By Kelly Bowen
Read by Ashford McNab
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Miss Moore treats the crisis as though it were no more serious than a cup of spilt tea on an expensive rug. As though this sort of thing happened on the job every day. Max has never in all his life met a woman with such nerve. Her dark eyes are too wide, her mouth is too full, her cheekbones too sharp. Yet together, she’s somehow…flawless. It’s just like his love for her, imperfect, unexpected – yet absolutely true.
Every book is always a team effort, and this one is no different. A huge thank-you to my agent, Stefanie Lieberman, my editor, Alex Logan, and the entire team at Forever for helping to shape each story. And as always, my deepest gratitude to my husband, who has spent many hours convincing the boys that it’s best to practice their slap shot somewhere besides my office. At least when I’m writing.
London, February 1819
The silk was the color of sin.
It shimmered where the candlelight danced across its surface, its rich crimson and sumptuous garnet hues swirling in the cascading lengths. The silken ribbon was wide, its superior quality was evident, and it must have been expensive, a luxury only the very wealthy could afford. On the brim of a bonnet, it would have been impressive. On the bodice of a ball gown, it would have been spectacular.
Wrapped around the limbs of a dead earl, however, it was a problem.
Ivory Moore pressed her fingers over the pulse point at the man’s neck, knowing she would find none, but needing to confirm. Beneath her touch the soft flesh was already cooling, and she let her fingers move to the bindings covering his wrists, tracing the silk to where it was knotted deftly around the bedpost.
“He’s dead.” It was a statement, not a question, from her pretty associate standing just behind her.
“He is indeed, Miss DeVries,” Ivory murmured.
“That is the Earl of Debarry,” Elise DeVries hissed urgently in her ear.
“I am aware.” Ivory stepped back slightly to consider the tableau in front of her. The naked earl was spread out across the mattress like a marooned sea star, his wrists and ankles tied to the four corners of the bed. His barrel chest rose like an island amid a scattering of rose petals and decorative ostrich feathers and rumpled bedclothes. He was instantly recognizable, even stripped of the wildly expensive clothes he favored, whose absence exposed a body that was just beginning to lose its battle with fine wine and idle living.
The earl was still handsome despite the fifty-plus years of vice he’d enjoyed before this last unfortunate encounter. He was powerful, wealthy, and widowed—and everywhere he went in polite society, he was treated with the deference befitting his title. But privately, behind closed doors, he was known to all as the Earl of Debauchery, more famous for his love of women and his outrageous sexual exploits than anything else. Finding him tied to a bed wasn’t a surprise.
Finding him tied to the bed of the demure Lady Beatrice Harcourt, the Duke of Alderidge’s eighteen-year-old sister? Now that was more of a shock.
Ivory took another step back, pushing the hood of her cloak off her head, and placed her bag gently on the floor. There was little time to waste, but before she could analyze the potential damage and formulate a solution, there were preliminary matters to consider.
“The door is locked, Miss DeVries?” she asked briskly. Containment was critical.
“Good.” Ivory turned to address the woman standing stiffly near the hearth. “Was it you, my lady, who summoned us?”
Lady Helen Harcourt was worrying an enameled pendant at her throat, but at Ivory’s question she dropped it, clasping her hands in front of her hard enough to make her knuckles as white as her face. “Yes.”
“A wise decision on your part, my lady.” Ivory eyed the woman’s greying hair, which had been pulled into a severe knot, softened only by a jeweled clip that matched her green ball gown. Deep grooves of distress were cut into Lady Helen’s unyielding face, but despite her pallor, there were no signs of impending hysterics.
Ivory felt a small measure of relief. “May I ask who found the body?”
“Mary. Lady Beatrice’s maid.” Lady Helen unclasped her hands long enough to make a gesture in the direction of a red-eyed maid sitting in the corner, who, at the mention of the word body, had started to sob.
Ivory exchanged a look with Elise. The maid would need to go.
“And where is Lady Beatrice at the moment?” Ivory inquired.
“I can’t find her. She’s just…gone.” It came out in a rush, the news delivered in a tone barely above a whisper.
Well, that wasn’t surprising. Beatrice had very likely fled, and while the girl would need to be found, it wasn’t the immediate priority.
