London, December, 1820
“You cannot go up there, madam!” The butler, whose cauliflower nose made him look like he had once fought—and lost regularly—for a living, tried to block the stairs.
He had not wanted to grant her admittance to this house, and Maris had really not wanted to enter. What she had to do here was beyond scandalous, and she’d spent her whole life—well, practically her whole life—avoiding scandal like the plague. Never taking a false step or breaking a rule or speaking up for herself.
Except once, and how she regretted that.
Would she regret today? She was trying to convince a strange man to come home with her and—and—she stopped herself from thinking any further.
Maris dodged by the butler and stood at the bottom of a vast marble staircase. One good push from above and one could very easily fall, with no hope of recovery. Marble was hard. As hard as her heart needed to be at present.
“I can, and I will. You will not hit a lady, I am sure.” The Countess of Kelby pinned back her veil and smiled. The effort was nearly painful, as her cheek muscles were unused to the exercise. Maris had spent the last ten years caring for her elderly husband Henry and slaving over his ancient texts, and there had been little occasion to turn up her lips to strangers. But now the earl needed something else done, and the recalcitrant man he had chosen to do it was somewhere upstairs in this den of utter iniquity.
She must speak with him. It was a matter of life and death—his death if he wouldn’t cooperate, she was that angry. Let him tumble down the stairs and break his neck. Henry had counted on him. Placed his trust in him. She had been writing to him for weeks with no response. It was past time he do his duty and go to Kelby Hall and begin the job for which he’d been hired.
She stood in the foyer of the most infamous address in London—the Reining Monarchs Society. Even buried in the country she had heard of the place and the men—and, unbelievably, women—who belonged to the secret club.
Not so secret, after all. It had been a matter of a few shillings and another one of her rare smiles to induce Reynold Durant’s valet to reveal where his employer was spending his misbegotten afternoon.
Two months ago, Reynold Durant probably couldn’t have afforded a valet, or membership in such a place.
The butler crossed his muscled arms before him. “He’s not to be disturbed, madam. I’ll lose my position.”
Maris attempted the smile again. “Then I’ll wait. Right here at the bottom of the stairs. Captain Durant is bound to come down sometime.”
The man’s dismay was comical. “You can’t do that! You’re a—you’re a lady! It’s not proper having someone like you here at all.”
“It’s not proper having anyone here. You must be desperate to work in such an environment.”
The butler’s bloodshot blue eyes dropped to the carpet. “It ain’t so bad. You get used to it.”
Maris could not imagine a more unlikely thing. To get used to unending carnal depravity would simply not be possible. She’d rather jump from the Tower of London than bare her breasts like that brazen woman she’d glimpsed through the open parlor doors. Before she’d blinked away, Maris could have sworn there were jewels on the woman’s nipples—rubies, or at the very least, garnets.
She opened her reticule and fished out some bribe money. She’d have to walk back to her hotel if she had to dole out any more, but it wasn’t far. The Reining Monarchs Society was located right in the heart of Mayfair, conveniently close to the best houses. One had to conserve one’s energy when one was sinning at such a spectacular rate. Captain Durant’s bachelor lodgings were only around the corner.
Her husband Henry had given up his house in Town years ago. Maris had not been to London very often since her unsuccessful Season. It had overwhelmed her then, but she didn’t have time to be frightened now—it was she who planned to do the frightening.
She passed the butler the coins. “I promise I’ll not bother anyone. I’ll just sit in silence in that chair over by the wall. Could you describe Captain Durant so I’ll recognize him when he comes down?”
Maris’s money disappeared with breathtaking speed. “You don’t know him?”
“Not at all,” she said, and wished they didn’t have to become acquainted. A man who restrained and whipped his women was no one she wanted to meet over the breakfast table at Kelby Hall. Or maybe he was the one being bound and beaten? She shuddered at the image.
“He’s a tall one, he is. Dark hair and eyes. Has a saber scar on his cheek, but other than that, I s’pose you’d call him handsome. He was wearing a yellow waistcoat, although I don’t guess he’s got it on now.”
She tripped over the rug at that news and arranged herself on the chair. “Thank you. See? I’m sitting.” Maris folded her gloved hands in her lap. “I don’t imagine there’s any reading material I might peruse while I wait?”
“Nothing the likes of you would enjoy, my lady. There’s a large library here, but the books are what you might call naughty. More pictures than words, if you take my meaning.”
In general, Maris was in favor of expanding her education, but perhaps not in this case. “I take your meaning very well. You’ve been very helpful, Mr.—?”
