An Innocent Maid for the Duke
His lady in red…
Jacob, Duke of Westmoor, is feeling the weight of his recently inherited title when a stolen kiss with a beautiful woman in his gentlemen's club breathes life back into him. Until he discovers she's a maid!
Unable to let the beautiful innocent go, he arranges for Rose Nightingale to become his grandmother's companion. But living under the same roof, their attraction becomes impossible to resist!
From The Society of Wicked Gentlemen Book Series
The hour is late and the stakes are high...
An excerpt from An Innocent Maid for the Duke..
Entering the owners’ private quarters at the gentleman’s club Vitium et Virtus, Jake, Duke of Westmoor, stifled a groan at the sight of the other two founding members lounging in heavy leather armchairs placed around a low table. One of the two empty chairs was his. The fourth supported a small gilded box.
‘This was the reason you sent for me?’
Even seated, the brown-haired, brown-eyed Frederick Challenger had a military air. At Jake’s words he snapped to attention and glowered. ‘It may have escaped your lofty notice, Your Grace, but today is the sixth anniversary of Nicholas’s disappearance.’
Jake tensed at the use of his title. The significance of the date had indeed escaped his notice, busy as he was with the affairs of the Duchy, but he wasn’t about to admit it. ‘I thought we were beyond all this.’ He had enough reminders of loss at home without adding to them here. The one place he thought of as a refuge.
‘Sit down, Westmoor,’ Oliver, the other member of their group, said, his green eyes snapping sparks in his burnished face.
Jake sighed, but did as requested. Or rather ordered. If Oliver hadn’t been such a good friend… No. Not true. He had no wish to alienate these men, his oldest friends. Without them he might not have survived the loss of his father and brother.
He glanced on the gilded box on the other chair. It contained Nicholas’s ring, the last reminder of their missing founder of Vitium et Virtus. Could it really be six years since Nicolas’s disappearance? It hardly seemed possible. Back then, they’d scarcely achieved their majority. Now look at them. All three of them reaching the grand old age of thirty. The intervening years had passed in a heartbeat.
Yet the shock of finding a pool of blood in the alley outside Vitium et Virtus and Nicholas’s signet ring trampled in the dirt beside it wasn’t any less raw.
Oliver leaned forward and laid his hand palm up in the centre of the table.
‘You seriously intend to do this,’ Jake said.
The other two glared at him. Grudgingly, he placed his hand on top of Oliver’s, the warmth of another man’s skin odd against the palm of his hand. Frederick added his to the pile.
‘In vitium et virtus,’ they chorused like the bunch of schoolboys they’d been when they started this stupid venture. In vice and virtue. Even after all this time, the words sounded strangely lacking without Nicholas’s voice in the mix.
Withdrawing his hand, he picked up his brandy, lifting the glass towards the empty chair in a toast. ‘To absent friends.’
The others imitated his action.
‘Be he in heaven or hell—’ Oliver continued with the words they’d been saying each year for the past six years.
‘Or somewhere in between—’ Frederick intoned.
‘Know that we wish you well,’ they finished together. As if anything so nonsensical could bring their friend back.
They threw back their drinks, staring at the empty seat.
‘I was so sure he’d turn up like a bad penny before the year was out telling us it was all a jest,’ Frederick said.
‘If so, it would be in pretty poor taste. Even for Nicholas.’ Oliver said, his green eyes dark with the pain of loss they’d all felt since Nicholas’s disappearance. A loss Jake didn’t want to think about. There had been too many in his life. Each one worse than the last.
‘It would have been like him,’ Jake said, burying the surge of anger that took him by surprise. ‘Nicholas always was one for stupid japes. This club, for example.’
Troubled, he rubbed at his chin and felt a day’s growth of stubble. Hadn’t he shaved this morning? Surely he had.
‘I hear his uncle is petitioning the Lords to have the title declared vacant.’ Frederick rolled his empty glass between his palms. ‘Bastard can’t wait to step into his shoes. I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t do away with him so he could get his hands on the estate.’
Inwardly, Jake flinched, though he kept his face expressionless.
Oliver’s eyes sharpened. ‘Don’t be an idiot, Fred.’
Frederick’s ears reddened as his glance fell on Jacob’s face.
Apparently, his lack of emotion hadn’t fooled his friends.
‘Dammit, Your Grace. You know such a thing never crossed my mind.’
He made a dismissive gesture with his hand. ‘Naturally not.’ But others had whispered words like murder behind his back. And it wasn’t as if he was entirely innocent.
The night his father and brother died came crashing back with a vengeance. The loss. The horror. The guilt. He leaned back in his chair, needing even that fraction of distance from the sympathetic glances of his friends.
