Excuse me….did I really say a chapter? When this adobe reader stuff–hope you clocked my politeness there –means it took me a half hour to get you a single word…do we kid are the words that come to mind.
BUT I did say, so here it is…. Dev in all his glory. Does it match the preparations? The lovely ladies huddled like this…
…and Mr Crow. Everything all my writer buddies have done over the last week, to make Dev stay?
Please, just give him a moment will you? No-one knows more than me he’s kind of difficult… And let’s be clear now, I may write historical I prefer f*&^s to flounces….
Ten years for a kiss. Yes. Devorlane Hawley, the fifth Duke of Chessington, could understand his companion wanting to get this straight. Ten sodding years.
What he’d have gotten for a bleeding fuck wasn’t worth considering, especially given he’d just finished indulging in the activity in question.
“Probably more.” Edging himself free of the woman facing opposite, he let the clatter of hooves fill his head. “But let’s keep this decent, shall we, Charlie? I have sisters.”
Well, he did, didn’t he? “For now anyway.”
It was bad enough the first time he’d told that story, ten years ago, in his crass, blundering naivety, to those he’d thought might help him. Now that the coach clattered up the driveway, he was hardly about to expend further precious time wondering just how many more years might have been lost, when he needed to prepare himself for what lay ahead.
Nor, when his immaculately pressed trousers had cost a fool’s fortune, did he want them creased or stained.
Chessington. The place he had sworn never to return to, not even in a box.
Chessington. The place of ivory turrets and golden crenulations.
Chessington. Whose front door had been slammed in his face so acrimoniously that frost-flecked Christmas Eve.
Devorlane glanced through the steam blighted window. Not eagerly exactly—at least, he tried not to be, for all a thousand memories drew his sleeve.
He remembered it bigger, grander, with ornate statues on the sweeping lawn and, beyond the bare trees, spaces that boasted gilded cupolas, bowers festooned by a scented myriad of roses, that even on a winter’s day held fascination in their black roots and thorny stems.
Memory? A kittle thing for all it didn’t alter his plans one jot. Whether the building was small or large, was no odds to him.
The coach rumbled to a halt and he strove, when so much was required of his dignity, not to throw open the door in anything less than a leisurely fashion. Lucifer re-ascending to heaven would take his time. So would he.
Although, standing on the rough stone of what was now his doorstep, he admitted the house looked…poorer…dilapidated. A place from where the soul had fled, as opposed to a place he fully intended flaying the soul from. The plant pots crumbled around their desiccated contents. Grime from the week’s earlier storms coated the windows.
He eyed his reflection darkening the coach window and drew his brows the tiniest fraction; he straightened his cravat. He looked like an uncertain prince of darkness perhaps. But damned diabolical as ever.
Ten years. To think there were times he’d been on the verge of letting go. How damnably glad he was he had resisted the temptation. Would he stand here now, staring at himself in the plate glass, older, harder, if he had done anything so inconceivably foolish? No. Which was why he squared his jaw and smoothed the tendril of flat, dark hair the wind had coaxed free. He had come to do this and he would. Keep this decent? Hell wouldn’t just crust with ice first, its fiery core locked in subterranean depths for centuries to come. Hell would be obliterated.
“Hell and damnation, Guv.” When it came to admiration, Charlie could barely suppress his, as he stumbled from the coach. “You got a flagpole’n everything. My lot would have counted themselves lucky ter have afforded the bleedin’ flag.”
True. Which was why Devorlane’s veins sang with delight that his current good fortune could be shared with those less fortunate than himself. Charlie. And this…striving to find the words to describe the rare jewel he had scouted the sewers and whorehouses of London to find, he came up short enough as to be speechless. An exceptional occurrence, but one that boded well, where the present occupants of Chessington were concerned.
“’Ow! A cut above moine then. He’ll be wanting us ter call him His bleedin’ lordship now, Charlie. Just watch this space. And him a bleedin’ thief.” The rare creature adjusted her voluminous pink skirts.
He extended a hand and drew her from the coach. He did not know her name. He did not need to. He did not want to know, any more than he wanted to know any of their names. Those cheaply perfumed whores. Those exotic creatures of the night, who satisfied his every whim. Every craving and carnal requirement.
All he knew was that none, no matter the essence of their perfume, or accomplishment of their ruby lips, were her.
The name he’d remember till the day he died.
The name he cursed to the furthest regions of hell.
* * *
That Tilly, damn her, should still be able to do this to him—and more. This wasn’t just about her out manoeuvring him. How much of his precious inheritance had been squandered on this damned wasteful nonsense? On making absolutely certain each and every one of those present was prepared to be in the same room as him?
