First 3 chapters of THE BOXING BARONESS

Here is a 3 chapter peek at my upcoming Regency THE BOXING BARONESS….

Chapter 1

Whitechapel, London

Farnham’s Fantastical Female Fayre

1815

 

The first punch in the one-two combination slammed into Marianne’s stomach, quickly followed by an uppercut to the jaw that sent her staggering backward into the ropes.

Predictably, the bloodthirsty, all-male crowd went wild, their cheering and jeering reminding Marianne that she should be paying attention to the woman across from her, rather than gawking at a distracting stranger out in the crowd. She stumbled but recovered her footing, hastily bringing up her guard.

Unfortunately, finding her breath was not nearly so easy.

After boxing for two years, Marianne knew to ignore the all-too-familiar sensation of having the wind knocked from her lungs. But knowing it and doing it were two separate things. It took all the strength she possessed to remain upright and moving while her lungs fought to resume their natural rhythm. Her vision blurred and incipient hysteria, rather than air, expanded her chest.

Marianne shook the spangles from her head and struggled for breath again and again and again before a thin, miserly stream of air trickled into her lungs. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to clear her vision in time to evade the poorly conceived cross from Lizzy Lowry’s large—but generally sluggish—fist.

Marianne had never lost to Lizzy before, and that had made her complacent, which led to her lowering her guard—both literally and figuratively. And why would she do such a stupid thing?

To steal a glance at the startling sight of the Duke of Staunton standing in the front row of her uncle’s theater.

The gorgeous but notoriously starchy peer stood out like a beacon amid the throng of screaming men, his very stillness setting him apart.

Not that his stillness was the only thing different about Staunton.

There was his height—he was taller than most of his fellows—and his shockingly pale ash-blond hair. He was garbed austerely in evening blacks but something had glittered when he’d crossed his arms over his chest. A ring, and the stone must be prodigious if Marianne could see the sparkle from such a distance. The ring was on the little finger of his left hand, which meant it was a signet, not a statement of fashion.

Although it was the glimmering stone that had caught her eye, it was his intense gaze that had seized her attention as masterfully as a highwayman commandeering a carriage. The cold, almost aggressive set of his handsome features stripped her bare, and not in the same way the other men in the crowd were doing.

Jack’s voice rang in her head: Take yer mind in ’and or you’ll be facedown on the floor.

The sound advice came none too soon as Lizzy threw a flailing roundhouse. It was a poor decision and one she was notorious for making when she began to lose her wind. Marianne dodged the graceless punch, came up under Lizzy’s sloppy guard and delivered a proper muzzler that sent Lizzy flailing backward, her stout torso slamming against the thick ropes before sliding bonelessly to the floor.

Lizzy’s knee man—who was also her husband and trainer—rushed to her aid, but the other woman wasn’t getting up again anytime soon.

Marianne’s uncle Barnabas, the proprietor of Farnham’s Fantastical Female Fayre, climbed over the velvet ropes, grabbed her wrist, and raised her arm in victory. The screaming crowd sounded less like men and more like the mad cacophony of gulls down at the London docks.

When Marianne glanced toward the spot where the stern-faced peer had been standing—front and center in what used to be the theater pit—the Duke of Staunton was gone.

Backstage was hectic as men and women scurried to change the props for the next act, and it took a few minutes for her to push through the crush of bodies and get to the dressing room.

Cecile Tremblay, who was up next, was the only other person in the cramped, cluttered dressing room when Marianne entered.

The beautiful brunette was applying the heavy face paint Barnabas required all his female entertainers to wear when they worked.

Cecile wasn’t just another of her uncle’s employees, she was also Marianne’s closest friend and housemate. The Frenchwoman had moved into a spare room in her uncle’s house at the same time she’d taken the job in the Fayre. Marianne had immediately liked the outspoken older woman and they’d become as close as sisters over the past three years.

“That’s twice the Duke of Flawless has come to see you,” Cecile said in her charming French-accented English, her eyes not moving from her reflection as she smoothed a glossy carmine color on her generous lips.

Marianne smiled at Staunton’s nickname—or one of them; there was also Lord Flawless, His Grace of Flawless, and just plain Flawless—and held out her wrists so Cecile could untie the tapes that held on her mufflers, the wool-stuffed mittens that Barnabas insisted all his boxers wear.

“Yes, I saw him,” she admitted.

“I know you did; I saw you seeing him. I think you have a new admirer.”

“He’s come to your shows, too, hasn’t he?”

Cecile gave a very Gallic shrug, as if to say what man didn’t come to her shows? “Just once—last Tuesday.”

Tuesdays were the only nights Marianne fought. Her uncle would have liked her to work two nights a week, but even he knew that was too much for any boxer. One night was already difficult enough.

“He doesn’t come to see Nora or Lucy,” Cecile added.

Nora and Lucy were the other female boxers her uncle employed.

Farnham’s Fantastical Female Fayre was open six nights a week. In addition to boxing, there was Cecile’s shooting, Josephine Brown’s knife throwing, Cordelia Black’s Players, Francine Gordon’s magic act, tumblers, and jugglers—all female.

Cecile’s slender fingers worked on the knotted string of Marianne’s second muffler. “The duke is much more handsome than the cartoon I saw in Mr. Humphrey’s window a few weeks ago.”

She meant Humphrey’s Print Shop, where crowds gathered outside the small shop to gawk at the cartoons and satires the savvy printer posted in his window every day.

“Has Staunton tried to talk to you?” Cecile asked.

“No,” Marianne lied. Actually, her answer wasn’t really a lie because she had no idea what the Duke of Staunton’s message had said. She’d thrown it away without reading it.

Cecile finished her task and sat back in her chair. “Has he sent flowers? Anything that sparkles?”

“No, thankfully.” Marianne stripped off the gloves.

Cecile muttered something that sounded like English oaf before turning back to the mirror to touch up one of her eyebrows with charcoal.

“The duke is said to be great friends with the Marquess of Carlisle,” she said, not looking away from her reflection, her cheeks tinting a delicate shade of pink. “Has the marquess been to any of your fights?”

“Not that I’ve noticed,” Marianne admitted.

“I think you would notice if that one came to watch you.” Cecile gave a vaguely disgruntled snort that made Marianne smile.

Cecile was an avid consumer of gossip columns and made sure to pass by Humphrey’s Print Shop to look at the satirical cartoons in his window at least twice a week. She left copies of various gazettes lying all over the house she shared with Marianne and her Uncle Barnabas and even collected some of the newspapers. Marianne had often wondered if Cecile hadn’t developed a bit of a fixation on some of the men who filled the gossip columns, like the Marquess of Carlisle, who was one of the most sought-after marital prospects in England and a staple of the society pages.

If Marianne weren’t so exhausted just then, she might have teased Cecile a little about her interest in the marquess.

Instead, she dropped onto the stool in front of the other dressing table and used a cloth to clean the paint from her face, hissing when she accidentally touched the underside of her jaw.

“Did Lizzy hurt you badly?” Cecile asked.

“Nothing too serious,” Marianne lied, her head still ringing. In truth, the uppercut had been close to a leveler—boxing cant for a powerful hit that was enough to put a fighter down.

“You need to find some other manner of work. You have been remarkably lucky to keep your looks—and all your teeth—this long.” Cecile’s gaze lingered on the bridge of Marianne’s narrow nose, which had been broken twice. Thankfully, Jack—Marianne’s trainer—had quickly reset her nose both times, so the bump was barely visible.

The bouts that Marianne, Nora, and Lucy fought were not fixed, nor were they choreographed for the punters’ entertainment. They were real fights, which meant real injuries. Marianne was usually just beginning to feel pain-free when it was time for her next fight.

“If you keep going, you are likely to look like Jack one day,” Cecile added.

Jack had been a career fighter in his twenties. Now, at five-and-forty, his face showed his history as clearly as a road map. She loved Jack, but she certainly didn’t want to look like him.

Marianne knew Cecile was right: She risked serious injury the longer she did this work. The only reason she looked as well as she did after almost two years fighting was because anyone who boxed at Farnham’s had to wear padded mufflers. The rich punters who flocked to the Fayre paid well to watch any female in the ring, but they paid even more if the woman was attractive. It wasn’t that Marianne was a beauty, but she was prettier than many of the rather desperate women who found themselves reduced to pugilism to earn a living.

Once she’d cleaned off the heavy face paint, she unbuttoned the gown she wore for her fights. Barnabas would have liked to dress her up like Cecile—in a tight, low-cut satin gown that displayed her wares—but Jack had refused to train her if she fought in a garment that hindered her movement. The costume Jack eventually approved was loose enough that she could move, not constricting to her breathing, and not made t of heavy fabric that would bind her legs. As for stays, the ones she wore were the barest nod to propriety and didn’t interfere with her ability to breathe.

Barnabas being Barnabas—which was to say a consummate showman—he had the costumer use the thinnest muslin available and Marianne’s gowns were spritzed with water before each fight, ensuring she looked all but naked when she went out on stage.

Marianne quickly stripped down to a chemise and men’s drawers—which she’d started wearing after having most of her dress and petticoat torn off in a fight—and poured some tepid water into the basin, sponging off her arms and legs. She would have a proper bath when she got home tonight.

She was just slipping into the worn brocade robe she kept in the dressing room when the door opened and Jack popped his head in. “’Ay there, ducks!”

Marianne caught him in a fierce embrace. “Happy to see your ugly mug.”

Jack gave her a rib-crushing squeeze before releasing her and turning to Cecile. “And ’ow are you, princess?” he asked, bowing low over the Frenchwoman’s hand.

Cecile yanked his head down and kissed him on both cheeks, making his homely face flush. “It is good to see you, Jack.”

“It’s good to be ’ome.” He shoved aside the tangle of costumes and clothing that covered the dressing room settee and lowered his six-foot-three frame. “It was a long trip.” His good humor drained away when he saw Marianne’s swollen jaw. “Criminy, Annie—what’s that I saw out there tonight? ’Ow often ’ave I told you about keepin’ yer mind in the game?”

“I know, Jack. I was distracted and I was punished for it.”

He grunted, his expression telling her she’d not heard the end of it.

“Marianne needs another line of work,” Cecile said. She stood up and gave a firm downward tug on her black satin bodice, pulling it low enough that her nipples couldn’t be far below the top.

Even Jack, long accustomed to being around half-dressed women, swallowed hard as he gazed at Cecile. Cecile was a beauty, and the black satin complemented her lustrous inky hair, which was a dramatic contrast to her porcelain skin and dark brown almond-shaped eyes. She looked wicked and sensual. And when she slung the custom-tooled leather pistol holster around her waist and buckled it low on her generous hips, she looked like danger in female form.

“Don’t you think, Jack?” Cecile asked.

Jack pulled his eyes away from Cecile’s décolletage with visible effort. “Er, what?”

“Marianne—she needs to stop fighting.”

