The society of daring women known as the Maidens of Mayhem dedicate their lives to protecting London’s most vulnerable citizens from injustice. Daring and discreet, their missions lead them to people and places they least expect, often putting their lives—and their hearts—in peril . . .
Lady Delilah Ashbrook is tirelessly searching the streets of London for a boy who vanished while under her care. Suspecting the child was abducted to be sold, Delilah hopes the Maidens can help find him before it’s too late. But Delilah’s mission brings her into the crosshairs of a mysterious man who is also looking for the boy. Sebastian St. Allen certainly cuts a dashing figure. But is he hoping to save the child—or harm him?
Sebastian has his own reasons for protecting the less fortunate. He has a gift for seamlessly navigating both London’s darkest corners and its most elite circles. But nothing prepared him for Delilah, whose delicate beauty belies an independence and sensuality he finds irresistible. Sebastian knows they can help each other if only she’ll let her guard down. And as they become entrenched in danger, they realize how strong their ties have grown—and how much they need one another . . .
Praise for Duchess if You Dare
“A delightful historical romance with a liberal dash of adventure, plenty of sizzling heat, and a heart of pure gold.”
—Lenora Bell, USA Today bestselling author
“Duchess if You Dare is a fantastic read that kept me up late and has me anxiously awaiting the next book in the series.”
—USA Today Bestselling Author Renee Ann Miller
“Excellent pacing, crisp dialogue, and a 5‑alarm smoldering attraction make this one of my favorite romantic mysteries of the year!”
Release date: May 31, 2022
Publisher: Zebra Books
Print pages: 288
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
The Lady Loves Danger
Sebastian St. Allen eased into the damp corner until his shoulders brushed the soot-dusted bricks of the dilapidated tenement at his back. The night air was still, pungent with the familiar stink of raw sewerage and soiled dreams, as if it too had given up hope. This was Seven Dials, and any man with a shred of common sense wouldn’t be found lurking in the streets after dark. An unfortunate soul could lose his life in a matter of minutes and no one would hear his desperate plea for mercy. Still Sebastian remained, lost to the shadows in wait of a thief.
Not any thief, mind you. Not a taker of silks or gin. Nor contraband tobacco. This crime was one of reprehensible depravity. And now, after weeks of following a whisper of information that yielded little more than stains to his fine leather boots, he waited again. The location and sketchy details that led him to this nameless roadway in the bowels of London came through an associate, and while the information had yet to prove its worth, Sebastian wasn’t deterred. He’d nowhere in particular to spend his evening and he’d rather exhaust the possibility of interrupting the horrific exchange than second-guess his decision not to.
Pressing a palm to his waistband, he adjusted his pistol as an additional weapon to the blade he carried in each boot. He was an excellent shot and equally lethal with a knife, both skills learned as a means of survival, for while he now resided in a comfortable town house in a better part of London, that hadn’t always been his situation.
Hours crawled by and he shifted his stance, his steady focus keen to the squat tenement across the street. His mind dared him to exhume old memories and unpleasant thoughts best left buried in the abyss of the past. Surveillance forced a man to probe his own mind as each minute ticked by, a pitfall of too much solitude and not enough distraction.
Time dragged on until a barely discernible movement snared his attention and brought his focus to a recess of the building across the way. It was nothing more than a slant of gray against black but he sensed the action before he perceived the figure who’d caused it, a slight form in a long cloak with the hood drawn to conceal the face. A woman.
With unexpected convenience, the cloud cover dispersed and the waxing moon offered a murky shaft of light. Even with ample distance interrupting the dark thoroughfare, he knew the abilities and limitations of the physical body, gestures of human nature, and above all else, subtle yet graceful distinctions of the female form. Was this woman here to purchase what the thief brought to sell? Not another soul haunted the streets. He muttered a black curse, unable to comprehend the abhorrent evil that drove a person to commit heinous crimes.
The approaching clop of horse hooves from the opposite direction divided his attention. Another beat and he spied the vehicle. Weeks of empty observation and wasted time finally crystalized into possibility. The nondescript carriage slowed at the curb and Sebastian angled his body to gain a better view of what he anticipated to be a swift transaction of contents for payment. The exchange must begin before he interfered. The slightest misstep would spark the thief into flight.
