LADY RISKS ALL - EXCERPT
October 1823; twelve years after Prologue ends
Clifford halted in the deep shadows cast by a stand of trees
and watched her younger brother, Roderick, stride across a
manicured lawn toward a massive mansion glowing pearly white
in the moonlight.
About her, stretching away to either side, the thick bushes
and mature trees of established gardens enfolded the house
in a lush embrace. The breeze was a mere whisper, a soughing
sigh stirring the tiny tendrils of hair that had come loose
from her chignon to drift over her nape.
Silent and still, her gaze fixed on Roderick, she watched
as he reached a shallow terrace and without hesitation strode
up the three steps and went straight to a glass-paned door.
Opening the door, Roderick stepped inside, closing the door
"Damn and blast!" Miranda stared at the door. This
was far worse than she'd thought.
She'd first realized Roderick was secretly slipping out of
the house at night three weeks ago. She'd told herself that
unannounced and unmentioned nighttime excursions were only
to be expected in a twenty-three-year-old gentleman, but she'd
spent the last twenty-three years protecting Roderick; denying
such long-ingrained instincts was difficult. Sufficiently
so that she'd made a pact with herself-she would follow him
one night, just far enough to assure herself that wherever
he was going, whatever he was doing, he wasn't putting himself
at risk in anyway.
It wasn't that she didn't trust him; her plan was purely to
reassure herself. She would learn just enough to appease her
instinctive anxiety, then she'd go home and Roderick would
Ten minutes ago, she'd followed him down the darkened stairs
of the house they shared with their aunt in Claverton Street,
Pimlico; the hands of the long case clock on the landing had
put the time at twenty minutes short of eleven o'clock. She'd
trailed Roderick through the morning room, across the side
lawn and out of the garden gate into the alley. Clutching
her reticule and her new fashionable short cape close, she'd
hugged the shadows along the alley walls, and like a shadow
herself had flitted in his wake, puzzled when he'd stuck to
the alleyways, until, to her considerable surprise, five minutes
brisk walking from their own garden gate, he'd stopped at
another gate set in a high stone wall.
He'd opened the gate and gone in. She'd hesitated for only
an instant before following.
She hadn't known whose rear garden she was creeping through,
not at first, but once she'd seen the house, once she'd been
able to take in its size and magnificence, and most especially
that telltale color
"What the devil is he doing
visiting Neville Roscoe's house?"
The question needed only to be asked to be answered. Neville
Roscoe was the most celebrated - as in infamous and notorious
- denizen of the neighborhood. He was London's acknowledged
gambling king, the owner of a vast array of hells, dens, and
clubs catering to the wealthy, the affluent, the aristocratic;
gambling was one of society's favorite vices and Roscoe was,
by all accounts, a past master at supplying exactly the right
drug to sate society's craving.
Roscoe was known to be immensely wealthy and also to wield
significant power, both in his own arena and in murkier spheres.
He wasn't, however, considered a criminal. Instead, he inhabited
a nebulous strata between society and the underworld; he could
rub shoulders with dukes one day, crime lords the next, and
yet remain free of both worlds.
Speaking generally, Roscoe was an enigma, and very much a
law unto himself.
He'd already been living in the huge white mansion on Chichester
Street, overlooking the treed expanse of Dolphin Square to
the Thames beyond, when Roderick had bought the house in Claverton
Street, just around the corner, a year ago. Miranda had heard
all about the neighborhood's most famous citizen within days
of taking up residence.
She hadn't, however, as yet set eyes on him, but had no ambition
to do so.
"Wretched man." She wasn't sure if she was speaking
of Roderick or Roscoe; that Roderick might wish to chance
his hand at gambling wasn't such a surprise, but
lips thinned. "He can't afford to become involved with
It wasn't that Roderick couldn't afford to gamble; even at
Roscoe's level, he most definitely could. But his wealth derived
from trade, and as she and he had been taught all their lives,
that meant that, far more than others born more acceptably,
they had to cling, rigidly and beyond question, to respectability.
Seeing Roderick walk into Roscoe's house had instantly evoked
the specter of their elder sister, Rosalind. The three of
them had been orphaned as children; with her and Roderick,
Rosalind had grown up in the care of their aunts. Rosalind
had been subjected to the same lectures on respectability,
the same unbending strictures, but when she'd reached sixteen,
Rosalind had rebelled. She'd run off with gypsies, only to
return two years later, diseased and dying.
