Lady Notorious

Royal Rewards book 4
Original publication date: February 26, 2019
Reissue date: January 23, 2024
ASIN: B0CPNSK2LP
ISBN: 979-8875935299

ReviewsAbout the BookExcerpt

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Audio: audiobooks.comkobotantor (releasing July 30, 2024; more links coming soon)

In this “delightful, enthusiastic jaunt through Regency-era London” (BookPage), a duke’s heir falls for the spirited investigator he’s hired to solve a society mystery.

London society knows George Godwin, Lord Eastbrook, as a fun-loving rogue—but since a near-tragedy, George has preferred scientific experiments to scandal. Yet his favorite thing of all is matching wits with Cassandra Benton, a maddeningly clever investigator who works alongside her Bow Street Runner brother. Skilled and shrewd, the Benton twins once helped George’s family, and he never forgot the irresistible Cass.

When a long-ago wager resurfaces to endanger the life of George’s reckless father, George calls upon the Bentons again to identify the threat. An injury sidelines Cass’s brother, so she and George concoct a new plan: Cass will investigate from within the heart of the ton by posing as his notorious (and fictional) cousin. It will mean days and nights at George’s side, but the self-reliant Cass is sure she can resist the intoxicatingly attractive heir. If only he wouldn’t keep making her laugh, and tempting her into wicked nighttime confessions…

As they find passion in each other’s arms, love begins to bloom—but danger still surrounds them. Society says they have no hope of a future together. And as the case takes unexpected twists, they might soon have no future at all…

Story elements: Hidden identity, Bow Street Runner, class difference, mystery

Content Notes
Violence/physical injury
References to/discussion of murder
References to death of fiancée (in backstory)
References to alcohol and gambling addiction
Depictions of and references to opiate addiction

Reviews

“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.”
—Publishers Weekly

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.”
—Booklist

“Romain deftly weaves together the romance and mystery plots in this pleasing, enjoyable novel. … A refreshing historical romance featuring a partnership between equals.”
—Kirkus

Lady Notorious has made me a big fan of Romain’s storytelling, and I cannot wait to dive into her backlist.”
—Frolic

“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.”
—BookPage

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, 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 imprinting an image. Some of my favorite findings were the striking blue prints 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.
  • The image described in the epilogue is a reference to the earliest surviving photograph, made in reality about 6 years after George’s.
  • For the visual inspiration behind characters, objects, and settings in Lady Notorious, check out the book’s Pinterest board.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

June 1819

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 from where she hid in the shadows beside the main staircase of Deverell Place.

This watch over Lord Deverell was a nightly ritual, one she’d adopted along with the guise of housemaid when she’d been hired a week ago. With this plus the daily duties of a maid, 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 or 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, Charles had been tasked with ensuring the safety of Deverell’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, while 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 tension 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 worry, the change in mood as they’d mentioned the special term: tontine.

That was why Cass was here, and Charles, too. George, Lord Eastbrook—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 this tontine 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.

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—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; it wasn’t the slurred baritone of an inebriated lord faced with a pistol or stiletto. This scream was that of a woman, likely Lady Deverell since it seemed to come from the family chambers upstairs.

As Cass strained to hear, the scream changed from wordless panic into a call for help. He’s fallen, 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 of a 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 cries for help were continuing, which meant that not only had Charles fallen and scared her, but he had probably hurt himself when he fell.

Hell.

Cass wasn’t worried about Charles; he was agile as a cat and lucky as a lord. But this would surely mean the end of the investigation—at least for him.

By now the household had jerked awake in startled fits. The servants had been roused, their footsteps thumping on the back stairs as they ventured forth from their rooms. A door opened at a distance, spilling anxious voices out, and then slammed shut again.

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 must be too foxed to respond to the panicked cries of his wife. This was good; he probably wouldn’t call Charles out in a duel. Though if a threat on Lord Deverell’s life materialized, as Eastbrook 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 someone 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. Eastbrook.”

“Oh!” 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 said. “You caught me by surprise.”

Yet she ought to have expected the presence of the young marquess. Every night near this time, he met her 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 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.

“What has happened?” Eastbrook asked in a low tone. “I’d just arrived when I heard a crash, then screaming.”

“You heard that from outside?”

“The crash was outside. I heard the screams through an open window.” He patted about in the dark, finding Cass’s shoulder and arm. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine.” Cass suppressed a sigh. “I believe the window and the screams belong to Lady Deverell and the crash to my brother, Charles.”

“Charles’s what?”

“Charles himself. His person.”

“What? Was he climbing to her ladyship’s window? But why?”

Cass waited a moment while the realization sank in.

“Oh. He—oh. Charles, you goat,” murmured the lord.

The study door remained stubbornly shut, but a bit of light now spilled down the stairs along with a clamor of voices. Dim though it was, Cass could now pick out Eastbrook’s form. Like her, he was dressed in black, and his face was all shadows and planes. He always smelled faintly of citrus; she ought to have known him by that at once, even in the dark. Whether it was his soap or whether he was uncommonly fond of oranges, she’d no idea.

Footsteps sounded on the main staircase—close and coming closer. Quicker than thought, Cass grabbed the front of Eastbrook’s shirt and yanked him into the corner where the staircase met the back of the entrance hall.

Pressed beside her, he said 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.”

“If I wanted that from you, my lord, you’d know it,” she hissed. “I’d bash you on the head and drag you off to my lair.”

