Royal Rewards book 4
Kensington Zebra (February 26, 2019)
Reviews • About the Book • Excerpt
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Who knew love would be her secret weapon?
Cassandra Benton has always survived by her wits and wiles, even working for Bow Street alongside her twin brother. When injury takes him out of commission, Cass must support the family by taking on an intriguing new case: George, Lord Northbrook, believes someone is plotting to kill his father, the Duke of Ardmore. Decades before, the duke was one of ten who formed a wager that would grant a fortune to the last survivor. But someone can’t wait for nature to take its course—and George hopes a seasoned investigator like Cass can find out who.
Cass relishes the chance to spy on the ton, shrewdly disguised as handsome Lord Northbrook’s notorious “cousin.” What she doesn’t expect is her irresistible attraction to her dashing employer, and days of investigation soon turn to passionate nights. But with a killer closing in and her charade as a lady of the ton in danger of collapsing at any moment, Cass has no choice but to put her life—and her heart—in the hands of the last man she ought to trust . . .
Story elements: Hidden identity, partners, Bow Street Runner, class difference
Depictions of and references to opiate addiction
“Effervesces with romance…Moving and complex characters highlight this novel, which is enhanced by mystery and complicated by period class distinctions that make a match between Cass and George seem impossible. Regency fans will enjoy this stirring adventure.”
“Superbly written romance … it successfully delivers well-developed, refreshingly different characters; an inventive plot richly imbued with danger and desire; and plenty of bold sensuality.”
“Romain deftly weaves together the romance and mystery plots in this pleasing, enjoyable novel. … A refreshing historical romance featuring a partnership between equals.”
“Lady Notorious has made me a big fan of Romain’s storytelling, and I cannot wait to dive into her backlist.”
“A delightful, enthusiastic jaunt through Regency-era London. … Romain often writes about characters that aren’t nobility, which is refreshing in historical romance, and Lady Notorious is doubly refreshing with its stalwart, investigative heroine.”
About the Book
- As I originally pitched it to my editor, Lady Notorious was inspired by the romantic heist movie To Catch a Thief–just as its precursor in the series, Lady Rogue, was inspired by How to Steal a Million. That’s not how it ended up, though! Lady Notorious took its own twists and turns as I wrote it, and it doesn’t bear much resemblance to Hitchcock’s film anymore.
- A murder mystery centered on a tontine seemed like a natural plot, since winning a tontine depends on everyone else dying. You’ll find other tontines in the movie and book The Wrong Box, in Something Fishy by P. G. Wodehouse (in this case, marriage rather than death eliminated members), and even an episode of The Simpsons (“Raging Abe Simpson and His Grumbling Grandson in ‘The Curse of the Flying Hellfish’ ”).
- In the initial pitch to my editor (before I wrote either Lady Rogue or Lady Notorious), Charles was killed before the events of Lady Notorious while investigating a case. But he was too much fun in Lady Rogue, so not only did I not kill him off in the next book, I gave him his own secondary romance.
- George’s experiments in photography—not that he calls it that!—led me to research early photographic methods. There’s quite a bit of chemistry involved in getting an image to imprint on paper. Some of my favorite tidbits were the striking blue paper images of the cyanotype method, which was invented too late to appear in the book, and the reaction of silver iodide and cold water, which does appear in one scene.
- For the visual inspiration behind characters, objects, and settings in Lady Notorious, check out the book’s Pinterest board.
On night watch, this was the hour when anything seemed possible but nothing seemed likely to happen.
The longcase clock in the study had just struck one in the morning. Cassandra Benton heard it through the closed door, mere feet away from where she hid in the shadows beside the main staircase of Deverell Place.
This watch was a nightly ritual, one she’d adopted along with the guise of housemaid when she’d been hired a week ago under false pretenses. What with keeping up the daily duties of a maid and shadowing Lord Deverell each night until he went up to bed, she’d hardly slept since then.
Ah, well. One couldn’t expect infiltrating a Mayfair household to be effortless.
One could, however, wish something would happen to break up three to four hours staring at a shut door. Her twin brother, Charles, always got the more interesting parts of a job. Placed as a footman due to his height, he could move around anywhere in the house. Their employer had asked Charles to keep an eye on the safety of the ladies of the family: his lordship’s two half-grown daughters, plus her ladyship. In theory, this meant dignified vigilance.
In practice, Cass kept up the dignified vigilance in her maid’s garb, and Charles disappeared for long afternoons alone with pretty Lady Deverell, the earl’s much younger second wife.
