A Dangerous Secret by Jillian Eaton

Chapter One

 

Ronan wished he could dream of the first day they’d met.

It had been a cool, crisp morning in the beginning of autumn. The leaves had glittered green and scarlet in the sunlight, their tips still damp with dew. The sky had been a clear, endless blue with nary a cloud in sight. The air had tasted of honeysuckle. And the park had been empty.

Empty except for her.

He’d become so accustomed to walking by himself that for an instant when he lifted his head and saw a woman in blue marching briskly towards him, her nose buried in a book and her face obscured by one of the largest hats he’d ever seen, he didn’t believe his own eyes.

It wasn’t until he blinked and rubbed them that he realized it wasn’t a mirage, but a flesh and blood female. Not only that, but a real honest to God lady. Not unexpected, given they were in the middle of Hyde Park. But everyone knew nabobs were like chickens and stayed in their roosts from midnight to half past ten in the morning. And the last time he’d glanced at the old pocket watch tucked in a fold of his coat, it had read a quarter to seven. So what the devil was this one doing out of her cozy henhouse?

Ronan considered stepping to the side and letting her pass without acknowledgement. The way her nose was pushed between the pages of whatever she was reading, he doubted she’d even notice his existence unless he stood in her way. A solitary man by nature, he wasn’t one to intrude on a stranger’s business. Particularly if that stranger was a woman. Particularly if that stranger was a woman and a lady.

As rough and common as they came, Ronan knew better than to meddle with those who changed their clothes thrice a day and had servants bring them their tea and threw elaborate balls to celebrate their own wealth. The only time he got close to an aristocrat was if he was working a case for the Bow Street Runners, and even then he kept his head down and his mouth shut. He didn’t want the trouble they had the bad habit of bringing with them wherever they went. Courtesy of his profession, he knew what was underneath all that fancy sheen.

The gambling debts. The lurid affairs. The treachery that ensued when an earl with multiple heirs died. Like sharks to blood in the water. And Ronan had never been a strong swimmer. Which was why he avoided the entire lot of them whenever he had the chance.  

But something pulled him towards the lady in blue. Something tangible, like a moth being pulled to a flame. And even though the moth knew its life would inevitably end in fire it went anyways, because a kiss of firelight was preferable to a lifetime in the shadows.

So he remained where he stood in the center of the path. In the center of her path. And he waited, his tall, boxy frame resting lightly on the balls of his feet while his arms hung loosely down at his sides and his head, crowned with a dark mane of shaggy hair and anchored to his shoulders by a thick neck framed with corded muscle, canted slightly to the left.

She kept marching ahead, one tiny foot slipping in front of the other as her nose slipped further down into the book until her entire countenance was obscured save the top of her winged eyebrows. Still Ronan waited, confident she would lift up her small chin and see him any second for he was a large man who took up a large amount of space and no one ever walked past him without taking a second, a third, sometimes even a fourth look.

A giant out of the womb, his mother had been fond of saying, and she hadn’t been wrong. By the age of five he was as big as a ten-year-old, and by fourteen he towered over most full grown adults. Having never met his sire–a man his mother had refused to talk about–he could only assume that’s where his massive height came from, as he certainly hadn’t inherited it from the tiny woman who had almost died giving birth to him.

Suffice it to say, Ronan really was a giant. At least in England where the average height of a person barely topped a horse’s withers and he could stare the damned beasts in the eye.

Yet for all of his considerable size, the lady failed to notice him before it was too late. With all the force of a tiny child bouncing off a stone wall–which was to say, no force at all–she slammed into his chest and would have fallen onto her rump if his hand hadn’t shot out to steady her. He grasped her elbow, broad fingers easily encircling the small joint.

“Steady,” he rumbled when she gasped and instinctively tried to pull her arm away. “I’m not going to hurt you. I just didn’t want you to stumble.”

Oh.” With another gasp she craned her neck back, back, back until she was able to look him in the eye.

He caught a glimpse of pale violet irises surrounding dark pupils. Her eyes were tilted in the corners like a cat and framed with long sooty lashes that curled up towards slender brows. Her skin was a delicate shade of ivory. Her cheekbones splashed with the perfect amount of pink. The curls peeking out from underneath her bonnet were a vibrant, glossy auburn. Not unlike the leaves on the massive oak overhead. She had a petite nose dusted with freckles, a full bottom lip, and a narrow chin that quivered when she rocked onto her heels and took in the full sight of him.

