Book 2 in the >Brethren Series
In this passionate, emotional Regency romance by USA Today Bestseller Christi Caldwell, society’s most wicked rake meets his match in the clever Lady Chloe Edgerton! And nothing will ever be the same!
She doesn’t believe in marriage….
The cruelty of men is something Lady Chloe Edgerton understands. Even in her quest to better her life and forget the past, men always seem determined to control her. Overhearing the latest plan to wed her to a proper gentleman, Chloe finally has enough…but one misstep lands her in the arms of the most notorious rake in London.
The Marquess of Tennyson doesn’t believe in love….
Leopold Dunlop is a ruthless, coldhearted rake… a reputation he has cultivated. As a member of The Brethren, a secret spy network, he’s committed his life to serving the Crown, but his rakish reputation threatens to overshadow that service. When he’s caught in a compromising position with Chloe, it could be the last nail in the coffin of his career unless he’s willing to enter into a marriage of convenience.
A necessary arrangement…
A loveless match from the start, it soon becomes something more. As Chloe and Leo endeavor to continue with the plans for their lives prior to their marriage, Leo finds himself not so immune to his wife – or to the prospect of losing her.
Seated at his private table, with a half bottle of empty brandy within arm’s reach and a whore on his lap, Leo Dunlop, the Marquess of Tennyson, was spending his night like he had so many others before.
Well, all but the whore part.
Leo ceased nuzzling the buxom beauty’s neck and glanced about the raucous floors of Forbidden Pleasures… one of the most disreputable hells in London. From where she stood at a hazard table with Lord Robinson, a pretty brunette caught his gaze. With a slow, sultry smile, she sauntered over and, uninvited, perched herself upon his lap.
There, problem rectified. He reached around the delightful bundles in his arms to grab for his half-empty snifter.
His briefly neglected partner for that night, Emma, pouted. “You know I don’t like to share.”
Finishing off his drink, Leo set his glass down. Actually, he hadn’t known that. Emma made to climb off his lap. Catching her about her lush waist, Leo urged her back into place, and she went unresistingly. Of course, her upset was all for show. A bid to wheedle more coin and secure the upper hand. Content to let her believe herself triumphant, even as he had no intention of giving her a pence more, he cajoled, “Come, sweet. You know I’m capable of pleasing two women on any given night.” He cupped them by their buttocks and guided them each astride a thigh. “Oftentimes, three or four.”
The other whore on his lap giggled and adjusted herself, grinding against his wool breeches until little panting moans spilled past her lips.
Emma gripped him by the lapels of his jacket and dragged his mouth close to hers. “It ain’t your leg I’m wanting this evening, my lord. And even with your prowess, you still can’t manage to spring another pole.” She slipped a hand between his legs. His erection sprang all the harder. A triumphant grin wreathed her fleshy lips. “See, love. You don’t need anyone else but me.”
His was purely a physical reaction. One he’d had countless times, with countless women. “No. I do not need anyone else tonight,” he drawled, and the whore beamed. No. He did not need anyone. Not in any way, either emotional, sexual, or some variation in between. “However, I want someone else tonight. Two someones.” He worked her skirt higher around her waist, and she melted against him, her objections quelled under his attentions.
Sex was sex for Leo. It always had been and always would be. It was the safest, most uncomplicated act where a pair simply used each other as a vehicle to sate their lust. No different than an itch that needed scratching.
Then the other whore grinding herself against him grew greedy. She edged herself in front of Emma.
Fire sparked in her eyes as she shoved at the younger woman. “He called me over.”
“Well, now he can send you away,” Emma cheekily rejoined.
He was one sharp outburst away from two battling whores. And though he preferred that fire in his bedroom, he’d far better uses in mind for the two women than breaking up any fight.
“You can leave, you—”
Leo crushed his mouth to the pretty brunette’s lips, swallowing the remainder of her words. Not breaking contact, he explored the generous bounty of Emma’s enormous bosom. The faint scent of sweat doused in pungent rosewater was off-putting.
Just another night. Just another whore. Or in this case, two…
When had his life become… this?
Oh, he knew precisely the moment he’d started down the path of debauchery. After all, a gent tended to remember the day he was tapped by the king’s men to serve the role of agent of the Crown. Somewhere along the way, however, the young pup who loved his books at Oxford had been inculcated on how so perfectly to shape himself into someone else—a hardened rake—that the world was content to see only that. Society didn’t glance past the veneer, and Leo had ultimately crafted his until he’d become the reprobate from the surface down to his very soul.
Yes, he was getting old. Thrusting aside his maudlin sentiments, he shifted his attentions to the younger whore, plundering her mouth—still bored.
But then, he’d always been one to bore easily. Carrying on as he had for the past twelve years was surely enough to make any man grow tedious. It was why he’d become more inventive, descended into greater depths of impiety.
Emma bit the corner of his mouth and he winced.
