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CHAPTER ONE

The voice stirred a myriad of memories . . . None of them good.

Soft and sensuous as summer sunlight, it tickled around his head, a tantalizing whisper, wrapping his brain in a seductive swirl of honeyed heat and gold-kissed sweetness.

Another word floated through the half-open door and suddenly the sensations were like a serpent, trailing a sensuous slither over bare flesh, only to strike with diamond-bright fangs.

Oh yes, he knew that voice—and it was poison to his peace of mind.


And yet Cameron Daggett couldn’t help edging a little closer to the shadowed portal and  cocking an ear to listen.

He had only entered the building moments ago, and as he was one of the few people allowed to use the owner’s private entrance, no one was yet aware of his arrival . Peering through the sliver of space, he could just make out the two figures standing in the smoky half light of the corridor wall sconces. The oil flames were kept deliberately low—the regular patrons of the establishment preferred to come and go discreetly. However, as the whisper had warned, the flickers of gold-lapped light showed the pair paused in deep conversation were females. One of them was the familiar form of Sara Hawkins, the owner of The Wolf’s Lair. And the other was . . .

“This is highly irregular, Miss Lawrance,” said Sara in a low, taut murmur.  “As a rule, I don’t allow wives or sisters, or others of our sex to intrude on the gentlemen who patronize this place. It’s bad for business, if ye take my meaning. They expect discretion and privacy.”

“I understand,” replied the Voice from the Past.

No, he had not been mistaken. Cameron tried to draw a breath, but his lungs felt filled with lead. It was Sophie.

“Truly I do,” went on Miss Sophie Lawrance. “And if it were not a matter of the utmost urgency, I would not dream of making such an irregular request. But the truth is . . . I am rather desperate.”

Desperate
? He knew that he shouldn’t give a damn, and yet Cameron held himself very still, intent on hearing more.

“Yes, I can see that,” said Sara, heaving a reluctant sigh. A pause hung for a moment in the gloom. “And so I will make a rare exception. Wait in there.” She indicated a small side parlor. “I will fetch the gentleman. But I must ask ye to be quick—and fer God’s sake, ye must be quiet as well. No tears, no shrieks, no gnashing of teeth, else I will have to ask the porter to remove ye from the premises.”

“I will not make a scene,” promised Sophie, her earnest whisper coiling and clutching at his thumping heart.

“And when ye are finished, ye must leave with all possible haste,” added Sara. “Nothing personal, Miss, but the sooner ye are gone from here, the better.”

Cameron’s own inner voice of Self-Preservation shouted a similar warning. Turn and run like the Devil. And don’t look back.

After all, he had long ago mastered the art of staying one step ahead of personal demons—not to speak of more mundane threats like bailiffs and Bow Street Runners.

And yet . . .

And yet, at this moment Cameron found himself incapable of listening to reason. Instead of retreating, he slipped into one of the secret passageways used by the staff and waited for Sara to return with the man Sophie sought.

Low voices. A door opening and closing. The click of Sara’s heeled shoes as she returned to her private office.


Moving silently as a stalking panther, Cameron darted out of his hiding place and approached the parlor.

What reason, he wondered, had brought saintly Sophie Lawrance to one of London’s most notorious dens of iniquity? Set deep in the dangerous slums of Southwark, The Wolf’s Lair was a high-stakes gaming house and brothel that catered to rakehells and rogues who played fast and loose with the rules of Society.

And why, after all these years, should he care?

Because I am a god-benighted fool
, thought Cameron with a shiver of self-loathing.

The door was shut tightly with the lock engaged. Drawing a thin shaft of steel from his boot, Cameron expertly eased the latch open. A touch of his gloved fingertips coaxed the paneled wood to shift just a fraction.

Sophie was heavily veiled, the dark mesh muffling her already low whisper. Her companion was speaking in equally low tones, making it impossible to hear their words. However, he saw a small package change hands.

The gentleman let out a low brandy-fuzzed laugh as he tucked it into his pocket.

Sliding back into hiding, Cameron watched Sophie hurry away down the corridor, her indigo cloak skirling with the shadows, until she was swallowed in the darkness. A moment later, the gentleman emerged from the parlor, still chuckling softly. He turned for the gaming rooms, a flicker of lamplight catching the curl of his mouth and the slight swaying of his steps.

Cameron recognized him as Lord Dudley, a dissolute viscount with an appetite for reckless pleasures.

