This one is set mainly in London, and I got to research the cluster of bookseller shops and stalls that clustered around the bottom of Ludgate Hill, Paternoster Row, and around St. Paul's.
In the mid-eighteenth century, if you wanted to buy a book, that was where you went. Or you sent your servant, of course! These days the area is under yet another development, but for most of the twentieth century it was a bleak place that attracted every gust of wind going.
But back then, some cheeky traders even used the walls of the newly built St. Paul's Cathedral as support for their stalls! Print shops depicted the scandals of the day in graphic detail, and this is the area my heroine, Drusilla Shaw, is drawn to.
Oliver is bewildered by his new wife and her blasted book. Worst of all, how can he love a woman he no longer trusts? But when it becomes obvious that someone is taking their cues from the book in a series of attacks, he has no choice but to stick close to her. Their explosive connection in bed should take care of the heir-making, but for that to happen, Drusilla has to stay alive—and so does Oliver.
So here's an bit from the first chapter.
“Just look at him,” Livia murmured.
“Who?” Dru peered around the magnificent room.
“Mmm?” Not wanting to appear anxious and doing her best to forget the brief but memorable encounter, Dru shrugged. “Is he upsetting people?”
“No, he’s dancing nonstop. Paying attention to all the young ladies. The unmarried ones, anyway.”
Dru caught sight of the duke whirling a girl in pink around until she breathlessly laughed into his face. “She wants him to take her into supper. Or more likely, out into the garden for some air. Our sainted aunt ensures all parts of the garden are well lit. She’ll have to work hard to find a dim spot.”
Livia laughed. “But I’ll wager you could discover one.”
Dru shrugged. “I’ve visited this house many times. You could find a secluded spot too. Don’t even pretend you could not.”
She won another laugh for that. But Livia had drawn her attention to the one person she had wanted to ignore, and now she could not look away.
The vigorous country dance left the participants tousled and out of breath. All, that was, except the duke, who bowed calmly to his partner and took her back to her parents. After exchanging a few words with them, he moved on, leaving the girl staring after him wide-eyed. Until her mother delivered a sharp jab to her ribs. Now back with her parents, the girl seemed even younger than when she was on the floor. She was, Dru noted, possessed of a particularly fine bosom. Unlike herself. It took clever lacing to give her the cleavage she was sporting tonight. Another reason Dru tolerated Forde’s behavior. The woman could tight-lace so well, she could force breasts up where there were none.
But on the one cavorting around the floor with yet another schoolroom miss? From their brief contact, she knew how little of his appearance owed to clever padding. His chest had not given way, not a bit of it. His arms, while clad in blue twilled silk, had revealed nothing but firm, well-exercised muscle.
She shivered. What could a man do with all that power? Men often made the mistaken assumption that women were innocent merely because they had little practical experience. Dru read a lot, and not all the books would have been approved by her mother. Had she known her daughter had read the full version of Fanny Hill, for example, she might have tried to regulate every book her daughter read. “Tried to” being the important words.
She knew what men and women did in the bedroom. She had even anticipated it with some eagerness, but these days, she’d stopped torturing herself and tried not to think about it. She cursed Mountsorrel for bringing that feeling back to her.
He appeared not to notice her at all. Once, when he was stripping the willow, separating from his partner to skip down the outside of the central column of dancers, he glanced up and caught her staring. Dru flipped her fan open and lifted it to cool her heated cheeks, lowering her eyelids in an expression of icy disdain.
She must stop looking at him. He danced with one young woman after another. He was hunting for a bride.
Dru curled her lip and turned away. The set was coming to a close. She had no desire to see another young woman make a fool of herself over this man. “When are they serving supper?” she asked Livia. “I swear I am famished.” Flicking her fan before her face, she turned abruptly, with the aim of heading to the back of the room. Only to almost collide with her aunt, the hostess of this benighted ball.
Dru sank into her accustomed curtsy. She had of course made her obeisance on arrival, but her aunt enjoyed the attention, and it cost her nothing to give it again.
“Drusilla, is it not?” the duchess said.
Dru concentrated on lifting her head at exactly the perfect angle as she rose, but to no avail. Her stumble nearly overbalanced her completely. For standing next to the duchess was the duke. The Duke of Mountsorrel, not her aunt’s husband. She regained her equilibrium, hopping from one foot to the other, making her hoops wobble, feeling like a complete beginner. Anyone meeting her would imagine she had been dragged up by careless servants, not nurtured by loving parents to become the best person she could be.
Perhaps that was as well. After all, she didn’t wish to become further acquainted with his grace. Did she? She gave a tiny shake of her head. She should not indulge herself. He had no interest in any woman over twenty. That was for sure. If he danced with her, it would be a pity dance.
