Authors: TERESA MEDEIROS
For Elizabeth Bevarly, Connie Brockway, Christina Dodd, Eloisa James, Lisa Kleypas and all of my other dear friends at www.squawkradio.com for giving me a reason to smile every single day.
For Doris Knight, Joann Ashby and Pat Dougherty—my beloved trio of aunties. I thank God every day for giving me such incredible women to learn from and love.
And for my Michael. A lifetime will never be long enough to love you.
It was a lovely night to die.
It was a lovely day to die.
“Have you completely lost your wits?”
He hadn’t recognized her.
Portia felt the blood drain from her face. “So it’s…
“What do I have to do to keep you safe…
Tendrils of mist rose from the damp cobblestones. Earlier in…
Although her mouth continued to hang open, Portia couldn’t have…
Julian had faced enemies of all sorts in his life—bloodthirsty…
Portia lingered in her bedchamber until well after noon that…
Portia blinked down at him, the mist in her eyes…
Julian walked the bustling London streets as if he owned…
Portia stood in the entrance hall of the mansion the…
“Bloody hell,” Julian breathed as Valentine came sweeping down the…
Portia opened her eyes to find a heavenly choir of…
Julian gripped the arms of the chair, every muscle in…
“Well, that was certainly tolerable,” Portia murmured a short while…
Gray clouds of ash and cinders drifted through the air,…
Cuthbert nestled deeper into his bed, sighing with contentment. With…
Portia frantically searched her niece’s face beneath its tumbled cap…
Portia slowly turned to find Julian standing just inside the…
The women were weeping.
It was a lovely night to die.
As twilight waned, plump feathers of snow began to drift down from the starless sky. Soon everything that was coarse and ugly and dirty about the teeming streets of Whitechapel was buried beneath a downy blanket of white. The flakes danced and swirled around the streetlamps, reducing their glow to a hazy halo.
Jenny O’Flaherty drew her shawl up over her fine, black hair, ducked her head, and quickened her steps. The snow’s dazzling beauty
didn’t stop the wind from biting through her threadbare shawl with icy teeth. She had never been more eager to reach the dreary flat she shared with three other girls. Soon she would be hunkered down in front of her own hearth with a bowl of porridge to warm both her hands and her belly.
As a sneering footman elbowed her off the walk so his lady could sweep past, Jenny cast the woman’s elegant kid gloves a longing glance. Working fifteen hours a day as a seamstress left her fingertips stinging and raw. On nights like this, they sometimes cracked and bled, leaving her to cry herself to sleep.
She lifted her chin, refusing to feel sorry for herself. Her dear old mother, God rest her soul, had always encouraged her to count her blessings. No gentleman was ever going to hire an uneducated Irish lass to teach his children or serve as a companion to his wife, but at least she hadn’t had to take to the streets like so many girls who had come off that same boat from Dublin three years ago. The thought of selling her body to every man with a bone in his pants and two shillings to rub together chilled her to the soul.
As she approached the darkened mouth of the next alley, her steps slowed. By cutting through the winding lane, she could shave nearly three blocks from her journey. She wouldn’t normally take such a risk, but surely there would be no one to accost her on such a bitterly cold night. She had no purse for a thief to cut, and with her shoulders hunched against the wind and her shawl drawn up to hide her rosy cheeks, any man intent upon mischief could easily mistake her for a toothless crone.
Thinking yearningly of the crackling fire and steaming bowl of porridge that awaited her at the end of her journey, she cast one last look at the bustling throngs behind her, then ducked into the alley.
She hurried through the shifting shadows, growing more uneasy with each step. The wind swooped through the tunnel created by the ramshackle buildings that loomed over her on either side, moaning like a betrayed lover. She stole a look over her shoulder, already beginning to wish she’d stayed on the congested streets and walked the extra blocks to her flat. Although the snow that had blown into the alley was unmarked by any prints but hers, she
would have almost sworn she heard a muffled footfall behind her.
Determined to reach the end of the alley before she had true cause to regret her decision, she broke into a trot. She was almost to the mouth of the alley when the toe of her boot caught on a jutting cobblestone, sending her sprawling to her hands and knees.
A shadow fell over her. She slowly lifted her head, terrified of what she might find. But her gasp of shock was quickly swallowed by a sob of relief. No cutpurse would be arrayed in such handsome finery.
As the stranger looming over her gently cupped her elbow and lifted her to her feet, she found herself gazing up into a pair of eyes that almost seemed to glow in the dim light.
“You poor lamb,” her rescuer crooned. “You took quite a nasty tumble. Do you have a name, child?”
“Jenny,” she whispered, mesmerized by those extraordinary eyes. “My name is Jenny.”
