"The coupling of Isolde and Angus was perfect and Angus was just the sort of broken man that you would expect Isolde to be drawn to." ~ Book Passion for Life
Lush green meadows and swaying fields of heather whispered promises of death Isolde McLaine knew she couldn’t escape. She’d abandoned Hatherly Hall and left England for America in a vain attempt to try. Now it loomed around her. Watching. Biding its time. Waiting for her to succumb to the stirrings of love that forced her away.
She stared out the taxicab’s window at Hatherly’s skyward reaching walls of stone. Beyond that iron gate, within those chilly halls, lay everything that had ever mattered to her. Everything she couldn’t have, and everything she craved all the same. If Angus Shaw hadn’t decided to sell the gothic monstrosity, she wouldn’t be here now. But she’d returned to the employer who threatened her existence to stop that travesty. To talk sense into Angus before he destroyed his son’s only maternal legacy.
“Damn him,” she muttered as the taxi nosed through the iron gates.
Angry was better—at least if she let that emotion fester she couldn’t get caught up in the far more damning feelings Angus provoked. And, if she focused on how achingly blind he was being, she might be able to forget the mesmerizing feel of his soft lips on hers.
Not entirely likely, given that every time she’d been with her family and watched her brothers and sisters embrace their soul mates she thought of Angus. But with Beltane fast approaching, she didn’t dare get caught up in all the emotion that came with Angus and his adorable son Thomas.
“We’re here, Miss. Will you be needing a return trip after the two o’clock tour?”
For a moment, the cabbie’s question perplexed her. As she opened her mouth to ask his meaning, however, logic clicked. Just because she’d quit her job didn’t mean Angus hadn’t hired another House Manager, and that the afternoon tours would cease. Isolde shook her head. “No. I’ll be staying a few days.”
“Oh, you’re visiting friends then?”
“You could say so.” Something like that. Isolde fished into her small satchel for a handful of bills and passed them over the seats. “Thank you for the ride.”
“My pleasure, Miss.”
She grabbed her solitary bag and climbed out of the cab as a shuttle unloaded a dozen passengers. Isolde fell neatly in line behind the crowd. No sense drawing attention to herself first. She needed to see Nadine, the museum curator before she confronted Angus. And with one tour bus unloading, that meant the museum was currently full of visitors who would be departing.
Listening to the awed murmurs of the tourists who surrounded her, Isolde followed the small group inside. While they mingled in the grand hall, admiring centuries-old oil portraits of the Hatherly family, she lingered near the glass doors to the museum, eyeing Nadine as she pretended not to listen for Thomas’s cheery voice.
Even more than she missed Angus, she missed the adorable eight-year-old boy who had weaseled into her heart the day she first met him, four years ago. Right now, though, Thomas was the last person she wanted to encounter. She needed to talk to Angus first. Talk some sense into him when Thomas couldn’t hear what she intended to say.
“Thank you! Enjoy your stay in Sheffield!” Nadine called brightly as the last visitor filed out the doors.
A spark of excitement lit within Isolde. Unable to help herself, she smiled. Until right now, she hadn’t realized how much she looked forward to seeing Nadine again. Doing her best not to rush through the doors and hug her old friend, Isolde entered with quiet, controlled dignity.
Nadine remained behind the admissions counter, her attention riveted on a ledger that she scribbled in. Isolde used the older woman’s preoccupation to her advantage and approached quietly.
“So where is the infinitely stupid master of the house?”
With a startled gasp, Nadine jerked her nose out of the ledger and gaped at Isolde. Surprise gave way to recognition and her chubby face lit with a smile. “Oh my! Isolde! When you said you were coming, I had no idea you meant today.”
Isolde gave in to a grin. “You should have known better. How long did I fight to turn this place around and pull it out of the red? I’m not giving that man one extra day to destroy all my hard work. Did he convince you into giving the tours?”
“He guilted me into it.” Laughter brimmed in Nadine’s warm brown eyes. She reached across the countertop and patted the back of Isolde’s hand. “I think you just couldn’t stand to stay away.”
Despite her bravado, Isolde felt heat creep into her cheeks. Nadine knew. For that matter, the entire staff knew about what had happened between Angus and herself the week before she quit her job three and a half months ago. All thanks to one maid who found it necessary to gossip after walking into the library and interrupting the kiss that should have never happened. Thankfully, Angus had fired the young girl moments after the story reached his own ears. Embellished. Tenfold.
