Book Genre: Historical

To Win A Wicked Lord

Posted January 23, 2020 by Sofie Darling in / 0 Comments

Title: To Win A Wicked Lord
Series: Shadows and Silk #4
Genre:
Add to Goodreads

Lord Percival Bretagne is used to playing games. He survived being a spy for a decade using his wits alone. But that was just life and death, now he’s playing for the most important prize of all—love.

He’ll Stop at Nothing……

Ten years after his family gave him up for dead, British spy Lord Percival Bretagne is back home, but his mission is far from over. Playing the aristocrat in London gambling dens and at country house parties is just a cover for Percy's real quest. He's hunting the man who stole everything from him—his family, his marriage, even his identity. And this time nothing, and no one, will stand in his way.

She’ll Risk it All…...

But one night with Isabel Galante changes everything. She’s willing to gamble a woman’s most intimate prize in order to save her imprisoned father, but she didn’t expect a devilishly handsome opponent with a dangerously attractive wicked streak. Isabel would do anything for her family, including betraying Percy, but she has no idea that she’s stumbled into the middle of a decade-long quest for revenge.

Who Will Win in the Game Called Love?

Percy has been betrayed before, and now the man who destroyed his life is using Isabel to strike again. With the fate of the government and his new life in the balance, he’ll have to keep Isabel seductively, scandalously close. They begin a passionate game of truth and lies, deception and dalliance, uncovering the heart of who they really are and realizing that winning might mean losing what matters the most—each other.

Buy the Book:
Amazon Barnes and Noble iBooks Audible

Excerpt:

Chapter One

London
20 June 1826

Lord Percival Bretagne stepped into a room alive with the vibrancy of a young night and grasped in an instant that he would be known.

This gaming hell was exclusive, a playground for the ultra-wealthy. Here, the son of a duke—even a younger one, like himself—would be hard pressed to remain anonymous. Society circles ran small and tight in London. He should have stuck to the dicier hells. But in those places the stakes were too low, and he needed to strike his enemy where it hurt: deep in his banking account.

From finely woven Persian carpets to walls bedecked with gold-shot silk brocade up to the high ceiling lit with crystal candelabra, bright opulence winked optimistic light and beckoned Percy to follow its uncertain promise. Impassive male servants circulated through the crowd, champagne and spirits balanced on trays polished to high shine. Strumpets, clad in diaphanous fabrics that left naught to the imagination, tripped through the room on light feet, flirtatious laughter trailing in their wake, laughter that didn’t quite reach their eyes.

Percy’s gaze narrowed on Number 9’s patrons, seated at various gaming tables that offered any man with the right amount of wealth or family connections the opportunity to test his luck. To a one, they wore the specific look of the well-heeled and moneyed, an air of Eton and Harrow hanging about them, half an eye on the gaming, the other half on the female flesh.

Percy descended three quick steps and entered the fray. A few faintly curious eyes glanced up, only to return to their game the next moment.

“Champagne, milord?” inquired a plaintive cockney whine at his side. He was about to decline the offer when he found a pair of familiar eyes the hue of a turquoise stone staring up at him. “Follow me,” she said, low, her voice again her own. She led him to an alcove hidden behind a large curtain that she must have already scouted. Hortense was ever prepared.

“Where did you procure that?” Percy indicated her costume of gossamer silk that left little to the imagination. He didn’t like her wearing such revealing clothing.

“From the doorman. He knew Nick.”

Hortense didn’t need to elaborate further. During their years in France and the Continent, Lord Nicholas Asquith, their handler and friend, had been expert at securing favors here and there, names and places passed along on the breeze, this or that useful bit of intelligence in exchange for a scrap of coin or safe passage across the Channel. This French doorman must have been quite useful to Nick for him to be in London.

Serious blue eyes snapped at Percy. Hortense had the sort of gaze that could see past skin and muscle, down to the marrow of bone. “Are you certain about tonight, Bretagne? This Savior of St.

Giles business has taken on a life of its own.”

Percy snorted. “The Savior of St. Giles? What foolery. The gossip rags have outdone themselves with that one.”

“You can’t go around bankrupting gaming hells and not expect anyone to notice.”

“There is only one man whose notice I care to attract.”

“Well, you’ve single-handedly shut down two of his hells, so you can feel confident on that score. But the papers have noticed, too. You’re becoming a bloody folk hero.”

Percy waved off Hortense’s concerns. “Is that all?”

She persisted. “You’re open to exposure. It can be used against you.”

Her jaw set in determination. Percy had come to know that look from years of working by her side on the Continent, cracking codes and gathering information for Crown and Country. She was like a terrier with a bone once she got something between her teeth, and she wasn’t letting this go, which, of course, was why he’d involved her in the first place. In truth, she was the most perfect agent he’d ever known.

A few months ago, before he’d caught wind of his enemy’s illicit activities, Percy might have paid her worries more attention. But, tonight, he would allow her qualms no air to breathe, not when he had the scents of peril and possibility in his nose. Since stepping foot on English soil, he’d been most alive on these nights when he actively worked toward the destruction of Lord Bertrand Montfort.

