By Kelly Bowen
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Gossip said he was an assassin. Common sense told her to stay away. But Angelique Archer was desperate, and Lavoie’s club offered a surefire way to make quick money-until she got caught. Instead of throwing her out though, the devil offers her a deal: come work for him. Refusing him means facing starvation, but with a man so sinfully handsome and fiercely protective, keeping things professional might prove impossible . . .
2018 RITA award-winning author!
“Wonderful! A charming, clever, and engaging storyteller not to be missed.” — Sarah MacLean, New York Times bestselling author
Once again, I'm so very grateful to the people in my corner who have helped make my dreams a reality. Thank you to my agent, Stefanie Lieberman, for her guidance and advice, and to my editor, Alex Logan, for her unerring attention to detail. And to the entire team at Forever who work so hard behind the scenes to make each story come alive.
And of course, a huge thank-you to my family for their continued support.
London, April 1820
Lady Angelique Archer's opponents were all drunk.
She had made sure of it, not because she didn't think she was clever enough to beat them, but because she had learned never to leave anything to chance. And a drunken card player was a foolish card player. They forgot to guard their expressions. They forgot that a small fortune rested on the table in front of them. And they forgot that the last ace had been played three hands ago.
Angelique felt a trickle of icy sweat slide down her spine as she touched the mask that was covering her face. It was starting to itch terribly, but she ignored the discomfort. She would leave after this hand, before she brought undue attention upon herself. Angelique could not afford to have the other patrons of this club start to wonder who she was and how she had managed to win as much as she had. She could not be remembered. Because a fortnight from now, she would need to do this all over again.
There were not many places in London where a lady might indulge in the very unladylike sport of gambling, at least the sort that went beyond pin money and a few hands of whist in a sedate drawing room. But the club known as Lavoie's was one of them. It was exclusive, catering to individuals who possessed titles, wealth, power, or a combination of all three. Men were dressed in immaculately tailored eveningwear, the dark colors the perfect foil for the brilliant, rich hues of the silk and satin gowns worn by the women who swirled throughout the club. A king's ransom in jeweled accessories sparkled under the soft, subtle light. And to add to the illusion of mystery and extravagance, each woman wore an elaborate mask, meant to conceal her identity. A chance for a daring lady to enjoy herself in a manner forbidden by propriety and daylight.
Though Angelique didn't consider herself daring. She was simply desperate.
"You'll take another card, milady?" The gentleman who was dealing this hand swayed slightly beside her, and his eyes were fixed firmly on her breasts.
Angelique kept her expression neutral, smothering the sharp retort that sprang to the tip of her tongue. If she had a penny for the number of men who had gawked at her overly generous cleavage since she had turned sixteen, she would be richer than the pope. And she certainly wouldn't need to be sitting at this table enduring the unwelcome attentions of another.
A baron, she recalled, as she eyed the heavily whiskered gentleman who was still staring at her décolletage. But more importantly, a baron in possession of a newly minted fortune thanks to a lucky investment, and Angelique was only too happy to relieve him of a portion of it. She pretended to consider his question. Of course she wasn't taking another card. She had the last two face cards in her hand. If the baron had bothered to take a look at his hand and that of the two players at the table who had already exceeded twenty-one, he would realize that the odds of her possessing those cards were quite high. But the combination of French brandy and English breasts was making him careless.
"I don't know." Angelique pursed her lips and let a hand drift down to the front of her altered bodice, fingering the lace that trimmed the gold silk. Predictably, the baron's eyes widened.
God, she hated this part.
"You have only two cards," the baron reminded her, feeling for his glass of brandy without looking up at her face. "Perhaps I could...entice you to take a risk."
"Hmmm." Angelique put her hands on the table. She needed to make sure that, if this man lost, he did so happily. Because he would lose quite a bit. "An intriguing offer." She allowed her lips to curl into what she hoped was a smile.
"Isn't it?" the baron murmured, taking a healthy swallow of his brandy.
"I'll keep my cards." Angelique feigned helplessness. "For I fear I am not so adventurous as you."
The baron grinned sloppily at her. "I do have a reputation of being rather adventurous. Perhaps I might show you."
