Excerpt: Sweetest Scoundrel

Excerpt: Sweetest Scoundrel

Book 9: Maiden Lane

October 1741
London, England

It took an extreme provocation to rouse Eve Dinwoody. 

For five years her life had been quiet. She had a nice house in an unfashionable but respectable part of town. She had her three servants—Jean-Marie Pépin, her bodyguard; his pretty, plump wife Tess, her cook; and Ruth, her rather scatterbrained young maid. She had a hobby—painting miniatures—which also served to bring in extra pin money. She even had a pet of sorts—a white dove she had yet to name.

Eve liked her quiet life. On most days she quite enjoyed staying inside, puttering around with her miniatures and feeding the unnamed dove oat kernels. Truth be told, Eve was rather shy.

But Eve could, in fact, rouse herself from her quiet life, given enough provocation. And Lord knew Mr. Harte, the owner and manager of Harte’s Folly, was very provoking indeed. Harte’s Folly was the preeminent pleasure garden in London—or at least it had been before it’d burned to the ground over a year ago. Now Mr. Harte was rebuilding his pleasure garden, and in the process spending quite scandalous amounts of money.

Which was why she stood on the third floor of a disreputable boarding house very early on a Monday morning, glaring at a stubbornly shut door.

A drop of rainwater dripped from the brim of her hat onto the worn floorboards beneath her feet. Really, it was an absolutely disgusting day outside.

“Do you wan’ me to break ze door down?” Jean-Marie asked cheerfully. He stood well over six feet tall and his ebony face beneath a snowy wig gleamed in the low light. He still had a faint Creole accent from his youth in the French West Indies.

Eve squared her shoulders. “No, thank you. I shall handle Mr. Harte myself.”

Jean-Marie raised an eyebrow.

She glared. “I shall.” She rapped at the door again. “Mr. Harte, I know you’re within. Please answer your door at once.”

Eve had performed this maneuver twice already without result, save for a crash from inside the room after the second knock.

She raised her fist for a fourth time, determined to make Mr. Harte acknowledge her, when the door swung open.

Eve blinked and involuntarily stepped back, bumping into Jean-Marie’s broad chest. The man standing in the doorway was rather…intimidating.

He wasn’t tall exactly—Jean-Marie had several inches on him and the man was only half a head or so taller than Eve herself—but what he might have lacked in height he more than made up in breadth of shoulder. The man’s arms nearly touched the doorway on either side. He wore a white shirt, unlaced at the throat and revealing a V of tangled dark chest hair. Wild tawny hair fell to his shoulders. His face wasn’t pretty. The exact opposite, in fact: it was strong, lined, and fierce, and everything that was masculine.

Everything that Eve most dreaded.

The man glanced at Jean-Marie, narrowed his eyes, leaned one shoulder against the doorjamb, and turned his attention to Eve. “What.” His voice rasped deeply, like that of a man newly roused from sleep—a quite unseemly intimacy.

Eve straightened. “Mr. Harte?”

Instead of replying he yawned widely before running a hand over his face, pulling down the skin around his eyes and cheeks. “I’m sorry, luv, but I haven’t any more parts available for the theater. Per’aps if you come again in another two months when we stage As You Like It. You might make a passable”—here he paused, eyes fixed quite rudely on Eve’s nose—“maid, I suppose.”

He turned his head and shouted over his shoulder, “Are there maids in As You Like It?”

“A shepherdess,” came the reply. The speaker was feminine and had a beautifully accented voice.

Mr. Harte—if it was he—glanced back at Eve without any real apology in his haggard face. “There. Sorry. Although I have to say, at your age and with”—he actually flapped his hand at Eve’s nose this time—“I’d look into something behind the stage, luv.”

And he shut the door in her face.

Or at least he tried to, but Eve had had enough, thank you very much. She stuck her foot in the gap, pressed her shoulder against the door, and walked into Mr. Harte.

Who, unfortunately, didn’t move back as he ought to have done.

He blinked, scowling down at Eve.

This close she could see the little red veins in his bloodshot eyes and smell some sort of stale spirits on his person. Also, he seemed not to have made use of a razor in several days.

His virility was nearly overwhelming.

She could feel the old panic rising in her chest, but she fought it. This man posed no threat to her—not in that way, in any case—and Jean-Marie was right behind her, besides. She was a woman grown and ought to have been over these terrors years ago.

Eve tilted up her chin. “Move, please.”

“Look here, luv,” he growled. “I don’t know your name or who you are, and if you think this is how an actress gets a part at my pleasure garden, you’re—”

“I’m not an actress,” she enunciated clearly, in case he was hard of hearing as well as a drunken oaf. “And my name is Miss Eve Dinwoody.”

“Dinwoody…” Instead of clearing his brow, her name made him scowl harder, which should’ve made him positively repugnant and yet somehow…didn’t.

She took the opportunity of his distraction to slip triumphantly past him.

And then she skidded to a halt.

The room was an absolute shambles, crowded to overflowing with mismatched furniture and dusty things. Stacks of papers and books slid off chairs and tables, falling to alluvial mounds on the floor. In one corner a huge heap of colorful fabric was piled, surmounted by a gilded crown; in another a life-size portrait of a bearded man was propped next to a four-foot-tall model of a ship, complete with sails and rigging. A stuffed raven eyed her beadily from the mantelpiece, and on the hearth itself a kettle steamed next to a teetering tower of dirty dishes and cups. Indeed, so filled was the room that it took Eve a moment to notice the nude woman in the bed.

The bed itself sat square in the center of the room, an overgrown, unwieldy thing, hung with gold and scarlet curtains like something from a Turk’s harem, and in the middle reclined an odalisque, the golden coverlet barely concealing her curves. She was dark and sensual, her ebony hair spilling to olive-tinged shoulders, lips a deep natural carmine.

Eve’s eyes widened abruptly as she realized what had been going on in this room perhaps only moments before. Her gaze darted to Mr. Harte before she could stop herself looking, for confirmation of…of…well.

But Mr. Harte merely looked big, male, and irritated. 

Eve cocked her head. Shouldn’t there be some way in which to tell—?

The woman sat up, the coverlet falling perilously to the very tips of her breasts. “Who are dees peoples?” she asked with a heavy Italian accent.

Mr. Harte crossed his arms on his chest, his legs spread wide. The stance emphasized the bulge of muscles in his upper arms. “I don’t know, Violetta.”

