By Kelly Bowen
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Calm. Cool. Collected. Gisele Whitby has perfected the art of illusion-her survival, after all, has depended upon it. Years ago, to escape an abusive husband, Gisele “disappeared.” Now she must risk revealing her new identity to save another innocent girl from the same fate. But she needs a daring man for her scheme, and the rogue in question shows a remarkable talent . . . for shattering Gisele’s carefully constructed facade and igniting her deepest desires.
. . . PASSION IGNITES
This isn’t the first time Jamie Montcrief has awakened naked and confused from a night of drinking. It is, however, the first time a stunningly beautiful woman offers him payment afterward. Gisele has a business proposition for him, a mission involving cunning thievery and a brazen rescue. How can he say no to a plot this dangerous . . . and a woman this delectable?
Table of Contents
A Preview of A Good Rogue Is Hard to Find
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Somewhere south of Nottingham, England, May 1816
Being dead was not without its drawbacks.
The tavern was one of them. More hovel than hostelry, it was plunked capriciously in a tiny hamlet, somewhere near nowhere. Her mere presence in this dismal place proved time was running out and desperation was beginning to eclipse good sense.
Gisele shuffled along the filthy wall of the taproom, wrinkling her nose against the overripe scent of unwashed bodies and spilled ale. She sidestepped neatly, avoiding the leering gaze and groping fingers of more than one man, and slipped into the gathering darkness outside. She took a deep breath, trying to maintain a sense of purpose and hope. The carefully crafted demise of Gisele Whitby four years earlier had granted her the freedom and the safety to reclaim her life. True, it had also driven her to the fringes of society, but until very recently, forced anonymity had been a benediction. Now it was proving to be an unwanted complication.
"What are you doing out here?" The voice came from beside her, and she sighed, not turning toward her friend.
"This is impossible. We'll not find him here."
Sebastien gazed at the sparrows quarreling along the edge of the thatch in the evening air. "I agree. We need a male without feathers. And they are all inside."
Gisele rolled her eyes. "Have you been inside? There is not a single one in there who would stand a chance at passing for a gentleman."
Sebastien brushed nonexistent dust off his sleeve. "Perhaps we haven't seen everyone who—"
"Please," she grumbled. "Half of those drunkards have a dubious command of the English language. And the other half have no command over any type of language at all." She stalked toward the stables in agitation.
Sebastien hurried across the yard after her.
"The man we need has to be clever and witty and charming and courageous and… convincingly noble." She spit the last word as if it were refuse.
"He does not exactly need to replace—"
"Yes, he does," Gisele argued, suddenly feeling very tired. "He has to be all of those things. Or at least some of those and willing to learn the rest. Or very, very desperate and willing to learn them all." She stopped, defeated, eyeing a ragged heap of humanity leaning against the front of the stable, asleep or stewed or both. "And we will not find all that here, in the middle of God knows where."
"We'll find someone," Sebastien repeated stubbornly, his dark brows knit.
"And if we can't?"
"Then we'll find a way. We'll find another way. There will—"
Whatever the slight man was going to say next was drowned out by the sound of an approaching carriage. Gisele sighed loudly and stepped back into the shadows of the stable wall out of habit.
The vehicle stopped, and the driver and groom jumped down. The driver immediately went to unharness the sweat-soaked horses, though the groom disappeared inside the tavern without a backward glance, earning a muttered curse from the driver. Inside the carriage Gisele could hear the muffled tones of an argument. Presently the carriage door snapped open and a rotund man disembarked, stepping just to the side and lighting a cheroot. A well-dressed woman leaned out of the carriage door behind him to continue their squabble, shouting to be heard over the driver, who was leading the first horse away and calling for a fresh team.
Gisele watched the scene with growing impatience. She was preoccupied with her own problems and annoyed to be trapped out by the stables where there was no chance of finding any solution. Still, the carriage was expensive and it bore a coat of arms, and she would take no chances of being recognized, no matter how remote this tavern might be.
