Grand Central Publishing
WHEN A MASKED MAN . . .
Twenty years ago Maximus Batten witnessed the brutal murders of his parents. Now the autocratic Duke of Wakefield, he spends his days ruling Parliament. But by night, disguised as the Ghost of St. Giles, he prowls the grim alleys of St. Giles, ever on the hunt for the murderer. One night he finds a fiery woman who meets him toe-to-toe—and won’t back down…
MEETS HIS MATCH . . .
Artemis Greaves toils as a lady’s companion, but hiding beneath the plain brown serge of her dress is the heart of a huntress. When the Ghost of St. Giles rescues her from footpads she recognizes a kindred spirit—and is intrigued. She’s even more intrigued when she realizes who exactly the notorious Ghost is by day…
DESIRE IGNITES A DANGEROUS PASSION
Artemis makes a bold move: she demands that Maximus use his influence to free her imprisoned brother—or she will expose him as the Ghost. But blackmailing a powerful duke isn’t without risks. Now that she has the tiger by the tail, can she withstand his ire—or the temptation of his embrace?
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New York Times and USA Today bestseller!
“The romance was... heartbreaking and beautiful and ALIVE…Whatever you do, DON'T miss this one!”
— Alyssa Susanna, Eater of Books
There is enchantment in the Maiden Lane series, not just the fairy tales
Hoyt infuses into the memorable romances, but the wonder of love combined with passion, unique plotlines and unforgettable characters. In Duke of Midnight, Hoyt takes a stiff, cold duke — think Batman — and turns him into a vulnerable hero, then pairs him with a bold, unconventional tigress of a heroine so they can fight together. If the end is any indication, Hoyt’s ready to gift us with more.”
— Kathe Robin, RT Book Reviews
“Richly drawn characters fill the pages of this emotionally charged…romance.”
— Publishers Weekly
“Desert Isle Keeper!
I LOVED it. I loved Artemis. I loved Max and I loved their story.”
— Mary Skelton, All About Romance
“What I love about this book is the attraction that blooms between the stiff duke and the ladies companion; it smolders, catches fire and engulfs them both.”
— Karen, Literati Literature Lovers
“DUKE OF MIDNIGHT is an original masterpiece in the Maiden Lane series and sure to delight fans and non-fans.”
— Ashia, The Romance Reviews
“I do highly recommend The Duke of Midnight. This story is one dark, dangerous adventure with two fully-developed mature characters.”
— Kay, Kay’s Blog
“WOW this novel is AMAZING.”
— Lisa, Romancing Rakes for the Love of Romance
“I absolutely LOVE this series and can not wait for more!!”
— Shauni, Bodice Rippers, Femme Fatales and Fantasy
Excerpt from Duke of Midnight
Artemis Greaves did not like to think herself a cynical person, but when the masked figure dropped into the moonlit alley to confront the three toughs already menacing her and her cousin, the hand on the knife in her boot tightened.
It seemed only prudent.
He was big and wore a harlequin’s motley—black-and-red diamond leggings and tunic, black jackboots, a hat with a wide, floppy brim, and a black half mask with a grotesquely outsized nose. Harlequins were meant to be clowns—a silly entertainment—but no one in the dark alley was laughing. The harlequin uncoiled from his crouch with a lethal movement so elegant Artemis’s breath caught in her throat. He was like a jungle cat—wild and without a trace of compassion—and like a jungle cat his attack held no hesitation.
He launched himself at the three men.
Artemis stared, still kneeling, her hand gripping the little blade sheathed in her boot. She’d never seen anyone fight like this—with a kind of brutal grace, two swords flashing at once through the shadows, too swift for the human eye to follow.
The first of the three men dropped, rolling to lie still and dazed. On the other side of the fight Artemis’s cousin, Lady Penelope Chadwicke, whimpered, cringing away from the bleeding man. A second man lunged, but the harlequin ducked, sweeping his outstretched leg under his opponent’s feet, then kicked the man to the ground and kicked him once more—viciously—in the face. The harlequin rose, already striking at the third man. He hammered the butt of his sword against his opponent’s temple.
The man collapsed with a squishy thud.
Artemis swallowed drily.
The dingy little lane was suddenly quiet, the crumbling buildings on either side seeming to loom inward with decrepit menace. The harlequin pivoted, not even breathing hard, his boot heels scraping on cobblestones, and glanced at Penelope. She still sobbed fearfully against the wall.
His head swiveled silently as he looked from Penelope to Artemis.
Artemis inhaled as she met the cold eyes glittering behind his sinister mask.
Once upon a time she had believed that most people were kind. That God watched over her and that if she were honest and good and always offered the last piece of raspberry tart to someone else first, then, even though sad things might happen, in the end everything would work out for the best. That was before, though. Before she’d lost both her family and the man who’d professed to love her more than the sun itself. Before her beloved brother had been wrongly imprisoned in Bedlam. Before she’d been so wretchedly desperate and alone that she’d wept tears of relieved gratitude when she’d been offered a position as her silly cousin’s lady’s companion.
Before, Artemis would’ve fallen upon this grim harlequin with cries of thanks for having rescued them in the nick of time.
Now, Artemis narrowed her eyes at the masked man and wondered why he’d come to the aid of two lone women wandering the dangerous streets of St. Giles at midnight.
Perhaps she had grown a trifle cynical.
He strode to her in two lithe steps and stood over her. She saw those intense eyes move from the hand on her pathetic knife to her face. His wide mouth twitched—in amusement? Irritation? Pity? She doubted the last, but she simply couldn’t tell—and bizarrely, she wanted to. It mattered, somehow, what this stranger thought of her—and, of course, what he intended to do to her.
Holding her gaze, he sheathed his short sword and pulled the gauntlet off his left hand with his teeth. He held out his bare hand to her.
She glanced at the proffered hand, noticing the dull glint of gold on the smallest finger, before laying her palm in his. His hand was hot as he gripped her tightly and pulled her upright before him. She was so close that if she leaned forward a couple of inches she could’ve brushed her lips across his throat. She watched the pulse of his blood beat there, strong and sure, before she lifted her gaze. His head was cocked almost as if he were examining her—searching for something in her face.
She drew in a breath, opening her mouth to ask a question.
Which was when Penelope launched herself at the harlequin’s back. Penelope screamed—obviously nearly out of her mind with fear—as she beat uselessly at the harlequin’s broad shoulders.
He reacted, of course. He turned, yanking his hand from Artemis’s fingers as he lifted one arm to push Penelope aside. But Artemis tightened her hand on his. It was instinct, for she certainly wouldn’t have tried to hold him back otherwise. As his fingers left hers, something fell into her palm.
Then he was shoving Penelope aside and loping swiftly down the lane.
Penelope panted, her hair half down, a scratch across her lovely face. “He might’ve killed us!”
“What?” Artemis asked, tearing her gaze away from the end of the lane where the masked man had disappeared.
“That was the Ghost of St. Giles,” Penelope said. “Didn’t you recognize him? They say he’s a ravisher of maidens and a cold-blooded murderer!”
“He was rather helpful for a cold-blooded murderer,” Artemis said as she bent to lift the lantern. She’d set it down when the toughs had appeared at the end of the alley. Fortunately, it had survived the fight without being knocked over. She was surprised to see that the lantern’s light wavered. Her hand was shaking. She drew in a calming breath. Nerves wouldn’t get them out of St. Giles alive.
She glanced up to see Penelope pouting.
“But you were very brave to defend me,” Artemis added hastily.
