"This [is a] page-turning novel full of historical details and sensuous romance."Publishers Weekly (starred review)
He's noble. notorious. And takes no prisoners...
Strong as a Viking. Handsome as Adonis. Rich as Midas. Collin "Cole" Talmage, Duke of Trewyth, is the stuff that legends are made of. He's the English Empire's golden sonuntil fate has its way with him. Cole's family is killed and his closest comrade betrays him on the battlefield, leaving him gravely injured. But Cole is not one to dwell on misfortune. He is a man of duty, honorand desire. And now he's ready for the fight of his lifetime...
Imogen Pritchard is a beautiful lass who works in a hospital by day and as a serving maid at night. Years ago, when she was young and penniless, she ended up spending a scandalous night with Cole, whose tormented soul was matched only by his earth-shattering passion. Imogen entered a marriage of convenienceone that left her a wealthy widowbut she never forgot Cole. Now that her long-lost lover has turned up in her hospital, injured and with no memory of her, Imogen is torn: Is it a blessing or a curse that their past remains a secret to Cole, even as his new passion for her leaves him wanting to protect and possess her...at all costs, in The Duke, the next Victorian Rebels novel by Kerrigan Byrne.
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By Kerrigan Byrne
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 Kerrigan Byrne
All rights reserved.
London, February 1876
Imogen Pritchard shuddered as the fine hairs on her body prickled with alarm. The usually oppressive atmosphere of the Bare Kitten Gin and Dance Hall turned electric with danger, charging every nerve in her body with the awareness of an advancing predator. After placing her armful of empty ale and gin glasses on the sideboard, she palmed a knife from the utensil bin, concealing it in the folds of her skirts as she turned to face the threat.
A cadre of scarlet-clad soldiers filed through the door, their lean, young bodies taut with masculine restlessness. Their eyes gleaming with feral hunger. They reminded Imogen of a roving pack of wolves, licking their chops and smiling their sharp-fanged smiles in anticipation of a macabre feast.
Since she'd been forced to work at the Bare Kitten, Imogen's instinct for peril had been honed as sharp as the sabers hanging from the soldier's waists. And these men, these young wolves, were on the hunt for trouble, only waiting — straining — to be unleashed by one affirmative gesture from their alpha.
As dangerous as they might prove to be, she knew at once that the young soldiers, now fanning into an arc, hadn't been the source of her internal alarm.
Their leader had.
He was a point of disturbing quietude in their chaotic energy. He rose head and shoulders above them, looking down upon all in his path by the sheer necessity of his towering height. His was the iron fist that held them in check. His was the will upon which they lived or died. His was the command they executed without question.
And well he knew it.
Imogen couldn't remember glimpsing such a haughty brow before, nor such astonishingly handsome features. The structure of his face would have been ideal fodder for the Greek sculptors. They'd have used their most precise tools to carve the aristocratic features, almost perfect in their symmetry, from only the best stone. Her fingers tightened around the knife, though they itched for her paintbrushes. She'd paint his long body in great, rigid strokes and broad, bold lines.
A stab of recognition pierced her. She'd seen him somewhere before, surely. Normally, a unique color palette such as his would have clung to her memory. It was as though God had sculpted him out of precious metals. His skin was brushed with a golden hue, his hair shone with a darker, more phosphorous accumulation of bronze, and his eyes, too luminous to be brown, gleamed in the dim lantern light like two smoldering copper ingots as they surveyed every shadow and nook of the great room.
That gaze landed on her and didn't waver for an uncomfortably long time. His expression never changed from stony and assessing. Though something about the strain between his eyebrows, and the slack in what must have been a normally rigid jaw painted the hint of an emotion that bewildered her.
Was he ... exhausted? Or sad?
As Imogen struggled to breathe, she became quite certain they'd never met before. She'd have remembered sharing the same room with him, let alone being introduced. And yet, she'd had a chance to admire the sharp, patrician nose. She'd traced the barbaric cheekbones and wide, square jaw that created the perfect frame for the acerbic slash of his hard lips.
