Read an Excerpt
A Furies Novel
By Wendy LaCapra, Erin Molta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Wendy LaCapra
All rights reserved.
To His Grace, the Duke of Wynchester
You have demanded reconciliation. To that end, I propose a wager. Two throws
each, the highest total wins. Equal
numbers will merit a third throw.
Should you win, I will return to you for the summer.
Should I win, we will discuss a Parliamentary divorce.
Consider this letter a widely-coveted invitation to
tomorrow's Fury Soiree.
With anticipation of your arrival,
Thea Marie, Duchess Decadence
Thea Marie Worthington, Duchess of Wynchester — alias the Fury, Duchess Decadence — ignored the obscenely large pile of gold sovereigns she just wagered. Smiling as serenely as her friend Sophia's "Fine Lady" Bow Porcelain Factory figurine, she dealt the last round of her game.
Thea's affinity for bone ash was no wonder. Once, she, too, had lived, before being crushed to paste, re-sculpted, and then fired into a thing of beauty, a thing of decadence. And also like fine china, she could crack at any time.
In the four years since the Gordon Riots had brought a harsh end to Thea's nascent pregnancy, she'd kept the door between what had been and what could be firmly bolted. By day, she traded wit and barbs with her closest friends — oh, very well, her only friends — the other two Furies, Sophia, The Countess of Randolph and Lavinia, Baroness Vaile, and, on nights like this one, when the Furies held their infamous gaming soirees, she studied the lop-sided tangle between fortune and fate.
In other words, she had made excellent use of sarcasm and gambling.
But tonight would end the denouement which had begun several weeks prior, when her estranged husband had ridden into the midst of a violent crowd to secure her life, looking every inch the fierce and protective duke of her girlish dreams. And if Wynchester's belated heroics had not been enough to return him to prominence within her thoughts, soon after the duke quelled the crowd, agents of the crown had informed Thea that Lord Eustace, the duke's younger, presumed-dead brother, was secretly alive and intent on resuming his place as the duke's heir.
The agents delving into the mystery of Eustace's presumed death and mysterious reappearance, were testing the theory that Eustace committed acts of treason under the assumed identity of Kasai, a bloodthirsty mercenary who had menaced the East India Company for years. But members of the Privy Council argued Eustace was likely nothing more than a wronged prisoner. Without proof of a crime, the Privy Council would not act against a duke's only heir, nor would they continue to allow the duke to remain ignorant of said heir's survival.
Concerned, the agents had approached Thea, requesting she stay close to her husband while they pursued the truth.
She had agreed. Not because of their pleas, but because experience with Eustace had taught her the duke's brother was not content as the heir to the Duke of Wynchester. His driving ambition had always been to be the Duke of Wynchester.
So, though fate had sliced the fragile bridge between Thea and the duke on the horrible days of the riots, she'd be damned before she would allow Eustace — the bastard whose false accusations had blown open the chasm in the first place — to harm his brother in his grasp for power and possibly even the title.
The polished figurine she'd become was about to reanimate. Fragile or not, it was her turn to ride into a metaphorical riot and save her husband. Whether or not she could save her marriage — or herself — was another question ...
She fanned her cards as her opponent laid out his hand. Blinking away the sharp burn of disbelief, she studied her hand a second time.
... A question so forbidding, she had just lost a small fortune to Sir Bronward Layton — a man with little talent for strategy.
She tossed her losing hand onto the table as Sir Bronward, nephew to the Under Secretary of State, let out an ungentlemanly whoop of triumph. Her back hit the chair with a jarring thud. Should her loss of hard-won gold matter? She was about to lose something more essential. Her independence.
"Congratulations Sir Bronward," she said.
Bronward collected his gold as the other two Furies, Sophia and Lavinia, materialized out of the crowd of velvet and lace.
"How lovely," Bronward said as the last of the gold coins disappeared into his coat. "The three Furies are together again at last, Lady Scandal, Lady Vice, and Duchess Decadence." He glanced toward Sophia with a knowing gleam in his gaze. "As you can see, Lady Scandal, the clamor for your attention did not dim during your absence." His eyes narrowed. "Your departure a few weeks back was abrupt, was it not, my lady?"
"A gentleman," Sophia's lash-flutter added a subtle touch, "allows a lady her secrets."
"And we all know," Thea remarked dryly, "Sir Bronward is quite the gentleman."
"Forgive me. I have missed your soirees these past weeks." Speculative amusement flashed across Bronward's features. "I must say," his gaze dropped to the black beads sparkling on the edge of Thea's coral-red bodice, "the Furies are at their finest tonight."
Thea draped her hand over the revealing aspects of her décolletage, covering a display not meant for the brash, young baronet.