She was still plotting when the driver returned to fetch the second horse from its traces. As he reached for the bridle, the door to the tavern exploded outward with enough force to knock the wood clear off its hinges and send a report echoing through the yard like a gunshot. The gelding spooked and bolted forward, and the carriage lurched precariously behind it. The man standing with his cheroot was knocked sideways, his expensive hat landing somewhere in the dust. From the open carriage doorway, the woman began screaming hysterically, spurring the frightened horse on.
"Good heavens," gasped Sebastien, observing the unfolding drama with interest.
Gisele stood frozen as the unidentifiable lump she had previously spied leaning against the stable morphed into the form of a man. In three quick strides, the man launched himself onto the back of the panicked horse. With long arms he reached down the length of the horse's neck and easily grabbed the side of the bridle, pulling the animal's head to its shoulder with firm authority. The horse and carriage immediately slowed and then stopped, though the lady's screaming continued.
Sliding down from the blowing horse, the man gave the animal a careful once-over that Gisele didn't miss and handed the reins back to the horrified driver. The ragged-looking man then approached the woman still shrieking in the carriage and stood before her, waiting patiently for her to stop the wailing that was beginning to sound forced. He reached up a hand to help her down, and she abandoned her howling only to recoil in disgust.
"My lady?" he queried politely. "Are you all right? May I offer you my assistance?"
"Don't touch me!" the woman screeched, her chins jiggling. "You filthy creature. You could have killed me!"
By this time a number of people had caught up to the carriage, and Gisele pressed a little farther back into the shadows of the stable wall. The woman's husband, out of breath and red-faced, elbowed past the stranger and demanded a step be brought for his wife. Her rescuer simply inclined his head and retreated in the direction of the tavern, shoving his hands into the pockets of what passed for a coat. He ducked around the broken door and disappeared inside. He didn't look back.
Gisele held up a hand in warning.
"He's perfect," Sebastien breathed anyway, ignoring her.
Gisele crossed her arms across her chest, unwilling to let the seed of hope blossom.
"You saw what just happened. He just saved that wretched woman's life. You said courageous, clever, and charming. That was the epitome of all three." Sebastien was looking at her earnestly.
"Or alternatively, stupid, lucky, and drunk."
It was Sebastien's turn to roll his eyes.
"Fine." Gisele gave in, allowing hope a tiny foothold. "Do what you do best. Find out who he is and why he is here."
"What are you going to do?"
Gisele grimaced. "I will return to yonder establishment and observe your newfound hero in his cups. If he doesn't rape and pillage anything in the next half hour and can demonstrate at least a tenth the intellect of an average hunting hound, we'll go from there."
Sebastien grinned in triumph. "I've got a good feeling about him, Gisele. I promise you won't regret this." Then he turned and disappeared.
I am already regretting it, Gisele thought dourly twenty minutes later, though the lack of a front door had improved the quality of the air in the taproom, if not the quality of its ale. She managed a convincing swallow and replaced her drink on the uneven tabletop with distaste. Fingering the hilt of the knife she was displaying as a warning on the surface before her, she idly considered what manner of filth kept the bottom of her shoes stuck so firmly to the tavern floor. Sebastien had yet to reappear, and Gisele wondered how much longer she would be forced to wait. Her eyes drifted back to the stranger she'd been studying, who was still hunched over his drink at the far end of the room.
She thought he might be quite handsome if one could see past the disheveled beard and the appalling tatters currently passing for clothes. Broad shoulders, thick arms—he was very likely a former soldier, one of many who had found themselves out of work and out of sorts with the surrender of the little French madman. She narrowed her eyes. Strength in a man was always an asset, so she supposed she must count that in his favor. And from the way his knees rammed the underside of the table, he must be decently tall. Also an advantage, as nothing caught a woman's attention in a crowded room like a tall, confident man. Beyond that, however, his brown hair, brown eyes, and penchant for ale were the only qualities easily determined from a distance.