“You’re enormous,” she breathed, and Ronan felt a familiar flush of embarrassment heat the nape of his neck.

“Aye,” he said curtly, dropping his hand and folding his arms across his barrel sized chest. The last thing he needed was to be told how big he was, or how frightening. He knew it every time he walked down the street and women scattered out of his path like rats fleeing a sinking ship. He knew it every time children stopped and pointed. He knew it every time he had to duck his head to enter a pub or remain standing because he knew his weight would turn a chair to kindling.

“How extraordinary,” the lady said, and then she did something so extraordinary that for a minute Ronan could only stare dumbstruck at her hand as she thrust it at the middle of his body. “Thank you very much for not letting me fall. I fear clumsiness is a trait I am appallingly familiar with. My name is Sophia. Miss Sophia Green. Might I ask yours? I know it isn’t at all the polite thing to do, requesting a stranger’s name, but neither is running into them, and since I’ve put one foot in the muck I might as well put two, don’t you think?”

Ronan didn’t know what to think.

Or what to say.

After a moment that dragged painfully on, he managed a grunt.

That was it.

Just a single, unintelligible ‘urgh’.

He waited for Miss Sophia Green to turn on her heel and run, screaming for help, in the opposite direction. Instead she did another extraordinary thing.

She smiled.

“I have a cousin who is very shy. It’s his stuttering, you see. His speech has much improved since he married, but in certain times of distress he might as well be a clam.” Her smile, accented with a tiny little dimple in her right cheek, faltered. “Not to say you are a clam. Dear me. There I go, putting my foot in it again.”

“It’s all right,” he said.

“Oh!” Her eyes lit up. “What a deep voice you have. It suits you, you know. But I’m sure you’ve been told that before.”

He hadn’t been told that before, but then this was all new territory. Women did not stop and speak to him. At least not women that looked like Miss Sophia Green. The sort of females he normally encountered were as far from a lady as one could possibly get. They didn’t have fancy dresses or hair that shone like red silk or eyes that glittered like amethysts. And they definitely didn’t speak as if they had a flute pressed to their lips.

“My name is Ronan.” He stared down at her small hand, but didn’t dare dirty it with his own. Miss Green’s hand belonged in a parlor playing the pianoforte. His had been born above a bar and had dirt caked under the nails. “Ronan Hawke.”

“Mr. Hawke.” Her smile returned and illuminated her entire face. “What a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Do you come to this part of the park often? I cannot say as I’ve seen you on this path before.”

From anyone else it would have been a not-very-subtle hint that he didn’t belong here. Which he didn’t. Belong, that is. But Miss Green’s gaze held no ill-will, nor contempt, nor even a hint of malice. She looked at him as if he were her equal. As if he were some highborn lord instead of a lowly born commoner in a jacket that had been mended too many times and a hat that had long ago given up its shape.

“I like to walk early in the morning,” he revealed. “When no one else is around.”

“I see.” Her smile vanished again, the equivalent of a sunrise disappearing, and Ronan could have gladly kicked himself in the bloody arse. “I did not mean to interrupt your privacy.”

“You didn’t. Interrupt, I mean.” Brilliant, he told himself. Bloody fucking brilliant. But then he wasn’t widely known for having a silver tongue. That was Colin Ferguson. He and his brother, Ian, were the newest recruits on Bow Street. They joined Lord Grant Hargrave, the third born son of a duke, Tobias Kent, a dark-tempered Irishman still reeling from the death of his wife, and their captain, Owen Steel, a man whose heart was as hard as his name.

A more motley crew there’d never been. But without a professionally organized police force, they were all that stood between London and complete chaos. Not to say they stopped all the crime, or even most of it. With all the filth in St Giles alone, that would require a herculean effort far beyond their capabilities. But they were a source for the desperate to turn to when they needed help finding a loved one who had gone missing, or hunting down those responsible for pitching a body into the Thames, or recovering lost and stolen items of value.

“You shouldn’t be out alone,” he said, more harshly than he’d intended. “It’s not safe.”

