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Duchess by Day, Mistress by Night

Rebellious Desires Series

He’s the one man she must resist

Georgiana Rutherford, the Duchess of Hardcastle, seemingly has it all—wealth, pedigree, and the admiration of the ton, except her heart hungers for a passionate affair. She meets the enigmatic and ruthless Mr. Rhys Tremayne, a man known to low and high society as the Broker. The attraction between them is impossible to deny, but she cannot be feeling it for this man.

Rhys Tremayne has built his wealth and empire by dealing secrets on the black market of the London underworld. He is determined to take his sisters away from the depraved world they’ve known their entire lives, and the duchess is the perfect woman to help sponsor his sisters into society. The only problem is that he wants more from Georgiana, even if the social divide between them ensures she can only ever be his lover in secret.

Chapter One

London, 1821

Rhys Tremayne had been summoned by the Duchess of Hardcastle. Even more shocking than a lady of such elevated stature demanding he attend a fashionable ball was the fact that he had responded to the vague but vastly intriguing invitation. The letter, which had been delivered to him, had gone through clandestine channels only those with links to the dark and secretive underworld of London possessed. It had been presented to him upon a silver salver as he had gambled at The Asylum, one of the most profligate and powerful gaming hells known to London society, owned and operated by his closest and most trusted friend, Riordan O’Malley.

Dear Mr. Tremayne,

I have a business proposal for you. You are to meet me in several hours’ time in the gardens at Lady Tunstall’s ball at midnight. Enclosed is an invitation to the ball.

Georgiana,

Duchess of Hardcastle

The note was succinct, written in a bold yet elegant scrawl, and had been infused with the power and privilege of the duchess’s position. What could she want? He assumed she required his ability as The Broker. There could be no other reason for her imperious demand.

For years, Rhys had studied the men and women of England, high and lowborn, and their secrets had been collected with great diligence, cataloged and ranked regarding their bargaining power, and made ready for use when it suited Rhys or another client with whom he traded. Perhaps she needed to topple someone and required the right secret and scandal to see it done. One thing he had learned about polite society was that they were really not polite. They were quite an uncompromising bunch, protected by their positions and rank of privilege. Despite all his ruthless wrangling and manipulations as he traded in the black market of information and secrets, he’d never worked with someone of such estimable connections. Even the work he did for the crown in the past had been through an anonymous connection.

The duchess was a woman he could use. His heart kicked at the challenge and the danger of having such an influential force be beholden to him. He tipped his head back in his chair and held the invitation up and simply stared at it.

What are your secrets?

Who are you?

It was clear to him the lady did not anticipate his refusal. She expected to be obeyed. Rhys’s interest stirred, and primal satisfaction slithered through him. He’d found the door to the world he had been relentlessly working to pry open, with astonishingly little effort on his part. Or perhaps not, since the last twenty years had all been about reaching this point.

Not many realized how impossible it was to infiltrate high society. He’d cultivated wealth—trading in secrets and strengthening the merchant connections he’d grown into with more dangerous business and alliances. Yet each time he had collected a favor and came closer to the elite circle of the ton, something had snatched the opportunity from him and he had retired back to the shadows, waiting and watching.

He had no notion what the duchess required, but he would not stop until he had her so enmeshed she would have to dole out to him an unmatched favor.

The soft closing of the door had him glancing up from the letter. His sister Lydia strolled into the library. She lifted her chin to the letter, and then her fingers leaped to life, speaking for her.

“Will you attend the ball?” she signed.

He’d, of course, shared the content of the letter with his sisters after he had scrutinized it at least a dozen times. Though Lydia was growing more adept at reading lips, he lowered the letter to the desk and signed, “Yes, I will answer her summons. This is the opportunity we have been waiting for.”

Doubt clouded her gaze, and a faraway look appeared in her light-gray eyes. “Nothing will make them accept me…accept us.”

A hard smile tipped his lips. “Let me take care of the details. I urge you not to worry.”

“Our family is my worry, as well, dear brother. When will you let us take some of the burden of reclaiming our place in society?”

He stood and strolled over to her. “Never.”

She rolled her eyes in the most unladylike fashion. “We are playing charades in the parlor. Join us and promise to be on my team, but please do not tell our sisters,” she signed with a cheeky grin.

