Read by Ashford McNab
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Devastatingly handsome. Vain. Unscrupulous. Valentine Napier, the Duke of Montgomery, is the man London whispers about in boudoirs and back alleys. A notorious rake and blackmailer, Montgomery has returned from exile, intent on seeking revenge on those who have wronged him. But what he finds in his own bedroom may lay waste to all his plans.
A WOMAN OF HONOR
Born a bastard, housekeeper Bridget Crumb is clever, bold, and fiercely loyal. When her aristocratic mother becomes the target of extortion, Bridget joins the Duke of Montgomery’s household to search for the incriminating evidence-and uncovers something far more dangerous.
A SECRET THAT THREATENS TO DESTROY THEM BOTH
Astonished by the deceptively prim-and surprisingly witty-domestic spy in his chambers, Montgomery is intrigued. And try as she might, Bridget can’t resist the slyly charming duke. Now as the two begin their treacherous game of cat and mouse, they soon realize that they both have secrets-and neither may be as nefarious-or as innocent-as they appear . . .
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Once upon a time there was a king who had no heart.…
—From King Heartless
There are few worse places for a housekeeper of impeccable credentials to be caught than kneeling on her employer's bed. But two factors conspired to make this situation particularly fraught, Bridget Crumb reflected. One, that the employer in question was His Grace the Duke of Montgomery, widely regarded as the most wicked man in London. And two, that she happened to be clutching a just-purloined miniature portrait in her right hand.
Really, she was going to need a very strong cup of tea after this was all over—always assuming, of course, that she actually survived the duke's ire.
"Tell me, Mrs. Crumb," His Grace drawled in a voice filled with honeyed menace, "what are you looking for?"
The duke was neither a particularly large man, nor what one would normally think of as intimidating—quite the opposite, in fact. His face might've been carved by a Greek sculptor, so perfect were his cheekbones, lips, and nose. His eyes were of the clearest azure. His curling hair was the color of polished guineas and quite gorgeous—which the duke obviously knew, since he wore it long, unpowdered, and tied at the nape of his neck with an enormous black bow. He wore an elegant purple velvet coat over a cloth-of-gold waistcoat embroidered in black and crimson. Fountains of lace fell from wrists and throat as he lounged in a winged armchair, one long leg thrust forward. Diamonds on the buckles of his shoes glinted in the candlelight. His Grace was urbane male sophistication personified—but anyone who therefore dismissed him as harmless was a rank fool.
The Duke of Montgomery was as deadly as a coiled adder discovered suddenly at one's feet.
Which was why Bridget made no sudden moves as she stood up from the bed. "Welcome home, Your Grace. Had I known you'd be returning from the Continent, I would've had your rooms aired and prepared."
"I was never on the Continent, as I'm sure you're quite aware." The duke gestured with an indolent hand to a shadowed corner of the room.
Bridget was too good a servant to let her eyes widen at the sight of a small half-open door cleverly set into the paneling. She'd never noticed the door before. She'd had her suspicions, but until this night she'd had no real evidence. Now she knew: he'd been here all along—hiding in the walls of his own town house. How long had he been watching her—days? Weeks? The entire three months that he was supposed to have been gone? More to the point, how long had he been watching her tonight? Had he seen her find the miniature portrait in a hidden hole in the bed's headboard?
Did he know she clutched it in her hand right now?
The duke smiled, flashing white teeth and deep dimples on both cheeks. "I'm afraid I never left."
"Indeed, Your Grace," Bridget murmured. "How very brave of you, considering the Duke of Wakefield banished you from England."
"Oh, Wakefield." The duke flicked his fingers as if shooing a fly instead of one of the most powerful men in London. "He's always taken himself far too seriously." He paused and eyed her as if she were an agate discovered in gravel. "But what a very sharp tongue you have for a housekeeper."
Bridget's heart sank—she knew better than to speak so frankly. It was never good for a servant to be noticed by a master—particularly this master.