It was the latter—the utter state of intoxication he was rapidly working toward—that most piqued Gisele's interest. It suggested hopelessness. Defeat. Dejection. Desperation. All of which might make him the ideal candidate.
Or they might just mark him as a common drunkard.
And she'd had plenty of unpleasant experience with those. Unfortunately, this man was by far the best prospect she and Sebastien had seen in weeks, and she was well aware of the time slipping past. She watched as the stranger dribbled ale down his beard as he tried to drain his pot. Her lip curled in disgust.
"What do you think?" Her thoughts were interrupted by Sebastien as he slid next to her on the bench. He jerked his chin in the direction of their quarry.
She scowled. "The man's been sitting in a corner drinking himself into a stupor since I sat down. He hasn't passed out yet, so I guess that's promising." She caught sight of her friend's glare and sighed. "Please, tell me what I should think. What did you find out?"
Sebastien sniffed and adjusted his collar. "James Montcrief. Son of a duke—"
"What?" Gisele gasped in alarm. She involuntarily shrank against the table.
Sebastien gave her a long-suffering look. "Do you think we'd still be here if I thought you might be recognized?"
Gisele bit her lip guiltily and straightened. "No. Sorry."
"May I go on?"
"The duchy is… Reddyck, I believe? I've never heard of it, but I am assured it is real, and the bulk of its lands lie somewhere near the northern border. Small, but supports itself adequately."
Gisele let her eyes slide down the disheveled stranger. "Tell me he isn't the heir apparent."
"Even better. A bastard, so no chance of ever turning into anything quite as odious."
Giselle frowned. "Acknowledged?"
"The late duke was happy to claim him. Unfortunately, the current duke—a brother of some fashion—is not nearly so benevolent. According to current family history, James Montcrief doesn't exist."
Giselle studied the man uncertainly, considering the benefits and risks of that information. Someone with knowledge of the peerage and its habits and idiosyncrasies could be helpful. If he could remain sober enough to keep his wits.
"He hasn't groped the serving wenches yet," Sebastien offered.
"The serving wenches."
"Hmphh." That might bode well. Or not. "Married? Children?"
"No and no. At least no children anyone is aware of."
"Good." They would have been a difficult complication. "Money?"
"Spent the morning cleaning stalls and repairing the roof to pay for his drink last night. Did the same the night before and the night before and—"
"In other words, none." Now that was promising. "Army?"
"Cavalry." Sebastien turned his attention from his sleeve to his carefully groomed moustache. "And supposedly quite the hero."
She snorted. "Aren't they all. Who says he's a hero?"
"They probably had him confused with his horse."
"His horse was shot out from under him at Waterloo."
Her friend tsked. "The man survived, Gisele. He must know how to fight."
Sebastien's eyes rolled in exasperation. "That's what I love most about you. Your brimming optimism."
Giselle shrugged. "Heroes shouldn't drink themselves into oblivion. Multiple nights in a row."
Sebastien leaned close to her ear. "Listen carefully. In the past twenty minutes, I have applied my abundant charm to the chambermaids and the barmaids and the milkmaids and one very enchanting footman, and thanks to my masterful skill and caution, we now possess a wealth of information about our new friend here. The very least you can do is spend half that amount of time discovering if this man is really as decent as I believe him to be." He paused for breath. "He's the best option we've got."
She pressed her lips together as she pushed herself up off the bench. "Very well. As we discussed?"
"Do you have a better idea?"
"No," she replied unhappily.
"Then let's not waste any more time. We need help from some quarter, and that man is the best chance we have of getting it." Without missing a beat, he reached over and deftly plucked at the laces to Gisele's simple bodice. The top fell open to reveal an alarming amount of cleavage. "Nice. Almost makes me wish I were so inclined."
"Do shut up." Gisele tried to pull the laces back together but had her hand swatted away. "I look like a whore," she protested.
Sebastien tipped his head, then leaned forward again and pulled the tattered ribbon from her braid. Her hair slithered out of its confines to tumble over her shoulders. "But a very pretty one. It's perfect." He stood up, straightening his own jacket. "Trust me. He's going to surprise you."