“I do apologize,” Eve said stiffly to the woman, presumably Violetta. Must Mr. Harte take up so much space in the crowded room? “Had I known you were in dishabille, I assure you—”

Mr. Harte barked a nasty laugh. “You came bursting in. When, exactly, would you have stopped to—”

“I assure you,” Eve began, glaring at the awful man.

“It’s-a no problem,” the odalisque said at the same time, grinning and revealing an incongruous gap between her two front teeth. She shrugged again and the coverlet gave up the fight, falling to her waist.

Mr. Harte glanced at the woman, paused, his eyes fixated on her now-revealed bosom, and then visibly shook himself before dragging his gaze back to Eve. “Who are you anyway?”

“I already told you,” Eve said through gritted teeth. “I am Eve Dinwoody and—”

“Dinwoody!” Harte exclaimed, pointing at her quite rudely. “That’s the name of the Duke of Montgomery’s man of business. Signs his letters ‘E. Dinwoody’ in the most affected hand I’ve ever seen…”

He frowned suddenly.

Jean-Marie and the odalisque looked at him.

Eve raised her eyebrows, waiting.

Mr. Harte’s moss-green eyes widened. “Oh, the Devil damn me.”

“Yes, no doubt,” Eve said with a completely insincere smile. “But before that happens I’ve come to cut off your credit.”


Andthis was the inevitable reward for a night of too much drink, Asa Makepeace—known to all but a select few as Mr. Harte—reflected sourly. For one, in his wine-fogged daze last night he’d thought it a fine idea to take Violetta to bed again—when she was too important an asset to the garden to risk an emotional entanglement. And for another, the aftereffects of a night of drinking—pounding temples and a generally weakened state—put him at a disadvantage in dealing with the termagant in front of him.

He glared at Miss Dinwoody through his throbbing eyes. She was tall for a woman, thin with a mannish chest, and had a face dominated by a large, long nose. She was as plain as a shovel—and he was glad of it, because the witch was trying to steal away his sweat, his dreams, and his blood. Long nights lying awake, making bargains with the Devil and devising desperate plans. Hope and glory and everything that he breathed for, God blast his miserable soul. All he’d lusted for, all he’d despaired over, all he’d lost and then fought with bloodied fists to regain.

She was trying to steal his goddamned garden

He lifted his upper lip. “You haven’t the right to cut me off.”

“I assure you I have,” she snipped back in accents that would’ve made the Queen jealous. She wasn’t afraid of him, he’d give her that, though at the moment that fact irritated him. 

“The Duke of Montgomery promised me a full line of credit,” Asa said, slamming his hand down on the table and finding that the pose fortuitously helped to keep him from swaying. “We’re scheduled to reopen in less than a month. The musicians have the score, the dancers are practicing, and a dozen seamstresses are working night and day to finish the costumes. You can’t cut me off now, woman!”

“The duke didn’t give you carte blanche to steal from him,” she said, her lips curling a bit on steal. Who was she to look down her overlong nose at him anyway? “I’ve sent you letter after letter asking to see your books, to examine your receipts of purchase, to be informed in some way of what you’re spending thousands of pounds on, and you’ve ignored all my correspondence.”

“Correspondence!” He stared, incredulous. “I haven’t time for bloody correspondence. I have a theater to finish, gardens to plant, tenors, sopranos—and God help me, castrati—and mimers and musicians to order and collect and keep happy—or at least working hard—and an opera to put together. What do you think I am, a bloody mincing aristocrat?”

“I think you’re a businessman,” she shot back. “A businessman who ought, at the very least, to be able to account for his expenditures.”

“My expenditures can be found at the garden,” he roared. “In the buildings, the plantings, the people employed. Who are you to ask for my accounts?” He looked her up and down. “Why has the duke employed a female man of business in any case? What are you to him—his mistress? I’d think he could do better, frankly.”

Behind him Violetta inhaled sharply, and the footman glared.

Miss Dinwoody’s eyes widened—blue, he realized. Blue like the sky on a cloudless summer day—and he almost felt regret for his blunt words.

Almost.

“I,” she said with awful clarity, “am the duke’s sister.”

He arched a skeptical eyebrow at her. She’d introduced herself as Miss Eve Dinwoody—the sister of a duke would be styled Lady Eve.

Her lips thinned at his expression. “We have different mothers. Obviously.”

Ah, that explained it, then: she was a bastard by-blow of her father’s, but no less an aristocrat for it. “And your blue blood makes you qualified to manage the garden’s finances?”

“The fact that my brother entrusted the funds to me makes me qualified.” She inhaled and threw back her shoulders, pushing that meager bosom at him. “And none of that is to the point in any case. I’m cutting off your credit and your funds as of this moment. Mr. Sherwood of the Royal theater has offered to buy out my brother’s stake in Harte’s Folly, and I warn you now that I am seriously considering his suggestion, since it appears to be the only way my brother will see his money again. I merely stopped by to tell you in person as a courtesy.”

She turned and swept from the room, as grand as any royal princess. Her giant footman smirked at Asa before following her.

Courtesy? Asa mouthed the word incredulously at his closing door. What in the last five minutes did the woman think had been in any way courteous? He looked at Violetta, spreading wide his arms. “Bloody fucking Sherwood! She wants to sell my garden to my biggest rival. Never mind that Sherwood must be talking out of his ass—the man hasn’t the money to buy Montgomery’s stake out. God’s balls! Have you ever met a more unreasonable woman?”

The soprano shrugged, jiggling what had to be the loveliest breasts in London, not that it mattered at the moment. “That is hardly the most important consideration for you right now, yes?”

“What?” He shook his head. God, it was much too early for him to be parsing feminine riddles.

She sighed. “Asa, caro—”

“Hush!” He scowled at the door and then back at her. “You know I don’t like anyone overhearing that name.”

“I doubt Miss Dinwoody and her footman lurk outside the door.” She actually rolled her eyes at that. “Mr. Harte, do you need the money this woman controls?”

“Yes, of course I do!” he shouted, outraged.

Violetta made a moue at his temper. “Then you had best go after her.”

“That woman is rude, condescending, and just plain mean.” He waved wildly at the door behind him. “Are you insane?”