“Oh. Aye, I’ve told ’er that. I told ’er that before she even started.” Jack began to warm up to one of his favorite subjects. “A pretty, smart girl like you should—”

The dressing room door flew open hard enough to bang against the wall and Uncle Barnabas’s angry red face appeared in the doorway. He jabbed a finger at Cecile. “There you are! Get your arse out there, missy, you’re bloody late and the lads are getting restless.”

Cecile, who responded to orders as well as a cat, suddenly decided it was time to examine her cuticles.

Barnabas made a strangled noise of frustration but prudently forbore nagging.

Instead, he turned his attention to Marianne. “And you,” he said, cutting Jack a quick look. “I want her in tip-top shape before we go on tour. Quit fobbing her off on your mate Andy to train; she needs you.

“What she needs is anovver job, Barney.”

Barnabas scowled, either at Jack’s advice, the unwanted nickname, or both. “I want her training with you three days a week until we leave.”

Jack rolled his eyes, but Marianne nodded. “Yes, Uncle.”

“Oh, and I almost forgot,” Barnabas said. “The Duke of Staunton wants to talk to you.”

Marianne almost laughed out loud at the notion of her uncle almost forgetting to relay a message from a duke.

“No.”

“Marianne, don’t be foolish. This is the second—”

No.

He managed to look annoyed and aggrieved at the same time. “The man just wants to speak to you. You can invite him next door to the house—receive him in our book room and—”

“No.”

Barnabas growled. “Stubborn.”

Somebody walked behind her uncle, and Barnabas—infamous for having eyes in the back of his head—whipped around. “You!” he shouted at the unfortunate victim to have caught his attention. “Get those bags tied tighter.” He left the door hanging open as he continued his harangue. “I felt bloody sand on my head while I was—” His voice faded as he strode after his target.

Marianne couldn’t believe that he’d had the gall to nag her about Staunton. Again.

Cecile jerked her chin in the direction where Barnabas had been standing. “Want me to shoot him for you, chérie?”

It was an old jest, but it always made Marianne chuckle. “It’s a tempting offer.”

“Talk some sense into her, Jack.” Cecile tossed the words over her shoulder as she sauntered from the room, closing the door behind her.

“She’s right, you know—about quittin’,” Jack said.

“I know she’s right, Jack. Don’t you think I’m aware that every fight is just another injury waiting to happen?”

“I never should ’ave taught you.”

“Barnabas would have found somebody else—somebody not as good as you.”

“’E should ’ave chosen somebody other than ’is own bloody niece!”

“He did; Nora and Lucy aren’t his nieces, Jack.”

“They’re different—they needed to be tough growin’ up in St. Giles.”

“Are you saying I’m not tough, Jack?”

He ignored her teasing. “You’re different, and you know it.”

“I’m no better than they are—you’re just biased.” In fact, Marianne’s reputation—if you could call it that—was a great deal worse than Nora’s or Lucy’s.

“And whose fault is that? Farnham’s!” he answered. “You’re ‘is bleedin’ niece. ’E shoulda done better by you.”

“He took me in when he had damned little himself, Jack. I owe him. Besides,” she added when he looked unconvinced, “I get paid extremely well. I earn more than any governess or companion. Not that I could get either of those positions. With my reputation, I’d be fortunate to get a job as a charwoman.

Jack growled. “That bastard did you wrong, Annie. What ’appened wasn’t your fault.”

By bastard he meant Baron Dominic Strickland, Marianne’s former lover, and the reason she was known all over Britain as the Boxing Baroness.

“Unfortunately, the rest of England believes otherwise, Jack.”

“Everyone’ll forget all about what Strickland done to you if you get away for a few years,” he said. “You could stay on the Continent after this tour is over—you speak French as good as any Frenchy.”

“What in the world would I do? I have no skill other than fighting.”

Jack opened his mouth, doubtless to argue.

“Please, Jack—not now?”

He sighed heavily. “Fine, then. So, ’ow long ’as that uppity arsehole been comin’ to yer fights?”

Marianne laughed at the description of the Duke of Staunton. “Just the last two fights—while you were out of town.”

The door to the dressing room opened a crack and young Neddy poked his head in. “Er, this is for you, Miss Marianne.” He held out a piece of parchment that had been folded and sealed with a blob of red wax.

Marianne recognized the seal and looked hard at her uncle’s youngest employee. “You know what will happen if Barnabas hears that you delivered this.”

Neddy’s face crumpled. “Please don’t tell him, Miss Marianne. The toff offered so much meg I couldn’t say no and—”

“Bloody ’ell! You runnin’ messages for punters now, bantling?” Jack demanded.

Neddy trembled under the big boxer’s glare.

“Run along, Neddy,” Marianne told him. “But no more messages—from anyone. Understood?”

“Yes, miss.” He sniffed piteously and closed the door without making a sound.

Marianne turned the expensive rectangle around in her hands.

“Is that from Staunton?” Jack asked.

“Yes.” The wax was a dark red that was almost black.

“You gonna open it?”

Marianne tore the letter in half, and then tore those pieces in half.

Jack sucked in a breath. “Annie!”

“What?” She opened the small stove and tossed the letter inside.

“You ain’t gonna read it?”

“Why should I?”

“Er . . . well, ’e is a duke, after all.”

“Listen to you. I thought you believed all men were equal.”

“I do. But that don’t mean some ain’t more equal than others.”

She laughed.

“It’s unwise to make enemies of that sort, Annie. Besides,” he added, “you don’t know what ’e wants.”

“He’s a man. I have a fair idea of what he wants.”

Oddly, Marianne was disappointed by the thought. Everything she’d read about the Duke of Staunton indicated the man was upstanding, moral, and decent—a noble bulwark against the profligate excesses of mankind—especially the men of his class. Yet here he was, sneaking messages to a female pugilist.

“Maybe you’re wrong, luv. Maybe ’e don’t want that.”

“If not sex, then what? What else would a man like that want from a woman like me?”

“You ain’t curious?”

“Not in the least.”

Jack clucked his tongue. “Well, the man must be touched in the upper works.”

“Because he’s pursuing me?” she teased.

“Don’t be daft. I just mean that ’e’s got some nerve after what he said about the Fayre and women pugs.”

Jack was referring to the Duke of Staunton’s diatribe the year before—in Parliament, no less—after a female pugilist was killed during a bare-knuckle fight. The duke had linked the decline of morals to females boxing, among other tawdry activities. Although he’d not singled out her uncle’s circus, he had lumped the Fayre in with operations that had rat pits, bear baiting, cock fighting, as well as cruel and revolting dog and children fights.

Barnabas had been livid about Staunton’s speech. Something he seemed to have quickly forgotten now that he was a messenger boy for the duke.

Marianne yawned and stood up, stretching. “Staunton’s a preachy sort, but you have to admit his crusading has done a great deal to eradicate child labor and the virgin trade.”

“That don’t mean the ’igh and mighty Duke o’ Staunton don’t fancy run goods ’imself.”

Virgins, or run goods in the vulgar cant, were an expensive commodity which usually only the wealthy could afford.

“I’ve never heard any rumors of Staunton fancying children.” Indeed, his name was conspicuously absent in the scandal sheets that Cecile left scattered all over the house they shared. Nothing she’d read about him suggested that he engaged in any of the self-indulgent behavior most aristocratic males believed was their right and privilege. Or maybe the duke was just better at concealing his debauchery.

Jack gave an irritable shrug. “I doubt ’e’s up to any good lurkin’ about and eyeballing you.”

“Maybe he’s lurking about to gather evidence to shut us down on the grounds of moral turpitude.” The Duke of Staunton wouldn’t be the only one to come after Farnham’s. There were numerous women’s groups who’d made closing her uncle’s circus their goal in life.

Fortunately, the Fayre would be leaving on tour at the beginning of March, and Marianne would be gone almost a year. She hoped their extended absence would force London busybodies to find another target for reform.

Certainly, the Duke of Staunton would have lost interest in her long before then.

 

Chapter 2

Marianne tossed a coin to the bleary-eyed stable lad before taking Reginald’s reins and mounting the gelding without the aid of a block—something she wouldn’t be able to do if she were dressed in a constricting riding habit rather than boots and breeches.

Once she was comfortably astride, she urged the gray gelding out of the livery stable’s small courtyard. Jack would have preferred that she run behind a horse, rather than ride one, but she despised running and couldn’t bear doing it every day; in her opinion, taking a jaunt in the park was a good compromise.

Her uncle had refused to buy her a decent mount, insisting that any old hack would do, so Marianne had purchased Reggie herself. She’d paid more than she should for the gelding, but he was exceedingly well-trained and comfortable with both regular and sidesaddles.

By the time they reached the entrance to Hyde Park, Reggie’s body was tense with anticipation and Marianne had finally woken up.

“Are you ready for a run, Reggie?”

His sensitive ears flickered, and he snorted as if he knew what she was asking.

“Let’s go!”

Reggie’s powerful body surged forward, and he channeled his awesome strength with breathtaking grace.

It really was like flying, and she couldn’t help her joyous laughter as they soared through the cool morning air, just her and Reggie, the only two creatures alive in—

Marianne yelped as a horse and rider thundered past so close that their knees almost brushed.

Reggie’s stride stuttered and he veered off to the right, but he quickly recovered.

She eyed the duo’s departure with an angry glare. “Go get them, Reg.”

Although the wind whipped away her words, Reggie read the determination in her body and threw his heart into the race, hurtling ahead. Just as they began to nip at their competitor’s heels, the pair abruptly pulled up.

Marianne blinked to clear the blurry chill from her eyes and abruptly reined in, so caught up in the race that she’d not realized they’d reached the end of the Row. By the time they’d slowed to a trot, the other rider had guided his mount to the edge of the wide path and was walking the big gray stallion back and forth.

Marianne’s plan to guide Reggie in the opposite direction, and thereby avoid a meeting, was foiled when the man called out, “Good morning, Miss Simpson.”

She jolted at the sound of the deep, cultured voice and reluctantly turned her mount.

A fair-haired, pale-eyed, glorious god stared down at her from his horse, which was a good hand-and-a-half taller than Reggie.

His aristocratic, sculpted features were fixed in a haughty expression she imagined was his resting face. His eyes, the color of which she’d not been able to see from the boxing ring, were a pale green that looked as chilly as a killing frost on a new blade of grass. Right now, they glinted with an icy hostility that was enough to make her shiver.

He nudged his mount forward. “You are Miss Marianne Simpson, if I am not mistaken.”

“You know I am,” she retorted. “And you are the Duke of Staunton.”

His pale gaze slid over her body slowly, insolently. It was a look she had endured countless times, even before her notorious ex-lover had publicly cast her aside. The nostrils of Staunton’s fine nose quivered and pinched—as if he were smelling something foul.

Instead of wilting beneath his harsh glare, Marianne conducted her own inspection. She was unsurprised by the classical perfection of his face and figure. He was, after all, Lord Flawless: flawless in both person and deportment.

It irked her to admit that the word suited him—at least when it came to his face and body. He wasn’t just handsome; he was flawlessly beautiful in an entirely masculine way.

“You are a difficult woman to speak to, Miss Simpson.”

She shifted in her saddle. “Oh?”

