Some men are born into scandal. Others pursue it with a passion. Griffin Steele, secret son of the Duke of Cumberland, is guilty on both counts. Yet somehow London's most notorious scoundrel has been saddled with an abandoned baby boy--and with the unflappable, intriguing spinster summoned to nurse him. . .
Justine Brightmore may be a viscount's niece, but she's also a spy's daughter, determined to safeguard the infant when his suspected royal parentage makes him a target. Yet how to protect herself from the rakish Griffin? Marriage might shield her reputation, but it can only imperil her heart, especially with a groom intent on delicious seduction. . .
"Has all the elements of my favorite novels--a bad boy hero, a spirited heroine, a dash of intrigue, and a sizzling romance. Put her on your auto-buy list; you won't be disappointed." --Shana Galen
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Confessions of a Royal Bridegroom
By Vanessa Kelly
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Vanessa Kelly
All rights reserved.
London, January 1815
After seven long years, Griffin Steele was a sinner's breath away from casting off the millstone around his neck, the one that dragged at the few shreds of decency in his dark soul.
"I trust everything is to your specifications," said Madeline Reeves in her smoothly seductive tones. "Lizzie, Rebecca, and I went over the terms quite carefully, and I believe we've done a more than adequate job of addressing your concerns." Her full-lipped smile offset any hint of criticism that her words might have conveyed.
Griffin glanced up from the document to the woman who managed his brothel and who had once graced his bed. Madeline was a statuesque beauty, dark-haired and sloe-eyed, with a languid sensuality that masked a keen business mind and a card sharp's instincts. She was also, despite her profession, thoroughly decent and one of the few people Griffin had elected to trust in his life.
He responded to her challenge with a nod. "I know the terms seem more demanding than are justified, given our relationship. I also know you see the reason for it." He allowed the document to settle with a whisper of fluttering parchment onto his desk. "Am I wrong?"
Madeline's smile tilted up at one corner in wry understanding. "No, you're not wrong. You're never wrong, are you?"
Griffin had to repress a bitter laugh, covering the emotion her remark had engendered with a languid smile. "My dear, you flatter me, but I trust you see the reasoning behind my insistence on your ability to meet my terms. At least in this particular instance."
"I do." Madeline's lovely features shifted ever so slightly, transforming her from one of London's most-sought-after courtesans into a canny businesswoman. "If we could not demonstrate our ability to manage The Golden Tie according to your terms, then we would never be able to maintain our financial independence and treat the girls with a modicum of decency. I know how important that is to you."
She leaned forward to place a hand on the polished countertop of his Chippendale desk, her burgundy gown, beautifully tailored to showcase her magnificent figure, rustling with the soft slide of expensive silk. "I won't let anything happen to the girls, Griffin. You have my word."
"I know I do, and I am grateful to you."
He was, too. Madeline and her new partners—all women who worked in his brothel—were a key part of his plan to achieve his freedom.
Griffin had long wanted to shed The Golden Tie. He'd only saddled himself with it because he'd been unable to tolerate the brutal treatment meted out to the girls by the brothel's former owner—a foul excuse for a man named Paulson. The pig had done nothing to protect the girls from disease, pregnancy, and beatings from the customers. The man had, unfortunately, also owned The Cormorant, the first gaming house Griffin had acquired and the foundation of his wealth and influence. Though Griffin had only wanted the gaming house, he'd found himself taking the brothel on, as well.
Not that he was a saint. He'd taken full financial advantage of the opportunity—on his terms, of course—but now he was eager to rid himself of a responsibility he'd never wanted. Too often, in the years since he'd arrived in London, he'd seen the ruination of women, mistreated and then discarded by the sorts of men who frequented establishments like The Golden Tie. His own mother had suffered a similar fate. Griffin's father had the bluest blood in the land, but to his mind the man was less than a scraping of mud from a bootjack.
"Griffin, is something wrong?" The keen understanding in Madeline's eyes jogged him even more than her words.
Waving a negligent hand, Griffin rose to his feet to signal an end to their interview. "Not in the least, my dear. I'll have my solicitor look the papers over later today, but I'm sure everything is in order. We should be able to sign off in a few days." With a smile, he rounded the desk to offer Madeline his hand. "I wish you the best of luck, Mad. I know you'll make a go of it."
She rose with the sinuous grace that had entranced so many. Madeline was tall, enough so that she could almost look him straight in the eye.
"Would you, perhaps, like to celebrate the completion of our deal?" she purred, her velvet-brown gaze glittering with satisfaction and invitation. "Once more for old times' sake?"
Her voice brushed along his nerves, pleasantly arousing. At one time, Griffin would have responded to that siren call with alacrity. But he'd left Madeline's bed months ago, as much from a growing ennui as a reluctance to mix business and pleasure. For a moment, he allowed himself to consider the invitation, knowing that Madeline would be more than willing to do all the work. But then that dark, dissatisfied part of him that had been pushing so hard of late, the part driving him to step far away from his current life, reasserted itself. He didn't have to say a word, either. Madeline, ever sensitive to his emotional nuance, saw the answer on his face.
