Book 14 in the >Heart of a Duke Series
A Lady with a Secret… Partially deaf, with a birthmark marring her face, Bridget Hamilton is content with her life, even if she’s been cast out of her family. But her peaceful existence—expanding her mind with her study of rare books—is threatened with an ultimatum from her evil brother—steal a valuable book or give up her son. Bridget has no choice; her son is her world.
A Lord with a Purpose… Vail Basingstoke, Baron Chilton is known throughout London as the Bastard Baron. After battling at Waterloo, he establishes himself as the foremost dealer in rare books and builds a fortune, determined to never be like the self-serving duke who sired him. He devotes his life to growing his fortune to care for his illegitimate siblings, also fathered by the duke. The chance to sell a highly coveted book for a financial windfall is his only thought.
Two Paths Collide… When Bridget masquerades as the baron’s newest housekeeper, he’s hopelessly intrigued by her quick wit and her skill with antique tomes. Wary from having his heart broken in the past, it should be easy enough to keep Bridget at arm’s length, yet desire for her dogs his steps. As they spend time in each other’s company, understanding for life grows as does love, but when Bridget’s integrity is called into question, Vail’s world is shattered—as is his heart again. Now Bridget and Vail will have to overcome the horrendous secrets and lies between them to grasp a love—and life—together.
Lady Bridget Hamilton had believed she’d made her last great sacrifice where her brother, the ruthless, soulless Marquess of Atbrooke, was concerned. She should have learned better—long ago.
Bridget gave thanks for having the foresight to leave her ten-year-old son, Virgil, in the care of their maid-of-all-purposes, Miss Nettie, who’d been with them since Bridget herself was a babe in the cradle. Keeping her son away from Archibald ensured he’d never grow up like the ruthless bastard.
“I beg your pardon?” Bridget said in frosty tones.
Born partially deaf in her left ear, it was possible she’d misheard Archibald. She had certainly failed to detect lesser words and tones than the ones he’d uttered. Yet, by the mercenary glitter in his ruthless eyes, she’d all the confirmation she needed.
He reclined in his seat; an upholstered chair with faded fabric and tears showing its age. “Oh, come, you make more of it than it is,” he drawled. His words forced her back to a different time. To the first and only time she’d left that remote, crumbling estate her family kept, with Archibald’s child in tow. In the end, Bridget had left with unexpected work from an old book collector…and also her nephew, rejected by his father. That same miserable bastard who now kicked his feet up. He dropped his gleaming black boots upon the French refectory table. “You’ve certainly undertaken far more than this small favor.”
Bridget lingered her gaze on his immaculate, and what was more, expensive footwear. Fine boots when he was in dun territory chasing a fortune and being hunted for the money he owed others. Costly articles when she and her son should live in the squalor that they did, in this ramshackle cottage. “Yes,” she said quietly. But those decisions had been ones she’d made…not to help her derelict, reprobate brother but rather to right the wrongs he’d inflicted upon others. “I have. As such, you should be ashamed to come here and put any requests to me.” As soon as the words left her mouth, she flattened her lips. Archibald was incapable of shame or regret. He’d been born with a black soul that not even the Devil would have a use for.
A flash of fury sparked in his eyes and he surged forward. “But there is where you are wrong, Bridget. I asked you for nothing. I demanded it of you.” It was not, however, the palpable outrage in his words that gave her pause, but rather the location of his feet. His dirt-stained heels kissed the edge of a document she’d been studying, prior to his arrival. That venerated script that she’d been asked to evaluate and study by a London scholar who’d no qualms in dealing with a young lady adept in antiquities. Those revered pages would provide much-needed coin and were also to be respected for the history contained within them. “Goddamn it, Bridget,” he shouted, cupping his hands around his mouth. “It is a chore to pay you any damned visit, even when you serve a purpose.”
So, he’d mistaken her silence for an inability to hear him. That had been a cherished tool she’d used over the years to gather the thoughts, words, plans, and opinions of the soulless siblings she’d been saddled with.
With her white-gloved fingers, she rescued the book and tucked it under the table—out of his reach, vision, and feet. She’d learned long ago that her brother’s attention was sparse at best. He could be distracted the same way a dog might when thrown a bone. “You don’t have a use for antiquities,” she finally said.
Archibald smirked. “I’ve developed a newfound appreciation for them.”
