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Meet the Hero: Viscount North-Barrows

Enjoy an excerpt from Romancing the Rogue!

Just as the last hint of sunlight slithered past the horizon, the rocky, wind-lashed terrain of Cornwall came into view. Daniel straightened his spine. The chill was already seeping through the cracks in the buffeted carriage.

The driver gulped, his gaze uncertain. “Nightfall has arrived, milord. Shall I find a posting-house?”

Daniel shook his head, his skin tingling from the close proximity to Castle Keyvnor. “No. Let’s keep going. We’re almost there.”

Even as he said the words, the monstrous castle rose from the darkness, its looming towers an even deeper black than the interminable night enshrouding them.

A familiar prickle danced across his clammy skin as the carriage rattled over the ancient bridge across the long-dry moat, and on through a massive iron gate. The castle looked darker than he remembered. Larger. More menacing.

Rebecca was somewhere inside those walls. He just had to find her.

He dashed from the carriage and up the slick stone steps of Castle Keyvnor as torrents of rain spilled from the black, thunderous sky.

The horrendous downpour was not only a fitting welcome back to the castle grounds, but the only weather he ever recalled Castle Keyvnor having. If the sun happened to shine over the sparse seaside village of Bocka Morrow, the castle was still be buffeted by icy winds and cloaked in shadow.

Ignoring the sheet of rain cascading from the brim of his beaver hat, he reached for the brass doorknocker dangling from the maw of a stone lion.

The door swung open before his fingers even touched the knocker. Yet no one presented himself.

Daniel straightened his spine. No sense dallying. Time to head straight into the mouth of the beast.

Morris, the castle’s longtime butler, strode into the entryway just as Daniel slid his soaked top hat from his head.

No point in asking who had opened the door, given that the butler was only now arriving. Castle Keyvnor never had answers. Only a surfeit of questions.

“Lord North-Barrows.” The butler smiled. “Right on time. Your chamber has been readied.”

Daniel didn’t smile back. Nor did he know how he could be right on time, when he hadn’t sent word of his impending arrival because even he hadn’t known for certain when he would arrive.

As the butler divested Daniel of his wet outer garments, a quartet of footmen emerged from a darkened corridor without being summoned and marched outside to the waiting carriage.

Daniel eyed the castle’s dark interior with apprehension. If the servants knew he was coming, why the devil couldn’t they light a sconce or two?

“The footmen will bring your trunks to your chamber shortly.” The butler gestured toward the main stone staircase. “A fire awaits you in the hearth.”

Of course it did.

Daniel inclined his head, eager to dry himself before a fire regardless of how or why its warmth awaited him. But a shimmer of white caught his eye.

An apparition had appeared at the top of the stairs. No—not an apparition.

Rebecca.

Her bone-white gown fluttered from one of the castle’s many drafts, giving her haunting silhouette the blurred edges of a ghost. From this distance, the features of her pale face were smudged by shadow. The glossy dark curls he recalled so fondly were invisible against the yawning blackness of the unlit upstairs corridor. His entire body was on edge.

Nervous, he smiled up at her.

There was no way to know if she returned his smile.

He doubted it. The last time he’d seen her at Castle Keyvnor, he’d cruelly rejected her in front of witnesses. And the last time she’d been in London…he hadn’t spoken to her at all.

His chest tightened. He was lucky she hadn’t come to the landing solely to toss water upon his head.

Perhaps she was saving that for later.

“Rebecca?” Because the soaring stairwell had no balustrade, Daniel placed his damp palm against the cold stone wall for balance. The last thing he needed was for wet soles to send him sliding to his death before he could even make his grand apology.

“It’s Miss Bond,” floated the soft, familiar voice from overhead.

“I know,” Daniel called back as he hurried up the rest of the stairs. “Rebecca, it’s me. Daniel.”

“I know,” she echoed as he rounded the final step. Her eyes were dark and luminous in the pale porcelain of her face. “Good evening, Lord North-Barrows. I trust Morris has seen to your luggage.”

Ah. So he had lost first-naming privileges. And was to be treated with the same distant politesse one might use to welcome a stranger.

He deserved that and more.

“Please,” he said. “You must still call me Daniel. I know I was awful to you, and you have every right to be vexed with me. I admit it. I behaved abominably and am here to apologize. I was foolish and wrong.”

“Were you?” Her expressionless dark eyes gazed right through him. “I’m sure I don’t recall.”

His muscles tightened. Of course she recalled. She had the cleverest mind of anyone he’d ever met. But by pretending she couldn’t remember his crimes, she didn’t have to forgive him. Or acknowledge his heartfelt apology. He forced his fingers to unclench.

Despite the murky shadows of the ill-lit corridor, she was even more beautiful than last he’d seen her. He drank her in. She had been the prettiest of that year’s crop of debutantes during her come-out five years ago, but now she was ravishing.

Girlish cheeks had turned into high cheekbones. A willowy frame had become womanly curves. Her innocence had been replaced by mysteriousness. He didn’t know this Rebecca Bond any longer. But oh, how he wanted to. If only they could erase the past.

He yearned to reach for her. Once, she would have welcomed his touch, his embrace.

Tonight, she was just as likely to push him off of the landing.

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Romancing the Rogue was first featured as part of the Vexed anthology.

Meet the Heroine: Miss Rebecca Bond

Enjoy an excerpt from Romancing the Rogue!

“You cannot mean to toss me out on my ear,” Rebecca begged.

“I intend to marry you off, girl. I daresay that’s hardly ‘out on your ear.’” The new earl stared at her as if she’d gone mad.

No—it was perhaps worse than madness. It was sanity. The bleak loss of freedom. Up until now, she had been mistress of herself. As a wife, however, she would lose all autonomy. Her independence would be gone forever.

A flash of lightning lit the corridor, followed by a crack of thunder that shook the very walls. As it always did on nights such as these, the icy ocean wind shrieked through the castle turrets like the high-pitched wail of a madwoman.

Lord Banfield’s cheeks blanched at the eerie sound. “Honestly, child. You cannot wish to stay here. No reasonable person would.”

Rebecca swallowed. Castle Keyvnor had been the last place she’d wished to visit when her parents had first proposed the idea five years ago. Back then, her life had been full of laughter and joy. Seventeen years old and the light of her parents’ eyes, her first London Season had been everything Rebecca had dreamed.

Until her childhood friend and the love of her life—the delectable and devilish Daniel Goodenham, Viscount North-Barrows—had given her the cut direct at the height of the Season. After leading her to believe that between them was something more.

She’d been too distraught from his cruel rejection to even consider putting herself forward with other men. When her parents despaired, she’d reminded them there was always next Season…

Except next Season never came.

Lord North-Barrows might have been the first to forget about Rebecca, but it had taken no time at all for everyone else to do the same. Day by day, she’d faded from everyone’s memories.

Now that the new earl had been reminded of her existence, she was nothing more than a problem to be fixed. An error to scrub away as quickly as possible.

“I’ve nothing with which to attract a husband,” she said dully. If her own family could forget her, attracting a suitor was impossible. “I haven’t so much as a ha’penny. And every frock I own is five years out of style.”

“Piffle,” Lord Banfield scoffed. “I’ll give you a dowry, of course. Five hundred pounds should do. Plenty of men would wed a sack of grain for less.”

