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Flying from sin…
Andrew Rossiter has used his gorgeous body and angelic face for all they’re worth—shocking the proper, seducing the willing, and pleasuring the wealthy. But with a tiny son depending on him for rescue, suddenly discretion is far more important than desire. He’ll have to bury his past and quench his desires—fast. And he’ll have to find somewhere his deliciously filthy reputation hasn’t yet reached…
Miss Gemma Peartree seems like a plain, virginal governess. True, she has a sharp wit and a sharper tongue, but handsome Mr. Ross wouldn’t notice Gemma herself. Or so she hopes. No matter how many sparks fly between them, she has too much to hide to catch his eye. But with the storms of a Scottish winter driving them together, it will be hard enough to keep her secrets. Keeping her hands to herself might prove entirely impossible…
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Andrew Rossiter was on the cusp of reformation. He could taste it, sweet as the wine Giulietta had passed him at dessert from their picnic basket, bold as the wind that whipped the sails of their little yacht, tempting as the green coast of England would be at this moment. Alas, he was cruising the Mediterranean, the city of Savona in the distance, still steeped in sin, and he was rather bored with it. The only saving grace was the sight of his little son drowsing on a velvet tufted cushion, his small fist curled under a distinctive Rossiter chin—square, dimpled, and determined.
Of course Andrew could not claim the boy. He was Duca Alessandro di Maniero’s heir, the product of a carefully orchestrated plot to bring continued glory to the di Maniero name. It would not do for the duca’s true inclinations and shortcomings to be revealed to all the world. Andrew had been perfectly willing to assist the duca and the duchessa in their bedroom quest. The hardship was minimal. Giulietta was a lovely young woman, Alessandro bearable, and the price right, even absurdly generous. When they had invited him back to Italy to contribute further to their family, he had happily assented. The weather was perfect, and there had been pressing reasons for him to escape England and his troubled past.
He doubted anyone could rival him for trouble. Or past. Perhaps he was being too maudlin what with all the wine he had drunk this afternoon, but it seemed his luck was bad. Cursed, even. Andrew was blessed with the looks of an angel, which had attracted an earthly devil to snatch him off the streets and use him without conscience from the age of seven onward. Andrew had never been innocent, even as a child, but even his ramshackle upbringing had not prepared him for Donal Stewart. Eventually it was easier to succumb to sin than fight it. If he were honest, Andrew eventually derived some succor from his sexual escapades, but they had long since lost their luster.
That was it—he’d lost his lust. He barked out a laugh and watched his child startle at the sound. The boy’s face was quite pink and damp despite the awning over the deck.
“Giulietta, let me bring Marco below. The sun is strong today.”
Giulietta looked up from her book, a wide-brimmed straw bonnet shading her face. Even in shadow, she was exquisite, a delicate blonde Venetian beauty who could have married anyone. It was her misfortune to choose a man who was entirely immune to her sex. “Si, Andrew. That is perhaps wise.”
Andrew laughed again, softer this time. No one called him wise, or at least not often. He’d taken some pains lately to buff the tarnish from his reputation, but he very much feared the black would not ever be completely eradicated. He gathered up the boy, pillow and all, and, ducking his golden head, stepped down into the little cabin. He laid the sleeping child on the bunk and plunked down on the soft chair opposite to watch over him. Marco’s favorite nursemaid had remained at the villa. Giulietta had confided that the woman became easily seasick, and wasn’t it nice to be just in famiglia?
As the duke and his duchess were the closest thing Andrew had to family now, he had readily agreed. Any opportunity to get to know his little son was welcome. The sail had been blissful so far on a perfect late summer day. The food, the wine, the amenities— Alessandro’s yacht had every comfort imaginable. Usually there was a small crew to sail the vessel through the turquoise and lapis waters—Italy’s Riviera—but today Alessandro had dismissed them and was alone at the helm, chest puffed, chubby cheeks red with exertion, his few tufts of black hair waving maniacally in the wind. Andrew had done his share earlier with lines and sails and was now pleasantly fatigued, especially after the heavy lunch that had been prepared. If he wasn’t careful, he’d wind up as fat as Alessandro, and then requests for his particular skills would dry up.