When he started to reply, 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 near-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 the 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 for her ladyship to tell him whatever she 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, 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. Eastbrook. She shivered and drew her hand back, wiping it on her skirts. “My lord! I haven’t washed that hand since I cleaned the grates.”

Eastbrook clapped his own hand over his mouth, gagging.

“Only kidding,” Cass whispered. “I didn’t clean the grates today.” She really was a terrible housemaid. “But you mustn’t do things like that, my lord,” she added. “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. Eastbrook had put his tongue to it, and now that bit of her hand seemed to belong to him.

At another time, in another place, she’d be quite glad for him to lick her again. He was attractive, temptingly so. But unlike her brother, Cass could keep her mind on her work.

The marquess was silent then, finally. She counted the seconds 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 household.

Cass counted off another minute, each second tediously long, then relaxed her posture.

“Crisis averted?” Eastbrook murmured.

“Hardly,” she replied in a low tone. “In fact, there are three crises. A damsel in distress is upstairs, a possibly injured jingle-brain 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 in the house, I’ll see to your brother.” For a tonnish swell, Eastbrook was not short of understanding. Jingle-brain, 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,” Eastbrook pointed out. “A lot of money is at stake in the tontine.”

This tontine; what a dreadful affair it sounded. Eastbrook 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 by ten younger sons from noble and wealthy families. Each had contributed an equal amount to a certain fund, and the interest and principal were left untouched over the years as time reaped the lives of the contributors. Eventually, the final survivor would receive the full amount, which was surely a fortune after all these years.

“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?” Eastbrook had replied, his usual light manner grim. “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.”

The conversation had been held in a sky-bright drawing room in Ardmore House, the London residence of George’s family. The space was as dainty and elegant as a fancy pastry, yet a sense of dread had crept over Cass. It was a feeling, honed by experience working alongside Charles for Bow Street, that something was not as it should be.

Charles didn’t seem to feel the same, for he had asked, “What’s the problem, then, after forty years?”

“The problem,” Eastbrook had replied, looking 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.”

There did seem to be a pattern of destruction. Ordinarily, death in men of the duke’s 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.

“Do you truly care for his safety?” Cass had pressed. “Surely you want to inherit your father’s dukedom.”

“What a horrid thing to say.” Eastbrook had studied her. “Yet it’s good that you said it. Someone’s got to ask that sort of question. And the answer is that I decidedly do not want my father’s life cut short. First, because no one deserves that. Second, because he’s an indifferent father and little better as a duke, but if he dies, he won’t have the chance to correct that. And I hope someday he will.”

“Seems unlikely, though, for a man of his years to change,” Charles pointed out.

Eastbrook shrugged. “Fine, then it’s for my own selfish sake. I’m unequal to the responsibility of a dukedom just yet. May my father live to a great old age so I can squander a few more decades in debauchery and dissipation.”

Cass had looked at him cautiously. He was handsome, this bright-eyed, black-haired man, and dressed in the height of fashion. His air was careless, but this conversation was nothing of the sort. “I can’t tell if you’re joking.”

“I’m always joking a little bit but often serious underneath. Once you know that, you can see to my very soul and understand me utterly.”

He said this, of course, as if he were joking, but his blue eyes were deep and worried. She had smiled then, almost, at the contrast.

Yet Eastbrook had hired the Bentons to watch not over his father, but Lord Deverell. She had pointed this out delicately, unsure of his motives. 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, Eastbrook’s answer was simple. “I will watch over my father as best I can,” said the marquess. “Living in the same house, I’m well placed to do so. I ask you to watch over Deverell because he is my godfather. I am very fond of him and should not like harm to come to him.”

That made sense. Cass could accept it. And for the extravagant fee of 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 begin to relax—slightly—and trust Eastbrook’s word—cautiously.

Her employer meant well, she now felt sure, but he lacked the logical mindset of an investigator.

“Your suggestion doesn’t make sense,” Cass whispered as nighttime quiet returned to Deverell Place. “Lady Deverell wouldn’t cause a distraction that allowed her husband to be harmed. She will not benefit from the tontine if he dies.”

Eastbrook 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 are beginning to 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, my lord. Thank you for seeing to my brother.”

“Of course.” When Eastbrook stepped forward, the light about the study door traced the determined line of his jaw. He hesitated, looking down at Cass, then lifted a hand to graze her 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 unsteady as they fumbled with the great key. At last, she wrestled the lock into place. With fingertips that trembled, she found the spot on her face that still tingled from Eastbrook’s touch.

The caress was odd. She and Eastbrook worked well enough together, 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, the former Bow Street Runner Callum Jenks and his wife, Lady Isabel. Now private investigators, they had been discussing a case with Cass. Eastbrook, who had made a purely social call 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 had enlightened him as to her capabilities, and he’d begged her pardon again.

Ever since Eastbrook had hired Cass and Charles, she’d done her best for him. And he…had he come to change his opinion of her?

She touched her cheek again, then shook off her wonderings. She had a job to do.

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.

Surely it would be reasonable for a servant to see to the earl. Anyone would be upset by a footman toppling out a window; 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 tapped at the study door. “My lord?”

No answer. She rested her hand on the door handle, easing the latch. “Lord Deverell?” she ventured again, her voice a bit louder.

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-covered 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. Pulling her pistol free, 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-fine 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 Eastbrook had been right: Deverell was indeed in danger. Yet he was dozing right through the ebb of his own lifeblood.

How was Cass to keep a man from getting killed if he was determined to help the process along?

* * *

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