Dudley and Sophie?
An odd couple, if ever there was one. The Sophie Lawrance he knew was anything but reckless. She was sensible—too damnably sensible to ever throw caution to the wind.

But people change
, thought Cameron sardonically. He had only to look at himself—there wasn’t the least resemblance between his present persona and the callow youth of . . .

Shaking off mordant memories, he followed Dudley into the card room. Timing his steps perfectly, he brushed by the viscount just as he started to sit down at one of the tables.

“Join us for a hand, Daggett?” called one of the other players.

“Not tonight,” answered Cameron. “I’ve an assignation with an old friend.”

The man leered. “A lady friend?”

“Pray tell, who?” chorused the man’s cronies.

“Gentlemanly honor compels Daggett to remain silent on that question,” pointed out the half-soused baronet who was shuffling the cards.

Smiling, Cameron inclined a mocking bow and sauntered away, Sophie’s package now firmly tucked away in his pocket.

Luckily for me, I’ve never claimed to have any pretensions to honor.


Drawing in a great lungful of the chill night air, Sophie Lawrance forced herself to choke back the urge to retch.

Steady, steady.
She couldn’t falter now—she must ignore the sickening smells, the sordid encounter.

And yet, the bitter taste of bile rose again in her throat, and she felt the oozy ground beneath her feet begin to sway.

Breathe, breathe.
She would not—could not—give in to fear. Predators pounced on any show of weakness, and this godforsaken slum was perhaps the most savage spot in all of England.

“Allow me to be of assistance.” A hand suddenly gripped her arm to keep her upright and a snowy white handkerchief, scented with a pleasant tang of citrus and spice, fluttered in front of her veiled face.

Her first impulse was to scream and try to flee. But something about his light touch and calming voice held her in thrall.

“You appear to be in some distress.”

“I . . . I . . .” Her stomach gave another little lurch. “I thank you, sir.”

Swallowing her pride, Sophie took the silk square from the shadowy stranger and held it close to her nose. Oddly enough, the fragrance seemed to calm the churning of her insides. She inhaled several slow, deep breaths, savoring the richly nuanced scent.

“Better?” he asked.

“Much.” Now that her head had cleared, Sophie was eager to escape the dark, filth-strewn alley and the horrid nightmare of the evening. “A momentary indisposition, that is all.” She shrugged off his hold and held out the handkerchief. “It has passed.”

The stranger made no effort to take it back. “You had better keep it if you mean to wander around this neighborhood.” The alley was dark, with only an intermittent wink of starlight penetrating through the clouds, so for the moment she had only a dim impression of his person. Tall. Broad-shouldered. Strong hands, surprising gentle and warm.

His voice, however, was coolly cynical. “Though I would recommend a more effective implement of protection if you mean to enter places like The Wolf’s Lair. Say, a pistol or a knife. A lady’s virtue won’t last long without such a weapon.” A pause, and then his voice turned even more sardonic. “But perhaps your intentions aren’t virtuous.”

“I—I assure you, sir,” said Sophie tightly. “I am not in the habit of coming to . . . depraved places like this.”

“Oh?” Skepticism shaded his voice. “Then what brings you here tonight, if not a craving for danger?”

“That, sir, is none of your business.” Lifting her chin, she ventured a look at him, trying to make out some identifying feature. Do I know you? It was absurd, of course, but something felt hauntingly familiar about him . . .

However, the stranger had his hat pulled low, the wide brim shading his face. In the swirl of murky shadows, Sophie could make out naught but the vague shapes of a straight nose, a sensual mouth. The only clearcut view was of long, raven-dark hair and the rakish glimmer of a gold earring,

Danger.
His last word seemed a deliberately tickling, taunting challenge. Sophie sucked in her breath, suddenly aware of a strange prickling taking hold of her body, as if daggerpoints were dancing over every inch of her flesh. “In another few minutes I shall be safe from danger. That is . . .” Another glance at the earring. “ . . . unless I’ve had the misfortune to cross paths with a pirate,” she said, trying to mask her emotions by matching his cynical tone.

A smile curled on the corners of his mouth, half mocking, half . . .
Sophie couldn’t put a name to the flicker of emotion. It was gone in the blink of the eye, so perhaps she had merely imagined it.
 
“A pirate?” he repeated, making her feel slightly absurd. Like a silly schoolgirl who swooned over novels of swashbuckling heroes rescuing damsels in distress. His voice then took on a sharper edge. “Isn’t that just a romantic name for a ruthless cutthroat and a conniving thief?”

