Victoria returns to England to bury her adoptive brother and take care of her now orphaned godson, Cyngen. She’d always been curious about the mysterious Darien, Cyngen’s other godparent, but her intense reaction to his presence complicates matters as the three of them begin a new life together. His behavior confuses her on a daily basis, but she has no desire to fight the pull she feels.
Darien can’t stop thinking about Victoria, not only because she’s grown into a fascinating woman but also because he has a duty to protect her and their godson. He cannot warn her of the danger she is in, as he’d have to reveal the secret of his true nature—and Cyngen’s. He’s content only to be near her every day, until his hand is forced and the truth comes out. Even if he can save her, he still might lose her forever if she cannot accept him for what he truly is…
Victoria Shelley sat beside her godson Cyngen as the men lowered his parents into the ground. She could feel everyone staring at them. The funeral of Jerome and Elizabeth Ravenwood was well attended because so many people wanted to get a look at Cyngen, the reclusive young heir to an impressive estate and a massive fortune. The crowd was also curious about her, the seldom seen adopted sister of Jerome who had gone to America to work as a tutor for friends of the Ravenwood family in New York. She grew wearier with each passing day of the whispering and curious looks.
She felt herself on the verge of tears as Jerome’s coffin sank into the ground. She had loved him as a true brother because he had opened his heart to her as if blood actually bound them together. A hand settled on her skin where her shoulder and neck met. She felt the comforting warmth of Darien as he stood behind her. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see his hand resting in the same place on Cyngen’s neck. She reached over and grasped the ten-year-old boy’s hand. She watched him tilt his head so that his cheek touched Darien’s hand for a moment. The sad yet loving gesture momentarily made it harder for her to hold her tears back. Then Cyngen straightened, taking a deep breath as he placed his other hand over hers. Soon he drew both of his hands away to clench them tightly in his lap. She knew he wanted to go home. He didn’t like crowds, and he hated the way people stared at him.
Cyngen was tall for his age but slight of build, his skin pale and his hair jet-black. He kept his hair longer than was fashionable for a boy of his rank and age and always wore it loose so it fell down his back and over his forehead because of his eyes and his birthmark. Cyngen possessed very strange, mismatched eyes. One had a bright green iris, so bright it seemed to glow and often startled people, and the other was completely blood red, except for the pupil. His vision was perfect, and no doctor could offer an explanation for this oddity. When people stared at him, he stared right back with a quite menacing gaze until they stopped. He was a sweet boy, but he was so defensive around strangers no one but those closest to him knew how kind he in truth was. The birthmark on the back of his neck, at least, was easier to hide. Five lines, which resembled scratches, ran diagonally from his hairline down to the nape of his neck. The marks had been bright red when he was born and had faded to a deep crimson by the time he was one month old.
Darien’s thumb ran over her skin briefly before he drew his hand away. She glanced back at him, but he was looking straight ahead. He appeared calm and collected, as if he hadn’t just touched her very intimately. Darien fascinated her, but she did not want him or anyone else to know it. He was Cyngen’s godfather, a childhood friend of Elizabeth’s. He had arrived on the estate within an hour of Jerome’s and Elizabeth’s mangled bodies being found at the edge of the woods by the servants. Victoria had not seen him for more than a few passing moments since the day they had stood side by side in the church when Cyngen was christened. However, Cyngen had told her a great deal about him in his letters. Though his work—whatever it was, she did not know—kept him away for months on end and made his schedule so unpredictable he could almost never attend family functions, he’d visited Cyngen half a dozen times a year for the past decade, and the young boy adored him. Since her arrival, she had observed Darien and Cyngen with a great deal of curiosity. Darien behaved more like a manservant than a godfather, constantly shadowing the boy as though he were afraid something might happen to him or he might need something. He helped him dress and brought him his meals when he didn’t feel like coming down to eat in the dining room, and he behaved like a guard dog, if a polite one, toward almost everyone who tried to get near Cyngen.
When Darien turned his eyes to hers and leaned down, she realized she had been sitting there staring up at him. She wondered how many other people had noticed, but it was too late to do anything about it now.
“Do you require anything, Miss Shelley?” he asked with concern. His sensual voice sent a shiver all the way down her body, especially as his tone made her feel as if we would move heaven and earth to grant her request.
Her face flamed as she imagined what the crowd around them might be whispering. She and Cyngen were seated alone near the graves in full view of everyone, and she dared not turn her head to see how many people were looking at them.
She dabbed at her eyes with her handkerchief. “I am fine, thank you, Darien.”
A moment later, the three of them were beckoned forward by one of the deacons to say a final farewell. Cyngen threw of mix of red, white, and pink roses from the estate’s hothouse onto his mother’s coffin. Victoria sprinkled a bit of dirt from the estate onto Jerome’s coffin, a family tradition he had insisted upon in his will. Darien held nothing in his hands. He stood silently contemplating the graves before bowing and then walking over to stand beside Cyngen. That action puzzled her, but somehow it comforted her. Just like everything else about him.
