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Authors: Máire Claremont

A Lady Undone

BOOK: A Lady Undone
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A Lady Undone

A Mad Passions Novella

 

Máire Claremont

NEW AMERICAN LIBRARY

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 375 Hudson Street,

New York, New York 10014

USA / Canada / UK / Ireland / Australia / New Zealand / India / South Africa / China

penguin.com

A Penguin Random House Company

First published by New American Library,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC

Copyright © Máire Creegan, 2014

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

NEW AMERICAN LIBRARY and logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

E-book ISBN 978-0-698-14430-9

PUBLISHER’S NOTE

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Version_1

Contents

Title page

Copyright page

 

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

 

Excerpt from The Dark Affair

Also Available from Máire Claremont

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chapter 1

London

1869

“Give me the knife, Amy.” Clare, Duchess of Duncliffe, stretched out her hand an inch at a time. Winter light spilled from the paned window, glinting in the young girl’s brown-blond hair and off the weapon planted against the thin skin of her throat.

“No.” Amy’s blue-tinged lips curled around the word. The blade shook as she pressed it.

Clare’s own throat squeezed tight with fear, but she forced herself to breath slowly, calmly, for Amy’s sake.

Skin gave way under the pressure of Amy’s knife and a trickle of blood dripped down the line of her white neck.

Panic crawled along Clare’s spine. Amy had come so far in these last few months. She refused to let the girl end it now. Clare slid her toe forward, the fold of her black dress draping across her leg. Keeping her eyes fixed on Amy, she shifted her weight. “What happened?”

Amy’s brown eyes widened and a sheen of liquid glimmered on their surface. The thin fabric of her grey bodice pulled against her slight breasts and concave stomach as she gulped in air. She shook her head, a strangled sound ripping from her tense throat.
Amy’s father.
Nothing else could have caused such a reaction.

The man was half devil and he was also his daughter’s blasted pimp. Clare’s stomach twisted as it threatened to leap up to her windpipe.

Remain calm. Help her.
And she could. She had to. She hadn’t survived her own hell to let others fall without a fight. “When did you see him?”

The slender muscles in Amy’s delicate arms shook beneath her shirt. “L-last night.”

Tension racked Clare’s shoulders. Her entire body felt rigid, breakable under the intensity of this moment. One wrong word and Amy would be dead. “Do you wish to tell me what he said?”

A tear dropped from Amy’s eye, slipping down her emaciated, pale cheek. She drew in a gasping breath. “Da’ said if I don’t come back, he’ll kill me.” Her bony fingers tightened on the hilt. “But not afore . . . not afore he and the others—” She closed her eyes and the fingers of her free hand curled into a fist.

“I swear to you he will not,” Clare said firmly.

Amy shook her head. “You can’t stop ’im.”

Clare stepped closer. “I will do whatever is necessary. I will send you to the country. Or if you wish, to the Americas with the means to start a new life. It would give me happiness to give you money for your passage and your well-being.” Slowly, she raised her hand to the knife hilt. Her fingertips brushed wood.

A sob racked Amy’s body. Her hand trembled as she moved the knife from her throat. Clare grasped the knife and slid it out of her limp grasp.

Amy covered her face with her thin hands. “I’m sorry, Your Grace. So sorry.”

The kitchen knife thunked against the wood desk as she gently set it down. “There is no need.” She placed her hand on Amy’s shoulder, and the girl jolted as if she’d scalded her.

Clare lowered her hand to her side, mindful of the fact so many of the girls and women she helped had an aversion to human contact, and no wonder.

The tips of her nails dug into her skin as she folded her hands together. “Would you care to stay here with me for a time, or shall I call for Mrs. Wetherton? She will see you right with breakfast and a room.”

Amy shoved a lock of her sandy blond hair back from her face. “I think I’d like a bit of a lie down.”

“Certainly.” Clare crossed to the back of the room and pulled on the thin embroidered cord by the door. “This afternoon, Amy, we’ll discuss what would be best to keep you safe.”

She nodded. “Ta, very much.”

The door opened and Mrs. Whetherton, a short, grey-haired woman, stepped inside. Her gaze met Clare’s, and understanding registered in the older woman’s sky blue eyes. Her lips parted in a soft smile. “Amy, we’ve missed you. Won’t you come have breakfast with me?”

Amy crossed the room in a few short strides, her shoulders bowed under the light weight of her shirt, then stopped. Her brown eyes throbbed with pain and fear. And like a flame’s first licking tendrils . . . hope.

She followed Mrs. Whetherton out of the room.

Disgust pooled in Clare’s belly and the urge to scream pushed at her throat like a tidal wave. The door shut with a quiet thud. She stood in the center of the room and braced her hand against the smooth table. She would make it right for Amy. Somehow.

Sunlight beamed down and sparkled on the steely grey blade. She grabbed the coarse knife. The girl could have gotten it from the kitchen. Her skin crawled beneath the touch of the weapon. If she had her way, every blade, pistol, and rifle in the world would be gathered from the hands of violent men and destroyed. Clare’s father had been the only man she knew who had revered pacifism as much as she. Her husband, on the other hand, had loved violence. The violence of one who holds power over the weak. Absently, she raised a hand to her cheek as if she might still feel a bruise.

But both of those men were now dead.

Clare pushed the thoughts away before they could take hold. She would not think about the pain or disappointments of the past. She had too much to do.

