LOVE IS ALWAYS A WILD RIDE.
A writer for the Ladies Gazette, Miss Ophelia Dauntry’s passion is her pen. So when she sees a fellow writer kidnapped before her eyes—and the trail of evidence leads to the Lords of Anarchy—Ophelia vows to find her friend and take down the notorious London driving club in her column. But before she can argue her case, she needs the inside scoop from its newest leader: Piers Hamilton, the Duke of Trent.
Headstrong, handsome Trent joined the Lords of Anarchy after a decade in the British Army. He’s made it his business to tame the misbehavior within the driving club—and the infuriatingly attractive Ophelia is only getting in his way. The deeper she digs into the case, the more she puts her own life at risk. Can Trent convince Ophelia to trust him to seek justice…and find protection, and passion, in his arms?
Don't miss the last book in Manda Collins' gripping Lords of Anarchy trilogy, Good Dukes Wear Black!
Release date: April 5, 2016
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Print pages: 304
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Good Dukes Wear Black
The club members were acquitting themselves rather well among polite society, thought Piers Hamilton, Duke of Trent, the latest president of the Lords of Anarchy, as he surveyed them mingling with the highest sticklers of the ton.
Especially considering that the last party the Lords of Anarchy had hosted was an actual orgy.
The duke, known to his intimates as Trent, was the latest in a quick succession of leaders of the aforementioned driving club, which, on top of being known for its fast races and drunken debauchery, had also been helmed in the past couple of years by men who turned out to be somewhat less than scrupulous about some laws.
The one against murder, for instance.
So when the few remaining members with a conscience had approached him about becoming president, Trent had been hesitant. But he liked a challenge. And his years as an officer in His Majesty’s army had shown him that even the most undisciplined of men could be molded into good soldiers. Thus he’d accepted the position with an eye toward reining in the wildest elements of the membership and giving the rest of them a club they could be proud of.
Now, watching the newest members of the club dancing with perfectly respectable ladies in the ballroom of his London residence, Trent was hopeful that there would be no more bad behavior from the Lords of Anarchy. At least not under his watch.
“Trent,” said Lord Frederick Lisle, clapping his old friend on the shoulder, “you’ve done yourself proud with your first entertainment as the duke. I wouldn’t have guessed a man with so little patience for socializing would manage it, but you proved me wrong.”
Before he could retort, they were joined by the recently wed Earl of Mainwaring, who was the third in their circle since their schooldays. “You know you’re supposed to dance with them,” he said dryly, with a nod in the direction of a pair of young ladies who whispered furiously behind their fans while casting longing looks in Trent’s direction.
As the three men watched, a young gentleman with laughably high shirt points and hair that had been pomaded and teased until it added three inches of height to his willowy frame approached the bevy and bowed deeply. Words were exchanged, eyelashes fluttered, and soon the young man was leading out the prettier of the two onto the dance floor. The other, her courage waning with the departure of her friend, turned her attention to the partygoers on her other side.
“Who was that strange creature?” Mainwaring asked, raising his quizzing glass to get a closer look at the bold young gentleman. “I don’t think I’ve seen shirt points that high since—”
“You were that age?” Freddy finished with a laugh. “I seem to recall you were rather fond of the pomade as well.”
“No more than you,” Mainwaring retorted with a frown, turning his glass upon his friend. “And if we are paying calls in Memory Lane, then by all means let us discuss the time you so knotted your neck cloth your valet had to cut you out of it?”
“It’s a very complicated knot,” Freddy said with injured dignity. “Which you would know if you ever tried it yourself.”
“Before you come to blows over your youthful fashion choices,” Trent said mildly, “to answer your original question, Mainwaring, that ‘creature’ as you call him is my cousin Waldo Hamilton, who also happens to be my heir.”
He watched with amusement as his friends blinked and glanced once more at Waldo, who was mincing through the steps of a country dance, careful not to hold the lady so close that she mussed his cravat.
“My condolences,” Freddy said with a wince.
“Perhaps he’ll get better with age?” Mainwaring asked, his voice rising with the question in a manner that indicated he didn’t quite think so.
“He is seven-and-twenty years old,” Trent said dryly. “If he hasn’t grown out of the taste for that fashion by now I fear it’s too late.”
“I now see how truly lucky I am to be the youngest son,” Freddy said sincerely. “No need to worry about the line of succession so no mixing with family members like that.”