Heedless of anything but her own interests, the duchess plowed on, making the formal introduction. At least she could curtsy properly this time, but she did not make it as low. When she lifted her head she met his dark gaze directly. Let him be the first to look away.
He bowed over her hand. At his touch, skin to skin, she had to fight to repress her shudder. Only one word described the way she felt—recognition. Of what, she did not know. Nor did she care to find out.
Unfortunately, he stared back. A smile curved his lips. Had he noticed her reaction? He behaved as if he did, as if they shared a private joke. She refused to give in, absolutely refused to. “Lady Drusilla, I’m delighted to meet you…formally. May I request the honor of your company for the next dance?”
She could hardly say no. That would entail more touching, but she couldn’t help that. At least she knew what contact with him meant. The sensation would wear off in time. She absolutely knew it. Gazing at him, she caught sight of a defect. A thin white scar cut across his lower jaw, leaving a clean line where the incipient stubble of his beard should be. Another smaller scar bisected his left eyebrow. Not noticeable at first, but once seen, never forgotten. The upper scar gave him a devilish look, as if he were perpetually quirking his brow. Her imagination went off on its own happy journey, as it often did.
When he led her on the dance floor, she was careful to keep her hand on his sleeve, needing all the armor she could find. The duchess had employed an eight-piece orchestra. They made an unholy amount of noise. That meant she did not have to converse. Except that he led her to the far end of the large room, away from the musicians. And to make matters worse, they were to dance a minuet. Partners did not change in this dance that required elegance and confidence for its effect. Neither of which she had right at this moment.
But she wasn’t a marquess’s daughter for nothing. Steeling her spine and schooling her face into immobility, she prepared for her ordeal. Unfortunately, immediately after she rose from her initial curtsy, she said, “You are very kind, spending time with the old maids.”
He tilted his head to one side and offered his hand to help her up and display her as she paraded around him. “I have not seen any yet.”
“Truly? Allow me to take you over to meet them.”
“That, my lady, would not be proper. A single lady should not put herself forward, you know.”
Was he goading her? Undoubtedly. Sadly, the slow simmer of annoyance burned her stomach and made itself known to her fevered mind. “I am sure my aunt would be delighted to introduce you. My sister and cousin are over there with the others. We have quite a society underway.”
“Interesting. What do you talk about?” As she moved past him, her powdered hair grazed his mouth. “Eligible gentlemen? The latest fashions? Or patterns for knitted stockings?” He pointedly fixed his gaze on her sleeve. “Or how to get ink stains out of lace.”
She pulled in a breath, trying very hard to control her outrage. She absolutely refused to rise to his bait. Except that she did. “The abolition of slavery and the utter ignorance of some menfolk.”
His laugh told her she’d hit a mark. “Touché, Lady Drusilla. I stand corrected. Such women can change the world, can they not?”
“Indeed. And they are often possessors of the best family secrets. Together, we probably know every dirty little secret the highest in society are doing their best to conceal. We know how to keep secrets, too.”
She danced a perfect round and lifted her chin.
His silence came as a surprise. Tension ratcheted up between them. Dru could hardly hear the music over the thudding of her heart. What had she said? “There is no obligation to share your secret with me, sir. I fear, however, that I will probably know it shortly. I can hardly help it. Let me speculate.” She couldn’t stop. Considering the angry stares he shot at her, she should be dead of shock and awe, but Dru had never given in. She decided on a few light sallies until he regained his temper. “Perhaps you have a secret sister, or your parents were never married officially. Or you keep a killer locked up in the attic of your remote house in Scotland.” She didn’t even know if he had a remote house in Scotland, but it sounded good. She had taken to reading Gothic romances recently, like the one written by Horace Walpole. Ridiculous things happened, enough to tickle her fancy and far removed from the world she lived in. Walpole poked fun at the stories while he dived in, and that appealed to Dru’s sense of the ridiculous. She recalled the plot of the story she was working on. “Or maybe you are sheltering a secret heir, one who is so oppressed he dare not think for himself. He is kept hidden from society—”
Releasing her hand—positively throwing it at her—the Duke of Mountsorrel turned his back on her and strode away, leaving her stranded in the middle of the floor.
Rigid with shock, Dru stared after him. He didn’t look back. Not that she expected him to, because she’d caught the expression on his face before he left. He was incandescent with fury. His eyes had flashed wide open before his mouth thinned into a hard line and the creases at the sides deepened. He’d spun on one heel, executing a perfect turn. She admired it even as she went hot and cold, the chill running down her spine turning her into ice.
And still the orchestra played the minuet.
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