Book 1 > Lords of Deception
Lord Grey Adlard entered White’s gentlemen’s club, intent on one purpose—to find and wring the neck of Gravenhurst, his former best friend as of roughly twenty minutes ago. Before Grey got two steps into the entranceway, Henry, White’s stuffiest and Grey’s favorite footman, appeared.
“Milord, may I take your hat and coat?” As usual, Henry’s droopy eyelids made it hard to gauge his reaction, but Grey bet his soggy state shocked the proper footman. Hell, it shocked him, and he was far from proper.
He held out his dripping coat and hat, trying to ignore the water pattering against the floor from his garments. He looked like a damn fool. At Henry’s annoyed inhalation, Grey narrowed his eyes, daring Henry to say a word. After being forced to traverse down a thorny rose trellis and take an unplanned midnight swim in a freezing lake to escape the sudden appearance of Lady Julia’s irate father, Grey was in no mood for Henry’s reproach. “Is Gravenhurst here?”
“Of course.” Henry took Grey’s coat with the tips of his fingers and eyed it distastefully. “Lord Grey, you are dripping on my floor.”
Grey glanced at the puddle at his feet, his neck warming in irritation. His favorite shoes were ruined, not to mention his trousers. Tiny rips covered the front of the fine, black material. Gravenhurst would pay to replace these, if he decided to let the man live. “Sorry, Henry. Might I have a towel?”
“You might. But first, you must promise no fisticuffs. I’d hate to have you and Lord Gravenhurst thrown out again.”
Grey scanned White’s for Gravenhurst. He found the man positioned diagonally from the entranceway, one blond eyebrow raised, left foot propped leisurely on his right knee, coat off, cravat loose, drink in hand, and perfectly dry. The man deserved to be dumped in the lake. “Might I have that towel before I catch my death?”
“Milord, your promise?”
Henry’s brazenness made Grey smile. He preferred audacity over timidity any day. “You’re impertinent.” He said it to goad Henry. The man’s sharp-witted responses never disappointed.
Henry’s mouth twitched upward in a faint smile. “I’m afraid so, milord. We’re very busy, and short-staffed.”
Bollocks. There was no fun to be found anywhere tonight. “Fine. I promise no fisticuffs.” He dried himself with the towel Henry handed him. When he was as dry as he could manage, he handed the towel to Henry. “I’d like to remind you that my fight with Gravenhurst was years ago.”
“All I remember are the broken chairs and tables, milord.”
Grey eyed Henry. “Gravenhurst and I are now far too old and wise to engage in fisticuffs inside White’s.” Outside was implied, of course.
“I agree with too old.” Henry’s eyebrows rose in challenge.
Entertainment at last. “You know—” Grey ran a hand through his disheveled, wet, hair. “—I’m not sure why I put up with your insolence.”
“I believe, milord, it’s because you know I’m right, and our verbal sparring amuses you.”
“I’ll never admit such a thing,” Grey tossed over his shoulder as he strode away. He nodded to Lords Peter and Perkins, who gaped in return. He could count on those two dimwits to gossip all over Town about his appearance, which if nothing else, would cause his father a moment of discomfort. Grey smiled. The night wasn’t a total loss after all.
He pulled out a chair and sat, his trousers smacking wetly against the wood. The candlelight from the center of the table glowed on Gravenhurst’s tan skin and light hair and made him look wicked. Fitting. No telling what the man was up to now. “Do not,” he said as Gravenhurst started to snicker, “laugh or say a word to me until I’ve had a drink or I’ll rearrange your nose for you, which might be an improvement to the crooked thing.”
Grey grabbed the full glass Gravenhurst put in front of him and downed the liquor. A slow warmth started in his mouth and spread to his chest, pushing away a little of the iciness clinging to his damp skin. He would need a least two more drinks to warm himself and cool his irritation, but now he could talk civilly. Setting his glass down, he leaned back and allowed himself to relax for the first time in over an hour. “Your information was incorrect.”
“You don’t say?” Gravenhurst replied, a smile pulling at his lips. “I thought as much when I saw you enter. So her father’s back in Town?”
“He is indeed.”
“Bollocks. I’m sorry, Grey.”
