As with all the books in the Realm series, this book dovetails into the previous one. In A Touch of Velvet, Velvet Aldridge is kidnapped, and her youngest sister, Cashémere, insists on being a part of Velvet’s rescue. Unfortunately, the man sent to fetch her, Marcus Wellston, finds her brazen demands a sign of her immaturity. His opinion of her should not matter to Cashémere, but it does.
Permit me to set up how all this comes about. Velvet Aldridge is the eldest of her sisters. She and her twin sisters, Satiné and Cashémere, were farmed out to relatives when their parents are killed in a suspicious carriage accident. Velvet went to live with the Duke of Thornhill’s family. Satiné remained with her maternal uncle, Lord Ashton, a man who pampered her, while Cashémere is left with her paternal uncle, the man who inherited her father’s title and a man who metes out rough punishments in the name of religion. The sisters are strangers, meeting once a year or less over the years apart. Cashé is further removed for she resides in Scotland, rather than England.
However, Viscount Averette did bring Cashémere to England when he learned of the Duke of Thornhill’s death. He is unaware of Brantley Fowler’s ascension to his father’s title when he arrives on the duke’s threshold. The Averettes permit Cashé limited social interactions with Thornhill’s Realm friends, but she does strike up a connection with Aidan Kimbolt, Viscount Lexford.
Now, here is the catch. Although I originally planned to match Cashémere with Lexford, as I wrote the series, I realized she would be a better match for Marcus Wellston, the acting Earl of Berwick. (His elder brother has Downs syndrome [not a term used in the Regency period] and Marcus operates as the “Regent” of the title and his brother’s guardian.) Therefore, I set up this scene at the end of Book 2 where the twins decide to pretend to be each other. Wellston thinks he wants a docile wife, such as Satiné, and Lexford is attracted to Cashémere’s enthusiasm for life, for he has been surrounded by death so much of his life. Needless to say, Wellston’s plans are thwarted by his natural attraction to Cashémere’s determination to survive. The story includes a scene where the girls are trapped in a glass cone by one of Shaheed Mir’s henchmen. Mir believes one of the Realm has stolen a fist sized emerald, and he means to have it back, even if he must kill all the Realm’s family members to do so. That is merely one of the twists and turns of the story as it leads our hero and heroine together.
A Touch of Cashémere: Book 3 of the Realm Series
MARCUS WELLSTON never expected to “inherit” his father’s title. After all, he is the youngest of three sons. However, his oldest brother Trevor is judged incapable of meeting the title’s responsibilities, and his second brother Myles has lost his life in an freak accident; therefore, Marcus has returned to Tweed Hall and the earldom. Having departed Northumberland years prior to escape his guilt in his twin sister’s death, Marcus has spent the previous six years with the Realm, a covert governmental group, in atonement. Now, all he requires is a biddable wife with a pleasing personality. Neither of those phrases describes Cashémere Aldridge.
MISS CASHEMERE ALDRIDGE thought her opinions were absolutes and her world perfectly ordered, but when her eldest sister Velvet is kidnapped, Cashé becomes a part of the intrigue. She quickly discovers nothing she knew before is etched in stone. Leading her through these changes is a man who considers her a “spoiled brat.” A man who prefers her twin Satiné to Cashémere. A man whose approval she desperately requires: Marcus Wellston, the Earl of Berwick. Toss in an irate Baloch warlord, a missing emerald, a double kidnapping, a blackmail attempt, and an explosion in a glass cone, and the Realm has its hands full. The Regency era has never been hotter, nor more dangerous.
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Excerpt from Chapter One:
“I hate being soaked to the bone,” he groused. The rain sheeted everything within sight, but Marcus rode on. The creek bed he followed into the Scottish backcountry had swelled from the downpour, but he had crossed it at its lowest point and was on safe ground. He had returned from Calcutta two months prior, having turned over the Sir Louis Levering affair to Viscount Lexford, and he had settled into the routine of running his estate and tending to Trevor, but Shepherd had sent word of Velvet Aldridge’s possible abduction, and he had departed immediately. Evidently, His Grace, the Duke of Thornhill, had allowed the woman he loved to retreat to Edinburgh with her estranged family. Now, their old enemy Shaheed Mir had targeted Miss Aldridge in a dangerous game of “Who Has the Emerald?” Mir had marked each of Marcus’s band of the Realm as co-conspirators in stealing a fist-sized emerald from the Baloch warlord. Mir’s agents had staged a myriad of attacking, each proving fruitless.