How complimentary. Rebecca pressed her lips together. Her attractiveness as a wife was comparable to marrying a sack of grain. Was it any wonder she preferred to be left alone?

And yet…that much money could completely change her life.

“If I were to live very simply,” she mused aloud, working the financial details out in her mind, “five hundred pounds might be enough for me to live on my own as a woman of independence.”

“You don’t get the five hundred pounds,” the earl reminded her impatiently. “It goes to your husband.”

“You could give it to me instead,” she said hopefully. Such a neat solution would grant her the independence she craved without causing her to be a burden on anyone else.

“And have you spend the entire sum on tiaras and fur muffs?” He laughed. “Come now, child, I’m far too practical to blunder that badly. You would be penniless in a fortnight. Have you forgotten I live with six ladies of impeccable taste? What you need is a strong hand, I’m afraid.”

“There has to be another way,” she whispered.

Lord Banfield brightened. “If you don’t want a Season, we can have the thing solved in no time. Surely a village like Bocka Morrow must have at least one bachelor in want of a wife?”

Rebecca’s stomach churned. She would have no more chance for happiness with one of the local fishermen or wayfaring smugglers than she would with the London crowd. She didn’t fit in anywhere.

What she wanted was her independence. Not a husband. Just the freedom to be herself.

“Please, Uncle.” She clutched her hands to her chest, fully prepared to beg. “Could you please give me the money outright? I promise never to return, asking for more.”

He laughed jovially and gave her a kind pat upon the shoulder. “Of course I cannot. The very question proves how silly women are. How would you pay your bills? Everyone knows females aren’t good with figures. I take care of my business myself. Starting with you. If you wish to make your own decisions, then turn your pretty head to selecting a husband.”

“And…if I can’t find one?” she stammered with dread.

“If you aren’t wed before the start of the Season and cannot bring anyone up to scratch before your portion runs dry, then you leave me no choice but to do the selecting myself. If you haven’t chosen a husband by the end of January—I’ll choose for you.”

She tried to hide her shiver as a chill went down her spine.

He nodded at the solicitor. “Now if you’ll excuse us, we’ve invitations to address, and then I must collect my wife and daughters. Dozens of guests will be arriving for the reading of the will. Lady Banfield will wish her family to be settled first.”

Rebecca stepped back as the two men swept past her. When they disappeared down the corridor, she sagged back against the wall and tried to calm her heart.

Three months. She had only until the end of January to find a sweet, not-too-demanding suitor delighted to have her dowry—and happy to leave her alone. She swallowed.

Perhaps Bocka Morrow would be a fine pond to fish in. She could stay in the country, far from London. And her husband would be gone all day, doing whatever it was country husbands did.

Such a marriage could be bearable after all. Provided she could arrange one within three short months.

Her fists clenched. She could not allow her uncle to choose for her. He’d pick some dreadful London fop, or an ancient roué, or a self-important, fickle rakehell like that arrogant Lord North-Barrows…who undoubtedly topped the guest list for the reading of the will. Not just because he was related to the prior earl’s sister. But because everyone who knew Lord North-Barrows, loved him.

Once, Rebecca had too.

She leaned the back of her head against the wall in despair. What hope had she of even attracting a country gentleman? Even her alleged friends had turned from her ever since the moment of Lord North-Barrows’ public cut.

In fact, Rebecca had been hurt so badly that she was relieved at first when her parents didn’t have the funds to give her a second Season. But they loved her too much to give up.

They’d trekked all the way to South Cornwall in the hopes that her mother’s distant uncle, the Earl of Banfield, might be impressed enough with the gentle manners and pleasing face of a young Rebecca that he might be coaxed into sponsoring her second Season.

It worked. Banfield had agreed to fund her second Season. Rebecca’s parents had been ecstatic.

They’d begged her to join them on a pleasure boat to celebrate their financial success in Cornwall before returning to London.

Rebecca had declined to join them. She’d discovered the castle’s soaring library, and meant to inhale as many books as possible before returning to their barren rented cottage on the outskirts of London. ‘Twas both the best and worst decision of her life.

She had never seen her parents again. Only bits of wreckage ever drifted ashore.

When her year of mourning had concluded, Lord Banfield no longer recalled his promise to sponsor another Season. He had forgotten she was under his roof altogether.

And the new earl would be rid of her three months hence, come hell or high water.

Rebecca rubbed her temples in frustration. What was she to do? She had no fashionable clothing. No knowledge of whatever was popular at the moment. No skill at flirtation—or even conversation. She had spent the past lonely years haunting the library, the billiards room, and the hedge maze behind the castle, should the sun chance to peek through the omnipresent clouds.

How would she possibly attract a promising bachelor’s attention, much less his hand in marriage?

Especially with Lord North-Barrows under the same roof, right there to see her fail.

She cringed at the imminent humiliation. Saints save her. He was the only person likely to remember her name—and thus the only one who might be able to help a reclusive spinster without the slightest talent at coquetry obtain a marriage proposal before time ran out.

That settled it. She lifted her chin in determination. Swallowing her pride would be well worth the chance to attract a better man.

Who better than a rakish viscount to teach her how to snare a true gentleman capable of appreciating her charms?

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Romancing the Rogue was first featured as part of the Vexed anthology.

Meet the Heroine: Clara Halton

Enjoy an excerpt from the next Dukes of War book, The Pirate’s Tempting Stowaway!

Captain Blackheart’s fingers clenched. Depending on Mrs. Halton’s condition, he might not be able to complete this mission. But the least he could do was deliver the lady’s mail.

He tied his horse to the rusting iron post at the edge of Mrs. Halton’s overgrown front walk and rolled back his shoulders. For the next few minutes at least, he would not be Captain Blackheart, second-most feared pirate upon the high seas. Instead, he would be Mr. Gregory Steele. Again.

It had been so long since he’d last removed his mask, he’d nearly forgotten what being plain Mr. Steele felt like. It was so easy to forget that “Blackheart” was a persona and Gregory Steele was the real man. Especially when he liked being a pirate so much better.

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He rapped his fingers against the door.

No one answered.

He glanced around for a knocker. There was none. He rapped harder. Thunder rumbled overhead.

No one answered.

His stomach twisted. He couldn’t help but note the very Steele dismay at the idea of arriving too late to save a total stranger. A pirate like Blackheart would only care that he and his men had been effectively swindled by the earl who’d set them upon this impossible mission.

Gregory Steele, however, would deal with Carlisle and the crew later. First, he needed to determine whether his quarry was still alive—and figure out what to do next.

“Mrs. Halton?” he called, tramping across overgrown grass to squint through a grimy window. “Are you in there?”

“Go away!” returned a muffled female voice from the other side of the wall.

Steele’s shoulders loosened. Relief rushed through him even though he well knew Mrs. Halton’s non-dead state didn’t mean any of their lives were about to get easier. One step at a time.

“Mrs. Halton, my name is Mr. Gregory Steele, and I have come all the way from London, England to—”

“Go away,” the stubborn voice repeated. “I’m armed.”

A grin played at the edges of Steele’s lips. Pirate or not, he did love a good gunfight. Any old woman cantankerous enough to suggest one was well on her way to being a kindred spirit.

