Authors: Lorraine Heath
Every author should be so fortunate to have a fan as wonderful as you.
From the Journal of the Duke of Avendale
A dark secret shaped me into the man I am .Â .Â .
With that, all is said.
he could make a killing here.
Rose did nothing to reveal her delight at the discovery although she doubted anyone would derive the true meaning behind a beaming smile or eyes glinting with satisfaction. All the ladies in attendance were agog at the magnificent display of opulence and the evidence of sin, avarice, and gentlemanly indulgences. The fairer sex had finally been allowed entry into one of the men's most notorious and gossiped about inner sanctums, and they were relishing the discoveries of all that had been held in secret and denied them.
The express purpose of tonight's eventâÂa grand ball, entrance by invitation onlyâÂwas to entertain current members and introduce potential future ones to all the benefits that the former gentlemen's club offered. Since her arrival in London a fortnight before, Rose had discovered the Twin Dragons was the talk of the town.
Not surprising as she'd caught sight of its owner half an hour earlier when he'd emerged through a doorway that apparently led to back rooms. With a purpose to his stride, he had caught her attention because she recognized in him a kindred spirit. Not ten minutes later, he'd taken a woman into his arms and kissed her quite thoroughly and entirely inappropriatelyâÂright in the center of one of the dance areas. Based on his fervor and the lady's enthusiasm, Rose eliminated him as someone with the potential to assist in her endeavors. He was obviously spoken for, and unattached men were much less complicated with which to deal.
Ignoring the men scrutinizing her, she familiarized herself with the surroundings that would serve as a second home during the coming weeks. A portion of the room contained tables that dealt with various games of chance. She suspected on the morrow that the remainder of the room would as well, but tonight the area absent of games served as a place for Âpeople to visit or dance. Huge crystal gaslit chandeliers provided the lighting. The paper along the walls was neutral in tone, not particularly masculine or feminine.
Rose would have liked to have had the opportunity to view the club before the renovations that sought to strike a balance between what would remain of interest to males and what would not offend females. No doubt it had proven a bit more decadent and far more interesting. But she wasn't here for the trimmings. Rather it was the building's heart and soulâÂthose upon whom its very existence dependedâÂcalling to her.
Wandering through the crowd, smiling here and there, she knew those to whom she'd given a nod of acknowledgment would be confounded, striving to remember from whence they knew her, some would even swear on the morrow that they had recognized her, were old acquaintances. None would admit they'd never seen her before in their lives. She had mastered the art of appearing as though she belonged, had mastered a great many things.
Walking into the ladies' salon, which after tonight would be off-Âlimits to gentlemen, Rose knew she wouldn't make a habit of frequenting this room, but it might provide the occasional opportunity to cement the
Turning, Rose faced a small woman with mahogany hair and eyes as dark as Satan's soulâÂand full of suspicion. Another kindred spirit perhaps.
“Good evening,” Rose said with authority, as though the room were hers to command. Control, imperative to winning the game, had to be kept at all times, at any cost. “I don't believe we've been properly introduced. I'm Mrs. Rosalind Sharpe.”
“Miss Minerva Dodger.”
Shoving down her surprise, Rose merely arched a brow. “You are rare, my dear. An unmarried woman of means.”
“Why would you draw such conclusions?”
“It was my understanding that only the nobility and those of wealth were invited to this exclusive affair. As you do not appear to be nobility, that leaves wealth.”
The woman smiled slightly. “Yes, invitations were rather limited, but it is my father who has the means. Not to mention that he was the previous owner of the establishment, when it was Dodger's Drawing Room.”
Ah, yes, Rose should have recognized the name. She'd castigate herself later for failing to do so. A careless slip could cost her dearly, put a crimp in her plans. “I suspect he's a rather interesting chap. I look forward to meeting him.”
Miss Dodger glanced around casually although there was an alertness to her that Rose didn't much favor. “Is your husband about?” the younger woman asked.
“I'm a widow.”
