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Prologue

"Tell her to beware the Guardian." Artemis Wingfield leaned across the tavern table. His faded blue eyes were intent beneath his bushy gray brows. "Have you got that, Chillhurst? She is to beware the Guardian."

Jared Ryder, Viscount Chillhurst, braced his elbows on the table, placed his fingertips together, and regarded his companion with his one-eyed gaze. Wingfield had grown comfortable with him during the past two days, he thought, so comfortable that he no longer stared at the black velvet patch that covered Jared's sightless eye.

It was obvious that Wingfield had accepted Jared for what he purported to beanother adventurous Englishman like himself bent on travel now that the war with Napoleon had finally ended.

The two men had wound up spending the past two nights at the same inn in this grimy little French port awaiting the ships that would take them to their respective destinations.

Perspiration dripped down Wingfield's brow and into his whiskers. It was a warm evening in late spring and the smoke-filled tavern was crowded. Jared privately considered that Wingfield was suffering unnecessarily from the heat. The older man's chin-high collar, elegantly knotted cravat, snug-fitting waistcoat, and well-tailored jacket were definitely contributing to his obvious discomfort.

The fashionable attire was not well suited to the balmy night or to the environs of a port tavern. Wingfield, however, was the sort of Englishman who valued appearances far above personal comfort. Jared suspected that his new acquaintance dressed for dinner every night during his travels even if the meal happened to be served in a tent.

"I comprehend your words, sir." Jared tapped his fingertips together. "But I don't take your meaning. Who, or what, is this Guardian?"

Wingfield's whiskers twitched. "Lot of nonsense, to be perfectly frank. Just part of an old legend surrounding a diary that I'm shipping back to my niece in England. The old count who sold the volume to me told me about the warning."

"I see," Jared said politely. "Beware the Guardian, eh? Interesting."

"As I said, merely the remnants of an old legend connected to the diary. Nevertheless, a rather odd incident occurred last night and one cannot be too careful."

"Odd incident?"

Wingfield narrowed his eyes. "I believe my room here at the inn was searched while I was dining."

Jared frowned. "You said nothing about it at breakfast this morning."

"Wasn't certain. Nothing taken, you see. But all day long I've had the most peculiar sensation that I'm being watched."

"Unpleasant."

"Indeed. And no doubt entirely unrelated to the diary. Still I've become a bit concerned. Wouldn't want to put her in any danger."

Jared unsteepled his hands and took a swallow of his weak ale. "What is this diary you say you are sending to your niece?"

"It's a lady's journal actually," Wingfield explained. "Belonged to a woman named Claire Lightbourne. That's all I know about it. The entries are completely unintelligible for the most part."

"Why is that?"

"It appears to be written in a hodgepodge of Greek and Latin and English. Rather like a private code. My niece believes that the Lightbourne diary holds clues to a fabulous treasure." Wingfield snorted.

"You do not believe the tale?"

"Not bloody likely, if you ask me. But Olympia will have fun attempting to decipher the diary. She enjoys that sort of thing."

"She sounds like a rather unusual female."

Wingfield chuckled. "She is that. Not her fault, I suppose. She was raised by a rather eccentric aunt and the aunt's companion. I was never well acquainted with that side of the family but word had it that both the aunt and her friend undertook to educate Olympia themselves. Filled her head with a lot of strange notions."

"What sort of notions?"

"Olympia don't give a fig for propriety, thanks to her schooling. Don't mistake me, she's a fine young woman. Her reputation is spotless. But she ain't interested in the sort of things young females are supposed to be interested in, if you see what I mean."

"Such as?"

"Fashion, for one thing. Got no interest in clothes. And that aunt of hers never taught her the useful things a lady needs to know such as how to dance or flirt or make herself agreeable to a potential suitor." Wingfield shook his head. "Very odd upbringing, if you ask me. The chief reason she's never found herself a husband, I suspect."

"What does interest your niece?" Jared was growing genuinely curious in spite of himself.

"Anything that has to do with the customs and legends of foreign lands fascinates the chit. Very active in the Society for Travel and Exploration, you know, even though she's never been out of Dorset in her life."

Jared looked at him. "If she does not travel, herself, how is she able to be active in the society?"