“I’m not here to rob you, ma’am. I—”

“Well, I’m not here to kill you. I’ve consumption, which is almost always fatal. I shan’t be giving it to you.”

Almost always. Steele’s smile faded and he considered the closed door with renewed respect. If the occupant was aware of the minuscule chance that she might not die, she was also probably aware that temporary exposure to an invalid did not necessarily—or even usually—result in the infection of the caretaker. And yet Mrs. Halton still valued a stranger’s life over any concern for her own.

“You’re not going to shoot me,” he said calmly.

“Try me.”

Her voice didn’t sound grandmotherly. But then, they were on opposite sides of a wall. He needed to put paid to this farce. She would realize soon enough that even real weapons were no deterrent. Her empty threats were laughable.

“If you wished for me to die, you’d have no objection to me entering a sick chamber.”

“Perhaps I simply wish for you to die quickly,” came the cheeky response.

He blinked and then bit back a silent laugh. How long had it been since last he’d been threatened to his face? Years. Not since becoming Blackheart. No one had dared to challenge him. Until today.

“Please open the door. I’m coming inside.”

“I’m busy adding extra powder to my pistol to make certain the first ball takes you down if you come near my door.”

“Most pistols only have one ball, Mrs. Halton. If you miss, you won’t even have time to reload it. Besides, we both know you haven’t—”  Steele paused at the familiar sound of a ramrod forcing a patched ball down a metallic chamber. “You have a pistol?

“You really should consider leaving before I’ve finished loading it. Oh, bother…I’ve finished. A smart man would take his leave.”

Steele stepped away from the window in case the dear old bat was mad enough to shoot him.

He ran his hands down his coat. He, too, had a pistol. And, no, he would not be drawing it. He had something even more powerful.

Letters.

“Stopped by the postmaster on my way to your cottage,” he said conversationally. “Seems to have forgotten to drop off a couple of items. First letter is from a…” He squinted at the spidery script. “Can’t rightly say. ‘Mayer,’ perhaps?”

“My father?” The voice on the other side of the wall sounded tiny and shocked. “What does it say?”

“The second one was franked by the Earl of Carlisle but seems to be from a Miss Grace Halton. Relation of yours, is it?”

“My daughter,” Mrs. Halton breathed, her voice so quiet and so close that Steele could imagine her pressing up against the wall to be closer to the letter. “Read it to me.”

He shoved them back into his coat pocket as noisily as possible. “Let me in, and I will.”

“Blackguard,” she hissed.

He smiled. “You have no idea.”

Silence reigned for a scant moment before the soft sound of a tumbler indicated the front lock had been disengaged.

The door did not swing open.

Steele strode up and let himself in, just as the first drops of rain began to fall from the sky.

The tiny cottage consisted of very few rooms—all of which were visible from the vantage point of the front door. No candles were lit and no fire burned in the grate, but enough natural light filtered in through the windows to illuminate the musty, but surprisingly clean interior.

The furnishings were shabby and worn, but otherwise spotless. The dishes were clean. The beds were made. The woman aiming a triple-barrel flintlock turnover pistol toward Steele’s midsection was bathed and neat.

And not a day older than Steele himself.

Where his own beard was starting to appear more salt and pepper these days, Mrs. Halton’s long black hair cascaded down her back with nary a hint of gray. Dark eyelashes framed wide green eyes. He swallowed and tried not to stare. She was beautiful. Porcelain skin. Rosy lips.

The lady didn’t look sick. She didn’t even look like the right person.

He narrowed his eyes. “How can you possibly be the mother of a grown woman? Or…acquainted with the Earl of Carlisle?”

“Read me the letter, and perhaps we’ll both find out.” She gestured at him with the pistol. “Better yet, leave my correspondence on the table, and see your way out.”

“Why don’t you put that thing down before you lose a hand? Multi-cylinder pistols have been known to explode rather than eject their ammunition. Yours looks like it’s twenty years old.”

“It is. I bought it after my husband was killed and taught myself to shoot it. Don’t worry, it won’t misfire. I clean it every night.”

The increase in Steele’s heart rate had nothing to do with fear and everything to do with the confident woman in front of him. Owning a gun had made her interesting to him. Being willing to use it had made her even more so. Now that he saw it for himself and realized not only was it three-barreled firepower instead of a lady’s simple muff pistol, but that she also knew how to take care of it…and herself…

He was very, very interested.

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Meet the Hero: Captain Blackheart

Enjoy an excerpt from the next Dukes of War book, The Pirate’s Tempting Stowaway!

February 1816
The Dark Crystal
Atlantic Ocean

The dread pirate Blackheart stood at the bow of his ship, smiling into the rush of salty air, as the first hint of America rose upon the horizon.

Despite the chill of winter, the skies were clear and blue, with both the wind and the sun to his back. ’Twas more than a good omen. ’Twas a perfect day for any number of Captain Blackheart’s favorite activities. Sailing. Wenching. Drinking. Horse-racing. Sword-fighting. Boarding enemy vessels. Commandeering an ill-fortuned frigate upon the high seas.

Nothing was better than the freedom of the seas.

“Land ho!” came the familiar cry from the crow’s nest.

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Blackheart’s good humor faded. He relinquished navigational oversight to the Quartermaster without a word.

There was no need to bark orders. Most of the crew had been part of his family long enough to recognize the storm clouds brewing in Blackheart’s eyes, and every hand on board already had their standing orders.

No unnecessary fighting. No drinking to excess. Wenching was always permissible, but only if the crew made haste. The Dark Crystal would only be docked at the Port of Philadelphia long enough for Blackheart to accomplish his mission, and then they’d sail down the Delaware River and back out to sea just as swiftly as they’d sailed in.

Payment would only be delivered upon receipt of the booty. In this case…a sickly old woman named Mrs. Halton.

Despite being a pirate for hire, Blackheart was not in the habit of kidnapping innocents. Prior to the end of the war eight short months ago, he had been a privateer for the Royal Navy. A government pirate. A legal pirate. Now that he was an independent contractor, he tried to uphold the spirit (if not the precise letter) of the law.

’Twas the surest way to steer clear of the gallows.

The soles of Blackheart’s boots tread silently against polished wood as he strode aft toward the gunroom skylight. He descended the ladder to the Captain’s cabin and slipped inside to gather his supplies.

Item the first: a freshly starched cravat. This mission would require charm, not firepower. Item the second: a freshly cleaned pistol and extra ammunition. A pirate might not expect trouble, but he certainly intended to finish it. Item the third: a heavy coin purse. Gold was often more powerful than bullets.

By the time the schooner docked at the port, Blackheart was clean-shaven, dandified, and fresh as a daisy. Oh, certainly, his sun-bronzed skin was an unaristocratic brown—and was generously adorned with a truly ungentlemanly quantity of scars—but most of that was hidden away beneath his gleaming Hessians, soft buckskin breeches, muted chestnut waistcoat, blinding white cravat, and dark blue tailcoat with twin rows of gold buttons.

The hidden pistol in its fitted sling made barely a bulge beneath so many layers of foppery.

