Ash Cynfell cracked open an eye. He closed it again at the sight that greeted him. The sense of being watched failed to dissipate so he forced that eye open once more and peered at his reflection.
No, not his reflection. His twin brother.
“What the devil are you doing here?” he grumbled, hearing the gritty tone to his voice. He closed both eyes and concentrated working through the fog that had crowded his mind several hours ago and left him lethargic and almost unable to move from his bed.
“Drinking again, brother?” Harris asked. “On today of all days.”
Ash did not deny it. He worked hard to open both eyes and stare down his brother as he leant over him. While they were identical, Harris didn’t suffer the affliction of red-rimmed eyes or creases on his forehead, as Ash knew he’d currently have if he braved a look in a mirror.
“What do you want?”
“Well, that’s charming.” Harris strode over to the chair in the corner of the bedroom, sat, and lifted yesterday’s newspaper that had been abandoned when his vision had grown too blurry to read it. His brother crossed one leg over the other and flicked the paper open.
Ash clenched his jaw and lifted his gaze to the ornate ceiling of his townhouse bedroom. He took a few breaths and counted to ten. As close as they were, he loathed how Harris had to make such a display about everything. Nothing was ever easy with his brother. Everything had to be dramatic and over-the-top.
“Goddamn it, Harris, piss off and leave me to sleep.”
“It’s seven o’clock.” Harris lowered the paper. “In the evening.”
“And I like my bed.” He resisted the urge to pull the covers and sulk under them much like when they were children.
“You would like it a lot more if you actually got out of it and went in search of company. Honestly, Ash, I’m beginning to have concerns about you. Are you sure you’re my brother? When was the last time you kissed a woman, let alone bedded her?”
He didn’t want to consider it, but he found himself doing so. A year? No, two. It wasn’t that he didn’t have healthy male desires. It was simply that finding a woman took effort. With these constant headaches attacking him, he hardly had the energy.
Not to mention, he did not want to let someone close enough to find out about them.
“I get enough women,” he ground out.
His brother put the paper onto the small table next to the chair and stood. He pushed a hand through dark hair and straightened his waistcoat. Being identical twins had brought them plenty of entertainment as boys and even as young men, but it also brought its annoyances. They had the uncanny ability to purchase the same clothing or pick out the same fabrics at the tailors. Looking exactly like one another grew old and the constant comments, frustrating. The attention from women had been interesting once but no longer—not since the headaches started getting worse.
Harris gave him a disbelieving look but said no more. “Today of all days to drink yourself to sleep...”
Ash forced himself upright, swung his legs over the bed and crossed his arms over his rumpled clothing. This morning he’d been dressed and ready to have a productive day until his vision had begun to blur, a great swathe of dots dancing in front of it. He’d taken immediately to his bed with the knowledge of what was to come.
An agonising pain and a lethargy that barely let him put one foot in front of the other.
He wouldn’t correct his brother. The assumption was always he’d been drinking or that he was too lazy to get out of bed. His family had been assuming that ever since the headaches started when he was a lad. Not the drinking part of course, but he was grateful when he could start legitimately indulging in a tipple to have an excuse for wasting hours and hours in bed.
Far better that than the alternative.
“Since when do my drinking habits concern you?”
“Since you challenged Fred Westerling to a duel and you need a steady hand.”
Ash swung a surprised glance at the clock as if that could somehow tell him the day. But it told him his brother had been right and it was now past seven o’clock. Past the time he was meant to be meeting that damn fool for pistols at...well...dusk.
“Damn it all.” He pushed up from the bed and tried to hide his wince.
His brother shot him a concerned look, and Ash shied away from it. He didn’t want sympathy. The very thought made his gut curdle. He was a man—a strong, fit and healthy one by all accounts. It was just his head that was wrong, somehow.
But it mattered not. Men did not take to their bed like delicate ladies because of a mere headache. He still recalled his mother saying as much when he’d first begun suffering this affliction. Her sharp voice practically grated his memory, and he resisted the desire to wince once again.
“Do you think he will still be there?” They’d planned to meet on the small green behind Westerling’s house. Harris was to be his second.
“You’d better hope not. In the state you’re in, you’ll never be able to shoot straight.”
“I could be dead and still shoot Westerling.” The man was a terrible shot, no matter how much he bragged.
“Shoot him, yes, but in your condition you’ll miss your mark.” Harris handed over the necktie Ash had been scanning the room for. “I know you have no intention of killing the man.”
“A little nick to the arm will give him a fright enough.”
His brother peered at him. “I am afraid, brother, no man would look at you and think you could shoot straight at present. I do not really want to have to start telling people my twin brother is a murderer.”
