They call him Lord Ash, for his desires burn hot and leave devastation in their wake. But Gabriel Finch, Marquess of Ashborough, knows the fortune he’s made at the card table won’t be enough to save his family estate. For that he needs a bride with a sterling reputation to distract from his tarnished past, a woman who’ll be proof against the fires of his dark passion. Fate deals him the perfect lady. So why can’t Gabriel keep his eyes from wandering to her outspoken, infuriatingly independent Irish cousin?
Camellia Burke came to London as her aunt’s companion, and she’s brought a secret with her: she’s written a scandalous novel. Now, her publisher demands that she make her fictional villain more realistic. Who better than the notorious Lord Ash as a model? Duty-bound to prevent her cousin from making a disastrous match, Cami never meant to gamble her own heart away. But when she’s called home, Ash follows. And though they’re surrounded by the flames of Rebellion, the sparks between them may be the most dangerous of all…
Praise for Susanna Craig
“Craig gives readers quite a treat.” —RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars
“Beautifully written, richly atmospheric, deeply felt, and so deftly researched—I felt utterly absorbed into the world of late Georgian England. I’m tremendously excited to discover such an elegant new voice in historical romance!”
—New York Times bestselling author Meredith Duran
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
London, May 1798
Gabriel Finch, Marquess of Ashborough, played by his own rules — one of which was never to hold his cards during a game. A fan Of cards amplified the movements of a man's hand: his nervousness, excitement, shock. Besides, staring at them had never yet forced the pips into a different configuration.
In response to the dealer's silent call, Gabriel squared the small stack lying on the table in front of him before turning over the topmost card. The gesture was quiet, efficient. Only reckless men proclaimed loudly when they had been beaten. Or when they won.
Like the fools at the far table, who had been making raucous demands all evening — of their dealer, the servants, the painted ladies employed to distract the cardplayers. Years of practice had proved insufficient to tune them out. Now, one man's voice pierced the miasma of smoke and sweaty desperation that hung over the gamblers like fog.
"You know I'm good for it," the familiar voice wheedled. "Or will be. Why, right this moment I could raise a mortgage on Stoke that would be worth ten times that pot."
Gabriel pushed away from the table and stood.
A footman hustled to his side, gathering his winnings, while the dealer praised his luck, subtly goading him to continue. The owners of this particular establishment used every trick in the book to encourage patrons to play longer than was wise. Good food, though not so rich that a man would feel drowsy. Plentiful drink, though not so much that a man would realize he was drunk. Painted windows and plush furnishings masked light and noise from the street, making it impossible to tell how many hours had passed. But there were always clues, if one knew where to look. Six-hour candles had dwindled to stubs. It must be nearly dawn.
Across the room, play continued. With a nod to the others at his table, who protested his departure with a mixture of groans, self-deprecating laughs, and sighs of relief, he took the bundle the servant handed him and was gone, his pocket bulging with scraps of paper — banknotes, vowels, and, if he was not mistaken, the deed to a square of land in some backwater shire.
The night had been a profitable one by any measure, but its most important gain had been intangible. Just a few words. A mortgage on Stoke. Interesting, very interesting. Would anyone take that bet?
Gabriel had been gambling too long to imagine the answer was anything but yes.
Damp air filled his lungs when he stepped into the dim, quiet street. As he had suspected, the hour was late — rather, early — enough that the girls who called to him from beneath the arcades of Covent Garden offered nothing more than moldering fruit. He paused to drop a handful of coins into the outstretched palm of a waif who in another week would surely be offering herself in place of the desiccated orange she pressed into his hand in return.
With a roguish smile, he tossed the fruit into the air, caught it, handed it back to the half-starved, wide-eyed girl, and resumed walking. A gamble, yes.
Why, he was tempted to lay a little wager himself.
When he reached his rooms in St. James's, his manservant, Arthur Remington, opened the door and held out his hand for his master's greatcoat. Instead of shedding the garment, Gabriel reached into his breast pocket and withdrew the wad of notes. Warily, Remington took the lot, looking as if he expected the papers to reek of brimstone. Perhaps they did. Gabriel had grown inured to that particular scent.