He forewent both sword and walking stick because he intended to make the rest of the journey on horseback, and debated leaving his hat behind as well. It was unlikely to stay on his head at a gallop, and would be crushed in the saddlebag…

With a sigh, Blackheart scooped up the beaver hat and shoved it on his head. He had no idea how easily manipulated Mrs. Halton might be, or whether she’d turn out to be one of those histrionic old matrons who refused to be seen in public alongside a gentleman with a bare head.

Plan B was to toss her over his shoulder and have done with the matter, but Blackheart had promised the Earl of Carlisle he’d at least try to coax the package into accompanying him voluntarily.

And although Blackheart would never admit it aloud, he had a rather high opinion of both his own charm and grandmotherly women. He would do everything within his power to make the journey to England a pleasant one for Mrs. Halton, and had already instructed his crew to treat her as if she were their own mother.

Carrying nothing more than a pair of gloves and a small satchel, he made his way down the gangplank in search of the fastest horse to rent—and nearly tripped over an underfed newspaper boy hawking today’s headlines for a penny.

Under normal circumstances, Blackheart would have flipped the boy a coin and let him keep the paper…but the black font stamped across the top stopped the captain in his tracks.

MOST DANGEROUS PIRATE:

THE CRIMSON CORSAIR

Blackheart snatched up the paper and tried to read over the grinding of his teeth. He wasn’t certain what he hated most about the Crimson Corsair: that the man was a dishonorable, coldblooded madman, or that he’d started to receive better press than Blackheart himself.

“You gonna pay for that, mister?” came a belligerent, high-pitched voice below his elbow.

He slapped the newspaper back onto the pile along with a shiny new coin, and stalked off the dock. Now was not the time to think about the Crimson Corsair. Once Mrs. Halton was safely delivered, Blackheart and his crew would be free to pursue any mission they wished—perhaps a quick seek-and-destroy of the corsair’s vessel—but for the moment, he needed to stay focused. Not only had he given Carlisle his word, this mission would be a doddle. Grab the woman, get the money. The easiest three hundred pounds of his life.

The Pennsylvania countryside flew past, the sky darkening as he rode. Blackheart kept to the mail roads in order to trade for fresh horses at posting-houses…and also to keep from losing his way. He was used to England and to the open sea, not these sparsely populated American trails winding endlessly between bigger cities. He never felt comfortable when he was out of sight from the water, and he was heading further from the ocean with every mile.

He had to spend the night at an inn only once before finally reaching the town where his target resided.

The shabby little cottage was right where his instructions said it would be, but the state of disrepair gave Blackheart pause. The garden was so overgrown as to be nearly wild. The exterior was dirty and covered in spiderwebs. No smoke rose from the chimney. No candlelight shone in the windows.

Had someone already abducted his quarry? Had she simply moved? Or, God forbid, died of old age during his journey from England?

Rather than blindly march into unknown territory, he turned his horse in search of the local postmaster, in order to determine whether his target was still in his sights—or whether the rules of the game had changed.

“Mrs. Halton?” repeated the pale-faced postmaster when Blackheart interrupted his nuncheon. “Mrs. Clara Halton?”

“Yes,” Blackheart replied calmly, as he towered over the dining table. “I’ve come to pay her a visit.”

“But you mustn’t, sir.” The postmaster forged on despite the captain’s raised brow. “You cannot. She’s ill—”

“I’m aware that Mrs. Halton has been sickly.”

“—with consumption,” the postmaster finished, his eyes wide with foreboding.

Although Blackheart’s smile didn’t falter, his blood ran cold. Consumption. The game had indeed changed.

“How long has she been afflicted?” he asked quietly.

“I don’t rightly know—”

“How long does the doctor think she has?”

“I don’t…He hasn’t seen her since the diagnosis.”

“Hasn’t seen her?” Blackheart frowned. “She won’t allow him in?”

“He hasn’t gone.” The postmaster’s cheeks flushed. “It’s the contagion, sir, can’t you understand? He’s the sole medical practitioner for miles, and if he catches the illness…”

The spiderwebs and overgrown garden now made perfect sense. Blackheart’s jaw tightened. “If the sole medical practitioner does not visit his patient, I presume neither do the dairy maids or local farmers.”

“No, sir. I can’t even deliver her letters anymore. Too dangerous. We could die if we caught—”

“Without food or medicine, how is Mrs. Halton expected to live?”

“She ain’t expected to live, sir. That’s the point you keep missing. Most folks with consumption don’t last longer than—”

“You said you possess post you’ve failed to deliver? Hand it over.”

“You can’t possibly intend to—”

“Now.”

The postmaster scrambled up from the table and hurried over to a cubicle, from which he drew two folded missives. “I wouldn’t normally hand post to a stranger—”

“—but since you’ve no intention to deliver it anyway…” Blackheart finished dryly as he shoved the letters into his coat pocket. He turned toward the door, but then paused to pin the postmaster in his stare one final time. “Keep in mind, not everyone dies of consumption—but we all die of starvation.”

He stalked back outside without waiting for a reply. There was nothing the postmaster could say that would be worth the time it took to listen.

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Meet the Hero: Brigadier Edmund Blackpool

Enjoy an excerpt from the next Dukes of War book…

Sarah Fairfax was the sole thought in Edmund Blackpool’s mind as he hurried off the rancid passenger ship onto the overcrowded London docks.

She had been the sole thought in his mind from the moment she’d met him in Bruges, during his brief days of leave before heading to Waterloo.

She had been the sole thought in his mind when the bullet had ripped into his chest and he’d collapsed to the trodden ground in a pool of his own blood.

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When he awoke a week later amongst an endless row of narrow cots in an austere Flemish convent, his first thought was still Sarah Fairfax.

His second thought was pain.

Oh, God, the pain. His wounds had taken months to heal. The bullet had come from a great enough distance that it cracked two of his ribs when it lodged between them. Fortunately, it hadn’t penetrated his lung. In fact, the bullet was the least of his concerns. He and many others had apparently been trampled in the ensuing melee. Every limb was splinted, every inch of skin mottled with contusions. Just lying there breathing caused more agony than he’d have imagined possible.

And so he’d thought of Sarah.

Dark brown hair the deep hue of fine chocolate. Wide brown eyes, gazing up at him from beneath long dark lashes. Rosy lips, rosy cheeks, a waist he could nearly span with his fingers. She was a perfect pixie, bewitching him with her porcelain skin and teasing smiles from hundreds of miles away.

In London at last, Edmund pushed through the crowded dock and made his way to the street. He had no baggage to slow him down. No coin with which to hail a hack. He would make his way to Mayfair the same way he’d traveled across Flanders to the coast: on foot.

His fraying boots would fall apart before he did. His slowly mended bones might be weaker, but Edmund was stronger than he’d ever been. His feet, and his determination, could take him anywhere.

The question was where.

His first impulse was to go straight to Sarah. He hadn’t seen her in eight months, two weeks, and five days. Not since promising to wed her the moment he returned from the war.

Well, he was back. He was also wearing the same clothes he’d left Belgium in. He’d washed up as often as he could aboard the freezing ship, but a comb would be welcome. His chin hadn’t seen a razor for a month. He couldn’t recall a single time that Sarah had ever turned away from him in disgust, and he certainly didn’t wish for her to see him like this.