“As I’m sure you know, I was at your uncle’s establishment last night and asked to see you.”

“Unfortunately, I am not receptive to men mooning outside the theater door.”

The fair skin over his high cheekbones darkened at her insulting words. “I also sent you two written messages, Miss Simpson, over the past week.”

“I received them.”

His blond eyebrows lowered. “I received no answer.”

“I threw them away without reading them.”

His eyebrows rose again, disappearing beneath an attractive sheaf of ash-blond hair. “Why would you do such a thing?”

“There is no law that says I need to explain my actions to you.”

“There is no law,” he agreed. “But there is common courtesy.”

Marianne burned at his cool, accusing words. She was not, in general, a discourteous person. Unless she was faced with an aristocratic man. And she had never met a man quite as aristocratic as this one.

Still, it shamed her to behave like an ignorant shrew and confirm his impression of her. “I can see you will not stop hounding me until you get what you want. What did your message say?”

“That I wish to speak to you.”

She gave an exasperated sigh. “Clearly I don’t wish to speak to you, Your Grace.”

Once again, it was his body that betrayed him, rather than any voluntary reaction. The color seemed to leach out of his eyes as his pupils shrank to specks, his irises like pale green glass that had been washed by the sea.

“You are not curious to know what I have to say?”

“No.”

Although he gave no sign of it, she suspected he was furious. A duke would be accustomed to command and would expect obedience from a woman like Marianne. She surmised that not very many people dismissed His Grace of Staunton.

Marianne’s face heated under his brooding stare, which—annoyingly—prodded her to speak. “I can guess your reason for wanting to speak to me, Your Grace.”

“Indeed? And what would that be?”

“Men of your kind only bribe my uncle’s employees for one reason.”

“My kind.” He repeated the words softly and the corner of his mouth lifted just enough to expose a flash of white.

Marianne would not have called the expression a smile.

“You may rest assured it is not my habit to importune circus entertainers to warm my bed, Miss Simpson.”

Marianne’s face scalded in the cool morning air. She had believed herself immune to aristocratic derision. Apparently, she had been wrong.

Rather than shut her mouth and retreat, she pressed forward. “Ah, that is correct—you are Lord Flawless, are you not?” she taunted. “Peerless among men and without any base urges.” She sneered at his narrowing eyes. “Although I suspect that even you do not entirely go without. No, you are a man like any other. You just choose your whores from a more elevated class of women.”

An expression of vindication settled on his handsome, austere features, as if her crude words had confirmed his opinion of her as the uncouth ex-strumpet of Baron Strickland, the man all England had called the Rake of Rakes.

As she stared into his forbidding green gaze a wave of hopelessness swamped her. Why shouldn’t this man think she was a trollop after what he’d likely heard about her? Thanks to Dominic, she was a target of offensive offers and subject to mockery from men of all orders, but especially wealthy, powerful men, who seemed to find her equal parts fascinating and repellant.

“What do you want, Your Grace?” she asked wearily.

“I want to speak to you.”

“We are speaking.”

“There is something I would like to show you, and I prefer to do so in private.”

She almost laughed. “This thing you wish to show me—is it at the ducal residence? No,” she said before he could respond, “that would not be your way at all. It will be in a more private location. Perhaps a small pied-à-terre. Someplace . . . discreet.”

Marianne had not believed his eyes could grow any colder.

“You have my word as a gentleman that I have no designs on your person.” His gaze raked over her as brutally as a knife scraping the bristles off a hog. His lips thinned with disgust. “I am willing to speak to you at your place of business—hence my presence at your uncle’s theater—or anywhere else you deem appropriate, just so long as we are not in the middle of a public thoroughfare.” The determined, dogged set to his face told her that he would not be denied.

“Fine. I will call on you. Where and when?”

He did not appear startled by her sudden capitulation, as if her submission had never been in any doubt. “I am at number 5, Grosvenor Square. It is not far. Why not now?”

“I am hardly dressed to pay morning calls.”

He shrugged, the gesture drawing her attention to his powerful shoulders, which were sheathed in an exquisitely tailored black overcoat. “There is nothing unusual in a gentleman calling on another gentleman wearing his leathers after a morning ride.”

She studied his haughty, beautiful face. What could such a man want with her? And want it badly enough that he should persist so? Well, whatever he wanted, she admitted it didn’t appear sexual. After all, he would hardly invite her to his home at seven in the morning—in broad daylight—for an amorous tryst.

Marianne nodded. “Very well. Lead on, Your Grace.”

Chapter 3

St. John Powell, the seventh Duke of Staunton, seethed silently, not bothering to make pleasant conversation with the hostile female pugilist riding beside him.

He kept reliving their brief conversation, snatching glances at her person, and trying to reconcile his idea of her with the reality of her.

The woman was nothing like he had expected.

Her directness—no, her combativeness—had left him raw and off-center. Not since he’d been a boy had he bickered so childishly with another person—nor tolerated such impudence. In the five minutes he’d spent with Miss Simpson, he had suffered more insults—and behaved more rudely, himself—than in all the rest of his years combined.

The worst part was that he was largely to blame.

St. John had gone to the park that morning furious that this—this circus-performing harlot, a woman who had brazenly shared Strickland’s bed—had repeatedly refused to speak to him as if he were some sort of encroaching cit.

He desperately wanted to tell her to go to the devil, but—and this ate at him worst of all—he was reliant on Dominic Strickland’s ex-whore if he wanted a chance to rescue his brother.

And so, because of that resentment, St. John had made almost no effort to mask his dislike and disgust of Marianne Simpson. She—being no fool—had seen through the tissue-thin veneer of civility immediately.

He was angrier with himself than he was with her. It was not like him to behave discourteously to anyone—no matter their station—or to display his feelings so openly. It was crass, mortifying behavior. He had behaved like a cad, and she had taken him to task for it.

He could not blame her, but that did not mean he had to like her rude reaction—or her. This was no game to him; his brother’s life hung in the balance, and this woman was somehow the key to bringing Benjamin home.

St. John glanced at her as they joined the flow of traffic outside the park. She looked remarkably like a man in her coat and breeches and hat, and it wasn’t just because of her exceptionally short hair.

She also sat her horse like a man—a very skilled equestrian—and the black-leather-clad hand that loosely held the reins was broader across the back than any lady’s hand.

Her shoulders, although fine-boned, were surprisingly broad and her tailored coat displayed noticeable biceps before tapering to a narrow waist and trim hips. Her muscular thighs flexed beneath tight buckskins and her top boots were snug over well-formed calves.

She was the very image of a wasp-waisted young buck, a shape that so many dandies padded and cinched their bodies to achieve. Her figure, he guessed, was not the product of corsets or buckram wadding, but the result of demanding physical exertion.

She held herself with a coiled awareness and emanated an almost masculine vitality. He supposed her physicality should not have surprised him. She was, after all, a boxer. He had assumed the fights her uncle arranged were more in the nature of an acrobatic display than real pugilism, but she obviously kept her body trim and fit to play the part convincingly.

When they turned onto his street the sun struck her face, illuminating her features more clearly beneath the brim of her hat. An ugly bruise discolored her jaw and a faint, inch-long scar ran from her lower lip down her chin.

So, perhaps her fights were more than just theatrical presentations, after all.

Her jaw was well-formed and firm, and her oval face surprisingly soft and feminine. Traces of dimples marked her cheeks and smile lines bracketed her mouth. He placed her in her early twenties, although her confident bearing was that of a more mature woman.

Her heavy-lidded eyes were an unremarkable hazel, her nose slender with a slight hook, the bridge bearing a bump that told him it had been broken at least once.

The only feature that was in any way unusual was her mouth. Not only was her top lip a perfect Cupid’s bow, but the bottom had a distinct divot, as well. The effect was piquant and made her resting expression appear as if she were pouting.

Her only true claim to beauty was her pale-as-porcelain skin, which glowed with the luster of a pearl—at least the part that wasn’t swollen and bruised.

She exuded a quiet dignity and reserve that he never would have expected from a circus performer, nor from the ex-mistress of Dominic Strickland, an unrepentant hedonist who was infamous for depravity and sensual excess.

By the time of his alleged death, Strickland’s behavior had put him well beyond the pale. And the woman riding beside St. John had shared Dominic’s bed when he had been at his very worst, when he had shocked even jaded society—one time wagering that he could find a man who would eat a live cat. A wager he had made good on, according to reputable sources.

St. John frowned at the distasteful tumble of thoughts. Dominic’s relationship to this woman was neither here nor there. What was of critical importance was convincing Simpson that it was her moral duty to help him save his brother’s life—a life that had been jeopardized by her treasonous ex-lover.

If she did not assist him willingly . . .

Well, he did not want to think about that just now.

***

Marianne had expected a duke’s London residence to be sumptuous, but her imagination paled in comparison to reality.

It was the biggest house on a square that held some of London’s most magnificent residences. An astounding six-story mansion fronted with elegant Portland stone, it loomed over the grand square with a tangible air of smug superiority. Much like its owner.

Two grooms materialized as they approached, relieving them of their mounts. A man dressed in the somber clothing of a butler opened the massive front door before they reached it, bowing to his master and reaching for his coat and hat while a second, lesser flunky in gold-laced, blue velvet livery, assisted Marianne.

If either servant noticed the tension crackling between her and their employer, they did not show it by so much as the flicker of an eyelid.

The duke turned to her once he’d been divested of his outerwear, his bottle-green coat bringing out an almost verdigris hue in his unusual eyes. “Mr. Simpson will be joining me for breakfast. See that his mount is—”

“Please, no breakfast. I would rather have done with this quickly, Your Grace.” Marianne felt, rather than saw, the shock of the two men who hovered nearby. Clearly nobody ever interrupted the duke.

“Very well,” the duke said after a slight pause. “Excuse me a moment.”

Marianne inclined her head.

He stepped away and exchanged a few quiet words with his butler.

The servant nodded. “Right away, Your Grace.”

The duke returned to Marianne. “This way, please.” He gestured to a magnificent marble staircase.

The first-floor corridor was as wide as an avenue, the burnished wood floor covered with an ancient, elegant runner. Waist-high wainscotting was topped by silk-covered walls on which hung the artistic wealth of nations. Marianne was no expert on paintings, but even she could recognize a Titian when confronted with one.

Never in her life had she been surrounded by such opulence; she felt . . . oppressed by the weight of it, her senses overwhelmed. What must it be like to grow up in such a place? And to know that one day it would all be yours? No wonder he behaved like a god and believed himself to be above other human beings.

The grandeur that surrounded her was crushing, and she was struck by a mad impulse to run from this house that made her feel so insignificant and gauche. Only by sheer force of will did she ignore her impulse.

Two more footmen flanked a double set of doors. One of the men opened a door as they approached. Staunton was so accustomed to being served hand and foot that he didn’t appear to notice the men or the courtesy, but Marianne nodded her thanks, even though the footman did not make eye contact.

The door closed behind them, and Marianne found herself in a library so grand that it was all she could do to keep from gaping like a hayseed.