“No.” She actually smiled at his bellow. “But you are if you think standing here and raging will change anything. Miss Dinwoody holds the strings to your purse and without her”—she shrugged again—“I will leave and so will everyone else who builds and works in your so-beautiful gardens. I love you, caro, you know this, but I must eat and drink and wear pretty gowns. Go now if you wish to save your garden.”

“Oh, fucking hell.” He knew she was right.

“And Asa, my love?”

“What?” he growled, already turning to the door.

“Grovel.”

He snorted as he bounded down the rickety wooden stairs of his boardinghouse, but Violetta was canny about people. If she said he had to grovel to that witch in order to get the money, he would.

Even if it gave him an apoplexy.

Asa burst out the door and into the street. Rain was drizzling down in a halfhearted way, the sky cloudy and gray. A few paces away Miss Dinwoody and her footman were walking to a waiting carriage.

“Oi!” Asa yelled, running after them. “Miss—”

He meant to lay a staying hand on her shoulder, but the footman was suddenly between him and the woman.

“Don’ touch my mistress,” the man intoned.

“I mean no harm,” Asa said, hands palms out and at shoulder height. He tried for an ingratiating smile but had the feeling that it came off as more of an angry grimace. Grovel. “I wish to apologize to your mistress.” He leaned to the side to see her, but the footman moved with him. “Apologize most abjectly. Can you hear me, luv?” This last he simply shouted over the man’s shoulder. All he could see of her was the black hood of her cloak.

“I can hear you just fine, Mr. Harte,” she returned, cool and composed. 

The blackamoor moved aside finally, as if by some unspoken command, and Asa found himself staring into those blue eyes again. 

They hadn’t softened.

He swallowed a sharp retort and said through gritted teeth, “I’m so sorry, ma’am, I don’t know what came over me to speak to a lady in that way, especially one so”—he caught himself before he praised her beauty, because that was a bit thick even for him—“fine as you. I hope you’ll find it within your heart to forgive my offense, but I’ll understand, I truly will, if you can’t.”

The footman snorted.

Asa ignored him and smiled.

Widely.

Apparently Miss Dinwoody was immune to his smile—or maybe males in general. Those sky-blue eyes narrowed. “I accept your apology, Mr. Harte, but if you think such a blatant bunch of nonsense will make me change my mind about my brother’s money, you’re sadly mistaken.”

And she turned to go—again.

Buggering hell. 

“Wait!” This time his hand actually smacked against the footman’s shoulder as the man moved between them. Asa glared at him. “Will you stand down? I’m hardly going to murder your mistress in the middle of Southwark.”

“Mr. Harte, you’ve taken enough of my time,” she began, infuriatingly aristocratic, as she stepped around her footman.

“Damn it, will you just let me think?” Asa said, rather louder than he’d meant to.

She blinked and opened her mouth, looking not a little outraged. Doubtless she wasn’t used to commoners speaking to her so.

“No.” He held out his palm. The last thing he needed was her sniping at him and making him angrier. 

He took a breath. Anger hadn’t worked. Insults hadn’t worked. Groveling hadn’t worked.

And then he had it.

He looked at her, leaning a little forward, ignoring the aborted movement of her footman. “Will you come?”

She frowned at that. “Come where?”

“To Harte’s Folly.”

She was already shaking her head. “Mr. Harte, I hardly see—”

“But that’s just it,” he said, holding her gaze—her attention—by sheer willpower alone. “You’ve not seen it, have you, Harte’s Folly, since the work to rebuild was started? Come and see what I’m spending your brother’s money on. See what I’ve accomplished so far. See what I could accomplish in the future—if only you’ll let me.”

She shook her head again, but her blue eyes had softened.

Almost. 

“Please,” he said, his voice lowering intimately. If there was one thing Asa Makepeace knew how to do it was seduce a female. Even one with a poker up her arse. “Please. Just give me—no, just give my garden—a chance.”

And he must’ve found his infamous charm at last—either that or the lady had a gentler heart than he imagined—for she pursed her lips and nodded once.


Eve knew she’d made a mistake the moment she nodded. She wasn’t entirely sure why she’d done it, either. Perhaps it was Mr. Harte’s sheer presence, big and wide and muscular, the rain soaking his linen shirt until it clung transparently to his shoulders. Or perhaps it’d been his voice, softened in pleading. Or maybe even his eyes, still bloodshot, but a dark forest green, almost warm against the chill of the day.

Or maybe the man was a sorcerer, able to put otherwise level-headed ladies under some sort of spell that compelled them to act against their own best interests.

In any case she’d agreed and that was that and she must resign herself to more hours tramping about Southwark in the rain to strange places with a man she didn’t even like.

And then the most extraordinary thing happened.

Mr. Harte smiled.

That shouldn’t have been so very surprising. The man had smiled earlier that morning—nastily or in anger or in an attempt at persuasion—but this smile was different.

This smile was genuine.

His wide lips spread, revealing straight white teeth, and indents on either cheek, bracketing his mouth. His eyes crinkled at the corners and he looked rather appealing somehow. Charming. Almost handsome, standing in his shirt-sleeves there in the rain, his hair wet, a raindrop running down the side of one tanned cheek.

And what was terrible—quite horrible, really—was that Eve had the ridiculous notion that Mr. Harte’s smile was especially for her.

Just her.

Ridiculous. She knew—absolutely knew, in that no-nonsense, sensible part of her—that he was smiling because he’d had his way. It had nothing at all to do with her, truly. But she couldn’t entirely squash a tiny part that saw that smile and claimed it as her own. And it made her warm inside, somehow. Warm and a bit…excited.

He knew it, too, the awful man. She could tell by the way his smile widened, transforming into a grin, and by the way his green eyes looked at her knowingly.

She stiffened and opened her mouth to deny everything. To send the man on his way so she could go home and perhaps enjoy a soothing cup of tea. 

He was wily, though, Mr. Harte. He immediately bowed and gestured to the borrowed conveyance behind her. “Shall we take your carriage?”

She had said she’d go. Or at least nodded. A gentlewoman shouldn’t go back on her word—or nod.

Five minutes later Eve found herself sitting beside Jean-Marie as they rumbled through the streets of Southwark. Across from them Mr. Harte was looking quite self-satisfied. 

