,” Mrs. Farley huffed under her breath and rounded the tea cart. “Then allow me to present Lord Lucian Townsend, the Earl of Hartford.” Her hand swept from the earl to Emma. “My lord, Miss Emma Wickham.” “My lord,” Emma said, dipping a fine, if somewhat rusty, curtsey.

Lord Hartford inclined his head. “Miss Wickham, a pleasure.” His eyes burned with questions. Mrs. Farley puttered around the tea cart. “If I may, my lord, I shall serve.” “By all means,” the earl said and indicated the blue and gold striped sofa with a swipe of long, elegant fingers. “Miss Wickham, will you join me?” Emma realized she had yet to move, but for the curtsey, and came forward. With a calming breath, she lowered onto the cushion and watched the earl take one of the chairs opposite the sofa. After the housekeeper lowered steaming cups of tea onto the table between the two, then plates piled with cucumber sandwiches and lemon tarts, she straightened.

“Is there anything else I can bring you, my lord?” “No, thank you, Mrs. Farley. This will suffice.” With a quick curtsey, the housekeeper hastened from the room, leaving the door open a fraction for propriety’s sake. Alone. With the devilishly handsome new earl. Who was bursting with questions. Yet, he held his tongue as he reached for his tea. Through the ribbon of steam rising up, his eyes bored into hers, and Emma busied herself by reaching for her own cup with hands that shook. She prayed she would not make a cake of herself and dump the scalding brew onto her lap.

Proud of not spilling a drop, Emma kept her eyes on the milk-laced tea and took a careful sip. The warmth fortified her courage and she glanced up at the earl, munching on the corner of a sandwich, watching her. His brow went up. Emma took a hasty sip of her tea and set it on the table. She cleared her throat. “First, let me begin by extending my deepest condolences, my lord. Jonah was…” The hot press of tears collected behind her eyes and she blinked several times to hold them back. “Jonah was ever so kind to my family and me.” She raised her gaze, proud of not pulling forth the handkerchief tucked inside her sleeve. The earl lowered the last bite of sandwich to his plate and dusted his fingers.

“While I appreciate your condolences, Miss Wickham, I must admit I am quite baffled by your presence here.” He leaned forward, pressing his palms together between bent knees. “Forgive me if I am blunt, but who are you, why are you here, and…” His dark eyes swept the room before coming back to her. “Why have you no chaperone, Miss Wickham?” Emma pulled the handkerchief from her sleeve to give her fingers something to do. She plucked at the frilly lace, her mind working on how to answer. His lordship deduced her unwed status. Miss Wickham. The way he spoke her name sent a shiver of disquiet down her spine. Never had she to worry about society’s rules. Neither her father nor her brother cared one ripe fig about what people thought.

Nor did Jonah. The estate, so far removed from London, gave her the freedom she was accustomed. The freedom she had known all her life. Then she grew angry. Furious, even. High passions and quick anger came from her Irish mama, she knew, but she could not hold it at bay. How dare this man, this stranger, come here and start asking those kinds of questions? Emma shot to her feet, surprising the earl. “What gives you the right to ask such personal questions?” He rose, his brows pressing together. “I meant no insult, Miss Wickham.” She folded her arms.

“Never mind your intent, my lord, the result is the same. I am offended.” She leaned forward. “And Jonah wrote to you of my family. You should know who I am.” The earl started to shake his head, then halted. “Wickham.” He tapped his temple with a long forefinger, as if calling forth some vague memory. Then his eyes widened and he lowered his hand. “Your father is George Wickham, the famous archeologist? His exhibits at the museum are among my favorite.

” As quick as her anger sprang, it left, leaving Emma deflated. She unfurled her arms and nodded. “Yes, George Wickham was my father. He died fourteen months ago.” “I am sorry,” the earl said, his voice soft. Now, Emma felt foolish. Foolish for snapping at a man who had shown her nothing but kindness. Foolish for snapping at questions she would have no doubt asked herself if their roles were reversed. Her quick temper was ever getting her into trouble. She stuffed the handkerchief back into her sleeve.

“It is I who am sorry, my lord, for getting angry.” Taking a deep breath, Emma raised her gaze to his. “You might recall from Jonah’s letters, my father found a treasure buried here on the estate about five years ago.” The earl thought for a moment, then nodded. “Roman gold, was it not?” “Yes. It is still on display at the museum.” “Your father donated all his findings, if I am correct?” he asked. Emma nodded. “Father did not think it fair to keep the treasure he found. He wanted everyone to enjoy it.

” She shrugged. “All of us find greater pleasure in the hunt than the actual treasure itself.” He cocked his head to the side. “You hunt for treasure, too?” “Oh, my, yes.” She could feel a smile spreading wide across her face. “I am wickedly fond of it.” The earl’s lips twitched. “I can see that.” Then, his smile fled, and he grew somber. “Tell me, if you please, how did Jonah die?” She plucked the handkerchief out once again and twisted the thing.