Despite the blow she had been given in life, Lydia was filled with such humor and good cheer. She had never once blamed him for her deafness, but it was his lack that had caused her pain. The fever that had almost taken her life and had robbed her of hearing was probably because they’d been living in such squalor and despair.

As the eldest of his three sisters at three-and-twenty, Lydia was as savvy as any criminal in London. To marry and have children was a dream she kept locked in her heart, believing no gentleman would want her with her past and imperfection. Lydia was beautiful, with her short, dark curls, eyes as gray as a storm, and exquisite smile. She was also kind and intelligent, but none of that would matter to a beau, for she was handicapped and her background tarnished.

Rhys wanted her away from this life. He wanted her to be part of the world she had been born to, but that had been snatched away from her because of greed and malice.

The ton was a world of glamorous elegance and lavish extravagance, but behind its fickleness also rested a security that he wanted for his sisters. He wanted them to have a place of safety that would be certain and that could not be wrested away. He’d promised them he wouldn’t stop until their lives were better. Their proper place in this world had been denied to his mother and sisters. Instead of a comfortable home with servants, a season when they came of age, a suitable gentleman for a husband, his sisters had been reared in the stews, the gutter, and amongst the lowest people of the slums for years. He would do everything to ensure respectability was theirs again. That way, if he were to fall, he would rest easy knowing his sisters were secure.

His sister trained her gaze to his lips.

“I’ll not join you today. I leave shortly to see Her Grace,” Rhys said.

Lydia grinned, no doubt pleased he’d gotten the honorific correct. Their mother had encouraged them to study the peerage and polite society rules and etiquette years ago.

“Try not to be too intimidating.”

“I’ll be the soul of politeness. She’ll think me a gentleman of her world.”

Lydia snorted and looped her hands through his as they exited the library.

He escorted her to the parlor and bid his sisters farewell. Less than thirty minutes later, he arrived in front of the address provided, a few hours earlier than his requested time. He was aware the duchess expected him to honor the time she had laid down. It was the gentlemanly thing to do, but then he had never been a proper gentleman despite his promise to Lydia. Rhys liked to see people in their element before they put on their mask and hid their true selves. He had learned early not to accept people at face value and instead to trust in their unguarded responses.

What would the duchess be like without her armor? His unexpected arrival would only give him a small peek, but it would be enough for him to glean the manner of lady he dealt with.

There were several carriages queuing. Another carriage drawing away as one pulled up. A few elegant lords and ladies heading for the receiving line threw him curious glances. Somehow, they always knew he didn’t belong, even though his manner of dress was just as impeccable, though, he reluctantly admitted, less dandified than many. It was as if he straddled the edge of both worlds, a misconception, really, for he was so far removed from the ton, he would never be able to move in their circles, nor did he truly crave to. But his sisters…now that was another matter. No longer would he allow them to bleed or scrabble as he had done to find their place in the world.

And how fortuitous it was that a duchess had placed herself within his reach. Rhys prowled through the stately gardens, careful to keep himself cloaked within the shadows. Merriment spilled forth on the air. He slipped through the small wrought-iron gate that served as the entrance to a hidden alcove. With measured steps and a watchful eye upon his surroundings, he blended with the night, trying to ascertain if one of these ladies was the duchess. After several moments of observing the outside guests, he strolled to the front door and joined the receiving line.

This was the butler, if he had not been misinformed by his mother’s tutelage. Rhys handed him the invitation.

The butler’s brow furrowed. “Your name.”

Rhys smiled. He hadn’t missed the fact that his name had not been on the invitation. The duchess wanted a careful measure of secrecy. “An announcement is not necessary,” he said.

The butler considered him, and then the invitation once more, before stepping back. He was admitted, his coat and top hat collected. Men and women in elegant apparel crowded the hall, and Rhys could hear the strains of music from the ballroom. Several threw him assessing glances but quickly shifted their regard away. Rhys strolled unhurriedly through the hallway and headed for the ballroom.

Why demand a meeting here?