Beneath the weight of his unrelenting stare, she found herself identifying with the deer chosen by the alpha to cull from the herd and take to ground. Retreating, she turned on her heel and almost ran into Devina Rosa.
"Mierda, but it's going to be a long night," she complained, tossing her sable curls and knocking back someone's half-finished gin. Imogen had never been certain if Devina was her real name, or merely what the Spanish harlot called herself.
"Aye, it is at that." Heather, a freckled buxom Scotswoman, agreed while adjusting the line of her bodice to reveal more of her generous breasts. "I know men with their marching orders when I see them. They'll try to fuck their fear into us tonight."
"I'll fetch extra oils." Devina sighed.
"And I'll get them drunk," Imogen offered.
"See that ye do, Ginny." Heather called her by the moniker she used while working in this house of ill repute. "Make yerself at least somewhat useful."
Imogen barely registered the bitterness in her words anymore. She knew many of the girls didn't at all like the understanding she'd forged with their proprietor, stipulating that she didn't have to spread her legs as they did.
"If we're lucky, a few of them will be afflicted with the Irish curse and we can still get our money off of 'em," Heather mused.
"You mean del Toro will get our money." Devina spat and cast a mutinous look at her pimp, and the owner of the Bare Kitten, who had to turn sideways to avoid knocking over chairs and patrons in his exuberance to welcome the newcomers.
The women only dared to make soft murmurs of displeasure, lest he overhear.
"What's the Irish curse?" Imogen whispered her query to Devina, who barked out a very indelicate chortle.
"It's a dead-drunk cock, ye daft cow," Heather answered for Devina with a melodramatic roll of her eyes. "It's when they've had too much so trying to tup them is like trying to stab someone with a rope, ye ken?"
"Yes," Imogen muttered, blushing furiously. "Your explanation is quite sufficient, thank you." She dared a glance at the soldiers, who followed Ezio del Toro's corpulent frame to the corner reserved for only their most important guests. Frowning, Imogen wondered what for. An Italian immigrant, del Toro had no fondness for men in any kind of uniform, nor was he particularly patriotic.
Why then the special treatment?
Del Toro plucked Flora Latimer as she sashayed by, proudly advertising the abundant flesh she had on display. Her eyes widened in astonished increments as he breathed orders into her ears. By the time he'd finished and shoved her toward the sideboard where Imogen and the others lingered, she resembled a big, blue-eyed owl.
"You'll never guess 'ew just walked in," she tittered, flushed with excitement. "Though what 'e's doing in Soho, I couldn't begin to imagine. Don't get much of 'is like 'ere."
"Spit it out, ye crooked whore, we're not about to be guessing," Heather demanded.
"See that one there?" Flora pointed at the officer who folded his long frame into a chair at the head of the table. "The tall one wot looks like a fallen angel?" They all nodded, not wanting to interrupt her long enough to point out that a man such as he was impossible to miss.
"Well, your eyes be feasting on Collin sodding Talmage, fresh from the funeral of his father and brother. Del Toro tells me 'e's leaving at dawn for his final service to the crown before 'e returns to take 'is seat as the Duke of Trenwyth."
Of course. That was why he'd been so familiar. His story was inescapably sensational. His father, the late Duke of Trenwyth, his mother, the duchess, and their heir apparent, Robert, had all been killed when a locomotive derailed near the French Alps, leaving behind their second child, Harriet, and their youngest, Collin. His likeness had been on the front page of every paper and periodical for a week. Lord, but they'd never done him justice, hadn't been able to capture the potent masculinity that draped like a royal mantle from his wide shoulders.
