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She promised three nights, he’ll crave a lifetime
Books by Wendy LaCapra
Infamous for his pedigree of madness and murder, the reclusive Duke of Ashbey believes he cannot feel until a mysterious woman unlocks a world of sensation in a single, shattering moment of connection. Ash casts a desperate bid for more.
Recent widow Alicia Stone has long been reviled as the chief impediment to a love affair that captured the nation’s imagination. Publicly, she settled for respectability’s cold comfort, but, secretly, she longs to experience what she never found with her famous husband—uninhibited passion.
When Ashbey proposes a discreet three-night assignation, Alicia shocks herself by accepting. But will their explosive union cost them both far more than they bargained?
Her Duke at Daybreak
Mythic Dukes Trilogy
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2017 by Wendy LaCapra. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
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Cover design by The Killion Group, Inc.
Developmental & Copy Editing by The Killion Group, Inc.
Ebook ISBN: 978–0-9994253–0-5
ISBN 10: 0–9994253–0-7
Print ISBN: 978–0-9994253–1-2
Manufactured in the United States of America
First Edition October 2017
For Richard, Always
The Duke of Ashbey’s mistress sent her goblet sailing past Ash’s cheek, lifting a lock of his hair. The fine flint glass shattered against the wall behind him.
The servants were going to have a devil of a time picking the shards out of the carpet.
“My dear, is that any way to treat a gift?”
The delicate features of Miss Eliza White—Madame Elisabetta Bianci to her legion of admirers—splotched. “Name the occasion upon which you presented them to me, and I will spare the rest.”
Ash hadn’t the faintest. Although if he properly recalled, his secretary had traveled all the way to Waterford for those glasses. Pity. He steepled his fingers and tapped them against his lips.
Had he gifted them to her on her birthday? Unlikely. He’d never asked the exact date of her birth. Anniversary? Doubtful as well. Their first coupling had taken place on an indeterminate evening sometime around Michaelmas…or had it been the feast of St. Stephen?
The air had been cold, anyway.
He snapped his fingers. “The night you opened in The Tempest.” Ah, well. A glass soared over his head. Now they were down to three. “Liza, must you punctuate with Penrose glass?” Alas, only two remained. He rubbed his forehead. “Despite what you may believe, I would hate to see you hurt.”
“Hurt?” She lifted the penultimate goblet in a bitter mock toast. “How dare you speak to me of hurt?” She emphasized you with repugnance appropriate to rotting excrement. Undeserved repugnance, really. He’d been referring to injured flesh, not injured sentiment.
Gently, very gently, he posed a question. “Have I ever lied to you?”
The goblet careened past his ear. Five glasses had not improved her aim, thank goodness.
“You lie by existing.” Her chest heaved. “A man without feeling is no man at all.”
Many might agree. Regrettably, he could not provide the satisfaction of a reaction.
His gaze caressed her figure.
She deserved something more particular to her person than carnal indulgence. She’d been obliging, and until tonight, seemingly unconcerned with his lack of sentiment.
“Can you think of nothing to say?” She blinked, goblet aloft.
She had such pretty eyes, with sickle-curved lashes black as coal. When she’d been introduced to Ash, her eyes had been windows to an exuberant soul. Now they glowed like Hades, the delight within them having vanished.
“Nothing at all?!” Her voice rose to a fevered pitch. She fisted her goblet-free hand against her hip.
Rather, the vicinity of her hip.
Tightly laced stays may have enhanced her bosom, but they ruined her intended effect.
“You are the one ending our arrangement,” he pointed out, ever aware of the final glass. “Can you blame me for assuming you were not interested in my say?”
She gasped. “For eighteen months—”
“—you have been coddled—”
Unfortunately, not. Saying so, however, would have been unforgivably rude. He was incapable of feeling—that much was indisputable. But Heaven forbid he forgo manners. A man had to have some standards.
“You performed your duties to perfection,” he conceded.
A feline sound emanated from her lips. “Everyone warned me—”
“—your murderous, cold-blooded heritage would manifest.”
How trite of her to resort to the tiresomely obvious.
“My father was tried for murder, not convicted.” He paused. “Clarity is important.”
