No one knows how to sin quite like Zachary Black, Duke of Hawksmere. So when he finds a mysterious veiled woman hiding in his carriage, there's only one thing to do carry her to his bedchamber and find out what she wants!
But coming face-to-face with beautiful Lady Georgianna Lancasterhis former fiancéeunnerves Zachary. Maybe the best way to restore his equilibrium is to hold her captive and turn the secrets of the past into the sins of the present!
Rakes about town
'What the?' Zachary Black, the Duke of Hawks-mere, came to an abrupt halt as he climbed into his carriage and noticed the shadowy figure already seated on the far side. The lantern inside was turned down low, preventing him from seeing if it was a man or woman who sat back in the shadows. 'Lamb?' He turned to look accusingly at his groom, silver eyes glittering in the soft glow of the flickering lamp.
The middle-aged man straightened to attention. 'She said as 'ow you was expecting 'er, your Grace,' he offered questioningly.
His intruder was a woman then, Zachary processed grimly. But certainly not one he had been expecting.
He had just spent the evening and part of the night at his club with his four closest friends celebrating the forthcoming nuptials of one of them, Marcus Wilding, the Duke of Worthing, and his ladylove, Lady Julianna Armitage. Their wedding was due to take place later on today.
Zachary had briefly toyed with the idea of marriage himself the previous year, a decision forced upon him by the circumstances of his father's will. But his attempt to secure a wife had gone so disastrously wrong he was reluctant to repeat the experience. However, his cynicism did not prevent him from wishing Worthing well in the venture. Indeed, he had done so until almost dawn.
Which now caused Zachary to wonder if perhaps the woman in his carriage was a part of those wedding celebrations? Possibly a gift from Worthing? And perhaps each of Zachary's other three close friends would all find a similar present awaiting them in their own carriages?
Maybe so, but Zachary intended to remain cautious until convinced otherwise. The war with Napoleon might be over, and the Corsican currently incarcerated on Elba, but these were still dangerous times, and finding an unknown woman waiting for him in his carriage was certainly reason enough for him to stay on his guard.
'Hawksmere House, Lamb,' he instructed tersely as he climbed fully into the carriage and the door closed behind him. He took a seat across from the mysterious woman, placing his hat on the seat beside him as the carriage moved forward.
Zachary's sight had now adjusted enough to the gloom for him to note that the woman wore a black veil, one that covered her from her bonneted head to her booted toe. Such an effective covering prevented Zachary from being able to tell if she was old or young, fat or thin.
Zachary maintained his silence. This woman had sought him out, and therefore it was incumbent upon her to state her reasons for having done so.
To state whether she was friend or foe.
Georgianna's heart was beating wildly in her chest as she looked across the carriage at the silently watchful Zachary Black, the Duke of Hawksmere. A man, should he discover her identity, who had every reason to dislike her intensely. And rumour had it that the hard and cynical Zachary Black was a dangerous man when he disliked, intensely or otherwise.
Georgianna repressed a shiver as she straightened her spine before greeting him huskily, 'Your Grace.'
'Madam.' He gave a terse inclination of his head, his fashionably overlong hair appearing the blue-black of a raven's wing in the dimmed lighting. His silver eyes were narrowed in his aquiline face; his brows were dark over those pale and shimmering eyes. He had sharp blades for cheekbones above an uncompromising and sculptured mouth and stern jaw.
Georgianna's gaze was drawn down inexorably to the spot just beneath that arrogant jaw, to the livid scar visible above the white of his shirt collar. A wound so long and straight that it almost looked as if someone had attempted to cut his throat. Which had no doubt been the intention of the Frenchman wielding the sabre which had been responsible for the injury.
She repressed another shiver as she hastily returned her gaze to the dark and saturnine face above it. 'I realise my presence in your coach might be considered as an an unorthodox way of approaching you.'
'That would surely depend upon your reason for being here,' he drawled softly.
Georgianna's gloved hands were clenched tightly together beneath the concealing shroud of her black veil. 'There is I have important news I need to to impart to someone I believe is an acquaintance of yours.'
The man seated opposite her in the carriage did not appear to move, his expression remaining as mockingly indifferent as ever, yet Georgianna nevertheless sensed a sudden, watchful tension beneath that indifference.
'Indeed?' he murmured dismissively.
He raised those dark brows. 'Then I may assume you did not intrude upon my carriage with the intention of sharing my bed for what is left of the night?'
'Certainly not!' Georgianna pressed back in shock against the comfortably upholstered seat.
He continued to look at her with those narrowed and merciless silver eyes for several long seconds. 'Pity,' he finally drawled. 'A satisfying tumble would have been a fitting end to what has already been a most enjoyable evening. Pray tell, then, what is this important news you so urgently need me to impart to an acquaintance of mine? So important, it would seem, that you wilfully used subterfuge and lies with which to enter my carriage, rather than call upon my home during the daylight hours?' he prompted mockingly.
Now that she was face-to-face with Zachary Black, albeit with her own face obscured beneath the black veil, Georgianna was asking herself the same question.
At two and thirty, the arrogantly disdainful Duke of Hawksmere was a man she believed few would ever approach readily.
Admittedly, his prowess on the battlefield, with both sword and pistol, was legendary. His prowess in the bedchamber equally so. But he was also a gentleman rumoured to deal with both in the same cold and ruthless manner.
A coldness and ruthlessness, as Georgianna knew better than most, said to be frighteningly decisive.
So much so that she had no doubt that were he to identify her he would not hesitate to halt the carriage and toss her unceremoniously out into the street.
That he might still do so, of course.