“Oh,” she bit out. “Since when did you care about anything?” Anything that was not a coin or a bottle of spirits.
“Since I learned the cost of this particular artifact,” he supplied, looking altogether smug. “Lord Chilton has it.” A crazed glitter lit his eyes. “And I want it. Need it,” he whispered.
So, he’d learned the value of those books. She curled her hands into balls. He’d never been the bookish sort. He’d mocked her and jeered her love of literature and ancient texts and documents. Only to now, all these years later, find the value of them. Of course, it should come to be because of his own financial failings. He’d been living in hiding these past two years, which was no doubt because of the creditors after him. And yet, he always crawled out to the Kent countryside like a determined rodent that Cook would never succeed in ridding from the kitchens. “You want me to enter a nobleman’s household, masquerade as a servant in his employ, and rob him while he sleeps?” Mad. Her brother was as mad as their sister, who’d just been committed for the attempted murder of the young Duchess of Huntly.
Archibald scoffed. “You’re rot at subterfuge, Bridget. You don’t need to wait until the dead of night. The gentleman is off seeing to business most days and nights. The time will really be yours to choose.”
“Which particular book?” she asked with an inquiry that came forth more of her passion for those records and less to aid him in his plans of theft. She’d sacrificed enough in her life: her respectable name, her ability to move freely in the world. She’d not also now sacrifice her honor. Not for a material scrap or coin. Not even a small fortune.
“It is the first edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.”
Her breath caught and she froze, unmoving. “Chaucer,” she breathed. Impossible. Predating the fifteenth century, that great work was a rarity that every last bibliophile would be champing at the bit for.
And my brother wants me to steal it.
Bitterness and hatred turned her blood hot. Bridget shoved to her feet. “I cannot help you in this.” Not even if I wanted to, which she most decidedly did not. “One cannot simply steal a first edition of Chaucer’s work and then sell it without the whole of the world knowing one was complicit in that crime.”
Archibald wagged a finger. “Ah, yes. But, you see, I’ve already found a buyer.” Of course he had. The rotted bastard. The men and women he kept company with were people whose souls would one day make up Satan’s army. “We’ve made arrangements. I acquire the copy and he’ll turn over twenty-five thousand pounds.”
She choked on her swallow. Her brother named a vast sum that could ensure the livelihood and security of an entire family for two generations to come. “You’ll simply squander those monies on whores and your clubs and wicked parties, Archibald.” Bridget gave her head a disgusted shake. “I’ll not steal for you. You’ll do your own theft,” she said, infusing an air of finality to that vow. “I’ve done much for you.” Certainly more than he’d ever done for her. No, Archibald had only ever brought shame, pain, and turmoil. “But I’ll not do this.” She took a step toward the door. “We’re done—”
He jumped up. “What you’ve done for me? The only reason you’ve found work with Lowery—”
“Lowell,” she forced out past her fear. The funds she received from the ancient bookkeeper were what afforded her the money to feed her son and see him cared for. If Archibald yanked that away, with it would go the fragile security Bridget had established for her boy. “His name is Mr. Lowell.”
“Regardless. You have your employment because I secured work for you with those bloody books of his.”
Indignation driving back fury, she went toe-to-toe with him. “Do not pretend you’ve done any of this for me, or…Virgil,” she seethed. “You were always self-serving.” The funds she earned were split half with her wastrel brother, all because he’d found her the post. “You simply used my skills to pay for your gaming and whoring.”
The air slid from her lips on a painful hiss as he shot a hand about her wrist. He crushed the delicate bones in a punishing grip. Tears dotted her vision. “You do not end discussions, Bridget,” he whispered against her right ear. “The only reason you exist in any way is because I allow it,” he threatened, tightening his hold.
She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from crying out, refusing to let him see he hurt her. Not allowing him to know he terrified her still. She knew the evil he was capable of and didn’t doubt he’d choke the life from her without compunction if the mood struck him. But she also knew that to answer him now and cede this point would only empower him.
With a growl, he flung her arm. She resisted the urge to rub the tender flesh and, instead, planted her feet. “Damn it, I need that book, Bridget.”