“You—” she pointed at his chest as if he were the one on trial “—are as mad as they say he was.”
“Doubtful. Again, clarity. My father kept crickets as pets.” He rubbed his chin and leaned back in his chair. “And, he may, or may not, have skewered his valet and deposited the body atop his wife.”
Ash’s father had not been convicted because the only witness, Ash’s mother, had fled the country that day. The court had only his father’s description. And his father, as everyone knew, had been—from childhood—mad as a Bedlam-bound scrub.
“How can you speak of horrors in such a flippant tone?” She paled. “Is nothing inviolate to you?”
Interesting question. “I cannot think of an exception.”
Her huff blew a loosened curl from her face. “Honestly, I begin to understand why your wife preferred death to—”
He did not remember leaping from the chair. Nor did he remember extending his hand toward Liza. However, he was infinitely relieved he stopped short of wrapping his fingers around his former lover’s throat.
He dropped his arm and stepped back. Deliberately, he interlocked his hands behind his back.
“Miss White.” His enunciated syllables were whisper-soft. “You have freely taken everything I promised. And you have stated your wish to end our liaison.” He leveled his gaze. “Now I will wish you well, and you will promise to vacate this house by quarter’s end.”
She slammed her fist against the table. The glass in her hand fractured into slivers. Her face twisted in shock and pain, and blood seeped from the open wound.
“Look!” she screeched. “Look what you’ve done!”
Calmly he lifted her arm, and with his free hand, he rang the bell. This was exactly the sort of thing he’d tried to prevent.
“Unhand me.” She tore herself away.
Probably best. A maid appeared at the door. Her eyes widened, and she rushed toward her mistress.
He reached out to guide the maid around the broken glass, but she skittered beyond his reach, more frightened of him than the glass.
“Get out.” Liza’s voice was filled with loathing. The maid drew back. “Him—not you.” Liza allowed herself to be tended without moving her gaze. “You have taken much from me, Duke. But nothing I cannot recover. And do you know why?”
Rhetorical, of course. Obligingly, he waited for the linguistic slap.
“Because I have a heart.”
“That you do,” he acknowledged with a bow.
He instructed the maid to send for a doctor before turning toward the hall. Eighteen months had been too long an association. A mistake he would not make again. He hadn’t the will nor the wish to ruin anymore lives.
No matter how clear the terms, the longer one danced with a devil the more destructive the burn.
“Ash?” Liza called.
He looked over his shoulder.
“May you rot in the darkness you have chosen.”
With that, his once-vibrant mistress crumbled into a heap on the floor, her lace cuffs stained with blood. Ash continued through the door. At least she was alive. Not so, the woman he married.
Rachel had, in fact, preferred death to a lifetime with him.
His mind filled with a haze of smoke and the hideous sound of ancient rafters breaking free. The bodies of his wife and his father had been discovered in the wreckage of Wisterley’s north wing. His father’s—locked in the rooms where he had to be confined. And his wife, just a few feet away from escaping the blaze she’d purposely set.
Ash had tried to forcibly remove her, and he doubted she wrested free of his grasp to save the duke. She’d barred others from reaching his father’s door with the declaration he deserved to die.
Which left only one explanation—she could not endure one more day as his wife.
A cold shiver passed through his veins. Then, the townhouse door clicked closed—bringing him back, and marking the end of another life chapter.
He continued onward, but night’s soothing darkness did little to mellow his mood. The path to his home journeyed through streets far from London’s worst, yet there was still some chance he’d meet a cutthroat. Honestly, he’d welcome physical pain.
He strove to shield others from his gloom, but, tonight, the curses of those he’d unintentionally damned had become incessant crickets, chirping in the twisted thicket of his soul. The most recent curse, however, had been wrong on one, important point. He’d never chosen the darkness.
The darkness had chosen him.
“Impossible!” Aunt Hester spoke in a tone that brokered no objection.
The little man from the Admiralty—the one with the sheets of vellum and the satchel—bounced his knee. A subtle bounce, but a bounce nonetheless. Alicia noticed, because no one else in the room moved.
