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Winterset by Candace Camp (1)

If you’ve fallen for the delightful Moreland family, you won’t want to miss an early look at the latest volume in the Mad Morelands series, His Sinful Touch, coming soon from New York Times bestselling author Candace Camp and HQN Books!

PROLOGUE

HER EYES DRIFTED OPEN. It was shadowy and dark, the only light a small kerosene lamp on a chest across the room. But even in the dim light, she knew this wasn’t home. Her eyes closed again, the lids heavy. She wanted to sleep again, but she knew she couldn’t. Foggy and befuddled as she was, there was a sharp, insistent fear that prodded her to wake up.

She had to leave.

It was an effort to pull herself from the suction of sleep, but she had to. Something was terribly wrong. Vague, wavering images flittered through her brain—a dark carriage, a strange parlor, some man she didn’t know talking, talking, his voice droning on. There was another man beside her, more familiar but still wrong somehow.

The only clear thing was an icy dread that was lying over everything. Something awful had happened. Was still happening.

That was why she must wake up. She had to get away. She swung a leg over the side of the bed. The next instant she found herself on the floor in a heap, her head rapping against the wood.

The surprise of the fall woke her up a bit more, and she pushed onto her hands and knees, then staggered up, grabbing at the mattress to steady her. Her stomach lurched and her head spun, and she was afraid that whatever she had eaten was going to come back up. She stood quite still, swallowing hard, and after a moment the dizziness receded.

She had to hurry. He would return. She started toward the door, driven by the need to escape this small, unfamiliar room, but finally her woozy brain reasserted itself. She must think before she acted. She should take something with her. She looked around but could not find her reticule. Where was it? She would need money.

And she mustn’t look peculiar. Half her hair had come loose and tumbled down. Pulling out the pins, her fingers clumsy and slow, she wrapped the hank of hair in a tight knot and stuck the pins back in. She had the suspicion it looked quite off balance, but it would have to do.

She straightened her bodice and skirts, tugging at her sleeves. She wasn’t dressed for traveling, but she was certain that she had, in fact, been in a carriage. There had been the noise of the wheels, the jingle of the harness. And this unfamiliar shabby room looked like an inn. But she was dressed in a frilly evening dress more suited for going down to supper.

Her stomach growled, and she realized she was hungry. There was nothing here to eat, but she saw glasses and a pitcher of water, and she was thirsty, too. She poured half a glass and gulped it down. That, too, threatened to make her stomach revolt, and again she waited it out.

Afterward, she felt faintly more alert and aware. She slid one hand into the pocket of her skirt, and touched a folded piece of paper. She knew where to go.

She had spotted her small traveling case standing against the wall beside a masculine-looking piece of luggage. Grabbing her case, she hurried to the door. It wouldn’t open. Numbly, she rattled the handle and pulled in vain. She was locked in.

He had locked her in! She was swept by a sense of betrayal. How could he do this to her? She had trusted him. Panic swelled, threatening to overwhelm her. She was alone. All those she relied on had turned on her. Flight was impossible. She was trapped.

Fighting back the panic, she checked the chest and the small table beside the bed, but there was no sign of a key. Her steps wobbled as she went to the window and shoved it open. The room was on the second floor.

She steeled herself against despair. There was a drainpipe within arm’s reach of the window…if she leaned very far out. But she had always been good at climbing and, better than that, there was a small roof below. If she fell, it wouldn’t be nearly as far. The roof sloped slightly, so at the far end, it wouldn’t be as long a drop, and there must be a supporting post to the ground that she could use. It wasn’t impossible. All it took was courage.

She stood, leaning against the window frame, struggling to think. He would follow her. She had to be clever. A disguise! Opening the larger valise, she pulled out a set of clothes. There wasn’t time to change—he might return at any moment—so she stuffed the clothes in her case. Shoes. She frowned down at her embroidered slippers, then grabbed the pair of shoes in his valise and added them, as well. Now it was too full to close, so she jerked out a dress in her bag and rolled it up, stuffing it in the bottom drawer of the small chest.

As she started to close his case, she spied a pouch tucked in the corner and pulled it out. It was filled with bank notes and coins. It would be wrong to steal it, of course. But how else was she to escape? She hadn’t a farthing with her. In any case, it was her money really, wasn’t it? She thrust the pouch into the pocket of her skirt and refastened the valise. Picking up her own travel case, she hurried to the window.

The soft-sided carrying case went out first. It landed on the small roof below, rolled and slid off the sloping roof to the ground. She froze, her heart slamming in her chest. Suddenly a key rattled in the lock, spurring her into motion. She leaned out, stretching to reach the drainpipe. It was too far; she must crouch on the sill to extend far enough. She twisted, trying to pull her feet up under her, just as the door swung open and a man stepped in.