“Mick Fisher, at your service. Don’t make me sorry I let you wait, now.”
Maris crossed her fingers in the folds of her skirt. “I shall be the soul of discretion. Do carry on.”
She counted to one hundred after Mr. Fisher shuffled his bulk down the hallway, taking in her surroundings. The club’s furnishings were in the first stare of fashion. The carpet was thick and Turkish, the chair comfortably padded, the gilt-framed paintings lurid yet lushly executed. The house was remarkably still for a haven for vice. Maris had lived in the country too long to think that sexual congress, whether committed by humans or animals, was ever quiet.
But it was only two o’clock in the afternoon. Perhaps the society became noisier at night.
Maris had never been touched by her husband unless it was fully dark outside, and inside, too. Henry was as anxious as she to blow out the candles to prevent them both from seeing what was going on.
Or not going on.
Their marital bed had held little joy for him, but it was all so many empty years ago. She’d come to terms with her situation and was not going to let herself dwell on it. Maris was a woman of action now, and the stairs beckoned. Time was of the essence, in so many ways. Who knew when Mr. Fisher might be back to check up on her, or a footman crossed through the hall? Or, God forbid, that scandalously naked woman decided to parade along the Turkey carpet, her nipples sparkling?
Or how long her beloved Henry would live.
Maris practically ran up the steps to the next floor, minding the slippery marble. In her experience, when one wished evil on another, evil frequently had other ideas. She did not intend to fall when the object of her quest was so close.
Judging from the open doors she peeked into, she had found the bedrooms, and odd bedrooms they were. Yes, there were beds—rather giant ones that could hold the average family —but the rooms were fitted with equipment that would be more at home in a stable than a family home. The selection of crops and variety of roping neatly tacked to the flocked walls was astonishing. Where the walls were not wallpapered, they were mirrored, and Maris moved swiftly so she would not glimpse her plain gray walking dress and pale-as-milk skin reflected on them. It had been much more important to focus on her brains than her nonexistent beauty since she’d attained her womanhood, and she generally gave mirrors a wide berth. It was enough she was clean and respectable.
Though respectability would not serve her well here.
When she came to a shut door, she paused. Did she dare knock, or just open it? She heard muffled noises behind the thick painted wood. A steady swish of something, low groans a second after.
Disgusting. Whoever was in here, they deserved to be interrupted. Maris turned the door knob.
Unlocked. She pushed the door open a fraction.
The first thing she saw was a man’s waistcoat draped over the back of a chair. Yellow, with what appeared to be giant orange chrysanthemums embroidered on the silk fabric. A vulgar waistcoat, entirely unsuitable for a decorated war hero, which Maris knew Reynold Durant was for all his lack of duty to his new responsibility. But he’d recently sold out and was now rutting through London, all on her husband’s coin.
Another inch of open door showed her a standing glass mirror angled toward the bed and the broad back and taut buttocks of a rather spectacular specimen of manhood captured in its surface. The double image of reality and reflection made Maris swallow and stumble backward. Perhaps this was not such a good idea after all.
“Care to join us?” the specimen drawled, sending shivers right down Maris’s spine. He must have eyes in the back of his head, for he didn’t turn, just continued to stroke the woman who lay stretched upon the bed with a black velvet crop. His voice sounded as if it would taste like warm dark honey blended with the best French brandy. One raspy word from him and a woman would never leave, trapped in its liquid amber depths.
“Captain Durant?” she managed to squeak.
“Who’s asking?” He turned now, fully available for view.
All of him.
His skin was burnished, his root swollen and pointing heavenward.
Maris closed her eyes briefly. Apart from statuary and drawings in antique manuscripts, she had never seen an entirely unclothed male, but this male seemed to be inescapably branded on the inside of her eyelids after only a few seconds. She opened her eyes and assumed a neutral expression. It wouldn’t do to have him think she was truly interested in him.
“I am Lady Kelby. You may recall receiving at least two dozen letters from me.” She struggled for haughtiness, but was afraid she’d revealed the truth. To her ears, she sounded like the desperate fool she was.
“One almost every day for the past month.” He tossed his crop to the floor, where it rolled beneath the tester bed. “Patsy, love, you may want to cover up in front of Lady Kelby. It seems I have finally been run to ground.”
Maris watched in disapproving silence as he strolled to the bedside table. He opened a drawer and pulled out a knife. Good Lord, he wasn’t going to attack her, was he? She had nothing to defend herself with except her hatpin. Mr. Fisher probably would be in no hurry to come to her rescue if she was to scream, but she opened her mouth anyway to do just that.