She drew in a deep breath. 'It is rumoured, or more precisely I have reason to believe you have certain connections? In government?'
Zachary remained lazily slouched on the plushly upholstered seat of his ducal carriage, his expression of mockery and boredom unchanging. But inwardly he was instantly on the alert, not caring for the way in which this woman had hesitated before questioning his connections.
It implied that she had some knowledge of his having worked as an agent for the Crown this past four years. Information which was certainly not public knowledge. Indeed, his endeavours in that area would be of little use if it were.
He gave a dismissive shrug. 'I have many acquaintances in the House, if that is what you are referring to.'
'We both know it is not.'
'Indeed?' Damn it, who was this woman?
A younger woman, from the light and breathless sound of her voice, and possibly unmarried if her shocked reaction to the suggestion she was here to share his bed was any indication. She also appeared educated from her accent and manner of speaking, although that veil still prevented him from knowing as to whether she was fair or dark, fat or thin.
Or what she knew of his connections in government.
'Yes,' she asserted firmly.
'I am afraid that you have me at something of a disadvantage, madam. While you claim to know a lot about me, I do not even know your identity,' Zachary dismissed coldly.
Georgianna doubted that the arrogantly assured Zachary Black had ever been at a disadvantage in his privileged life. Nor was he under one now, for this was his carriage, and their conversation one over which he ultimately held power. As he always held power over all who were allowed, or dared to, enter his privileged world.
A power, a proximity, that she frankly found overwhelming.
She had forgottenchosen to forget?that the duke was so immediate, and his personality so overwhelming, that he seemed to possess the very air about him. Air perfumed with the smell of good cigars and brandy, no doubt from the evening he had just spent at his club with his friends. There was an underlying hint of the sharp tang of lemons and an earthy, insidious aroma she could only assume to be that of the man himself.
Allowing her personal nervousness and dislike of the man to bedevil her now, after all she had gone through, was not going to help Georgianna's cause in the slightest.
'It is not necessary for you to know who I am for you to arrange for me to meet with one of those gentlemen,' she continued determinedly.
'That is for me to decide, surely?' The duke leisurely picked a speck of lint from the sleeve of his black evening jacket before he looked up and pinned her once again with those coldly glittering eyes. 'And why come to me on the matter? Why not simply make an appointment and impart this knowledge to one of those gentleman yourself?'
Georgianna's gaze lowered. 'Because I very much doubt any of them would agree to meet with a mere woman. Not without the recommendation of someone such as yourself.'
'You underestimate the influence of your own sex, madam,' Hawksmere drawled derisively.
'Do I?' Somehow Georgianna doubted that.
She had been barely nineteen ten months ago when her own father had accepted on her behalf the offer of marriage she had received from an influential and titled gentleman, all without giving any consideration as to whether or not Georgianna would be happy in such a marriage.
Her now-deceased father, she reminded herself dully, having learnt upon her return to England just yesterday that her father had died nine months ago, and in doing so making a nonsense of the anger she had felt towards him in regard to that betrothal.
'I believe so, yes,' Hawksmere dismissed harshly. 'Either way, I am not in the habit of listening to news imparted to me by unknown womenmost especially one who feels it necessary to lie her way into my presencelet alone recommending that anyone else should do so.'
Georgianna had expected this distrust and cynicism from a man whom she knew allowed very few people into his inner circle of intimatesthe four friends from his schooldays, also dukes, being the exception. Those same four friends with whom she knew he had just spent the evening and most of the night.
'Who I am does not have any bearing on the veracity of the information I wish to impart,' she maintained stubbornly.
'In your opinion.'
'In the opinion of any patriot.'
Zachary Black raised a mocking brow at her vehemence. 'A patriot of what, madam?'
'Of England, of course.' Georgianna glared beneath the veil.
'Ah, yes, England,' he drawled drily. 'I trust you will forgive my ignorance, but I had thought England to currently be at peace? That we had held celebrations in honour of that peace just this past summer?'
'That is the very reason' Georgianna broke off her outburst in order to draw in a deep and controlling breath. Being anything less than in control in this particular gentleman's company was not wise when he was more like than not to take advantage of it. 'I can trust in your discretion, I hope?'
He raised those mocking brows. 'Should that not have been something you ascertained before you decided to invade the privacy of my carriage?'
Yes, it should, and Georgianna had believed that she had done so; she would not have approached the Duke of Hawksmere if she had not known he was exactly the gentleman she needed to speak with initially.
And yet, alone with him now in his carriage, and presented with the perfect, and wholly private, opportunity in which to convince him into speaking on her behalf, she found herself hesitating.
To the country at large the Duke of Hawksmere was nothing less than a war hero. He'd fought bravely and long in Wellington's army and had been severely wounded for his trouble. That he had also worked secretly for the Crown was not so widely known, but just as heroic. It was Georgianna's personal dislike of the man which now caused her hesitation.
Alone with Hawksmere in his carriage, so totally overwhelmed by the sheer presence of the man, Geor-gianna could not help but be aware that he was also a man known for his ruthlessness.
Once again she straightened her shoulders as if for battle. 'You may pretend and posture all you like, your Grace, but I have no doubt that, once we have spoken a little longer, you will choose to speak on my behalf.'
Zachary would admit to being somewhat intrigued and not just by the information this young woman so urgently wished to impart. It was the woman herself who also interested him. Her voice might be young and educated, but it had also sounded slightly naive when she stated her impassioned loyalty to England. Her claimed loyalty to England?
And Zachary still wondered what she looked like beneath that concealing veil.
Was she fair or dark? Beautiful or plain? Slender or rounded?