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Excerpt for Shadows of Truth by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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Published by EVERNIGHT PUBLISHING ® at Smashwords


www.evernightpublishing.com




Copyright© 2019 Tanya Jean Russell



ISBN: 978-1-77339-872-3


Cover Artist: Jay Aheer


Editor: Lisa Petrocelli



ALL RIGHTS RESERVED



WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.


This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.






DEDICATION


To my Dad, Ian, thank you for my love of books, and for always being a part of my life, no matter how many miles there are between us. x





SHADOWS OF TRUTH


Shadows, 2


Tanya Jean Russell


Copyright © 2019


Chapter One

Holly banged the heel of her hand on the stapler, resisting the urge to sigh as she did so.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone make so much noise filing.”

She looked up at the voice and scowled at her chief inspector and the mug he proffered.

“What do you want now?” she asked. Goddamn it, wasn’t being stuck here bad enough? What new hell did he have lined up for her?

“How do you know I want something?” he asked, smiling at her as he spoke, his tone even, as if somehow she’d believe he was ignoring her mood without an ulterior motive.

“If ten years of working together have taught me anything, James, it’s that you only ever make tea when you want something,” she said. She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest as she glared pointedly at the mugs in his hands.

After placing a mug on her desk, he used his now free hand to wheel another chair to her desk and sat down next to her. She stared back unflinchingly as he watched her over the rim of his mug. The silence was punctuated by the sounds of people passing up and down the corridor, the steady hum of traffic and occasional horn drifting up from the road far below. Once upon a time the silence might have bothered Holly, but now she simply waited. Eventually the boss would speak, or leave. Right now, she’d be quite happy if it was the latter.

“I need your help,” he began, and she snorted. Of course, he did, she wasn’t an idiot.

“Okay, I know you’re annoyed at the moment and I get that.”

“Annoyed? That doesn’t even begin to cover it. I did my duty, completed a successful mission, and now I’m stuck here under official investigation, when all I want is to get back to doing my job.”

She sucked in a breath. Damnit, this was old ground and even she was sick of hearing it. Focusing on the rise and fall of her chest as she steadied her breathing, she forced herself to calm down. Logically she knew it wasn’t James’s fault, but right now he was the figurehead for all things that were wrong with her life.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “What do you need?”

After all, it couldn’t possibly be worse than the last five weeks she’d had to spend filing.

“You’ll have heard of Sir Alistair Kensington?” he asked.

“Sure, he moved to the village I grew up in a couple years back, bit snooty by all accounts. Didn’t his girlfriend just die in a car accident?” she asked, shifting in her seat. The random connection to her personal life stirred her curiosity.

“Correct, and it’s because of that accident that I need your help,” he explained.

She frowned. What did a car crash have to do with them? Before she could voice the question, James continued.

“Well, his wife also died in a car accident a few years ago. The local police don’t believe it’s a coincidence and are putting pressure on those on high to be allowed to investigate.”

“Why would that be something we’d be interested in?” she asked.

“Normally it wouldn’t be. However, he got his knighthood for services to the Crown. What isn’t generally known is what those services are.” James raised his eyebrows as he spoke, a habit he’d had for years that popped up whenever he was about to share mission-critical information. Holly resisted the urge to smile at the funny tick that he likely didn’t even know he had.

“Alistair Kensington set up, owns, and runs Kensington Recruitment. Alongside their commercial work, they are the sole recruiters for the British Secret Services.”

He leaned back in his seat, obviously happy that he now had her complete attention.

“Seriously? You’re telling me a private company gets to decide who our spies are?” she asked.

“No, but they do all the groundwork on applicants, basic background checks, psych profiling, and general testing. If a candidate gets through their vetting process, the security services take over and have the final say, but you have to get past Kensington if you want to have a chance of joining MI5 or 6.”

“So, the crash wasn’t an accident,” she said, ignoring the millions of questions that were flying through her mind. For now, she needed to focus on what mattered, and the crash was at the heart of why her boss had any interest in this. “You’re worried he’s a risk.”

James smiled at her, his pleasure clear at the fact she’d reached the conclusion he was leading her to. It would have been damned annoying if she’d still been trying to impress him with her powers of deduction.

“Exactly. If we weren’t already concerned about that, the fact he has just pulled his children from their private boarding school to have them at home would be a serious red flag.”

She nodded as she thought it through. “So what’s our part in this?”

“Well, that’s where it gets complicated. He’s a personal friend.”

“Oh,” she said, shifting back in her seat.

That certainly was complicated. There was no way they could get involved in any sort of investigation when James was personally connected to the subject, so why was he talking to her about it?

“You know it’ll take weeks for any official investigation to get off the ground, plus I won’t be allowed to be part of it and I certainly can’t offer to help him,” he said.

“Besides the official reasons, I assume you don’t want him to think you suspect him of anything,” Holly said archly.

James shifted in his chair and finally put his still half-full mug down next to her own untouched one.

“That’s about the sum of it.”

“So, either Sir Alistair has murdered both his wife and his girlfriend, or someone is after him because he has the ability to seriously damage the Secret Services. I assume the fact his firm will have vetted every member of MI5 means they will struggle to investigate him,” she said, her brain spinning through the details. “Damn, that’s a mess.”

“Which is where you come in,” James said. “Kensington is looking for a nanny, and as a local girl you would fit the bill perfectly.”

Holly stared at him blankly. What? He couldn’t be serious? How the hell was she supposed to hold cover in the village she’d grown up in?

“You are aware my parents live in the same village?” she asked incredulously.