Shepherd’s message said the Realm’s leader would send others to support Marcus’s efforts, but Marcus knew he was pretty much on his own. That was why he had set a course across the back roads: He could save time, and he could avoid detection. He had stopped for a few hours overnight to allow his horse to rest, but he felt he could thwart Murhad Jamot’s plans just the same. Therefore, when he cut across the open field leading to Viscount Averette’s manor, Marcus had expected to explain his sudden appearance to the sometimes-difficult Samuel Aldridge, but nothing he discovered within had met his expectations.
* * *
“Aunt,” Cashémere Aldridge called as she entered the room. “Have we any news of Uncle Samuel?” The household staff rushed about in an attempt to respond to an unknown crisis, and with no one to assume responsibility, they crisscrossed the open foyer accomplishing very little. Alice Aldridge, Lady Averette, rocked her daughter Gwendolyn, neither having had much sleep over night. They waited for news of the family patriarch, who had chased his eldest niece across southern Scotland.
Viscount Averette had been aware of the affection with which Velvet Aldridge had held Brantley Fowler, the Duke of Thornhill, for Cashé’s eldest sister had often professed she had loved the duke from the time they were children together. The household, having observed Velvet’s despondency at having been separated from Thornhill, had assumed Velvet had done the unthinkable: She had risked her life on the road to return to England. Therefore, Viscount Averette had given pursuit. Cashé was aware of how her uncle suspected the duke had arranged some sort of tryst with Velvet. Upon being made aware of his niece’s disappearance, Averette had departed immediately to intercept the girl. He had been absent from the household since early yesterday afternoon, and, in truth, Cashé thought Samuel Aldridge should permit Velvet her way. Cashé’s elder sister held a schoolgirl fantasy in which the Duke of Thornhill played the role of noble knight. However, Cashé knew true love was a fallacy of the heart.
Lady Averette glanced up from her child to give Cashé a brief shake of her head, but she said for the child’s benefit, “We should not expect to hear from my husband for several days. He must follow each lead on your sister. I am certain the rain has slowed his progress, and that is the reason we have heard nothing of yet.”
A sharp knock at the door brought their immediate attention. “Possibly there is a message now,” Cashé remarked as she stepped into the foyer. She could not condone her sister’s actions, but Cashé recognized the depth of Velvet’s misery. She had seen Velvet pine for Thornhill, and how her older sister had discouraged the many suitors their uncle had paraded before her. Yet, Cashé gave her uncle’s actions merit: A woman’s virtue was her crowning glory, and a lady must protect it. She was furious because the duke had led Velvet astray, and then he had deserted her. In the three months Velvet had resided with them, her sister had not heard one word from Thornhill. He had ignored Velvet’s weekly letters, and now her sister might lose her reputation unless their uncle could prevent it.
Blane hustled to answer the door. Cashé looked on as the butler swung the door wide. Obviously, the servant had expected a messenger or even the viscount himself, but instead they all looked upon a stranger. “Yes, sir?”
An autocratic voice announced, “The Earl of Berwick to speak to Viscount Averette.”
Blane stammered, “His…his lordship is unavailable, sir.”
The voice pressed, “It is a matter of great urgency.”
Blane motioned the earl in from the rain. “I offer my apologies, sir,” the man began, but Cashé’s sensibilities had returned, and she interrupted.
She had known the stranger as “Lord Yardley” and had not put his title with the familiar countenance she encountered once he removed his hat. “Your lordship,” she rushed forward, “please come in, sir.” She wondered what had brought the earl to her family’s doorstep, very likely he had come at Thornhill’s request. Perhaps the rain had slowed his attempt to reach Velvet before her sister’s escape. Perhaps, it was he that her sister had planned to meet, and the earl was to escort Velvet to where Thornhill waited. With so many unknowns, Cashé meant to practice caution.
Berwick quickly dispensed with his hat and greatcoat before offering her a quick bow. “Miss Cashémere, might I speak to your uncle?”
“As Blane just explained, your lordship, my uncle is away at the moment. Please join my aunt and me in the drawing room, and perhaps we might be able to address the reason for this unexpected visit.” Cashé turned immediately on her heels, expecting him to follow her. She had not allowed him time to protest. It pleased her he had trailed along behind her. She had not seen Berwick since the day after Prinny’s party. Over a supper at Briar House, the Fowlers had celebrated Sir Louis Levering’s downfall. At the time, Cashé had not understood the perfidy the Fowlers had practiced on the baronet, until her Uncle Samuel had inadvertently explained the situation when he demanded the removal of Velvet from the duke’s household. In truth, Cashé had been sorry to leave so quickly; she had had no time to say her farewells to Viscount Lexford, who had shown her his attentions. It was quite heady for a young girl to have such a worthy gentleman’s approval. It made her wonder if she had made a mistake by accepting an “understanding” with Mr. Charters.