“Think nothing of it. I almost broke my neck climbing down a rickety trellis and nearly froze to death swimming in their lake escaping, but don’t hold yourself accountable for giving me incorrect information.”
“Seems to me being caught by Lord Blackborn in his daughter’s bedroom would’ve been the perfect opportunity to finally get your father’s notice.”
“I stopped wanting my father’s notice ten years ago. I’m perfectly happy being the invisible second son of the mighty Duke of Ashdon.” He ignored the inner twitch that always occurred when he lied. Someday, he’d master that reaction.
“So your constant exploits are for—?”
“Irritating him.” He wasn’t about to begin exploring why he acted as he did. He had an agreement with himself to never examine his actions toward his father. So far, the agreement had worked out perfectly. He raised his hand and signaled the server for another glass of whiskey. “It’s a perverse but enjoyable pastime. One I’ll not see ended by being snagged in marriage with a lady like Julia who beds all who take her fancy. That would irritate me, not my father.”
Gravenhurst regarded Grey over the rim of his glass. “If you really want to shock and irritate your father, I have a way.”
Grey leaned his elbows on the table. The sympathetic look on Gravenhurst’s face bothered Grey more than his wet state. Pity, even from his best friend, made him uncomfortable. “I want nothing more than to be the exact opposite sort of man than my stick-up-the-arse father. What’s this way you speak of?”
“Marie Vallendri is now living in Golden Square. I propose we go there tomorrow, you meet her and invite her to your parent’s country party.”
“That’s brilliant.” Grey slid his chair back and stood. “Father hates anyone French, and he’ll despise a former rumored courtesan of Napoleon’s, famous opera singer or not, dining across from him at dinner.”
“You’ll really do it?” Gravenhurst’s face had gone pale.
Grey chuckled. He hadn’t been sure, but now he was. Passing up a chance to shock Gravenhurst was out of the question. “Were you trying to call my bluff? Really Grave, you should know better. Pick me up at ten and we’ll make our way to Golden Square. By dinner tomorrow night, I expect Miss Vallendri to be my newest mistress and sitting at my parents’ table eating turtle soup.” Never mind he didn’t particularly want a new mistress. That wasn’t what this was really about. “If this doesn’t make my father want to secure me a commission and send me far from him, I don’t know what will.”
“You’re sure this is wise?”
“I’m sure it’s not, and that’s what makes it perfect,” Grey said and strode toward the door with as much dignity as he could muster over the squishing of his shoes.
~ ~ ~
Lady Madelaine Aldrige scrambled out of the hired hackney and tugged on her dearest friend Abigail Langley’s hand. “Do hurry.”
Madelaine nearly careened down the steps when Abigail jerked her hand away. She whirled around to face her friend. “Why’d you do that?”
The bright morning sun in her eyes made it hard to see Abigail’s expression, but her frown was apparent in her tone. “Look at these people.” Abby cast her voice low, though only God above knew why she bothered.
“No one can hear you, Abby.” Madelaine raised her voice above the merry music drifting from Golden Square and scanned the perimeter of London’s art district. Vendors lined the streets with their wares and mulled about in small clusters while laughing and joking. The sight was glorious. Ladies strolled along the paths without chaperones or companions, couples sprawled in the grassy banks on blankets with picnics and art canvases clustered around them, jugglers performed by the spouting fountains and in the distance Madelaine could swear she saw a woman shooting an arrow at a target. Her heart nearly exploded with excitement. There was more to life than following societal dictates! It felt grand to be right about something for once.
She rummaged in her reticule, fumbling in her impatience to find the coins she needed for the hackney driver. Once secured, she paid the man and sent him on his way before Abby changed her mind and forced them both to leave. Abby was a worrier that way. Her friend chewed on her nail, a sure sign she was having serious doubts.
Madelaine linked her arm through Abby’s and led them toward the sound of a trumpet, or was that a saxophone? Who really cared? It was beautiful music filling the air. “Abby, do quit looking as if someone’s going to point at us and shout ‘frauds!’ Artists don’t give a whit about two women from Lancashire coming to explore a little.” At least she didn’t think they did. “We’re safe here. Free to roam around and do exactly as we wish. Artists live as they want without the restrictions of Society.”
“How do you know?”
“I read it in the gossip sheets, so it’s at least half true.”