"Thank you for your compliments, Sir Bronward," Lavinia said with smooth diplomacy, "We are happy you chose to attend. But now —"
"There is a rumor," Bronward interrupted, "that the Duke of Wynchester will make an appearance tonight." He glanced from one lady to the next. "Is it true?"
Sophia donned her da Vinci smile. "You are welcome to stay and find out. Now you must excuse us." She helped a reluctant Thea to her feet. "Come, dearest," she continued, "I would like your opinion on the most delightful figurine Lavinia has given ..."
Sophia's voice faded as the drawing room doors opened.
"The Duke of Wynchester," Sophia's footman announced, "and Mr. Maximilian Harrison."
Thea's lips parted in astonishment as she turned her gaze to the doorway. Lavinia's Max and her duke stood on the threshold. Only the man she saw wasn't her duke at all. The Wynchester she knew was perfectly turned out. Always. And, the Wynchester she knew never, ever overindulged.
This Wynchester, however, swayed against Harrison's arm while his bloodshot gaze raked the assembled guests. His unpowdered black locks lay about his shoulders in knotted disarray and dark circles marred the skin beneath his eyes.
"Where is she?" His rumbling voice reverberated beneath her ribs.
Run. The crisp, internal command came viscerally. Her muscles seized, her breath quickened, her gaze sharpened. Her body primed for flight in the same elemental way it had done since she was a child.
"Consummate-duchess" instruction ordered by the duke's deceased mother had drilled away Thea's natural impulse, but the Gordon Riots had revived it with a vengeance, and she'd been running ever since.
Lavinia's hand slipped into hers, solid and warm. Thea heaved aside the urge to flee, and instead concentrated on the stakes — the duke's life; justice for Eustace's victims.
"There she is!" The duke gestured in Thea's direction.
"He is as drunk as a wheelbarrow," Lavinia breathed.
"Oh," Thea quelled a shiver, "how the mighty have fallen."
"Let us hope his weapons of war have also perished." Sophia modified the remainder of the verse.
Grim-faced and intent, Harrison guided the duke to a place beside the duchess. Wynchester's gaze traveled slowly over her gown as if he were plucking out stitches, one by one. Thea shifted, allowing the light from Sophia's massive chandeliers to catch the black beads sewn into her bodice. She'd chosen the accents to complement her pale skin and midnight hair, and she had chosen well, if the duke's reluctant appreciation was any measure.
With an air of detachment, she returned his appraisal. Despite the shocking state of his rumpled neck cloth, his well-tailored clothes displayed his tall, muscular frame to his advantage. Handsome, he was not. He had too wide a mouth and too small a nose for common praise. He was more than handsome. He exuded aristocratic appeal. His height intimidated while his bone-deep confidence made him vital. As for the arresting look in his eyes, well — Thea inhaled — that look could only be described as virile.
Allure had never been his problem.
"You, duchess," his words were no less affecting for their slur, "promised me a game."
"Indeed I have," she said smoothly. "And we shall retire to Sophia's study to play."
Murmurs of disappointment rustled within the crowd.
"Oh come now," Sophia scolded their guests, "Duchess Decadence has already provided ample entertainment for one evening."
"Duchess Decadence," Wynchester said in a derisive whisper. "I suppose that makes me Duke Decadence?"
"No." Thea pasted on her fine-lady smile. "In this realm, I am a peeress in my own right. You must be satisfied by the title of consort."
Sophia's throaty chuckle preceded a cool-lip kiss to Thea's cheek. "Good luck, dearest."
Thea turned to thank Sophia with a genuine smile, but it stalled. Sophia's normally pink cheeks were parchment-pale. But of course, Sophia worried for herself, too. Lord Randolph, Sophia's husband, had not yet appeared, and her future rested on his public acknowledgment of their marriage ... tonight.
"Randolph will come," Thea assured.
Randolph had better come. Randolph, along with Harrison — who was both Lavinia's betrothed and the duke's trusted colleague — provided clandestine service to the crown and East India Company. They were the agents who asked Thea to protect the duke. For their plan to succeed, she needed both men as much as she needed the Furies.
She hated to depend on others, but in this she had no choice.
She squeezed Sophia's hand one last time before threading her arm through Wynchester's.
"Shall we, Duke?"
He grunted, but allowed her to guide him toward the study.
As they walked side by side, the guests' blatant stares weighed against her back like a heavy train. She had worn such a trailing skirt — inspired by Queen Charlotte's gown in a painting by Allan Ramsay — on her wedding day. She'd leaned on Wynchester then as he leaned on her now, foolishly hopeful and blissfully unaware of the heartbreak to come.
She glanced askance. His onyx eyes met hers.
"Do not think," he warned, "my state will give you an advantage."
She fixed her gaze ahead. "Oh, I could not be so mistaken," she replied with wispy carelessness. She'd been mad to think she could manage Wynchester. Absolutely mad. Where you are concerned I have never had an advantage."