“Yes, that’s why you’d be so perfect. You’ll hear all about everything that goes on, people will share all the local gossip with you, and Kensington will have no reason to be suspicious of you.”

“They won’t be sharing anything, because the minute I show up they will all be focused on how much they can find out about me. Never mind the fact that the whole village knows I work for the police. Kensington does background checks for the security services, and a legend will never hold up against that sort of scrutiny.”

“It won’t have to,” James said.

She raised her eyebrows and simply stared at him.

“You’d be out of there before any official investigation starts, and think about it, what does your family think you do for the police?”

She resisted the urge to frown at him again. He knew bloody well what they thought she did. Everyone thought she was a receptionist. That she’d flunked out of basic training years ago and taken an admin role.

“You’re local, you have a clean record, and your official file backs up the legend. Even your family believes it.”

He was looking at her hopefully, his pale blue eyes earnest as he waited for her to process the situation.

“I’m on desk duty. No one will approve this,” she said.

He leaned back at her words and scratched the back of his neck.

“Ah, well, that’s the other thing.” He grimaced before continuing. “It’d have to be off books. Completely unofficial.”

Her eyes widened at his words. Off books? She’d be on an unapproved mission, likely with no backup and a shit storm to face if things went wrong. In all the years she’d worked for James he’d never asked her to do anything that wasn’t completely by the book. Yet a spark of excitement uncurled in her stomach as she turned the idea over in her mind. She couldn’t say going home and living with the reality of pretending to be a failure was at the top of her wish list. But looking around and taking in the mountains of backlogged filing she was expected to slog through while Internal Affairs dragged their heels, she knew it wasn’t a contest, especially when she didn’t even have the benefit of Amory’s company anymore to ease the sting.

Turning to face James, she curled one side of her mouth in a smile and nodded at him.

“I’m in.”



Chapter Two

Standing in front of the solid oak door, Holly squared her shoulders. The flower beds that skirted the edges of the house were just starting to bloom and neat green lines covered the huge expanse of lawn. Life had moved on, she had moved on, but this house was exactly the same as it had been when she’d ridden her bike across the lawn at age ten on a dare from her friends. She’d been chased by the then owner as he’d waved his fist at her. She’d taken down some of the toughest criminals the country had known over the last decade. She wasn’t about to be intimidated by the local manor house.

Taking a deep breath, she raised her hand and pressed the bell. Somewhere in the house, “Greensleeves” rang its jaunty tune, the barest hint of the melody making it to her, as she supressed a shudder. Seriously, “Greensleeves?” Could it have been any more of a cliché? As the tune came to an end, she pressed the bell again. She’d driven for hours to get here, well, actually, she’d sat in traffic as much as she’d driven, and if nothing else she was dying for a wee. She wasn’t about to give up now.

“All right, all right,” came a heavily accented woman’s voice as the door swung open. “Stop ringing that bloody bell.”

Holly blinked, startled at the sight of the woman in front of her. A good head taller than Holly, she was wearing jeans and a bright pink t-shirt with gold sequins spelling out the words “Hello Sailor” on the front. Her long blonde hair was piled up on her head in a messy bun and she had a tea towel slung over one shoulder.

“Holly? Holly Winters?” the woman exclaimed. “What the devil are you doing here?”

“Bev?” Holly blurted, when her brain finally caught up with her. “Um, I’m, um...” Never usually stuck for words, she floundered.

She’d known coming back to the village would mean bumping into people she’d grown up with but had thought she could at least avoid it until she knew if she’d be staying or not.

“I’m here for the nanny job,” she finally managed as her old school friend studied her from head to toe.

“Nanny? Oh, of course. Sir Alistair needs someone to watch the brats,” Bev said without rancour.

“What are you doing here?” Holly asked.

“I do his cleaning and the odd bit of cooking. Come in, I’ll let him know you’re here.”

Holly reluctantly followed Bev into the house. So much for staying under the radar. Well, there was no helping it now. The entire village would know she’d been here before the day was out. Actually, who was she kidding, they’d all know in the next ten minutes. Damn it, she really should have visited her parents first.

Standing awkwardly in the hallway she watched as Bev stuck her head into a room.

“Sir Alistair, Holly Winters is here.”

“Who?” a deep voice rumbled in response.

“Holly Winters, she’s here about the nanny job.”

“Oh yes, you’d better send her in.”

Bev pulled her head back out.

“Come and see me before you leave,” she said with a grin, as she nodded for Holly to head into the room.

Her heart sank. She was going to have to get around to her mom and dad’s pretty quick after this and do some major groveling since they’d find out through the village grapevine that she was visiting.

Walking into what was obviously Sir Alistair’s office she took in the worn carpet and furniture, a mix of aged wood interspersed with some seriously heavy-duty metal filing cabinets. She shifted, leaning forward slightly to try and see what the documents were that he was hastily turning over on his desk.

“Take a seat, Miss Winters,” he instructed.

Holly sat down in the cracked leather chair opposite Sir Alistair’s desk and finally took in the man himself. Seated behind his huge beech desk, his height was hard to judge, but she figured he was at least six foot. Deep red hair curled over the tops of his ears as if overdue a cut. His pale skin dotted with a light stubble, and his blue eyes spoke of Celtic ancestry. Wearing a shirt unbuttoned at the collar and the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, he looked bone-tired. Despite that, he was an attractive man. She could see why the female half of the village had been so excited about him moving in, and so disappointed by his determination to stay aloof from them all. Although, if it turned out he had been behind the deaths of his wife and girlfriend, it would be just as well.