Are you afraid? Was it that the lady would feel safer within a crowd? Rhys turned left down the large yet elegantly appointed hallway before coming upon a wide-open door leading to a ballroom. He stood in the shadows by a Corinthian column, observing the crowd with utmost discretion. Life and laughter pulsed around him. Ladies and gentlemen twirled across the ballroom, glittering in their fineries. The undercurrent of unbridled excitement and expectant conquest shimmered in the air, but as always, he was untouched, removed from the false high of pleasure, his thoughts ruthlessly concentrated on his purpose.

A flash of green snagged his attention. A vision of loveliness sauntered along the sidelines of the massive ballroom. Sweet Christ. She looked so breathtakingly vivid. The lady was in possession of a glorious mane of blue-black hair, which was parted in the center and twisted into a smooth coil at the nape of her neck. Her dark-green gown was cut low for a society lady, revealing the swell of her breasts. He tried to wrest his gaze away. He couldn’t afford a distraction tonight…though she was such a bloody beautiful and provocative one.

He moved closer, inexplicably drawn to the beguiling clash of latent sensuality and aloofness she exuded despite standing amid a sea of people. Her face encouraged study.

The slight smile that hovered on her lips seemed…sad and hauntingly lovely. Several gentlemen tried to capture her attention, but she only gave them that mysteriously vacant smile. She took a glass of champagne from a footman, politely thanking him, her gaze scanning the crowd. His mind ran through all the ways he could assuage her loneliness, the pleasures with which he could shock her ladylike sensibilities. But he was there on business and indulging in such fantasies was pointless—it would require too much effort to merely gain an opportunity to seduce a lady of the ton.

After several moments, he withdrew and padded along the corridor, checking each room until he located what seemed to be a library. He walked over to the desk, selected a piece of paper, and scribbled a quick note. Then he went outside and slipped the note and half a guinea to a footman.

“Locate the Duchess of Hardcastle and deliver this,” he murmured.

The man’s gaze flickered to his, but Rhys’s face was obscured in the shadows, a deliberate movement so the man could not give a description.

“Yes…my lord…sir,” the footman replied and hurried away.

Rhys waited in the darkness, tracking the man’s progress.

Rhys frowned as the footman hovered behind the lonely beauty from earlier as if waiting for an opportunity to interrupt. He pressed closer and faltered. For some reason, he’d expected someone…more…well, someone old. Surely this young girl, who barely appeared as if she had left the schoolroom, couldn’t be the duchess?

Perhaps it was the lady’s companion to whom the footman would hand his note. Shrugging away his unexpected attraction, he did not wait for the footman to find his courage and interrupt the laughing ladies. Rhys simply stole away outdoors, waiting for the duchess to slink into his web.

Loneliness had a taste—ashes. Georgiana Elizabeth Rutherford, the Duchess of Hardcastle, knew, for once as a willful child she had taken some cinder from the fireplace and tasted. She had spluttered, wiped at her lips and tongue with vigor, and had been unable to remove the unpleasant taste. That flavor coated her senses now and was accompanied by an empty feeling that seeped into her heart and sank deep into her bones. Perhaps she should forgo yet another season and retire to Kent, where her son, Nicolas George Rutherford, the very young Duke of Hardcastle, eagerly awaited her return. Instead of indulging in the lavish extravagance of yet another season, perhaps she would simply return to Meadowbrook Park as soon as she had successfully initiated a credible investigation into the mysterious disappearance of Miss Jane Walker, a young nursemaid who had gone missing from their country home.

Or she could walk the edge of reason that had pushed her to dress in her most provocative and scandalous gown tonight. Assuage the yawning emptiness and unfulfilled feeling with a lover.

Her dear friend, Daphne, Countess of Clarendon, looped their hands together as they strolled along the edge of the ballroom.

“You look quite delightful this evening, Georgiana,” Daphne said, giving a suggestive wink. “Dare I ask if this means you are taking my advice to secure yourself another husband?”

“Something more wicked, I fear,” Georgiana drawled teasingly.

“More wicked?”

A lover. To be touched, held, kissed. As if controlled by another, her fingers fluttered to her lips and pressed. As a widow of six-and-twenty, with considerable wealth and influence, it was well within her rights to select a lover from the gentlemen of society. “Delightfully wicked.”