Which left what? His rented townhouse was no doubt long gone, and there was no time to waste on fabric and a tailor. He was, however, possessed of one asset most gentlemen could not boast.

An identical twin.

He hunched forward into the bitter wind and told himself the sudden chill had nothing to do with his fears for his brother.

Eight and a half months since he’d seen his twin. If Bartholomew was still alive—of course Bartholomew would still be alive!—his clothes would be a perfect fit. His valet would have Edmund dandified within an inch of his life in a matter of minutes. He could be off to woo Sarah in less time than it took to boil a kettle.

Of course, if Bartholomew was still alive, that would also mean he’d done the one thing he’d sworn never to do. It would mean Bartholomew had abandoned his twin right when Edmund needed him most.

And then left him for dead.

An insidious thought. An impossible thought. Edmund flung the idea away like so much rubbish. His twin would never consign him to such a fate.

On the other hand, if Bartholomew hadn’t made it off the battlefield alive… If he’d been captured by the French, or trampled into jelly by the fleeing horses…

Edmund walked faster. In eight long months, he still hadn’t managed to reconcile his hurt and fury at being left to die with his abject terror that perhaps it hadn’t been by choice. Both possibilities were awful. Soon, he would arrive at his brother’s townhouse and find out the truth, one way or another. Soon, he would be back in Sarah’s arms.

Sarah would never leave him. Of this, Edmund was certain. She had been his constant shadow since they were old enough roll down hills together, between their parents’ adjoining country estates in Kent. Her affections had never wavered.

His hands went clammy despite the winter chill. What if she was not in London, but in Kent? What if he were still weeks away from seeing Sarah again?

He couldn’t bear to be apart another moment. He already regretted the lost years of his youth, when he’d thought catching bugs and kicking balls—and, later, boxing and carousing—were more important endeavors than spending time with a girl he could see anytime he wished.

Until he couldn’t.

If he had but known that night in Bruges would be the last time he’d see her, he would have… Oh, who was he fooling? He would have done nothing different. He’d wanted to marry her then, and he wanted to marry her now. He’d desired her then, and he desired her now. If he could change anything at all, it would be to have held her in his arms a few moments longer.

This time, he would never let her go.

Edmund ignored his blistered feet and increased his pace. By the time he reached his brother’s crescent row of terraced houses, snow swirled down from the sooty gray sky, blurring the air. He blew on his chapped fingers to warm them enough to uncurl, then gave the knocker a hefty bang.

His heart stuttered when the door swung open to reveal his twin’s stoic butler. Relief flooded him. If Crabtree still ruled the roost, Bartholomew must have survived! It took all Edmund’s restraint not to elbow past the butler and dash into the townhouse to find his brother.

Crabtree’s jaw dropped. “Master Blackpool?

Edmund’s body shook, he was so giddy to be among familiar faces at last. It had been so long since anyone had so much as recognized him. He’d almost forgotten the simple pleasure of seeing, and being seen. Of being anyone at all, other than a nameless, voiceless nothing lost in a foreign land.

He was finally home at last. Life would not only return to normal; life would return. His family, his friends, his secret fiancee… Even his brother’s imperturbable butler was a sight for sore eyes. Edmund had never seen Crabtree so much as blink in surprise, and here the man was, gaping in astonishment. Edmund pressed his lips together. He could hardly wait to see his twin’s reaction!

“Is my brother at home?” he asked, trying to hide his grin.

Before Crabtree could respond, a tall thin man with tightly curled locks skidded into the entryway squealing, “Master Blackpool!” at a pitch high enough to break glass.

Edmund’s lips quirked at his brother’s valet. “Wonderful to see you, Fitz, old man. I trust you haven’t allowed my twin to gad about in Society looking anything less than his best? Reflects badly on me, you know, what with them mixing us up all the time.”

The valet spluttered speechlessly, his eyes bulging so wide as to be comical. “I—He—You…”

Edmund’s elation began to dim. “I say, as lovely as it is to chat, would one of you mind terribly running to fetch my brother? I haven’t seen him in eight months, and I’d really like…” His voice trailed off as a familiar looking young woman with red-gold hair and a shocked expression rushed into the entryway. He blinked in surprise. “Daphne?”

Her eyes widened in disbelief. “Edmund?

He tried to reconcile the girl he hadn’t seen since his youth with the elegant young lady now standing before him. In the entryway to his brother’s townhouse. Along with the butler and the valet. “Daphne, what are you doing here?”

“What are you doing here?” She ran to him and threw her arms around him and hugged him as if they were family. “I can’t believe you’re alive!”

He patted her on the shoulder awkwardly. He hadn’t been hugged in eight long months, and he’d rather hoped his twin would be the first to earn the distinction. “Where’s my brother?”

Still hugging him, Daphne’s voice was muffled by the ragged shirt covering Edmund’s chest. “At the Duke of Ravenwood’s wedding.”

Edmund grinned despite himself. Finicky Ravenwood, married? Edmund had doubted that day would ever come, and was truly pleased to find it had. “Ravenwood finally found his love match? I cannot wait to meet the debutante charming enough to ensnare His Grace’s romantic heart.”

Daphne’s fingers dug into Edmund’s arms as she jerked her pale countenance away from his chest.

“No,” she gasped. “It’s much worse than that. Edmund, the duke is going to marry Sarah.”

Edmund’s stomach dropped. He shook off Daphne’s fingers. “My Sarah?”

Daphne nodded. “She’s—”

“Where?” he barked.

“At Ravenwood House. Right now.”

“Over my dead body.” Edmund snapped around and marched down the front steps. There was no time to spare for starched cravats and polished boots. He had to stop a wedding.

“Where is your carriage?” Daphne called after him. “Do you mean to summon a hack?”

Damn it. Edmund’s fists tightened at his powerlessness. In the long months it had taken to finally return home, he had never felt his lack of coin as keenly as he did right now.

“I arrived on foot,” he admitted through clenched teeth. He would not let that prevent him from stopping the wedding. “If I hurry—”

“You’ll never get there in time.” Daphne’s face brightened. “Bartholomew left in his curricle. You can take the landau.”

“Too slow.” Edmund shot a glance over his shoulder at the waning sunlight. “I’ll get there faster if you just loan me a horse.”

“Done.” She turned toward the butler. “Crabtree?”

The butler had resumed his hallmark bored expression. “Already sent a footman to the stables, ma’am.”

Horse hooves clopped against the cobblestone road as a stableboy raced a black stallion straight toward them.

Edmund’s blood raced. The moment the stableboy slid onto the ground, Edmund launched himself up and into the saddle.

“Wait!” Daphne called out, her voice urgent. “You should know why Sarah is marrying the duke. She—”

“She’s not marrying him,” Edmund shouted back as he pointed the stallion toward Ravenwood House. “She’s marrying me.”

###

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Meet the Heroine: Miss Sarah Fairfax

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Most women would be delighted to find themselves mere moments away from becoming a duchess.

Miss Sarah Fairfax, as it happened, was not most women.

For one, she stood before a temporary altar in a private alcove of the Duke of Ravenwood’s London estate with her shoulders back, her chin up, and her belly swollen with child.

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For two, Ravenwood—the handsome, eligible duke with whom she was about to wed—was not her unborn child’s father.

