He has devil’s blood in his veins. At least, that’s always been the legend. How else could the Duke of Brexford’s notorious bastard son return from the dead? The brutal decade since Lucien Durand, Lord Bolt, allegedly drowned in the Thames forged him into a man who always gets what—and who—he wants. And what he wants is vengeance for his stolen birthright...and one wild night in Angelique Breedlove’s bed.
Angelique recognizes heartbreak when the enigmatic Lord Bolt walks into The Grand Palace on the Thames, and not even his devastating charm can tempt her to risk her own ever again. One scorching kiss drives home the danger.
But in the space between them springs a trust that feels anything but safe. And the passion—explosive, consuming—drives Lucien to his knees. Now his whole life depends on proving his love to a woman who doesn’t believe in it...because his true birthright, he now knows, is guardian of Angelique Breedlove’s heart.
Mrs. Angelique Breedlove stared at the little token—a sort of half unicorn, half lion—nestled in the man’s palm. The firelight nicked a glint off the signet ring gleaming around one of his long fingers. The kind of fingers poets and musicians are said to possess.
And excellent lovers.
Also, probably stranglers and pickpockets.
For God’s sake. Fingers were just fingers. It was just that staring at the token was easier than looking into the man’s face. She still had vertigo from the last time she’d done it—thirty seconds ago.
“I don’t know what he is, Mrs. Breedlove, but I don’t think I shall ever forget seeing him” was how their maid Dot had described the man when she’d admitted him to The Grand Palace on the Thames all of minutes ago.
Normally Angelique and Delilah would meet with potential new guests in the reception room, but in the parlor across the foyer the party celebrating three marriages was still underway, and everyone was just drunk enough to think that a round of pianoforte and singing was a good idea. She turned her head and was treated to a view of the vast dark O of Mr. Delacorte’s wide-open mouth, through which a surprisingly decent, albeit loud, baritone poured. Everything Mr. Delacorte did lacked nuance.
She’d warrant the man in front of her was all nuance.
Suddenly the black-and-white marble foyer floor between her and the party and the parlor seemed like an ocean.
She cleared her throat. “I’ll allow this token bears a close resemblance to half of the token Mrs. Hardy and I have in our possession here at The Grand Palace on the Thames, sir. Of course, I suppose it’s always possible you’ve murdered our mystery guest and stolen his half of the token, and then came straightaway to The Grand Palace on the Thames to take up our best room.”
Well. That emerged a little more waspishly than she’d intended. Apparently her senses were overwhelmed and were mounting a defense.
“Do I look as though I’m capable of such a thing?”
He sounded as though he genuinely wanted to know.
Angelique raised her eyes and found his expression oddly grave. His eyes were a crystalline green, like moss agate, or mist over a moor. It was as peculiarly difficult to hold his gaze as it was to hold a lit coal. It was far too...alive...and complicated. He aimed this gaze out over cheekbones that called to mind a pair of battle shields arrayed side by side. His mouth was a long, sensual curve. Not a classically beautiful face. It was something better, or perhaps worse: it was fascinating.
She flicked her thoughts away from that notion the way she would flick her skirts away from an open flame.
“Rather,” she said shortly. “But then, I suspect we all are, given the right circumstances,” she added. “Humans are capable of so many things.”
“You begin to interest me, Mrs...”
She tipped her head pityingly. “Begin?”
Was she flirting? Surely not. She would no sooner do that than blithely step out in front of a runaway barouche. In her life, the consequences would have been identical, at least metaphorically.
But all at once she could feel the difference in the quality of his attention. As if someone had lit a candle in a pitch-black room.
When he began to smile she redirected her gaze to a safer place, which turned out to be the flowers in the vase on the mantel, which were drooping as if they’d all been dosed with laudanum. She enjoyed a bracing dose of exasperation for Dot, whose job it was to make sure they were fresh.
Where the devil was Dot?
Ah, she could hear her now, as a rattle of teapot and cups on a tray approaching. It was a perilous journey for Dot every single time. Dot and gravity had an uneasy alliance.
At last she appeared in the doorway.
Thus began the slow, delicate journey to settling it on the table between the settees.
