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Win 24 Print & Ebook Historical Romances

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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

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:

 

Win a signed print copy of THE LANGUAGE OF LOVE

Greetings on the second Saturday of 2022!

I’m giving away an autographed print copy of my newest book, THE LANGUAGE OF LOVE on my website.

It’s super easy to enter, all you have to do is tell me which of my secondary characters you’d like to have their own story.

I had this same question in my last newsletter, the prize in that case is a print copy of THE FOOTMAN. If you enter my website giveaway I’ll put your name in for both prizes.

When/where will this secondary character story appear?

I’m writing a novella for an anthology that will come out next November, called DUKE IN A BOX (more deets on that soon!)

Don’t worry, the character doesn’t have to be a duke–which is a good thing since my only secondary character who is a duke is the villain from INFAMOUS.

Anyhow, here is the link to the MONTHLY GIVEAWAY page on my website, with instructions for how to enter.

May the best secondary character win!

Reading order for THE OUTCASTS & THE REBELS OF THE TON

Hello Gentle Readers!

Lately I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the order of my books in THE OUTCASTS and THE REBELS OF THE TON. 

Although the books are two separate series, there is quite a bit of cross-over. In fact, you can think of THE REBELS OF THE TON as THE OUTCASTS 2.0 since it features the children of of the heroes and heroines from the first series.

Below I’m going to list the books in order and also include the heroes and heroines and their connections to the other stories. 

THE OUTCASTS:

DANGEROUS: Adam and Mia are the H/h in this book. They are both in their thirties and have children from other marriages when they meet. Mia’s son is Jibril (who changes his name to Gabriel when he moves to England). Adam has three daughters: Catherine, Eva, and Melissa. 

BARBAROUS: Hugh and Daphne are the H/h in this book. Hugh has no children, but Daphne has twin sons, Lucien and Richard. 

SCANDALOUS: Martine and Sarah are the H/h in this book. To say more about their situation would be a spoiler!

THE REBELS OF THE TON:

NOTORIOUS: Jibril/Gabriel and Drusilla are the H/h in this book. Gabe is Mia’s son from her marriage to the sultan, who is mentioned in DANGEROUS. 

OUTRAGEOUS: Eva and Godric are the H/h. Eva is Adam’s middle daughter. 

INFAMOUS: this book features a double romance with Richard and Celia and Lucien and Phyllida. Rich and Luce are Daphne’s twins from BARBAROUS–all grown up! 

I recommend you read the books in order for maximum pleasure, but each story stands alone–although you might hear some names and wonder who they are, that is no big deal to the stories (plus a little unfulfilled curiosity is healthy for the imagination!)

I hope this answers some questions. If I’ve left anything out, please feel free to drop me an email. I love hearing from readers.

minervaspencerauthor@gmail.com

Cheers,

Minerva

12 Days of SheSpeaks Giveaways!

NOTORIOUS is included in this spiffy Christmas giveaway on SheSpeaks!

Check out the neat stuff they will be giving away.

Just Click on the Picture Below to Enter!

Rom-Com Book Relaxation Package ($212 value!)

Happy Thanksgiving! A big, fat excerpt from A PORTRAIT OF LOVE

BOOK III IN THE ACADEMY OF LOVE: A PORTRAIT OF LOVE

Chapter One

London

1803

Honoria ran down the stairs as if winged death were snapping at her heels.

It was ten minutes past noon; he would be here, already. She would have missed ten entire minutes of his company.

Of staring at him.

Of worshipping him.

She skidded to a halt outside her father’s studio and checked her reflection in the shiny brass urn that sat on a plinth across from the door. The belly of the vase stretched her eyes and made them look long and narrow while shrinking her overlarge mouth into a prim, bow-shaped moue. Honey wished she looked like this imaginary girl instead of the pale, gangly, and big-mouthed reality that stared back at her.

She wrinkled her stubby nose at her distorted brass reflection and hissed, sticking out her tongue and giggling at the evil image she’d just created. All she lacked to be truly horrifying were fangs.

He’s in there, an unamused part of her mind pointed out.

Honey pinched her cheeks to give them a bit of color and pushed her waist-length and far-too-curly hair back over her shoulders. Her father would not let her wear it up until her next birthday, when she would be sixteen. For an artist Daniel Keyes could sometimes be a stickler for propriety and—

“Hello.”

Honey jumped and yelped, no doubt resembling a huge startled mouse in her hideous brown painting smock.

Correction, a huge mouse with a red face.

She didn’t want to turn around but she could hardly stand here all day. She swallowed noisily, as if her throat had rusted shut and then slowly, ever so slowly, turned on one heel.

Eyes the color of hydrangeas stared down at her, their corners crinkling.

Lord Simon Fairchild.

Even his name was beautiful.

But nothing compared to his face and person. Not only was he beautiful, he was taller than her. At over six feet Simon Fairchild didn’t exactly tower over her five foot ten-and-a-half-inch frame, but it was near enough. And it made Honey feel—for the first time in her fifteen and three-quarter years—petite.

He was golden and broad-shouldered and graceful and he looked like a hero out of a Norse epic, all chiseled angles and fair perfection. His sculpted lips curved into a smile that released butterflies into her body.

“My lord,” she croaked, dropping the world’s clumsiest curtsey.

He grinned and took her hand, bowing low over it before releasing her. “Good afternoon, Miss Honoria.” His voice was warm honey and it pooled low in her belly, the sensation . . . disturbing.

She blurted out the first words that leapt to mind, “You remembered my name.”

And then she wanted to hide.

His lips twitched and Honey only just stopped herself from smacking her palm to her forehead or crawling behind the big moth-eaten tapestry which covered much of the opposite wall.

Of course, he remembered her name, she’d only met him yesterday.

He clasped his hands behind his back, his gorgeous shoulders almost blocking the light from the cathedral window at the end of the hall. He was dressed for riding, which meant he would change into his portrait clothing once he entered her father’s studio.

Thinking of Simon Fairchild changing his clothing gave her an odd, swirly, hot feeling and made her palms sweat. And she seemed to be salivating more than was necessary, as if her mouth were anticipating a delicacy.

Say something, you fool! Ask him something. Keep him here. Don’t let him get—

“Are my sittings keeping you and your father in the city this summer, Miss Honoria?”

“Oh. No, we stay here most of the time.”

He raised his eyebrows and nodded encouragingly.

“We rarely go into the country,” she added lamely, unable to come up with anything better. And then inspiration struck. “Will you be going to the country, Lord Saybrook?”

“I no longer hold that honor, Miss Keyes,” he reminded her gently.

Her face became hot yet again. “Oh, yes of course. The duke now has a son. You must be very . . .” Honey broke off—he must be very. . . what? Would a man be happy that he was no longer a duke’s heir? She bit her lip.

Lord Simon flashed his lovely white teeth. “I’m very happy and relieved.”

“You do not wish to be a duke?”

“No, I do not. Not only would it mean my brother’s death, but the position entails altogether too much responsibility in my view. Besides, I have other plans.”

“Other plans?”

“Yes, I wish to live at my country estate and breed horses.”

Honey could not imagine the elegant man-god across from her rusticating and living the life of a mere country squire. She leaned against the doorframe to her father’s studio, aware it was rude to keep a guest in the hall, but not wishing to share his attention with her father just yet.

“And you cannot do that and be duke?”

“Oh, I suppose the right kind of man could, but I wish for a quiet life, not responsibilities in Parliament and the management of hundreds of lives. No, the country life is the life for me. I’ll be happy on my much smaller estate.” He paused, his look speculative, as if he suddenly realized that he—a man of twenty—was confiding his aspirations to a mere fifteen-year-old.

Honey had seen the look before—every person she associated with was older than her. She’d never gone away to school, had no close relatives her age, and only socialized with her governess or her father’s friends. Being young had never bothered her before—but, suddenly, it felt . . . limiting.

He bent low to catch her gaze, which had dropped miserably to his feet. “But you can’t possibly find my boring plans of interest. While I’m off mucking about in my stables you’ll no doubt be whirling around ballrooms and breaking young men’s hearts.”

Honoria could not think of a single thing to say that would not be humiliating.

So—” he said when she remained stupidly mute, his shapely mouth ticking up on one side, his eyes warm yet gentle.

It was impossible not to smile when he was smiling. “So?” she echoed as the two of them stood staring at one another.

He chuckled and shook his head, as if she’d said something amusing. He gestured behind her to the studio door, which she was blocking with her body. “I’d better get inside. I believe I’m late and your papa is probably going to give me the raking I deserve.”

Honey stepped aside, gawking like the smitten fool she was. He opened the door and again gestured. “After you, Miss Honoria. That is if you are going to join us again today?”

“Of course, she is,” Honey’s father boomed from inside the brightly lighted room, where he was preparing his work area. His voice acted like a catalyst and Honey tore her eyes from Simon’s perfect features and bolted into the room.

“Good afternoon, Papa.”

Daniel Keyes gave her an approving smile as she went to her easel and then turned to Simon Fairchild. “My daughter will one day be England’s premier portrait painter,” he said, speaking with such certainty, pride, and love that Honey’s heart threatened to expand right out of her chest.

Lord Simon cut her one of his devastating smiles. “So, you will be painting a portrait of me while your father paints his?”

“Yes,” Honey said, pulling the cover off her much smaller canvas. She was glad to look away from Lord Simon’s distracting person; her wits were already scrambled from their brief conversation in the hall.

Her painting was coming along quite nicely, not that she would show it to anyone until it was completed. And even then ….

“Right now my daughter spends half her day studying and the other half honing her art. Once she is eighteen, she will be free to decide how to spend all her time,” Daniel Keyes said as the younger man stepped behind the large screen in the corner of the room.

To change his clothing.

Honey reminded herself to breathe and forced her gaze away from his head, which was visible above the screen. Her own face heated and she tried to control her breathing, which was soughing in and out just like their ancient butler Dowdle after he had climbed two sets of stairs.

