Is happily ever after…a rumor?
A NOTORIOUS CRIME
A duchess awaiting trial for her vile husband’s murder is the most delicious gossip the ton has heard in years. But for Kate Townsende, the woman in question, it could be a matter of life and death. And when a shrewd and handsome nobleman offers to publish her side of the story while arranging for a barrister to take her case, she’s tempted by much more than the chance to defend herself…
A SHOCKING DESIRE
James Bancroft, Viscount Medford, tells himself he’s only interested in a best-selling pamphlet, but Kate’s stubborn determination is captivating. Could the accused widow be telling the truth? At first, James isn’t sure of anything but his growing desire for her—but before long he’s willing to risk much more than his reputation to make the infamous beauty his wife…
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Bang. Bang. Bang.
Kate shot straight out of bed. It was the middle of the night and someone was knocking loudly upon the wooden door to her cell. She bolted up, her heart pounding. Sweat beaded on her forehead despite the freezing night air. She clutched the blankets to her throat and swallowed hard. “Who is it?”
“Yer grace, please get dressed an’ pack yer things.” In addition to its usual gruffness, the guard’s voice sounded a bit sleepy.
“Yes. Yes. Just a minute.” Kate scrambled out of bed. She quickly pulled off her night rail and fumbled around in the cold darkness for her gown. She’d only brought a few items of clothing with her when she’d been arrested. She promptly stuffed them all into her only bag. Smoothing a brush through her hair once, twice, she piled it atop her head as best she could. She stuck a few pins into the coiffure to hold it precariously in place. Then she quickly made her way to the door.
She cleared her throat and pushed up her chin. “I’m ready.”
The door swung open, and her guard stood there, a candle in his hand, a sleeping cap on his head, and a robe wrapped around his massive frame. “He’s come ta take ye out o’ ‘here, yer grace.”
Kate shuddered and closed her eyes. “Oh, thank heavens,” she murmured. She didn’t need to ask who. Viscount Medford had come for her.
She pulled on her pelisse, grabbed up her bag, and hurried after the guard who was already rapidly making his way down the winding dank staircase. The stairs ended abruptly in a small dark antechamber, and Kate skidded to a halt in the middle of the scuffed, wood-planked floor. She hadn’t had time to put on her stockings, and the cold wind that blew in from the partially open door wrapped its icy fingers around her ankles. Kate’s teeth chattered, but she didn’t care. She’d walk out of there naked if she must. She glanced about. Only darkness. Where was he?
Just then, a dark-cloaked figure in the corner spun around, and Kate caught her breath. She hadn’t seen him standing there before. He emerged from the shadows.
Lord Medford looked every bit as handsome as he did the first day she met him. His face was made of stone. Handsome stone. He nodded toward her bag. “Is that all you have?”
“Ye . . . yes,” she stuttered, shivering this time for an entirely different reason.
He stalked over to her, leaned down and whispered in her ear. “You said you wanted to live. Are you ready?”
“Yes,” she whispered, nodding.
He grabbed her bag with one arm, and hefted it over his shoulder. He stopped and tossed what looked to be a guinea at the guard. “Thank you for arranging this,” he said. Without another word, he pulled Kate by the hand out the wooden door and into the freezing dark night.
She did her best to keep up with his long strides. When they reached his mount, she watched in awe as he fastened her bag onto the saddle then hoisted her up onto the large brown gelding, all without saying a word. He swung up behind her moments later, and Kate tried to ignore the feel of his hard body against her backside as they took off at a gallop through the Tower yard. She was riding astride. That was a scandal in itself. But it felt like . . .freedom.
Courage. Courage. Courage. She repeated the words over and over in her mind. The great drawbridge lowered as they drew near, and Kate fought against the urge to close her eyes, sure they would be stopped before they cleared the entrance, as if there had been some sort of mistake.