The stranger smiled, obviously detecting the telltale lilt in her speech. “’Tis a bonny name for a bonny lass.” The smile faded. “Why look at that! Your hands are bleeding!”
Jenny curled her fingers into her torn palms, suddenly embarrassed by the roughness of her skin and her grubby fingernails. “It’s nothing really. Just a scratch.”
“Why don’t you let me have a look at them?”
Although she tried to resist, the stranger’s grip was surprisingly strong. Before she knew it, one of her palms was exposed to that glowing gaze. She thought she might be offered a clean handkerchief to bind the wound. But to her keen shock, the stranger bent back her fingers and began to lap at the fresh droplets of blood with a greedy tongue.
Trembling with horror, Jenny snatched back her hand and wheeled around to run, already beginning to suspect that there would be no cozy fire or bowl of porridge in her future. Before she could take two steps, the stranger had seized her in a merciless grip. She flailed and kicked, her hands curled into desperate claws, but her strength was no match for her assailant’s.
“Good night, sweet Jenny,” whispered the singsong voice in her ear just before everything went red, then black.
It was a lovely day to die.
Feathers of snow drifted out of the dawn sky, blanketing the park meadow in white. It wasn’t difficult for Julian Kane to imagine how that pristine counterpane would look spattered with his blood.
His shout of laughter profaned the hush of the falling flakes. “What say you, Cubby, my man? Shall we sing a few rousing choruses of ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ to spur us onward to glory?” He stumbled as a contrary hillock snagged his foot, forcing him to drape his arm even more heavily over the ample shoulders of his friend.
Perhaps ‘Blow the Man Down’ would be more fitting.”
Cuthbert listed to the right, struggling to balance both Julian and the mahogany box tucked beneath his free arm. “I’d rather not, Jules. My head is aching something fierce. I can’t believe I let you talk me into this. What sort of second allows his first to stay out all night getting foxed before a duel? You should have let me put you on that ferry back to the Continent while there was still time.”
Julian wagged a chiding finger at him. “Don’t scold. If I’d have wanted a nag, I’d have married one.”
Cuthbert gave a doleful snort. “If you’d have had the good sense to fall in love and marry some unfortunate chit, Wallingford wouldn’t have caught you nuzzling his fiancée’s ear at their betrothal supper and I’d be tucked in my cozy bed right now, dreaming about opera dancers and toasting my feet on a warm brick.”
“You insult me, Cubby! I never met a woman I didn’t love.”
“On the contrary, you love every woman you meet. There is a distinction, however subtle.” Cuthbert grunted as his friend trod upon the
side of his foot. He had imbibed nearly as many bottles of cheap port as Julian had, but at least he could still stand without assistance. For now.
“Shhhhhhh!” His friend’s exaggerated plea for silence startled a flock of starlings from the branches of a nearby alder. Julian pointed one elegant gloved finger. “There they are now, lurking beneath that copse of firs.”
From what Cuthbert could ascertain, the gentlemen waiting beside the crested town coach on the far side of the meadow were making no attempt to lurk. Miles Devonforth, the marquess of Wallingford, was pacing a shallow trench in the snow. His tautly controlled strides never varied, not even when he jerked his watch from its fob pocket to glower at its face. A trio of companions hovered behind him—two gentlemen in voluminous box coats and a dour figure garbed all in black. Probably some disreputable surgeon who dabbled in undertaking, Cuthbert thought grimly, summoned to treat the loser of this illegal contest.
Or to measure him for his coffin.
A shiver of dread coursed down his spine. He raked a sandy lock of hair out of his hazel eyes
and tugged Julian to a halt, his desperation mounting. “Beg off, Jules. It’s not too late. What are they going to do? Run us down in their carriage and shoot you in the back? Why, I’ll even go back to the Continent with you! We’ll sail the Rhine and climb the Carpathians and conquer Rome. My father will forgive me in time. He’s already cut off my allowance because I bought that diamond brooch for that delicious little actress you introduced me to in Florence. What more can he do? I know my father. He’ll never disinherit his only son.”
Julian stifled his blathering with a reproachful look. “Bite your tongue, Cubby. Surely you’re not suggesting that I prove myself to be that most despised of all creatures—a man without honor.”
Beneath the sable fringe of his lashes, Julian’s soulful dark eyes fixed him with a gaze rife with wounded pride and wry self-mockery. Most women found the combination irresistible. Cuthbert was equally devastated.