"She tracks down old books and journals and letters that deal with travel and exploration. She studies what she finds and writes up her conclusions. Published several papers in the quarterly journal of the society during the last three years."

"She did?" Jared was becoming more intrigued by the moment.

"Yes, indeed." A fleeting expression of pride flickered in Wingfield's gaze. "Very popular pieces because they incorporate all sorts of instructive information on the customs and habits of foreigners."

"How did she discover the Lightbourne diary?" Jared asked carefully.

Wingfield shrugged. "Through a series of letters that she turned up in her research. Took her nearly a year, but she finally located the diary in a small town here on the French coast. It was originally part of a much larger library that was destroyed during the war."

"You came here specifically to purchase the diary for your niece?"

"It was on my way," Wingfield said. "I'm en route to Italy. The diary apparently passed through a number of hands during the past few years. The old man who sold it to me was hard-pressed. He needed money and was more than happy to sell off some of his books. I picked up a number of other volumes for Olympia in the bargain."

"Where is the diary at the moment?"

"Oh, it's safe enough." Wingfield looked smug. "I packed it yesterday and saw it safely stowed in the hold of the Sea Flame along with the rest of the goods I'm sending to Olympia."

"You're not concerned about the goods while they're on board the ship?"

"Good lord, no. The Sea Flame is one of the Flamecrest ships. Excellent reputation. Reliable crews and experienced, trustworthy captains. Fully insured. No, no, my goods are in safe hands while they're at sea."

"But you're not so certain of the safety of English roads, is that it?"

Wingfield grimaced. "I feel much better about that part of the matter now that I know you'll be accompanying the goods to Upper Tudway in Dorset."

"I appreciate your confidence."

"Yes, sir, my niece is going to be as happy as a lark when she sees that diary."

Jared privately concluded that Olympia Wingfield was, indeed, a very odd creature. Not that he didn't know a thing or two about odd creatures, he reminded himself. He had, after all, been raised in a family of outrageous, flamboyant eccentrics.

Wingfield leaned back in the booth and surveyed the tavern. His gaze fell on a scarred, heavily built man who was sitting at the next table. The man wore a knife and a brutish expression that did not bode well for anyone who might want to share the table with him. He was typical of many of the tavern's patrons.

"Rough looking lot, ain't they?" Wingfield asked uneasily.

"Half of the men you see in here tonight are little better than pirates," Jared said. "Soldiers who had nowhere else to go when Napoleon was finally defeated. Sailors waiting for a ship. Men looking for a willing wench or a fight. The usual riffraff that hangs about in port towns."

"And the other half?"

Jared smiled briefly. "They probably are pirates."

"Not surprised. You said you've done a great deal of traveling, sir. You must have been in a number of places like this in your time. Expect you've learned to handle yourself."

"As you can see, I've managed to survive thus far."

Wingfield glanced meaningfully at the black velvet patch that covered Jared's ruined eye. "Not completely unscathed, I notice."

"No, not completely unscathed." Jared's mouth curved humorlessly.

He was well aware that people generally did not find his appearance reassuring. It was not merely the eye patch that made them wary. Even under the best of circumstances, when his hair had been properly trimmed and he was dressed in more fashionable clothes, members of his own family had frequently remarked that he looked like a pirate.

Their chief regret was that he did not act like a pirate.

When all was said and done, Jared knew, he was a man of business, not the flamboyant, exciting, hot-blooded son his father had hoped would carry on the family traditions.

Wingfield had been cautious of him at first. Jared knew it was his quiet manner and his educated speech, not his looks, that had convinced the older man to accept him as a fellow gentleman.

"How did you happen to lose the eye, if you don't mind my asking?"

"It's a long story," Jared said. "And a somewhat painful one. I'd rather not go into it at the moment."

"Of course, of course." Wingfield flushed a dull red. "Sorry for the impertinence."

"Do not concern yourself. I'm accustomed to having people stare."

"Yes, well, I must say I'll feel less concerned once the Sea Flame sails in the morning. Knowing that you're going to be on board and will be escorting my goods on to Upper Tudway is a great comfort. I thank you again for undertaking the task."

"As I'm on my way back to Dorset myself, I'm happy to be of assistance."