“Normally, of course, my guests arrive from the river,” Mr. Harte was saying. “We have a landing with stone steps and attendants arrayed in purple and yellow to give the feeling of entering another world. Once my guests have shown their tickets they proceed along a path lit by torches and fairy lights. Along the way are waterfalls of lights, jugglers, dancing fauns and dryads, and the guests may linger if they wish. Or they can explore the gardens further. Or they can continue on and attend the theater.”

She had been to Harte’s Folly before it’d burned—once, a year or two ago. She actually rather enjoyed a night at the theater, though she only ever went by herself—well, with Jean-Marie, of course, but not with a friend, because she really didn’t have any friends.

She shook her head at her own irrelevant musings. 

“It all sounds very expensive,” Eve said, unable to keep the repressive note from her voice.

Irritation crossed Mr. Harte’s face before he attempted a more benign expression. She wasn’t sure why he bothered. The man’s every emotion was transparent—and most of them were negative when it came to her. 

Which troubled her not at all, naturally.

“It is expensive,” he said, “but it needs to be. My guests come for a spectacle. To be amazed and awed. There is no other place like Harte’s Folly in all of London. In all the world.” Mr. Harte sat forward on the carriage seat, his elbows on his knees, his broad shoulders appeared to fill the entire carriage. Or maybe it was his personality that made the carriage so small. His big hands spread as if grasping possibilities. “To make money I must spend money. If my pleasure garden were like any other—if the costumes were worn, the theatrics tame and uninspiring, the plantings everyday—no one would come. No one would pay the price of admission.”

Reluctantly she began to wonder if perhaps she had been overhasty. The man was proud and bombastic and very, very annoying, but maybe he was right. Maybe he could return her brother’s investment with his wonderful garden.

Still, she’d always been cautious by nature. “I’m expecting you to prove all that you’ve told me, Mr. Harte.”

He sat back as if satisfied he’d already won her approval. “And so I shall.”

The carriage rounded a bend in the road and a tall stone wall came into view. It looked very…utilitarian.

Eve glanced at Mr. Harte.

He cleared his throat. “Naturally, this is the back entrance.”

The carriage jerked to a halt.

Jean-Marie immediately rose, set the step, and held out his hand to help her down.

“Thank you,” Eve murmured. “Please ask the carriage driver to wait for us.”

Mr. Harte leaped from the carriage in one athletic bound and strode ahead of them to a wooden door in the wall. He opened it and gestured them through.

Beyond was a tangled growth of hedges and some muddy paths. Hardly the look of a pleasure garden, but he had said this was the back way.

Eve eyed the door as she entered. “Shouldn’t this be locked?”

“Yes,” Mr. Harte said. “And usually ’tis when we’re open—it wouldn’t do to have people just walk into the gardens without paying—but right now we’re still building. It’s easier for deliveries just to come in.”

“You have no problem with thieves?” 

Mr. Harte frowned. “I—” 

A young redheaded man came trotting briskly along one of the paths. Eve recognized him instantly as Mr. Malcolm MacLeish, the architect her brother had hired to rebuild the theater.

“Harte!” Mr. MacLeish exclaimed. “Thank God you’re here. The damned slate’s arrived for the roof and half are broken and still the driver’s demanding payment before he unloads. I don’t know whether to send the lot back or work with the usable stuff. We’re already behind and the rain’s leaking in the theater—the tarps won’t hold it.” The young man glanced up from his tirade, his eyes widening as he caught sight of Eve. “Oh! Miss Dinwoody. I hadn’t thought to see you here.”

And he flushed an unbecoming mottled red.

Eve felt a pang of sympathy. The last time she’d seen Mr. MacLeish he’d been begging for her help in escaping her brother’s influence. The man was probably quite embarrassed to encounter her.

She gave him a small, reassuring smile. “Good day to you, Mr. MacLeish.”

At that he remembered his manners and swept her a rather elegant bow. “And to you, Miss Dinwoody.” He inhaled, obviously ordering himself. “You’re a bright spot on this dreary morning, I declare.”

And there was the sweet charm the architect usually displayed.

She nodded. “Shall we see to your shingle delivery?”

“I—” Mr. MacLeish glanced at Mr. Harte, his expression nonplussed.

The pleasure garden owner frowned. “I didn’t bring you here to examine the dull behind-the-scenes stuff, Miss Dinwoody.”

“But perhaps that’s what I ought to be examining,” she replied. “Please. Lead us on, Mr. MacLeish.”

The architect waited for Mr. Harte’s nod before turning back down the muddy path.

Eve picked up her skirts, stepping carefully. She regretted not wearing pattens on her shoes this morning, for she was beginning to worry that her slippers would be ruined by the wet and mud. 

“I confess, I thought from your description that the gardens would be more…” Eve paused, trying to find a tactful word as they walked past a clump of sagging irises.

“Finished,” Jean-Marie rumbled, supplying the word, if not the tact.

Mr. Harte’s frown had turned to a scowl at her bodyguard’s interjection. “Naturally the garden isn’t at its best in the rain. Now here,” he exclaimed as they rounded a tall tree and came within view of a pond, “here is where you can see what Harte’s Folly will be.”

The pond was very pretty. An island sat at its center, with an arched bridge connecting it to the shore. Another tree, young and straight, had been planted at the edge of the pond, framing the view. Even in the misty rain it held a sort of otherworldly allure.

Enchanted, Eve stepped closer…and right into a puddle, the cold, muddy water soaking her slipper and completely breaking the spell.

She turned to Mr. Harte.

His gaze met hers, rising from her dirtied feet. “We will, of course, be mending the paths before we open.”

“I should hope so,” she replied frostily, giving her foot a shake.

They continued along the path in silence, Eve’s toes slowly turning numb with cold as she followed Mr. Harte’s broad shoulders.

Another five minutes and they came within sight of a series of buildings, the central one obviously a theater. It had wide marble steps that led to a row of columns across the front, and a high pediment with classical bas-relief figures depicting acting and the theater. It was an impressive building, even with the tarps covering the roof.

Drawn up outside were an enormous cart and a team of horses. Three men stood by the cart, arguing loudly with a semicircle of people facing them. The crowd was a motley lot: a half dozen women wore matching bright-yellow dresses, their hems scandalously high—obviously for dancing. Another woman was in an extraordinary purple frock and still had paint on her face. Beside her was a plain woman in rather more ordinary clothing, holding a half-finished bodice. Several men were workers or gardeners—one had a rake over his shoulder—while others were better dressed and held various instruments under their arms.

