Come see me at the Pasadena California LitFest!

 

Just a reminder that I’ll be at the Pasadena LitFest this Saturday May 14th at 4:30 on a panel discussing romance in the 21st century.

The LitFest is FREE and there are tons of other authors there.

Hope to see you if you’re in the area!

Here are all the links you could ever need to learn about the event!

* Facebook event: https://fb.me/e/2sGOWuWH9

*Twitter: https://twitter.com/LitFestPasadena

*Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/litfestpasadena/

LitFest Pasadena website: https://litfestpasadena.org/

Direct link to program/schedule page: https://litfestpasadena.org/schedule/

Win 24 Print & Ebook Historical Romances

This giveaway runs until April 15, 2022. To enter, you need to follow the authors on BookBub. Here is the LINK to the giveaway. There is no purchase required. 

My contribution is an autographed print copy of OUTRAGEOUS.

3 Books on SALE!

Print cover of NOTORIOUS

NOTORIOUS, THE ARRANGEMENT, and DANGEROUS are all on sale!

ARRANGEMENT is ONLY .99 for the month of April.

DANGEROUS is currently $1.99 for who knows how long, and only on Amazon. 

NOTORIOUS is more than 50% off for the month of April!

Print cover of NOTORIOUS

The cure for a willful wife . . .
 
Drusilla Clare is full of opinions about why a woman shouldn’t marry. But that doesn’t stop the rush of desire she feels each time her best friend’s brother, notorious rake Gabriel Marlington, crosses her path. So imagine her dismay when she finds herself in the clutches of a scoundrel, only to be rescued by Gabriel himself.  And when Gabriel’s heartless—and heart-pounding—proposal comes, it’s enough to make Dru’s formidable resolve crumble . . .

. . . is a smitten husband.

She’s sharp-tongued, exasperating—and due to one careless moment—about to become his wife. Still, something about Drusilla has Gabriel intrigued. First there’s the delicious flush of her skin every time she delivers a barb—and then the surprisingly sensual feel of her in his arms. Gabriel even finds himself challenged by her unusual philosophies. And when he discovers a clandestine rival for Dru’s affection, his temperature flares even hotter. But the real threat to their happiness is one neither of the newlyweds sees coming. If they’re to save their future—and their very lives—they’ll need to trust in each other and their growing love.
 
“Packed full of fiery exchanges and passionate embraces, this is for those who prefer their Regencies on the scandalous side.”
Library Journal

 
“Strong, complex, and believable.”
Publishers Weekly

Awesome Auction to Benefit the Humanitarian Efforts in the Ukraine

HAPPY FRIDAY!!
 
My publisher, Kensington Press, has organized an auction to benefit humanitarian relief in the Ukraine.
 
I’ve assembled a donation with lots of autographed books and handmade goodies. Only some of the items are pictured–I’ll be stuffing a USPS large shipping box CHOCK full of nifty stuff.
 
I’d love it if you took a look and maybe made a bid. Here is the link to the auction page: LINK.
 
The charity that the money will go to purchases things like medicine and safety gear for those struggling against the invasion of their country.
 
P.S. Yes, those are custom made crackers in the picture! Because why should something as wonderful as crackers only be for Christmas??
 

Sneak Peek at THE BASTARD out March 9th!

Prologue

St. Giles, London

1794

The most important person in John’s world was dying right in front of him, and he couldn’t do anything to help her.

“Gran?” he whispered, his hand shaking as he wiped the greasy, unhealthy-looking sweat from her brow.

Her eyes flickered open. They were sunken and red-rimmed, the whites a sickly yellow. “Sorry, John… so… sorry.”

“Sorry ’bout what, Gran?”

“For—” She coughed, an awful hacking sound that made his own chest hurt just listening to it.

John kept a hand on her shoulder, needing to touch her. It had been hours since she’d last been awake; he’d felt so alone.

“I want to tell you, but”—cough, cough, cough—“dangerous.” She sucked in a noisy breath.

“It’s awright, Gran, you don’t need—”

“Ask Kennedy.”

“Kennedy?” John hadn’t heard the name before.

“He’s not as bad as—” She doubled over in a fit of coughing, blood spraying from her mouth.

“Gran!” John shrieked, and then froze, like a mouse in front of an alley cat. What should he do? What did she—

“I’m so sorry,” she mumbled again and then slumped back onto the cot, her breathing even more ragged than before.

“It’s awright, Gran,” John whispered. “Please… just sleep so you can get better.”

She’d been apologizing anytime she opened her eyes—for what, he didn’t know—and he just wanted her to stop.

Like a serpent, her hand shot out and closed around his arm, surprising a yelp out of him. “Take the gown and go to him, John. He’ll know—” Her body convulsed with the violence of her coughing.

“Gown?” John repeated.

But her eyes rolled back in her head, and she became still.

“Gran?” He shook her. “Gran!

John whimpered with relief when she groaned and moved restlessly beneath the thin, sweat-soaked sheet. He scrubbed a tear off his cheek and sagged back in his rickety chair.

It was July and the weather in the tiny garret was so hot that John’s eyeballs were sweating. There was no window in their section of the attic, so the only breeze came from the room next to theirs, which had only one tenant, a disagreeable man named Dolan.

Dolan scared him, even though he was small and wiry and not much bigger than John—who at five feet was exceptionally tall for his age. Not that he was sure exactly what his age was since Gran got confused about things like years and dates.

“How is she, boy?”

John’s head whipped around at the sound of Dolan’s voice, as if thinking about him had summoned him.

That’s what his Gran said about the Devil: don’t think about him, John, or he’d come calling.

Dolan might not be the Devil, but he was unwanted, all the same.

“I asked you a question, boy,” Dolan snapped.

Looking into Dolan’s eyes made his stomach curdle like he’d swallowed sour milk. “Sleepin’,” he said, proud that he sounded defiant rather than scared.

Dolan gave a sharp bark of laughter and approached the bed. “That ain’t sleep, boy—she’s unconscious. You need a doctor.”

That’s what John thought, too. But he didn’t have the money to pay one—even if he could convince one to come to Pigeon Alley, one of the most unsavory parts of St Giles.

“But I reckon that would be throwin’ away money,” Dolan said. “A quack would just tell you to take your leave of ‘er.” He tried to pat John on the shoulder, but John flinched away before the man could touch him.

“Why so skittish, young lad?” Dolan asked in a voice he probably meant to be friendly, but John saw the greedy, nasty glint in his eyes.

John couldn’t think of anything to say, so he just shook his head.

Dolan glanced around their small, gloomy lodgings, his gaze settling on Gran’s sewing bag—the only item of value in the room. The scissors in the bag, which John wasn’t allowed to touch, were Gran’s prized possession. Without them, she’d not be able to do her work.

There was also a thimble, some sharp needles in a little tin box, and a leather pouch that contained something John had never seen because his Gran had stitched it shut.

“This is yours,” she’d said when he’d asked what was inside.

“Why can’t I open it?” he’d asked, more than once.

“Someday you will.”

“When?”

“Someday.”

That was all he could ever get out of her.

Even though he’d been curious for years, now he couldn’t bring himself to care about whatever was in the pouch. His eyes slid back to Gran. And he knew, with sick certainty, that she’d die if he couldn’t get a doctor.

John wished he could ask his Gran what to do, but it was down to him—he was the man of the family.

“I have something—maybe enough to pay a doctor,” John blurted before he lost his nerve.

Dolan’s eyes glittered with interest. “Oh?”

“Gran’s scissors.” He half expected her to leap from the bed at his suggestion, but she didn’t even twitch.

“Let me see them,” Dolan said, no longer smirking. Maybe he wanted to help? John needed somebody to help.

He dug around in the bag, pushing aside some bits of cloth, a small notebook that Gran had kept, even though she couldn’t read, her needle tin, the leather pouch—and at the bottom of the bag was the thick felt case with the scissors. John glanced at his Gran as he took them from the bag. Normally he’d never be so bold, but she didn’t even shift on her cot when he handed the valuable item over to Dolan.

Dolan unwrapped the felt and held the fancy-handled scissors closer to the smoky tallow candle. “These’re fancy—she must ‘ave pinched ’em.”

“Gran don’t steal!” John shouted, even though he’d wondered how she’d afforded such a nice pair.

Dolan chuckled. “Calm down, lad, I was just teasin’. These’ll be enough to get Feehan over ‘ere to take a look.”

Feehan was a butcher who lived several streets away and had once lanced a boil on John’s knee. He was a filthy, frightening mountain of a man, but Gran had summoned him for that, so she obviously trusted him.

John held out his hand for the scissors.

“Nah, you don’t want to go out on the street wiv somefink, so rum, do ye?”

That was true, but John also didn’t want to leave anything valuable—or rum, to use Dolan’s street cant—with the unpleasant little man, either.

“Just tell the butcher that Jake Dolan says you can pay.”

John hesitated, not liking the thought of leaving the scissors or his Gran, but what choice did he have?

“You want me to sit here while you go—keep ‘er company?”

Dolan’s kind offer made John feel bad that he didn’t like or trust the man.

He nodded again and then forced himself to speak up like a big lad, like Gran always said, “Thank you.”

Dolan took the chair where John had been sitting. “Go on, now. I’ll watch ‘er. You best be runnin’.”

John turned and ran.

***

It took John almost three hours to track down Feehan, who wasn’t at his shop, but at a rat pit on the far edge of St. Giles.

The huge butcher wouldn’t leave with John until the terrier he’d put money on took a nasty bite from a rat and was out of the running.

Because of his loss, Feehan was in a foul mood and grumbled as he shuffled after John, moving so slowly that John had to chew his tongue to keep from shouting at him to hurry. Something told him that the nasty butcher would only go slower, or worse, not come at all.

“You’d better have the balsam to pay me, boy,” Feehan threatened in between wheezes.

“I can pay.” John didn’t tell Feehan he didn’t have money, but barter was just as good. At least he hoped it was.

When they got to John’s building Feehan stared up at it and swore. “Bloody hell! You’re on the top floor. I remember this place. Old lady Fielding—you’re her brat, ain’tcha?” He scowled and sighed when John nodded. “Well, get on with ye.”

John bolted up the steps, suddenly terrified that Dolan might have taken the scissors and left his grandmother alone. After all, he didn’t know the man. What if—

But when he reached the top floor, breathless and sweaty, he found Dolan standing on the landing, almost as if he’d been waiting for him, his rat-like features pulled into a sad expression, but his eyes as sharp as ever.

“She died, boy—not long after you left.”

John pushed past him, and Dolan grabbed his arm. “You don’t want to go in there, lad.”

“Lemme go!” John shouted, squirming.

“You don’t need to see her. It ain’t pretty, boy.”

Dolan’s sleeve rode up, exposing his wrist, which John couldn’t help noticing was already bleeding from what looked to be scratches. John opened his mouth wide and bit him as hard as he could.

