Lady Rogue

Royal Rewards book 3
Kensington Zebra (April 24, 2018)
ISBN-10: 1420145436
ISBN-13: 978-1420145434

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HER SECRET SCANDAL

As far as London’s high society knows, Lady Isabel Morrow is above reproach. But the truth is rarely so simple. Though the young widow’s passionate fling with dashing Bow Street Runner Callum Jenks ended amicably months ago, she now needs his expertise. It seems Isabel’s late husband, a respected art dealer, was peddling forgeries. If those misdeeds are revealed, the marriage prospects of his younger cousin— now Isabel’s ward—will be ruined.

For the second time, Isabel has upended Callum’s well-ordered world. He’s resolved to help her secretly replace the forgeries with the real masterpieces, as a . . . friend. A proper sort of friend doesn’t burn with desire, of course, or steal kisses on twilight errands. Or draw a willing lady into one passionate encounter after another. Isabel’s scheme is testing Callum’s heart as well as his loyalties. But with pleasure so intoxicating, the real crime would be to resist …

 

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From Chapter 1

May 1818

London

Perhaps Isabel shouldn’t have asked the butler to show Officer Jenks into the drawing room. That was, after all, the room in which the Bow Street Runner had first met Isabel eighteen months before, as her husband’s gun-shot corpse lay upstairs.

The association was not ideal.

But where else could they meet? The morning room was dreary in late afternoon, and Isabel had never liked the oil painting of Bacchus and his maenads that hung on the wall. So smug, those naked nymphs, with wine pouring over them dark as blood. In all Isabel’s months of widowhood, why had she never taken the irritating thing down?

Because this still felt like Andrew’s house, and because the painting was one of his precious acquisitions; that was why. The late Andrew Morrow, art dealer and bon vivant, had possessed particular ideas about which paintings ought to be displayed, and where, and how.

The more Isabel had learned about those paintings since his death, the less she’d wanted anything to do with them.

Thus her summons of Officer Jenks.

The last of the Tuesday morning callers, who really trailed in throughout the afternoon, had departed a short while before. They’d left behind whispers of floral perfume, faint indentations on the seats of the upholstered fauteuils, and here and there a crumb on the carpet.

Isabel had not lost the habit of seeing a room through Andrew’s critical eye; she wondered if she ever would. With a quick glance at the drawing-room door—still closed—she darted from her seat and picked up all the crumbs on the carpet. There, now it was a plush, perfect expanse of woven flowers again. Crossing to the window, she undid the latch and tossed the crumbs out. Let the remains of Lady Teasdale’s cakes nourish a few blackbirds.

For a moment, she allowed the late spring breeze to tickle her cheeks, then regretfully latched the window again. She had just returned to her chair when Selby tapped at the door to the drawing room, then opened it to announce the arrival of the officer. As soon as Jenks entered the room, the butler departed, leaving Isabel alone with her visitor.

“Officer Jenks.” Isabel rose to her feet.

“Lady Isabel Morrow.” The Runner bowed.

They faced each other in silence, as though they’d never met before. As though Officer Callum Jenks hadn’t investigated a death in this home, and as though he and Isabel hadn’t later had an affair. Or ought one to call a single encounter an affair? Perhaps not. Especially if it happened at Vauxhall Gardens, where such wild intimacies were commonplace.

They were not so for Isabel—not before that time, and never since. But she’d had an excellent reason for wishing to escape on that day.

She tugged her thoughts back to the present. “I hope you did not have to wait long before Selby came to fetch you.”

“You know I did not. I’m seven minutes after the requested time.”

He was so disconcerting, all bluntness when a polite demurral would be more the thing. “That is true,” Isabel replied. “Perhaps you ought to apologize to me.”

“Would you enjoy that?” His dark eyes held humor that never quite traveled to his lips for a smile.

“Ladies always enjoy a bit of prostration. Would it make you feel worse to apologize? If not, you might as well.”

He swept her a ridiculously deep bow. “My apologies, Lady Isabel. I was detained at a mock auction.”

“A mock—what?”

“A common enough cheat, though they’re usually held in the evening. Daylight’s no friend to the cheap items put up for sale, bid up by shills at the expense of honest buyers.”

“And what did you have to do?”

“Stuff the auctioneers into hackney coaches and send them before the magistrate.” He spoke the words as blandly as another man might observe that water was, of course, wet.

“In that case, I must wonder at your arrival only seven minutes late. But please, never mind the time, Officer Jenks.” She sank back into her seat. “Shall I ring for tea?”

Did one give tea to an officer of the law? Etiquette training never included such situations. Probably the proper etiquette was not to be involved with an officer of the law at all.

“Lady Isabel.” He drew a chair from the opposite end of the room to sit directly facing her. “I’d like to know why you summoned me.”