Recognizing not one in the sea of faces, he could only assume it might be the whole damn lot, every brass farthing of it. In addition to the carriage loads of people she must have wheeled from London, scoured the hedgerows, the workhouses, the cottages of the poor, to find, she must have spent hours putting them through their dull but important paces. Now can we, all of us, please just remember? Devorlane’s a soldier, not a thief.
Of course he wouldn’t. He had known Charlie too long and owed him too much. But to turn on his heel and walk out now would be admitting that the stabs of memories knifing from every candlelit corner were too great. He would, if Charlie didn’t damn well stand beside him. Chloe too, he thought, naming her in that second, whether it was what she was born with or not.
How foolish would that be, when he was no longer a humble pawn standing on this checkered floor, but king of this particular castle.
He frowned. The kiss plastered on his cheek was so gin sodden, it almost knocked him sideways. Tilly? Tilly…drunk?
So much couldn’t have changed since he last stood between the Ionic columns his late father, the third Duke, possessed such fondness for that he’d had them installed in every nook and cranny, could it? She couldn’t be so foxed she hung on his shoulder like a piece of paper? Plastering kisses?
“I can’t tell you—hic—how very galad, glad, I am—hic—how glad we all of us gathered here today are, you’ve finally come home, Devorlane.” She waved an empty champagne flute beneath his nose.
Tilly, so much older and so drunk she could hardly stand, were two shocks.
For heaven’s sake, he hadn’t scoured London, its underworld dregs and whore palaces, seeking the most delectable creature he could find, for her not even to be noticed. By any of them. For him to stand here feeling vaguely as if his behavior was not expected but perfectly acceptable. He narrowed his eyes. With this crowd it probably wasn’t just acceptable, it was every bit as typical of their own.
The sooner Tilly learned what his plans for Chessington were, and how she would be leaving within the next half hour, the better. Provided she could stand up, that was. Her present inability did not give him much cause for hope.
“Words finally failed you, have they? That must be a first.”
“Oh, s’not at all, Devorlane. S’in fact, it’s probably a hundredth. A thousandth even. But come in, come in. Bring your friends. Then you can all be drunk too.”
“I’ve no wish to be damn well drunk too.”
He lied. Of course. Drink. Drugs. Women. It would be very nice to deny it, but he didn’t imagine she was unacquainted with the facts. Or perhaps it was simple shock he was no longer the little brother she could bully that made her widen her eyes.
“But surely you can see—hic—you have guests.”
“I’m sure I do, but as I didn’t ask them particularly, I don’t see why I should have to be particular about entertaining them either.”
“But your friends here, Devorlane, wouldn’t they like to be s’introduced?”
“How very good that is to know—hic. After all, Devorlane, what would our dear papa say if I didn’t make your dear guests welcome?”
“Not a hell of a lot, I imagine. He’s been dead two years. Now this place is mine—”
“S’of course, Devorlane. S’of course. It’s yours. S’it’s what dearest Papa and dearest Mama and dearest Ardent, God rest them, all their souls, wanted. You to have it. All of it.”
“On his death bed Papa said—hic.”
Devorlane was quite sure he hadn’t—certainly not as Tilly did, since the old duke was completely tee-total, which was why, mastering the bolt of agony that seared his thigh, Devorlane strode forward. Anything rather than listen to this soused horse piss.
“He regretted it.” Of course Tilly had to follow on his heels, like a puppy. “Driving you away. Papa spent a fortune trying to find that, that girl. You know the one.”
As if he could forget. As if he could ever forget.
“A fortune wasted then, dearest sister. We all know who took the emeralds. Me.”
“But I will say it’s kind of you to lay on the champagne. Your departure should be toasted.”
Damn it. Didn’t she hear him? Or did she choose not to, dragging that damn bitch’s name into the equation? As if she had somehow only suddenly remembered it.
“Yes,” Tilly said. “But never mind her. Or all this s’nuff and nonsense about departure. You and your friends will s’like the crowd in here. They’re young.”
She swayed past him and wrenched the library door open.
No brothel madam showing him a larder-load of tarts could have looked prouder, except these were marriageable virgins. A palpable shudder swept his spine. To think she believed this was the way to sew his future up for the next ten years. As if he had any use for virgins. It must be bad though, that she’d given up trying to stitch him up with their mother’s ward, Belle.
“As you can see Lady Armstrong’s widowed. This cursed war. But as for the rest…”
While he did his best to fight it, his stare was lured across the silken sea to the most amazing curves he had ever seen, being kissed by a sheath of dazzling black bombazine, in his entire life.
A crow among doves that way. Nothing like a widow. Nothing like any widow he’d ever seen. In fact, never mind the sheath of black. Neither the severe scraping of her hair into a tight topknot from which it tried to escape, nor the meek set of her face, could disguise her boldly hot-house air. Her skin glowed like creamy alabaster. Brilliant shards of lapis lazuli seemed to glitter beneath finely winged brows. Not that his gaze exactly lingered. Why would it when her wayward lips beckoned?