Dolan gave a bloodcurdling scream and released his grip; John sped through the darkened room and came to a stumbling stop in front of Gran’s cot.

Her eyes were wide open as they’d not been in days, her expression one of terror. On the floor was the dingy, flattened cushion that had been beneath her head when John left. It was damp with blood and something that looked like vomit.

A huge hand clamped on his shoulder. Unlike Dolan’s grip, Feehan’s was unbreakable. “You owe me—I don’t care if she’s dead. I made the trip.”

John couldn’t seem to find any words.

“The boy lied if he told you ‘ee ‘ad money, Feehan,” Dolan said, coming up to stand beside the butcher, cradling his bloody wrist.

“I did not!” John looked for Gran’s sewing bag, but it was gone. He whirled on Dolan. “Where is it?”

Dolan sneered. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Gran’s scissors and her bag! You took it!” John launched himself at the loathsome, grinning man, surprising Dolan enough to knock him to the attic floor.

He was pummeling the small man when something hard struck him on the back of the skull and his head exploded with pain and white sparks.

John lost track of time, only coming back to himself when Feehan shook him so violently it felt like his head would snap off.

“Why, you little bastard! You lied to me.” The butcher slapped him hard. “Nobody lies to me and gets away without payin’!” Feehan hit again, this time with his fist and not his palm, and everything went black.

The next time John came to, he was tied to the chair with torn up strips of sheet and the cot was empty.

“Where’s me Gran?” he demanded of Dolan, who was digging through the old crate where Gran had kept a few bits of food when they’d had any.

“Gone. It’s too bleedin’ ‘ot to leave ‘er lyin’ out.”

“That ain’t what I asked! Where is she?”

Dolan ignored him.

“Where’s me Gran?” John hollered, struggling against his bonds when the man wouldn’t answer. But the old sheets, when twisted and used like ropes, were tougher than he’d expected.

“Where’s the scissors?” he yelled, his vision red and his body trembling with rage.

Dolan finally turned around and came closer; his eyes so cold that John recoiled. “Feehan wouldn’t take the scissors so I paid ‘im outta me own pocket.” His already slitted eyes narrowed even more. “That means you owe me.”

“You’re lying!”

Dolan slapped him hard and then raised his fist when John opened his mouth to yell again. “You’d best shut up if you don’t want another.”

John blinked away the pain, furious when he felt tears on his cheeks.

“What do ye got to repay me, boy?”

“I can w-work,” he stammered. “I’ll run messages and clean out stalls and—”

“I run me own messages and I ain’t got no stalls.”

“I’m big—I can work. I can—” He flinched as Dolan ran a finger down John’s jaw, his eyes glittering in a way that made him feel like puking.

“Yes, what a big boy you are. Why, I remember the first time I saw you, not long after yer ma died. You was just a babe and dressed as fine as a fivepence.” He gave an ugly laugh as he tugged at the filthy collar of John’s shirt. “Not so fine now, eh?”

John tried to concentrate on what Dolan was saying, but his body was shaking with fear.

“I recall yer ma, she was a right flash piece.” He licked his lips in a way that made John sick. “I reckon anyone could be yer da—”

“Gran said me da was called Joe—”

“Joe and Mary?” Dolan hooted. “Ride up on a donkey, did they? Was you born in a manger?”

John glared up at him, too angry to even speak.

Dolan scratched his ear. “Mary was swellin’ wiv somebody’s brat before she died. I reckon yer da is either Kennedy or Bower. They used to ‘ang about with Mary back then, but I don’t recall no Joe.

“You’re a liar!”

He leered down at John. “Yer ma had lots o’ men, but none that wanted to marry such a worn out jade.”

“They were married! You’re a liar!” John couldn’t stop screaming over and over and over, until even he couldn’t understand the garbled words. He just knew that he needed to stop Dolan from talking. He needed to keep him from wrecking John’s memories—which were all he had left—with his vicious lies.

Dolan slapped him. “Shut up, you little bastard before I—”

“What’s goin’ on ‘ere, Dolly?” somebody demanded.

Dolan yelped and spun around.

The voice belonged to an immense man dressed in fine, bright-colored clothing that was blinding in the dingy room. “Can’t keep a wean under control wi’out tyin’ ‘im to a chair?”

“You go ahead and laugh, Alfie. You won’t fink it’s so funny when ‘ee bites your ‘and.”

Alfie turned to John. “You bite my hand and I’ll break your ‘ead, boy.”

John quit squirming as Alfie towered over him, his gaze speculative and his green eyes as hard as the stained glass in the church where Gran forced John to go some Sundays when she was well enough.

“So, you’re young John Fielding, eh?” Alfie’s eyes flickering over John in a way that made him feel like an animal up for auction. “Don’t look much like yer ma.”

“You knew me Mam?” John blurted.

Alfie leered. “Aye, I knew ‘er.” He made a thrusting gesture with his hips and laughed; Dolan joined in with him, the sound as ugly as they were.

“That’s a lie! She never—”

Alfie backhanded him, his arm a blur.

John flinched back before the blow made contact, so Alfie’s enormous paw only clipped his ear. But it still hurt badly enough to make his eyes water.

“You shut yer gob, boy. I ‘spect you’ve a lot to learn,” Alfie muttered, scowling down at him briefly before turning to Dolan, “So, ‘ow much you want for ‘im?” Alfie asked. “‘Ee’s too big to be a lily white.”

John gawped up at Alfie. Lily white? Surely, they weren’t talking about selling him as a chimney sweep? “You can’t sell me! I’m not—”

Alfie lifted his fist, and John shut his mouth.

The giant turned to Dolan. “I’ll give you a couple’a twelvers for ‘im.”

“Two shillings?” Dolan squawked. “That won’t be enough to—”

Alfie’s hand shot out.

Unlike John, Dolan wasn’t fast enough, and the blow caught him full in the head, knocking him to the floor. “You shut yer gob, too. Or did you forget ‘ow much you owe Fast Eddie? By rights I oughta just take this boy.”

Dolan cowered in a way that John would’ve enjoyed if he weren’t so terrified of the giant himself.

“Yeah, yeah, sorry ’bout that, Alfie. Er, I’ll take the money. Fanks, Alfie.”

Alfie grunted and then pulled a knife from a sheath on his belt.

John yelped and cringed when Alfie leaned toward him.

Rather than hit him again, Alfie just chuckled. “Calm yersel, little man. I din’t pay for ye just to snuff ye.” He cut John’s hands and legs free. “Do I need to tie ye? You gonna run, or you gonna come nice-like?”

John opened his mouth to ask where they were going, but one look in Alfie’s hard eyes told him that would only earn him another cuffing.

“I won’t cause no problems.”

Alfie winked. “There’s a smart lad.”

“Where’s me Gran?” John risked asking.

Alfie frowned at him, but turned to Dolan. “Where’d you send ‘er?”

“A gent from St. Bart’s came for ‘er.”

Alfie’s hand shot out and his huge paw wrapped around Dolan’s throat. “Where’s the balsam?”

Dolan’s mouth moved, but only gasps came out.

“What?” Alfie asked, leaning closer.

Dolan must have said something because Alfie tossed him on the floor like a rag doll and then bent to yank off his shoe. Coins rolled onto the floor, and Alfie scooped them up and dropped them into his coat pocket.

Alfie turned to John. “Yer Gran’s gone—already buried.” He grabbed John’s shoulder and shoved him out the door. “You keep your mouth shut and don’t ask no questions. You only need to remember one fing from now on: you belong to Fast Eddie. ”

John didn’t know it then, but in the years to come he’d discover that Alfie hadn’t exaggerated—he belonged to Fast Eddie: body, mind, and soul. 

 

Chapter 1

Twenty-Four Years Later

London

1818

John leaned against the lamppost and watched the three women alight from the carriage. He’d left his horse in an alley a few streets over and walked the short distance to avoid the chaotic congestion that always marked Bond Street, the ton’s favorite fashion haunt.

He’d been watching the three women for weeks; watching her, really. At first, he’d had a reason to spy on them—an unpleasant, criminal reason, but a reason, all the same. But now…

Well, somehow watching her had become a habit. John told himself that was because he had nothing pressing to do. For the first time in years—hell, for the first time in his life—he was his own man and could do whatever he damn well pleased.

Apparently, what he pleased was stalking a spinster and her two youthful charges.

John barely noticed the younger women—Ladies Melissa and Jane—even though both were, objectively, more attractive than their aunt, Miss Cordelia Page.

But it hadn’t been Miss Page’s face or body that had first drawn John’s interest. To be honest, he’d barely noticed her when he’d started watching the three women. He never would have bothered spying on them again after the first time if Miss Page had not done something to intrigue him.

It had been the type of scene that had played out all over London all day, every day, for centuries: a group of boys tormenting a street cur; poor boys picking on something weaker than themselves and being cruel for reasons of their own—or no reason at all.

Miss Page had been the only one in her party who’d noticed the yelping dog and the boys pelting it with stones, their voices loud and raucous. She had stopped in the center of the walkway while her companions walked on, unaware that they’d lost her.

By the time the two girls and their footman had noticed she was gone, Miss Page was confronting the five jeering boys in the alley, her hands on her hips, her body between them and the cowering dog

She’d had no clue about the danger she was facing.

John had run toward her when he’d guessed what she was doing, but he’d been too far away and would never have made it in time.

Fortunately, the footman was closer, and he reached the fray in time to launch himself between Miss Page and a sizeable rock. The servant took the projectile in the chest and the young ruffians ran when they saw what they’d done.

The footman would have a bruise but was not otherwise the worse for wear.

Meanwhile, the woman—oblivious to the danger she’d just faced—picked up the cringing animal and cradled it in her arms, regardless of dirt and disease, holding it as if it were the most precious thing on earth.

John had stood frozen at the opening of the alley and gawked, as though he’d been the one hit with a rock. A dog. She had risked herself for a filthy old dog that would probably die, anyhow.

Women of her class didn’t do such things.

Except now John knew they did. Or at least one of them did.

After that, he’d found himself following the trio again the following week. And the week after that.

John didn’t follow her every day. He wasn’t that bad.

Yet.

It wasn’t as if they went anywhere interesting or exciting. Today they were going into a modiste’s shop. The last time it had been a bookseller. The time before a modiste and a bookseller. Upper-class women appeared to do little other than shop. Even ones like Miss Page who were unmarried, impoverished gentlewomen dependent on their wealthy relatives’ whims and kindness.

To be frank, John was bloody fed up with his irrational obsession with the woman. He had never been fixated on a woman in his life. He’d learned early in life that wanting things was the fastest road to disappointment. The more you wanted something, the more disappointed you’d be when you couldn’t have it. Or when it was taken away.