"Come." He beckoned her closer with his forefinger and she saw the flash of a jeweled gold ring on his left thumb.
She swallowed and opened her right hand, silently dropping the miniature to the lush carpet. As she walked toward him she nudged the little painting under the enormous bed with the side of her foot.
She stopped a pace away from him.
His lips curved, sly and sensual. "Closer."
She stepped nearer until her plain, practical black linsey-woolsey skirts were crushed against his purple velvet knees. Her heart beat hard and swift, but she was confident her expression didn't show her fear.
Still smiling, he held out his hands, palms upward. His hands were long-fingered and elegant. The hands of a musician—or a swordsman.
She stared down at them a moment, confused.
He quirked an eyebrow and nodded.
Bridget placed her hands on top of his. Palm to palm. She expected searing heat or deathly cold and was a little surprised to instead feel human warmth.
She'd been hired little more than a fortnight before the duke had supposedly been banished. In that time he had never struck her as human—or humane.
"Ah," His Grace murmured, cocking his head with interest. "What feminine hands you have, despite your station in life."
His blue eyes flashed at her from under dark eyelashes, a secretive smile playing about his mouth.
She met his gaze stonily.
His lips quirked and he looked down again. "Small, plump, with neat, round nails." He turned her hands over so that they now rested palms-up in his. "I once knew a Greek girl who swore she could read a man's life story from the lines on his hands." He dropped her left hand to trace the lines on her right palm with a forefinger.
His touch sent a frisson along her nerves and Bridget couldn't hold back a shudder.
The duke's dimple deepened beside his mouth as he examined her palm. "What have we here? Calluses, earned, no doubt, in my service." He tapped the thickened skin at the top of her palm. "A life of good, honest labor for a Scottish lass."
She held herself very still. How did he know where she was from? Or at least very nearly where she was from? She'd worked very hard to hide her Border accent since coming to London, and she was sure she'd never mentioned her place of birth to either him or the man of business who had hired her.
"And this"—the duke stroked the mound beneath her thumb—"do you know what this is called?"
Bridget cleared her throat, but her voice emerged a bit rusty nonetheless. "I could not say, Your Grace."
"The Mount of Venus." He arched his eyebrows at her. Devastatingly beautiful. Lethally charming. "My Greek girl told me that this foretells how passionate a woman may be. You, Mrs. Crumb, must have untold depths of sensual need within you."
She narrowed her eyes at him.
He bent and bit the base of her thumb.
She gasped and snatched her hand away.
The duke laughed and sat back, smoothing his bottom lip with his beringed thumb slowly. "But then I was much more interested in the Greek girl's titties than her twitterings about palm reading."
Bridget stared at him, cradling the palm he'd bitten in her other hand. Though he hadn't actually hurt her, her palm tingled as if she still felt his teeth—his tongue—against her flesh.
She took a steadying breath. "May I go, Your Grace?"
"Naturally, Mrs. Crumb," he said, no longer looking at her. He appeared to be examining his ring. "Have a bath prepared for me. In the library, I think. I've a fancy to read as I soak."
"At this time of night?" Bridget glanced at the darkened windows as she picked up her candlestick. It was past midnight and most of the servants would be in bed.
But of course rousing the servants from bed wasn't any concern to a duke—or to most aristocrats, come to that. "Yes, now, if you please, Mrs. Crumb."
"At once, Your Grace."
Bridget paused, her hand on the doorknob. She couldn't resist a curious glance back, for the duke had been in hiding for months now—was he out for good?
His azure gaze met hers, amused and wicked, and apparently reading her thoughts. "Oh, no, I'm quite done with the walls. Well"—he pursed his lips, shrugging—"for now at least. They're crowded and dusty, but oh, what a lovely site for spying. I do so like to spy upon people. It gives a delicious sense of power, don't you think?"
"I couldn't say, Your Grace."
"Couldn't you?" He tutted, his sensuous lips curving as he murmured, "Oh, Mrs. Crumb. You imperil your immortal soul with lies, you know."