“One of the benefits certainly,” Mainwaring said with a nod. “My heir isn’t the sharpest stickpin in the jewel box but he’s at least…”
“Sensible? Able to dress himself without ending up looking like a caricature of a Parisian hairdresser?” Trent shook his head. “As you can see, gentlemen, I cannot allow the dukedom to go into Waldo’s hands. He’d likely invest all the income from the home farms in pomade and the tenants would starve to death.”
“He’s not that bad, surely,” Freddy said encouragingly. “Perhaps he has hidden depths.”
“Wait until you’ve had a conversation with the fellow before you make that judgment,” Trent said grimly. “And even if he were to become sensible overnight, I still have to think about the succession. Just because it is my duty.”
“You and your duty,” Mainwaring said with a roll of his eyes. “One of these days you’ll realize that sometimes life is about doing what you want. Not just what you’re required to do by duty.”
“And sometimes duty and wanting blend together,” Trent said with a speaking look. “Or do you deny that you wed Hermione because of both and not one or the other?”
“It’s true,” his friend said without rancor. “In my case the two overlapped. But I can tell you that even if I weren’t duty-bound to marry her, I’d have found a way to make it happen regardless. Because I wanted her.”
Trent knew that his friend’s situation had been more complicated than he currently made it out to be. And he was happy that both Freddy and Mainwaring had found ladies to whom they could pledge their hearts as well as all their worldly goods. But he wasn’t sure such a match was something that he could find for himself. For one thing he knew that with a dukedom at stake he was likely to be besieged with all manner of young ladies who were eager to become his duchess, whether she cared for him as a person or not. And for another, he hadn’t the sort of charm Freddy wielded, or the effortless manners that Mainwaring possessed. He was, beneath all the polish of his title, a soldier at heart. And though he’d wooed his share of women with his red coat and a smile, without the uniform he was just another gentleman. At least that’s how he felt. No matter how many times he was called your grace.
“Of course you would have,” Freddy said with a nod. “And I have no doubt that Trent will be able to find someone just as we have. It’s just a matter of, you know, talking to ladies. Dancing with them.”
“What kind of host doesn’t dance at his own ball?” Mainwaring asked with a speaking look at his friend. “You know that the more ladies you interact with, the sooner you’ll find someone to prevent that awful twit from—”
“Ah, Waldo,” interrupted Trent, as his cousin, now that the dance was finished, approached them with the young lady he’d so lately squired still on his arm. “I hope you are enjoying yourself.”
“May I present Miss Clementina Sutpin, cousin?” Waldo asked with a bow. “She could speak of nothing but you throughout our dance. Miss Sutpin, this is my cousin, the Duke of Trent. And as we discussed, I am his heir.”
The chit’s eyes widened at her escort’s words. “I’m sure I didn’t … that is to say, I never…”
Trent dared not look at Freddy or Mainwaring lest he see their undoubtedly droll expressions.
“Miss Sutpin,” he said, bowing over the young lady’s hand, which trembled a little. “A pleasure to meet you. I hope you’re having a pleasant time.”
Before she could reply, Waldo spoke up. “Of course she is, Duke. And she’s quite happy to meet you and your friends as well. These two fine fellows, my dear, are Lord Frederick Lisle, the fifth son of the Duke of Pemberton, and the Earl of Mainwaring.”
The girl’s cheeks colored at Waldo’s words. “It is a pleasure to meet you, your grace,” she said. Then turning to Freddy and Mainwaring, she added, “And you too, my lords.” Removing her hand from Waldo’s arm, though he looked as if he’d like to snatch it back, she continued, “If you gentlemen will excuse me, I need to find my next dance partner.”
And before Waldo could ensnare her once more, she hurried off.
“A well enough looking chit if you discount the nose,” Waldo said to the three men in an undertone. “I’d best be off to find my next partner as well. My thanks for the invitation, cousin. A fine gathering of suitable young ladies here.”
As he too took his leave, the three men exchanged speaking looks.
“I can see why you are determined to marry soon,” Freddy said baldly. “He’s an appalling fellow.”
“And I had thought the cravat and pomade were the worst of it,” Mainwaring said, sounding a bit stunned. “But his manner is the worst by far.”