Angelique eyed the remaining cards in the deck and the two he had facedown on the table. There were two deuces, a seven, an eight, and a nine left that had yet to be played. It was still possible for him to win with the right combination, depending on what he already had in his hand. She shifted, her stays feeling like they were squeezing the breath from her. "Why don't you then? Show me yours?"
The baron laughed, and the other two players who still sat at the table snickered.
Angelique forced out a giggle even as her stomach twisted.
"Very well, milady." He turned his cards over.
An eight and a seven.
Angelique nearly collapsed in relief. It was impossible for him to beat her. "Fifteen," she murmured.
"Enough to take you?" The baron was leering slightly now, and Angelique suppressed a shudder. The man was old enough to be her father.
"What do you think?" she quipped, trying for the flirtatious tone she had never quite gotten right in her youth.
But the baron seemed to like it just fine. "Not enough." He put his glass aside and turned over another card.
"Seventeen," Angelique counted. The two other men they'd been playing leaned forward with interest.
"I never do things in half measures," the baron declared. He turned over another card.
"Nineteen." One of the other men reached for the bottle of brandy Angelique had brought with her to the table. He refilled his glass almost to the rim. "What are you going to do?" he asked the baron, his eyes sliding to Angelique's cards still lying facedown on the table.
There was a single card remaining in the deck. The nine. If the baron turned it over, he would be well over twenty-one and forfeit his hand. If he stayed, her twenty would beat his nineteen. Either way, Angelique would keep the pantry filled for another week, the worst of the creditors at bay, and most importantly, the remainder of her younger siblings' tuition paid.
The baron looked up at Angelique. "Nineteen, milady. A fine score. I'll stay." He picked up his brandy and swirled the remnants before downing it in a single gulp. "Now show me yours, my pretty."
Angelique took a deep breath. This was the critical part. Let the losers down easily, tuck her winnings away, and slip from the club unnoticed. Luckily, she had had a lifetime of experience being invisible.
Nobody ever remembered Angelique Archer.
* * *
Alexander Lavoie had noticed the woman in the gold dress the minute she had entered his club tonight. Not because she was overly conspicuous, but because she had done everything possible to remain unnoticed. Which, surrounded by hordes of men and women who came here to see and be seen, was in itself remarkable.
She had been in here twice before, and it wasn't to socialize. Nor was it to indulge in any of the extras Alexander made available for his patrons, extras that he was famous for and that made his club so popular. She avoided the tobacco and liquor that Alex brought in from his network of smugglers in Hastings and Dover. She ignored the exotic sweets and fine foods that were rarely found in even the best London dining rooms. She seemed immune to the talented musicians who provided a beautiful background to the many conversations she never participated in. And there was no particular gentleman with whom she met, either openly on the gaming floor or illicitly in one of the club's more private rooms.
What Alex did know for certain was that she was all business. She controlled the vingt-et-un table from the moment she sat down. Somehow, she kept the tone at the table light, even as she systematically divested her opponents of substantial sums each time. Oh, she lost the occasional hand, but Alexander had seen enough to know that the hands she lost were paltry. He was quite certain that, when she lost, she did so deliberately to avoid suspicion.
But at the moment, he had no idea who she was, other than a very, very clever card player who was trying very, very hard to appear as anything but. Which intrigued him immeasurably. And it took a lot to intrigue Alexander Lavoie these days.
She was certainly not one of the women who came into his club on a regular basis. Wealthy widows, the occasional actress or opera singer, and jaded, bored ladies seeking the thrills and excitement that their perfectly ordered lives couldn't give them. These women, despite their masks, were recognizable, at least to Alex, and they spent more time flirting, drinking, and laughing than playing any of the games of chance.
The woman in the gold dress was something different altogether. And the fact that he hadn't yet identified her chafed.
She was a lady, of that he was reasonably sure. Her carriage and her speech patterns identified her as a woman raised in and accustomed to elevated social circles. She wasn't overly tall, nor would she be considered petite. Her hair was dark blond, shot through with honey-colored strands, and tonight it was pulled back in an uninspired twist. Her eyes, what he had seen of them behind her mask, were blue, though she had never had the occasion to look directly at him.