That had been Edmund Blackpool. The boy whose tousled golden brown locks and dreamy blue eyes had stolen her breath and her heart even when they were children had gone off to war three years ago, intending to make the world a better place. After two years of agonizing separation, last June, she had met him in Bruges, mere days before his company had been sent to Waterloo.

A sharp kick jabbed the wall of Sarah’s belly and she smiled to hide a wince of pain. Masking her emotions was all she’d done for the past eight months. Smiling was automatic now. No matter what happened.

Everything traced back to that fateful, impulsive night.

Edmund was no longer plain Mr. Blackpool, but a dashing brigadier with shiny epaulets and matching stars upon his uniform. He was beautiful and passionate and irresistible, and when he’d confessed his wish to marry her if only she’d wait for his return… She was in his arms before he had finished speaking.

He hadn’t made it off the battlefield alive.

Next had come the nausea, the dizziness, the desire to do nothing but sleep… and the realization that depression was not the sole cause. She was beyond ruined. She was pregnant. Her child would be born a bastard, and live the rest of his life in ostracized infamy, just like his mother.

Sarah faced the vicar and struggled to keep her breaths even, to not betray the weight of the endless pressure of everyone else’s expectations. Society. Her peers. Her parents. Herself. She was in this position because she’d expected to wed Edmund as soon as he returned from war.

Well, now she knew better than to count on expectations. She was in charge of her own fate now. No, make that two fates. Her knuckle traced the curve of her belly. Their future was up to her.

“Lawrence Pembroke, Duke of Ravenwood,” the vicar intoned. “Wilt thou have this woman to be thy wedded wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honor and keep her in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?”

Sarah’s throat convulsed. This was a nightmare. She touched her palm to her swollen belly. Was she really going to go through with this? Would Ravenwood?

“I will,” the duke replied before Sarah could interrupt.

If she would have done so.

Her fingers stroked her belly, trying to calm the infant inside. Truth be told, they were moments away from a miracle. The child would be legitimate, not a bastard. Even once Society inevitably did the maths and realized the baby had been conceived long before the ducal wedding, the power of the Ravenwood name would protect them from all but a few whispers.

No one would dare cut them. The baby would be fine.

If the child was a boy, he would inherit a dukedom some day. If the child was a girl, she would be welcomed into Society with open arms. Perhaps marry a duke herself someday. What did it matter if her parents were not in love? If part of Sarah had died on that blood-soaked battlefield alongside her lost lover, did it matter, so long as her child was safe?

The vicar fixed his dark eyes on her. “Miss Sarah Fairfax.”

She swallowed. ’Twas a miracle and a nightmare, this union.

Sarah slid the duke a furtive glance. She’d never wished to be a duchess. She’d just wanted Edmund. And now the only way to save her baby’s future was to raise his baby as someone else’s child. Someone who wasn’t doing this for her—or for the baby.

Ravenwood was sacrificing himself at the altar for Edmund. Because for all their lives, they had been the best of friends.

Because Ravenwood hadn’t been there that day to save him.

The vicar stared at Sarah. “Wilt thou have this man to be thy wedded husband, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou obey him, and serve him, love honor and keep him in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, keep thee solely unto him, so long as ye both shall live?”

She froze, her lungs suddenly incapable of breath. Her gaze flicked over her shoulder, toward the few souls in attendance.

She hadn’t been the only one who had lost Edmund. His twin brother Bartholomew stood at the back of the alcove, his face unreadable. Her stomach twisted. Did he hate her for marrying Ravenwood? For depriving him of a niece or nephew he could claim as his own blood? For being a distraction to Edmund? She turned back to the vicar before her eyes could sting with tears. Crying wouldn’t change the past.

The future was her sole concern.

It didn’t matter what anyone thought. Not Bartholomew, not her parents, not even the vicar. All that mattered was the baby. She would be the best mother in the history of mothers. There was nothing she wouldn’t do to provide for her child.

She set her jaw. As bad as things were, she and the baby were devilish fortunate. Despite so many tragedies—or, perhaps, because of them—her child would have a better future than Sarah would ever have dreamed. She would ensure her child never felt unloved or unwanted for a single moment.

Sarah lifted her gaze toward the vicar. “I will.”

The vicar nodded. “I require and charge you both, as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that if either of you know any impediment why ye may not be lawfully joined together in matrimony, ye do now confess it.”

The alcove was still.

In the ensuing silence, Sarah was suddenly aware of a dozen tiny sounds. The vicar’s finger, smoothing a crinkled page. The slight change in Ravenwood’s breath, as if he, too, felt the weight of the future upon them. A shuffle in the rear of the alcove as Bartholomew shifted his weight. Or perhaps that was the Earl of Carlisle, who had been stone still throughout the entire ceremony.

The earl hadn’t just lost a friend. He’d been with them on the battlefield when the twins had been injured. There had scarcely been time to save one of them.

He’d chosen Bartholomew.

Not Edmund. Not the father of her child, the love of her life. The earl had let her betrothed die.

Sarah fixed her gaze on the altar. She could not be angry at Oliver. Or at least, she would not let her bitterness show. He had been faced with a terrible decision, and he’d made the only choice that he could. Edmund had been mortally wounded. His twin was not. Oliver deserved her respect and her sympathy.

He had saved a life. The war was not his fault. The earl had done his best to save everyone he could.

Just like Ravenwood was doing his best to rescue Sarah and her child.

This was her last hope. There was no going back.

The vicar’s clear voice echoed through the alcove. “Forasmuch as Lawrence Pembroke, Duke of Ravenwood, and Miss Sarah Fairfax have consented together in holy wedlock, and have witnessed the same before God and this company, and have declared the same by giving and receiving a Ring, and by joining Hands; I pronounce that they are—”

A crash filled the alcove as the well-oiled mahogany doors swung inward and slammed into the walls hard enough to knock the paintings askew.

Stop!” bellowed a deep, familiar voice.

Sarah jerked around in shock and disbelief. The imbalance of her extra weight coupled with her sudden movement sent her careening into Ravenwood, who caught her in his arms as a sun-worn gentleman with a scruffy beard and tattered clothing stalked up the aisle.

’Twas her ex-lover, Edmund Blackpool.

Back from the dead.

###

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Meet the Heroine: Miss Daphne Vaughan

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Daphne could barely even hear the music over the thundering of her heart at what this moment meant to him. Bartholomew wasn’t just dancing with her. He was risking all the rejection and humiliation he’d had to cloister himself into his town house to avoid.

He was confronting his deepest fears just for the chance to waltz in the garden with her.

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She touched the side of his face. “You don’t have to do this if you’re afraid someone might see.”

“I don’t care about anyone’s opinion but yours. If I fall…” His lips curved wryly as he met her eyes. “I think I’ve already fallen.”

Her heart thudded. “Then it’s fortunate we find ourselves in each other’s arms.”

“Indeed.” He lowered his mouth. Slowly. Giving her plenty of time to turn away.

She slid her fingers into his hair and lifted her lips to his. He was what she wanted.

His kisses were gentle. Tender. She didn’t want gentleness. Her heart yearned for him too sharply to be content with mere tenderness.