Not Aunt Hester—Alicia’s recently deceased husband’s aunt. Aunt Hester’s face had frozen in mutinous disbelief.
Not the captain—his guilt-stricken eyes and absent limb remained still.
And certainly not Alicia herself—sitting stiff-backed and without visible expression. She was annoyed, however. The little man’s twitch was disturbing their tableau.
Gentlemen Deliver Distressing News.
They had not created a perfect tableau. A more visual depiction of woe would have been de rigueur. But since she had been forced to conceal her response to the thousand daily humiliations inflicted on a publicly spurned wife, Alicia’s reaction was bound to lack potency.
Perhaps she could improve the scene if she bent her body with grief, lifting tear-stricken eyes to the heavens...
The celebrated painter Romney had captured the countess in just such a pose. But surely, the countess would not quibble if Alicia stole the posture, not when the countess had stolen Alicia’s husband, keeping him enthralled until his death. And now, according to these men, there was a good chance the countess could take full possession of the Stone estate and its income.
“We are pursuing the validity of the death-bed codicil to the admiral’s will,” the little man assured.
“Tell them.” Aunt Hester’s chest pulsed with shallow breath. “Tell them the admiral would never have made such an outrageous arrangement. Astonbury has been in the family for decades.”
Untrue. Octavius had purchased Astonbury as war spoils less than ten years past. It only seemed longer. She and Aunt Hester and Octavius’s brother Simon hadn’t lived there for an age. Not since Octavius moved the countess and their child into the home.
“Lady Stone,” Aunt Hester snapped.
Lady. She’d never grown used to being addressed as such. Then again, by the time Octavius became a viscount, she’d been effectively sliced from his life.
“Alicia.” Hester’s sigh was wracked with aggravation. “I asked you to speak.”
Speak. Yes, of course. But what should she say? Alicia’s eyes settled on the captain.
His sun-soaked skin had the leathery texture that made most sailors look hard, but there was something compelling about him. She searched his strange, haunted gaze. His features were tempered with forbearance present only in those whom great hardship had touched.
“You seem very familiar, Captain,” Alicia said. “Have we met?”
The little man’s head snapped toward the captain, but the captain’s features softened. “I was a young officer on The Maitland.”
Ah. Octavius’s first ship. She forced her mind back, searching. No memory of an officer named Smith surfaced. Instead, the sensation of heat rushed over her skin, followed by the echoing sound of water. Azure water, so clear you could spot a fish from the bow of a frigate. And Octavius. Sparkling brighter than the sun on the waves. Her hero.
And the countess’s fallen lover.
“Octavius is gone.” For her, he’d been gone for a very long time.
“Yes,” the captain answered—communicating so much more than a single syllable should—the weight of soured hopes and youthful follies, of plans gone awry and consequent dismay. And grief. An ocean full of grief.
“Is she well?” The little man’s question dried the mist in Alicia’s eyes.
Aunt Hester tsked. “How did you expect her to react? She’s just learned we’ve been left destitute, and her husband’s mistress will receive everything.”
The captain answered, “The Admiralty will, of course, take the admiral’s family into consideration.”
Odd that, when Octavius had not.
Then again, he had taken his family into consideration, hadn’t he? In the codicil, he’d claimed the countess and her illegitimate daughter, who had been his by every right but law. Now they would have everything that was his, too.
One had to admit a kind of justice, however painful.
“The Admiralty,” Hester argued, “has not the means nor the will to provide for a fallen sailor.”
“Your nephew was hardly just a sailor,” the little man cut in. “He died whilst winning a brilliant battle. A posthumous elevation is being discussed.”
Alicia bit back an unladylike snort. Was she to become not just a lady, but a countess? On equal footing as her rival.
Without Octavius’s estate or its income and with Octavius’s younger brother—currently at sea—and his spinster aunt in her care.
“The codicil will not stand,” Aunt Hester said. “We will go to the courts.”
The captain cleared his throat. “Courts will not be necessary. The Admiralty has asked me to assist in finding a resolution.”
Ah. So that explained the captain’s presence—he had been tasked with tidying up. The Admiralty wanted to smooth Octavius’s messy wake so their hero could shine in death.
