A Sneak Peek at The Secret Duke continued...
"The Secret Duke is the third and final book in this outstanding series saving the best for last. The detail is fabulous and the restrained passion is stellar. A great read!" Fresh Fiction.
"With romance, steamy love scenes, mistaken identities, a delightful plot, humor and charming characters, this book is a winner." Romance Junkies.
"I highly recommend THE SECRET DUKE to readers of exciting historical romances..." Romance Reviews Today.
“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.”
“She’s my wife,” Rose said in a weary tone he hoped would get some sympathy, “and half out of her wits, as you can see. Let us be.”
“I don’t mind if she’s a knock in the cradle,” said the man with the knife, “as long as she’s got big tits.” He showed dirty, broken teeth. “We want to see her tits.”
“I think not,” Rose said, and moved his left hand to his right wrist, then turned it, holding a knife.
The method usually impressed his foes, for he kept the knife in a cunning sheath on his right forearm so that its appearance seemed magical. In that moment of distraction, he took his pistol out of his right pocket. He was left-handed, but moderately ambidextrous, and the pistol was small and specially made so he could easily cock it one-handed. Too small for distance work, but it’d stop a man at this range.
The shorter man eyed the weapons through slitted eyes, wary but assessing his chances. The ox chewed the cud, clearly wishing he were grinding someone between his teeth.
Would they stop him again? He tested the situation by moving a step to the side. The two men moved to block him.
The knife man said to the others, “Come on, mates. He’s one man, and a fribbly type, from the look of those weapons. Call that a knife! Let’s get him!”
The group stirred but was undecided.
Rose raised the pistol to point directly at the knife man’s left eye. “You die first.”
Into the frozen silence, a voice rose at the back of the room. An elderly voice, but strong. “That’s Captain Rose, lads. Don’t know as I’d take him on, m’self.”
Most of the room turned toward the speaker, but not the two dangerous men. Captain Rose kept his eyes on them.
“A flower?” sneered the knife man. “I’ll pluck his pretty petals for him.”
His companions sniggered, but they shifted like wet sand, uncertain.
“Captain Rose of the Black Swan,” the same helpful voice called. “Broke the arm of the last man to pull a knife on him.”
The three other villains backed away a bit. Rose had no idea who the speaker was, but silently thanked him, though he hoped he wouldn’t have to live up to the billing.
Captain Rose and his ship, the Black Swan, were well-known along this stretch of the south coast. Most of the time the Swan engaged in general trade, but sometimes she sailed off on illicit business across the Channel. He’d made sure that people along the coast knew the Black Swan’s business didn’t benefit the French, especially during the recent war. Even the lowest Kentish sea rat wouldn’t take kindly to anyone who favored their ancient enemy.
All the local people knew Captain Rose of the Black Swan was a loyal Englishman and a good seaman, but he was known for other things as well. For enjoying a fistfight, and yes, for objecting to anyone drawing a weapon on him.
But there were two Captain Roses, and he was the other one.
He was the Duke of Ithorne, known to his friends as Thorn.
The other Captain Rose was Caleb, his illegitimate half brother.
Thorn was as good a seaman as Caleb, and perhaps even better, but he had no taste for meaningless fighting and little skill in a brawl. Other than that, Caleb and he were as close in appearance as two peas in a pod. The slight differences in their features were masked by dark stubble that sometimes became a beard. To make the illusion complete, Captain Rose wore distinctive clothes—an old-fashioned black frock coat and a scarlet neckcloth—and an earring in the form of a skull with ruby eyes.
People generally saw what they expected to see, so the outward trappings meant that the man inside was Captain Rose of the Black Swan.
Most of the time, Caleb was master of the Swan, but that being the case, his reputation stuck to Captain Rose, who was generally known as a gregarious womanizer and fearless brawler. He leapt into a fistfight with glee, especially when he’d been drinking, and then afterward drank cheerfully with his opponents—as long as they’d not pulled a weapon on him. He took knives as a personal affront and would leave the offender in pieces. Perhaps Caleb’s reputation would tip the scales here.
“I’m Rose, right enough, so heed the man and get out of my way.”
The ox’s brow lowered. “Ye’re still only one.”
“One of one can be more than one of another.”
The ox stared, baffled.
A nearby man said, “I’ve ’eard of Captain Rose, but never that he was married.”
“Not quite blessed by the church,” Thorn admitted.
Amid laughter one of the wary brutes sneered, “For that sort of lay, I’d pick a sweeter-natured ’un.”
“Perhaps I enjoy a wench with spirit,” he parried.
“Spicy in bed as well, is she?”
“Exceedingly.” He tossed it out simply to annoy the idiotic cause of this mess, but then recognized his mistake. New interest stirred in the room as a whole.
A pot flew by, spraying ale, and thunked into the side of the knife man’s head. He cried out, put hand to head, staggered, and then collapsed to his knees.
“Hey, that was my pot, woman,” someone protested, but weakly.
Thorn was cursing himself. That conversation had been a distraction and he’d fallen for it, but she’d kept her wits about her. He stepped back until he was by her side. “Good aim, ma’am.”
“Thank you, sir,” she said tightly, “but I have no more ammunition within reach.”
He passed her his pistol. “It’s cocked, so be careful.”
She took it, but as if she’d never handled a gun before.
“Point it upward,” he said hastily. “We wouldn’t want to kill anyone. Not by accident, at least,” he added deliberately.
Finally the men were backing away. Clearly the sight of a gun in the hands of a woman was more frightening than the same gun in a man’s, especially when the woman had no idea what to do with it.
