Excerpt: Duke of Sin

Excerpt: Duke of Sin

Book 10: Maiden Lane

October 1741
London, England

There are few worse places for a housekeeper of impeccable credentials to be caught than kneeling on her employer’s bed. But two factors conspired to make this situation particularly fraught, Bridget Crumb reflected. One, that the employer in question was His Grace the Duke of Montgomery, widely regarded as the most wicked man in London. And two, that she happened to be clutching a just-purloined miniature portrait in her right hand.

Really, she was going to need a very strong cup of tea after this was all over—always assuming, of course, that she actually survived the duke’s ire.

“Tell me, Mrs. Crumb,” His Grace drawled in a voice filled with honeyed menace, “what are you looking for?”

The duke was neither a particularly large man, nor what one would normally think of as intimidating—quite the opposite, in fact. His face might’ve been carved by a Greek sculptor, so perfect were his cheekbones, lips, and nose. His eyes were of the clearest azure. His curling hair was the color of polished guineas and quite gorgeous—which the duke obviously knew, since he wore it long, unpowdered, and tied at the nape of his neck with an enormous black bow. He wore an elegant purple velvet coat over a cloth-of-gold waistcoat embroidered in black and crimson. Fountains of lace fell from wrists and throat as he lounged in a winged armchair, one long leg thrust forward. Diamonds on the buckles of his shoes glinted in the candlelight. His Grace was urbane male sophistication personified—but anyone who therefore dismissed him as harmless was a rank fool.

The Duke of Montgomery was as deadly as a coiled adder discovered suddenly at one’s feet.

Which was why Bridget made no sudden moves as she stood up from the bed. “Welcome home, Your Grace. Had I known you’d be returning from the Continent, I would’ve had your rooms aired and prepared.”

“I was never on the Continent, as I’m sure you’re quite aware.” The duke gestured with an indolent hand to a shadowed corner of the room.

Bridget was too good a servant to let her eyes widen at the sight of a small half-open door cleverly set into the paneling. She’d never noticed the door before. She’d had her suspicions, but until this night she’d had no real evidence. Now she knew: he’d been here all along—hiding in the walls of his own town house. How long had he been watching her—days? Weeks? The entire three months that he was supposed to have been gone? More to the point, how long had he been watching her tonight? Had he seen her find the miniature portrait in a hidden hole in the bed’s headboard?

Did he know she clutched it in her hand right now?

The duke smiled, flashing white teeth and deep dimples on both cheeks. “I’m afraid I never left.”

“Indeed, Your Grace,” Bridget murmured. “How very brave of you, considering the Duke of Wakefield banished you from England.”

“Oh, Wakefield.” The duke flicked his fingers as if shooing a fly instead of one of the most powerful men in London. “He’s always taken himself far too seriously.” He paused and eyed her as if she were an agate discovered in gravel. “But what a very sharp tongue you have for a housekeeper.”

Bridget’s heart sank—she knew better than to speak so frankly. It was never good for a servant to be noticed by a master—particularly this master.

“Come.” He beckoned her closer with his forefinger and she saw the flash of a jeweled gold ring on his left thumb.

She swallowed and opened her right hand, silently dropping the miniature to the lush carpet. As she walked toward him she nudged the little painting under the enormous bed with the side of her foot.

She stopped a pace away from him.

His lips curved, sly and sensual. “Closer.

She stepped nearer until her plain, practical black linsey-woolsey skirts were crushed against his purple velvet knees. Her heart beat hard and swift, but she was confident her expression didn’t show her fear.

Still smiling, he held out his hands, palms upward. His hands were long-fingered and elegant. The hands of a musician—or a swordsman.

She stared down at them a moment, confused.

He quirked an eyebrow and nodded.

Bridget placed her hands on top of his. Palm to palm. She expected searing heat or deathly cold and was a little surprised to instead feel human warmth.

She’d been hired little more than a fortnight before the duke had supposedly been banished. In that time he had never struck her as human—or humane.

“Ah,” His Grace murmured, cocking his head with interest. “What feminine hands you have, despite your station in life.”

His blue eyes flashed at her from under dark eyelashes, a secretive smile playing about his mouth.

She met his gaze stonily.

His lips quirked and he looked down again. “Small, plump, with neat, round nails.” He turned her hands over so that they now rested palms-up in his. “I once knew a Greek lass who swore she could read a man’s life story from the lines on his hands.” He dropped her left hand to trace the lines on her right palm with a forefinger.

His touch sent a frisson along her nerves and Bridget couldn’t hold back a shudder.

The duke’s dimple deepened beside his mouth as he examined her palm. “What have we here? Calluses, earned, no doubt, in my service.” He tapped the thickened skin at the top of her palm. “A life of good, honest labor for a Scottish lass.”

She held herself very still. How did he know where she was from? Or at least very nearly where she was from? She’d worked very hard to hide her Border accent since coming to London, and she was sure she’d never mentioned her place of birth to either him or the man of business who had hired her.

“And this”—the duke stroked the mound beneath her thumb—“do you know what this is called?”

Bridget cleared her throat, but her voice emerged a bit rusty nonetheless. “I could not say, Your Grace.”

“The Mount of Venus.” He arched his eyebrows at her. Devastatingly beautiful. Lethally charming. “My Greek girl told me that this foretells how passionate a woman may be. You, Mrs. Crumb, must have untold depths of sensual need within you.”

She narrowed her eyes at him.

He bent and bit the base of her thumb.

She gasped and snatched her hand away.

The duke laughed and sat back, smoothing his bottom lip with his beringed thumb slowly. “But then I was much more interested in the Greek girl’s titties than her twitterings about palm reading.”

Bridget stared at him, cradling the palm he’d bitten in her other hand. Though he hadn’t actually hurt her, her palm tingled as if she still felt his teeth—his tongue—against her flesh.

She took a steadying breath. “May I go, Your Grace?”

“Naturally, Mrs. Crumb,” he said, no longer looking at her. He appeared to be examining his ring. “Have a bath prepared for me. In the library, I think. I’ve a fancy to read as I soak.”

“At this time of night?” Bridget glanced at the darkened windows as she picked up her candlestick. It was past midnight and most of the servants would be in bed.

But of course rousing the servants from bed wasn’t any concern to a duke—or to most aristocrats, come to that. “Yes, now, if you please, Mrs. Crumb.”

“At once, Your Grace.”

Bridget paused, her hand on the doorknob. She couldn’t resist a curious glance back, for the duke had been in hiding for months now—was he out for good?

His azure gaze met hers, amused and wicked, and apparently reading her thoughts. “Oh, no, I’m quite done with the walls. Well”—he pursed his lips, shrugging—“for now at least. They’re crowded and dusty, but oh, what a lovely site for spying. I do so like to spy upon people. It gives a delicious sense of power, don’t you think?”

“I couldn’t say, Your Grace.”

“Couldn’t you?” He tutted, his sensuous lips curving as he murmured, “Oh, Mrs. Crumb. You imperil your immortal soul with lies, you know.”

Bridget fled.