As Gabriel moved toward his study door, Remington spoke. "You'll find Mr. Fox inside, my lord." A smirk of satisfaction edged the man's voice.
Of late, Christopher Fox had been urging Gabriel toward pursuits that involved sunlight and fresh air and other things he generally avoided. His friend's well-meant interference had kept him from sliding headfirst into hell years ago, and for that he was mostly grateful. But nothing would keep him safe forever.
Gabriel's final destination was assured.
"Ah. Coffee, then, Remy," he called grimly over his shoulder. "A vat of it."
"Very good, my lord." This time, the smirk reached Remy's eyes.
Dressed for riding, Fox stood with his back to the door, perusing the bookcase. "Isn't it time you settled down and gave up these larks, Ash?" he asked without turning.
"Oh, Foxy. Only you would call my gaming and wenching 'larks.'" Gabriel's skill at the tables — and elsewhere, for that matter — was the stuff of legend.
"What's this?" Fox plucked a book from the shelf and turned with a flourish. "A guide to the peerage? Surprised to find you in possession of such a thing, Ash."
Snatching the battered volume from his friend's grasp, Gabriel settled into the buttery-soft leather of the chair closest to the window. "Is it so strange that from time to time a man would wish to recall the history of his family?"
"You?" Fox tilted his head and his gray eyes narrowed with interest. "Yes."
Gabriel dropped his gaze to the book, whose broken spine had flopped open on his knee, evidence that certain passages had received a great deal of study. Intersecting lines crossed the paper, resembling less a family tree than a scrub or a stump. He felt conspicuous on the page, which contained not only his name, but also the date of his mother's death — or his own birth, if one would have it so. The final entry was the date he had assumed the marquessate, the date of his father's untimely relinquishment of it. At the top of the page the name of the family seat was set off from the rest by italic type: Stoke Abbey, Shrops.
Many would insist that an estate and its people could suffer no graver misfortune than the infamous Lord Ash's inheritance of it. Gabriel was inclined to agree. But would those naysayers change their tune if they too had chanced to overhear a few words exchanged at a neighboring card table?
For all his sins, at least Gabriel had never attempted to gamble his legacy away.
"I happened to catch my cousin Julian in the act of laying a rather extraordinary bet," he said, "against the value of his future inheritance."
"But your uncle's estate is said to be mortgaged to the hilt already." Fox took up the chair opposite.
"Not my uncle's estate." With one fingertip, he traced the line that joined his father's name to his only brother's equally short branch of the family tree. "Mine. It seems he has been gallivanting around town styling himself as my heir presumptive."
Remington chose that moment to appear with a tray and placed it on the table between them. Beside the silver coffeepot and two cups in saucers lay the papers Gabriel had brought home, now smoothed and neatly stacked.
"Only one way I know of to prevent it, Ash," Fox said as he accepted a steaming cup from Remy.
"Oh, and how's that?"
"Why ... marry." For some time now, Fox had been hinting that a woman of impeccable birth could help restore Gabriel to the bright and airy sociability of the ton after a lifetime spent in the more comfortable darkness of the demimonde. With an expression caught between coaxing and condemnation, he added, "Rumor has it you've a way with the ladies."
This, Gabriel could hardly deny. From somewhere, he mustered a laugh. "With women, old friend," he amended. "Never ladies."
Reluctant amusement danced in Fox's eyes. "Well, I wouldn't think too much on a bit of bragging at the tables. Julian Finch is little more than a foolish puppy —"
"Once, I would have agreed with you. But the man I saw last night ...?" Gabriel shook his head, recalling the note of desperation in his cousin's voice.
To Gabriel, Stoke Abbey was the most haunted dwelling place in England, a status that had nothing at all to do with the ghosts of long-departed monks and nuns. Since his childhood, he had spent no time there. But he had never truly abandoned it. Did he mean to do so in the end?