Daphne’s eyes widened knowingly. After all, they’d discussed the merits of widowhood several days ago as they’d strolled through Hyde Park, namely the freedom to select a gentleman of the ton to indulge in illicit pleasures with.

“You deserve some happiness,” her friend said softly as they wove through the throng. “Though your mother will not be happy until you are securely wed again. That has been her goal since you came out of mourning.”

Georgiana was quite aware of the desires of her mother. She had married a duke and birthed another duke. The expectation was that she remarry someone of similar stature and with even more wealth than she currently controlled, but she was no longer a silly girl to be dictated to as had been done years past. She’d known from the tender age of twelve her duty was to be the wife of the Duke of Hardcastle, who had been old enough to be her father. She had married him at the age of sixteen when he had been forty-two, but that hadn’t mattered to her family. Power and connections had been consolidated with their alliance, and the families’ combined prestige had soared.

She had been groomed relentlessly on her role as a future duchess. Her family had expected no less of her, and soon Georgiana had possessed the same expectations and had dedicated herself to her studies with an intensity that had impressed even Hardcastle. She had eschewed playing and had spent most of her time with her nursemaid and tutors. Even taking time with the stewards of his estates to learn everything there was to know about how to run a dukedom. Instead of poring over fashion plates and scandal sheets, she had consumed agricultural tomes and political newspapers, following the wars and the debates argued in parliament as she tried to form her own opinions.

Instead of being repulsed by her intelligence as her mother had warned, he had been duly impressed. Hardcastle had been a kind man, with a deep-rooted sense of justice, and she had been a good duchess to him. He had been gone now for five years, and she desperately missed intimacy, even if theirs had been so intermittent.

“Have you made the list we discussed?” Daphne asked, jarring Georgiana from her ruminations.

“No, I find myself unwilling. To list the eligible men of the ton, and their attributes and connections, makes me feel as if I am selecting a stud horse.”

“My dear, that is the best way to get it done. There are simply too many suitable options. What of Lord Cole? According to Lady Bristol, he is a fine lover indeed.”

Georgiana’s eyes cut to the dashing viscount chatting a few paces away. Curious, she steered Daphne in his direction. He snapped to attention when he spied them, admiration glowing in the gaze that settled upon her.

“Your Grace,” he said with a deep bow, his voice warm and inviting. “What an unmatched pleasure to see you tonight.”

His emphasis had her arching a brow. It seemed polite society expected her to select a lover.

“Lord Cole, a delight, I’m sure,” she said with a smile. They exchanged a few pleasantries, and after a few moments, she deftly extricated herself.

“Clearly, he is not an option,” Daphne murmured, accurately discerning Georgiana’s disinterest.

“I confess, this may prove to be an impossible challenge. Oh, Daphne, perhaps I was too hasty with my thoughts.”

“Certainly not. I think Lord Petersfield is ideal. He is in the card room. I will collect him.”

Before Georgiana could protest, Daphne hurried away. Though the earl was handsome and intelligent and charming, he stirred nothing in Georgiana.

“Your Grace?”

She turned to the footman, who seemed as if he had materialized from thin air. “Yes?”

He held forth a note. “I was asked to deliver this to you.” She took it, opened her reticule, and tipped him, then he melted away discreetly.

She flipped the note open.

Come to the gardens.

Georgiana frowned, perplexed by the lack of signature and not recognizing the bold scrawl. She scanned the room, wondering who had sent it. Curiosity had her slipping the note in her reticule and heading for the open French doors. Had Simon sent her the note? But wouldn’t her brother have signed it? It had been a while since he’d had cause to write her a letter, and she tried to recall his style of handwriting. She had appealed to him to help her investigate Nicolas’s nursemaid, who had disappeared without giving notice or informing her that she would be leaving. She had not even forwarded an address with a request for a character reference.

Georgiana pressed a hand to her stomach as an unknown disquiet twisted through her. She had never been one to sit in silence and endure ceaseless speculations, so she had tried to do something about it and had encountered a dark, ugly, immovable wall of silence. That wall could have simply been cold indifference or something far more sinister. She had used her influence and gotten Bow Street involved. They had returned a verdict of a runaway nursemaid…in three days, with little show of concern to do any more.