“Please, have a seat, Miss Simpson.” Staunton gestured to one of the oxblood leather wing chairs that sat across from a desk fit for a king. Or a duke, she supposed.

As she lowered her body onto butter-soft leather, Marianne became aware of how clenched and rigid her posture had become since entering this cathedral to wealth and power.

Anger pulsed through her veins and her stomach muscles tightened the way they did when she fought. Why was she allowing this man and his possessions to intimidate her? He was no god. He was only a man; a man who’d become rich off the labor and sacrifice of others.

Rather than sit tensely like a quivering boy awaiting discipline from his schoolmaster, Marianne lounged back in her chair, allowing her thighs to fall open in a relaxed, comfortable sprawl, just the way she’d seen countless men sit: as if they owned the room around them.

The duke’s pale gaze flickered over her body and his dark blond eyebrows rose slightly, his eyes lingering at the level of her hips. He had the full lips and generous mouth of a sensualist, but his stern, uncompromising mien reminded her of a painting she’d once seen of Cromwell.

Was he really as pure and noble as he appeared? Did he repress his own sensual desires? Or was he only interested in repressing those of others?

Marianne couldn’t help being amused by the faint red stain that spread over his cheekbones and the slight flexing of his jaw muscles as his gaze lingered on her buckskins and the body they covered. A virtuous woman would be offended by his bold examination. But then a virtuous woman wouldn’t wear breeches to begin with.

Marianne had given up any claim to being virtuous after Dominic made a shambles of her life.

If not for the duke’s treacherous skin betraying him, she would have had no clue that her body made him uncomfortable. Even so, she couldn’t tell if it was disgust, arousal, curiosity, or some other emotion that caused the subtle flush.

His eyes slowly rose to hers and a hot spike of physical awareness shot straight to her core at his darkened gaze.

A sudden image assaulted her—the duke looming over her, his hard, beautiful face tight with another emotion, his pale skin flushing for a different reason, his breathing strained, his—

Marianne blinked away the erotic image. Good Lord. Where had that come from?

“What is this all about?” she asked more sharply than she’d intended.

“I recently received a letter from your lover, Baron Strickland.”

Of all the possible topics of conversation he might have raised, Dominic Strickland would have been her last guess.

But Marianne earned her bread and butter responding to unexpected jabs, so she quickly found her footing. “Have you been visiting spiritualists and communing with ghosts, Your Grace? Or are you the only person in Britain who did not hear about the baron’s death almost a year ago?”

“It appears reports of his demise might have been premature.” He extracted a small cluster of keys from a coat pocket and unlocked a drawer in the middle of his desk.

When his piercing gaze lowered to the drawer, Marianne briefly closed her eyes and inhaled a shaky breath. Dom is alive? Impossible! She felt feverish and dizzy, her heart thrashing as if it were trying to beat its way out of her chest.

Take hold of yourself. Or would you like to appear a fool in front of this man?

Marianne forced her eyes open just as the duke slid a letter across the desk with his pale, long-fingered hand, the monstrous sapphire in his signet glittering in the low light of the library.

Against her will, she leaned forward to look at the letter.

Her stomach pitched as if she were on the deck of a ship, and she lifted a hand to her mouth at the familiar, distinctive script. Dominic was a sinister who’d been beaten as a child when he’d refused to use his right hand. Instead of hiding his left-handedness, he had enjoyed emphasizing the odd slant by employing the most flowery script Marianne had ever seen. The S in the word Staunton was so ornate, it reminded her of a medieval illumination.

If it was not Dominic Strickland’s handwriting, then the letter was written by somebody who’d made an excellent forgery. Marianne worried her lower lip, unable to look away from the letter.

Dom is alive.

Her pulse quickened just thinking his name. Fear, dread, shame, and hate swirled in her fluttering belly. She swallowed several times, but the lump in her throat remained. “Why would you believe this might interest me?” she finally asked.

“Because he mentions you in his letter.”

She wrenched her eyes away from the missive and met Staunton’s opaque stare. “What does he say?”

“You may read it.”

Marianne’s eyes lowered, as if pulled by some invisible force, and she stared at the letter with all the caution she’d show a live viper. Her hands were heavy, as though gloved in lead, and they refused to move to take the seemingly harmless piece of paper.

What could Dominic possibly have to say that would interest her? I’m sorry I asked you to marry me when I was already married? I’m sorry I staged a fake wedding ceremony in order to bed you?

Humiliation flooded her at the memory of the last time she’d seen him. Although it hadn’t been even a year ago, she had been so heartbreakingly naïve. In a span of only a few days Dominic had stripped Marianne of both her innocence and her ability to ever trust another man. At least no aristocratic man.

Bile rose in her throat as her memories—which she’d so carefully buried—unearthed themselves, rising like specters from their graves.

Marianne clenched her teeth, horrified that she might cast up her accounts right here on the duke’s luxurious carpets.

No. No. She would not shame herself again for Dominic.

She sat back in her chair and looked up. “I don’t wish to read it.”

Some emotion flickered across his face. Disbelief? Anger? Disappointment?

“I don’t care what he has to say, Your Grace,” she said, although he hadn’t asked. “Perhaps you should bring this letter to his wife, the real baroness. Does she know that her husband is alive?”

“I have not shared the information with her. The financial position Strickland left her in forced her to remarry quickly.”

Marianne should feel satisfaction at the thought of what a mess Dominic’s resurrection would mean for the baroness. After all, Caroline Strickland had treated Marianne as if she were lower than dirt the one time they’d had the misfortune to meet.

But she could not work up any genuine pleasure in contemplating the other woman’s incipient misery. Indeed, she felt nothing but pity for anyone who’d been ensnared by Dominic Strickland.

A new thought pushed its way through the chaos swirling in her head, and she narrowed her eyes at the duke. “Why is the baron writing to you, Your Grace?”

“He claims to have knowledge of my younger brother, Benjamin, who was reported killed in early 1814.” He stared at her, his gaze like a raptor’s. “He was an Exploring Officer.”

Marianne had heard of those men, high-born officers who scouted for information to use against the French. They were no better than spies, of course, although they proudly—and rather foolishly, in her opinion—wore their uniforms as they gathered intelligence for Wellington.

“Strickland claims your brother is alive?”

“He sent my brother’s ring, accompanied by a letter in what appears to be Ben’s handwriting.”

“And you accept this as ample proof of his claim?”

“The army never found Ben’s body, so it is possible Strickland is telling the truth.”

Marianne took a deep breath and held it while she considered what she was about to say. “I sincerely hope your brother is alive, Your Grace.” Marianne didn’t wish death on anyone, not even Dominic. “And I appreciate your thinking I might want to know that the baron is alive.” That was a lie; it actually annoyed her that Staunton believed she would care to hear from a man who’d humiliated her in front of all and sundry. Marianne would have been happy if she never had to think of Dominic again.

“But?” he prodded.

“But, in my experience, Baron Strickland is a manipulative, scheming liar.”

The duke did not look surprised.

She continued, “He is entirely motivated by self-interest. If he claims your brother is alive, then there is most certainly something in the situation for him. Knowing the baron, it will be money.”

“I agree, Miss Simpson. And you are correct—in part, at least. He is asking me for money for his help recovering my brother.”

She gave a bitter bark of laughter.

“I apologize, Your Grace,” she said when he frowned at her. “I am not laughing at your situation. I am laughing because that is the man I knew: a person who is always willing to profit from somebody else’s misery.”

Marianne pushed up from her chair. “I wish you the best of luck with your brother, sir, but I don’t want anything from Dominic Strickland, not even a few words on a piece of paper.” She inclined her head. “You needn’t ring for a servant. I can show myself out.”

She was halfway to the door when his voice stopped her. “Strickland won’t give me the information about my brother unless I bring you with me when we meet.”

Marianne whipped around. “He wants to see me?”

“Yes.”

“You mean he is here—in London?”

“No, he is on the Continent. He said he will meet us in a small town just east of Metz.”

“Why in the world would he think I would go all the way there because you asked me to go?” She held up her hand. “Never mind. I don’t know why I even asked that question—it doesn’t matter what he thinks or why. I don’t want to see him. Ever. And he must know that, which is why he didn’t bother sending me a letter, because I would have disposed of it without opening it.”

Marianne looked away from Staunton’s too penetrating stare, annoyed at the guilt that pooled in her belly. “I can see he has led you to believe that my presence is the key to your brother’s freedom. He is lying—there is nothing left between us, and he knows that better than anyone. If he says that he wants to see me before he gives you any information, then what he really means is that he wants more money and has used his outrageous demand—which he knows I would never accede to—as a bargaining device. Trust me, Your Grace, you don’t need to bring me to him to get your brother; just offer him more money.” She turned and strode to the door, expecting him to call her back, but he remained silent.

One of the footmen closed the door behind her after she’d exited the library, and she stood in the middle of the corridor, staring at nothing, her mind a frantic whirl; Dominic was still alive.

“May I show you out, sir?”

“Hmm?” Marianne blinked and turned.

“It is this way, sir,” the footman said. He gestured in the opposite direction, so it was just as well that he’d spoken because her wits were so scrambled that she couldn’t recall how the devil she’d gotten there.

The butler was just entering the foyer when she descended the grand staircase, making her wonder if the duke had somehow notified the man.

“Go see that a groom brings Mr. Simpson’s mount round, Gerald,” the butler—Buffle, Staunton had called him—said to the young footman who’d accompanied her.

“Of course, sir.”

Buffle held up her overcoat. “Here you are, sir.”

“Thank you.” Marianne slipped into the coat and was buttoning it up when the knocker sounded on the front door.

“Pardon me a moment, sir.” The butler strode past her to open the door. “Good morning, Lord Carlisle,” he said, stepping aside to usher in a man who was as handsome and tall as the duke, but dark where the duke was fair.

The peer smiled down at the butler, the genuine expression causing attractive crinkles at the corners of his warm whiskey eyes. “Good morning, Buffle.” His friendly gaze shifted to Marianne. “Am I interrupting something?”

“No, my lord,” Buffle said, handing Marianne her hat. “His Grace is in the library.”

Marianne pulled her gaze from the dark-haired god with some effort. She had never seen the man in person before, but she had read about Gaius Darlington often enough. He was a staple of society writers—who had, rather unimaginatively, dubbed him The Darling of the Ton. He was also first in line to inherit his grandfather’s dukedom. She knew far too much about him thanks to Cecile, who had an insatiable appetite for all things ton.

Too bad she couldn’t tell Cecile that she’d actually seen The Darling in person and that he was even more beautiful than the rhapsodizing descriptions of him.

Marianne scowled at the unfairness; why were some people born with so much? Wasn’t it enough that these men were wealthy and controlled the destiny of everyone else? Did they have to be stunning as well?

She settled the high-crowned beaver hat on her head, smiled tightly at the butler, ignored Lord Carlisle entirely, and left before any more handsome, powerful peers poured into the duke’s foyer.

Once she was outside, she paused to pull on her gloves, glancing up at the door she’d just exited. Lord Carlisle stood at the sidelight, watching her through a diamond of beveled glass. He was no longer smiling.