Being on foot, Sebastian couldn’t follow the shabby conveyance far, but should someone emerge from the tenement and step forward to receive the goods, he’d be able to perpetrate a rescue, investigate further, and possibly uncover the miscreants involved. He wasn’t above pummeling men to gain the information he sought, and he’d question any woman until she supplied the names needed.
The door of the carriage cracked open to reveal a struggle within the interior. With innate stealth, Sebastian moved undetected, at one with the black cast of the eaves above him. He waited, daring only to breathe. To make the slightest sound before the exchange unfolded held the potential to ruin everything. The silence grew louder. He shook off the unwelcome feeling of urgency and slipped his hand beneath his greatcoat to rest atop his pistol, all attention on the carriage door. From the corner of his eye, a blur of motion dissected his concentration for the second time. The cloaked woman stepped forward and he willed her to remain still. She could only mean to receive what was in that carriage and yet he needed to be sure of the circumstances before he acted.
The door widened fully now, its soft rap a lonely echo amid the eerie quiet. The wiry driver stepped down and accepted a writhing bundle, no bigger than a sack of flour. Sebastian’s heart seized tight but he forced an exhale to jolt it back into rhythm, the suppressed emotion potent fuel for his anger as fury shot a fiery rush through every muscle and vein.
The woman across the way called out and her voice destroyed the silence with resounding alarm. Havoc ensued right after.
With spry reflexes, the miscreant pivoted, tossed the bundle within the carriage and climbed the seat to slap the reins. Sebastian tore down the street in a futile race to catch the conveyance, the agony of what he’d lost almost too much to bear, though rage flamed anew as he turned and started toward the cloaked stranger, motionless and alone on the pavement. Weeks of vigilant observation were ruined by her careless call and now she’d have hell to pay for it.
Delilah Ashbrook stood at the curb immobile, her thundering pulse a threat to coherent reason. Had she just located Oliver and lost him in the same moment? Had she destroyed her only chance at finding him? Fear took hold and paralyzed her reaction for the length of several heartbeats, but she rejected the suggestion of failure. She needed to be strong.
Blinking hard to summon fortitude, she opened her eyes and peered into the night. Her pulse hitched another notch. The broad stranger who’d emerged from nowhere, invisible one minute and in pursuit of the carriage the next, had now turned his attention on her. She couldn’t be caught.
Spinning on her heels, she aimed for the darkest alley, heedless of the danger ahead as she fled the danger behind. He gained ground easily, the resounding echo of his boots as they struck the slick stones not unlike the hectic beat of her heart. What did he want with her? Had he watched the carriage in wait of purchasing the child within? What kind of man stole children? Sold them to others to be used for illicit purpose? Her stomach rebelled and she wrapped an arm around her middle, sickened by anyone who’d perpetuate such an unforgivable crime. A cramp gripped her side. She wasn’t accustomed to running for very long. Running at all. Never mind she wore layers of skirts and a heavy cloak. She dragged in a painful breath. Cursed corset. She couldn’t get air into her lungs fast enough. Her throat burned but she pushed on.
The alley she’d chosen was narrow, the space between the brick-lined walls barely twice the width of her shoulders. Perhaps the stranger wouldn’t fit. He appeared a hulking presence, tall and threatening, as he loomed closer. She reached the end and stalled, taking the next turn at a slower pace, the cramp insistent now. This passage widened and promised multiple escape routes. She could still hear his approach despite her breathing was loud in her ears. He’d managed to keep her in sight, though she’d done her best to cling to the shadows, pivot between streets and dart around corners.
In a panic, she turned left and aimed at another dim alcove. How long would the stranger pursue her? What did he want? A barking dog sounded an ominous alarm as she passed, and it wasn’t until she reached the end that she realized her mistake. Here another threatening form emerged from the darkness. A vagrant whose face was not nearly as discernible as his odor, though she perceived enough to know he meant her no kindness. Gripping the small dagger kept in her pocket, she pulled it out and clasped it with both hands in front of her. The short blade glinted in the moonlight as she retreated with a tentative step, unsure of what he would do but refusing to turn and allow him an advantage. Still, it was all for naught. He snatched the edge of her cloak, reeled her in and belted his arm around her ribs to render her helpless. The stench of his clothing and foul breath caused an involuntary retch.
