When Miss Elizabeth Waterstone encounters the enigmatic Duke of Diable Delamere in the most shocking of circumstances, she is determined to exploit his rakish expertise to the fullest extent. The duke agrees to teach her everything she needs to know, but in return expects to receive her unwitting cooperation to uncover an assassination plot against the monarchy. But Elizabeth is hard to deceive, and the duke finds himself needing more than her innocent skills in his bed. Together they must use their remarkable abilities, to thwart a villain, save the Prince Regent and accidentally and inevitably fall in love.
“Did you say three, Your Grace? Three thousand pounds?”
The man’s stammered question tailed into sudden silence.
Gervase David Saint-Malo, seventh Duke of Diable Delamere, sat back and contemplated the shine on his outstretched boots. Even in the dim light of the impromptu gaming parlor, their deep polish satisfied him. The secret ingredient his valet used to achieve such perfection was worth every penny of his wage.
The duke glanced across at his opponent, Mr. Forester, who was sweating profusely. Gervase shook back the ruffles from his wrist and stirred the crumpled pile of scrawled vouchers with one long finger.
“You mistake me, m’sieur.” Gervase allowed a moment of hope to lighten the wretched man’s face before he dashed it. “I said three thousand guineas.” He raised one eyebrow in a polite query. “You doubt my word?”
Mr. Forester’s face turned as sickly yellow as the stub of tallow candle that guttered between them on the card table.
Gervase examined his fingernails as Mr. Forester leaned closer and muttered, “Your Grace, I beg of you, a private word.”
With a yawn, Gervase dropped his cards on the table and bowed to his erstwhile opponent. He smiled as he ventured deeper into the shabby rented house. The other guests at the ill-fated card party melted away into the shadows, leaving the duke to his prey.
Mr. Forester held no surprises for him. By the time Gervase had inherited his father’s title at the age of one and twenty, he had learned just how many men wished to relieve him of his fortune, and how to deal with them. He had also learned that money was not the only thing desperate men traded over the gambling tables.
As Mr. Forester poured them both large brandies, he wondered idly what he would be offered next. If Mr. Forester were as big a fool as he looked, he would probably plead for time to pay. Not that three thousand guineas mattered to Gervase. He had more than enough money. Unlike the most recent wave of impoverished and dispossessed French émigrés, the Diable Delamere family owned land in both England and France, and had settled in England during the reign of the first Henry Tudor. But Gervase refused to be fleeced, and he had a nagging suspicion he had been allowed to win.
Mr. Forester cleared his throat. “Your Grace, I regret that I don’t have sufficient funds to pay my debt this evening.”
Gervase’s mouth twisted and he downed the cheap brandy in one swallow. So much for a gentleman honoring his debts.
Mr. Forester hurried on with his speech, perhaps anticipating the denial that hovered on Gervase’s lips.
“However, Your Grace, my stepdaughter has, in the past, offered certain services to my creditors in lieu of direct payment.”
Gervase paused in the act of pouring himself another brandy. It was the first time he had been offered a woman to repay a debt. Had Mr. Forester deliberately lost at cards in order to foist his stepdaughter on Gervase? He suspected that Mr. Forester was involved with the revolutionary French, which explained his presence at the gaming party. He had hoped Mr. Forester would offer him valuable information in exchange for the cancellation of the debt.
Although it was not the outcome Gervase had anticipated, a faint whisper of interest stirred the layers of boredom and distaste wrapped around his soul.
Mr. Forester bowed. “I will allow my stepdaughter to reside in your house and fulfill any wishes or desires you might have until my funding arrives.”
The man was serious. Gervase stared at Mr. Forester’s smooth, bland face and marveled at such blatant self-interest.
He set his glass down on the scarred oak table. “An interesting proposition, Mr. Forester. Of course, I would wish to meet this paragon before I make my decision.”
Almost before Gervase finished speaking, Mr. Forester disappeared, leaving Gervase to help himself to the brandy bottle. He caught a glimpse of his dark profile in a rusted mirror over the mantelpiece and raised his glass in an ironic salute. The silver thread in his black coat set off his raven hair and gray eyes to perfection. His wife’s demise had gifted him his perfect color palette. Since the end of the formal mourning period, he rarely bothered to dress in any other colors.
He grimaced as he noticed how the darkness of his clothing suited the shabbiness of the room. Was he beginning to merge with the shadows he hunted? He suppressed a sudden urge to leave before Mr. Forester returned. He was tired of this game and weary of the subterfuge.