Penelope brightened. “I was, wasn’t I? I fought off a terrible rogue! That’s much better than drinking a cup of gin at midnight in St. Giles. I’m sure Lord Featherstone will be very impressed.”
Artemis rolled her eyes as she turned swiftly back the way they’d come. Lord Featherstone was at the moment her least favorite person in the world. A silly society gadfly, it was he who had teased Penelope into accepting a mad wager to come into St. Giles at midnight, buy a tin cup of gin, and drink it. They’d nearly been killed—or worse—because of Lord Featherstone.
And they still weren’t out of St. Giles.
If only Penelope weren’t so set on becoming daring—loathsome word—in order to attract the attention of a certain duke, she might not’ve fallen for Lord Featherstone’s ridiculous dare. Artemis shook her head, keeping a wary eye out as she hurried out of the alley and into one of the myriad of narrow lanes that wound through St. Giles. The channel running down the middle of the lane was clogged with something noxious, and she made sure not to look as she trotted by. Penelope had quieted, following almost docilely. A stooped, shadowy figure came out of one of the sagging buildings. Artemis stiffened, preparing to run, but the man or woman scurried away at the sight of them.
Still, she didn’t relax again until they turned the corner and saw Penelope’s carriage, left standing in a wider street.
“Ah, here we are,” Penelope said, as if they were returning from a simple stroll along Bond Street. “That was quite exciting, wasn’t it?”
Artemis glanced at her cousin incredulously—and a movement on the roof of the building across the way caught her eye. A figure crouched there, athletic and waiting. She stilled. As she watched, he raised a hand to the brim of his hat in mocking salute.
A shiver ran through her.
“Artemis?” Penelope had already mounted the steps to the carriage.
She tore her gaze away from the ominous figure. “Coming, Cousin.”
Artemis climbed into the carriage and sat tensely on the plush indigo squabs. He’d followed them, but why? To discover who they were? Or for a more benign reason—to make sure that they had reached the carriage safely?
Silly, she scolded herself—it did no good to indulge in flights of romantic fancy. She doubted that a creature such as the Ghost of St. Giles cared very much for the safety of two foolish ladies. No doubt he had reasons of his own for following them.
“I cannot wait to tell the Duke of Wakefield of my adventure tonight,” Penelope said, interrupting Artemis’s thoughts. “He’ll be terribly surprised, I’ll wager.”
“Mmm,” Artemis murmured noncommittally. Penelope was very beautiful, but would any man want a wife so hen-witted that she ventured into St. Giles at night on a wager and thought it a great lark? Penelope’s method of attracting the duke’s attention seemed impetuous at best and at worst foolish. For a moment Artemis’s heart twinged with pity for her cousin.
But then again Penelope was one of the richest heiresses in England. Much could be overlooked for a veritable mountain of gold. Too, Penelope was esteemed one of the great beauties of the age, with raven-black hair, milky skin, and eyes that rivaled the purple of a pansy. Many men wouldn’t care about the person beneath such a lovely surface.
Artemis sighed silently and let her cousin’s excited chatter wash over her. She ought to pay more attention. Her fate was inexorably tied to Penelope’s, for Artemis would go to whatever house and family her cousin married into.
Unless Penelope decided she no longer needed a lady’s companion after she wed.
Artemis’s fingers tightened about the thing the Ghost of St. Giles had left in her hand. She’d had a glimpse of it in the carriage’s lantern light before she’d entered. It was a gold signet ring set with a red stone. She rubbed her thumb absently over the worn stone. It felt ancient. Powerful. Which was quite interesting.
An aristocrat might wear such a ring.
Maximus Batten, the Duke of Wakefield, woke as he always did: with the bitter taste of failure on his tongue.
For a moment he lay on his great curtained bed, eyes closed, trying to swallow down the bile in his throat as he remembered dark tresses trailing in bloody water. He reached with his right hand and laid it on the locked strongbox that sat on the table beside his bed. The emerald pendants from her necklace, carefully gathered over years of searching, were within. The necklace wasn’t complete, though, and he’d begun to despair that it ever would be. That the blot of his failure would remain upon his conscience forever.
And now he had a new failure. He flexed his left hand, feeling the unaccustomed lightness. He’d lost his father’s ring—the ancestral ring—last night somewhere in St. Giles. It was yet another offense to add to his long list of unpardonable sins.
He stretched carefully, pushing the matter from his mind so that he might rise and do his duty. His right knee ached dully, and something was off about his left shoulder. For a man in but his thirty-third year he was rather battered.
His valet, Craven, turned from the clothespress. “Good morning, Your Grace.”
Maximus nodded silently and threw back the coverlet. He rose, nude, and padded to the marble-topped dresser with only a slight limp. A basin of hot water already waited there for him. His razor, freshly sharpened by Craven, appeared beside the basin as Maximus soaped his jaw.
“Will you be breaking your fast with Lady Phoebe and Miss Picklewood this morning?” Craven enquired.
Maximus frowned into the gold mirror standing on the dresser as he tilted his chin and set the razor against his neck. His youngest sister, Phoebe, was but twenty. When Hero, his other sister, had married several years ago, he’d decided to move Phoebe and their older cousin, Bathilda Picklewood, into Wakefield House with him. He was pleased to have her under his eye, but having to share accommodations—even accommodations as palatial as Wakefield House—with the two ladies sometimes got in the way of his other activities.
“Not today,” he decided, scraping whiskers from his jaw. “Please send my apologies to my sister and Cousin Bathilda.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
Maximus watched in the mirror as the valet arched his eyebrows in silent reproach before retiring to the clothespress. He didn’t suffer the rebuke—even a silent one—of many, but Craven was a special case. The man had been his father’s valet for fifteen years before Maximus had inherited him on attaining the title. Craven had a long face, the vertical lines on either side of his mouth and the droop of his eyes at the outer corners making it seem longer. He must be well into his fifties, but one couldn’t tell by his countenance: he looked like he could be any age from thirty to seventy. No doubt Craven would still look the same when Maximus was a doddering old man without a hair on his head.
He snorted to himself as he tapped the razor against a porcelain bowl, shaking soap froth and whiskers from the blade. Behind him Craven began laying out smallclothes, stockings, a black shirt, waistcoat, and breeches. Maximus turned his head, scraping the last bit of lather from his jaw, and used a dampened cloth to wipe his face.
“Did you find the information?” he asked as he donned smallclothes.
“Indeed, Your Grace.” Craven rinsed the razor and carefully dried the fine blade. He laid it in a fitted velvet-lined box as reverently as if the razor had been the relic of some dead saint.
Craven cleared his throat as if preparing to recite poetry before the king. “The Earl of Brightmore’s finances are, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, quite happy. In addition to his two estates in Yorkshire, both with arable land, he is in possession of three producing coal mines in the West Riding, an ironworks in Sheffield, and has recently bought interest in the East India Company. At the beginning of the year he opened a fourth coal mine, and in so doing accrued some debt, but as the reports from the mine are quite favorable. The debt in my estimation is negligible.”
Maximus grunted as he pulled on his breeches.
Craven continued, “As to the earl’s daughter, Lady Penelope Chadwicke, it’s well known that Lord Brightmore plans to offer a very nice sum when she is wed.”
Maximus lifted a cynical eyebrow. “Do we have an actual number?”
“Indeed, Your Grace.” Craven pulled a small notebook from his pocket and, licking his thumb, paged through it. Peering down at the notebook, he read off a sum so large Maximus came close to doubting Craven’s research skills.