“Aunt,” Cashé called, obviously nervous, “the Earl of Berwick has come to pay his compliments.” She rushed forward to take Gwendolyn from the woman. “Permit Edana to put our dear Gwen to bed. The child could use a nap.” She lifted the child to her. “Excuse me, my lord. My young cousin experienced a rough evening.” She handed off the sleeping child to a waiting maid, before closing the door behind him.
Lady Averette belatedly stood to greet Wellston, who remained stolidly by the door. “Your lordship,” the woman gestured the earl forward. “Please join us. I apologize for my husband’s absence.”
Wellston glanced about the room, obviously displeased by the circumstances. He scowled before crossing to the chair Aunt Alice had indicated. “Might I ask, ma’am, when his lordship will return. I have urgent business.”
The viscountess shot a quick glance at Cashé. Her aunt had depended on Uncle Samuel in social situations; she knew not how to respond. Therefore, Cashé answered. “It may be some time, your lordship.”
“Then might I speak with Miss Aldridge? My business concerns your sister.”
Cashé stood behind her aunt, resting her hands on the chair’s back. “That too is impossible, your lordship.” She smiled politely at the man.
“Miss Cashémere,” the earl beseeched. “I have been sent to Scotland to offer your sister my…”
Cashé cut him off. “We are quite aware of why you have been sent to our home!”
Berwick looked aghast. “And why might that be?” he asked incredulously.
“You are an intimate friend of the Duke of Thornhill,” she asserted.
“I am,” he hissed. “Yet, even with that…”
Again, Cashé interrupted. “My uncle will foil Thornhill’s plans and save my sister.”
“Cashémere!” her aunt warned.
Her words had brought the earl to his feet. He advanced on Cashé. “You should explain,” he demanded.
“You are in my home, sir. Obeying you is not part of this house’s rules.” In defiance, her hands fisted at her waist. She attempted to meet his eyes with a resolve stronger than the one she found in his, but she felt like a tasty morsel in the path of a dangerous feline. Surprisingly, Cashé thought the earl strikingly handsome in all his fury.
* * *
He loomed over the girl. From behind him, Lady Averette gasped, but Marcus had no time to practice his manners. “You will do as I say if you wish to guard your sister’s safety. I have come to protect Miss Aldridge.” According to Shepherd’s information, Murhad Jamot had planned his attack for this very day.
Regarding him with noteworthy self-assurance, the girl charge, “You are in Scotland at the duke’s bequest, but you are too late!”
Marcus’s temper flamed. “What do you mean ‘too late’?”
A flicker of fear crossed her countenance before she tamped it down, and Marcus wondered what had brought on the emotion; but before he could explore the reason, the girl raised her chin in boldness. “As if you did not know, my lord.”
Marcus thought of turning her over his knee to teach the girl about respect, but he had no time to spare. He caught her by the arm and dragged her to a nearby chair, shoving her to a seated position. He saw Lady Averette take a step toward the bell cord, but he stayed her with a deathly stare. He seethed with anger. “Now, Miss Cashémere, you will answer my questions.”
The girl rubbed her arm where he had grabbed her, and a moment of regret stabbed his heart. He was never one to treat females roughly, and he could not justify why he had done so. “I shall do no such thing!” she declared.
Marcus glanced at the cowering viscountess. The girl would protect Lady Averette. “I am certain your aunt will see things differently.” He strode angrily toward the woman, but before he took three steps, Miss Cashémere jumped onto his back and began to kick and punch.
Marcus’s hands protected his face as she swung indiscriminately, landing blows along his chin and ears. “Bloody hell!” he cursed, catching the girl’s arms and whipping her before him and effectively clamping her arms to her side. Although she still attempted to kick him, she plastered his chest with her warmth, and a spark of tension flared between them. To free himself of the sensation, Marcus shoved her into a second chair. “Stay!” he growled, pointing his finger at her as if she were a dog.
His roughness brought tears to the girl’s eyes, but she prepared for a second attack; however, her aunt stepped before the girl, effectively cutting off the exchange. “What is it you wish of us, my lord?” Lady Averette spoke softly.
Marcus glared at Miss Cashé, before taking a stilling breath. “Could you please explain, Viscountess, where I might find your husband or Miss Aldridge?”