And would that be such a bad thing? Andrew thought not. There was plenty of money at his bank. Sin paid well, and his investments had been remarkably successful—he was not unlucky there. He might do something useful with his life, though he could hardly think what.
A lassitude crept over him as the boat rocked through the gentle sea swells. He closed his eyes and tried to picture himself back in England. Better yet, Scotland, the place of his birth. It was safe to go back now. His “uncle” Donal was long dead, a victim of his own excessive appetites. Everyone Andrew had loved was dead, save for Caroline, and she was married and quite above his touch despite his every effort.
Bah. He’d come to Italy to run from his past. He closed his eyes and gave himself over to sleep, a sleep not as innocent as his son’s but restful nonetheless.
A series of sharp cracking sounds above awakened him, then Giulietta’s high-pitched scream. A torrent of Italian followed in voices he didn’t recognize. What the devil? His knowledge of the language was limited to directions in the bedroom, and sex was a language without words anyway. He checked on his son. Marco still slept, undisturbed by the noise. He pushed the cabin door open an inch and looked up the polished stairs. Beneath the bright blue sky, two men had surrounded Giulietta. Before Andrew could open his mouth, one untied the ribbon to her pretty hat and tossed it into the wind. Then he held the muzzle of a gun to her ear and shot her.
Holy Mother of God. She slumped to the deck with an ungainly thud, which would have mortified her had she still been alive. She’d been all grace and good breeding, the perfect duchess apart from her rather insatiable behavior in the bedroom. The shooter bent over her and tore the rings from her fingers, the ear- bobs from her ears. The boat pitched to one side, and the men fought for balance. It was clear no one was at the helm.
Alessandro must be dead, too.
Andrew stood paralyzed. Any second they would clatter down the stairs and come for more booty. Come for Marco. There was no way he and his son could escape. No way out.
If he could hide Marco, persuade the child not to speak—but he was just a baby, not yet three. Anything Andrew might say would be gibberish to him anyway. He was an English-speaking stranger, no matter that he’d been in the di Manieros’ household a few weeks.
He looked around the teak-paneled cabin. The gleam of a brass drawer-pull caught his eye. Andrew gingerly slid the drawer open under the bunk where Marco slept. Inside were folded linens, scented with lavender. How odd that he would note the fragrance over the stench of his own fear. He shoved them aside and lifted his son from the bed. Marco was heavy and hot in his arms. Miraculously, he did not wake as Andrew entombed him in the drawer.
Andrew didn’t pray. Hadn’t since he was a child of seven, when his mother deserted him and Donal Rossiter found him in an alley in Edinburgh. He prayed now with what might be his last clear thoughts.
To go above or stay where he was? The choice seemed simple.
He needed to lead the men away from Marco. He smoothed down his disheveled curls, pulled the knife from his boot, put a smile on his face, and climbed up on deck, shutting the door quietly behind him.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen.”
Two pairs of dark eyes turned to him. One face was familiar— Alessandro’s cousin, a cherubic-looking young man who bore a strong resemblance to his relative and was obviously keeping very bad company. “I say, Gianni, what have you done?”
Gianni tossed a dueling pistol to his partner. “Bastardo! Uccidere l’inglese.”
Andrew only understood the first word but imagined he got the gist of the next. It was hard to miss the significance of the gun. He flipped the knife casually at the throat of the man who advanced upon him. The man who had murdered Giulietta and stolen her jewelry as Gianni stood by. Andrew had been good with rocks as a child and was pleased to note that in the intervening years he had not lost his aim. The fellow landed at his feet, but not before the gun discharged.
“Your mamma will be disappointed in you, Gianni.”