“No!” He slammed the door behind him and ran to grab her and yank her back inside.

She struggled wildly, kicking and clawing. “You monster! Traitor!”

“Ow!” He dropped her and stepped back, raising his hand to a long scratch blooming on his face.

She flew at him, shoving him back. He staggered, his face flaming with anger, and he slapped her. She reeled backward into the washstand, rattling the washbowl and pitcher. Her shock was almost as great as the pain in her cheek. No one had ever hit her. Bitter anger flooded her, overcoming all else, and she reached behind her, her hand closing around the handle of the pitcher. She threw herself at him, swinging the earthenware pitcher with all her might.

He managed to twist so that it didn’t land full on his head as she’d intended, but the pitcher clipped the side of his jaw as it crashed into his shoulder, spilling water over him. He stumbled back, catching his foot on the rag rug, and fell.

Running to the window, feeling more clearheaded than she had since she awakened, she climbed up onto the sill. Crouching there and holding onto the window frame with one hand, she stretched out and wrapped the other around the drainpipe. She froze, her heart in her throat, but then the sound of him clambering to his feet gave her impetus to move.

Swinging out, she put her toe on the iron bracket securing the drainpipe to the wall, and let go of the window, hastily grabbing the drainpipe just below her other hand. She clung there, shivering, feeling for a toehold beneath her. Blast these entangling skirts! She wished she’d had time to change.

The man shoved his head out the window and lunged for her, hooking his hand in the sash of her dress. She scrambled downward, her shoulders aching with the strain. He cursed, sliding farther out, and she jerked away with all her strength.

Suddenly he was tumbling out the window. His weight tore her from her desperate hold on the drainpipe even as it ripped the sash from her dress. She fell with him, one breathless flash of panic followed by slamming onto the roof below. Her breath left her and a sharp pain lanced through her head. Helplessly she rolled, her momentum carrying her down the slight slope of the roof. Then, once again, she was falling into emptiness.

After that, there was only darkness.

CHAPTER ONE

ALEX TROTTED DOWN the steps, business finished, but feeling vaguely dissatisfied. It wasn’t only because he suspected that the man he had just left had chosen him to design his summer house less for his talent than for the opportunity to boast that the son of the Duke of Broughton had visited him this morning. The fact was, Alex had felt odd and uneasy from the moment he awakened this morning.

He glanced at his watch and decided to catch a hack to his office rather than walking. Con was leaving on one of his adventures this afternoon, and he wanted to be sure to catch him. Even though they had acquired other friends as they grew older, Con was, as always, his closest confidant.

His uneasiness wasn’t worry over Con. He would know instantly if Con was in trouble, just as he had known his brother wasn’t in the house when he awoke. Neither of them could explain their twin sense—it simply was—but likewise, they never doubted its accuracy.

Alex supposed that the odd wisp of alarm that had taken up residence in his chest was merely the residue from his nightmare. He didn’t remember dreaming it, but he’d done so often enough lately to presume it had visited him again. The thing was…usually the nightmare awakened him, leaving him cold and sweating, but it had not caused him to feel this way the next day.

He stepped out of the carriage in front of the office building he and Con owned. It was a narrow stone structure, four floors high and sturdy. Alex might wish for a more attractive design, but it suited their purposes. The bottom floor housed a bookstore, and the floor above held his and Con’s offices, with the upper two floors being the flat he and Con had established as their bachelors’ quarters when they left school.

Even though they had moved back into the family home a year ago, they hadn’t rented out the flat. One or the other of them sometimes bedded down there. Con used it more often, staying there sometimes when he was working on a case or had remained out on the town late.

Alex met Con’s employee, Tom Quick, coming down the stairs. Tom, a few years older than Alex, had been plucked from the streets by their older brother, Reed, whose pocket he had unsuccessfully tried to pick. Instead of prosecuting the lad, Reed had clothed and fed him and sent him to school. Quick hadn’t taken much to schooling, but he had been a loyal worker for the Moreland family ever since, at first running errands for Reed and then, ultimately, becoming the mainstay of their older sister Olivia’s investigative agency. Con had acquired his services, along with the business, from Olivia a few years ago.

The blond man grinned in his cocky way, a distinct warning that something was up. Alex eyed him warily. “Is Con upstairs?”

“Oh, indeed,” Tom answered with a chuckle. “He’s there.”

“What has he done?” Alex asked with some foreboding. Perhaps it was Con, after all, that had given him this feeling.