"I don't mind telling you, it'll save me a bit of blunt," Wingfield confided. "Won't have to hire the usual firm in Weymouth to handle the goods and see that they're sent on to Olympia. Just as well I won't have to pay for the service this time. Very expensive."

"Importing goods is never cheap."

"No, and unfortunately Olympia hasn't been able to get as much money as I had hoped for on the last two shipments. Thought we'd both come out a bit further ahead by now than we have."

"The market for imported items can be unpredictable," Jared said. "Is your niece an astute woman when it comes to matters of business?"

"Lord, no." Wingfield chuckled fondly. "Olympia has no head for business. Smart as a whip but she's got no interest at all in financial matters. Takes after my side of the family, I'm afraid. Longs to travel as I do, but of course that's impossible."

"A woman alone would have great difficulty traveling in most parts of the world," Jared conceded.

"That fact wouldn't have stopped my niece. I told you, she ain't your typical English miss. She's five-and-twenty now and she's got a mind of her own. No telling what she might have done if she'd had a decent income and if she hadn't gotten saddled with those three hellion nephews of hers."

"She's raising her nephews?"

Wingfield's whiskers twitched. "Calls 'em her nephews and they call her Aunt Olympia, but the truth is, the relationship is a bit more distant. The boys are the sons of a cousin and his wife who were killed in a carriage accident a couple of years ago."

"How did the children end up in the care of your niece?"

"You know how such things go, sir. After the death of their parents, the boys got passed around from one relative to another and finally landed on Olympia's doorstep six months ago. She took 'em in."

"Quite a handful for a young woman on her own."

"Especially one who's always got her mind on her investigations of other lands and old legends." Wingfield scowled thoughtfully. "Those boys are growing up wild. They've chewed three tutors that I know of into little pieces. Fine youngsters, but full of mischief. Whole household always seems to be in an uproar."

"I see." Jared had been raised in a household that was forever in an uproar. He had not cared for the experience. He preferred a calm, orderly existence.

"I try to help Olympia out, of course. Do what I can when I'm in England."

But you do not stay in England long enough to take those three young boys in hand, do you? Jared thought. "What else are you shipping to your niece in addition to the Lightbourne diary?"

Wingfield swallowed the last of his ale. "Cloth, spices, and a few trinkets. And books, of course."

"And she'll see to it that they're sold in London?"

"All except the books. They're for her library. But the rest goes to London. She uses some of the money to run her own household and saves the remainder to help finance my travels. The system has worked rather well for both of us, although, as I said, I thought we'd do a bit better out of it than we have."

"It's difficult to do well in one's business affairs if one does not pay close attention to one's accounts," Jared observed dryly.

He thought about the problems he had been noting in his own business accounts during the past six months. He was going to have to press harder on his inquiries in that direction. There was no longer any doubt but that several thousand pounds had been embezzled from the extensive Flamecrest financial empire. Jared did not care for the notion that he had been deceived. He did not relish playing the fool.

One thing at a time, he reminded himself. At the moment he must deal with the matter of the diary.

"Quite right about the need to pay attention to one's accounts, sir, but the fact is, neither Olympia nor myself can be bothered with those sorts of dull details. Still, we get by." Wingfield peered closely at Jared. "I say, you're certain you don't mind undertaking this favor for me?"

"Not at all." Jared looked out through the window at the night-shrouded harbor. He could see the dark bulk of the Sea Flame where it rested at anchor, awaiting the morning tide.

"Appreciate it, sir. I say, great luck running into a gentleman such as yourself here in this part of France. Extremely fortunate for me you're bound for England on board the Sea Flame."

Jared smiled slightly. "Yes, quite fortunate." He wondered what Wingfield would say were he to learn that Jared controlled not only the Sea Flame but the entire Flamecrest fleet.

"Yes, well, I feel much better knowing you'll see that the shipment and the diary get safely to my niece. Now I can get on with the next leg of my journey."

"You are bound for Italy, I believe you said?"

"And then on to India." Wingfield's eyes filled with the anticipation of the inveterate traveler. "Always wanted to see India, you know."

"I wish you a good journey," Jared said.

"Same to you, sir. And, again, my thanks."

"My pleasure." Jared pulled his gold watch out of his pocket and consulted the time. "Now you must excuse me." He slipped the watch back into his pocket and got to his feet.

Wingfield looked up at him. "Turning in for the night, eh?"