The man watched this with apparent fascination.
“I don’t believe you mentioned your name, Mr...”
“It’s Lord, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, of course it is. Who but a lord would find it amusing to communicate through tokens.”
“Necessary,” he corrected evenly, sounding as insufferable as that supercilious little man who’d appeared one night weeks ago with half of a token and paid them three guineas to hold a room for a mysterious stranger. “Necessary to communicate through tokens. My name is Lucien Durand. Viscount Bolt.”
The tea tray crashed noisily into place.
The perfidious Dot’s shoes were already clicking across the foyer at a run.
Leaving Angelique alone with a madman.
“I agree that humans are capable of nearly anything, given the right set of circumstances,” he said conversationally, as though he hadn’t just claimed to be someone the entire ton knew had been dead for a decade, and who, before that, had taxed the broadsheets’ ability to come up with hysterical adjectives. “Although murder certainly seems a good deal of effort to go through for an opportunity to stay here at the...”
A faint puzzled frown settled between his eyes as he took in the pretty but well-worn settees facing each other before the fire, arrayed atop the thick but faded rug (frays artfully hidden beneath furniture legs); all of those in shades of rose, the hearth facade fashionable decades ago, the table with its nick out of one leg, also skillfully disguised.
Since they’d combined talents a few months prior, Angelique and Delilah had seen any number of people glance around just that way: bemused, but not necessarily censorious. As if wondering at the source of the room’s charm. One could not place a finger on its source any more than one could bottle sunshine or air. Its charm was that it was well-loved and it knew it.
Madman or not, it seemed her pride was at least as powerful as her sense of self-preservation. She would not sit idly while someone criticized their beloved room.
She cleared her throat. “Lord...”
On the off chance she’d heard him wrong the first time.
“Bolt,” he confirmed, pleasantly.
Hell’s teeth. She drew a sustaining breath.
At best he was a charlatan.
A gorgeous, gorgeous charlatan.
“The comfort and security of our guests is paramount at The Grand Palace on the Thames, so Mrs. Hardy and I—we are the proprietresses—typically like to have a conversation with a potential guest to ascertain whether someone is mad or otherwise unsuitable before we invite them to stay.”
He studied her.
“Invite them, do you?” His tone was skeptical. But his voice was suddenly startlingly soft.
Instantly, alarmingly, it was easy to imagine that voice in her ear, from the next pillow, whispering the things he’d like to do to her.
“Yes.” The word emerged absurdly huskily. It sounded rather like she was giving permission to something. “Yes,” she repeated firmly. “Ultimately we give careful consideration to who we invite to stay, as we’d like all of our guests to feel comfortable and safe. And our business is thriving, much to our gratitude. We’re even contemplating a little expansion. And in case you’ve any doubts, the king himself sat just there not long ago.”
His eyes followed her gesturing hand to the pink settee.
He examined it a moment.
He turned back to her.
“Now who’s mad?” he said gently.
“Excuse me, Lady Der—Mrs. Hardy.”
Delilah—the former Lady Derring and new Mrs. Hardy—gave a start when Dot stage-whispered hotly next to her ear. She was panting as though she’d come at a run.
“What is it, Dot?”
“A man has arrived to inquire about a room and Mrs. Breedlove is speaking with him, but...”
She sank her teeth worriedly into her bottom lip and said nothing more.
Delilah’s eyebrows arched aggressively, prompting Dot to continue.
“Well, I think perhaps you ought to join her.”
Delilah exchanged a swift glance with her husband. He was planning to leave for Dover with Sergeant Massey for a short spot of business in an hour or so, and she wanted to soak up his presence.
But Dot was not in the habit of making recommendations. Cheerfully following orders, and occasionally getting them right, was her forte.
She had proven to be rather a savant at describing guests, however.
“Is he behaving in an...ungentlemanly manner, Dot?”
“Well, no. He is one of the most gentlemanly gentlemen I’ve seen, but not in the way you’d expect. His kit is very fine and his boots, well, they’re Hoby, and the way he stands is very...and you know how they are, Lady Derring—I mean Mrs. Hardy. Gentlemen, that is.”