Perhaps Fox had the right of it. Perhaps it was time to think less of his past and more of his posterity.
Marriage to a lady of spotless reputation would — well, not repair Gabriel's standing as a gentleman, for that implied it had some prior existence, but establish it. A proper bride, a place in society, and an heir apparent in due course ... his uncle would choke on the news. Ten years ago, it would have been insufficient punishment for all the man had done to him. Now, however, he saw an elegant simplicity in taking such an ordinary form of revenge.
There was only one problem. No decent young woman or her family would willingly form an alliance with him, despite his wealth and title. Fox knew it. And so did his uncle and cousin. In fact, they had obviously been counting on it.
Absently, he laid aside the book and picked up the pile of notes instead. Pausing over one particular piece of paper, he rubbed its edge between thumb and forefinger. Julian was not the only fool who had played too deep last night. "Tell me, Foxy," Gabriel said after a long moment, "what do you know of the Earl of Merrick?"
"A true gentleman, by all accounts. They say he's a force to be reckoned with in the Lords, though too Whiggish in his votes for my father's taste." Fox snatched the guide to the peerage from the arm of Gabriel's chair and flipped through its pages. "Here you go," he said, turning and proffering the open book. "The Trenton family. Of Derbyshire."
Gabriel accepted the book but did not look at the page Fox indicated. "As it happens, I'm somewhat acquainted with Merrick's ... situation. Substantial properties in Wales and Northumberland, in addition to the Derbyshire estate. All entailed. One son, Lord Trenton, who was sent down from Cambridge last autumn and has since run up debts all over town."
"Some of them to you, my lord," Remington interjected as he poured Gabriel's coffee. "If all those little scraps of paper you bring home are to be believed."
Gabriel raised his eyes to his servant. "Collect the rest for me, will you, Remy?" Once more he handed over the bundle of papers, this time in exchange for the cup.
"You want a tally of the young man's debts?" Remington asked, not a trace of surprise in his voice.
Of indeterminate age and uncertain origins, Arthur Remington was not the typical gentleman's gentleman. Gabriel had a vague notion that Remy had spent some time in the army, for he could spit-polish boots to a mirror shine but had no patience for the intricacies of a well-tied cravat. Whatever his history, it had supplied the man with a host of far more useful skills, one of which was the ability to wrest information from even the most unwilling.
"Not a tally," Gabriel said. "The debts themselves." In a matter of days, Merrick's son — why, the earl himself — would be his to command.
One grizzled eyebrow arched, but the man gave a crisp bow. "Yes, sir."
"Merrick also has a daughter, has he not?" Gabriel asked almost before Remington had shut the door behind him.
"Er ... ye-es." Hesitation rippled Fox's voice. "Pretty girl. Had her come- out last spring. Expected to make a brilliant match, until —"
"Until her brother gambled away her dowry," Gabriel finished for him.
Fox eyed him uncertainly. "What are you about, Ash?"
One last gamble. "Were you not just suggesting I marry? I'm arranging a ... well, let us call it an introduction to Lady Felicity Trenton."
Fox's brows dove downward, shadowing his eyes. "Surely even you are aware there are more conventional ways to meet proper young ladies."
As a general rule, Gabriel cared very little for either convention or proper young ladies. Sometimes, however, a tiger might be forced to change his stripes. "In the face of certain social realities, a man must on occasion resort to cleverness to get what he wants ... er, needs." The Earl of Merrick was a respected member of the peerage. So respected that, had his son not driven the family to the brink of ruin, he would never have permitted Gabriel even to speak his daughter's name. "When Merrick learns I hold all his son's debts," Gabriel said, "he will be glad enough to accept whatever terms of repayment I offer."
"And Lady Felicity's hand is to be your price." Fox chewed each word and, by his sour expression, apparently found them difficult to digest.