“I suppose.” Abby did not look convinced with her creased brow. “We cannot stay long. An hour at most.”
Madelaine sighed. “I know.” Why couldn’t her one voyage into freedom and the glorious unknown be longer? “Now stop worrying. We’ll be back at the townhouse long before my father. He’ll never know we were anywhere but Bond Street shopping for ribbon and all the other ridiculous things girls are supposed to love.”
“I do love ribbon.” Abby twirled a strand of her brown, curly hair around her finger.
Madelaine patted her friend. “I know, darling. I can’t for the life of me figure out why. You’re so sensible in every other way. But because I love you so, I left you all my best ribbons in your room.” The fact that it had been an utter relief to leave the ribbon behind didn’t matter. Abby had a gift for twining ribbon in her hair while Madelaine had a knack for somehow getting it knotted in her hair. “You won’t forget me, will you?” Madelaine’s throat suddenly ached with emotion.
Abby clutched Madelaine’s arm tighter as they strolled toward the first row of vendors. “I would never forget you, Maddie, with or without the ribbons. But next time I see you, I daresay you’ll be a proper lady, likely betrothed to a handsome man you meet at Court, and you’ll probably not wish to talk to the housekeeper’s daughter any longer.”
Since she’d never been very good at being a proper lady, Abby’s prediction wasn’t likely to come true. She held in a sigh. She wanted a husband, but she didn’t want to pretend to be someone she wasn’t to get one. Yet, she knew she was odd, and her father wanted her married, no matter the pretense she employed.
“I’d never forget you,” Madelaine swore as she stopped under a pretty tree blooming with pink flowers. Perching on the ledge of the stone wall that surrounded Golden Square, she inhaled the unfamiliar sweet scent. “Let’s sit for a moment and take it all in, shall we?”
Abby nodded and sat beside Madelaine. The sadness that had pressed against Madelaine’s chest since her mother’s death felt lighter here in the square. The lightness was short lived. Tomorrow Father would deposit her at Court where he demanded she find a proper husband to marry. Not even her usual stalling tactics had talked him out of it. “No dallying,” he said. No pressure there. It was only her mother’s dying wish that Father had zealously embraced. She pressed her fingertips to her throbbing temples.
Tomorrow she would be a lady-in-waiting to the queen, manipulated like a puppet by the queen’s dictates. Even if by some miracle Madelaine found a man who suited her, that wanted her in return, the queen’s opinion could sway any match to be denied or accepted. She prayed the queen liked her. If not, life could be intolerable. She couldn’t botch it this time. She’d failed her mother in life, but she would not fail her in her death, nor would she cause her father any more pain and sorrow than she already had. Failing to find a husband, after he’d used his friendship with the king to secure her a position with the queen would mortify her father.
Somehow, she would become a proper lady, though the idea of spending the rest of her life only concerned with sketching, embroidering, and the pianoforte made her clench her teeth. Thank God she had today to do as she pleased. It might be her last ever.
“Come on.” She stood and brushed her skirts off. “I want to eat sticky treats, look at scandalous art, and wander over to that group shooting arrows.”
“The gypsies?” Abby’s voice hitched.
“They’re not going to rob us. It’s broad daylight for goodness sake.”
Abby stood and shielded her eyes. “We can do as you wish for one hour. I won’t have us coming in after your father. There’d be the devil to pay if he found out we disobeyed him.” That was an understatement. “You might be leaving for Court tomorrow,” Abby continued. “But I have to go back to your father’s house and live as his servant. I can’t afford his wrath.”
“Neither can I,” Madelaine muttered. The last fight she’d had with her mother was ever present in her mind. Fresh regret pierced her heart and made her rub at her chest as they walked toward the smell of gooey rolls.
~ ~ ~
“This trip has been a bloody waste,” Grey growled as they made their way out of Marie Vallendri’s townhome and into the bright sunshine of Golden Square. “Who am I going to shock my father with at dinner tonight since Miss Vallendri already has a lover?”
“How about that chit right there.” Gravenhurst pointed toward a band of gypsies who’d set up a shooting booth.
“I said I wanted to shock my father, not give him a death fit.”