To her relief, Reynold Durant didn’t notice her panic. Instead, he sliced through the cords that bound his paramour. The woman’s bottom was raspberry-pink, the rest of her plump and snow-white. He tugged the sheet up over her, but it was he who needed covering. Surely he didn’t expect to converse with her in his current state?
He was naked.
And as shameless as she had feared.
“Will she take long, or shall I go, Reyn?” the woman asked.
Reynold Durant sighed. “Perhaps we can finish this tomorrow, my dear. But if you are in great need, I think I saw Blivens in the dining room.”
Patsy pouted. “But he’s not you, Reyn.”
“Any port in the storm, love. I may not have served in the navy, but that much I’m sure of.”
All cats are gray in the dark, Maris thought. But judging from Patsy’s expression, she might have said it aloud.
“Very well,” Patsy huffed. “I’ll hold you to tomorrow, though. Same time, same room. I’ll arrange it with Fisher.” Still wrapped in the sheet, the woman climbed down from the bed and gathered up her clothes.
“Excellent.” Durant kissed Patsy’s exposed shoulder and patted her rump. Maris felt a twinge of irritation at his affectionate dismissal.
“Now then,” he said after Patsy had flounced out and slammed the door behind her, “let’s get this over with. What do you want?”
“You know perfectly well what I want! I’ve written to you enough times!”
The man—the still naked man—shrugged. “But I didn’t read them all. Refresh my memory.”
“You need to come to Kelby Hall. As you originally agreed. My husband is not at all well.” This was not exactly the diatribe she’d practiced delivering, and it didn’t begin to cover all the details that rattled around in her head.
He shook his own head and sat down on the bed. Could he not put a pillow over his penis? There were at least half a dozen scattered all over the counterpane.
“But I don’t want to leave Town right now, or any time soon. I’ve seen enough of the countryside. Since I was sixteen, I’ve traipsed all over Europe and the Americas. A dozen years of getting shot at and sleeping in ditches and mud and starving myself to serve the King. I find life in London to be very amusing.”
Maris saw how amused he still was. His rampant cock had not wilted one whit as she’d stood there haranguing him. But then, he was still so very young, six years younger than she was if she did her sums correctly.
“You must come! It is your duty!”
“Don’t talk to me of duty, madam. I’ve done my share and have the scars to prove it.” Maris’s gaze couldn’t help but follow his large brown hand, where it rubbed against a muscled thigh slashed with a long red line.
He noticed. “Bayonet wound. There’s still a ball in my shoulder, too. Hurts like the devil when it’s damp, which is pretty much every day in England. Look your fill—I’ve nicks and knots everywhere. And of course my pretty face didn’t escape the French. Some ladies like it, though.” He grinned rakishly, the saber scar doubling his dimple.
Maris could see where some ladies would.
He was not yet thirty, but there was a worn look about him that went beyond whatever injuries he’s sustained. Dissipation, she thought, but something else as well. She watched as his fingers drummed against his thigh, and quickly realized where her eyes were straying.
A few minutes in this horrible house and she was as good as corrupted. But that was necessary, wasn’t it, if she were to go through with Henry’s plan?
“You must come to Kelby Hall, if only for a little while. I’m sure it won’t—take very long.” She felt the color creep into her cheeks.
“I told your husband I had changed my mind. Now I am sure of it.”
Damn the man and his implied insult. She knew she was plain and old, but not completely repulsive. “You took his money.”
“And I wrote to say I’d pay it all back.” He rose, went to the chair where his clothes were piled and reached into a pocket. “Here. I’ve had some recent luck at the tables. I was mistaken to agree when Mr. Ramsey presented this—uh, unique opportunity to me. He can be quite convincing, you know. Passionate. I’ve never met a man quite like him, and that’s the truth. Odd sort of fellow. Have you met him?”
Maris shook her head. Henry had come up with his cork-brained idea all on his own and had made all the arrangements.
“Something is not quite right about him—I don’t think is at all what he pretends to be. But when I met him, I thought to—well, never mind. My need for the position you hired me for is no longer valid.”
His emphasis on the word “position” brought another blush to Maris’s cheeks—she could feel the heat sweep clear down to the collar of her high-necked gown. She tugged the fabric up another inch.