She’d no idea where her fool of a brother was now, but finally, her own nighttime vigils had begun to yield results. The most interesting had been two nights before, when Lord Deverell, wearing worry like a mask on his dissipated features, had welcomed an associate to drink with him at midnight. Cass hadn’t recognized the caller, but from her hiding spot, she’d memorized his features before the two men closed themselves into the study. She’d risked listening at the door after that, catching only one word out of every few. But she had caught the hush, the worry, the change in mood as they’d mentioned the special term: tontine.
That was why Cass was here, and Charles, too. George, Lord Northbrook—son and heir of the Duke of Ardmore—had hired the Bentons privately to learn more about this tontine, a wager placed decades before. And to make certain nobody died as a result of it.
Privately, Cass thought it was likely to be no more dangerous than any of the wagers noblemen were constantly placing. But for the exorbitant fee of five pounds a week, she’d hold her tongue and keep her eyes and ears open for Lord Northbrook.
So far tonight, the darkness pressed heavy, and the silence in the house was a weight. There was nothing to see but the faint outline of the study door, traced by the light of the candles within, and the great snaking spiral of the staircase stretching up overhead. Nothing much to hear, either, save for the crystalline clink she knew to be decanter against glass, decanter against glass. The earl liked his spirits strong and plentiful. Though for a while now, there had been no sound at all. Perhaps his lordship had gone to sleep, the lucky old dog.
She shifted against the wall, easing creaks and pops out of her spine. Being a housemaid wasn’t a good cover identity. It was far more labor than investigating, and she didn’t even perform the work all that well. If she did, her nose wouldn’t be tickled with dust right now. But who had time to wipe down every baluster and newel post and bit of trim on the handrail—especially when there was an earl who needed to be observed?
She settled more deeply into the shadows, pinching at her nose to hold back a sneeze.
Then the screaming began.
Cass tipped her head. “That’s odd,” she murmured.
Screaming at one o’clock in the morning was always odd, but in this case, it was particularly so. The screaming was not coming from the study in which his lordship had sequestered himself, unaware of possible threats to his life. It was coming from upstairs.
And it was hardly the slurred baritone of a drunken lord faced with a pistol or stiletto. This scream was that of a woman, probably Lady Deverell from the timbre of it.
As Cass strained to hear, the scream changed from wordless panic into a call for help. He’s fallen, it sounded like the voice was shrieking. He’s fallen!
Oh. That meant the scream wasn’t odd at all. Cass blew out a breath, relaxing back against the wall.
All that had happened was that Charles had fallen out the window. Again.
She was certain of this not because of a miraculous connection between the minds of twins, but because of past experience. Her brother, sometime Bow Street Runner and incorrigible flirt, was notorious for conducting affairs in an impractical way. He fancied himself a Robin Hood, or Romeo, or some other disastrous creature starting with an R who pursued women he ought not and climbed about on the outside of buildings. Charles found it romantic—another disastrous R—to climb up and down ivy or trellises when conducting an assignation, instead of using stairs like a normal adulterer.
Lady Deverell’s calls for help hadn’t yet shut off, which meant that not only had Charles fallen and startled her, but he had probably hurt himself when he fell.
By now footsteps were thumping as the servants were roused and ventured forth from their attic or basement rooms. A door opened at a distance, spilling anxious voices out, and then slammed shut again. The household jerked awake in startled fits.
Cass sidled along the wall, looking up into the dim nighttime heights of the first-floor landing, then back at the still-shut study door. His lordship was foxed, as usual; too foxed to respond to the panicked cries of his wife. This was good, since he wouldn’t call Charles out in a duel. Though if a threat on Lord Deverell’s life materialized, as Northbrook seemed certain it would, the old fellow wouldn’t be able to do much about it except offer brandy to his would-be killer.
Another step sideways as Cass craned her neck to look up the sweeping staircase. Who was passing on the floor above? Was that the butler running toward her ladyship? If she could just get to a better vantage point—
With her next step, she smacked into a person, tall and unyielding.
An intruder! Reflex took over. She pressed her lips together, cutting off a scream, and drove her fist forward hard.
A muffled curse. “Cass,” came a whisper. “It’s me. George. Northbrook.”
Lord Northbrook. She drew back, squinting, as if that would help lighten the shadows. Why had no one lit candles, if they insisted on thundering about the house at night?
“Sorry about that,” she apologized. “You caught me by surprise.” Her hands were unsteady, and she hid her fists behind her back.