Their coral ripeness perhaps best explained her allure in that he just wanted to kiss them. In fact he could think of only two words for them: sin incarnate. He could also imagine them clinging in all sorts of ways to his body. But it wasn’t just the lips. There was a brassy confidence, a vitality he recognized. A slight commonness that made her face interesting—her nose and chin a shade too pronounced to be truly beautiful. He’d lay odds on her voice possessing a provocatively uncultured note.
If he’d encountered her in a whorehouse, he’d have put down his fortune to possess her. But here, in rural England, at afternoon tea with every well-bred virgin the county had to offer…
Who was this creature? Flaunting the idea of widowhood with these eyes that spoke of dark, intimate, sexual knowledge.
Her husband—whoever he’d been—must have gone kicking and screaming to his grave, to be dragged from this bird of paradise. Any man would. Even he, standing in the doorway, only able to imagine how it would feel to possess that ripe sin of a mouth, felt his blood burn with painful longing, his groin tighten at…that ripe sin of a mouth.
Lady Wentworth had been such a generous hostess, the best in the county, and her parties had always been bright, glittering affairs. Especially her Christmas ones. It had taken him no time at all to dance too little and drink too damned much.
Of course he had drunk too much. Why not? In those days he was a reckless young blade doing everything entirely too fast, and he always drank too damned much. He did everything too damned much. Hell, he had to make up for Ardent, didn’t he? The family’s precious boy, who prayed and went to church and recited the bible in Latin. That was why Devorlane had been in the coach, alone, his head hanging out the coach window, going home in disgrace. Again.
“Lady Armstrong?” He tried to quell the uneasy feeling that he had seen this exotic creature before somewhere, and it wasn’t in the ten years he’d just spent in the military either.
Tilly’s nod suggested faint moral discomfort. Despite being three sheets to the wind, clearly she’d still have been a damn sight happier if his gaze had slid to one of the other girls in the room. A younger one who didn’t have the encumbrance of a former association, who she herself could neatly control, who wasn’t in deepest mourning.
Mourning? His mind reeled. Talk about brass neck.
“Is she insane? What the hell is she doing here?”
“I know. I know.” Tilly spread one bony hand despairingly. “And I’m so sorry. I know I shouldn’t have let her come. I told Belle. I said, a widow should not flout herself in pulblic—hic—sorry, public, epecially s’in times of war. But you know what Belle is s’like. A boss. An absolute boss.”
The hair had been entirely different, he recalled. Fair in the clear, cold moonlight. So silvery, beneath the magenta hood, he’d actually thought he was gazing at an angel. But luxuriantly disarrayed, as if she’d impossibly tiptoed from some man’s bed, only minutes before.
True, the fire’s glow caressed raven black locks, so tightly bound he had to actively restrain himself from striding across the floor and freeing them from their prison of pins. But there was something very familiar about the widened curve of her lips and the jaunty tilt of her head, something which was getting the same unfortunate reaction from his straining trouser front now as then.
He gritted his teeth. This couldn’t be. It couldn’t be. Not here. Not now. Why the hell would she be here? Now?
“What? Oh, Devorlane, I don’t know.” Tilly shrugged. “But I honestly wish you wouldn’t stare at her like that. S’it’s impolite. Where are your manners? She’s a widow for heaven’s sake.”
Heaven. Yes, in his completely befuddled state that’s where he’d thought the beautiful, ethereal creature was from. In the frosted cavern, made by the dipping boughs, she’d looked unreal. A forest fairy. A tree sprite. Hang it all, it had been Christmas Eve, and he’d drunk enough punch to sink the British fleet—at anchor. The creamy skin, the succulent coral lips, had done more than just catch his attention. They’d drawn him in. Had cast a spell. So he’d ordered the coach stopped.
That rustle had begun to rush.
“Just how old would you say she was?”
That damned conniving vixen had been roughly sixteen. Or so he’d reckoned. And he’d stuck to the belief through thick and thin. She had been far too young to be Sapphire, the notorious jewel thief whose name had been on everyone’s lips that season. And the entire two seasons before that. Entirely justified as the heists piled up: The Lambeth heist that saw a reward of a thousand guineas being offered for the return of Madam De Courcy’s diamond tiara, gold locket, and topaz bracelet from a chest in her chamber—although how Madame De Courcy came to have a diamond tiara in a chest in her chamber, when she had apparently fled the Terror in France in her stocking soles, had never been fully explained. Or how she could afford the thousand guinea reward either. Then there was the Weaverfield Mansion heist, a mystery involving a locked room and its even more mysteriously missing contents. Then, within two weeks, as if Sapphire needed to prove her worth, because rewards were being offered, because people were desperate to see her hang, the Buckleys, the Fieldings, the Mornays—all families of note—found their jewel boxes lighter, that no safe was safe enough.