“I thought you liked it violent,” she breathed against his mouth, her breath stinking of cheap champagne.
Committing his efforts to dislodging the ennui, he devoted himself to the other whore’s breasts.
From the corner of his eye, Leo caught a pair of legs pull into focus. A pair of spindly breeches-clad legs.
“Ahem.” Oh, bloody hell. That disapproving utterance, the blasted mark of only one bothersome twat. Fucking Haskins. Mayhap the blighter would go away if properly embarrassed into it.
“Busy,” Leo muttered, freeing Emma’s flesh from her plunging décolletage. He dropped his head to worship at that skin.
Leo broke the kiss and glowered up at the gray-haired gentleman who’d made it his life’s mission to make Leo’s life absolutely miserable, whenever and wherever he could… and that included his wicked clubs. “What?” he snapped impatiently before old Haskins could speak. There was only one of two reasons Haskins sought him out: Crown business… or displeased uncle, the Duke of Aubrey.
Haskins cleared his throat loudly over the din. “His Grace has requested—”
“The pleasure of my company,” he snapped the familiar phrase. So, it was to be displeased uncle, then.
With a sigh, he pushed the two women off his lap. They landed on their feet, quick like cats. “Afraid we are done here.”
They pouted, lingering.
Offering them a swat on their arses instead of the coin they really craved, Leo redirected his focus to the old bastard. With his face heavily wrinkled and his sunken features gleaming with disapproval, Haskins managed to kill Leo’s remaining erection.
“This had better be important,” he muttered, rising. With the disapproving servant looking on, Leo poured himself another brandy and downed it in a long, slow gulp. Grimacing, he abandoned the snifter. The crystal rocked back and forth, before settling in place.
Not bothering to wait for Haskins, Leo started through the club.
As he walked, he surveyed the lords present. Wastrels and reprobates, all of them. But occasionally, some of them more—men who’d sell secrets of the Crown or a vote in the House of Commons for the right amount of coin.
Stepping through the double doors, Leo did a sweep of the streets.
Haskins cleared his throat in the infuriating manner that always set Leo’s teeth on edge. “His Grace’s carriage awaits.”
“I can ride my own damned horse,” Leo gritted, starting in the direction of the street urchin who held his reins. He stopped abruptly. Or where the lad had held his reins. He swung back, favoring the bloody servant with a glower that would have set most men tearing in the opposite direction.
“His Grace asked that you arrive by his carriage. He instructed me to inform you that he’d not have you breaking your…” The old, loyal servant coughed into his hand, his cheeks going an uncharacteristic red. “Goddamned neck because you imbibed too much whiskey,” he whispered, as though scandalized at his own use of that blasphemy.
“I am insulted by my uncle’s lack of faith in my drinking capabilities. The duke knows I quite despise whiskey. Only drink it when I absolutely must.”
And there had been a good many “absolute must” moments in the course of his twelve years working for the Brethren.
Starting quickly for the carriage in debate, Leo strode past the driver waiting with the door opened and pulled himself inside.
Haskins followed in behind.
A moment later, the driver closed the door hard. His perch dipped, the carriage lurched, and they were rolling onward.
“Well?” he asked in the privacy of the comfortable black conveyance as soon as they were on their way. Those back-and-forths between them for public consumption had only fed into Society’s opinion of the manner of dissolute rake Leo, in fact, was. In truth, however, the line had become so blurred that the part was firmly enmeshed in who Leo was. Nay, who I’ve always been.
“I am unaware of the reason for your meeting, my lord,” Haskins said with one of his usual laconic, wait-until-The-Order-shares replies. “I was merely instructed to remove you from your club.”
His club. The wicked halls of Forbidden Pleasures were very much his, a world of depravity and sin that was more comfortable than any place he’d ever called home. And the best part was the availability of those denizens of every dangerous street of London.
Sprawling back in his seat, grateful for the silence, Leo consulted his watch fob. The gold piece stamped with the mark of the Brethren, a lion passant regardant with a blood-red ruby at the center. It had, long ago, been adopted in place of the too-obvious signet rings. He stuffed it back inside his jacket. Had the world looked a bit closer, they would have wondered long ago and marveled at why a rake who’d sell his soul for a pence should keep something of value still.
But they didn’t question. And they didn’t see.
And Leo was better for it.
A short while later, the duke’s well-sprung carriage rolled to a stop outside the pale yellow townhouse. Slightly higher and set apart from the ones flanking its sides, it served as a perfect symbol of the man who dwelled within those Grosvenor Square walls.
His uncle’s driver pulled the door open. Jumping out, Leo moved at a brisk clip toward the residence awash in candlelight. Despite his advancing years, Haskins easily caught up and, increasing his step, rushed to open the slight wrought-iron gate that served as a barrier between the world and the Duke of Aubrey’s residence.
Haskins took the steps quickly.
Trailing at a slower pace, Leo climbed behind his uncle’s servant.
