Excerpt: Invitation to Scandal
Deal, Kent, England, June 1809
The things I’m prepared to do for my country, Rufus Knight, Viscount Strathmore, thought wryly. Thank God his plan was working. He’d laid his trap and the weasels were taking the bait.
He’d been aware of the two men the instant they’d entered his room, even though his head was buried between the serving wench’s slender thighs. Normally he preferred to take his pleasure without an audience, but tonight he welcomed the intrusion—had planned on the intrusion …
“Rufus—please … Lord Strathmore, yes, oh, God, yes …”
If Lucy’s moans were anything to go by, he was performing more than adequately for the inebriated gentleman he was portraying.
Perhaps too well.
Thankfully the thieves were overly bold.
The open window in the tavern’s bedchamber allowed no ventilation on this humid, still night. The scent of sex and cheap perfume clung to the air, adding to his body’s thrumming tension. With grim determination he suppressed his burgeoning arousal at the woman’s near orgasmic cries. He was grateful that her breathy entreaties were not loud enough to blanket the soft thud of clumsy tiptoeing feet. He knew the exact location of the men searching his room.
Pushing desire aside, Rufus concentrated on his performance while keeping an eye on the rummaging thieves. He knew he’d have to act soon. He hated to leave a woman unsatisfied, but he looked forward to a lengthy, all night apology afterward.
He’d picked this inn, not just because of Lucy’s obvious charms, there was only so much he’d do for his country; the lass at least had to be pretty. He’d picked the tavern because it was located next to the Deal docks. The Bosun’s Inn was full of undesirables—cutthroats, ruffians, and drunkards. Just the sort of men Rufus sought.
One of the men moved closer to the bed. The taste of woman and the edge of danger fed his tension. Patience. Don’t act too soon.
One of these brigands, currently rifling through Rufus’s belongings, was going to provide him with the intelligence he sought. In his line of work it paid to find leverage. A thief would often squeal when faced with a choice between freedom and transportation to the colonies.
He’d set up this intimate scene to perfection.
As with most of his adult life it was all an act.
Tonight’s role was not about a man sating his lust between a pair of willing thighs. Enjoyable as that would be, and indeed, it was something he intended to do with lovely Lucy before the night was over, it was about gaining much needed information. One of these thieves was going to provide it.
He lunged for the nearest man, whom he noted with heart sinking was the largest. Luckily, the man’s hand was deep within the pocket of Rufus’s discarded trousers. Rufus’s punch landed squarely under the man’s jaw, snapping his head back. Before the man could even shake his hand free, he went down like a shot grizzly bear.
Heedless of his nakedness, Rufus turned toward the second man. He wasn’t quick enough. Two muscle-bound arms wrapped around his bare torso from behind.
A kick of adrenaline gave him the strength he needed. He still held the advantage. His nakedness meant the robber had nothing to hold on to, whereas Rufus was able to wrench free of his assailant’s hold, grab the man’s shirt, and fling him over his shoulder. He watched with satisfaction as the thief slammed to the floor, flat on his back, winded.
Before he could move, Rufus placed a bare foot firmly on the robber’s neck. He ruthlessly repressed his excitement. The capture of an informant was only the beginning …
“Lucy, my dear. Would you be a love and bring me my right boot?”
The buxom redhead eased from the bed. Conscious of her own beauty, she swayed provocatively toward his Hessians, and both Rufus and the man on the floor followed the beauty with their eyes.
As she handed him his boot, he gave her a wicked smile and patted her bottom. “Thank you, sweetheart. If you’d like to wait on the bed for me I won’t be but a minute.”
Ensuring his weight was still on his captive’s neck, Rufus slipped his hand inside his perfectly polished Hessian and withdrew his dagger. At the sight, the man at his feet began to whimper.
He applied more pressure, until the man’s eyes began to pop from their sockets and his hands clawed at Rufus’s bare feet.
Rufus calmly stated, all hint of drunkenness vanishing from his posture, “You and I are going to have a pleasant little chat. A chat about the smuggler known as Dark Shadow.”
The man’s eyes widened in alarm. He knew the name. Every villager in Deal knew the name. The minute “Dark Shadow” was mentioned, the townspeople clammed up as if the grim reaper would strike them down.
Rufus waved the knife even closer and applied more pressure for good measure, his eyes gleaming with threat. The man started to shake.
The vermin beneath his foot should be afraid. Rufus had sacrificed most of his life in the pursuit of only one thing: to reclaim his family’s honor. Sensing how close he was to achieving his goal, nothing and no one would stand between him and the truth about his father.