“It’s my lucky night.” His left hand covered her breast and squeezed while his right remained locked around her middle. “And now it’s your lucky night too.”
Terror caused her mind to blank. She still held the dagger but it was useless in her body’s position and a scream would be lost to the night. She struggled to think calmly, to react before he violated her further. He jerked backward, reversed their positions and trapped her body against the wall, crushing her to the grease-covered bricks with suffocating pressure as his legs bracketed hers. Desperation tied a knot in her stomach and she dropped the knife lest she impale herself. She was powerless but she wouldn’t succumb. She needed to survive for Oliver’s sake. She was the only chance he had.
The vagrant shifted his weight and the pressure of his jagged fingernails bit through her sleeve as he yanked her sideways to push up her skirts. She twisted in vain and he scoffed low and ugly against her neck. With horror she realized he’d released her breast to work at the button on his breeches. With immediate rebellion, she fought against the arm that held her captive.
And then, in the next instant, she was free.
The vertiginous force in which she was released left her breathless and disoriented. She steadied herself, one hand flattened on the raw brick biting into her palm before her senses discerned the dull thud of fist meeting flesh.
It was over before she comprehended it completely. The foreboding stranger who’d pursued her through Seven Dials now rescued her instead. The brim of his cap masked his face in darkness, though the moon at his back lent his broad shoulders a burnished glow. She darted her eyes to the crumbled form on the cobbles and backed up farther before she spoke.
“Thank you.” The words seemed inadequate. Her pulse still sprinted an erratic pace and her hands trembled.
“I am, if nothing else, an excellent rat catcher.” His voice emerged from the shadows, the words spoken matter-of-factly to reveal little as to whether he was friend or enemy. “Are you unharmed?”
“Yes.” She breathed deeply as she laced her fingers together in an attempt to calm. “You saved me.”
His voice was smooth. Refined. And yet when he didn’t continue, ill-ease consumed her. The way he waited, fierce and uncompromising, did nothing to reassure she hadn’t traded one type of peril for another. She took a moment to straighten her bodice, tug at her skirts and retrieve her fallen dagger.
Still wary, she stood with the knife in hand and he coughed abruptly.
“Are you going to slice an apple?” He moved closer and a shaft of light illuminated his profile. His features looked as hard as his rigid stance. What she could see of his expression remained intense and inscrutable.
He leaned down and withdrew a long slender blade from his right boot. “This is protection. That is an eating utensil.”
She didn’t reply, her eyes glued to his knife in wait of what he would do next. Had he saved her from the vagrant’s assault so he might perpetrate his own debauchery? But no, he replaced the knife and straightened. He didn’t move otherwise and his position held her captive.
“I’ve waited weeks for that exchange with the carriage, and you ruined it with one careless word.” His voice, low and lethal, sparked warning across her skin like a wayward ember.
“I—” She couldn’t explain the true reason she was here in Seven Dials, courting her own death while attempting to save Oliver’s life. Could it be he wasn’t the type of man she initially perceived? She could only distinguish his outline in the intermittent light, but while his dark clothing might cause him to blend seamlessly into the night, there was no denying his presence. He was a man of power. He likely knew influential people. She’d grasp onto any lingering hope if it assisted in Oliver’s return.
She pocketed her knife and waited. He’d positioned himself in a way that disallowed her escape and she had little choice but to hear what he had to say.
His gaze coasted over her from the top of her hood to the tips of her boots and it was as if he held her motionless with nothing more than the command of his existence. A tremor that had nothing to do with the chill night air coursed through her.
But he was just a man.
A man who saved her from an abhorrent attacker.
“I owe you my thanks, Mr. . . .” She hesitated, unsure how to proceed.
“Yes.” She breathed deeply. “Thank you, Mr. St.—”
“Just St. Allen.”
“All right.” She took a small step closer.
“And you owe me more than gratitude.” He delivered this information with some semblance of a grin as his teeth flashed white in the darkness. “I saved you so I can interrogate you.”
“Interrogate me?” Her voice rushed out in objection.
“Exactly.” He waved his hand as if the gesture explained everything he hadn’t.