The stacks of papers on her desk beckoned, every one needing either a signature or other action. Sighing, she strode up to the desk and lowered herself into the hard-backed chair.

She reached for a pile of documents. Rough parchment scratched against her skin. The words blurred before her, and she grimaced at the pain in her neck. She’d been spending too many nights sleeping in a chair, but she wouldn’t trade them for all the ease in the world. She loved her work.

The door at the far end of the room swung open, slamming against the wall with a sharp crack. Clare jumped.

Her uncle Soames’s russet, gold tinted hair glinted in the morning light. Good Lord, now what did the man want? Clare braced her hands against her desk, prepared for a verbal assault.

“I have made an appointment for you today with regard to your safety.” His deep voice echoed coldly throughout the room.

Clare dug her fingers into her desk. “Soames, this is no business of yours.”

The strong planes of his face darkened “Is that so?” He waved his broad hand at her. “Have you forgotten that you belong to the Ederly family?”

How could she forget? It had been her mother and Soames who had pushed her to marry the Duke of Duncliffe, forgetting to mention the whisperings about the death of the older man’s first wife.

But now, she was a duchess and wealthy in her own right. Her uncle, even if he wished it, couldn’t control her.

Clare gritted her teeth and lifted her chin. She refused to be intimidated. She was sick of intimidating men and how they bullied women. “My father disliked you intensely, and I regret that my mother is so easily led by you.”

Soames crossed his arms, muscled from hours of boxing at Jackson’s. “Your father was my brother, and I will not see his only child bring scandal to our family even if you no longer bear our last name.”

Name, status, and money were all that Soames cared about. It was why it had been so essential that she marry into a dukedom. No matter that her husband had been old enough to be her father. She met Soames’s pale blue eyes, only a shade lighter than her own, and said, “I wish to handle this in my own way.”

Soames snorted. “What? Is your own honor too high for even you, now that you lived amidst the muck? A protector has been arranged for you.”

Clare pushed her chair back and crossed to the front of her desk. A protector? A man chosen without her regard? She had little doubt such a person would be a hard man who would treat her like a child.

A shout from the street caught her attention and she looked to the window. Grey sky and dull light spilled in through the glass.

“Look at me when I am speaking to you,” demanded Soames.

The high pitch of shattering glass exploded through the room. She lunged forward and grabbed Soames’s coat. She yanked hard, and tugged him to the floor.

“What the bloody hell—” he growled as she fell on top of him.

Biting shards flew through the air, winking in the light. Clare squeezed her eyes shut. A crash jolted her desk, and a heavy object thudded to the floor beside her.

After a moment, she snapped her eyes open, her chest tight. She drew in a shaky breath.

A stone half the size of her head, partially wrapped in pale yellow paper, rocked side to side. Clare pressed a palm over it, stilling its motion.

“Clare, remove yourself from my person,” Soames gritted as he shifted underneath her. His hands moved to her shoulders, shoving her off him and onto the floor.

Clare threw him an annoyed look, then lifted herself into a sitting position. A gasp whooshed from his lips as her elbow hit his stomach. She winced, hoping he would realize that despite their animosity, she wouldn’t do such a thing on purpose. “Pardon me, Uncle.”

Careful of the glass scattered across the floor, she rose to her knees. She stared at the rock clasped in her hand, then at the window.

“There is a note attached to that. Give it to me,” Soames said. Her uncle pushed himself to his feet and brushed his hands over his black pants, a frown pressing his lips into a thin line.

“Why?” she drawled. “Is it for you?”

Hefting the heavy stone with both hands, Clare stood and placed it on her shard-covered desk. A slight breeze rippled in through the window. The cold winter air blew across her face. She pulled at the string tied in a neat knot about the package.

Soames narrowed his eyes as he stared at the stone. “Read the note.”

The paper, a used news sheet, crackled in her hands as she opened it. Scrawled charcoal letters covered the page. She’d rather read it in silence, but the wariness of her uncle’s face demanded she read it now. Even he couldn’t quite hide his concern from his sanctimonious visage.

Clare focused on the words. “ ‘Leave the East End. Or you will stay there. Permanently.’”

Her hand shook as she finished the last words. Dear Lord. Why couldn’t they leave her be? Quickly, she folded the note and clasped her hands around it.

Soames stepped forward, leaving less than a foot between them. “Since you insist on your utter foolishness,” he said flatly, “you will accept a visit from your new guard. Today.”

Clare stared up into the eyes of her uncle. Didn’t he understand? She’d had enough of brutal men. “Such a man is little more than a hired killer.”

A mocking smile tilted his lips. “Since someone is trying to kill you, perhaps using a killer to catch another is exactly what you need.”

Clare swallowed. “There must be another way.”

Soames leaned into her and placed a hand on her shoulder. “If you are killed in Whitechapel, it will not endear these filth-ridden gin-addled harlots to Parliament or to the upper classes. They will all remain in the gutter where they belong. And you will, at last, be beneath even them. Six feet beneath them.”

Her fingers curled into fists and at last, she nodded her assent.

Soames still believed she was naught but a pawn even if that had changed with her husband’s death and her newfound independence. But as much as she hated to admit it, in this, he was right. If she, a duchess, was murdered, it wouldn’t matter if they caught the killer or not. There would be no help for the women she so longed to protect.

BOOK: A Lady Undone
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