Evan Newcome read the inscription on his father’s gravestone: THOMAS NEWCOME. BORN JULY 3, 1741. DIED APRIL 25, 1802.
Nothing. Shouldn’t he feel something besides a dull thud of hatred? Or the fear that clutched him in the dark?
Gritting his teeth, he noted the lack of an epitaph calling Thomas Newcome a wonderful father and husband. That surprised him, given that his older sister, Mary, always kept up appearances. From the moment she’d married her tailor husband and escaped their father, she’d acted as if her childhood had never been. Evan had assumed she’d willfully forgotten the past. But perhaps not.
Then again, perhaps she hadn’t chosen the words on the gravestone. Perhaps his older brother had done so—dull-witted, ham-fisted Goronwy, who wouldn’t have known what to write.
“Evan?” came a voice behind him. “Is that you?”
He turned to find Lady Juliana Vaughan standing there. She and her husband, Rhys, had rescued him from his abysmal home and sent him to Eton years ago. Just the sight of her banished his somber thoughts.
“Good day, my lady,” he said with a smile.
She looked as pretty as ever, her forty-odd years only enhancing her natural beauty. Glancing down at the grave, she tucked her hand in the crook of his elbow. “I’m sorry about your father. You have our deepest sympathies.”
He bit back the urge to say he hoped the arse rotted in hell. “Thank you.”
Juliana searched his face. “I was surprised you didn’t come home for the funeral, if only for your sister’s sake.”
“Trust me, it would have been harder for Mary to endure my obvious lack of grief. At least without me there, she could tell people I was abroad or suddenly taken ill.” He paused. “What did she tell people?”
Juliana gave a rueful smile. “That you were suddenly taken ill.”
“You see? I’m sure she was relieved I wasn’t there to tell the truth about the bullying bastard.”
She squeezed his arm. “Well, at least you’ve come now. You probably have matters you must discuss with your siblings.”
“Yes.” Although he’d arrived several hours ago, he’d put off going to his sister’s. He dreaded the awkward task of explaining why he was staying at an inn instead of with her.
The truth was, he felt ill at ease in her home. No matter how hard he tried to make her feel comfortable, she always seemed conscious of the differences between them now, and it pained him to watch her and her husband struggle for conversation.
Staying with Goronwy was out of the question. It was too horribly familiar, watching Goronwy explode every time a meal was cooked wrong or one of the children crossed him.
Evan couldn’t bear watching history repeat itself. Or being reminded that he, too, had a violent temper, that if matters were different and he had a helpless wife and children to lash out at . . .
Blood of his blood, flesh of his flesh. You are like him.
He shook off the bitter thought.
“That old gossip, Mrs. Wynton, told me you were here.” Juliana shot him a sideways glance. “She said you were staying at her wretched inn. Surely you weren’t planning to pass through here without even paying us a visit.”
He smiled. “You know I’d never do that. But I left London so suddenly, I didn’t have time to send a letter, and I didn’t want to inconvenience you by showing up on your doorstep without warning.”
“Don’t be silly. You come here so seldom that it’s sheer delight to have you. Do tell me you’ll stay with us at Llynwydd. Rhys will be pleased to see you, as will the children.” With a conspiratorial air, she leaned up to add, “Mrs. Wynton keeps a sloppy house, you know.”
“You don’t need to convince me.”
“Good. Rhys is over at Morgan’s, but we’re having luncheon together at the Bull and Crown.” She glanced down at the grave. “Come away from this place and join us. Will you?”
He nodded, letting her draw him from the cemetery. Perhaps being among friends would dispel his melancholy.
They walked together in a companionable silence. It felt good to be back in Wales. He’d forgotten how friendly the people were, how brilliant a blue the sky, how vibrant a green the forests that lined the roads. The wild sweetness of his own country roused a long-buried ache in him, to be in a place where every blade of grass seemed familiar. Wales was still his home, and he was astonished at how glad he was to walk the streets of crotchety old Carmarthen once more.