***

I hope you enjoyed what you’ve read so far. The book is up for pre-order and you can request your local library stock a copy, or grab a copy.

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An excerpt from INFAMOUS ….

INFAMOUS

Chapter 1

The Duke of Stanford’s Ballroom

London, 1818

“Quit yanking on your cravat, Richard—you look as though you’ve been mauled by those beetles you’re so bloody fond of,” Lucien said under his breath.

Richard laughed. “Thank you, Luce, I can always count on you to give me the words with the bark still on them.”

Lucien’s cheeks darkened. “Sorry.”

Richard couldn’t help noticing that his twin’s eyes were in constant motion as he searched the swelling crowds for something. Or someone.

And Richard could guess who.

“I don’t mean to be an arse, Rich,” Lucien said. “It’s just—”

“I know, I know. It’s a burden to have a barnacle like me stuck to your side.” Richard patted his brother’s shoulder.

Lucien snorted. “Idiot.”

“Fool.”

They both grinned.

Richard squinted around at the multitude of people packing the receiving area of the Duke of Stanford’s town house. “Remind me why I’m here again,” he asked his far better dressed, more attractive, and more gregarious identical twin.

So, identical in theory.

In addition to the spectacles Richard wore and his brother did not, Richard was a good stone and a half lighter than Lucien, who’d filled out in the chest and shoulders in a way Richard hadn’t quite managed yet.

And then there were the spots that had plagued them both from age fourteen. Lucien’s had magically disappeared when he’d turned seventeen but Richard’s were only now clearing.

Yes, identical, but different. Richard smirked at the thought.

“You’re here for the girls,” Lucien reminded him, somehow able to speak while smiling, a new skill and something that must have been on the curriculum at Eton those last two years—the two Richard had skipped, instead going straight to university.

Richard snorted. “Yes, because all the girls were so impressed by the way I trod upon—” He made a frustrated tsking sound. “The devil! I can’t even recall the poor girl’s name.”

“Nobody remembers that incident except you,” Lucien said. “Well, and likely her. I don’t recall her name, either. You need to stop thinking that nobody likes you, Rich. If you just put yourself out a bit, you’d see.”

Richard could not believe his twin could be so oblivious of the insults, mocking names, and even an ode that had circulated about Richard this Season. He could only think that Lucien was so insensible because he was falling deeper in love by the hour and could see nothing other than one spectacularly beautiful face, whether she was in the room or not.

“And,” Lucien added, “if a roomful of pretty women isn’t enough reason to be here, remember your promise to Mama.”

“Oh, that’s hitting below the belt,” he muttered.

Lucien merely smirked.

Unfortunately, what his brother said was true. If Richard hadn’t—in an extremely weak moment—promised their mother to stick it out for one Season, he could have been tramping the Fenlands and adding to his already considerable beetle collection.

But their mother, Baroness Ramsay, had chosen the perfect time to corner him—just after he and Lucien had returned from a year of unfettered hedonism on the Continent—and he had foolishly capitulated.

So, here he was. Thank God it was getting near the end of the Season because he wasn’t sure how much more tomfoolery he could bear. In Richard’s opinion, a London Season was remarkably like a term at Eton, but with girls to join in the mockery.

Richard sighed and scanned the crowd. And then immediately wished he hadn’t. Because, dead ahead, was Sebastian Fanshawe, the Duke of Dowden and Richard’s chief tormentor from Eton.

“Good Lord,” he muttered beneath his breath, turning so that the other man mightn’t see him.

Dowden hadn’t changed a whit in the almost three years since Richard had last seen him. He was still the physical embodiment of male perfection, tall, broad shouldered, golden-haired and blue eyed. And he still had the same punishing wit and barbed tongue.

It didn’t matter what Richard did or said, Dowden would abuse him. And only the two of them knew the reason why.

The names, digs, and even a snide ode that some wit had composed about him didn’t bother Richard any more now than they had at school.

That said, it was a damned shame that Dowden had so much influence over the ladies.

Especially over one girl in particular: Miss Celia Trent.

Just thinking Miss Trent’s name gave Richard a heavy feeling in his groin—an unfortunate development with the potential to embarrass him right here in the middle of the Duke of Stanford’s ballroom if Richard wasn’t careful.

He wasn’t the only bloke who suffered such a physical reaction to the woman’s sensual, almost overripe beauty, but he was the only man in the room whose twin was madly in love with her.

Richard felt like a dirty dog about the way his body reacted to the woman his brother hoped to marry, but he was a human animal in his prime breeding years and he could hardly control his body’s reaction to such stimulus.

Could he?

But he could control his behavior. And so he behaved respectfully and with reserve toward the object of his lust and his brother’s love.

Not that his actions mattered to Miss Trent since she seemed to have taken an aversion to Richard before they’d even met.

Lucien leaned close to him and said, “I’m going to speak to Celia’s father tomorrow.”

Richard groaned. “Why do you feel that you have to marry her, Luce? Just because you kissed her?”

Lucien hissed. “Would you keep your bloody voice down?” He glanced around, as if anyone else cared about their conversation. “You know I’ve been thinking about it for weeks now. Long before the kiss.”

“Yes, but you only started mentioning marriage since that irritating lawn party a few days ago—which was also the same day—”

“Yes, yes, you already announced that, thank you very much. It so happens that that particular . . . issue is what has made the matter, er, pressing.”

“Why?”

Lucien rolled his eyes. “You know why.”

“I don’t, actually. It’s not as if you ruined her.” Richard snorted at the words. “Ruined her,” he repeated. “How stupid and dramatic that sounds. Have you ever given any thought to that phrase and what it means? As if she were some sort of object, like a plate you dropped and ruined because it is now broken. It’s not as if kissing—or even sexual intercourse—can only happen one time, so how can you ruin a woman by having sex with her? I have sex with delightful regularity. And yet nobody says that I am ruined.”

Lucien was staring at him in a familiar way. Richard could almost predict his brother’s next words: What is wrong with you?

“What?” he asked when Luce only stared.

“Mother must have dropped you on your head. That is all I can think of to account for it.”

“Besides,” Richard continued, ignoring the tired insult, “I saw her after you kissed her. I can tell you, without equivocation, that she most certainly did not appear ruined. Perhaps you should think on it a few days.”

“I don’t want to. There have to be dozens of men soliciting her father for her hand.”

Richard wanted to ask why they’d do so if she was so clearly ruined but kept that unhelpful question to himself.

Instead, he said, “Maybe some of them have also—”

One dangerous look from Lucien’s narrowed eyes froze the rest of the words in his throat.

Instead, he soothed his twin. “Even if there are a hundred men, none of them can be more eligible than you. Indeed, you possess the only thing Trent is looking for in a son-in-law: lots and lots of brass. Even I, as woefully ignorant of ton gossip as I am, know the man is below the hatches.” He smirked. “In fact, if Miss Trent knocks you back, her father would probably marry you himself.”

“Very droll.”

Richard could see his brother wasn’t listening. “Are you sure about this, Luce? You’ve hardly had a chance to live life or explore the world. We had a smashing time on our trip, didn’t we?”

“Yes.”

“Well, don’t you think—”

“I love her.” Lucien’s voice was low and firm.

Love. Richard rolled his eyes and heaved a sigh at the ridiculous word. It was his contention that human beings were not designed for monogamy. He strongly suspected what his brother was feeling was really lust.

Even if he did credit love as actually existing, he doubted that a person could fall in love with somebody when allowed no more than a few minutes a week to chat with the object of his desire.

Richard considered trying to tell his brother that it was his breeding imperative that was driving him to distraction and sending him to Miss Trent’s father’s house tomorrow, hat in hand.

But that was a subject on which his mother had told him he must be circumspect.

“People don’t like being compared to ducks or beetles or horses, Richard. You must reserve your observations on man’s biology for those who can appreciate and understand them.”

Lucien was not one of those people, so there was no point in arguing.

Besides, Richard could understand his brother’s fascination—if not love—for Miss Celia Trent.

Before meeting Miss Trent, Richard had believed that all healthy, attractive, unattached females under the age of forty were largely the same. Which was to say desirable. He’d never felt his brother’s brand of madness for one woman in particular.

But one look at Miss Trent’s gorgeous face, voluptuous body, and lively blue eyes had turned him into a gaping fool just like every other man—married or single.

The male populace’s reaction to this one woman was laughable, really. Because, as attractive as Miss Trent was, there were dozens and dozens of other women who went unnoticed while the men of the ton clamored like a pack of hounds after a single female.

He had observed the same thing in the animal kingdom. Or at least as much of the animal kingdom as he’d had the opportunity to study in his few years.

To his way of thinking, people were no better than the gaggle of geese that roamed Lessing Hall, his parents’ country home, terrorizing the populace, both human and animal.

Every year for as long as Richard could remember the two dominant ganders—Wellington and Soult—had warred over a white tufted goose named Harriet. The two males would de-feather each other and end up battered and bloody in their determination to have Harriet.

Meanwhile, dozens of perfectly fine geese went unbred.

Richard glanced around the ballroom that lay below them: yes, the same thing was true here. Except not geese, of course, but hundreds of perfectly breedable young women, a great many of whom were hiding in corners while only a handful were chosen to dance time and time again.

Slave to his animal impulses that he was, Richard caught himself searching the room for Miss Celia Trent.

He shook his head; really, he was no better than a gander, every bit as driven to de-feather all the other males in his vicinity in his pursuit of Celia Trent.

No, not that; she is to be Luce’s wife.

Beside him, Lucien heaved a put-upon sigh. “Try not to wear that expression, Rich.”

Richard turned to meet Lucien’s light brown eyes—identical in color to Richard’s, although only half the size since they weren’t magnified by spectacles—and found his brother frowning.

“What expression?”

“The one you’re wearing right now.”

The receiving line inched forward.

“I’m sorry, but you’ll need to be a bit more specific, Luce—I know your vocabulary is limited, but give it a go.”

“You get this look—as if you’re observing mankind’s foibles from a lofty height.”

Richard snorted.

“It’s true, and I’ve seen the same look when you’re categorizing beetles or watching animals copulate.”

Richard laughed. “Oh, and what look is that?”

Lucien’s features shifted until his expression was smirky and heavy-lidded.

Richard had to admit it was an expression that made him want to plant his brother a facer.

“I don’t look like that,” he objected.

“Not right now. Right now you look annoyed and your eyebrow is doing that thing.” Lucien sounded jealous.

Richard snorted; the one thing that he could do that his perfect brother hadn’t yet mastered was lifting his eyebrows independently of each other. You’d think that being well liked, more athletic, and the Earl of Davenport would be enough for his slightly older twin. But no: Luce coveted Richard’s eyebrow thing, too.

“I realize the expression is just a defense when you’re nervous,” Lucien went on, with the assurance of a person who knew Richard almost as well as he knew himself.  “But it makes you look like a right arrogant, suspicious . . .”

“What?” he asked when his brother broke off. When Lucien didn’t answer, Richard followed his gaze.