Somehow, somewhere along the way, Percy had lost the talent for the aristocratic London life he’d once been so exceptionally good at living. A life he’d shed a dozen years ago on a scarred Spanish mountain pass that had been blown to bits by Napoleon’s army.

It was Montfort who had, at last, found Percy, his memory ripped to shreds.

And Montfort who had ensured it stayed that way, as that version of Percy had perfectly suited Montfort’s purposes.

With Percy returned to England, Montfort’s account had come due.

“We shall have everything we need on Montfort tonight, if all goes to plan,” Percy said. “Then you can return to spying on rich men’s cheating wives.”

“Don’t forget rich ladies’ cheating younger lovers.” Hortense shrugged one shoulder. “It pays well.

Still, it has felt good these last few months, getting back into the thick of an operation.”

Percy loosened the constrictive silk cravat at his neck before adjusting one, then the other, of the cuff studs at his wrists. It had been some time since he’d dressed in evening blacks. “Do I look the part?”

“Of debauched, entitled lord determined to fritter his life away on a single roll of the dice?” Hortense’s mouth twitched. “Aye, I’d say you’re hitting that nail on the head.”

Percy chucked her beneath the chin. “Cheeky.”

The seriousness returned to Hortense’s eyes. “I’ll be waiting in a hackney cab behind the building until dawn.”

Percy lifted an eyebrow. “I doubt—”

“I’ll be there.” Hortense deposited the serving tray onto the nearest table with a loud clank and disappeared into the crowd, this role complete.

Hortense’s concerns vanished with her as Percy stepped from the alcove and considered the room. He was champing at the bit to dismantle this place by using its own vices against it.

“Why if it isn’t Lord Percival Bretagne,” came a public school drawl.

Percy stopped dead in his tracks and met the gaze of one booze-soaked Lord James Asquith, Earl of Pembroke, standing at a hazard table, one hand braced on green baize, the other idly curled around a crystal tumbler of brandy. The man was heir to the infamous Marquess of Clare and older brother to Nick. Blast. London could be small as a country village.

“Pembroke,” Percy acknowledged. “Hazard’s your game?”

Pembroke gave an indifferent shrug of the shoulder. “The game hardly makes a difference. In search of a little oblivion, like everyone else.” He craned his head and fixed cold gray eyes on Percy. The same eyes as Nick’s, but not the same at all. Pembroke’s were dissolute, jaded, and utterly, utterly bored. “Seeking the same?”

Percy nodded. It was clear Pembroke hadn’t a care, but the man was Nick’s brother, and Percy couldn’t just leave it. He angled his body so only Pembroke could hear his next words. “You need to clear out of here.”

A sardonic eyebrow lifted. “Concern about my moral well-being? From you, of all people?”

“Hardly,” Percy said, ignoring that last bit. His licentious reputation didn’t bother him as much as Society would like. “This night will have consequences. You won’t wish to become embroiled.”

Pembroke shot Percy a glance, surprisingly penetrating and sober. Then he returned his attention to the table action for a few more tosses of the dice that lost him an additional fifty quid before draining his tumbler in two great swallows. He gathered up his remaining counters and, without another word to Percy, shambled his way through the room, nimbly avoiding every strumpet who threw herself into his path. Percy slid into Pembroke’s vacated spot and set his ivory counters onto green baize. The night was set to begin.

Of a sudden, the hairs on the back of Percy’s neck prickled, and he felt it, someone’s gaze upon him. He followed the feeling around until he located the source on the far side of the room: a woman, veiled and dressed in all black. Number 9’s madam, presumably.

Unease began a slow crawl through him. Most of the madams he’d encountered in his short tenure as the Savior of St. Giles possessed a certain bearing, a brazen flash of the eye, a daring pout of the lips, and a view toward the winning angle. None of them hid behind layers of black lace.

Yet he detected a litheness to her figure suggesting freshness and, confoundingly, youth. In his experience, madams were neither fresh nor young.

The prickling sensation spread. It could be interpreted as a physical response to intrigue, but, in truth, it felt not unlike the initial stir of desire. He instantly tamped it down and pursued the other interpretation. What was her game?

“Dingo?”

Dingo. His nickname from long past Eton days. Blast.

He half pivoted to find Chauncey Talbot-Spiffington, otherwise known as Runt, waiting with an expectant look on his face. When Percy glanced back, he found the woman gone.

A beat of silence went on a tick too long. Runt’s bushy eyebrows drew together and released. The man’s feet shuffled with unease. “Just arrived in Town, have you?”

“It’s been a few months.”

“And you didn’t call on me?” Runt asked, hurt running through the question.

Percy barely contained a snort. He hadn’t the time or inclination to soothe a grown man’s wounded feelings.

“Your scar,” Runt began and trailed.

Percy felt himself go tight about the mouth.

Runt, ever the sensitive one of the old Etonian pack, must have noticed, for he continued in an obsequious rush, “It’s quite fashionable and . . . and da-dashing!”

Percy wouldn’t touch his fingertips to the scar, its silvery length running along the ridge of his right cheekbone, put there by the single slash of a French saber, his last memory before a well-aimed—or poorly, depending on one’s point of view—cannon shot blacked out his world.

“Of course, we’ve all heard tattle about your exploits, Dingo.” Runt’s expression turned commiserative. “Wouldn’t have expected such behavior from Olivia, though.”