Sadly there was no other word for it. She strode swiftly through the upper floor of the town house, past alabaster statues and gold-framed mirrors, her heart pounding in her chest, and descended the grand staircase. He couldn't know for certain, otherwise he'd have had her immediately dismissed, surely? That would be very bad for her future work prospects, if he dismissed her without reference. Or worse—declared that he'd let her go for theft. She shuddered at the very thought. That would completely destroy her good name. She'd have to leave London, start anew in some other, smaller city, and perhaps change her name.
More importantly, if the duke dismissed her, she'd be unable to help the lady who had given birth to her. That was the real reason she'd taken this job: Bridget was the bastard daughter of an aristocratic lady being blackmailed by the duke. She had vowed to find the letters the duke was using as his hold over her mother. Blackmail was a nasty, vile crime and the duke was a nasty, vile man.
She wasn't leaving until she fulfilled her self-imposed mission.
Bridget halted before the door to the kitchens, taking a deep breath and making sure her skirts and mobcap were in order—a housekeeper always looked completely neat, even when the master had just bitten her. Another deep breath. There was no point in borrowing trouble. Right now she had a house to run. One with its master newly returned—or at least newly emerged from hiding.
She entered the vast kitchens of Hermes House, the duke's London town house. At this time of night the fire was banked in the huge hearth. Shadows lurked at the edges of the ceiling and in the corners of the kitchen, but she found the sight soothing. Everything was as it should be back here.
Bridget woke the poor bootblack boy, sleeping on a pallet by the hearth, and sent the yawning lad up to wake the scullery maids and the footmen. She stirred the fire, building it until it roared, and then lit several candles, the mundane task further calming her nerves.
By the time the footmen and scullery maids arrived a few minutes later, the kitchen was bright and hot and Bridget was in full control. She immediately set her troops to drawing and heating the huge amount of water needed for a despot's bath.
Then she retraced her steps to the front of the house.
Hermes House was newly built by the duke himself and the town house was as extravagant as the man. The wide, curving staircase was white marble, the landings gray-veined pink marble checkerboarded with black marble, and the entire thing highlighted with gilding. The stairs opened onto a wide hallway on the first floor, the walls a pale pink, detailed in white and gold foil.
Bridget paused before the duke's bedroom and listened. No sound came from within. Either he'd already gone to the library, or he was lurking inside, ready to pounce on her.
She narrowed her eyes and pushed the door open.
The room was dark. She raised her candle high—the duke had already caught her by surprise once tonight. Her candle lit shell-pink walls, a ceiling painted with gods and goddesses reveling in debauchery, and the ridiculously huge bed hung with sky-blue draperies and gold tassels. Next to the bed was a delicate secretary inlaid with ivory and gilt. Over the secretary hung an enormous, life-size painting of the duke.
In the nude.
Bridget scowled at the portrait, quickly slipped into the bedroom, and closed the door behind her. She hurried to the bed and knelt down, sweeping aside the bed-curtains to reveal the floor beneath.
Bare floor met her gaze. The miniature was gone.
VAL STUDIED THE miniature in his hand. It depicted a family: an English aristocrat, his wife—an Indian noblewoman—and their infant child. There were much more valuable pieces in his house if one wished to steal. Ergo, Mrs. Crumb was working either for the owner of the miniature or their agent. He remembered the look of bland aplomb she'd given him as she'd slid off his bed. The corner of his mouth curved up as he slipped the gilt-framed miniature into the pocket of his banyan. Had his little housekeeper truly thought she could fool him of all people?
Well, not so little, he conceded as he remembered Mrs. Crumb standing rigidly at attention before him. She was a bit over the average height for a woman, with what he suspected was a bounteous pair of tits. Sadly, she hid her glory beneath tightly laced stays, black wool, a white-pinned apron, and a neatly tucked white fichu. Add to that hair entirely covered by an enormous white mobcap that tied under her chin, pronounced black eyebrows, an unremarkable nose and mouth, a chin that might give one a bit of a pause due to the determination of its set… but on the whole an ordinary piece, really—if one didn't notice those intense dark eyes.