The woman turned first to Cashé, indicating the girl should sit. “Neither my husband’s niece nor I know the answer to that question,” Lady Averette said calmly.
Marcus thought this the most bizarre mission Shepherd had ever assigned him. He ran his fingers through his hair. Taking another calming breath, he said, “What might you tell me, ma’am? I give you my word as a gentleman…” He heard the girl snort, and Marcus leveled a warning glare on her before he continued. “As a gentleman…that it is not my intention to bring shame upon your household.”
The viscountess again motioned Marcus to a chair. She sat beside Cashé, taking the girl’s hand. “Are you telling us the Duke of Thornhill did not send you to Edinburgh?”
Marcus wondered how much he might honestly share with Averette’s family, but these women were also Fowler’s family so he attempted a version of the truth. “Although His Grace now knows of my mission to your home, I did not come at his bidding.”
“Then who sent you?” the girl demanded before her aunt placed a calming hand on Miss Cashé’s sleeve.
“That I am not at liberty to say, Miss Cashémere, but I will tell you I received word of a former enemy of the men you met at Briar House after the Prince’s party. This man had planned to exact revenge on Thornhill by harming your older sister. As I live in Northumberland, I was dispatched to intercept the attack.”
The viscountess’s hands trembled. “Velvet did not leave to meet His Grace?”
Her words slammed into his chest. “Miss Aldridge has left this house?”
“When?” The word exploded in the room.
“Oh, my God! I am too late!” Marcus was on his feet and pacing. “Tell me the rest.”
The viscountess reluctantly obliged. “A servant observed my husband’s niece in the orchard. The man went on about his duties, but within a quarter hour, he observed a carriage racing from the area. When Gillis reported what he had seen to my Samuel, we conducted a search. Unfortunately, we were not successful in locating our eldest niece. My husband, sir, believes his family has departed our home to meet the Duke of Thornhill. He gives chase.”
Marcus had heard from Lowery how distraught Thornhill had been at Miss Aldridge’s departure, but he knew Bran would never lure Velvet from her uncle’s home. To claim the woman he loved, Thornhill might “storm the castle,” so to speak, but he would never devise a secret betrayal. It was not the duke’s style. “Lord Averette will not find your niece with His Grace.”
“How can you be so certain, your lordship?” Miss Cashé charged.
“Because Shaheed Mir has other plans for your sister.”
“Such as? And who is Shaheed Mir?” But a slight shake of his head warned her that she would not want to know. Before he could say more, she stood before him. “You must assist her,” she asserted.
Marcus wanted to remind the silly chit assisting Miss Aldridge had been his plan when he had entered Averette’s manor. Wished to remind her he had ridden all night through a rainstorm to do his best to foil Mir’s plans. She had stated the obvious. “We must determine whether Mir’s agents have your sister. Have either of you noticed strangers in the area?”
“We ran a foreigner from the stable,” Lady Averette shared.
“When was that?”
“A week or so ago. He claimed to be seeking work. Lord Averette did not like his looks so he sent the man away.”
The girl caught Marcus’s arm. “A dark man followed Velvet and me when we shopped two days ago. We noticed because he asked Edana if he might buy her a butter tart. When she refused, he continued to ask about the household.”
“Demme!” Marcus grumbled.
“Your lordship, I must insist that you not curse in my uncle’s house,” Miss Cashé reprimanded.
Marcus blinked in confusion, unaware he had uttered an expletive before a lady. He had spent too much time of late with his duties to the Realm and in a bachelor’s household in Northumberland. “I apologize, Miss Cashémere.” Ashamed, he purposely walked away toward the window, taking up a position to look out upon the gardens. “Did you observe this stranger?”
“No, sir, but we might bring in Edana to describe him.”
Marcus considered it, but he suspected it would be a waste of time. “I am assuming Miss Aldridge had at least a two-hour lead on Lord Averette,” he said to the expanse before the house.
“Closer to three,” Lady Averette shared.
“So, we are not certain whether his lordship actually followed Miss Aldridge.”
Miss Cashé asked, “What do you mean, sir?”
Marcus turned to look at her. “My informant says Mir’s man plans to travel to Liverpool and wait for a ship. I doubt Lord Averette could have known of the stranger’s plans? And I am certain the rain will eliminate any opportunity of his actually following the coach in which the man holds Miss Aldridge.”
“Your assumption holds merit.” The girl appeared very nervous. “I hold my doubts also.”
“Explain.” Marcus waited for more information.
