USA Today bestselling author, Carole Mortimer introduces London’s most delectable dukes. But don’t be fooled by their charm, because beneath their lazy smiles, they’re deliciously sexy – and highly dangerous!
Zachary Black: Duke of Debauchery
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 bed chamber and find out what she wants! But coming face-to-face with beautiful Lady Georgianna Lancaster – his former fiancee – unnerves 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!
Darian Hunter: Duke of Desire
Darian Hunter, Duke of Wolfingham: legendary rake and notorious bachelor and Mariah Beecham, Countess of Carlisle: society’s scandalous widow and secret agent of the crown are forced to work together to stop an assassination plot. But posing as lovers at a notoriously debauched house party, the romantic ruse becomes all too real with the shocking and oh-so-sensual games playing out around them. And the tantalising temptation to indulge their every desire becomes overwhelming…
Late February, 1815, outside White’s Club, London.
‘What the—?’ Zachary Black, the Duke of Hawksmere, 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 forgotten—chosen 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 women—most especially one who feels it necessary to lie her way into my presence—let 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 intimates—the 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, Georgianna 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 naïve 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?
Zachary now found himself curious to know the answer to all of those questions. To see this young woman, if only so that he could look upon her face and judge for himself as to whether she spoke truthfully or otherwise. These last four years of working secretly for the Crown had shown him only too well not to trust anyone but his closest friends. How easily this could be an elaborate trap, a way of piquing his interest, before this mystery woman proceeded to feed the English government false information.
And his interest was most assuredly piqued.
To the extent that he no longer felt the least effect from the wine and brandy he had enjoyed with his friends earlier on.
So much so that he had no intentions of allowing this young woman to leave his carriage without first ascertaining exactly who she was and how she came to know things about him she should not have known.
He glanced out of the window to see that dawn was just starting to break over London’s rooftops.
‘Then might I suggest…’ he turned back to the young woman, just able to discern the pale oval of her face beneath that veil now ‘…as we will reach my home in just a few minutes, that now might be as good a time as any for you to confide at least a little of that information?’
Her hands twisted together beneath that veil. ‘I— It concerns the movements of a…a notable personage, currently residing on an island in the Mediterranean.’
It took every ounce of Zachary’s considerable self-control not to react to this statement. Not to show, by so much as the twitch of an eyelid, that her information might be of interest him.
Who in hell was this woman?
And what exactly did she know?
He turned once again to look out of the window, as if bored by the conversation. ‘As far as I am aware I do not have any acquaintances currently residing on a Mediterranean island.’
‘I did not say he was a personal acquaintance of yours—’
‘Then I cannot see what possible interest any of this can be to me,’ Zachary cut her off harshly; even mentioning that the noble personage in question was a he could be dangerous.
Having chosen his servants himself, Zachary trusted them implicitly. But that did not mean he wished to test that trust by allowing any of them to overhear the details of his conversation with this woman and her implication that he was an agent for the Crown.
A young woman whose eyes now glittered across the width of the carriage at him from beneath that veil. Dark eyes. Brown or possibly a deep blue, he could not tell.
‘I assure you, it will be of great interest to…’
‘You have run out of time, I am afraid.’ Zachary returned her gaze coldly as the carriage came to a stop outside Hawksmere House. ‘Perhaps you would care to come inside and finish the conversation there?’
Said the spider to the fly, Georgianna mentally added as she gave another shiver of apprehension. Being alone in this man’s carriage with him had been more than a test for her nerves. Entering Zachary Black’s home with him would push her well beyond her limits of daring.
Although many might think otherwise, she acknowledged heavily, knowing her reputation was beyond repair as far as society was concerned. And most assuredly so in Hawksmere’s cold and condemning gaze.
What would he say or do if he were to learn exactly who she was? Would he shun her, as all of society now shunned her? Or would he exact the revenge she had long been waiting for? That Sword of Damocles which she had felt balanced above her head for so many months now.
Zachary Black, with his reputation as the coldly ruthless Duke of Hawksmere, was not an enemy any sane person would voluntarily wish upon themselves.
And yet Georgianna had done so.
And done so willingly at the time, in the belief that she had no other choice in the matter. It had only been in the months since that she’d had time to reflect, as well as deeply regret, her previous actions. To appreciate exactly what manner of man it was she had chosen to make her mortal enemy.
After just a few minutes spent in the company of Hawksmere, and being made totally aware of the dangerous edge beneath his smooth urbanity, was enough to confirm that he was the type of man who would never forget a slight or an insult.
And Georgianna had insulted him most grievously.
‘I think not, thank you,’ she now answered him coolly.
‘I really wish you had answered differently.’
Georgianna was not fooled for a moment into thinking that Hawksmere’s words of regret were because he was still under the misapprehension she was a lady of the night and he wished to bed her. His tone had been too unemotional, too calmly conversational, for that to be true.
She pressed back against the shadows of the carriage as the groom opened the door and the duke rose to his feet before stepping down on to the cobbled road, placing his hat upon his head before turning to hold out a hand to her.
‘Our conversation is far from over,’ he murmured pointedly as she made no attempt to take that hand.
‘If you will just agree to speak to—speak on my behalf, your Grace,’ she corrected as he frowned darkly, ‘then I will return in a day or so for your answer. For now I choose to wait here a few minutes longer, before quietly leaving. I believe it preferable if we were not seen leaving the Hawksmere ducal carriage together.’