She pushed through the throng, heading for the gardens. She made her way down cobbled steps and ran into someone.

“Georgiana, I was just coming inside to claim a dance,” said her brother, Simon, the Earl of Fairfax.

“Simon,” she greeted, holding her hands out. “I’m delighted to see you. Nicolas misses you.”

He arched a brow at her gentle admonition then gripped her hands and made a courtly bow. “I miss him, too. I will visit soon.”

She tugged her hands from his and reached into her reticule. “Did you send me this?”

He took the note, scanned it, and then crumpled it into a ball before stuffing it into his left pocket. “Another one of your ardent suitors no doubt. You should put them all from their misery and show favor to at least one.”

She frowned. Simon made as if he would direct them back up the small steps to reenter the ballroom. “Shouldn’t we stay in the gardens? There will be more privacy and less noise.”

They could have met at her townhouse, or at Meadowbrook Park. The dratted man had insisted she abandon the estate and travel to town. He had done it from love, but his interference was annoying, for it tugged her back into the lushly beautiful limelight of high society and away from the tranquility she found in the country.

“Certainly. Walk with me,” he murmured.

She looped her arm with his, and they entered the garden and traveled deeper into the mazelike gardens where they would be assured of privacy. “Do you have news for me?”

He grunted. “I have thought long and hard about your situation, and though it pains me to even broach such a topic, I have a solution to suggest. The ton has been talking of your restlessness, your inattention at political dinners, your many refusals of society’s invitations, though you have been out of mourning for a full three years. You are not acting quite like yourself, and now, this unheard-of investigation you are demanding into a woman who probably simply ran away. As Mother tells it, you are refusing to select another husband. Perhaps you need to consider a discreet liaison.”

Georgiana’s breath hitched. “I believe I misheard you.”

“What you need is a lover,” he said, giving a decisive nod.

“Dear Simon, have you been hiding a sense of humor all these years?”

“I do not jest.”

Was her emptiness so evident for the polite world to speculate and for her brother to remark upon? It would not do for him to see the way his pronouncement rattled her, simply because she was planning to embark on an affair. That was her business, and not one her family should stick their noses into.

She was also quite taken aback by her brother’s liberal opinion. In the past, he, too, had been concerned with her propriety. Though she had thought it hypocritical, for both her husband and brother had had at least one mistress, but such an action was not considered a stain upon the refined airs of nobility they wanted to protect. The Hardcastle line had never endured a scandal or hint of impropriety. A thing she had thought impossible until she had wed the duke and had been on the receiving end of his gentle-but-rigid instructions of expected comportment.

“I did expect some reaction, even if it was to slap my face for my temerity,” he said softly. “I do not like how cold you’ve become.”

She did value Simon’s opinion, so perhaps she could partially explain her inability to assuage her current loneliness. “I cannot lightly embark on a scandalous affair that would most assuredly be remarked upon.” She had a reputation and a legacy to protect, to hone, and always she must be The Duchess, which was how the tonreferred to her, for her son’s sake and their family’s reputation. It was not easy to dismiss so many years of ingrained lessons about what she could and could not do, but she was achingly desperate to let go the expectations that had been settled on her shoulders from her earliest memories. “Nor am I inclined to remarry any time soon, despite Mother’s hopes.”

The muscles underneath her fingertips tensed. “Georgie, surely you are lonely? You could be extremely discreet.”

Georgie. Surprising warmth burst in her chest at the shortening of her name and the memory that it brought of days gone by. How she missed the days when she had run barefoot in the glen and played in the snow by the lake making snowmen. But it was more than those happy childhood days she missed. She longed to be held, kissed, and embraced. Yes, she was lonely, so empty she felt like a marble effigy of her former vivacious self.

To be the wife and duchess of the powerful Duke of Hardcastle, she’d had to evolve from the young girl who had loved painting and music. Since her marriage, she had been molded tenderly, and at times brutally, into an unflappable, decorous, and serenely beautiful duchess who was praised for her wit and cunning intelligence. A simple word from her had seen reputations restored, men ruined, and wealth founded. Her reputation preceded her, and many lords and ladies coveted her presence in their drawing rooms, ballrooms, literary salons, and investment meetings.

