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Authors: Katherine Bone

My Lord Rogue

BOOK: My Lord Rogue
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My Lord Rogue

by Katherine Bone

Published by esKape Press

 

All Rights Reserved

Copyright © 201 KATHERINE BONE

ISBN-10:
1940695
201

ISBN-13:
9781
940695
204

Cover Art Design by For the Muse Designs

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and events are fictitious in every regard. Any similarities to actual events and/or persons, living or dead, are purely coincidental. Any trademarks, service marks, product names, or named features are the property of their respective owners and are used for reference only and not an implied endorsement.

Except for review purposes, the reproduction and distribution of this book in whole or part, electronically or mechanically, without the written permission of the publisher is unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book, other than for review purposes, please obtain written permission first by contacting the publisher at [email protected].

Thank you for your support of the author’s rights as provided for in the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976.

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Dedication

To M.V. Freeman, Crystal R. Lee, and my family for encouraging and inspiring my stories. Dreams really do come true!

 

ONE


All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players…

~William Shakespeare’s
All The World

s a Stage

Westminster, 1801

Gillian Chauncey straightened
her veil and entered the lion’s den, willingly taking a step toward her own destruction.

The true stakes involved in her game of cat and mouse were life or death: hers, an entirely meaningless loss; the savior of England’s, an incomprehensible cost. Admiral Nelson’s death would be sure to weaken British morale at a time when war threatened the country’s shores. She meant to prevent it or die trying.

Britain depended on her. Failure wasn’t an option. She would do anything to honor her husband Lucien’s dying wish, even if Lord Simon Danbury discovered her presence. And after what she’d just been through, she could ill afford that agonizing defeat. Simon was a member of the
ton
, one of Nelson’s most respected allies, the man she’d loved and lost, a spider waiting for a swarm of flies to descend. If Lucien’s intelligence was correct, Drury Lane, the Theatre Royal, was infested.

Gillian shivered. She hated assassins slightly more than insects. If Lucien was right, the audience would probably get more than they bargained for at tonight’s performance of Holcroft’s
Deaf and Dumb
. The play gave attendees a chance to meet — or see — the Baron of the Nile, Lord Horatio Nelson himself, recently returned from India with his unscrupulous paramour, Lady Emma Hamilton.

A sense of urgency embraced Gillian as she inspected the over-eager throng. Around her, those who brokered in scandal postulated that Nelson’s return had more to do with succumbing to illness again rather than seeking a sojourn from the Navy, however richly deserved. Much about his troubled marriage was in the public domain, though Frances Nisbit Nelson, the rightful
Lady
Nelson, was continuously held in the highest regard, no matter how goatish her husband behaved.

Above her, crystal chandeliers lit the box lobby, illuminating the grand amphitheater, casting an ethereal glow on the to-do and sundry congregating in the horseshoe-shaped audience. Ladies in attendance fluttered hand-painted fans. Men slapped each other on the back. The velvety splendor accentuated the figures of silken beauties and the laced cuffs, brightly polished uniforms, and tailored suits of chivalrous men sporting starched cravats. The spectacular promenade, practiced theatrics of actors and audience alike heralded a night of jovial bliss, contradicting the pulsing sense of desperation Gillian felt inside.

Her belly clenched with uneasiness as she continued to survey the faces in the crowd. Around her, oblivious theatergoers exemplified courtly manners and light banter. Somewhere within, the man she’d never ceased to love was hiding in plain sight. She’d have to bypass him in order to reach the man she was supposed to meet. Would Marquess Stanton heed her request to join her in box three? Or would Simon find her first?

There in the corner! A man stood with his back to her, but his nut brown hair carried a familiar wave, igniting her defenses. She retreated behind a tall gentleman and waited, refusing to breathe. Her quarry turned, revealing shifty eyes, a hooked nose and pock-marked face. Definitely not Simon.

Gillian took a deep breath and tried to settle her nerves before turning her attention on the staircase that led to the boxes above the royal box.

A feminine voice purred to her left. Gillian chanced to look, noting the woman’s tiny pale figure was no comparison to
her own
and that she towered over the young miss by half.