He raised one dark and mocking brow as he turned from dismissing the listening groom. ‘Are you perhaps under the misapprehension that your preferences are of any interest to me?’
‘On the contrary, I am sure they are not.’ Georgianna continued to press back into the shadows. ‘I was thinking of your own reputation rather than my own.’
Hawksmere gave a humourless smile. ‘I am informed by my closest friends that my reputation is that of a gambler and an irredeemable rake.’
And Georgianna now believed that to be a reputation this man had deliberately fostered, as a way of diverting attention from the fact that he worked secretly as a spy for the Crown.
Oh, he was also undoubtedly both a gambler and a womaniser. He had more than enough funds to accommodate a liking for the former and both the arrogance and dangerous attraction to ensure he could satisfy the latter. He could surely have any woman who might come to the attention of those piercing silver eyes.
Well, almost any woman, Georgianna reminded herself, knowing that one woman, at least, had escaped the attentions of both that silver gaze and the man himself.
‘No doubt you are,’ she conceded softly. ‘I would nevertheless still prefer to remain in the carriage until you are safely inside the house.’
Zachary was not a man known for his patience. Or his forbearance. Or, indeed, any of those admirable qualities that made certain gentlemen of the ton so acceptable to both the young débutantes and their marriage-minded mamas. The opposite, in fact; he and his four closest friends had earned the sobriquet The Dangerous Dukes amongst the ton this past ten years or more, and one of the reasons for that had been because they were none of them amiable or obliging. Or in the least interested in marrying any of those irritatingly twittering young women who appeared year after boring year on the marriage mart.
Zachary’s brief flirtation with the idea of marriage had been out of necessity rather than inclination, his father’s will demanding that he be married and have an heir by the time he reached the age of thirty-five, or forfeit the bulk of the Hawksmere fortune. The scandalous end to that betrothal meant that Zachary had delayed repeating the experience as yet. Although, now aged two and thirty, he appreciated that his time was assuredly running out, and he would soon be forced to once again take his pick of the Season’s beauties.
Worthing was to marry later on today, of course, but as he was to marry the younger sister of another of The Dangerous Dukes, it did not signify; the beautiful Julianna Armitage was neither twittering nor irritating.
So far in their acquaintance, Zachary had not found the earnest young woman behind the black veil to be either of those things either, though.
‘You consider I am in some danger, then?’ he enquired mildly. ‘From yourself, perhaps?’
‘Certainly not,’ she gasped. ‘I assure you, I did not come here to cause you any more harm—’ She broke off abruptly even as she seemed to cringe even further back against the carriage seat.
‘More harm?’ Zachary’s eyes narrowed even as he leant forward until his shoulders filled the doorway of the carriage, his gaze searching on that veiled figure. ‘Who are you?’ he prompted harshly.
‘I am no one, your Grace.’
‘On the contrary, you are most certainly someone.’ He reached into the ever-lightening gloom of the carriage to grasp one of her arms before pulling her along the seat towards him. A soft and slender arm that answered at least one of his earlier questions; the young woman beneath the veil was slender, very much so.
‘Let me go.’ She struggled against his hold, her gloved hand moving up in an effort to try to prise his fingers from about her arm. ‘You must release me, your Grace.’ There was now a distressed sob in her voice as her attempts failed to secure her release.
‘I think not,’ Zachary said slowly.
It had never been his intention to just allow this young woman to leave. Not since she had mentioned having information on Bonaparte, not by name but by implication.
Besides which, his curiosity to know more about this woman had only deepened with her comment about inflicting more harm.
The implication surely being that she had caused him some personal harm in the past?
If that was the case, then Zachary intended to know exactly who she was and in what way she might have caused him harm.
To that end he leant inside the carriage and pulled her easily towards him, until she fell forward across his shoulder despite her struggles.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I should have thought that was obvious.’ Zachary backed out of the carriage before straightening to heft his feather-light burden more comfortably on to his shoulder, his arm tight about the backs of the young woman’s thighs. He shot the curiously observing Lamb a grimly satisfied grin as he stood beside the horses’ heads, holding the reins to keep them steady. ‘The lady has expressed a fancy to pretend she is being kidnapped by a lusty pirate and carried off to his lair.’
Georgianna gave an indignant squeak at the deliberate and mortifying fabrication, before turning appealingly to the stoic-faced groom. ‘Do not believe a word of it,’ she pleaded desperately, the blood having rushed to her head and now causing her to feel slightly dizzy. ‘I am certainly being kidnapped, but not by any lusty pirate.’
‘Quiet, wench.’ The Duke of Hawksmere gave her a hearty slap on her backside to accompany the piratical instruction. ‘Wish me luck with my plundering, Lamb,’ he added drily, ‘for I am certain I shall need it.’
‘Not you, your Grace.’ The groom grinned his enjoyment of the entertainment. ‘Women are much like feisty mares and I’ve never known of one of ’em as you couldn’t tame to the bridle.’
Georgianna’s cheeks were aflame with colour, her light-headedness giving the whole situation a dreamlike quality. One in which she felt like the spectator at a theatre farce.
What other explanation could there possibly be for the way she now dangled over one of the wide and muscled shoulders of Zachary Black, the dangerous Duke of Hawksmere?
To now be jostled and bounced as he carried her up the steps of his town house, through the open doorway, before taking the three-pronged and lit candelabrum from the surprised and haughty-faced butler into his other hand?
The duke continued on through the entrance hall before taking the steps two at a time as he carried Georgianna easily up the wide staircase to the bedchambers above.