"Ah, well," she said, not sounding all that disappointed. "I thought not. Truly, Griffin, you are turning into a monk. We haven't seen you next door in three nights. I do hope you don't intend to take yourself off to some dreary mountaintop in Scotland, or hole up in a ridiculous hermitage on one of your uncles' estates." She let her gaze drift down over his body. "That would be such a waste."
He grinned at her. "Now you're simply flattering me, and you know I'm immune to that sort of thing."
She was about to retort when a quick knock on the door cut her off. Before Griffin could call out permission to enter, Tom Deacon opened the door and barreled into the room.
Griffin raised his eyebrows in a pointed question. His business manager might be several inches taller and outweigh him by three stone, but Tom knew better than to charge into his office without permission. Combined with the scowl on the man's blunt features, it suggested that something had disturbed his normally unflappable right hand.
Tom came to a halt in front of the desk, practically stepping on Griffin's toes. The space was small enough that Madeline had to sit down in order to avoid getting squashed between the two men.
Griffin's office, once the room from which he'd managed the gaming hell that had graced this part of Jermyn Street, wasn't large. He'd closed The Cormorant only a few months ago, converting the building back to its original use as a private dwelling, but he'd seen no point in moving his office to a more spacious room upstairs. From here, Griffin could still monitor the comings and goings in his household and the brothel next door, connected by a small, conveniently placed passageway right outside his office door. Tom's bulky form and his obvious agitation filled the room, making the walls seem to close in.
Sighing, Griffin moved around to the other side of his desk and waited. Tom was a man of few words to begin with, and it rarely served to push him. But after several seconds of watching Tom's jaw tick under the impact of some obviously perturbing stimulus, Griffin finally lost his patience.
"Are we going to stand here like a pair of chawbacons, or are you going to tell me why you're so disturbed?" Griffin asked with some asperity.
Tom's jaw worked again, as if chewing over a gristly piece of mutton, but he finally spit words out. "It's a baby. A baby in the entrance hall."
Griffin's mind blanked for a second. "A baby?" he repeated, sounding rather like a chawbacon after all. "In my house?"
Some of the girls did occasionally succumb to that particular hazard of the profession, but Griffin always set them up off the premises. Babies weren't exactly good for this sort of business.
Tom unleashed a grim smile. "Aye. And, apparently, it's yours."
Griffin strode toward the front of the house.
"If there's one thing you can be sure of," he snapped over his shoulder at Tom, "it's that this baby is not mine. I've been very careful with that sort of thing, I assure you." Given his lamentable parentage he'd be damned if he spread his seed around with such careless abandon.
"I'm just telling you what the boy who brought him said," Tom retorted. "I'm not sayin' it's true, am I?"
"I should bloody well hope not," Griffin muttered. Even so, he couldn't help counting in his head, thinking of whose bed he'd been warming about nine months ago. A few moments of rapid reflection confirmed what he'd thought. He'd been sleeping with only Madeline back then, and he sure as hell had not gotten her with child.
Still, some enterprising or desperate woman might try to pin the charge on him, hoping to squeeze him for money. Griffin's reputation when it came to matters of a sexual nature was exaggerated. He was more discriminating than anyone gave him credit for, unlike Prinny and some of his other royal uncles who couldn't seem to resist an attractive bit of tail to save their lives. Griffin also made a point of never sleeping with a woman whilst in his cups. He'd learned early on that losing control of oneself only led to trouble. On the few occasions when he did indulge in drink, he generally did it in private, or with the few people he trusted to have his back.
He pushed through the baize door and into the entrance hall. A moment later he practically skidded to a halt, with Tom almost ramming him in the back.
There was a baby, all right. It was wrapped in a white blanket, resting in a commodious straw basket, which someone had plopped into the middle of the tiled hall. Griffin couldn't actually see the infant from where he stood, but he could hear its woeful crying. Its thin wail climbed up into a higher register, rapidly transforming into a lusty, keening lament that bounced off the plastered walls to make everyone wince.
"Nothin' wrong with that set of lungs," Tom observed in a sour voice.
Griffin resisted the impulse to jam his fingers in his ears as he inspected the other stranger. A small boy of not more than ten years of age, clearly a street urchin, stood by the basket, shifting uncomfortably as he rolled his ratty cap between nervous fingers. Hovering behind the boy with a pained look on his narrow features was Phelps, Griffin's manservant and factotum.
"What the hell is going on?" Griffin asked in a voice loud enough to be heard over the wailing. "Phelps, why in God's name would you let these brats into the house?"
"Couldn't really stop the boy, Mr. Griffin," Phelps said with a helpless shrug. "He slipped right under my arm before I could say nary a word."
Griffin turned to the urchin. Despite his scruffy appearance, intelligence gleamed in the lad's eyes, along with a wary curiosity. Nor could he fail to note the way the child's gaze jumped from point to point, obviously taking in the highly polished wall sconces and the brass hardware on the doors.
"Don't even think about it," Griffin said in a dry voice.