The door creaked and Mr. Forester ushered his stepdaughter into the room. Gervase slowly straightened, his attention caught by her respectable buttoned-up gown and tightly braided brown hair. He judged her to be in her mid-twenties. She could easily have passed for a governess in her outmoded gown. His suspicions flared anew.
Drawn by a strange compulsion, he placed his fingers under her chin and forced her to look up at him. She was above average height and her eyes were large and gray. Her skin was excellent and she had all her teeth. He almost smiled as he caught a hint of disapproval in her narrowed gaze. Despite her dowdy exterior, he was pleased to see that she was no milk and water miss.
Without releasing her gaze, he said over his shoulder, “Does she come willingly? I’ve no patience with tears and tantrums.”
As Gervase hoped, she answered for herself, her voice low-pitched and well-bred. “I will come with you, Your Grace. I hope I can be of service.” Her firm tone was at odds with her wary expression.
An unaccustomed sense of heat pulsed through his loins as he released her. She stepped away and brushed at the dark brown wool of her limp skirts as though he had somehow contaminated her. The notion served to intrigue him even more. He loved deciphering a puzzle.
With a small bow in Forester’s direction, Gervase headed for the door. “I will wait to hear from you then, sir.” He held out his hand to the woman. “You may come with me, now.”
He wondered if she would balk at the calm assumption in his voice, but she merely nodded. She paused in the hall to pick up her cloak and bag, raised her chin in the air, and followed him out into the inky star-studded night. His coach appeared at the curb and he handed her into it.
The effect of the brandy trickled through his senses as he sprawled on the seat opposite her. She sat upright, her back not touching the seat. Her gloved fingers gripped a shabby reticule, which was all the baggage she brought with her.
Gervase caught her eye and smiled. What would she do if he reached across the small space, pulled her into his lap, and thrust his tongue into her mouth? The tantalizing thought caused him to shift in his seat. His outstretched leg brushed her ankle and she moved away with a disdainful flick of her skirts.
“You have no need to be alarmed, Miss Forester. My staff is very discreet.”
She looked confused. “Thank you, Your Grace, but my name is not Miss Forester. I’m Miss Waterstone.”
“Forgive me for mentioning it, Miss Waterstone, but you seem remarkably composed for a woman who has been dragged from her bed in the middle of the night.”
Her mouth tightened. “Unfortunately, I’m dependent on Mr. Forester’s good will. It is not the first time he has compelled my obedience.”
Gervase sat back. She sounded quite bitter. Had she and Mr. Forester quarreled? Was Miss Waterstone his mistress and partner in deceit and not his step-daughter? Women were often indiscreet in bed; Gervase might learn a great deal if he pleasured Miss Waterstone well. The thought of her naked beneath him made him hard. Taking her clenched fist, he kissed her wrist on the pulse point where her glove met bare skin.
“Miss Waterstone, then. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance and hope our liaison will be everything we could both wish for.”
Her brow crinkled, but before she could speak, the carriage drew to a stop. She rushed to descend without waiting for his assistance. Gervase halted her flight, took her elbow and led her up the steps to the darkened house.
By his command, there was no one to greet him in the echoing black and white marbled hallway. Picking up the solitary candle, which awaited his return, he gestured for Miss Waterstone to follow him. He led her up the stairs and into the suite that adjoined his, pausing only long enough to light more candles and set the fire burning.
With a bow he turned back toward the door. “I will leave you for now. Please make yourself comfortable.”
After ascertaining that the connecting door to his suite was unlocked, he let himself out into the main corridor. He would give her time to undress and then slip back into her room to see what awaited him.
His fingers were slightly unsteady as he unwound his cravat and unbuttoned his shirt. He stank of cheap brandy and the desperation that permeated the play of the cards. His nostrils quivered in disgust. When he was naked, he splashed cold water over as much of his body as he could bear. He emptied out his pockets and put on his black silk dressing gown.
He didn’t bother to knock as he re-entered Miss Waterstone’s bedroom. She sat at the dressing table, garbed in an unflattering threadbare nightgown. Unlike some of her kind, she had not succumbed to the temptation to steal any of the small but expensive knick-knacks scattered around the room.
She had gathered her brown hair into a single childish braid that hung down to her waist. For a moment, he hesitated, until the heat of the brandy and his suspicions lured him on.
She brought her hand to her throat. “Your Grace, whatever are you doing in here?”
God, she was clever. She’d even managed to inject a small quaver of fear into her voice. Gervase smiled as his body came to sudden shocking life. He sat down by the fire and crooked a finger at her.