Her kisses were hungry, demanding. She wanted every taste, every sensation to be seared upon her soul. If she couldn’t keep him in her arms, she would keep moments like these in her memory. Cleave them to her heart.

His feet stilled and, slowly, he broke their kiss. Their private waltz had come to an end.

She couldn’t repress the small sound of disappointment that escaped her throat… until she realized how far they now were from the ballroom. Although still and bare, the gardens’ trees and fountains provided a dark, secluded nook, sheltering them from prying eyes and the winter wind.

They were alone. Scandalously, deliciously, alone.

She didn’t think for a moment that it meant he was finally willing to introduce her to hedonistic pleasure—no matter how many nights she dreamt of just such a liaison—but she was greedy for any part of himself he was willing to share.

He led her to a stone bench and pulled her onto his lap.

Eagerly, she wrapped her arms about his neck, thrilling at the warmth of his embrace. He could have forced her to go back inside. Yet he cradled her in his arms instead. She wished she could be there forever. Her heart beat so rapidly, pressed against his.

He kissed the top of her head, the side of her temple, the shell of her ear. Letting her know he wanted more. Letting her know it was her choice.

Of course she would choose him.

She lifted her parted lips to his. He took her mouth. Her soul. His arms were heaven. She devoured him, her tongue dancing with his. He held her closer. The heat and passion of his kisses proved the intensity of his desire matched that of her own.

Her skin grew hot. Her clothes, restrictive. She wished she could tear his greatcoat from his beautiful shoulders. Feel her mouth on his warm neck, his muscled arms, his bare chest. To taste him on her tongue and know that he was hers.

The fantasy was so intoxicating, it stole her breath. Robbed her ability to think.

His kisses heated her flesh. All she could do was lose herself in the moment. Surrender to his mouth, his touch.

And pray he never let her go.

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Meet the Hero: Major Bartholomew Blackpool

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Daphne pulled up short the moment she saw Major Blackpool. She couldn’t help it. Her limbs had frozen in place. For a moment, she even forgot how to breathe. Her heart was the only part of her that still moved, and it was clamoring loud enough to tumble right out of her chest.

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Ten years. That was how long it had been. Ten years.

The last time he’d seen her, she’d sported a pinafore and pigtails. And the last time she’d seen him…

There had been two of them.

He and Edmund had been inseparable. Indistinguishable. Always playing tricks and trading places with the other. She’d been one of the few who could tell them apart, although it didn’t matter anymore.

Now there was only one.

“Tolly,” she breathed.

The corner of his mouth quirked. “Laughy Daffy.”

Her heart thundered. His voice was so deep. So… manly. Like the rest of him. She tried not to blush. She couldn’t help but drink him in.

He was taller than she remembered. Her heart beat faster. Of course he was taller. She’d been ten or eleven years of age, and he’d been, what? A lad of fifteen, perhaps? Of course he was taller. And older.

The years had been more than kind. His brown hair was longer. Wilder. His crystalline blue eyes now had laugh lines at the edges, although she doubted he’d found much humor recently. His face was more chiseled, more defined. A faint hint of stubble darkened the line of his jaw.

That brief little quirk was already gone from his lips. She missed it.

He didn’t look like Tolly, puller of pigtails. He looked like Major Bartholomew Blackpool. Soldier. Survivor.

Everything about him was more than she’d expected. His youthful reediness was gone. Broad shoulders and thick muscles filled out a coat that looked as though it had been tailored for someone less powerful.

She’d heard he’d become a rake and a dandy. His more passionate exploits had graced every scandal sheet in the country. As for his sense of fashion… He could not have appeared more handsome if this were his wedding day.

Despite what must have been an entire day’s journey, his cravat was starched perfection. His greatcoat was similarly pristine and devoid of wrinkles. The buckskin of his breeches looked buttery soft and clung to every muscle of his thighs. His Hessians gleamed, as though they had been freshly polished moments before he walked through the door.

She blinked. Hessians. Plural. She’d heard he’d lost a leg in the war trying to save the life of his fallen twin, but as far as she could tell, the boy next door looked nothing short of perfect. No wonder he’d cut a swath through the ton as a dashing rake before setting off for war. She doubted a single bosom failed to tremble in his presence.

Heavens. Daphne wouldn’t have the slightest trouble feigning a betrothal with him. The difficulty would be pretending she wasn’t truly interested. No doubt her flushed cheeks and racing pulse had already given her away…

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Meet the Hero: Captain Xavier Grey

Dukes of War #2: The Captain’s Bluestocking Mistress

When Captain Xavier Grey finds himself snowbound with a sultry bluestocking intent on seduction, he does what any honorable soldier would do: He tries to make her think of him as “just a friend.” Unfortunately, the absence of servants means the gruff ex-soldier is forced to act as lady’s maid…

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Miss Downing had moved the stool before the fireplace, and sat with her back toward him. A cinnamon-colored dress gaped below her nape as she tilted her head to one side and struggled to drag a pearl comb through her long, wavy hair. Each curl glimmered in the firelight, then nestled back against the curve of her breast and the small of her spine.

He had never seen anything more erotic in his life.

“Would you like me to—” He clapped his chest when his voice came out far too husky. After clearing his throat, he tried again. “Shall I lace your stays?”

“Only if you wish to.” Rosy firelight—or perhaps a light blush—colored her exposed neck.

“I have to,” he answered, not bothering to hide the strangled desperation in his voice. “For both of us.”

“You don’t have to.” She turned around and looked him square in the eyes. “You wish to.”

A surprised laugh burst from his throat. His bluestocking might be exceptionally well read, but she knew very little about men.

“No. What I wish to do are acts so unapologetically carnal, the ink would catch fire if I attempted to commit my ideas to paper. But what I’m going to do is lace up your stays, toast some breakfast, and put you on the first coach back to London. You will thank me later.”

“I will think of you later.” The tip of her tongue ran along the bottom of her upper lip. “Just as I did last night.”

He clutched the doorjamb and held his position. If he went to her right now, it would not be to lace her stays. They were playing with fire.

She turned back to the hearth and resumed teasing the knots from her curly hair. “I don’t suppose you’ve any skill with a comb? My lady’s maid is the only one who could ever vanquish these tangles, and I fear I’m only making the matter worse.”

His jaw worked. He was profoundly grateful she couldn’t witness the naked desire writ upon his face.

Yes, he wanted to run his fingers through that long, silken hair. To touch it, to comb it, but mostly to have its softness be the sole blanket above their hot, twined bodies.

Which was simultaneously the best and worst idea to have ever crossed his mind. He liked her too much to let her throw away her future on a tryst with someone like him.

“We can’t be lovers, Miss Downing. Now or ever. You think me someone I am not.” As she met his gaze, he infused his tone with cold finality. “Your vision of me is flawed. A romanticized, idealized knight who saves the day and wins his lady’s favor. I am no knight. I do not deserve your favors. I will not be your seducer.”

She lifted a half-bare shoulder. “Right now I think you’re someone who doesn’t know how to unknot curly hair and doesn’t wish to come out and say so.”

“I know how to comb hair.” Against his better judgment, he stormed forward and snatched the pearl comb from her fingers. “Stand up. Not another word until you’re properly laced.”

She rose to her feet as docile as a lamb.

Xavier wasn’t remotely fooled.