“You’ll see,” the other man said airily and trotted past him.

Alex took the stairs two at a time and walked past the closed door of his own office to the last door on the corridor. A discreet brass sign on the wall beside the door announced that it was Moreland Investigative Agency.

He opened the door and stopped short at the sight of his brother, his jaw dropping. Normally seeing Con was much like looking into a mirror. Con’s black hair was a bit longer and shaggier, and he had taken to wearing a mustache. But, all in all, it was the same angular face with the same squarish chin and straight black brows, the same sharp green eyes, the same firm mouth always ready to break into a smile. Their height and build, the way they stood and walked, were all so alike that even their mother had been known to mistake one for the other from the back.

But today… Con’s hair was pomaded and slicked back away from his face. His mustache had been waxed into long sharp points and twisted up at the ends into absurd curlicues. He was strangely larger through the chest and middle and even slightly taller, and his body was encased in a suit of eye-popping yellow-and brown-plaid. On the desk beside him were a bowler hat of matching brown and a shiny black cane with a lion’s head for a knob.

Con laughed at his brother’s stunned expression and struck a pose. “What do you think?”

“I think you’ve turned into a bloody Bedlamite, that’s what I think,” Alex laughed. “What in the world are you doing? I thought you were going to Cornwall to infiltrate that lot that says the world’s going to end next month.”

Olivia had opened an agency to investigate the wave of spiritualists and mediums in the past decade that had swindled gullible and grief-stricken people with tales of contacting their deceased loved ones in the afterlife. After she met her husband in the course of one of these investigations, her agency had had a rather sporadic existence, with Tom Quick doing most of the work. The agency had turned to a number of other investigative procedures, such as finding missing persons, uncovering financial frauds and investigating the backgrounds of possible employees or spouses.

When Con bought the agency from her, he continued the sort of detective work that Quick was justifiably known for, but he also delighted in returning to the investigation of otherworldly phenomena, going beyond Olivia’s field of fraudulent mediums and their séances to reports of hauntings and mythical beasts and even, as in his newest case, a quasi-religious group proclaiming the end of the world.

“That is where I’m going,” Con told him.

“I don’t think you’re apt to blend in very well in that costume.”

“Ah, but you see—” Con wiggled his eyebrows “—I’ve found that looking outlandish is an excellent way to go unrecognized. All people will remember is this ridiculous mustache and obnoxious suit. When I get rid of them, no one will recognize me.”

“How did you make yourself look so thick?” Alex poked his finger into his twin’s chest and found it pillowy soft.

“Padded vest,” Con told him proudly. “I have lifts in my shoes as well. I would have liked to make myself shorter, but that’s a trifle difficult.”

“I daresay. I hope you realize you look like an utter fool.”

“I know.” Con grinned. “Watch this.” He picked up his cane and, giving a sharp twist to the head, pulled the gold knob from the cane, revealing a slender knife extending from it.

“A hidden stiletto.” Alex’s eyes lit up. Alex might be somewhat more staid than Con, but he was not immune to the lure of secret daggers.

“Cunning, isn’t it?” Con handed the weapon to his brother. “And though you wouldn’t think so, it provides a good grip. I found it in the attic a couple of months ago.”

“At Broughton House?” Alex turned it over in his hand, examining it.

“Yes, I was up there with the Littles.”

Alex knew he referred to their sister Kyria’s twins, Allison and Jason, who, since Constantine and Alexander had been given the nickname the Greats, were often referred to as the Littles.

“It was Jason found it, but Allie discovered the secret to opening it—she’s a bloodthirsty little thing, have you noticed? I had a devil of a time persuading her she couldn’t keep it.”

“Well, you know her father.” Alex shrugged. “Next she’ll be brandishing a pistol.”

“Terrifying thought.”

“Do you expect trouble at this place you’re going? Will you need a dagger?”

“Not really.” Con sighed. “I’m relatively sure he’s swindling his believers—easy to persuade someone to hand over all their worldly goods when they think they’ll be transported up to heaven in a few months. But I haven’t seen any sign that he’s gotten physical. Still, I like to be prepared.”

Alex grinned as he handed back the knife. “Especially if it involves a clever trick.”

“Of course.” Con fitted the weapon back into its slot. “Care to come with me?”

Alex felt a twinge of longing. He and Con had shared many an adventure. It was only the past few years, when Alex had been studying at the Architectural Association and then practicing in his field, that Alex had stayed behind more and more, only helping out now and then with Con’s investigations.

“No,” he said reluctantly. “Better not. I have work to do on the plans for Blackburn’s country house. And I have…I don’t know, I just have a feeling I should be here.”