“A definite incentive to find some suitable young lady and get her with child,” Trend agreed, wishing he had a glass of claret to wash away the bad taste. “Can you imagine what sort of progeny he’d foist upon the world?”
Both Freddy and Mainwaring shuddered.
“I thought I’d find the three of you together,” came a lady’s voice from behind them. Turning, Trent saw Freddy’s wife, Leonora, slipping up beside her husband. “Though you should all be doing your duty by dancing with the wallflowers.”
“I might have done so,” Freddy told her with a wink, “but Mainwaring and I had to stay by Trent here and give him some tips. I hear rag manners run in his family.”
“Freddy,” Leonora chided, “don’t tease. There’s nothing wrong with Trent’s social graces. He simply isn’t as much of a butterfly as you are. Which is not altogether a bad thing.”
“Butterfly, eh?” Freddy frowned at his wife. “And here I thought I’d settled down with one beautiful flower in particular. I promise I’ll sip nectar from no other, my dear. Which means no wallflowers. But Trent is free to flit among them.”
“Yes, Trent,” Mainwaring said archly, “why don’t you go find some winsome wallflower to bestow your … er—”
This line of metaphor could get ribald quickly, Trent thought wryly, interrupting his friend before he went too far. “I do not need permission from either of you to dance. I simply wanted to ensure that things were going smoothly.”
“It’s not as if you’re the only man in the room on the lookout for a wife, Trent,” Leonora said, interpreting his diffidence as shyness. “Besides, I don’t think the horde of mothers with marriageable daughters are paying attention to our conversation just now. Not when that particular argument is taking place.”
Following the direction of her gaze, he saw that there was indeed a quarrel going on.
One of the newest club members, and a fellow army veteran, George Grayson, was engaged in a heated discussion with a blond lady Trent assumed was the fellow’s wife. They were standing just to the side of the doorway leading into the main hall, so only this side of the room was privy to their conversation.
“I asked you not to see that fellow anymore, Maggie,” growled Grayson, gripping his wife’s arm tightly.
“Let go of me, George,” she hissed. “You’re drunk. And you’re embarrassing me.”
“You’re embarrassing yourself,” Grayson said bluntly. “Chasing after a man so far below you.”
“If anyone is bringing embarrassment on this family,” she retorted hotly, finally pulling away, “it’s you. Thank you for ruining the first night’s entertainment I’ve had in months. I’m going home now.”
As they looked on, Maggie Grayson stalked toward the cloakroom and away from the assembled company while her husband stared after her, his jaw set, his expression bleak.
Excusing himself to his guests, Trent threaded his way through the crowd that, now that the show was over, had turned away again.
When he reached Grayson’s side, he laid a calming hand on the other man’s arm. When Grayson turned with a growl, Trent held up his hands. “Easy, old man, I’m just here to see if there is aught I can do to help.”
His response delayed a bit by the amount of alcohol he’d consumed, Grayson looked thunderous, but when he finally realized who it was who dared speak, his shoulders slumped. “Sh-sh-sorry, your g-grace,” he slurred. “Fight with m’wife, don’t y’know. D-damned headstrong woman.”
“Refusing to cut a man who poses no threat to her husband does not make Maggie headstrong, Mr. Grayson,” interjected an angry young woman who approached the drunk man from the other side. “She has done nothing wrong yet you continue to accuse her. You’ll ruin both of them before you’re through. Not to mention your marriage.”
Trent was well acquainted with Miss Ophelia Dauntry, who as a dear friend of both Leonora Lisle and the Countess of Mainwaring was often in attendance at the same small parties of those couples as he was. Even so, he hadn’t really expected her to be the sort who would accost a man in an open ballroom for mistreating his wife.
Grayson, it would seem, also knew Miss Dauntry. “Psh, you’re just as bad as she is. Hoydens with no self-control, the pair of you.”
Realizing that he needed to get Grayson out of the room as quickly as possible, Trent took the man by the arm and marched him past Miss Dauntry toward the same hallway through which Mrs. Grayson had just departed.
* * *
“Where’re we goin’?” Grayson demanded blearily. “Got t’ find m’wife.”
“After you’ve sobered up a little, I think,” Trent told the other man.
Miss Ophelia Dauntry followed as closely behind the Duke of Trent and George Grayson as she could without calling attention to herself.