The freezing wind whipped her hair, and it soon came unlodged from the tenuous bun she’d created moments earlier. The long red tresses wrapped around her face, partially blinding her. She tried to pull them away, tugging at the hair in her eyes, breathing in the icy night air, and watching the bridge draw closer and closer. She widened her eyes. In that moment she was absolutely exhilarated. She dug her fingernails into her palms as they approached the gate. The horse’s hooves thundered across the wood, echoing in her chest and giving her an even greater thrill of freedom as they made their way across the bridge. The guard in the watch tower saluted them, and Medford hoisted his hand to return the gesture. Kate bit her lip, wanting to smile. They were going to make it. They were going to get away.
And then they were gone, into the shadowy alleys of London, into the dark cold night. Kate shuddered again, but she didn’t look back, afraid she would see a troop of guards behind them. Afraid they hadn’t indeed made this escape after all.
“Why did you come for me at night?” she managed to ask over the thunderous beat of her heart and the horse’s hooves.
Lord Medford leaned his head down next to her ear, and when she turned her cheek slightly she saw dark stubble along his jaw. He hadn’t shaved since morning, and oh my, but it made him look good. She shook her head to clear it of such thoughts, and then she shivered against the biting cold.
“It’s safer this way,” he replied. “I’m sorry I couldn’t bring a coach to make you more comfortable. Are you cold?”
He must have felt her shudder, and she read in his response the truth. He hadn’t brought a coach in case there was trouble. They would be more nimble this way.
Was she cold? All she could do was nod. Handling the reins with one deft hand, he somehow managed to whip his cape from his shoulders with the other and pull it around her. “Here, use this,” he said in a commanding voice that made Kate’s insides tremble.
“Won’t you freeze?” she asked hesitantly.
“I’ll be fine,” he intoned.
She didn’t wait for his answer. She was already tugging the cloak closer. It felt so good, warm from his body, and it smelled like him. She pulled the fine fabric against her face and inhaled its scent. It smelled like leather and something spicy and indefinable. Something wonderful. She prayed he wouldn’t notice her sniffing his cape.
“Live, live, live,” she whispered to herself, the words snatched away by the harsh night wind.
Kate closed her eyes. Who was this man? Lord Medford was obviously no ordinary viscount. Not only did the man own a printing press for some unknown reason, but he obviously possessed the power and connections to free her from the Tower of London and to have a special request granted to do so alone in the middle of the night. There were no crowds or rioters because of his intelligent thinking. She was immensely grateful to him. But of course he had his own well-being in mind too. If he were planning to take her to one of his properties—and Lady Mary had assured her he owned a great many properties—and leave her there to write a pamphlet for him, he wouldn’t want anyone to know.
She clutched at the cloak at her throat. But what did any of that matter now? She was free. She smiled to herself and closed her eyes, sucking in the wind through her nostrils. She pulled the cloak around her, trying to ignore his scent on it. What was the maddening scent? Printing ink? She stifled the small laugh that bubbled to her throat. Good heavens. That had been the first time she’d laughed since George had died. Wait, no, since she’d been married, rather, she quickly amended with a wince. A sobering thought.
Lord Medford’s strong arm wrapped even more tightly around her waist, pulling her snug against him. Kate gulped. He was drawing her close, trying to warm her. A small smile popped to her lips. That was nice of him. Very nice indeed.
She held her breath as they raced through the streets. Kate concentrated, trying to remember every landmark, every building. It might be the last time she saw them. While under house arrest, she wouldn’t have much opportunity to leave whichever house Lord Medford brought her to and her next trip might be to the gallows . . . or worse. She shuddered.
The spire of St. Paul’s rose in the black night sky, and she stared at it in wonder as if seeing it for the first time. Christopher Wren’s masterpiece. It made her feel tiny and powerful at the same time. She’d first seen it when she’d traveled to London with her mother eleven years ago to shop for her wedding trousseau. Back then she’d been so full of hope, the city so full of promise. She’d talked her mother into stopping at the famous church, and she’d entered slowly, reverently, gazing at the cavernous ceilings and soaring heights. It had taken her breath away. And it did so again, tonight, even just its outline standing proudly in bold relief against the night sky. She had paused in the great cathedral. Bowed her head and prayed that her marriage would be happy and blessed. That particular prayer hadn’t been answered, of course, but tonight she said a new one as Lord Medford’s horse thundered past the shadow of the church. A new prayer that she desperately hoped would be answered this time.