Sadly there was no other word for it. She strode swiftly through the upper floor of the town house, past alabaster statues and gold-framed mirrors, her heart pounding in her chest, and descended the grand staircase. He couldn’t know for certain, otherwise he’d have had her immediately dismissed, surely? That would be very bad for her future work prospects, if he dismissed her without reference. Or worse—declared that he’d let her go for theft. She shuddered at the very thought. That would completely destroy her good name. She’d have to leave London, start anew in some other, smaller city, and perhaps change her name.

More importantly, if the duke dismissed her, she’d be unable to help the lady who had given birth to her. That was the real reason she’d taken this job: Bridget was the bastard daughter of an aristocratic lady being blackmailed by the duke. She had vowed to find the letters the duke was using as his hold over her mother. Blackmail was a nasty, vile crime and the duke was a nasty, vile man.

She wasn’t leaving until she fulfilled her self-imposed mission.

Bridget halted before the door to the kitchens, taking a deep breath and making sure her skirts and mobcap were in order—a housekeeper always looked completely neat, even when the master had just bitten her. Another deep breath. There was no point in borrowing trouble. Right now she had a house to run. One with its master newly returned—or at least newly emerged from hiding.

She entered the vast kitchens of Hermes House, the duke’s London town house. At this time of night the fire was banked in the huge hearth. Shadows lurked at the edges of the ceiling and in the corners of the kitchen, but she found the sight soothing. Everything was as it should be back here.

Bridget woke the poor bootblack boy, sleeping on a pallet by the hearth, and sent the yawning lad up to wake the scullery maids and the footmen. She stirred the fire, building it until it roared, and then lit several candles, the mundane task further calming her nerves.

By the time the footmen and scullery maids arrived a few minutes later, the kitchen was bright and hot and Bridget was in full control. She immediately set her troops to drawing and heating the huge amount of water needed for a despot’s bath.

Then she retraced her steps to the front of the house.

Hermes House was newly built by the duke himself and the town house was as extravagant as the man. The wide, curving staircase was white marble, the landings gray-veined pink marble checkerboarded with black marble, and the entire thing highlighted with gilding. The stairs opened onto a wide hallway on the first floor, the walls a pale pink, detailed in white and gold foil.

Bridget paused before the duke’s bedroom and listened. No sound came from within. Either he’d already gone to the library, or he was lurking inside, ready to pounce on her.

She narrowed her eyes and pushed the door open.

The room was dark. She raised her candle high—the duke had already caught her by surprise once tonight. Her candle lit shell-pink walls, a ceiling painted with gods and goddesses reveling in debauchery, and the ridiculously huge bed hung with sky-blue draperies and gold tassels. Next to the bed was a delicate secretary inlaid with ivory and gilt. Over the secretary hung an enormous, life-size painting of the duke.

In the nude.

Bridget scowled at the portrait, quickly slipped into the bedroom, and closed the door behind her. She hurried to the bed and knelt down, sweeping aside the bed-curtains to reveal the floor beneath.

Bare floor met her gaze. The miniature was gone.


Val studied the miniature in his hand. It depicted a family: an English aristocrat, his wife—an Indian noblewoman—and their infant child. There were much more valuable pieces in his house if one wished to steal. Ergo, Mrs. Crumb was working either for the owner of the miniature or their agent. He remembered the look of bland aplomb she’d given him as she’d slid off his bed. The corner of his mouth curved up as he slipped the gilt-framed miniature into the pocket of his banyan. Had his little housekeeper truly thought she could fool him of all people?

Well, not so little, he conceded as he remembered Mrs. Crumb standing rigidly at attention before him. She was a bit over the average height for a woman, with what he suspected was a bounteous pair of tits. Sadly, she hid her glory beneath tightly laced stays, black wool, a white-pinned apron, and a neatly tucked white fichu. Add to that hair entirely covered by an enormous white mobcap that tied under her chin, pronounced black eyebrows, an unremarkable nose and mouth, a chin that might give one a bit of a pause due to the determination of its set…but on the whole an ordinary piece, really—if one didn’t notice those intense dark eyes.

Hers were the eyes of a religious fanatic—a saint or a heretic.

Or perhaps an inquisitor.

A woman with complete confidence that she knew right from wrong—in herself and in others. A woman not afraid to suffer—perhaps die—for her beliefs.

Did she then recognize in him her opposite: the very Devil? A man who neither knew nor cared about that delicate difference between good and evil? While others carefully balanced their scales, debating the various weights of sins and good deeds, he chose to dash the entire apparatus to the ground. Why entangle himself with a game whose rules he neither understood nor particularly approved of? Better to make his own rules in life. Much more fun, at any rate.

Val’s upper lip curled as he wondered if Mrs. Crumb knew the meaning of the word fun. Most likely she dismissed it as something vaguely shameful and leading to sin—which, at the best of times, it was.

Still, Mrs. Crumb was somewhat entertaining in her very novelty—a housekeeper attempting to match wits with him—and even with all his plans and plots he was sadly lacking in amusements.

Thus he’d let her stay and play for the nonce.

Meanwhile he had power and position in society to regain—and in order to do that, he was about to blackmail the King. He would demand the King’s acknowledgement—only that—but more than enough to guarantee an end to exile.

He’d agreed to banishment from England in the first place only because the wretched Duke of Wakefield—a pompous parliamentarian with an overblown sense of his own importance—had threatened to have Val charged with kidnapping if he did not. All because Val had taken the man’s sister once. Or twice. Or perhaps three times. Did it really matter? She’d not been harmed in the end—despite Val’s intentions—and in fact had married some lowly retired dragoon captain. Really. Val had had much better plans for her.

But now, now he had finally obtained letters with which he could threaten the King. He would go straight over bloody Wakefield’s head and to the King himself and there wasn’t a damned thing Wakefield could do about it.

Val swung swiftly to a writing desk that he kept in a corner of the library. It was elaborately carved in yellow-and-brown spotted marble, swirling and twirling in quite a ridiculously extravagant way. He’d won it off a Prussian aristocrat in a game of cards—in which he’d bluffed—and paid a king’s ransom to have it shipped to London, where it clashed terribly with the walls of his library.

He patted the desk fondly as he seated himself and rummaged in the drawers for paper.

He dabbed a quill in an ink bottle and wrote in his large, flourishing hand, saluting a Mr. Copernicus Shrugg, who happened to be the personal secretary of His Majesty, George II of England. The letter was short but florid—and rather graphic in its threat. Val smiled thinly as he swept his initial on the bottom third of the page.

The door to the library opened and a ragamuffin boy entered.

Well, Alf presented herself as a boy in any case and, as far as Val knew, most people seemed to be bamboozled by her trifling ruse. He, naturally, had taken only a minute—if that—to realize her true sex. One had but to look at the slenderness of her neck, the lack of an Adam’s apple, the angle where her jaw met her neck, et cetera, et cetera. Amazing how few people truly examined the world about them.