Gianni’s face was crimson in fury. “Shut up,” he said in English. “I will be the duca now. I have men at the villa to get the boy. No one has been fooled by that pervert or you. The child is yours. Everyone knows it.”
Andrew sent silent thanks up to a puffy white cloud. There was still a chance—Gianni didn’t know Marco was on the boat. “What do you mean to do now?”
“I will set the boat on fire.” Gianni pointed to the liquid-filled bottles that had been placed along the railing. “This has been a very unhappy accident. All aboard are dead. Even you.”
Perhaps his thanks had been premature. Andrew smiled. “Go on then. I suppose I deserve to roast now—it will give me a little taste of hell before I get there.”
He turned his head toward the rhythmic banging of a small boat at the yacht’s side. Gianni and his late friend must have boarded while Andrew and Marco slept. Would it have made a difference if Andrew had been on deck? Probably not. No doubt he would have been killed as well.
He had to get Gianni back into that boat before Marco awoke. “It will be difficult for you to row back to Savona without your thug here. And it’s a pity to destroy such a fine yacht. Part of your inheritance. Are you sure you don’t want to take me along to help you sail her?”
His offer was rewarded by a torrent of curses. Stepping back, Andrew watched as Gianni lit the rags. Though his hand trembled a bit, he was too successful.
“Tell the devil hello for me, Rossiter,” Gianni said, a feral smile on his face. He hopped overboard and tugged at the towline.
The first of the explosions startled them both. A lick of flame caught the sailcloth on the deck. Gianni pushed off, rowing madly to get free of the Giulietta.
“Bloody hell.” Andrew looked down at his arm. The sleeve of his white woolen jacket was soaked in bright red blood, although he really couldn’t feel a thing. No time to stare and wonder. He had to get Marco off the yacht before all hell really did break loose.
The next hour was a blur of shrieking child, toxic smoke, and wet exhaustion. He couldn’t think about Giulietta, her sky-blue eyes forever fixed on their match above. Nor poor Alessandro, slumped over the tiller, staining the deck with his blood, fire encroaching on his expensive leather boots. He’d covered Marco’s face with a handkerchief as they slipped into the water, but surely the boy knew that something terrible had happened. His little fists and feet windmilled as Andrew struggled to keep hold of him with one arm, the child crying and blubbering until Andrew wondered if he should just let go. If Gianni discovered he’d been unsuccessful—and he would, since Marco had not been in the villa to snatch and snuff—they were in mortal danger anyway. A drowning death for both of them would be relatively painless, or so he’d heard. Who knew what happened at the end of life? The dead told no tales.
But perhaps Gianni would believe Marco had died aboard the Giulietta. The seasick nursemaid would reveal the child’s whereabouts. The yacht still burned behind him, flames shooting into the air. Surely no one, least of all an infant, could survive such a conflagration. He gripped the child harder, earning a piercing screech to his eardrum. They floated and flailed for what seemed like hours until they were saved from almost welcome death by a fisherman, who hauled them aboard his humble vessel as though they were the lightly grilled catch of the day. For once Andrew was glad he spoke little Italian, for he couldn’t answer any questions.
The three weeks of recuperation spent in the fisherman’s white-washed cottage had nearly driven Andrew mad, but at least Marco’s babbling was understood. Andrew had a fever and some festering of his wound, which the fisherman’s wife had tended to with herbs from her little walled garden. Andrew hoped he’d bought the silence of his saviors through a combination of very fractured Italian and clever little drawings he’d managed left-handed. Donal had seen him educated at a second-rate school, but at last bits and pieces of his Latin had come in handy.
It was imperative that he and Marco disappear as quickly as possible, although how he had managed to make a stealthy exit from the region with a useless arm and a crying child had been another miracle. Retrieving his belongings at the villa was out of the question, but fortunately he had more than a few coins and treasure on him when he plunged into the water.