Percy clenched his jaw. Olivia. The woman who had once been his wife. The wife he’d left on this side of the Channel for a dozen years, letting her—and the world—think him dead. Once she’d been alerted to his continued existence, she’d petitioned Parliament—with the assistance of his own father, the Duke of Arundel—to set the marriage aside and succeeded, rendering the daughter he’d never met, Lucy, a bastard.

Lucy.

The pang of guilt hit Percy with its familiar swift, sharp jab to the gut, as it always did when he thought of his daughter.

No, Percy wouldn’t be discussing Olivia or any of his family with Runt. He would only have to defend them—for they were absolutely in the right. Runt was determined to revisit the past. So, let them, and be done with it. “Where is Chippers?” Percy asked. This was the nickname for Lord Phineas Featherstone.

“Checking the betting books,” Runt supplied.

Percy plowed on with his line of questioning. “And Bongo?” Lord Jarvis Smythe-Vane.

“Oh, he didn’t come out tonight. His gout, you know.”

Percy hadn’t, but no surprise there. “And Tuppy?” Lord Harold Ponsonby.

“Tupping a wench upstairs, what else?”

Right. “And Bumpy?” Lord Basil Arbuthnot.

Runt jutted his chin toward a point behind them. “Passed out in a chair.”

Percy glanced back and spotted the unconscious man, a thread of drool hanging from his open mouth.

And that was the old Eton tribe accounted for.

To survive Eton, a boy needed a tribe, and they’d formed one based on their shared status as younger sons, spares to the heirs. With no expectations placed upon them, they’d been free to be useless to a one, and they’d run with it, Percy included. In fact, as the younger son of a powerful duke, he’d been their leader. And they were exactly who he would have become had he not sped off to the Continent and war on a wave of misguided foolhardiness. Reckless vainglory had its uses.

But Runt and his cohort weren’t the worst part of his past. Not even close.

Across the hazard table, the croupier caught his eye. “Your toss, monsieur,” the man called out in a light French accent.

Percy found a pair of dice in his hand and gave himself a mental shake. Tonight, he had an opportunity to send the worst part of his past to the devil. It was time to get on with it. “Stay if you like, Runt, but I have work to do.”

“Work?” Runt asked, as if startled by the very concept. “This is pleasure, old man.”

“For some.”

One hour later

Oblong green baize stretched ahead of Percy, a pair of dice rattling in his hand. Gathered round this hazard table stood a moneyed, bleary-eyed crowd breathless in anticipation of his next cast.
“Dingo,” whined Runt’s voice beside him, “haven’t you had enough?”

Percy smirked down at the man. When had Lord Percival Bretagne ever had enough of anything? Never once in his life had he been able to resist raising the stakes when the opportunity presented itself.

Again, he rattled the dice, this time for effect. Another thrill of anticipation shimmered through air dank with bodies long in need of a wash and a sleep. He opened his hand. “Blow on my dice for good luck.”

The ever-faithful Runt heaved a resigned sigh before doing as his old leader commanded. “Aren’t you happy with your winnings?”

“Happy?” Percy scoffed.

Happiness had become an abstract concept the day he’d engaged in his first battle on the Peninsula, acrid cannon smoke filling his lungs, rifle bullets whizzing past his ear, and the realization sunk deep into his bones that they weren’t playing toy soldiers. The stakes were infinitely higher, of life and death, and Death wasn’t playing around. In fact, judging by the broken, bloodied bodies strewn about the ground in twisted poses of which only contortionists and the dead were capable, it had become clear that Death was winning. Death always won. It was simply a matter of putting off the inevitable for as many seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years as one could manage and somehow make a difference in lives in the meantime.

How was happiness possible after one had come face-to-face with this reality?

Percy didn’t place much value in the concept of happiness. It only mattered what he did, not how he felt. Feeling had only gotten him into trouble in the past.

But this . . . A wicked smile curled up one side of his mouth . . . This was mindlessness, a state he could slip into only too readily. How he’d missed it. He let it take him into its embrace and suck him inside as he glanced down at his stacks of winnings. It did appear he might have enough to get management’s attention—and, from there, Montfort’s—yet . . . Percy wanted more.

Percy pushed his winnings, every last farthing, forward, eliciting a chorus of startled gasps, raucous yeahs!, and whistles that split the fuggy air. The only way to have enough—to have everything—was to risk everything.

Percy met the croupier’s gaze across the table. Even as the man appeared to blanch at Percy’s stake, he nodded. The odds were no friend to the reckless aristocrat on this roll, and they both knew it.

The blood whissed through Percy as he stood on the precipice of the unknown. At this moment, his purpose wasn’t solely to wreak revenge and justice upon Montfort. A wickedness flowed in his blood, one that he’d only ever been able to control when he starved it completely. Once fed, even a scrap, it took on a life of its own.

His hand began a slow, relentless shake. With every rattle, the volume of the crowd increased until it crescendoed into a loud roar. The night had been building up to this one fateful toss.

He’d neither nicked nor thrown out on his last roll. If he rolled the main, a seven, the house would win. Sevens were always the best odds.

If he rolled an eight, both the chance and the worst odds in hazard, well, matters would take an interesting turn. He would most definitely gain Montfort’s attention.