A sympathy he did not deserve.
Oliver frowned at him. ‘You look like hell, Jake. When was the last time you had a haircut?’
He couldn’t remember. ‘None of your business.’
The sound of catcalls and hoots came from behind the thick oak door that separated their private owners’ quarters from the public rooms of the club.
Glad of the distraction, Jake raised a brow. ‘What is going on out there?’
‘It’s choose-your-partner night.’ Fred said.
Bell, the balding erstwhile butler, now manager of Vitium et Virtus, shot through the door. The noise level went up to deafening.
Bell’s face screwed up into an expression of worry. ‘Please, sirs. One of you needs to restore order. One of the gentlemen is insisting he wants five of the girls at once and none is interested. I’ve explained the rules, but he is being most uncooperative. Several other gentlemen have bet on his abilities and are insisting.’ He disappeared back through the door. It closed behind him with the faintest click.
‘Blast it all,’ Jake gritted out. ‘It really is time we closed place once and for all.’ It certainly didn’t fit with his new position in life. He glanced at the empty place at the table. ‘If this wasn’t the one place that might draw Nicholas back, I’d be for closing it down.’ The club had been Nicholas’s idea. He had provided the largest portion of money to get it started.
‘I’ll go.’ Frederick grabbed up his mask and cloak, the required uniform for all entering Vitium et Virtus. While people might guess at their identities, they had never admitted to owning the place.
On his way past, Frederick shot Jake a conciliatory look. ‘Water under the bridge, right?’
‘Right,’ Jake said. He forced a smile. ‘It’s a good thing Nicholas wasn’t here, or he’d be ribbing me about my thin skin for weeks.’
Fred picked up his pace as the door failed to keep out the noise of the rising mayhem beyond.
Oliver pushed to his feet. ‘Nicholas would have been ribbing you about your appearance, too. Take a look in the mirror next time you pass one. White’s wouldn’t let you through the door.’
Jake scraped a nail through his stubble. ‘Good thing Vitium et Virtus isn’t so fussy. Where are you going? Home?’
Oliver’s green eyes sparked mischief. ‘At some point. You?’
Jake grimaced envying his friend his light-hearted grin. The idea of going back to the ducal town house caused his gut to clench. He hated walking through the door, let alone spending time there. He ought to go back, though. Duty called and all that. So much duty. ‘Soon.’
He’d have to go soon. His grandmother was expecting him to bid her goodnight. And then she’d look at him with such sorrow in her eyes…
He picked up the decanter and poured himself another glass of brandy. The best money could buy.
‘Want to talk about it?’ Oliver offered, concern in his gaze.
Sympathy was worse than self-recrimination. ‘I’m not in the mood for company,’ he said, deliberately avoiding the question, but telling the truth all the same. He rarely was in the mood for company any more. Burying one’s family did that to a fellow.
Only when the door clicked, did he realise Oliver had gone.
He swallowed the brandy in one gulp, poured another and headed for the office. These days, work and brandy were the only things that helped him sleep.
Rose stacked the last of the plates in the cupboard, removed her apron and stretched her back. Oh, it felt so good.
‘All done, Rose?’ Charity Parker, a middle-aged woman and housekeeper at the V&V, as the servants called it, swept a gimlet glance around the kitchen.
‘Yes, Mrs Parker.’ She hesitated, wondering if there was more to do.
The woman’s stern expression softened a little. ‘Go on, then, join your friends in the Green Room if you must, but don’t be staying up all night sewing their dresses. And be careful, Rose. Things are still in full swing.’ She bustled away.
Rose grinned at her back. Mrs Parker’s bark was far worse than her bite. But she was right. At this time of the night the gentlemen members were often half-seas-over and could be a little too friendly to anything in skirts. Even someone as drab and plain as her was fair game in their eyes. She certainly didn’t want to risk losing her position by breaking any rules. Mrs Parker and Mr Bell were very strict about the servants keeping to their proper places. For their protection as much as anything.
It was just one of the things that made her feel especially lucky to have found this position. The pay at the club was better than anything she’d ever received before and, best of all, she didn’t have to live in as she did when working as a housemaid in a gentleman’s home. Housemaids risked the advances of any lusty fellow under its roof. Men who couldn’t keep their hands to themselves were the reason she’d left her last three positions. She knew the risks of a kiss and a cuddle under the blankets. She was likely the result of one.
No, she was better off going to her own place every night. Her own home, meagre though it was. No matter how kind and respectful the family might be to their servants, she always felt like an intruder. An outsider looking in on a happiness she had never known. Perhaps one day she would have family of her own. She was determined she would. The idea of it sent a chill down her spine.