And a royal he nearly was. Some distant Hanoverian mixed in with an ancient family from Cornwall, directly related to their own dear Queen Victoria. It certainly made sense that he'd descended from those fierce Germanic barbarian hordes that kept Rome at bay so long ago. She could see it in his bone structure, in the way he surveyed his surroundings, as though he'd already conquered them.
He'd looked at her like that.
Furthermore, she'd been right. It was sadness she'd glimpsed on his features. A sadness he valiantly concealed.
"No time to dawdle." Flora bustled them in the direction of the table. "Del Toro said it's all hands on deck tonight, and that every man at that table must leave 'ere feeling like it's 'is birthday. Especially His Grace, as 'e's footing the entire bill."
Simultaneously, the women turned and checked their reflections in the gilded mirror above the sideboard. Even Imogen adjusted her dark wig and made certain her lip rouge was fresh and even. It didn't really matter what she looked like, so long as she kept the drinks coming. She wasn't a prostitute, only part of the serving staff, someone to look at, someone to sneer at and grope, but never anything beyond that.
Such was the deal she'd struck with del Toro, that she work at night in the Bare Kitten for as long as it took her to pay off her late father's gambling debts. She toiled here, even handing over her gratuities to the loathsome man, and then kept her mother and younger sister, Isobel, housed and fed with her job as a nurse at St. Margaret's Royal Hospital.
"Ye heard her." Heather dug her elbow into Imogen's side hard enough to cause her to stumble forward. "Stop yer lollygagging, and get them ready for us."
Imogen snatched an empty tray from the sideboard and clutched it to her middle, feeling the need for whatever scant protection it would provide.
She wound her way to the bar, where Jeremy Carson already had one pitcher of ale waiting, and was filling the next. At twenty or so, he was only younger than her by a few years, so Imogen felt guilty that she always thought of Jeremy as a boy rather than a man. His face, while clean, achingly young, and earnest, didn't at all match his scouse accent, which hailed from the Liverpool docks. "Looks to be a night to remember, in'nt Ginny? A duke in here and all."
"I can't believe it, myself." She placed the pitchers he provided and a stack of clean glasses on her tray. If she appreciated one thing, it was Jeremy's cleanliness and attention to the needs of her customers.
"What do you suppose a man like him orders to drink?" the barkeep speculated, flashing a conspiratorial smile full of crooked teeth that made him seem even younger.
Even on the worst day at the Bare Kitten, Imogen found it impossible not to return one of Jeremy Carson's smiles. "I'm about to go discover that very thing."
"Well, you take care around them tonight, Ginny," he warned with uncharacteristic gravity. "They say soldiers are to be feared and respected, even among those they protect."
Imogen didn't know who'd said that, as she'd never heard the saying before, but as she threaded through the sparsely occupied tables toward the duke and his rowdy compatriots on legs made of lead, she knew the truth of it.
Trenwyth adopted an expression of sardonic amusement, but rarely participated in the masculine conversation. Though she approached from his periphery, he glanced over at her the moment she moved, and didn't look away. His intense regard turned the innocuous walk from one side of the hall to the other into a perilous, heart-pounding journey.
She only stumbled the once before she reached them, almost upsetting her tray. Cheeks burning with mortification, she placed herself between Trenwyth and a black-haired Scotsman who would have been handsome but for the cruel gleam in his marble-black eyes. She meticulously poured the ale, avoiding the awareness of the duke as he watched her in complete silence.
That accomplished, she opened her mouth to address them — him — and froze, her mind seizing in panicked fits and groping for her memory. Anyone in service worth the starch in their skirts knew to address the person with the highest rank and work their way down the line. But just what title should she use for Trenwyth? A duke was the highest peer of the realm not in the direct line of the royal family. They were generally addressed as Your Grace. When in uniform, a soldier's rank often superseded any other title, but Trenwyth's uniform frock coat was like none she'd ever seen before. The dominant color black, rather than the traditional scarlet, and red only adorned the sleeves and high collar. He had no hat with him to help her to guess. The stitched braiding about his cuffs and shoulders was intricate and fine and utterly foreign to her. He could have been anything from a captain to a colonel and she had no sodding idea which.