He looked large and rough in the delicate antique chair, with its white-painted wood and decorative carving. Like Isabel, he was neither tall nor short. But where Isabel dressed carefully in the latest fashions, Callum Jenks was everything frank and stark.

Today he wore a plain dark coat and waistcoat; buff breeches and boots nearly black; a cravat simply tied. A gentleman, or a tradesman? One could not tell. Beside him, Isabel felt thoroughly impractical. She wore a demure half-mourning gown of gray muslin spotted in black, with long sleeves and a small ruffle about the wrists. Her dark brown hair was dressed in a style straight from a lady’s magazine. The overall effect was elegant and decorative, although not comfortable in the least.

She fought the urge to squirm on her seat. The fact was, the reason she had summoned him was far more uncomfortable even than her gown. She would have to introduce the subject carefully.

“I asked you here,” she said, “because it is more private than calling on you at the Bow Street court. You see, I want to hire you for a case in a personal capacity.”

He regarded her for a long moment. Then his gaze wandered upward, as if piercing through the ceiling to the chamber in which he’d begun his previous investigation.

“This particular case does not involve death in any way,” Isabel added.

“That is generally to be preferred.” When he looked at her again, she could not help but smile. Jenks had a way of holding his mouth when he finished speaking—as if he had more to say, but had halted himself on the brink of an injudicious statement. Once, only once, Isabel had got him to admit exactly what was on his mind.

“I had better show you the letters first,” she decided, standing. Jenks rose to his feet at once, mannerly as any marquess.

There were not many places to hide something in the spring-sunny drawing room, which boasted high ceilings, tall windows, and a scatter of Andrew’s beloved elegant furniture over a large antique carpet. A chair here, a small table there for games; a harp no one ever played and a pianoforte Isabel sometimes did.

To the pianoforte she crossed. From atop its lid, she removed a branched candelabra, a few artfully arranged novels, and a tidy pile of sheet music. Pushing the instrument’s lid up, she retrieved a packet that had been gummed to the underside of the lid.

“Allow me, Lady Isabel.” Silently, Jenks had come to stand beside her. He lifted the heavy lid from her hand, then lowered it carefully into place again. With great precision, he replaced the items atop it.

“You are observant,” Isabel said. “If those are an inch from their original positions, I will eat every one of those tapers in the candelabra.”

With a forefinger, he shoved the stack of novels over six inches, then darted his eyes sideways at Isabel.

“Obvious flummery,” she said. “No candle-eating.”

“Pity. I’d have liked to see such a trick.” Facing her, he did that not-a-smile thing again with his lips. “Am I to see those papers?”

“Please. Yes.” She handed them over, then stood beside him as he scrutinized the packet on all sides before working a fingertip under the wax seal. He smelled of starch and coal smoke, the scents of clean clothing and the London air.

She watched as he reviewed the papers in the packet. They were few and not long, yet he looked over them for minutes that seemed endless.

“What do you think of the letters?” she pressed. “I was tearing my hair out before I’d spent half as much time reading them.”

He turned over a page, then held it up to the window-light and squinted at the paper. “You have hair enough left to pass in society. I wouldn’t worry.”

“But about the letters?”

“Those, you can worry about if you wish to.” He returned the letter to the small stack, then shuffled through them. “So. Your husband, and then you, were repeatedly contacted by a man named Butler who required payment for services rendered.”

“It was unexpected. I thought it was blackmail at first. Though for what”—her voice caught—“I couldn’t say.” How could Butler have known? How could anyone know what a couple did—or didn’t do—behind the door of a bedchamber?

“Couldn’t you?” His tone was flat.

“No. I couldn’t say,” she replied firmly, “and rightly so, because it was not blackmail at all. I believe the letters are exactly what they seem. This man worked for my husband, and with Morrow’s sudden death, he wasn’t paid for all his work.”

“Why not simply pay him, then?”

“I did.” As if Lady Isabel Morrow would ever fail to do what was expected. “The payment wasn’t the problem. It was the work that concerned me.”

“I gather from the letters’ vague wording that the employment was of dubious legality.”

“It was, and it wasn’t. That is, there wasn’t anything wrong with the work itself, but with what Morrow did with it.”

Jenks stared at her, waiting out her silence. Though he was so inscrutable, she had the feeling he was displeased with her answer. His jawline was hard and stubborn; his hair and eyes battled to be the darker brown.

“If you wouldn’t glare at me,” Isabel said, “I could explain better.”

One of his brows arched. “This is the only face I have. I apologize if you don’t like it.”

“I didn’t say that.” Lovely. Her cheeks were warm. “Look, let us sit down.” As they resumed their seats, she went on. “You know that Andrew—Mr. Morrow—dealt in art. Collecting it on the Continent, selling it at high prices to aristocrats and the newly wealthy.”

