Georgiana Rutherford, the widowed Duchess of Hardcastle, longs for a passionate affair. And when the enigmatic and ruthless Mr. Rhys Tremayne, better known to most as the Broker, crosses her path, the attraction between them is undeniable. But she cannot possibly truly feel this way for this man.
Rhys Tremayne has built his wealth and empire on secrets dealt on the black market of the London underworld. He is determined to remove his sisters from the depraved world they
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Rhys Tremayne had been summoned by the Duchess of Hardcastle. Even more shocking than a lady of such elevated stature demanding he attend a fashionable ball was the fact that he had responded to the vague but vastly intriguing invitation. The letter, which had been delivered to him, had gone through clandestine channels only those with links to the dark and secretive underworld of London possessed. It had been presented to him upon a silver salver as he had gambled at The Asylum, one of the most profligate and powerful gaming hells known to London society, owned and operated by his closest and most trusted friend, Riordan O'Malley.
Dear Mr. Tremayne,
I have a business proposal for you. You are to meet me in several hours' time in the gardens at Lady Tunstall's ball at midnight. Enclosed is an invitation to the ball.
Duchess of Hardcastle
The note was succinct, written in a bold yet elegant scrawl, and had been infused with the power and privilege of the duchess's position. What could she want? He assumed she required his ability as The Broker. There could be no other reason for her imperious demand.
For years, Rhys had studied the men and women of England, high and lowborn, and their secrets had been collected with great diligence, cataloged and ranked regarding their bargaining power, and made ready for use when it suited Rhys or another client with whom he traded. Perhaps she needed to topple someone and required the right secret and scandal to see it done. One thing he had learned about polite society was that they were really not polite. They were quite an uncompromising bunch, protected by their positions and rank of privilege. Despite all his ruthless wrangling and manipulations as he traded in the black market of information and secrets, he'd never worked with someone of such estimable connections. Even the work he did for the crown in the past had been through an anonymous connection.
The duchess was a woman he could use. His heart kicked at the challenge and the danger of having such an influential force be beholden to him. He tipped his head back in his chair and held the invitation up and simply stared at it.
What are your secrets?
Who are you?
It was clear to him the lady did not anticipate his refusal. She expected to be obeyed. Rhys's interest stirred, and primal satisfaction slithered through him. He'd found the door to the world he had been relentlessly working to pry open, with astonishingly little effort on his part. Or perhaps not, since the last twenty years had all been about reaching this point.
Not many realized how impossible it was to infiltrate high society. He'd cultivated wealth — trading in secrets and strengthening the merchant connections he'd grown into with more dangerous business and alliances. Yet each time he had collected a favor and came closer to the elite circle of the ton, something had snatched the opportunity from him and he had retired back to the shadows, waiting and watching.
He had no notion what the duchess required, but he would not stop until he had her so enmeshed she would have to dole out to him an unmatched favor.
The soft closing of the door had him glancing up from the letter. His sister Lydia strolled into the library. She lifted her chin to the letter, and then her fingers leaped to life, speaking for her.
"Will you attend the ball?" she signed.
He'd, of course, shared the content of the letter with his sisters after he had scrutinized it at least a dozen times. Though Lydia was growing more adept at reading lips, he lowered the letter to the desk and signed, "Yes, I will answer her summons. This is the opportunity we have been waiting for."
Doubt clouded her gaze, and a faraway look appeared in her light-gray eyes. "Nothing will make them accept me ... accept us."
A hard smile tipped his lips. "Let me take care of the details. I urge you not to worry."
"Our family is my worry, as well, dear brother. When will you let us take some of the burden of reclaiming our place in society?"
He stood and strolled over to her. "Never."
She rolled her eyes in the most unladylike fashion. "We are playing charades in the parlor. Join us and promise to be on my team, but please do not tell our sisters," she signed with a cheeky grin.
Despite the blow she had been given in life, Lydia was filled with such humor and good cheer. She had never once blamed him for her deafness, but it was his lack that had caused her pain. The fever that had almost taken her life and had robbed her of hearing was probably because they'd been living in such squalor and despair.
As the eldest of his three sisters at three-and-twenty, Lydia was as savvy as any criminal in London. To marry and have children was a dream she kept locked in her heart, believing no gentleman would want her with her past and imperfection. Lydia was beautiful, with her short, dark curls, eyes as gray as a storm, and exquisite smile. She was also kind and intelligent, but none of that would matter to a beau, for she was handicapped and her background tarnished.
Rhys wanted her away from this life. He wanted her to be part of the world she had been born to, but that had been snatched away from her because of greed and malice.