Closing the guide with a snap, Gabriel traced the deckled edges of the paper with the tips of his fingers, as if neatening a stack of playing cards, a gesture his adversaries at the table had come to recognize as the sign that their loss was about to become Lord Ash's gain.
"For the price I'm paying, I'll expect rather more than her hand."
Those words were met with a scowl of disapproval. "I can only pray that Lady Felicity will discover you've the heart of a gentleman after all."
Gabriel, who possessed no such organ, doubted it.
Fox was right about one thing, though. Lady Felicity Trenton was probably a fresh-faced innocent, a sacrificial lamb to be led quite literally to the altar. Hell, he was counting on it.
A wiser woman would not have him.
* * *
Although there had been no knock of warning, Camellia Burke managed to slide her papers beneath her blotter as the door to her bedchamber swung open, the protest of one squeaky hinge alerting her to an intruder. And to think she had imagined that a position as her aunt's companion would afford her more privacy than she'd had at home with her family in Dublin.
"Oh, there you are, miss," exclaimed Betsy, the upstairs maid, sounding relieved to have found her, although Cami could not imagine where else the girl might have looked. "Her ladyship wants you in the drawing room right away."
"The drawing room?" She paused in the act of cleaning her pen. "Did she say why?" The Countess of Merrick was at home to callers today, a circumstance which generally earned Cami a reprieve from her duties.
"No, miss. But whatever it is, it's got her ladyship out of sorts. Won't you come, miss?" Betsy urged.
Cami corked her ink bottle before rising from her chair and following the maid through the door. Aunt Merrick had proved surprisingly generous with writing supplies, but one could never be too careful.
In the drawing room, Lady Merrick sat in the middle of a brocade settee, flanked on one side by her fat pug and on the other by her daughter, Felicity.
"Camellia. At last," Lady Merrick murmured reprovingly. She did not like to be kept waiting. Felicity gave a welcoming, if nervous, smile.
Cami approached, curtsied, and, at her aunt's nod of acknowledgment, perched on the edge of one of the elegantly uncomfortable chairs facing her.
"We have a visitor."
A caller hardly seemed cause for consternation, and no cause at all for summoning Cami. Unless ... "Someone of my acquaintance, ma'am?"
Aunt Merrick pressed her lips together and shook her head. "No. A gentleman. Of sorts." The dog lifted his head from her lap and studied his mistress, as if his curiosity too had been piqued. "Lord Ash — that is, the Marquess of Ashborough."
Lord Ash? Her aunt was a notorious stickler for rank. What could be the cause of this unaccustomed familiarity — familiarity that bordered on insolence? Was the marquess still a boy? Or old and infirm?
"Merrick has given him permission to call upon Felicity." The quirk of her lips might have been pleasure or displeasure. Perhaps a mixture of both. She clearly disapproved of this Lord Ashborough, but not enough to refuse the possibility that her daughter might one day be a marchioness.
"And beggars, it seems, are not to be choosers," Felicity added sotto voce.
Cami darted her gaze to her cousin, whose cheeks looked unnaturally pink. She was half-persuaded the color must have been put there by the contents of a rouge pot. At those last, quiet words, however, it leeched from Felicity's cheeks, leaving her pale.
Felicity's beauty had never failed to earn her admirers. Last year, in her first season, it had even afforded her the power of refusal, as Aunt Merrick often found occasion to remind anyone who would listen. Felicity had been encouraged by her mama to decline two offers under the perfectly reasonable assumption that better ones would be made in future. This spring, however, shadowed by her brother's looming debts and her consequent loss of dowry, Felicity's loveliness had seemed in danger of proving an insufficient lure.
But of course, a man might require something other than a fortune from his bride.
"Lord Ash is accompanied by his friend, Mr. Fox. A younger son of the Earl of Wickersham, I'm told."
Felicity offered a quick nod of confirmation. "And you are never shy around strangers, Cousin Camellia."
"Felicity suggested your conversation might be a welcome addition to their visit."
Excerpted from "The Companion's Secret"
Copyright © 2018 Susan Kroeg.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.