“We are attempting to reach Simon’s ship,” the Captain continued.
“Simon?” Alicia frowned. What had Octavius’s brother to do with this?
“He must come home, of course,” the little man said.
Simon was going to be furious if forced to leave the Navy. She must write to reassure—Oh.
Everything became clear.
The Admiralty needed a male. For the title, of course. And they needed a title to distract the public.
Even though the title had been bestowed on Octavius by valor and not by birthright, they would transfer it to Simon and then push him to the front of the nation’s imagination with pomp and circumstance and an immaculately powdered wig. And in turn, the heir would push the grieving gaggle of women forever bound together by scandal into the background where, no doubt, the Admiralty believed they belonged.
The Admiralty expected her to silently wait for them to resolve her financial difficulties while they crafted the narrative.
Waiting, she understood. One could go mad from waiting. Airless, ravenous waiting in a cold and lifeless bed. She boxed the shame and humiliation and anger and slid them securely into the shadows.
The minutiae of living would not cease while the Admiralty executed their plan. Melodrama did not interrupt the need for shelter and for food. The quarterly bills would be due in a fortnight. And Cook had said something about the store of flour, had she not?
The future yawned in a dizzying expanse.
Concentrate, Alicia. Details, not sentiments.
The income from her marriage settlement would keep them for a time, but not in their current mode of living. And not with Octavius’s debts.
She looked around the sitting room. This house could be let. They could retire to smaller lodgings in some place less fashionable than London. Bath, perhaps? Salt air would be good for her soul. Aunt Hester would appreciate taking the waters.
Alicia’s gaze slid to Aunt Hester’s pinched mouth.
What mattered was they would get by, no matter what these men decided was best.
They would economize. Something that would—ironically—be easier without Octavius’s expensive tastes. Life would be less luxurious, of course. But they would have enough to eat. And they would have each other.
“If you’ll excuse us, Captain.” She stood. As expected, every person in the room followed her lead.
“Of course,” the captain replied. “We have taken too much of your time already.”
“Not at all.” She allowed him to take her hand. “We appreciate the courtesy.”
“We will be in touch.” He gave her another deep look of understanding.
Her feelings were not for consumption. Especially not by the Admiralty, who were determined to package up Octavius’s loved ones in shackles topped with a pretty, iron bow.
She smiled sweetly as the captain and the little man departed.
The Admiralty may be determined. But she was equally determined she would never don shackles again.
Ash sat alone within his study, the only inhabited room in his London home save the kitchens. He ate, drank, worked, read, and slept within these walls—his cocoon in a cavernous house stuffed full of macabre memories. Earlier, he’d declined to have his manservant, Kent, light the lamps. Tonight, he preferred shadow.
He always preferred shadow, truth be told.
May you rot in the darkness you have chosen...
He scowled. What the devil was wrong with darkness, anyway? Why this universal mania for light? He’d always been intrigued by the description of what came before the sun’s creation.
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep...
Ah, he loved the sound of the deep. The deep was a place one could rest.
Formless, like broken crystal.
Empty, like the chambers of his heart. He rubbed his fingers against his chest.
Although plenty of evidence had mounted to the contrary, he did possess a functional version of the organ. Somewhere beneath his ribs, his heart swished like a sponge in seawater on a moonless night. The organ’s stubborn persistence was the only reason he remained afloat on the surface of the dark deep.
Alive, yes. But for what purpose?
He’d long suspected Purpose, with a capital P, did not exist.
And yet there was something, wasn’t there? A sense there was more. A sense kindled by having born witness to another’s love. A love that had been transformative, mysterious and grand.
Such an experience was not for him. Never for him. His home—his life—had always been engulfed by gloom. He had survived, but the gloom had taken his father’s reason, his mother’s maternal responsibility, and his wife’s life.
Yet, sometimes...sometimes...he could almost believe his life was being held in abeyance, as if he were a shade of the dead, and could be reanimated with the proper sacrifice. In those times, hope, in wraith form, flitted at the edge of his senses, a blessing and a curse.
Ash squeezed his eyes closed, gathering silence into his mind. Silence dulled thoughts’ sharp edges, lulling him to stillness, a vacant sort of peace.