“And will I get to see the portrait you are painting, Miss Keyes?”

Her head jerked up just in time to see him toss his waistcoat over the top of the screen. Which meant he was only wearing his shirt. His thin, fine, soft, muslin shirt. His eyes met hers as he did something behind the screen. Put on a coat? His other waistcoat?

Honey swallowed, but her father and Lord Simon were waiting with raised brows.

“I don’t know yet,” she mumbled.

“An artist’s prerogative,” Daniel Keyes said with a laugh. “She might not even let me see it, my lord.”

Her father was right. There were plenty of sketches and paintings that were only for her eyes and she rather suspected this painting might be another.

***

On Lord Simon’s fifth visit he asked her father if he could take Honey for a ride in his high-perch phaeton. Hyde Park was thin with people, but Honey still felt as if she were on the top of the world in his tall carriage with him beside her. It was the most magical afternoon of her life.

Until his next visit, when he took her to Gunters.

Miss Keebler, her governess, came along for that treat, but even the presence of her dour chaperone couldn’t dampen the day.

All that month Lord Simon took her places or dined at her father’s house and spent evenings mixing with the many artists and actors who comprised Daniel Keyes’s social circle, which included Honoria, who’d been allowed to eat dinner with her father’s guests since turning fifteen.

Part of her knew Lord Simon was only spending so much time with her because London in the summer was devoid of most of his usual friends and entertainments. But she didn’t care.

He took her on strolls after his sittings and they sat in the park together. Always with Miss Keebler nearby, of course.

He told her about Everley, his home in the country, and what his plans were for new stables, improvements to the house which was Tudor and always in need of repair. He spoke of growing up with his brother on the great estate of Whitcomb and told her tales of ghosts in the castle and how he’d once dressed up in a sheet and terrified his nurse, earning the worst paddling of his youth.

Honoria told him about growing up surrounded by artists and how she’d pleaded with her father not to send her away to school. How she planned on taking over the management of the household when she was sixteen and taking care of him. She shared her dreams that she might go to the Continent someday—when it was once again safe to travel—and see all the great art she’d only been able to read about.

Honey knew it was unheard of for her father to require so many sittings—in fact, he usually finished his portraits after no more than ten meetings. But, for whatever reason—maybe because he knew how greatly she enjoyed it—he had the young nobleman visit the house over a period of thirty blissful days and sixteen sittings.

Honey wished it would never end.

***

“Will you accompany me for one last ice, Miss Honoria?”

Honey looked at her father as she laid aside her brush and he nodded, the somewhat distracted look in his eyes telling her that he was still deep inside his work.

Her father turned to Lord Simon, who’d emerged from behind the screen, once again dressed in his street clothing. “Did you bring that yellow bounder today?”

Simon—Honoria thought of him by his Christian name, now, although only in the privacy of her own mind, of course—smiled and shook his head. “No, sir, I’m afraid it will have to be my brother’s clunky old boat.”

Daniel Keyes chuckled at this characterization of the ducal barouche, which Honey had ridden in once before. “Why don’t we have a glass of something reviving while my daughter does whatever it is that women need to do before going out to eat ices?”

Honoria loved her Papa for many reasons, but especially for giving her this chance to change into the new dress she’d just purchased—hoping for a day like today to wear it.

She rang for the parlor maid to help her change—she didn’t have her own lady’s maid—and was down in her father’s study just as the men finished the amber liquid in their glasses.

They stood when she entered, and she wanted to weep with joy when Simon’s eyes widened appreciatively at her new costume.

It was a crème silk with a dozen rows of tiny primrose ruffles around the bottom, a spencer in the same yellow. Matching silk lined her bonnet, the wide ribbon tied in a floppy bow beneath her right ear.

“You look lovely, Honoria,” her father said, his eyes uncharacteristically serious, as if he knew how important this last outing was to her.

Not until they were seated in the big carriage, Miss Keeble beside her, did Simon speak.

“That is a smashing outfit, Miss Keyes. I’m glad it’s such a clear, sunny day so we can show off both you and that very pretty bonnet.”

Honoria tried not to preen at his words, but it was difficult to keep her smile from growing into a grin.

They spoke about her father’s portrait, which he would deliver sometime next month.

“I daresay my brother will plan some party for the unveiling. You will come with him to Whitcomb, of course?”

Had she heard him correctly? Was he inviting her to his family’s home? “I—I shall have to ask my father,” she said in a breathy voice that was likely inaudible above the street sounds.

“When you visit, we can ride out to Everley, which is not far from the duke’s home.”

“That would be lovely.” It was all she could force out, her mind too busy imagining herself mounted on a magnificent horse beside him, galloping across a stark, dramatic moor—which she knew very well did not exist in East Shropshire.

He spoke of his home and family on the brief ride and his words were like a siren’s song that held her entranced.

When they arrived outside the confectioner’s carriages lined the street both ways. Clearly they weren’t the only ones to have such an idea on a beautiful day.

“It will be stuffy inside and the tables outside are taken,” Simon said. “Shall we enjoy our treat in velvet-lined comfort?”

Honey and Miss Keeble agreed and Simon gestured to one of the waiters. Once they’d placed their orders they sat back and watched the fluctuating crowd, many of whom seemed to know Simon. Honoria was deep inside a fantasy where she and Simon were married and leaving for their country home tomorrow, only stopping to take leave of their many, many friends when Simon uttered a word—just one single word, but one that pulsed with more emotion than she’d heard from him in an entire month.

“Bella!”

Simon’s enraptured expression sent her plummeting back down to earth. He was gazing at three women who’d stopped beside the carriage. To be precise, he was only looking at one of the women, and with his heart in his eyes. She—Bella—was the most beautiful woman Honoria had ever seen.

“Hello, Simon.” Bella smiled up at him as he scrambled down from the carriage. Her cherry red lips parted slightly to reveal dazzling, white teeth. She had skin like proverbial porcelain and navy-blue eyes. Her hair was brown, dark enough to look black, the ringlets glossy and luxurious beneath her straw bonnet.

Simon’s face was hot and eager and he wore an expression she’d never seen before—an expression he’d never worn for her.

Honey felt something crack inside her chest: Simon loved this beautiful creature.

“Bella, Agnes, Mrs. Frampton what are you doing in Town at this time of year?”

His words seemed to come from the bottom of a very deep well, and it was all she could do to remain upright in her seat.

The older woman—Mrs. Frampton—Honey supposed, answered him, “Agnes is getting married next month and we needed a few last-minute pieces of this and that.” She was speaking of one daughter, but her eyes were on the other—the one who looked like an angel come to life—right before her faded blue gaze flickered to Honoria. The gesture was minute, but Lord Simon had impeccable manners. Usually. A flush covered his beautiful, high cheekbones when he realized he’d neglected his hosting duties.

“Mrs. Frampton, Miss Agnes Frampton, and Miss Arabella Frampton, I have the honor of introducing you to Miss Honoria Keyes and her companion, Miss Keeble. Miss Keyes is Daniel Keyes’s daughter.”

Nods and smiles all around, but Honoria could hardly take her eyes off Arabella Frampton long enough to even remember what the other two women looked like. Either could Simon.

A waiter appeared with their ices.

“Would you care to join us?” Simon offered, blissfully unaware that his six words were like an ax to her heart.

“Yes, please do,” Honey said mechanically when four pairs of blue eyes turned her way.

The women did a very unconvincing job of demurring and Simon opened the barouche door and gestured inside. “Please. We shall be a bit cozy but I’m sure Miss Keyes will not mind?”

Nobody noticed that her smile was more suited to a death mask and Honoria soon found herself staring across at the three newcomers, Miss Keeble now beside her.

The strawberry ice she’d ordered tasted like ashes and Honoria wanted to be back at home, in her room, in her bed with the blankets pulled over her head. And never come out.

Later, she couldn’t recall a single word that was spoken, her only memory Simon’s expression and the way his eyes had lingered on the dark-haired beauty every chance he got.

She slept very little that night, her once vibrant world suddenly gray and colorless.

The next day was his final sitting and Honey had planned to remain in her room and avoid seeing him—hopefully ever again. But her father put an end to that hope at breakfast.

“You look as though you didn’t sleep well, Honey. What is the matter?” he asked when she joined him in the sunny breakfast room that overlooked the back garden.

Honey usually had a very healthy appetite and her father would have been suspicious if she’d refrained altogether so she served herself the smallest possible portion of everything from the sideboard.

“Just a bit of a headache, Papa.”

“Hmm.” He laid aside the newspaper he had been reading and gave her a piercing look, his eyes so similar to hers it was like looking in a mirror. “I know you’ve grown to like young Fairchild, my dear, but—although you do not act it—you are a girl of fifteen and he is a man of almost one-and-twenty. He is a good and kind gentleman so I’ve given you more latitude than a wise father probably would have.” He frowned. “I often regret not sending you to school and giving you an opportunity to mix with young girls your age. Perhaps—”

“Please, don’t Papa.” She laid down her fork and knife and met his worried gaze. “Don’t. I would be miserable if you sent me away. I would miss you and you know that painting is everything—”

“No, my dear, not everything. Don’t forget about life. About love. About experiencing joy—which is what you have been doing recently. Without experience in love, loss, pain, joy, and life one cannot make great art.”

Honey didn’t tell her father that after yesterday she now had far more familiarity with pain than she would have wished for.

***

Honoria jerked her gaze from The Most Perfect Man in Britain to the clock: it was almost two-thirty. Soon it would all be over. Soon her father would lay down his brush for the last time and say—

“Well, my lord, it appears I have captured enough of you to satisfy even my exacting mistress.” Daniel Keyes laid down his brush.

Simon, who’d been telling them about his plans for the remainder of the summer, smiled at Honoria. “You mean your daughter, sir?”

Daniel laughed. “I meant my muse, Lord Simon, but you might have something there.” He looked over at Honey and raised his eyebrows. “Well, are you going to put poor Lord Simon out of his misery and show him his portrait?”