“We can leave now,” he said as he touched Cyngen’s shoulder, seemingly to stop him from taking his seat again. “Two weeks of condolences and idle chatter have been more than enough, and the police investigation has been taxing for everyone. The rector will offer final words and explain that we wish to be left alone for the next month.” He turned Cyngen toward the carriages and offered his arm to Victoria.
She did not speak until they were almost to the road. “Are you sure it’s acceptable, Darien?” The etiquette expected of members of the Ravenwood family had been the hardest thing to grow accustomed to when she went to live with them. Even after nearly twenty years, she still worried she would do something wrong. It had been one reason she had decided to go to America in the first place.
He turned his silver eyes toward her and nodded simply. The sun gleamed off his dark hair. “Yes. Cyngen wants to be left alone.”
That wasn’t really a proper answer to her question, but she turned to look ahead again. The footman opened the carriage door for Cyngen, who climbed inside quickly. Darien handed her in, then boarded and sat across from her beside Cyngen.
“Would you like to explore the attic with us, Victoria?” Cyngen asked when the carriage began to move.
“That sounds like a welcome distraction,” she said. “Are you going to do it this afternoon?”
“Yes. Darien said we could after lunch. I’ve heard noises, and we’re going to investigate.”
“Noises?” She had heard many odd noises at night, but she had convinced herself it was either the servants or the house settling.
Darien cleared his throat and pushed a strand of his dark hair off his forehead. “I suspect a few birds have gotten in and become trapped. We’re going to see what we can find. There are lots of old trunks and boxes of books and clothes. Even if we don’t find the source of the noises, it should be enjoyable.” He put his arm around Cyngen, who turned shimmering eyes to the window.
She’d willingly attempt to climb a mountain this afternoon if it would keep Cyngen from being sad and lonely. “I would love to. I haven’t been up there since I just a little older than you are.”
Cyngen blinked several times, the tears seeming to abate. “You were ten when you came to the estate, weren’t you?”
“Yes, I was. That’s when my parents died. Your grandfather was my father’s employer. Your father had just turned fifteen, and he was so upset when he found out I had no family that he begged his parents to let me live with them. It was very kind of them to take me in. I wish you could have known your grandparents.”
Cyngen took a deep breath and turned away from the window to look at her. “The will said only one of you is required to remain with me, but I want you to stay with us, Victoria. I’m sure America is exciting, but we can travel anywhere you like. You can have anything you want if you stay with us.” His voice cracked, his tone sounding desperate and pleading.
She scolded herself for not discussing her plans with him and Darien earlier. She’d written to the lawyer immediately, before even making her travel plans, and she’d assumed he would have made her plans known. She leaned forward and took both of Cyngen’s small hands in hers. “Oh, Cyngen, of course I will stay. I’m sorry I didn’t make that clear. I thought you knew I planned to remain here.”
Cyngen looked ready to cry again, though perhaps this time from relief, and Darien stepped in.
“We didn’t want to presume, Miss Shelley,” he said. “You have a job and a life in New York.”
“I told everyone I would not be returning less than an hour after I received the telegram. The children were indifferent, and their parents just nodded and asked how soon I would be leaving. I was little more than a servant to them. They only paid me so well because your father insisted. The youngest is nine now, so I might have been returning here anyway. I missed everyone, even though my three years in America were a wonderful experience. It was interesting to teach in another country. I learned so much. But I am glad to be back here with you.”
“You can be my tutor now, can’t you? I often heard mother and father’s friends ask when you were coming back. Many of them wanted to engage you, but I want you to tutor me. And Darien can teach me to play the violin. I want to learn.”
She inclined her head to look at him. “I didn’t know that you played, Darien.”
He nodded once. “I do. Cyngen enjoys my playing, at least.”
“Yes, Cyngen, I can be your tutor for the next few years. I mostly teach girls and younger children though, so in a few years we’ll need to engage someone new to prepare you for university.” She turned to Darien. “Is there a tutor now? I haven’t met one at the house.”
“Jerome had been his tutor for the past year. The last tutor was … a very unsuitable example for Cyngen.”
“He was a thief,” Cyngen said, “and he upset Gwendolyn.”
Victoria’s eyes flicked to Darien’s briefly, and he nodded slightly. Gwendolyn was one of the kitchen maids, and Victoria had noticed that she had a child but no husband. “I see. Well, I’m not as clever as your father was, but very few people are.” She released his hands and sat back. “We shall have lots of fun together.”
Cyngen nodded, his mouth almost curling into a smile as he looked between the two of them. “We can still be a family.”
“Yes, Cyngen,” Darien said, looking into Victoria’s eyes. “A very loving family.”
She nodded her agreement toward Cyngen, unable to stop the blush Darien’s penetrating gaze had caused. She felt as if he could see right into her heart, and part of her wondered if, given the look in his eyes, perhaps he actually could.