“I do indeed know how they are.”
“He has only said a few words. His voice is very fine and low. He is merely standing there, mostly.”
“So the trouble is...” Delilah coaxed. She could feel the fine strands of her patience groaning like the buttons on Mr. Delacorte’s vest.
“Well, there are two troubles. Mrs. Breedlove’s cheeks have gone pink.”
This was fascinating.
“Where are they pink?” Delilah asked swiftly.
“Here and here.” Dot pointed to places high on her cheekbones.
Angelique typically sailed through her days like a swan on a sea of jaded wit and cool aplomb, all born of worldly experience. Very little occurred to change the color of her face, unless it was the heat of the kitchen on baking day.
“I see. What was the second thing, Dot?”
“Oh, you’ll think me silly...”
“I would never dream of thinking such a thing,” Delilah lied.
“I believe I saw the letter ‘B’ on his ring!” she said excitedly. “Oh, Lady Der—that is, Mrs. Hardy—do you suppose he could be...” she lowered her voice to another stage whisper, pressed her knuckles to her lip “...the Lord Bolt? It’s just he looks so...so...”
She clasped her hands together and gazed at her mutely, blinking her huge pale blue eyes.
Apparently not even the broadsheets—which Dot read with religious fervor—could provide her with a sufficiently hysterical word.
Delilah silently counted to three to fortify her patience. Ten would have been better but time seemed of the essence.
“That poor misguided young man drowned in the Thames a decade ago. A life wasted. Unless you’re a newspaper that peddles gossip, in which case they profit from him still.”
“But the broadsheets said someone who looked just like him walked into Mantons last week and shot the heart out of every target and walked out again without saying a word. Scared everyone silly, they said!”
“And that someone who looked just like him walked into his favorite glove maker in the Galleria and paid for a pair that Lord Bolt had ordered specially just before he died, black with brown wrists, and walked out again! Right dear they were, too.”
“And that Lady Wanaker claimed her loins had started up a burning out of nowhere like they always did when Bolt was—“
“...and that a mysterious wager appeared in the betting books at White’s, signed and dated with the word ‘Bolt,’ and it said ‘I wager every penny I possess I will have revenge.’ I ask you! It fair made me shiver, it did! And no one saw who did it.” She pressed her knuckles against her teeth.
Dot raised her eyebrows as if she’d made her point.
Delilah sighed. “Oh, Dot. Didn’t we discuss the wisdom of believing all the gossip you read? I admire your enthusiasm for reading, but might I suggest something more calming? Mr. Miles Redmond’s book about the South Seas usually puts me right to sleep. It might be just the thing.”
Dot looked crestfallen. “Yes, Mrs. Hardy. Of course you’re right. It’s just he told Mrs. Breedlove that his name was Lord Bolt, you see. So I just assumed.”
Delilah went still.
She darted another glance at her husband. Who arched a brow.
“We won’t be longer than a few minutes,” she told him.
And if they were, he would be there in moments, because Captain Hardy’s unique gift was knowing when she needed him.
Lucien was accustomed to the stares of beautiful women. Countless times he’d watched conclusions made and discarded scud across their faces like clouds on a breezy spring day. They noted the flawlessly sleek black coat, clearly sewn by the lads at Weston. The gold watch fob. The signet ring. The English accent so elegant and precise every consonant seemed to have been turned on a lathe. The exquisite manners, the charm precisely calibrated to weaken feminine knees.
But then there were the contradictions: the childhood French that haunted the contours of his words and syntax. The long, lean body clearly not raised on great platters of English roast beef. And no proper Englishman went around with eyes like his: Vert, comme un chat, one woman, tangled in his sheets, had purred on a memorable occasion. “Like a devil,” another had hissed on a very different memorable occasion. There was indeed something just shy of feral about him, something that implied that one could never predict what he’d get up to, and the fact that this unpredictable man was dressed up in aristocratic finery made them deliciously uneasy.
He had once cared that he did not fit anywhere.
Until he’d learned that he could use this to his advantage.
He was not in the business of making anyone feel more comfortable about anything.
So he let the beautiful ladies of The Grand Palace on the Thames stare, and he said nothing.