“Do you think he’ll wear his uniform, your grace?” the woman asked, angling her face to the light. “I hear he casts a spectacular figure, given his losses.”

A smartly fashioned duke leaned closer and confided, “Never without it, I hear.
And though
your romantic senses would find an eye-patch thrilling
, Nelson does not wear one
.”

Another patron spoke. “Malaria. That’s why Nelson’s back in England. Come down with it again, poor
fellow
.”

The comment was followed by a strong rebuking feminine shriek. “I don’t care what the admiral has endured. He’s a connoisseur of the dollies and has made himself ridiculous with
that
woman. If he brings her, I shall be not put upon to hold my tongue.”

“I do hope that’s possible,” another man said, eliciting several guffaws.

Gillian pressed her hand to her heart. She didn’t know who had uttered the sarcastic remark, but it brought a half-smile to her face even as her
heartbeat
drumme
d erratically against her ribs.

“You did say he would bring Lady Hamilton?” a feather-clad woman pushing her way through the crush asked. “I had so hoped to see Lady Nelson on his arm.”

Fear gripped her. Lady
Nelson and Lady
Hamilton
were
the least of the
ton’s
worries. Gillian was one of a few privy to the real reason for Nelson’s return. The formation of a clandestine group of rogues bent on protecting England’s shores. The organization of those mercenaries was the reason Fouché and his
gens d’ armes
, his French police,
had taken a bounty on Nelson’s head.

She swallowed to moisten her dry mouth and listened more closely.

“Quite. It’s all the banter on the benches,” a stodgy gentleman with a nasally voice answered.

Banter? Was Nelson to be pitied and mocked, instead of held in the highest prestige? Disgust swept through her with unrelenting force. What did these fashionable idiots know about sacrifice? There were weightier concerns in the world than the state of Nelson’s reputation. The admiral saw that import routes remained open. Nelson provided England access to rationed goods, goods the
ton
would greatly miss if he failed. In faith, if anyone truly comprehended the danger Nelson was in, that
they
were in, they’d scramble to the exits without a backward glance. Cowards! The lot of them!

Nelson’s would-be assassins were close. And with Lady Hamilton’s penchant for being the center of the admiral’s attention, all it would take was one strike at her to cut Nelson to the marrow. Gillian pressed her lips together, placed a hand to her neck, and inhaled a tremulous breath.

Lights flickered on stage. The melodious screech of Orchestra strings signaled the night’s performance was about to begin. Gillian’s blood vibrated through her extremities. Her nerves quickened as she watched the pulsing throng weave accordingly so that her progression through the theater aided her cause. Conversations around her heightened as the horde ventured to the five-shilling section, where nobility and the privileged congregated. Gentry and critics paraded to the three-shilling benches in the pit for a night of entertainment, scandal, and debauchery. Tradesmen flocked to the two-shilling seats. Servants and
ordinary
citizens sought the one-shilling seats in the upper gallery, an extravagance they were clearly too poor to pay since they were forced to enter the theater through other means.

Gillian moved in time with the masses, her senses on constant alert as she wove past gentlem
e
n, military officers, and soldiers, dandies, and ladies of every persuasion, whose primary goal was to see and be seen. To mock, not be mocked, beneath the silent speculation staring down from an ornate ceiling. Fortuitously, the entire theater was her stage, and everyone in it an unsuspecting player.

Five years had passed since Gillian had been in London. The
ton
still blazed proudly like a well-oiled lamp in a murky fog — a bristling, unsettling revelation when she hadn’t yearned for society or pined for it in her absence. As long as she’d had Lucien and their mutual cause, saving the world as they knew it, she hadn’t allowed herself to think about being deprived of love or children. She most certainly hadn’t entertained the notion of flaunting her purse and credentials to her benefit.

She’d stayed away. She’d kept her promise and her sanity intact by suppressing her feelings for Lord Simon Danbury, third son of the Fourth Duke of Throckmorton. Now by returning to London, by entering Simon’s domain, she risked a confrontation. Would the buttresses she’d erected around her heart withstand such a reunion? A knot tightened in her belly at the prospect. The weight of her deception threatened to crush her lungs, but she managed to breathe and regained control.

