Lord James Rushford is the only man in London who can lead Rowena Woolcott to the villain who has been tormenting her family for years, and she will stop at nothing to enlist his help. Even if she must pretend to play a dangerously enticing role: his mistress.
Rushford has demons of his own-a dark past that haunts his memories. Yet the temptation that Rowena presents is more than he can resist.
Claiming to be lovers should not be so easy-or feel so achingly appealing. But as Rushford ushers Rowena through London's most elite clubs and sinister underworlds, truth and fantasy blur. And as the threat to Rowena grows near, the masquerade of passion begins to feel startlingly real. . .
"A finely wrought tale, rife with twisting secrets and dangerous hungers. Exquisite!" -Sylvia Day on The Deadliest Sin
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The Darkest Sin
By Caroline Richards
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Caroline Richards
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLondon: One year later
"A bloody mess, it was."
"How many days in the water do they estimate?"
"Difficult to tell. Bilious and bloated beyond recognition."
Lord James Lyndon Rushford barely looked up from the table, his gaze intent on the cards in his right hand. "Are we playing vingt-et-un, gentlemen?" he murmured. "I would suggest, judging by your winnings, that you concentrate on the game."
The oil lamps burned low, illuminating the generous proportions of the games room hosting four men, jackets casually draped across chairs, neck stocks undone, who were leisurely and relentlessly bent upon losing money, of which they all had plenty. Crockford's was a private club on St. James, luxurious and discreet, requiring membership that demanded deep coffers and cavalier unconcern. On this Monday evening the crowd was unusually light, consisting solely of players for whom the vice of cards was too hard to resist.
Sir Richard Archer threw down a matched set of queens a moment before Rushford bested him with a sprawl of cards, lazily delivered on the mahogany table.
Archer grinned good-naturedly, blue eyes gleaming beneath a bold nose. "Thought we could put you off your game, Rush, but apparently not."
"Indeed," murmured Lord Ambrose Galveston, leaning forward in his chair, observing Rushford speculatively. "I should have thought that the specter of a soiled dove washed ashore would pique your interest." He was a slight man with a receding hairline that matched his retreating chin.
"Hardly mysterious in this case, I'd warrant," said Sir Harry Devonshire, before throwing down his cards in exasperation. "And I can speak with some confidence. My source of information is not London's chief constable but rather that Irish groom my wife hired last year, a rascal who spends most of his time bedding whatever skirt catches his fancy, whether below stairs or on the riverfront." He drummed his fingers on the table's edge. "Wonder if he knew her," he mused.
"And why should it matter," asked Galveston, "when the body belongs to that of a prostitute?"
"I believe that they determined she was an actress, judging by her finery. Or so reports the Irish groom," corrected Devonshire.
"A very fine distinction," Galveston sniffed. "Actress, whore, it matters little. They do come and go with alarming regularity. What do you make of it, Archer? Clearly, Rushford is not inclined to join us in conversation."
Archer played with the chips at his elbow and shrugged. "This is all prurient speculation. Which means there's not much that need be discussed."
Galveston gave a puff of derision. "I shouldn't wish to offend your sensibilities. Such refinement!"
"I don't quite know what the bother is all about," said Devonshire disingenuously, although all the men gathered around the mahogany table in the library knew precisely why this particular incident—this death—held such resonance. "Besides which and much more importantly," continued Devonshire, deciding to heed the storm brewing on the horizon and decamp while there was still time, "this game has become too rich for me, gentlemen. I shall retire to White's, I believe, for a nightcap before returning home. Anyone care to join me?" Looking about him expectantly, and ignoring the footman who appeared instantly to assist him with his waistcoat and jacket, Devonshire took the last draft from the very fine brandy Crockford's provided to its loyal clientele. "Very well then," he said rising from his chair with a definitive shrug of his shoulders, "I shall make my way to the club and a lonely night of drinking. Good evening, gentlemen." He followed with a curt bow and exited the room.
"I shall follow suit, I think, but prefer to keep my own company this evening," said Galveston, scraping back his chair before jerking his rather meager chin in Rushford's direction. "Although it's difficult to fathom why you shouldn't want to know more about Bow Street's latest gruesome discovery, what with your unorthodox interests, Rushford."
Rushford smiled slowly, the curve to his lips doing nothing to soften his countenance, an assemblage of hard planes and angles that was not particularly welcoming. He slanted back in his chair, ignoring the winnings piled high to the right of his discarded cards. "One needs something to keep boredom at bay, Galveston."
