Authors: Jo Beverley
“A delightful, intricately plotted, and sexy romp.”
“A well-crafted story and an ultimately very satisfying romance.”
The Romance Reader
“Jo [Beverley] has truly brought to life a fascinating, glittering, and sometimes dangerous world.”
âMary Jo Putney
Affaire de Coeur
“Wickedly delicious. Jo Beverley weaves a spell of sensual delight with her usual grace and flair.”
“Delightfulâ¦thrillingâ¦with a generous touch of magicâ¦an enchanting read.”
“A stunning medieval romance of loss and redemptionâ¦sizzling.”
“A fast-paced adventure with strong, vividly portrayed charactersâ¦wickedly, wonderfully sensual and gloriously romantic.”
“Deliciously sinfulâ¦. Beverley evokes with devastating precision the decandent splendor of the English country estate in all its hellish debaucheryâ¦a crafty tale of sensuality and suspense.”
The Rogue's Return
A Most Unsuitable Man
Lord of My Heart
My Lady Notorious
The Devil's Heiress
The Dragon's Bride
“The Demon's Mistress” in
The Praise of Younger Men
Secrets of the night
Lord of Midnight
A SIGNET BOOK
Published by New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA
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First published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright Â© Jo Beverley Publications, 2006
All rights reserved
Â REGISTERED TRADEMARKâMARCA REGISTRADA
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Thanks as always to my agent, Meg Ruley; my editor, Claire Zion; and everyone working at New American Library who make the interface between crazy creativity and the business of publishing work.
To my many writer friends, who are always willing to help.
To my family, who put up with someone whose head is often in another world.
To Nancy Mayer, who sent me a photocopy of
A Visit to London
, and to Jen Pazzotti, who made the original copy.
And in particular to the anonymous man who shared with me his withdrawal from oxycontin, an opiumderived modern drug. I've done my best to deal with that subject honestly.
And to all the readers who make writing these novels so rewarding. Without you, none of this would be possible.
London May 1817
London night is full of sounds, but the barefoot young woman had not let any of them halt her flight until she heard the rattle of a carriage. Hoof-beats pounded along the street toward her and lamps threw light onto the dark pavement.
Lady Mara St. Bride froze. The coach could hold members of the fashionable elite. People like her. She could ask for help.
No. What use would safety be if the price was ruin? She could survive this. She could.
Mara turned away, praying that the occupants of the carriage were dozing. That even if they were looking out they'd see only a barefoot wretch huddled in a blanket. Two-a-penny in London, and no concern of theirs.
With her present luck, the passengers were charitable saints inspired to rescue the unfortunate.
The vehicle rolled by, however, its lamplight gilding stones and railings to her left, then to her right, then moving on, leaving her in the unquiet, dangerous dark.
Mara longed to stay in hiding, but she forced herself on. The pause made her newly aware of rough flagstones shredding her silk stockings, of stones bruising her feet, and worst of all, of the occasional something that squished between her toes.
Even though it wasn't particularly cold, she shivered, trembling with a new awareness that London after midnight was not asleep, but full of life. She heard the yowl of a cat, a rustle and scurry that was probably rats, and most dangerous of allâdistant human sounds, the music and voices that had to be from some sort of tavern.
In the last century this area close to St. James's Palace had been the most fashionable part of London. There were still many fine streets, but woven among them, like worm holes in fruit, lay warrens of decay, vice, and violence.
Oh, to be in Mayfair, where gaslights triumphed over gloom. Here the only light came from the lamps kept lit outside the doors of responsible householders. They were enough to break the blackness, but not enough to tell what scurried in front of her and then away.
Her sister Ella's Mayfair house was simply too far away. A mile at least. If Mara's sore feet were capable of it, her nerves weren't. But she could make it to nearby Great Charles Street, to the Duke of Yeovil's House, where she might have a friend.
Then she heard voices. Male voices and coarse laughter. Coming this way.
She couldn't be caught like thisâstripped down to shift and corset beneath the blanket! She looked frantically for a hiding place. She should have seized the chance of rescue at any price.
The terrace of tall houses stretched unbroken left and right, the doorways too shallow to offer a hiding place, but the railings at the front guarded a stairwell down to the basement door. She grabbed the nearest gate, but as she'd feared, it was locked. The men had turned onto the street. Four of them.
