The Marquis of Mooraven yawned behind his hand, and, having gathered up his winnings, rose from the table more than two thousand guineas richer than he’d been when he sat down. He felt no elation, though there was a time when he’d needed every penny he won from his gambling, but that was before his Uncle Tomas obligingly left him his title, estate and fortune. He had several titles to his name, amongst them earl, marquis, twice over, baron and count, but was using his uncle’s for reasons of his own. In time, he might end as a duke by way of his mother’s family being in danger of losing every male heir in the line. The dowager duchess had summoned him only two days before he left for Paris.
‘My husband’s father had the deed of title altered so that if his male heirs failed his daughters might inherit the dukedom as well as the estate. As you know, my only surviving daughter died last year and her infant son is sickly. My three sons have died. That leaves you, Mooraven – my sister-in-law’s grandson. Sorry as I am to say it, if the child dies you will become Duke of Rothmere.’
‘How tiresome for you,’ Mooraven drawled. He had crossed swords with the dowager before, and though he did not dislike her, knew that she disapproved of him with every bone of her body. ‘You must guard him well, ma’am. I advise you to employ the best nannies – and have him seen regularly by a doctor of good repute.’
‘You almost sound sincere.’ The elderly lady fixed him with a hawkish stare. ‘Did I not know you for a rogue and a scoundrel I might believe you had no interest in the Rothmere fortune.’
‘If that is your only concern, you may sleep easily in your bed,’ Mooraven replied, a faint smile on his sensual lips. ‘I may run through my fortune once more if I suffer heavy losses at the table, but I have more sense than to gamble away my entire inheritance. I assure you I wish young William nothing but good fortune.’
‘I am an old woman,’ the dowager said. ‘I may not have long to live. Rothmere has no male relatives to care for him – except you, though you are in truth too far removed. I dare not hope that you would take an interest in his welfare?’
‘Should I hear of your unfortunate demise, which I hope may be some years distant, I would offer my help – such as it is. I should not have thought you would care to have your precious heir subjected to my influence?’
‘Needs must when the devil drives.’ She arched her brows at him. ‘Are all the stories true, Mooraven? I hear that you have ruined virgins, fleeced green youths at the card table and only God knows what else. A little wildness in youth is acceptable, but surely you have sown your oats by now? Where is your pride? You have good blood in your veins. Show a little decency. Marry and settle down before it is too late. If you continue this way no decent woman will have you.’
‘What makes you think it is not already too late?’ A faintly mocking smile played over his lips. ‘Do you not know that they say I have sold my soul to Lucifer?’
‘Do not be ridiculous! I should not believe such tales – but I do believe that you have ruined young women for I knew one of them. Miss Hazelton’s mother was once a friend of my daughter…’
‘Since you know me for the rogue I am, why should I deny it? All you need to concern yourself with, duchess, is that your heir is safe from me – and if need be, I shall be his guardian, if not his mentor.’
‘I thought the girl sly,’ the duchess said, surprising him. ‘I should not be surprised if she lied. Very well, I shall not ask for your confidence. You have given your word and I may rest easy in my mind.’
‘I trust you are not ill, ma’am?’
‘At the moment I am perfectly hale, sir.’
‘Then I may go to Paris with a clear conscience.’
Mooraven had kissed her hand and taken his leave. He sincerely hoped that it would be many years before he was called upon to keep his promise. His work was not yet done. He had an enemy to track down and bring to justice – justice for men foully betrayed. His brow darkened with anger as he thought of the years that he had borne the scorn of men who had once been his friends. They believed him a traitor or at the very least a drunken fool. Though provoked to bitterness and humiliated almost beyond bearing, he had never given them or anyone else a hint of the true story. Until he had found and punished the true traitor he must keep his silence.
Lost in his thoughts, Mooraven did not notice the woman until she knocked into him as she passed. The scent of her perfume alerted his senses and he turned his head to watch her leave the room. She was dressed in black, the most beautiful woman he had seen in an age – a woman who turned all heads.
He’d noticed her briefly earlier in the evening. She had been losing steadily at the tables all night and the glitter in her eyes had prompted him to ask his neighbour who she was.