Galveston squared his narrow shoulders. "A highly risible claim. Surely, amateur sleuthing is hardly becoming to a man of your stature. That case you involved yourself in earlier in the year, concerning those prostitutes and their keeper. Truly a noisome situation if there ever was one and with spectacular repercussions, if you'll recall."
Archer cleared his throat in warning, but Galveston continued. "Not much good can come from involving oneself in these matters. And what's the point, after all? The poor and destitute, the morally suspect, shall always be with us, subject to the vagaries of fate."
Archer tensed in his seat as Rushford's smile widened, never a good sign. "So, Galveston, enlighten me, if you will," he said slowly, with a poor approximation of patience. "If this woman recently discovered on the Thames's shore were well born, then you would concede an interest in discovering the crime behind her demise. But given that she may have had to earn her living at a trade of sorts, her life is deemed of no value. Despite the fact that you occasionally avail yourself of services that she and her type might have to offer." The lamps seemed to hiss more loudly.
Galveston pursed his lips, insulted that his extracurricular interests, hardly irregular, would be called into question. He was not quite an habitué of either Cruikshank's nor Madam Recamier's in King's Cross, although he did on occasion sample the wares of either establishment. He smoothed the ivory buttons on his waistcoat with soft hands that had never seen a day's work. "It would appear to me that you're the last one who can afford to cast aspersions, Rushford."
Rushford pushed back his chair, unfolding his impressive physique. Archer followed suit, hoping that Galveston at least had the good judgment not to raise a matter better left cold and dead. Rushford had an unreliable temper, and it was momentarily doubtful that Galveston recollected the fact that Rushford could drill a dime at twenty paces, counted membership in the West London Boxing Club, and was the winner of the Marquis of Queensbury's challenge cup four years running.
"Time to bid adieu, Galveston," Archer said helpfully.
"I shall take my leave."
"Perhaps you would care to finish elaborating your point," Rushford said.
Not a good plan, thought Archer. Galveston opened his mouth to say something, but perhaps it was a primal instinct for survival that he snapped it closed again. Of course, they all knew what he was thinking, what he wanted to say. Instead, with thinning lips, he concluded, "I shall leave you to your dark memories, Rushford. And good evening to you, Archer." Galveston gathered up his jacket and with a backward glance over his shoulder added, "We haven't all forgotten, if that's what you wish to believe, Rushford." He paused meaningfully. "We well realize that your unorthodox diversions are an attempt to make amends, to assuage your guilt—"
Rushford crossed his arms over his chest, the movement straining the superfine fabric of his shirt.
Archer said curtly, "Spare us the preaching, Galveston, and take your leave while you still have time." In response, Galveston made a show of securing the last button on his jacket before turning on his heel, the door snapping shut behind him.
The silence was conspicuous, marred only by the sputtering of one of the lamps as the oil burned down to release a curl of dark smoke. Rushford reached for the whiskey decanter in the center of the table, splashing a healthy amount into his crystal tumbler. He took a mouthful.
Archer raised an eyebrow. "Can't believe I'm saying this, but don't you think you've had quite enough?" Between the two of them over the years, the decanters they'd emptied could rebuild Blackfriar's Bridge.
Rushford glanced at the pyramid of chips next to his chair. "It didn't seem to affect my performance at cards." His eyes were the color of a northern sea and just about as friendly. It was difficult to reconcile the fact that the two men had met two decades earlier at Eton and shared a checkered and overlapping past that included several years adrift not only in the Royal Navy but also in London's backstreets, glittering ballrooms, and Whitehall's clandestine offices. But that was long ago, Rushford reminded himself, before everything had changed.
"We're not talking about your facility at cards. That will never be in question," Archer said dryly.
Rushford raised his glass in his friend's direction. "Thank God. Not that I believe in one. Besides which, your hand-wringing reminds me of my old nurse."
"You grow more idiosyncratic as you age, Rush."
"I'm not asking you to keep me company."
Archer observed his friend carefully. "You've barely emerged from Belgravia Square since February. And it's now May. Perhaps you should take yourself down to the waterfront and to Mrs. Banks to look at the body."
Rushford placed the now empty crystal tumbler on the table. "Your concern is touching, Archer. You believe embroiling myself in another hopeless state of affairs will ameliorate my ennui. Although I don't think Mrs. Banks would be overly eager to see me." Mrs. Banks was undertaker to the poor, her ramshackle dwelling in the foggiest, nastiest side of Shoreditch, where London's constabulary saw fit to drop off bodies before they found their way to a pauper's grave.
"Your involvement in the Cruikshank murders helped last time, as you very well know. Despite Galveston's palaver about sleuthing, your particular skills and energies are suited to uncovering the truth."
