Pippa Hargrave was about to have her heart broken. When she heard the Cavendish twins were turned out of the schoolroom so early on this particular afternoon, she tore through the Mont Claire estate knowing they’d spill out onto the lawn and head for their hedge maze. Her father, Charles Hargrave, looked up from the counter where he stood and snacked on a repast of cold chicken and greens as she burst through the door to the kitchens. “What ho, little’un?” His eyes wrinkled kindly at the edges, and he hinged at the hip to tweak her fondly on her nose with a gloved finger. “Where are you off to in such a hurry?” An elegant Romani woman stood by her mother, Hattie, and added a few more herbs to the pot. “You were in a rush to come into this world, Pip.” Serana warmly used the household’s nickname for her, and it sounded strange in what Hattie said was her Carpathian accent. “It is no surprise you want to hasten your way through it.” Pippa had been told that she owed her very existence to Serana, as her mama and papa had endeavored to conceive a child for decades to no avail. Serana had given Hattie a tonic, and she’d become pregnant with Pippa right away. Pippa’s father, the butler of the Mont Claire estate and already eleven years Hattie’s senior, was the age of most children’s grandfathers. He treated his daughter with a kind of mystified but devoted indulgence. “I’m going to find Declan Chandler.” Pippa squirmed to get outside. “I think I saw him cleaning out the fountain as I came in,” Serana supplied helpfully with a little wink.
“Oh no, I must go help him,” Pip lamented dramatically. “He hates cleaning the fountain, it terrifies him. Though he’s too brave to say so.” She sighed for his courage, closing her eyes to properly give it the knightly due it deserved. “My daughter’s besotted.” Hattie palmed Pippa’s cheek with a warm hand before passing an implement to Serana. Pippa wrinkled her nose. Be-what? “That Declan Chandler has the soul of a tiger,” Serana said. “And you, Pip, have that of a dragon.” “Dragons aren’t real,” Pippa informed her with a giggle.
“Aren’t they?” Serana asked, winking cheerfully. “I’ve been many places where they would disagree with you.” “Do you have any peppermints in your pockets?” Pippa turned to her father, already searching his coat. Peppermints were Declan’s favorite. She always found him pale after dredging the fountain, and a bit irate. Peppermints cheered him up and made him smile the smile that produced scores of rampant butterflies in her belly. “Gads, I must do somewhere.” Charles slapped every pocket he could find more than once before producing a handful of treats for the children. Pippa seized them, divvying them up. One each for Ferdinand, Francesca, and herself.
She saved the remaining two for Declan. He deserved extra. She kissed her father’s smooth cheek and leapt toward the door. Sprinting down the stretch of lawn lined with resplendent arborvitae, she ate up the distance between her and the boy who owned her heart. Declan Chandler had once been short, like her, and devastatingly underweight when he’d landed on the steps of Mont Claire some years ago. He’d been grimy and freezing, starving half to death. But his frame had stretched out over a long, thickening skeleton, and even though he ate enough to feed a horse, he remained curiously lean. Lately, instead of focusing on the primers Francesca allowed her to study on her own, Pippa would make up ridiculous fancies about Declan Chandler. Today, for example, she spent a good deal of the early afternoon chomping on her pencil, leaving crunchy indentations as she pondered the perfection of the word thunderstruck. After all this time wondering how to properly encompass the effect the houseboy had on her, Pippa could finally claim a description.
Once she’d scampered past the stately gardens dripping with an embarrassment of blossoms, she ran through the hedge maze she’d memorized with the loping speed of a fleet-footed bunny. She broke into the clearing bedecked by the fountain just in time for her heart to break. Declan stood to his knees in the fountain while droplets from the spray gathered on his skin and sluiced down the indentations of lean muscle that had never been there until recently. He was like the progeny of the powerful-bodied ancient gods cast from marble behind him. And Francesca Cavendish was slipping a peppermint past his lips. The smile he bestowed upon her—the smile that should have been Pippa’s—nearly outshone the noonday sun. He said something Pippa could not hear and tucked a shining wisp of scarlet hair behind the lovely Francesca’s ear before placing a kiss on her knuckles with a deference that went beyond her station as the young mistress of the house. A reverence that was no longer innocent … But interested. The fountain still spewed water out of the horns of satyrs and the mouths and baskets of various gods and goddesses. The spray refracted the sun into delicate rainbows and glittering gems in the air around them.