Lady Stephanie Powell and Miss Celia Trent had placed themselves in a position to be better observed by his brother and all the other young bucks, most of whom arrived at these affairs as late as possible.

Richard knew the young women’s plumage display was for his brother rather than himself, but he enjoyed it nonetheless.

Miss Trent’s hourglass figure, ultramarine blue eyes, and mink-colored curls were an attractive contrast to her friend’s slender, blond wholesomeness.

“Smile,” Lucien hissed as they reached the front of the line and he bowed over the hand of their hostess.

“Good evening, Your Grace,” Lucien said in a suave, sophisticated, grown-up voice that Richard didn’t yet possess.

“Good evening, ma’am,” Richard echoed, his voice breaking in the middle of his three-word sentence.

“Viscount Redvers,” the duchess spoke his name with a look of amusement on her handsome face, her gaze on Richard’s cravat.

Does it really look that bad?

With the gauntlet of the receiving line over, they headed toward a scene that looked remarkably like the descriptions he’d read of Roman gladiatorial pits.

“Bloody hell,” he muttered as they fought their way through the bodies. “Why don’t they open a door?”

“The Regent is expected,” Lucien explained.

Even Richard, who as good as lived in a cave—well, it was actually shared lodgings off Sidney Street—knew the Regent had a pathological fear of fresh air.

“Davenport, old man,” someone ahead of Lucien called out.

“Beaky,” Lucien replied, grinning at his best mate.

“Hallo there, Redvers. Didn’t expect to see you here,” Viscount Beakman said.

“I needed to use a bloody pitchfork to get him here,” Lucien said, looking in the direction where Miss Trent had last been spotted. But it was impossible to see more than a wall of people in either direction and none of them was Celia Trent.

“Could I grab you for just a tick, Davenport? I’ve got that thing to ask you about.”

Lucien frowned. “Thing?”

Beaky gave Richard a significant look. “You know—the thing.”

“Ah, yes. That thing,” Lucien said, comprehension dawning, cutting a last, yearning look toward the ballroom. “But I’ve not got terribly long.”

“No, no, it shan’t take but a minute. Let’s go over to the cardroom. A man can’t hardly hear himself think in here.”

Luce grabbed Richard’s shoulder. “Don’t sneak off the minute I turn my back,” he warned him, and then pushed his way into the sea of bodies.

Richard sighed; here was the beginning of yet another long, tedious evening.

***

Celia watched the two brothers leave the receiving line and then disappear into the crowd.

“It is difficult to credit that they’re supposed to be twins,” Stephanie said to Celia, not bothering to lower her voice.

Millie Bowles, standing on Steff’s other side, tittered and leaned toward them, employing her fan to cover her mouth but actually raising her voice. “It’s difficult to believe they’re even brothers, not to mention identical twins.”

“Oh look, there’s Phyllida Singleton,” Steff said, her glorious green eyes fixed on a slender dark-haired girl greeting several of the other homely, impoverished, or otherwise unpopular wallflowers who were clustered together in a corner.

“Is that the same shabby yellow ball gown she wore to the Kittridge, Oldham, and Acton balls?” Millie asked with an avid smirk.

“I doubt she owns three identical, shabby yellow ball gowns,” Celia said sharply, earning a hurt look from Millie and an amused one from Steff.

“What’s wrong with you tonight, Ceelie?” Steff asked. “You’re in a positively savage mood.”

“Nothing.” That sounded too curt so she added, “I’m just not interested in chattering about people who aren’t even worth a moment of my time—like Phyllida Singleton.”

Her words caused more tittering, and she knew the cut would make its way to Phyllida’s ears before the evening was over. Well, so be it. The unfortunate female should appreciate getting any attention, even if it was cruel.

Some part of Celia’s mind cringed at her appalling thoughts and words, but she shoved her qualms aside with practiced brutality.

Celia let the other two women sharpen their claws on Phyllida as she caught sight of a familiar pair of broad shoulders and a golden head. And just as quickly lost sight of Lord Davenport when he disappeared in the direction of the cardroom, leaving his brother to stand alone.

Something about the sight of Richard Redvers just standing there made her jaws clench. Rather than appear anxious or self-conscious, he surveyed the denizens of the ballroom from his taller-than-average height with the confidence of a general observing a conquered battlefield.

Didn’t the man care that he was the butt of so many ton jokes?

Lily Kendall drifted up to their group. “Did you see who Lord Davenport brought with him again?”

“We already saw,” Millie confirmed.

“Why does he bother?” Lily muttered. “I’ve never seen such a lump in my life.”

“He asked Maria Trevallion to dance at Lady Warnocke’s ball and the poor thing couldn’t think of a way to avoid it. He trod on her skirt and ripped off most of the flounce, taking part of the skirt with it.”

“I heard he ripped off so much that she was almost naked.”

They all twittered over the well-worn piece of gossip.

Celia studied the man in question. He appeared to be staring blankly at the dance floor, his thick spectacles glinting under the light of several hundred candles, looking as if he’d fallen asleep while standing up.

Speaking objectively, Richard did look like his brother, but his appearance was like Lucien Redvers’s reflection in a warped mirror, with spots, although she’d noticed those had begun to fade. He was just as tall but gawky—too slender—and his clothing was a disgrace, rumpled and without any style.

His lips appeared thinner than Lord Davenport’s full, sensual mouth—a mouth more than one young lady had sighed herself to sleep over—but Celia suspected that was due to the odd smirk he seemed to wear in repose.

He stood alone and appeared unconcerned as humanity washed around him like the incoming tide rushing around rocks on the shore.

Celia envied him that—the ability to be comfortable in his own skin. If she were standing all alone like that she’d have developed hives all over her body by now.

That’s why she made every effort to ensure she was never in his position.

Almost as if he’d heard her thoughts—he turned in her direction. His expression was lofty and contemptuous: as if he were examining one of his beetles. No, not that, she corrected. Because if he were doing that he’d probably look interested. Instead, he was looking at her as if she were a bluebottle fly or some other common insect that wouldn’t merit a second of his time.

Perhaps he is correct in his assessment, Celia. After all, what is interesting about you other than your looks?

Ah, touché, she mentally congratulated the inner voice that critiqued her every thought and action.

“Is he a simpleton, do you think?” Millie asked in her piercing voice.

“If you don’t keep your voice down, he might think you are interested, and you will be his next dance partner,” Celia said coolly.

Millie flushed, but the others chuckled.

“What? Are you suddenly feeling sorry for him?” Steff demanded, her eyes slyly flickering in the direction of Lucien, who’d emerged from the cardroom.

“I’m not—but that doesn’t mean I want to make a spectacle of myself.”

Millie’s eyes became glassy at the implied criticism, her chin quivering.

Celia wanted to stop talking about Richard Redvers.

In fact, she’d like to forget the man, altogether.

No, what you want to do is forget your horrid behavior toward him these past months.

Fine. I would like to forget that, too. But it wasn’t my intention that mocking Richard Redvers would become everyone’s amusement of choice.

It wasn’t your intention, but you did everything in your power to make it happen.

Celia was sick and tired of arguing with her conscience—a battered, bruised, and malnourished thing that refused to die no matter how badly she abused it.

Besides, the accusation wasn’t fair. While Celia might have spread the rumors and planted the barbs, it was Sebastian who’d conceived of them.

The Duke of Dowden started it, but you fanned the flames, Celia.

Another truth.

Sebastian had been relentless; his quips and slights and comments were cunning and cruel and spread like wildfire. He was so adept at sowing lies that most people never guessed they came from him. Or her.

At least Celia hoped none of the people around them—with the exception of Steff and Sebastian—ever connected her with any of the cruelty this Season.

Part of the reason that Celia had joined in the baiting was the same as everyone else’s: to make sure that she didn’t become the butt of Sebastian’s rapier sharp wit.

But more importantly, she’d done everything that Sebastian told her to do because she knew he could wreck her.

He had told her he would.

“You want to become Countess of Davenport, my girl, and there is no need to deny it. But even with a face that could launch a thousand ships, you won’t be able to land the handsome young earl without some help. You’ll need invitations to the finest events.” Sebastian had given her a smile that could probably launch no small number of ships, itself.

But wasn’t that how it was in nature? Often the most beautiful creatures were also the deadliest.

Celia had returned his pleasant, utterly empty, smile. “What makes you think I can’t secure such invitations on my own?”

The duke had grinned, exposing his pointed canine teeth. “Oh, my dear, sweet, innocent girl. It would take so very little to ensure that the only ballroom you ever see the inside of is a public assembly room.”

Celia had been too stunned to reply.

“Don’t ruffle your feathers, my lovely. I will guarantee you entrance to every single function of any note. All I want in return is a little assistance.”

“I don’t understand. What can I do that would possibly help you in any way?”

“You can do whatever I tell you.”

And that had been the beginning of it all; Celia had become part of Sebastian’s inner circle, an esteemed, but not particularly comfortable position to occupy.

A person needed a long spoon to sup with such a dangerous man. Even his ex-lovers—gossip suggested—suffered when Sebastian was finished with them.

The Duke of Dowden was wealthy, gorgeous, and had evaded matchmaking mamas for almost five years.

And, for reasons of his own—reasons she’d never inquired about—he had a vehement hatred for Richard Redvers.

Once Celia had agreed to Sebastian’s demands—not that she’d ever had any choice—he had made good on his promise, somehow managing to get her invitations to parties and balls and routs and a half-a-hundred other affairs she never would have attended without his connections.

And all she’d needed to do was spread a bit of mischief.

And create a bit yourself—don’t forget that.

Celia winced at the reminder of the vicious “Ode to Odious” she’d written, which made it painfully clear who Odious was meant to be.

Other than Sebastian, only Steff knew who’d written it, and that had been by mistake.

Celia would never have told the sly beauty anything private. She knew that Lady Stephanie had befriended her for two reasons, and neither one was because she actually liked Celia’s company. First, she wanted to be seen associating with the only woman who could compete with her physical beauty.

And second, she was Sebastian’s cousin and did whatever Sebastian wanted.

So Steff had become Celia’s bosom companion and the two of them had served up a constant buffet of cruel gossip with a smile.

Had Celia sacrificed Richard Redvers, Phyllida Singleton, and dozens of others like them on the altar of her own ambition?

You know you have, Celia.

But I’ll make it all up to Richard when we’re sister and brother.

And how is that?

I’ll bring him into fashion—introduce him to women who are not wallflowers. There are dozens of things I can do to help him.

Her conscience enjoyed a robust laugh.

Celia fumed in silence.

“I’ve heard he’s quite brilliant and went to university two years early.” Millie’s shrill voice cut through her uncomfortable thoughts.

“Studying to be a vicar,” Steff said with a dismissive sniff.

“No, he’s one of that sort who goes about collecting beetles.”

“Ewww!” All five of them shivered with disgust.

“Beetles!” Milly screeched.

Either the word itself or Millie’s piercing voice drew a glance from the subject in question.

“Oh no! He’s looking at us,” Lily Kendall hissed.