He had scarcely solved the mysteries of the universe, thought Rushford wearily, when he had uncovered what the London constabulary had missed right under their noses. Madam Cruikshank's stable of fillies was being poisoned one by one by her footman, at the behest of a disgruntled client, Sir William Hutcheon. The scandal that had blossomed in the London papers had hardly endeared Rushford to London society, of which Galveston was a particularly vocal example. Not that Rushford cared a whit for society's approbation. "Hutcheon deserved to hang," he said abruptly.
Archer nodded. "This was one crime that could not be kept behind closed doors. Thanks to your efforts."
Rushford reached for his jacket. "Don't patronize me, Archer."
Archer held up a palm in protest. "Furthest thing from my mind, Rush."
"Trust me when I say that I am quite adept at keeping myself occupied."
Archer eyed the whiskey decanter meaningfully before adding, "Does that mean you will pay Mrs. Banks a visit?"
"Christ, you're a nag. Persistently and painfully bothersome." But he shrugged on his jacket, not troubling himself to order his cravat. He would go first thing to Shoreditch in the morning, a reason to rise other than cards and boxing. Archer was bloody right, not that he would say it aloud. They both knew thin ice when they skated on it.
Rushford made for the door, Archer close on his heels. "You ought to forgive yourself," said his longtime friend, to his back. The words burned dully in his brain but didn't penetrate the scar tissue that had closed over his heart.
"Kate would never want you to—" Archer continued carefully.
Without turning around, his palm on the heavy brass knob of the door, Rushford said, "Give it up, Archer. There is nothing left to say." Or to feel, he should have added, the shimmer of Kate's beautiful face always in his mind's eye. "I am going home now, with or without your permission, to decant and drain a fine bottle of French brandy." Rushford never got drunk. And never forgot. That was the problem.
Archer shook his head, shrugging on his own coat. "Your work for Whitehall was worthwhile in the end, Rush, despite the fact that you refuse to acknowledge your accomplishments. And if you choose at this time to utilize your talents by immersing yourself in more pedestrian affairs, then so be it."
Rushford turned briefly, his eyes bleak. "Pedestrian? When I think of what was sacrificed for the sake of a few bloody Egyptian tablets that now sit in the British Museum—" He did not finish the sentence but jerked open the door.
Rushford pushed past the footman with barely a backward glance at his friend. The debacle of the Rosetta Stone was one he wished to remove from memory, like a knife from between his ribs. Outcome be damned. Taking two stairs at a time, he did admit to himself that there was something about the body lying at Mrs. Banks's that tugged at his conscience. He wondered briefly why Galveston and Devonshire had been so assiduous in bringing the tragedy to his attention.
Down the stairs and past the discreet entrance off Mayfair, he pulled up his collar against the nocturnal damp, deciding to walk to his town house rather than signaling for a hansom. Anything to shorten what would be a long, sleepless night. He looked up into the starless sky and then down the length of the slumbering street, sensing that his past was opening like an abyss from which he could no longer look away.
Chapter TwoRowena Woolcott assessed the town house off Belgravia Square with a sharp eye. She was reluctant to disturb the servants, aware that at this late hour they would be abed. Having spent the previous ten months as a governess, she knew the habits of those living below stairs all too well.
Skirting the low shrubbery, she moved to the back of the town house where a thick trellis snaked its way to the upper floors. Heavy crenellations underscored a series of windows, architectural stepping stones overlooking a mews studded with shrubbery. Without hoops or crinolines to hamper her, Rowena gathered her narrow skirts in one hand, looping the fabric into her waistband. Although the trellis was slick with dampness, she hoisted herself to the first level, her booted feet finding easy purchase on the lowest stone ledge.
Memories tumbled through her mind. Meredith had never chided her about her hellion ways, she thought, the recollection a poignant collision of pleasure and pain. At Montfort in the Cheviot Hills, she had played outdoors with abandon, riding, swimming, running through the woods during a childhood that was both idyllic and peculiar in its eccentricity. Unlike her sister, Julia, Rowena had led her nurses and tutors on a merry chase, reluctant to bury her head in a book when the sky and the sun beckoned.
A sharp evening breeze fanned Rowena's cheeks, bringing her back to the present and away from her moment's self-indulgence. She could no longer afford to believe in the carelessness of youth, not when that easy, oblivious innocence had been taken from her over a year ago. For the past twelve months, a yearning for retribution had forced her up in the morning and kept her from sleep at night. Anxiety burned in her throat at the thought of her aunt and sister and the danger that pressed close to them from all sides. The high stone walls and thick hedges surrounding Montfort could no longer protect them. She was their only bulwark now against danger.