Time passed while he remained suspended—an hour? Maybe more—until a commotion sounded outside his door.
“...in the study, I’ll wager.”
Hurtheven. He snorted. The man always appeared when least desired.
May you rot in the darkness you have chosen...
Right. Well, perhaps he could use a visit, desired or not.
“Your Grace.” Kent spoke to the Duke of Hurtheven with awe the manservant never quite mustered for Ash. Then again, he’d been the only servant who’d refused to settle elsewhere after the fire. “His Grace is not receiving.”
“Excellent,” Hurtheven replied. “Then we shall not be disturbed. And Kent?”
“Yes, Your Grace?”
“Ash never receives.”
“Quite so, Your Grace.”
The door flew open.
“Christ! A bat could not find his way in here.”
Struck by another voice, a voice he hadn’t heard in six long years, Ash stood so fast, he knocked over his chair.
“Chev!?” Ash gazed at his old ally in disbelief. Even Cheverley’s wife, though loyal, had given up hope the man was alive.
Hurtheven shushed. “Cheverley remains among the missing,” he said, giving a pointed look to the back of the servant still in the room. “Allow me to introduce Captain Smith, future occupant—we hope—of your uninhabited upper rooms. Captain Smith is the Admiralty’s man in charge of—” His sentence ended abruptly.
Kent lit the last sconce and then slipped from the room.
“What is it you are doing for the Admiralty, Smith?” Hurtheven asked.
“Nefarious deeds.” Chev stepped out from behind Hurtheven with a bitter exhale.
Ash’s long-absent companion, one-third of a secret society that dated back to their Eton days, had returned absent the lower portion of his arm.
His right arm.
“The Admiralty,” Chev said, “feels I can be of more use on land.”
Damnation! At least he was alive. “I do not understand.” Ash frowned. After six interminable years, Ash expected Cheverley to be anxious to see his once-beloved wife. “Why must you stay here? Does Pen know you have returned?”
Hurtheven answered. “The Admiralty knows, I know. And now you know.”
Chev’s gaze remained blank. “Hurtheven said your staff consists of a manservant and his wife.”
“A discreet manservant,” Hurtheven added. “Since Chev must remain missing—” Hurtheven exchanged a meaningful glance with Cheverley, “—for now, I thought your rooms could provide comfort and concealment.”
Ash remembered to shut his mouth. “Concealment, yes.” His home had never provided comfort. “You may stay, of course.”
He preferred solitude. So much so he’d closed every room in the house. But this was Cheverley. Chev and Hurtheven remained his oldest, and only, allies. No one survived boarding school without allies, not even the son of a mad, murderous duke.
Or especially the son of a mad, murderous duke, as the unsubtle Hurtheven told the tale.
“If you become a restive host—” Hurtheven smiled, “—you can always seek comfort in Bianci’s arms.”
San subtlety point proven.
“Unfortunately,” Ash said, “the St. John’s Wood house will soon be vacant.”
“Finally thrown over, were you?” Hurtheven asked.
“I am astonished she lasted, truth be told. Are you feeling—”
Ash raised his brows.
“Of course not.” Hurtheven clapped him on the shoulder. “I am parched, many thanks for asking. And Smith here would welcome a seat, I am sure.”
“Yes, of course.” Ash shook his head to clear the obvious haze. It wasn’t every night he found himself unceremoniously discarded by his mistress only to discover a long-dead friend very much alive. Alive...but hiding. “Please, take a seat.”
Ash retrieved scotch from his cabinet and poured three fingers. He handed the first to Hurtheven and the second to Chev.
The years had been less than kind to Cheverley, though the determined set of his friend’s chin remained familiar. As did that quality Cheverley possessed when he fixed Ash with his disturbing pale gaze—the one that made Ash feel his secrets were as obvious as his cravat.
“Heartily glad to have you here,” Ash said.
Chev nodded his thanks. Ash looked away from Chev’s tremor. Some things a man did not wish acknowledged, even by an old ally.
“So,” Hurtheven turned to Cheverley, “six years is a long time to cover. Where shall I begin?”
“Why don’t you abridge?” Chev suggested.