He appeared to be, but then his attention was caught by Phyllida Singleton, who approached him with another drab-looking female.

Redvers seemed to come to life, a rare smile transforming his usually inscrutable features and making him almost as handsome as his brother.

“Look, he’s going to ask Phyllida Singleton to dance,” Millie said with her penchant for pointing out the obvious.

“He always does; they’re perfect together. An old maid and her specky swain,” Steff said.

The others laughed.

But Celia didn’t join in.

Instead, anger flared up inside her as she watched the pair. If Richard Redvers had even an ounce of sensibility he would flee London and never attend another ton function.

And if he disappeared, then Celia could stop. She could just stop.

But he was stubborn and stupid and arrogant and insisted on remaining.

And so she was driven to ever greater heights of cruelty.

She needed it all to end, and end soon, or she’d go mad.

Please God, please let Lucien give me some sign tonight . . . some hint . . . and let this horrid, horrid Season come to an end.

If I were you, Celia, I wouldn’t be so eager to attract the Almighty’s attention.

Once again Celia had to admit the truth of such moralizing cautions. Given her behavior, she was far more likely to attract punitive lightning bolts than divine benedictions.

All five of them watched in silence as Richard Redvers led the plainly gowned wallflower out to the dance floor.

That was where Celia should be right now—on the ballroom floor, dancing. But she’d purposely kept most of her card free for Lucien because he usually claimed two dances right away. But not tonight.

No, tonight he’d blithely gone off to the cardroom and left her here.

Left her to watch his brother and Phyllida Singleton enjoying themselves.

They might be unpopular, but even a fool could see that both outcasts felt confident and loved and secure. Neither of them would ever have to worry that they’d return home one evening to find all their possessions tossed onto the street.

Celia tasted the coppery tang of blood and stopped chewing her cheek, forcing herself to breathe and relax.

You don’t have the luxury of relaxing, my dear Celia; you need to take care of matters before time runs out.

What am I supposed to do? Club Lord Davenport over the head and drag him to the nearest vicar?

Her lips twitched a little at the mental picture.

But the smile was short-lived. She had already jeopardized her fragile reputation by allowing Lucien to detach her from the crowds at not one, but three events.

The young earl had been a perfect gentleman the first two times, doing no more than holding her hand, his behavior forcing Celia to all but launch herself at him the last time they’d been alone together.

Even then, he’d tried to be the gentleman. “I don’t want to harm your reputation,” he’d protested—but not very strongly—before capitulating and kissing her.

Kissing was a skill that Celia had carefully honed, and by the time she was finished with him, he’d believed that it had been his tongue that had first led the charge and his hands that were to blame for marauding over her body like Viking invaders.

Indeed, if there had been a vicar with a special license standing beside them at the Lorings’ garden party, Lord Davenport would have married her on the spot.

Unfortunately, the only thing present had been his guilt and heartfelt apologies.

And so Celia had been forced to wait and wait and wait.

All the while her father’s finances had taken an alarming turn—downward. He’d informed her not long ago that she’d better catch herself a wealthy husband before he was hauled off to debtor’s prison.

Matters at home—home being the ramshackle collection of rooms he’d leased for the last six months—had become grimmer than ever. They were down to just Henson and a day-maid to wait on them.

And poor old Molly Henson only stayed because she had nowhere else to go.

Which is exactly the choice you’ll have shortly.

Davenport needed to offer for her, and he needed to do it quickly. Celia had planted the seed almost six weeks ago, but there had been little enough time to cultivate the delicate sprout in his thick male brain. And it bothered her to no end that Steff was always around when Celia had any time near Lucien.

Steff was beautiful, wealthy, and had all the connections that Celia lacked. She’d seen the admiring looks Lucien occasionally gave her best friend.

The voice inside her laughed at the words best and friend when applied to Steff, who was as conniving and selfish and petty a person as she ever hoped to meet.

A lot like you, in other words.

Celia could not refute the accusation.

Her head throbbed badly enough to blur her vision, but she forced a bored expression onto her face while she swept the room with eyes sharper than any raptor’s.

She tried to convince herself that all of this—the incessant balls with the same people, the thinly veiled insults about everyone, by everyone, even the people you believed were your friends, and the constant, crushing fear that you would start slipping down the social ladder and not be able to stop— was not only necessary, but enjoyable.

But the lies and cruelty and duplicity became more difficult to maintain by the day.

This was her second Season and Celia had seen that it was a short step from where she was standing to where Phyllida Singleton lurked with the other undesirables. The only way to keep from becoming Phyllida was to make sure somebody else filled that position. It was cruel and unpleasant, but it was the way of the ton.

Three young men came to ask them to dance but Celia begged off, offering a vague excuse.

Soon Steff and Millie and their partners were swirling around the floor along with Richard and Phyllida. The last pair weren’t exactly swirling and she saw the awkward man tread on Phyllida’s toes. It must have hurt, but Phyllida just smiled up at him and said something that made him laugh.

Celia had to admit Richard Redvers was considerably more handsome—a lot more like his glorious, golden twin—when he smiled like that.

She suspected that the gilt on Lucien Redvers was largely a by-product of his money and position rather than any real difference in the twins’ outward appearance. As the younger son of an earl, Richard would have only an allowance while Lucien would get all the delicious money and property and status that went with the Davenport title.

Celia’s eyes narrowed as she watched the two carefree wallflowers laughing and dancing while she stood on the sidelines ignored and neglected.

How dare they flaunt themselves while she stewed alone on the fringes? If they enjoyed each other so much, why didn’t Richard offer for the woman—whose nickname was The Squab? If they—

“What is the belle of the Season doing all by her lonesome?”

Celia started at the sound of Sebastian’s smooth, cool voice.

“Hallo, Sebastian.” She offered her hand and he bowed over it.

“Where is your beau?” Sebastian was tall—a good head taller than most of the people around them—and glanced around the room with a superior smirk. “Is he neglecting you?” His gaze stopped at something on the dance floor and Celia knew what it was even before he spoke. “Ah, Odious and The Squab.”

Celia winced to hear the names—both of which had originated in her mind—spoken out loud.

His lips twitched and he turned his speculative gaze on Celia. “Don’t fret, darling. Your young lordling is not avoiding you; Davenport has been dragooned into helping poor Beaky out of a fix.” Sebastian cocked his head. “But what if I bring the young lordling  to you and lay him at your feet?”

Celia swallowed down her self-loathing and smiled up at him, her expression—she hoped—world-weary and bored rather than desperate. “Would you? That would be lovely, Sebastian.”

He chuckled and turned back to the dance floor. “I’m getting the most amusing notion as I stand here. Something . . . devious. Something that will make for a rather infamous end to the Season.”

Celia swallowed. “Infamous?” she asked, aiming for an insouciant tone but almost choking on the terror that shot through her at his words. What, in the name of all that was unholy, had he conceived of now? She had to force the next words to leave her mouth, “Do tell, Sebastian.”

In the years to come, when Celia looked back on that conversation, she would be horrified by how quickly one’s life could change.

She didn’t know it then, but that exact moment—only a few seconds in time—represented a critical fork in the road of her life.

While Celia could never know if the other fork—the one where she denied Sebastian what he asked—would have been better, she would soon learn that it could hardly have been any worse.

 

THE BACHELORS OF BOND STREET is out in the world! Here’s a preview of my novella, A SECOND CHANCE FOR LOVE

Looking for some smart and sexy historical romance in a “snack-sized” bite? A SECOND CHANCE FOR LOVE is perfect for a lazy afternoon or late night read!

Here’s a peek at the first chapter…..


A Second Chance for Love

Minerva Spencer

One

London

1817

 

Justin squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his eyelids—hard—the soft leather of his gloves cool on his hot skin. 

But when he opened his eyes, she was still standing there.

“Well I’ll be damned,” he murmured. He closed the door to his carriage with a soft click and slumped back against it, unable to move his gaze from this specter from his past. 

Juss was some distance away, and the light was dim, but he could see her clearly enough, and he’d know that prim mouth, turned-up nose, and fiery red hair anywhere—although most of it was covered with a hideous cap right now.

Even though he could see her with his own eyes, he had a hard time believing it. 

She was carrying a large wooden crate down the back steps of Madam LeMonde’s stylish Bond Street dress shop. There was a small lantern perched on top of the box and it was illuminating her face in an eerie fashion. Judging by the way she was staggering, the box was heavy. 

A gentleman would help her, his conscience prodded.

But I’m not a gentleman. Juss thought the word with all the loathing he felt for the breed. 

He’d known his share of so-called gentlemen and a goodly number of them would just as likely push her against the wall and mount her as help her.

So he stayed where he was, his eyes dry from staring—as if she’d disappear if he blinked.

She paused at the bottom of the stairs and lifted one shoulder to rub at something on her jaw, an itch that had inconveniently developed while both her hands were full. The only other light in the narrow mews was from the lamp outside the back entrance of the nearest business, The Greedy Vicar public house.

It had been a decade since he’d last seen her but Justin would have recognized her even if it had been a century: Miss Oona Parker, the woman whose judgmental self-righteousness had sent his life into a downward spiral of poverty and suffering—a spiral that had, at long last, led him here. Miss Oona Parker, his damnation or his salvation, depending on how one looked at things. 

She propped the box on her hip and unlocked the heavy wooden door that led to Madam’s storage vault. Even from this distance he could see that her movements were slow, almost bone-weary. Well, working as a drudge for a harpy like Madam LeMonde could not be easy. She lifted her burden with both hands and disappeared into the black maw, leaving the door ajar behind her.

Justin turned toward his coachman; Beekman was waiting patiently, wearing his customary bored expression. The two of them had first met in the louse house—not long after he’d seen Miss Parker for the last time—many years before Justin was a wealthy, powerful businessman in a position to offer Beekman—or anyone else—employment. At least not legal employment.

“Return for me in ten minutes” he told Beekman.

“Yes, Mr. Taylor.” Beekman clucked his tongue and the four chestnuts leapt forward, quickly disappearing into the velvety darkness of Cork Lane. 

Justin didn’t normally tool around the city in his traveling coach but he’d just returned from his country house, which was a two hour drive, and he liked to work during the trip rather than take his curricle. Especially when the weather was sharp and chill like it was tonight.

He smelled snow in the air. As if on cue, a large snowflake landed on his nose—a prominent organ that attracted such assaults—and then the sky opened its vaults and the air around him swirled with white fluff that sparkled beneath the lamplight.

Fortunately he had on his heaviest woolen greatcoat even though his plans for the evening had included nothing more adventurous than stopping in at The Greedy Vicar for a meal, a few pints, and the monthly meeting with his manager before going home for the night. 

Pure chance had brought him out the back entrance of the pub tonight; otherwise Juss might never have seen her. He usually visited this property just once a month, and almost always in the evening, when most of the other shops in the string of buildings would be closed for the night. 

Yes, it had been a night like any other—until now. Until her.

Justin’s lips curved into a smile he knew was not nice. What were the bloody odds that he would see her after all these years? Especially now?

It had to be fate.

