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The Fleet prison loomed towering and intimidating as Juliet approached the huge doors. Unconsciously drawing her cloak tighter around her, she shuddered as she was admitted. How she hated the place. The guard knew her from her weekly visits and conducted her through the lobby and past the warden's office and up to her brother's cell. The guard pocketed the necessary coin she gave him and turned the key to admit her.
Robby was stretched out on a narrow bed, seemingly fast asleep. Thoroughly frustrated by her brother's inactivity, she shook him roughly by the arm.
'Robby! Wake up.'
At twenty-eight Robby, her half-brother, was five years Juliet's senior, but prison had taken something away from him and she was for the moment the strong one, the support, her female instincts for her sibling flooding to comfort, to relieve his suffering, for despite his devil-may-care attitude on the outside, she knew as only a sister can the depth of his pain, his anger and frustration directed at himself for allowing himself to fall so low.
At last, to her relief, he showed signs of stirring. His eyelids flickered in his gaunt face and he stared lazily around him, as if surprised to find himself in prison at all. Then he caught sight of Juliet and his eyes lit up with pleasure.
'Juliet! I must have dozed off.' Throwing his legs over the side, he sat up, smoothing his long white fingers through his fair hair.
Robby was in the Fleet because, with an eye for the main chance, he had lived beyond his means. Every opportunity had been expended upon him by their father, and after finishing years of advanced learning he had declared an intense dislike for it and resigned his position as a teacher of history at a prestigious boys' school in Surrey. At twenty-one, coming into a small inheritance from his mother, he had taken off on the Grand Tour with some of his contemporaries. The money spent, he had returned home.
Living on his wits and boyish charm and possessed of arrogance, pride and a good deal of pigheadedness, he indulged in the usual pastimes open to a gentleman of urbane habits and wealth, spending his nights drinking and carousing and being over-generous to his friends. He was good lookingat least the ladies seemed to think so, for they hung around him like flies and he knew how to charm and coax. But his debts had finally caught up with him and he had ended up in this place.
'You really should be at some kind of employment, Robby,' Juliet said, wrinkling her nose with distaste at the dreadful odour that pervaded every corner of the prison, 'not kicking your heels in this place.'
'I admit I want to be out of here,' he murmured, straining at this restriction to his freedom, 'but what can I do?'
Juliet placed a wrapped bundle on the table. 'Here, I've brought you some foodbread and cheeseand some books to read to help pass the time.'
He grinned at her fondly. 'You and your books, Juliet. Where would you be without them?'
'I really don't know, Robby. Where would either of us be? It's because of my love of books and what I've learned from Father that I'm able to do the work I do. And you may mock, but it's my knowledge that enables me to pay the guards to provide you with special favours. It's better than taking in washing, and, if I am to get you out of this dreadful place, I must earn all I can.'
Robby was immediately contrite. 'Sorry, sis. I know how hard you work and the small luxuries I have are down to you. I am grateful. I'm proud of you. Father would be, too were he still with us. You've proved yourself as resourceful as you are clever. How's Sir John?'
'That's what I've come to tell you. I'm leaving his employ, Robby. My work is finished. I've found new employmentout of London.'
'And naturally you'll be too busy to come and see me.'
It was the undercurrent of disappointment in his voice that touched Juliet. 'Not too busy, Robby. Too far away. I'm to take up a position for the Duke of Hawksfield in Essex, so I won't be able to visit you for a while, but I will write often.'
Robby's look of surprise was quickly followed by one of displeasure. 'Dominic Lansdowne?'
'YesI believe that is his name.'
'WellDominic Lansdowne of all people!'
'You know him?'
'I know of hima military man, fought in Spain.' He frowned, suddenly anxious for his sister. 'He's also a spectacularly handsome rake, Juliet, superior, arrogant, a de-spoiler of innocent girls and constantly gossiped about, but rarely seen. If all the stories are to be believed, the Duke of Hawksfield and his friends spend the majority of their time when in town perusing sexual conquests, and when he isn't in London prowling the gaming halls, he's roaming the countryside on his stallion searching for a complaisant wench to assuage his appetite.'