Sebastian drew a slow breath and watched the woman shift her stance and lift her chin. She was slender of frame, fine-boned and cultured, the innate qualities unable to be masked by the addition of a wool cloak. No doubt a genteel lady or companion to one in elevated social circles. Nevertheless, the woman had experienced two traumatizing situations in the span of an hour and hadn’t wept, fainted, or simpered with hysteria. She was stronger than he first believed.
“I’d rather not continue our discussion here.”
“You expect me to accompany you somewhere else?” she shot back, her disbelief evident.
He slanted his head in a nod toward the unconscious attacker. “If you have any expectations of leaving at all.”
She couldn’t argue with that and he turned to go, confident she’d fall in step behind him and accept his protection. Perhaps if he didn’t stare at her and instead offered a path out of Seven Dials, she’d be more inclined to answer his questions. Until he understood the depth of her involvement, he couldn’t negotiate the mixture of anger and protectiveness at war within him. “Were you here tonight to collect the child?”
“Yes.” Her clipped answer sounded reluctant, though he noted she followed a stride behind. Whether fear or preservation motivated her, she’d made the right decision.
“Why did you call out? Surely that couldn’t have been the prearranged plan.”
“I wanted him to hear my voice.”
“So you buy and sell children for profit?” He caught a curse on his tongue. He didn’t regret saving her, but he had no use for heartless people who sacrificed innocents for their personal gain.
She’d stopped, the sound of his footsteps all at once solitary, but he kept walking and she started after him again. They’d exited into a larger roadway and he indicated an alley to the right.
“The child in the carriage is—”
She seemed hesitant to continue. Perhaps she wondered if he’d pursue her accomplices and spoil the arrangement.
“Yes?” he prodded, shortening his stride so he now walked beside her.
“My responsibility. I’m trying to find him.” Her voice went soft as she finished and she may have blinked away tears. She turned her face too quickly for him to be sure, the night too dark.
“How did you know the sale would take place this evening?”
“How did you?”
So, she wasn’t so grateful she’d cooperate easily. His opinion of her intelligence increased. “I could help if you convince me you’re not one of the criminals.”
“If I were, I wouldn’t be here with you. I’d be with them.” Frustration laced her words.
“Possibly, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t join them later when you’ve drawn me away. The carriage might have already returned and sold the child while you ran through alleys and led me on a chase.”
This possibility seemed to change her countenance completely. Her eyes flickered with something akin to alarm and he experienced a pang of guilt for purposely scaring her.
“Do you have information? Can you help me?”
Her questions were emotion filled and, Sebastian judged, genuine. She was not connected with the criminals and had taken a great risk to venture out tonight. “If I choose to believe you, we might assist one another. That is, if you truly wish to find the child.”
“Yes.” Her answer was fast and breathless this time.
Nothing more was said and he quickened his pace, aware she’d need to hurry if she wanted to keep up with him.
Eventually they exited the worst area, though no woman, no matter her cause or social standing, belonged out alone after dark. He strode toward where his carriage waited, the driver alert on the seat.
He turned and she nearly collided with him in the darkness, her attention not altogether focused. He caught the scent of lemons, fresh, clean, and in outright contrast to the filth-lined streets surrounding them. She seemed calmer now, more assured.
“I’ll take you to your home or wherever you’d like to go in exchange for a few answers.” He opened the carriage door and indicated she should climb inside.
A flicker of hesitation appeared in her eyes, then disappeared just as quickly as she seemingly rationalized the risk. He climbed in after her. When she didn’t offer an address, he knocked on the ceiling and his driver slapped the reins with no specific instructions other than to begin. They rolled forward in silence, the tension palpable, and while Sebastian didn’t seek to compound her distress, he was anxious to gain information.
He reached into his breast pocket, withdrew a piece of flint and steel, and struck it to flame so he could light the lantern. The sallow glow brought with it a spectacular awareness.
She was young, her skin pale and large eyes luminous. He’d misjudged her in more ways than one, though he didn’t discount she’d skulked around Seven Dials in search of children for sale. He examined her face for clues of why that might be, and found she gazed at him with equaled curiosity. She reached up and lowered her hood to reveal a long braid as golden as starlight against her black woolen cloak.