“Pay up or we’ll turn this ’ere cart around and take it back across th’ river!” said one of the cartmen.

“Pay for vhat?” a slight man with a clever face and dark hair sneered. “A heap of broken shards? Bah!” He threw up his hands in disgust. “This theater, it vill never be finished. My musicians cannot practice vith vater dripping down their necks.”

“What’s this I hear about broken shingles?”

The crowd turned at Mr. Harte’s deep voice, and several people started talking at once.

Mr. Harte held up his hands. “One at a time. Vogel?”

The dark-haired man stepped forward, his black eyes flashing. “Vonce again the theater is not done. MacLeish promised last month and was it done? No! He promised this veek—”

“It’s hardly my fault the rain kept us from building,” Mr. MacLeish said, his chin thrust forward. “And let me tell you, having to work around a crowd of musicians hasn’t been easy.”

Mr. Vogel’s upper lip curled. “And vould you have us open vithout practice? Bah! You know nothing of opera or music, you English.”

“I’m a Scot, you—”

Mr. Harte laid a hand on Mr. MacLeish’s chest, stepping between him and Mr. Vogel. “What about my shingles?”

“Not my fault if they came that way,” the leader of the shingle men said, suddenly sounding conciliatory. “This is the way I got ’em and this is the way I brought ’em.”

“And this is the way I’ll be sending ’em back,” Mr. Harte said. “I paid for roofing tile, not broken shards.”

“I can take it all back,” the shingle man said, “but I won’t be getting another shipment until December earliest.”

Mr. Harte took a menacing step forward. “Goddamn it, man—”

The double doors to the theater burst open and a short, bandy-legged man dressed in a blazing orange coat came down the steps. Eve blinked in astonishment, for it was Mr. Sherwood, the proprietor of the Royal theater. Whatever was he—?

“Sherwood!” roared Mr. Harte, advancing menacingly on the smaller man. “What are you doing in my theater?”

“Harte,” Sherwood returned, apparently unaware of the danger he stood in. “What a pleasant surprise. I didn’t know you rose so early in the morning. And Miss Dinwoody!” he said, catching sight of Eve, peering around Mr. Harte’s back. “A pleasure, ma’am, an absolute pleasure!”

“Mr. Sherwood.” Eve nodded cautiously.

“Your exquisite grace brightens the day, ma’am.” The theater manager beamed as if at his own wit and bobbed on his toes. He wore a white wig a bit the worse for wear and slightly askew. “Have you told Harte of my offer?”

“You haven’t the funds to buy Montgomery’s stake out,” Harte sneered.

I haven’t,” Mr. Sherwood replied blithely, “but my backer has.” 

Mr. Harte seemed to expand, his hands clenching into fists at his sides. Eve took a nervous step back into the comforting shadow of Jean-Marie. 

What backer?” Mr. Harte growled. “You can’t possibly have—”

At the top of the stairs a tall man exited the theater. He wore a lavishly curled lavender wig and a flamboyant ruby coat with silver lace edging the cuffs and collar.

He glanced down and gave an exaggerated start on seeing Mr. Harte. “No,” he cried, an arm outthrust as if to hold the pleasure garden owner back. “You shan’t talk me out of it, Harte, not even with your silver tongue.”

“What are you doing, Giovanni?” Mr. Harte’s voice had lowered into ominous, gravelly depths.

Eve glanced around. Wasn’t anyone else worried about Mr. Harte’s simmering temper? 

But all eyes were on the theater stairs as the tall man swept down them. Eve realized that he must be Giovanni Scaramella, the famous castrato. 

“Leaving you,” Mr. Sherwood trumpeted, confirming Eve’s worst fears. “Giovanni’s coming to the Royal. The most talented castrato in London shall be singing exclusively for my theater now.”

“You can’t do this, Gio,” Mr. Harte said. “You agreed to sing for me this season. We shook on it.”

“Did we?” the singer asked, eyes wide. “But Mr. Sherwood has a theater already built, a magnificent opera ready, and much money for me. You, Harte, have mud and a leaky roof.” He shrugged. “Is it so strange I go to sing at the Royal theater?”

“Always get a performer to sign,” Sherwood said merrily, shaking a piece of paper in one hand. “Thought you’d know that by now, Harte.”

Harte’s eyes narrowed and his voice lowered. Eve took an involuntary step back as he snarled, “Goddamn you—”

“Ha!” crowed Mr. Sherwood, skipping down the last of the steps. “You may’ve stolen Robin Goodfellow, you may’ve stolen La Veneziana, but see how far you get without a leading castrato, Harte!”

Mr. Harte didn’t say a word. In a shockingly concise movement, he stepped forward and swung his enormous fist into the other man’s face.

Mr. Sherwood fell with a shriek and a burst of blood from his nose.

Mr. Harte stood over him, still bareheaded and in his shirt-sleeves, the sputtering rain molding the fabric to the bulging muscles of his back and shoulders.

He looked like everything that was uncivilized and barbaric and male.

Eve inhaled and then had trouble exhaling. She didn’t like violence. She never had.

This had been a mistake. A terrible mistake. The garden was a shambles, the opera didn’t look like it would ever be staged, and Mr. Harte was a brutal animal.

“Take me away from this place, Jean-Marie,” she whispered.


Bridget Crumb kept the house of the wickedest man in England. 

Valentine Napier, the Duke of Montgomery, was handsome to the point of near-feminine beauty, powerful, wealthy, and completely—as far as she could see—without morals. She’d been hired only weeks before the duke’s exile from the country. One of his many minions had discovered her reputation—as the best housekeeper in London—and had offered her double the wage she’d been earning as Lady Margaret St. John’s housekeeper. Though truth be told the money had been only one of the reasons Bridget had promptly taken the job. In that short time before Montgomery had left for Europe he’d spoken directly to her exactly once—when he’d absently inquired what had happened to his butler. She’d told him politely that the man had decided to return to his birthplace in Wales. Which was, strictly speaking, true, although by no means the entire truth, since she’d certainly encouraged the butler in his dreams of retiring to become a shopkeeper.

She’d also omitted to explain that she hadn’t hired a replacement butler. Why bring in another male servant who might challenge her authority?

Now Bridget had complete charge of Hermes House—the duke’s London town house—which was quite convenient considering her other reasons for agreeing to come into the duke’s employment. 

However, the lack of a butler did mean that she often answered the front door herself when there was a caller. 