“But I am not alone,” Sophia countered, and for the first time she afforded him a glimpse of the stubbornness hiding behind all that sweet when she lifted her chin. “My chaperone is waiting for me in the carriage.”

“Where is your carriage?” Ronan intended to walk her straight to it and give her chaperone a blunt talking-to besides. What sort of guardian allowed their charge to wander about an empty park? They may have only been a few blocks from Grosvenor Square, but that didn’t mean this area of London was impervious to criminals and cutthroats. Kent’s young wife had been murdered in broad daylight, and the monster responsible was still on the loose. Who knew how far they’d travel, or when they’d take their next victim?    

“I cannot tell you where my carriage is. It wouldn’t be safe.” Sophia’s smile surfaced again, cheeky and mischievous and adorable. “What if you attempt to commandeer it with my chaperone inside? She is an elderly woman, and excitement is not good for her heart.”

“Why would I bother to steal your carriage when I could just kidnap you right here?” he said blankly.

“Is that your plan, then? To kidnap me?”

“What? No,” he scowled, crossing his arms. “Of course not.”

“That’s good to know,” she said matter-of-factly, “as I did not have kidnapping on my schedule for the day.”

He stared at her, unsure how to respond. Despite his large size, he wasn’t a man who lost his balance very easily. But a few minutes in Sophia’s company and he felt as if he was teetering on a high wire.

“What do you do for employment, Mr. Hawke?” she asked.

“I’m a Runner.”

“A Bow Street Runner?” Her eyes widened. “How extraordinary! I’ve never met one of you before. Is it a very perilous line of work?”

“Sometimes,” he said, because it was, and he saw no reason not to tell the truth. Being a Runner was perilous. In the two years since he’d gone from a dock worker to defending the streets, he had been spat on, stabbed, and shot at more times than he cared to count. Last year a knife to the belly had laid him up for the better part of three months. A few inches deeper and he wouldn’t be standing here, having one of the most peculiar conversations of his life…with the most entrancing company he’d ever had the pleasure of encountering on one of his early walks. Or anywhere, for that matter.

“Are you ever frightened?” Her head tipped to the side as those heavily lashed violet eyes peered straight into his soul.

At least, that was what it felt like.

By his very nature, Ronan kept his emotions tightly concealed. Ever since he was a lad, he’d rarely shared what he was thinking. Happy, sad, angry, disappointed. His countenance never changed, and that sort of control was one of the things that made him so well suited for his line of work. Even the captain could not read his expressions. Not unless he wanted him to. Why, then, did he have the distinct impression that this little slip of a chit knew exactly what he was thinking?

“Sometimes,” he repeated gruffly.

“Yet you do it anyway.” She gave an encouraging nod. “You must have helped a great deal of people.”

“A few.”

From somewhere in the distance, a church bell tolled. Its long, melodic clangs drew a sigh from Sophia’s perfect lips and caused her eyes to close. When they opened, there was regret in them and a flicker of something else. Something he couldn’t quite identify. Something…something soft, and warm, and caring. All foreign concepts in a world as rough and deadly as the one that he existed in. 

“I should go,” she said. “Mrs. Hodgson–that is my chaperone–will be wondering what’s taking so long. We’ve an agreement, you see. She permits me to go on my morning constitutional by myself while she takes a nap. But if I haven’t returned by the time she wakes up, then she worries.”

Ronan frowned. “Your chaperone would do well to guard you more carefully.”

“Why?” she said, all feigned innocence and big violet eyes. “I have you. Same time tomorrow, Mr. Hawke?”

He could feel the lines of disapproval embedding themselves into his forehead.

“That would be highly inappropriate, Miss Green.”

“For what reason?” she asked, as if she didn’t know damn well why they should not have a repeat performance of…of whatever this was.

“Because you are a highborn lady. And I’m…” His Adam’s apple worked up and down. “I’m not fit to clean the filth from your shoes.”

“Don’t say that.” In a step, she was flush against him, her hand covering his. She squeezed, and his abdomen went hard as a rock, muscles clenching in protest against the lust that crashed over him in a hot, searing wave.

His stomach wasn’t the only part of his anatomy that had stiffened.