She ought to have expected the presence of the young marquess. Every night near this time, he tried to meet her at this spot beside the stairs so she could share what she’d learned. She always unlocked the front door for him when she took up her post, then secured it again before she went off to bed. It was a process that left her vulnerable, but she carried a pistol and was, as her employer had just learned, effective with her fists.
“I let myself in when I heard screaming,” he replied. “After a crash.”
“You heard it from outside?”
“The crash was outside. The screams I heard through an open window.”
Cass smothered a sigh. “I believe the window is Lady Deverell’s, and the crash was my brother, Charles.”
“Charles himself. His person.”
“What? Was he climbing to her ladyship’s window? But why?”
Cass waited a moment while Northbrook’s realization sank in.
“Oh. He—oh. Well done, Charles,” murmured the lord.
The study door remained stubbornly shut, but candlelight now spilled down the stairs along with a clamor of voices. Backlit though Northbrook was by the dim light, Cass could pick out his familiar form. Like her, he was dressed in black, and his face was all hollows and shadows and grim planes. He was scented of citrus, another characteristic she ought to have recognized at once. Whether it was his soap or whether he was uncommonly fond of oranges, she’d no idea. But it was not unpleasant.
Footsteps sounded on the main staircase—close and coming closer. Quicker than thought, Cass grabbed the front of Northbrook’s shirt and yanked him into the corner where the staircase met the back of the entrance hall.
Pressed beside her, he whispered into her ear, “How forceful you are, Miss Benton. If you wanted to catch me alone in the dark, you had only to say so.”
She hissed back, “Next time I’ll be more direct. I’ll bash you on the head and drag you off to my lair.” Then she covered his mouth with her palm. Double hell! Her hands were bare. Why hadn’t she covered her hair and worn gloves? In this darkness, a redhead with pale skin might as well be carrying a lantern about.
Blessed relief; the footsteps halted. “No, he’s still in the study,” said a woman. “I can see the door. He hasn’t even opened it.” Cass recognized the voice of the housekeeper, Mrs. Chutley. The elderly woman’s knees pained her, and she wheezed slightly when she took stairs.
An indistinct reply followed in a male voice.
“You ought to go on back to bed, Jackson,” answered the housekeeper. “He won’t need you tonight. Time enough in the morning to tell him—whatever her ladyship wants to tell him.”
Mrs. Chutley chuckled, and the man to whom she’d spoken—Lord Deverell’s valet—laughed as well. The panic was over, the servants now more annoyed at broken sleep than worried about their mistress. Charles, Cass guessed, was not Lady Deverell’s first lover.
A week ago, Cass would have thought it strange that the servants saw to their master using the main stairs instead of the back staircase, which had a door letting directly into the study. Now she knew that the earl’s study was sacrosanct. When the door was shut, no one was to enter or even speak to him, on pain of dismissal.
As the housekeeper retreated up the stairs, grunting at the effort of each step, a hot tongue stroked the center of Cass’s palm. Northbrook. She hissed and drew her hand back, wiping it on her skirts. “My lord! I haven’t washed that hand since I cleaned the grates.”
Northbrook clapped a hand over his own mouth, gagging.
“Only kidding,” Cass whispered back. “I didn’t clean the grates today.” She really was a terrible housemaid. “But don’t do things like that. I’m trying to keep you quiet, and you’ll be no help to either of us if you start licking me.”
He smothered a laugh.
“See? You’re no help at all.” Her palm felt strange, though she’d wiped it. Northbrook had put his tongue to it, hot and sudden, and now it didn’t feel like her own hand anymore.
The marquess was silent then, seeming to catch the urgency in her whispers, and held still at her side. She counted the moments off, her back tense against the wall, and waited for whatever would come next. Someone else passing on the stairs? Lord Deverell bursting forth from the study? Charles limping in through the front door, apologizing for causing such a rumpus?
None of those things happened. The candlelight spilling down the stairs was snuffed, the voices dimmed. All that remained was a gold-outlined study door, with silence behind.
No one was going to check on Charles? It seemed not. And no one was going to check on Lord Deverell, either. That closed door was a powerful barrier to his staff.
Cass counted off another minute, each second tediously long, then blew out a breath and relaxed her posture.
“Crisis averted?” Northbrook murmured.
“Hardly,” she replied in a low tone. “In fact, there are three crises. A damsel in distress is upstairs, a possibly injured sapskull is outside, and an intoxicated lord who may well be unconscious is in the study. Which would you like to address?”
“You do lead a most exciting life. Rather than account for my presence here, I’ll go after your brother.” For a tonnish heir, Northbrook was not short of understanding. Injured sapskull, he perceived at once, could only be Charles.