Gather your courage. This isn’t your first foray into dangerous waters. You can and must do this for England. For Lucien.

Oh, how her heart yearned for the peaceful countryside, Lucien beside her. But no more. For reasons beyond her control, she was once again forced to breathe the stench of debauchery, tempted beyond reason to speak her true heart, to seek out Simon, who, with one word, could destroy the bastions between them. She’d kept her distance, until now — until her dutiful, albeit secretive and resourceful husband, Lucas Chauncey had been killed by Fouché’s
gens d’armes
, Napoleon’s secret service. England knew Lucas as the Baron Chauncey. In reality, he’d been Lucien Corbet, an exiled member of the French Aristocracy, a man who, upon his dying breath, supplied her with information vital to Nelson’s fight against the French and a plea to finish his mission.
Peace
is just
an illusion.

Lucien.
How she missed her husband and closest friend. Their love had been a complicated mixture of passionate causes, dangerous liaisons, and a collection of secrets that had led to Lucien’s demise. She regretted nothing. Not one moment of their lives together. Lucien had taken her immaterial ideals and broadened them substantially. His charm, his fascination with freedom, had advanced far past the average heightened emotion and titillating bond of husband and wife. He’d been her brave hero, a staunch believer in every man’s chance at free will. Theirs had been a united cause, one that left her a baroness of prosperous means. Married in haste and at the insistence of Simon Danbury, their marriage had generated the loss of something even more precious than life itself — the loss of the only man she had ever truly loved. The irony was Lucien had known and never uttered a word.

“Beat the enemy first, negotiate afterwards,”
Nelson had once said.
These weren’t the normal words a woman who’d just lost her husband clung to. Were they to be her only solace as she spent the remaining years of her life tethered to anonymity?

The crowd opened, revealing space on the staircase.
At last!
Gillian moved with controlled ambition, hiking up her black bombazine hem. She practically glowed with triumph, until a gnawing suspicion that she was being watched traveled up her spine, settling at the nape of her neck. An odd, disturbing shiver swept over her as she peered over her shoulder and spied a familiar face. Her heart hitched and her breath caught.
Not yet!

It took every ounce of her strength to maintain calm, not to turn and run as if she’d been stung by a thousand bees. Mindful she was under close scrutiny, she ascended the stairs. While Lucien had been alive, it had been easier to forget, easier to focus on a cause that prevented her from acknowledging her feelings for a man she couldn’t have, shouldn’t love. With so much at stake, now wasn’t the time to allow her emotions to interfere with what she’d come to do.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” a stage hand announced as music began to escalate throughout the lobby.

The crushing throng silenced and came to a stop, giving this man their attention. Gillian took
advantage of the
impediment to her passage, taking cover behind taller men to regard the
motionless crowd
and perhaps set her fears to rest. Was Simon in pursuit?

Light, texture, and rich hues of crimson and gold
enlivened
the lobby
, providing
an opulent
escape from the mundane
.
She had no time for such luxuries
,
and neither did Admiral Nelson.
M
ovement to her right and left.
M
en dressed in civilian garb
behaving
noticeabl
y
different
ignored
the announcer’s speech. Instead
the
guards
moved as one, assuming
predatory positions
at various intervals in the lobby, taking great pains to read pocket watches or the cast list.

“The play is about to begin
,
and Admiral Nelson will be arriving soon,”
the
announcer
continued
. “Everyone take your seats!”

Prinny’s guards?
Simon’s doing? The effect was the same. A strategic plan had been put into place to thwart any threat determined in Prinny’s or the Admiral’s presence. Little did these men know the threat to Nelson was grave indeed.

One more man stepped into the light, his
gaze
skimming over the crush, flicking to the exit, and then toward her. Foreboding flooded her senses. Her fingers clenched the folds of her skirts as her nerve-endings throbbed to life. Beneath the scintillating, erupting opera house music one elusive name nearly escaped her lips.
Simon.
He was close, closer than she wanted him to be, closer than safety required.