Val gave respect where respect was due and a disguise carefully maintained over years was certainly deserving of some small kudos, so he never made mention of Alf’s true nature. That, and he couldn’t bestir himself to be particularly interested in street urchins—male or female. He did, however, have much interest in—and use for—an intelligence-gatherer and runner. Alf had fulfilled this position in the months that Val had been perforce hidden in his own walls, often delivering letters, food, and books.

“Yer Grace,” the boyish girl muttered when she neared. “You wanted t’ see me t’night, if’n I remembers aright.”

Val ignored her as he lit his sealing wax and dripped the seal over his letter. He blew out the sealing wax, set it down, and chose his seal: a crowing rooster. It was a personal jest: the rooster was a symbol of the god Hermes, whom Val had taken as his own patron god. Hermes was the god of travel and of commerce.

He was also the god of thieves and trickery.

Val bit his lip. Too, the base pun on rooster was so obvious that even the most unintelligent should be able to parse it.

He turned to Alf.

She was standing hip cocked, weight on one leg, wearing, as far as Val could tell, the same clothes that she’d been wearing for years: a too-large coat and waistcoat, both an indeterminate dark color, much patched and frayed, baggy breeches, mud-stained stockings, enormous buckle shoes the exact color of dried horse dung, and a wide-brimmed floppy hat. Beneath the hat her dark hair was untidily clubbed back and one cheekbone was darkened by either dirt or a bruise.

Val briefly wondered what Alf did with the money he paid her—for he paid her rather well, considering—and then he dismissed the thought from his mind.

He thrust the letter at her. “Take this to Mr. Copernicus Shrugg”—he recited the address—“and make sure you hand it to him personally—no one else, mind.”

Alf took the letter, but wrinkled her nose. “It’s th’ middle o’ th’ night, you do know that, don’t you?”

“And what of it? A man roused from bed is even more prone to fear and excitement, I find. Oh, and tell Attwell and the boy they can quit the inn they’ve been staying at and attend me here.” He glanced over as the door to the library was once more opened and a troop of footmen carried in his bath. “Now off with you, imp. I’ve the dust of weeks in those damnable walls to wash away.”

The girl hesitated, eyeing him speculatively. “Then yer out o’ yer ’idey-’oles, are you?” She tilted her head with significance at the servants, now pouring the bathwater before the fireplace.

“Out and soon to be restored to my rightful place in society,” Val said. “Run along.”

He turned to his bath without waiting to see if she obeyed his command. Few people had the nerve to refuse his orders. Ah, but he was forgetting the winsome Mrs. Crumb. What was her Christian name anyway? He must demand it of her at the first opportunity. Not only had his housekeeper attempted to steal from him, but she’d refused to answer his questions, and—he surveyed the servants sent to wait upon him—if he wasn’t mistaken she’d made sure to hide away the comeliest of his maids and footmen. Did she think him a satyr?

Well, perhaps she wasn’t entirely mistaken in her judgment…

Val smirked as he shed his banyan—the only article of clothing he wore—and sauntered nude to the bath. He crooked a finger at the eldest and most worldly-looking of the footmen. If Mrs. Crumb thought to curtail his bedsport, she was going to be sadly disappointed. 


Hugh Fitzroy, the Duke of Kyle, yawned widely as he followed a linkboy’s wavering lantern through a darkened courtyard at the back of St James’s Palace. It was near four of the clock—too early yet for a servant to be awake and too late for all but the most determined revelers to be still abroad. That left him, newly roused from his warm slumbers by an urgent royal summons, and the poor linkboy, who would guide night travelers with his lantern until dawn.

Both bound by the needs of their masters.

Hugh smiled wryly to himself. Master in his case wasn’t quite correct, but it was close enough.

He and the linkboy neared an obscure rear entrance and a guard came to attention. Hugh paid the linkboy off and then turned to the guard to give his name.

The guard shot him a curious glance as he let him in. This was an odd entrance for a duke.

But then Hugh was rather an odd duke.

Inside he was met with a footman who had apparently been waiting for his arrival. “This way, if you please, Your Grace.”

Hugh followed the man down a service passage. Unlike the front of the palace, the hallway was uncarpeted, the walls simply painted.

The footman opened a door at the end of the hall and bowed him into an office, murmuring, “The Duke of Kyle.”

A bandy-legged man wearing scarlet breeches, a dark-blue banyan, and a soft cap swung around from where he’d been pacing before a fire. “Damn me, Kyle, it took you long enough!”

Hugh arched an eyebrow. “I came as soon as I got your note, Shrugg.” He glanced back at the footman. “Bring some tea, will you? And something to eat.”

The footman hurried away.

“Forgive me, Your Grace.” Copernicus Shrugg shook his head. He was a man of middling years, but he’d always looked like an old man. His ears protruded from his skull on either side like the handles of a jug, and his head was round, wrinkled, and bald, and sat almost squarely on his shoulders without benefit of a neck. He stared at Hugh with bloodshot eyes the color of cornflowers. “It’s this damnable matter. I had to wake him up over it and you know he never likes that.”

They both glanced reflexively at the ceiling, where the royal apartments resided somewhere above them.

Hugh dropped his gaze to Shrugg again. “How is the King?” Technically the man in question was also Hugh’s father, though no one ever made mention of that fact.

“Talking in French,” Shrugg replied. “He’s quite beside himself. Thank God you’re back in London—I don’t know who else I would have summoned.”

Hugh raised an eyebrow.

Shrugg’s face darkened. “Though, of course, the circumstance of your return from the Continent is naturally a sad one. I was sorry to hear of the death of your duchess.”

Hugh tightened his jaw and nodded once. “Is it the prince?” The Prince of Wales—whom Hugh had met only once—and the King loathed each other.

“Not this time,” Shrugg said grimly. He held out a letter.

Hugh took it and walked over to the desk, where several candles burned. He tilted the piece of paper to the candle and read:

Dear Mr. Shrugg,
I trust that you have had a restful night up until this point because I doubt it will be so hereafter. Let me at once get to the point: certain letters have come into my possession concerning W which, if they were made public, would bring great embarrassment to—and possibly the Downfall of—the Gentleman you serve. I, of course, am most anxious that this occurrence not come about. To prevent this Terrible Event I have merely one request: that I be Acknowledged in Hyde Park at a time mutually agreed upon.
So simple, really.
I am, your servant, & et cetera, et cetera,

Hugh read the letter once quickly and then again more slowly.

When he looked up again, a steaming cup of tea had been placed on the desk in front of him.

“Thank you.” He took a sip. “‘M’?”

“The Duke of Montgomery,” Shrugg said.

“He made sure not to sign his name.” Hugh’s mouth twisted wryly. “A blackmailer who knows to be circumspect in letters. ‘W’ is Prince William.” Prince William, the Duke of Cumberland, was the King’s second living legitimate son. Hugh had never met the boy.

“Undoubtedly.” Shrugg sank heavily into the chair behind the desk with his own teacup. “He’s never caused us problems before. Well”—he waved a hand dismissively—“mistresses and the like, but nothing out of the ordinary for a lad his age. Now this.”

Hugh frowned. “How old is he now?”