Everything she was today she owed to Hardcastle for helping her achieve. His greatest desire had been to see their son taking the reins of his inheritance without his dukedom being beholden by debt and scandal, maintaining the Hardcastle legacy. It was a desire she shared, and that was where her ambitions were directed, despite Nicolas only being six years of age. Her husband had trusted in her acumen and dedication to manage their son’s inheritance and see it grow into something powerful and respected, one their son would be proud to inherit.

“I owe Hardcastle much, Simon.” She’d found a hidden part of herself, and she would forever be grateful for his austere and exacting expectations for having revealed it. Now she was considered an influential force in society and a fashion icon the ton followed avidly and loathed in equal measure. Despite the fact Hardcastle had taken a mistress, he had supported Georgiana in all her endeavors, with kindness, with respect, and even love. It wasn’t that he had failed her by taking another to his bed, but that she had failed him by responding to his caresses with tepid passion, a reminder that had been driven home with painful accuracy.

Hardcastle had been gravely dignified. It had shocked Georgiana he’d had a mistress. She had fled to her mother in tears at the humiliation and had been scolded. Men of great nobility were expected to procure mistresses, because genteel wives were not built to satiate men’s baser urges. The entire conversation had been mortifying and illuminating. She had boldly approached her duke and made it known she would happily provide for his baser urges, whatever they were, though she couldn’t really imagine what they could possibly be. She had shocked him, and then she, in turn, had been shocked when he replied she was not a woman of passions, and she should not trouble herself.

“He had a most ardent desire to see our son’s legacy protected from debt and scandal,” she told her brother, pushing the memories aside.

“You do not owe him the rest of your life, Georgie.”

“You haven’t called me Georgie in years,” she said. She had missed the comfort of her childhood name and the free young girl the name had been made for.

Simon frowned. “It was a slip, unbecoming of a lady of your stature.”

“Truly, I do not mind. In fact, I would prefer you refer to me as Georgie.”

He slid her a probing glance. “And you are digressing. That is quite unlike you, dear sister.”

They reached a garden bench and lowered themselves. His dark-blue eyes, a reflection of hers, glowed with concern. “Confide in me, Georgiana. You are not acting yourself.”

“This is quite an indelicate conversation for us to have, wouldn’t you agree?”

He tugged at his cravat, flushing. “You are my dearest sister, though I pray you do not tell Ellie I said so.”

Eleanor was their younger sister and was considered the toast of the ton since she had entered the marriage mart this season. She was well loved by her family and was secure in the knowledge their brother was her doting protector and her staunchest defender.

Georgiana laughed. “I’ll try.”

His lips twitched, then he sobered. “I dearly wish to see you gain a measure of contentment. Even Mother wishes you would remarry. You are only twenty-six, my dear, and more beautiful than half of the women of the ton.”

“Only half?”

He scowled. “Be serious.”

She met his eyes, alerted to the discomfort in his tone. “And that is all, a wish to see me happy?”

“Yes.”

“I thank you for your sentiments, but I do not require my older brother to meddle in my life and advise me when I must take a lover,” she said with some amusement. “That I can do when I am ready.”

“You sequester yourself in the country and hardly attend the coveted events of the season, despite your numerous invitations.”

“I have rejoined society,” she stubbornly insisted, distaste of their topic of discourse stirring in her blood. “I’ve attended three balls and a musicale, and reopened our box at the theater this week.”

“You spend most of your time in Kent.”

“With my son.” Another pang pierced her at the thought of being away from her precious boy.

“Georgiana—”

“No, Simon, this is not what I wanted to speak with you of. I assumed you were dragged from your club to tonight’s ball to discuss my letters.”

He sighed. “I feel your concern is unwarranted. Servants disappear from their households all the time without a writ of notice. This is quite beneath your attention.”

She waved her hands in a dismissive gesture. “Rubbish.” She cleared her throat. “You did see in my letter that it is Jane who is missing?” Georgiana had made sure to inform him beforehand the identity of the missing worker, hoping to elicit his compassion.

“Nicolas’s young nursemaid,” he said flatly.