He always carried insurance. He’d known extreme poverty as a child and vowed he would never be caught short again. Andrew gave his rescuer his watch fobs, the simple stick pin that Caroline had given him one Christmas and the rather vulgar diamond ring he bought himself for his twenty-fifth birthday to sell in Savona. His gold watch, alas, was water logged, but went for its pretty etched case.
Andrew had no idea if the fisherman cheated him when he returned with a clinking purse, but would not have minded anyway if he had. The man had saved his son’s life and deserved more than Andrew could ever pay him. Andrew himself had been doctored and drugged. Lay for hours as the fisherman’s wife picked the ball and splintered bone out of his arm. Fed zuppa di pesce. Given the fisherman’s own well-washed clothes. His wife had cut off his and his son’s yellow curls and rubbed some dark muck on their heads to disguise them as best she could.
The fisherman had posted letters for him. His bank, N.M. Rothschild and Sons, had offices in London, Paris, and Vienna and could be counted on to get him where he needed to go. But where would that be? Andrew expected Gianni and his thugs to descend on him at any moment and drag Marco away.
Andrew’s luck, if one could call it that, held until Paris. There the woman he had hired as a temporary nurse abandoned them, simply taking off in the middle of the night. Andrew had awakened to Marco’s screams and a sodden bed. He was sure the boy had been toilet-trained before the murder of his parents, but it seemed Andrew now had to find nappies as well as someone to help him manage his son. He spent a day interviewing entirely unsuitable women and was forced to conclude he’d need to do the job himself.
How strange to discover he had paternal standards after the life he’d led. Children were a mystery to him, and this one even more so as they didn’t share a language. Andrew thought back to the time when he was “rescued” by a strange man and thought he understood why Marco was so terrified. He’d been a lot older than Marco, but Donal Stewart still played boogeyman in his dreams.
To complicate matters, Andrew still did not look like the Duca di Maniero’s familiar urbane guest. He’d cast off his borrowed clothes once they had gotten safely to Paris, but his butchered fair hair still had traces of brown and his arm hung leaden in its sling. It would be difficult restraining the boy with two hands, but with one, he felt significantly outmaneuvered.
But good news had awaited him at his bank, although Marco had made the interview with the manager anything but pleasant. Andrew had written to his old nemesis Baron Edward Christie requesting a return on a favor, and Christie had come through. Odd that a man Andrew had once considered an enemy was responsible for getting him settled in his new life, but everything in Andrew’s current world was odd. Of course it was Edward’s man of business who had actually secured the deed to a property on a remote island in the Western Isles, but according to his letter, Edward himself had vetted his son’s new governess.
Presented with the documents, Andrew was now in possession of Gull House, “a fine, partly furnished historic stone manor house overlooking the Atlantic” and roughly one-third of Batter Island purchased from the MacEwan himself. The “partly furnished” aspect could easily be remedied. He’d see what was needed and order it. Edward hadn’t beggared him—the purchase price of the house had been more than reasonable.
There was helpful translation in a separate letter that Batter Island took its name from the Norse word for boat—batr—and that the locals claimed the weather was somewhat inclement. Andrew was advised to purchase warm, waterproof clothes.
Andrew didn’t care about a few raindrops. The location was essential. Life in the Outer Hebrides would be a welcome change. It was Andrew’s own explicit wish to be far away from what passed for civilization. Now that he was entrusted with the welfare of his son, he wished to be as far beyond earthly temptations as possible. It wouldn’t do for him to backslide into his old ways. It wouldn’t do for Gianni to discover he was still alive, either. With that in mind, Andrew Rossiter was becoming Andrew Ross, and Marco di Maniero now Marc Ross. Andrew was killing off an imaginary estranged Italian wife to explain the inconsistencies in his tiny family unit. He only hoped Miss Peartree, the Italian- speaking governess who had been dispatched to Scotland, would believe it.