“So, tell me a bit about yourself, Miss Winters,” he said.

She swallowed hard and forced aside her meandering thoughts about what Kensington’s broad chest would look like without the shirt, focusing on the matter at hand. Of all the things she’d spent the last few years doing, job interviews were not one of them.

“You have my CV?” she asked.

“Yes, however, I find it helpful for people to describe things in their own words. It helps bring it to life and allows me to understand what they feel is important.”

“Okay, well, I trained with the Metropolitan Police, the Met, but that didn’t work out for me. I’ve spent the last ten years working as a police administrator at their stations.”

“So, you don’t have any experience as a nanny?”

“No, but I have both adult and child first aid qualifications, and plenty of experience with children. I’m used to looking after my little brothers and sisters.”

He scratched away with his pen, the muscles in his defined forearm flexing as he wrote in a leather-bound notebook, and she had to fight the urge to lean over to see what he was writing. The questioning continued unabated for what felt like hours. Being quizzed on her back story so thoroughly felt weird. It was more like the revision sessions she did with Amory when her friend was preparing to go undercover. She’d done it herself a couple of times early on in her career but had quickly found she preferred the tactical end of things, so it was a bit surreal being on this side again.

“Do you feel prepared to take on the role as nanny to two privately educated children who will need a high level of stimulation and education?” His strong jaw was tight as he asked the question and she had the feeling he was a man who never backed away from speaking his mind.

“I’m not a trained teacher so I don’t begin to pretend that I would be able to educate them formally. However, it is only a couple of weeks away from the start of the Easter school holidays. I would suggest we use the coming weeks to find them a suitable tutor. You would only need to pay me for the hours around the tutor’s work. That way your children get a nanny who is primarily interested in their well-being, and a tutor who is focused on their educational development. In my experience, having specialists for specific work delivers better results, whatever the field. Besides, I think you would struggle to find someone willing and able to fill both capacities in one role around here.”

“How old are your siblings?” he asked.

“I have six, aged sixteen, fifteen, eleven, nine, and the twins who are eight.”

She studied him as she answered, looking for any sign he could be the killer he was suspected of being. His calm, steady demeanor gave nothing away as he met her gaze with his pale blue eyes.

“That’s quite some age range seeing as you are almost thirty. Why is that?” he asked.

She tilted her head, considering. She needed to secure this role because she knew this mattered to James, and she wanted to help the DCI who had always done everything in his power and more to take care of her. Plus, anything would beat returning to the filing. That said, she also needed to set the tone if she was going to stay, and he was overstepping. She didn’t care that she’d been the mistake that had kept her parents together as teenagers, but that didn’t mean she was about to share their business with Kensington.

“With all due respect, I suggest that is irrelevant to this role,” she answered in as respectful a tone as she could manage.

At her words he leaned back and studied her, his notebook resting on his lap as he did so. She simply stared back neutrally, refusing to react to his inspection. She had dealt with situations far tenser, and certainly a lot more deadly than this one. It was going to take a lot more than simply looking at her to force her into any kind of reaction.

Finally, his lips curved upward and he smiled at her.

“Okay, Holly Winters. You’re hired. Can you start tomorrow?”

“Really?” she asked with a frown. She knew she shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but she’d just reprimanded him, albeit gently, and he had taken that as his cue to hire her?

“Yes, really. Firstly, James Lancaster recommended you, but secondly, you’re not easily intimidated, a trait you will certainly need to deal with my children.”

“In that case, I accept,” she replied, and standing to leave she reached out to shake his hand.

With a smile far warmer than anything he’d offered so far, he leaned over and grasped her fingers with his own warm, solid ones. At the contact a heat rushed up her arm and she tried to pull her hand back, but he held onto her, his grip strong but not uncomfortable.

“I have a feeling there’s more to you than meets the eye, Holly Winters,” he said. He held her hand, and her gaze, for a few seconds more before finally letting her go.

Chapter Three

The sound of his stubble rasping as he dragged his hands down his face reminded Alistair that the state of his life was even affecting his grooming. How had everything become so chaotic? He’d just hired someone when his instincts were screaming at him, she was hiding something. But James trusted her, and he was desperate.

The squealing coming from the corridor outside of his room demonstrated exactly why he was so desperate. Given the current situation he couldn’t risk letting his children continue to attend private boarding school, but unfortunately he had no idea what to do with them instead.

The volume increased tenfold as his door slammed open and Alice and Edward barreled into the room. Alice’s high-pitched squeal went straight through him as Edward chased after her, his outstretched hand no doubt containing some kind of insect caught with the specific purpose of tormenting his sister.

“Edward Kensington,” he said, his voice firm and filled with the entire force of his authority.

At the sound both children stopped dead, and faces paling, looked at him.

“You are ten years old and should know better than to try and scare your little sister.” He glared at his son sternly.

He needed them both here at home where he could keep them safe, but he wasn’t going to be able to hang onto his sanity if they kept this up.

“I am trying to work. I suggest you return to your playroom and read quietly until Beverley calls you for dinner. I do not expect you to disturb me again today.”

They nodded at him meekly before turning to leave the office silently. As they reached the doorway Edward turned back.

“Have you found us a nanny, Father?”

“Yes, I suggest you use today to practice being on your best behavior for when she starts tomorrow,” he said, silently adding that he hoped she would bring some order back to the madness that had become his home.

Edward nodded at him solemnly before leading Alice away.