“Thank you.” Cass bit her lip, looking at the study door. “I should stay here. But it’d seem wrong if I didn’t see to her ladyship, wouldn’t it?”
“Not at all. Let her lady’s maid comfort her. We just heard other servants planning to return to bed; you ought to stay here in case the uproar was all a diversion.”
“Caused by Charles? Nonsense. He’s part of the investigation.” Offering protection to the ladies of the household. Practicing dignified vigilance. Ha.
“The distraction could have been caused by her ladyship,” Northbrook pointed out. “A lot of money is at stake in the tontine.”
This tontine—what a dreadful affair it sounded. Northbrook had explained it to Cass and Charles when he’d hired them privately the previous week. Part an investment scheme, part a wager, it had been organized forty years before when ten younger sons of the aristocracy had each contributed an equal amount to a certain fund. The interest and principal were left to grow together over the years, untouched, as time reaped the lives of the contributors. When only one survivor of the investment group remained, he would receive the full amount of the fortune.
“A peculiar bet for friends to make,” Cass had observed, “since it encourages them to pray for each other’s demise.”
“Who said they were friends?” Northbrook had replied. “And they arranged to stay in the tontine even if they inherited a title. So these men could also pray for the demise of an elder sibling or other relative in the line of succession.”
Not much better.
The conversation had been held in a sky-bright drawing room in Ardmore House, the Duke of Ardmore’s London residence. The space was as dainty and pale as a fancy pastry, yet a sense of dread had crept over Cass despite the sunlight and elegance. It was a feeling, honed by experience working alongside Charles for Bow Street, that something was not as it ought to be.
Charles didn’t seem to feel the same, for he had asked, “What’s the problem, then, after forty years?”
“The problem,” Northbrook had replied, looking very tired and rather pale under his shock of black hair, “is that in the first thirty-nine years, only two men died. Their deaths were clearly natural. But in the last year alone, three more of the investors have passed away under mysterious circumstances. I would prefer my father not be next.”
Death in men of about sixty years of age was nothing to be surprised about. But the supposedly accidental drowning, shooting, and poisoning his lordship described were, perhaps, out of the realm of both chance and coincidence.
“Would you really prefer his safety?” Cass had asked. “Surely you want to inherit your father’s dukedom.” No sense in avoiding relevant questions.
“What a horrible thing to say.” Northbrook had studied her, then tipped his head. “Yet it’s good that you said it. Someone’s got to ask that sort of question. And the answer is no, I’m not keen to inherit just yet. Not if it means my father’s life is cut short. He’s an indifferent father and little better as a duke, but if he dies, he won’t have the chance to correct any of that. And I dearly hope he will.”
“Hope is nothing to live for,” Charles pointed out.
“Fine. Then it’s for my own sake. I’m ill-prepared for the responsibility just yet. May my father live to a great old age so I can squander a few more decades in debauchery and play.”
Cass had looked at him cautiously. He was handsome, this bright-eyed, black-haired man, and dressed in the height of fashion. He looked much like every other good-looking and careless pink of the ton she’d ever seen. “I can’t tell if you’re joking.”
“I’m always joking a little bit but serious underneath. Once you know that, you can see to my very soul and understand me utterly. It’s a great curse.”
He said this, of course, as if he were joking, but his blue eyes were deep and worried. She had smiled then, almost.
Yet Northbrook had hired the Bentons to watch not over his father, but Lord Deverell. She pointed this out delicately. After all, he needn’t have hired Cass and Charles at all. Unless their hiring was an attempt to divert suspicion from him? Unless…unless…
Being an investigator was a devil of a job. It was so difficult to shut off the suspicions and questions.
In this case, Northbrook’s answer was simple. “I will watch over my father as best I can,” said the marquess. “Living in the same household, I’m well placed to do so. I ask you to watch over Deverell because he is my godfather. I have fond feelings for him and should not like harm to come to him.”
That made sense. Cass could accept it. And for five pounds a week, she’d watch a chamber pot if she had to, and she’d stifle the question that kept coming to mind: Just how much did the heir truly want his father saved?
She had wondered that throughout the past week; she had also wondered whether the whole story of the tontine was a fabrication. Only when she overheard Lord Deverell discussing it did she relax—slightly—and trust Northbrook’s word—cautiously.
But at this moment, with Charles outside and Lord Deverell silently sequestered, Northbrook wasn’t being logical. As Cass pointed out to her blue-blooded employer, whispering in the return of nighttime quiet outside the study, “Lady Deverell wouldn’t cause a distraction to allow her husband to be harmed. She will not benefit from the tontine if Lord Deverell is killed.”