Soon they reached the tavern, where Rhys was waiting for Juliana, engrossed in reading a radical political pamphlet.
“Good morning, darling,” Juliana said. “Look who I found wandering the streets.”
Surprise lit the older man’s face as he rose to clasp Evan’s shoulders. “You wily scoundrel! Why didn’t you tell us you were coming to town?”
Juliana flashed Rhys a dark glance. “He was at the graveyard.”
“Ah, yes,” Rhys said, sobering. “I’d forgotten about your father. I’m sorry.”
“Actually,” Evan said, “I didn’t come because of that. I’m in search of the Lady of the Mists. I heard rumors of her as a child, so you two must know of her.”
“Yes, but—” Rhys began.
Juliana cut him off. “Of course we know of the old Lady of the Mists.” She shot Rhys a meaningful glance as she took a seat.
Rhys called a maid over and ordered food for the three of them, then sat down himself as Evan settled in a chair.
“How much do you know?” Evan grew sarcastic. “I’ve heard the legends, of course. She rides and shoots like a man, plays the harp like a goddess, and sings like an angel. It’s a wonder she bothers with us mortals.”
Rhys stared at Juliana, one eyebrow arched. “Yes, love, do tell Evan what we know about the Lady of the Mists.”
Evan sensed some secret between them, but that was no surprise. He envied how they could still be so much in love after all these years.
“Why are you interested in the Lady of the Mists?” Juliana asked.
He wondered how much to say. “I don’t know if you heard about the murder of my friend Justin.”
“Yes, I remember reading about it in the Times.”
Just then their food came, a substantial cawl, a roast leg of mutton, potatoes, and cabbage. Good Welsh fare that he couldn’t wait to tackle.
Ever the hostess, Juliana dished the food onto plates and put one in front of him. “The Times said Lord Mansfield was robbed and killed by footpads. I’m sorry, Evan. It has been a year of losses for you, hasn’t it?”
He nodded, though Justin’s death had cut far more deeply than his father’s. Years ago, Justin had braved the taunts of his classmates at Eton to befriend Evan. Justin had taught him how to defend himself from the snobbish young nobles and bullying merchants’ sons without getting caught by the headmaster.
They’d remained friends at Cambridge, even after Justin began living the reckless life of a young lord. He’d been the only one who could coax Evan from his books for a foray into London’s gaming hells or a night of wenching, the only one who could make Evan forget for a while who he was and where he’d come from. And when Evan’s engagement to a wealthy merchant’s daughter had ended in disaster, it had been Justin who’d forced Evan to stop brooding.
How could the carefree devil be dead? It was unfathomable. Yet he was, and his senseless death left Evan with an unquenchable anger. “His death is why I’ve come in search of the Lady of the Mists.” When they regarded him oddly, he added, “I believe she was the last person to see Justin.”
As he ate some mutton, Rhys and Juliana exchanged glances.
“Why do you believe that?” Juliana asked.
“Because he met with her the night he was killed.”
“And you think she had something to do with it?” Juliana asked in alarm.
He considered confiding his suspicions, but he wanted to know more of what had occurred first. “Not necessarily. But there’s been little progress in finding his killers. I’m hoping she saw something that will help.”
Juliana’s face cleared. “I see. That’s all right, then.”
“I’m so glad you approve.” He couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of his voice. She was behaving strangely. “Tell me what you know about her.”
“She’s a widow,” Rhys said. “It’s a tragic story. Her husband, Willie Price, was killed on their wedding day in a freak accident.”
Despite himself, Evan felt a twinge of sympathy. “That’s awful.”
“Yes,” Juliana agreed. “But she has risen above it to make a place for herself in the world.”
“We met her once when she visited Carmarthen,” Rhys said. Suddenly he grunted for no apparent reason and shot his wife a sharp glance.
Evan dipped his bread in gravy. “What was she like?”