Over the years he had risked his life for his country countless times, driven by the need to prove to the world he should not have to bear his father’s sins.
Rufus was nothing like his sire.
The Foreign Secretary, Lord Ashford, thought Rufus took risks for God and country. That was partly true. But more important he did it to bury the stench of disgrace that had been his father, and to block from his mind the guilt eating him from the inside. He should have accompanied his father to Hastingleigh all those years ago and stopped him from betraying his country.
Now he had the opportunity to lay the past to rest. Dark Shadow would lead him to England’s most prolific and deadly French spy. A spy who’d stolen British secrets and, if not caught, would prolong this war for several years.
Rufus, however, wanted more. He prayed the spy could tell him about his father. About his father’s rumored betrayal of his own class, if not people—the French Aristocracy. Rumors Rufus longed to prove false.
Only then would he be free.
Watching his prey squirming below him, Rufus kept all his senses attuned. The man’s accomplice still lay unconscious, and Rufus’s comely bedmate sat naked and unsatisfied on the bed, clutching the sheet to her bosom.
Rufus bent down until his head stopped mere inches from the crook’s face. “I think it only fair to tell you I’m an evil man. A part of me hopes you won’t talk so I can put this dagger to good use.” Rufus slid the cold steel down the man’s front, stopping at his groin. “With women like pretty Lucy in this world it would be a shame to unman you.”
The man’s mouth opened and closed like a dying fish. Rufus eased the pressure on his throat so he could at least talk.
“What do you want?” his captive croaked.
Rufus hid his smile of triumph. “Thieves stick together. I want all that you know about the infamous smuggler, Dark Shadow. Preferably where he’s based and”—he dug the point of his dagger into the man’s groin—”who he is.”
Fear quavered in the thief ‘s voice. “No one’s ever seen him. The men of Deal have no idea who Dark Shadow is. Most think he’s not from around here, while others think he’s one of you lot—a nob fallen on hard times.”
He pressed his foot down harder. “You expect me to believe he might be local gentry?”
“Believe what you will. No one wants to know,” the man choked out in a hoarse voice. “They’re scared to know too much.”
Rufus pressed the tip of his dagger through the layer of clothes to bare skin. “Oh, come, surely someone has seen him. Someone must want to collect the bounty on his head. I’ll even double it.”
In his previous dealings with thieves and cutthroats, most informants’ tongues loosened with the added incentive of money. Yet the man looked more frightened instead of interested.
“There ain’t no way I’d tell you anything even if I knew somethin’. I’d be dead before I could spend it. The villagers think Dark Shadow’s a modern-day Robin Hood. They’d harm anyone who thought to inform on him. They want his coin. Most of what Dark Shadow makes goes back to the village. God bless him, he gives to the elderly, the widows, orphans, and children.”
“He gives the money away?” Rufus asked dubiously.
Lucy sat up, clutching the sheet to her ample bosom. “Aye, my lord, he does. He sent me mother ten pounds to look after me brother, little Jack, so that Jack wouldn’t be forced to work as a cabin boy on one of them ships. He slips her something almost every month.”
Rufus straightened and ran a hand through his hair. He needed time to think. He found it hard to believe that a smuggler who took care of women and children would knowingly harbor England’s most notorious spy. This put a different slant on how he should proceed. Dark Shadow could be useful. Perhaps having him arrested was not the best plan. He lifted his foot off the man’s throat. “We’re done—for now.”
The man on the floor gingerly sat up. “He doesn’t even run his ships from one particular cove. It’s a different place every time. The Revenuers almost captured him once, but he disappeared like a ghost racing the dawn. That’s how he got his name.”
Rufus knew how easy it was to be a ghost. Men of his standing, men with money, found it easy to disappear. Perhaps Dark Shadow was a nobleman down on his luck. If so, he’d be easy to find. He knew this from experience. No matter how hard you tried, past sins always found you.
Twelve years ago, at the age of twenty, upon his father’s death, Rufus and his family were ostracized. Faced with Society’s scorn, he’d had no alternative but to try to regain the family’s honor and position in Society. Especially if his mother and sister were to survive. Pride was a luxury he and his family could not afford.
He’d learned to push aside his own identity and portray a character the ton wanted to see. An honorable man trying desperately to atone for his sire’s shortfalls. A man prepared to demonstrate the correct penance in order to earn Society’s forgiveness.
He was sick of trying to earn their respect.
Self-loathing pulsed through him, and despair. He was afraid if he didn’t ascertain the truth, and soon, there would be no honor left to restore.
For the past twelve years he’d worked tirelessly chasing a phantom. Chasing the truth about his father. The father he could have sworn would die on his sword before dishonor.