‘She is the Countess Madeline Dupree,’ the man answered. ‘She was wed to a vile depraved brute who died of some unspeakable illness a few months ago. Until his death she was never seen in company. Now she comes regularly to parties where she can gamble. I lost a thousand francs to her one night. Couldn’t concentrate on my cards when she has such perfect flesh and that gown reveals more of her charms than a man can stand without ravishing her…’
Mooraven had smiled, because the gown dipped daringly to reveal a glimpse of her silken skin and breasts so full and perfect that they must have most of the men in the room lusting after her. A deliberate ploy to make them careless with their cards perhaps – though she seemed to be losing that night.
Why had she knocked into him so heavily? It was almost intentional…a sudden thought made him thrust his hand into his pocket to search for the purse of gold he’d carelessly thrust there when he rose from the tables. His searching fingers found nothing but his kerchief. The gold had gone. She had taken it! For a moment his senses reeled: the countess a thief? Impossible one would think and yet she had lost heavily at the tables.
His gaze narrowed as he went outside, looking for the woman in black. Ahead of him in the dimly lit Paris boulevard he could see her walking swiftly. A burly servant accompanied her but Mooraven’s instincts were alerted. Why had she no carriage? A woman of her breeding and wealth walking the streets with only one servant? He was a tall heavily built man and carried a stout cudgel – but she was still taking a huge risk. The jewels she’d been wearing about her neck had been worth a small fortune – if the diamonds in that collar were genuine, of course. The stones had sparkled enough in the candlelight, which gave him no cause to doubt their worth.
Why would a woman like that leave a card party in the house of a prestigious member of the French aristocracy, to walk home through the streets on foot? It didn’t make sense. He was certain she’d taken his purse and now his hunting instincts were aroused.
He wanted to know more about the mysterious lady in black.
Keeping to the shadows, Mooraven followed the woman and her bodyguard. It seemed that she had not far to go for after walking the length of three streets, the pair stopped outside a large and impressive house. The woman turned to her companion, clearly thanking him for his services. From their gestures, Mooraven thought she was telling him to leave her, but he was hesitating, arguing. After a moment or two he gave in and walked off. The door of the house opened and the woman went in.
Mooraven waited in the shadows until the giant had disappeared. He was about to approach the front door when it opened again and a figure came out. This time it was a youth, who walked swiftly in the same direction the countess’s servant had taken a few minutes earlier.
Mooraven drew back into the shadows, not wanting to be seen by the youth. Once he had disappeared, he approached the house and knocked at the front door. Countess Dupree had some questions to answer.
The knocker sounded eerily, as if the house were empty and now that he looked up at the windows above, he could see there were no lights. It was odd for a house like this would normally be filled with people and the windows would shed light into the street until they were shuttered for the night. He frowned and looked for a side entrance, but tall iron railings prevented entrance to the back of the house. Glancing about him to see if anyone was around, Mooraven then scaled the railings and jumped down into the dark passage at the side of the building. No light was coming from the windows of the house as he felt his way around to the back. A bank of clouds hid the moon and here the little light that came from lamps outside a few of the neighbouring houses was not sufficient to show him where he was going.
For a few minutes he could only feel his way but gradually his eyes became accustomed to the dim light and he could make out shapes sufficiently to find himself at a back entrance to the house, through what was obviously a conservatory.
There was not a single light in the house. Had the countess retired immediately? It was unusual not to leave at least one lantern burning somewhere. By morning the candle might have burned down, but at night there ought to be a few lights throughout the house. What kind of a house was this? Where were all the servants?
Mooraven’s instincts told him that he had stumbled on a mystery. Suddenly, a thought struck him. The youth he’d seen leaving the house – could that possibly have been the countess in disguise?
If she had courage enough to walk through the streets of Paris at night dressed in her finery with only one servant, she might dare to risk walking alone as a youth. While most would think the countess worthy of attention, a slight youth might pass unnoticed.
Why was she leading a double life? Why had she stolen his purse – and where was she going?
Mooraven was thoughtful as he stared up at the house. His business in Paris was already dangerous enough. He was using an assumed name. No one knew who he truly was or what he did and it must stay that way. He ought not to let himself be distracted from the business in hand, but his curiosity was aroused.
He knew he could not just walk away from this situation. He wanted to know more about the countess and what she was doing…