The ton was a world of glamorous elegance and lavish extravagance, but behind its fickleness also rested a security that he wanted for his sisters. He wanted them to have a place of safety that would be certain and that could not be wrested away. He'd promised them he wouldn't stop until their lives were better. Their proper place in this world had been denied to his mother and sisters. Instead of a comfortable home with servants, a season when they came of age, a suitable gentleman for a husband, his sisters had been reared in the stews, the gutter, and amongst the lowest people of the slums for years. He would do everything to ensure respectability was theirs again. That way, if he were to fall, he would rest easy knowing his sisters were secure.
His sister trained her gaze to his lips.
"I'll not join you today. I leave shortly to see Her Grace," Rhys said.
Lydia grinned, no doubt pleased he'd gotten the honorific correct. Their mother had encouraged them to study the peerage and polite society rules and etiquette years ago.
"Try not to be too intimidating."
"I'll be the soul of politeness. She'll think me a gentleman of her world."
Lydia snorted and looped her hands through his as they exited the library.
He escorted her to the parlor and bid his sisters farewell. Less than thirty minutes later, he arrived in front of the address provided, a few hours earlier than his requested time. He was aware the duchess expected him to honor the time she had laid down. It was the gentlemanly thing to do, but then he had never been a proper gentleman despite his promise to Lydia. Rhys liked to see people in their element before they put on their mask and hid their true selves. He had learned early not to accept people at face value and instead to trust in their unguarded responses.
What would the duchess be like without her armor? His unexpected arrival would only give him a small peek, but it would be enough for him to glean the manner of lady he dealt with.
There were several carriages queuing. Another carriage drawing away as one pulled up. A few elegant lords and ladies heading for the receiving line threw him curious glances. Somehow, they always knew he didn't belong, even though his manner of dress was just as impeccable, though, he reluctantly admitted, less dandified than many. It was as if he straddled the edge of both worlds, a misconception, really, for he was so far removed from the ton, he would never be able to move in their circles, nor did he truly crave to. But his sisters ... now that was another matter. No longer would he allow them to bleed or scrabble as he had done to find their place in the world.
And how fortuitous it was that a duchess had placed herself within his reach. Rhys prowled through the stately gardens, careful to keep himself cloaked within the shadows. Merriment spilled forth on the air. He slipped through the small wrought-iron gate that served as the entrance to a hidden alcove. With measured steps and a watchful eye upon his surroundings, he blended with the night, trying to ascertain if one of these ladies was the duchess. After several moments of observing the outside guests, he strolled to the front door and joined the receiving line.
This was the butler, if he had not been misinformed by his mother's tutelage. Rhys handed him the invitation.
The butler's brow furrowed. "Your name."
Rhys smiled. He hadn't missed the fact that his name had not been on the invitation. The duchess wanted a careful measure of secrecy. "An announcement is not necessary," he said.
The butler considered him, and then the invitation once more, before stepping back. He was admitted, his coat and top hat collected. Men and women in elegant apparel crowded the hall, and Rhys could hear the strains of music from the ballroom. Several threw him assessing glances but quickly shifted their regard away. Rhys strolled unhurriedly through the hallway and headed for the ballroom.
Why demand a meeting here?
Are you afraid? Was it that the lady would feel safer within a crowd? Rhys turned left down the large yet elegantly appointed hallway before coming upon a wide-open door leading to a ballroom. He stood in the shadows by a Corinthian column, observing the crowd with utmost discretion. Life and laughter pulsed around him. Ladies and gentlemen twirled across the ballroom, glittering in their fineries. The undercurrent of unbridled excitement and expectant conquest shimmered in the air, but as always, he was untouched, removed from the false high of pleasure, his thoughts ruthlessly concentrated on his purpose.
A flash of green snagged his attention. A vision of loveliness sauntered along the sidelines of the massive ballroom. Sweet Christ. She looked so breathtakingly vivid. The lady was in possession of a glorious mane of blue-black hair, which was parted in the center and twisted into a smooth coil at the nape of her neck. Her dark-green gown was cut low for a society lady, revealing the swell of her breasts. He tried to wrest his gaze away. He couldn't afford a distraction tonight ... though she was such a bloody beautiful and provocative one.
He moved closer, inexplicably drawn to the beguiling clash of latent sensuality and aloofness she exuded despite standing amid a sea of people. Her face encouraged study.
The slight smile that hovered on her lips seemed ... sad and hauntingly lovely. Several gentlemen tried to capture her attention, but she only gave them that mysteriously vacant smile. She took a glass of champagne from a footman, politely thanking him, her gaze scanning the crowd. His mind ran through all the ways he could assuage her loneliness, the pleasures with which he could shock her ladylike sensibilities. But he was there on business and indulging in such fantasies was pointless — it would require too much effort to merely gain an opportunity to seduce a lady of the ton.
After several moments, he withdrew and padded along the corridor, checking each room until he located what seemed to be a library. He walked over to the desk, selected a piece of paper, and scribbled a quick note. Then he went outside and slipped the note and half a guinea to a footman.