Gravenhurst chuckled at Grey’s side. “Look closer. See the tall, pretty brunette? From my experience women with curly hair have rousing personalities to match, and the chit may be dressed as a proper lady, but she wouldn’t be in the art district if she was. She’s ripe for adventure. I say go pluck her.”
“I like your thinking.” Grey studied the woman. “She’s pretty enough but see how her mouth is puckered in disapproval. She’s not here of her choosing. Likely she’d faint if I propositioned her.”
“You may be right. Perhaps you should select a new mistress from Madame Landry’s women.”
“I think not,” Grey said, distracted by the sudden shouting from the group of gypsies. As he moved across the square and closer to the group he could hear wagers being bantered back and forth between the men and women alike. The excited buzz of the crowd was like a drug. He stopped by a sleek-haired gypsy with keen black eyes who struggled to take the money shoved at him while scribbling wagers in a little book.
“What’s the wager?”
The gypsy acknowledged Grey with an upward flick of his eyebrows and a sardonic smile. Grey instantly liked him. “The lady claims she can split the arrow lodged in the target over there.” The man pointed to a target so far away Grey had to squint to see it.
“Impossible. Unless the lady is built like a man. Which lady?” He glanced at the women gathered around the group. A few of them were thick in arm and might be able to do it if they’d been shooting all their lives.
“There. That fair ghel with the sun on her head.”
“The fair what with what on her head?” Grey reached into his coat and brought out a bag of coin.
“Come, I’ll show you.” The gypsy eyed Grey’s coin and then wound through the throng of people. “You going to wager?”
Was he ever. No need to go showing his excitement and get taken advantage of. “Yes, but I’ll see the lady before I decide for or against.”
“And your friend?”
Gravenhurst shook his head. “I’ll keep my funds in my pocket where they belong.”
Leave it to Gravenhurst to try to spoil the fun. Nothing could spoil this novelty though. Grey shrugged. “Sorry—?”
“Romany.” The gypsy stuck out his hand. Grey shook the man’s hand with enthusiasm. His wasted trip was just about to become profitable and entertaining. Toward the inner circle the man stopped behind a woman whose waves of flaxen hair tumbled invitingly down her back and marked her as the woman with the sun on her head. He chortled at the description. What a preposterous idea to imagine the petite creature standing in front of him had the strength to wield the bow and shoot the arrow true enough to split the one already lodged in the target.
She had a right lovely round backside, he’d give her that, but he’d not give her his confidence. He jingled the bag of money with a grin and held it toward Romany who’d begun taking bets again from the people around him. “I’ll put the whole lot on the lady’s failure.”
With a gasp, the woman whirled around and speared him with a dark look as well as nearly stabbing him with her arrow. “You’re mistaken to wager against me, sir.”
There was something invitingly erotic about the pale-skinned, bronze-eyed beauty wrapped in delicate, lilac silk. She looked dainty and helpless yet she wielded a weapon that could kill and boasted of skills no proper lady would dream of admitting. His lust awoke in a heartbeat. This was the woman he needed to prickle his father and push him toward agreeing to secure a commission. “I’ll be happy if you prove me wrong, yet your stature does make me question your abilities, Lady…?”
“Miss Prattle,” she responded with a conspiratorial look at the curly-headed brunette.
“What an unusual name.” He winked to prod her and was rewarded when her eyes rounded.
“Yes, well, Lord…?”
“Drivel.” He could barely contain his amusement.
She burst out laughing, the merry sound making him smile. “Your laugh is lovely,” he said. Instantly, she sobered, eyed him warily and turned her attention downward on her arrow. She was right to be guarded. His blood hummed in his ears with his desire. Forget his parent’s boring dinner. By tonight he’d have this chit in his bed. The contradiction she presented was irresistible. “I’ll put my money on you and give you all my winnings to make up for offending you, but if you lose, you must accompany me to my townhouse.”
“She’ll not!” her friend exclaimed before the lady herself could reply. When the lady gave her friend a cool look, Grey had to work not to show his satisfaction. She was just as interested in him as he was in her. Today was turning out to be splendid, indeed.
“I’ll take your offer.”