Pippa’s heart squeezed so hard she didn’t think it beat for a full minute. Her hands were cold and wet. Her throat dry and her stomach full of lead. At thirteen, Declan was the epitome of beauty to Pippa. Now she looked at Francesca to see in her friend what Declan might. A slight and perfect nose and heart-shaped features. Slim, even for a girl on the cusp of womanhood, and more elegant than a child ought to be. Vibrant red hair and shy eyes the color of the sea on an overcast day. Perhaps blue or green, but mostly grey. Pippa had dull fairish locks and retained a face round with youth and a penchant for seconds at dinner.
Her beauty, her mother said, was in her rare green eyes. Eyes that now stung and a throat that ached with such fervent pain she couldn’t swallow, let alone breathe. Did Declan—her Declan—fancy Francesca Cavendish, her best friend in the world? Could the fates be so entirely cruel? Was there anything worse than this searing pain? No, she realized. No, there was no agony more excruciating than this. How could he not know she was his perfect match? Francesca wouldn’t dip her dainty shoes into the fountain, but Pippa had often waded in beside him, plunging her elbows deep in the muck if only to make his work go faster so they could play. When the water seemed to churn with his melancholy, they’d toss soggy clumps of moss at each other, giggling and squealing with a side-splitting mirth until her jaw ached from constant smiles and so much brilliant love. Francesca wouldn’t deign to dirty her frocks. She couldn’t; she was going to be a lady someday. Pippa had no need to be a lady. She would be a woman.
Declan’s woman. She’d decided that long ago. Regardless of what her parents said, no one could love someone this deeply unrequited. The gods of the fountain wouldn’t allow it. And yet, there they were … Declan and Francesca, with eyes for no one but each other. “There are men on horseback coming up the way,” Ferdinand, Francesca’s twin, called down from his perch in the ancient ash tree on the other side of the maze. Mama had told her once, Ferdinand had been born without enough breath, and he struggled with something called asthma. It was why the veins beneath his skin were so iridescent, and his lips often tinged with blue. Despite that, he was a striking boy, and since she’d never had a brother, Ferdinand was one of her very favorite people with whom to have an adventure. He’d told her once he’d make her a countess when he was old enough.
She hoped that didn’t mean marriage. She would marry Declan Chandler, of course, she knew this with her entire heart. She’d be Mrs. Chandler. Indeed, she’d already perfected her signature. “Are we expecting callers?” Francesca asked. “There are entirely too many men for callers.” Ferdinand curled his fingers to resemble a spyglass, and put it to his eye. “Maybe twenty.” “It’s unseemly to show up with twenty people and not send a note.
” Francesca’s mouth drooped into a pretty pout. “Mrs. Hargrave won’t know to make that many sandwiches at this hour.” Pippa looked from Francesca to Declan, noting the troubled thoughts wrinkling his smooth, angular good looks. “Perhaps you and Pip should go inform Mr. and Mrs. Hargrave,” he said, helping Francesca from the ledge. “They’ll know what to do.” “I’ll go and meet the riders,” Ferdinand declared, having climbed down from his spot and set off out the opposite side of the maze. “My lord, you really shouldn’t.
” Declan released Francesca and winked at Pippa before trotting after the future Earl of Mont Claire. “Not until we know who they are.” Despite her pain, Pippa locked hands with her friend and skipped toward the estate. Francesca really was such a dear. So sweet and agreeable. Proper and ladylike. All the things Pippa was not. All the things she’d try to be for Declan if that’s what he wanted. They jogged for several minutes of silence before Pippa couldn’t keep herself from asking, “Do you fancy Mr. Chandler?” “What?” Francesca laughed, a merry sound that bubbled into the spring air.
“He loves you, I think,” Pippa grumped. “I fancy him a little. He’s rather handsome, isn’t he?” Francesca squeezed her hand. “But never you worry, I’d not bother with him in a hundred years.” Suddenly Pippa felt a ridiculous spurt of protectiveness for him. “And whyever not? He’s more than good enough.” Francesca tugged her to slow down and turned to her, so they were facing each other. “Because I love you, Pip, and I’d never betray you.” Pippa surged forward and enfolded the girl in her arms. “I love you, too,” she said upon a sigh of relief.