Ivory eyed the crumpled bedclothes beneath the body, and the lavender counterpane that lay in a forgotten heap on the floor. She took in the size of the room, and the pretty dressing table with its collection of bottles and pots. A pale-pink ball gown, embroidered with tiny roses, had been tossed over the back of the chair, layers of costly fabric and lace abandoned with little care. Stockings and slippers, along with Debarry’s evening clothes, had been discarded and had fallen in disarray on the floor. Two empty wine bottles rested on their sides at the edge of the rug.
Ivory frowned. If it had been Lady Helen’s rooms, she would have had more options. An affair between an aging spinster aunt and a peer of the realm—no matter how unlikely—if properly presented, would cause gossip, but not ruination. A dead earl tied to the bed of a debutante in her first season posed a much greater challenge.
There was very little time to waste. Who knew how long they had before someone—
A sharp banging on the bedroom door snapped Ivory’s head around and caused Lady Helen to emit a squeak of shock.
“Helen?” came a disembodied voice through the thick wood. “Are you in there?”
“Who is that?” hissed Ivory, her mind racing through the possible excuses Helen might offer for locking herself in her niece’s room.
The older woman was staring at the door, her hand pressed to her mouth.
Another rap sounded, the urgent impatience of the blow making the wood shake. “What the hell is going on, Helen? Is Bea in there with you?”
“My lady!” Ivory snapped in low tones. Whoever was standing on the other side of that door was not going away. Worse, he would soon draw attention to this room with all his banging. Every servant in the house would descend on this scene, and even Ivory wouldn’t be able to contain that.
“It’s Alderidge,” Lady Helen whispered faintly, as though she didn’t quite believe it.
Ivory started. “The duke? I was given to understand he was currently in India.”
“He was. Apparently he’s decided to grace us with his presence.” Lady Helen’s words were tight with bitterness. “Too little, too late, as always.”
Ivory fought the urge to groan aloud. It was clear there was no love lost between the duke and his aunt. Ivory only hoped the man held his sister in higher regard. She did not need family turmoil to complicate what was already a terribly complicated situation.
“Aunt Helen!” The knob rattled loudly. “I demand you let me into this room at once!”
“Can he be trusted?” Ivory asked, though she feared she had little choice in the matter. Someone was going to have to let him in or risk having the door knocked clean off its hinges.
Lady Helen’s lips compressed into a thin line, but she gave a quick, jerky nod. That was all Ivory needed. She flew to the door, twisted the key in the lock, and wrenched the door open. She had the vague impression of a worn greatcoat, battered boots, and a hulking bearing.
“What the hell is going on?” the stranger bellowed. “And who the hell are you?”
“Welcome home, Your Grace,” said Ivory, and grabbed the sleeve of his coat. She yanked him into the room. “Please do come in and cease making so much noise, if you would be so kind.”
The man stumbled past her a couple of steps before coming to an abrupt halt, but not before Ivory had closed the door behind him and once again turned the key in the lock.
“Jesus Christ,” Alderidge swore, getting his first look at the scene in front of him.
Ivory was standing just behind the duke, and she could feel the chill of the night still clinging to his coat. The only things she knew about Maximus Harcourt, Duke of Alderidge, were that he had inherited his title a decade ago and that he spent much of his time overseas captaining an impressive fleet of trade ships. But she knew nothing about his personality, his family relationships, or the motivations that had brought him home to London tonight.
She desperately hoped Alderidge was not going to be a problem. “Did anyone see you come up here?” Ivory asked.
“I beg your pardon?” The duke swung around to face her, and Ivory felt the impact of his icy grey eyes clear through to her toes.
“Is anyone else looking for your aunt? Or your sister, for that matter?” She refused to look away, dismayed to realize an involuntary flutter had started deep in her belly, radiating out to weaken the joints at her knees and send heat flooding through her body.
Good heavens. She hadn’t had this sort of visceral reaction to a man in a very, very long time, and she wasn’t pleased. Desire was a distraction, and distractions were perilous. Maybe it was because Alderidge was such a radical departure from the long line of polished, simpering aristocrats she’d been dealing with for years. Dressed completely in black, he looked a little like a pirate who had just stepped off the deck of a ship, what with his long, sun-bleached hair, his wind-roughened skin, and at least a week’s worth of dark-blond stubble covering his strong jaw. A scar ran along the left side of his forehead, disappearing into his hairline. His clothes were plain, his salt-stained coat meant to be serviceable and warm. He looked dangerous and, at the moment, furious.