“Good God. You’re sure?”
Craven gave him a faintly chiding look. “I have it on the authority of the earl’s lawyer’s chief secretary, a rather bitter gentleman who cannot hold his liquor.”
“Ah.” Maximus arranged his neck cloth and shrugged on his waistcoat. “Then that leaves only Lady Penelope herself.”
“Quite.” Craven tucked his notebook away and pursed his lips, staring at the ceiling. “Lady Penelope Chadwicke is four and twenty years of age and her father’s sole living offspring. Despite her rather advanced maiden status, she does not lack for suitors, and indeed appears to be only unwed because of her own...ah...unusually high standards in choosing a gentleman.”
Craven winced at the blunt assessment. “It would appear so, Your Grace.”
Maximus nodded as he opened his bedroom door. “We’ll continue downstairs.”
“Yes, Your Grace.” Craven picked up a candle and lit it at the fireplace.
A wide corridor lay outside his bedroom. To the left was the front of the house and the grand staircase that led to the public rooms of Wakefield House.
Maximus turned to the right, Craven trotting at his heels. This way led to the servants’s stairs and other less public rooms. Maximus opened a door paneled to look like the wainscoting in the hall and clattered down the uncarpeted stairs. He passed the entrance to the kitchens and continued down another level. The stairs ended abruptly, blocked by a plain wooden door. Maximus took a key from his waistcoat pocket and unlocked the door. Beyond was another set of stairs, but these were stone, so ancient the treads dipped in the middle, worn away by long-dead feet. Maximus followed them down as Craven lit candles tucked into the nooks in the stone walls.
Maximus ducked under a low stone arch and came to a small paved area. The candlelight behind him flickered over worn stone walls. Here and there figures were scratched in the stone: symbols and crude human representations. Maximus doubted very much that they’d been made during the age of Christianity. Directly ahead was a second door, the wood blackened by age. He unlocked this as well and pushed it open.
Behind the door was a cellar, long and with a surprisingly high ceiling, the groin vaulting picked out in smaller, decorative stone. Sturdy pillars paced along the floor, their capitals carved into crude shapes. His father and grandfather had used the space as a wine cellar, but Maximus wouldn’t have been surprised if this hidden room had originally been built as a place to worship some ancient pagan deity.
Behind him Craven shut the door, and Maximus began taking off his waistcoat. It seemed a waste of time to dress and then undress again five minutes later every morning, but a duke never appeared in dishabille—even within his own house.
Craven cleared his throat.
“Continue,” Maximus murmured without turning. He stood in only his smallclothes now and looked up. Spaced irregularly along the ceiling were iron rings he’d sunk into the stone.
“Lady Penelope is considered one of the foremost beauties of the age,” Craven intoned.
Maximus leaped and clung to a pillar. He dug his bare toes into a crack and pushed, reaching for a slim finger hold he knew lay above his head. He grunted as he pulled himself toward the ceiling and the nearest iron ring.
“Just last year she was courted by no less than two earls and a foreign princeling.”
“Is she a virgin?” The ring was just out of arm’s reach—a deliberate placing that on mornings such as this Maximus sometimes cursed. He shoved off from the pillar, arm outstretched. If his fingers missed the ring, the floor was very, very hard below.
But he caught it one-handed, the muscles on his shoulder pulling as he let his weight swing him to the next ring. And the next.
“Almost certainly, Your Grace,” Craven called from below as Maximus easily swung from ring to ring across the cavernous room and back. “Although the lady has a certain amount of high spirits, she still seems to understand the importance of prudence.”
Maximus snorted as he caught the next ring. This one was a little closer together than the last and he hung between them, his arms in a wide V above his head. He could feel the heat across his shoulders and arms now. He pointed his toes. Slowly, deliberately, he folded in half until his toes nearly touched the ceiling above his head.
He held the position, breathing deeply, his arms beginning to tremble. “I wouldn’t call last night prudent.”
“Perhaps not,” Craven conceded, the wince evident in his voice. “In that regard I must report that although Lady Penelope is proficient in needlework, dancing, playing the harpsichord, and drawing, she is not considered a great talent in any of these endeavors. Nor is Lady Penelope’s wit held in high esteem by those who know her. This is not to say that the lady’s intellect is in any way deficient. She is simply not...er...”
“She’s a ninny.”
Craven hummed noncommittally and stared at the ceiling.
Maximus straightened and let go of the iron rings, landing lightly on the balls of his feet. He crossed to a low bench where an array of different-sized cannonballs lay. He selected one that fit easily in his palm, hoisted it to his shoulder, sprinted across the length of the cellar, and heaved the cannonball at a bank of straw pallets placed against the far wall especially for that purpose. The ball flew through the straw and clanged dully against the stone wall.
“Well done, Your Grace.” Craven permitted himself a small smile as Maximus jogged back. The expression was oddly comical on his lugubrious face. “The straw bales are undoubtedly cowed.”
“Craven.” Maximus fought the twitching of his own lips. He was the Duke of Wakefield and no one was permitted to laugh at Wakefield—not even himself.
He picked up another lead ball.
“Quite. Quite.” The valet cleared his throat. “In summary then: Lady Penelope is very wealthy, very beautiful, and very fashionable and gay, but does not possess particular intelligence or, er...a sense of self-preservation. Shall I cross her off the list, Your Grace?”
“No.” Maximus repeated his previous exercise with a second cannonball. A chip of stone flew off the wall. He made a mental note to bring down more straw.
When he turned it was to find Craven staring at him in confusion. “But surely Your Grace wishes for more than an ample dowry, an aristocratic linage, and beauty in a bride?”
Maximus looked at the valet hard. They’d had this discussion before. Craven had just listed the most important assets in a suitable wife. Common sense—or the lack thereof—wasn’t even on the ledger.
For a moment he saw clear gray eyes and a determined feminine face. Miss Greaves had brought a knife into St. Giles last night—there’d been no mistaking the gleam of metal in her boot top. And what was more, she’d appeared quite ready to use it. Then as now a spark of admiration lit within him. What other lady in his acquaintance had ever displayed such grim courage?
Then he shook the frivolous notion away and returned his mind to the business at hand. His father had died for him, and he would do nothing less than honor his memory by marrying the most suitable candidate for his duchess. “You know my thoughts on the subject. Lady Penelope is a perfect match for the Duke of Wakefield.”
Maximus picked up another cannonball and chose to pretend he didn’t hear Craven’s soft reply.
“But is she a match for the man?”
There were those who compared Bedlam to hell—a writhing purgatory of torture and insanity. But Apollo Greaves, Viscount Kilbourne, knew what Bedlam really was. It was limbo.
A place of interminable waiting.
Waiting for the restless moaning in the night to be over. Waiting for the scrape of heel on stone that heralded a stale piece of bread to break his fast. Waiting for the chilly splash of water that was called a bath. Waiting for the stink of the bucket that served as his commode to be emptied. Waiting for food. Waiting for drink. Waiting for fresh air. Waiting for something—anything—to prove that he still lived and was, in fact, not mad at all.
At least not yet.
Above all, Apollo waited for his sister, Artemis, to visit him in limbo.
She came when she could, which was usually once a week. Just often enough for him to keep his sanity, really. Without her he would’ve lost it long, long ago.
So when he heard the light tap of a woman’s shoes on the filthy stone in the corridor outside his cell, he leaned his head back against the wall and found a smile to paste on his blasted face.