“Where is he, Nadine?” she asked more quietly. “I want to have this initial conversation over with before Thomas figures out I’m here. I won’t know what to tell him, until I talk to Angus.”
“In the cellar. He muttered something about separating the collectables from the personal items.”
“More things he wants to sell?”
Nadine winced, giving Isolde all the answer she needed.
Sighing, Isolde shook her head. “Did you inform him he’s behaving like a bloody fool?”
“No. I phoned you.”
Because Isolde was the only person brave enough to stand up to Angus Shaw. She nodded again, understanding what Nadine didn’t say. Wouldn’t say. “Well. I suppose I’ll go confront the dragon.”
“Shall I see that Enid sets a place for you at the dinner table?”
A frown pulled at Isolde’s brow as she considered. If Angus listened, if she managed to talk sense into him, she’d enjoy dining with her friends. If he threw her out—which he might well do given how irate he’d been when she quit—she’d be dining alone at an inn in Sheffield.
“Save that thought. I’ll get back to you on it.” Turning, she cut a path around the Renaissance statues the second Lord of Hatherly had imported from Italy and moved toward the exit.
“Good luck, Isolde. His mind is set.”
Isolde nodded. Of course it would be. Hatherly Hall represented everything Angus couldn’t stand to look upon. He was gone more than he was in attendance most years. He’d be glad to be free of the responsibility. Free of the memories he refused to confront.
She left her bag in the hall. At the top of the stairs that led into the dark, musty belly of the grand estate, Isolde paused. She’d rather confront her vile sire, rather stand toe-to-toe in combat against her incubus father, than encounter Angus. Her heart tripped unsteadily. Her stomach coiled into a tight ball of barbs. She wanted to see him…too much.
Pulling in a deep breath, she swallowed down the rising tide of awareness and murmured quiet words of magic designed to keep the dark half of her soul under control. It sensed Angus too. Knew he was her weakness. And it longed to see her falter so it could bathe in blood.
She took the stairs carefully and followed a faint flicker of light at the far end of the underground chambers. It glowed from within a room that had once held prisoners. Now, it held boxes and crates, things the Hatherlys had amassed through the centuries. Heirlooms that signified life gone by. Treasures Angus should cherish, as opposed to his conviction to auction off his deceased wife’s memory.
Isolde stopped short in the doorway, the sight of him temporarily rendering her speechless. Bent over a large crate, he rummaged through the contents. His usual suit coat lay on the stone floor in a forgotten heap, giving her a rare view of fine linen cloth pulled tight across broad shoulders. She’d felt those muscles there. Thrilled in the strength he cloaked away rippling beneath her palms. Worse, she could recall those tightly hewn cords so vividly the encounter might have well happened yesterday. The heat of his body, the possessiveness of his mouth, the dizzying scent of his sweet spice cologne…
Longing rose, and Isolde winced. She couldn’t get caught up in Angus Shaw. Not any more than she already was. Her sire’s curse hung over her head, promising if she allowed Angus room in her heart she’d kill him. Worse, it promised inevitable mortality. An escape her destiny wouldn’t allow. Swallowing down all the feeling that threatened to override her senses, she leaned a shoulder on the doorframe, folded her arms across her chest, and squinted at his dark head. “I do believe you’ve lost every bit of sense you possess. Just what do you think you are doing, Angus Shaw?”
* * *
At the sound of the voice he couldn’t forget, Angus snapped his head up. His gaze locked on the doorway, and for a moment, his lungs refused to function.
With the heavy thump of his heart, every particle of his being honed in on her presence. Long platinum hair hung from a loose ponytail that she somehow managed to make elegant, down past her waist, to peek out beneath her elbow and brush the middle of a toned thigh. Contrary to the usual dark blue uniform dress she nearly always wore, she was dressed in a pair of white riding trousers that accentuated the muscling of her lithe legs even more. He dragged his gaze up to her face, taking her in bit by breathtaking bit, until her pale silver eyes locked with his.
At the glimmer of anger in those unusual depths, he pursed his lips and dipped his hand back into the crate in front of him. “Isolde. I believe you quit. It’s none of your concern.”
“Don’t give me that tripe, Angus. You know very well why I quit.” She pushed off the wall and approached. The toes of her stylish knee-high boots crept into his peripheral vision. “Why are you doing this?”