Enough daydreaming. If she was to do a bit of mending for the girls before she went home, she needed to get going.
She slipped into the Green Room unnoticed. Not green at all, of course. Painted white and blue and lined with mirrors, the large open room was in the basement at the back of the house. It was here the girls who performed at the V&V changed into their costumes, practiced their acts and rested when not required on stage. Or wherever they performed.
It had none of the lewd pictures and murals covering the walls and ceiling of the rest of the place, or the statues and artefacts, thank goodness. She’d become used to them over time, even got used to dusting them, but at first she hadn’t known where to look.
The Green Room was a whole different matter. She loved this room full of chatter and laughter and singing as the girls swirled around in their brightly coloured costumes. It was nothing like the stark cold rooms at the Foundling Hospital where she had grown up. Or the kitchens and servants’ halls she’d worked in when she’d gone out into the world. In those places, everyone was afraid of their shadow and talked in whispers.
She sank into the old horsehair sofa in the corner and pulled out the needle case she’d made at the orphanage. A small embroidered book that safely held her few precious needles and pins. She sorted through the mending in the basket beside the sofa and pulled out pair of holey stockings. She loved helping the girls and if they occasionally slipped her a penny or two for her efforts, she was grateful.
From here, she observed the goings-on while she rested her poor aching feet before walking home. With a sigh, she unlaced her half-boots, rubbed at her soles for a blissful moment or two, then tucked her them up under her skirts.
Peace at last.
‘I ’oped you’d come by.’ Fleurette, whose real name was Flo, plopped herself down beside Rose. Her fair golden locks were arranged in the elaborate hairstyle Rose had helped her with earlier in the day.
It was Flo who had first asked for Rose’s help with her hair. When the other girls had seen the result, they had begged for help, too. She did what she could, but Mrs Parker only gave her a few minutes off here and there during the evening. Still, she made a point of helping whenever she had a moment or two, as well as after work. It was these snatched moments that had put the idea into her head that she might one day become a ladies’ maid or a dressmaker.
Flo cracked a huge yawn, then exploded in laugher. ‘I’m so tired I could fall asleep right here.’
Rose had liked Flo on sight. Apparently the feeling had been mutual. For the first time in her life, Rose felt as if she had a true friend.
Making friends at the orphanage had been frowned upon. They weren’t there for enjoyment. They were unwanted children and needed to learn how to make themselves useful as adults.
‘Was there something you needed?’ she asked after a moment or two of silence.
Her friend winced. ‘I wore that new red gown for my first number and caught my heel in the hem. The old besom will fine me when she sees I’ve damaged it already.’
She looked so downcast Rose wanted to hug her. ‘Give it to me. I’ll fix it and take it up an inch and then you won’t trip.’
‘I feel terrible asking. You’ve been here for hours—’
‘And you need it for tomorrow. I’m happy to do it.’
‘I’ll pay you.’
‘No! What are friends for?’
Flo gave her a mock glare. ‘You’ll take a couple of coppers and like it. I’d have to pay a whole lot more if the old besom had her way.’ All the girls called the wardrobe mistress ‘the old besom’.
‘It is not right that they fine you for rips and such,’ Rose said. ‘It is not as if the gowns are brand new when you get them. Don’t worry, I’ll do it before I go home.’
Flo leaned in and kissed her cheek. ‘You are a dear. I’ll go and fetch it. And don’t be offering to sew anyone else’s gown for free. Or style their hair, for that matter.’
‘I do it because I like doing it,’ she said to Flo’s departing back. And because it gave her hope that one day she could be more than a scullery maid. A hope that people wouldn’t look at her with disdain because she scrubbed floors and washed dishes, and was a bastard to boot.
Within moments, Flo was back with a gown of brilliant scarlet with silk roses adorning neckline and hem.
Rose let the silky fabric slide through her fingers, careful not to let it catch on her work-worn skin and torn nails. ‘Leave it with me. I’ll have it done in no time.’
‘Flo,’ one of the other girls called. ‘Your gentleman’s waiting at the back door.’
A shadow passed across her friend’s face, but then she shot Rose a cheeky smile. ‘’Is lordship’s taking me out for dinner.’ She glided away.
His lordship, as Flo called him, was Flo’s gentleman follower. Rose sometimes wondered if he treated her right. There had been a couple of unexplained bruises that Flo had brushed off as falls.
The girls were allowed to walk out with the club members as long as they were discreet and did not ask for, or mention, any names. Flo lived in hopes her beau would ask her to marry him. Rose had offered dire warnings after seeing those bruises.