She appeared a moment later, peering around the corner, her sweet, grave face brightening at the sight of him. Artemis wore a worn, but clean brown gown, and a straw bonnet she’d had for at least five years, the straw mended in small, neat stitches over her right ear. Her gray eyes were lit with warmth and worry for him, and she seemed to bring a waft of clear air with her, which was impossible: how could one smell the absence of stink?
“Brother,” she murmured in her low, quiet voice. She advanced into his cell without any sign of the disgust she must feel at the uncovered slop bucket in the corner or his own damnable state—the fleas and lice had long ago made a feast out of his hide. “How are you?”
It was a silly question—he was now, and had been for the last four years, wretched—but she asked it earnestly, for she truly worried that his state might someday grow worse than it already was. In that, at least, she was correct: there was always death, after all.
Not that he would ever let her know how close to death he’d come in the past.
“Oh, I’m just divine,” he said, grinning, hoping she didn’t notice that his gums bled at the smallest motion these days. “The buttered kidneys were excellent this morning as were the shirred eggs and gammon steak. I must compliment the cook, but I find myself somewhat detained.”
He gestured with his manacled feet. A long chain led from the manacles to a great iron ring on the wall. The chain was long enough for him to stand and take two steps in either direction, but no more.
“Apollo,” she said, and her voice was gently chiding, but her lips curved so he considered his clowning a victory. She set down the small soft sack she’d been holding in her hand. “I’m sorry to hear you’ve already dined since I brought some roast chicken. I do hope you’re not too full to enjoy it.”
“Oh, I think I’ll manage,” he said.
His nose caught the aroma of the chicken and his mouth began to water helplessly. There’d been a time when he’d never thought much about his next meal—beyond wishing vaguely that cherry pie might be served every day. It wasn’t that their family had been rich—far from it, in fact—but they’d never lacked for food. Bread and cheese and joints of roast and buttered peas and peaches stewed in honey and wine. Fish pie and those little muffins his mother had sometimes made. Dear God, the first slurp of oxtail soup, the bits of meat so tender they melted on his tongue. Juicy oranges, roasted walnuts, gingered carrots, and that sweet made from sugared rose petals. Sometimes he spent days simply thinking about food—no matter how much he tried to drive the thoughts from his mind.
He’d never again take food for granted.
Apollo looked away, trying to distract himself as she took out the chicken. He would put it off as long as possible, the inevitable descent into becoming a ravening, mindless animal.
He shifted awkwardly, the chains clinking. They gave him straw for both settee and dainty bed, and if he rummaged a bit he might find some cleanish spot for his sister to sit on. Such were the only comforts he could offer a guest to his cell.
“There’s some cheese and half an apple tart I wheedled from Penelope’s cook.” Artemis’s expression was gentle and a little worried, as if she knew how close he was to falling on her present and swallowing it all in one maddened gulp.
“Sit here,” he said gruffly.
She sank gracefully, her legs folded to the side as if they were on some pastoral picnic rather than a stinking madhouse. “Here.”
She’d placed a chicken leg and a slab of the tart on a clean cloth and held it out to him. He took the treasure carefully, trying to breathe through his mouth without seeming to. He clenched his jaw and inhaled slowly, staring at the food. Self-control was the only thing he had left.
“Please, Apollo, eat.” Her whisper was almost pained, and he reminded himself that he was not the only one being punished for one night of youthful folly.
He’d destroyed his sister that night as well.
So he raised the leg of chicken to his lips and took one delicate bite, placing it back on the cloth, chewing carefully, keeping the madness at bay. The taste was wonderful, filling his mouth, making him want to howl with eager hunger.
He swallowed, lowering the cloth with its contents to his lap. He was a gentleman, not an animal. “How is my cousin?”
If Artemis were less a lady she would’ve rolled her eyes. “She’s up in the boughs this morning over a ball we’re attending tonight at Viscount d’Arque’s town house. Do you remember him?”
Apollo took another bite. He’d never moved in the most elite circles—hadn’t the money for that—but the name tweaked a memory.
“Tall, dark fellow with a bit of a manner? Witty and knows it?” And a devil with the ladies, he thought but did not say aloud to his sister.
She nodded. “That’s him. He lives with his grandmother, Lady Whimple, which seems a little odd, considering his reputation. The ball I’m sure is completely planned by her, but it’s usually in his name.”
“I thought Penelope went to balls almost every night of the week?”
A corner of Artemis’s mouth quirked. “Sometimes it seems like it.”
He bit into the tart, nearly moaning over the crisp-sweet apple. “Then why the excitement over d’Arque’s ball? Has she set her cap at him?”
“Oh, no.” Artemis shook her head ruefully. “A viscount would never do. She has plans for the Duke of Wakefield, and rumor has it he may attend tonight.”
“Does she?” Apollo glanced at his sister. If their cousin finally settled on a gentleman to marry, then Artemis might very well be out of a home. And he could do absolutely nothing about it. His jaw tensed and he reined in the urge to bellow his frustration. He took another deep breath and drank from the flask of beer she’d brought him. The warm, sour taste of hops settled him for a moment. “Then I wish her well of the endeavor, though perhaps I should be commiserating with His Grace—Lord knows I wouldn’t want our cousin’s sights on me.”
“Apollo,” she chided softly. “Penelope is a lovely girl, you know that.”
“Is she?” he teased. “Known for her philanthropy and good works?”
“Well, she is a member of the Ladies’ Syndicate for the Benefit of the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children,” his sister said primly. She plucked a piece of straw and twisted it between her fingers.
“And she once wanted to put all the little boys at the orphanage in yellow coats, you told me.”
Artemis winced. “She does try, really she does.”
He took pity on his sister and rescued her from her doomed defense of their mercenary cousin. “If you believe so, then I’m sure ‘tis true.” He eyed the way she was bending the piece of straw into angular shapes between her fingers. “Is there something else about tonight’s ball that you’re not telling me?”
She looked up in surprise. “No, of course not.”
He tilted his chin at the mangled straw in her hands. “Then what is disturbing you?”
“Oh.” She wrinkled her nose at the bit of straw and threw it away. “It’s nothing, really. It’s just that last night...” One hand crept up to touch the fichu that covered the center of her chest.
“Artemis.” The frustration was nearly overwhelming. Were he free he could question her, find out from servants or friends what was the matter, pursue and make right whatever troubled her.
In here he could but wait and hope that she would tell him the truth of what her life was like outside.
She looked up. “Do you remember that necklace you gave me on our fifteenth birthday?”
He remembered the little green stone well enough. To a young boy’s eyes it had looked like a real emerald and he’d been more than proud to give such a wonderful present to his sister. But that wasn’t what they’d been talking about. “You’re trying to change the subject.”
Her lips pursed in a rare expression of irritation. “No, I’m not. Apollo—”
She huffed out a breath of air. “Penelope and I went to St. Giles.”
“What?” St. Giles was a veritable stew of lowlifes. Anything could happen to a gently reared lady in such a place. “God, Artemis! Are you all right? Were you accosted? What—”
She was already shaking her head. “I knew I shouldn’t have told you.”
“Don’t.” His head jerked back as if the blow had been physical. “Don’t keep things from me.”
“Oh.” Her expression was immediately contrite. “No, my dear, I shan’t keep anything from you. We were in St. Giles because Penelope had made a very silly wager, but I took the dagger you gave me—you remember the one?”
He nodded, keeping his anguish under wraps. When he’d gone away to school at the age of eleven, he’d thought the dagger a clever gift. After all, he’d been leaving his twin sister in the care of their half-mad father and a mother bedridden by illness.