She heaved one last sigh. "How drunk do you suppose he is?"
"Slurring his s's. But sentence structure is still good. I'll see you in ten minutes."
"Better make it twenty," Gisele said slowly. "It will reduce the chances of you ending up on the wrong end of a cavalryman's fists."
Sebastien's dark eyes slid back to the man in the corner in speculation. "You think?"
Giselle stood to join the shorter man. "You're the one who told me he's a hero. Let's find out."
Jamie Montcrief, known in another life as James Edward Anthony Montcrief, cavalry captain in the King's Dragoon Guards of the British army and bastard son to the ninth Duke of Reddyck, stared deeply into the bottom of his ale pot and wondered fuzzily how it had come to be empty so quickly. He was sure he had just ordered a fresh drink. Perhaps the girl had spilled it on the way over and he hadn't noticed. That happened a lot these days. Not noticing things. Which was fine. In fact, it was better than fine.
"You look thirsty." As if by magic, a full cup of liquid sloshed to the table in front of him.
Startled, he looked up, only to be presented with a view of stunning breasts. They were full and firm, straining against the fabric of a poorly laced bodice, and despite the fact that they were not entirely in focus, his body reacted with reprehensible speed. He reached out, intending to caress the luscious perfection before him, only to snatch his hand back a moment later when sluggish honor demanded retreat. Mortified, he dragged his eyes up from the woman's chest to her face, hoping against hope she might not have noticed.
He should have kept his eyes on her breasts.
For shimmering before him was a fantasy. His fantasy. The one he had carefully created in his imagination to chase away the reality of miserable marches, insufferable nights, unspeakable hunger, and bone-numbing dread. Everything he had hoped to possess in a woman was sliding onto the bench opposite him, a shy smile on her face. And it was a face that could start a war. High cheekbones, a full mouth, eyes almost exotic in their shape. Pale hair that fell in thick sheets carelessly around her head and over her shoulders.
He opened his mouth to say something clever, yet all his words seemed to have drowned themselves in the depths of his drink. He cursed inwardly, wishing for the first time in many months he weren't drunk. She seemed not to notice. Instead she cheerfully raised her own full pot of ale in a silent toast and proceeded to drain it. At a loss for anything better to do, he followed suit.
"Thank you," he finally managed, though he wasn't sure she heard, as she had somehow procured two more pots of ale and slid another in front of him.
"What shall we toast to now?" she asked him, her brilliant gray-green eyes probing his own.
Frantically Jamie searched his liquor-soaked brain for an intelligent answer. "To beauty," he croaked, cringing at such an amateurish and predictable reply.
She gave him a dazzling smile anyway, and he could feel his own mouth curling up in response. "To beauty then," she said. "And those who are wise enough to realize what it may cost." She drained her second pot.
Jamie allowed his mind to slog wearily through her cryptic words for a moment or two before he gave up trying to understand. Who cared, really? He had a magnificent woman sitting across the table from him, and another pot of ale had already replaced the second one he had drained. This was by far the best thing that had happened to him in a very long time.
"What's your name?" Her voice was gentle.
"James. James Montcrief." Thank the gods. At least he could remember that. Though maybe he should have made an effort at formality? Did one do that in such a setting?
"James." His name was like honey on her tongue, and her own dismissal of formality was encouraging. Something stirred inside him. "I like it." She gave him another blinding smile. "Why are you drinking all alone, James?" she asked.
He stared at her, unable, and more truthfully, unwilling to give her any sort of an answer. Instead he just shrugged.
"Never mind." She tipped her head back, and another pot of ale disappeared. Idly he wondered how she still remained sober while the room he was sitting in was beginning to spin. She tilted her head, and her beautiful blond hair swung away from her neck, dizzying in its movement. "You have kind eyes."