He loved his children dearly, and desperately wanted them to be happy, but it was hard to know how to do that. It was as though all the relaxed happiness they had shown when their mother was alive had died with her. He knew he was part of the problem, but he didn’t have a clue about how to fix things. For now, he just had to focus on keeping them safe and figuring out how to get out of the hole he found himself in. He’d worry about happiness later.

Picking up the phone, he dialed James. The man had been a year ahead of him when they had both attended St Austin’s as children. Back then it had been a boys only establishment, and thankfully that had changed in recent years which meant he’d been able to send both of the children to the same school. Although going by Edward’s behavior since they had been home the last few days, he didn’t know whether the boy actually looked after his younger sister while they were there, or simply used it as an opportunity to tease her even harder.

“Alistair,” James greeted him warmly when he picked up the call.

“James, is now good to talk?”

“Of course. How did you get on with Holly?”

He thought about the spark of electricity that had shot through him when she had shaken his hand, the warm blonde hair that hung past her shoulders in a riot of curls, and the intelligence that radiated from her. He thought about how she’d risen in his estimation when she had refused to answer his question about her family. Lots of people didn’t want to answer all of his questions, it was a hazard of the job, but they were rarely as direct as she had been about it, not without slipping into outright obnoxiousness.

“Well, she doesn’t have the experience I’d like, but with my lack of other choices I’ve given her the job,” he said, realizing he really couldn’t share his thoughts.

“You won’t be disappointed. She’s very reliable and a hard worker. I’ll certainly miss her at the station.”

“Why did you say she was leaving?” James asked.

“Alistair, you know full well I didn’t say. Don’t go using your interview techniques on me,” his friend laughed. “I don’t know all the details, but I think she’d finally had enough of city life and wanted to get back to her family and the country.”

Alistair didn’t respond, instead silently considering. Experience and training meant he prided himself on being able to filter the truth from just about everything people said to him, and something about his friend’s tale didn’t quite tally with the woman he’d met. He really wasn’t in a position to take anything at face value right now.

“How long have you known her?” he asked, more as a way to buy time while he figured out his next move than because he needed James to actually tell him.

“Gosh, it must be the best part of ten years. She’s been based at this station since she washed out of police training and took the admin job.”

Listening to the genuine positivity in James’s voice as he talked about Holly decided him. He was pretty certain Holly hadn’t come back because she missed village life, but James obviously trusted and respected her. Right now, that meant more to Alistair than any amount of qualifications or experience. With everything that was happening he had to be sure he was choosing someone who could be trusted to keep the children safe.

Finishing the call with James and pushing aside the CVs he’d been trying to work through before Holly had arrived, Alistair pulled his laptop out of the drawer and flicked it on. He’d have to get the CVs done in the next couple of days, but there was no way he’d be able to concentrate enough to make any structured choices about who to bring forward to the first stage assessment center.

Booting up the web browser, he pulled up the company recruiter accounts on all of the key social media sites and started searching for Holly Winters. As he clicked through the sites with a practiced eye, his frustration built. She didn’t seem to show up anywhere online. He only knew one kind of person in her age bracket who didn’t have any kind of social media presence, and that was the kind with something to hide. Thanks to James, he knew that whatever she was hiding wasn’t something that would put his children at risk, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t going to do everything he could to find out what it was.



Chapter Four

Sipping from one of the dark blue mugs her parents had had for years, Holly let the warmth of hot tea seep into her as her mom continued to study her over the rim of her own mug.

“I’m sorry, I’ll come here first next time.”

Her mom raised her eyebrows, as though not really buying the apology. Despite the fact she knew she should have visited her family first, she’d just wanted to know whether she would get anywhere with Sir Alistair before she got her parents’ hopes up, as she was well aware just how much they’d love her to come back to the village.

Finally nodding, as though accepting her words after all, her mom turned around and continued with her fussing around the kitchen, wiping down surfaces that already gleamed between pausing to bend down, and bottom sticking in the air, check on the peach and apple pies that were baking in the oven. The sweet, buttery scent was making Holly’s mouth water as she wondered if she was forgiven enough to be able to have a slice while they were still warm.

“I really am sorry, Mom,” she said. “I didn’t know about the job opportunity until late yesterday and I didn’t want to get your hopes up until I knew whether I’d even get it or not.”

“Well, you should have come down as soon as you knew. Going to an interview without enough rest isn’t very sensible.” Her mom waved one of her oven gloves up and down as she spoke, as if reinforcing her point.

“I did get the job though.”

“Hummmph,” her mom snorted.

“It isn’t a permanent thing,” Holly added. “I’ll do it for a couple of months as a bit of a sabbatical and then head back to the city.”

Thankfully, before her mom could get started on the evils of the city, the sound of the front door being flung open reached them, and almost simultaneously came the voices of her siblings. School was out for the day.

“Holly!” shouted Ash and Ivy in unison as they came into the kitchen, and she just managed to brace herself before her twin siblings threw themselves at her.

As she wrapped her arms around their little bodies her heart swelled. This was what she missed about being at home.

Finding themselves pregnant for Holly at sixteen, Holly’s mom and dad had gotten married quickly. Fortunately, as the years had passed, their relationship had developed into something solid, and they’d grown up themselves. They’d decided to have more children, ones they could enjoy in a way they hadn’t been able to with Holly when she had been born. Holly might not have wanted to discuss the ins and outs of her parents’ relationship with Alistair Kensington, but it certainly wasn’t a secret, not in a village like this one. That didn’t mean she enjoyed the pity people eyed her with when they realized she was the unplanned Winters child—the one brought up mostly by her grandparents, as her own parents tried to do some growing up of their own. She understood why people might think pity was the right response, but she had never felt unwanted or unloved, and she had a great relationship with her parents.