Miss Cashé looked about sheepishly. “I heard Uncle Samuel order his driver to set a course for Derbyshire. My uncle assumed the duke would lure Velvet to Lady Worthing’s home at Linton Park. It would not be so long of a journey. Not as if Thornhill planned to lure Velvet to Kent, and Uncle realized Viscount Worthing and Lady Eleanor would be happy to provide both Velvet and Thornhill refuge.”
“So, your uncle chases his prejudice while your sister is in real danger?” Marcus could not resist this bit of censure.
“Lord Averette protects my sister!” the girl defended her foolish uncle.
“Actually, Miss Cashémere, I suspect His Grace, as well as several others of our acquaintance protect Miss Aldridge.”
“I thought you said His Grace had nothing to do with your being here!” Again, the girl was on the offensive.
“I said,” he emphasized the words, “when I began my journey, His Grace knew nothing of this situation, but I am certain he has since received notification; and knowing Thornhill’s affection for Miss Aldridge, he must be on his way to Liverpool.”
Miss Cashé looked to her aunt for confirmation. “Then we must locate my uncle and see him to Liverpool as well.”
“Surely, you jest, Miss Cashémere?”
Again, her fists came to her waist. “I do not jest, your lordship! We must find my sister before His Grace has the opportunity to ruin her.”
“Miss Cashémere,” Marcus mocked, “your sister’s reputation is already ruined: She travels alone with a foreigner. However, it is her life of which you should be concerned.”
Lady Averette finally reacted. “But if Samuel can aid in Velvet’s release, we might still hush up her absence. Other than our servants, no one knows, and they are a loyal lot.” Marcus doubted the Averettes could control the gossip, but he kept his opinions to himself. “We will spread the rumor that Samuel and his niece have traveled to Derby because Lady Worthing has taken ill. If my husband can return with Velvet, no one will be the wiser. Lord Averette is most concerned for propriety.”
“I could go,” Cashé declared. “I could go after Uncle Samuel.”
Lady Averette reached for the girl. “It is a great responsibility.”
“We will tell everyone the earl came to escort me to Linton Park. Lady Eleanor, obviously, is my family also.”
Marcus suddenly realized what they planned. “I beg your pardon. I must follow Miss Aldridge’s trail.”
“Then I will go alone,” Cashé declared.
“Miss Cashémere, that idea is folly. The roads are too dangerous for a woman alone.”
“We can trust no one else, your lordship.” Lady Averette turned her eyes on him in supplication. “If we are to save Velvet’s reputation, my husband must be involved.”
Marcus realized their determination. “Then I will follow Lord Averette.”
Miss Cashé stood before him, her damnable chin lifting again. “Uncle Samuel will never believe you. He is aware of your relationship with His Grace. You must take me with you if you expect him to accept your words.”
Wellston wished he could curse again. The exclamations seemed to clear his thinking when he felt frustrated. He attempted to analyze what he might achieve if he went toward Liverpool first. Miss Aldridge and Murhad Jamot had, at least, a four and twenty hour advantage. “Might Lord Averette have access to his bank if we must ransom Miss Aldridge?” he asked.
“I shall give my niece a blank draft to take to her uncle,” Lady Averette assured him.
“Might your maid accompany us?” he needed to clarify what he should expect.
“I shall take Edana with me,” Cashé declared.
“I would go,” Lady Averette excused herself, “but Gwendolyn would be devastated. Moreover, we must keep up appearances.”
Marcus did not understand the viscountess’s attitude. He would give away every thread of propriety to have Maggie back. He would stare down Society for the pleasure of Maggie’s laugh. Marcus quickly planned their departure. “We must be on the road immediately. We have much time to recover. Is there a coach the ladies might use or should I see to renting one?”
“You may take my husband’s small coach,” Lady Averette declared. “We have another the servants might use if we require supplies or if we experience an emergency.”
“And a driver?” Marcus pressed.
“I shall see to it, your lordship.” Lady Averette caught her niece’s hand. “You must hurry, my dear. I shall send up the maids to assist you in packing.”
The girl started for the door. “Miss Cashémere,” the earl called, “do you recall what your sister wore yesterday?”
“A light blue gown.”
“Are you certain.”
“Absolutely, my lord.”
Marcus nodded. “Might you bring an item belonging to Miss Aldridge among your things? If we must use the hounds, it would be helpful to track your sister.” Thankfully, the girl acknowledged the sensibility of what he had said before excusing herself. “I will see to my horse and assure the coach’s soundness. I hope to use some of the back roads to save time.”
“I understand, your lordship.” Lady Averette led him to the door. “We will be ready within the hour.”