Next in the USA Today–bestselling Regency romance series—A daring rescue, a disreputable reputation, and a dangerous road ahead.
Lady Charlotte Carpenter’s brother-in-law has put an infamous brothel owner out of business—yet it is Charlotte who suffers the consequences. Abducted by thugs and held at an inn, she is plotting her escape when she’s suddenly rescued by a dashing gentleman. Only afterward does she realize she’s seen him before—with two courtesans! Unwilling to tarry with such a man, Charlotte makes her second escape. But it is too late to repair her reputation…
A known gossip has spied Charlotte’s movements, and his report is speeding through the rumor mill. Soon, everyone knows that Charlotte spent the night with Constantine, Marquis of Kenilworth. And everyone agrees the only answer is marriage, including Constantine himself, his overjoyed mother—and his mistress! But Charlotte’s abductors aren’t finished with her yet. Now Constantine will do anything to protect the spirited woman he loves and win her heart…
“A surprising Regency romance that combines intelligence and intrigue for satisfying results.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Full of payoffs for longtime readers while welcoming the new.”—Publishers Weekly
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Berkeley Square, Mayfair, London, England, May 1815
Prickles of fear ran down Lady Charlotte Carpenter's spine, and she fought back the gorge rising in her throat. Inside her gloves her hands grew damp.
Not even as a child when she was afraid of thunder had she been so terrified. This must be what her sister Grace and her friend Dotty had felt when they were abducted. Charlotte drew a shaky breath. Well, they had survived and so would she.
She had been shoved roughly into the coach, hitting her knees on the door edge and almost falling to the floor. Fortunately, her basket had broken her descent before meaty hands had grabbed her, placing her none too gently on the forward-facing seat.
"Don't give us no trouble, and we won't hurt ye," the ruffian across from her had said.
Not looking up, she'd nodded.
After her sister had been kidnapped, Mattheus, the Earl of Worthington, her brother-in-law and guardian, had ensured that she, Louisa, her sister — actually her sister-in-law, yet Charlotte considered all her sisters-in- law sisters — who had just wed, and Augusta their sister who was three years younger than Charlotte and Louisa, had been given lessons on how to protect themselves and what to do if something like this happened to them.
All she could do was trust her lessons would stand in her good stead and remember all she had been taught. She should concentrate on that instead of panicking. Yet for what seemed like an eternity, her mind refused to cooperate. Closing her eyes, she focused on gathering her scattered wits.
Gradually, pieces of what she had learned began coming back to her. The first thing she had been taught was to let the curs believe she was under their control. That was supposed to lull them into thinking she would not try to escape. Under the circumstances, that wasn't very hard to do. She was under their control. Both the men were much stronger than her, making escape more difficult.
Second, she was to take inventory of what she had that could help her flee their control. That should make her feel better. She had a dagger strapped to her leg. Although she needed much more practice to be able to draw it out properly. Her basket held a pistol made just for her — loaded — and with extra bullets and powder. Unfortunately, her kitten, Collette, was in the basket as well. But she was in the harness and lead Charlotte had fashioned for the cat. Both items would serve her well if she had to abandon the basket. She tightened her hands on the wicker handle.
And the third part of the plan was to think of a way to escape. That might be a little more difficult. She had not intended to go farther than across the square to Worthington House; therefore, she had no money. Even if she did manage to get away from the brutes, she wouldn't get very far without funds. On the other hand, she knew how to tool a carriage, so she might be able to drive the coach if she could steal it.
Her breathing steadied and she began to feel a little more in control. As long as she ignored the brutes who had kidnapped her, that is.
A friend of Matt's had also taught her and her sister to pick a lock. It might take her a while, but she was sure she could do it if she had to.
She was wearing sensible leather half boots, and a twill walking gown, practical and sturdy enough not to fall apart if she had to go traipsing across the country.
There, already her heart had stopped beating as if it would fly out of her chest.
"Got any victuals in that basket of yourn?" the man across from her asked.
Oh, Lord, Collette! Who knew what they'd do to her kitten. Charlotte couldn't let them look in the basket. "No. I was going to fetch some things."
He leaned back against the worn cushions again, and she resisted the urge to breathe a sigh of relief.
Her abductors were dressed neatly, in a middling sort of way, even if they didn't speak like one would expect. They wore breeches instead of pantaloons, and Belcher scarves rather than cravats. At least they didn't smell or appear overly dirty. That was helpful as her stomach was still a mass of knots. It wouldn't take much to make her ill.
If she only knew in what direction they were traveling it might help her form a scheme to escape.
A few minutes later, a large estate situated on a hill caught her attention. "What is the building over there?"
The kidnapper across from her slammed the shade down. "None of yer business is what it is."
"Shut yer gob, Dan. We ain't supposed to talk to her." Next to her the other scoundrel shoved his chin forward as if daring Dan to defy him.
"An whatcha think the mort's goin' ta do? Jump out and run for help?" The man called Dan sneered. "She'd haf ta get away from both of us. I only closed it so no one could see inside."
Charlotte's cheek felt as if it was burning, as if the blackguard next to her was staring at her face, but she did not dare return his gaze.