As her other brothers and sisters entered the kitchen, the volume rose about eighty decibels, and she exchanged an amused look with her mom as everyone shouted over each other to get the attention of their grown-up sister.

Holly happily inspected the daisy chain Ash had made on the way home from school and the graze on Jack’s knee, as well as the corking bruise Noel had on his bicep from getting in the way of a cricket ball at training the night before.

“Who wants pie?” shouted their mom over the hubbub. The sweet scent of pie filled the air as she placed the hot, fresh pies on the worktop.

The kids turned to face their mom and a chorus of “me please” rang out.

Standing, Holly reached for the stack of tea plates on the side and passed them over her siblings’ heads. Helping her mom dish out the delicious baking, she felt her shoulders ease down, relaxing in a way that only ever happened when she was at home.

****

The next day, standing in the doorway of what was apparently the Kensington kids’ playroom, Holly accepted that yesterday’s sense of relaxation had been entirely fleeting.

“The children are not permitted to have sugar, fizzy drinks, or crisps. They are only permitted biscuits twice a week. All snacks should be fruit-based and nutritious. They are only permitted to have one toy or item to play with at any time and must put this away before taking anything else out.”

Holly resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Poor kids, some playroom this was.

“Would you like to take notes so you remember everything?” Kensington asked with a frown, his jaw tight as he studied her intently.

Quickly schooling her face into neutrality, she turned her attention from the red-headed children who were watching her intently and looked up at her new employer. He was taller than she had expected and towered over her own five-foot four frame, his formal shirt, tie, and suit trousers seeming to accentuate his size.

“I’ll remember,” she said with a nod. She never had any trouble remembering instructions. Following them was something else entirely, but that was a fact she wasn’t about to point out to Kensington on her first day.

“Well, if you are happy you know all the rules, I will leave you to become acquainted with the children. I will be in my office all day. I will join you for lunch and do not expect to be disturbed otherwise,” he said, watching her carefully. “As Beverley isn’t working today you will need to fix lunch. I assume you will be able to do so?”

She studied him in turn. He was uptight and clearly feeling anxious, but she had no idea if it was the appropriate level of anxiety for someone leaving their children with a virtual stranger, or something more. Plastering on her best saccharine-sweet smile she nodded her agreement.

“Children,” he said by way of a good-bye, and when they answered with a dutiful, “Father,” he turned on his heel and left them alone.

Holly watched as he disappeared down the long hallway. Who the hell wore office clothes when they were planning to work from home all day? She turned back to the little faces watching her and gave them a smile.

Rather than speaking to them from the doorway as their dad—sorry, father—did, she entered the room and sat on one of the small wooden chairs, smoothing her skirt over her knees. Resting her arms on her raised knees she smiled again.

“Well, that was a lot of rules,” she said.

“Can you really remember them all?” Alice asked.

“Of course, she can’t,” Edward said. “She was just trying to impress Father.”

Holly focused her attention on Edward, his tone causing her heart to pinch.

“I take it everyone tries to impress your father?”

He crossed his arms over his small chest and frowned at her.

“Of course, they do. He’s a very important man.” His tone was deadly serious, as if daring her to mock him.

She studied him and thought for a moment before nodding slowly.

“You’re right. He is a very important man.” She let her words sink in before continuing. “But I’m more interested in impressing you two.”

They both straightened up a little at her words, and the pinch in hear heart tightened. How often had they been given attention in their own right by anyone other than their dad? There was a small part of her that wondered if it had happened at all since their mom had died. She might not have had a traditional upbringing, but she never had to wonder if people were nice to her because they wanted something, or someone, else.

“You’re just saying that so we will let you do kissy face with Father.”

Holly frowned, her heart reaching out to this prickly, hurting little boy.

“I promise you that I have no interest in doing kissy face with your father. I’m here to hang out with you guys.”

“You’re here to look after us, not hang out,” Edward said.

“Well, I can do both, can’t I?” she said, giving Alice a wink which made the little girl giggle. At least she wasn’t hurting as much as her brother.

“Okay, you need to know you can trust what I tell you. How about you test me on the rules? I’m sure you know them really well, so you can check if I remembered everything. That way you will know if I was telling the truth when I said I would remember them all.”

“Fine,” said Edward. “How many times a week are we allowed sweets?”

Holly shifted in her seat to look him square in the eye.

“That’s a trick question, Edward, you’re not allowed sweets at all.”

Alice beamed at her answer and Edward seemed to thaw a little.

“Now, what would you like to spend the morning doing? It’s lovely outside, we could go and play in the garden if you like?”

“Father wants us to learn these spellings,” Edward said seriously, but the sidelong looks he was giving the window revealed the fact he would much rather be outside.

Alice’s face fell at her brother’s words. Okay, Holly thought, this was where her big sister experience was going to help.

“Edward is right, if your dad wants you to learn some spellings then we should do that, but how about making it a game?”

They waited patiently while she worked out what letters they would need and together they used marker pens to create giant letters on sheets of A4 paper.

Giggling, they made their way out of the house, tiptoeing in an exaggerated fashion as they passed Kensington’s office. As they burst out into the garden Holly stopped dead. It was like being thrown back in time. The one and only time she’d seen the enormous back garden of the manor house had been when Ed Taylor had convinced her it was the only place in the village worth going to make out. The making out had been pretty disappointing, all wet lips and slimy tongue, although they’d improved with practice. The garden, however, had been enchanting. The large lawn led to an almost maze-like structure with small areas hollowed out for benches and fish ponds, and it seemed nothing much had changed.