Her comment caught him off guard. He did not have kind eyes. He had eyes that had seen too much to ever allow any kindness in. "I am not kind." He wasn't sure if he mumbled it or just thought it. Inexplicably, a wave of sadness and loneliness washed over him.
"What brings you here?" she asked, waving a hand in the general direction of the tavern.
Jamie blinked, trying to remember where here was, then snorted at the futility of the question.
"Nowhere else to go," he mumbled. The accuracy of his statement echoed in his mind. Nowhere to go, nowhere to be. No one who cared. Least of all him.
"Would you like to go somewhere else, James? With me?" Her words seemed to come from a distance, and with a frantic suddenness, he needed to get out. Out from the tavern walls that were pressing down on him, away from the smells of grease and bodies and smoke and alcohol that were suffocating.
"Yes." He shoved away from the table, swaying on his feet. In an instant she was there, at his side, her arm tucked into his elbow as though he really were a duke escorting her across the ballroom of a royal palace. He could feel the warmth of her body as it pressed against his and the cool silk of her hair as it slid across his bicep. Again he wished desperately he weren't so drunk. His body was dragging him in one direction while his mind flailed helplessly against the haze.
"Come," she whispered, guiding him out into the cool night breeze.
He went willingly with his beautiful vision into the darkness, dragging in huge lungfuls of air in an attempt to clear his head. He pressed a hand against his temple.
"Are you unwell?" She was still right beside him, and he was horrified to realize he was leaning on her as he might a crutch. He straightened abruptly.
"No." He concentrated hard on his next words. "I don't even know your name."
She stared at him a long moment as if debating something within her mind. "Gisele," she finally said.
He was regretting those last pots of ale. Thinking was becoming almost impossible. "And why were you drinkin' alone, Gisele?" he asked slowly.
The sparkle dimmed abruptly in her face, and she turned away. "Will you take me away from here, James?" she asked.
"I beg your pardon?" His mind was struggling to keep up with his ears.
She turned back. "Take me somewhere. Anywhere. Just not here."
"I don't understand." Blade-sharp instincts long suppressed fought to make themselves heard through the fog in his brain. Something was all wrong with this situation, though he was damned if he could determine what it might be. "I can't just—"
Jamie was suddenly knocked back, tripping over his feet and falling gracelessly, unable to overcome gravity and the last three pots of ale. Gisele was yanked from his side, and she gave a slight yelp as a man slammed her back up against the tavern wall.
"Where the hell have you been, whore?" the man snarled. "Like a damn bitch in heat, aren't you?"
Jamie struggled to his feet, fighting the dizziness that was making his surroundings swim. He reached for the weapon at his side before realizing he couldn't recall where he'd left it. He turned just in time to see the man pull back his arm to slug Gisele. With a roar of rage, Jamie launched himself at her attacker, hitting him square in the back. The man was barely half his size, and the force of Jamie's weight knocked both men into the mud. A fist caught the side of his head in a series of short, sharp jabs, only increasing the din resonating through his brain. Jamie tried to stagger to his feet again, but the ground shifted underneath him and he fell heavily on his side.
"Don't touch her," he managed, wrestling with the darkness crowding the edge of his vision. Usually he welcomed this part of the night, when reality ceased to exist. But not now. This couldn't happen now. He had to fight it. Fight for her. Fight for something again. He pushed himself up on his hands and knees. He looked up at the figures looming over him. Strangely, Gisele and her attacker were standing side by side as if nothing had happened. The buzzing was getting louder as Gisele crouched down beside him, and he felt her cool hand on his forehead.
"So sorry," he mumbled, his arms collapsing beneath him. "I couldn't do—"
"You did just fine, James," she said. And then he heard no more.
Gisele shifted in her chair, tapping the floor gently with her toe. James Montcrief still lay sprawled across the bed, mouth open slightly, his breathing deep and steady. Sebastien had been right. James had indeed surprised her. Her experience with nobility—or those who had been raised as such—had taught her to expect little from men of Mr. Montcrief's stock. But his actions last night had left her with a newfound sense of hope.