The man had the effrontery to catch her at it and smile. It was dazzling, like the rest of him. “Needless to say, I’m sorry I ever replied to the advertisement in The London List last fall and put you both to all the trouble. It was a mistake. After I met with your husband, I had a crisis of conscience, and I realized his scheme wouldn’t suit.”
Maris had not been present for the job interview. Henry had insisted in handling the meeting himself, and she had relented, hoping to delay her mortification. She had not even permitted herself a peek at Captain Durant as he rode up Kelby Hall’s crushed stone drive.
“My husband is dying,” she said bluntly.
Thank heavens he was stepping into his fawnskin trousers. The man didn’t seem to wear smalls, though.
“I am very sorry to hear that, Lady Kelby. But it doesn’t change my mind. I do assure you I will repay every penny now that my luck is turning.”
“We don’t want the money! We want—you.” It was far too late to go through the process all over again. It had taken Mr. Ramsey over a year to get even this far. Vaguely worded advertisements. Vaguely worded interviews with the handful of candidates so desperate they had not been bothered by the vagueness.
Henry had been extremely particular. While all cats might be gray in the dark, Lord Kelby did have a care for his wife and the succession. Evidently the two other men Mr. Ramsey had sent him had not compared at all favorably with Captain Durant, for Henry was insistent that no one else would do.
Though Henry might not be so impressed if he knew where Maris had found him. Henry’s London doctor would have to be consulted if Reynold Durant decided to go through with this insanity—she was not going to sacrifice herself to the pox .
“I’m not for sale after all.”
“Everyone has their price, Captain Durant.” She knew she did, and it had been shockingly low. For a roof over her head when her father died and the chance to continue to work on the Kelby Collection, Maris had married a man who was old enough to be her grandfather.
But she had always loved him, ever since she was a little girl. Henry had been kind, caring for her in all the ways he was capable, and they had been happy. Until two years ago when he became so agitated and determined to cut his wretched nephew out of the earldom. His idea on how to do it had seemed the purest folly. Well, impurest. Henry had been impossible to sway, and Maris had never been the sort of woman who could wield her negligible feminine wiles to change a man’s mind.
Like now, for example. Captain Durant seemed obdurate.
“I—I am begging you, Captain Durant. You know of our difficulties. I understand Henry confided in you completely, so he must have trusted you. I confess I don’t see why,” Maris said, unable to forgive the man his casual effrontery. “My husband’s nephew is the worst sort of villain. He’s sworn to destroy the scholarly work of my husband’s lifetime. All the books in the library—he’ll damage every one. Crumple every paper. And—and he’s a libertine. He’ll turn Kelby Hall into a—a place just as vile as this one.”
Captain Durant raised a thick black brow as he buttoned a cufflink. Maris was delighted to see that he continued to dress as she stared over his head at a painting that featured several bodies writhing in presumed ecstasy. Or indigestion—it was impossible to tell which from their facial expressions.
“Is this supposed to persuade me? I have no time for reading, Lady Kelby. It doesn’t matter to me what becomes of Kelby Hall’s library.”
Maris wanted to scream, but losing her temper wouldn’t help. “It matters to my husband. By the terms of the entail, every single thing housed at Kelby Hall must remain on the property to be passed on to the next earl, but it doesn’t specify the condition.” The Kelby earls had been an eccentric lot, and hoarders too. It was dangerous to navigate the attics for the jumbled collection of boxed antiquities amassed by generations of globe-trotting aristocrats. Henry’s dream was to turn part of the house into a museum, with Maris as its curator. His work would be its centerpiece, but many other centuries’ detritus would be on view as well.
“So smuggle out some papers.”
“It’s not just papers. There are priceless artifacts. By law, Henry’s nephew can’t sell them, but he’s threatened to simply drop them into the lake. They’d still be on the property, wouldn’t they?” she asked bitterly. “David knows just how to hurt Henry. My husband spent years in Tuscany at excavation sites. He is the foremost expert on Etruscan civilization in England.”
“A worthy endeavor, I’m sure, Lady Kelby. But the Etruscans, like the Romans and the Greeks, are dead, thank the gods. As a schoolboy, I always found classical studies to be quite gruesome. Rape and swans and swallowing one’s wife. Daughters bursting out of one’s head. Rubbish, really. Why should I—or anyone else living—care?”
The Kelby Collection had been of paramount importance Maris’s whole life. Her father had been the earl’s secretary and general factotum. She’d accompanied the two men on their digs as soon as she was old enough to be useful, and was now herself an expert on Etruria. Since her husband’s eyesight was failing, it was she who did the translating, she who prepared the papers for his lectures and publications.