Rosalind had died tragically, just like their mother, who
had eloped with their father, the son of a mill-owner.
Every time anyone in their family stepped off the path of
rigid respectability, disaster and death followed. Miranda
didn't want Roderick to die young, much less tragically; returning
home and leaving him to his fate wasn't in any way an acceptable
Keeping to the shadows, she circled the lawn, making for the
house and that glass-paned door. Her mind threw up images
of what she might find inside - a private gambling party or
orgy? From all she'd heard, she might stumble into either.
Women were invariably a part of Roscoe's entertainments; his
clubs were renowned for their large female staffs.
"With luck, I'll pass, at least for long enough."
She was old enough, looked experienced enough. Reaching the
terrace, she glanced down at the lilac twill walking dress
she wore under her cape. It was hardly evening wear but was
elegant enough to establish her class.
Regardless, she wasn't about to retreat. She didn't intend
remaining for longer than it took to find Roderick and catch
his eye; that would be enough to shock him to his senses,
after which he would walk her home.
Crossing the terrace, she opened the door and stepped inside.
A corridor wreathed in dark shadows stretched before her.
Quietly shutting the door, she registered the oddity of the
pervasive silence, of the dark, unlit rooms. Even from the
other side of the lawn where the entire back of the house
had been visible she hadn't noticed any lighted windows, any
sign of a party, no matter how refined. Halting, she let her
The ground on which the house stood sloped sharply down to
Chichester Street, leaving the rear garden elevated. The floor
she'd entered on was in fact the first, not the ground floor
which fronted the street. Presumably the party, the gathering,
whatever it was, was being held in a reception room on the
ground floor. She strained her ears for some sound to show
her the way, but heard nothing.
Puzzled, she started along the corridor. Roderick must have
gone that way; other than the occasional room to either side,
all silent, their doors shut with no light showing beneath,
there was nowhere else to go. She followed the corridor toward
the front of the house, step by step growing more aware of
an omnipresent sense of quality and solidity. The house wasn't
old. Roscoe had had it built for him, which presumably explained
the workmanship she sensed more than saw; there was an understated
elegance in every line, complemented by luxurious finishes
and furnishings. She didn't have time to stop and peer, but
the paintings on the walls, each perfectly framed, looked
to be originals, and not by any back alley artist, either.
She wondered if the solidity of the house explained the lack
of noise. That, and the furnishings; the runner on which she
was walking was so thick she couldn't hear her own footsteps.
The corridor opened into a wide semicircular space, a gallery
of sorts circling the well of the main stairs. Pausing inside
the corridor's mouth, she peeked right, then left. Three other
corridors gave onto the gallery, but silence prevailed. No
lamps were burning, either, the space lit only by weak moonlight
washing through a domed skylight high above and a large window
directly opposite; through the latter she could see the tops
of the trees in Dolphin Square and the distant shimmer of
moonlight on the river.
Directly ahead, in front of the large window, lay the head
of the wide staircase that swept elegantly down.
Drawing in a breath, she raised her head and walked calmly
toward the stairs, and finally heard the rumble of male voices.
Those speaking were somewhere on the ground floor, but deeper
in the house, still some way away.
The clacking of hooves on the cobbles outside drew her to
the window. Looking out and down, she saw a gentleman, fashionably
dressed and hatted, alight from a hackney. The man carried
a silver-headed cane. He paid off the jarvey, then walked
toward the front door of the mansion, a little further along
the façade from where she stood.
She didn't recognize the man, but his style, the way he moved,
suggested he belonged to the upper echelons of the ton.
A bell pealed within the house. Almost immediately the measured
tread of a butler's footsteps crossed the tiles in the front
hall below. She debated going to the head of the stairs and
looking down, but the risk of being seen was too great; she
stayed where she was and listened.
"Good evening, my lord."
"Good evening, Rundle." The visitor stepped inside;
the door shut. "I fear I'm late. Are the others here?"
"Yes, my lord, but the master has yet to join the gathering."
"Excellent." Rustlings reached her as the visitor
divested himself of his overcoat, gloves, hat, and cane. "I
won't have missed anything, then."
"Indeed not, my lord."
"The library as usual?"
"Yes, my lord."
"No need to bestir yourself, Rundle-I know the way."
"Thank you, my lord."