Before Rhys could answer, Juliana cut in. “She was as wonderful as the legends make her out to be.”
“Of course, you probably already know she’s the daughter of a knight and fairly well-off,” Rhys said.
Evan blinked. He’d always thought of the old woman as classless, one of those unusual creatures on the fringes of society who in past times would have been termed witches. Why would a woman of such standing murder a nobleman?
“She’s a bit of an odd one,” Rhys added, ignoring his wife’s scowl. “Despite her rank, she dabbles in all sorts of peculiar things.”
“You mean, aside from the harp playing and shooting?” Evan quipped.
Rhys flashed him an enigmatic smile. “Yes. She writes, you know. You might have read her work. She studies the folklore and superstitions of the Welsh. Morgan and I have offered to publish her essays in one of our collections.” He glanced at Juliana. “I think you’ll like her a great deal more than you expect.”
“Whether I like her is immaterial. I’d settle for knowing her actual name and how to find her.”
“Oh, that!” Juliana brightened. “Her name is Catrin Price, and she lives outside of Llanddeusant. I can tell you how to get to the village, and the villagers can direct you to her home. Her estate is called Plas Niwl, the Mansion of Mist. It’s near Llyn y Fan Fach, the lake with the legend about the fairy who married a mortal. Their descendants are supposed to be the great doctors of Merthyr Tydfil.”
He’d heard the tale. A merchant had fallen in love with the fairy after seeing her at the lake. She’d agreed to become his wife, bringing him cattle and gold as her dowry, but had promised to remain his wife only until the day he’d struck her three times. After years of marriage and four children, he’d done so, and she’d vanished, taking the cattle and gold with her.
Wise woman. Too bad Mother couldn’t have vanished.
“You should see Llyn y Fan Fach while you’re there,” Juliana went on. “It’s beautiful.”
The wistful remark made him smile. Juliana held romantic notions about Wales. An estate named the Mansion of Mist near a renowned site of legend probably fired her imagination to new heights.
“I shall certainly try,” he said. “But I won’t have a lot of time.”
“Does this mean you’re not staying here long?” Juliana asked.
“I’m afraid so.” He suspected that gleaning the truth from a wily old woman like Catrin Price might take patience . . . and a devious mind. He must approach this cautiously to avoid spooking her before he got what he wanted.
Juliana sighed. “While you’re there, stay at the Red Dragon. But you will pass through here on your way back to the coast, won’t you?”
“Of course.” Evan smiled. “And this time I’ll give you fair warning.”
“It doesn’t matter. You know we always love to have you.” A sly look crossed Juliana’s face. “Although I wonder if the day will ever come when I welcome you and a wife to our estate.”
With a groan, he pushed his plate away. “Don’t start that again. I’ve already told you—no sane woman wants a tedious scholar for a husband.”
“You are not a tedious scholar. You’re a strong, handsome young man. Any woman would be proud to marry you.”
Evan didn’t bother to disguise his bitterness. “I know several women who’d disagree. My humble bloodlines disgust the gentry, and my education intimidates those of my class. I’m too Welsh for an Englishwoman, and too English for a Welshwoman. I’m cantankerous and stubborn and lacking in the charm that sweeps women off their feet.” I’m blood of his blood, flesh of his flesh.
He forced back that thought. “In short, I don’t suit anyone, and it’s unlikely I’d find someone to suit me. And that’s the last I shall say on the subject.”
“Good,” Juliana retorted, “because it’s all nonsense. You’re considered a genius for your linguistic abilities, your translations garner large subscriptions, and young men flock to your lectures at Cambridge. Humble bloodlines, indeed! Any woman worth her salt won’t care about that. I didn’t care a whit about Rhys’s when he came courting.” At Rhys’s scowl, she added hastily, “Not that his bloodlines weren’t perfectly respectable. But my father was hoping for a duke.”
“Which would never have worked,” Rhys confided to Evan. “Juliana is far too strong-minded. She would have made a duke miserable.”