Before Honey could answer there was a sharp knock and the door opened to reveal their ancient butler, his face red with exertion.

“Good Lord,” her father paused in the act of wiping his hands on a turpsy rag to frown at his servant. “Have you been running, Dowdle?”

The old man was too occupied gasping for breath to answer. Instead, he held up a rectangle of cream-colored paper.

“For me?” Daniel Keyes took a step toward him.

“A post chaise is waiting outside,” Dowdle gasped before lurching across to the younger man and handing him the letter. “For Lord Saybrook,”

Honey was surprised at their butler’s slip with Simon’s title; Dowdle was usually such a stickler for propriety.

Simon tore open the letter and Honey watched as every bit of color drained from his face. He swallowed hard enough to be heard all the way across the room and then looked up.

“You’ll have to excuse me, sir. It’s. . . well, It seems my . . .my nephew developed a chill and a cough and—” He waved his hand in a churning motion, as if he were stirring the very air around him in the hope it would stimulate the correct words. His face was stiff and his eyes wide with horror. “My nephew, the young Marquess of Saybrook, has died. I must leave immediately for Whitcomb.”

Chapter Two

Village of Whitcomb

Fourteen Years Later

Simon, Marquess of Saybrook, had been to the St. George Inn several times in the weeks since he’d finally been able to leave his bed. It had been his cousin, Raymond, who’d first persuaded Simon to go out for a pint—or six.

“It’ll make you feel more like yourself to visit some of your old haunts,” Raymond had cajoled when Simon had initially demurred.

It had taken only one night out with Raymond to convince Simon that his cousin was correct.

After that first evening, he’d gone to the cozy pub again and again, both with and without his cousin. It seemed the better he felt physically, the more he needed to drink.

He’d soon discovered that liked the St. George far better than the chambers he kept at his brother’s sprawling monstrosity, Whitcomb.

He and Raymond had taken rooms that first night—when neither of them had been in any condition to make the half-hour ride back home—and Simon had stayed at the inn several more times since.

Tonight was one of those nights.

A hot, rough hand slid over his chest and a silky-smooth leg wrapped around one of his thighs, pulling him from his thoughts. “That was lovely, my lord.”

Simon snorted at the serving maid’s lie; he’d mounted her roughly and ridden her with all the finesse of a soldier on leave.

Tonight was their first time together, but he’d seen the wench before—each time he drank at the George—and he’d ignored her overtures for weeks. The only reason he’d made no move to bed her was the sliver of decorum that had somehow lodged itself in his conscience. Whoring so close to home—and so close to where his mother and niece lived—had seemed very wrong. What if word of his activities were to make it to his brother’s house?

But tonight—after the set-to he’d had with Wyndham earlier—he’d decided he’d be bloody pleased if word of his debauchery reached his sanctimonious brother’s ears. Perhaps Wyndham might even release him from the shackles he’d bound him with if Simon behaved revoltingly enough.

So, when the barmaid had delivered his fifth—or was it sixth—drink and then lowered her pert bottom onto his lap, yet again, Simon had already been as hard as an oak plank. And when her questing hand slid between his thighs he’d spread them wider for her. Soon afterward, he’d taken her up to his room, where he’d mounted her like a man who’d not had a woman in a long, long time. Because he hadn’t—not in almost two years.

Simon realized she was stroking the scarred side of his torso and turned to face her.

She snatched away her hand, her eyes round. “I’m sorry, my lord, does that hurt?”

Simon took her hand and placed it between his thighs. “No, but these do.”

Her face shifted quickly from frightened to wicked and she giggled, her skilled hand massaging his sensitive jewels. Simon groaned and closed his eyes. “That feels bloody wonderful.”

He felt her move beside him, positioning herself to have better access to his body. Her other hand stroked him from groin to chest, teasing his remaining nipple until it was hard and tight and then moving to the other side, to the mass of scar tissue.

“What happened, my lord?” Her fingers were gentle and so tentative he could barely feel any pressure. The scars were thickest on his torso and he had very little sensation left, although they sure ached enough after a day’s exertion.

Simon opened his eyes and blinked up at her through the gloom. She was younger than he’d thought, her harsh features softened by the bounteous brown hair that now framed her round face and hung down her back. He realized he didn’t know her name but now seemed like the wrong time to ask. Instead he took a handful of hair and began to wind it around his fist, gradually pulling her lower.

“Exploding shrapnel,” he said, the two words a bit like shrapnel themselves. Her forehead wrinkled and Simon explained. “A cannon ball that breaks into many pieces in order to spray death and destruction more broadly.”

Her fingers traced the shot pattern down his side to his hip and he tightened his grip on her hair and tugged. She sucked air through clenched teeth, her eyelids becoming heavy at his rough handling, the look of wanton lust on her face making his prick throb.

He took her hand from his chest and kissed her palm.

“The Frenchies are evil buggers,” she said, her voice husky.

Simon laughed, in between kissing the rough callouses on her hand and tonguing the sensitive skin between her fingers, but there was no humor in it.

“It was one of ours, luv. It had some flaw and exploded; the entire side of the cannon came apart. A big section of the barrel hit my mount.” Poor Hector. He’d been a fine horse and had made it through seven years without a scratch. But the chunk of iron had taken his head off as cleanly as a cleaver. Simon knew it could have been his own head just as easily. People told him he was lucky.

“I was lucky,” he said out loud, just to see what the words tasted like—how they felt. They tasted like ashes and felt like nothing.

Her hand moved from his balls up his hard shaft and it was Simon’s turn to suck in a harsh breath.

“Yes, you were very lucky,” she murmured, her eyes roaming his body, the look in them an odd mix of morbid fascination and lust. Well, it was better than horror, which is what he’d expected to see. All his life he’d enjoyed the admiration of women and had come to expect it. Simon had to admit he’d wondered—even worried a little—if those days were over. He felt a hot rush of gratitude, heavily mixed with lust, for the woman above him: the first woman to see his scarred body naked.

Simon released her hair and hand and grabbed her hips, lifting her off the bed. She squealed and wiggled and the skin up and down his left side protested and burned like fire as he held her aloft. He wanted her again and would redeem himself and do better by her this time.

“Now it’s your turn to get lucky,” he said, as she spread her knees and reached between them to take his length in her hand. Simon lowered her body slowly onto his stand and thrust into her at the same time, the rough invasion causing both of them to gasp with pleasure.

“Oh, my lord.”

He groaned at the need in her voice and closed his eyes and began to move, pleased to discover that alcohol wasn’t the only way of escaping his thoughts.

***

Meanwhile, in London . . .

“Hello? Are you there, Honey?”

Honoria startled at the sound of her name and turned.

Her friend and housemate Serena Lombard stood in the open doorway, a puzzled expression on her face. “Is anything amiss, my dear?”

Honey realized she was standing in the middle of the room staring at the letter. She held up the ivory paper with the black wax seal.

“What is it?”

“A letter from the Duke of Plimpton.”

Serena’s eyebrows rose. “Hmm, Plimpton—didn’t your father once paint him? Or was that his brother, the marquess—Saybrook, isn’t he?”

A roaring sound pounded in Honey’s ears at the sound of his name: the first time she’d heard it spoken aloud in years.

Serena’s forehead creased with concern. “You are feeling ill, aren’t you? You are as pale as a ghost. What is it?”

Honey turned away and folded the letter with jerky, clumsy hands.

“Honey?” Serena’s fingers landed on her shoulder.

“I’m fine,” she squeezed out between clenched jaws. “Just a bit light-headed. I-I’m afraid I missed breakfast this morning,” she lied. It took three swallows to get rid of the lump in her throat and she forced her face into some semblance of self-possession before turning to her friend.

“Shall I ring for tea?” Serena asked in her slightly accented voice.

“Tea sounds perfect. And perhaps even some of Mamie’s butter biscuits. After all, one does not receive a piece of mail from a duke every day. I shall meet you in the parlor in ten minutes and tell you all about it,” Honoria promised, giving her friend what she hoped was a calm, encouraging smile.

“I’ll round up everyone and send for tea.”

The door shut behind her and Honoria’s brain spun like the colorful little wooden whirligig Serena’s young son had made for their back garden. The Duke of Plimpton—after all these years? She had not thought about the duke for a long time. But his brother Simon was a different matter. He still managed to escape from the Newgate-like prison she’d constructed in her mind just for him. It didn’t matter how thick she made the walls or how small the gap between the bars, he always found a way to escape and come find her.

Honey’s feet took her in the direction of her private storage cupboard, which she kept locked at all times. She stood on her tiptoes and felt for the key on top of the smallish wardrobe. It had been some time since she’d unlocked the door.

There wasn’t much inside, in fact the armoire wasn’t anywhere close to full. Four canvases leaned against each other, protected by old sheets.

The first was a painting of her mother. Although Honey had no memory of the woman on the canvas it was her father’s work and his love for the subject was evident in every stroke. It was his finest work, in her opinion. She knew it was wrong to keep it hidden in the dark but it was her only reminder of both her parents and that somehow made it intensely private.

The second portrait made her smile. It was the first painting she’d ever done. She could not have been older than five. It was, of course, a portrait of the person she loved most in the world: her father. It bore a striking resemblance to Daniel Keyes and it brought to mind his reaction the day she’d painted it. Joy and love and pride had shone brightly from his handsome face, so strong that even now the memory warmed her like a comforting blanket.

The third was a portrait of her. Her father had done many of her over the years—over a dozen, several of which still hung on the walls of their house. But this one? Well, this was special. He’d painted it not long after finishing Lord Simon’s portrait that summer.

Daniel Keyes had been a self-absorbed man in many ways, but not when it came to Honoria. He’d known it would have been unbearable to expose her unrequited love to questions, but this painting was proof he’d felt every ounce of her suffering in his heart. Just looking at the pain in her eyes was enough to make Honey’s throat tighten

She was beautiful in the portrait—far prettier than she was in life—her eyes like shards of broken ice, haunted, turned in on an internal landscape that was pure pain.