“Yes. I recall from my previous investigation.”

The one involving Andrew’s death, he meant. She took a deep breath, her stays tight about her ribs. “The problem is that Morrow didn’t always give his clients the art they paid for. He gave them nearly identical art created by Butler.”

Jenks understood at once. “So they were in the business of forgeries.”

“Yes.” Strange that Andrew’s trespasses felt like Isabel’s own, even a year and a half after he’d left her a widow. “I did not know it at the time. Remarkably naïve of me, I suppose.”

“Not necessarily. Fraud isn’t the sort of thing a man brags about to his wife.”

Sometimes Jenks’s terseness was comforting.

“So,” he added, “the late Mr. Morrow cheated his clients. And this man Butler was party to it?”

“I am certain of the first part. Not of Butler’s role. But his letters raised questions, and I couldn’t rest until I found the answers. Figuratively, that is.” Although she hadn’t rested well for quite some time. It was rather hard on one’s conscience to realize how many lies one had lived with.

“These letters are months old,” said Jenks. “Since you’ve arranged matters with Butler and found the answers you sought, you have no need of my assistance.”

“But I do.” She lifted her chin. “I am the one fully acquainted with the details of the case, so I am the best judge of what I need.”

“I’ve never thought you couldn’t judge what you needed, Lady Isabel.” He held her gaze for a beat too long. Her lips parted; slowly, her whole body flooded with heat. She remembered a warm evening the previous May, a hidden grotto in Vauxhall Gardens. His hands on her breasts, his lips on her throat, and a driving, hot pleasure that left them both breathless.

His kisses had been delectable. Slow and sweet, hard and pushing. She could not quite believe now, in this sedate room, what they had done together.

She looked down at her hands, which were knotted in her lap. Tightly folded hands; proper widow hands.

The Lady Isabel Morrow the world knew was courteous. Calm. Gracious. She didn’t take up more space than she absolutely had to. Only Jenks had seen her otherwise: in the fragile moments right after Andrew’s death; then months later, in the blissful abandon of that night at Vauxhall.

She had missed being that honest. That unguarded. But it had been only an aberration in her carefully ordered life.

Before she could reply, a footman entered the drawing room with the tea things. Though Isabel had not rung for tea, Selby would never overlook a courtesy. On the heels of the servant trotted a beagle that wound busily around everything from tea table to chair legs before sniffing Jenks’s boots.

“You have acquired a watchdog,” Jenks observed as the tray was set down.

“This is Brinley,” said Isabel, “and he is no kind of a watchdog. He barks at everything but likes everyone. So he is as likely to wake the house for an inhabitant as for an intruder, and as apt to fawn over an errand boy as he is over me.”

Proving the truth of her words, Brinley tipped his head back and gave a squeaky, drawn-out halloo. He was a sturdy little beagle with a dark brown body and ever-wagging tail. His long chestnut ears were constantly pricked, giving him a curious air.

Jenks scratched at the dog’s head, earning himself Brinley’s lolling tongue and a tail that beat his boot as rhythmically as a drum.

Once the tea things were arranged, the servant bowed. Andrew had always liked the household to be formal, down to the employment of liveried footmen for every little task. “I apologize for the intrusion of the dog, my lady,” said the man. “I’ll take him out now.”

“Thank you, Douglas,” she said. “See him brought to Miss Wallace.”

As the footman seized the beagle by his leather collar, Brinley regarded Isabel with mournful accusation. You’re sending me away? Me, the finest watchdog in England?

“Silly pup.” Isabel plucked up a biscuit from the tray of delicacies and tossed it toward the dog, who caught it from the air with a snap of his jaws. Then, submitting to being tugged from the drawing room, he let out another arooo by way of farewell.

Jenks followed them through the doorway with his eyes. When the door closed, he turned back to Isabel. “Nice little fellow.”

“He is, yes. He was the runt from a litter of my brother’s hunting dogs. Lord Martindale offered him to me rather than having him drowned.”

“A fortunate little fellow too, then.”

“Fortunate I,” replied Isabel. “There were days after Morrow’s death when Brinley was almost the only companion I had. So many people don’t know what to say to a widow, and so they write vague letters full of platitudes and keep their distance.” Even now, she had far fewer callers than before Andrew’s death.

Perhaps the distance had been for the best, though. Isabel had been shocked to be widowed, but not truly sorry. One couldn’t allow even a hint of such disloyalty to get about.

Which brought her back to the reason she’d sent for Jenks today. “Please forgive the interruption, Officer. You asked, I recall, why I summoned you if I had already found answers. You see . . . I need your help with something that’s not precisely legal. But it’s right, all the same.”

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