He's the eldest son of Victorian England's most notorious rogue, but Storm Deverell just wants to keep life simple. Unlike the other members of his wild tribe, he steers clear of scandal and leads an honest, hard-working existence on a Cornish farm.
Of course, it hasn't always been that way. In the days of youthful rebellion, that hot Deverell temper earned Storm a bad reputation. But now he keeps his anger tamed so well nobody would ever know it's still there.
All things considered, Storm has everything he wants, whenever he wants it, in his uncomplicated world. And even if life is a little quiet sometimes, at least it's predictable.
Until a strange woman arrives to shatter his unchallenged bachelor tranquility.
Stubborn, proudly independent and apparently immune to his infamous charm, Katherine Kelly is a disruption, a sharp-tongued, haughty madam, and the last thing he needs moving in as his neighbor.
One touch of her smooth hands tells him she knows nothing about managing a farm. One glance at her rose-embroidered stockings warns him she'll cause a commotion.
Good thing he's not looking for trouble these days.
Escaping a seedy, gas-lit world of deception and villainy with a spinet full of stolen banknotes and snuff boxes, Kate is seeking a new beginning and a better future for her son. She's come a long way to find sanctuary and fresh air, so that frustratingly calm, self-satisfied, straight-talking farmer in the next valley will not spoil it for her. Clearly he's ruled the roost around here far too long, a local legend in his own mind. So what if Deverell believes a woman can't survive without a man? Surviving is something this single mother knows how to do.
One touch of his rough hands tells her he's dangerous. One glance into his blue eyes warns her he'll be a distraction.
Good thing she's not looking for trouble these days.
But these two headstrong, accidental neighbors will soon learn that trouble can find them without being sought. Because what's "nice" can also be naughty, and what's naughty.... is usually a Deverell.
"Here I come for your nuts, Bert. Hope you're not too attached."
Katherine Kelly, often told she possessed a flair for the dramatic, paused on the threshold of the darkened room with a candle in one hand and a wood axe clutched in the other. It didn't matter that there was no one present to hear or witness her entrance. She felt the potency of this moment in her bones, in her fingertips, in the very curl of her hair. This performance was for herself alone.
Parting the darkness with her solitary candle, she moved boldly forward. The disturbed night air bristled around her, objecting to the intrusion, whispering against her skin. Odd, she mused, how silence was never truly quiet, and how this room seemed so much larger while veiled in the dustcovers of midnight.
At last, as the soft glow of her light stretched along the wall ahead, a cabinet loomed into view, its contents guarded by a padlock that dangled there like a hanged corpse left on the gibbet. Such a ghastly deterrent was meant to strike fear and awe into the heart of any observer. But the woman approaching it now felt only elation pulsing through her veins, a joy so intense and overdue that she barely kept her feet on the ground. In short, she felt slightly foxed.
Because Kate Kelly was about to be reborn.
Tonight, as the sun's blood finally drained out and that deflated orb sank below the sooty rooftops, her existence— as she lived then— went with it. But tomorrow, when daylight awoke again to the hurry-scurry of pigeons, those rejuvenated rays would shine brightly on a new world and a new beginning for her.
And there was only one more obstacle in her way.
With her candle raised in one hand, she paused before the cabinet. Buttery dribbles of color trickled over the surface of that padlock, until it resembled the smug, heavily jowled face of the man who put it there every night. Its tightly pursed mouth appeared to sputter the same lies.
"You do as you're told and you'll have what's coming to you one day," Albert Soames had promised, while counting out the house earnings and putting it away in this cabinet. His mutton fists worked more efficiently at that task than at any other she ever saw them undertake, for when it came to money, the clumsy lummox transformed into a lithe, speedy squirrel hoarding his hazelnuts for bad weather. "Once you've satisfied the terms of your contract with ol' Bert, you'll get your share."
A wise man would never have shown Kate where he kept the money. Soames, however, in the tradition of any bog-dwelling ogre holding a princess for ransom in a fairytale, was not a complicated, long-term thinker. He clearly relished closing that padlock with a snap and knocking it with his greasy finger, making it swing before her eyes, tormenting her for his own spiteful pleasure. But he underestimated his captive's temper and overestimated her patience, because while he might be the typical storybook villain, she was far from the usual mild-mannered, hapless heroine.
Kate set her candleholder down and raised the wood axe in both hands.
"Prepare yourself for the chop, Bert. I'll make it swift, but I can't guarantee it'll be painless."
Swinging hard, she aimed not at the lock, but at the cheap cabinet door itself.
The force of the strike vibrated through her body all the way to the soles of her feet. Fortunately, in this part of town, most people stayed under the covers when they heard a ruckus, and kept their noses out of other folk's business. As for the "Peelers"— they were regarded as obstacles to a way of life, rather than arbiters of justice. And Albert Soames was currently confined to the backyard privy with a ruthless, and not entirely coincidental, case of 'the trots'.