Northbrook was only deterred for a second. “Unless she’s formed an alliance with some other interested party. We already know she is willing to form an, ahem, alliance with your brother.”
Damn. He made a decent point. He even used the magic word unless. “You think like one of us,” Cass granted.
“I will take the compliment with admirable grace.”
She wasn’t sure if it was a compliment at all, but she let that pass. “I’ll keep to my post. Thank you for seeing to my brother.”
“Of course.” When Northbrook stepped forward, the light about the study door traced the determined line of his jaw. He hesitated, looking down at Cass. One hand lifted, stroking Cass’s cheek with a touch that was surprisingly tender. “Thank you for seeing to my godfather.”
Her skin prickled; her lips parted—but before she could speak, he slipped back out the way he’d come.
And the interlude was over. The watch upon the study door resumed. Now, due to the fracas upstairs, there was every reason for Cass to be up and about. She could leave her hiding place in the shadows.
Her first step was locking the front door. Treacherous hands; they were still unsteady as they wrestled with the great key. At last, she clicked the lock into place. With fingertips that trembled, she touched the spot on her face that still tingled from Northbrook’s touch.
The caress was odd, that was all. It was but another oddness in tonight’s string of them. She and Northbrook worked well enough together when they had to, but they were certainly not friends. They shared no tender feelings, nothing more than a tie of business.
He’d seen to that the first time they met. It had been at the home of their mutual friends, Lady Isabel Jenks—noble by birth—and her husband, the former Bow Street Runner Callum Jenks. They’d been discussing some case, and Northbrook, who was there merely for pleasure and whose opinion had not been solicited, gave it all the same.
“She’s so plain,” he’d said of Cass.
And he so handsome. It had hurt to overhear that.
But he’d begged her pardon, and she’d set him straight about her capabilities, and he’d begged her pardon again. They’d worked together well enough since then.
She touched her cheek again, then shook off her wondering feeling. She’d a job to do, an earl to observe.
It really was not right that Lord Deverell remained completely silent, was it? If he had passed out from drink, he could die of it.
Cass was only feet away and ought to see to her supposed employer. Anyone would be upset by a footman toppling out a window; surely it wouldn’t be unusual for a housemaid to speak to the master after the mistress had such a scare. She had the excuse of being new to the household, unfamiliar with his lordship’s strict insistence on not being disturbed in the study.
She crept forward, ears drinking in the silence around her, then scratched at the study door. “My lord? It’s Polly.” Every housemaid here was called Polly. The Deverells found it easier that way to summon one when needed.
No answer to her greeting. She rested her hand on the door handle, easing the latch. “My lord?” she ventured, her voice a bit louder now.
No answer still. And shouldn’t the study door have been locked?
Dread prickled between her shoulder blades. Again, something was not as it ought to be.
In one gesture, she flung the door wide and leaped into the room. Her hand slid into her pocket, finding the familiar butt of her pistol.
No answer. No response. No one here.
She looked around to be certain. There was the empty desk, the long velvet sofa with its back to her. The wall of shelved books and ledgers, everything in its place.
But heavy draperies stirred as if there were someone behind them. Seizing a penknife from a desk, she marched to the opposite wall and flung the curtains back.
No one. Nothing. The window was open to the summer night, that was all. The curtains swayed from the breeze, not human touch.
Peering out, she looked for some sign of Charles. The lamps around Cavendish Square cast a glow bright enough for her to see that the earth outside this window was undisturbed. Much as she should have expected; Lady Deverell’s chamber windows faced a different direction. Charles lay, if he still lay on the ground, around the corner and out of Cass’s sight.
She left the window sash as it was. When she turned her back to it and again faced the room, she saw the earl.
On the long sofa, designed more for fashion than comfort, Lord Deverell snored. Between his outstretched legs, a stiletto pinned a folded note to the upholstery.
The blade had sliced his thigh, and blood soaked the once-beautiful velvet of the sofa. When Cass stepped closer, the air smelled heavy with the coppery scent of spilled blood, and with the brandy that had pickled the earl so thoroughly that he’d lost himself to sense.
Lord Northbrook had been right: Deverell was indeed in danger. Yet he was snoring right through the ebb of his own lifeblood.
How was Cass to keep a man from getting killed if he was determined to speed the process along?
* * *
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Print: amazon • barnes & noble • book depository • books-a-million • indigo • love’s sweet arrow • the ripped bodice • walmart
Ebook: amazon • apple • barnes & noble • google • kobo