“Why don’t you tell me what you know? Why you were in Seven Dials and how you came to be at that particular corner?”
“If only it were that easy.” She measured each word carefully. “Besides, I don’t know you or your motives. Telling all creates the danger of scaring the criminals into hiding, and then I’ll never find who I’m looking for.”
“Where should I direct my driver to let you out?” Sebastian liked to change subjects frequently when questioning someone. He found it kept others off balance, and that condition led to unintended confessions and careless admissions.
“The corner of Berwick Street will do. I’ll walk from there.”
So, she belonged to a finer neighborhood.
The patter of raindrops on the carriage roof mocked her intended stroll home, but he didn’t press further. “In all likelihood, our interaction this evening has already convinced those pursuing profit to congregate elsewhere. Another reason why your hasty call ruined a plan that was weeks in the waiting.”
She caught her bottom lip between her teeth and her brow lowered in worry. A pang of conscience reminded him to go easy, but he ignored the advice.
“Why would you help me?”
“To seek justice.”
“You’re a runner, then?” A note of hope laced her question.
“No.” At least not literally. On any given day he ran from his past. “The sale of innocent children is an abhorrent crime. I can’t allow it.”
She couldn’t possibly.
He glanced out the window and rapped on the roof. The carriage rolled to a stop at the corner of Berwick Street. The rain had become a penetrating drizzle. Reaching into his coat pocket he produced a card.
“Think about my offer.”
The air practically vibrated between them, but after a brief uncertain pause, she took the card without touching his hand. He didn’t say more, and when the driver opened the door and she stepped out, he breathed in the scent of lemons left in her wake.
Delilah hurried away from the carriage, barely able to uphold the pretense of strength and control. She still reeled from the shock of seeing a child, possibly Oliver, writhing inside a cloth bag, and then the impact of her error, the loss of opportunity and harrowing experience afterward. What would have occurred if Mr. St. Allen hadn’t rescued her in that alley? She didn’t dare imagine it in detail. The risk of riding in his carriage alone seemed minimal compared with what she’d already endured.
The rain had soaked through her hood by the time she reached home. She climbed the three steps to the door and entered with her key, mindful to be as quiet as possible. Waking someone would produce inquiries and she had no ready answers.
Abovestairs she prepared for bed as her mind carefully reviewed the events from the evening. She hadn’t asked enough questions and knew little more than Mr. St. Allen’s name. He was a large, intimidating man with a rich voice that had evoked gooseflesh each time he’d spoken. Too, it seemed, he had some sense of chivalry and a definitive moral compass. He spoke of justice for the innocent and the need to end the horrific sale of children. He might have forced her to any unfortunate circumstance if he’d lacked character, but instead had offered her a safe ride home. She’d noticed an odd charge of awareness accompanied his presence, but exactly how to interpret it, she had no idea. He was a paradox of qualities, for certain.
She settled on the edge of the mattress and at last let emotion envelop her. Regret came swift and sharp, always at the ready to upset her resolve. She’d been so close tonight, only to allow fear and desperation to interfere and ruin her chance at finding Oliver. Pain too fierce to battle sliced through her. She exhaled thoroughly. She didn’t possess the fortitude to relive her mistake now.
Padding to the wardrobe, she removed Mr. St. Allen’s card from her pocket and moved to the bedside lantern. Much like their interaction, the card was not what she expected. No title or residence was printed on the vellum. Instead, the name of a bookstore stared back at her in bold block letters. She’d already decided she’d visit in the morning. Perhaps Mr. St. Allen’s help wouldn’t come at too high a price.
Sleep didn’t find her easily, but at some point she must have dozed off. She rose and readied for the day with one goal only. She hurried downstairs without eating, walked out, and briskly strode to the corner to hire a hackney.
The Last Page Bookstore was a distinguished two-story building in handsome sand-lime brick on Gilbert Street not far from Bloomsbury Square. Delilah viewed the business from across the thoroughfare and debated what she would say once she went inside. A bookstore was the last place she’d have situated Mr. St. Allen. Something about his gruff demeanor and brawny build suggested images of a smithy or longshoreman, but she dismissed these thoughts as fanciful, most especially when she considered . . .
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...