“Come on, Miss Winters,” Alice said, tugging on her hand.

Shaking herself from her memories, she followed Alice. They spread a blanket on the grass and then shuffling the letters up placed them out like giant domino pieces in a jumble on the grass.

Sitting cross-legged on the blanket, Holly pulled the folded list of spellings from her pocket.

“Edward, you can go first. Your word is conclusion.”

Edward frowned at her for a moment before turning away and going to collect the sheets of paper that corresponded with the letters in his word. Kensington hadn’t been kidding when he’d said the kids were advanced. She was sure even her eldest brother wasn’t learning words as complex as this.

Edward came back and carefully laid his letters out in order.

“Perfect.” Holly raised her fist to bump it with Edward, as he took a half step back and frowned.

“What are you doing?”

“Fist bump,” she said. “You make a fist too and we bump them together.”

“Right,” he said skeptically.

“Honestly. My brothers tell me high fives are seriously lame. Cool people only fist bump now.”

When Edward continued to look at her, she grinned and kept her fisted hand outstretched to him.

“Give it a try.”

After a beat he did and when they made contact his face broke into a grin.

“Are your brothers grown-up like you?” Alice asked.

“Nope. I have six brothers and sisters and they are all a lot younger than me.”

“Six? That is a lot,” Alice said.

“Having one annoying sister is bad enough,” Edward said, and Alice visibly drooped at his words.

“Six is definitely a lot, but you know what? All brothers and sisters tease each other and get on each other’s nerves, but they won’t let anyone else do it. Sticking up for each other is the best thing about having brothers or sisters.”

Alice looked at her brother with a shy smile, but Edward rolled his eyes at her words. Oh well, she wasn’t going to win them all. Besides which, she wasn’t here to make friends with Kensington’s kids, she was here to find out what the hell was really going on, although having the kids on her side would certainly make that a lot easier.


Chapter Five

Stretching back in his chair Alistair rubbed the back of his neck, his too-long hair prickling against his skin in the summer heat that had permeated his office despite the thick stone walls of the house. He had watched Holly Winters lead his children into the kitchen half an hour earlier so decided it was probably safe to go and join them for lunch now.

Straightening the barely touched paperwork on his desk, he sighed. The sight of Holly, bright pink skirt splayed around her as she sat on a blanket and his children ran back and forth around the garden, laughing together, had been a distraction he could have done without. He had given both of the children a list of spellings to learn, but they had obviously decided to take advantage of the fact he hadn’t informed Holly of that. She had turned up in that bright skirt and an equally bright cardigan that clung to every single curve she possessed in a way that was not at all appropriate for one of his employees. He was already wondering if he’d made a mistake in hiring her. His biggest distraction before today had been when the children had grown restless, but he had at least gotten some work done. Today he had made absolutely no progress despite his carefully crafted plans.

He hadn’t built a business pre-selecting candidates for MI5 and MI6 by being swayed by a pretty face or a nice figure, but there was something about Holly Winters that seemed to affect him. His eyes drifted to the window again, even though he knew he wasn’t going to see her out there. Rolling his neck, he realized he would have to have a conversation with her about appropriate uniform for a nanny. Goodness knows what they had all been doing out there, but they really shouldn’t be wasting their time like that. He’d have a word with her about making productive use of the children’s time, and her choice of outfit, once he had eaten. Making the ground rules clear could only be a good thing for them all.

Leaving the sanctuary of his office he headed toward the kitchen. As he neared, the sound of his children’s laughter made him pause, chest tightening. He couldn’t remember the last time the children had laughed with him. He loved them with a fierceness that sometimes scared him, yet somehow they didn’t seem to laugh together anymore. The sound made him feel like an outsider.

Sucking in a breath he forced himself to keep moving until he stood in the kitchen doorway. His heart hitched at the sight of Alice, wearing an apron tied around her ribs, and folded over so many times to stop her tripping that she seemed to have a pillow encircling her entire body. Edward was throwing grapes the length of the kitchen table, trying to get them to land in the blender perched at the other end. Alice and Holly were cheering every time one went in and groaning when he missed.

“Daddy,” Alice squealed when she spotted him in the doorway. “We have made star-shaped sandwiches and Edward is making smoothies.”

He raised his eyebrows at Holly who gave him a half smile in return. Suppressing the grin that threatened, he fought the urge to look down and study the lines of her exposed calves and ankles. Turning his mind from that dangerous direction, he looked back to Alice.

“What have you been doing this morning?” he asked, thinking the question would work as a good opener to remind the children, and tell Holly, that they should have been studying their spelling rather than playing in the garden.

The fact the woman’s smile woke up parts of him that had been long since dormant was beside the point. He had too much going on to deal with being attracted to a woman. It was damned inconvenient. If she didn’t have the benefit of having been recommended by James, he wouldn’t have taken her on at all, but for now, the security that came with that recommendation was worth a little inconvenience and the undoubtedly awkward conversation he had planned.

“We learned our spellings, Father,” Edward said, his son’s expression serious as he looked up at him.

“Really? It looked like you were playing in the garden,” Alistair said, his forehead tightening as his heart sank. Was Edward going to start lying to him?

“Holly played a game with us to help us learn the words,” Alice said.

“You mean Miss Winters,” he reminded his daughter, whose face fell at his words.

“I said they could call me Holly. I’m not their teacher after all,” Holly said, giving the crestfallen Alice a wink.