“Excellent.” He ignored her friend’s outraged huff and Gravenhurst’s indiscreet snickering into his hands. “There’s much I want to show you.” Grey imagined her excited expression when she saw his collection of archery sets. Her mouth dropped open. By God, the chit thought he was referring to something sexual. Her expression of barely contained outrage was priceless and intrigued him all the more.
“What precisely do you think to show me? Are you a collector of art?”
Her tone was brittle as glass. The challenge of making her pliable in his hands was going to be quite enjoyable. For now, it might do her good to wonder what he was about. “I only have one piece of art that’s worth your seeing.”
At that, Gravenhurst started guffawing but stopped promptly when the brunette lady glared him into ashes. The woman’s obvious protective instinct over her friend was admirable, even if he didn’t like her interference.
“I won’t be seeing your art, but I will take your money,” the blond-haired chit replied before turning away, raising her arrow and saying in a loud, confident voice, “I’m ready.”
Romany and his cronies immediately called for last wagers, collected the money, and then a hush fell over the crowd.
Grey moved so he could see the woman’s face. He was rewarded for his effort. An adorable crease appeared on her forehead as she pulled the bow back with a creak. Her teeth bit down on her lower lip in concentration, and he could see her doing all the same small calculations he did every time he practiced his archery. She tested the tautness of her bow, the weight of her arrow, and the direction of the wind. Her knowledge impressed him. Her weight subtly shifted, but her skirt swished around her ankles and alerted him to her change in stance.
Fascination stilled him. He might lose, but the loss of his money didn’t worry him. Her fingers lifted off the bow and the arrow buzzed through the air true and straight. He’d underestimated her. Her arrow sliced down the middle of the other arrow and a collective gasp, followed by cheers and groans filled the air. He wanted to cheer too, but jaded lords didn’t cheer.
She whooped, her arms flying above her head in victory and her feet leaving the ground with her enthusiasm. He grinned as he watched her. She had real spirit. He no longer gave a damn about needling his father. He wanted to get to know this chit for her sake alone.
She faced him with a grin that lit her whole face. The sight was breathtaking. “I thank you kindly for your money,” she said. He grabbed her arm before she disappeared into the swell of people wanting to congratulate her and those who wanted a chance to earn their money back.
“I’d still love for you to come to my town home.”
“To see your one piece of art?” She tilted her head challengingly to the side.
“No. To see my archery collection.”
“Oh!” The smile on her face filled her eyes and made them shine like polished bronze.
“By God, you’re lovely.” He’d not been so taken with a woman’s beauty since he’d been old enough to understand women used their appearance to scheme and manipulate.
Her light eyebrows tilted into two twin arches as she gently pulled her arm from his grasp. “Thank you.”
“Miss Prattle,” her friend said through clenched teeth. “Our hour is over.
“Tell me your name,” Grey insisted as his intriguing, blonde beauty started backing away from him. He didn’t want her to go. Not yet.
“You already know it.”
“Your real name,” he amended, advancing toward her so she couldn’t simply vanish into the thickening crowd. “I could call on you. Take you to the theatre. Show you things you’ve probably only imagined.”
A lovely pink blush stained her cheeks. “I’ve a great imagination.”
“Then let’s explore it together.” He didn’t give a damn how forward he sounded.
“Enough!” her annoying companion said. “We must go now. It’s been two hours.”
“Two hours!” his beauty gasped. “Dear me. I really must go, but thank you for the offer.”
He sidestepped in front of her and looked down into her upturned face. “Meet me here tomorrow,” he said, desperate to ensure he would see her again. Her indecisiveness showed as she bit on her lip. “I won’t let you leave unless you agree.”
“Whatever it takes.” He loved the word “whatever”. It left so many intriguing possibilities open to explore.
“Please remember that tomorrow.” She sidestepped around him.
A sense of satisfaction filled him. “I’ll see you at the fountain at ten.”
Already a few steps away, she looked over her shoulder. A frown marred her beautiful face. “Goodbye, Lord Drivel.”
He loved that she was willing to play the game. “Fair well, Miss Prattle.”
He watched her depart, her hips rocking enticingly with each step, until he could see her no more. If he was any other sort of man, he would have followed her all the way to her carriage just for a few more minutes in her company. Gravenhurst nudged him in the side. “Do you really think that piece will meet you here?”
“Of course I do. I’d not have let her leave, otherwise.”