What she’d been unable to do was provide him with a son.
It was probably too late anyway. She was thirty-four, and had pulled out a wiry white hair from her dull brown curls just this morning.
“Look, it seems to me you can box up whatever’s so valuable and hide it somewhere. How’s this nephew to know? He’s no expert, is he?”
“David knows everything. And—it’s more than what I’ve just said.” Maris hadn’t planned on revealing the worst of it—and she wouldn’t. Even Henry did not know what she had done five years ago. She had been a fool for all her pride and intelligence, and paid with her guilt every single day when she looked into her husband’s proud wrinkled face.
But she could see she wasn’t firing Durant up intellectually. He’d even bragged that he was virtually illiterate.
Why was Henry so set on Durant? Henry was a brilliant man, if a bit single-minded. He’d be risking turning Kelby Hall over to a son of this ignorant rakehell.
Though any child conceived might not even be a son. Henry’s longed-for heir with his first wife had been a daughter. Poor Jane. Poor dead Jane.
“My husband believes his nephew David was responsible for the death of his daughter.”
Ah, that stopped the man from thrusting an arm into the ghastly waistcoat.
“Why hasn’t he told the authorities?”
“It’s complicated.” The truth was that Jane took her own life, but David might as well have stitched the stones into her hem himself. Jane had been his victim as much as she had, but at least Maris still lived.
“You begin to interest me, Lady Kelby. So what you are saying is this mad scheme is really a noble cause. I’m meant to prevent a murderer from inheriting.”
“Why don’t you just hire someone to murder the murderer? Not me, mind you. I’m done with killing for a living. A proper assassin. Surely there’s some other male Kelby waiting to be unearthed somewhere like one of those Etruscan artifacts you’re so keen on.”
“My husband’s family seemed to collect things rather than children. There is no one but David. The title and estate would revert to the Crown.”
“Would that be so awful? Surely some provision has been made for you.”
“I’m not worried about myself.”
Oh, untrue. David was ever edging into the perimeter of her life. Maris was not entirely certain she could protect herself from him should anything happen to Henry. She wouldn’t be safe in the dower house alone, that was for sure. She’d not been safe from his attentions at Kelby Hall five years ago.
Maris had lived in the enormous Elizabethan house since she was a little girl. She would miss it, but she would have to go someplace farther away than the dower house when David was earl.
Unless she had a baby to care for. But what if she and the child still were not safe?
“You look pale, Lady Kelby. Why don’t you sit down?”
She could hardly sit on the bed after what had just transpired on it, and his jacket and neckcloth were still folded on the only chair in the room. She lifted her chin in false bravado. “I am perfectly well, Captain Durant.”
“You don’t look it.” He swept his clothes to the floor and pushed the chair at her. “Here. Sit.”
“I am not one of your recruits to be ordered about.” Nevertheless, she sank gratefully into the chair. This day was proving to be too much.
Or not enough.
“No, you are as haughty as a queen. I reckon you’d be the one giving the orders. ‘Explore the New World, Walter. Write me a play, Will. Kill my heir.’ That would be Mary, Queen of Scots, not David.”
“I am not Elizabeth, sir,” Maris said, irritated, and somewhat surprised by his knowledge.
“The Virgin Queen,” Durant mused. “You have a virginal look about you still, Lady Kelby. Lord Kelby was an ancient old bird even when you married, was he not?”
Maris’s spine turned rigid. She was, unfortunately, no virgin. “You overstep yourself, Captain Durant. I can see it was pointless to waste my precious time and money to find you. A man like you has no sense of honor or accountability. I cannot even believe I am conversing with you in your current state. You are—you are—words simply fail.”
Reynold Durant’s lips quirked, unruffled by her insults. “Why talk when there are so many other things we might do?”
He was teasing her, but she was horrified nonetheless. “Here? Are you mad? Dream on, you degenerate! If you were the very last man in the kingdom, I would not permit you to put a hand on me in this revolting room!”
“And yet I somehow want to. In fact, I cannot think of anything that would please me more. Please us both.”
Reynold Durant stalked across the carpet like some kind of feral cat. Maris scrambled up from her chair and backed into the wall, an instrument of torture prodding her in the back. She stuck a hand behind her, her gloves slipping on the smooth leather whip. She could not get purchase to grab it from its hook and hammer it down on Reynold Durant’s dark head in time before she felt his warm breath on her cheek.
“Just one little taste, I think. To see what I’ll be missing,” he murmured, before his lips came down on hers.