The crossing had been brutal, fitting entirely with the harrowing trip across the Continent and through the British Isles. The Sea of Hebrides was firmly in winter’s grip. Andrew was fairly sure once he landed; he was done with travel and water transportation of any kind. He was unlucky on boats, although he supposed one could look at it the other way and appreciate he’d merely lost the full use of his arm rather than his life. Andrew was obliged to borrow a crewman’s rough coat as poor Marc had vomited all over his greatcoat one too many times to ignore. The child was a poor traveler, much thinner and paler than he’d been under the Mediterranean summer sun, although the gold had returned to his hair. From the looks of the slate-gray sky, a golden sun would not be making an appearance here anytime soon.
Once the boat docked at the settlement’s jetty, they were ushered into what was little more than a hut among the crescent of cottages to wait for the unloading of the ferry. Apparently most of its contents were destined for Gull House. Apart from his trunks, there were massive quantities of peat from nearby Mingulay to help heat his new home, as well as mysterious boxes from his London apartments that Andrew would be too tired to unpack. As a sharp drizzle of icy rain pelted the roof, Andrew watched the crew and island men work together to pile every thing into a wagon drawn by a rather dispirited horse. More than one trip would be needed, but it was his understanding from the one crewman who spoke some English that the crew would stay overnight in the hut and leave at first light tomorrow, weather permitting.
He supposed the wagon might belong to him, too, but he had no way of knowing. He had overlooked a significant fact about the Western Isles—Gaelic was the main language. He’d not spoken a word of it since he was a child, and then only knew the few words his Highland-born mother had cared to teach him. Donal Stewart had drummed it right out of him in his attempt to make Andrew an Edinburgh gentleman. How he had failed.
According to Edward Christie’s letter, there were perhaps fifteen or twenty families on the island—crofters and fisherfolk. All the women and their daughters and babies seemed to be here in the little hut staring and smiling at him, chattering incomprehensibly but making Marc very welcome on a round of warm laps as the wind howled outside. Andrew had heard “Failte”—welcome— too many times to count. He was plied with hot tea and oatcakes, but Marc screwed his little face up and refused the unfamiliar food. Even with his purchase of an Italian-English dictionary in a Paris shop, Andrew was making very little headway with his son. It would be nice to discover what the child liked to eat. He would even cook it himself if he had to.
Once the wagon was loaded, Andrew carried Marc out into the sleet. One of the men hopped up to drive them, and the others followed on foot and a few ponies. Andrew wrapped Marc in several thick blankets, pressing him to his chest. If they could simply survive long enough to get to the house, all might be well.
There was nothing especially picturesque about the scenery. Once one climbed the ridge away from the landing, the topography was relatively flat, with gneiss outcroppings dotting the grassland. There were few cottages, but several goats and sheep too stupid to get out of the weather. The wagon rolled south over a narrow cart track until Gull House and the surrounding ocean rose up like a gray storm.
To call the structure a “fine historic stone manor house” was a bit of a stretch. It did not look particularly historic, though it was old enough. According to the deed, at one time there had been an Iron Age fort here at the point, but the pile of rocks in front of Andrew was no fort. The two-story rectangular building was stone, but not particularly fine, and not really all that much larger than the crofters’ cottages he had passed on the narrow road.
But the view was indeed spectacular. Evidence of gulls and abundant birdlife was everywhere, their droppings on walls and windows that even the driving freezing rain had not washed off. Here and there slates had slipped from the roof to shatter on what passed for the lawn, a mix of nettles and silverweed. If ever any shrubs had ever hugged the foundation, they’d blown away long ago. Andrew frowned. There was no fire from the chimneys, no welcoming peat smell from a hearth. And the warped front door stood wide open to the elements.
With a few hand signals to the driver and the dispensation of coins, Andrew left Marc sleeping in the wagon under the blankets and entered his new home. His first impression was that it was very nearly as cold inside as out. The square reception room on the right was clean but nearly bare of furnishing. The dining room opposite looked slightly better equipped—there was even a moldy painting on the wall.