Percy flicked his hand open and let the dice fly. Across green baize they hopped, skipped, bounded, and rolled, a series of gasps following their every rotation as they bounced to a stop, their numbers staring up for the world to see.

Percy’s heart galloped in his chest, and he felt as out of breath as if he’d just run a mile at full tilt. He lifted his gaze to meet that of the croupier across the table. A bead of sweat trickled down the side of the man’s face, the smile on his lips turned rictus.

Percy almost felt badly for the croupier, for the man would have to answer to Montfort. Then Percy considered the lives this place had despoiled and destroyed, families ruined as men were reduced to paupers and women to whores. This man was part of that life.

“I’ll settle up now,” Percy spoke through the charged silence.

The croupier’s throat undulated with a hard swallow. He and Percy both knew that he didn’t have the cash on hand to pay out. He would have to summon his superior. This was the exact series of events that Percy had hoped to set in motion when he’d walked through Number 9’s front door tonight.

He was close, so close his fingers twitched with anticipation. So close was the proof he needed against Lord Bertrand Montfort, younger son of the Earl of Surrey and long-standing servant of Crown and Country. It had taken a few months of poking around to catch the whisper that Montfort had been silently investing in gaming hells and brothels around London. Once he’d held this dark, slippery bit of information, Percy understood that if he kept pursuing this path, he would eventually hold the key to Montfort’s ruin. In their rarefied world of wealth, excess, and privilege, reputation was life, and Percy would see Montfort’s destroyed. A little quid pro quo.

The croupier’s gaze shifted and widened on a point beyond Percy’s left shoulder. That was when Percy felt it: a change in the air, an electric current that rippled through the room as it passed from person to person, brightening eyes and heightening smiles. He pivoted and followed the general gaze until he found the veiled woman, her attention fixed on him.

The world stretched away, receding to a great distance. A path parted for her, she one magnet and he the other. Although he could see nothing of her features beneath the veil, her focus never wavered as she moved forward . . . toward him.

With only a few feet of Persian carpet separating them, she stopped, her lush figure—waist cinched tight, breasts pushed up—somehow on full display beneath all that black lace. Through dense air fogged by cigar smoke and brandy, he caught her scent. Honeysuckle. Another word came to mind. Sunshine. How was it possible a gaming hell madam smelled of summer at its sweetest?

At last, she opened her mouth to speak, only to hesitate at the last moment. No, not hesitate. Women like her didn’t hesitate. She’d paused for effect. “Shall we play for higher stakes?”

Percy blinked. Her voice. It was husky, a lower register than he would have guessed. Further, it held a foreign accent. The night grew more interesting by the moment.

Montfort had sent her. Percy knew it in a flash.

What he didn’t know was why.

Familiar anticipation charged through Percy, urging him on, toward the edge of the precipice that would drop him into the thick of whatever this night—and this woman—held for him. As a spy, he’d loved nothing better than a path that bent at sudden angles.

“Lead the way,” he replied, only just containing a cynical snort. What did Montfort think sending him a whore would accomplish? If this was a stratagem to catch him unawares, it was for amateurs.

The crowd, which had quieted to take in the exchange, burst free and broke into rounds of leers, hoots, and rowdy whistles. The frisson of unease returned and snaked through Percy, as if an unconscious part of himself understood that within this woman lay something he shouldn’t get tangled up in. Except . . .

When had he ever let such a feeling stop him? When hadn’t that feeling, instead, pushed him into the thick of it?

Whatever game Montfort had planned for Percy, he would play.

And he would win.


Also in this series:
Divider

Once Upon A Twelfth Night

Posted July 14, 2020 by Sofie Darling in / 0 Comments

Title: Once Upon A Twelfth Night
Series:
Genre:
Add to Goodreads

The honor of your presence is requested by The Earl and Countess of Stapleton at their house party to celebrate Twelfth Night, the most enchanting night of the year.

Festivities include: a titillating masked ball, ice skating, a romp in the local village, a naughty treasure hunt, midnight kisses in the garden, and the Twelfth Night Ball where holiday magic brings about seven perfect matches …

A Twelfth Night Wager by Christina Alexandra… After spending half her life in service, lady’s companion Adelaide Shipley longs for a modest life of her own making. But a midnight wager with Win Maddox has her dreaming of more. Losing to the silver-tongued barrister would cost her everything, but winning could lead to her dreams coming true forever.

Ruination of a Rogue by Clair Brett… Will Lord Zander Milford find rumination an acceptable outcome if only at the hands of Miss Maria Lightowler?

It Was Only a Kiss by Sofie Darling… Snow falling, the Twelfth Night Ball, a stolen kiss—but no one would’ve expected bespectacled spinster Violet Hotchkiss to be the one stealing a kiss from Bumpstead Hollow’s most eligible bachelor, Will Sinclair. And now that she’s had a taste of passion, she refuses to settle for a life without romance, adventure…or Will.