He suspected that was not an accident.
The gold gown she currently wore was elaborate, though in this crowd of women who pushed the very limits of risqué fashion, it would be considered quite ordinary. But the curves that the gold silk graced were anything but and her current opponent, the Baron Daventon, had yet to raise his lecherous gaze north of her neck.
Alex wasn't surprised when the woman laid down a pair of queens and neatly relieved Daventon of all his remaining money. But what did surprise him was the ridiculous sense of satisfaction he felt when she did it. The baron deserves it, Alexander thought before catching himself up short and wondering why he should care. Or at least, why he should care beyond the parts that affected Alex's own interests. Like how much more Daventon might yet lose of his newly acquired fortune, and how much of those losses might be funneled directly into Alex's coffers. Or to what extremes the baron might go to recoup his money, if any. If Daventon was a man easily provoked into challenges or threats or any other form of idiocy, Alex preferred to know ahead of time.
Because cleaning up blood in his club was tedious. And expensive. And inconvenient if he was required to entertain the law for an extended period of time.
Alex pulled out his timepiece, noting it was still a little before two in the morning. The woman in the gold dress would be leaving soon, he knew. If her previous visits were any indication, she never stayed more than three hours. Long enough to get what she had come for. Not long enough to be remembered by anyone.
As if on cue, the blue-eyed stranger stood, the gold silk that clung to her body shimmering in the light as she subtly deposited her winnings into a matching reticule. The baron did not look pleased, and for the first time since Alex had begun watching, Daventon finally dragged his eyes up to her face. His hand shot out and wrapped around the woman's wrist as she tried to turn.
Alex straightened abruptly, watching as the woman flinched, though she stood her ground and her expression didn't change. She wasn't wearing gloves, and he could see the discoloration of her skin where Daventon's fingers dug into her flesh. A wash of what felt like possessive anger caught Alex off guard, even as he started forward. Across the room, he caught the eye of one of the leviathans he employed to keep the peace on his gaming floor. The goliath had also noticed the altercation and was already heading toward the subtle disturbance.
Alex waved him off. This was a situation that warranted his personal attention. And it would give him the opportunity to determine once and for all the identity of the clever card player in the gold dress.
* * *
The baron had been shocked into silence as Angelique had laid her cards on the table, though his companions had jeered and laughed loudly. Angelique kept a watchful eye on the stricken man as she deftly gathered her winnings, resisting the urge to stuff the money into her oversize reticule and run like a common thief. Her heart was pounding in her ears, and another bead of cold sweat slid down her back. No matter how many times she did this, it never got easier.
Angelique thought she was clear until the baron's hand shot out to grasp her wrist as she turned from the table.
"Where do you think you're going, my pretty?" he asked, his fingers biting painfully into her skin.
It required a monumental effort on her part not to give in to the desire to yank her hand away from him in revulsion. Above all, she needed to keep her head. She couldn't afford a scene—couldn't afford to bring any attention to herself. So instead of kicking the baron in the shins the way she longed to, she leaned into the man, her hip pressing up against his chest, ignoring the way her skin crawled. "I thought it might be time to seek out a new diversion," she purred. "The night is still young, after all."
The baron's grip loosened slightly, though not enough for her to pull free. "You stole all my money," he said, the words uneven.
"Hardly," she soothed. "I won but a mere card game. If it makes you feel better, remember that it is a drop in the ocean for a wealthy man like yourself." Her experience had taught her that men like this were better handled when their egos were being stroked.
The baron seemed to consider this. "Maybe," he slurred. He wrenched on her arm, pulling her closer to him. "But maybe you should think of another way to make me feel better tonight." The fingers of his free hand reached up and squeezed her left breast.
Angelique struggled for balance, trying to tamp down the futile fury that was starting to claw its way up into her throat. She was not like the other women here in this club. Women who were experienced in the art of seduction, veterans at wielding their feminine wiles as expertly as they wielded their painted fans. Angelique had never excelled at those life lessons. At least, not when it had mattered, anyway.