“Yes.” And the woman she had once come upon trembling and moaning with his head buried between her thighs. Her brother had been demeaning himself to dally with a servant in her household, a young girl who had clearly believed herself to love him. The scoundrel. Despite Jane’s fears, Georgiana had not dismissed her, understanding full well how easily she could have fallen for Simon’s ruthless charm. The ton did not refer to him as a rakehell in jest, though she also knew it was a carefully cultivated persona.

“The last time she was seen by anyone in our household was as she played by the lake with Nicolas. I will never forget the terror that tore through my heart when I spied him paddling in the water alone. Jane should have been with him. I simmered in my anger for hours and prepared to dismiss her, but she did not join the other servants for luncheon or dinner that evening. Our butler and housekeeper assure me Jane would not run away. She has a family who relies on the income provided to her.”

“And she is not with her family?”

She dealt him a look of affront. “I was thorough in my investigations. I paid a visit to her family in Lambeth. The last time they saw or heard from her was three weeks before her disappearance.”

You visited them directly?”

“Yes.”

He seemed to draw patience from a well of forbearance. “Devil take it, Georgie, you are a duchess. You had no cause to…to…”

She touched his hands gently, halting the diatribe she could see coming. “Jane has been missing for weeks and no one cares. That is all the reason I need.”

Simon heaved a frustrated sigh and thrust his hands through his hair. “The report you sent me from Bow Street and the magistrate seemed conclusive. The girl ran away.”

The girl. She wanted to smack him for his indifference. “I saw you with that girl…in a very compromising position, might I remind you. I would believe you would have some sympathy for her plight.”

Georgiana stood and started to pace. A few seconds later she tipped her head to the night sky, gazing up at its vast beauty. “I cannot simply ignore the fact no one has heard from her.”

“Have you considered her family may have hidden her away because she is with child? That is not so uncommon.”

There was an odd note in his voice, and she leveled a stern gaze at him. “Did she tell you she was with your child?”

“No,” he gritted out. “I haven’t spoken to her since that day, four months past, and if you recall, I have not visited Meadowbrook Park since. But it is entirely possible she had other lovers. I…I was not her first.”

Was she overthinking the matter? She bit into the soft of her lip, fighting the tide of doubt pressing against her. “I’ve hired men to find her. Men who have scoured the countryside and even London, and do you know what I found? Silence. One so deep I am profoundly disturbed. Shouldn’t there be at least a rumor of some sort? Instead, there is nothing. I must do something. I cannot in good conscience ignore the warnings stirring in me,” Georgiana said softly.

He sighed in evident resignation and said, “I have reached out to my connections for help.”

Relief crashed into her. “Thank you, Simon. Though I do not appreciate you not saying so from the beginning of the conversation. I worried for naught.”

“Do not thank me yet,” he muttered, tugging at his cravat. “You believe something sinister is underfoot, and I should be urging you away from any possible danger, not committing you to examining the mystery deeper.”

“What possible danger could I be in?”

“There is a man…” A myriad of emotions flashed across her brother’s face—uncertainty, determination…and was that fear? “What the hell am I thinking?” he muttered.

She frowned. “Simon—”

“My work for the crown has seen me dealing with a few men of…undesirable character and dubious connections.”

“Yes?”

“Dangerous men, Georgie. Men I shouldn’t even be thinking of bringing to your attention.”

“Are these dangerous men needed in finding Jane?”

“Only one’s expertise is needed, and I must be afflicted to involve him in this business.”

“Is Jane not worth it?” she whispered. Though she doubted the veracity of the danger these men might present. Simon had always been her protector and had thought everything his dear sisters encountered over the years to be a grave and terrible danger.

“There is a man… He is called The Broker.”

The Broker? “Yes?”

Simon grimaced and stood. “His real name is Rhys Tremayne, and even in that regard, there is doubt. But he is the man to ask for help.”

Doubt lurked deep in her brother’s tone.

“I sense hesitation.”

“His currency is not one you are familiar with. He does nothing for money.”

She folded her arms across her middle and tapped one of her feet, disliking the slight unease wafting through her. “Every man can be bought.” That had been her experience. Even she had been purchased at the age of sixteen for marriage. It had been Hardcastle who had settled an unmatched sum on her parents, who had been well pleased she had fetched such a worthy price. She had abandoned her foolish and romantic dreams of marrying for love and had become a duchess to a man three times her age.