She wondered what had made him leap to her defense the previous evening. Perhaps he had a sister he adored. Or some other woman he either respected or was fond of. Somewhere in the journey of his life, he had come to the determination that a man should not be allowed to beat a woman senseless. Even a woman dressed and acting as she had been, a lowborn peasant or worse.
Regardless, Gisele didn't much care how he had come to posses the moral fortitude he had shown in the tavern yard, only that it existed.
She had no sooner finished her thought than the door of the inn's room creaked open and Sebastien sauntered in, taking in the still-snoring heap on the bed.
"Dear God, it smells like a distillery in here." He sniffed as he approached the bed, bending over in critical examination. "He'll need to be cleaned up and—erk!"
A hand had shot out from beneath the cover and grabbed Sebastien by the front of his shirt.
"Who the hell are you?" The voice sounded like gravel.
Sebastien glowered. "Tsk. Manners. Language. Perhaps I erred in—"
"Let him go, Mr. Montcrief." Gisele rose from her chair and came to stand near the foot of the bed, leaning casually against the wall.
The hand faltered enough for Sebastien to jerk himself free, fussing over the new and offending wrinkles in his linen. "Barbarian," he muttered, smoothing both his clothes and his hair.
A pair of gritty brown eyes focused on Gisele in confusion, probably wondering how she knew his name. She could see him searching his leaky memory in despair.
"Gisele," she offered. She wasn't in the mood to play games. She had business to discuss, and time was of the essence. "You tried to rescue me last night."
"Um…" He was flailing. "I was…"
"Drunk," she supplied.
"Er… right." He struggled to sit up, and the sheet fell to his waist. Suddenly aware of his nakedness, he yanked the edge of the sheet back up. "Where are my clothes?" he demanded.
"In the hearth." She crossed her arms, watching as his eyes flew to the far wall.
"There's a fire in the hearth," he said dumbly.
"Thank God for small miracles."
"I'm naked!" His tone was one of total disbelief. His eyes widened as he turned back to Gisele. "Who—when—did we…"
"I think he's blushing," Sebastien stage-whispered nastily, still miffed at having been assaulted.
"Oh, God." James dropped his head into his hands. "I don't remember."
Gisele pushed herself off the wall and sat down on the edge of the bed, careful not to allow her eyes to drop too far down. Even though she had seen it all last night when they had stripped him of his foul garments, it had been rather dim, and in the light of morning, the man's broad expanse of muscle was an unwelcome distraction.
"We were not intimate, if that is what you are asking," she said, deciding to put him out of his misery. "Believe me, if we had been, you'd remember." She couldn't resist the last comment. No man should ever lose that much control to drink.
His head snapped up, and his jaw dropped open.
"Now he is blushing," Sebastien sniffed. "Perhaps you should try him out?"
Gisele shot her friend a black look, though she suspected Sebastien was provoking James on purpose.
"What?" Sebastien groused. "There's no call to look at me like that, Gisele. You don't buy a horse without taking him for a bit of a gallop first, do you? Though by the looks of Mr. Montcrief this morning, I'm not sure he'd manage much more than a slow trot." When Sebastien's crude joke was met with utter silence, he raised his voice and continued. "Iain would encourage you to do the same, I assure you—"
"Stop," Gisele interrupted her friend before he could go any further. Goading Montcrief was one thing. But she had no intention of discussing Iain in front of him, nor did she think it wise to bait a muscle-bound behemoth with innuendo. She could tell by the man's rising color that his confusion was rapidly giving way to anger.
- "4 Stars! 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
- "A delightful story that will warm your heart and keep the pages turning as fast as you can."—Teresa Medeiros, New York Times bestselling author
- "Fans of Julia Quinn and Sarah MacLean will adore I've Got My Duke to Keep Me Warm, with its quick banter, engaging heroine, and quirky cast of side characters (including poultry)!"—Lauren Willig, New York Times bestselling author
- On Sale
- Dec 16, 2014
- Page Count
- 352 pages