“Come here, into the light. Don’t you wish to discuss your duties?”
Back ramrod straight, she came toward him, her hands clasped in front of her like a schoolmistress. She seemed unaware of the way the fire illuminated her luscious body through the thin nightgown, but Gervase had learned to be wary. His eyes lingered on the curve of her hip and his long fingers flexed with the desire to caress her there. He realized she was speaking.
“Your Grace, perhaps we should talk in the morning when you are feeling more the thing. I fear you misunderstood my position.”
Gervase shook his head. “I can assure you, my dear, I’m perfectly capable of performing in any position you desire.”
He caught her fingers as she tried to back away and urged her closer. She wrenched one hand out of his grasp. Suddenly weary of her games, he jerked hard and pulled her into his lap. As she fought to regain her balance he maneuvered her long legs astride him.
“Your Grace!” she cried as she tried to push away his questing hands. He wrapped his arm around her hips and held her still. “Stop it immediately!”
Gervase kissed her cheek. “It’s all right, my dear, you can stop acting now. I’m still not quite sure why your stepfather sent you here, but I intend to enjoy the moment. You can explain yourself in the morning.”
She started to speak again but he was beyond listening. He silenced her by taking her mouth in a deep kiss as he inched the fabric of her nightgown up to her waist. Her lips tasted of caramel and yielded to his questing tongue with soft ease. He groaned as her tongue brushed his and her hands flattened on his chest.
He spread his knees and the belt on his dressing gown slipped open. With one swift motion, he lifted her and was about to ease her down onto his hardening flesh when her teeth crashed into his lower lip. Staring intently up at her, he realized her wide eyes reflected panic rather than passion.
She was no light skirt.
Dear God–had he almost raped an innocent?
He clenched his teeth and began to lift her away from him. “Don’t move, Miss Waterstone. I will…”
Her fingernails raked down his cheek, his back arched in protest, and he tried desperately to push her away. She slid from his slackened grasp to the floor. Gervase pulled his dressing gown around his waist and knotted the sash. Bile rose in his throat as he stared down at her and he shuddered. Had he lived amongst the depths of human depravity for too long to recognize the truth?
“Miss Waterstone, there has clearly been a misunderstanding.” He held out his hand to her. “I swear I will not touch you again. You must let me help you.”
She stumbled to her feet and continued to retreat until she reached the connecting doorway to his suite.
“Don’t you dare come any closer, you…you disgusting reprobate!”
As she turned to run through the open door to his suite and into the freedom of the hallway beyond, Gervase gathered himself and made a lunge for her. With a cry, she crashed against his dressing table, knocked the contents to the floor, and went down on her knees. Her fingers closed around a small travelling clock. Straightening, she aimed it right at his head.
Gervase came to an abrupt stop and held up his hands.
“Miss Waterstone, please put the clock down. It is made of solid brass and you might injure yourself if you attempt to throw it. I’m sure we can sort out this very unpleasant situation to your satisfaction.”
Her mouth worked and she swallowed twice before she was able to speak. “I’m well aware of how heavy the clock is, Your Grace. I am the one holding it, after all. My brothers taught me how to throw properly when I was a little girl, and I’m quite capable of hitting my target.”
Her brave statement impressed him more than he cared to admit. Any other woman of his acquaintance would have been in floods of tears by now, not calmly threatening to brain him with his own clock. He fought an absurd desire to laugh.
“Well, if you wish to throw something at me, please go ahead.”
He advanced a step toward her, one hand held out, and then froze as she drew her arm back.
“I don’t think I could kill you, even though you deserve it. They would probably behead me at the Tower if I murdered a duke.” She eyed him with great consideration as though he were a paper target. “No, I think if I winged you, it would be enough to stop you from following me.”
Gervase laughed then and took another step forward. “Stop this foolishness, my dear. Give me the clock and we will talk. You have my word I won’t lay a finger on you.”
She took aim as he crossed the carpeted space between them and the heavy clock connected with his shoulder, ripping his dressing gown and making him reel backward.
“That,” he said with deep appreciation, “was indeed an excellent shot.” The shocking pain caught him unawares and he staggered to the side and fell against the marble mantelpiece, striking his head.
Eventually, he heard his valet’s worried voice over the roaring in his ears. When Jacques bent over him, Gervase managed to grasp his sleeve.
“Don’t let her leave.”
Jacques’s voice sounded puzzled and increasingly faint. “Who, Your Grace? You are the only person here.”