Today when the knock came, Bridget glided across the ostentatious gray-veined pink marble floor—polished just this morning at exactly six of the clock. She paused at an ornately gilded mirror to check that her mobcap was straight, and the strings tied under her chin neatly. She was only six and twenty—a nearly unheard-of age at which to have already acquired the position she held—and she’d found it helped to bolster her authority to always be completely ordered.

Bridget opened the door to find the duke’s sister on the doorstep, along with the woman’s footman. Unlike the duke, Miss Dinwoody was a plain woman, though she and her brother shared the same guinea-gold hair. “Good morning, miss.” 

She stood aside to let them both in.

Miss Dinwoody looked a trifle flustered, which was unusual. “Good morning, Mrs. Crumb. I’ve come to look at my brother’s account books.”

“Of course,” Bridget murmured. Miss Dinwoody had visited Hermes House once or twice a week since the duke had left the country, always to attend to the duke’s investments in Harte’s Folly. “Shall I send some tea and refreshments to the library, miss?”

“No need.” Miss Dinwoody doffed a rain-soaked cloak and handed it to her. “I shan’t be long.”

“Very well, miss,” Bridget replied. She gestured to one of the footmen stationed in the entry hall and handed over the cloak. “A letter from your brother for you arrived not an hour ago. I apologize for not sending it on to you at once.”

“That’s quite all right,” Miss Dinwoody said. “I suppose it was delivered by that odd boy again?”

“Yes, miss. Alf brought it round to the kitchens.”

Miss Dinwoody shook her head, absently muttering under her breath, “I don’t see why my brother doesn’t just use the mail coaches. Lord only knows how his letters travel across the Channel in the first place.”

Bridget had an idea about that, but it wasn’t her place to comment on the duke’s unusual means of communication. Instead she led the way up the grand staircase and down a wide hallway to the library. The Hermes House staff was reduced, since the duke wasn’t in residence, but Bridget ran a tight ship. The rooms on this floor were thoroughly aired and dusted every other week—that day falling today. She paused at an open door, catching the eye of one of the maids running a cloth over the woodwork in the room. “Stir the fire in the library, if you will, Alice.”

Alice hesitated, still on her knees. She was a pretty girl of nineteen or so, a bit slow, but a hard worker nonetheless. Unfortunately she was also superstitious. “The library, ma’am?”

“Yes, Alice.” Bridget let her voice sharpen. “At once, if you please.”

“Yes, Mrs. Crumb.” The girl bobbed and scurried out of the room and ahead of them.

When they got to the library Bridget held open the door for Miss Dinwoody and nodded toward the rosewood desk in the corner where the letter lay. “Is there anything else I might do for you, miss?” She noted that Alice was kneeling by the hearth, a lit candle in one hand, her face pale as she darted nervous glances around the room.

“No, nothing,” Miss Dinwoody murmured as she pried open the seal on the letter. Her thin mouth crimped at the corners as she began to read, and Bridget reflected that it must be rather tiring being the Duke of Montgomery’s bastard sister.

But then that wasn’t any of her concern, was it?

She jerked her chin at Alice, who had the fire blazing, and the girl leaped to her feet, nearly running to the door. 

Bridget sighed as she closed the door behind them. She’d already lectured the girl several times on the impossibility of ghosts in Hermes House, and there was simply no point in doing so again.

Especially since she wasn’t entirely convinced herself.


Bridget Crumb kept the house of the wickedest man in England. 

Valentine Napier, the Duke of Montgomery, was handsome to the point of near-feminine beauty, powerful, wealthy, and completely—as far as she could see—without morals. She’d been hired only weeks before the duke’s exile from the country. One of his many minions had discovered her reputation—as the best housekeeper in London—and had offered her double the wage she’d been earning as Lady Margaret St. John’s housekeeper. Though truth be told the money had been only one of the reasons Bridget had promptly taken the job. In that short time before Montgomery had left for Europe he’d spoken directly to her exactly once—when he’d absently inquired what had happened to his butler. She’d told him politely that the man had decided to return to his birthplace in Wales. Which was, strictly speaking, true, although by no means the entire truth, since she’d certainly encouraged the butler in his dreams of retiring to become a shopkeeper.

She’d also omitted to explain that she hadn’t hired a replacement butler. Why bring in another male servant who might challenge her authority?

Now Bridget had complete charge of Hermes House—the duke’s London town house—which was quite convenient considering her other reasons for agreeing to come into the duke’s employment. 

However, the lack of a butler did mean that she often answered the front door herself when there was a caller. 

Today when the knock came, Bridget glided across the ostentatious gray-veined pink marble floor—polished just this morning at exactly six of the clock. She paused at an ornately gilded mirror to check that her mobcap was straight, and the strings tied under her chin neatly. She was only six and twenty—a nearly unheard-of age at which to have already acquired the position she held—and she’d found it helped to bolster her authority to always be completely ordered.

Bridget opened the door to find the duke’s sister on the doorstep, along with the woman’s footman. Unlike the duke, Miss Dinwoody was a plain woman, though she and her brother shared the same guinea-gold hair. “Good morning, miss.” 

She stood aside to let them both in.

Miss Dinwoody looked a trifle flustered, which was unusual. “Good morning, Mrs. Crumb. I’ve come to look at my brother’s account books.”

“Of course,” Bridget murmured. Miss Dinwoody had visited Hermes House once or twice a week since the duke had left the country, always to attend to the duke’s investments in Harte’s Folly. “Shall I send some tea and refreshments to the library, miss?”

“No need.” Miss Dinwoody doffed a rain-soaked cloak and handed it to her. “I shan’t be long.”

“Very well, miss,” Bridget replied. She gestured to one of the footmen stationed in the entry hall and handed over the cloak. “A letter from your brother for you arrived not an hour ago. I apologize for not sending it on to you at once.”

“That’s quite all right,” Miss Dinwoody said. “I suppose it was delivered by that odd boy again?”

“Yes, miss. Alf brought it round to the kitchens.”

Miss Dinwoody shook her head, absently muttering under her breath, “I don’t see why my brother doesn’t just use the mail coaches. Lord only knows how his letters travel across the Channel in the first place.”