But what had seemed a decently sized dagger to a boy was to a man a too-small weapon. Apollo shuddered at the thought of his sister trying to defend herself—in St. Giles—with that little dagger.
“Hush now,” she said, bringing his attention back to the present with a squeeze of her fingers. “I admit we were accosted, but it ended all right. We were saved by the Ghost of St. Giles, of all men.”
Obviously she thought this bit of information reassuring. Apollo closed his eyes. ’Twas said the Ghost of St. Giles murdered and raped and worse. He didn’t believe the tales, if for no other reason than that no one man—even a mad one—could’ve done all that he was accused of. Still. The Ghost wasn’t exactly a harmless kitten.
Apollo opened his eyes and took both his sister’s hands in his. “Promise me you won’t follow Penelope into another of her insane schemes.”
“I...” she looked away. “You know I’m her companion, Apollo. I must do as she wishes.”
“She’s liable to break you like a pretty China shepherdess and then throw you away to find a new plaything.”
Artemis looked shocked. “She’d never—”
“Please, my darling girl,” he said, his voice hoarse, “Please.”
“I’ll do my best,” she whispered, cupping her hand against his cheek. “For you.”
He nodded, for he had no choice but to be content with that promise. And yet he couldn’t help but wonder.
When he was gone, who would worry over Artemis?
The Earl of Brightmore was many things, Artemis thought that night: a respected peer, a man very aware of his wealth, and—in his best moments—a Christian capable of adhering to the letter, if not the spirit, of compassion, but what he was not was an attentive father.
“Papa, I told you yesterday at luncheon that I was to attend the Viscount of d’Arque’s ball this eve,” Penelope said as her lady’s maid, Blackbourne, fussed with the bow of her half cloak. They were in the grand entrance hall to Brightmore House waiting for the carriage to pull around from the mews.
“Thought you were there last night,” the earl said vaguely. He was a big man with bulbous blue eyes and a commanding nose that rather overtook his chin. He’d just arrived home with his secretary—a withered little man with a frightening head for numbers—and was doffing his tricorne and cape.
“No, darling,” Penelope said, rolling her eyes. “Last night I was dining with Lady Waters at her house.”
Artemis felt like rolling her eyes but refrained, because of course last night they’d been busy being nearly killed in St. Giles and hadn’t been anywhere near Lady Waters’s dining room. Actually, she rather thought Lady Waters might not even be in town at the moment. Penelope lied with a breathtaking virtuosity.
“Eh,” the earl grunted. “Well, you look exquisite, Penny.”
Penelope beamed and twirled to show off her new gown, a brocaded satin primrose gown overembroidered with bunches of flowers in blue, red, and green. The gown had taken a month to put together and cost more than what ninety percent of Londoners made in a year.
“And you, too, of course, Artemis,” the earl said absently. “Quite lovely indeed.”
Artemis curtsied. “Thank you, Uncle.”
For a moment Artemis was struck by how very different this life was from the one she’d known growing up. They’d lived in the country, then, just she, Apollo, Papa, and Mama. Papa had been estranged from his own father, and their household was meager. There had been no parties, let alone balls. Strange to think that she’d become used to attending grand soirees—that she was actually bored by the prospect of yet another one.
Artemis smiled wryly to herself. She was grateful to the earl—who was really a distant cousin, not her uncle. She’d never met either him or Penelope while Papa and Mama still lived, and yet he’d taken her into his house when she’d become a social pariah. Between her lack of dowry and the stigma of familial madness, she had no hope of marrying and having a household of her own. Still, she couldn’t quite forget that the earl had refused—absolutely and without opportunity for appeal—to help Apollo as well. The most he’d done was make sure that Apollo was hastily committed to Bedlam instead of going to trial. That had been an easy enough job for the Earl of Brightmore: no one wanted an aristocrat hung for murder. The elite of society wouldn’t stand for such a thing—even if the aristocrat in question had never moved much in society.
“You’ll turn every young gentleman’s head at that dance.” The earl was already talking to his daughter again, his eyes narrowing for a moment. “Just make sure yours isn’t turned as well.”
Perhaps he was more aware of Penelope than Artemis gave him credit for.
“Never fear, Papa.” Penelope bussed her sire’s cheek. “I only collect hearts—I don’t give them away.”
“Ha,” her father replied rather absently—his secretary was whispering something in his ear. “See you tomorrow, shall I?”
And with a last flurry of curtsies and bows from the gaggle of lady’s maids and footmen, Penelope and Artemis were out the door.
“I don’t know why we didn’t bring Bon Bon,” her cousin said as the carriage pulled away. “His fur would’ve quite set off this gown.”
Bon Bon was Penelope’s small, white, and quite elderly dog. Artemis wasn’t sure how he would ‘set off’ Penelope’s gown. Besides, she hadn’t had the heart to disturb the poor thing when she’d seen him curled up in the silly green-and-pink dog bed Penelope’d had made for him.
“Perhaps,” Artemis murmured, “but his white fur would’ve stuck to your skirts as well.”
“Oh.” Penelope frowned quite becomingly, her small rosebud mouth pouting. “I wonder if I should get a pug. But everyone has one—they’re almost common—and the fawn isn’t nearly so striking as Bon Bon’s white.”
Artemis sighed silently and kept her opinions about choosing a dog by the color of its fur to herself.
Penelope began prattling about dogs and dresses and fashion and the house party at the Duke of Wakefield’s country residence they would soon attend. Artemis merely had to nod here and there to help with the conversation. She thought about Apollo and how thin he’d appeared this morning. He was a big man—or had been. Bedlam had caved in his cheeks, hollowed his eyes, and made the bones at his wrists protrude. She had to find more money to pay the guards, more food to bring him, more clothes to give him. But all that was just a temporary fix. If she didn’t discover some way to get her brother out of Bedlam, she very much feared he wouldn’t live another year there.
She sighed softly as Penelope kept talking about Belgium lace.
Half an hour later they were descending the carriage steps in front of a grand mansion ablaze with lights.
“It’s a pity, really,” Penelope said, shaking out her skirts.
“What is?” Artemis bent to straighten the hem at the back.
“Lord d’Arque.” Her cousin gestured vaguely at the stunning town house. “Such a beautiful man and rich as well—he’s nearly perfect.”
Artemis wrinkled her forehead, trying to follow her cousin’s sometimes mazelike thought process. “But he’s not?”
“No, of course not, silly.” Penelope said as she sailed toward the front doors. “He’s not a duke, is he? Oh, I say, there’s Lord Featherstone!”
Artemis trailed after Penelope as she flitted up to the young lordling. George Featherstone, Baron Featherstone, had large blue eyes with luxuriant curling lashes and a red, full-lipped mouth, and had it not been for the strength of his jawline and the length of his nose, he might’ve been mistaken for a girl. He was considered very comely by most of the ladies in London society, although Artemis personally found the nasty glint in those pretty blue eyes distasteful.
“My Lady Penelope!” Lord Featherstone crowed, halting on the marble steps and making an extravagant bow. He wore a crimson coat and breeches with a gold waistcoat embroidered in crimson, purple, and bright leaf green. “What news?”
“My lord, I am pleased to report that I have been to St. Giles,” Penelope said, extending her hand.
Lord Featherstone bowed over it, lingering a fraction of a second too long before looking up through his lush eyelashes. “And did you partake of a cup of gin?”
“Alas, no.” Penelope flipped open her fan and turned her face into it as if abashed. “Better.” She lowered the fan to reveal a grin. “I met the Ghost of St. Giles.”