Juliet flushed at Robby's unsavoury description of the man she was to work for. 'Really, Robby, you paint an unflattering picture of my future employer.'
'With good cause. Have you met him?'
'No. He was willing to employ me on Sir John's recommendation and my written application. He can't possibly be as dissolute as you have painted him.'
'I'm sorry, Juliet, but that's the way he is. You mean the world to me and I care about youwhat happens to you. I know how independent you are, but when it comes to men like Dominic Lansdowne, then you are way out of your league. The ladies love him. Be wary. He'll not make you a duchess.'
'I don't want to be a duchess, Robby. I only want to earn enough money to make your life bearable while you are in this place. Another few months and you'll be out.'
She left, leaving her brother lost in his own depressed thoughts.
As Juliet left the town of Brentwood in Essex the wind had risen, bringing with it a cold, dense rain that whipped against her face. Her bonnet was soon soaked, as was her cloak and her dress beneath, and saturated strands of hair clung to her face. Mr Carter, whose trap she was in, handed her a rug.
'Sorry about the weather, miss, but don't worry. We'll soon be at Lansdowne House.'
'I do hope so, Mr Carter. I really do, otherwise I dread to think what I shall look like when I get there. I only hope we arrive before dark.'
Gratefully she took the proffered rug and draped it about her shoulders, hunching her back against the downpour. Disregarding the water trapped in the folds of her sodden collar, she did her best to ignore the discomforts of the weather, concentrating wholly upon the route they were following.
When at last she caught sight of some tall, wrought-iron gates ahead, she breathed a sigh of relief. Passing through them, they followed a curved drive. The house at the end of it looked enormous, very impressive and very grand, which was what one would expect a duke's house to be. It was three-storeyed, with leaded windows and a white marble portico in front.
Mr Carter halted at the entrance and climbed down, going to assist his passenger. The hem of Juliet's cloak became caught on a nail on the side of the trap. Pulling at it in exasperation, she uttered a cry of dismay when she heard it rip. Knowing there was nothing to be done, with a resigned sigh she followed Mr Carter to the door.
'Thank you, Mr Carter,' she said as he set her trunk down. 'You'd best be getting back. It will soon be dark and you still have a way to go before you reach your home. I'll be all right now.'
She watched him go before turning her attention to the door. She had been anticipating this moment for days, and now it was here she was strangely reluctant to enter. With butterflies in her stomacha mixture of nerves and excitementshe lifted the highly polished brass knocker shaped in a lion's paw. Letting it fall loudly, she waited.
There was no sound from within, which she thought strange for a house as grand as this. After letting the knocker fall again and still getting no response, she turned the knob and pushed. It opened soundlessly. Sternly quelling a tremor of apprehension and stepping inside the house, she looked around. There wasn't a servant in sight.
It was a magnificent house, she thought as she moved into the centre of the spacious and elegant halla palace, that made her feel even smaller and more insignificant than she already felt, as she dripped water all over the floor. Straight ahead was a sweeping central staircase, the handrails highly polished and glinting in the diffused light of the chandelier. The walls were hung with paintings: men in military uniform, family portraits, scenes of days gone by. Seeing a door slightly ajar, with her heart pounding a nervous tattoo within her chest, she went towards it and opened it further, realising her mistake when it was too late.
All but one pair of eyes moved as one, as if in slow motion, to look at her. It was like a bizarre tableau. The man at the head of a table littered with nutshells and orange peel and glasses and bottles, the air thick with tobacco smoke, was the last to turn his head and look at her, his face a picture of irritated bewilderment. What he saw was the bedraggled figure of a woman in a sodden cloak with its torn hem trailing on the floor. Wet strands of hair clung to her face and a small feather in her bonnet drooped pathetically.
Dominic Lansdowne, the seventh Duke of Hawksfield, knew all the servants in his house, if not by name then by sight, and he didn't know the woman in the doorway. If she was looking for the domestic quarters, then she had lost her way.