“Twenty, and just bought a commission as colonel of the First Regiment of Foot Guards,” Shrugg said. “He’s always liked everything martial.”

Hugh looked at him intently. “Then you have no idea what it could be about?”

Shrugg was silent a moment, twisting his teacup in his hands. “There were rumors—only rumors, mind. About a secret society.”

Hugh snorted and stood, stretching. “Tell me you didn’t drag me out of bed for a bloody secret society, Shrugg. Every boy who ever went to Cambridge or Oxford—or any London coffeehouse, for that matter—is a member of what he thinks is a secret society.”

But Shrugg’s old lined face was grave. “No, Your Grace. This was different. The members were older. They called themselves the Lords of Chaos. It’s said that each member actually had a tattoo of a dolphin somewhere on their person and the things they did…” He grimaced, looking away.

“What?”

Shrugg turned back to him. “Children. There were children involved.”

For a moment Hugh didn’t say anything. Kit and Peter were safely in their beds, somewhere at home, Kit with his foot hanging out of the covers and little Peter clutching a kerchief that had belonged to his mother.

He took a breath, making sure his voice was flat and matter-of-fact. “You’re saying Prince William might’ve done something with these Lords of Chaos. Something with children?”

“I don’t know,” Shrugg said. “That’s why I asked you to come. We need you to find what Montgomery has. To find it and take it and make sure it’s destroyed. Permanently.”

CHAPTER 2

Bridget’s chatelaine jingled at her waist as she strode into the kitchens a little after ten o’ clock the next morning. The servants had been up since five of the clock and the entire lower floor was cleaned and aired. In fact most of the staff were just finishing their morning tea.

“Good morning, Mrs. Bram,” she greeted the cook, a sensible woman of middling years with graying frizzy hair.

“Mrs. Crumb.” The cook glanced up alertly. “I understand His Grace is in residence.”

“Indeed he is,” Bridget said briskly, ignoring the slight twinge of anxiety even his name caused. “I trust you’ll be able to prepare both his meals today even on such short notice?”

“I’ll have no problem,” Mrs. Bram replied. “Got a lovely roast in just this morning that’ll do for supper and I’ve a fish pie in the oven for his luncheon, should he call for it.”

“Excellent.” Bridget nodded her approval, though she’d never doubted Mrs. Bram. She’d seldom worked with such a competent cook.

Bridget crossed the kitchen as the maids and footmen rose to resume their duties. By the back door to the kitchen was a table and on it was a tin plate with another inverted over it. Bridget picked it up without pausing and opened the back door, stepping outside and closing the door behind her.

She felt her shoulders relax just the tiniest bit.

She stood in a small, square bricked well, for the kitchen was naturally below ground. A short flight of stairs led up to the garden and a path and thence to the mews behind Hermes House, but that wasn’t what interested Bridget at the moment.

A small brownish-gray terrier had been sitting on the brick, but he hopped to his feet as soon as he saw Bridget and gave one sharp emphatic bark.

“Now hush,” she said to him—not that he seemed to care. She set the tin plate down and uncovered it, revealing the scraps that Mrs. Bram had saved for her.

The terrier immediately began gobbling the food as if he was starving which, sadly, he might be.

“You’ll choke,” Bridget said sternly. The terrier didn’t listen. He never did, no matter how businesslike she made her voice. Grown men—footmen—might jump to obey her, but this scrawny waif defied her.

Bridget bit her lip. If she was forced to leave Hermes House, who would feed the terrier? Mrs. Bram might—if she remembered to do so—but the cook was a busy woman with other matters on her mind.

The dog finished his meal and licked the plate so enthusiastically that he overturned it with a clatter.

Bridget tutted and bent to pick it up.

The dog thrust his short snout under her hand as she did so and she found herself stroking his head. His fur was wiry rather than silky, almost greasy, but the dog had liquid brown eyes and seemed to smile as his mouth hung open, tongue lolling out. He was very, very sweet. She’d never been allowed a pet dog as a child. Her foster father was a shepherd and had considered dogs farm animals. A pet dog wasn’t even to be thought of, especially for her, the cuckoo.

Housekeepers, and indeed servants of any kind, weren’t allowed pets. Sometimes a cat might be kept to catch mice in the kitchens, but it was a working animal. Dogs were dirty things and required food and space that, technically, she didn’t own.

Bridget stood and frowned down at the dog. “Shoo now.”

The dog sat and slowly wagged his tail, sweeping the bricks. One of his triangular ears stood up while the other lay down.

She wished—

Behind her someone opened the door to the kitchens. “Mrs. Crumb?”

She turned at once. “Yes, I’m coming.”

Bridget hurried into the kitchen without a glance back.

Bob, one of the footmen, was staring at her anxiously. “’E wants a word with you.”

Was he summoning her to dismiss her in the light of morning?

Bridget straightened, smoothing down her apron.

“His Grace wants a word with me,” she gently corrected. She never let the servants in her command descend into disrespectful language toward their employer or employers, even belowstairs.

“His Grace.” Bob blushed violently. Though well over six feet, he couldn’t be more than twenty years of age and was fresh from the country. “But ma’am…that is…”

“Yes?”

“Well, the duke isn’t alone.”

“Ah.” So that was what had the boy so bothered. Poor lad. He’d soon enough become inured to the carnal excesses of the aristocracy. “I know, dear.”

Behind them came a snort and Bridget whirled.

Cal, the most handsome of the footmen—and thus one who hadn’t been sent up with the bath the night before—had his upper lip curled. “He’s a rutting devil, born and bred.”

“That’s enough.” Bridget didn’t raise her voice, but then she didn’t have to—the entire kitchen had gone quiet at her reprimand. “The duke is our master and we will speak of him respectfully. Anyone who does not is most welcome to seek employment elsewhere. Is that clear?”

She glanced about the kitchen, meeting everyone’s gaze for a second.

Then she nodded once and swiftly exited the kitchen. That might have been her last command as housekeeper, but she wouldn’t leave a house with the servants in disorder.

Not even his house.

Bridget made her way through a back hall and up the servants’ stairs to the upper floor, aware, vaguely, that her hands were trembling. She didn’t like change. Didn’t like always having to find another place to call home—though none, of course, were truly her home—but that was the nature of her work. She’d chosen this life and she was proud of what she’d accomplished. How far she’d come. The position she’d achieved.

There. Her hands had stopped shaking.

And really, had Bob thought she wasn’t aware that George, one of the older footmen, had procured a pair of courtesans for the duke’s entertainment last night? A good housekeeper—and Bridget considered herself the best—knew everything that happened within her domain.

No matter how sordid.

The duke’s bedroom door was shut so she tapped once before entering. “Good morning, Your Grace.”

The duke was sprawled, entirely naked, as far as she could see, between two equally bare women. Well, one woman was visible at least. A petite blonde broke off her embrace of the duke and glanced curiously at Bridget in the doorway. The other—a thin brunette—soon emerged from under the sumptuous sky-blue velvet coverlet, wiping her mouth discreetly.

“Pardon,” the brunette murmured, as if she’d belched at the dinner table.