“Not with money.”

“What would he want if not coins?”

“I don’t know,” Simon growled. “That is why I am so damned hesitant for you to bargain with him. I cannot pretend I need his services, for he does not deal with third parties, and that man is like the devil himself—he always knows when the truth is not forthcoming. He has a reputation for always knowing.”

Was it terrible of her to be mystifyingly fascinated? “Based on your knowledge, what do you think he would desire for his aid?”

“His currency is favors, ones he calls in when it suits his purpose. He has cultivated a reputation of being quite merciless with those who try to renege on their bargains.”

I see. “What does he broker?” she asked, trying to understand the tension wrapping its arms around her brother.

“The flesh and the souls of those unfortunate enough to desire his help.”

She recoiled. “I beg your pardon?”

“You heard me.”

“You are uncharacteristcally dramatic.”

Simon scowled. “Mr. Tremayne brokers and trades anything from rare jewels, secrets that make and topple governments, guns and gunpowder for armies, alliances, anything on the black market.”

Dear Lord. Her heart hammered against her breastbone. “And your theory on how he would be able to help?”

Simon cleared his throat. “If…if something nefarious has happened to Jane, he would know. If she had been taken against her will or sold…he would be able to unearth the information of her whereabouts with his network of spies.”

Georgiana’s mouth went dry. “Do you believe it possible for Jane to have been sold?”

Simon hesitated. “Anything is possible when someone is missing, Georgiana,” her brother said softly. “She may have eloped with a lover, she may have been enticed into a lifestyle not fit for a lady and cannot extricate herself, or she may be dead.”

A terrible weak-kneed feeling assailed Georgiana. “I see, and you truly believe this man can unearth information that has eluded Bow Street investigators?”

“Yes.”

She took a deep, steadying breath. “Would my life be in danger to know such a man?”

Her brother sighed. “Perhaps not. I’ve never heard of him losing a client. He has honor of a sort, if such a paradox can be believed. He has never betrayed how he comes by his secrets, and he has a most coveted network of spies in the London underground, where most are disgustingly loyal to him. That is the reason the crown has seen fit to procure his services from time to time—discreetly, of course.”

“There is honor amongst blackguards and reprobates, that is news,” she said caustically. “How do I procure his services? I believe we must send him an invitation to tea, one most artfully worded.”

Her brother glared at her. “You will not have this man to tea,” he growled. “While your life may be secure, your reputation would most certainly suffer a blow.”

“Are you implying that if this man called upon me, polite society would know who he is and what he does?”

“I suppose not,” he admitted. “The man is a damn enigma. Most in our society will not be familiar with him, nor will they be inclined to admit they have done business with him. Damn it, Georgiana, I am decidedly uncomfortable with the notion of you meeting Rhys Tremayne.”

“I assure you, I would never agree to meet such a man alone. This is a business meeting, and we will treat it as such.”

He hesitated. “Swear to me if he is not able to find answers, you will leave this business of finding Jane to time,” he said gruffly.

Georgiana strolled to her brother’s side, stretched up onto her toes, and kissed his cheek gently. “Thank you for being so protective. I promise.” If Mr. Tremayne unearthed no answers, then where else could she turn? She would have to abandon her quest to find out what had happened to Jane.

“Good. He will be here at midnight.”

“Here?”

“Yes. Though I tried to discourage you, I knew it would be in vain. But I had to try. I arranged it so that an invitation came from you to Mr. Tremayne. That will certainly intrigue him.”

Her eyes widened. “An invitation artfully worded?”

“No. Blunt and succinct.” Simon started to pace. “I need to control the meeting, and I’ll not have that man in your home. We’ll retreat inside to the ball, dance but no drinking. We need to keep our wits un-muddled. At midnight, we’ll meet him here in the gardens with dozens of people only a shout away.”

Misgivings stirred in her heart, and Georgiana had the sense that she had just dashed headlong from a steep cliff with only jagged edges below to meet her fall.

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Copyright © 2017 by Stacy Reid. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.

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