The better question was why did she care? She’d quit. What he did with the old relics and antiquities shouldn’t concern her. But too many years of friendship refused to let him fall back on the defensive response. He rocked into his heels and sighed as he shot her an annoyed look. “In case it escapes you, I wouldn’t be sorting through these things if I still had a House Manager. I don’t have the time to manage Hatherly, Isolde. You know this.”
She scoffed, and her penetrating gaze narrowed a sliver more. “That’s an excuse. You could make the time. Instead, you’re signing over Thomas’s heritage to the preservation society.”
He reached into the crate and pulled out a brass vase, then set it aside, before reaching in once again. “He’s my son. I know what’s in his best interests.”
“And you think this is?”
“Thomas is going to Aysgarth in the fall, Isolde.” Unable to meet her accusatory glare, he focused on straightening a stack of old photographs. “He needs stability and discipline.” Not to mention that sending him off to school would keep him safe. There’d be someone constantly present to watch over him—a job Isolde had assumed instinctually. Without her…
An unexpected hollowness opened behind his ribs. Nothing had been the same without her, much as he hated to admit it. Hatherly was cold and empty. He no longer enjoyed the monotonous days spent in his office with the accounts while he waited for her to interrupt his concentration. And Thomas didn’t laugh like he used to. They all missed Isolde.
If he hadn’t kissed her, she’d still be here.
“Boarding school? You really have lost all the sense God gave you, Angus Shaw.” She blew out a breath that stirred the loose tendrils of hair framing her face. Kneeling at his side, she set a dainty hand on his shoulder. “Thomas has all that right here. He loves day school at Greystones, and he loves Hatherly. This is all he has left of his mother. You don’t have the right to take it away from him.”
Oh he had the right. Protecting Thomas fell under the general umbrella of fatherhood. Even if that meant burying the memory of Camille so far Thomas would never stumble across her again. The nightmares after her death were more than enough motivation.
He shook his head, returning to the task of sifting through the oversized crate that had been packed away shortly after Camille’s death. Fighting would accomplish nothing. He’d made up his mind, knew what was best for Thomas, and he wasn’t about to stay in this gloomy place any longer than he absolutely must.
“You are the most stubborn man, I swear.” Isolde muttered as she dipped a hand into the wooden crate.
“Instead of chastising me, why don’t you help me cart all this to the incinerator? It’s all trash.” He picked up the crate and urged it into her hands.
To his consternation, as she accepted the wooden box, her gaze dipped inside, and her delicate mouth pursed. Shooting him a scowl, she set it down in front of her. “This isn’t trash—these are photographs.” Reaching in, she pulled out a faded picture and cocked her head thoughtfully. “Is this Thomas?”
As Angus leaned over Isolde’s shoulder, the scent of wild heather filled his nose. His gaze dipped to the elegant line of her neck, locking on the silken skin her pulled-back hair revealed. Temptation rose like a swift fist to the gut. How many nights had he lain in bed, aroused to the point of painful, reliving the brief moment when his lips had grazed that tender flesh? She had been so sweet. So soft and pliant.
Just one more kiss. One more touch of her lips before she realized her flight across an ocean had been pointless and she left again. One more chance to become lost in feeling that he couldn’t cast aside.
Against his will, his head dipped closer. His breath stirred the wisps of platinum that refused to be constrained by her ponytail.
Choking down a groan, he jerked his attention to the photograph she held in her hand. As he steered his mind away from the treacherous path and focused on the toddler in the photo, a smile pulled at the corner of his mouth. “Yes. He just turned three. We were celebrating at the park.”
“And that’s Camille?” She tapped a woman wearing sunglasses in the background.
“Yes,” he answered tightly.
“Oh, Angus.” She twisted to look up at him. “You should keep these things. I don’t think I’ve seen a single photograph of Camille since I’ve been here. Do you know how much I would give for a picture of my mother?”
Indeed he did. Isolde’s own loss at an early age had helped her to bond with Thomas. But she wasn’t Thomas, and she hadn’t been here for the nightmares. Hadn’t suffered through night after night of his being too terrified to sleep. Unlike her, Thomas couldn’t cope with the memory of his mother.
And Angus couldn’t cope with reliving the helplessness that came with his son’s terror all over again.
He abruptly stood. “I have an appointment with the chairman of the preservation society. Take that to the incinerator, please. If you care to join us for dinner, Isolde, your company would be welcome.”
Without giving her time to respond, he strode from the room. He had promised to keep Camille safe and failed. No matter how badly Isolde drove him to distraction, he would not fail to protect his son.
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