Sophie swallowed hard, feeling a shiver skate down her spine. “Who are you, sir?” she demanded.

“Why do you ask?” he countered. “Do you think we might be acquainted?”
The question quivered for a moment in the chill night air. “Old friends, perhaps?”

“Impossible,” she whispered. “I can’t imagine that we move in the same worlds.” Her dizziness seemed to have returned, and with a vengeance. Off-kilter, she found herself adding, “And yet you . . . you remind me of someone I once knew, long, long ago.”

“You speak of him as if he is dead.” Without waiting for her to answer, he gave a strange laugh. “Perhaps I’m his ghost.”

Sophie wondered whether he was drunk. Or demented.

Inching back a step she looked around for the alleyway leading out to the street where her hackney was waiting.

“You want a name, Madam or Miss Whoever-You-Are?” he continued. “My two friends and I are called the Hellhounds.” He let out a low, sarcastic bark. “I’m known as the Sleuth Hound, as I have a nose for sniffing out trouble.”

“I am surprised that you admit to such a beastly moniker,” she replied slowly.

“I make no bones about what I am,” he said softly. “What about you?” His head tilted down and then up, his unseen eyes leaving a trail of heat along her length. “Your manner of dress says you are a respectable country lady. But the fact that you are here, visiting a house of ill-repute in the stews of Southwark, conveys an entirely different message.”

She felt her cheeks grow hot beneath the gauzy veil. That he was right only fanned the flames. “You are impertinent, sir.”

“No, I am observant.” A pause. “More so than you think. Indeed, from what I’ve seen, I would say you are playing a very dangerous game. Have a care, for in dealing with those who frequent The Wolf’s Lair, you are going up against the most ruthless men in London.”

“Including you?” challenged Sophie, though her heart was pounding hard enough to crack a rib.

“Oh, I’m among the very worst of the lot.”

“I must be going.” Slipping past him, Sophie hurried toward the narrow gap between the ramshackle buildings.

But to her dismay, the Pirate moved along with her. “Allow me to see you to your vehicle. It isn’t safe to walk through these alleys alone.”
 
“You needn’t bother.” She flinched slightly at the sound of scrabbling claws somewhere close by.  “I—I will take my chances.”

“I think you have gambled enough for one evening,” he drawled. “Besides, I’d be willing to wager that you wouldn’t care to put your foot where you are about to step.”

She stopped short, as a horribly foul odor assaulted her nose.

“Nasty, isn’t it?” he murmured.

“I—”

His hands were suddenly around her waist, lifting her into his arms as if she were light as a feather. Beneath the folds of wool she was intimately aware of the lean, lithe flex of muscle.

Oh, what madness has taken hold of me?


Her wits were spinning and skittering topsy-turvy. How else to explain why the moment felt so hauntingly familiar? So achingly comforting.

Madness
, she repeated to herself. The meeting with Lord Dudley ought to be reminder enough that youth and innocence were long gone. Only a fool yearned to reach back and recapture the past.

Fisting her fingers, Sophie tried to squirm free. “Please, put me down, sir!”

“As you wish.” Her half boots hit the ground with a soft squish. “We have passed through the worst. It’s just a little farther to where the hired carriages wait. You will soon be back to the respectable part of the Town.”

Slipping, sliding, Sophie hurried awkwardly toward the weak glimmer of oily light up ahead. The Pirate glided alongside her with a smooth, silent step. 
Spotting her hackney parked at the near corner of the rough-cobbled square, she skirted around the snorting horse and quickly unlatched door.
“Thank you. Though you need not have troubled yourself . . .” A gust of wind swirled over the stones, catching at her cloak and lifting the thin scrim of her veil just as she turned to take her leave.
 
“No trouble at all,” replied the Pirate. He had moved close to help her climb up the iron rungs, and now their faces were but a hairsbreadth apart. “Indeed, I did warn you that I have a nose for trouble.”

And a mouth for sin
.

For suddenly his lips possessed hers in a swift, searing kiss.

It was over in an instant. He pulled back, so quickly that she was sure the glimmer of green eyes must have been only a figment of her heated imagination.

“Fie, sir! N-no gentleman—”

Her stammering protest was stilled by a rumbled laugh. A pirate laugh, redolent with hints of hellfire dangers and storm-tossed seas.

“Ah, but whoever said that I was a gentleman?”