If her mother got wind of her confrontation of Maggie’s husband in the Duke of Trent’s ballroom, she’d have a conniption fit for certain. But hopefully, Mrs. Dauntry was safely tucked away in the card room losing what was left of her pin money for the month. Safe in the knowledge that her younger daughter was betrothed to the Marquess of Kinston, Ophelia’s mother would surely not trouble herself over the behavior of her elder daughter just yet.
At least not until she recalled that she wished for Ophelia to be settled as well as, or better than, Mariah.
Like George Grayson, Mrs. Dauntry didn’t approve of the editor of the Ladies’ Gazette one bit. But rather than fearing Edwin Carrington had designs on Mrs. George Grayson’s virtue, Mrs. Dauntry thought his eye was on her daughter Ophelia.
And a newspaper editor was as far below a marquess in rank as a pauper was below a prince.
It mattered not that Ophelia had no interest in Edwin as a husband or anything other than as editor of her short essays for the paper. As Mrs. Dauntry saw things, every unmarried man who came into contact with one of her daughters had designs on them. Especially those who had something to gain from the hypothetical match.
Poor Edwin, Ophelia thought as she kept the top of Trent’s head in sight. He likely had no idea what a bone of contention he’d proved to be for his two most popular contributors.
It soon became obvious that Trent was leading Grayson to one of the private family rooms of the large town house. She was aware of the impropriety of her course of action even as she continued to follow them, but she could see no other option.
George Grayson was not only going to ruin his wife’s reputation among the ton, but he was also going to expose her identity as the author of one of the most popular columns with the ladies of the ton. “Ask a Reigning Toast” was an advice column to which the most desperate of society ladies turned when they needed advice on how to climb the ranks of the social ladder. And it had turned the Ladies’ Gazette into a best seller among the ladies of both the beau monde and those who aspired to enter it.
Since the success of Maggie’s column also ensured the success of Ophelia’s own, lesser known column about needlework, she had a vested interest in keeping Maggie’s going.
That meant stopping George Grayson from revealing his wife’s identity as well as convincing him to leave her to her own devices.
“I suggest you turn around and go back to the ballroom, Miss Dauntry,” Trent called to her over his shoulder as they neared the door to his study. “I appreciate your need to fight for your friend, but I will manage Grayson from here.”
But she hadn’t followed them this far just to turn around and go back to the dancing.
“I can appreciate your concern, your grace,” Ophelia said, rushing forward and slipping into the room just when Trent would have closed the door. “But I must speak privately with Mr. Grayson.”
“Don’t have nothin’ to say to ye,” that man said from where he’d collapsed into a wing chair. “Damned nuisance. Convincing m’wife to take up w’ that newspaperman.”
Glaring at Ophelia in exasperation, Trent sighed deeply and gestured for her to take the seat near Grayson’s. “If you insist on being here, then you’d best get on with it before your mother comes searching for you.”
For a moment, Ophelia was flustered. She hadn’t thought Trent paid her the least bit of attention. Certainly not enough to note her mother’s intentions for her. While they were often in company together, she knew that as a duke and a devilishly handsome one at that, what with his broad shoulders and gleaming dark hair with a tendency to curl if it was left too long, he had no reason to take notice of her at all.
“Do not look so surprised,” he said in answer to her wide eyes. “You are an unmarried young lady out in London society. It’s hardly a great leap of logic to guess that your mother has aspirations for you to marry well.”
She closed her mouth, abashed. Of course he’d guessed. It was foolish of her to think he’d been paying close attention to her and her family. He had much better things to do.
“Well,” she said once she’d regained her control. “I think we are safe for a bit since she’s in the card room at the moment. And even if she were not, I would risk bringing her wrath down on me in order to speak to Mr. Grayson.”
“Why,” Trent, asked, glancing to where Grayson sat scowling at a fray in his shirt cuff as if it had personally done him a wrong. “You’ve already scolded the fellow for his mistreatment of his wife. I should think that was a conversation best had when he’s sober enough to remember it.”
He had a point there, she thought. Still, she had to try to get through to Grayson now so that he wouldn’t speak out again tonight.
Not bothering to respond to Trent, she turned to her friend’s husband.
“Mr. Grayson,” she said in a too-loud voice that she knew sounded silly but hoped would seep into his drink-addled brain. “I must remind you not to speak about Maggie’s position with The Ladies’ Gazette in public. She’s asked you again and again. You must respect her wishes. Unless you wish to ruin her.”