“Rhys Vaughan!” Juliana protested.
Rhys grinned. “But you make me perfectly happy, darling.”
When Juliana gave Rhys an adoring smile, Evan felt a twinge of envy. “At least Rhys owned land. I haven’t an acre to my name. No matter where I go or what I do, I’m still a tenant farmer’s son of modest means. No woman will forget that simply because I’ve achieved success in certain circles.”
“The right woman will,” Juliana persisted. “You just haven’t found her yet.”
He didn’t feel like arguing with her. “Perhaps you’re right. But until that woman comes along, I’m happy to have friends like you and Rhys.” He rose. “And if I’m to stay with you tonight, I’d best move my things.”
Rhys flashed him a sympathetic smile, obviously aware of why Evan was hurrying off. “We’ll meet you there with the carriage as soon as we’re finished.”
Evan nodded and walked out of the inn.
Juliana watched him leave, her heart tight with sympathy. She loved Evan as dearly as she loved her own children, and his unhappiness tormented her.
“He’ll be all right.” Rhys leaned over to take her hand. “Evan has survived many things, and he’ll survive this.”
“He needs someone. You know he does.”
“Yes, but he’ll have to find her himself.”
“I swear I could kill the chit who broke his heart. He was even prepared to leave the university for her. How dare she make Evan fall in love with her, only to end the engagement for no apparent reason!”
“She must have had some reason.”
“Don’t defend her. I can’t believe any woman would refuse Evan.”
“And you’re biased. Anyway, they obviously weren’t well-suited, so aren’t you glad he was saved from marrying her?”
“Yes, but now he’s become a complete cynic about women. It isn’t right.”
“And you think that fooling him about the Lady of the Mists will help.”
A startled expression crossed her face. “What do you mean?”
Rhys grinned. “You know what I mean, you little meddler. Why else wouldn’t you reveal that the Lady of the Mists he heard about in childhood died two years ago, and that her granddaughter now holds that name? That this Lady of the Mists is a shy, bewitching miss liable to steal his heart?”
She sniffed. “If I’d told him that, he wouldn’t have gone. He steers clear of bewitching misses these days. And it’ll be even worse now that Justin is dead. At least Justin forced him to go out in society.”
“So you’re forcing him to meet Catrin Price.”
Juliana scowled. “She’s perfect for him—a scholar who’s bright and kind and—”
“I thought you said she had turned aside every suitor who’s come near her since Mr. Price’s death?”
Juliana shot him a defensive glance. “She won’t turn Evan aside.”
Rhys laughed. “How can you be so damned sure?”
“A woman’s intuition.”
“And how can you be sure he’ll like her?”
“Of course he’ll like her. She’s ‘bewitching,’ isn’t she?”
At her peevish tone, Rhys smiled, then leaned over to give her a quick kiss. “Not as bewitching as you, cariad.”
She melted, as always. In truth, it was a good sign that Rhys found sweet little Mrs. Price “bewitching.” She only hoped Evan did, too. Because it would take a witch to storm his walled-up heart.
Welsh widow Catrin Price is haunted by a family death curse. Any man whom she marries without first drinking from an ancient Druid chalice sold by her ancestor long ago is unquestionably doomed. But when she hunts it down to purchase it, the chalice’s former owner ends up dead. Who will believe her innocent with the man’s treasure in her hands? Now she lives in fear of discovery, afraid to trust, afraid to give away her heart…
Even Newcome, a scholar struggling to overcome a difficult past, travels to Wales to find the mysterious woman last seen with his murdered friend. So when the lady proves to be a beautiful yet shy creature who shares his love of Welsh mythology, he’s torn between believing her guilty and trusting the passion blazing between them. But as unscrupulous men seek the chalice for their own devious purposes, will Catrin and Evan let their wall of mistrust stand between them? Or will they defeat their enemies together and embrace the love intended for them since time immemorial?