Christmas Chase by A.S. Fenichel… Sarah Sommers has a plan—find the father who abandoned her and live happily ever after as his beloved daughter. Not even the handsome Lord Monty Witmore with his determination to deliver her to yet another guardian will stop her. Her heart, however, has other ideas about where the chase will end…

Twelve Nights of Ruin by Carrie Lomax… Holly Mayweather was the delight of London society--until her reputation was tarnished by a shocking scandal. Can the spirited beauty find happiness with William Sharp, a stoic former soldier? Or will their wedding vows end with “I don’t”?

What If I Still Love You by Erica Taylor… After a failed elopement ten years earlier, Henry, Earl of Eddington, and Anna, the widowed Viscountess Newcroft, are reunited at his aunt’s Twelfth Night party. As they search the castle for a box of letters left to Henry by his late father, can this star-crossed pair find their way back to each other? Or will fate intervene, again, and separate them for good?

Three Kisses Before Christmas by Tanya Wilde… Wolfstan Robert Ward, the Earl of Wicke and Selborne, lost his head for his best friend’s sister the day he saved her from a frightful bully in their youth. There is just one problem. Rebecca is in love with another man—his cousin. Winning her would take every trick in the book, but what is Christmas if not a time for miracles?

Buy the Book:
Amazon Barnes and Noble iBooks Kobo

Divider

Her Midnight Sin

Posted December 5, 2018 by Sofie Darling in / 0 Comments

Title: Her Midnight Sin
Series: Shadows and Silk #3
Genre:
Add to Goodreads

Like a vengeful Norse god, Captain John Nylander has come from the sea to steal the only home that Callie has ever known. And that might not be all he’s after.

Can a Viking…

Orphaned as a child, Nylander has never known a real home. Now he is ready to leave the dangers of his past behind and put down the roots he has always longed for. The only thing standing in his way is a lanky aristocratic lady who is more at home on the farm than in the ballroom.  And she has secrets…

And a Viscountess…

Callie, the Dowager Viscountess St. Alban, has poured all her energy into making Wyldcombe Grange her home. Managing an estate is not what she dreamed of, but her late husband’s rejection made it clear that love and a family would never be hers. Now she may lose even that to the sinfully handsome Captain. But Nylander is making her dream again…

Turn passion into love?

Nylander inspires a recklessness in Callie that she can’t control. Soon she finds herself conspiring with pirates and contemplating midnight trysts with the very Viking who has turned her life upside down. For Nylander, being with Callie embodies everything he’s always wanted—home. As midnight strikes, will all their secret, sinful dreams come true?

Buy the Book:
Amazon Barnes and Noble iBooks Audible

Excerpt:

Chapter One

London
14 September 1825
If you’re goin’ to have a wife, you might as well tup her right.

That bit of wisdom came courtesy of a father long lost to John Nylander, but the essence of the sentiment had somehow stuck after all these years.

A man didn’t need to love his work to do it well.

This belief had taken Nylander far, from cabin boy to captain of the Fortuyn, the East Indiaman currently being defreighted beneath his watchful eye on the banks of the muddy Thames. If he no longer derived pleasure from the work, he did, at least, experience the cold satisfaction of a job done with skill and precision. It didn’t need to thrill him.

A breeze swirled off the river and cooled the beads of perspiration coating his neck. Pleasing, that north wind on the exposed patch of skin, even if it did little to lower the heat of exertion that didn’t want to abate. It was as if he contained a furnace inside his chest. All of a sudden, his head went light, and he reached for the rail at his side. The feeling passed as quick as it had come on.

“Captain?”

The First Mate stood at his side, a sheaf of papers extended and an expectant look in his eye. How long had the man been standing there? And how was it Nylander hadn’t noticed?

“Yes, Mr. Smythe?”

“The final accounting, sir.”

Nylander accepted the papers with a curt nod. He shuffled through the stack, a cursory glance confirming the numbers all lined up, and handed them back to the mate. “It’s ready for the hands of Danner.”

“I’ll rush it to the warehouse now, sir.” Mr. Smythe pivoted on his heel, his efficient step already on the move.

From his vantage point at the base of the main mast, Nylander watched a group of sailors set about rolling fifty barrels of spices and dyes—payment for delivering a pair of high-spirited Thoroughbreds to an Ottoman sultan—down the gangway to the warehouse to be readied for distribution through England. Escaped from the poop deck, a flock of chickens clucked past, brushing Nylander’s trousers with their affrighted wings. A swift apology on his lips, the mess boy raced behind them and attempted to contain the fractious birds.

Nylander shifted his gaze toward the waist of the ship, where the cooper set about repairing gunpowder barrels damaged by a rough night of roiling seas off Cape Vares. Beyond the cooper, a group of men inspected the rigging and sailcloth for rips and signs of wear beneath the watchful eye of the boatswain.

Temptation, sly and magnetic, tugged at Nylander. In a matter of an hour, they could weigh anchor and be gone from London, a town he’d never had much use for. They’d already waded through the necessary bureaucracy of the Pool, and the last of their small cargo was now rolling off the ship. Their work here was nearly done.

But it wasn’t anything related to his trade that stayed the command to weigh anchor in his mouth, rather it was a personal tie. He’d promised his oldest friend in the world that he would attend a dinner tonight, and he wouldn’t beg off. Even if it was a meal that would consist of, at minimum, seven full courses soaked in butter, cream, and salt. What did a man need with such rich fare that was like as not to give him gout?