Bridget took no note. It wasn’t the courtesan’s fault that Bridget was witnessing her dishabille.

His Grace slowly opened his azure eyes. The bedroom overlooked the back gardens and a previous servant had already drawn the curtains. In the morning sunlight, reddish-gold stubble glinting on his chin, and the curling hair about his shoulders, he really was quite beautiful. Like an ancient Greek god taking his leisure. One almost felt he deserved his wealth, his status, and all the things he’d accrued, merely by the accident of his birth.

Almost.

“Mrs. Crumb,” he purred, “What a lovely day, don’t you think?”

“Indeed, Your Grace.”

“And with such lovely companions,” he continued, slinging his arms about his bedfellows.

She hoped she needn’t comment on that statement—although one never knew. She’d once been invited in rather crude terms to join an elderly baronet and one of the maids in his bed. She’d declined with the vigorous application of a bed warmer and her bags packed before the next morning.

It’d been one of her shorter positions of employment.

“I was told you had need of me, Your Grace,” she reminded him, folding her hands at her waist to hide the trembling that had begun again. She’d been in demand before this position. Duchesses and lionesses of society had wanted her.

“So practical,” he mused, tilting his golden head back to gaze, presumably, at the gaudy sky-blue velvet canopy of his bed. She’d always thought it rather vulgar, actually. “I suppose that would be considered a good thing in a housekeeper.”

“It’s generally considered so, Your Grace.”

“And yet, I find it somewhat…”—he raised his naked arm straight up above his head and twirled his hand as he thought—“irksome.”

“I am sorry, Your Grace,” Bridget said as pleasantly as she could, which, sadly, was not very.

“Oh, don’t be,” the duke murmured silkily. “One can’t help one’s nature, no matter how irritating it is to others.”

His azure eyes suddenly dropped to pin her, hard and merciless, and she lost her breath as she fell into his predator’s stare. It was like looking into the eyes of something inhuman, almost otherworldly. Her chest ached as she stared at him, the air still locked within her, but at the same time the place between her legs ached as well. She was suddenly made very aware that beneath the starch of her apron, the wool of her dress, and the bone of her stays, she had soft nipples that had tightened into points.

Then she inhaled, filling her lungs with sweet air, as he watched her still, his eyes half-lidded, and she felt an odd exhilaration, as if a gauntlet had been thrown down. As if they were adversaries, equal on the field.

Which was completely ridiculous.

Possibly she shouldn’t have indulged in that third cup of tea this morning.

“I wonder whom you work for, Mrs. Crumb?” he whispered.

“Why, for you, Your Grace,” she replied, holding his gaze.

He snorted.

She felt a bead of perspiration trail down her spine.

“Now away with you, my temptations!” the duke cried, suddenly animated.

He leaped from the bed and, catching up a purse lying carelessly on a table, poured a quite scandalous amount of gold into the giggling women’s hands. He bundled them, still nude and laughing, clutching their clothes and shoes, out the door.

Bridget quietly stepped to the door and beckoned to a wide-eyed footman. She gave the man—Bob again—instructions to escort the women to the servants’ door when they were properly attired.

When she returned to the duke’s bedroom he was watching her, an ironic light in his eyes. “What an officious woman you are, Mrs. Crumb.”

“You’ll thank me when none of your possessions go missing, Your Grace,” she replied.

“Will I, though?” He strode, nude, to his desk, and, bending over it, afforded her a quite scandalous view of his muscular bottom. He seemed to have a dark mark of some kind on the left cheek. Good God, it looked like a tattoo. What—? “I have the most lamentable taste sometimes. It probably would be better if a few of my things disappeared. Why, Mrs. Crumb,” he drawled, and she snapped her gaze belatedly up to find that he’d turned back to her—damn it! “Were you ogling my arse?”

She opened her mouth and then wasn’t sure, exactly, what to say. Was he about to dismiss her or not? “I…I—”

“Ye-es?” He took one long stride toward her.

She was suddenly, overwhelmingly aware of what she’d until now successfully ignored: He. Was. Nude.

His shoulders were wide, his chest highlighted by pale-pink nipples drawn tight, with but a few curling golden hairs between. His torso narrowed in a perfect V to a slim waist and a shallow belly button. A thin line of slightly darker hair led to his genitals.

During his supposed absence Bridget had had plenty of time to study the life-size nude portrait of the duke hanging next to his bed. She’d long thought the dimensions of his manhood exaggerated.

They were not.

His cock swayed, ruddy and healthy, between muscled thighs. His testicles were lightly furred and comely—if such things could be calledcomely—and his legs were downright beautiful. Even his feet—his feet—were oddly lovely, long-toed and high-arched.

Those toes brushed her skirts and she hastily glanced up to find him standing far too close to her, a wicked smile playing about his mouth.

“Oh, Mrs. Crumb, such a look,” he murmured, his voice a deep purr, his bare chest brushing against her snowy white apron. “Why, I don’t know whether to guard my bollocks…”—his gaze dropped to her mouth—“or to kiss you.”

“You mustn’t embrace me,” she said quickly, her voice far more breathless than it should be.

His head cocked, his dark eyebrows rose, a corner of his mouth curled teasingly, and he leaned closer still as if considering the idea. “Mustn’t I?”

His hot breath whispered across her lips and she realized that she’d closed her eyes. Oh, God, she—

Someone squeaked, and Bridget was almost certain it wasn’t she.

Bridget opened her eyes, scurrying backward in a sadly undignified manner.

A slender youth stood in the doorway. He wore a proper brown coat, waistcoat, and breeches, but he had a red-and-yellow printed cloth wrapped about his head.

“Ah, Mehmed, there you are,” the duke said, as if he were used to being disturbed nearly embracing a woman while nude and—Good God—in a state of excitement.

Bridget hastily averted her gaze from the duke’s endowment, which had chosen to flaunt itself. Her face was hot and she clasped her hands before her to keep herself from pressing the backs of her fingers to her cheeks.

The boy at the door looked as embarrassed as she felt. He held a steaming pitcher of water, but he began to back out again. “You with whore, Duke. I go.”

Behind the boy, the duke’s valet, Attwell, appeared, looking not a little startled.

The Duke of Montgomery—the only person not embarrassed—burst out laughing. “No, no, Mehmed. Whores—at least mine—wear much more ornamental clothing than this.”

And he waved rather insultingly at Bridget’s dress.

Her lips pursed as her brain once again was engaged. “Who is this?”

“Mehmed, as I said.” Both Mehmed and Attwell entered the bedroom. The boy carefully set down his pitcher of water and Attwell crossed to the dressing room. “Mehmed is a follower of the prophet Mohammed and no doubt destined for hell, if the Christian philosophers are to be believed. Of course his people think that we’ll all end in hell, so I suppose in the end everyone will meet in a jolly sort of molten Babel. I ordered both Mehmed and Attwell to come to Hermes House from the inn they’ve been staying at.”

“But…” Bridget frowned. She’d met Attwell before, and indeed had seen him just this morning in the kitchen.