Bridget had an idea about that, but it wasn’t her place to comment on the duke’s unusual means of communication. Instead she led the way up the grand staircase and down a wide hallway to the library. The Hermes House staff was reduced, since the duke wasn’t in residence, but Bridget ran a tight ship. The rooms on this floor were thoroughly aired and dusted every other week—that day falling today. She paused at an open door, catching the eye of one of the maids running a cloth over the woodwork in the room. “Stir the fire in the library, if you will, Alice.”

Alice hesitated, still on her knees. She was a pretty girl of nineteen or so, a bit slow, but a hard worker nonetheless. Unfortunately she was also superstitious. “The library, ma’am?”

“Yes, Alice.” Bridget let her voice sharpen. “At once, if you please.”

“Yes, Mrs. Crumb.” The girl bobbed and scurried out of the room and ahead of them.

When they got to the library Bridget held open the door for Miss Dinwoody and nodded toward the rosewood desk in the corner where the letter lay. “Is there anything else I might do for you, miss?” She noted that Alice was kneeling by the hearth, a lit candle in one hand, her face pale as she darted nervous glances around the room.

“No, nothing,” Miss Dinwoody murmured as she pried open the seal on the letter. Her thin mouth crimped at the corners as she began to read, and Bridget reflected that it must be rather tiring being the Duke of Montgomery’s bastard sister.

But then that wasn’t any of her concern, was it?

She jerked her chin at Alice, who had the fire blazing, and the girl leaped to her feet, nearly running to the door. 

Bridget sighed as she closed the door behind them. She’d already lectured the girl several times on the impossibility of ghosts in Hermes House, and there was simply no point in doing so again.

Especially since she wasn’t entirely convinced herself.


It was after noon by the time Eve made her way back to her town house with Jean-Marie.

Her brother had found the town house for her, of course. Found it and paid for it. Paid for Jean-Marie and Tess and Ruth as well, come to that. Val saw to it that Eve lived very comfortably, but that wasn’t the reason she’d agreed to manage his investment in Harte’s Folly when he’d been forced to leave the country so suddenly.

She sometimes wondered if he had any idea at all why she’d done it. Val dealt so much in debt and money and silken threats that he might not recognize when a person did something purely for love.

The thought saddened her somehow.

Eve doffed her bonnet inside her hallway. “Ask Tess to bring me a luncheon tray, please, Jean-Marie. And some tea.”

Jean-Marie shot her a look of concern but nodded before disappearing into the back of the house. 

Eve wondered what he’d say to Tess about their morning’s outing. About her fleeing the garden. About her trip to her brother’s big, empty house and the letter she’d read there.

The letter in which Val expressly forbade her to cut off Mr. Harte or sell the stake.

Blast Val anyway. He’d put her in a very awkward position—managing a great deal of money, but having no real power over it if he wouldn’t let her follow her instincts about how to deal with the garden and Mr. Harte. If he’d only let her sell the stake in Harte’s Folly to Mr. Sherwood and his mysterious backer, she could invest the money. She knew she could make a profit for her brother. Over the last five years Eve had invested her own pin money in a shipping company and had seen a small but tidy increase in the capital.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t at all sure that it was entirely the money Val was most concerned about when it came to Harte’s Folly.

She sighed and climbed the stairs. Her sitting room was at the top, and she crossed the room to her worktable. On it was her bronze magnifying glass. It was attached to an arm that swung from an upright stand so that she could comfortably look through it and keep both hands free. Beside the glass were several clean pieces of ivory and her paint box, all set out. Under the magnifying glass was the miniature she was working on now—a study of Hercules. She bent and peered through the glass. Hercules stood, one hip cocked, wearing his lion skin and sandals, a bit of cloth modestly covering his hips. It should’ve been a heroic pose, but somehow poor Hercules looked almost effeminate. His lips too pursed, his cheeks too pink, his face entirely too soft. It was the style, of course, to paint men as soft and gentle, and she excelled in that style, but somehow today she was suddenly dissatisfied.

She kept remembering Mr. Harte’s face. His brows drawn together, his mouth in a grim line, his wet hair plastered to his cheeks and forehead as he’d born down on Mr. Sherwood with his muscled arm raised. She hated—and feared—his violence, but she couldn’t deny that there was something alive about Mr. Harte. Alive and vibrant and larger than life. Something exciting that made her heart beat faster, made her feel alive as well.

Eve sat at her desk, staring down blindly at poor, sweet Hercules.

Mr. Harte was a brute, anyone could see that. He wouldn’t listen to reason, wouldn’t abide by common decency or her very polite requests for information. He had actually attacked Mr. Sherwood right in front of her. How could Val expect her to work with a man such as he?

If she was entirely truthful with herself, she’d have to face the fact that she’d failed Val. She’d promised to look after his investment, but if the theater never opened again, and she wasn’t allowed to sell the stake, he’d not see a return of his money. 

He’d lose thousands of pounds.

Eve frowned, picking up one of the blank pieces of ivory and running her finger over the smooth surface. The sum already invested in Harte’s Folly was probably a drop in the ocean of Val’s wealth, but she’d promised.

She didn’t like to forswear herself.

And then there was his letter, full of Val’s usual flippancy and with that unusually to-the-point postscript, telling her to keep funding the awful and his garden. She’d have to send a letter to Mr. Harte, apologizing and taking back everything she’d said this morning. The very thought was depressing.

Ruth came in the room, walking slowly as she carried the luncheon tray. The maid set the tray down next to Eve’s elbow and stood back, beaming. “There, miss! Tess ’as fried a lovely ’erring with some stewed green beans beside it, and there’s bread fresh-baked this morning as well.”

“Thank you, Ruth,” Eve replied, and the maid bobbed a curtsy and nearly skipped from the room.

Well, Ruth was very young—only fifteen and fresh from somewhere in the country. Everything was new to her. She had an appealing naïveté that Eve found both charming and alarming. The maid hadn’t yet learned to be cautious of the world. No one had ever hurt her.

The dove, sitting in her square little cage on the table, cooed inquiringly. Eve took a few kernels of grain from a dish nearby and pushed them through the bars of the cage. Immediately the dove began pecking at her luncheon.

Eve picked up her fork and knife and then paused, staring at the herring. How quiet it was in her sitting room! Just the soft scrabbling of the dove and the clink of her silverware. She couldn’t even hear the voices from the kitchen downstairs.

If she closed her eyes, she might imagine herself all alone in the world.

She shook herself, cutting into the herring, and a dreadful pounding suddenly started at the front door, belying her imagined solitude.