Two pairs of footsteps strode away from the hall, going in
different directions. She hurried to the head of the stairs;
she was too late to see which way each man went, but a door
at the hall's rear was still swinging. The butler must have
gone that way, which meant the visitor's footsteps were the
ones fading down the corridor leading away from one corner
of the hall. The library and the "gathering" lay
in that direction.
Drawing in a breath, she reached for the stair rail -
A frisson of awareness streaked down her spine.
froze. She hadn't heard anything, but she'd just proved that
it was easy to move silently through the house, even without
trying. And her senses, previously focused on the hall below,
were belatedly screaming that someone a great deal larger
than she was was standing directly behind her.
breath caught, strangled; her lungs seized. Senses flaring,
she forced herself to turn slowly
gaze, level, landed on an exquisitely tied ivory silk cravat.
watched the woman's large eyes, already wide, widen even further,
then she jerked her gaze up to his face.
didn't smile. "Can I help you, Miss
didn't immediately reply, but he didn't make the mistake of
thinking her mind paralyzed by shock; swift calculation showed
in those wide eyes as she debated her response. Fine boned,
graceful, and quintessentially feminine though she might be,
accustomed as he was to sizing up people with a glance, he
didn't need to look further than the refined strength in her
face, echoed in her upright carriage and the gliding stride
he'd glimpsed when he'd first seen her crossing the gallery,
to guess what manner of lady she was.
resolute, and, at least when it came to those things she believed
he was unsurprised when she drew in a tight breath, straightened
to her full, significantly taller than the average height,
and haughtily stated, "My name is Miss Clifford."
information very nearly made him blink.
gaze drifted from his face, skating over his shoulders and
chest to land on the ledger he carried in one hand. A frown
crimped her finely arched brows. "And you are?"
tone made it clear she thought him some lowly secretary.
his intentions, his lips quirked. "I'm the owner of this
that news was more of a shock than discovering him at her
back. She stared, patently stunned and making no effort to
hide it. "You're Roscoe?"
could imagine the speculation she'd heard; an inner devil
prompted him to further confound her. He bowed, imbuing the
gesture with all the grace he'd once exercised daily. Straightening,
he drawled, "I would welcome you to my humble abode,
Miss Clifford, only I have to wonder why you're here."
abode?" Her voice was husky, the tone a low contralto.
Her gaze flashed to the three paintings hanging on the walls
between the corridors - two Gainsboroughs and a Reynolds -
then shifted to the large Gobelin tapestry on the wall behind
him. "For a gambling king, sir, you have remarkable taste."
that she'd noticed, but he didn't distract that easily. "Indeed.
But that doesn't answer my question."
was frantically assessing a different question: how to get
out of this without a whisper of scandal. While most of her
mind wrestled with that problem, the rest was thoroughly distracted;
she hadn't had any mental image of Roscoe but not in her wildest
dreams would she have imagined him as he was. As he stood
was tall, significantly taller than her, but his shoulders,
chest, and long muscled limbs were in perfect proportion,
creating an elegance of form that simply took her breath away.
His attire, too, wasn't what she would have associated with
a gambling king; in a superbly tailored dark coat over pristine
ivory linen, with that gorgeously tied cravat, a subdued blue-,
gray-and-black striped waistcoat with simple black buttons,
and plain black trousers, he could give any ton exquisite
points and he would still come out ahead.
for the way he moved, and that drawl
quite what manner
of man he was she wasn't sure, but a single glance into that
chiseled face, at those well-set dark eyes steadily regarding
her, at his patriarchal nose and sharply cut jaw, was enough
to assure her that he wasn't manageable. More, that he was
dangerous, on multiple levels and in complex ways.
man who stood before her was a conundrum.
had no experience dealing with such as he, but following her
instincts had got her into this-perhaps they'd get her out.
Tipping her chin higher, she held to her hauteur. "I'm
here to rescue my brother."
dark brow slowly arched. "Rescue?"
warning shaded the word. She ignored it. "Precisely.
You cannot be so distanced from the polite world not to know
that association with a man of your
be ruinous for my brother, should such an association become
reaction showed in the hard planes of his face. An instant
ticked by, then he said, "My propensities?"
refused to be intimidated. "Your business. Your activities."