The portrait reminded her how her fifteen-year-old self hadn’t believed her bleeding heart would keep beating. Yet here she was: hearty and hale all these years later.

Her hand shook as she pulled the sheet from the fourth painting and looked into the smiling hyacinth-blue eyes of Simon Fairchild, the Marquess of Saybrook.

As it always did, the breath froze in her lungs. Honoria had painted many portraits in the past fourteen years but in none of the others had she captured the pure light and human essence of one of her subjects as she had in this one.

Her technique was far superior now to what it had been over a decade ago, but she’d never painted anything better. The laughter in his eyes was so vivid she could hear its echo.

Honey shook her head and dropped the cover back over the image that had haunted her far too often over the years. He wasn’t the only man she’d been fond of, of course, but no other man had inspired such depth of feeling.

She knew he’d gone to war because she’d read his name in the paper—when he’d returned. But what had happened to the young woman—Bella—and his plans for a life in the country?

Honoria locked the door on that question and dozens of others. She went to the small mirror beside the door and inspected her uninspiring reflection. Her heavy hair had come loose from its severe moorings and long tendrils wafted around her narrow face like a dun-colored gloriole.

To be honest, her narrow face with its pale gray eyes were significantly more appealing with disheveled locks as a frame, but it did not suit a woman of her age and position, so she did her best to tidy the loose strands without actually unpinning and re-braiding it all. The result was good enough for an afternoon tea with her housemates, who were spinsters like Honey.

A diminutive garden packed with blooms separated her painting studio from the small house where she’d spent her entire life. After her father died, she’d chosen to set up her painting studio in the carriage house, rather than his studio. It was foolish, but she’d left the studio untouched, not a shrine to him, but a place so full of his essence that she could not bear the thought of dismantling it.

As Honoria traversed the narrow walk that led to the back door of the house she noticed that Freddie’s peonies—the size of cabbages—had bloomed and died. It would be another summer of her life, her twenty-ninth summer.

That notion was vaguely depressing but she was in no mood to ask herself why that was, not today.

Freddie—Lady Winifred Sedgwick—glanced up from the small writing desk in the corner when Honoria entered the parlor.

“Serena will be here in a moment. She has become embroiled in a battle of wills.”

“Ah, a skirmish between Mrs. Brinkley and Una?”

“Who else.” It was not a question. Their housekeeper and cook were both the best of friends and the worst of enemies, depending on the day.

Honey dropped into her favorite seat, a battered green leather wingchair that had been her father’s favorite. She swore she could still smell the unmistakable combination of turpentine and bay rum she associated with him even though he had been gone six years. He’d died not long after her twenty-first birthday, passing away in his sleep—a quiet death utterly unlike his passionate, flamboyant life.

The door to the parlor swung open and Honoria’s mouth curved into a genuine smile. “Hello, Oliver. Have you escaped your lessons?”

Serena’s ten-year-old son dropped a creditable bow. “Mama said that I might come down for tea.”

“And Una’s biscuits?” she teased. He smiled and came to sit beside her. Honoria ruffled his messy brown curls. “What have you been working on? I haven’t heard any explosions lately.”

“Mama said no more experiments with the electricity maker.” He sounded mournful about that.

“How do you manage to entertain yourself in the face of such deprivation?”

“She gave me an automaton.” His grin was blinding.

“Ah. And have you taken it apart yet?”

He gave her a scoffing look that told her what he thought of such a foolish question.

Freddie came to join them after depositing a small pile of correspondence on the salver by the door. “He is making his own automaton, aren’t you, Oliver?”

Oui, Tante.”

Oliver called them all “aunt” and spoke a fluent mix of French and English that was beyond charming.

The door opened and his mother, accompanied by Mrs. Brinkley, with the tea tray, entered.

“Thank you, Mrs. Brinkley,” Honey said to the tiny housekeeper, who was looking a bit fierce.

“My pleasure, ma’am.” She plunked down the tray and then bustled from the room, no doubt headed back to the kitchen and a resumption of hostilities.

Beside her, Oliver’s stomach grumbled and Honey gave him a look of mock, open-mouthed shock.

He flushed. “J’ai faim.”

“English today, Oliver,” Serena reminded her son. “Did you get a letter from Miles?” she asked Freddie.

“Yes,” Freddie said, gesturing to the single page on her desk. “You may read it. He says he won’t be back from the country for at least another week.”

Miles Ingram was a friend of theirs who’d been the dancing master at the Stefani Academy for Young Ladies, where they’d all taught before the school closed last year.

There’d been seven teachers and they’d grown as close as siblings over the years they worked together. And now they were scattered to the four winds: Portia gone to the wilds of Cornwall; Annis living with her Grandmother in the tiny town of Cocklesham; and Lorelei with her brother and his family at his vicarage. Only Honoria, Serena, Freddie, and Miles remained in London.

Freddie busied herself with distributing tea, small sandwiches, and biscuits.

“Well?” Serena demanded. “Will you put us out of our misery, Honey? What does the duke have to say?”

“Perhaps she would like to wait until we’ve finished eating?” Freddie murmured.

“Oh, bother waiting,” Serena said.

Honey laughed at her friend’s impatience. “Very well, I shall read it to you.” She opened the letter and read it out loud:

Miss Keyes,

     I am writing you at the recommendation of Viscount Heath, whose wife’s portrait you painted this spring. I have seen the painting and found your rendering of the viscountess to be accurate without any evidence of flattery or over-indulgence.”

Honey couldn’t help chuckling at that. “Perhaps I should print that on my calling card—Accurate portraitist not given to flattery or over-indulgence?”

“Keep reading, my dear,” Serena urged.

I would like to engage you to paint Her Grace and my daughter, Lady Rebecca, who is sixteen and—”

Serena clapped her hands and bounced up and down on the settee, jostling Freddie beside her. “Oh, Honey, that is marvelous.”

“Does he mention his terms?” Freddie asked, ever the practical one.

“He asks that I respond with my terms and the earliest date I will be available.” She placed the letter in Serena’s outstretched hand.

“When will you go?” Serena demanded, looking up from the letter, which she was cradling as if it were spun glass.

“Goodness, I’ve only just learned of it. I’ve not even decided if—”

Pfffft! Don’t be coy. You know you will do it. How could you not? A duchess and her daughter. His Grace is quite well off, isn’t he?”

Honey’s friends did not know of her girlhood infatuation with the duke’s younger brother. Why should they? Who told their friends such embarrassing things? She shuddered at the thought of disgorging such a pitiful confession.

“Honey?”

Serena and Freddie were watching her with expectant expressions.

A slight knock on the door made her jump.

It was Nounou, Oliver’s nurse.

Serena smiled at her son. “You may take some of Una’s biscuits up to the schoolroom.”

Oliver—who’d been behaving with remarkable composure for a little boy in the middle of a tedious adult conversation— rose from the sofa with alacrity, dropping a gentlemanly bow before following the French woman from the room.

Honoria waited until the door closed before clearing her throat and asking Freddie the dreaded question. “What do you know of the Duke of Plimpton and his current household?”

Winifred Sedgewick made her living as a matchmaker, even though she despised the term, and there was very little about society she did not know

“I know His Grace has been married for almost twenty years and that his wife was the Duke of Shropshire’s youngest. She is delicate and cannot have more children. I believe the daughter is their only surviving child.”

So, the duchess had never had any more children after their only son died.

“The duke’s younger brother, Marquess of Saybrook, is heir presumptive,” Freddie continued, unaware of the chaos the name caused in Honoria’s breast.

“Ah, yes,” Serena said in between bites of biscuit. “He was at Waterloo.” She paused and frowned. “Was there not something odd about his return?”

“Yes,” Freddie said, “he was not found until after three days on the battlefield. I have not seen his name this past Season, so I daresay he is still mending.”

Honoria knew all of this. She’d followed the story of his return like a woman obsessed. She took a sip of tea and saw her hand was white from squeezing the cup’s handle.

“I cannot imagine what he must have endured,” Freddie said, shaking her head.

“Do you think he lives with his brother?” Honey forced the words through numb lips.

“That I do not know. Why do you ask? Oh,” Freddie’s eyes widened slightly. “Ah, I recall, now. You know him—the Marquess of Saybrook—don’t you, Honey?”

“Didn’t your father paint his portrait?” Serena asked before Honey could answer.

Freddie was the most perceptive person Honey had ever met. Luckily, she was also the most private and avoided probing into other people’s lives.

Serena did not. “What was he like?” she demanded, dipping a biscuit into her tea and then popping the soggy mess into her mouth, licking her fingers.

Honey bit back a smile at her friend’s free and easy ways. She could hardly imagine the scandal the voluptuous Frenchwoman must have caused during her brief sojourn among the ton.

“It’s been a long time since I last saw him, Serena.” Fourteen years, one week, and three days. Not that she was counting.

Serena gave one of her very French shrugs. “You must remember something about him?”

Honey sighed—why bother lying? “He was the most gorgeous man I’ve ever seen.”

Serena’s biscuit froze an inch from her open mouth. “Surely he is not more handsome than Miles?” Serena demanded.

Honey’s face heated.

The Frenchwoman chuckled. “Ah, that must be a rare sight to see.”

Honey turned away from her knowing look and fussed with the handle of her teacup.

“I believe he stayed with his brother when he first returned,” Freddie said, mercifully changing the subject. “But he does have an estate of his own.”

“Yes, Everley.” Honoria’s voice was barely a whisper. She set down her cup and saucer with steady hands and then looked at her friends. Freddie’s beautiful, inscrutable face remained expressionless but Serena met her gaze with a bold, challenging stare.

“Well?” The irrepressible Frenchwoman broke the uncomfortable silence, her hazel eyes sparkling. “When will you leave?”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

Simon was flying.

Or the very next thing to flying.