He asked her to steal and risk her name, reputation, and very life. And then, where would Virgil be? Unbidden, her gaze went to the closed doorway and, for the first time since Archibald had put to her his scheme, dread iced her spine. For this plan moved beyond her and the greedy monster before her. It involved her ten-year-old son, Virgil, who’d find himself motherless if she were caught in a criminal act…against a nobleman. “I have responsibilities here in Kent. I earn coin that you benefit from, I’d remind you.”
“Pfft.” He scoffed. “A damned pittance that won’t solve—”
“—the mess you’ve made of the Hamilton fortunes,” she cut in. And he’d demanded her hard-earned coin countless times or he’d threatened to reveal her identity to the community as no widow, but an unwed whore of seven and twenty as he’d too often called her.
“This will solve all my problems, though,” he said with a pleased smile.
His problems. In short, she’d benefit not at all from the book he expected her to steal. Not that she’d seek or take a pence of stolen coin but, nonetheless, it still spoke to her brother’s self-centeredness. He proceeded to enumerate a tidy list. “I’ll not need to live in hiding anymore,”—she far preferred him slinking in shadows—“I’ll pay off the damned bastards holding my debt. I’ll wed a fat-in-the-pockets heiress who’ll deepen my wealth. It’s really quite brilliant.”
Yes, as far as villainous plans, it rather was. “I won’t,” she said with an air of finality.
He let out a beleaguered sigh. “You’ve always been an obstinate one. Always trying to be proper and well-behaved. As though that would have earned you anyone’s regard or note.” She curled her fingers reflexively into tight balls. “No one will ever notice you. They never did,” he said without inflection.
Bridget brought her shoulders back. “I’d rather be invisible than seen for a blackness in my soul, as you are.”
Archibald lifted one shoulder in a casual shrug. “If I cared about another’s opinion, I’d have been destroyed long ago. You, however, are the one hiding in the countryside, living a pretend life and poring over your,” he nudged his chin at the books scattered upon the table. “Dull books.” He caught his chin between his thumb and forefinger and proceeded to walk about her very much a predator sizing up its prey. “I wonder… hmm.”
Bridget forced herself to remain still through his deliberate show. Questions screamed around her mind and she quelled them. A woman of seven and twenty, she’d been the brutalized sibling of two monsters and then eventually cast out. Neither of them knew anything about her. She’d far more calm and control than Archibald or Marianne had ever credited.
Her brother stopped before her. Nearly four inches taller than her own five-feet seven-inches, he still towered over her enough to command a space. He stuck his face close to hers. “You know you want to ask me what I’m thinking. You want to know what is going on inside my head.”
“I know it can be nothing good,” she rejoined.
“And that is enough,” he continued as though she’d not spoken. “It is enough knowing that you care. Just as you care about the boy.”
Despite her bid for control, her entire body recoiled. Virgil. The one person who truly mattered. A person she loved so wholly and who she’d sacrificed her own life to protect. Heart hammering, she swung her gaze to the doorway, grateful her son was away from this monster.
“You and I both know the truth about him.” She’d wager every coin she’d earned evaluating antiquities that Archibald didn’t even know the child’s name.
“Don’t,” she whispered. Where did she find the steely strength to form that response? Where, when inside every nerve was stretched tight and she was poised for battle?
Archibald grinned a cold, unfeeling grin. He gripped her head tight in his hands and dragged her close. “He’s not your boy,” he taunted. “He’s all mine. His mother was a whore who’s dead at her own hand.”
On a hiss, Bridget wrenched away from him, drew her arm back, and slapped his cheek. The crack of flesh hitting flesh echoed around the room, as the force of her blow jerked his head back.
She braced for the roar of outrage. Instead, her brother ran a distracted palm over the imprint left by her palm. “I see you understand, then.”
Terror gripped her. Those dangerous words he’d uttered could shatter her and Virgil’s very existence and happiness. It would see Virgil stripped from her care and turned over to this monster, for no one would dare believe the word of a scarred spinster, deaf in one ear and without a husband or gainful employment. “You’d risk your…my son’s life.” She may have not given birth to Virgil, but he was hers in every way. She’d loved him, cared for him when he was ill, held him when he’d fallen.
Archibald plucked a speck of dust from his sleeve and flicked it to the floor. “Without hesitation…and yours? I’ll tell the world, a lonely, miserable, deaf spinster, you stole my child and passed it off as your own and invented a world for yourself. Why, I expect Society would even applaud me when I committed such a woman to Bedlam.” He laughed uproariously.