She backed, blessing shadows now, wondering if she could climb over the spiked top without killing herself. Not with shift and blanket and trembling hands. She shook the next gate hard and almost tumbled into the well when it swung inward. Thank you, God! She stumbled down the steep steps into the deepest shadow.
A stink made her gag. There was a dead animal here somewhere, giving off that particular sweet-and-foul odor. She turned her head away and breathed as little as she must as the booted feet and voices came closer, closer, closer. She couldn't understand a word they were saying, so strong their accent was, but another burst of sniggering laughter melted her bones with terror.
Panting, leaning against the gritty stone wall, she waited until all sound of the men faded. Why had she been such a fool? Why had she sneaked out of her sister's house at night?
Despite the stink, she longed to stay in the dark, but daylight would make exposure more likely and her maid was waiting to let her back in. If she didn't return soon, Ruth would panic. She'd tell Ella and George and they'd tell her family, and her family would drag her home to Brideswell. The very thought of Brideswell felt like heaven, but she didn't want any of them to know how stupid she'd been.
She could escape this with few the wiser. She
Mara made herself move and climb the rough steps back to the blessedly deserted street. She scurried to a corner and peered up at the writing on the house. Upper Ely Street! She knew where she was.
She wasn't far from St. James's Square and King Street, where Almack's Assembly Rooms were situated, and Dare was in the next street.
Lord Darius Debenham, the Duke of Yevil's younger son, was a close friend of Mara's brother Simon from their schooldays at Harrow. Dare had spent many summer weeks at Brideswell.
Mara and Ella had met him in St. James's Park the other day and he'd said he was living at Yeovil House. He'd even said that his parents were away, visiting somewhere. Oatlands? Chiswick?
She shook her head. What did that matter? Dare was nearby and he was as good as a brother to her. Like a brother he'd never let her forget her folly, but he'd get her out of this pickle and safely home and might even agree not to tattle to Ella and George.
She hurried on, keeping to the shadows until she reached the next corner. Great Charles Street. Thank the Lord!
Two solid ranks of identical four-story houses stretched before her. She knew Yeovil House was a mansion, taking up the center of one side, but that wasn't obvious. Which side was it on? She scurried along, anxious about sounds of life from some of the houses. What if someone came out?
The mansion should be obvious, but in the dim light her panicked mind could make no sense of anything.
Then she saw itâthe stretch of facade with only the one central door.
She ran across the road toward it, but then the flare of relief faded. Yeovil House loomed dark and quiet.
She clutched the gilded railings, strength draining away. Dare had probably gone to bed hours ago. He wasn't completely recovered from his Waterloo wounds and then there was the other problem. Didn't opium make people sleep a lot?
Even if he was awake, how did she get in?
By day, even alone, Lady Mara St. Bride could simply knock. Now, if she managed to rouse a servant, they'd slam the door in her ragamuffin face.
She couldn't go on. The soles of her feet felt raw, her legs wobbled, and her heart raced with panic. She tested the gate in the railings, but of course, it was locked.
She looked up at four daunting floors of windows. Even if she knew which one was Dare's bedroom, she doubted she could throw a stone high enough to hit it. Throwing things had never been one of her skills, much to her brothers' disgust.
Overcome, she slumped on the lowest step, half hoping someone would see her, as long as they were respectable enough to get her back to Grosvenor Square. Her family would be shocked and disappointed, but that would be that. Except that it would reinforce her father's opinion that London was a nasty, unhealthy place and he'd never let her visit Town again.
a nasty, unhealthy place. It was crowded, dirty, and noisy, but she'd never expected it to be boring. She mopped tears with the scratchy blanket, knowing that wasn't precisely true. Life with her sister was boring, but it wasn't Ella's fault that she was at the stage of pregnancy when she felt sick most of the day and exhausted the rest so that they never went anywhere.
If Mara had stayed home at Brideswell, this wouldn't be happening. There was no novelty there, but at home she had friends, family, and constant activity. There, she'd never have pitched herself into such a disastrous situation, but if she had, every house would have held a friend. What's more, the whole area could know her folly and never let a word of it out to the wider world.
She sighed and made herself stand. She'd tossed herself into this broth and she would get herself out of it. If she had to walk to Grosvenor Square, she would.
Then she heard booted footstepsâcoming down the street from her right. No hope of refuge in the stairwell here, but the door was deeper set. She ducked in and huddled down.