Grayson made a rude noise in the back of his throat. “Secret,” he muttered. “On’y secret I know of is Carrington’s lecher … ism. Should call the bastard out for it.”
As if realizing what a brilliant idea that was, he attempted to stand. But Trent was there with a staying hand on the other man’s shoulder. “Not just now, old fellow. Carrington isn’t here. And besides, you promised you’d give me your advice about that bay mare I’m thinking of buying.”
Even as he held his friend back from rising, Trent glared at Ophelia and jerked his head in the direction of the door. “Why don’t we have a drink and we’ll talk,” he told Grayson.
Despite Trent’s very obvious desire for her to leave the room, Ophelia pressed on. “I must have your word, Mr. Grayson, that you will stop making a spectacle of your wife. Her position with the Ladies’ Gazette is sensitive and should not be talked about so openly in public.”
“What’s so dashed important about hiding Mrs. Grayson’s involvement with the newspaper?” Trent demanded in a low voice that Grayson wouldn’t hear. “It’s not as if she’s writing screeds against the government or scandalous stories. If I recall correctly, her column deals with social niceties. It’s hardly the sort of thing to cause scandal.”
“It isn’t,” she explained patiently, “but there is still the fact that by calling attention to Maggie’s role with the newspaper, and what’s worse, accusing her of infidelity with poor Mr. Carrington, it becomes a threat to everyone at the paper.”
A look of disappointment flashed across Trent’s face. “So it’s really your own reputation you’re hoping to save,” he said with a scowl. “I might have known.”
“It’s important to me,” she said, holding her head high, not daring to let him see how much his derision stung. “And I won’t apologize for trying to protect both mine and Maggie’s positions. No one else will do so.”
Their heated discussion was interrupted then by a loud snore. Looking up, Ophelia saw that George Grayson had leaned back in his chair and, his mouth hanging open, was snoring loudly.
“It would seem you’ve been on a fool’s errand, Miss Dauntry,” Trent told her with a barely suppressed grin. “You’ll simply have to wait until another time.”
Her hands on her hips, Ophelia scowled at both men. “I should have known this would be pointless. Maggie has tried and tried to convince him that her work for the paper is perfectly innocent, but he refuses to believe her. And he’ll doubtless be waking up tomorrow with no recollection of tonight’s contretemps. Typical.”
“I think perhaps if you understood just what it is that drives Grayson to drink so deeply,” Trent said pointedly, “then you would have a bit more compassion for the man. He’s had a difficult time of it since the war.”
“So have you,” she retorted, “but I don’t see you shouting at your wife in ballrooms and accusing an innocent man of debauchery.”
“If I had a wife,” he said, not giving an inch, “I might. Until you’ve walked a mile in another man’s shoes you can have no idea of what presses him to behave as he does.”
Ophelia sighed. She’d heard other such excuses for the bad behavior of both former soldiers and errant husbands, but there was no denying the fact that they were responsible for their own bad behavior. Not some long-ago war experience or being coddled too much as little children. Even so, she wasn’t prepared to argue the matter with Trent, who, even if he was pig-headed was the dear friend of her own friend’s husband. She would keep the peace for Leonora’s sake.
“I thank you for the advice, your grace,” she said to Trent as she took one last look at the still-sleeping Grayson. “Now I suppose I’d better get back before my mother returns from the card room.”
“I’d offer to escort you,” Trent responded with a short bow, “but I don’t think you’d wish for the scandal that would ensue from such an arrival after several minutes’ absence any more than I would.”
Now that was a dreadful thought. Ophelia shivered a little. “No, no, I quite agree. I’ll go back on my own, thank you very much. Good evening, your grace.”
“Good night, Miss Dauntry,” she heard him call to her as she shut the door to his study behind her.
Really, she thought as she headed back to the ballroom, it was too bad that Trent was so high in the instep. For he was as handsome a man as she’d ever met.
Fortunately, Ophelia had long ago resigned herself to the fact that handsome men, for all that they might be pleasant to look at, were rarely worth the trouble.
Just look at what poor Maggie had had to endure at the hands of George Grayson.
No, she thought, stepping back into the crowded ballroom, she was quite happy not to let her mother see her in the Duke of Trent’s company.
She valued her freedom far too much to dangle after a man like that.
Copyright © 2016 by Manda Collins
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