The sorrel stallion with its flaxen mane and tail was not only beautiful, he was also as enamored of speed as his master. Bacchus was his name but Simon would have done better to name him Mercury he was so fleet.

When they approached the end of the path that opened onto the long and somewhat hilly drive leading down to Whitcomb Simon gave the horse his head. Bacchus knew the road well and his powerful muscles exploded. The wind was so fierce Simon swore he could hear it whistling past the scarred remnants of his deaf ear.

His muscles bunched and stretched like that of his mount, the damaged skin of his face, throat, and torso burning. The pain was almost cathartic and it reminded him he was alive, something he needed to tell himself at least a dozen times a day.

“I’m alive,” he whispered.

The wind ripped away his words but they pounded through his mind and body. He was alive.

Thundering hooves and blurring trees cocooned him. Alive.

He crested the ridge—and almost collided with a post chaise that was ambling down the center of the road.

“Holy hell!” His voice was so loud it caused the big stallion between his thighs to startle.

Life shrank to a fraction of a second as he shifted his seat and flexed his legs, sending Bacchus charging toward the slight gap to the right of the carriage.

He was vaguely aware of the postilion using his entire body to wrench his team to the left. The carriage skittered sideways and the wheels rolled into the soft, damp soil beside the drive.

Simon thundered past without slowing, his heart pounding louder than the wind. He laughed, the sound mad to his own ears.

He was alive.

#

Honey looked out the window just in time to catch a glimpse of the most beautiful man she’d ever seen.

And then the chaise lurched to the side, throwing her, her book, and her cloak to the floor. Luckily the cloak went before she did and softened her fall so she was more startled than hurt when she landed on her knees. She held onto the seat as the carriage bounced over rough ground, waiting until the vehicle began to slow before pushing herself up until she could grasp the leather strap beside the door.

Her heart pounded like a drum in her ears, and not just because of the scare.

He was here. She closed her eyes and relived the lighting-fast image of a Norse god on a magnificent mount. The image—no matter how fleeting—had shown him to be just as beautiful as before.

Simon was here.

The chaise shuddered to a halt and shook her out of her stunned reverie.

So he was here? What difference did that make? She’d known it might be the case. She’d prepared herself for seeing him again. Or at least she’d thought she had.

Honey grimaced at her pitiful dithering and released the strap, collapsing back against the squabs as the chaise shifted on its springs.

The door opened and the burly groom appeared in the opening. “You all right, Miss?” His homely face was creased with concern.

“Just a little shaken up. What happened?”

His expression shifted from concern to disgust. “Naught but a lunatic, riding hell-bent for leather. Beggin’ your pardon, Miss.” He pushed back his hat and scratched his head. “He came out of nowhere and went past in a blur—riding the damned finest piece of horseflesh I’ve ever seen,” he said with grudging admiration, and then grimaced, “Beggin’ your pardon, Miss.”

Honey wanted to roll her eyes; men and their horses. “Are we close to Whitcomb House?”

“Aye, naught but ten minutes away.”

She smoothed her navy blue traveling dress over her lap with shaking hands. Good God. She would see him again.

“All right then?” the groom asked.

She mustered a smile and nodded. “Yes—yes of course. I am fine and ready to resume the journey.”

He closed the door and within moments they were rolling.

She stared out the window and tried to sooth her jangled nerves, but the beautiful profile and flash of golden hair was stuck in her mind’s eye—a problem with artists. She would have known that classical profile—distinct enough to grace a coin—anywhere. Hatless with buckskin breeches, black clawhammer, and tall leather boots completed the brief picture. He’d looked vital, not damaged at all. He looked like a Corinthian—or at least that is what she imaged they looked like, those men who relished their own physicality: bruising riders, crack marksmen, determined pugilists, and other such overtly-masculine foolishness.

Her stomach quivered at the image her mind would not relinquish. How could she endure the proximity of such a beautiful, vital, distracting man? It was simply too—

Honey shook herself, her anxiety suddenly annoying rather than crippling: she was nine-and-twenty, not fifteen. So what if he was here? She wasn’t painting him, she was painting the duke’s wife and child. She was here to work, to build her reputation as a portraitist and a commission for a duke was a powerful thing—could be a powerful thing—if she concentrated and did her best.

You are a woman grown—no longer a tall, skinny, gangly fifteen-year-old, the logical, soothing voice in her head reminded her.

Honoria snorted at the thought. No, she was now a tall, skinny, gangly twenty-nine-year-old. Good Lord. Hadn’t she learned anything in fourteen years?

The racing of her heart told her she’d not learned much—at least not when it came to Simon Fairchild.

She took control of her thoughts and bent them to her will, crushing the hopes, dreams, fears, and yearnings of her younger, infatuated self into a small, harmless cube and then placing it into a the prison in her mind with all the other dangerous thoughts, and then locking the door .

The chaise crested the ridge and Honey gasped. “Oh my goodness.” Her eyes darted wildly as she tried to take it all in. Massive oaks flanked both sides of the drive at regular intervals, allowing glimpses of rolling parkland beyond. This was no house, not even a mansion—it seemed to stretch for miles and resemble a mediaeval township. The drive led to a massive gatehouse that must have been part of the original edifice, its lines soaring and imposing.

Honoria had heard Whitcomb compared in size and character to Knole House and now understood why it was considered a national treasure. Her fingers itched to sketch it and she knew she would need to come back to this vantage point.

The sun was already low in the sky when the carriage rolled onto the cobble drive that curved in front of the massive entrance.

A blond man dressed in a dark coat and pantaloons waited at the foot of the shallow stone steps that led to arched doors at least fifteen feet at their peak, the heavy, weathered wood bound with intricate iron strapping.

Over the entrance the dragon and greyhound of Henry VIII supported the Royal Arms of England.

Even before the carriage had come to a full stop the man strode toward her, two liveried servants following in his wake. For a moment, Honey’s heart thundered in her ears: was that Simon?

Impossible, Simon had just passed her carriage.

The man’s resemblance to Simon became superficial the closer he came. While he was blond, his hair was not Simon’s unusual, and striking, gold. He was shorter—perhaps even shorter than Honey—his build stout rather than lithe and well formed. His eyes were blue, but sky-blue rather than hydrangea.

“Welcome to Whitcomb House, Miss Keyes. I am the duke’s cousin, Raymond Fairchild.” He helped Honey descended from the carriage. “The duke wished to meet you but, unfortunately, he’s indisposed. He has asked that I be here to greet you. How was your journey?”

“It was lovely.”

“Excellent, I’m glad to hear it.” He looked so overjoyed that Honey actually believed him. “I daresay you would like a cup of hot tea and an hour to rest?” He gestured toward the house, not waiting for an answer. “His Grace will see you in the library before dinner. But come, I will show you to your rooms.”

Honoria followed the shorter, bustling man into a hall that was straight out of a Shakespearean play. Her jaw sagged as she tilted back her head and gazed up at the four-centered-arch ceiling.

“This is the Great Hall and was built in the 1490s,” He said, not slowing. “The older parts of the house are not used as much as the South Wing, which was added in the 1740s and affords far more convenience and comfort. The family dines in the smaller dining room when not entertaining. His Grace has requested that you dine with the family.” His tone said the request was not really a request.

They ascended ancient flagstone steps that turned twice at ninety-degree angles and opened onto yet another long hall, this one heading back in the direction they just came.

“This may seem a rather odd way of reaching the South Wing,” he said in a confiding tone, as if reading her thoughts, “But it will make more sense shortly.”

They passed through a lengthy wood-paneled hall; the dark wood floor covered with an ancient carpet runner that muffled their steps. Heavy iron sconces lighted their way at intervals and a massive rose window at the far end added an almost religious air.

He turned down a hallway on the right before they came to the spectacular window, leading them down an almost identical corridor.

“Is it only the duke and duchess and their daughter who live here?” Honey asked as they ascended what felt like a half story, entering a much wider and airier hall that was illuminated by cathedral windows with intricate tracery.

“His Grace’s mother, the Dowager Duchess of Plimpton and his brother, Marquess of Saybrook, also live at Whitcomb.” He cut her a quick smile. “As do I.” He took yet another right, this hallway narrow and windowless.

Lord, she was so lost she could wander for weeks.

“The only one of the family to keep chambers in the East Wing is my cousin, Lord Saybrook.”

Honey blinked at the disapproval she heard in the jovial man’s voice. So, the marquess was . . . difficult? Or was that merely the opinion of an envious poor relation?

They turned yet another corner but this time she staggered to a halt.

“Goodness,” she murmured.

“This is the older of the two portrait galleries,” Mr. Fairchild said, his increasingly distant voice causing Honey to resume walking, her head swiveling wildly to take in the almost suffocating number of portraits that covered the high, paneled walls, jammed together so tightly that the frames touched in places.

Good God—she recognized the unmistakable style of Holbein. Holbein! She made an undignified squeaking sound. Her portrait would hang in a collection which contained one by Hans Holbein?

“Miss Keyes?”

Pulling her eyes away from the portrait—the subject a middle-aged man with no great physical beauty, but with a countenance so knowing that Honey felt as if he were looking at her—was like pulling a heavy wagon from deep, sucking mud.

“Yes?” she said dazedly, turning her head and blinking, as if she’d just been blinded by a lighthouse lantern.

“It is just a little further.”

Honey hurried after him, pointedly keeping her eyes from the flow of portraits that assaulted her peripheral vision.

Later, she would come back later. This gallery would be reason enough to learn the layout of the maze-like house.

Something Mr. Fairchild had just said sank in.

“Did you say this was the old gallery?”

“Yes, the new gallery is on the first floor. That is where the newer portraits hang.”

Like her father’s portrait of Simon Fairchild.

Honey’s heart pounded like a young girl’s facing her first assembly: Simon and more paintings.

They ascended yet one more set of stairs, these wooden and carpeted with a rich maroon and gold pattern that seemed to levitate above the floor. Honey felt almost guilty stepping on such lovely, intricate work. She had never seen its like.