"Better ye close yer mouth, love, unless ye're advertising yer services," the dark Scot drawled. "In that case, we appreciate yer eagerness, but we'd like to drink first, if it's all the same to ye."
Imogen snapped her mouth shut so hard she worried that she'd cracked a tooth as the dozen men surrounding the table guffawed at her expense. A tremor of misery clutched at her, and she chased it away with the brightest smile she could possibly muster and aimed it at Trenwyth. He, at least, wasn't laughing.
"What — what would you like?" was all she could manage.
"What are you offering?" His question landed in her belly like hot coals tumbling out of the hearth. His mouth didn't move much when he spoke, his voice barely above a murmur, but the register was of such depth and resonance that it vibrated through her, spearing her chest with the duplicitous meaning.
Again she found herself without words or breath.
"No punch, sherry, brandy, or port at the Bare Kitten," the Scot answered for her. "Only the best ale brewed this side of the Thames, gin, absinthe, and whisky. A place for a real man, not a gentle man. But what they lack in their variety of alcohol, they more than make up for in their assortment of other vices. Is that not so, lass?" A sharp pinch of her backside brought a gasp and the prick of tears behind her eyes.
Imogen turned and placed her tray in between herself and the Scot, baring her clenched teeth at him in what she hoped del Toro interpreted as a smile. "It is indeed, sir," she said stiffly, eyeing her astute employer as he glared daggers at her in a warning to behave.
This was turning into a disaster, she could feel it.
"Ye can call me Major Mackenzie, and that's not just a title, it's a promise." He cupped himself lewdly as the table erupted with hilarity. "One that will be verified later when ye are unable to walk."
Imogen's breath whooshed out of her in a great gasp when she was abruptly seized around the waist. She lost her feet from beneath her and fell backward, panicking as she was pulled down onto Trenwyth's knee, landing in a heap he controlled with his immense strength.
This seemed to greatly entertain everyone at the table except, of course, for Major Mackenzie, whose features tightened with mutiny.
Instantly she became rigid, preparing to spring back to her feet and retreat to the safety of the bar. She'd done it before, and used a limp, boneless sort of squirming to avoid the grapple of many a drunkard.
But none as big as this, none so intensely solid and unyielding.
"Don't. Move." The hard command froze Imogen in place, and she brought her chin to her shoulder, looking up in slack-jawed astonishment to assess just how much danger she was in from Trenwyth.
His eyes lit with perilous fire, the copper glowing in the forge of his temper, but he didn't spare her a glance, nor did he speak another word. His unflinching stare captured and held that of Major Mackenzie's with silent dominance. The air thickened, threatening to smother her in masculine challenge. Muscles tensed beneath her, around her, until she feared if he flexed any further, she might be crushed. Imogen held absolutely still, careful not to draw the notice of these two wolves, lest they rip her in half.
Major Mackenzie was the one to break eye contact, glancing down at the table.
Trenwyth's arm about her waist relaxed, but he didn't release her. "I'll have whisky."
"A whole case ought to do it," a young lieutenant with a dark but sparse mustache chuckled. "It'll at least whet our appetites for other pleasures the night may provide."
Imogen nodded and hurried to stand, finding herself pulled tighter against the duke. Her legs were braced on either side of his knee, her back ramrod straight, straining to keep her body away from his torso.
"In order for me to fetch your drinks," she began gently, "you'll have to let me up."
After a silent pause, he made a derisive sound from behind her, and the sweet-apple smell of brandy drifted to her from his breath.
He'd already been drinking.
Instead of letting her go, he gestured to del Toro who hovered at a discreet distance and hurried over as fast as his short legs could heft the rest of him.
Excerpted from The Duke by Kerrigan Byrne. Copyright © 2017 Kerrigan Byrne. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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