“Besides, Father would never allow me to marry below a viscount,” Francesca bemoaned. George Cavendish, the Earl of Mont Claire, was nothing if not a snob. Pippa looked over Francesca’s shoulder. She could see the men in the distance now from her vantage on the open lawn, which gently sloped upward toward the manor house. They rode low over the necks of their horses as they galloped closer, all dressed in dark colors, their faces indistinguishable. Or covered? Ferdinand had almost reached them, his arms waving an energetic greeting. He stopped some yards away to cough, apparently deciding he’d exerted himself enough for a throng of men who would eventually be upon him. The riders didn’t slow as they approached. The merciless, pounding hooves churned up clumps of earth and tossed them in their wake. No.
Surely they weren’t … she was seeing things … Dumbfounded, she waited for the riders to stop. Why weren’t they stopping? Ferdinand was right there. He was right in front of them. With a scream, she turned around, closing her eyes against what she’d already witnessed. They killed him! Some of her numb disbelief surged into paralyzing terror. They’d killed him, and they didn’t slow down. Which meant the men were coming for them next. “Run,” Pippa breathed, clutching Francesca’s hand and bolting for the house. “Don’t look back.” She didn’t want her friend to see the nightmare of her twin’s mangled body.
It was an anguish Pippa would never forget. They streaked across the grass toward the kitchen entrance and dove inside just as the marauders broke into four clusters of masked nightmares to encircle the manor. “Ferdinand!” Pippa screamed as her mother gathered her and Francesca up into her arms. “They … they … the horses!” Her throat closed over, sobs threatening to choke the life out of her. It was unthinkable. Unspeakable. What was happening? Who would do something so monstrous? “Take a breath and tell me what’s done,” Hattie soothed. “Serana’s gone outside, and your father went to see what this is about. He took all the footmen and—” The door to the kitchen crashed open, the glass of the window breaking against the wall as huge, sinister men swarmed inside. “No one here but women and children,” a dark-clad monster with a red bandanna over his face reported in a Cockney accent.
A thicker man in a distinctly American hat seemed to be in charge. “They said no witnesses.” He kicked a table out of the way to get to them as he pulled a knife larger than any in their butcher block from his belt. Hattie thrust the two girls behind her, snatching her cleaver from the counter. “You leave these little’uns alone.” She brandished the blade at them, wagging it as she would a scolding finger. “We didn’t see a thing. We can leave quietly, and you’ll never hear from us again. Just don’t hurt the girls.” “Problem is,” the American drawled from behind his linen mask, “we can’t leave that there girl alive.
” He pointed his blade at Francesca, who whimpered before her terror piddled down her leg and spread beneath both of their shoes. With a burst of strength, Hattie thrust Francesca and Pippa backward through the door to the servants’ hall. “Whatever you do, just live. Live! Get out of this house.” She slammed the door and locked it behind them. Pippa didn’t just run from the men this time, she ran from the primal sounds her mother made as she fought for their lives, and the screams that pealed from her as she failed. Tears blurred the lines of the servants’ stairs, causing Pippa to trip as she scrambled upward. A door on the main floor led to a small cellarlike room where a furnace warmed the house. Declan had showed her a coal depository that led outside, which would possibly be unguarded. If they could make it there, they might be able to attempt the short dash to the forest undetected.
She could lose them in the forest. The children of Mont Claire spent their entire childhood slithering through warrens, exploring primordial root systems, or climbing trees on imaginary adventures. Pippa breached the main floor to the sound of violence and chaos. Even though their hands were slippery with sweat, she and Francesca kept a tight, painful grip on each other as they ran. Her mother’s words became a mantra, a throb in her head, an agony in her heart, and the strength in her legs. Live. Live. Get out of this house. Live. Live.
Get out of this house. The force with which Francesca was ripped from Pippa’s grasp nearly pulled her off her own feet. She whirled around to see the American with the white cowboy hat put a knife to her best friend’s neck. Francesca Cavendish, her grey eyes wide with terror, was the last person alive to say Pippa’s name … And her last word before the blade moved was an admonishment to run. An irritating siren pierced the air at a terrible pitch, ceaseless and grating. It drowned out the sounds of fear and death filtering to Pippa through the tremendous halls of Mont Claire. Could no one stop these men? Would they simply swarm the manor like an army of ants, and dismantle every living thing inside? Pippa had to escape it. It would deafen her, surely. Turning on her heel, she fled down the hall, but was intersected by another masked man before she could reach the furnace room. “Grab the little bitch!” the American ordered.