"Not yet. I believe I'll take a walk along the quay to clear my head before I go upstairs to bed."

"Watch your back," Wingfield advised in a low tone. "Don't much care for the looks of this bunch in here. No telling what sort of villains are outside at this hour."

"Do not concern yourself on my behalf, sir." Jared inclined his head in a polite farewell. He turned and walked toward the door.

One or two of the men who sat hunched over their mugs eyed his expensive boots with a speculative glance. Then their eyes slid upward to the knife strapped to his leg and higher still to the black patch over his eye.

No one rose to follow Jared outside.

The breeze off the sea stirred Jared's long, untrimmed hair as he stepped out into the night. Unlike Wingfield, he was dressed for the warm climate. He wore no neckcloth. He detested neckcloths and cravats. The collar of his finely woven cotton shirt was open and the sleeves were rolled up on his forearms.

Jared started along the stone quay, his mind on the business at hand, his senses attuned to the night. A man who had lost one eye had good reason to take care of the other.

A lantern bobbed at the far end of the quay. As Jared drew closer he watched two men step out of the shadows. Both were big, nearly as tall as Jared, and almost as wide across the shoulders. Their rough-hewn faces were framed by silvered whiskers and manes of white hair. They walked with bold, swaggering strides even though each was past sixty. Two aging buccaneers, Jared thought, not without affection.

The first of the two men hailed Jared with a smile that gleamed in the shadows. The color of the older man's eyes was washed out by the moonlight, but Jared was quite familiar with the unusual shade of gray. He saw the same color in the mirror every morning when he shaved.

"Good evening, sir," Jared said politely to his father. Then he nodded to the other man. "Uncle Thaddeus. A fine night, is it not?"

"About time you showed up." Magnus, Earl of Flamecrest, beetled his brows. "I was beginning to think your new acquaintance was going to keep you talking for the better part of the night."

"Wingfield is very fond of conversation."

Thaddeus hoisted the lantern higher. "Well, lad? What did ye learn?"

Jared was thirty-four years old. He had not considered himself a lad for many years. In fact, he often felt aeons older than anyone else in the family. But there was no point correcting Thaddeus.

"Wingfield believes he has found Claire Lightbourne's diary," Jared said calmly.

"Bloody hell." The satisfaction in Magnus's face was plain to read in the glow of the lantern. "So it's true, then. The diary has finally been found after all these years."

"Damme," Thaddeus exclaimed. "How the devil did Wingfield get to it first?"

"I believe it was his niece who actually located the volume," Jared said. "You will notice it was found here in France. My cousins were obviously wasting their efforts two months ago when they went chasing off into the hills of Spain to look for it."

"Now, Jared," Magnus said soothingly, "Young Charles and William had good reason to believe it had been taken there during the war. You're just a mite annoyed with your cousins because they got themselves captured by those damn bandits."

"The entire affair was something of a nuisance," Jared allowed grimly. "Furthermore, it cost me nearly two thousand pounds in ransom money, not to mention a great deal of time and effort spent away from my business affairs."

"Damnation, son," Magnus roared. "Is that all you can ever think about? Your business affairs? You've got the blood of buccaneers in your veins, by God, but you've got the heart and soul of a tradesman."

"I'm well aware that I'm something of a disappointment to you and the rest of the family, sir." Jared leaned on the stone wall that fronted the harbor. "But as we've discussed the matter on several previous occasions, I do not think we need go into it again tonight."

"He's right, Magnus," Thaddeus said quickly. "Got more important things to deal with at the moment. The diary is practically in our grasp. I say we have at it."

Jared arched one brow. "Which of you made an effort to have at it last night? Wingfield says his room was searched."

"It was worth a try," Thaddeus said, unabashed.

Magnus nodded. "Just took a look around, that's all."

Jared bit back an exasperated oath. "The diary has been stowed on board the Sea Flame since yesterday afternoon. We'd have to unload the whole damn ship to get at it."

"Pity," Thaddeus muttered, defeated.

"In any event," Jared continued, "the diary belongs to Miss Olympia Wingfield of Meadow Stream Cottage in Dorset. She has bought and paid for it."

"Bah, the diary is ours," Magnus said stoutly. "It's a family heirloom. I say she has no right to it."