“No, no one saw me. I left my ship and crew at the damn docks after a long journey across uncooperative seas and came here, thinking to find some peace and quiet. Instead I find a swarm of gilded strangers packed into my ballroom, and more strangers locked in my sister’s room with my aunt and a dead body. Someone damn well needs to tell me very quickly and very clearly just what the hell is going on here.” The duke was making a visible effort to remain calm.
Lady Harcourt made little disapproving sounds with her tongue for every curse that erupted from the duke’s mouth—and Alderidge flinched, as if on cue, after each of his aunt’s tiny clicks and sighs. Ivory might have found this exchange funny in other circumstances. Right now, however, she needed to take control and make sure the duke and his aunt were aligned. Otherwise she hadn’t a prayer of extracting the family from this mess unscathed.
“You may call me Miss Moore,” Ivory said pleasantly, “and I am from Chegarre and Associates. This is my colleague, Miss DeVries.” Out of the corner of her eye she saw Elise make a brief curtsy.
“And Chegarre and Associates is what?” Alderidge demanded. “A solicitor’s firm?” He paused, a shadow of uncertainty flickering in his eyes as he regarded her. “I’ve been away from England for quite a long time, but I feel certain I would have heard the news if a group of women had set up shop at the Inns of Court.”
“We are not lawyers exactly, Your Grace.”
“Your sister seems to have gotten herself in a spot of trouble,” Ivory continued, nodding at the naked form sprawled across the sheets. “We’ve been summoned to get her out of it.”
“That is not possible. My sister is the Lady Beatrice Harcourt.”
“We’re aware,” Ivory agreed grimly, turning and marching over to the bed. “And the dead man currently tied to her bed is the Earl of Debarry.”
The duke’s jaw was clenched so hard that Ivory imagined his teeth were in danger of shattering. He turned to his aunt. “Where is Bea?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?”
Angry color had flooded Helen’s face. “I came looking for her when I couldn’t find her downstairs in the ballroom, thinking maybe she was feeling poorly. The ball is in her honor. It took months to plan. Everyone who is anyone is downstairs.” She stopped abruptly, as if suddenly realizing the awful import of that fact.
“She’s missing?” Horror colored his words.
“The precise location of your sister is not known at this point, Your Grace,” Ivory confirmed. “Though I have every confidence that we will locate her shortly.”
The duke swung around to face her again, those ice-grey eyes impaling her as if she were somehow responsible for this debacle.
“We have a much more immediate problem that needs to be addressed, Your Grace, before we can focus our efforts on locating Lady Beatrice. And that is the body currently tied to her bed.” Ivory jerked her chin in the direction of the maid still sniffling into her apron. “Your sister’s maid, Mary, discovered this unfortunate scene, and most fortuitously, it was your aunt who intercepted her before anyone else could. It was also your aunt who did the sensible thing and hired us.”
“Hired you? What the hell for?”
“We manage situations such as the one your sister has currently found herself in.”
“And what sort of situation is that, exactly?” His tone was threatening, but Ivory didn’t have time for niceties.
“You are a man of the world, Your Grace. I feel certain you are able to guess.”
The duke’s eyes darkened to the color of an approaching storm, and another unwanted thrill shot through Ivory. She curled her fingers into her palms, letting her nails bite into the skin.
“Have a care, Miss Moore,” he snarled. “I assure you, you do not wish to insult my sister’s—”
“I deal in facts, not in fairy tales.” Ivory cut him off and was absurdly gratified to see shock wash across his face. “There are no signs of a violent struggle, nor are there any obvious wounds or marks on the body. It is likely that the earl died from natural causes induced from the exertions that usually follow being tied with red silk to the bed of a healthy young woman.”
Helen Harcourt wheezed. “You can’t possibly be suggesting that Lady Beatrice—”
“Further,” Ivory continued, “it is also likely that Lady Beatrice panicked and fled the scene once she realized her companion had drawn his last debauched breath. It is a very common reaction, and in my experience, the young woman in question will return when she has had a moment to collect her wits and invent a suitable explanation for her absence. And if Lady Beatrice lacks the requisite powers of invention, Chegarre and Associates shall be happy to supply her with a credible lie that she may repeat to the ton.” She paused. “Your loyalty is admirable, but I suggest you save the moral outrage for someone else. I care more about rescuing your sister’s reputation than the truth of what happened here tonight. And frankly, so should you. We’ve got a great deal of work to do if your sister’s future is to remain as bright as it was this morning.”