All he’d ever allowed himself to want was revenge: revenge against the man who’d abandoned John and his Mam, leaving them to die in the gutter.

Revenge was cold and consuming and implacable; it was an emotion he could understand.

What he was experiencing right then—a gut-clawing yearning—was unlike anything he’d ever felt before.

He’d tried arguing himself out of his obsession, but his brain refused to listen. He wanted Miss Cordelia Page more than ever with each day that passed.

John had no earthly idea why he was so transfixed by the woman. He didn’t want to just bed her, although that idea had certainly taken root the more he’d watched her; he also felt a compulsion to—God help him—know her.

What the hell did that even mean?

Everyone John had allowed himself to get close to was dead and that had taught him a valuable lesson: keep people at a distance.

John hadn’t invited Miss Page into his head—he didn’t want her there—and yet she’d inveigled her way in. It was bloody annoying.

He’d allowed one person into his life in the past two decades, his ex-employer, Stephen Worth. The only reason he’d allowed Worth in was because the man had rescued John from Hell and then given him a job.

He’d also given John a reason to live: revenge.

Revenge had been enough for years.

Until now.

Miss Page had not rescued any other dogs, but he’d seen other acts of kindness. She always had a penny for a street sweeper, a kind word for the servants who fetched and carried, and she was patient with her spoiled nieces even when they were petulant or rude to her.

She was a poor relation—a woman who was tolerated only so long as she was useful—and yet she faced her servitude with humor and good-natured acceptance.

If there was one thing in life that John knew plenty about, it was servitude—and he’d never faced it with good humor or acceptance.

Just what made this woman so bloody cheerful all the time? And why did she intrigue him so much, like a shiny object that he could see, but never quite well enough to make out the details? John needed to get closer.

He paused beside a lamppost to watch her from beneath the brim of his hat.

As far as John could tell, she possessed only a handful of dresses while the two girls—his stepsisters, not that anyone would ever believe such a relationship existed—never wore the same garment twice.

It wasn’t surprising that the girls did not resemble him. Not only did they have a different mother, but—as the legitimate daughters of a duke—they had also enjoyed an entirely different life—one of ease and plenty.

John could just imagine the dainty girls’ reactions if they ever learned that he was their bastard half-brother.

The thought made him grin, a gruesome sight that caused an approaching pedestrian to stumble and careen into a pair of young bucks.

“On the tipple this early?” one dandy jeered after the older man.

Then the fop spotted John and his taunting smile slid from his face faster than a whore dropped her knickers. “Oh, beg your pardon,” he murmured, scuttling out of John’s way.

John ignored both his horrified stare and his apology and kept his eyes on the three women, who were disappearing into the modiste’s shop, where they would most likely be for hours. And when they came out? They would climb into their carriage and go to some other shop.

Was he really going to wait around for hours just for a glimpse that lasted no longer than a few seconds?

John sighed. Yes, he was.

He pushed himself off the lamppost and crossed the street to one of tea shops that catered to the throngs of Bond Street loungers.

The hum of conversation inside the crowded shop leaked from the room like water from a cracked mug when he entered. John paid no attention to either the sudden silence or the staring eyes and lowered his big frame into a spindly chair near the bow window.

He ordered a pot of tea that he had no intention of drinking and commenced to wait.

***

Cordelia was careful to mask her true thoughts on the hat that her niece, Melissa, was currently modeling. Hiding her feelings was something Cordelia did well. She had learned it was wiser to ignore Melissa’s whims rather than confront them head on.

“It is a fetching bonnet, my dear.” For a lady of the night. “However, that shade of red will not flatter the apricot muslin you are planning to wear to Lady Northumberland’s fête champêtre.”

Melissa scowled at her reflection and plucked off the dreadful hat, handing it back to the hovering shop clerk. “I suppose you are correct. What about that one?” She pointed to a far more appropriate straw and pale green voile concoction and the clerk went to fetch it.

Satisfied that she’d steered Melissa into a more suitable direction, Cordelia turned to her younger niece, Jane, who sat slouched on a settee, her nose in a book. Her pelisse, bonnet, gloves, and reticule lay scattered about her on the plush divan, as though she were a volcano that had erupted, spewing women’s garments far and wide.

“Jane, darling, won’t you please choose a hat?”

Jane glanced up, her blue eyes unfocused behind thick, smudged spectacles. “I beg your pardon, Aunt Cordy?”

“A hat, my dear. That is why we are in a millinery shop, among all these hats. You must select one.”

Her smooth brow wrinkled. “Must I?”

“If you care to attend Lady Northumberland’s party tomorrow.”

Jane appeared to be giving her words serious consideration.

“You have already accepted the invitation, Jane. It would be unkind to change your mind at this late date. Besides, you wanted to see her conservatory for yourself.”

“That’s true.” Jane pursed her lips and grudgingly closed her book. “Can you not choose something for me?”

The shop bell jingled and Cordelia turned to find Eldon Simpson, the Earl of Madeley, looking very much like a fox surveying a henhouse.

Well, drat.

“I thought I recognized His Grace’s carriage in that dreadful snarl outside.” The earl spoke to Melissa, although his eyes flickered to Cordelia, to whom he gave the slightest of nods.

Melissa flushed in a way that made Cordelia’s heart sink. How could her niece not recognize a cold-blooded fortune hunter when she saw one? That was a foolish question and Cordelia knew it. Her sister’s children had been sheltered and cosseted from the moment they’d been born. They had no clue what dangers the world held for pretty—seemingly wealthy—girls.

Cordelia approached the handsome earl, whom she knew to be one step away from being chased by shopkeepers bearing pitchforks, torches, and unpaid bills.

“Good afternoon, my lord.” She masked the chill in her voice with a pleasant smile.

“Good afternoon, Miss Page.” He glanced at Melissa and then Jane. “Will you ladies be gracing Lady Northumberland’s party tomorrow?”

“That is why we are here, to select new hats,” Melissa said.

Jane had already inserted her nose back in her book and appeared unaware of the handsome lord’s existence.

The earl’s eyes widened; all the better to show off their sky-blue color. “Hat shopping? I adore it above all things.”

Melissa laughed. “Will you be going to the party, my lord?”

“Why, I wouldn’t miss it for the world, Lady Melissa.”

Cordelia suspected the earl would rather be boiled in oil than attend such an insipid affair, but he was so strapped as to make finding a wealthy bride—immediately—a necessity.

“Oh, dear,” Cordelia said in the diffident tone that she knew people expected of spinster aunts. “I’m afraid we are running terribly late.”

Melissa cut her a narrow-eyed look. “Surely we needn’t leave just yet, Aunt.”

Cordelia gave her niece a vague smile. As a poor relation, she was adept at appearing impervious to slights, irritated sighs, or withering looks. “I recall seeing something the exact shade of your gown at Madame Lisette’s. We must make haste and see if the hat is still available.” She didn’t wait for Melissa’s answer and turned to Jane, helping her younger niece collect her scattered possessions before ushering her toward the door. “It was a pleasure seeing you again, my lord.” She nodded at the hardened rake and gave her seething niece an encouraging smile. “Shall we go, Melissa?”

Lord Madeley bowed over Melissa’s hand. “I shall see you again soon, Lady Melissa.”

Melissa waited until they were out on the street again before hissing, “That was very rude, Aunt Cordy!” She sounded remarkably like her mother—Cordelia’s elder sister—the Duchess of Falkirk.

Jane pushed her smudged spectacles further up her rather beaky nose—she bore more of a resemblance to her regal father than her beautiful mother—and scowled at her sister. “Oh, don’t be such a cat, Mel. Anyone can see Lord Madeley is nothing but a hedge bird.”

Cordelia had to bite her lip to keep from laughing. “Jane, that is hardly a polite thing for a lady to say.”

“I’m sure she learned it from Charles,” Melissa said.

Cordelia suspected Melissa was right. Unlike most young men his age, Charles Merrick—the duke’s son and heir—did not find it unmanning to socialize with a female.

Cordelia was waiting for the two girls to climb into the barouche when a vast expanse of great coat-covered chest appeared in front of her. Cordelia looked up and up and up to a man so big that his towering form blocked the sun and left his face in shadow.

“I believe you dropped this.” The deep voice did not sound entirely English.

The footman, Marcus, who’d been helping Jane settle into the carriage, turned, saw the stranger, and puffed up like a belligerent rooster. “Here then; what do you want?” He attempted to thrust himself between Cordelia and the interloper but failed when the huge stranger did not budge.

Marcus was a big man, but he looked like a boy next to the giant.

The stranger turned in profile to cut a dismissive glance at the footman, and Cordelia gasped as sunshine illuminated his face.

Heat surged up Cordelia’s neck at her ill-bred response.

Rather than be insulted by her reaction, the man appeared to be amused, his lips twisting into something that might have been a smile, although it was difficult to say given the way his scarred cheeks pulled in such unnatural directions.

His coal-black eyes burned into her. “Is this yours?” he repeated.

Cordelia knew she should at least glance at whatever he was attempting to return, but she couldn’t look away from his gaze. Aside from the savage scars radiating out from both corners of his mouth, he was handsome in a stern, unsmiling way. His nose was the high-bridged regal beak that was so prevalent in England’s oldest families—or at least it had been regal before it had been broken and poorly set.

His most unusual characteristic after his scarred visage was his hair, which was a glossy black and long enough to be worn in a queue. Outside of a few military units that still adhered to the custom, it was unusual to see long hair on a man.

“Ma’am?” He raised a jet-black eyebrow at her and she wrenched her gaze from his face and looked down to see a rose-pink glove in his huge hand.

Cordelia blinked; his six-fingered hand.

“Aunt Cordy?” Jane poked her head outside the carriage. She looked from the giant to his hand. “Oh, that is my glove.” Her open smile made Cordelia even more aware of her own rude, open-mouthed gawking.

The stranger cut Jane a dismissive look as he handed her the glove.

“Thank you, sir,” Jane said.

But his eyes were already back on Cordelia.

She exhaled the breath she’d been holding and fixed a gracious smile on her mouth. “Yes, thank you, sir.” She was pleased that her voice sounded so much calmer than her flustered brain.

His nostrils flared slightly, and he gave an abrupt nod and turned, his graceful movements a surprise for such a massive body.

Cordelia couldn’t help watching as he cleaved oncoming pedestrian traffic like a human axe, the people he passed cutting him furtive, anxious glances.

And then he turned down an alley and disappeared.

“Goodness,” Cordelia murmured, her legs strangely weak, her mind a whirl.

“Did you see that, Aunt Cordy?” Jane leaned toward Cordelia, her blue eyes wide.

She was formulating a gentle chastisement about ladies not commenting on the disfigurements of others when her niece continued. “I have never met anyone other than me, Charles, and Papa like this, have you?” She held up her right hand.