“What do you want?” she entreated, hating the desperate plea there. She’d given up everything for Virgil. The threat her brother made now against her only brought a fear for what that would mean for her son.
“You know,” he said coolly.
Bridget ran her hands over her face. When Virgil’s mother had arrived at one of her family’s country estates and abandoned her newborn babe in Bridget’s arms—only after she’d revealed the depth of Archibald’s treachery—Bridget had taken the babe to London. She’d demanded her brother do right by him. Doing right had involved him promising to turn the boy over to a foundling hospital.
And so, Bridget had taken on the babe as her own and disappeared into one of their family’s small, run-down properties where she’d been ever since. She knew what kind of ugliness Archibald was capable of. She had borne the sting of his hateful words and his ruthless blows. He would do this. Virgil meant nothing to him. He never had nor would he ever. “Please, do not ask me to do this,” she begged, hating that he’d reduced her to this. But she’d have laid herself down prone at his feet and offered her own life to protect Virgil.
“His name is Chilton,” her brother said, ignoring her entreaty. “Lord Chilton.”
Lord Chilton. Lord Chilton. She searched her mind. How did she recognize that—
“He has one of the vastest antiquities collections. Brings his items to auction and makes an obscene fortune.”
Of course. That was how she knew of him. Referred to as the Bastard Baron in the papers that found their way to the country, she’d cared less about those personal details and more focused on whichever collection he was purported to have acquired or sold. If life had turned out differently for her, and followed an altered path, she would have paid a visit to the halls where he kept those cherished treasures. Mayhap, she would have plied him with questions and begged for a look, even as she could never have afforded even a scrap of parchment in his establishment.
“He’s out a housekeeper. I’ve coordinated with the hiring agency responsible for staffing his London townhouse for you to fill the respective post.”
“A servant,” she repeated back.
Restless, Bridget wandered over to the small window that overlooked the overgrown front gardens. She stared blankly out, contemplating what her brother put to her. He’d have her serve on Lord Chilton’s staff. Granted, a housekeeper, alongside the butler, was the most respected of the household positions. Nor had she truly been born for more than that. Having been shunned by her family for the birthmark that covered her left cheek, and being deaf in one ear, she’d been an outcast among their kin. It had never even been expected that she’d have a Season or marry. As she’d once read her parents’ lips and heard them talking of the empty future awaiting her, she’d found her value deemed of little worth even by the people who’d sired her. She’d finally found a family, in Virgil and Miss Nettie…the one person who’d ever offered her kindness. And she’d do anything to protect them.
In the lead windowpane, she spied the guilt ravaging her features. “Just this once,” her voice was a barely-there whisper. “I’ll never steal for you again.”
At his silence, she spun back. “I want a promise.” Do you truly believe your brother’s word means anything? She held a hand up when he opened his mouth and opted for a language he understood. “I want ten thousand pounds,” she said bluntly, her skin crawling at the stolen monies she’d accept. “I’ll not turn over that book until you give me those funds.”
He eyed her with an appreciation that turned her stomach. “I never thought I’d see the day I was proud of you, Bridget. Until now.”
I’m going to be ill.
“Five thousand,” he said flatly.
“Seven and not a pence more,” he said with a finality that marked the end of his bargaining.
She gave a tight nod.
“You begin in a week’s time.”
As he rambled through the perfunctory details of her assignment, a loud humming filled her ears. I am complicit in this crime. I am sacrificing my honor… for my son’s life. That reminder brought her back from the precipice of despair.
“While you’re gone, I’ll remain here with the boy.”
A denial burst from her lips and she sprang forward on the balls of her feet. “You’ll not.” She’d rather dance with the Devil on Sunday than leave Virgil alone in her brother’s company.
He frowned. “Come, you hurt my feelings, Bridget.” Archibald made a tsking sound. “Surely you don’t think I’d hurt my own—” Her breath caught. “—nephew.”
She’d conceded enough this day. She’d not allow him this. “No. I’ve agreed to help you and you have my word I’ll do so. But I’ll not have you staying with my son.”
He pursed his lips and glanced around the room. He sighed. “Very well. It would be rather hideous living here.” He eyed the paintings pinned to the wall; those precious gifts made by Virgil three years earlier. Her brother sneered.
“We are done here, Archibald,” she said tightly and marched to the door.