“What do you mean?” Con set aside the cane and fixed his searching gaze on his twin. “Is something wrong?”

“No…maybe. I don’t know.” Alex grimaced.

“You had a premonition?”

“Not exactly. I’m not like Anna. I don’t see what’s going to happen.” Alex folded his arms. He never liked talking about his “gift,” as Con saw it—or his “curse,” as Alex was more likely to consider it. “I’ve been very out of sorts since I woke up. Restless. It’s probably nothing, just some residue from a dream.”

“You had another nightmare.” Con was the only one whom Alex had ever told about his bad dreams.

“I suppose. I don’t really remember it. I just woke up feeling…” He shrugged. Even with his twin, Alex hated to reveal the bone-deep fear that invaded him in these dreams, the paralyzing sensation of powerlessness. It was a form of weakness he hated in himself. “The thing was…it was something like the way you and I feel when the other is in trouble. But different somehow. I’m positive it wasn’t about you. But I’ve never had that feeling about any of our other siblings.”

“Do you think your ability is growing? Improving?” Con asked almost eagerly.

“I sincerely hope not,” Alex retorted. “I’ll go mad if I receive signals every time a Moreland gets into trouble.”

“True. Theo’s girls alone would be enough to keep you busy night and day.”

Alex grinned, but quickly turned serious again. “I wanted to ask if you had ever felt that way. If you sensed things about the others.”

“No.” Con looked vaguely wistful. “You know me—I haven’t a smidgen of talent. I mean, other than twin speak.” He looked thoughtful. “If you think something’s wrong, perhaps I should postpone my trip.”

“No. Don’t be absurd.” Alex shook his head. “I’m sure I’m staring at shadows.”

“But these dreams…”

“You put more credence in my dreams than I do.”

“We all know Morelands have significant dreams…except for me, of course. Think of Reed dreaming Anna was in danger, or the things Kyria saw in her dreams.”

“I’ve never had a significant dream in my life. They’re just nightmares. I’ve had them since we were thirteen.”

“Yes, but those stopped years ago. It’s only been recently that you’ve been dreaming about being locked up again. There must be a reason.”

“Probably the squab I had for supper last night,” Alex said lightly.

Con snorted, but he dropped the subject. That was one of the best things about being a twin—one didn’t have to pretend, and the other knew without having to ask.

“I’d better be on my way,” Con said, picking up his cane and the small traveling case on the floor beside the desk. “My train leaves at two, and I don’t want to miss it.”

With a grin and a twirl of his bowler, he popped the hat onto his head and left. Alex, a smile lingering on his lips, perched on the edge of Con’s desk, long legs stretched out in front of him, and thought about his dreams.

He didn’t recall the one last night, but he’d had enough of them the past few weeks to know what transpired in it. He was always lying on a narrow bed in a dark, cramped room, alone and not knowing where he was, and gripped by a cold, numbing fear.

The nightmares had started after the time he and Con had visited Winterset, their brother Reed’s home in the country, when the two of them, out walking with Reed’s future wife, Anna, had come across a farmer who had been killed. Both he and Con had been shaken by the sight, but Alex was the one who had lost his breakfast. Alex had returned to the house to bring Reed’s help, while Con had stayed with Anna by the body. He had never admitted to anyone, even Con, how relieved he’d been to get away from the bloody remains.

Oddly, though, the nightmares that had disturbed him in the weeks afterward had not been of the dead farmer, but of the time almost two years earlier when Alex had been kidnapped and held prisoner in a small dark room.

He had been scared at the time, of course, but he was used enough to getting in and out of scrapes—though it was more frightening, admittedly, when Con wasn’t there to share the experience. Alex had kept his wits and managed to escape, and in the end, Kyria and Rafe and the others had come to his rescue. It had been an exciting story to tell and he’d basked in Con’s envy of his adventure, but then, after his experience at Winterset, he had begun to dream about it again.

It had passed, of course. Indeed, it seemed to have marked the beginning of his odd ability. The Morelands were given to such oddities—significant dreams and strange connections to an unseen world, their habit of falling fiercely, immediately in love.

So it had not been a complete surprise when Alex started to experience flashes of emotions and actions when he gripped an object—though it had seemed most unfair that Con had not been burdened with a similar peculiarity. Con, naturally, would have been thrilled to have it.

Alex had learned to hide his ability from everyone outside his family, and he had also learned to control it so that he wasn’t overwhelmed by, say, witnessing a murder that had happened years earlier when he happened to lean against a wall. As his control over the ability increased, the nightmares had lessened and finally ceased.