“You won’t have to,” he snapped. As long as his vision did not cloud again—which it should not as the headaches never struck him twice in one day—he’d be able to give Westerling a scare and come away unscathed.
“Is a lady really worth prison time over?”
Ash could not quite remember which lady it was he’d caught Westerling forcing himself upon. The man had a habit of being ungentlemanly and that had been the last straw for him. No woman should have to tolerate such behaviour, and the poor lady had blamed herself for allowing herself to be near him, such was the man’s reputation. No more, Ash had vowed, and thus he had challenged the blackguard.
“I imagine you have no plans on bedding her either.”
“None at all.” He finished tying his necktie in a messy knot. He kept no valet and minimal staff. It was easier to keep his affliction quiet that way. Did it matter if it meant he never looked quite as turned out as his brother? He didn’t think so.
“Now I’m convinced. You cannot be a Cynfell.”
“If I’m not a Cynfell, then neither are you,” Ash snapped back. He saw the teasing glint in his brother’s eyes and rolled his own. “Come, let us get this debacle over with. If the man is still even there. He must know he hadn’t a hope in hell of shooting me in the near dark.”
Ash finished tidying up his appearance and retrieved his pistol. They took Harris’ carriage to Green Park, and he ordered the driver to wait. He wasn’t sure his brother had any confidence in his ability to shoot at all and half-expected him to need a quick trip to the doctor.
He narrowed his gaze at the dark shadows of the trees. Lamps lit the streets and the night was a silvery colour but he saw no sign of Westerling.
“He’s given up!” Harris declared.
The park was empty—one of the reasons they’d chosen to duel in the evening rather than the traditional morning. It was unlikely anyone would create a fuss about them duelling, but he wasn’t a fan of having his illegal behaviour in the gossip rags. Let him leave the column inches to his other brothers.
He smirked. Who were steadily becoming less newsworthy than even himself, which was saying something. Four of his brothers were busy playing doting husbands, and three were now fathers. Only Pierce and his countess hadn’t opted for extending the Cynfell pack. With his wife already having a fully grown child, he could not quiet blame them.
A pang of guilt struck him when he thought of his nieces and nephews. He hadn’t even met Viola and Julian’s most recent baby. Not that they expected him to visit, given his reputation, but he had to be about the worst uncle in the world.
“Wait.” Harris drew his attention to the park.
A movement. “Is that him?” They moved toward the shadowy figure. It was Westerling. The fellow seemed to stagger, stop...then he collapsed.
“What in the devil?” Ash hastened forward and came to the man’s side. Something damp met his fingertips and a rasping breath told him all was not well.
“Damn you, Cynfell,” Westerling rasped. “He killed me.”
“Who killed you?” Harris glanced around but saw no one.
Only a bubbling sound and the thump of Westerling’s hands falling to the side answered him.
“Ash, we need to get a doctor.”
“Too damned late for that by the looks of it,” his brother muttered but sprinted off toward the houses.
His eyes adjusted to the dim light of the park, and he saw the dark stain of blood on Westerling’s clothes. Whoever had hurt him had done so with the intention of killing him.
He stiffened at the sound of crunching leaves. Taking a glance around, he saw no movement but then...his heart bounded into his chest. A woman’s scream. Without thought, he was on his feet and racing toward the source of the noise. Another scream. It pierced his insides. This was a scream of terror.
He spilled out of the park and paused. Not far from Spencer House, he spied the woman. A man had her pinned against the brick wall of the building next to the mansion, and Ash caught the glint of a knife as the golden glow of lamps bounced off it. He barely recalled covering the distance between them or barrelling into the attacker. The sting of his knuckles told him he’d struck the man and the cry in his ear announced the safety of the victim. The man kicked out, knocking him in the gut and forcing the air from his lungs. Whoever he was, he easily matched him. Ash didn’t even manage to catch a glimpse of his features before he wriggled away and ran.
The crying woman prevented him from giving chase. He turned his attention back to her and stilled. She wore an emerald green evening gown, cut low across her shoulders and breasts. Several scratches marred the pale skin there. Diamonds glinted on her neck and wrists, and they shimmered with her trembling movements.
Really, he should have chased the criminal, but how could he abandon her?
“You’re safe now,” he announced.
She lifted an unsteady hand to her mouth, and he admired the slender fingers beneath white gloves. Her red-rimmed gaze met his. In spite of the tears and the clear horror in her gaze, Ash couldn’t fail to notice how beautiful they were. Vibrant green, slightly slanted, with dark lashes that few fair-haired women were blessed with. They screamed innocent and wholesome yet were utterly alluring.