“Did Mr. Hawks, the estate manager, not tell you in his letter?” He drew in a breath, held it a moment, then blew it out. “All Mr. Hawks indicated was a fall. Nothing of the circumstances.” His gaze sharpened. “My guess is he was on a hunt for treasure. Am I wrong?” Giving the scrap of cloth another squeeze, Emma shook her head. “Just before my father died, he found something. A map about two hundred years old.

It took me a while to decipher the map’s meaning—” “You deciphered?” As her anger rose, Emma could feel a wash of heat surging up her neck, pooling into her cheeks. She gripped the handkerchief and gritted her teeth to keep certain words from spilling forth. Then she saw the earl was not disgusted by her admission, rather, intrigued. He skirted the table to stand before her. “I heard George Wickham had an assistant to help him ferret out treasures.” He flashed a smile, showing straight white teeth and a dimple peeking from the corner of his mouth. “I had no idea this assistant was you.” She nodded. “And my brother Sean. Father had two assistants.

Three once we met Jonah and he got hooked on hunting.” The earl’s smile vanished. He glanced around. “Your brother. Where is he?” Those damned tears threatened again. Emma swallowed the hot ball in her throat and shook her head. “I wish I knew.” The earl took another step and she could feel the heat of his body, could smell his unique, earthy scent and leather from a long ride in a saddle. “He was with Jonah?” She closed her eyes. “Yes.

” “Did he perish, as well?” Emma gave the handkerchief another twist. “I do not know. Only Jonah’s body was found. He could still be alive, perhaps hurt. I do not know.” She turned away and paced the area to the barren fireplace and back. “I should have gone with them…” She took a deep breath. Jonah and Sean had slipped away without her. When she woke and found them already gone, Samir explained her brother thought the hunt too dangerous. The memory still stung.

“I should have been there.” The earl stepped into her path and she almost collided with him. He reached out and steadied her, his hot hands scalding her skin beneath the material of her dress. “And have something happen to you, too?” Emma raised her head. That hadn’t occurred to her. Just the assumption she could have made a difference. That somehow, she could have saved Jonah and kept Sean safe. How, she did not know, but she believed it. Yet, now she had to face the fact she could also have been hurt. The man who found Jonah said it was a fall from the steep cliff he had been trying to climb.

Jonah’s twisted, broken body had been returned with the safety rope still tied around his waist. A mooring must have come loose, the man reasoned. That still did not answer where Sean was. No one seemed to know anything about her brother. He had vanished. Disappeared into thin air. “Perhaps you are right, my lord,” she said and pulled away from his hold. She turned to the window and watched a tiny yellow butterfly flitter around a red rose bloom. Knowing she had been hoping to hear from Sean, even hoping to find him waiting for her as she came down for breakfast, she had to face the fact he might not be able to travel or even send a message. What if he were recovering from some wound? Emma pulled the handkerchief, hearing a rip and frowned at the ruined scrap of lace in her hands.

Perhaps she had waited long enough, she reasoned. Fourteen days. Wasn’t that enough time for Sean to send word? “You have made a decision,” the earl said, giving her a start. “What is it?” She raised her head and threw back her shoulders. Once she made a decision, nothing changed her mind. “I have, my lord, and I shall be out of your home in a trice.” The earl’s brows shot up. Yet, before he could respond, a knock sounded. His eyes narrowed a fraction. “Enter,” he said.

Joe the footman stepped into the room and gave a bow. “Pardon the intrusion, my lord. A message for Miss Wickham.” Emma’s breath caught as she rushed forward. Sean! It could be from none other. Her hands shook as she took the folded scrap of paper from Joe, and she almost dropped it when she saw her name scrawled across the front, with directions to deliver it to Hartford estate. In Sean’s hand. She unfolded the paper and swallowed when she saw the smears of dried blood. Her vision swam and she blinked to focus on the odd shapes forming a single sentence. “What are those triangles, circles, and dashes?” the earl asked as he peered over her shoulder.

“Is that blood?” Emma’s mind whirled with breaking the code. It was her and Sean’s special language they had created together many years ago, after the loss of their mother. Sean was alive! Oh, dear God, thank you. As she worked to decipher the words, a shadow fell over the paper. “You received a message, piyaa?” “Who are you?” the earl asked. “He is Samir, our family’s saathii. Companion. Our friend.” Emma nodded to the earl. “Samir, please meet Lord Lucian Townsend, the new Earl of Hartford.

” Inclining his turbaned head, Samir said, “A pleasure, janaab.” Somewhat confused, the earl could only incline his head in return. “As for me, Mr. Samir.” “Just Samir, if you please, my lord.” The man’s dark eyes dipped to Emma. “The note, is from Sean?” “Yes.” Emma’s heart raced once she read the message with clarity, and her mouth went dry. Then she lowered the paper clutched in her hand. “Pack our bags, Samir.

Sean is in trouble. We must save him.” The man inclined his head and disappeared without a word. “The note, what does it say?” the earl asked, his warm breath stirring the fine hairs at her neck. Emma turned. She could not keep this from him. Not this. The earl deserved to know. “It says: Men after treasure.” Her eyes raised to his, and she finished the note.

“Jonah was murdered.”

.

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