Cordelia looked at Jane’s six-fingered hand, grateful she had misjudged Jane’s interest in the stranger.

It just so happened that Cordelia had met two others with the distinctive extra digit on their right hand and both were the duke’s natural offspring. Could that mountain of a man possibly be related to the Duke of Falkirk? Her sister’s husband was notorious for sowing his seed far and wide, perhaps—

“Have you seen anyone else with six fingers?” Jane asked again.

Cordelia could hardly mention her father’s infidelities, so, instead, she sat back against the plush velvet squabs, oddly exhausted by the brief encounter, and said, “No, Jane, I haven’t.”

***

John waited until he’d turned into the alley to look at the small square of embroidered linen in his hand, C. F. P.

Thanks to his investigation of the duke’s family, he knew the initials stood for Cordelia Frances Page. He also knew she was the Duchess of Falkirk’s much younger sibling and had come to live with her sister several years before. Miss Page had grown up in a modest country squire’s house, close to the Duke of Falkirk’s family seat, and was in her early thirties. She had no beau in London or in the area around the duke’s house, which was where she spent most of her time when she wasn’t launching a niece into society.

John ran his thumb over the raised needlework. It had been easy to pluck the handkerchief from where she kept it tucked in the wrist of her left glove. While John was not a skilled pickpocket—or cly faker as it was called in street cant—he’d done his share of it when he’d been a lad, until he’d grown too large to blend in.

Tiny violets and even smaller green leaves encircled the initials. The workmanship was exquisite. John raised the handkerchief to his nose and inhaled. The small cloth had a scent, although not of violets. Whatever the fragrance was, it was sharply aromatic, and John could not identify it. He inhaled deeply and held the breath in his lungs, savoring it like he would a fine brandy.

John knew that women of Miss Page’s class—when they were not shopping or attending balls or parties—spent their time employed in activities like needlework.

But not the type of needlework his Gran had done—stitching garments for a tailor by the dim light of a tallow candle until her eyes were too weak to see, her fingers too bent and stiff to ply a needle.

John shoved aside the broken shard of memory and pictured instead the woman who must have labored on this tiny square of fabric.

The sun had been at his back and had thrown her face into relief. Her eyes were a kaleidoscope of greens and browns with a hint of gold. But it wasn’t the color that made him take notice so much as the expression in them. Large and slightly up-tilted at the outer edges, they seemed to be smiling, even when they had looked up at him.

And people never smiled when they looked at John.

Her lips were not bow-shaped like those so admired by poets, but full and mobile. They’d stood so close that he’d seen small brackets around her lips—lines made by smiling and laughing. Although she probably didn’t know it, hers was a mouth made for sensual pleasures.

Her figure was not the slim, fragile type so admired by the ton, but then John was not a member of that august assemblage. She was voluptuous—his preferred type of female body—and he could imagine how well she’d fit in his arms and had done so far more often that he’d liked.

Her wide hazel eyes had taken in his scars with a thoughtful expression that had startled him. It wasn’t the look he normally saw on women’s faces. No, the usual reactions were either fear or a combination of morbid attraction and sexual curiosity.

John had long ago become accustomed to people gawking at his face, and it didn’t bother him. And why wouldn’t people stare at him? He was hideously scarred.

But Miss Page had looked beyond his scars—or at least it had felt that way—making him feel like a book she’d opened and begun leafing through. Could she see the things he’d done? The things he was still doing. The things he had planned for her family.

The whimsical notion was utterly unlike him. It was far more likely that Miss Page was merely more self-possessed than most people. What had looked like thoughtfulness had probably been a polite mask of shock and revulsion. He knew women of her class were taught to conceal their feelings.

John gave vent to an exasperated groan when he realized he was standing in an alley, like an infatuated dunce, thinking about the blasted woman. Again.

It didn’t matter how often he told himself that she was just another impoverished spinster, a woman of average beauty well past her prime who was nothing special.

No, that argument was as toothless as an old crone.

He wanted her. Badly.

John scowled and shoved away thoughts of the woman, carefully tucking away the handkerchief he’d stolen as he approached the lad holding his horse.

He took the reins and tossed the boy a coin.

The lad, no older than ten or twelve, tilted his head back and stared up a good two feet at John. “’E bit me, sir.” He held out a scrawny limb as proof. His arm was stick-thin with pasty skin stretched over bone, the half-starved body of a street urchin. There was an undeniable U-shaped imprint of equine teeth on his small forearm.

John wasn’t surprised; the big dun colored stallion was an ugly, irascible beast. Much like John, himself.

He swung himself into the saddle and looked down at the lad’s upturned face. “He bit you, but you did not let him go?”

“No, guv.” The boy’s pinched face was serious and his gaze was steady, even though most grown men quailed beneath John’s stare.

John tossed him another coin. “If you want to get bitten again, come to Berkeley Square; I have need of a stout stable lad.”

The boy grinned, and the expression exposed a set of teeth that were two shy of the normal complement. “Aye, guv.”

John snorted at the boy’s enthusiasm and wheeled his mount.

“You didn’t say which ‘ouse, guv. I know all the swell’s ‘ouses—I used to be a lily white,” he said, trotting alongside him.

John had pegged the lad for a chimney sweep, thanks to his soot-stained face. “It’s the biggest house on the square.”

“But ain’t that the Duke of Falkirk’s house?”

John smiled grimly and kneed his horse into a canter. “Not anymore.”

Chapter 2

St. Giles

1798

John was chewing on a stale currant bun, watching the smaller children scramble for their share of food, when Des Houlihan grabbed a boy named Ben Watkins by the shoulder.

“Food ain’t for the likes of you, Watkins!” Des barked, flinging Ben’s body across the room.

Everyone but John laughed when Ben fell into a tangle of legs and arms.

Des towered over the cringing boy. “You’ll get food when you earn it.” He spun on his heel and headed for the door, stopping when he spied John staring at him.

“What’re you lookin’ at, Fielding?” Des stalked toward him, clearly expecting him to cringe, too.

“I ain’t lookin’ at nothin’.” John glared at the hateful man, refusing to look away. He’d shot up over the last two years and could look Des right in his piggy eyes.

Fast Eddie had noted John’s unusual size and had put him to fight against other boys twice, and once against a dog. It had pleased Eddie when John had won all three times and he’d given John a twelver and promised him more fights.

But John knew Eddie wouldn’t be happy if he attacked Des Houlihan, because Des was Eddie’s brother.

And so he backed down.

“You keep them Hell-black eyes offa me before I knock ’em right outta yer head.” Des raised his fist to cuff him and John prudently dropped his gaze to the filthy floor. “Know yer place, Fielding.”

John’s body didn’t unclench until Des left the dirty, cramped room that the youngest of Fast Eddie’s employees—the kiddies, as child thieves were called—called home.

Des had disliked John since his first week, either because John was so big and Des so stunted, or because John had had the brass—not to mention stupidity—to ask if Des knew a man named Dolan.

Des had knocked him across the room. “Dolan works for Eddie and that makes him none of yer business. It ain’t for the likes of you to be pryin’ in Fast Eddie’s affairs.”

Des hadn’t realized it, but he’d given away a piece of Eddie’s business by telling John that Dolan worked for him—something he hadn’t known before.

But the hateful man was right about one thing; it was dangerous to pry so openly.

That was the last time John had brought up Dolan directly, but that didn’t mean he’d stopped looking for the man who’d likely murdered his Gran and nicked her bag.

John would never stop looking for Dolan.

The sound of whimpering pulled him from his dark thoughts. Ben was cowering in a corner, cradling his arm like it was an infant.

John sighed and strode over to the younger boy, dropping to his haunches to examine the scrapes and bruises on his arm and face. “Did that bastard bust yer arm?”

Ben shook his head and then winced at the pain it caused.

The other boy was lucky it wasn’t broken. Just last week, Des had smashed the ankle of a kiddie named Tommy after discovering that Tommy had held back a few pennies from his daily take. Tommy had laid around after Des broke his leg, moaning and begging for food for three days before he’d disappeared. Two days after that, Tommy’s body had washed up on the muddy banks of the Thames at low tide.

There had been two lessons to take away from that episode.

One, never steal from Fast Eddie.

Two, if you can’t work, you weren’t worth keeping around.

John had felt sorry for Tommy, but he’d hadn’t shared his food or helped the other boy because Tommy had been a nasty little toad who’d bullied the younger children.

Ben, on the other hand, was gentle, timid, and not too smart. But he was kind, and John had seen him share his food with the smaller kiddies more than once.

John handed the boy a bun. “Here.”

“But Des said—”

“I don’t care a damn what that cunt says,” John snarled.

Ben recoiled but clutched the bun and vigorously nodded his thanks.

Mismatched boots and a filthy green skirt appeared next to John, and Lily slid down beside him. “What’s this, then? Got a new pet, John?”

John scowled at her, and she laughed. Lily laughed a lot, although, as far as John was concerned, there wasn’t much to laugh about.

Lily was too old to be living with the rest of them, but, for some reason, she was still in with the kiddies instead of working in one of Fast Eddie’s brothels, where girls usually went after they’d reached a certain age.

It had been Lily who’d first approached John when he’d first come to live with the kiddies. At first, he’d worked alone picking pockets—and not successfully, either. Lily had convinced him to join her sham after the boy she’d worked with had been moved on to another job.

Without her help, John would probably have ended up like Tommy—dead in the river.

“Ben’s comin’ with us tomorrow,” John said to Lily, speaking even though his mouth was full, something his Gran would have slapped him for. But everyone here chewed with their mouths full and nobody cared. They cared more that there was something they could chew.

“Oh! You’re the boss now, eh?” she teased, her voice full of good humor.

John didn’t answer, so Lily turned to Ben. “You can come with me an’ John, we’ve got a good wheedle goin’.”

That was an understatement; John and Lily both brought in more money than any of the others, even the older ones who lived on the floor above them. John didn’t fool himself that it was thanks to him. No, it was all thanks to Lily.

When she’d first approached him, John had been ashamed at the thought of being rescued by a mere girl. But he’d quickly swallowed his pride and done what she’d told him to do. Lily was the reason he’d eaten so well every day and grown so big and strong.

Even though Des hated him, he wouldn’t act on that hate because John was a good earner, and in Fast Eddie’s organization, only two things mattered: doing what you were told and bringing in money.

John ate the rest of his bun while Lily explained to Ben that tomorrow he’d be throwing his body beneath a carriage driven by a toff.

“What?” Ben demanded, eyes bulging.

Lily laughed and nudged John in the ribs. “Remember what you called me when I told yer that, John?”

John smiled faintly. “I said you were as mad as a mudlark.” He still thought so, even though he’d flung himself beneath carriages more than a few times, although that wasn’t what he was best at.

“Mad as a mudlark is right.” Lily laughed, and even Ben, usually too scared to find much humor in anything, laughed with her.