She struck again and again, until the hole in the splintered wood panel was large enough to let her reach through. The rough edge of the cut chafed against her wrist, but she barely felt it.
While her fingers fumbled inside the cabinet, her gaze followed the upward flutter of light from that single candle flame. There, covering a stain in the damask wallpaper, a tattered poster promoted the Music Box supper room, particularly the delightful entertainment of "Kitty Blue", who performed twice nightly and, according to the artist's rendition, showed off an unseemly amount of bosom and well-rounded thigh in the process. It was, of course, like most things about this place, a deception. Lured in by the promise of a woman with impossibly lush curves and a loose corset, the audience must be disappointed when they saw Kate instead— an ordinary creature in a patched evening gown that didn't fit and, if seen in the honest light of day, would lose all its mystique. But they never complained. According to Bert Soames, they were smitten halfway through her first song.
"You keep teasing the punters and they'll come back for more," he'd wheeze, pausing to wet his counting finger with that slimy, serpentine tongue, before swiftly feathering through the bank notes clutched in his other fist. "Leave 'em wantin'. That's your trick. It's all in the suggestion of a wink and a bit o' shoulder. You bring a touch o' class to the place."
Wishful thinking, indeed. Queen Victoria herself would be hard pressed to bring a touch of class to the damp, musty carpet, warped mirrors, crooked dice and smoke-stained wallpaper of the Music Box supper room. But poor Kitty had tried her valiant best.
"Goodbye, Kitty, my love," she exhaled on a rushed breath. "Wish us luck!"
With her next puff the candle flame was out. Cool darkness reabsorbed both the woman on the gaudy poster and the one with the wood axe.
And as their life ended, another began.
Beware false pride and the fangs of the Bumble Trout
The lamb's head emerged at last, the small front feet tucked up under its chin. Once the head was through, the rest of the body slipped out with greater ease and the ewe turned, sniffing at the straw, relieved no doubt that her efforts were at last productive. Giving a slightly surprised and proud, base rumble, she nuzzled the newborn and licked the membrane from its face, while the lamb looked about keenly, already on a quest for milk.
Leaning over the pen, Storm Deverell smiled down at the newest member of his flock. There were few things to compare with this, he thought— the sheer pleasure of seeing another tender creature brought into the world always gladdened his heart and made him smile. Didn't matter how many times he witnessed it. Didn't matter that it was still dark when he got out of bed that morning, or that a chill, bitter wind had slapped his face as soon as he stepped out of doors. He loved this time of year, all the hard work that came with it and the heartfelt rewards, which were infinitely more satisfying than the hollow chink of coin.
"You're the eldest born son of the richest, self-made man in the country," a woman said to him once. "But no one who lays eyes on you would ever know you're a gentleman's son."
He'd laughed. "Calling my father a gentleman? Watch your tongue, woman!"
"You could live in a fine house in London," she persisted, "wear silk breeches and court debutantes."
Like his half-brother, Ransom, she meant. Storm shook his head. "Not for me." He'd never been as far as London, but traveled to Exeter once and didn't like the fact that he couldn't walk about the place with his usual long and steady stride. The streets were so crowded he had to change his steps all the time and measure his pace to that of other people who got in his way. Soon, deeply frustrated by that cluttered environment, he was cured of any desire to see more of the world.
"But why do you work so hard when you don't need to?" his pretty companion had demanded many summers ago, as she lay in a hay cart, squinting up at him in the cider-tinted light.
"Every man needs work, Sally. When he has no occupation, that's when trouble starts."
Storm Deverell worried for men who sat on their backsides and lived off the toil of others. How could such an idle fellow sleep at night? Did he not still feel the unused energy coiled inside?
But explaining further to Sally White, the woman who questioned him with the sun in her eyes and hayseeds in her hair, would have been a waste of time. In his experience women were not great listeners, particularly when it came to reason and logic. And Sally wasn't the sort who cared how a man came by his money, as long as he had plenty to spend on her.
"You know what they say about all work and no play," she'd remarked with a coy flutter of gilded eyelashes.
"Is there anything about me that's dull, wench?"
Naturally, she couldn't pretend there was and he spent the next half hour proving it. That was as much as he could spare during the harvest. He had even less time now, in the spring.
As Sally would point out, he could quite easily have stayed by his warm fire this morning and left all this to his shepherd. But then he'd miss out on the sight of these little wooly creatures taking their first staggering steps.
It was a good day to be living.
Through the open barn doors dawn slowly swept in, like the foaming edge of a wave bubbling along the shore. He took a deep lungful of air and could smell rain on its way, a taste of moisture in the wind. Not that he needed the hint. Troubled, frothy clouds, drawn together and hanging like a crusty old man's brows, frowned over his path home across the fields. It was the kind of sky he was born beneath. Hence his name.
Surveying the grim horizon, he decided to head home to his hearth before those clouds emptied their burden. He expected another arrival today— one with two legs— and he ought to change out of this filthy shirt before she came. Sometimes a man had to make an effort, even if it was only for a new housekeeper.