He breathed out a snort. What sort of man was Jake now that he’d become the noble Viscount St. Alban? The two of them had been inseparable in their youth and early manhood spent aboard small sloops, trading up and down the coasts of the Orient, before they’d graduated to the larger merchantman vessels that could handle the open sea. A few years younger, Nylander had observed Jake with the keen eye of a worshipful little brother, and Jake had treated him as such, though no blood connected them. The Van Rijns, Jake’s Dutch mother’s family, were a tight-knit bunch, but not so insular that they hadn’t been able to admit an orphan of eight years into their midst and raise him as their own.

Now Jake existed in a rarefied world that Nylander hadn’t the faintest notion of.

He shook his head free of the thought. He may not know Jake’s new world, but he knew the man. Jake hadn’t asked for this life, hadn’t wanted it. For his own part though, Nylander couldn’t understand why. If he had the opportunity to own land, English land, he’d seize it with both hands and never look back. A man put roots down in land. The sea was a shiftless, impermanent mistress. He would take land over water any day.

Of course, water was all he’d ever known, all he would ever know. He’d accepted that fact years ago. How many orphaned boys were offered the opportunity to rise as high and amass the amount of wealth as he had?

“You might have a problem,” sounded a voice behind him.

Nylander jerked around. Tall and lean to the bone, the man before him personified the word trouble, wolfish light glimmering in his dark eyes and silvery scar racing along the sharp ridge of his right cheekbone. He’d picked up the man in Gibraltar, accepted his coin for safe passage, and spoke not another word to him for the duration. He’d expected the passenger had made his way off the Fortuyn with the other cargo.

He squared up to the man and crossed his arms over his chest. “What problem?”

“The Free Reaver.”

Nylander didn’t need to ask the man to explain himself.

“It followed us all the way from the Bay of Biscay until we came within sight of Cornwall.” The man’s gaze glittered. “Never knew a pirate barque to allow an East Indiaman with cargo to pass without incident. Curious, wouldn’t you say?”

Nylander unclenched his jaw. “Might you be making an implication?” he asked on a low rumble of menace.

A sardonic twist to his mouth, the man shook his head. “More of an observation. You know who captains the Free Reaver, I expect.”

“Aye,” Nylander grunted. “There’s not a sailor in the Atlantic who doesn’t.”

The man nodded and shifted his carryall bag to his back. “Then I’ll be taking my leave.” The man’s hand shot out for Nylander to shake. “My most sincere thanks for the ride, and Godspeed, Captain.”

Nylander’s brow creased as he watched the man stride down the gangway. To his ear, a note had ribboned through the man’s final words that ran counter to his initial assessment. Just now, the man had sounded aristocratic.

Nylander gave his head a shake. It mattered not. What mattered was that he was gone. A history lay within that man, one he didn’t want to get tangled up in.

You might have a problem.

There was no might about it. He had a most definite problem with the Free Reaver and the pirate who commanded her.

And no solution.

Around Nylander, the pace of the crew began to slow, the day’s end drawing near, as was tonight’s dinner. Beads of sweat had coalesced into a narrow rivulet that now trickled down his spine. The north wind grew stronger, threatening to pick up into the sort of gale that could give a ship trouble on the open sea. His eyes cast upward to the blue sky darkening into steel gray. A chill stood the hairs of his arms on end, yet the furnace raged on inside him.

Directly above his head, a loud pop and snap of hemp ripped through the air, followed by the swift zhush of rope rushing through rigging at a too-rapid velocity. Just as his brain registered that an object was falling, fast, he heard a shout. “Captain!”

Nylander’s gaze shot up in time to see an object . . . a man . . . closing in on him as quick as gravity allowed. He ducked backward before the man crashed down on his head, but at the last moment, reactively, he reached his arms out and stabilized his feet for the coming blow. The man slammed into him with the force of a thirty-six pound cannonball at short range, but his arms held, even if his legs didn’t. In an instant, he was flat on his arse, the inert weight of the man sprawled across his legs, and struggling to catch the breath that had been knocked out of his lungs.

Through a haze black at the edges, Nylander watched the crew roll the man off him and onto his back. As if from a great distance, he saw it was the cabin boy. Well, boy might be a stretch, the man was two and thirty years, but he was small as a lad of twelve. Nylander had a strict policy of refusing any crew member under the age of seventeen.

A sailor bent low over the cabin boy’s supine body, his ear pressed against the man’s mouth. The ship went so still, one could hear a pin drop. The sailor’s head popped up. “’E’s alive!”

The men erupted into a raucous, relieved cheer. “Ye saved ’im, cap’n!” one of the crew called out. Another crewmate held up a ragged end of rope. “Snapped clean through. Rot, I expect.”

Several slaps of good cheer landed on Nylander’s back as he came to his feet by slow increments, his body angered at what his mind had commanded without a second thought. What the blazes had he been thinking? He hadn’t. It was ever his difficulty in a situation that called for quick, decisive action. He saw a problem and became the solution before he thought.

He paid the price later, without fail. Like now.

He ran his hands through loose hair that brushed his shoulders and reknotted the leather tie that held it in place at the nape of his neck, tucking a few errant strands behind his ear.