Lily nudged John again and handed him a bun. Her gray eyes, her best feature by far, were uncharacteristically serious. “You shouldn’t a given yours away—you’re too bleedin’ big to go without. Take it. You need it more’n I do.” There were dark smudges beneath her eyes and she looked tired; yet she was trying to give him food that she needed. Why Lily was so good to him had always been a mystery.

“I’m not hungry.”

“Liar.” But she laughed and took the bun back.

She ate in silence for a moment before she leaned close and said, “Des said I’m goin’ to Jenny Holloway’s.”

John’s jaw dropped, and he turned to stare at her. Jenny Holloway’s was one of Fast Eddie’s whorehouses—the meanest, dirtiest, roughest one.

“When?”

“Friday.”

“That’s only two days away!”

Lily nodded.

John scrambled for something to say, but there was nothing. To refuse to go was… well, unthinkable. Even if Des just tossed her onto the street—instead of into the river—there was nowhere else to go and Lily would end up whoring or starving.

“I—I never thought they’d make you go,” he said lamely.

“I didn’t either—not with Des always tellin’ me I’m so ugly and lame, to boot.” She laughed, but there was no humor in it this time. “Well, I guess I ain’t ugly and lame enough.”

“You’re not ugly,” John retorted, his face heating with shame because he’d once thought exactly that. It was strange, but after working alongside her, hearing her laugh, and seeing how kind she was, John couldn’t remember why he’d ever thought she was ugly.

Lily patted his knee, as if he was the one who needed comforting. “My knight protector.”

John scowled and blushed. “I don’t understand, Lil. Why would they send you away? Don’t all the money you bring in matter?”

“Des said run goods—even like me—is worth a packet.”

John knew that was true enough. Rich men were mad for run goods—street cant for virgins—and paid ridiculous sums.

“Des said the punter won’t care ‘ow ugly I am if it’s dark enough.”

“He’s a rotting whore’s son!” John spat, anger burning like acid in his gut. “I’m going to kill ‘im one day, Lil—I swear it.”

“Hush, you! What would ‘appen if somebody ‘eard?”

John was so bloody tired of living in fear, of taking the cuffs and kicks that Des constantly inflicted on those who were weaker. And he was sick of watching the few people he liked—like Lily or Ben—being treated like rubbish.

Sending Lily to Bella’s—the nicest of Eddie’s brothels—would have been bad enough. But sending her to Jenny Holloway’s was beyond cruel. The girls who worked at Holloway’s looked worn and ill and dead inside. Lily had so much life in her; how long would that be true?

“I’ll be fine, John, don’tcher worry.” Lily leaned over and gave him a peck on the cheek, the action making his face hot and causing all the other kiddies to snigger.

John didn’t think Lily would be fine at all. None of them would—not unless they could get away from Fast Eddie before he used them up like bum fodder and then threw them away.

John felt like his head would explode the more he thought about Lily’s grim future.

And there wasn’t a damned thing he could do to stop it.

Chapter 3

London

1818

The footman who opened the door to John’s house on Berkeley Square was the only man he’d met in England who was bigger than him.

The younger man gave John a grin of pure joy. “Good afternoon, Mr. Fielding.”

John grunted and handed over his hat and gloves.

The footman, Fredrick, or Daft Freddie, as John had heard one of his other footmen call the giant—right before John had sacked the man—talked slowly and moved with the careful deliberation of a child.

Frederick had shown up for a footman position, even though John hadn’t advertised for one. Indeed, he’d not advertised for any servants and yet their number seemed to be increasing weekly, mainly because John appeared to have difficulty saying no. Especially to somebody like Frederick.

When John’s aged butler, Sims, had brought Frederick to his library, it had put John in mind of a cow being led to slaughter. Frederick’s big hand had trembled when he gave John his letter of reference, a brief missive on expensive paper that was written in the spidery hand of somebody ancient and signed by a Lady Mildred Leslie.

John had looked from the letter—which attested to Frederick’s eleven years of excellent service from boot black to footman—and back at the behemoth, who was clutching his battered hat in a death grip.

He’d opened his mouth to tell Frederick Brown that he didn’t need a footman but found himself telling the man he could start work immediately.

Frederick had bobbed up and down like an amorous pigeon. “Thank you, my lord. Oh, thank you.”

John had scowled, uncomfortable with so much gratitude.   “Fielding is my name, there is no my lord.” He’d been desperate to get the man out of his library before Frederick had tried to kiss his hand.

Now, as John strode across the calacatta marble and headed up the massive semi-circular stairs, he had to admit that it wasn’t only Frederick’s gratitude and adoration that made John uneasy; it was his fragility.

Although Fredrick, who was as big as an ox, looked nothing like Ben Watkins—who’d been skinny to the point of emaciation and barely five feet tall—the big footman was as gentle, harmless, and ultimately defenseless as Ben had been.

Trying to protect the vulnerable and wounded was nothing but a recipe for pain, and John dearly wished he could scour the impulse from his mind—tear it out completely, right down to the roots. After all, look what John’s worrying had done for poor Ben: nothing.

He realized his hands were clenched into fists and he loosened them as he reached the second-floor landing, where yet another footman loitered. Although loiter was an unfair word as the man was struggling to move a heavy marble pedestal for a broom-wielding maid.

When they saw John, the footman bowed awkwardly around the heavy object and the maid dropped a jerky curtsey.

John ignored the pair and entered the library, which was the only room he liked.

The unadorned pedestal outside the library wasn’t the only bare thing in the massive house. There were blank walls and bare floors in all the rooms in the giant mansion, thanks to the prior owners, who had stripped it bare.

But if his house was empty of possessions, it was full-to-the-brim with servants. It had not been John’s intention to hire any servants, but it seemed his intentions were beside the point.

He’d arrived at Falkirk House carrying only his valise and looking forward to some solitude. He hadn’t even reached the top step before the front door had opened.

“Who are you?” John had growled at the ancient man gaping up at him.

“Sims, butler to His Grace of Falkirk for fifty-two years, er, sir.” He’d clutched the oversized door handle as if it were a lifeline, his slight, bent figure swaying from side to side.

John had been gob smacked. Just what the devil was he supposed to do with such a fossil? Why the bloody hell hadn’t the acquisitive Duchess of Falkirk—who’d supervised the stripping of the house—taken the ancient codger with her?

John’s uncharacteristic moment of indecision had stretched into several. All the while the butler had submitted to his glare, blinking owlishly up at him.

“You are Mr. Fielding, sir?” The old man had asked when it seemed the two might stand frozen on the front stoop until pigeons roosted on them.

“Aye, I’m Fielding.” John had stepped foot, for the first time, into his new home, which he’d not even looked at before buying it. He’d not purchased the house because he liked it and wouldn’t have cared if it was falling to pieces. He’d purchased it to humiliate his father, the Duke of Falkirk, whose money trouble had forced him to sell the London mansion which had been in the family for generations.

John knew all about his father’s money trouble because he was the one who’d created it.

“Are you the only servant here?” John had asked.

The butler’s white bushy eyebrows had hovered over his old eyes like low-lying clouds.    “There are seven of us, sir. There is—”

John held up a hand, and the man had stopped speaking, his rheumy eyes riveted on John’s six-fingered hand. “You may provide me with a list of names and positions tomorrow. Right now, I hope a cook is among that number because I am hungry.”

That had been three months ago. And twenty-three more servants ago, for a total of thirty.

The house was now dust-free and John enjoyed splendid meals served by at least five servants. Yes, his employees took prodigious care of their sole resident, even when he ordered them not to.

At least three nights a week—sometimes more—John combed the city’s underworld, carrying on his search for Dolan, which he’d been able to begin in earnest after he’d stopped working for the banker, Stephen Worth, last fall.

When John returned home after venturing into the stews—usually in the wee hours of the morning—he always found a footman waiting up for him, a fire crackling in his chambers, and, most interestingly, a small pot of hot chocolate on his nightstand.

Chocolate.

John snorted as he threw himself into his leather armchair—the only chair sturdy enough for his enormous frame—recalling the first morning he’d seen the mysterious, steaming pot.

Of course, he’d not touched the blasted chocolate.

At first.

Then one morning, after a particularly rough night, he’d taken a sip—but only to settle a tickle in his throat, mind. It had been the equivalent of drinking something unspeakably beautiful—like a spectacular sunset. Who would have guessed that such a substance existed?

He had since concluded that chocolate was better than brandy, not that he would admit his preference to anyone.

John stared into the leaping flames in the massive library hearth and contemplated ordering a pot.

Although it was March in London, it felt like December. The recent cold snap matched John’s mood, which was bleaker than usual now that he’d forced himself to stop following—well, stalking—Miss Page.

The weather was reminiscent of Boston, Massachusetts, where he’d spent five years working for the disgustingly wealthy banker, Stephen Worth, before coming to Britain a little over a year ago.

For most of last year John had striven to bring about Worth’s clever plan—a plan that had worked brilliantly and earned revenge not just for Worth, but also for John, not to mention yielding an obscene amount of money for both, in the process.

He’d spent some of his newfound wealth to acquire this splendid house, which should have gone to John’s half-brother, the Marquess of Gaulton and future Duke of Falkirk.

His mouth twisted into what passed for a smile and he stretched out his legs and tugged off his cravat. Why not be comfortable? He had nowhere to go today. Indeed, his days had been uncomfortably empty since he’d stopped following Miss Page.

John sighed and felt a twinge in his right ribs, reminding him of last night, when a so-called promising lead on Dolan had led him to an unsavory gin house on the waterfront.

Not only had the promising lead not materialized, but John had—mortifyingly—fallen prey to a trio of cudgel-wielding lads who’d been waiting for him when he’d left the pub.

He’d gathered his wits quickly enough, fortunate to escape with nothing worse than some bruised pride, torn clothing, and the loss of his wallet. To be honest, the worst part of the whole affair had been the destruction of his favorite pair of boots, which had been ruined when he’d stumbled into a ditch overflowing with the contents of an untold number of chamber pots.

Without money to hire a hackney, he’d needed to walk all the way home in his shitty footwear and tattered clothing. John deserved every bit of misery he’d received. Looking for a murderous scoundrel in the stews of London two decades after the murder was beyond foolish; it was madness. But then, how else should he spend his time? Join a gentleman’s club? Practice his sparring and swordplay?

No, he wasn’t some toff who needed a club. He already had a hobby—two, actually: finding bloody Dolan and stripping the Duke of Falkirk of his last, finest, possession: his famed family seat, Chelmsford Park.

John couldn’t buy the estate—it was entailed. But he could make matters so dire for the duke that he and his son would be forced to engage in the legal fiction known as Common Recovery to break the entail.

And then John could get his hands on Chelmsford, and he would have everything. Surely taking away the duke’s prized possession would sate his hunger for revenge?