In her turn, Flo had instructed Rose on how to avoid unwanted children, just in case.
Rose pulled out the pair of thin cotton gloves she used to keep the silky fabrics the girls wore from getting ruined by her rough skin and set to work.
Slowly the noise around her dwindled to nothing. The wall sconce above her head contained the only candles left alight. A clock struck the hour.
Four in the morning! Already? The repair had taken far longer than she had expected because she’d also found three rips in the gauzy gown’s side seams and some of the silk roses bordering the hem had been loose.
She snipped off the thread and held the gown towards the light. So feminine, like something one of the titled ladies who occasionally visited the club would wear, even if it was a little gaudy.
What would it be like to be one of those ladies? Living a life of ease and luxury. She didn’t envy them the boredom that Flo said was the reason they came to the V&V, drawn there by the excitement of losing hundreds of pounds at the gambling tables or by the private assignations with one or other of the virile young men who were members.
She pushed to her feet, rubbing at the ever-present ache in the small of her back. Time to go home or she wouldn’t get any sleep at all. She carried the gown over her arm to Flo’s chest full of clothes. On top was a mask covered in red spangles shaped to cover the top half of the wearer’s face. It matched the gown. As Rose moved it aside, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, tired, drab, plain.
Grinning at her image, she held the gown up against her and kicked out a foot, making the red fabric swirl around her ankles. The picture she created was spoiled by the sight of her ugly brown dress as she turned to view herself from the side. She stared at the neckline. Was it too low? Should she have added a bit more fabric? While the V&V was renowned for debauchery and depravity, Flo was a singer not a courtesan.
Perhaps she should try it on before she put it away. For Flo’s sake, naturally. She shook her head. Who did she think she was fooling? She wanted to see what she would look like in such a gown.
She whipped off her frock and slid the whisper of a gown over her head. In the mirror, a magical transformation took place. Her eyes seemed to pick up the sparkles at the neckline and her figure seemed more shapely. If it wasn’t for the plain Jane face staring back at her, she might have thought herself pretty.
The mobcap had to go. But with the severe bun still in place, it made little difference. She pulled the pins from her hair and let it fall around her shoulders, then, with a naughty smile, tied on the mask.
She turned this way and that, regarding her reflection. Better. Much better. Why, she might almost pass as one of the girls. And if she really used her imagination, perhaps as a lady. The neckline was not as bad as she had feared. It was a little low, showing the rise of her bosom, but not at all indecent.
Eyes half-closed, she twirled around humming one of the tunes she’d heard the musicians playing in the ballroom earlier that evening, pretending she was waltzing with one particularly handsome gentleman, who had no clue she even existed.
Sore feet and aching back gave her not one twinge.
Returning from seeing his grandmother, Jake passed a carriage standing outside the front door of Vitium et Virtus. Waiting for one of nobility’s late-night revellers, no doubt. Usually it was the ladies who kept their carriages at the ready. He went around the side of the club, to the door out of sight of regular members, reserved for the owners.
The porter, Ben Snyder, bowed him in. ‘Good evening, Yer Grace.’
Jake froze. The pain of loss held him rigid, followed swiftly by a rage he could scarcely contain.
With a muttered curse Jake slung his coat and hat on one of the four hooks in the shape of aroused male appendages they’d bought as a job lot upon opening Vitium et Virtus.
Snyder handed him a mask and retreated to his chair.
No doubt the man had seen the anger and thought it was directed at him. Jake reined in his emotions. Built the wall of distance that kept him halfway sane. But, God help him, each and every time he heard those two words, his instinct was to glance around for his father. Only to realise it was he who was being addressed. He loathed it.
It was a constant reminder of his father and brother. Of their lives. Of their deaths. Of the reason he was now addressed as Your Grace.
It was also why he was here and not tucked up in the ducal bed in the ducal mansion. Here and only here did he seem able to snatch a few minutes’ sleep. A slog through the ledgers with a brandy or two in the comfort of the owners’ private rooms should send him into the arms of Morpheus. He hoped.
‘Any one left above stairs?’ he enquired of the porter, trying to sound normal and coming off icily cold.
‘A few, Yer Grace,’ the man said warily. ‘In the gaming room and upstairs in the private bedrooms. Want me to clear them out?’
‘No. I am not in. To anyone. I don’t care if the place burns down, I do not want to be disturbed, understand?’
‘Understood, Your Grace.’
The porter also added a whispered as usual, but Jake decided not to hear. The porter would follow orders. He always did and that was all Jake required. He strode along the deserted corridor with its erotic statues and murals seeming to leer at him, the need for brandy an ache in his throat.