During those missing weeks after her abduction, she had been suspended between life and death, imprisoned in darkness, but the threat, the voice and words, had survived along with her, haunting every waking hour. She remembered no face or place but merely the voice, speaking sometimes in French, sometimes in English, but always silken with evil intent. The menacing sound insinuated itself into her consciousness, allowing her no freedom from fear.
Fear for Meredith and Julia. "The Woolcott women. Faron will not rest—until they are made to suffer. Until they are dead." The voice spooled relentlessly in her mind.
Sinking into helplessness was not in her nature, making her all the more determined to piece together the shards of her broken memories. The dampness of the night curled underneath the collar of her cloak, but she merely stretched her arm higher, grabbing the next rung in the trellis, her feet confidently finding the level of stone upon which to rest. She knew enough not to look down, having climbed trees, and the gazebo in the east garden of Montfort, too many times. From her current vantage point, craning her neck, she saw the still heavy curtains framing the second-floor windows, the rooms beyond obscured by darkness. The third floor, under the eaves, would house some of the servants, which left the second floor, with its empty bedrooms, as the best entry point.
A long narrow window, the casement slightly ajar to reveal the weak glow of a gas-lit wall sconce, beckoned. Rowena took careful steps sideways along the ledge until her hands gripped the casement. All was silent, and if she squinted intently, she could discern the endless black and white tiles of a lengthy corridor typical of Georgian townhomes. Seconds later, she eased open the window and quickly pushed herself through the opening, her feet landing silently on the highly polished floor. Twin sconces burned dully, the hallway flanked by a military row of chairs draped with ghostly drop cloths.
Excerpted from The Darkest Sin by Caroline Richards Copyright © 2011 by Caroline Richards. Excerpted by permission of BRAVA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Review by Patti: Rowena is in hiding after an attempt to murder her failed a year ago. She seeks out Lord James Rushford to ask for his help in finding the people trying to harm her and her family. He has been written about in the papers because he was instrumental in the solving of another crime recently and she is positive he is the only one that can help her. He initially refuses to help her. She doesn't realize he has some very personal reasons for not wanting to be involved with her. One of them being he doesn't want to be responsible for pulling her into a dangerous world where he may not be able to protect her. That is what happened to the woman he loved and he couldn't save her. He eventually comes to an agreement with Rowena. If he is going to help her end the threat to her family she must pose as his mistress. This is necessary for them to be able to attend the social functions needed to travel in the circles of the people they need to speak with. Their attraction to each other becomes too difficult to ignore and what started as a ruse becomes real. And they still have to solve the mystery of whoever is trying to kill her. The characters interacted very naturally. There were quite a few stories intertwined and I found I enjoyed the twists. I am always pleased when I read a story that pulls me in on various levels and this one did just that. I will definitely be keeping my eye on Caroline Richards. I didn't realize until I finished the book that it is the 2nd book in a series. I will definitely be reading the other two books so that I can get the full story. James Rushford was not a typical alpha male he is dealing with the guilt of being responsible for the death of the woman he loved. Rowena realizes she has to protect her family but she doesn't really have the life experience to handle all of the issues she must deal with. Together they struggle to find a way to insure the safety of the Woolcott family and also deal with the strong feelings they have for each other. Favorite Quote: "You have a choice," he said finally, rising from the bed. "Either you depart now, front door or rear window, I couldn't care less, or the breeches come off. And what happens subsequently" -he paused just long enough to see the darkening of her spectacular eyes- "should not come as a surprise to a woman as intelligent as you appear to be.
Rowena Woolcott suffers from partial memory loss and horrific nightmares of her brutal imprisonment and being rescued from a near drowning. Not one to sit and wait for her unknown adversary to attack her and her family again, Rowena decides to find the culprit and confront him. She knows she lacks the skills and experience to investigate, so she decides to ask the assistance of Lord James Rushford, who has solved at least a homicide case. He refuses until she forces his hand. Using her ploy, he demands that she pretend to be his mistress as he needs her to uncover the identity of the perpetrator and the motive. Soon as the threats to Rowena's well being rises, the play acting between the pretend mistress and her benefactor turns intensely real. The latest Woolcott Sin Victorian romantic suspense (see The Deadliest Sin) is a taut investigative thriller in which the lead couple makes inquires into who haunts the heroine and her family. The secondary characters anchor time, place, and a sense of pending doom. Sub-genre fans will enjoy Caroline Richards' taut thriller as Lord James and Lady Rowena work the case and keep her safe while falling in love. Harriet Klausner