Lord Featherstone eyes widened. “Say you so?”
“Indeed. My companion, Miss Greaves, can bear witness.”
Artemis curtsied, though no one was looking at her.
“But this is wonderful, my lady!” Lord Featherstone threw wide his arms, the gesture making him wobble, and for a moment Artemis worried that he might overbalance on the steps, but he merely braced himself by throwing one foot on the next step up. “A masked demon vanquished by the beauty of a maiden.” He tilted his head and glanced sideways at Penelope, a sly smile on his lips. “You did vanquish him, did you not, my lady?”
Artemis frowned. ‘Vanquish’ was rather a risqué word that could be taken—
“Good evening, my lady, my lord,” a calm, deep voice said.
Artemis turned. The Duke of Wakefield appeared from the darkness behind them, his footfalls making no sound. He was a tall, lean man, dressed severely in black and with an elegant white wig. The lights from the mansion cast faintly ominous shadows across his countenance, emphasizing the right angles of his face: the stern, dark shelf of his eyebrows, the prominent nose positioned vertically underneath, which led straight to the thin, almost cruel horizontal line of his lips. The Duke of Wakefield was not considered as beautiful as Lord Featherstone by the ladies of society, but if one could look at his features apart from the man beneath, it was possible to see that he was in fact a handsome man.
Coldly, sternly handsome, with nary a trace of softness to relieve the harsh masculine planes of his face.
Artemis repressed a shiver. No, the Duke of Wakefield would never be a darling of the feminine members of society. Something about him was so opposite to female that he almost repelled the softer sex. This was not a man to be swayed by gentleness, beauty, or sweet words. He would bend—assuming he was even capable of bending—only for reasons of his own.
“Your Grace.” Penelope made a flirtatious curtsy while Artemis dipped more sedately beside her. Not that anyone noticed. “How lovely to see you this evening.”
“Lady Penelope.” The duke bowed over her hand and straightened. His dark eyes betrayed no emotion, either positive or negative. “What’s this I heard about the Ghost of St. Giles?”
Penelope licked her lips in what might have been a seductive movement, but Artemis thought her cousin was probably nervous. The duke was rather daunting at the best of times. “A grand adventure, Your Grace. I met the Ghost himself last night in St. Giles!”
The duke simply looked at her.
Artemis stirred uneasily. Penelope didn’t seem to be aware that her lark might not be taken as an accomplishment by the duke. “Cousin, perhaps we should—”
“Lady Penelope has the wonderful courage of Britannia herself,” Lord Featherstone trumpeted. “A sweetly brave bearing embraced by the beauty of her form and face, resulting in perfection of manner and grace. My lady, please, accept this bauble as a token of my admiration.”
Lord Featherstone dropped to one knee and held out his jeweled snuffbox. Artemis snorted under her breath. She couldn’t help thinking that Penelope had won the wager fair and square, at risk of both life and limb. Lord Featherstone’s snuffbox wasn’t the simple offering he was trying to make it seem.
Penelope reached for the snuffbox, but strong fingers were ahead of hers. The duke plucked the thing from Lord Featherstone’s hand—making the younger man flinch—and held it up to the light. It was oval, gold, and a tiny, round painting of a girl was on the top, bordered by pearls.
“Very pretty,” His Grace drawled. He palmed the box and turned to Lady Penelope. “But hardly worth your life, my lady. I hope you’ll not risk something so precious for such a mundane trinket again.”
He tossed the box at Penelope, who simply blinked, forcing Artemis to dive rather ungracefully for the thing. She caught the snuffbox before it could hit either the ground or Penelope, and straightened to see the duke’s eyes upon her.
For a moment she froze. She’d never looked into his eyes before—she was a creature relegated to the sides of ballrooms and the back of sitting rooms. Gentlemen rarely noticed a lady’s companion. If she’d been quizzed as to His Grace’s eye color, she would’ve had to reply simply that they were dark. Which they were. Very dark, nearly black, but not quite. The Duke of Wakefield’s eyes were a deep, rich brown, like coffee newly brewed, like walnut wood oiled and polished, like seal fur shining in the light, and even though they were rather lovely to look at, they were as cold as iron in winter. One touch and her very soul might freeze.
“An adept catch, Miss Greaves,” the duke said, breaking the spell.
He turned and mounted the stairs.
Artemis blinked after him. When had he learned her name?
“Pompous ass,” Lord Featherstone said so loudly the duke must’ve heard, though he gave no sign as he disappeared into the mansion. Lord Featherstone turned to Lady Penelope. “I must give apology, my lady, for the ungentlemanly actions of the duke. I can only assume he has lost all sense of play or fun and has ossified into an old man before the age of forty. Or is it fifty? I vow, the duke might well be as old as my father.”
“Surely not.” Lady Penelope’s brows drew together as if she were truly worried that the duke had suddenly aged overnight. “He can’t be over forty years of age, can he?”
Her appeal was to Artemis, who sighed and slipped the snuffbox into her pocket to give back to Penelope later. If she did not take care of it, Penelope was sure to leave it at the mansion or in the carriage. “I believe His Grace is but three and thirty.”
“Is he?” Penelope brightened before blinking suspiciously. “How do you know?”
“His sisters have mentioned it in passing,” Artemis said drily. Penelope was friends—or at least acquaintances—with both Lady Hero and Lady Phoebe herself, but Penelope was not in the habit of listening, let alone remembering, what her friends said in conversation.
“Oh. Well, that’s good then.” And nodding to herself, Penelope accepted Lord Featherstone’s arm and proceeded into the town house.
They were greeted by a flurry of footmen, taking and storing their wraps before they mounted the grand staircase to the upper floor and Lord d’Arque’s ballroom. The room was like a fairyland. The pink-and-white marble floor shone under their feet. Overhead, crystal chandeliers sparkled with thousands of candles. Hothouse carnations in every shade of pink, white, and crimson overflowed from huge vases, perfuming the air with the sharp scent of cloves. A group of musicians at one end of the ballroom played a languid melody. And the guests were arrayed in every color of the rainbow, moving gracefully, as if to an unspoken dance, like a cohort of ethereal fairy folk.
Artemis wrinkled her nose ruefully at her plain gown. It was brown, and if the other guests were fairies, then she supposed she must be a dark little troll. Her gown had been made the first year that she’d come to live with Penelope and the earl, and she’d worn it ever since to all the balls she attended with Penelope. After all, she was merely the companion. She was there to fade into the background, which she did with admirable skill, even if she did say so herself.
“That went well,” Penelope said brightly.
Artemis blinked, wondering if she’d missed something. They’d lost Lord Featherstone somehow and the crowd was thickening around them. “I’m sorry?”
“Wakefield.” Penelope waved open her elaborately painted fan as if her companion could somehow read her mind and thus complete the thought.
“Our meeting with the duke went well?” Artemis supplied doubtfully. Surely not.
“Oh, indeed.” Penelope snapped closed her fan and tapped Artemis on the shoulder. “He’s jealous.”
Artemis gazed at her beautiful cousin. There were several adjectives she might use to describe the duke’s frame of mind when he’d left them: scornful, dismissive, superior, arrogant...actually, now that she thought of it, she was fairly sure she could come up with dozens of adjectives, and yet jealous wasn’t one of them.
Artemis cleared her throat carefully, “I’m not sure—”
“Ah, Lady Penelope!” A gentleman with a bit of a tummy straining the buttons of his elegant suit stepped deliberately in front of them. “You are as lovely as a summer rose.”