"I'll trouble you to remove your hands from my person," she said coldly.
"I'll put my hands wherever I wish," Daventon sneered.
"Then are you planning on fondling all the players at the table, my lord?" she asked. "Or only the ones within easy reach? Because the gentlemen beside you might have something to say about that."
There was a chorus of intoxicated snickers and guffaws from across the table. Clearly, there would be no assistance coming from these cretins who seemed only to find her predicament funny.
"I think you're confusing this club with Almack's," the baron replied. "I'll do as I like."
"And I think you're confusing this club with a brothel." It was a monumental effort not to simply drive her elbow into his nose. But aside from the unwanted spectacle it would create, blood was devilishly hard to get out of gold silk.
"But you have my money in your possession." Daventon's breath was foul. "Surely I should get something for it." He increased the pressure on her breast.
Angelique twisted, stopping abruptly as she saw one of the hulking men who patrolled the gaming floors start toward them. She was relieved when he stopped and turned away. The last thing she needed was to draw the notice of—
"Good evening, gentlemen. And my lady."
She froze, her eyes closing briefly in horror. She recognized Alexander Lavoie's voice instantly. She'd studied the owner of this club covertly and heard him speak a number of times, though whenever he'd drawn near, she'd kept her head down and made every effort never to look directly at him. Made every attempt to remain unnoticed at all costs. And it had seemed to work. He spoke often with the men who gambled, conversed with the women who fluttered their fans and their lashes. But he had never looked twice in her direction. Which was exactly how she wished it.
She needed this place, she needed the men who came to gamble at the vingt-et-un table, and she needed the money they brought with them. She could not afford to catch Lavoie's attention or for anything to happen that might somehow jeopardize her access to what had become her family's only source of income. But now, it seemed the worst had happened.
"I believe, Lord Daventon, that you have your hand on something that does not belong to you," Lavoie continued behind her, sounding bored.
"This does not concern you," Daventon griped.
"I must disagree," Lavoie said mildly. "This is my club, and thus very much concerns me. Because I am feeling generous this evening, I will extend you all the courtesy of reminding you that this woman is a lady, not a whore. I will take grievous exception to those who may think otherwise."
Across the table, the two other men who had been playing abruptly stood and excused themselves, one of them knocking a chair over in his haste. He righted it, his eyes darting toward Lavoie before he vanished.
Angelique remained motionless, her back still to Lavoie and her cheeks burning in mortification. It was just as well that he couldn't see her face.
Her wrist was still caught in Daventon's meaty hand and the baron looked past her, his lip curling slightly. "This lady took a great deal of my money," Daventon said. "And she was just thinking of ways to make it up to me." His fingers squeezed her breast again, and Angelique tried to jerk herself away. Her arm felt like it was being pulled from its socket.
"Was she indeed?" Lavoie mocked, his voice dropping.
Angelique wanted the floor to open up beneath her and swallow her whole. She was embarrassed, she was furious, and she was terrified that she was losing any opportunity to extract herself from this situation without everything blowing up in her face.
"Do you know who I am?" Daventon demanded.
Behind her, she could hear Lavoie chuckle, a sound devoid of humor that sent shivers across her skin.
"I do. You are a small man who happened to make a smaller fortune on a drugged and drunken whim. Though I might caution you on spending too much of it. Because your partner, with whom you made that prosperous investment, might one day sober up enough to remember and realize that he was never paid his share. It's a wonder no one has thought to tell him so already, isn't it? Fortuitous for you, though, because I have been advised he has a terrible temper. And a fondness for pistols."
Angelique felt her mouth fall open even as Daventon's grip on her wrist suddenly loosened. She staggered backward, nearly tripping over her skirts. A strong hand steadied her, catching her at her lower back, warmth bleeding through the layers of her clothing. Another shiver chased its way across her skin, this one entirely different from her reaction earlier. This one was laced with heat and the insane urge to press herself farther into the contact.
Unsettled, Angelique shied away, and Lavoie's hand dropped almost instantly. She should have been relieved. Instead she felt almost disappointed.