The father he obviously hadn’t known.
At twenty, Rufus had ceased his life of aimless leisure and gentlemanly comfort to ferret out the fact from fiction. Most nights he prayed he’d like what he found. Each time he thought he’d glimpsed a facet of truth, it vanished like the mist when the sun rose. So he continued to play his part, the part of a nobleman, even though he was deemed a tainted one.
A nobleman no one wanted. Due to his father’s fall from grace, he became an embarrassment. He drifted in and out of Society like a bad smell. A person of note, a person to be put up with, but not one you would openly welcome and acknowledge for fear of retribution.
He inwardly chuckled in self-mocking amusement. He was not worthy of knowing.
He was a man who ruthlessly pursued his goal without heed to others. A man who knew the rules of gentlemanly conduct and ignored them as it suited. He was a man who fought to restore his family’s honor, while conveniently forgetting, when it suited, what the word meant.
Perhaps he was exactly like his father. The thought pushed stinking fear into every pore.
He pulled the man to his feet. “Off with you. Take your friend with you when you leave.” Rufus went to his coat and withdrew some coins. “Apologize to him for the jaw. I hope it’s not broken. Here’s something for your trouble. If you do hear anything, anything at all, you’ll let me know.” His voice indicated it wasn’t a question but a command. “I will be staying with Lord Hale. Do you know where his estate lies?”
The man nodded. “Aye. I know where Hastingleigh is, my lord.”
Still pondering the new information, Rufus watched, mind whirling with this newfound intelligence, as the man dragged his partner out the door. He’d get no more out of them. Dark Shadow was not all he seemed, and that worried Rufus. He didn’t like the fact that a supposedly deadly, dangerous smuggler helped people. Something about this situation was monstrously wrong.
Of all the damnable luck. Robin Hood. Rufus arrogantly thought spreading some coin around would loosen the Dealites’ tongues. Now he didn’t know how to proceed, and time was running out. At the end of summer the spy would be gone. The winter storms made sending messages through smugglers too risky. They took too many chances in order not to be caught, and the loss of a ship meant the loss of intelligence. His spy would have to find other, more traditional ways to send Napoleon his traitorous communiqués.
He rubbed the back of his neck, trying to ease the tension. He was close. So close.
Perhaps his friend Christopher Canthorpe, the Earl of Hale, would be able to furnish him with the names of the local gentry fallen on desperate times. History showed that many noble families of Kent resorted to smuggling when the need arose. It was a good lead. As good a place to start as any.
What reason could he give Christopher for needing this information? Christopher was not particularly astute; one could almost call him simple. Perhaps, Rufus thought, he could suggest he was looking for an estate in the area and would start with those who may need to sell. Yes. That was it.
Besides, he could always say he would like to be closer to the Hales. He hoped Christopher would ask for his sister’s hand in marriage. Madeline’s prospects were limited by their sire’s sin, but the Hales had always stood by them because their mothers had been firm friends, and still were.
Christopher was nearing forty, and being a bit of a bumbling idiot, was also not so in demand. His title and wealth drew some interest, but his tendency to spend most of his days at Hastingleigh, his portly figure, and lack of intelligence did not raise him to prominence with the mammas of the ton.
Madeline would not be happy with his choice of husband, but she was only eighteen and there was no rush to send her to the altar. Lord Hale was a safe choice. She would be protected by Hale’s name and standing in Society. Once she married it would be one less thing for him to worry about.
Rufus stooped to right the chair that had fallen during the scuffle. He’d have to talk with Stephen Milton, Marquis of Worthington, his co-spy master, in the morning and regroup. He was too close to capturing the spy and finding out the truth about his father to let a supposedly saintly smuggler get in the way. He knew he could do nothing more tonight.
Just then Lucy moved, stretching like a sleek cat on the bed. The sheet slipped to lie at her waist, exposing her bountiful breasts. He could do nothing more about Dark Shadow, so he approached the bed with his thoughts at the moment on more carnal delights. With a rakish grin, he faced the woman now sitting up naked in his bed.
She gave him a “come and take me smile.”
He feasted on the sight and felt his body stirring once more, and this time he didn’t try to stop it. No point wasting the rest of the night, he thought, walking the short distance to lock the door, thus ensuring there would be no further interruptions.
Turning back toward Lucy, Rufus suppressed a shiver of need, hoping her body would help him forget how trapped in this life of intrigue he really was. With cool precision he inwardly calmed the rutting beast.
He reined in his cravings and crawled up onto the bed. Rolling Lucy onto her front, he said, “Come, my beauty. Now that my business has concluded I feel a tad amorous.”