The duke glanced at her and then glanced again, a slow smile forming on his lips—a smile she did not like. “You didn’t realize Mehmed was in the house, did you?”

“I—”

“And you don’t like not knowing.” He grinned as he casually held out an arm and Attwell—at last, thank God—helped him into a garish purple silk banyan with a gold-and-green embroidered dragon on the back.

“It’s my job to be apprised of all that goes on within Hermes House,” Bridget replied. “Your Grace.”

“But you didn’t know he was here, did you?” the duke said in a very grating singsong voice. “Do you know, you’ve never told me your Christian name.”

“No, I haven’t,” she said, rallying. The man was the Devil in the flesh, but she wasn’t known as the best housekeeper in London for nothing. “When did you take Mehmed on?”

“He came with me when I returned to England from my travels abroad last year,” the duke said carelessly. “But then he was taken ill crossing the Channel, so I left him at my house in Bath to convalesce. Attwell fetched him to London in September.”

Bridget pursed her lips. The boy looked healthy enough now. “Will Mehmed be living at Hermes House, Your Grace?”

“Oh, I think so,” the duke said, widening his eyes in pretend innocence. “How else will he serve as my catamite?”

Attwell, arranging the duke’s apparel for the day on a chair, choked.

Bridget could not blame the valet. She herself merely narrowed her eyes at the duke.

He smiled at her angelically.

“What is catamite?” Mehmed asked. He was a very lovely boy with a dewy complexion, large brown eyes, and white teeth. At the moment he was busy assembling the tools for shaving on a small table.

“A person who likes cats,” Montgomery replied, drawing out a chair and seating himself in the middle of the room.

“I like cats,” Mehmed said promptly.

He poured hot water from the pitcher into a basin, wet a cloth, wrung it, and tenderly draped it over the lower half of the duke’s face.

Bridget cleared her throat. She had no idea why the duke had originally asked her here—if not to let her go—but she had work to do. “Mehmed, I am Mrs. Crumb, the housekeeper. When you are—”

“How do you do!” She was interrupted by Mehmed stepping smartly forward and bowing, his upper body completely parallel to the floor, his arms plastered to his sides.

“Erm.” Bridget blinked as he straightened, smiling at her. “Yes. How do you do. I—”

“I am good!” Mehmed said, very loudly, and Bridget couldn’t help noticing that the duke appeared to be laughing under his damp cloth.

Attwell, for his part, was ignoring the proceedings. She’d found the duke’s valet an exceedingly phlegmatic man.

Bridget straightened. “I’m glad,” she said gently, but firmly. “When you are done helping the duke dress, please come to the kitchens and I will discuss with you your place in this house.”

She turned to go.

“Not so fast, Mrs. Crumb,” her blasted employer said, having snatched the cloth from his face. “I’m not done with you yet.”

She took a deep breath. Then another.

And another.

Then she turned with a small, polite smile pasted quite firmly to her face. “How might I help you, Your Grace?”

“Take a look at those,” said the maddening man, pointing straight-armed at his desk.

Bridget looked and noticed for the first time—well, there had been quite a bit of male nudity about previously—that there was a pile of jewels on his desk. She shot a questioning glance at the duke, now being lathered by Mehmed.

His blue eyes glittered back at her. “Go on. They won’t bite, I assure you.”

She humphed under her breath and stalked over to the desk. There were two necklaces lying there, both incredibly opulent. They were things that a duchess or princess or queen would wear. A lady’s maid might touch a necklace like one of these to put it around her mistress’s neck, but otherwise someone of Bridget’s station would never in a thousand years have cause to handle such wondrous things. The first necklace was made of diamonds and sapphires, tangled in a heap. The other seemed to be of rubies and huge, baroque pearls, interlaced with opals and other, smaller gemstones. She stared at them, wondering rather whimsically where the stones had come from. Far-off India? Some Persian mine? And the pearls? What exotic seas had they seen? Had pirates fought for them?

“Which do you like better?” came the duke’s voice from behind her, interrupting her silly musings. “I ask because I’m to present one to my fiancée.”

She looked up at that. “You’re to be married?”

He’d had his eyes closed as Mehmed carefully shaved him, but he opened them now. “Oh, yes.”

“But to whom?” she blurted.

What sort of woman would he chose as his consort? An aristocrat, obviously, but beyond that? She couldn’t imagine. Would he want a lady easily led? A woman renowned for her beauty or her wit? Or did he not care about such things at all?

“Now, now, I haven’t informed the bride yet and I do think she should know before my housekeeper, don’t you?”

Was he teasing her? He must be. No one, not even mad aristocrats, conducted his affairs in this manner.

“Well?” He was still watching her, lazily, like a well-fed cat, too sleepy to bat a mouse.

She blinked. “I’m sorry?”

“Which do you like, Mrs. Crumb?” he said slowly—as if she were the one who was acting odd here.

Bridget could’ve said that it was quite inappropriate for a housekeeper to be picking out a duchess’s jewelry—if he was indeed speaking the truth—but what would be the point?

Instead she bent closer, carefully examining the pieces.

“You can touch them,” he said. “Hold them up, if you wish.”

She ignored him, but straightened each necklace. The ruby one was definitely gaudier, with several tiers of pearls and jewels.

She picked up the slightly more sedate sapphires. “These.”

“Good,” he said. “I’ll have the sapphires returned to the jewelers right away and keep the rubies for my future wife.”

She stared at him.

He waited, smiling, but she’d learned patience and to bite her tongue—hard—from an early age.

Slowly she put the necklace back on the desk. “If that is all, Your Grace?”

“Oh, fine. Run and scrub the front steps or whatever it is you do.”

She swallowed an irrationally irritated retort—he was not good for her self-possession—and turned. The chatelaine at her waist made a faint tinkle.

“Was it a lover?”

She stopped and looked at him—very, very careful to keep still.

He nodded at the chatelaine. “The one who gave you that incredibly practical piece of ornamentation? Couldn’t he at least have afforded a ring or a locket to hang between your breasts? I’d wager you have lovely breasts under all that wool and boning.”

She stared down at her chatelaine. It was made of sturdy steel, but the central piece was a pretty blue-and-red-enameled disk. From it hung four chains, each with smaller enameled disks matching the main one. Suspended on the chains were a ring of keys, a tiny pair of scissors, a very small, very sharp folding knife, and her watch. Not all housekeepers had chatelaines, but many did. Though few had one as pretty as hers.

And he was right: it had been a gift.

She met his gaze, her own, she hoped, showing nothing. “If that is all, Your Grace? I’m afraid I must be about my work.”

Behind her the door opened. “Your Grace, a letter.”

Bob hurried past her with the letter, which the duke immediately tore open.

And then he said something in another language that made Mehmed jump back from him.

The duke looked up, though he did not seem to see her or anyone else in the room. “My sister is marrying a bloody, goddamned commoner.”