"I suggest you find further entertainment elsewhere, Daventon," Lavoie said quietly near her ear. "Some other establishment where I won't need to witness your appalling lack of judgment and be forced to think of ways in which I might correct it."
The baron had paled beneath his whiskers, and he was opening and closing his mouth like a landed carp. After a moment, he heaved himself to his feet, his eyes skittering around them as if ascertaining who might have overheard Lavoie's words.
"Get out," Lavoie repeated. "Now."
The baron staggered away from where Angelique stood without a backward glance, headed for the door, and vanished out into the darkness. Angelique stared down at her hands still clutching her heavy reticule and wished she could do the same. Wished that she could just disappear into the night.
But wishes, she had learned, were utterly useless.
"Are you all right, my lady?" She felt Lavoie move, coming to stand directly in front of her, while she tried to collect the shreds of her dignity and figure out just how she might remove herself from his attention.
"Yes, thank you."
"Are you sure?"
There was no help for it. She would need to address him or risk making more of a spectacle by simply fleeing like a scared rabbit caught in a cabbage patch. She lifted her head and met his eyes. And stared.
She had seen him from a distance, of course, but never this close. In the daylight, his eyes would probably be called hazel. In this low light, they were a dark amber, and the intelligence that shimmered in their depths was unmistakable. He was a head taller than she, his body lithe and lean. He had dark hair that fell carelessly over his forehead and around his ears, framing sharp cheekbones and a strong jaw. His complexion was a shade darker than common, and a long, thin scar ran from his upper lip over his right cheek to the top of his ear.
She'd heard the rumors, of course. That he was a retired assassin. A retired spy. Or maybe not so retired at all. He kind of looked like an assassin ought to, she thought disjointedly. Dark. Dangerous. Unyielding. For a wild, reckless moment, Angelique wondered what it would feel like to touch such an untouchable man. Wondered what would happen if she ran her fingers along the edge of that scar. Wondered if his lips were as soft as his face was hard. Wondered—
She recoiled inwardly, appalled at the direction her thoughts were slipping. What in God's name was wrong with her? Alexander Lavoie was not a man to be objectified or trifled with under any circumstances, never mind the debacle that had made her the object of his scrutiny. He had the power to take apart what remained of her life should he wish it.
He seemed to be waiting for her to answer something. Her mind floundered before it came up with the appropriate response. "Ah yes. Yes, thank you. I'm quite fine."
"And I've been remiss. Allow me to introduce myself. Alexander Lavoie at your service."
"A pleasure." If he was expecting her to return the favor of introduction, he was in for a long wait.
"I believe Baron Daventon will offer you no further difficulty. Though you will alert me if that proves not to be the case." He said it like he was inviting her to comment on the weather.
"You were rather, ah, persuasive." It sounded better than threatening. Especially since she was having a hard time meeting his eye.
"Persuasive," he repeated with pleasure, as if trying that word out for the first time and discovering that he liked it. "Indeed. Well, I do make it my business to know exactly who is in my club. And I make it my business to know why they are in my club. I find such details infinitely valuable."
Her heart missed a beat, and another ripple of clammy sweat prickled at her skin. Dear God. She didn't even want to consider the very real likelihood that Lavoie knew exactly who she was. And the possibility that he knew about every shovelful of family dirt she'd tried so valiantly to sweep under the rug. She needed to go. Now.
"Thank you again, Mr. Lavoie." She edged away.
He followed her. "Perhaps you will honor me with your company? It troubles me to know that you were put in an…uncomfortable position while in my establishment."
"Um…" Think, she ordered herself. Say something that will facilitate your escape without offending him. Her eyes darted in the direction of the door, but no words presented themselves. Why couldn't she think?
"In the future, I will ensure that you will not suffer such unwanted attentions while you are here," he continued smoothly.
The idea that he believed her helpless suddenly loosened her tongue. "While I appreciate your assistance, Mr. Lavoie, please rest assured that I did not require rescue. I can handle myself." She dropped her eyes, instantly regretting her tone. Picking a fight with Alexander Lavoie was not smart or helpful.