'Ohplease excuse me. I'm sorry to intrude upon you like this. I really didn't mean to. Iappear to be lost.'
Her appearance caused a stir of lewd and bawdy comments from five young men at the table, who, because of a good day shooting birds on the Duke's estate, were already in their cups. Not so the man seated at the head of the table, who gave his guests a look of bored nonchalance and the supreme indifference of the true aristocrat.
His authority was obvious, a man used to giving orders and having them obeyed. Juliet felt a prickling of unease. It wasn't just his fine clothes and bearing that marked him out. Even from a distance she could feel the force of his personality and charisma.
Rising from his chair, he sauntered indolently towards her.
He was tall and lean of waist and hip and of powerful build, with broad shoulders, the body of a soldier, an adventurer rather than an aesthete. His hair was thick and shining black, curling vigorously in the nape of his neck. He was clean shaven and amber skinned, and dark clipped eyebrows sat above silver-grey eyes with pupils as black as coal.
He was an attractive man, his face strong, his mouth stubborn and his chin arrogant. But there was a hint of humour in the curl of his lips, which told Juliet he took pleasure from life. He had removed his jacket and his silk waistcoat was unbuttoned, his shirt thrown open at the neck. Towering over her, he said, 'And you are?'
'Miss Lockwood.' She was very pale and her expression seemed strained, but her candid dark eyes met the Duke's with almost innocent steadfastness. His eyes held hers entrapped, and hidden in them was amusement, watchful, penetrating and mocking, as though he held the world an amusing place to be. 'Iam sorry to arrive unannounced, but there was no one on the door to let me in.'
Dominic uttered a sound of annoyance and stepped briskly round her. Peering into the hall, he shouted for someone called Pearce.
'I was not expecting you until tomorrow, Miss Lockwood.'
'Yes, I know, but I arrived in Brentwood early and didn't think you would mind if I came here straight away,' she explained, the truth being that the accommodation in Brentwood was expensive and she had wanted to conserve her limited capital.
'And you have come directly from Londonfrom Sir John Moore?'
'Yes, your Grace.' Juliet felt uncharacteristically daunted. She had been her own mistress for so long she was used to being in command, but there was something rather disconcerting about this man's self-assurance.
And Sir John is well?'
When a loud guffaw rose from the table, irritated, Dominic looked at his friends. 'I must apologise, Miss Lockwood,' he said on a dry note. 'It's the shooting season, you see, and it's been a long day for all concerned.'
'And a damned enjoyable one, too,' one of the gentlemen piped up, taking a long swallow of his brandy.
Juliet couldn't see what being a long day had to do with anything, but didn't dare say so. Her gaze was drawn to the people seated at the table. Endowed from birth with financial provision made them the superior beings they so obviously thought themselves to be. They possessed also the glorious belief that they were unique in the world. They were all lounging lazily in their chairs with a bored languor, having become quiet and eyeing her rudely, as if sensing something about her which promised to be entertaining. Their neck linen had either been removed or unfastened, and their clothes and hair were in disarray.
She was disconcerted at being subjected for the first time in her life to a situation like this, to being visually harassed by such poor specimens of men as these, and she felt a surge of resentment that they were having fun at her expense. Certainly she was not used to people like this. She had been at the Academy with girls who had rich and influential parents, but that's where it ended.
One gentleman, Thomas Howard, drew deeply on his cigar, the smoke wreathing about his head, and another had an attractive-looking fair-haired young woman seated close beside him. Lifting his quizzing glass to his eye, he trained it upon Juliet and boldly inspected her.
'Good Lord! Who is this unkempt creature, Dominic? Lost her way, has she? Doesn't she know to use the back door?'
'Shutup, Sedgwick,' Dominic said. 'You're being outrageous, exceedingly rude and embarrassing Miss Lockwood.'
'But servants never enter a gentleman's house by the front door,' the woman commented, her voice sounding like a purr, 'unless, of course, she's new to service and doesn't know any better.'
Juliet's eyes narrowed and anger stirred inside her. 'I am Lord Lansdowne's employee, not his servant,' she was quick to retort.