The booted feet came closerâthen stopped.
Move on. Move on
The steps turned toward her.
Mara squeezed her eyes shut as if that might help.
“Are you in need of help?” a gentle voice said.
Mara peeped up over the edge of her blanket, and then threw herself into the tall man's arms.
“Dare! Oh, thank God. Dare, I'm in such a pickle! You have to help meâ¦.” She was sobbing now and couldn't help it.
“Mara? No, don't talk. Not here. Let's get you inside.”
She heard the click of key in lock and the door opening, but was hardly sure how she came to be in the elegant hall. A glass-guarded candle shed faint light on the gleaming floor, a grand staircase, and Dare locking the front door. He was in jacket, breeches, and boots. Casual clothes. Not evening wear.
Her mind was spinning, and she was clutching the blanket around her as if that would help her stay upright, but she was safe. Dare would save her.
When he turned to look at her, she said, “This is like the bullfighting, isn't it?”
“What?” He looked if he doubted his senses.
“Remember? I decided to try to fight a bull as the Spanish do. You rescued me. I felt the same giddy relief to be alive.”
He shook his head, but said, “And I'll rescue you again.” He frowned at her feet, picked her up and carried her upstairs. “It'll have to be my bedroom. Don't worry about that. Whatever mad start you've fallen into this time, Imp, I'll sort it out.”
The teasing name comforted her even more. That's what he'd called her in those past golden days when she'd been a child and he'd been the merriest young man she'd known.
She turned her face into his jacket and worked at not crying any more. She was safe. As safe as if she'd found refuge with one of her brothers. Safer. Dare wouldn't rip up at her the way Simon or Rupert would. And surely he wouldn't tell her father.
He opened a door, then carried her to sit sideways on the high bed. “Take off the remains of your stockings and we'll clean you up.” He went to the washstand.
He'd spoken so coldly, as if he were disgusted with her. Of course he was. She was disgusted with herself. She was eighteen, not twelve. Too old for such a foolish start. He must think her a crazy hoyden, and this time it hadn't been a bull, but a more dangerous maleâa man.
She sighed and carefully rolled down her silk stockings, but they no longer warranted care. They were embroidered with flowers and had cost a shameful amount, but now they were ruined. As she had almost been.
“They're off,” she said, pulling the blanket back around herself, her voice squeaking. “But I have to get home, Dare. Now. Can youâ”
“Not before I've checked your feet.” He turned, bearing a bowl of water, a washcloth, and a towel, which he spread on the coverlet. “Put your feet up on this.”
She obeyed the impersonal order, her filthy, ruined stockings still clutched in her hand. She'd rather he rip up at her as Simon would. Too late, she realized that she wanted Dare Debenham to see her as a young lady now, an adult. Respectable.
He held out his hand and she reluctantly put the stockings into it. He tossed them in the fire, then sat by her feet and raised each to study it.
“No blood, I don't think.” He looked up, blue eyes steady. “All right. What happened, Imp?”
Again the name shook her. He'd started to call her Imp because she had the same dark hair shot with red that Simon had. Or because she'd been an impish child. From the perspective of a six-year-old, a fourteen-year-old lord had seemed awe-inspiring. She'd reacted with some bit of cheek and he'd called her “an imp from hell.”
With his usual grin, which had always stolen her heart.
“Mara, what happened?”
She focused and realized what the dark concern in his eyes meant.
“Oh! Nothing like
, Dare. I ran away.”
She saw him relax. “So where did you have to run away from? And,” he added, looking down to dab at the sole of her right foot with a soapy cloth, “why were you there in the first place?”
It stung and she squirmed, or perhaps that was because of his tone. “You don't need to do that. Wash my feet.”
“Stop trying to avoid the confession. What bull did you wave a red cloth at this time?”
“It wasn't my fault,” she protested, but then grimaced. “I suppose it was. I sneaked out of Ella's to go with Major Berkstead to a gaming hell.”
He paused to stare. “In God's name, why?”
She looked down and saw how grubby her hands were. One fingernail was broken. Not a lady's hands at all. “I've been asking myself that. I suppose I was bored.”
Surprisingly, he laughed. There wasn't a lot of humor in it, but it was a better reaction than she'd expected. “Your family should know better than to let a devil-hair have time on her hands.”