At first, he’d believed that forcing his father to sell Falkirk House would be enough. But he felt nothing as he glanced around the magnificent, if a bit worn, library that surrounded him.

Shouldn’t he feel something, even if only pride of possession? After all, he’d grown up in the stews and yet all this was now his.

John’s gaze flickered over the intricately carved floor-to-ceiling bookcases, most of which were only sparsely populated with volumes.

He’d purchased both the property and its contents, but that had not stopped the Duchess of Falkirk from stripping the house of anything of value.

John could have taken the matter before a court—and he’d have won, too—but he didn’t care. In fact, it amused him to discover what a grasping, greedy bitch the duchess was beneath her proper, cool veneer.

Instead of ordering chocolate, John poured himself a whiskey and then paused in front of a portrait, one of the few the duchess hadn’t stolen. It was some long-dead ancestor, as was evidenced by the six-fingered hand that was peculiar to the Merrick bloodline. Judging by the man’s dress, he’d lived early in the last century.

The painting had suffered extensive water damage, no doubt the reason the prior owners had left it behind. The brilliant scarlet and silver of the man’s buckled pumps and skirted coat were disfigured by warped, blackened lumps of mold or mildew. His pale blue eyes had somehow escaped the assault and looked out on John with an expression of weary disappointment, as if finding himself in the company of a baseborn criminal was merely another insult in a long line of many.

John tossed back his drink and smirked at the haughty face. “Don’t worry, Your Grace, after I take Chelmsford, you’ll have plenty of family for company.

He set down the empty crystal glass with a thump, revived by the sudden blast of hatred that coursed through his veins.

He’d spent too much time mooning over Miss Page and not enough getting things done. But he was done making an idiot of himself; tomorrow he would get back to the business that had brought him to Britain.

Destroying his father.

And the best way to get to the Duke of Falkirk—who’d fallen ill and been bedridden since the financial losses John had inflicted on him the year before—was through his father’s precious son and heir: Charles Merrick, the Marquess of Gaulton.

Tomorrow, John would set about bringing down his half-brother, the man who’d received all their father’s love and led such a pampered, luxurious life.

Thanks so much for reading. I hope you enjoyed the free excerpt and are tantalized and eager to read more about John and Cordelia.

THE BASTARD will be out March 9th.

If you’d like to order a copy, here’s the link:

 

Bead mania!

What have I been doing when I’m not writing? I’ve become obsessed with beads…

I thought I’d share my first jewelry projects. These are both bracelets that I fell in love with when I saw the patterns. As usual, I gave no thought to difficulty, I just dived in.

Here is a picture to give you some idea of the bead sizes I’m working with:

As you can see, these guys are tiny! They are size 11 and size 15 seed beads. Yes, they are two different sizes, even though they look very similar. The gold one is actually the smaller bead.

Anyhow, here is the first project I did, which also has half-tila beads. You can also see the difference between the 15s and 11s in this:

The half-tilas look like metal, but they are actually glass like the other beads.

Once I finished this one, I thought I’d try what is called peyote beading (no, that doesn’t mean what you think it means…) This next project is beaded with the double drop peyote method. It is titled Geodes and I got the pattern HERE if you are interest.

And here is a close up

I made 2 mistakes in the pattern early on, but I left them because my husband couldn’t see them and also because I didn’t want to take out 6 rows of beads to get to them!

Anyhow, I’m finding beading theraputic if addictive. Any other beaders out there?

Whoop! Whoop! INFAMOUS on Screen Rant!

INFAMOUS is at the top of Screen Rant’s list of best books to read if you loved the Bridgerton series!

You can check out the list HERE!

If you haven’t read INFAMOUS, here is the blurb, cover, and a link. 


A mean girl reformed . . .
Once the reigning beauty of her social set, Celia—whom the newspapers dubbed Lady Infamous—has fallen on hard times and is practically destitute, her reputation in shreds. When Celia is forced to attend a society wedding as a companion to an elderly guest, she must confront the clique she once commanded; the gentleman she’d once hoped to marry—who is now wed to a girl Celia relentlessly taunted; and the powerful man who ruined her life a decade before—and is threatening to do so again. . . .
 
A hero transformed . . .
Then there is Richard, the studious boy Celia used to ridicule, who is now gorgeous, wealthy, and
more-than-a-little famous. As a youth, Richard was infatuated with Celia. He still seems intrigued, but Celia has acquired a shocking secret along with her hard-won humility. Will it put an end to the love blossoming between them? Does she have the courage to find out?
 
“Readers will be delighted.”
Publishers Weekly

BARBAROUS on sale for $1.99 ONLY.

Who knows how long this will last?? I know it says “for a limited time” so I’ll leave that up to your interpretation…

Here is the lovely cover with links below…

A thrilling Regency romance from the author of Dangerous. “Spencer shines in her sophomore effort, burnishing her reputation as an author to watch.”—Kirkus Reviews

He could be her ruin
 
Hugh Redvers is supposed to be dead. So the appearance of the sun-bronzed giant with the piratical black eye patch is deeply disturbing to Lady Daphne Davenport. And her instant attraction to the notorious privateer is not only wildly inappropriate for a proper widow but potentially disastrous. Because he is also the man Daphne has secretly cheated of title, lands, and fortune.
 
She could be his salvation
 
Daphne’s distant, untouchable beauty and eminently touchable body are hard enough to resist. But the prim, almost severe, way she looks at him suggests this might be the one woman who can make him forget all the others. His only challenge? Unearthing the enemy who threatens her life . . . and uncovering the secrets in her cool blue eyes.
 

Free Excerpt of DANCING WITH LOVE

I hope you enjoy this early free excerpt of

DANCING WITH LOVE,

Book 5 in The Academy of Love series,

which will be out December 2022!

 

Chapter One 

London

Miles Ingram shivered beneath his worn overcoat. This was the coldest year in memory and he’d been frozen so long his extremities had become permanently numb. He might have worried that he’d lost all feeling in his hands and feet if he’d not spent the better part of the day having them tread upon by giggling schoolgirls stumbling their way through the quadrille.

Miles knew it could have been worse; he could have been teaching them the waltz, a dance that seemed to make most young females lose what little sense they had.

The only thing he wanted to do after walking the not inconsiderable distance from Grosvenor Square back to his part of town—a dirtier, more cramped section of London—was throw back a stiff drink or two and soak his aching feet in a basin of hot water.

He told himself he was lucky—this newest teaching position would be just enough to pay the next month on his lodgings and leave him a little to buy food. Finding work as a dance instructor had not been as easy as he’d hoped—especially when he had to avoid taking work in the great houses of the ton, where his name, if not his face, would be known.

That left him with the daughters of bankers, merchants, and captains of industry. But many a mama took one look at Miles and sent him packing. It seemed he was too attractive for wise mothers to trust with their wealthy daughters.

Miles gave a bitter laugh. Lord, as if dallying with young bits of fluff—rich or poor—was something he thought about these days. No, most of his minutes and hours were consumed with the struggle to survive. Day-to-day life had become a constant grind since the school where he’d taught for almost three years—the Stefani Academy of Music and Art for Young Ladies—had closed its doors.

The school’s closure should not have taken him by surprise as there had been signs of instability for some time, but his optimistic—or simply foolish—nature had stopped him from accepting the truth. If he’d been thinking, he would have saved some of his money from this past year instead of putting the bulk of his wages against his insurmountable debts: debts that had barely diminished even though he’d been paying on them for years. But he hadn’t noticed the worsening situation at the school and now he was skint. The only reason he’d been lucky enough to get this teaching position was because of Freddie—Lady Winifred Sedgwick.

Freddie had been a teacher at Stefani’s Academy—the mistress of deportment and elocution—along with Miles and five other instructors. In the aftermath of the school’s dissolution Freddie went back to finishing young ladies and launching them into the fashionable world.

“It’s a loathsome way to make one’s living,” Freddie admitted. “But I’ve been pitchforked into the world of commerce with nothing else to sell.”

Miles had grinned and eyed her tall, slender body up and down with a lascivious leer. “Well, not nothing…”

As usual, she ignored his randy innuendo. That was one of the many things he loved about Freddie: her unflappability.

“And what are you going to do to earn your bread, Miles?”

“What do I have to sell other than my dancing skills?” He gestured to his person, which had been sprawled over a ragged old wing chair in the parlor of the house Freddie shared with two teacher friends of theirs, Serena Lombard and Honoria Keyes.

“At least you are a man, and men have options.”

Options? Ha! He had only three as far as he could tell: marry a rich woman, teach dancing, or fling himself into the Thames.

Miles had kept those depressing thoughts to himself. “I suppose I could seek out a lonely widow and barter this fancy package of mine.”

Freddie looked up from her needlework, which she was never without, her expression dry as she eyed his fancy package. “I shouldn’t think that would bring you enough to live on.”

Miles had laughed and clapped his hand over his heart. “Freddie! You’re a cold-hearted wench. I guess there’s nothing for it but to marry you and let you take care of me. I’ve always fancied being a kept man.”

She made a sound that might have been a snort if it hadn’t been so delicate and feminine. “You shall have to marry eventually.”

“Why should I? My brother already has two daughters and his wife is young and fecund; there will be loads more children in their future. Besides, even if Bevan doesn’t have a son there’s always Crispin.” He shrugged. “I am merely one of the spares and completely irrelevant.”

Freddie had given Miles one of those looks and that had been the end of that conversation.

Miles skirted a steaming pile of horse dung and smiled at the thought of his dearest friend. Freddie, Freddie, Freddie: always trying to take care of him like a hen with one not particularly smart chick.

And thank God for her help. Because if Freddie hadn’t steered Miles toward this current job, he would have been forced to go to his brother, hat in hand, to get enough money to pay his rent.

He grimaced at the thought and shoved it from his mind. He hadn’t needed to go to Bevan, so why borrow trouble?

He trod on something hard and sharp and the worn sole of his shoe didn’t protect him.

“Damn it,” he muttered, giving an undignified hop as pain radiated out from the ball of his foot. His greatest fear these days was that his overworked feet and shoddy footwear would conspire to lose him the one job he had. Now he would need to beg a basin of hot water out of his landlord so he could soak his feet the moment he got home.

But when he reached his lodgings, it was to find his pinch-mouthed landlord, Mr. Fisher, waiting for him in the cramped, dingy entryway.

“Ah, there you are.” He glared at Miles as if he’d shown up two hours late for an important appointment.

“Yes, Mr. Fisher?” Miles used the weary, bored tone he generally employed to depress pretension and regarded the smaller man through narrowed eyes as he pulled off his gloves. They were the best pair he owned but were so thin and worn he could feel the cool breeze even when they were on his hands.

“You’ve got a visitor been waiting ‘ere for nigh on three hours.” Fisher sounded accusatory, as if Miles had done something heinous by having another human being actually visit him in his home.