It was bad enough that he’d dragged his kids out of school. The last thing he needed was for them to lose all sense of decorum as well, but as he looked between his children and Holly, he decided that he needed to pick his battles. He suddenly realized what Alice had said. Holly had somehow made them think learning their spellings was a game.

“What game?”

A very serious Edward talked him through how they had made the game and how it worked. His son’s anxious need to please him was troubling, but Alistair didn’t know how to be the parent they needed, especially not when all of his energies were being absorbed by trying to keep them safe.

As he sat down to a lunch of star-shaped sandwiches his tension eased. He lifted the smoothie to take a sip, wincing and resisting the urge to gag as the viscous substance hit his tongue.

“What is in this?” he asked, keeping his tone neutral as he spoke.

“Apple and banana and grapes,” Alice said, beaming at him.

He raised his eyebrows at Holly as he tried to marry up the grey sludge in his glass with the fruits his daughter had just listed.

“And carrots, peas, and cucumber. Didn’t they do a lovely job?” Holly added, her overtly serious expression making it entirely clear that she knew exactly how disgusting the end result really was. He glanced from her light blue eyes to her glass and realized she’d poured herself the smallest possible portion. When he looked back into the aqua of her eyes, they sparkled back at him with amusement. Damnit, he was going to have to drink this stuff.

“Mmmm,” he said, turning to Alice and Edward with a smile. “It’s delicious. Well done.”

As he continued eating, while studiously avoiding taking another sip of his drink, he studied Holly’s easy interaction with his children. In just half a day she had connected with them. His chest tightened again, and he forced the feeling down. He couldn’t afford the luxury of jealousy. The important thing was that she was making his children happy, even if he still needed to figure out exactly what she was hiding.

Just as he was biting his last sandwich his phone rang, his ringtone sounding out as the phone vibrated in his pocket. Lifting it out he saw his assistant’s name on the display and stood up as he swiped to answer the call.

“Stephanie,” he said by way of greeting as he moved to leave the kitchen, forcing himself to breathe as he did so.

“Alistair, we’ve received another envelope,” she said, her tone hushed and urgent.

He had to hold onto the doorframe to steady himself, forcing himself not to shout or kick something.

“Where?”

“At the school.”

Thank Christ for that, he thought. He’d brought the kids home a week ago so that dated the photos at least that far back.

“Okay, don’t let anyone else see them. I’m on my way.”

He ended the call, and taking a deep breath squared his shoulders as he plastered a neutral expression on his face before turning back to Holly. He didn’t look at his children, knowing he wouldn’t be able to hide the bolt of emotion, of fear, that would shoot through him if he saw their innocent faces right now.

“I’m going to have to go into the office,” he said, relieved to find his voice sounded normal. “Holly, I hate to ask on your first day but could you stay late? It’ll take me a few hours to get there and back, and that’s before I handle everything there.”

Alice and Edward’s faces fell at his words.

“It’s no problem. Is everything okay?” Holly asked. Her expression was concerned but also clearly curious.

“Yes, all fine, just a work thing that I need to be on-site to sort out.”

“Okay, well, if I can help at all just let me know,” she said, her response accepting of his explanation, while her eyes betrayed her interest.

“We’ll do takeout night tomorrow, okay?” he said to Alice and Edward, who both perked back up at the realization they weren’t going to miss out on their treat completely.

Leaving them to it he headed back to his home office to grab a few things and make his way to the city to face his nightmares.


Chapter Six

“And having eaten all the horrible villagers the dragon lived happily ever after,” Holly said, finishing up the bedtime story. She suspected that Edward at least was too old for bedtime stories, but when she had said yes to Alice’s request he hadn’t wanted to miss out.

She smoothed the cover over Alice’s shoulders and gave Edward, who was sitting on the end of Alice’s bed, arms wrapped around his knees, a small smile.

“Come on, let’s let your sister get some sleep.”

“Thank you for the story,” Alice said sleepily.

“You’re welcome, sleep tight,” she replied.

The tale was one Holly had made up for her own siblings years ago when they had been fed up with all the princesses needing rescuing in the traditional fairy tales. It changed every time she told it but she was particularly pleased with tonight’s version.

“Good night, Holly,” Alice mumbled as she twisted on to her side and huddled even further under her covers.

“Good night, Alice.”

Resting her hand on Edward’s shoulder, she led him from the room that was a riot of pinks to his own bedroom and stood in the doorway, her jaw tightening. Both of the children had everything any child could possibly want, or even imagine, in terms of toys, electronics, and just stuff, yet this room was as spotlessly tidy as Alice’s room. When she compared it to her own siblings’ bedrooms it made her heart hurt. None of her siblings had a room to themselves, and they certainly didn’t have the amount of stuff that Edward and Alice had, but their rooms were their own. Rather than being so well-styled that they could easily have graced the pages of a magazine, her siblings’ rooms were a riot of color, posters blu-tacked to the walls, clothing in mounds where it had been discarded, and all the paraphernalia of children at play strewn across the floor. Occasionally the mess would drive Mom mad and she’d make them all tidy up, but it never lasted more than a couple of days. Yet, somehow those messy, overflowing rooms felt more like a real home than these perfect ones.

“Okay, Edward. Alice is eight, so she has to go to sleep now but you’re ten, so I don’t think you need to go to sleep just yet. What do you think?” she asked with a smile.

Edward looked up at her with a grin.

“Definitely not,” he agreed.

“Excellent. Well, how about you have a read for twenty minutes and I will come and tuck you in when it’s time for sleep?”