On the little table between them, the two pieces of the token lay locked together like lovers, reunited at last. Mrs. Hardy had fetched the other half from upstairs.
Mrs. Hardy’s dark eyes were soft and curious and she wore a gentle smile. Mrs. Breedlove seemed to actually be pressing herself back against the settee. Her chin was up a little, and her hands were folded perhaps more tightly than they ought to be, though her expression was decidedly cool. As though nothing ever surprised her. Their dresses, one red, one golden, overlapped in a shining spill of silk on the seat between them.
Mrs. Hardy’s eyes went to his new gloves, which he’d removed and laid aside on the settee next to him. Black leather, with brown wrists.
They fixed there for a time.
He spoke first.
“I should have thought you’d surround the settee with velvet rope and erect a plaque if the king sat here.”
“Ah. Well, we’ve only the two pink settees at the moment, you see,” Mrs. Hardy said.
She poured the tea from a pot painted all over with periwinkles.
“Ah,” he said, taking great pains to sound fascinated.
She eyed him sardonically as she handed his tea to him. They both knew this exchange was inane.
He took it with a gracious nod. He drank it without sugar, without cream. It was a habit of childhood he could not abandon and it niggled him a bit. It spoke to a time when such things, the niceties and enhancements of life, simply could not be had.
“I once, in fact, sat on the king’s knee. At the sort of party ladies such as you would certainly not be invited to attend. I was three years old.”
It was a deliberate, testing bit of wickedness.
Neither of them even blinked.
Which he liked.
“Bolt.” He’d happily say his name just like that, all day long, knowing full well the impact it had and not giving a damn anymore.
“Very well. We thought we’d perhaps have a conversation before we admit you to The Grand Palace on the Thames, since we know only what we’ve read about you, you see,” she said.
“You have me at a disadvantage, then, as I have read nothing about you.”
They didn’t laugh.
Mrs. Breedlove gave him a tolerant little smile. “And it is such a struggle to remain out of the broadsheets.”
When he grinned at this, she turned her head away ever-so-slightly from him, toward the mantel. The line of her fine jaw and the slope of her throat, and the way her skin took the light like a pearl, suddenly struck him as almost insufferably lovely. It made him feel fleetingly restless, as if someone had dragged a hand over his fur backward.
“Perhaps the most pertinent thing we’re read about you is that you’re dead,” Mrs. Hardy pressed on.
“Boo, I’m a ghost,” he said mildly and fanned his fingers in mock fright.
Two strained smiles greeted this.
“Lord...” This was from Mrs. Hardy.
“May we presume that you’re claiming to be the very same Lord Bolt who raced a high flyer down Bond Street?”
“Not at all.”
There was a pause.
“You’re not claiming to be the same Lord Bolt who fought a duel with the Earl of Cargill and shot him in the shoulder?” Mrs. Breedlove also had an interesting recollection of his exploits.
“And you’re not the Lord Bolt who wagered a thousand pounds by writing in the White’s betting book that a hummingbird would—“
“Or that you wagered five hundred pounds that you could get a donkey to kick Lord—“
“But...then...” This was Mrs. Hardy.
“It’s the word ‘claim’ I feel I must take issue with,” he clarified. “It rather implies a defense must be mounted, wouldn’t you say, in support of an assertion? Shall we choose a different verb? I was born Lucien Durand. My father is the Duke of Brexford. He was not married to my mother. My mother, Helene Durand, was beautiful, kind, and a bit of a fool. Hence my existence in the world.” He gave them what was meant to be a bit of a self-deprecating smile. “For which I am certain you are grateful.”
They regarded him with tiny polite smiles of their own.
He had the sense they wouldn’t have minded sliding the hairpins from their coiffures and jabbing him. He liked their composure and their obvious intelligence. It wasn’t boring. He loathed boredom and he found it more and more difficult to tolerate dull people with anything like grace.
“To further expound, my father, the Duke of Brexford, persuaded the king to confer upon me the title and the modest lands when I was ten years old. I was in favor then, you see.” He said this very, very ironically. “It’s safe to say I am no longer. But I am still a viscount.”