"Of that, I have no doubt." Lavoie sounded as though he found her outburst amusing. "If your winnings are any indication, you can handle yourself quite admirably."
Angelique's head snapped up, her gaze colliding with his. There had been an excuse on the tip of her tongue, an explanation that would defuse any suspicion. Except her breath caught and her clever words fled under the impact of his intense gaze.
"Regardless, I must insist you come with me." His eyes hadn't left hers.
Angelique tried to remember how to breathe under the potency of his stare. "I can't. I have to go home." She hated the words the moment they were out. They made her sound like a scared little schoolgirl. And she'd stopped being scared a long time ago.
"And you will." His unnerving eyes flickered over her shoulder and then down to her heavy reticule. "Unfortunately, I think we have drawn more attention to ourselves than either of us would like. And I will not send a lone woman out into the night with a bag full of money. I will arrange an escort home for you to ensure both you and your winnings arrive safely."
- "[T]he fun, intrigue, and romance crescendo in a whopping plot twist. Bowen's Regency romances are always delightful, and this is one of her best yet."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- "Bowen again delivers the goods with this exquisitely written historical romance, whose richly nuanced characters, unexpected flashes of dry wit, and superbly sensual love story will have readers sighing happily in satisfaction."—Booklist (starred review)
- "Bowen delivers another winner with scandalous heroines and roguish heroes in her A Season for Scandal series. Combining intelligent and somewhat unconventional characters with a clever plot and a bit of suspense, Bowen captures readers' interest from the intriguing beginning to the expected HEA."—RT Book Reviews
- "Wonderful! A charming, clever, and engaging storyteller not to be missed."—Sarah MacLean, New York Times bestselling author
- "Where have you been all my life, Kelly Bowen? If Julia Quinn, Sarah MacLean, and Lisa Kleypas were to extract their writing DNA, mix it in a blender, and have a love child, Kelly Bowen would be it."—HeroesandHeartbreakers.com
- "Bowen's irresistible Regency is like the most popular debutante at the ball: pretty, witty, mysterious, and full of coquettish allure. From the first line to the happy dénouement, Bowen builds enough romantic heat to melt midwinter snow... Good reading is assured as Bowen weaves wonderful romantic fiction."—Publishers Weekly (starred review) on Duke of My Heart
- "4 1/2 Stars! Top Pick! Bowen begins her Season for Scandal series with a nonstop murder-mystery that sizzles with sexual tension. This suspenseful tale unfolds quickly, and readers will be captivated by the well-drawn characters who move Bowen's inventive plot forward. Readers will savor this unconventional romance."—RT Book Reviews on Duke of My Heart
- "This story has it all: romance, suspense, wit, and Bowen's trademark smart and slightly quirky characters. Bowen's thrilling plot, spot-on pacing, and savvy characterization will delight her current fans and seduce new ones."—Publishers Weekly (starred review) on You're the Earl That I Want
- "Kelly Bowen is a fresh new voice with a shining future!"—Teresa Medeiros, New York Times bestselling author
- "Fans of Julia Quinn and Sarah MacLean will adore Kelly Bowen!"—Lauren Willig, New York Times bestselling author
- "With this unforgettable debut, Bowen proves she is a writer to watch. A truly remarkable romance well worth savoring."—Booklist on I've Got My Duke to Keep Me Warm
- "In this delightful, poignant debut that sets Bowen on the path to become a beloved author, the innovative plotline and ending are only superseded by the likable, multidimensional characters: a strong-willed heroine and a heart-stealing hero. Get set to relish Bowen's foray into the genre."—RT Book Reviews on I've Got My Duke to Keep Me Warm
- "Fans of romance with a touch of suspense will enjoy the work of this new author."—Publishers Weekly on I've Got My Duke to Keep Me Warm
"4 Stars! Bowen delivers another winner with scandalous heroines and roguish heroes in her A Season for Scandal series. Combining intelligent and somewhat unconventional characters with a clever plot and a bit of suspense, Bowen captures readers' interest from the intriguing beginning to the expected HEA."
—RT Book Reviews
- On Sale
- Jan 31, 2017
- Page Count
- 352 pages