And her hair. It had fallen from whatever intricate style it had been in and skimmed over her shoulders. One golden curl nearly reached her waist. He longed to finger it.
“I-I saw him.”
He offered an awkward hand, pressing it to her bare arm. Cold skin met his fingertips, and he quickly undid his jacket and slung it over her shoulders. She leaned into him slightly as he did so, making his heart expand.
Ash bit back a groan. There had always been something that appealed to him about a woman in need. He’d dreamed of being a hero in his younger years until the headaches had taken hold. Maybe he would have captained a ship or gone exploring. Something bold and courageous, and he’d return home and the ladies would adore him. Perhaps he would save a woman or two in his travels. He’d never been able to resist the little girls on his father’s estate wanting his help to catch a frog or climb a tree, and that hadn’t changed in his adulthood.
Ash kept his arm around the woman. “What is your name?”
“Miss L-Lila Radley.”
“Ash Cynfell.” He never bothered to use the courtesy title that came with being one of the many sons of a marquess. “No harm will come to you.”
She looked up at him, those wide eyes seeming to burrow deep down inside him. “I saw that man kill the other man.”
A sinking sensation struck his gut. Poor woman. Not only had she been nearly killed, she’d seen what looked to be a murder happen in front of her. He was tempted to ask her why she was out alone, but he didn’t wish to make her feel any worse.
Several people began to spill out of Spencer House. Whoever was renting it at present must have been hosting a party. He noted his brother with a man in tow, heading toward Westerling’s body.
“Were you attending the party here?”
Miss Radley nodded.
“Let us find someone to take care of you.”
She drew in a long sniffle and nodded again, holding his jacket tight around her. It would smell of her perfume later. His gut clenched.
“Thank you for your help—”
He didn’t get to speak to her again. A hustle of people washed down the steps from Spencer House, all decked in their finery. He gathered they were her family and friends as they surrounded her, forcing him back. His brother tapped his arm, but he kept his attention on the beautiful woman. Her gaze clung to his.
“I found a bobby,” Harris murmured. “Ash.”
His brother’s serious tone brought his attention back to him, and he tore his gaze from Lila. “Yes?”
“This was not some random attack. Well, perhaps it was. Not premeditated as they say. But the fiend who did it...a serial killer.”
The news punched him like a fist to the gut. “There’s been nothing in the papers.”
“The police did not want to cause a panic, but from what I overheard, this type of attack—at this time of day on a lone man, by knife—is becoming a weekly occurrence.”
“Lord Almighty,” he breathed. “It could just be a similar attack though, surely?”
Harris lifted a shoulder. “The doctor said it was the same.” He offered a tilted but grim smile. “Not a lot of fun watching him poke around Westerling’s body but who knows how much they will tell us?”
“You always were a sneaky bastard.”
Harris flashed a half-hearted smile. “Hey, if you are determined to get yourself involved in a murder, I have to look out for you. After all, if something happened to you, I would no longer be known as the handsome twin.”
“Handsome, my arse. We’re identical.”
“Very well, the charming one then.”
He had to give him that one. Harris was by far the more charming of them both. Ash let out a long, low curse. He should have been here. Damned headache. Westerling was an ass and a blackguard but to be murdered? Ash supposed the women he’d attacked would not feel any remorse. He glanced toward Lila.
She had not deserved to witness as much, however. This was his fault.
“You realise you could be in danger.”
Ash snorted. “How so?”
“You saw the killer.”
“I saw very little before receiving a punch to the gut.”
“Too busy admiring the beautiful debutante eh?”
He turned his full attention on his brother. “Pardon?”
Harris chuckled, but his expression grew serious. A strange look for his brother indeed. “She could be in danger too.”
This caught his attention fully. “Because she saw the murderer.”
“She’s a witness.”
“Yes.” Ash pushed a hand through his hair. Bloody Goddamn headaches. Why could he not have ignored it and simply arrived on time? None of this would have happened.
He should warn her. If the police were trying to keep the murder quiet, who knew if they’d even tell her? Ignoring his brother, he marched after the crowd of people as they ushered Lila back into the house. Because she was surrounded by what looked to be hundreds of worried relatives, he hung back to wait for his chance.
Lila mustered a brave smile. It didn’t matter that now was not the time nor the place. His gaze skimmed her décolletage as she leant in and spoke with someone. Those golden curls spilling over creamy skin only intrigued him further. No doubt she was receiving so much attention because of her looks, but it was the bold tilt of her chin and the brave set of her shoulder that drew him completely in. He’d have expected most women to have fallen into a swoon by now.