The boy's eyes widened in an imitation of innocence. "Got no idea what you're talking about, guv."
"I'm fairly sure you do. Now, tell me who you are and why you brought this child into my establishment."
Just then, the baby's cry kicked up to a deafening level. Tom actually did stuff his fingers in his ears.
"Hellfire and damnation, Phelps," Griffin exclaimed. "Pick the child up and keep it quiet. I can barely think with that racket going on."
Phelps, a wiry, capable man who once owned a rough and tumble pub in Covent Garden, backed away, putting up his hands as if warding off an attack. "Sorry, sir. I'm afraid I'll drop it. Never did go in much for babies."
"Phelps, you raised a daughter, remember? She works in this very house. Surely you held her on more than one occasion," Griffin replied, exasperated.
"Aye, and I loves her like my life, but I didn't much enjoy holding her, neither. Not when she squalled like that."
"Pro'ly just needs its nappy changed," observed the boy with the trenchant wisdom of one who had younger siblings.
Griffin turned to Tom, who backed right up to the baize door looking even more panicked than Phelps.
"Oh, for Christ's sake," Griffin muttered.
He crouched down beside the basket. It had been years since he'd held a baby, but he supposed he'd not lost the knack of it. Growing up in his uncle's vicarage in the wilds of Yorkshire, he'd spent many a lonely afternoon in the kitchen with the housekeeper, Mrs. Patterson, a kind woman and the closest thing to a mother Griffin had known in those days. She'd had an inexhaustible supply of grandchildren, and she'd sometimes enlisted his help when she had to take care of one or another of the brood. Without any siblings of his own, Griffin had never minded. He'd spent many a bleak winter's day by the fire, rocking a fractious baby to sleep while Mrs. Patterson bustled about with her cooking.
"Now, what's all the fuss about?" he murmured as he carefully peeled the soft blanket away. A very red, unhappy face peered up at him, its mouth pursed with infant outrage. The baby sucked in a breath and waved its little fists in the air, obviously preparing to let out another wail of complaint, so Griffin quickly slipped his hands under the small body and lifted, standing upright in the same motion.
"Here, none of that," he said in a quiet voice as he shifted the child to rest more comfortably against his chest.
The baby's cry wavered and then abruptly cut off, replaced by several rather shattering sobs that sounded more like a case of the hiccups. Tears clung to its dark eyelashes and it still looked miserable in that heartrending way of babies. But at least it had stopped lacerating their ears.
"Huh," grunted Tom, inching cautiously forward, as if fearing the baby might leap up and bite him. "Never took you for the motherly sort."
"It's not exactly advanced mathematics," Griffin said before turning his attention back to the lad who'd delivered such an unusual package. "What's your name?"
"Roger. What's yours?" the boy asked with a nervy curiosity that put Griffin in mind of a squirrel.
"Griffin Steele, at your service. Now, perhaps you'd like to tell me what this is all about."
Roger gave a satisfied nod. "You're the nob I was supposed to find. I've got a message for you."
"I'm not a nob," Griffin replied automatically. If there was one thing in the world he did not want to be taken for, it was an aristocrat.
Roger glanced around the hall and then raised his eyebrows, investing the look with a polite skepticism that would not have been out of place in the finest drawing rooms of the ton.
Griffin sighed. "Well, get on with it then. Who's trying to dump this baby on me and claim that I'm its—" He broke off, shaking his head. "Is it a boy or a girl?"
The boy lifted his shoulders in an insouciant shrug. "Beats me, guv."
Muttering under his breath, Griffin gently pulled up the infant's lace-trimmed robe and gingerly inched aside his swaddled undergarment. He couldn't fail to notice the clothing was fashioned of the finest lawn, nor that the matching cap was trimmed with lace.
"A boy," he said, hastily tucking the material back around the obviously well-fed body.
Everyone in the hall seemed to let out a collective sigh, as if they'd all been dying to know the answer.
"Now that we've ascertained that pertinent fact, perhaps you can tell me what you're doing with him, and why you brought him here," Griffin said, gazing sternly at Roger.
The boy opened his mouth to answer, but the words died on his tongue when the green baize door swung open and Madeline swept into the hall in all her sultry glory. Roger's gobsmacked expression was one that Griffin had seen on much older faces more times than he could count.
He cuffed the boy on the shoulder. "None of that. You're much too young to even be looking."
Madeline rustled across the hall to join them. "Goodness, is this little one truly yours, Griffin?"
"No," he replied, trying not to growl with irritation. "But if everyone will kindly stop interrupting me, I might be able to find out who he does belong to."
Madeline was staring at the baby with a surprisingly maternal look on her face. "Well, he seems very sweet." She gently stroked the now-drowsy baby's rounded cheek.
"Good, then you can hold him." Griffin swiftly transferred the baby into her arms. She looked startled, but accepted the burden without protest.
"Now, you were about to say?" he prompted Roger.
Excerpted from Confessions of a Royal Bridegroom by Vanessa Kelly. Copyright © 2014 Vanessa Kelly. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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