"We got our orders," the man next to her said. "I don't need you ta put us aground."
Dan shrugged, and the burning feeling went away.
She had no idea how long they had been traveling, but surely they would stop to change horses soon. Perhaps then she could find someone to help her. She wondered how her kitten was doing, but she didn't dare show any interest in the basket. The two villains would be bound to notice, then they would find the pistol and her cat.
The men had once more lapsed into silence. Dan's eyelids drifted shut, but she doubted the other man would be so lax. Not that she could have jumped out of the coach in any event. The traffic had finally lessened, and they were moving along at a faster, steadier pace.
Sometime later, Dan's foot pushed against her shoe. She moved her leg to give him more room, but the foot followed.
Suddenly, he yelped, and when she sneaked a look he was holding on to his knee. The other man must have kicked him. "What'd ye do that fer?"
"Leave the mort alone," the blackguard next to her growled. "No talking. No touching."
She should be relieved. Someone obviously wanted her unharmed. Yet that begged the question of who could have ordered her abduction? She was positive that she had not made any enemies. Matt kept such a careful eye on her, no fortune hunters had been allowed within several yards of her or Louisa.
She gave an imperceptible shudder. Going down that line of thought would not help her escape. All it would do was distract her. And possibly frighten her even more than she already was.
The coachman's horn sounded, and the carriage began to slow. They must be at a toll. But before she could think what to do, they sped up again. Well, drat! She'd have to be faster the next time. A short while later she noticed a pattern of speeding up then slowing down, but not for the tolls. The driver must be sparing the horses so that they would not have to be changed.
"I have ta go ta the bog house," Dan said in a sullen tone. "Surprised she ain't whined about wantin' ta go. Ye musta scared the piss outta her." He laughed at his own joke.
The man next to her grunted.
Well, if they were going to stop somewhere, perhaps she could relieve herself and find help. Thinking about it made the urge almost too strong to hold. "I must use the necessary very soon."
"Burt, ye can stop here. I'll watch the mort." Dan leered at her, turning Charlotte's stomach.
"We're almost to the inn," Burt said. "If ye say a word, or try to get anyone to help ye, yer ladyship, I'll bind and gag ye. Understand?"
Charlotte nodded. The last thing she wanted was to be constrained in any manner.
Several minutes later the coach came to a halt.
"See ta the horses," Burt barked, and Dan jumped down quick as a rabbit. An ostler came around and let down the steps. The boy helped her out, but Burt grabbed onto her elbow and guided her into the inn.
"Sir," the landlord said, hurrying up to them. "How can I help you?"
"I'm Smith. Ye have rooms fer us."
"Oh, yes. Yes, indeed I do." The innkeeper cast Charlotte a disapproving glance. "Right this way."
Bother. The landlord had probably been told some Banbury story just as the couple who'd held her friend Dotty had been told. Two days before her wedding, Dotty, now the Marchioness of Merton, had been abducted by a man who wished to stop her from marrying Merton. She'd been taken to a house in Richmond and the caretakers had been informed she was a runaway. By sheer luck, Matt and Merton had discovered where she was, and the men had ridden ventre à terre to her aid. By the time Merton arrived, Dotty had already found a way to escape.
If only Matt were not out of Town. But he was, as were Dotty and Merton. Charlotte did not even know if anyone had seen her abducted. If that were the case, there was only one thing to do. She would simply have to find a way to escape by herself.
* * *
"My lord, my lord!" Constantine, Marquis of Kenilworth, glanced at the crazed man in black waving to him whilst running down the street.
Good God! It was Thorton, his friend the Earl of Worthington's butler. What the devil was going on?
Drawing his phaeton to the pavement, Con slowed the horses, bringing them to a halt.
"My lord." With a shaking hand, the servant pointed at a black coach driving down the street. "You must go after them. They took Lady Charlotte."
"Lady Charlotte?" He could have sworn Worthington's wife's name was Grace.
"Lady Worthington's sister."
"Where's Worthington?" Somewhere close, Con hoped.
"His lordship is out of Town with her ladyship for a few days." The butler glanced worriedly at the coach. "Hurry, please, my lord. You must save her."
He glanced around, but for some reason, no one he knew was in the square.
This is not what he'd planned to do this afternoon.
"Tell me everything you know while I turn this rig around." The sooner Con took care of this problem, the faster he could get back to his own business ... and his mistress.
"Lady Charlotte was crossing the square from Stanwood House, where his lord and ladyship's brothers and sisters live, to Worthington House, when two blackguards grabbed her. They threw her in that carriage and drove off." The butler wrung his hands.
"Did she not have a maid or footman with her?" He couldn't imagine Worthington being so careless with his charge.
"He did try to stop them, but it was too late." The butler frowned as if he was still trying to figure out how he had failed to protect the lady. "After Lady Worthington —" The lines bracketing his mouth deepened. "What I mean to say is that for the first few weeks after his lordship's wedding, there was more vigilance, but the children go back and forth so often, we didn't think ..." The butler took out a handkerchief and mopped his brow. "There was no reason to believe she or the others would be in danger."