Thorn fought laughter, praying the girl wouldn’t shoot anyone by accident, especially him. Just perhaps, however, the tide was turning in his favor. The knife man was still glazed. She’d hit him well. The ox seemed truly bovine without him.
He dug in his breeches pocket, feeling the coins there. What was the right amount for the situation? He didn’t want to inflame new greed, but he wanted to offer enough to get them out of here. He took out a silver sixpence and tossed it to the man who’d lost his drink.
“Thank’ee, sir!” the man said with a gap-toothed grin.
Thorn took out a crown and held it up to one of the other bully boys. “Ransom?”
The man hesitated a moment and then snatched the five-shilling piece. “Right you are, Captain! Worth it, I reckon, to see such a good throw. I’d get that pistol off her, though, and fast.”
He retrieved his pistol from her trembling hands and uncocked it, but he kept it out. The room was still crowded, its mood still uncertain. They could be grabbed, tripped, even stabbed before they reached the door. Money alone might be cause. Women were cheap and silver was rare.
Was he thinking too much, assuming too much hazard, as his friends sometimes accused him of doing? How did one not think in a situation like this? Thinking wasn’t creating a path out of here, however, and the knife man was beginning to struggle to his feet. Nearby faces were unreadable and could easily conceal a murderous interest in the contents of his pockets. . . .
Then the church bell began to toll.
Everyone’s interest shifted. It was too late for any service.
“The French?” someone muttered, and others picked it up.
Men stood, pushing back stools and benches. Some clattered over. From ancient times, church bells had called the men of the Kent coast to repel invasion. Despite the recent treaty of peace, no one down here, just twenty miles from Calais, trusted the French.
To Thorn, it sounded more like the tolling for a death than an alarm sounded at invasion, but why toll a death so late at night?
Then someone burst in, crying, “The king’s dead! George the Second’s dead! Took a seizure this morning. Stone-cold dead, he is!”
This was his moment, however. “God save the new king, then!” he bellowed. “The ale’s on me. Drink up, lads, drink up, and toast young George the Third!”
As everyone turned to push toward the barrel, he grabbed the girl’s arm again. When she fought him, he snapped, “Don’t be a fool!”
“My cloak!” She gasped.
He saw it puddled on the floor and let her pick it up and swing it on before putting an arm around her and bullying their way toward the door of the chaotic Rat.
He was met there by a hard-eyed man, hand out. The tavern keeper. No time for haggling. Thorn took a half guinea out of his secret pocket and passed it over. The man actually smiled and nodded his head. “Thank’ee, sir. And God bless the king, indeed. It’ll be mighty strange to have a new ’un.”
“Exceedingly.” He glanced around for the man who’d helped by revealing his identity and was winked at by an elderly man puffing peaceably on his pipe. He took the risk of going over to slip him a guinea.
The man slid it into a pocket, nodding with dignity. “God bless you, sir!”
Then he had the girl outside. He hurried her down the quay until they were lost in the misty darkness. Thorn blessed the growing crowd. When he’d entered the Rat, this area had been almost deserted, but now people were spilling out of buildings and perhaps coming from other areas of town to exclaim together over the news.
The immediate danger was over, but what in Hades was he to do with this woman? Especially now, in this extraordinary moment.
The old king had reigned as long as many here had memories, including himself. The king’s eldest son, Frederick, had died some years back, so the new monarch was Poor Fred’s son, George, a man younger than Thorn himself and under the thumb of his mother and his noble tutor, the Earl of Bute.
Chaos threatened and he needed to travel to London with all speed, but he had a reckless, stubborn millstone around his neck. She’d gathered her cloak around her and pulled up the hood against the damp chill, so he could see little of her face until she peered out at him.
In a flat voice, she said, “You’re going to abandon me now.”
A pretty plea would work better, my girl. But pretty pleas didn’t seem to be her style, to rapacious rascals or impatient rescuers. Part of him admired that.
“You’d better come to my inn with me,” he said shortly. “It’s not far and we can sort out your problem there.”
“I doubt you’ll find it so easy.”
“You’d rather I didn’t try? Then walk away.”
He sensed her flinch. “No, I’m sorry. It’s just . . . difficult.”
“I don’t doubt it.” He put an arm around her to guide her through the growing crowd. She resisted for a moment, but then showed some sense. The mood was merry at the moment. Clearly celebrating the new reign was preferable to mourning the old, but it involved drink, a lot of drink, so this could soon become a riot.
“What were you doing in the Rat?” he asked.
“Is that the place’s name? How appropriate.”
“Well?” he demanded.
“I . . .” But then she turned and flung her arms around his neck, pressing hard against him. He instinctively put his arms around her, but then he grasped her wrists to pull her off. Devil take it, was this an extremely contrived attempt to compromise him into marriage?
“No,” she whispered desperately, clinging to his coat. “Please!”
Good God. He’d heard of women driven mad with promiscuous desire. Was this a case? Was that her purpose down here on the quay? He couldn’t deny a touch of excited curiosity, so he kissed her parted lips.
She became an icy statue, her lips closing tight.
Not, alas, driven mad with promiscuous desire. Not even pretending enthusiasm in the hope of hooking his interest. That left only one explanation.
“Who are you hiding from?” he whispered.
She relaxed a little. “Two men walking down the street.”
The butterfly movements of her lips against his were surprisingly enticing, but not, it would seem, to her. He realized she wasn’t interested in him at all.
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