"Locate the Duchess of Hardcastle and deliver this," he murmured.
The man's gaze flickered to his, but Rhys's face was obscured in the shadows, a deliberate movement so the man could not give a description.
"Yes ... my lord ... sir," the footman replied and hurried away.
Rhys waited in the darkness, tracking the man's progress.
Rhys frowned as the footman hovered behind the lonely beauty from earlier as if waiting for an opportunity to interrupt. He pressed closer and faltered. For some reason, he'd expected someone ... more ... well, someone old. Surely this young girl, who barely appeared as if she had left the schoolroom, couldn't be the duchess?
Perhaps it was the lady's companion to whom the footman would hand his note. Shrugging away his unexpected attraction, he did not wait for the footman to find his courage and interrupt the laughing ladies. Rhys simply stole away outdoors, waiting for the duchess to slink into his web.
Loneliness had a taste — ashes. Georgiana Elizabeth Rutherford, the Duchess of Hardcastle, knew, for once as a willful child she had taken some cinder from the fireplace and tasted. She had spluttered, wiped at her lips and tongue with vigor, and had been unable to remove the unpleasant taste. That flavor coated her senses now and was accompanied by an empty feeling that seeped into her heart and sank deep into her bones. Perhaps she should forgo yet another season and retire to Kent, where her son, Nicolas George Rutherford, the very young Duke of Hardcastle, eagerly awaited her return. Instead of indulging in the lavish extravagance of yet another season, perhaps she would simply return to Meadowbrook Park as soon as she had successfully initiated a credible investigation into the mysterious disappearance of Miss Jane Walker, a young nursemaid who had gone missing from their country home.
Or she could walk the edge of reason that had pushed her to dress in her most provocative and scandalous gown tonight. Assuage the yawning emptiness and unfulfilled feeling with a lover.
Her dear friend, Daphne, Countess of Clarendon, looped their hands together as they strolled along the edge of the ballroom.
"You look quite delightful this evening, Georgiana," Daphne said, giving a suggestive wink. "Dare I ask if this means you are taking my advice to secure yourself another husband?"
"Something more wicked, I fear," Georgiana drawled teasingly.
A lover. To be touched, held, kissed. As if controlled by another, her fingers fluttered to her lips and pressed. As a widow of six- and-twenty, with considerable wealth and influence, it was well within her rights to select a lover from the gentlemen of society. "Delightfully wicked."
Daphne's eyes widened knowingly. After all, they'd discussed the merits of widowhood several days ago as they'd strolled through Hyde Park, namely the freedom to select a gentleman of the ton to indulge in illicit pleasures with.
"You deserve some happiness," her friend said softly as they wove through the throng. "Though your mother will not be happy until you are securely wed again. That has been her goal since you came out of mourning."
Georgiana was quite aware of the desires of her mother. She had married a duke and birthed another duke. The expectation was that she remarry someone of similar stature and with even more wealth than she currently controlled, but she was no longer a silly girl to be dictated to as had been done years past. She'd known from the tender age of twelve her duty was to be the wife of the Duke of Hardcastle, who had been old enough to be her father. She had married him at the age of sixteen when he had been forty-two, but that hadn't mattered to her family. Power and connections had been consolidated with their alliance, and the families' combined prestige had soared.
She had been groomed relentlessly on her role as a future duchess. Her family had expected no less of her, and soon Georgiana had possessed the same expectations and had dedicated herself to her studies with an intensity that had impressed even Hardcastle. She had eschewed playing and had spent most of her time with her nursemaid and tutors. Even taking time with the stewards of his estates to learn everything there was to know about how to run a dukedom. Instead of poring over fashion plates and scandal sheets, she had consumed agricultural tomes and political newspapers, following the wars and the debates argued in parliament as she tried to form her own opinions.
Instead of being repulsed by her intelligence as her mother had warned, he had been duly impressed. Hardcastle had been a kind man, with a deep- rooted sense of justice, and she had been a good duchess to him. He had been gone now for five years, and she desperately missed intimacy, even if theirs had been so intermittent.
"Have you made the list we discussed?" Daphne asked, jarring Georgiana from her ruminations.
"No, I find myself unwilling. To list the eligible men of the ton, and their attributes and connections, makes me feel as if I am selecting a stud horse."
"My dear, that is the best way to get it done. There are simply too many suitable options. What of Lord Cole? According to Lady Bristol, he is a fine lover indeed."
Georgiana's eyes cut to the dashing viscount chatting a few paces away. Curious, she steered Daphne in his direction. He snapped to attention when he spied them, admiration glowing in the gaze that settled upon her.
"Your Grace," he said with a deep bow, his voice warm and inviting. "What an unmatched pleasure to see you tonight."
Excerpted from "Duchess by Day, Mistress by Night"
Copyright © 2017 Stacy Reid.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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