“I don’t need to be tucked in,” he said.

“Of course not, silly me. Well, I’ll just come and turn your light off when it’s time.”

“Okay.”

Once she had helped Edward settle with his book, she headed downstairs. Popping into the kitchen she rubbed a fresh bit of baking soda into the bloodstain on her cardigan. She’d barely nicked her finger chopping the vegetables for dinner, but it had bled profusely. Stepping back out of the kitchen she paused, listening to make sure the children were still safely settled in their beds. Ideally, she’d wait until they were both asleep, but she didn’t want to miss this chance. She didn’t for one moment believe Kensington had told her the truth about his sudden trip out, but she wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. She’d get no investigating done with one or both of the kids glued to her side all day, and this might be her only chance to have a good poke around.

Standing outside of Kensington’s office door she waited a moment, listening again for any sign that either of the children were moving around upstairs. When only silence greeted her, she carefully turned the knob and entered. The place was another example of a room kitted out to grace the pages of a magazine rather than actually be used. To the left of the door an enormous desk backed onto the window overlooking the back garden. To the right was a pair of faded sofas and a large coffee table, clearly designed to be used for meetings. One wall was lined with bookcases and behind the door itself were a mix of wood and metal filing cabinets.

Heading over to the desk she had a quick flick through the paperwork that had been left lying on top. Realizing they were only CVs and a couple of files on companies it appeared Kensington was recruiting for, she moved on. Kensington might not be very warm with his children, but it was clear he cared about them. The fact he’d drunk that awful concoction at lunchtime proved it. Unfortunately, some of the most prolific criminals she’d encountered had families, and it didn’t make them innocent. Trying to keep the noise of the brass handles to a minimum she pulled on the drawer, but other than a miniscule shift forward it wouldn’t budge. Getting in wouldn’t be a problem, locking it back up afterward, however, would be. She’d need to be certain of a decent stretch of time to look there.

She repeated the exercise with the drawers to the filing cabinet, but they wouldn’t budge either. After a fruitless twenty minutes she decided to go and settle Edward for the night before having a look in Kensington’s bedroom. People loved to hide their secrets in their bedroom, so with any luck Kensington would have done the same.

After tucking in an already sleeping Edward she moved through the other doors. The first two were clearly guest rooms, clean, well-styled rooms with absolutely nothing personal in them. Pushing on the next door she sucked in a breath. The room was clean, but boxes covered every surface. She eased her way into the room, noting the neat labels on the side of each box. Clothes, books, shoes, she read as she passed, what the hell? The unmade bed was also covered in boxes, and she ignored them, instead heading to the door that was inside the room. As she opened it, she flicked on the light switch to see a room as big as her London flat that was packed full with yet more boxes. These weren’t sealed closed, so she flipped open the closest box to her. Inside was neatly packed jewelry, all wrapped in the sort of plastic bags you had to use to get any kind of liquid through airport security. She ignored the rest of the jewelry and lifted the flaps of the next box open. Inside was a stack of books and an envelope. The envelope was addressed to Mrs. Elizabeth Kensington. This was Elizabeth’s room? Surely Kensington should have done something with all this stuff by now? It had been years since Elizabeth had died. Shoving the letter, which turned out to be confirmation of a long-ago dental appointment, back into the drawer, Holly headed toward the last room which could only be Kensington’s bedroom, hoping that the dying light of the day would be enough. She wasn’t about to turn on a light or use a torch, thanks to the fact the room was at the front of the house. Pushing open the door, she entered the second room she’d been instructed to stay out of and caught her breath.

In the half-darkness of summer dusk, she took in a room that was a complete contrast to the rest of the house. Sparsely furnished, there was a chair in one corner piled with clothes, drawers were half-closed, and the bedside table had a stack of books that were either propped open or had bookmarks sticking out. The whole of the space seemed to be shades of warm greys. The obsessive one-color approach was the only thing that tied the room to the rest of the house. The plain white cover on the unmade bed seemed to be designed to tempt Holly to lie down. She might be fit, but a whole day with the kids had worn her out and she had to fight the urge to curl up on the huge bed.

Instead she knelt to the floor and pulled a large flat box from under the bed. Removing the lid, she sucked in a breath as she took in the stacks of papers and photos that filled every spare inch of it. Carefully picking up a stack she began to flick through. They seemed to be mostly birthday and Christmas cards but there was nothing on them to show how old they were. Carefully placing them to the side she lifted another stack and continued her search. Easing back to sit cross-legged, she pulled out ticket stubs mixed in with old napkins and postcards from all over the world. None of them had been written on, it seemed they had been purchased with the sole purpose of sitting in this box. Placing the stacks next to her in the same arrangement as they had been in the box, to ensure she could put them back the same way, she continued her search. Taking a letter from the bundle of yellowing envelopes held together with a dry and hardening elastic band, she read the first few lines:

My darling Elizabeth,

My heart yearns for a time we can be together every day, this absence is tearing at my soul.

A quick glance at the bottom of the scrawled page revealed Kensington’s name. She sucked in a breath, half wanting to use the investigation as an excuse to keep reading, to try and understand how the controlled man she had met could have written this painfully passionate letter. She stared at the wooden frame of the bed, trying to decide whether she could justify reading letters that were clearly years, if not decades, old or whether it was just an excuse to assuage her own curiosity.

As she considered, the room brightened with lights swinging past the window. With a start she realized Kensington must have arrived home. Damnit. She hurriedly began shoving the piles of memories that surrounded her back into the box, attempting to put them in the right place fast enough not to be caught in his room.


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