Who was he to deny his friend this moment? He was only the slow-witted son of a crotchety old earl, destined to inherit a title and fortune he hadn’t earned and die of comfortable old age
in his bed. He wouldn’t even have survived his Grand Tour if Julian hadn’t rescued him from the clutches of a furious creditor at their very first meeting in a moonlit alley in Florence. Julian was a war hero, knighted by the Crown after he and his regiment had defeated sixty-thousand bloodthirsty Burmese soldiers on the outskirts of Rangoon a little over a year ago. This was hardly the first time he had faced his own mortality with such effortless grace.
Cuthbert groaned his defeat.
Julian gave his shoulder a consoling pat, then sought to drag himself erect. “Unhand me, Cubby, my man. I’m determined to march forward and meet the enemy on my own two feet.” Shaking his shoulder-length mane of dark hair out of his eyes, he called out, “Devonforth!”
The marquess and his somber party turned as one. Julian had just added injury to insult by addressing the nobleman by his surname instead of his title. Cuthbert fancied he could hear the hiss of the marquess’s indrawn breath, but perhaps it was only the bitter January wind rushing past his frozen ears.
Struggling valiantly against the billowing snow, Julian marched forward to bisect Walling
ford’s path. Cuthbert hugged the wooden box to his chest, a twinge of pride piercing his anxiety as Julian paused at the crest of a knoll to throw back his broad shoulders. He might have been preparing to brave the blinding wind and torrential rains of Burma’s monsoon season. No one would have guessed he’d resigned his military commission right after the battle for Rangoon and had spent the past year and a half drinking and gambling his way across Europe.
Cuthbert’s pride changed to alarm as the adjustment in Julian’s bearing caused him to topple slowly backward, like a felled oak. Dropping the box, Cuthbert scrambled forward to catch him beneath the armpits before he could sprawl full-length in the snow.
Julian righted himself, chuckling beneath his breath. “Had I known the wind was so gusty, I’d not have unfurled my sails.”
“Christ, Kane, you reek of spirits!”
Cuthbert looked up to find the marquess sneering down his long, equine nose at them.
Julian’s lips quirked in an angelic smile. “Are you certain it’s not your fiancée’s perfume?”
Wallingford’s face darkened to a dangerous hue. “Miss Englewood is no longer my fiancée.”
Julian turned his smile on Cuthbert. “Remind me to call on the young lady this evening to offer her my heartfelt congratulations.”
“I doubt you’ll have the chance. She’ll probably be offering your friend here her condolences.” Wallingford pulled off his kid gloves and slapped them against his palm, much as he had slapped them across Julian’s cheek at the supper the night before. “Let’s get on with this, shall we? You’ve already wasted quite enough of my valuable time.”
Cuthbert stuttered a protest, but Julian interrupted. “I do believe the gentleman is right. I’ve wasted quite enough of everyone’s time.”
Robbed of the opportunity for further argument, Cuthbert retrieved the box and fumbled with its clasp. The lid sprang open to reveal a gleaming pair of dueling pistols. As he reached for one of the weapons, his hand began to shake with a palsy that had nothing to do with the cold.
Julian cupped a hand over his to steady it and said softly, “There’s no need. I checked them myself.”
“But I’m supposed to check the charge. As your second, it’s my duty to…”
Julian shook his head and gently pried the gun from his grasp. As their gazes met, Cuthbert caught an elusive glimpse of something odd in his friend’s eyes—a bleak resignation that made a lump of premature sorrow swell in his own throat. But Julian banished it with one of his devilish winks before Cuthbert could convince himself it wasn’t simply an illusion caused by too much liquor and too little sleep.
Terse details cluttered Cuthbert’s mind as they argued the rules of the contest with Wallingford and his second. The two combatants were to start out back to back before each took ten paces. Their pistols were to be held muzzles up, pointed at the sky, and only a single volley was to be allowed. Cuthbert eyed the gaunt specter of Wallingford’s undertaker. Considering how deep in his cups Julian was, a second volley shouldn’t be necessary.
Too soon, Julian and the lankier Wallingford had taken their positions, standing back to back like a pair of mismatched bookends.
“Gentlemen, are you ready?” called out the neutral party provided by the marquess. When they both nodded, he began to count. “One…two…three…”
Cuthbert wanted to wail a protest, to hurl himself between the two men. But honor demanded that he remain frozen into place by the icy wind whipping out of the north.
Knowing himself to be the basest of cowards and an abominable second, yet unable to watch his friend die, Cuthbert squeezed his eyes shut.
A pistol blast shattered the meadow’s tranquillity. Cuthbert’s nose twitched at the caustic stench of gunpowder. He slowly opened his eyes to find his worst fears realized.
Julian lay sprawled in the snow while Wallingford stood forty feet away, a smoking pistol in his hand. His face bore such a smirk of grim satisfaction that the good-natured Cuthbert felt a wave of murderous rage roll through his own veins.