Hers were the eyes of a religious fanatic—a saint or a heretic.
Or perhaps an inquisitor.
A woman with complete confidence that she knew right from wrong—in herself and in others. A woman not afraid to suffer—perhaps die—for her beliefs.
Did she then recognize in him her opposite: the very Devil? A man who neither knew nor cared about that delicate difference between good and evil? While others carefully balanced their scales, debating the various weights of sins and good deeds, he chose to dash the entire apparatus to the ground. Why entangle himself with a game whose rules he neither understood nor particularly approved of? Better to make his own rules in life. Much more fun, at any rate.
Val's upper lip curled as he wondered if Mrs. Crumb knew the meaning of the word fun. Most likely she dismissed it as something vaguely shameful and leading to sin—which, at the best of times, it was.
Still, Mrs. Crumb was somewhat entertaining in her very novelty—a housekeeper attempting to match wits with him—and even with all his plans and plots he was sadly lacking in amusements.
Thus he'd let her stay and play for the nonce.
Meanwhile he had power and position in society to regain—and in order to do that, he was about to blackmail the King. He would demand the King's acknowledgement—only that—but more than enough to guarantee an end to exile.
He'd agreed to banishment from England in the first place only because the wretched Duke of Wakefield—a pompous parliamentarian with an overblown sense of his own importance—had threatened to have Val charged with kidnapping if he did not. All because Val had taken the man's sister once. Or twice. Or perhaps three times. Did it really matter? She'd not been harmed in the end—despite Val's intentions—and in fact had married some lowly retired dragoon captain. Really. Val had had much better plans for her.
But now, now he had finally obtained letters with which he could threaten the King. He would go straight over bloody Wakefield's head and to the King himself and there wasn't a damned thing Wakefield could do about it.
Val swung swiftly to a writing desk that he kept in a corner of the library. It was elaborately carved in yellow-and-brown spotted marble, swirling and twirling in quite a ridiculously extravagant way. He'd won it off a Prussian aristocrat in a game of cards—in which he'd bluffed—and paid a king's ransom to have it shipped to London, where it clashed terribly with the walls of his library.
He patted the desk fondly as he seated himself and rummaged in the drawers for paper.
He dabbed a quill in an ink bottle and wrote in his large, flourishing hand, saluting a Mr. Copernicus Shrugg, who happened to be the personal secretary of His Majesty, George II of England. The letter was short but florid—and rather graphic in its threat. Val smiled thinly as he swept his initial on the bottom third of the page.
The door to the library opened and a ragamuffin boy entered.
Well, Alf presented herself as a boy in any case and, as far as Val knew, most people seemed to be bamboozled by her trifling ruse. He, naturally, had taken only a minute—if that—to realize her true sex. One had but to look at the slenderness of her neck, the lack of an Adam's apple, the angle where her jaw met her neck, et cetera, et cetera. Amazing how few people truly examined the world about them.
Val gave respect where respect was due and a disguise carefully maintained over years was certainly deserving of some small kudos, so he never made mention of Alf's true nature. That, and he couldn't bestir himself to be particularly interested in street urchins—male or female. He did, however, have much interest in—and use for—an intelligence-gatherer and runner. Alf had fulfilled this position in the months that Val had been perforce hidden in his own walls, often delivering letters, food, and books.
"Yer Grace," the boyish girl muttered when she neared. "You wanted t' see me t'night, if'n I remembers aright."
Val ignored her as he lit his sealing wax and dripped hot wax over the folded edge of his letter. He blew out the sealing wax, set it down, and chose his seal: a crowing rooster. It was a personal jest: the rooster was a symbol of the god Hermes, whom Val had taken as his own patron god. Hermes was the god of travel and of commerce.