Miss Dodger swung her gaze back around, sorrow evident within the depths of her dark eyes as she settled them once more on Rose. “I'm terribly sorry.”
“A tiger attack while we were touring through the jungles of India. But he went as he livedâÂadventurously. I draw comfort from that. He would have hated dying of old age, infirmed, in bed.”
“I suppose there is something to be said for going as one wishes rather than as one is forced. Are you new to London, then? I don't mean to pry, but I'm not familiar with your family.”
“No need to apologize, my dear. I've been here only a fortnight. It's my first foray into town.”
“Before India, I lived in the north, a small town hardly worth mentioning as few have heard of it.” Nowhere that she'd lived was really worth mentioning, especially as it was risky to provide breadcrumbs for anyone who might take an interest in retracing her journey. “I believe my solicitor was instrumental in garnering me an invitation to tonight's affair.” She was sure of it, in fact. Daniel Beckwith had been bending over backward to accommodate her since she had walked into his office. Widows who were to inherit all their husband's holdings were rare and greatly appreciated. Based upon what she had told him of the estate, he was well aware that he stood to make a tidy sum by assisting her. He wanted to keep her more than content. “I'm eternally in his debt.”
“Would you like me to show you about?”
“I couldn't possibly impose to such an extent. Besides, I have a bit of the adventurous in me and prefer exploring on my own.”
“Well then, I'll let you get to it. I do hope you enjoy your evening.”
“Oh, I shall most certainly strive to do exactly that.”
Miss Dodger took her leave then, and Rose made a mental note to ask Beckwith about the girl's father. It was quite possible that she might want to form a friendship with Miss Dodger, even if she wasn't nobility. Unlike most Âpeople, Rose was more interested in coin than rank. As the new owner had opened the establishment to those who were not peers, it seemed he, too, valued coin over birth. A wise principle as one could not choose family.
She knew that well enough.
Rose walked into a dining room. Such a tremendous amount of food adorned the sideboards that they were in danger of buckling. ÂPeople sat at round linen-Âcovered tables, enjoying the fare. The lights were dimmer. Candles flickered in the center of the tables. The room would serve as a romantic rendezvous. She would dine here when the time came, would do a good many things here.
They had allowed her in. Her skill and cunning would ensure she took advantage of their lack of good judgment.
he woman in red drew his attention as soon as she walked through the entrance doors as though she were the queen of England herself. His notice of her surprised him, as nothing about her was particularly eye-Âcatching.
Looking out from his perch in the shadowed corner of the balcony at Dodger'sâÂ
Avendale growled. The Twin Dragons. Why the bloody deuce had Drake changed the name of the decades-Âold gaming hell? Not only the name but almost everything else about it? Avendale didn't like it. He didn't like it one bit. He especially didn't like that women were now allowed inside, would be members, would be strolling about, just as the lady in red was doing now.
Her hair, piled up and held in place with pearl combs, was blond silk. Not vibrant or fiery or different. It should have ensured she blended in. But she didn't.
It was her mien. The elegant slope of her neck, the way she carried those slender shoulders as though they'd never known a burden. The way her gown hugged her curves, made men wish they were hugging them as well. She had a rather nice full bosom, displayed to perfection, drawing gazes from her face to the gentle swells. He suspected a good many of the gents here tonight would recall the lady in red over breakfast, yet he doubted a single one would be able to accurately describe the features that formed her face, but they would be able to expertly mold her shape in the air before them.
He knew the majority of the women in the aristocracy. He did not know her, which meant that in all likelihood she was one of the wealthy commoners that Drake was enticing into his club. Or an American. From what he'd been able to gather, they were all as rich as Croesus. She certainly gave the appearance of someone who was no stranger to the finer aspects of life.
In the main salon, she'd spoken to only one personâÂa footman. Shortly afterward, she'd disappeared into the ladies' private chambers for a bit. He'd almost gone after her, but he didn't like this curiosity about her plaguing him. No doubt it was simply a result of his growing so blasted bored of late. His partner in wickedness, the Duke of Lovingdon, had recently taken Lady Grace Mabry to wife, leaving Avendale to carouse on his own. Not that he required a male companion when he had female ones aplenty.