Val pulled his tricorne lower as the sedan chair jolted and swayed through the London streets. A risk to be on the streets in broad daylight before the King had submitted to his terms, but needs must. He simply couldn’t let darling Eve marry Asa Makepeace. The man was a mountebank, the owner of Harte’s Folly, a pleasure garden that Val had chosen to underwrite for reasons of his own, and of all ghastly things, a beer brewer’s son.

Val had put his half sister, Eve, in charge of the finances when he’d supposedly left town.

In hindsight that had been an obvious mistake.

Eve was a shy woman. A woman who had spent years hidden away from the world, traumatized by their shared past. True, she was also stubborn as a mule when she wanted to be, but he never should’ve put her in the position of facing off against Makepeace. He’d obviously proved too overwhelming for her. God only knew what the pleasure garden owner had done to Eve to make her agree to marry him.

Val growled under his breath as his chairmen turned into a quiet street and then down the side of a house. He climbed out of the chair and rapped smartly at a side door with his cane.

A tall man of African descent, wearing livery and a snowy-white wig, answered it. His name was Jean-Marie Pépin and he’d been hired by Val himself to guard Eve.

“Your Grace,” Jean-Marie intoned in a bass voice, his face curiously expressionless. For a moment Val had the oddest feeling that Jean-Marie wasn’t going to let him in the house.

He raised a ducal eyebrow.

The footman bowed his head and silently backed in, opening the door. “She is in ’er sitting room.”

Val nodded curtly and bounded up the stairs, bursting through the door and into Eve’s inner sanctum as he said, “Whatever possessed you, dear girl to—bloody hell, what is that?”

For on his entrance a massive—and massively ugly—dog had risen to its feet in a not entirely welcoming manner.

“That’s my dog, Henry,” said Eve from behind her desk, as blithely as if she were announcing that it was a sunny day.

Val glared at her. The last he’d heard she’d been deathly afraid of dogs. “You don’t have a dog.”

Eve raised her eyebrows. Despite their blood relation and their father’s golden hair and blue eyes, she was a plain woman, her face dominated by her mother’s overlong nose. “I do now.”

He stepped around the beast, keeping his eye on it. “And that’s not all you have—or so I’ve heard.”

She looked wary. “When did you return from the Continent, Val? I had no word that you intended to return. In fact, I thought to journey there myself to find you.”

“Before or after you married Asa Makepeace?” Val shot back.

“After, actually.”

He stared at her. She didn’t act like a damsel bullied into marriage by a rogue gold digger, but he knew his sister’s history. Eve simply wouldn’t willingly marry a man as randy as Makepeace.

“Is he forcing you?”

She actually looked shocked. “No, of course not. Why would you think such a thing?”

“Because you’re the daughter of a duke—even if a bastard—and he’s a common ruffian.” Val flung out his palm. “If marriage is what you want, darling, I can find you someone much better. Someone titled at the very least.”

“I don’t want someone whom you consider better,” Eve said, and her voice actually rose. Her cheeks had bloomed pink as well. Perhaps Makepeace had drugged her in some way? Val had heard in his travels to the Levant tales of drugs that could be used to persuade. “Val! Are you even listening to me?”

“Yes, yes,” he said distractedly. “Where is this paragon of a pleasure garden owner?”

“Here.”

Val swung around at the male voice.

Asa Makepeace stood in the doorway, big and burly, in breeches and shirt, but not waistcoat, coat, shoes, or stockings. He’d quite obviously come from bed.

Eve’s bed.

Val saw red.

He had his left hand inside his waistcoat, his right one raised, gripping his cane, and was advancing toward Makepeace when he felt a small palm on his breast.

He looked down.

Eve peered up at him. “Whatever you were about to do, don’t.”

He stared into her eyes—the same blue eyes as his own—watching, searching. “He was in your bed.”

“Yes,” she said, unwavering, though that blush bloomed again. “He was. But he didn’t hurt me. He never hurt me, Val.” She took a breath. “Quite the opposite, in fact.”

He held her gaze a moment more, making sure, and then he raised his eyes to look at the man his sister had taken as her lover.

Makepeace stood still in the doorway. Smart. Makepeace might outweigh him, but had Val continued his trajectory, the other man would’ve lain bleeding on the floor.

“Why?” Val growled at him.

“I love her.”

Val squinted at Makepeace. Cocked his head. And then shook it.

Of all the possible answers, he’d never considered that one. It made no sense at all. Love…didn’t matter. Love—as he understood the term—wasn’t a reason for marriage.

He looked at Eve.

And saw sadness lurking in her eyes. “It’s true. He loves me, Val. As I love him.”

“So…,” he said cautiously, feeling his way, “you’ll…marry him.”

“Yes.”

“Ah.” He tried to think of something to say to that—perhaps something wise and elder-brotherly, but for the life of him, he couldn’t think of a thing. “Do you still have that dove?”

“Val,” Eve said, ignoring his perfectly civil query. “You should come to the wedding.”

He winced. “Must I?” He glanced at Makepeace, sure the other man didn’t want him there.

But it seemed all were arrayed against him today.

“Yes,” Makepeace said, and he didn’t even seem to be under duress.

Was the world mad?

“Are you mad?” Val asked, just to make sure.

Makepeace snorted.

But Eve was still looking grave. “Did you ever leave England? Because Asa only proposed to me last night at Harte’s Folly. I’m sure the news swept London, for he did it in front of a crowd, but even so, there’s no way you could’ve come from the Continent so fast.”

“Of course I left England, darling Eve,” he replied, looking straight into her eyes, never blinking, letting his habitual smile play about his mouth. “I arrived just last night and heard the news this morning.”

The corners of her mouth drooped and he felt an odd panicked twinge somewhere in that empty space where a heart might dwell in other people.

“The trouble,” Eve said, “is that I’ve never been able to tell when you’re lying to me and when you’re not. It wouldn’t matter, I suppose, but that you don’t care if you lie to me or not. And I do. I used to not. Or maybe I used to tell myself I didn’t care. But Val,” she said softly, looking at him with his own eyes, “now I do.”

She turned and, taking Makepeace’s arm, very quietly left the room with her fiancé.

And it was a very good thing, Val thought, that he hadn’t a heart.

Because it might’ve broken then.


Bridget cautiously pressed open the hidden door in the duke’s bedroom and held high her candlestick. She didn’t know how long the duke would be gone—he’d simply hared off to see his sister—but she couldn’t let the opportunity to investigate his hidden lair slip away.

The space revealed by her candle’s flickering flame was narrow, naturally, but bigger than she’d expected, perhaps five feet by at least ten. A small table, crowded with a treasure trove of bejeweled objects, was set up directly next to the door with a stool stowed neatly under it. Over the table was a single shelf, jammed with books. Just past the table was a cot with rumpled bedding. And beyond the cot was more corridor—too long to be illuminated by her candle’s small light. Dear Lord. Just how extensive were his hidden passages in Hermes House?

She set the candle down and looked cautiously around. The room was comfortable after a fashion, but it was very Spartan for a duke—especially for the Duke of Montgomery. She couldn’t imagine him spending one night here, let alone months.

Unless, of course, he wasn’t entirely the man she thought him.