She glanced at the front hall, then looked at him. "I'm
unsure what form of entertainment you and your patrons are
indulging in tonight, but if you would be so good as to let
Mr. Clifford know that I am here and require his escort home,
you will not be troubled by either him or me again."
from showing any inclination to accede to her request, he
regarded her steadily, his dark eyes - she couldn't tell what
color they were, but she didn't think they were black - studying
her eyes, her face. His expression was unreadable, utterly
me, Miss Clifford," he eventually said, his deep drawl
almost a purr, "just what forms of entertainment do you
imagine I provide for my
close acquaintances in the privacy
of my home?"
she was in the wrong venturing into his house like this, but
she'd be damned if she allowed a gambling king to patronize
her. "I have no idea, and less interest, but the two
that leapt to mind when I realized that Roderick was coming
here were a private gambling party, or else an orgy. Regardless,
I believe attending will not be in my brother's best interests,
just as I know that associating with you will definitely not
be to his advantage."
heavy lids flickered, fleetingly screening his eyes. "Are
you accusing me of corrupting your brother, Miss Clifford?"
refused to quake at his quietly steely tone. "Are you?"
But she wasn't the first lady to view him as a corrupter of
innocents; perhaps that long ago echo was why Roscoe felt
compelled to prove her wrong. To open her eyes to her misjudgment
of him, to make her acknowledge it, and apologize, now, tonight.
wasn't normally so sensitive; some part of his mind found
it strange that she, a lady he hadn't previously met, had
so quickly got under his skin sufficiently to needle him in
such a very private spot.
spot he was surprised to discover still tender. Regardless
suggest, Miss Clifford, that you come with me." Stepping
back, he waved her to the corridor leading off the far end
of the gallery.
viewed the corridor with open suspicion. "Why? I can
just as well wait here until you send Roderick to me."
but I have no intention of embarrassing your brother in such
a way." He started strolling toward the corridor.
strides, and she huffed out a breath and came after him.
are we going?"
a place from where you can watch our proceedings without any
of my guests being aware of it."
he didn't stop walking, she hurried to catch up, then tipped
up her chin and breathlessly amended, "That is, there's
no need for me to see - "
but there is." He kept his expression utterly impassive,
but inside he was smiling.
a door set in the paneled wall, his hand on the knob, he halted
and faced her. "You would have to possess a remarkably
peculiar view of such things to imagine I would host an orgy
in my library."
blinked. "I would?"
me - I hold no orgies in my library. So the worst you're going
to see is eight men gambling, although in fact it won't even
be that." He met her gaze, open challenge in his eyes.
"You followed your brother here intent on discovering
what he was about-are you going to turn tail and run at this
point, or are you brave enough to face the truth?"
was enjoying himself, and despite his best efforts some glimmer
must have shown. Her eyes slowly narrowed, then, lips firming,
she nodded. "Very well. Show me."
the door, he waved her in.
high, she stepped over the threshold. He followed her into
the first floor gallery that circled the library proper, on
the ground floor.
clung to the shadows by the book-lined walls, staring down
at the seven gentlemen seated about the central table. Ledgers
and notebooks at the ready, they were waiting for him to open
the meeting, meanwhile trading the usual social conversation
gentlemen of their ilk used to pass the time.
gallery was thickly carpeted, allowing Miss Clifford and him
to move without attracting attention. Lifting a large armchair,
he set it down by the gallery railing and waved her to it.
hesitated, then crept forward and sat. He waited while she
settled her cape and set her reticule in her lap, then, standing
behind the chair, he leaned over her and whispered by her
ear, "Unless you stand up, they won't see you. Unless
you make a loud noise, they won't hear you. You, however,
can see, and you'll be able to hear every word said about
suppressing the intense, unprecedented, and unnerving sensations
that deep voice murmuring in her ear, his breath stirring
the tiny tendrils of hair dangling about her nape, evoked,
Miranda tuned her ears to the conversations about the table,
and discovered he was right. The gallery was perfectly positioned
acoustically; she could easily make out all that was said,
even though the men were speaking relatively quietly.
was still hovering over her-close, too close; his warmth,
his strength, his scent-everything about his nearness made
her senses seize. Her lungs felt so tight she could barely
breathe; with an effort, she managed a nod.
he started to draw back, paused, then returned, lowering his
head to murmur, again maddeningly in her ear, "Incidentally,
we call ourselves the Philanthropy Guild."
she'd fully processed his words, he'd slipped back to the
door and left.
YOU WOULD LIKE TO READ MORE, JOIN THE EMAIL NEWSLETTER (CLICK
HERE) - A LINK TO THE REST OF CHAPTER 1 WILL BE INCLUDED
IN THE MIDSUMMER NEWSLETTER, emailed on JUNE 30, 2012.
BACK TO TOP