Con wanted to ask just how many children there were that Worthington would occupy two town houses, but that question would have to wait until later.
"Is it possible she eloped?" As scandalous as it was, the dash to Gretna Green wasn't that uncommon. Although, it generally did not involve bullies.
Con's only hope that this would be an easy task died a quick death when the servant's features froze. Definitely not a pretty sight. No wonder Worthington wanted the man to smile.
"Indeed not, my lord." The butler's lips barely moved. "Her ladyship would never disgrace her family in any way." The man glanced down the street in the direction of the carriage. "Please hurry, my lord. They are getting away."
Con gritted his teeth. "I am turning the horses as quickly as I am able." What a pity. That meant someone was intent on harming Worthington or his family. Then again, it could be an attempt to compromise the lady into marriage. "Inform Lord Worthington that I have gone to her rescue." Con almost cringed. Devil take it. He sounded like a character out of those romances his sister liked. "Better yet, tell him I have it all in hand."
"Yes, my lord. You might also wish to know that Jemmy, one of the younger boys, jumped onto the back of the coach."
How young? Con wondered. Still, it didn't matter. He hoped the lad would be helpful. If not, he would be rescuing a helpless lady and an equally useless boy.
Devil take it.
The Lords wasn't in session today. He had no real reason to be out and about. He should have just stayed at Aimée's house. If it had not been for a letter concerning a problem at his main estate — that still would not be taken care of — he would have been there, and not here chasing after some insipid young female.
Never mind that she was a friend's sister; he had yet to meet a young lady who wasn't too dull to bear. And this one would most likely be hysterical as well.
Con scowled. He had done nothing to deserve this inconvenience. He took care of his holdings and dependents, was active in the Lords, and he loved his mother and other family members, even if he did refuse to heed their exhortations to wed. He had plenty of time yet before he had to don a leg- shackle. His life was exactly as he wished it to be.
An uneasy feeling like ants crawled up his neck. What rot. Now is not the time to become fanciful.
He'd rescue the girl, Worthington would owe Con a favor, and all would be well. With luck he'd be back in time for dinner with the lovely Aimée, and then the theater. Innocents held no interest for him at all. He didn't even like being around them. Still, he could not refuse to help a friend.
Glancing up the street, he saw the coach was still in sight. "I shall return her to you soon."
He gave his horses the office to start. Fortunately the pair was fresh and ready for some exercise.
Several minutes later, Con had time to take in the details of the vehicle he was following. Not so large, most likely it had once been a town coach. The boy — for the figure on the back was definitely a child, a small child — had a wide enough platform on which to stand. There were handles as well and no back window. The carriage had obviously belonged to someone who, while concerned for their servant's comfort, did not wish to see them or vice versa. And that worked out well for Con. By the time whoever was in charge of kidnapping the lady — damn, what had the butler said her name was? Lady Charlotte. That was it — knew Con was after them, it would be too late for the blackguards to escape him.
Better yet, he might be able to steal the lady away when the coach stopped to change horses or for a rest. Stealth in these matters was much better than declaring his rank and making a scene. It would help no one if the girl's reputation was ruined in the process.
Checking his pair, he stayed far enough back to blend in with the other traffic, but not so far away that there was a chance of losing them in the midday traffic. If he had brought his pistol, or there were not three of the blackguards, Con would have attempted to drive ahead of the coach and stop it. But there was too much traffic, and he did not have a death wish.
He transferred the ribbons to one hand, pulled out his pocket watch and flipped it open. Blast it all. It was almost four o'clock. That would teach him to laze about in the mornings.
Nevertheless, if the Fates were with him he'd be able to get the young lady back in good time to finish his business and attend the theater this evening.
An hour later, Con resigned himself to not only missing dinner but the theater as well. He had passed the southern outskirts of London into Surrey, heading toward the coast. That was not a good sign at all.
Con drove into the yard of the Hare and Hound on the heels of the coach carrying Worthington's sister. Jumping down from his phaeton, he strode to the back of the coach and grabbed the boy, Jemmy, before anyone else saw him.
"Hey!" The lad wiggled, trying to get away. "Whatcha doin'?"
The boy couldn't be more than five or six. How in perdition had he been left unsupervised?
Before Jemmy could start yelling and draw unwanted attention to them, Con bent down and whispered into the boy's ear, "Worthington's butler sent me to help."
"Yer here to help Lady Charlotte?" the boy asked.
Con inclined his head. "Yes, indeed. I am Lord Kenilworth, a friend of your master's."
Talk about an old soul in a young body. Con was sure he had not been eyed that suspiciously since he'd been caught stealing a whole pie from his mother's cook and had lied about it.
Finally acceptance showed on Jemmy's face and he nodded. "How're we running this rig?"
Glancing up, Con saw the lady propelled into the inn by a big brute. "I want you to pretend you're my groom. Do you understand?"
Jemmy's sharp eyes narrowed. "How's that going to get my lady out of here right and tight?"
Excerpted from "The Marquis And I"
Copyright © 2018 Ella Quinn.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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