Here is a 3 chapter peek at my upcoming Regency THE BOXING BARONESS….
Farnham’s Fantastical Female Fayre
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.
“Marianne, don’t be foolish. This is the second—”
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—”
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.”
“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.
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.
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?”
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.”
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?”
“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.