"You appear to have forgotten that even if we get our hands on it, we shall very likely not be able to decipher it. However" Jared paused just long enough to get his father's and uncle's full attention.

"Yes?" Magnus asked eagerly.

"Artemis Wingfield feels certain that his niece will be able to unravel the code in which the diary is written," Jared said. "Apparently Miss Wingfield excels at that sort of thing."

Thaddeus brightened immediately. "I say, lad, your course of action is clear, then, ain't it? You'll have to follow the diary to its destination and then proceed to insinuate yourself into Miss Wingfield's good graces so that she'll tell you all she learns."

"Brilliant notion." Magnus's whiskers jerked in excitement. "Charm her, son. Seduce her. When she melts in your hands, get her to tell ye everything she learns from the diary. Then we'll snaffle it away from her."

Jared sighed. It was difficult being the only sane, sensible soul in a family filled with eccentrics and Originals.

The search for the Lightbourne diary had preoccupied all the Flamecrest males except Jared for three generations. Jared's father, uncle, and cousins had all pursued it at one time or another. So had his grandfather and his great-uncles. The lure of treasure had a truly mesmerizing effect on a clan descended from a genuine buccaneer.

But enough was enough. A few weeks earlier his cousins had very nearly gotten themselves killed because of the diary. Jared had decided it was time to end the nonsense once and for all. Unfortunately, the only way to put a stop to the matter was to recover the diary and see if it did indeed contain the secret of the missing treasure.

No one had argued when Jared had announced that it was his turn to pursue the mysterious fortune that had vanished nearly a hundred years earlier. In truth everyone, his father especially, was only too pleased to see Jared show some interest in the matter.

Jared knew he was considered useful to the family because of his talent for business. But that did not account for much in a family famed for its dashing, hot-blooded men.

His relatives considered Jared depressingly dull. They said he lacked the Flamecrest fire. He, in turn, considered that they lacked self-restraint and common sense. It had not escaped his notice that they were quick enough to come to him when there was a problem or when they needed money.

Jared had been putting matters right and attending to the boring little details of life for the Flamecrest clan since he was nineteen. Everyone in the family agreed it was the one thing at which he excelled.

It seemed to Jared that he was forever rescuing one member of the family or another.

Sometimes, when he sat up late at night making notes in his appointment journal, he wondered fleetingly if someone would ever come along to rescue him.

"It's all very well for you two to talk about charm and seduction," Jared said, "but we all know that I did not inherit the Flamecrest talent for either."

"Bah." Magnus waved that aside with a sweeping motion of his hand. "The problem is that you've never applied yourself to the matter."

An expression of grave concern crossed Thaddeus's face. "Well, now, Magnus, I wouldn't go so far as to say he ain't tried his hand at that sort of thing. There was that unfortunate situation three years ago when the lad tried to woo himself a wife."

Jared looked at his uncle. "I think we can dispense with a discussion of that subject. I do not intend to seduce Miss Wingfield or anyone else into telling me the secret of the diary."

Thaddeus scowled. "How will ye go about worming it out o' her, then, lad?"

"I shall offer to purchase the information," Jared said.

"Purchase it." Magnus looked shocked. "Ye think ye can buy a legendary secret like that with mere money?"

"It has been my experience that one can purchase almost anything," Jared said. "A straightforward, businesslike approach works wonders in virtually every conceivable situation."

"Lad, lad, what are we going to do with you?" Thaddeus moaned.

"You are going to let me handle this my way," Jared said. "Now then, let us understand each other. I will pursue the diary. In the meantime, I want your word that you will remember our agreement."

"What agreement?" Magnus asked blankly.

Jared's jaw tightened. "While I'm engaged in this undertaking you are not to interfere in any way in Flamecrest business matters."

"Bloody hell, son, Thaddeus and I were running the family business before you were even born."

"Yes, sir, I know. The two of you ran it straight into the ground."

Magnus's mustache jumped in outrage. "Not our fault we had a bit of a bad spell there. Business was poor during those years."

Jared wisely decided not to pursue the point. They all knew that the earl's lack of business sense coupled with the equally poor abilities of his brother, Thaddeus, had combined to destroy what little was left of the Flamecrest family fortune.