“And here we are,” he said, flinging open the first door on the right.

Honey gaped. She was vaguely aware that she was spending far too much time with her mouth hanging open and shut it.

The sitting room was a cream and lemon-yellow shade that felt crisp and cool. Delicate, spindle-legged chairs and a low-slung settee were arranged in front of a massive fireplace with an off-white marble mantle and surround.

“Through this door,” he opened a door to the right, “Is your dressing room.” The room was monstrous and Honey’s paltry collection of dresses would scarcely fill a corner of one of the huge armoires. A washstand, dressing table, clothing chest, several chairs and damask covered chaise longue, and large bathing tub near a fireplace weren’t enough to make the huge room feel crowded.

“And here is your bed chamber.” This last door opened to the most opulent room of the three. A monstrous four-poster bed held pride of place, curtained and canopied in the same lemon yellow and cream, but with hints of gold in the floor coverings and rich velvet drapes that covered the floor to ceiling windows that made up part of one wall.

Honey saw that he was waiting for some reaction. “These rooms are lovely and quite . . . spacious.”

“This is the family’s section of the house. This room used to belong to His Grace’s grandmother.”

“How kind of the duke to treat me with such generosity and condescension.”

Mr. Fairchild looked like he agreed. “He is quite excited that you are here to paint our dear Becca and the duchess,” he said. “Do you ride?” he asked.

“Adequately.”

“Well, I’m sure you won’t be working all the time, so I hope you’ll allow me to show you some of the beauties of Whitcomb.”

Before she could answer the door opened and a footman entered with her portmanteau.

“Ah, there is your baggage,” Mr. Fairchild said. “I’ve taken the liberty of ordering a light tea and I will send up a maid to assist you.”

“You’re most kind,” Honey murmured.

“Is there anything else I can arrange for you, Miss Keyes?”

“No, thank you. This is all very lovely.”

He smiled. “The duke’s study is at the other end of the Old Gallery. Ring the bell and a servant will escort you. His Grace will expect you at seven.”

“Thank you.” Honey didn’t bother telling Mr. Fairchild that she’d be able to find her way back to those portraits asleep and in the dark.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four

Honey was ready a full fifteen minutes before her meeting. Rather than sit in her room staring out at the view—admittedly quite a remarkable one that provided a sweeping panorama of the topiary and past that, the deer park—she made her way to the old gallery.

The wide, black and white tiled corridor was partly illuminated with windows set high above, perhaps thirty feet. The angle of the light was such that it would never touch directly on a painting.

She noticed she was actually walking on tiptoes as she made her way down the length of the hall, as if approaching a holy relic. Well, for her this was the equivalent of a holy relic.

Her gaze flickered greedily across the collected booty of centuries.

She dazedly registered styles, names, heroes: a Van Dyke, a Devit, a Seymore—complete with trusty steed, a Dance-Holland, a—she gasped and lurched toward a portrait slightly smaller than those beside it—a Hogarth! The subject, a beautiful woman whose eyes and expression invited the viewer into her boudoir, indeed, who promised and enticed

A door down the hall swung open so hard it crashed against the wall hard enough that she could feel the vibration in her feet.

“You can go sod yourself, Wyndham!” The roar filled the hallway, although its owner was still inside the room.

Honey had never heard the voice pulse with so much rage when she’d known him, but she recognized it all the same.

Instead of simply scurrying away—as she should have done—she stood motionless, her eyes riveted on the gaping doorway. A soft murmur broke the silence—the person who was currently being yelled at, she supposed.

“Ha!” The word dripped with loathing and fury. “I don’t bloody care; haven’t you been listening? The whole place can go to the devil and you along with it. I’m telling you for the last time, Wyndham—do not meddle in my affairs ever again or I swear you shall live to regret it.” The enraged speaker catapulted out of the open doorway.

Even though Honey was frozen he must have noticed something out of the corner of his eye because he stopped and whirled around to face her.

She gave a small, nearly inaudible, gasp of surprise. Good Lord. What had happened to him?

He surged toward her with an odd, lurching gait that drove her back a step, raw rage rolling from him like waves of heat.

“Who the devil are you? And what are you doing lurking about and listening at keyholes?” He kept walking, driving her back and back, until she hit the wall and felt something sharp jab her in the hip. The thought that she might have damaged a priceless painting was even more horrifying than the furious man stalking her. She turned to look over her shoulder and nearly fainted with relief when she saw it was only the corner of a plinth bearing a marble bust.

A hand grabbed her arm ungently and swung her around. The face that looked down on her was not far different from the beautiful portrait she had painted all those years ago—on the right side.

But the left side had been vandalized with angry red scars that had destroyed the smooth, high-boned beauty of one half of his face. The slashes and gashes and pits bore the slick sheen of recently healed wounds. His magnificent golden-blond hair had been cropped brutally close, doing nothing to hide what remained of his left ear or the deep horizontal groves that began at his jaw and deeply scored his cheek. He glared down at her with the same beautiful blue eyes, but the left eyelid was pulled down at the outside corner, the stretched skin giving the eye a perpetually sinister cast. He’d been tall and lithe when she’d known him but now his broad shoulders were heavily muscled and massive rather than graceful.

It was Simon, but it was not Simon.

The man in front of her was a byproduct of war: a more intense, distilled form of his prior self. He was sinew, muscle, and bone—all softness and excess flesh had been burnt away. What remained was pure warrior, a man branded, bent, and distorted by violence.

This was not the Simon she knew, nor did he appear to know her.

The crushing realization left her sick inside; he looked at her with no recognition at all in his glorious, damaged eyes. He did not know her.

Honoria wanted to weep.

“Simon.” The word was quietly spoken but it cracked like a bullwhip in the cavernous hallway.

Both Honey and Simon Fairchild startled, as if they’d been caught in the act of something indecent, yet still they could not look away from each other.

Rather than release her, her captor’s hand squeezed tighter while his jaw worked, as if he were chewing his options and found them indigestible. His eyes narrowed and the nostrils of his fine, aquiline nose flared as he struggled to impose some modicum of control—as he appeared to remember that it was not her he was angry at.

He dropped her arm as if she’d scalded him and spun away, his expression—on both the angel and monster sides—disdainful. He pushed past the other man without speaking and lurched down the hall, his steps awkward but swift.

The air in his wake crackled and Honey felt as though she’d been picked up by a powerful cyclone and tossed aside, her ears ringing, her soul battered.

“Miss Keyes?”

Honey had never met the Duke of Plimpton in person. By the time her father finished Simon’s portrait the duke had merely sent a lackey to collect it, the grand ceremony planned for its unveiling never spoken of again.

His Grace of Plimpton looked nothing like Simon. He was a paler, slighter, and far less noticeable version than his younger brother in just about every way except for his air of cool dignity and quiet power.

Unlike Simon, the duke’s hair was a nondescript brown. His features were regular and not unattractive, but, on the whole, unexceptional. He lacked Simon’s size and was not much above medium height, lean and compact rather than broad and towering like his younger brother. Only in the shape of their tilted eyes did she see any resemblance. But where Simon’s were the Egyptian blue of a Raphael painting, the duke’s were a dull gray that was every bit as nondescript as the rest of him. Simon Fairchild was a blazing star while the duke was the distant and unknowable dark side of the moon.

He also looked quite ill. There were dark smudges beneath his eyes and his skin had an unhealthy sheen. Honey supposed this was the indisposition that Mr. Fairchild had mentioned.

The duke gestured to the open doorway. “Please, come inside my study.”

Honoria’s legs wobbled a little as she crossed the carpeted hall between them.

He shut the door and gestured to the two chairs arrayed before a desk. “Have a seat.”

His desk was a slab of black wood supported by scaly gilt legs that looked as if they had once belonged to some monstrous mythical creature. It was the most magnificent desk she had ever seen and it should have made the man standing behind fade into insignificance. But the duke’s understated authority bent the grandeur of the room to his will and she realized he might not look as physically imposing or handsome as Simon, but he possessed enormous presence.

Honey lowered her still-trembling form into one of the brown leather chairs across from him. She’d been around artists all her life so she was accustomed to high-strung emoting, but even her father had not been as mercurial or violent as the man out in the hall.

“Welcome to Whitcomb, Miss Keyes. I hope you are not too fatigued from your journey?”

Ah, so they were going to pretend like the human hurricane in the portrait gallery didn’t exist. That was fine with Honey.

“Not at all, Your Grace.” She was pleased by her cool, even tone and could see by the slight lessening of tension in the duke’s face that he was relieved that she’d decided to play along.

“Thank you for arranging such a luxurious carriage.” The duke had, in fact, seen to all the facets of her journey and had not stinted.

“I am pleased you have accepted this commission, Miss Keyes. Your father’s portrait of my brother captured his spirit and is one of my favorites.” He paused and she smiled at his kind words. “He was a great artist and I am sorry for his passing.”

“Thank you, Your Grace.”

“Would you care for something to drink before dinner?” He gestured to a selection of decanters on a table not far from his desk.

“No thank you, your housekeeper was kind enough to provide a cup of tea in my room.”

Pleasantries out of the way, his attitude became brisk. “It will only be the family at dinner tonight. My wife does not dine with us as she is unwell. My daughter, Lady Rebecca, my mother, and my brother—” a minute flicker of irritation disturbed his calm façade but quickly passed. “will dine with us this evening. We entertain from time to time, and you will, of course, join us.”

“Thank you,” she murmured.

“Perhaps you might explain your preferred method of work so I can inform Her Grace as to what is expected?”

“I will need a few sessions to become acquainted with Lady Rebecca and Her Grace. During these sessions I will make sketches. I will also look at the gowns and accessories they have chosen as well as discuss the preferred setting or background. I like to give the subjects the final say in all such matters but sometimes my guidance can be helpful for aesthetic reasons.”

He rested his elbows on the surface of his desk and glanced down at his interlaced hands for a long moment before looking up. “My wife will not be able to sit for protracted periods of time.”