Pippa leapt to the side, scrambling down a narrow service corridor that dumped her into a main marbled hallway. The siren scream haunted her as she sped down halls, blindly crashed through doors, and leapt around and over the bodies of those she’d known her entire life. She was grateful for her tears. For the way they softened and blurred the sights of gore, blood, and the dead-eyed features of her beloved. She left a trail of her tears as she ran. A man seized her braid and yanked with such force, she lost her balance. It wasn’t the American, but a smaller foe with a blade no less fearsome. He lifted it over his head, his intention unmistakable as it arced toward her chest. A battle cry cracked on a high note as Declan Chandler leapt from the study and drove a fire poker into the man’s head. He didn’t stop swinging, even after the man crashed to the ground like a felled tree.
Declan’s movements remained tight and frenzied, his eyes black with a rage Pippa didn’t understand. After the fifth blow, Declan tossed the instrument at the man’s misshapen skull and seized Pippa. The wail that had been aggravating her miraculously ceased when he clamped a hand over her mouth. Yanking her forward, Declan half dragged, half carried her through the study and into the Mont Claire library, a two-story phenomenon with more books than could be counted. Before she could struggle or stop crying long enough to ask what he was doing, Declan took them to the fireplace, which was large enough to have housed a small tenant family. Declan held a rough finger to his smooth lips. “If you’re not quiet, they’ll kill us both, do you understand?” Upon her nod, he took his hand off her mouth. Turning to her, he seized both her wrists, then stared down in horror at the drops and smears of blood marring her flesh and white sleeves. “Pip, are you hurt?” She shook her head, unable to form words for the horror of it. “What is this?” he demanded.
“Whose blood?” Francesca’s blood. “Not mine,” was all she could say. Loud boots and bloodthirsty calls filtered down the grand marble halls as a cadre of men threatened to discover them. “Here,” he whispered, and shoved her up the chimney before following her. Soot and grime coated them both as they shimmied up the wide, cylindrical flue, their bodies wedged so tightly, Pippa worried that they wouldn’t be able to get out again. Rough walls abraded her arms and back, and tore at the coarse wool of her dress and stockings. Declan braced his legs beneath her so she’d have something of a perch and used his long arm to stabilize them, wrapping the other around her. Pippa’s chest burned from exertion, and ached with a well of grief so intense, she worried it would crush her lungs. She could see nothing in the dark of the chimney. She could only feel.
And hear. The timbre of masculine voices changed from excited to outraged when they came upon the dead body in the hall. Their angry, clipped conversations ebbed and waned as they searched the study and the library for the culprit. As they neared the fireplace, terror weakened Pippa’s limbs. Seeming to intuit this, Declan pulled her close, settling her ear against the bones of his ribs. He trembled, as well, whether with fear or the exertion of keeping them aloft, Pippa couldn’t tell. His heart became a staccato metronome against her ear, driving all other thoughts and sounds away. She held her breath when Declan did. And shut out every sound in the world but the thrumming beneath her ear. If she’d lost everything, she had this.
This boy. This heartbeat of time. She’d always known he was possessed of the strength and goodness of a mythical hero. Now everyone else would know it, too. Because he’d saved her. Pippa didn’t know how long they stayed like that. Perhaps minutes, perhaps hours. But when all fell eerily silent and the men moved on, Declan lowered his mouth to her ear. “Ferdinand…” he said, his voice breaking with sorrow. “Did you see them? Did you see what they did?” Pippa nodded, wishing she didn’t still see the tiny body bouncing and contorting in the darkness of her mind’s eye.
“What about Francesca, did she … did she make it?” Despair choked off her breath once more, and Pippa swallowed several ragged sobs before deciding she was unable to answer. She didn’t have to. The tension in his trembling muscles and the hitches in his breath as he fought his own sobs told her Declan understood. “Where … where is my papa?” Somehow, Pippa knew her hope was ridiculous. Because her father never would have left them behind. Even to save his own life. Declan didn’t answer for a long moment, and when he finally did, his voice was husky with shadows and pain. “Your father … they … they stabbed him first. It was quick. I-I’m sorry.
He sent me to find you.” A sharp blade of grief slid through her ribs and into her heart, this one finding purchase next to where her mother’s wound belonged. “Am I an orphan now?” she whispered as her tears trickled from her chin and onto the still-bare skin of his abdomen. “Yes.” “How do you bear it?” His arm tightened around her, and his face pressed into her hair. “I can’t tell you that. It was different for me.” “How?” “Because—because I didn’t lose good parents, Pip … not like yours.” She lifted her head, swiping at her tears with the back of her hand. “I never thought your parents were good.