Miles grimaced. Lord, was it more dunners? “Well?” he prodded. “Who is it?”

Mr. Fisher glanced around—as if somebody might be listening—and leaned closer, “’Ee looks to ‘ave been crying.”

That didn’t sound like a dunning agent. Miles removed his hat and dropped his gloves into it. “In the parlor?”

“No, I put ‘im in your rooms.”

Miles frowned. “Why?” He paid good money for use of the public spaces in the dismal building, such as they were.

“You needn’t get all snirpy wiff me!” Fisher drew himself to his full height. “’Ee said ee was your brovver.”

Miles pushed passed him without another word, taking the steps to his third-story rooms two at a time. His brain whirred so loudly with fear that he could barely hear the clatter of his feet on the wooden stairs.

If Bevan or Crispin had come all this way then something was wrong.

Very wrong.

 

Eight Months Later

Mary had ignored her dead father’s meddling as long as she could. It was humiliating to even contemplate the terms of Lucas Barnett’s will, but time was running out. If she wanted to continue living her life the way she liked, then she would have to knuckle under and do her father’s bidding.

“Oh, Da,” she muttered. “Why did you do this to me?”

Mary knew her father had loved her more than anyone—even more than he’d loved her mother or Mary’s much prettier and sweeter younger sister, Jenny.

            “I’ve got you, darlin’ and yer Ma has Jen, and we all have each other,” was how her folksy father had explained the complex tangle of family loyalty and love.

            But as much as Lucas Barnett had loved his eldest daughter, he’d still put her in shackles before he’d died; shackles for which there was only one key: marriage. 

            Mary could still hear his words—his justification—spoken in his peculiar, blended accent, the last vestige of a boy who’d been raised by an itinerant tinker with no place to call home.

“It should be yer son—or maybe girl—who’ll take over one day, luv. I’ll see to it young Jen and her bairns are taken care of, but you, Mary? Yer a chip from yer Da’s block. When ye marry, ye and yer man will take charge and grow things ‘een bigger.”

            Lucas Barnett had refused to heed Mary’s argument that she didn’t need a man, either to run his business or to marry.

            “Everyone needs somebody, luv. Everyone.”

            Well, that might be true, but Mary didn’t believe that person necessarily had to be a mate. Wasn’t loving her father, mother, and sister enough? 

Mary chewed her lower lip in frustrated fury and sanded the letter she’d just written to a man she had only briefly met during her negotiations for a mine in Lanarkshire.

The letter was beyond improper, but she suspected that Mr. John Brown—a portly, raw-boned widower of fifty with no children—would look beyond the impropriety to the solution she offered for both of them.

During her business communications with Mr. Brown Mary had discerned that he was without humor, but kind and decent. He would be a stable workmate and they would likely rub along without any emotional turmoil. There would be no passion or love, which was exactly what she wanted if she were forced to take a husband.

Mary was searching the small desk drawer for a wafer when the door opened.

            “Ah, there you are, my dear.” Louisa Barnett sounded annoyed at finding her daughter in her own study and Mary hastily dropped the letter into the open drawer and closed it before turning. If her mother discovered what she was proposing to Mr. Brown, her life would not be worth living.

            “Did you need me for something, Mama?”

            Mrs. Barnett frowned, her eyes flickering up and down Mary’s seated person. “I do wish you would not wear such a rag, Mary. Even at home.” She heaved a put-upon sigh. “But you don’t have time to change, I’m afraid.”

“Change? But why? We had no plans today.” Mary smoothed the light brown muslin skirt of her crisp, clean, and perfectly serviceable morning gown. She pushed a loose tendril of flaming red hair behind her ear and frowned. “Or did we?”

            “Oh Mary, how could you forget? We are meeting with Lady Winifred Sedgwick today.”

            “Lady Winifred Sedgwick?” Mary’s mind raced like a caged ferret. “Why?”

            “About you and Jenny.”

Mary shook her head. “I’m sorry, but I have no idea what you are talking about, Mama.”

“You remember, I spoke to her about you and Jenny and the Season.”

            Her and Jenny? The Season? What was—Ah. Mary closed her eyes and shook her head. Now she remembered. “Oh mum, I never agreed to this.” 

Her mother flinched at the name, which she considered part of their commonplace past. “Why must you be so intractable when you know what your decision will be? We all know what you will do.”

Mary ignored both her mother’s scowl and the truth of what she was saying. She wondered what her mother’s reaction would be if she learned Mary had just offered marriage to a rough-spoken mine owner who was almost as old as she was. She smiled slightly at the thought but dismissed it all the same. 

“I said I’d begun to contemplate marriage, Mama. I didn’t say I was prepared to engage a matchmaker.”

            “That is a vulgar term, Mary.” Louisa Barnett’s pale skin colored.

Mary sighed rather than scream, which is what she really wanted to do. “What does a person call her, then?”

“Lady Sedgewick. She is a countess.”

Mary could only stare.

“Don’t give me that long-suffering look, my girl. The last thing in the world you would ever do is pass control of your father’s wretched companies to your cousin—even though that is what you should do. The only reason you’ve not capitulated until now is that you’ve been looking for some way around your father’s will. But there is no way around it. You will marry and we both know it’s just a matter of who and when. I shudder to think of what kind of fright you will end up with if I do not take a hand.”

Mary laughed.

“I’m glad you find it amusing,” her mother retorted, her hazel eyes snapping. “But I do not relish welcoming a stable hand or street sweeper into our family.”

What about an aged widower with a Lanarkshire accent so thick you’d need a shovel to shift it?

“I know you don’t care to join society.”

Now that was one of the world’s greatest understatements.

“If you won’t do this for yourself, then think of Jenny. Your poor sister is suffering greatly. She was not invited to the Harrington ball and there are only a precious few weeks remaining and her first Season will end in failure. She is heartbroken.”

Mary knew her mother spoke the truth. These blasted people and their petty cruelty. Oh, how she wished her younger sister was not so set on being accepted by people who would never love or cherish her as she deserved.

“I take it Lady Sedgwick is here to see that Jenny gets invited to such events?” Mary asked. “Is it even worth the effort with only five weeks remaining? Perhaps it might be as well if we wait until next Season?” Hopefully Mary would be living far from London and the social whirl by that time.

“Lady Sedgwick is here to address Jenny’s situation and more besides.”

More besides? Why don’t I like the sound of that, Mama?”

“Oh, you are an unnatural daughter! How can you possibly not wish to take your pick of husbands from the finest men Britain has to offer?”

Mary snorted. “You mean aristocrats who are so hidebound by pride they wouldn’t lift even a finger to stop themselves from starving? Men who’d rather marry their way out of their problems?”

For once, her mother did not take the bait. Instead, she cast some bread on the water, herself. “I never thought I’d see you back away from a situation because you are afraid, Mary. You claim to be a businesswoman,” her mother spat out the word as if it were a fly she’d found in her tea. “Shouldn’t you want all the information you can acquire before you make any decision?”

“Have no fear, I am doing exactly that, Mama. It just so happens that I gather my information from sources other than aristocratic marriage-fixers.”

“You might be satisfied with some—some ironmonger from the provinces, but what about your sister?”

“An ironmonger from the provinces was good enough for you, was he not, Mama?”

Her mother’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t ever make the mistake of believing our lives are in any way similar, my dear. I was not given a choice of whom I would marry.”

Mary bit her lip, wishing she’d never broached this subject. “Fine, Mama. I am not standing in your way when it comes to this countess. If you wish to employ her for Jenny’s sake, do so. You do not need my approval.” Mary glanced at the pile of correspondence on her desk, impatient to finish her morning’s work. Impatient to put her letter in the post.

“You are afraid to meet this woman.”

Mary blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“You heard me.”

Mary didn’t care for her mother’s coy, sly look. It usually meant she was planning something: something that involved Mary.

“It’s not fear, Mama. I merely wish to avoid embroiling myself in pointless foolishness.”

“Marriage is not pointless foolishness.”

Mary sighed. “No, it isn’t,” she agreed. “But I don’t have any questions for her, Mama. If and when I decide to marry, I shall find my own husband.”

“I want you to at least meet Lady Sedgwick.”

Why?”

“Why not? It shan’t take more than a half-hour of your time.”

Mary tapped her toe, scrambling for an excuse.

“Please, my dear. Just this one time. Jenny is not the only one who would benefit from her acquaintance. You have only two months before—”

Mary would get no peace until she’d appeased her mother. She stood. “Fine, I shall meet her.”

A beatific smile transformed Mrs. Barnett’s face far too quickly for it to have been lurking far away.

“But only to listen, and only about Jenny. I am my own mistress when it comes to my marriage and there is to be no mention of the terms of Father’s wretched will.”

Good God, that was the last thing Mary needed to get out. Not that people didn’t speculate about her already, thanks to her wretched cousin Reginald’s loose lips.

“Are we in agreement on this matter, Mama?” Mary demanded.

            Louise’s head bobbed up and down like an excited pigeon’s. “I would never mention such a private matter, Mary.”

            Mary bit her lip to hold back a snort of disbelief.

            “Now, please, come along, she is waiting.”

            Mary headed for the door and then stopped, narrowing her eyes. “Where is Jenny, since this is all about her?”

            “Oh, she is a mere child and has no idea about such matters. Besides, she had an invitation to Mrs. Crenshaw-Holmes’s picnic. She could not pass up such an opportunity.”

            Mary sighed but followed her mother from the room, gritting her teeth against the next half hour, wishing she had already sent the letter to Mr. John Brown in Lanarkshire.

 

Chapter Two

            Mary didn’t know what she thought a matchmaker would look like, but the woman in the Yellow Salon was a surprise.

            Lady Sedgwick stood as they entered, displaying the ramrod straight spine of a woman who’d spent her formative years strapped to a plank.

            Mary dropped a stiff curtsey, aware as she did so that an expert was appraising her awkward performance. “Lady Sedgwick,” she murmured.

            “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Barnett.” The clipped words were as sharp as glass but not grating. Her voice was low, pleasant, mellifluous; it was the type of accent Mary could ape for a thousand years without ever mastering. Lady Sedgwick positively dripped aristocrat.

            Mary glanced at the other woman while her mother ordered tea from the hovering servant. The noblewoman was watching her, her eyes coolly assessing.

Lady Sedgwick was beautiful in an icy, untouchable way. Her smooth, immaculately coiffured hair was pale blonde and her skin was the color of fresh cream. Her eyes were an unusual slate-gray that reminded Mary of a frozen lake in the dead of winter. She was all muted tones and understated elegance and yet she had more presence than any woman Mary could recall meeting. She held herself like a queen, her dove-brown clothing managing to appear rich rather than dowdy.