Honey didn’t think the duke looked as if he could sit for protracted periods of time, either. She hoped that whatever ailed him was not an influenza or something contagious.

“I understand, Your Grace, and I will take as many sketches as I can during the time I’m allotted. I will endeavor not to overtire Her Grace.”

“Thank you, Miss Keyes, I can see you are thoughtful as well as accommodating and I appreciate both characteristics.” He stood, indicating their brief meeting was over. “I shall see you at dinner—please ring for a servant to show you the way.”

“Thank you, Your Grace.” Honoria waited until the door closed behind her to smile at what his words had implied: that she was kind, accommodating, and bland—for an artist.

The other artists, friends, and hangers-on who’d surrounded Daniel Keyes had often commented on Honoria’s calm, even-tempered nature. People had never stopped marveling that she was nothing like her larger-than-life father, with his unconventional clothing, wild hair, and flamboyant personality.

“How can you paint without passion?” more than one of her father’s painter friends had asked her.

Only Daniel Keyes had never made her feel deficient about her temperate disposition.

“All of this,” he’d said to her once, waving one ring-encrusted hand to encompass his unconventionally garbed person. “Is showmanship, Honey. A person does not need to be ostentatious to be a real artist. And you, my love, are not only a real artist, but you also possess a very rare quality in that your company is soothing and rejuvenating.”

Honey supposed she could have chosen to be insulted by his words. After all, it was a common belief that a woman had to be passionate in order to inspire passion. But, instead, she’d found his assessment of her to be comforting.

One of her father’s lovers had once had the poor judgement to chide Honoria during a dinner at their house. “You are far too . . . mild to ever be a truly successful artist, my dear. You must not appear so buttoned-down. Try to cultivate an air of mystery, even if you do not feel mysterious.” Honey recalled how the woman’s cool eyes had flickered over her person, unaware of Daniel Keyes’s gathering wrath at the end of the table. The woman’s full lips had folded with distaste at the conclusion of her inspection. “Lord knows your person is too … unusual to hide, so you might as well make the best of what you have and dress with more flair.”

Honoria had found the woman’s advice amusing rather than insulting but Daniel Keyes had responded with all the anger and emotion she could have desired in a champion, banishing his erstwhile lover from their lives before dinner had even ended.

Honoria had not, even for an instant, considered taking the woman’s ridiculous counseling. It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy brighter colors and more interesting styles—like the avant-guarde clothing her friend Serena wore—but such garments never looked quite right on her.

She had long ago accommodated herself to the fact that she looked like a governess rather than a sought-after portrait painter. The same went for her behavior and bearing; she was calm to the point of phlegmatic, but that was the way she was made and no amount of artificial emoting would change that.

Thinking about emoting turned her thoughts to Simon Fairchild. And thinking about Simon Fairchild stripped away everything she’d believed herself to be—cool and collected—and left her raw, furious, and hurt.

So, it seems there is something—or someone—that can change your phlegmatic bearing, Honey.

She snorted at the taunting thought but she couldn’t deny the truth of it.

Honey had kept him on a pedestal for fourteen years and he’d not even remembered who she was.

***

Simon slammed the door to his chambers with unnecessary force and stalked into his dressing room. His valet was fussing with clothing but put his work aside and turned to help Simon, who waved away his help.

“I’ll undress myself, Peel.” Simon yanked off his cravat and tossed it to the older man, who’d been with him before he’d joined the calvary and then served as his batman through the grueling years on the Continent. Peel knew him better than any other person on earth; the poor bastard.

To Peel’s enduring shock, Simon often joked their relationship was very much like a marriage, but without the bedding. Peel was a bloody prude when it came to such humor.

“Ring for a bath.”

“Right away, my lord.”

He left Simon alone and without anyone to growl at. It was just as well; Simon was in such a vile mood he wouldn’t bear his own company if he could find some way around it.

He was behaving badly and shaming himself and yet he could not seem to stop arguing and fighting and yelling with Wyndham at every opportunity. He needed to get away, but his brother kept him on such a tight leash it chaffed.

He snatched a decanter off the highboy dresser and poured a stiff shot of brandy. Drink was the only way he’d found to escape himself—at least with his clothing on—even if it was only for a little while and even if the price of escape was high. And even if his brother would always be waiting for him at the end of what little bit of escape he could snatch for himself.

Bloody, damned Wyndham. Why could he not leave Simon be? Why must they have the same argument time and again? Why was the man so relentless? Where did he get such strength? Why couldn’t he just accept that Simon was not cut from the same cloth as he was and would be a disaster as duke? Besides, what did he care who took the title after he died? He would be dead for God’s sake. Who cared about what happened after they died? Simon had enough to do worrying about what happened when he was alive. In fact, he would rather not worry about it. Or anything else, for that matter.

He knew that was a childish attitude and utterly unreasonable. But he didn’t care; arguing with Wyndham always brought the worst out in him and it always had. The man was colder than an iceberg in December. The angrier and irater Simon became, the calmer and more distant Wyndham became. It became a challenge to see if Simon could draw a rise out of him. Not that he’d ever managed such a feat. No, all he managed to do was drive himself into a greater froth and make a bigger ass of himself.

His brother’s image rose up before him and Simon frowned; Wyndham did not look well. In fact, Simon thought he’d looked rather the worse for wear for a while now.

Can you blame him? You are probably driving him into an early grave with your idiocy.

Simon clenched his jaws against the unwanted—but likely true—thought.

“Blast and damn and bloody hell,” he muttered, putting his brother from his mind with a forceful shove.

He shrugged out of his coat, grimacing at the pain the small motion caused in his neck and shoulders. Would it always be this way? Would his skin burn and ache even if he lived to one hundred? Another thing alcohol was good for—the pain. Not that there weren’t better things for that, things he’d enjoyed far too much during the war. Simon thrust those “things” from his mind.

He tossed the coat over a chair and unbuttoned his waistcoat, forcing himself to use his left hand. It was not nearly as damaged as the rest of his left side as his hand had been in front of his body when the cannon exploded. But it still burned like hell whenever he used it for fussy tasks like unhooking buttons.

The doctor had cautioned him against mollycoddling his left side, telling him the more active he was the quicker the pain would go away. Not that it would ever go away completely. Some activities, he’d told Simon, would exacerbate the injuries. Activities like riding, the only thing that made life worthwhile anymore.

He grimaced at the self-pitying thought and slipped into his favorite robe, a battered green and gold silk banyan that had been with him throughout the War and which he associated with better times. It had been a garment he’d worn after surviving each uncertain day; something he’d only slipped on when he’d been clean of blood and grime and death. It was a symbol of cheating death yet once more and a reminder of those nights when he’d been hot and hard and lucky enough to find some willing, eager woman to slip into.

Simon shook his head at the foolish thoughts. Memories of days that had been both better and worse; memories so old and faded they might as well have belonged to some other man. This was his life now: a sort of half-life that Wyndham insisted on foisting on him.

You could have a different life—a better life.

Oh yes, that he could. Just as soon as he danced to Wyndham’s bloody tune and married a woman of his brother’s bloody choosing. Only if he capitulated to his brother’s demands could he have the life he’d always wanted. Well, part of it—the part that didn’t include Bella.

Ahhhh, Bella, the voice taunted. But she is long gone. So long gone. You can’t even remember her face and yet you cling to her memory—and your anger—like a child.

So what if he couldn’t always recall Bella’s face? He couldn’t recall lots of things, but that didn’t mean they hadn’t happened. His bloody head had been batted about more violently than a cricket ball. But he could recall Bella clearly enough—and often enough—for it to matter. And he would not buckle to his brother’s demands that he take a wife. He would never marry. Ever.

You need a woman, not a wife.

“Shut the hell up,” Simon snapped, and then realized he was bickering with his own mind as if he were some sort of lunatic.

He threw back the remains of his glass, bared his teeth at the pleasant burn, and poured himself another. He paused, the glass half-way to his mouth.

Perhaps the annoying voice in his head was right: he needed a woman. Lord. When was the last time he’d had sex with someone other than his own hand? He knew the answer to that question to the exact day: two weeks. Not since the night he’d bedded Lily Bancroft, the serving wench at the St. George. His intention of fucking his way out from under his brother’s thumb had dissipated the following day when he’d realized he’d be using an innocent bystander in his war against Wyndham. Not that Lily was either innocent or reluctant to be used—those being her own words.

“When will I see you again, my lord,” she’d asked the morning after their torrid night, as she’d gathered up her scattered clothing.

Simon’s head had been pounding, his conscience no longer numbed by ale. “I’m not sure that is wise.”

“Why? Do you fear for my reputation?”

Simon had winced at her justly mocking tone.

“I’m a grown woman, my lord,” she’d said standing before him naked to prove her point. “My Tommy died in Spain so I’m my own mistress now.”

He’d felt doubly appalled at that point: he’d just bedded a serving wench who was also a war widow.

Like a coward, Simon had slunk away and not gone back.

He flexed his left arm; the taut, scarred skin tingled, but was not painful. At least not much. He was better every day and even the worst of his wounds was well on the road to healing.

Peel appeared in the open doorway. “Will you have a shave before dinner, my lord?”

Simon looked up from his red, rough forearm and grunted. Dinner? He stared at the fragrant, golden liquid in his other hand, suddenly recalling the tall, skinny wench he’d found lurking outside Wyndham’s study. Who the bloody hell was she? She’d looked familiar but he couldn’t recall ever meeting a woman so tall. Her wide, gray eyes hovered in his mind—surprised and outraged. He smirked at the memory. Well, that’s what you get for eavesdropping, missy.

He took another drink and realized Peel was still waiting. “Dinner, eh?” He’d been eating in his room more often than not these days, but he couldn’t help admit to some curiosity about the woman he’d just met. Perhaps she would be dining with the family?