He was also the god of thieves and trickery.
Val bit his lip. Too, the base pun on rooster was so obvious that even the most unintelligent should be able to parse it.
He turned to Alf.
She was standing hip cocked, weight on one leg, wearing, as far as Val could tell, the same clothes that she'd been wearing for years: a too-large coat and waistcoat, both an indeterminate dark color, much patched and frayed, baggy breeches, mud-stained stockings, enormous buckle shoes the exact color of dried horse dung, and a wide-brimmed floppy hat. Beneath the hat her dark hair was untidily clubbed back and one cheekbone was darkened by either dirt or a bruise.
Val briefly wondered what Alf did with the money he paid her—for he paid her rather well, considering—and then he dismissed the thought from his mind.
He thrust the letter at her. "Take this to Mr. Copernicus Shrugg"—he recited the address—"and make sure you hand it to him personally—no one else, mind."
Alf took the letter, but wrinkled her nose. "It's th' middle o' th' night, you do know that, don't you?"
"And what of it? A man roused from bed is even more prone to fear and excitement, I find. Oh, and tell Attwell and the boy they can quit the inn they've been staying at and attend me here." He glanced over as the door to the library was once more opened and a troop of footmen carried in his bath. "Now off with you, imp. I've the dust of weeks in those damnable walls to wash away."
The girl hesitated, eyeing him speculatively. "Then yer out o' yer 'idey-'oles, are you?" She tilted her head with significance at the servants, now pouring the bathwater before the fireplace.
"Out and soon to be restored to my rightful place in society," Val said. "Run along."
He turned to his bath without waiting to see if she obeyed his command. Few people had the nerve to refuse his orders. Ah, but he was forgetting the winsome Mrs. Crumb. What was her Christian name anyway? He must demand it of her at the first opportunity. Not only had his housekeeper attempted to steal from him, but she'd refused to answer his questions, and—he surveyed the servants sent to wait upon him—if he wasn't mistaken she'd made sure to hide away the comeliest of his maids and footmen. Did she think him a satyr?
Well, perhaps she wasn't entirely mistaken in her judgment…
Val smirked as he shed his banyan—the only article of clothing he wore—and sauntered nude to the bath. He crooked a finger at the eldest and most worldly-looking of the footmen. If Mrs. Crumb thought to curtail his bedsport, she was going to be sadly disappointed.
HUGH FITZROY, THE Duke of Kyle, yawned widely as he followed a linkboy's wavering lantern through a darkened courtyard at the back of St James's Palace. It was near four of the clock—too early yet for a servant to be awake and too late for all but the most determined revelers to be still abroad. That left him, newly roused from his warm slumbers by an urgent royal summons, and the poor linkboy, who would guide night travelers with his lantern until dawn.
Both bound by the needs of their masters.
Hugh smiled wryly to himself. Master in his case wasn't quite correct, but it was close enough.
He and the linkboy neared an obscure rear entrance and a guard came to attention. Hugh paid the linkboy off and then turned to the guard to give his name.
The guard shot him a curious glance as he let him in. This was an odd entrance for a duke.
But then Hugh was rather an odd duke.
Inside he was met with a footman who had apparently been waiting for his arrival. "This way, if you please, Your Grace."
Hugh followed the man down a service passage. Unlike the front of the palace, the hallway was uncarpeted, the walls simply painted.
The footman opened a door at the end of the hall and bowed him into an office, murmuring, "The Duke of Kyle."
A bandy-legged man wearing scarlet breeches, a dark-blue banyan, and a soft cap swung around from where he'd been pacing before a fire. "Damn me, Kyle, it took you long enough!"
Hugh arched an eyebrow. "I came as soon as I got your note, Shrugg." He glanced back at the footman. "Bring coffee and tea, will you? And something to eat."
The footman hurried away.