“I feel I must point out that this portion of Lord Bolt’s...history is rather widely known in London and in other parts of England,” Mrs. Breedlove said gently. “Among those who read the broadsheets, most particularly.”
Bolt gave this the tiny taut smile it deserved. “Some weeks ago you decided to choose to accept one half of the token on the table and three guineas from a small, maddeningly efficient, nondescript, supercilious man, the sort who manages the sorcery of both blending into the wallpaper and nettling like a burr beneath a saddle, to hold your finest room for his employer, who would be me. His native dialect is irony, which you would probably come to understand if you spent a few years working for me as well.” Their silence told him they remembered him well.
“I don’t believe that was mentioned in the broadsheets,” he concluded.
“Does this supercilious man have a name?” Mrs. Hardy said suddenly.
“Exeter. Mister Exeter.”
“Mister E,” Mrs. Hardy repeated, wonderingly, on a hush. The women shared a secret, a swift little mirth-filled glance he could not quite interpret. “And he’s your...”
“Solicitor. After a fashion.”
“Are we given to understand that you did not, indeed, drown in the Thames? There was a funeral, you know.”
“More after the fashion of a celebration, in some quarters,” he said calmly. He was certain he knew precisely who celebrated. Just as he knew precisely how he’d wound up in the Thames.
“It was reported that some women rent their garments,” Mrs. Hardy told him, dryly.
He smiled placidly. “They generally do when I’m about.”
Mrs. Breedlove had turned to study the flowers on the mantel with a little frown.
He knew this because he’d looked immediately for her reaction.
Mrs. Breedlove leaned forward a little. “Help us to understand something, Lord Bolt...If you didn’t drown, then...”
“As I was leaving a gaming hell I was accosted by two men and hurled into the Thames. I survived. Don’t know who the poor bloated soul was who was fished from the river and presented as proof of my demise, but it wasn’t me. I was on my way to China by then on a serendipitous clipper ship. Scooped from the water. I’m fortunate I did not wind up in a pie, like an eel.”
“This is London. One should never take for granted what winds up in a pie,” Mrs. Breedlove said evenly.
Frankly delighted by this, he transferred the whole of his attention to her. The later afternoon light through the window burnished her hair the color of an old doubloon, a shade or two darker than her gown.
“Words to live by,” he said gravely.
She turned ever so slightly away again, as though he were the sun, and not the great orb aiming beams through the window.
A silence ensued.
The room was comfortable, he’d grant it that. The proportions were gracious and pleasing. Through the sturdy closed doors came the strains of a muffled reel. A bit like the way it would sound if ghosts were having a party. Lucien had reached adulthood feeling both on the outside of things and at the center of things (usually gossip), and for an instant he felt that way again.
“As for that duel...It takes particular skill to avoid a target as big and black as the Earl of Cargill’s heart. He can still use his shoulder, but I’ll warrant he thought twice about using his mouth that carelessly again.”
They went perfectly still.
Mrs. Breedlove leaned forward just a little, and it took every scrap of breeding his father had insisted he acquire to keep his eyes on her face and not where they yearned to go, the expanse of creamy décolletage. “Lord...”
“Bolt. Or Viscount Bolt, if you prefer.”
“If you could help us understand why you’ve chosen to...” she paused ostentatiously “...favor...our establishment with your resurrection? And what are your plans for the future?”
Oh, well done, Mrs. Breedlove, he thought. He had a weakness for a good, irresistibly subtle piss-taking. He met her direct gaze evenly. Her eyes were hazel, full of soft greens and golds, a surprisingly gentle color in such a coolly possessed woman. A bit like a spring dawn. The gears of time suddenly slipped...
USA Today bestselling author JULIE ANNE LONG originally set out to be a rock star when she grew up (and she has the guitars and fringed clothing stuffed in the back of her closet to prove it), but writing was always her first love. Since hanging up her guitar for the computer keyboard, her books frequently top reader and critic polls and have been nominated for numerous awards, including the Rita, Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice, and The Quills, and reviewers have been known to use words like “dazzling,” “brilliant,” and “impossible to put down” when describing them. Julie lives in Northern California.
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