Penelope’s mouth pursed at this rather pedestrian compliment. “I thank you, Your Grace.”
“Not at all, not at all.” The Duke of Scarborough turned to Artemis and winked. “And I trust that you’re in the best of health, Miss Greaves.”
“Indeed, Your Grace.” Artemis smiled as she bobbed a curtsy.
The duke was of average height but had a slight stoop that made him seem shorter. He wore a snowy wig, a lovely champagne-colored suit, and diamond buckles on his shoes—which, rumor had it, he could well afford. Gossip also said that he was on the hunt for a new wife, since the duchess had passed away several years previously. Unfortunately, while Penelope could probably forgive the man his stoop and little belly, she was not so sanguine about his age, for the Duke of Scarborough, unlike the Duke of Wakefield, was well past his sixtieth year.
“I am on my way to meet a friend,” Penelope clipped out, trying to dodge the man.
But the duke was the veteran of many a ball. He moved with admirable deftness for his age, somehow catching Penelope’s hand and hooking it through his elbow. “Then I shall have the pleasure of escorting you there.”
“Oh, but I’m quite thirsty,” Penelope parried. “Perhaps you would be so kind as to fetch me a cup of punch, Your Grace?”
“I’d be most delighted, my lady,” the duke said, and Artemis thought she saw a twinkle in his eye, “but I’m sure your companion wouldn’t mind the chore. Would you, Miss Greaves?”
“Not at all,” Artemis murmured.
Penelope might be her mistress, but she rather had a fondness for the elderly duke—even if he didn’t have a prayer of winning Penelope. She turned sedately, but fast enough to pretend not to hear her cousin’s sputter. The refreshments room was on the other side of the ballroom, and her progress was slow, for the middle of the floor was taken up by dancers.
Yet, her lips were still curved faintly when she heard an ominously rumbling voice. “Miss Greaves. Might I have a word?”
Naturally, she thought as she looked up into the Duke of Wakefield’s cold seal-brown eyes.
“I’m surprised you know my name,” Miss Artemis Greaves said.
She wasn’t a woman he would notice under normal circumstances. Maximus gazed down at the upturned face of Miss Greaves and reflected that she was one of the innumerable female shades: companions, maiden aunts, poor relations. The ones who hung back. The ones who drifted quietly in the shadows. Every man of means had them, for it was the duty of a gentleman to take care of females such as she. See to it that they were clothed and housed and fed and, if possible, that they were happy or at least content with their lot in life. Beyond that, nothing, for these types of females didn’t impact on masculine issues. They didn’t marry and they didn’t bear children. Practically speaking they had no sex at all. There was no reason to notice a woman like her.
And yet he had.
Even before last night he’d been aware of Miss Greaves trailing her cousin, always in concealing colors—brown or gray—like a sparrow in the wake of a parrot. She hardly spoke—at least within his hearing—and had mastered the art of quiet watchfulness. She made no move to draw any attention to herself at all.
Until last night.
She’d dared to move to draw a knife on him in the worst part of London, had stared him in the eye without any fear at all, and it was as if she came into focus. Suddenly her edges were sharp and clear, standing out from the crowd around them. He saw her. Saw the calm, oval face and the entirely ordinary feminine features—ordinary save for the large, rather fine dark gray eyes. Her brown hair was pulled into a neat knot at her nape, her long, pale fingers laced calmly at her waist.
He saw her and the realization was vaguely disturbing.
She raised delicate eyebrows fractionally. “Your Grace?”
He’d been staring too long, lost in his own musings. The thought irritated him and thus his voice was overharsh. “What were you thinking, letting Lady Penelope venture into St. Giles at night?”
Many ladies of his acquaintance would’ve burst into tears at such an abrupt accusation.
Miss Greaves merely blinked slowly. “I cannot imagine why you would think I have any control over what my cousin does at all.”
A fair point, yet he could not acknowledge it. “You must’ve known how dangerous that part of London is.”
“Oh, indeed I do, Your Grace.” He had intercepted her meander about the edge of the ballroom and now she started forward again.
He was perforce made to stroll by her side if he didn’t want her to simply walk away from him. “Then surely you could’ve persuaded your cousin to refrain from such a foolish action?”
“I’m afraid Your Grace has an overly optimistic view of both my cousin’s docility and my own influence over her. When Penelope has an idea in her head, wild horses couldn’t pull her away from it. Once Lord Featherstone mentioned the words ‘wager’ and ‘dashing,’ I’m afraid we were quite doomed.” Her dulcet voice held an amused undertone that was unreasonably attractive.
He frowned. “It’s Featherstone’s fault.”
“Oh, indeed,” she said with unwarranted cheerfulness.
He scowled down at her. Miss Greaves didn’t seem at all worried that her cousin had nearly caused both their deaths in St. Giles. “Lady Penelope should be dissuaded from associating with gentlemen like Featherstone.”
“Well, yes—and ladies, too.”
She gave him a wry look. “Some of my cousin’s most harebrained ideas have originated with ladies, Your Grace.”
“Ah.” He looked blankly at her, absently noting that her eyelashes were quite lush and black—darker than her hair, in fact. Did she use some type of paint on them?
She sighed and leaned closer, her shoulder brushing his. “Last season Penelope was persuaded that a live bird would make an altogether unique accessory.”
Was she bamming him? “A bird.”
“A swan, in fact.”
She looked quite grave. If, in fact, she was playing some type of silly game with him, she hid it well. But then one such as she had innumerable occasions to learn to hide her thoughts and feelings. It was almost a requirement, in fact.
“I never noticed Lady Penelope with a swan.”
She glanced swiftly up at him, and he saw the corner of her lips curve. Just slightly, and then it was gone. “Yes, well, it was only for a week. As it turns out, swans hiss—and bite.”
“Lady Penelope was bitten by a swan?”
“No. Actually, I was.”
His brows knit at that bit of information, imagining that fair skin darkening with a bruise. He didn’t like the image. How often was Miss Greaves hurt whilst carrying out her duties as companion to Lady Penelope?
“Really, sometimes I think my cousin should be locked up for her own good,” Miss Greaves muttered. “But that isn’t likely to happen, is it?”
No, it wasn’t. Nor was it likely that Miss Greaves herself would find some other source of livelihood—somewhere away from her dangerously feckless cousin.
That simply wasn’t the way the world worked, and even if it was, it was no concern of his.
“Your tale makes it even more imperative that you find a way to persuade Lady Penelope out of the more dangerous of her ideas.”
“I have tried—I do try,” she said in a low voice. “But I am simply her companion, after all.”
He stopped and looked at her, this woman more self-possessed than her lot in life gave her any right to be. “Not her friend?”
She turned to glance up at him, that nearly invisible smile at the corner of her lips again, tiny and discreet, almost as if she’d learned not to smile very widely, not to acknowledge strong emotion too soon. “Yes, I am her friend. Her relative and her friend. I care for Penelope quite a bit—and I think she loves me as well. But first and foremost I am her lady’s companion. We will never be equals, because my position will always be lesser to hers. So, although I may suggest we not enter St. Giles at night, I can never order her.”
“And whither she goes, so do you?”
She inclined her head. “Yes, Your Grace.”
His jaw tightened. He knew all this, yet still he found the information...irritating. He looked away. “When Lady Penelope marries, her husband will rein her in. Keep her safe.” Keep you safe.
“Perhaps.” She tilted her head, gazing at him. She was an intelligent woman. Surely she knew his intentions toward her cousin.