The notion disturbed her. She’d worked in the duke’s house for over three months now, and even though he’d been supposedly absent for all but two weeks of those three months, she’d been complacent in the idea that she knew the man. The Duke of Montgomery was a wicked, vain blackmailer. Evil and duplicitous. Not a man who should merit a second thought from her beyond her duties.

And yet she had thought about him quite a lot since this morning. That muscled bottom, those knowing predator’s eyes, and the way the corner of his mouth had curled just before he’d bent as if to kiss her…

Bridget pressed her lips together and set her mind firmly to her task, reminding herself she might have very little time.

She pulled out the stool and sat, noticing as she did so a small wooden disk affixed to the wall with a nail at the upper edge. She touched it and the disk swiveled aside, revealing a peephole. Bridget paused a moment and then leaned forward to put her eye to the hole. She could clearly see the far end of the duke’s bedroom, including his enormous bed and his desk.

Damn! She sat back, remembering with some consternation when she’d picked the lock on that very desk. She’d thought she heard a chuckle at the time, but had disregarded it as the sound of a mouse.

He must think her a fool.

Well. There was nothing for it but to outwit the Prince of Schemes and Diabolical Plots. Bridget examined the treasures on the narrow table without touching them. A ship took up most of the space, as long as her forearm. It was a fanciful—and no doubt expensive—thing, with mother-of-pearl sails, a gold hull, and tiny enameled sailors manning the glossy deck. A key projected from one end of the ship. Perhaps it had a secret compartment. Bridget turned the key.

Immediately there was a click and a soft whirring sound.

Bridget raised her hands in alarm.

What—?

On the ship’s deck, a miniature trumpeter set his instrument to his lips and tinkling music played as the sailors marched around, the captain saluted with his sword, tiny cannons projected from the sides of the ship, and—oh, Lord!—the ship began sailing forward.

The cannons suddenly exploded with miniature bangs! and billows of smoke. Bridget squeaked as she just caught the gold ship before it sailed itself off the table. She held it cradled in her arms, gasping, as the captain seemed to give her a little bow.

A monkey ran up a rope ladder and exposed its buttocks to her.

Bridget scowled at the little enameled beast. It slid back down to its starting position and the ship went quiet. Gingerly she placed the clockwork ship back on the table, half-afraid it was going to go off again, but nothing happened.

She took a relieved breath and noticed a very small pair of copper tweezers lying on the table. Beside the tweezers was a small dish with infinitesimally tiny cogs and wheels. Surely he hadn’t been tinkering with the golden ship? She couldn’t even begin to imagine the sort of skill—and money—it would take to build such a thing. The little ship was completely frivolous, like the duke himself, and yet…she touched the tiny captain. It was also amazing and wonderful…and beautiful. If she were as rich as a duke, with money to spend on anything she wished in the entire world, why…she might spend it on such a thing as the golden ship herself.

Bridget jerked back her hand as if it had been burned. 

Silly thought.

She turned determinedly to the rest of the table. There were four jeweled snuffboxes—two of them with quite scandalous pictures on the insides of the lids. None of them held snuff. Three were empty and one contained a sort of perfumed unguent. Bridget frowned over that a moment and then set the snuffbox aside. Three gold watches were piled together, along with a jeweled magnifying glass and a little penknife. One of the watches was completely in pieces and she imagined the duke sitting here, taking the thing apart, inspecting the pieces with inquisitive azure eyes, and then putting it back together.

Had he been bored waiting to emerge from his walls? Impatient? Stifled?

She shook her head and resumed her inventory. A scatter of broken quills and a small glass-and-gold ink bottle—stoppered—attested to the duke’s having written letters in his little hideaway hole, but as far as she could tell, there were none here.

She looked up at the bookshelf and couldn’t prevent a small smile.

The volumes ranged in size, shape, age, and degree of wear. Some were small and gilded, perfectly beautiful. Some cracked and with the pages falling out. She ran her finger across the spines reverently and then took them down one by one and shook them out gently to look for papers hidden in the pages. Here was a tiny illustrated volume with men in turbans charging across a flower-strewn field. Another book—quite old—was in Latin and held a skull and crossbones on the title page. She was oddly surprised by a volume of poetry by John Donne, not at all by Machiavelli’s The Prince in the original Italian. One of the larger volumes opened naturally to an engraving of men in classical dress standing to either side of a map of the Greek isles.

Bridget stilled, looking down at the illustration. Oh…she traced with her finger, finding Athens and Corinth and Thebes and the Aegean Sea. Such exotic names. Such wonderful names.

She stared for a moment more and then mechanically went through the book. There was no letter hidden within its pages.

Carefully she replaced Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War on the shelf with the other volumes. As she did so, her knee brushed against the table and she heard something rustle to the floor.

Bridget picked up the candle and peered under the table. A sheet of paper was lying there. She glanced at the underside of the table. Two thin strips of wood were fixed against the underside. They were just big enough to have held the paper.

She picked up the paper and tilted it so the light shone upon it and felt her heart shudder to a stop.

It was her reference—the reference that Lady Amelia Caire had given Bridget. The one she’d shown the duke’s man of business, along with her other letters of reference.

Without thinking, she touched her mobcap, but it was in place. Her hair was covered.

Bridget looked up, examining the room without moving, like a startled hare. Everything seemed nearly the same as when she’d come in. She straightened the ship, pushed the stool under the table, and, taking both her candle and the paper, quickly left the hiding hole.

Her breath was coming too fast, but she made an effort to walk sedately out of his bedroom and down the hall. Mustn’t let the other servants see her in emotional disarray. She hurried down the grand staircase, through the back hallway, and into the kitchens, nodding at Mrs. Bram and one of the footmen as she passed.

To the side of the kitchens was her own tiny room and she gratefully shut the door behind her, leaning back against it. Here was her single bed, neatly made, a chair, a row of hooks to hold her shawl and hat, and a small chest of drawers. On top of the drawers were a washbasin and pitcher.

She crossed to the chest of drawers and, using one of the keys at her waist, opened the top drawer. Inside were her most valuable possessions—all she had in the world, really. A small purse of money. An illustrated Gulliver’s Travels. And her letters of reference, neatly stacked. He must’ve picked the lock on her dresser, just as she’d picked the lock on his desk.

She laid the letter from Lady Caire atop the others and stared at it. Why take that one? Was it mere coincidence? Or did he know?

She closed and locked the dresser drawer and went to the small round looking glass beside the door. Slowly she raised her hands and drew off her mobcap. Underneath, her hair was tightly twisted into a knot at the back of her head. It was black, save for a pure white streak that started just over her left eye. She stared for a moment at her very distinctive hair. The white threads had started only a few years ago, when she’d turned three and twenty, but she knew already that in another ten years her head would be entirely white.

As her mother’s was.

Bridget tucked a few loose strands back into place and replaced her cap. She made sure her skirts and apron were properly aligned, properly neat.

Then she straightened her shoulders and opened her door. She left behind any foolish dreams of Grecian isles or golden clockwork ships and walked out of her barren room as the housekeeper.

Nothing more.