But sometimes it was nice to have someone with whom he could carry on a halfway intelligent conversation. Someone with an intellect. Someone who appreciated his ribald jokes. The women usually in his company tended to mewl, sigh, and whisper naughty things in his ear. Not that he didn't enjoy them. He did. But they were so alike. They seldom varied. Oh, their hair, their eyes, their shapes were different, but at their core they were all the same. Exciting while in his bed, but dreadfully dull out of it.
Yet the lady in red didn't appear at all dull.
He knew a very private card gameâÂwithout womenâÂwas being played down the hall. He should be there. It was where he'd been headed when he decided to peer out over the crowd. And spotted her.
She'd held him enthralled ever since. Even when she wasn't visible, she toyed with him. Generally with women, for him, it was out of sight, out of mind.
Not very gentlemanly of him, really, but he tended to spend his time with loose women who didn't expectâÂand probably preferred notâÂto be remembered. He avoided those crowding the main floor, except for occasions like weddings or this event tonight, which involved friends of the family. He usually made an appearance for appearances' sake, when the mood not to be an arse struck. It pleased his mother. Gave them a Âcouple of moments to catch up.
He'd spied her earlier meandering about with her second husband, William Graves. Avendale's father had been her first. A sorry affair that had been.
He shook off the memories, shoved them back down. They were not the sort he liked to examine. But the lady in redÂ .Â .Â .
He would very much like to examine every inch of her.
he knew she was being watched. She could feel the gaze homed in on her, was aware of little shivers cascading along her skin. The fine hairs on the back of her neck had risen. But she gave no outward appearance that she was bothered by the scrutiny while inside her heart pounded with the fierceness of a regimental drum beating out the call to battle.
She'd overheard someone talking about an inspector from Scotland Yard who was wandering about. But he was supposedly a guest and not searching for her. She hadn't been in London long enough for alarm bells to be ringing, for anyone to suspectâÂ
“Champagne?” a deep voice asked behind her.
She would dearly love some, but needed to remain sharp and focused. Spinning around to decline the footman's offer, she came up short.
The man extending a flute toward her was most certainly not a servant. Nobility, entitlement, privilege screamed from every pore, every finely stitched seam, every thread of exquisite cloth that cloaked his magnificent frame. His dark eyes blatantly assessed her, and the hairs on her nape quivered once more. So it had been him watching her. He possessed an intensity that was slightly unsettling, made her fear that he could see straight through her.
But if he could, he would be calling for that inspector who was around here, not offering her champagne. His gaze wouldn't roam over her as though he were taking measure of every curve, dip, and swell while imagining how each would fill his hands.
If she had to guess this man's rank, she would put him as duke. He wore power and influence like a second skin. She could make do with a duke.
She gave him her most alluring, sensual smile. “I am quite parched, and so appreciate a man who can fulfill my desires. Thank you.”
Wrapping her gloved fingers around the stem of the flute, she made sure that her fingers touched his, lingered for a moment. His eyes widened slightly, and a corner of his luscious mouth curled up almost imperceptibly. Anyone else might not have even noticed, but she had trained herself to discern the smallest of details. ÂPeople communicated far more truth with their bodies and facial expressions than they ever did with their words.
She tapped the edge of her glass to his. “To an interesting night.”
Peering over the rim of her flute as she slowly sipped, she watched him as he did the same, inspecting her. She'd never been so intrigued by a gentleman. Most fawned over her once they made their move and got her attention. This one was more cautious, more assessing. He would be a challenge, but if she was right about his position, she was more than willing to welcome it. She licked her lips, satisfaction coursing through her as his brown eyes darkened. He was not as skilled as she at appearing unaffected.
“Isn't it rather scandalous for a gentleman to approach a woman he doesn't know without someone at his side to make introductions?” she asked.