It was Jared who had taken over at the age of nineteen, barely in time to salvage the one decrepit ship that the family had still owned. He had pawned his mother's necklace to raise the money he had needed. No one in the family had ever really forgiven him for his shocking want of sentiment, including his mother. She had actually mentioned the matter for the last time on her deathbed two years ago. Jared had been too grief-stricken to remind her that she had enjoyed the fruits of the new Flamecrest fortune to the hilt, as had everyone else in the clan.

Jared had rebuilt the Flamecrest empire from that one ship. He sincerely hoped he would not have to repeat the feat when he returned from this crazed venture.

"Hard to believe that at long last the missing Flamecrest fortune is nearly within our grasp." Thaddeus squeezed his hand into a triumphant fist.

"We already possess a fortune," Jared pointed out. "We do not need the stolen treasure Captain Jack and his partner Edward Yorke buried on that damn island nearly a hundred years ago."

"It was not stolen treasure," Magnus thundered.

"If you will recall, sir, Great-grandfather was a pirate while he lived in the West Indies." Jared's brow rose. "It's highly unlikely that he and Yorke came by that treasure in an honest fashion."

"Captain Jack was not a pirate," Thaddeus said fiercely. "He was a loyal Englishman who sailed under a commission. That treasure was lawful spoils taken off a Spanish vessel, by God."

"It would be interesting to hear the Spaniards' version of the story," Jared remarked.

"Bah." Magnus glowered at him. "They're to blame for this situation. If the blasted Spaniards hadn't given chase, Captain Jack and Yorke wouldn't have been obliged to bury the booty on that damned island and we wouldn't be standin' here tonight workin' out a way to get it back."

"Yes, sir," Tared said wearily. He had heard this many times before. It never failed to bore him.

"The only real pirate around was Edward Yorke," Magnus continued. "That lying, cheating, murderous knave who betrayed your great-grandfather to the Spanish. It was only by the grace of God that Captain Jack managed to escape the trap."

"It all happened nearly a hundred years ago. We do not know for certain that Yorke betrayed Captain Jack," Jared said quietly. "In any event, it really does not matter much now."

"Of course it matters," Magnus snapped. "You follow in a proud tradition, my boy. It's your duty to find that missing treasure. It belongs to us and we have every right to claim it."

"After all," Thaddeus said gravely, "you are the new Guardian, lad."

"Bloody hell," Jared said under his breath. "That is a lot of nonsense and you know it."

"T'ain't nonsense," Thaddeus insisted. "You won the right to the title years ago, the night you used Captain Jack's own dagger to save your cousins from that smuggler. Have ye forgotten?"

"I'm hardly likely to forget the incident, as it cost me an eye, sir," Jared muttered. He did not, however, want to get into an argument over yet another idiotic family legend. He had his hands full dealing with the old tale of buried treasure.

"No gettin' around the fact that you're the new Guardian," Magnus said with a sage expression. "You blooded the dagger. Furthermore, you're the spittin' image of Captain Jack, himself, as a young man."

"Enough." Jared removed his watch from his pocket and held it close to the lantern so that he could read the face. "It's late and I must rise early tomorrow."

"You and that bloody watch of yours," Thaddeus grumbled. "I'll wager you've got your appointment journal with ye, too."

"Of course," Jared assured him coolly. "You know I depend upon it."

His watch and his appointment journal were the two things he valued most in his daily life, Jared thought. For years they had provided him with a means of establishing order and routine in a world often made chaotic and unstable by his wild, unpredictable family.

"I cannot believe it." Magnus shook his head in sorrow. "Here ye be about to sail off in search of the secret to a grand treasure and you're consulting your watch and checkin' your appointment journal like a dull man o' business."

"I am a dull man of business, sir," Jared said.

"It's enough to make a father weep," Magnus growled.

"Try to show some of the Flamecrest fire, lad," Thaddeus urged.

"We're on the brink of recovering our lost heritage, son." Magnus gripped the edge of the quay wall and gazed out at the night-darkened sea, the very image of a man who can see beyond the horizon. "I can feel it in me bones. After all these years the Flamecrest treasure is almost within our grasp. And you have the great honor of recovering it for the family."

"I assure you, sir," Jared said politely, "my excitement at the prospect knows no bounds."


Deception Amanda Quick | Deception | Chapter 1