Until recently. The ones he had now were not exactly the same, for in the recent ones he was a man, not a half-grown lad, and the room where he lie in darkness seemed different—darker and colder and smaller. But the fear was the same. No, it was worse, for woven through it now was a soul-deep dread, an icy terror.

Impatiently, Alex pushed himself up from the desk. What was he doing lounging about here? Over the years he had used his ability to help Con with some inquiries. It was one of the reasons that the agency had acquired an impressive reputation, particularly in finding missing persons. But his assistance was a carefully guarded secret. It was difficult enough making a reputation for oneself as an architect, given his aristocratic background and his family’s eccentric reputation, without adding something as unusual as working for an agency that often dabbled in occult matters.

But with Con gone, there was no reason for him to be here now. He should go to his own office and work on his own business, as he had told Con he was about to do. Sitting here was not going to solve the mystery of his uneasy feelings or his disturbing dreams.

Alex had reached the open door when suddenly his lungs suddenly tightened in his chest. He was flooded with anxiety, even fear, but he knew it was not his own; he was feeling the backwash of someone else’s emotions. He felt, moreover, a…presence. There was no other way to describe it. The sensation was so strong that he actually glanced around the empty office, as if he would find someone standing there. Of course, there was no one.

What if he turned out to be like his grandmother and started talking to ghosts? He tried to separate this sudden burst of emotion from his own, to analyze this new awareness. It was similar to the “twinness” he shared with Con—a knowledge that someone was nearby, an understanding that the person was in trouble. But he had never felt such a thing before, except with Con. And he was certain that this was not coming from his twin. It was…different.

He stepped out into the hall and looked over the railing onto the lobby of the floor below. As he watched, the door opened and a short man entered. The newcomer crossed the entryway and climbed the stairs. And as he moved, the sensation moved with him. This man—or perhaps he was only a boy, for he was rather small—was the presence Alex felt.

The visitor reached the top of the stairs and started down the corridor toward him. The small man was dressed oddly—well, not oddly, really, for his suit was unremarkable. But he wore a workingman’s cap with a gentleman’s suit, and nothing seemed to fit him. His feet galumphed along, seeming too big for his body. His jacket was outsized, hanging loosely on him, the sleeves obscuring his hands, and his trousers were rolled up at the hem but still pooled around his ankles. He wore the cap pulled down almost to his eyes, hiding his forehead and shadowing the bottom part of his face.

He hesitated when he saw Alex, then started forward again determinedly. Alex watched him walk, and as he drew nearer, the whole sense of the man’s wrongness coalesced into a thought.

“You’re a girl!” Alex blurted out. He knew at once that he had made a misstep, for his visitor let out a little squeak and took a step backward. “No. No, wait, please don’t go. May I help you?”

She pulled off the concealing cap, revealing a cloud of black curls that fell just below her ears. Without the cap, he could clearly see the delicate chin, the heart-shaped face, the big, deep blue eyes. And his entire insides dropped straight to the floor.

“I’m looking for the Moreland Investigative Agency.”

“That’s me. I mean, I’m Mr. Moreland. Alex, Alexander Moreland.” He realized that he was babbling and he forced himself to stop before he started explaining about his brother and the agency and Olivia, who had started it, and everything else that came into his head.

The woman was beautiful. More than that, his feeling of connection and his uneasiness were both centered on her. How could he be so tied to a stranger, to someone not even in his own family? Oh, Lord, she wasn’t a relative, surely?

He was certain of one thing—he could not let her slip her away. So he pulled together the remnants of his aplomb and inclined his head, sweeping his arm out toward the open doorway in a courtly gesture as he said, “Please, won’t you come in?

Her smile was shy, and a faint flush rose in her cheeks; both things, he realized, were charming. She walked before him into the office and sat down in the chair facing Con’s desk. Alex was careful to leave the door open, not wanting to alarm her, and took a seat behind Con’s desk as if he belonged there.

He wasn’t really lying to her, he told himself. He was Mr. Moreland, even if not the one she sought. “Now, please tell me how I may help you, Miss—?”

“I—I came here because…well, I asked the driver at the station where I should go. He said the Moreland Agency was the best in the city at finding someone,” she said, twisting her cap in her hands and ignoring his implied question about her name.

“We will certainly do our utmost to help you.” He opened the top drawer of the desk and was relieved to spot pencils and even a pad of paper. He set them on the desk and prepared to take notes, hoping that he looked like he knew what he was doing. “Now. Who is it that you wish to find?”

She gazed back at him gravely and said, “Me.”

Find out what happens next! Order your copy of His Sinful Touch wherever you buy your books!

Copyright © 2018 by Candace Camp.