When was the last time he’d been with a woman? Ronan was not the sort to keep a mistress. He’d neither the financial means nor the demeanor required to satisfy a female who coveted the materialistic. Nor did he make a habit of joining his mates when they made the rounds at the East End brothels. Which meant that generally speaking, his bed partners were few and far between.

Had it been weeks? Months? A bloody year?

Not that long, surely.

Except there was a reason he and his right hand had grown so well acquainted.

Go away, he willed Sophia silently. Go far, far away.

This close and he could smell the traces of her perfume. It was a delicate, intimate scent. A drop of rain in a rolling sea. But his nostrils flared as he detected honeysuckle and the barest hint of cinnamon.

Instantly he was reminded of the apple pies his mother used to make. Her own recipe, just for the two of them. Whenever a slice had been placed on the table, he’d devoured it in seconds. My little wolf cub, his mother had said fondly, ruffling his tangled mop of dark curls. Never mind that there’d been nothing little about him or his appetite. As soon as she’d looked the other way, he had quite literally licked his plate clean. 

And now he wanted to do the same thing to the red-haired temptress in front of him.

What would she taste like?

Honey, he imagined, swallowing a groan. With a teasing trace of citrus. Just sharp enough to sting the tongue before it melted into a pool of sugar. He’d sit her on the nearest bench. Kneel between her legs. Gently coax her skirts up past her knees and burrow his head between–

No, he told himself furiously.

Absolutely not.

“Mr. Hawke?” Sophia said uncertainly.

He raised his head and bared his teeth. A cub no longer, he was a wolf full grown. With fangs and hackles and no desire to take on a mate. Especially one so fine as this.

Fine things had the habit of breaking.

His life was consumed by darkness and shadows and secrets.

She lived in light and luxury and splendor.  

He didn’t know what twist of fate had brought them together, but it obviously needed to go home. The damned thing was foxed to the gills if it thought a man like him had a chance with a woman like her.

“Run back to your carriage now, Miss Green,” he ordered roughly. “The next time you’re inclined to go walking by yourself at such an early hour, don’t. Or the next stranger you encounter might not be so willing to let you pass by.”

“You are trying to frighten me,” she said. “But it’s not going to work. I am not afraid of you, Mr. Hawke.”

His eyes flashed. “You should be.”

“Yes, I am sure most would draw back from the surly dog on the street who growls and snaps and shows his teeth. But do you know what I’ve found works better than running away in fear from an animal that masks its pain with aggression?” 

He gave a curt shake of his head.

“Kindness and affection.” With that, she rose up onto her toes and everything inside of him, every bone, every muscle, every cord of sinew, went absolutely still when she pressed her lips to his roughly shaven cheek. “I am looking forward to our walk tomorrow, Mr. Hawke.”

Stunned, he stared at her as she turned on her heel and skipped away. Continued staring for several minutes even after she’d disappeared from his line of sight. And he knew, deep in the depths of the soul that she’d gazed into, that this was not the last time he would cross paths with Miss Sophia Green.

 

They went on that walk the next morning. And all the mornings after.

He fell in love with her as the leaves changed from green to gold.

Kissed her in a surprise snow flurry that left white diamonds in her hair.

Married her on a wet morning at the end of October in Gretna Green. 

Made love to her in a Scottish inn while sunlight danced on her skin.

Carried her over the threshold of a small flat with an herb garden.

Watched in awe as her belly grew and swelled with new life.

Welcomed their child, a squalling, red-faced baby girl, into the world in the middle of summer.

So many beautiful moments. So many precious days. If he was able to dream of one of them, just one, he might have been able to find some measure of peace. Some end to the torturous nightmares that shot him upright out of bed every night with his heart in his throat and his pulse racing so fast that he often wondered if his veins would burst.

Sometimes, he prayed that they would.

Dark, insidious thoughts that he kept to himself.

Because when he closed his eyes, he didn’t see Sophia dancing barefoot in their bedroom. Or cradling their sweet Emma. Or blowing him a kiss goodbye as he left for Bow Street. Instead, all he saw were the flames. All he smelled was the smoke. All he felt was the horror of watching his entire life, his loves, his reason for breathing, be swallowed up by a raging, hellish inferno of fire.

And he knew nothing but emptiness.