He looked at her hard. “He will.”
She shrugged. “That would be for the best, I suppose. Of course if Penelope were reined in, we wouldn’t meet such interesting people as the Ghost of St. Giles.”
“You make light of the danger.”
“Maybe I do, Your Grace,” she said gently, as if he were the one who should be reassured, “but I must admit it was exciting to see the Ghost.”
“Actually, I’m not sure he is.” They had started strolling again and he finally realized that she’d been making for the refreshments room. “May I tell you a secret, Your Grace?”
Usually when ladies offered such a thing to him, they did it in the interest of flirtation, yet Miss Greaves’s expression was straightforward. He found himself curious. “Please.”
“I believe the Ghost might be of high birth.”
He was careful to keep his face blank even as his heartbeat began to speed. What could he possibly have let slip? “Why?”
“He left something with me last night.”
Dread wrapped itself about his chest. “What?”
That hidden smile played about her lips again. Mysterious. Captivating. Utterly feminine.
“A signet ring.”
The Duke of Wakefield’s face was as still as stone. Artemis wondered what he thought and, rather disconcertingly, what he thought of her. Did he disapprove of her levity regarding the Ghost of St. Giles? Or did he find it offensive that she thought a costumed footpad might be an aristocrat?
She searched his face for a second more and then faced forward again. She supposed it hardly mattered what he thought of her—besides being an adequate lady’s companion for Penelope. He’d never before sought her out specifically to talk to her. She doubted he would ever do so again. They, simply put, didn’t move in the same orbits. She smiled wryly to herself. They didn’t even move in the same universe.
“Are you going to fetch refreshment for Lady Penelope?” he asked, his voice rumbling pleasantly at her shoulder.
She saw him nod out of the corner of her eye. “I’ll help you bring it back.” He turned to the footman ladling glasses of punch and snapped his fingers. “Three.”
To her amusement, the man leaped to provide three glasses of punch while the duke simply stood there.
“That’s very kind of you, Your Grace,” she said, all trace of irony carefully erased from her voice.
“You know that’s not true.”
She glanced at him quickly, startled. “Do I?”
He bowed his head, murmuring quietly, “You seem an intelligent woman. You know I’m courting your cousin. Therefore, my offer is but a way to gracefully meet her again tonight.”
There didn’t seem much to say to that, so Artemis remained quiet as they gathered three glasses of punch.
“Tell me, Miss Greaves,” the duke said as they began the trek back across the ballroom. “Do you approve of my courtship of your cousin?”
“I can’t imagine that my approval matters one way or the other, Your Grace,” Artemis clipped out, unaccountably irritated. Was he patronizing her?
“Can’t you?” One corner of his mouth flicked up. “But you see I grew up in a house full of women. I don’t discount the weight of a whispered confidence in a feminine boudoir. Several judicious words from you in your cousin’s ear could scupper my suit.”
She looked at him in astonishment. “Your Grace assigns me more power than in truth I have.”
“Truly I am not.”
“Hmm.” They were nearing Penelope who was still in conversation with Scarborough. Wakefield’s eyes narrowed. “But you haven’t answered my question: will you back my suit?”
She glanced at him. In her position she ought to tread carefully. “Do you have an affection for Penelope?”
“Does that matter to Penelope?” He arched an eyebrow pointedly.
“No.” She lifted her chin. “But I find, Your Grace, that it matters to me.”
Penelope turned and, catching sight of them, broke into a gorgeous smile. “Oh, Artemis, finally. I vow I’m quite parched.” She took her cup from Artemis’s hands and looked up through her eyelashes at Wakefield. “Have you come to scold me some more, Your Grace?”
He bowed and murmured something over her hand.
Artemis took a step back. Then another. The tableau—Penelope, Wakefield, and Scarborough—were the players in this theater.
She merely swept the stage.
She tore her gaze from the trio and looked about the room. Several chairs had been set against the wall for the older guests and such. She caught sight of a familiar face and began moving in that direction.
“Would you like some punch, ma’am?”
“Oh, how kind!” Bathilda Picklewood was a stout lady with a round, pink face framed by gray curls. In her lap was a small black-white-and-brown spaniel, alertly watching the room. “I’d just begun to think that I ought to go in search of punch.”
Artemis held her hand out to the spaniel—Mignon—as Miss Picklewood took a sip. Mignon licked Artemis’s fingers politely. “Lady Phoebe isn’t here?”
Miss Picklewood shook her head regretfully. “You know she doesn’t attend crowded events. I’m here tonight with my good friend Mrs. White—she’s gone to repair a bit of lace on her costume.”
Artemis nodded as she settled next to the older lady. She did know that the duke’s youngest sister didn’t usually attend crowded events, but she’d hoped anyway. A sudden thought occurred to her. “But Lady Phoebe will be at her brother’s house party, surely?”
“Oh, yes, she’s quite looking forward to it, though I’m afraid the duke isn’t.” Miss Picklewood chuckled. “He hates house parties—really any party. Says it takes him away from more important things. I saw you with Maximus earlier.”
It took Artemis a moment to remember that Maximus was the Christian name of the Duke of Wakefield. Funny to think of a duke having a Christian name, but it suited him. She could see him as a ruthless Roman general. But of course Miss Picklewood would call Wakefield by his given name. She was a distant relation to the duke, and she lived with him and Lady Phoebe as a sort of companion for the young girl.
Artemis looked at the other woman with new interest. Miss Picklewood must be one of the women his house was full of. “He was helping me bring the punch to Penelope.”
“Yes?” The older lady looked at her with bright blue eyes.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard how you came to live with the duke and Lady Phoebe?”
“Oh, that’s simple enough, my dear,” Miss Picklewood said. “It was after the death of both of their parents.”
“Yes?” Artemis frowned at her lap. “I didn’t remember that.”
“Well, it was before your time, wasn’t it? Seventeen twenty-one, it was. Poor Hero had just turned eight and Phoebe was only a babe, not quite a year. When I heard—I was staying with an aunt of mine—I knew I had to go. Who else would look after those children? Neither the duke nor poor, dear Mary—Maximus’s mother, you know—had living siblings. No, I came down at once and found the house in chaos. The servants were all in shock, the men of business were nattering on about the lands and money and succession and not noticing that the boy had hardly risen from his bed. I took charge of the girls and helped Maximus as best I could. He was stubborn even then, I’m afraid. After a while he said he was the duke now and didn’t need a nanny or even a governess. Quite rude, but then he’d lost his parents. Awful shock.”
“Hmm.” Artemis looked over to where the duke was standing near Penelope, his eyes half hooded and impossible to read. “I suppose that explains quite a bit.”
“Oh, yes,” Miss Picklewood said, following her gaze. “It does indeed.”
They sat for a moment in silence before Miss Picklewood roused herself. “So you see, it can be quite a good life, nonetheless.”
Artemis blinked, not following her companion’s train of thought. “I’m sorry?”
“Being a lady dependent on the kindness of relatives,” Miss Picklewood said gently and quite devastatingly. “We might not have children of our own blood, but if one is lucky one can find others to help through life.” She patted Artemis’s knee. “It’ll all come right in the end.”
Artemis held very still because she had a quite mad urge to tear sweet Miss Picklewood’s hand from her leg. To stand up and scream. To run through the ballroom, out the front door, and keep running until she felt cool grass beneath her feet again.
This couldn’t be her life. It simply couldn’t be.
She did none of that, of course. Instead she nodded pleasantly and asked Miss Picklewood if she’d like another glass of punch.