The duke’s expression was positively glacial. “I give the orders here, Miss Moore, not you. Don’t presume that I will ever follow your lead.”
Irritation surged. “Take a look around you, Your Grace. Do you see a crew of sailors anxiously awaiting your direction?” She put emphasis on the last two words. “This is not your world. This is mine.”
“Get out of my house,” the duke said, his voice as sharp as cut glass. “Now.”
His aunt made a strangled sound of distress.
“If that is your wish, Your Grace, we will be happy to comply, of course. But I ask that you consider carefully. Our firm has been brought here by your aunt to preserve your good name and honor. Our objective is the same as yours: we want only to protect Lady Beatrice and the rest of your family. And what you must understand is that there is a window of opportunity here that is rapidly closing. Downstairs there is a ballroom filled with some of the most important and influential people in London. Soon those people will begin to wonder where the Earl of Debarry has gotten to. Soon people will start wondering where the comely Lady Beatrice—the guest of honor—is hiding. Soon people will come looking. And should they find a dead earl tied to Lady Beatrice’s bed, I will no longer be able to help you. But it is your choice, of course, if I stay or if I go.”
“I don’t need you to fix my problems,” the duke growled.
Ivory resisted the urge to roll her eyes. The duke was in so far over his head that he couldn’t even begin to see the surface. Instead she adopted her most neutral tone. “I’m not here to fix your problems, Your Grace, I’m here to fix those of Lady Beatrice.”
Lady Helen swayed slightly before straightening her shoulders with resolve. “Don’t be a fool. We need help. Neither you nor I can make this all disappear.”
The duke was shaking his head. “I can handle this.”
“Can you really?” his aunt asked. “How?”
Alderidge blinked, and Ivory suspected the duke was finally getting over his initial shock and was now considering the magnitude of the problem before him.
Helen continued on, relentless. “How will you make certain the honor of the Alderidge family is preserved? How will you prevent this, this…scene from becoming known to everyone? Do you intend to let malicious gossip and baseless slander ruin poor Beatrice’s life?”
Ivory rather suspected Lady Beatrice was doing a fine job of ruining things all on her own. But it was not for her to judge. Especially since a little ruin was always good for business.
“You’re supposed to be her guardian,” Lady Helen said bitterly. “A lady should have the protection of her brother. If you had ever once thought of anyone but yourself, we would not now find ourselves here, in this sordid and disgusting position.”
“My lady,” Ivory snapped, sensing that this conversation was in danger of veering badly off track. “Now is not the time to point fingers. If you must lay blame, I would suggest you conduct that useless exercise tomorrow over tea, when your guests are gone and there is no longer a body tied to your niece’s bed.”
Whatever color had been left in Lady Helen’s stoic face fled, and her mouth gaped slightly. Ivory noticed Alderidge’s was similarly hanging open.
She put her hands on her hips. “Now, what is it going to be? Do you require our services on behalf of Lady Beatrice or not? Make a decision. Time is running out.”
The duke swore again, his expression black. “Very well. Consider yourself hired. My sister can’t…” He trailed off, as if searching for words.
Ivory pounced. “You must agree to defer to my instruction and trust in my expertise, Your Grace.”
Icy grey eyes snapped back to her. “I will agree to no such thing. I don’t even know you.”
“And I don’t know you, which is irrelevant. But I will not be able to do my job if you get in my way. Dissent will cost your sister everything.”
The duke muttered something vile under his breath. “Do what you must.” It sounded strained.
“Do I have your word?”
“You heard me the first time, Miss Moore. I do not need to repeat myself.”
“A wise choice then, Your Grace.” She produced a small card from a pocket sewn into her cloak and handed it to the duke. “In the event you need to find me in the future.”
Alderidge shoved the card in the pocket of his coat without even looking at it. “After tonight, Miss Moore, I hope to never see you again.”
That stung a little, though Ivory had no idea why it should. No one in their right mind wanted to see her. Her presence in someone’s home meant the parallel presence of some sort of acute social or family disaster.