” His features shifted as he peered down at her. “I’ve never said a word about them.” “But you were already sad when you came here. A kind of sad that isn’t gone … and now it might never be.” His eyes fluttered closed as a gathering of tears dispersed beneath the fan of his dark lashes. “Pip … this kind of sad will never go away. But—” He stopped. Stiffened. Tested the air with sharp inhales. “Do you smell that?” She gave the air a delicate whiff.
Something was burning. They both looked down to the dry fireplace beneath them. Little tendrils of smoke curled into the shafts of light. “Bloody hell,” he cursed. “They’ve set fire to the manor.” “What?” she cried. “Why?” “To cover their crimes, I suspect. To burn the bodies.” He nudged her back. “Can you climb down on your own, Pip? We have to get out of here.
” Seized by anxiety now that he was pulling away, she clung to him with desperate arms. “Don’t leave me,” she cried. Could they not stay here in the stillness forever? Could she not simply listen to his heartbeat until the rhythm drowned out her loss? “Why did this happen?” she whimpered. “I don’t know, Pip,” he said gently. “I just know we have to get out of here. Now. Come with me. And whatever happens, just don’t let go, all right?” “I won’t,” she vowed. “Not ever.” She clutched at him as he led them through rooms with treasures she’d coveted and memories she’d stored away as they filled with smoke that seemed to billow in from every direction.
He led her down the back hall toward the furnace room, the choking air forcing them lower and lower. Francesca’s little body had disappeared from the hall, but Pippa fell to her knees atop the bloodstains, no longer able to contain her sobs. “Come on, Pip.” Declan seized her. “I know. I know, but we must go. There will be time for that later. A lifetime for that.” Pippa allowed him to drag her up, and she stumbled after him. They navigated the furnace room, muting their racking coughs with cloths Pippa snatched from a shelf.
She bounced from foot to foot as Declan scrambled through the coal door, checked to see that the coast was clear, and then reached back in to pull her out. The smoke was a blessing in that it shielded them from view as they raced for the forest. At least she thought it had, until a shout of their discovery sounded the alarm. Declan used a string of curses Pippa was yet unfamiliar with as he yanked her into the tree line as the first shot rang out, showering them with chunks of bark. She ran with all her strength. Her lungs burned and her legs felt as though they would tear open, but still she ran. Another shot scattered the birds and creatures of the Mont Claire woods. A burning sting buckled her leg and she crashed down hard enough to scrape both her knees and the palms of her hands. She didn’t even have the breath left to cry out. Declan dropped beside her, calling her name.
“My leg,” she wheezed. He checked frantically and she was comforted by his breath of relief. “Pip, it’s a graze,” he reassured her. “Can you walk?” Pippa nodded, swiping at the tears burning hot tracks of pain down her cheeks. If he could be brave, she would be valiant. Her calf buckled as soon as she put her weight on it, and she dropped with a devastating moan of pain. Declan glanced around, his eyes going wide and wild as he heard the men crashing through the underbrush. “Here.” He dragged her down a ravine and stashed her beneath the roots of one of her favorite trees, covering the system with fallen branches and other detritus. “You put this leaf on your leg and press down so it doesn’t bleed too much.
” “Come in with me.” Pippa scooted over, making room for him. “No.” He shook his head, perking to a distressingly close sound. “You stay here. I’ll lead them away.” “You can’t!” She reached for him. “They’ll find you!” He leaned down very close, thrusting her deeper beneath the tree, his eyes more serious and frightening than any she’d ever seen. “You’ll be safe here. And I always survive best if I’m alone.
Just trust me.” She’d never trusted anyone more. She kissed him then, full on the mouth. A desperate mashing of lips salted with tears and ash. “I love you,” she said fiercely. He blinked several times and opened his mouth before a crash to their right stole his attention. And he was gone. Footsteps followed too closely on his heels, and Pippa shrank into the depths of the tree, both hands clasped over her mouth. Several gunshots caused her to jump in the dark, then a victorious shout rang through the forest. The American calling for his comrades.
Several times, Pippa thought about going out there to throw herself over his body, but her pain and terror paralyzed her to the ground, so she simply curled up in the root of the tree and silently sobbed. Eventually a rustle of branches revealed a dark and beloved face. Serana. With a soul-ragged sound, Pippa surged into her arms, burying her face against the wiry Romani woman as her anguish overcame her. “I know.” Serana smoothed a hand over her hair. “We must flee. Now.” “But Declan!” she wailed.