“Sure as I stand ’ere, ’e’da bin done for if ye’d not been steppin’ in,” Nylander heard behind him and tried not to flinch at another jovial slap to his back. He needed a long soak in a steaming tub. His back, his arse, his entire body barked its displeasure from head to toe, unwilling to understand that he hadn’t a choice. The man would have died.

Not on his watch.

Watch. He fumbled his timepiece out of his pocket. Bloody hell.

The long soak would have to wait. He had just enough time to sponge off the grime of the day’s work and don his one set of fancy clothes. He swallowed back a surge of nausea, ignored the heat pulsing through him in waves and the nascent ache in his head, and willed his body to straighten to its full height before pointing his feet in the direction of his cabin.

He had an aristocratic dinner to attend in his too near future when all he really wanted was to lie down for the next, oh, three or four years.

Her boots a swift click-clack against cobblestones that matched the gray sky above, Callie kept her chin high and her mien calm. The outside world needn’t see the storm that swirled inside her.

Her raging case of nerves came down to two factors. One, she was in London. Two, she hadn’t the faintest idea why she’d been summoned five days ago.

It couldn’t be good. That she knew with certainty.

She loathed London. Its haste, hustle, and bustle. Its grime. Its stench. Its buildings, narrow and long, crammed shoulder to shoulder, and possessed of the vaguely military look of tall, skinny soldiers holding their collective breath. She’d only been here once before, and that was enough. Already, she was champing at the bit to leave.

Her grip tightened around the worn leather handle of her travel bag to still her tremble. Again, the question pressed in: Why on earth had the Viscount St. Alban beckoned her?

The man hadn’t invited her all the way from the north coast of Devon to meet face-to-face and discuss agriculture. She’d been running Wyldcombe Grange since her late husband Georgie’s death and before this new Viscount St. Alban had taken up the reins of the viscountcy. The man had never once expressed a desire to know her better, or at all, as the case was. Which further begged the question: What did the man want?

She rounded the corner onto Cleveland Row, scanning the houses to her left and right. Number 3 lay ahead. A most disagreeable possibility for the viscount’s summons poked at her. Namely, he was a man, and she a woman. Like a majority of men, he might be uncomfortable with a woman in charge. She’d met plenty of that sort of man these last few years.

Caution in her tread, no small amount of anxiety, too, she ascended the four wide steps of Number 3. She’d only stayed here the once, and that was years ago, in the first year of her marriage. Her preference for the country had suited Georgie’s preference for Town perfectly.

Her head tipped back until her neck ached as she took in the measure of the mansion. In the dusky light of impending night, the manse gleamed and shone, announcing to the world that though it might be part of it, it was also above it. Even the fetid London air smelled better here.

Shoulders squared, she tapped the door knocker once, twice, thrice for good measure, and waited. If St. Alban had called her here because she was a woman, well, she wouldn’t surrender with a whimper. Male or female, she was the first person to run the Grange in the black in twenty years.

Like a nagging muscle ache, a familiar thought wiggled into her mind. Another option did lay open to her. You can walk away.

She was still somewhat young, having been widowed two years ago at age three and twenty. It wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that her father could arrange another marriage for her. She wasn’t naive enough to hope for a love match, Georgie’s reaction to her physical person was a testament to that impossibility. But a woman didn’t need the conditional love of a man, not when she had the unconditional love of her child.

She could quit the Grange and pursue that life. Wife, mother, the roles she’d been promised, that had been denied her. But . . .

She loved the Grange. And, in some ways, wasn’t it like her child?

But does it love you back?

Of course not. But the work was satisfying, and she had a knack for it. She wasn’t about to give it up, not without a fight.

On silent hinges the Viscount St. Alban’s front door swung inward, and an elegant, liveried servant stared out at her, a question in his eyes for three heartbeats too long. Awareness of the country bumpkin she must appear crept through her. Her woolen travel pelisse and gown, unadorned brown and a good five years out of fashion. Her boots, black and practical, possibly still coated with Devonshire mud. And, of course, her duck-cloth travel bag, drab gray and frayed at the edges.

She’d never managed to be in fashion, or to care that she wasn’t. It was simply out of the realm of possibility for her. She was too unfashionably tall; her body too unfashionably skinny; her eyes too unfashionably brown; and her hair too unfashionably red and frizzy for her to have ever been a fashionable Miss, even in the very first blush of her youth. So, she’d shrugged her too bony shoulders and stopped trying.

Now, standing on the stylish doorstop at this most fashionable address, she considered that she could’ve given it more of an effort.

At last, the servant took pity on her and spoke. “May I be of assistance?”

Callie resquared her shoulders and drew herself up to her fullest height, which was half an inch shy of six feet. “Inform the Viscount St. Alban that the Viscountess St. Alban has arrived.” A hesitation. “Please.”

The servant’s eyebrows shot skyward. Aristocrats didn’t say please. Ever. “The Viscountess St. Alban? I believe his lordship is fully aware of the Viscountess St. Alban’s whereabouts as she and he are in the drawing room with their guests.” A heavy beat loped past. “Together.”