Impetuous girl!
A man’s life is at stake. Concentrate!
Hard to do when her senses were on high alert. When she loathed the thought of coming face to face with Simon. Feared the possibility. Longed for it. Especially when a small sadistic part of her had known he’d be at tonight’s performance, especially with Nelson in attendance. Would her presence affect him as deeply as his did her? Would he approach her?
Be careful what you wish for.

“Enjoy tonight’s performance
,
” the announcer proclaimed.

The crowd set into motion once more. On edge, Gillian
shook her head to clear it, ignoring the massive veil before her face and ascended the next level of stairs to the third floor.
Box three.
Box three.
She had to get to her designated meeting place in time to meet the marquess. Blood thundered in her veins, the sound vibrating like orchestra drums between her ears.

What is wrong with you? Lucien trained you better than this.
She was overreacting
, but how could she not when the sight of Simon and memories flooded her mind?

“It’s for your own good, Gillian. I cannot love you.”
Simon’s
long ago
denial
crushed her
again
with renewed force.
She
frowned as she recalled the softening in his dark brown eyes before he’d quickly recovered and cast her off and out of his life forever. The sudden ache the memory roused hit her with impalpable force.

“You will be better off with Lucien. And I will have the luxury of knowing that you are safe.”

Safe? If he only knew the course he’d set her on.

Lucien’s critical partnership with Simon had led to a failed assassination attempt on King George in the Theatre Royal in May of the previous year, in almost the precise location she approached on the first level. For his bravery, Lucian had been privately honored for going above and beyond the call of duty. Drury Lane had been Lucien’s last mission before smuggling his way back into France. He had not taken her with him. No matter how hard she’d tried to convince him otherwise, Lucien had refused to involve her, saying the danger was too great, that Simon would never forgive him, and she’d slow him down. But she’d known better. Her instincts had cried out for her to disobey him. Her absence meant one thing and one thing only. The job entailed greater danger to Lucien than he let on. Miserably, her intuition
had been right. Perhaps if her husband had listened to her, had taken
her with him
, she could have prevented the surprise attack that had robbed him of his life.

“Lucien,” she breathed
,
her eyes suddenly misty and wistful
.
She’d die before she failed.

For a moment, Gillian glanced down at her black-gloved fingers, recalling the dark red warmth of Lucien’s blood. She would never forget the despondent look on Lucien’s face when he’d arrived home, nearly at death’s door, and gazed one last time into her eyes. Nor the sheer force of will it had taken for him to touch her cheek, to speak the words that would forever be ingrained in her memory, a dying confession and proclamation as weighty as the royal lineage of England.

“Admiral Nelson needs you.”

He’d died
then
. His body had barely grown cold when she’d left him to rot in a field and fled Surrey. She’d withheld her tears
with i
nconceivable
strength
, consumed as she was with the need to escape the advancing guard that sought to silence her before she could pass on Lucien’s warning.

Good God, will I ever get Lucien’s blood off of my hands?

Applause erupted, filling the immense structure with deafening sound. Her heart skipped a beat as underneath her bravado she feared being caught by surprise.
No no n
o. Has Nelson arrived?

Prompt timing wasn’t one of Nelson’s habits at public events. He preferred making a grand entrance to acclamations and loud cheers. No, she reasoned, casually surveying the amphitheater. The applause didn’t signal Nelson’s arrival, but was another indication Holcroft’s
Deaf and Dumb
was about to begin.

Gillian swallowed a lump of regret, tempering her wildly beating heart as she pushed her way through the throng. Shadows danced across the walls as a flickering chandelier dangling overhead cast a golden hue on the wave of heads ascending above her. She’d taken precautions. Borrowed the widow’s weeds she wore to conceal her identity. No one except the marquess would recognize her — expect her. There was still time to do her duty. Nelson was the Admiralty’s greatest weapon. The loss of his life jeopardized the entire future of England’s fleet and encouraged Napoleon’s evil plan to invade England’s shores. For Lucien, England, for Nelson, and everyone seated in the opera house, she would justly sacrifice herself — here — now. But would she be able to?

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