Well, what the hell else did he have to do? He snorted and then quaffed the contents of the glass. “Yes, a shave before dinner, Peel.”

10 Print Copies of NOTORIOUS up for grabs!

Enter to win 1 of 10 PRINT ARCs in this month’s GIVEAWAY!

Print cover of NOTORIOUS

Not long ago I did a giveaway where I asked entrants to name the heroine in my upcoming novel. It worked out GREAT! So, I want to reach out again for my next book. 

The character is a woman from the early 1800s, so the name has to have existed at that time (so no recently created names).

A little about the character:

She is a tomboy but still likes pretty things. She is in her early 20s, has brown hair, freckles, and hazel eyes. Her uncle raised her and she has always worked in the “family” business, which is a circus (of sorts). Her mother was French but her father was English. 

So, gimme your best female names! Send them to my email address:
minervaspencerauthor@gmail.com

Put as many names as you want in one email. One entry per person. 

I’ll pick my 10 favorite suggestions and those people will get an ARC. 

Whoever suggests a name first will be the winner for that name.

For example: If 5 people suggest the name Mary, the first person to email the name will be the winner if I happen to choose Mary.

I’ll announce winners Wednesday, October 7th, 2020. 

Sorry, this contest is open only to US residents. 

Interview with John Charles on The Booklist Reader!

10 Questions for Minerva Spencer

Rising romance star Minerva Spencer launched her writing career with the publication of Dangerous, the first installment in The Outcasts, her Regency-set historical trilogy, in 2018. Dangerous would go on to earn a spot on Booklist’s Top 10 Debut Romances: 2018. And it was was soon followed by Barbarous, which was chosen as one of BookPage’s 14 Most Anticipated Romances of Fall 2018; and Scandalous, which just earned a rave starred review from Publishers Weekly. A transplanted Canadian, Spencer now lives happily in New Mexico on her four-acre hobby farm with an assortment of animals and a terribly tolerant husband.

Who is Minerva Spencer?

This is not a very flattering admission, but when it comes to writing, Minerva Spencer is a messy, disorganized, seat-of-my pants maniac. Just like in every other part of my life, I’m impulsive when it comes to how I tell my stories. When the muse comes to visit, I’ve written as many as 60 pages in a single day.

Of course I’m just as likely to cut all that the following day.

Here is a recent example of how my writing style can sometimes be painful: two nights ago I woke up at 1:53 a.m. convinced I needed to cut 50 pages from my current work in progress. Fifty pages represents about four average days’ work at the rough draft stage; so cutting 50 pages means throwing away four days of work. Anyhow, I dithered and tossed and generally kept Mr. Spencer from having a restful sleep until I finally put on my slippers, made a cup of coffee, and excised those pages with the ruthless precision of a surgeon.

I immediately felt better and could go back to sleep.

My writer friends who plot, plan, and outline listen to those kind of stories with expressions of horror. I’ve tried to make outlines in the past and it has been a waste of time. I might not always like my writing style, but it’s the only one that works for me.

Tell us about your new book, Scandalous.

I know authors aren’t supposed to say they have a favorite book (kind of like saying you prefer one of your children better than the others) but I have a serious soft spot for Scandalous.

I adore Martín Bouchard, the hero in Scandalous. I love the stuff that comes out of his mouth, no matter how obnoxious it is. As I was editing the story and getting it ready for publication I was definitely tempted to make Martín more acceptable to mainstream, modern sensibility. He is far from perfect and often behaves in ways that don’t cast him in a favorable light. For example, I was tempted to make him more sensitive, less arrogant, and get rid of his habit of hanging around brothels.

It’s lucky for me I have an awesome editor who loved Martín, warts and all, and didn’t want me to sanitize either his dark past or his less-than-proper behavior.

Martín might be mercurial, conceited, and selfish at times, but he is also loyal, brave, loving, and principled. Oh, he’s hot. Like, REALLY hot.

And he knows it.

When you have a character like Martín, who could easily turn into a story hog, you have to be very careful about who you pair with him.

Not only do I love Martín, but Sarah is one of the best heroines I’ve written. I’m not a religious person, but I believe that Sarah portrays the best of what organized religion purports to be, without making her into a Pollyanna in the process.

Sarah is loving, kind, open, and giving without being judgmental or rigid, but she’s human, so she’s beset by doubts and struggles to forgive. She’s also consumed by wanton, distinctly improper impulses toward Martín, even when she knows her reaction is impious and probably foolish given his reputation as a world-class rake incapable of love.

The story itself is a wonderful combination of “road trip” (they are on a ship for about half of the book) and glitzy London ballrooms.

Martín is an escaped slave who has made a fortune as a privateer, but he’s got secrets in his past he is less than eager to share. Sarah was born and raised in the jungles of West Africa, but being the child of strict missionary parents meant that she always felt somewhat isolated from her friends and neighbors in the village she considered her home.

The two outcasts bicker and banter their way to London while tentatively exploring each other’s hearts (okay, and bodies). This is definitely a story in which the journey is as exciting and enjoyable as the destination.

You have had a somewhat colorful career path. Tell us about your journey to becoming a published author.

I laughed out loud when I read this question.

It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that it occurred to me you were supposed to pick one career and stick to that. How is that possible when life has so many fascinating options?

did have a plan—of sorts—but it has never bothered me to deviate from plans.

I went to undergrad and graduate school for history and then taught on the college level for five years. I only had a part-time position and eventually decided I had two options if I was going to make a career that would support me: pursue a doctorate or do something else entirely.

What I’m about to tell you is the height of irony considering where I’ve ended up. I decided the publish or perish nature of academics—not to mention the ridiculous degree of specialization often required these days (best description of this I’ve ever read is Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis)—coupled with the constant wrangling with one’s peers over minutiae, were all things I wanted to avoid.

Having come to that conclusion, I then decided the law would be a less fraught and more straightforward career. (I never told you I made rational decisions!)

I went into law school thinking I’d specialize in tax law, the least glamorous of all legal fields. I figured that would be the perfect job for an introvert. I could work for some firm that would tuck me away in a room somewhere and leave me to myself.

True to form, I never even interviewed for a tax position. Instead, my second job out of law school was that of criminal prosecutor at the Harris County Prosecutor’s office, the fourth largest DA’s office in the country. So, it wasn’t the most laid-back and low-key of positions. My first day on the job I was given an office stuffed with cases and told I had 21 trials scheduled for the next week.

About five years after graduating law school I decided the law wasn’t for me.

At the time my husband was working for a Nigerian company and spent a good deal of time in cities like Lagos and Port Harcourt, where people in his business were often kidnapped or shot.

My legal training served me well and I was able to convince him he should quit his dangerous job and we should strike out on our own.

I had owned a bar with my ex-husband years before (did I forget to mention that career?) and knew my current husband and I were too old to live that lifestyle.

Anyhow, I somehow convinced my very traditional spouse—who’d been in the same career for almost 40 years—to jump ship after only four months of research (about three and a half months more than I usually did before making major life decisions) and buy a bed and breakfast. Because, you know, having thousands of strangers visit your house every year is such an excellent job choice for an introvert.

We ran the inn for eight. Long. Years. At the end of that time, in 2013, I seriously needed a break. For the first time in my life I had no idea what I was going to do next. My husband told me to relax, sleep in, and read a lot of books. That’s what I did for a couple of months. And then one day a story came to me while I was on a six-hour round-trip drive to the airport.

I came home and wrote the story down. And then I wrote another (without taking the drive first, this time) and another.

I wrote a pile of stories before a good friend convinced me in early 2017 that I needed to send them off to somebody.

In terms of publishing, I won the lottery and the fifth query letter I sent out got me my first three-book publishing contract.

I love my current job better than any I’ve ever had. As far as I’m concerned, I’ll keep writing books for as long as I’m having fun. If I ever stop enjoying what I’m doing, I’ll look into going to vet school . . .

What is the book (or are the books) that hooked you as a reader on romance fiction?

I think it is amazing that I actually remember the exact book: The Devil on Horseback, by Victoria Holt. It was the first romance I read and I was titillated by the taboo nature of the relationship (May-December). I recall finding it hard to believe that the young heroine could find the hero—a 35 year-old geezer—attractive. Yes, I was very young.

What three words best describe your own writing style?

Intense, emotional, unpredictable.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received about writing?

Write what you like, because if you don’t like it, nobody else will, either.

If you could be one character in literature for a day, which character would you choose, and why?

Lucy from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. I still check out wardrobes from time to time.

What role do chickens play in your life?

I suppose some people (er, Mr. Spencer, maybe) would say I’m a tad obsessed with chickens. Yes, I love all birds, but chickens—one of the most abused animals on the planet—have a special place in my heart.

I’ve had a small poultry rescue for the last eleven years. I don’t buy chicks from hatcheries after learning how horrible they are (think puppy mill, but with cute fuzzy chicks!) so my flock only increases when I take in a new rescue.

Most of my birds are older because people don’t want them anymore when they don’t lay as many eggs. The second category of rescue is birds who were the sole survivors of predator attacks. For example, my newest rescue—a duck hen we’ve named Mrs. Nelly Quackenbush—was the only survivor after a bobcat got into somebody’s coop and killed 25 other birds.

Because we keep four Great Pyrenees guard dogs patrolling the property we rarely have to concern ourselves with predators.

Over the years I’ve gained enough expertise about their illnesses that the local vet has called me more than once to ask me about chicken issues in her own flock.

I guess you could say I truly love chickens. If you know of any needing a good home, bring ‘em on over.

What is next for you as a writer?

I’ve written sci-fi, detective, and fantasy stories as well as a whole lot of historical romance. I’m lucky that my agent, Pam Hopkins, encourages me to write what I like. In addition to continuing writing romances, I’m hoping you will see my name pop up in one of these other genres at some point.

How can readers best connect with you?

You can check out my website: minervaspencer.com if you want to learn more about my books or bird obsession. If you have a question it’s best to contact me by email: minervaspencerauthor@gmail.com.