How many times had he been told only Sapphire would have possessed the guile and daring to have snatched the Wentworth emeralds from beneath the Wentworths’ noses?
The crime had her hallmark stamped all over it: A glittering house-party. A bauble worth a king’s ransom. A sudden, daring raid. How on earth could Sapphire have only been sixteen? It wasn’t possible. It meant she must have started stealing when she was nine or ten.
It was the single reason no one had been prepared to believe him. Not even his own family. Although, now he considered it, not one single description of Sapphire existed in any newspaper. Or any wanted sheet. Like Lady Armstrong, she was a mystery. An enigma. A mythical creature no one had ever actually seen.
But, if that damned hell-cat had been roughly sixteen then, it meant she would be approximately twenty-six now. The sweet set of her ladyship’s face said if she was a day over it he was his own grandfather.
“Old? Why, Devorlane! Stop it!” Tilly giggled with unease, largely for the benefit of those sitting nearest. “You know as well as I do, the subject of a lady’s age is not deemed fit for discussion. Hic.”
Fighting not to spit the words, he muttered, “Just answer me one question. Did you do this deliberately?”
“Deliberately? I admit I asked some of these girls here. Yes. I thought it—well, you see, it would be s’nice. But not her. No. No. You would have to ask Belle about her. Although I must say, while I may not know anything about Lady Armstrong, what I have been able to determine—”
“Not a hell of a lot, by your own admission.”
“—is mannered and cultured and—”
“Manners and culture, be hanged. They’ve never been worth a damn.”
Gritting her teeth, Tilly continued. “What ish the matter with you? Hmm? Don’t you know the past ish the past?”
“Isn’t that easy for you to say?”
“I do say. I don’t see why not. And even though she never discusses hers, it is perfectly obvious her grief is genuine, so she must be respectable. I mean just look at her, the poor, poor woman. How terrible to sit there, seeing everyone else so happy, when she herself has lost so much.”
He’d honestly believed that light-fingered trollop was respectable too. It was one of the worst things about the nightmare that had followed. When he’d seen her and ordered the coach to stop, she was so damned respectable she’d gathered her skirts and hurried across the road, like some demure maiden, terrified he was going to rape her.
Even at that distance he’d seen the frozen tears glistening all along the dark curve of her eyelashes, brilliant diamonds in the frosted light. A lady in distress. A beautiful, tear-stricken creature. That was what had made him open the coach door. Ten years. Gone in a flash.
“How exactly does ding-dong, excruciating Belle know her?” Of course Belle would be the one to bring her here. Belle, who had never done a useful thing in her entire life, except fall in with his mother.
“Why shouldn’t Belle know her? We all do. Oh, Devorlane, I forgot, there is just so much, so much you don’t know. So much we do need to catch up on—later. But you remember Barwych Hall? The house s’about a half mile from here?”
“That old dump?”
He remembered it well. Hall was perhaps an overly generous term. It did not boast above six rooms and had been uninhabited for almost, if not quite, as long as he remembered.
“Yes. She lives s’lere with some serving girls, Pearl and Ruby, she brought from London. Very, very refined girls. So I’m afraid we get no gossip. Not even a snifter. Anyway, why are you so s’interested in Lady Armstrong? Do you know her?”
Ten years ago on Christmas Eve, the most stunning, most ethereally beautiful girl he had ever seen had accepted a lift in his coach. She had kissed him. Then disappeared into thin air.
He had never forgotten it. The ice-fire of her lips. Or her. Or the gift she’d somehow slipped into his pocket, while he sprawled there, dazedly thinking if that was heaven, he’d forfeit the rest of his life then.
The Wentworth emeralds.
Now, unless he was completely mistaken, that damned bitch was sitting by the library fire in respectable widow’s weeds, the coral lips parted in pretended conversation with his mother’s fawning ward, Belle.
……………………………………………………. Copyright Etopia Press Shehanne moore
Well, that’s the end of the sneaky peeky. We’ve all seen the cover but here it is again.
As for what happens next……………hmm… Plenty actually.
Only one man in England can identify her. Unfortunately he’s living next door.
Ten years ago sixteen year old Sapphire, the greatest jewel thief England has ever known, ruined Lord Devorlane Hawley’s life. Now she’s dead and buried, all the respectable widow, Cassidy Armstrong, wants is the chance to prove who she really is.
But not only does her new neighbor believe he knows that exactly, he’s hell-bent on revenge. All he needs is the actual proof. So when he asks her to choose between being his mistress, or dangling on the end of a rope, only Sapphire can decide…
What’s left for a woman with nowhere left to go, but to stay exactly where she is?
And hope, that when it comes to neighbors, Devorlane Hawley won’t prove to be the one from hell.