He took the servants’ staircase down. It would take him to the other side of the house to another set of stairs leading up to where the owners’ private quarters were located. Allowing him to avoid any lingering customers.
A sound of soft humming brought him to a halt outside the ladies’ dressing room. He frowned. The girls should all be gone by now. They were certainly not supposed to entertain gentlemen here. There were rooms on the top floor set aside for such frolics. Rooms equipped with costumes and toys for every taste.
He donned his mask and opened the door a fraction, enough to see in but not be seen until he could figure out what was going on.
A petite woman in a glittering red mask was singing to herself, her scarlet gown swirling around her shapely ankles as she twirled in front of the mirrors, each one giving a different reflection of a gown moulded to every curve of a sinuously lush body moving in time to her humming. The smile on her parted lips was not the forced smile of a courtesan, nor that of a jaded widow, or yet the hopeful smile of a debutante anxious to please a duke. This smile was pure delight. Enjoyment.
Her joy at the simple act of dancing spilled over with an infectious feeling of lightness that unaccountably lifted his spirits. He found his own lips curving upwards in response. Even more surprising, he found himself wanting to be the one to waltz her around the room.
A movement in the shadows caught the corner of Rose’s eye. She turned and gasped. It was him! The Duke. Though he was wearing his usual mask, she would know him anywhere by his height and breadth and commanding presence. By his dark stubbled jaw and firm chin. By his lovely mouth.
Too many times had she stopped to admire him as he passed her at her work. Of all the owners of the club he was the only one who had caught her attention in that way. He was impossibly handsome, but coldly unapproachable. A proper duke.
Or how one assumed a duke to be.
Not that she would ever mention that she knew who he was. No names were ever spoken. House rules.
Despite his lofty position, something about him had struck her as sad. As if some deep sorrow weighed him down and made her want to offer comfort. A foolish fancy. Someone of her lowly station had nothing to offer a man such as he.
But how often she had dreamed of feeling those strong arms curl around her while she laid her head on his chest. The very idea of it made her feel strangely weak.
Never before had she felt such a powerful attraction, despite knowing better than to get tangled up with a man. Fortunately, he was nothing more than a fantasy. A man who marched through her dreams like a knight in shining armour. As long as she kept him there, in her dreams, she was safe.
But this was no dream. The crushing realisation pressed down on her shoulders. She should not be here. It was against the rules. She glanced around for an escape route. But he was between her and the door and approaching slowly, his bright blue gaze fixed on her face.
His expression did not reflect anger. Indeed, the warmth of his smile, with a glimpse of white teeth, charmed her into remaining still. She released a breath she had not realised she was holding. A sigh really. Of appreciation.
His smile broadened and he bowed. ‘I beg your pardon, my lady. I did not mean to startle you.’
My lady? Her heart fluttered strangely. If only she were his lady. She placed her hand below her throat and shook her head. ‘Merely surprised.’
She’d responded with the careful diction she’d taught herself from listening to those of the upper classes as she moved unseen among them, cleaning grates and scrubbing floors.
‘I have interrupted you,’ he said, cocking his head to the side in question.
‘Foolishness,’ she said, peeping up at him. Heavens, he was taller than she had thought and broader. And so much more handsome close up. She could scarcely breathe and yet somehow the scent of his cologne filled her lungs and made her feel strangely dizzy. ‘I should go.’
‘Not before you give me the honour of a dance, surely?’ His voice had deepened. His eyes, which had always seemed coldly reserved as he went about the business of the club, were bright, sparkling with mischief.
Dance? With a duke? ‘I cannot,’ she choked out.
He chuckled, low and deep. ‘You certainly can. You waltz as beautifully as you hum.’
Heat rushed up from the neckline of the shocking gown, for now with his gaze upon her, she felt almost naked. Flirting. A duke was flirting with her and every particle in her body wanted to allow it. Nay, wanted to encourage it.
Wanton. Like your mother.
She must say no. But it would never happen again, this chance to dance with the man who haunted her dreams. When she was about her work, he never noticed her underfoot. None of the gentry did. They weren’t supposed to. She had long ago realised it saved both the served and the server embarrassment.
What harm would one dance do? This was the first time she had seen the man smile since she started working here. If it would bring him a measure of happiness, and her, too, why not? It would certainly be something for her to dream about for the rest of her life and perhaps tell her grandchildren at some long-distant time in the future.
The night their old granny danced with a duke. The idea of that dream of a family made her smile.
‘You know you want to,’ he said, holding out a hand.
A moment later, she was in his arms.