"Forgive me, Your Grace." Copernicus Shrugg shook his head. He was a man of middling years, but he'd always looked like an old man. His ears protruded from his skull on either side like the handles of a jug, and his head was round, wrinkled, and bald, and sat almost squarely on his shoulders without benefit of a neck. He stared at Hugh with bloodshot eyes the color of cornflowers. "It's this damnable matter. I had to wake him up over it and you know he never likes that."
They both glanced reflexively at the ceiling, where the royal apartments resided somewhere above them.
Hugh dropped his gaze to Shrugg again. "How is the King?" Technically the man in question was also Hugh's father, though no one ever made mention of that fact.
"Talking in French," Shrugg replied. "He's quite beside himself. Thank God you're back in London—I don't know who else I would have summoned."
Hugh raised an eyebrow.
Shrugg's face darkened. "Though, of course, the circumstance of your return from the Continent is naturally a sad one. I was sorry to hear of the death of your duchess."
Hugh tightened his jaw and nodded once. "Is it the prince?" The Prince of Wales—whom Hugh had met only once—and the King loathed each other.
"Not this time," Shrugg said grimly. He held out a letter.
Hugh took it and walked over to the desk, where several candles burned. He tilted the piece of paper to the candle and read:
Dear Mr. Shrugg,
I trust that you have had a restful night up until this point because I doubt it will be so hereafter. Let me at once get to the point: certain letters have come into my possession concerning W which, if they were made public, would bring great embarrassment to—and possibly the Downfall of—the Gentleman you serve. I, of course, am most anxious that this occurrence not come about. To prevent this Terrible Event I have merely one request: that I be Acknowledged in Hyde Park at a time mutually agreed upon.
So simple, really.
I am, your servant, & et cetera, et cetera,
Hugh read the letter once quickly and then again more slowly.
When he looked up again, a steaming cup of coffee had been placed on the desk in front of him.
"Thank you." He took a sip. "'M'?"
"The Duke of Montgomery," Shrugg said.
"He made sure not to sign his name." Hugh's mouth twisted wryly. "A blackmailer who knows to be circumspect in letters. 'W' is Prince William." Prince William, the Duke of Cumberland, was the King's second living legitimate son. Hugh had never met the boy.
"Undoubtedly." Shrugg sank heavily into the chair behind the desk with his own teacup. "He's never caused us problems before. Well"—he waved a hand dismissively—"mistresses and the like, but nothing out of the ordinary for a lad his age. Now this."
Hugh frowned. "How old is he now?"
"Twenty, and just bought a commission as colonel of the First Regiment of Foot Guards," Shrugg said. "He's always liked everything martial."
Hugh looked at him intently. "Then you have no idea what it could be about?"
Shrugg was silent a moment, twisting his teacup in his hands. "There were rumors—only rumors, mind. About a secret society."
Hugh snorted and stood, stretching. "Tell me you didn't drag me out of bed for a bloody secret society, Shrugg. Every boy who ever went to Cambridge or Oxford—or any London coffeehouse, for that matter—is a member of what he thinks is a secret society."
But Shrugg's old lined face was grave. "No, Your Grace. This was different. The members were older. They called themselves the Lords of Chaos. It's said that each member actually had a tattoo of a dolphin somewhere on their person and the things they did…" He grimaced, looking away.
Shrugg turned back to him. "Children. There were children involved."
For a moment Hugh didn't say anything. Kit and Peter were safely in their beds, somewhere at home, Kit with his foot hanging out of the covers and little Peter clutching a kerchief that had belonged to his mother.
He took a breath, making sure his voice was flat and matter-of-fact. "You're saying Prince William might've done something with these Lords of Chaos. Something with children?"
"I don't know," Shrugg said. "That's why I asked you to come. We need you to find what Montgomery has. To find it and take it and make sure it's destroyed. Permanently."
When this king was born the royal physician peered into his eyes and mouth and ears and pronounced them all good, but when he laid his head upon the baby's tiny breast he heard… nothing.…
—From King Heartless
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- On Sale
- May 31, 2016
- Hachette Audio