As he dragged his gaze back to his friend’s motionless form, icy flecks of snow stung his eyes. Bowing his head, he reached up with a trembling hand to draw off his hat.
The sullen oath, bitten off in such familiar tones, jerked Cuthbert’s head upright. Disbelief
coursed through his veins, sobering him more thoroughly than a blast of arctic air.
As Julian sat up, blinking snow from his lashes, Wallingford’s nasty smile faded. Cuthbert whooped with joy and stumbled to his friend’s side, dropping to his knees in the snow. Julian’s pistol was sprawled a foot away from his hand. Apparently, he hadn’t even managed to get a shot off. Cuthbert shook his head, marveling at his friend’s astonishing good fortune.
“I don’t understand,” the marquess spat. “I would have sworn my aim was true.”
The man’s second frowned, looking equally bewildered. “Perhaps it was a misfire, my lord, or perhaps he lost his footing in the moment before you fired.”
Wallingford stalked over to glare down at them, his aristocratic upper lip curled in a snarl. His second peered nervously over his shoulder, plainly fearing he would somehow be blamed for this debacle.
Julian’s lips curved in a sheepish smile. “Sorry, mates. I’ve always held my women better than I hold my port.”
Cuthbert’s blood froze anew as Wallingford
snatched his remaining pistol from his second and pointed it straight at Julian’s heart. Julian surveyed him with lazy amusement, refusing to yield so much as a flinch for his enemy’s gratification. Cuthbert knew instinctively that if Julian betrayed a hint of fear, if he uttered a single plea for mercy, Wallingford would shoot them both without a qualm, and bribe the undertaker to say that Cuthbert had pulled a weapon on him after the marquess had killed his friend.
Wallingford slowly lowered the weapon; Cuthbert heaved a sigh of relief.
The marquess’s velvety voice crackled with contempt. “You’ll wish you were dead by the time I’m through with you, you scurrilous bastard. Assuming you wouldn’t even bother to make an appearance this morning, I took the liberty of buying off all of your gambling vowels.” He drew a sheaf of IOUs three inches thick from his waistcoat pocket and leaned down to rattle them in front of Julian’s nose. “I own you, Kane. Body
Julian’s chuckle swelled into a full-fledged laugh. “I’m afraid you’re too late. The devil beat you to that particular vowel a long time ago.”
His mirth only enraged the marquess further. “Then I can only pray he comes to collect very soon because I’d like nothing more than to see you spend eternity rotting in hell!”
Wallingford spun on his heel and marched toward the coach. His companions trailed after him, the undertaker visibly sulking at being deprived of the opportunity to practice his trade.
“A rather ill-natured fellow, isn’t he?” Cuthbert murmured. “Do you suppose he suffers from gout or dyspepsia?”
As the angry jingling of the carriage harnesses subsided, Cuthbert and Julian were left alone in the hazy stillness of the meadow. Julian just sat there with one arm propped on his knee, gazing up at the sky. His uncharacteristic silence unnerved Cuthbert more than all of the morning’s events combined. He had come to rely on his friend’s repartee, the cutting edge of his wit. It had always been too much of a strain for him to think of anything clever to say.
He was about to clear his throat and try anyway when a bleak shadow of a smile crossed Julian’s face. “Despite my best efforts, it seems I’m just not destined to die on a dueling field with
the taste of another man’s woman still on my lips.”
Cuthbert replaced the pistol in its case and tucked the case beneath his arm before tugging Julian to his feet. “Don’t give up all hope. Perhaps you can still expire in debtor’s prison from a lingering bout of consumption.”
Cuthbert was swinging him around to get him pointed in the right direction when he noticed the tear in the front of Julian’s black greatcoat.
“What’s this?” he asked, knowing his friend was far more fastidious about his attire than he was about his numerous affairs of the heart.
He brushed his fingers over the finely woven wool, puzzled by the jagged rip. It was well over an inch wide and the threads rimming its edge were twisted and blackened, almost as if they’d been scorched.
He’d already started to work one finger through the hole when Julian caught his hand in a grip that was both gentle and intractable. “The marquess’s pistol ball must have grazed my coat as I fell. Curse the man! Had I realized it sooner, I’d have made him tear up one of those IOUs. This coat was tailored by old Weston himself,”
he said, referring to the king’s favorite tailor. “It set me back nearly five pounds.”
Cuthbert slowly withdrew his hand, the warning gleam in his friend’s dark eyes giving him no choice.
Julian clapped him on the arm, a grin softening his expression. “Come, Cubby, my good man, my toes are nearly frozen. Why don’t we share a nice warm bottle of port for breakfast?”
As he turned and started across the meadow, Cuthbert gazed after him, doubting his own senses. He would have almost sworn…