She swiveled her head, intent upon taking in the sights and sounds of the town even as it lay quiet, dark, and cold. Minutes later, they passed the Houses of Parliament, racing alongside the Thames. She breathed it all in, savored it. Enjoyed it. This was living. Flying along on horseback in the dark of night, the wind whipping her hair, a handsome man’s arm wrapped around her waist.
“Are you all right?” Lord Medford asked, brushing her cheek with his stubble again and sending a shiver through her.
“Yes,” she nearly shouted. “I’m alive!”
“Ah, so this is what you meant when you said you wanted to live?” he asked. She could feel the hint of his smile against her cheek.
She nodded eagerly. “I want to play with animals, smell roses, and dance the night away.”
She heard his laughter this time. “Let’s get you home safely, and then we’ll see about the rest of it.”
Kate nodded. “Where are you taking me?” she asked as they passed St. James.
“Mayfair,” he answered. “We’re nearly there.”
Mayfair, of course. She’d assumed he’d install her in one of his lesser properties, but perhaps all the viscount’s properties were grand houses in Mayfair. Or perhaps he wanted her close to keep an eye on her. She could hardly blame him. She had no intention of running off, but he wouldn’t know that, and his reputation would be in jeopardy if she did escape.
The horse thundered through a paved alley and around a set of mews, a public house, some grand looking white town houses. Her husband’s town house had been here somewhere though she’d only seen it once. Was it nearby?
They turned down a short alley and came to a stop behind an impressive four-story town house. “Here we are,” Lord Medford said in her ear, leaning down again. His stubble brushed her cheek once more, and she had to force herself to concentrate on his words.
He dismounted quickly, tossed the reins to a groom who materialized from the shadows, detached her bag from the saddle, and reached up and swung her down. Her body slid against his, and she didn’t meet his eyes. He was strong and hard and muscled in all the right places. He’d lifted her as if she weighed no more than a doll.
He let her settle on the ground and then pulled her by the hand through the gravelled alley and up the back steps. He opened the door with the same hand that held her bag. He shoved open the door with his booted foot, swung her inside, followed her in, and pushed it closed with his elbow.
They were standing in what looked to be a breakfast room, and Kate could tell immediately the town house was quite grand. If this was one of Lord Medford’s lesser properties, the man was quite wealthy indeed. She glanced around. No doubt there would be a housekeeper or someone who might help her find her way around, otherwise she’d most likely be quite alone here. Still, better than the Tower.
Clutching Lord Medford’s cape around her shoulders, Kate turned to say her good-byes to him. “Thank you very much, my lord. Will you be coming by tomorrow to discuss the pamphlet?”
He arched a brow. “Coming by?”
“I mean from your house. I assume you will want to discuss the details before I get started. Do you live nearby?”
“I do want to discuss the details,” Lord Medford replied with a firm nod. “Very much so. And I live extremely nearby.” He smiled at her then and her knees melted. “This is my house. You’re staying with me.”
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Valerie Bowman is an award-winning author who writes Regency-set historical romance novels aka Racy Regency Romps! Secrets of a Runaway Bride has been named a 4.5 star TOP PICK! by RT Book Reviews. It's been called "Too Delightful Too Miss!" by New York Times bestselling author, Lisa Kleypas, and New York Times bestselling historical romance author Sarah MacLean says it's, "Everything a romance should be—sexy, quirky, fun...once you start reading, you won't be able to stop!" Valerie's debut, SECRETS OF A WEDDING NIGHT, the first in the Secret Brides series from St. Martin's Press, was nominated by RT Book Reviews for Best Debut Historical for 2012!
Valerie has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in history from Smith College. By day, she is a technical editor at a computer software company. By night, she combines her love of writing, history, and romance to craft stories about people falling in love.
Originally from Rantoul, Illinois, Valerie lives in Jacksonville, Florida with her rascally rescue dog, Roo. When she's not writing, she keeps busy reading, traveling, or watching Downton Abbey and Hoarders.
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