            Mrs. Barnett lowered herself into the chair across from Lady Sedgwick and smiled. “Thank you so much for agreeing to meet us on such short notice, my lady.”

            “It is my pleasure.”

            The door opened and not one but three servants entered bearing a tea tray of monolithic proportions. Mary experienced a pang of pity for her mother; Louisa Barnett would never understand that more was not better in the eyes of these aristocrats: it was just more proof of their climbing, pushing, vulgar nature.

            “Will you pour, my dear?” Mrs. Barnett asked Mary.

            Ah. It was going to be one of those days. Mary was to be put through her paces like a performing circus animal.

            She poured the tea, conscious of every clink and clatter. Good, it was just as well that Lady Sedgwick understood that she would have her hands full if she attempted to civilize a barbarian who couldn’t even pour tea without creating a racket.

            Once everyone had tea and biscuits Mary decided to take a hand in things before any more time was wasted. “My mother tells me you are a matchmaker, Lady Sedgwick.”

            “Oh, Mary.” Her mother’s voice throbbed with mortification.

            But Lady Sedgwick smiled—an expression that seemed genuine—and it transformed her from an ice queen into a breathtakingly beautiful woman. “The term is as accurate as any other and a good deal more polite than some.”

            Like her speech, the countess’s poise went well beyond anything Mary could ever hope to achieve. The woman was grace personified and Mary couldn’t help admiring her even though social elegance had never been something she considered important.

            “I do facilitate matrimonial arrangements, Miss Barnett, and I also offer advice on navigating the somewhat treacherous waters of the ton.

            “Deportment? Elocution?” Mary suggested.

            “Yes, those as well, when necessary.”

            Mary quirked an eyebrow and the other woman looked amused. 

“I do not think you require counseling in those areas, Miss Barnett.”

            The frisson of pleasure Mary felt at the countess’s compliment was irritating. What did she care if this woman thought her manners socially acceptable? They were socially acceptable—and why wouldn’t they be? Mary had gone to the most expensive finishing school in the country. True, she’d left that same school before she turned fifteen, but if two years hadn’t been long enough to absorb the basics of polite behavior what kind of an idiot would that make her?

            She set her cup in her saucer without making a sound. “I’m not sure what my mother has told you, my lady, but it is my sister who requires your assistance.”

            “Yes, Mrs. Barnett said as much.”

            Ah, what a relief that was. “Well then, you hardly need me here. Perhaps I should—”

            “I am here today on a matter that does not concern your sister.” To Mary’s surprise Lady Sedgwick’s cheeks tinted a delicate shade of pink. The addition of this slight amount of color to her face made the countess look younger than Mary’s first impression of her. It also intrigued Mary more than a little: what subject could make a woman like this blush?

            “Yes, my lady?” Mary prodded.

            “Mrs. Barnett gave me reason to believe you were contemplating marriage.”

            Mary shot her mother a poisonous look that was wasted because Mrs. Barnett was pointedly ignoring her.

            “I have begun to consider marriage,” she admitted.

            “I hope you will not consider me impertinent, but I have recently been engaged by a new client—a gentleman of excellent character and breeding—who wishes to make himself known to you.

            Mary could not have heard that correctly. “I—I beg your pardon? To me? Are you sure it isn’t my sister he’s thinking of? I’ve not been to a social function of any kind for—” she broke off. Lord, when had she last been anywhere that didn’t involve work?

            Lady Sedgwick smiled. “No, it is you, Miss Barnett.”

            Against her will, Mary asked the question, “Who is your client?”

            “The Earl of Avington.”

            Mrs. Barnett made a cooing sound, as if somebody had just launched a particularly spectacular firework, and then turned as red as a brick when she realized what she’d done. “An earl,” she murmured, as if this would excuse her lapse in propriety.

            Mary found the woman’s words difficult to credit. Even with her vast fortune she’d not been able to attract so much as a baronet during her one agonizing Season almost ten years ago. It had been a painful experience, but not a surprising one: not with her background, her less than inspiring person, and her deformity. She realized her hand was absently stroking the rough skin at her neck and lowered it, looking up to meet Lady Sedgwick’s unreadable gaze.

            “Are you quite sure the earl doesn’t wish for an introduction to me so that I might make him known to my sister?”

            “Mary,” her mother chided once again. But Lady Sedgwick chuckled. Lord. She even laughed with grace and charm.

            “No, Miss Barnett. He wishes to meet you.

            “That makes no sense.” She hadn’t meant to say that out loud, but the countess merely smiled.

            So, what if an earl wanted to meet her? It was surprising her name was still in circulation given her lack of socializing and excessively private nature, but she was, after all, one of the wealthiest unmarried women in England.

            An earl? Likely he was ancient, pox-riddled, and one step ahead of the dunners, in such desperate straits that he was willing to suffer her appearance to get his hands on millions of pounds.

            Mary straightened her shoulders, ready to be done with this. “I am not attracted by titles, my lady.”

            “But Mary,” her mother pleaded, “think of Jenny. Why, with such connections she would be welcome everywhere—by everyone. She could have everything you did not, Mary. Just think—”

Mary narrowed her eyes at her mother.

Even Louise Barnett—who possessed the sensitivity of a warthog—knew when she’d pushed too far.

            Mary turned to the beautiful stranger, “I don’t recall hearing about the Earl of Avington before.” Her words gave the false impression that Mary was conversant with societies’ luminaries when, in truth, she would have been hard pressed to name enough lords or lady to fill the fingers of one hand.

            “He only recently inherited when his elder brother died this past Christmas. He is fairly young—not much past thirty.” She paused and gave Mary a speculative look, as if wondering how much information to convey. Mary could have told her it didn’t matter what she said, any man she considered marrying would undergo a complete investigation. Mary was not the kind of woman to leave anything to chance.

            Lady Sedgwick continued, “In addition to his brother’s widow and three daughters, the earl is responsible for two younger sisters, a younger brother, and a number of other dependents.” Her forthright gaze flickered, as if something about this subject was uncomfortable or difficult for her.

            If Mary had possessed antennae they would have been twitching. “Are you personally acquainted with Lord Avington, my lady?”

            “I am,” the countess said, her expression once again unreadable.

            Well, that was interesting, but hardly surprising—all these people were either related or knew each other.

            So, an earl wished to meet her, did he? If she simply said, “Thank you, but no thank you,” she would appear to be a selfish spinster who did not care about her younger sister’s happiness. But if she said yes, wouldn’t this just complicate a decision that she had already made? Mr. Brown was a known quantity; this earl was not.

            Mary opened her mouth to thank the woman for her time and take her leave. But instead, she said, “Can you tell me something about the earl’s family?”

It was Mary’s voice, so the question must have come out of her mouth.

            “It is an extensive family that hails from Norfolk. They do have a London residence but it has been leased for years, as has another in Yorkshire. Avington Park is their family seat. You may have heard of it?”

            Mary had not, but she could imagine it: enormous, ancient, and in wretched condition. It would require a sum equivalent to that spent on the Peninsular War to repair, maintain, and operate the behemoth. Falling agricultural prices would mean the land would be unlikely to support the property.

            So, Lady Sedgwick was tactfully saying the earl possessed a ramshackle estate, was impoverished, burdened with a large family, and that every resource was spoken for. And why was that? Had the prior earl been unlucky? Reckless? Thoughtless? Was it the work of just one man or generations of wastrels?

            What of this new earl? Was he a drunkard? A gambler? A philanderer? Why was he looking at Mary? A woman so reclusive as to be a hermit. A woman who was well-known to be hideously damaged.

            “Miss Barnett?” Lady Sedgwick wore an expression of genuine concern. “Please do not feel compelled to grant introductions to anyone you do not wish to meet.”

            Mary looked from the countess to her mother, who’d become even redder; Mary was amazed the older woman could blush after all her scheming. Mrs. Barnett seemed to have only two goals in her life—marrying off both her daughters—and she pursued her objectives with the relentlessness of a ferret tracking rats. Louisa Barnett might blush—embarrassed to be caught—but beneath that blush was iron-willed determination. If Mary did not agree to meet this earl, she would never hear the end of it.

            “Why does his lordship not wish to meet my younger sister, who has only recently come out?” Mary asked bluntly, earning another scandalized look from her mother.

            “The earl is disinclined to marry a wife just from the schoolroom.”

            Mary knew the man would change his inclination quickly enough when he saw Mary and Jenny side-by-side. After all, what kind of man wanted an older, scrawny, and badly scarred heiress instead of a nubile, gorgeous, and charming one? Or perhaps he thought a damaged, older woman would be so grateful that she would be more tractable?

            Mary allowed herself a small smile at the thought. Once again: what did she care what he thought? She might need to marry to gain control of her father’s empire, but she didn’t need to marry a title. Indeed, that was the one part of this appalling tangle she could be grateful for: her father—who’d been a tad bit obsessed with status—at least had not burdened her with stipulations on the type of man she had to marry.

            But what about Jenny? Mary bit her lip; was it fair to Jenny to refuse such an opportunity? With the power of an earldom behind her, Jenny would not have to choose from the dissipated ranks of the aristocracy, nor would she need to look lower, to the people whom she was from, but no longer of.

And perhaps an earl might be useful in Mary’s upcoming canal negotiations?

She perked up at that thought.

            Lady Sedgwick set down her cup and saucer and Mary realized the other woman was watching her, but not with impatience. Indeed, Mary thought she saw a glimmer of respect in her gray eyes. Or maybe she envied Mary her ability to make her own decisions—at least to a point. Because the truth was that Mary wasn’t free; she was bound by the strings of love.

            Not just love for her sister, but love for the life she lived. She loved the richness of her days, the mental challenges of managing and growing her successful business, and she especially loved that she could pursue her ideas without having to seek approval from somebody else—from some man.  

            It had long been her dream never to be under the thumb of any man, and she’d lived that dream these past few years. How many women of her age, who were not widows, enjoyed such freedom? And all thanks to her beloved Da.

            But then he’d snatched it away with his one final, wretched clause in his will.

            Mary swallowed a bubble of bitter laughter as she considered how Da would have viewed her new opportunity. His Mary to become a countess? Lucas Barnett would have crowed it from the rooftops.

            “Mary, darling?”

            She looked up to find her mother staring, a deep groove of concern between her brown eyes, as if she dreaded what Mary might say next.

            Lady Sedgwick’s expression was kind, patient, and—if Mary wasn’t mistaken—pitying.

            Pity.

            Heat crept up her neck and face; if there was one emotion she absolutely loathed, it was pity. If this impoverished earl could be audacious enough to dangle after her fortune through a matchmaker, then Mary could be audacious enough to meet him face-to-face. She feared no man.

            “I have no objection to meeting his lordship. We shall invite him to dine with my mother, sister, and I.”

His lordship would change his mind about which sister to marry quickly enough when he saw them side by side.

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