With the comb between his teeth, he cinched her stays and buttoned her gown as quickly as possible. When she settled back on the stool, he lifted her hair in one hand and began to gently tease the tangles free, starting from the ends.

The firelight caught each curl as it released, turning the long brown waves into rippling gold.

When a little, contented sigh escaped Miss Downing’s throat, the tension in his neck muscles softened. Her eyes were closed, and a half-smile curved her lips. The corners of his mouth quirked in response.

His seductive bluestocking was a far better cat than that devil creature she’d brought in a basket. He could comb her hair for hours, just to listen to her relaxed sighs and watch the blissful expression upon her pretty face.

His fingers froze in place. He could do this for hours? Just because she liked it?

“Good enough.” He tossed the comb into her lap and stalked out the door before her big brown eyes and sweet-smelling skin domesticated him any further. She would be gone in the next two hours. He would see to it personally.

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Meet the Heroine: Miss Jane Downing

Dukes of War #2: The Captain’s Bluestocking Mistress

In this scene, Jane discovers that her friends have inadvertently invited the object of her most wanton desires—a dashing, mysterious, ex-soldier who doesn’t even know her name—to join them in their private opera box at the Theatre Royal…

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Heat raced up Jane’s cheeks. Captain Grey? Was joining them here?

Her entire body was blushing, just at the sound of his name. And the reminder of the rather lurid thoughts she had about him every time she closed her eyes.

She couldn’t move a muscle. Heaven help her, she could barely even think. This was a disaster.

The last thing this evening needed was the object of her fantasies to sit right beside her and remain unaware of her existence. She’d rather return home now, before complete and utter humiliation had a chance to rear its ugly head.

“How do you know he’s coming?” she asked breathlessly.

“Because he said so.” Lord Carlisle lifted his wife’s fingers to his lips. “I told him it would please Grace if he would join us at least once before removing to Essex.”

“He’s… leaving?”

Grace nodded. “Tomorrow. He has a little cottage a couple miles past Chelmsford and he plans to stay there the rest of the Season.”

“Or perhaps forever.” Carlisle’s jaw tightened. “Xavier thinks he may never be ready for Polite Society. He may be right.”

Jane swallowed hard. Of course the dark and dangerous man of her dreams planned to disappear from Society forever after tonight. What did she expect?

The curtain to the private box flung open. There, silhouetted by the chandeliers in the corridor, stood the infamous Captain Grey… and a very imperious usher.

A wry smile quirked the corner of Captain Grey’s lips. “I’m afraid my good man here couldn’t quite credit that I was welcome in the Duke of Ravenwood’s box. Shall I go?”

Lord Carlisle sprang to his feet. “Of course you’re welcome! Come, sit. I believe you know everyone present?” He turned toward the usher. “We’re all very pleased our dear friend was able to join us. That will be all.”

“I’m so sorry, my lord,” the red-faced usher spluttered. “He looked— I thought—”

“It’s forgotten. Go.” Lord Carlisle dismissed the usher, then turned to Jane. His voice lowered. “Do you mind moving down a seat so Xavier can sit next to me?”

Captain Grey frowned. “Unnecessary. I’ve already interrupted enough.”

“No, I don’t mind.” Jane scrambled out of the way and waved a hand toward her vacated seat. “Please. Sit next to your friend.”

He inclined his head and took his seat.

The lighting was too dim to make out the crystalline blue of his eyes or the long black lashes that framed them. But Jane didn’t need lighting to recall every angle of his chiseled features or the careless tumble of wavy black hair against the stark white of his cravat. Every inch of him was seared into her memory.

Well, every properly (but disappointingly) clothed inch, that was. Nothing could hide the strong thighs encased in buckskin breeches or the thickly muscled arms filling out the sleeves of his expertly tailored jacket.

Heaven help her. She was going to be a hairsbreadth away from this gorgeous man for the next three hours. She absolutely, positively couldn’t swoon. Or throw herself into his arms. His thick, powerful arms.

Her breath caught. This was impossible. He’d been seated next to her for less than five seconds and already her heart thundered as though she were running for her life. Perhaps she should be. Captain Grey wasn’t good for one’s reputation… or one’s heart.

Everyone knew that. He’d returned from war in a fugue state, and even before that, he hadn’t been considered a catch. Not by Society. He wasn’t rich. He wasn’t heir to a coronet. And he’d always had the same air of danger and unpredictability that clung to him even now.

He appeared confident, graceful, and deadly. No wonder the usher had hesitated. Captain Grey moved more like a hunter than a gentleman. Those piercing blue eyes could freeze a duke right in his tracks.

Or a bluestocking spinster.

She lowered her lashes. There was no way she was going to be able to pay any attention to this opera. She was too aware of his intoxicating proximity, of the rise and fall of his chest, of the way his eyes… were looking right at her? Her leg started bouncing with nerves. He’d caught her staring. She slid a little lower in her chair.

Whatever color she’d flushed before was nowhere near the crimson she must be blushing now.

He hunched closer, so that his shoulder was touching hers. “Any idea what they’re warbling about on stage?”

Oh, lord. She had no idea how her heart wasn’t exploding right out of her chest. His shoulder. Was touching hers. On purpose.

“Er…” Her mind went blank. Captain Grey was actually talking to her. And expecting a reply. Think. What play was this? She forced her gaze to the dueling sopranos. “That’s… Ismene and Antigona. They’re vexed that Creon won’t bury Polynices because he started a war.”

His eyes widened. “You speak Italian?”

She shook her head. “Greek. Antigone was a play before it was an opera. I must’ve read it a hundred times.”

He blinked.

She let her words trail off. Stop. Talking. One must not admit to reading ancient Greek plays hundreds of times. Bluestockings do not leave a coquettish impression. One must strive to be enchanting and irresistible.

Her well-read mind failed to summon any actionable ideas.

His lips quirked. “I haven’t read a book in years, so I suppose I ought to pay attention while the plot is being dramatized right in front of me.” He turned his gaze back to the stage.

There. Jane tried not to crawl under her seat and die. This was what happened when she showed her excessive love for reading. Nothing. Nothing at all happened. That was exactly why she was so forgettable.

Yet she could think of nothing compelling to say, or alluring to do. She couldn’t believe she’d already lost his attention after having had it for such a brief moment. She was so… Jane.

Would it have been better to say she’d only read Antigone once? Or to claim she had no idea why those people were dancing about the stage with swords and lots of sobbing? Perhaps the wisest course would’ve been to—

His shoulder. She stopped breathing. His shoulder was still touching hers. He had remained hunched down as if, any minute now, they might once again be whispering like bosom friends.

She shivered. If only!

It wasn’t just that he was the most exquisitely attractive man she’d ever laid eyes upon. He was a soldier and a hero. An officer. Military men were loyal, and heroic and strong and delicious.

Do not over-think, she admonished herself. Proximity meant nothing. It was just a play. Just a shoulder. He wasn’t going to whisk her into the shadows for a carnal interlude (not that she would have objected) and he certainly wasn’t in any danger of losing his mind and proposing marriage. He planned on disappearing from Society altogether.

But first, she was going to have to spend an evening shoulder-to-shoulder with the one person she would never be able to get out of her mind.

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