His muscle grew taut beneath her arm.
"Not," he emphasized the final consonant, "so."
A light-fingered chill passed over her skin and settled unevenly into her stomach. She had intended to trick the duke into welcoming her home while keeping her pride intact — a delicate maneuver designed to keep Wynchester from questioning her purpose while she prevented Eustace from gaining undue influence.
However, when she and the Furies had made the plan, she'd been expecting an entirely different man ... a cool, deliberate man, a man secure in his superiority. Her expectations did not match the person effusing heat at her side. The enormity of her task suddenly seemed Sisyphean.
They entered Sophia's study and she bid him sit. With a cursory glance to the pewter cup and pair of dice she'd set atop the desk, she returned to close the door. Lavinia and Harrison stood just beyond the doorway, arm-in-arm.
"Duchess," Harrison frowned with weighty seriousness, like the former judge he was, "Wynchester is not himself. Perhaps you should delay your wager?"
"Yes," Lavinia hurriedly agreed, "do delay. We will devise another plan."
Thea's fingers turned white around the door handle.
"Is he often like this?" she asked Harrison.
Harrison hesitated. "Of late."
Her fear was confirmed: Wynchester had come undone and she was the cause. She, who had never before been able to move Wynchester to any feeling but annoyance. Unexpected. Disturbingly unexpected.
"Delaying, Duchess?" the duke called.
She glanced over her shoulder. "Requesting a moment alone, Wynchester." She turned back to Harrison. "Answer me this," she whispered, "have you found Eustace?"
Harrison grimaced. "He has returned to London, but we are uncertain of his exact location."
"Well then, our problem and purpose remain. Eustace will seek Wynchester's protection and, when he does, he must not be allowed exclusive influence." She set her shoulders back. "Tonight is my best chance to return without rousing Wynchester's suspicion. He knows I hate his brother."
Harrison exchanged a significant look with Lavinia. Their unspoken communication left an uncharitable ache in Thea's heart, which she instantly suppressed. Lavinia deserved someone who loved her as much as Mr. Harrison. That such love was beyond Thea's grasp was not Lavinia's fault.
"We will be just outside the door," Lavinia said with a reassuring touch to Thea's arm.
"Good luck, Duchess," Harrison added.
With a quick nod, Thea closed the door. Her petticoats whispered as she turned.
Wynchester sprawled over the desk chair, legs stretched and eyes closed. He looked like an angel fallen from the heavens — broken, bewildered. Her gaze softened. Somewhere between Wynchester's expectation of god-like perfection and her realms of embittered disgrace, a less hostile plain must exist. She sighed. Even if no such place existed, loyalty to the Wynchester title and the many tenants who depended on the duke were enough for her to remain constant.
Beneath her sleeve, Thea touched the weighted dice inside the small pockets her new-and-clever maid, Polly had concealed behind the beading. Cunning, indeed. But to succeed, she'd need something more than cunning. She'd need Grace. How else were two such hearts as theirs — proud and battered and wary — to come together once again?
"Are you ready for our game?" she asked.
Scythe-like eyelashes flew apart and stormy eyes fixed on her face.
"This is no game, Thea Marie."
"Everything is a game, Duke." And the stakes were much higher than he could imagine.
"You can call our life a game," his tone held a sneer, "only because society's shaming means nothing to you."
Thea bristled, reliving the sum of a hundred hollow looks of spite and shallow triumph that had been cast her way since she'd left Wynchester.
"Even if that were true," she said, "I am not the one who sauntered into Sophia's home like a leather-headed, gin-bitten drunk."
"Not gin." He snorted. "An exorbitant indulgence that Harrison imports — Armagnac." He lifted his right brow. "One way or another, it seems my predisposition for decadence will be my ruin."
"A single night's excess will hardly be your ruin." She frowned. "Even if it was, I would not be the cause."
"Wouldn't you?" Slowly, he rose from the chair, eyes hurling accusation with the same force he'd use to thrust one of the centuries-old Wynchester swords. "Every choice I made has been a sacrifice to the Worthington name and Wynchester title, the name and title you carry and have blackened without cause or feeling."
Without cause? Without feeling? She inhaled sharply. My pregnancy ended in violence and pain because your loyalties lay elsewhere.
The words clanged against her teeth, straining to be spat in a final act of defiance that would, no doubt, result in a permanent rupture. She waited for the dark haze of anger, fear, and grief to dissipate, as she learned it would do with time and steadied breath. Old wounds may fester, but, right now, the slanderer Eustace was scheming his way back into their lives, and she believed he would be more than happy to see her husband in the grave.
She donned her most haughty expression, the one she used when returning a cut-direct.
"Well," she said, "I never asked you to sacrifice for me."
Excerpted from Duchess Decadence by Wendy LaCapra, Erin Molta. Copyright © 2015 Wendy LaCapra. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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