He pulled up his collar and strode through the quickly blanketing snow toward the dark rectangle that led to the building’s warren of vaults, his booted heels echoing damply as they struck the cobbles. He paused at the doorway, anticipation causing his pulse to accelerate and sending blood racing through his body. The freezing air chilled the sweat on his brow but he was uncomfortably hot beneath the layers of wool: hot with barely suppressed excitement. 

What are you doing, Juss? 

Fate has thrown her into my path, it doesn’t seem right to ignore this . . . opportunity.

It was a long, long time ago—another life. Leave it be; leave her be.

Juss ignored the voice and peered into the darkness beyond, allowing his eyes to adjust: he’d never listened to his better angel in the past, so why start now? 

He knew it would be wiser to take this new information home and think about an approach, but there was no way in hell he was going home without seeing her—talking to her. His mind was blank just now, but he’d know what he wanted to say once he said it. That was his way: quick and confident. That was how he’d grown his measly few pence into shillings and then a handful of pounds, and, finally, into hundreds and thousands of pounds. 

On that thought, he headed toward a flicker of light off to the left some fifteen feet ahead. He knew that was where she would be, because that was the storage area reserved for Madam Cecile LeMonde’s dress shop. Justin had known Dotty LeMonde since his first year in London, a decade earlier. The woman was from Old Saint Nichols Street and was no more French than he was.

Juss heard Miss Parker before he saw her. There was the sound of something being dragged—a ladder maybe—and the dull clunking of wood on stone. 

When he reached the door to the storage area she was at the far side of the large room, perched on a ladder to replace large spools of thread on dowels that had been attached to the low crossbeams. 

Justin crossed his arms and leaned against the doorframe to watch her. 

He still had no idea what he was going to do—perhaps speak or perhaps just slip away—but he’d do it after she came down off the ladder. 

A large, worn overcoat covered her slender body from neck to feet. The only part of her clothing he could see was the high neck of her gown—a serviceable gray—long sleeves, and worn brown ankle boots. She was facing away from him so he studied her shoulders, narrow but straight, her posture so rigid she appeared to have an iron rod in place of a spine.

The stable lads had called her Miss Oona Purity and had taken every opportunity to put themselves in her path. They’d never been openly disrespectful, just teasing and mocking. Of course not far beneath that mockery was desire—at least that’s the way it had been for Justin—because she was one of the most beautiful women he’d seen before or since. Small and shapely, with hair like spun copper and big green eyes.

She had ignored them, not even bothering to glance their way most of the time, as if they were the dregs of humanity sprung up from the gutters. Many of them were the dregs—including Justin—so it wasn’t as if her judging looks were slanderous. 

The competition to help her mount and dismount her horse had been fierce but Juss had always made certain that he was the one to slide his hands around the beautiful—and haughty—young woman’s tiny waist.

Now that Juss was older he realized she must have been rather alone in the viscount’s household. Unlike the other servants she ate her meals in her room or sometimes the schoolroom, and had very little interaction with the rest of them. She couldn’t have been very old—certainly younger than twenty—and the governess position must have been her first. 

He’d only spoken to her a few times and she’d kept their conversations brief and to the point, an action that had only made her more unattainable and therefore desirable.

Juss had slept with his first woman at fourteen and they’d not stopped throwing themselves at him ever since. He’d been an arrogant little fuck by the age of twenty-four—which is how old he’d been when he’d met Miss Oona Purity—certain of his ability to charm the birds out of the trees. Or at least to charm one pretty young governess out of her shell.

But she’d barely given him the time of day. 

His lips curled up. Well, not until she’d run squealing to the viscount about catching him and Clara.

And here she was in the flesh: Miss Oona Purity.

Juss waited and watched in silence, his mind on the last time he’d seen her—the day his life went to hell.

***

Oona’s fingers were so cold they actually hurt with it. She’d put on her coat and scarf but, foolishly, hadn’t pulled on her gloves. She’d wanted to hurry and finish this before Madam came into the back room after serving her last customer.

The older woman wasn’t cruel, but she tended to get short-tempered with her five employees, especially Oona, the only one of the workers who had no skills to offer other than a nimble mind and strong back. She was also the newest employee, having come to Madam just five months ago.

Oona took the last spool from the box and raised it over her head. The dowel was behind her and she’d either have to get down and move the heavy ladder to reach it, or . . . . 

It was foolish and dangerous, but she arched her back and stretched, holding the spool over her head. She’d just put the hole near the dowel when her foot slipped a little and sent the rickety ladder wobbling. She shrieked as the spool slipped from her fingers and plummeted to the floor, her body right behind it. 

Time stretched and slowed, giving her a moment to imagine how it would feel when she hit the cold stone floor. Oona squeezed her eyes shut, gritted her teeth, and prepared for the worst. And then she slammed into a pair of strong arms, their owner grunting from the force of impact, his knees pressing into her back as he bent to absorb her weight.

The first thing she saw when she opened her eyes was the underside of a masculine, angular jaw. Her rescuer tilted his chin down and eyes like blue flame burned into her as he cradled her body against his broad, unyielding chest. 

Oona’s brain struggled with the information her eyes provided: high, sharp cheekbones, a firm chin, a prominent Romanesque nose with a bump on the proud curve, and full, sinful lips that were pulled into a mocking smile. His thick, silky black hair was cut into a fashionable crop just long enough to let a lock flop teasingly over his brow.

Her head was warm and muzzy and she felt unnaturally aware of his warm body. No. No, it couldn’t be.

“How nice of you to drop in, Miss Parker.” 

The voice was more polished, but the cockney still lurked beneath the façade. 

“Juss.” The word was out before she could catch it. Her face heated at the use of his pet name, a privilege he’d never granted her. “Er, Mr. Taylor,” she amended. 

His mouth pulled up higher on one side, his hooded eyes glinting. “Ah, so you do remember me.” 

As if anyone ever forgot Justin Taylor. Oona could tell by his smug tone that he wasn’t surprised at all that she knew who he was. 

“Are you hurt?” His low voice vibrated through her body and reminded her she was still tight against his chest.

She squirmed.

His arms clenched slightly, as if he might keep her, and her pulse thundered at the thought. But he lowered her with sudden swiftness and her feet hit the ground with a loud clack. 

Oona staggered back a step. “Wh-what are you doing here?” she demanded, tilting her head back sharply to meet his gaze; he looked nothing like his former self, and yet he did. 

“You’re welcome, ma’am.” His hat had fallen, likely when he’d caught her, and he bent to pick it up.

Oona’s face heated. “Oh. I’m sorry, of course I’m grateful that you were here to catch me. But—”

“In answer to your question, I own this building,” he said coolly, but she could hear the pride simmering beneath his words. His full lips were curved into a faint smile, the same smirk he’d always worn in repose. It was remarkable how familiar the expression was even though she’d not seen it for a decade. As ever, he made Oona feel young, ignorant, gauche; that wasn’t all he’d made her feel. 

But right now it was making her feel like an idiot. “You’re Mr. Taylor—Mr. Justin Taylor?”

“In the flesh.”

“Oh. I never put the two names together,” she said, sounding breathy and foolish. 

“Taylor is a common name, as is Justin. Why would you ever link your employer’s landlord with an impoverished, disgraced groom you knew many years ago?”

Oona frowned at the slight but menacing emphasis on the word disgraced. Did he think she judged him for losing his position so long ago? The thought made her grimace; if he only knew about how she’d lost her position. Oona cringed at the thought of the arrogant, confident, and successful man in front of her learning about her mortifying disgrace. And it was clear that he was successful. Her eyes flickered over his elegantly clad body: skintight black pantaloons and a wool overcoat that embraced his broad shoulders as closely as a lover, his leather-clad hands holding a high-crowned black beaver hat. 

What had happened to him? How had he gone from a groom to . . . this? Dozens of questions swirled around in her head like too many fish in a pond. Oona snatched at one, “How long have you known I worked for Madam LeMonde?” 

He reached into his pocket and took out his watch. “Perhaps ten minutes.”

Why did that make her feel marginally less anxious?

Did you think he was stalking you, Oona?

No, she thought no such thing. In fact, she was more than a little surprised that he would even remember who she was. 

He replaced his watch and once again turned his uncomfortable gaze on her. 

Oona swallowed, loudly, and his lips twitched: he was enjoying her discomfort.

“Why are you looking at me that way?” she asked.

His eyebrows rose. “What way?”

Oona was good with words, but she had none to describe this particular look. 

“I didn’t know you were a seamstress as well as a governess,” he said when she didn’t reply. “But then I suppose that’s not surprising as we did not occupy the same spheres—me being in the stables and you being in his lordship’s house.”

“No, I’m not—” she hesitated, uneasy at what she was about to admit to this man—a man who’d always flustered her, even when he’d been a mere groom. And now. . . 

“Yes?” he prodded. “You’re not . . .”

“I’m not a seamstress; I’m the all-around dogsbody.” She’d not meant to sound so belligerent, but there it was.

“You didn’t like governessing?”

“Yes, actually, I enjoyed it a great deal.”

“Ah, I see.”

Oona was about to ask him just what it was he saw, but then she wasn’t sure she wanted to hear the answer.

He glanced around and then stooped to pick up the spool. “Where does it go?”

“Oh, you don’t have to—”

He sighed.

“Fine.” She pointed to the second to last dowel. “By the navy thread.”

He had to stand on his toes to slide it onto its holder, but it was done in a blink. 

“Are you finished here?” he asked.

“Yes. I just need—” but he’d already bent to pick up her empty box and lamp. 

“Come, I’ll walk you out.” His tone was peremptory—commanding. Certainly not the tone a groom would use. But then he wasn’t a groom anymore, was he?

When he opened the door, Oona gasped. “Oh, how lovely.” She stared up at the dark sky, the view a dizzying one as thousands of glinting flakes hurtled toward her. 

When he said nothing she turned to find him staring at her from beneath heavy lids. “Yes, isn’t it?” he said, and then pulled the door shut with a sharp snap, his eyes never leaving hers.

“Um.” Oona reached a shaking hand into her coat pocket for the heavy key. “I need to—”

He held up a ring with a half-dozen keys. “I’ve already locked it.”

“Do you always—”

“Finish other people’s sentences?” His lips curved that same non-smile. “No, not always.” He gestured toward Cork Street, where she saw a luxurious black coach with four restless chestnuts. “May I offer you a ride anywhere, Miss Parker—is it still Miss Parker?” 

“No—I mean, yes.” She shook her head at her bumbling. “Yes, it’s still Miss Parker. No, I don’t need a ride as I’ve not finished work for the evening.” She remembered her manners at the last moment. “But thank you.”

He handed her the box and lamp and then bowed. “I wish you a good evening, Miss Parker.” 

Like a street urchin staring in a shop window, Oona watched as he made his way to the magnificent carriage, his booted feet muffled by the thin layer of snow. He opened the door and hopped in without steps, his greatcoat fluttering like a dark flag in the snow-dotted night. 

Oona wondered if he’d look back before he closed his door. 

But he didn’t and the carriage rolled away into the darkness. 


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