Her brother lifted his head. “I say, you’ve hurt my feelings again, Bridget.”
“You don’t have any feelings to be hurt,” she shot back.
“No.” He grinned. “You are correct there. But you share my blood. And for all your failings and flaws, you have parts of the Hamilton determination inside you.”
“Evil.” Archibald cocked his head. “The Hamilton evil.” Her parents had been a coldhearted pair who’d spawned even colder children. Was it a wonder she could so easily agree to help Archibald in this?
“Call it what you wish, but it will see me—and now you—survive.”
Seething, Bridget yanked open the door. Her heart dropped to her stomach as Virgil stumbled into the room. Cheeks flushed and eyes downcast, he demonstrated the same lack of skill with subterfuge as she herself.
With the same crescent-shaped birthmark on his wrist and the same shade of brown hair as Bridget and her brother, he was very much a Hamilton—in appearance. Not in any other way, however. “Mum,” he mumbled, scuffing the tip of his shoe along the floor.
“Virgil.” She damned her reduced hearing that allowed him to sneak up on her. And then her stomach lurched. How much had he heard? She searched him for any indications. “His Lordship was just leaving,” she said tightly.
“U-uncle Archibald,” her son greeted.
With barely a glance for this boy he’d sired, Archibald stalked out of the room.
She instantly closed the door behind him. “I told you not to lurk at doorways, ever,” she said sharply.
Virgil wrinkled his nose. “Why is he always so miserable?”
“Because he was born miserable,” she said without thinking. And merciless and cutting. She winced. Regardless of the truths about that vile reprobate that was her brother, she’d no place interjecting her feelings about Archibald or anything. She gathered Virgil close, needing the soft, reassuring weight of his small frame. “Some people are just happy and some are—”
“Miserable,” he finished and struggled away.
Her heart pulled. How often he drew back from those expressions of warmth. As a babe, he’d always been ready with a hug. As a young boy, he desperately craved and required a gentleman’s influence. She steeled her jaw. Never one like Archibald. Which brought her back to Virgil’s presence here before her now. “What were you doing listening at the door?” she asked in even tones. What did you hear? How long were you there?
“I went out to feed the sheep and saw his carriage.”
So, he’d sneaked free of Miss Nettie. Nearing fifty, the older woman was growing more lax. And she’d be all Virgil had when Bridget went off to London. Suddenly, the wisdom in that course gave her pause.
“What did he want?” Virgil asked, with a surprising amount of world wariness in his eyes.
To destroy our future: yours and mine.
Opting to give him as much truth as she was able, she explained: “There are books in London. I’ve been asked to evaluate them.”
Her son’s eyes lit. For his earlier standoffishness, he threw himself at her, tugging at her sleeve the way he had as a young babe. “We’re going to London? When do we leave?”
“We’re not…” As soon as those two words left her lips, she froze. Her gaze locked on Virgil’s dipping smile. He can’t remain here. I need him close. Archibald would expect Bridget to comply and he’d know precisely where Virgil was at all times. “We’re not set to leave for another week,” she adjusted and, just like that, her son brightened. “However, I’ll be required to live in the center where I’ll be working.”
Mayhap in a handful of more years, Virgil would possess the maturity to question that peculiarity. As it was, he peppered her with questions about where he’d be residing and what he’d be doing while he was there.
The sight of his enthusiasm: his wide, even-toothed smile, his dancing eyes briefly lessened her fear. And for a sliver of an instant, she could almost believe they were any other mother and son bound for an exciting journey to that great metropolis for Virgil’s first trip. She gathered him into her arms again and squeezed hard. He grunted but, this time, folded his arms around her, returning that embrace. “What’s that for?” he asked the usual question.
“Just because I love you.” Her throat worked painfully as she gave him that familiar reply. I’m going to crumple before him. She fought desperately for a rapidly slipping control. “Run along,” she urged, setting him aside. “I’ve to return to my work. Miss Nettie will be looking for you.”
He nodded. “I love you,” he said so easily. Growing up, there had been a dearth of those words shared in the Hamilton household. When she’d first held Virgil, that babe without a name, she’d vowed he’d know everything she’d been without.
“I love you, too,” she said softly, staring after him as he darted from the room.
She loved him. It was why she’d barter her honor and sell her soul to deceive Lord Chilton and steal that coveted tome.