She sniffed. “The feeling is quite mutual, Your Grace. The sooner we conclude this unfortunate bit of business, the better it will be for all involved. But I must warn you before I begin, if I may be so gauche, that the services provided by Chegarre and Associates are expensive.”
“Are they worth it?” Alderidge asked in a harsh voice.
Ivory held his gaze. “Always.”
* * *
Maximus Harcourt, tenth Duke of Alderidge, couldn’t remember ever having felt so helpless—or so furious. He had stepped into a nightmare that defied comprehension, and making it worse was the knowledge that he was not the person most qualified to handle it.
Unruly crews could be reformed. He could deal with tropical storms and raging seas. Pirates and smugglers could be summarily dispatched. Max had rarely met a problem he couldn’t best. He’d rarely met a problem with the power to confuse him. But this? Well, this was an altogether different sort of beast.
Which meant he was now at the mercy of Miss Moore. A woman who treated the discovery of a dead, naked earl tied to a missing virgin’s bed as though it were no more serious than a cup of spilled tea on an expensive rug. As though this sort of thing happened every day.
He’d never in all his life met a woman with such nerve. Or maybe it wasn’t nerve at all but simply arrogance. It was difficult to tell how old she was, though certainly she wasn’t any older than he. Even beneath her plain clothing and mundane cap, she was striking, in a most extraordinarily unconventional way. Her skin glowed like unblemished satin, framed by tendrils of hair the color of rich chestnut, shot through with mahogany. Her dark eyes were too wide, her mouth was too full, her cheekbones too sharp. Yet all of that together was somehow…flawless.
“Was that the ball gown your niece was wearing tonight?” Miss Moore was asking his aunt, pointing at a pile of abandoned lace and rose silk draped over a chair.
Max wrenched his gaze away from her face and, with a jolt, recognized the embroidered silk that he’d shipped to Bea the last time he’d been in China. He’d been sure his sister would love the detail.
“Yes.” Lady Helen pressed a hand to her lips, her face a peculiar ashen color.
“Then she’ll not be downstairs,” the dark-haired woman who had been introduced as Miss DeVries murmured. “Nor does she have any intention of returning to the ball.” She plucked the gown from the chair and held it up to her body with consideration.
Miss Moore nodded. “Let’s hope she has the good sense to stay away until we have a chance to speak with her.” She paused, eyeing the gown critically. “Can you make it work?”
“Most certainly,” said Miss DeVries, replacing the gown and then inexplicably loosening the ties on her own shapeless woolen dress. Max frowned, perplexed, then horrified, as the top half of her chemise was revealed. It slipped over a shoulder, revealing smooth skin puckered by scar tissue from what looked like an old bullet wound. He gaped before hastily averting his eyes. What kind of woman stripped in the middle of a room full of people? What kind of woman had cause to have been shot?
“Excellent.” Miss Moore turned to his aunt. “If you wish to preserve your niece’s reputation, and your own, you need to return downstairs. Your absence may have been noted by now, so I need you to circulate, smile pleasantly, and ensure everyone is having a marvelous time. If anyone comments on your absence, cite your nephew’s unexpected, yet welcome, return. I can’t stress enough the value of a good distraction, and the duke’s arrival will be splendid.”
“My sister is missing and you’re telling my aunt she should go and dance a quadrille?” Max could feel a vein throbbing at his temple.
Miss Moore glared at him and then turned her attention back to his aunt. She didn’t even give him the courtesy of a response. Bloody, bloody hell.
“Can you do that?” she was asking Helen.
Lady Helen nodded stiffly.
“If anyone asks about the whereabouts of Lady Beatrice, mention you just saw her at the refreshment table. Or near the ballroom doors. Somewhere that cannot be immediately verified.” Miss Moore put a hand on the older woman’s arm. “Your behavior is critical right now. No one must suspect you are anything but pleased with how successful the ball is. Do you understand?”
“In thirty minutes you will visibly exit the ballroom and make your way to the bottom of the main staircase.”
“Thirty minutes. Can you do that?”
He’d never heard Helen so tractable in his life.
- "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
"A sexy and sparkling Regency gem... Don't miss out!"—Julia London, New York Times bestselling author on A Good Rogue is Hard to Find
- "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
- On Sale
- Jan 26, 2016
- Hachette Audio