An Excerpt from The Secret DukeHistorical romance set amidst the high aristocracy of Georgian England
by New York Times bestselling author, Jo Beverley.
"High adventure and appealing characters make this another winner for Beverley."
Laughter can take many forms, from the pure delight of a happy child to the gibber of madness. The laughter that slithered out into the dark and misty Dover night was the sound of cruel men with a victim in their clutches.
It caused the man in the street to pause.
To his left, water slapped against the wharf and wind rattled the riggings of ships. Farther out, rough water jangled a buoy bell. To his right, lanterns outside buildings were gleaming globes in the sea mist, giving only enough light for passers by to avoid the larger detritus of any port—snarls of rope, soggy bales, and broken casks leaking stinking contents.
He shook his head and moved on, but then the laughter came again, this time punctuated by one sharp word. He couldn’t tell what word, but the voice sounded female.
It could be a ship’s lad being teased, or a whore, well used to this rough area. No concern of his.
But then he heard a few more words. Higher pitched, but almost authoritative. Not a lad. Almost certainly not a whore. But what decent woman would be down here late on a chilly October night?
Damn it all to Hades. He’d been at sea for two cold days and nights and anticipated a fine meal and warm bed at the Compass and then home tomorrow.
He waited and heard no more.
There, whatever the commotion, it was over. But then raised jeers made him curse again and turn toward the noise. One of the misty globes probably marked the entrance to the place, but he couldn’t see more than that.
As he came closer he saw only two small windows, one on either side of a cockeyed door, covered by slatted shutters that let out mean slices of tallow light. Tobacco smoke slithered out as well, along with the smell of ale, new and old, and human stink. It was a port tavern of the lowest sort, a haunt for the roughest of sailors and shore workers.
A coarse voice sneered something about tits.
The woman didn’t respond.
Was unable to respond?
As he reached for the door he saw a roughly painted sign nailed above it indicating that this place rejoiced in the name the Black Rat.
“And a plague on the lot of you,” muttered Captain Rose as he shouldered open the warped planked door.
He’d been right about the smoke and tallow light, and it made the room foggy, but he could see enough.
The Rat was crowded, and most of the men were still sitting on their stools and benches, drinking from pots and tankards, but they’d all turned to watch the entertainment. In the corner to his right, five men had a woman trapped. Perhaps she’d been herded there as soon as she unwisely entered.
What in Hades had she been thinking? Even at a glance he recognized youth and good birth. Her brown-and-cream-striped gown had cost a pretty penny, and her hair curled out from a dainty cap trimmed with lace. And yes, the swell behind the fichu that filled in her low bodice suggested she had fine tits. One of her captors was teasingly trying to snatch away the filmy cloth, playing cat and mouse, but sure of victory.
She slapped at his hand.
The man laughed.
Rose looked around for allies, but saw no one he knew.
There was one other woman present, but she was a hard-faced forty or so and was guarding the big cask of ale. The tavern keeper or his wife, but showing no sign of interfering. She continued to fill pots and tankards as requested and take the coins. He was on his own against five, and now drinkers were beginning to notice his arrival, nudging one another and muttering.
Not surprising. He was as alien here as she. His dark suit was old-fashioned, but of excellent quality. He wore his hair loose to his shoulders and had days of beard on his chin, but these men would recognize rank and authority.
Rank and authority might help him, or it might get his throat cut. Easy enough to tip a body off the nearby quay and no one any the wiser. In places such as these, no one tattled.
Someone might recognize him—Captain Rose’s red neckcloth and skull earrings were meant to be noticed—but that wouldn’t protect him if they turned on him.
He saw neither recognition nor hostility as yet, only interest in a new actor on the stage and hope that he’d provide even more free entertainment. He turned his attention back to the scene in the corner. Yes, a lady. He knew by her clothes, but also by her carriage and the outrage flashing in her eyes. What—had she expected the habitués of a place like the Black Rat to be gentlemen?
Both haughty manner and generous figure were going to get her raped. Even these rascals might object to tormenting a terrified weakling, but such a bold piece would look like fair game to them, especially if she’d come in here by her own choice.
Had she been looking for this sort of adventure? Some ladies thought rough men exciting, but she’d have to be mad to sink this low, and despite an attempt at dignity, she was young. Perhaps not eighteen. Surely too young for such depravity. As a couple of the tormentors sensed something and turned to confront him, he wondered if he could use insanity to free her.
One of the two men was scarred and sinewy, but the other was an ox, all hard, beefy muscle, with a low, bony forehead. Getting the chit out of here without bloodshed wasn’t going to be easy, and the blood shed could well be his own. The shorter man had slid out a long filleting knife. It would be razor sharp.
Too late to rethink now. As with any feral animals, it would be disastrous to show fear, even if his heart beat fast with it. And in truth, he couldn’t abandon the foolish creature.
He strode forward, pushing his way roughly between tables. “So there you are, you dim trull!” he blasted in the voice he used to call instructions in a gale. “What in Hades do you think you’re doing, wandering about down here?”
None of the tormentors moved. Nor did their victim except to stare at him. He saw then how stretched her courage was. The whites showed around her eyes. He hoped his weren’t the same. Play your part, damn you, he thought as he assessed the danger around them.
Probably the only immediate danger was from the two who’d faced him, but at the slightest sign of fear they’d all be on him like a pack of mangy dogs. He had a pistol in his pocket, but that was only one shot. He had a blade too, but he didn’t fool himself that he’d win a knife fight, and to show either weapon now would indicate fear.
There was no way out of this but through it, so he brushed past the two men as if unaware of them, grabbed her arm, and snarled, “Come on.”
She instinctively pulled back, but then complied by one step. It probably looked right for a woman caught in folly by an angry husband or guardian. When Rose directed them toward the door, however, the two men moved solidly in his way.
“Yer little lady came a-visitin’,” said the ox, flexing his big hands. Clearly he thought them the only weapon he needed, and he was probably right. “Reckon she’s ours now.”
You can read a little more here.
Here's a period portrait I think captures something about the Duke of Ithorne, as opposed to Captain Rose.
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