Eve set her knife and fork down again, sitting back, a feeling almost of joy overtaking her.

She could hear Jean-Marie’s quick footsteps, the door opening, and then male voices raised in anger.

A smile flitted across her face. He really was the most obstinate man, wasn’t he?

She wondered if she should go to the head of the stairs, but no. Footsteps were pounding up her stairwell. He must’ve gotten around Jean-Marie somehow.

Eve carefully composed her face and picked up her fork and knife again. Her appetite had suddenly revived.

When the door to her sitting room burst open, she was just taking a bite of the excellent fish.

“You have to listen to me!” Mr. Harte bellowed just as Jean-Marie got an arm around his neck.

Mr. Harte ducked out of the hold and whirled to face her bodyguard, his great fists ready.

“Mr. Harte!” Eve didn’t like to raise her voice, but she wouldn’t stand by and let Jean-Marie be hurt. “If you want me to listen to you, I suggest you not begin by staging a boxing match in my sitting room.”

Mr. Harte’s face took on a darker hue, but his arms fell to his sides.

Jean-Marie, however, hadn’t dropped his protective stance. “Shall I escort ’im out?”

“I’d like to see you try,” Mr. Harte growled.

Eve refrained with great effort from rolling her eyes. “Thank you, no, Jean-Marie. I’ll speak with Mr. Harte if he’ll take a seat.”

The theater manager immediately dropped rather heavily onto the settee 

Eve cleared her throat. “Perhaps you can bring another teacup, Jean-Marie?”

The footman’s brows drew together. “Best I stay ’ere, I think.”

Normally he would, of course. Normally Jean-Marie never let her be alone with a man. But she couldn’t bear the thought of seeming weak before Mr. Harte. Of needing a nursemaid—even if the truth was that sometimes she did need Jean-Marie. 

She wanted to at least appear to be strong in the theater manager’s presence. 

Eve lifted her chin. “No doubt, but I think I’ll manage on my own with Mr. Harte.”

“Thank you for seeing me,” Mr. Harte said quickly, before Jean-Marie could express any more disapproval.

She nodded. “Have you partaken of luncheon yet?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Then please have Ruth bring up another tray as well,” Eve told Jean-Marie.

The footman shot a dark look at the other man, but left the room without comment.

“Now then,” Eve said, folding her hands in her lap. “What is it you wished to say to me, Mr. Harte?”

She expected him to immediately begin pleading his case again. Instead he propped one ankle over the knee of the other leg and leaned back in her blue-gray settee, as comfortable as a lion lazing in the sun. “You left my garden very quickly.”

She pursed her lips. “I dislike violence, and frankly, with the loss of Mr. Scaramella—and your composure—I didn’t see any point in remaining.”

“I can hire another castrato.” He’d donned a coat and waistcoat since she’d seen him this morning, both a deep shade of scarlet, but his tawny hair remained unbound about his shoulders, giving him an uncivilized appearance. Wild. As if he might do anything—anything at all—in her proper sitting room. “As for the loss of my composure”—he curled his upper lip—“you have to admit Sherwood had it coming to him.”

Eve forbore to retort that she didn’t have to admit any such thing. Instead she looked at him curiously. “And do you always react so…physically to such situations?”

“I’m in the theater,” he said, as if that explained his churlish actions. “We’re a bit rougher perhaps than you’re used to. A bit earthier, too.”

Was that his way of delicately touching upon the subject of the woman in his bed this morning?

“I see.” Eve pursed her lips, examining the backs of her hands. “You may be able to find another castrato, but can you find one with a voice like Giovanni Scaramella on such short notice? Mr. Scaramella’s fame draws eager crowds. I can understand why Mr. Sherwood was determined to have him. Who else is so well known in London?”

“Perhaps no one,” Mr. Harte conceded. “But I can send for a castrato on the Continent.”

She glanced up. “And even if you do? Can you be ready to open in a month?”

He looked at her and she met his green gaze. They both knew that to open in less than a month would be nearly impossible.

“Look.” He leaned forward, elbows on knees, his big hands clasped together. “You’ve been to a night at the opera, you know what’s involved. I have the musicians and the dancers. I have Vogel’s opera—a new one and I think one of his best. I have La Veneziana—Violetta, who you met this morning. She’s the most famous soprano in London. All I need is the lead castrato.”

She nodded. “You need a castrato, and without one you have nothing. It’s the fame of the singers that will draw the attendees to your garden, and the castrato is key. He’s the one with the most entrancing voice, the one people want to hear and see.”

His mouth tightened. “I’ve already sent letters to the Continent and to the people I know here. I’ll have a new castrato within a sennight.”

“Which will give you barely over a fortnight to rehearse.”

He set his jaw. “It can be done. I’ll make it happen. All I need is your brother’s money.”

She smiled then, gently shaking her head. “I told you no, again and again, and yet you continued onward. Tell me, Mr. Harte, do you ever give up?”

“Never.” His green eyes narrowed as his mouth firmed. He looked very much as he had when he’d struck Mr. Sherwood: savage, uncompromising, a force to be reckoned with.

She should be afraid of this man. Perhaps she was. Perhaps the hammering of her heart, the quickening of her breath were fear.

But if they were, she chose to disregard it. “Very well.”

He sat back, a wide, lopsided grin spreading over his face, just as Ruth entered with another tray.

Eve indicated the low table before the settee where Mr. Harte sat, and Ruth hurried to place the tray there. She straightened, staring at the theater manager. Eve didn’t often have visitors.

“Thank you, Ruth.”

The maid started, shot her a guilty glance, and left the room.

“This looks delicious.” Mr. Harte reached for the loaf of bread on the tray. Tess must’ve bought several herring from the fish market, for she’d sent up another luncheon identical to Eve’s.

She eyed his fingers as he broke apart the bread. “I have one condition, however, to letting you have access to my brother’s funds once more.” She considered the matter a moment and then nodded, adding, “Actually two conditions.”

He froze, those long, strong fingers still holding the torn bread. “And what are they?”

She inhaled silently, feeling her nerves spark. Feeling excitement. 

Feeling alive.

“I’ll be taking over the bookkeeping for Harte’s Folly until it opens again.”

His brows snapped together. “Now wait a—”

“And,” she said firmly over his aborted objection, “I want you to sit for me—as a model for my painting.”