The hot splotch of a blush spread across Callie’s chest and up her neck, and she silently thanked her lucky stars for her unfashionably high collar. Her preference for blouses that buttoned all the way up to her chin made it impossible for anyone to know that she blushed three times a day, at a minimum. She cleared her throat and attempted to right the conversation that had gone horribly sideways. “The Dowager Viscountess St. Alban.”

On a deferential bow, the servant retreated three steps and swung the door wide. “Of course, my lady. If you will follow me.”

Callie stepped inside the bright and spacious foyer. As a child, she’d imagined the homes of the aristocracy stuffed to the brim with every expensive thing in the world, like her parents had done with their nouveau riches. But when she’d actually entered one of those homes upon her engagement to Georgie, she’d found the opposite to be true. Those with power and privilege allowed a few priceless pieces—a Ming vase, a Roman Venus—to speak their wealth for them. Understatement shouted infinite privilege like no amount of gilded finery ever could.

And she had no use for any of it, never had.

Footsteps echoed as she followed the servant into the study, pleasantly dark with rich woods and floor-to-ceiling shelves surely packed with every book known to mankind. She’d only ever been in this room once, but she was certain not one book had populated it when Georgie had been its master.

“If you will please wait here, I shall see if his lordship is in.”

“You said he’s in the drawing room with his wife and guests. Of course, he’s in.” Callie never had an ounce of patience for London manners.

A smile teetering on the edge of distress creased the servant’s face. He bowed in polite goodbye before shuffling through the doorway and out of sight.

“For pity’s sake,” Callie exclaimed to the empty room. Getting to a viscount in London was like peeling away the layers of an onion to reach its stinking center.

In Devonshire, it wasn’t possible for a lord to remain so insulated from the world outside the manor. That wasn’t to say a country lord couldn’t try. Georgie had, an effort that had run the Grange into the ground.

Movement caught at the corner of her eye. A man radiating confidence with every step strode into the room. He could be none other than the Right Honorable Jakob Radclyffe, Fifth Viscount St. Alban, the personification of the ideal aristocratic lord. And the exact opposite of the Viscount St. Alban who had preceded him in both appearance and bearing.

Georgie hadn’t been so very tall. Or so very imposing. Or so very unabashedly handsome. Except this man’s handsomeness wasn’t at all pleasing to Callie’s eye. His were the sort of looks that could be used as a weapon. With the man’s arrival in the room, the tremble had returned to her hands.

“If it isn’t the Dowager Viscountess St. Alban,” he said, the words spoken on a friendly enough note, even if a slender thread of irony might have woven through them. “Nice to put a face to the name.” He gestured toward a plush leather chair opposite the room’s grand oak desk. “Would you care to have a seat?”

On a silent nod, Callie lowered herself to a perch on its firm edge and settled her travel bag at her feet, keeping it close at hand. She wouldn’t be making herself comfortable. Her fists clenched tight at her sides, and her nails dug deep crescents into her palms, the pain enough to stay the tremor. Across shiny oak, eyes the disconcerting blue of a pale-eyed sheepdog observed her. They were the sort of blue that bore into skin and bone, straight to the essence. Her heart banged out a hard, unsteady thud.

St. Alban slouched deep into his chair, at absolute ease. “I take it the roads were clear. We weren’t expecting you until the morrow.”

Callie willed a steady voice. It wasn’t that she lacked the courage to deal with this man, but it so happened that her future lay in his hands. “Yes, your lordship.” The words emerged soft and skittish, unlike the confident and commanding voice her workers at the Grange knew. How she hated London, this room, and this blasted cocksure man, what they reduced her to. “There wasn’t a drop of rain the entire journey.”

“Remarkable. And you came here straightaway?”

“From the Gloucester Coffee House.”

“In Piccadilly?”

“That was the final stop. I walked from there.”

“Most ladies don’t walk in London, particularly those unfamiliar with its environs.”

Callie shrugged. “It’s not a far distance by Devon standards.”

St. Alban drummed contemplative fingertips on solid oak a few rounds. He gave one final tap, shot to his feet, and strode to the brass whiskey cart situated near the bay window overlooking a garden. Callie intuited he wasn’t the sort of man who sat still for long.

“Would you like tea to be brought in? You must be exhausted after all your breakneck journeying and walking.” He held up a crystal decanter possessed of the amber glow that characterized a fine whiskey. “Or perhaps you’d prefer a drop more bracing?”

“Neither, my lord,” she spoke around the lump in her throat. If she could hear it, surely he could, too.

He poured a few fingers into an etched crystal tumbler before returning to his seat. Again opposite each other, they resumed staring across the desk. It was possible she would crawl out of her skin if the man didn’t state his business soon.

“You’re wondering why I summoned you to London.”

She nodded. Her voice had proven unreliable.

“How long have you resided at Wyldcombe Grange?”

“These last five years.” She swallowed. “Upon my marriage to the late Fourth Viscount St. Alban.”

“And do you enjoy the Grange?”

“Enjoy?” she asked, nonplussed despite her nerves. “Enjoyment has naught to do with it. The Grange is my life.”

St. Alban’s head cocked, assessing. He was trying to decide what kind of woman she was. “I appreciate your forthrightness, so I’ll return you the favor. Simply put, I’m selling the Grange.”


Also in this series:

Click the button to listen to a clip of the audio version of Her Midnight Sin.