The butler, Parsons, hurried to admit them. Parsons was dutiful, as all in the duke’s employ were.
“He is waiting in his office,” the man of middling years said by way of greeting.
“We will show ourselves in,” Haskins assured, handing over his cloak and hat.
Parsons did a quick up and down of Leo’s cloak-less frame. He offered a sardonic grin for the man’s benefit. “One less garment to bother with when tupping a whore,” he explained.
His gaunt face a set mask, Parsons looked over to Haskins, dismissing Leo outright. “He asked that I tell you he’s waiting.”
The duke was impatient. It was Crown business, then. There could be no other explanation. Nothing—not even his frequent lectures about Leo’s vices—received that response, ever.
Setting a lazier pace, Leo followed his uncle’s devoted servant. Spanish iron sconces better suited for a medieval dungeon than a Mayfair residence lined the wide corridors, lighting the way. The long, white, tapered candles played off the gold brocade satin wallpaper and gilded frames hung with portraits of the duke’s late, great ancestors. A portrait of Leo’s late mother, when she’d been a girl of sixteen or seventeen, alongside her brothers, the current Duke of Aubrey and Lord Edward Helling, and their long-deceased parents hung outside his uncle’s office, marking the end of Leo’s trek through the winding corridors. As Haskins opened the door, Leo made the mistake of looking at that large rendering… and froze.
Your mother was a whore and, by God, if she won’t pay for her crimes, I’ll take it out of your flesh…
And mayhap it was too much drink that night, but under his leather gloves, his palms moistened at the remembered horrors…
His childhood screams pealed around the chambers of his mind, holding him rooted to the floor, a prisoner of his past.
“My lord?” Haskins’ hesitant prodding jerked Leo back from the fleeting moment of madness.
Adjusting his rumpled cravat, Leo brought his shoulders back. He’d not allowed himself to be weak in the years since he’d pledged his life and fealty to the Brethren.
Entering behind his uncle’s head servant, Leo immediately came up short.
Three officious gentlemen, all clad in black and donning the same somber countenance, were in the room. Had there been any doubt at all that it wasn’t official Brethren business, then that possibility died with their presence.
Had it been solely his uncle, there would have been some doubts. But this was Lord Higgins, the Delegator, second only to the Sovereign of the Brethren, and responsible for handing down assignments. To have Higgins present… and Viscount Rowley, the one Leo answered to during assignments, could only mean official Brethren business.
Haskins closed the door at Leo’s back.
His uncle was the first to break the silence. “Leo, been waiting for you,” he said, coming forward. He was broadly powerful, with the faintest dusting of silver at his temples, but his formidable strength, however, came from within. He came up short three paces away from Leo and sniffed the air. “You smell like you’ve been tupping a whore in a garden.”
Leo quirked his lips at one corner. “No garden necessary,” he drawled. “A bottle of cheap perfume is capable of the same effects.”
The duke’s face remained as stony as the statues outside the pillars of his townhouse. “Sit,” he ordered, gesturing to the button-tufted Chesterfield sofa situated at the center of the room. “There are… matters we’ve to discuss.” As if on cue, the hulking figures moved to take the leather library chairs flanking each side of that sofa.
“Matters,” Leo repeated slowly.
His uncle nodded once.
Unease immediately stirred, a primitive response that had saved his arse—both literally and figuratively—in the time he’d served as an agent to the Brethren. However, he’d been removed from his last case: investigating the Cato Street Conspiracy that had nearly seen all the prime minister’s Cabinet killed by commoners. “Is this in reference to my last investigation?” he quizzed, refusing the indicated seat in favor of the French wine liquor cabinet. Yanking the doors open, he rummaged through and availed himself of a bottle of brandy and an engraved glass goblet. His bounty in hand, he at last joined the trio. “I’ve told you all that I believe I’ve stumbled upon something where the Cato Street Conspiracy is concerned.” That plot had shaken England to its core—particularly the lords who spent their days in Parliament. Society, polite and otherwise, was content with the assurances that the plan had been thwarted and the risks were gone.
The trio exchanged looks. It was Leo’s uncle, however, who spoke. “This is about a plot of noblemen attempting to sow unrest to establish support for an oppressive agenda?”
At the heavy skepticism there, Leo set his jaw.
“What proof do you have, Tennyson?” Rowley diverted Leo’s attention his way.
“Ah, Rowley, my ever-practical mentor. Driven by fact-based details only,” he said with a jeering edge. Leo lifted his glass in mock salute. Most men and women relied so heavily on having proof in hand that they failed to trust their gut instincts.
“I am not your bloody mentor. I am your damned superior. And you answer to me, you insolent cur.” Lord Rowley peered down his hawkish nose. “Either way, I take your reply to mean ‘none.’ You have no proof.” Almost two decades older, proper, officious, and well respected by the peerage, Rowley could not be more different from Leo. The viscount looked over to the still-silent Delegator… always assessing. “It is as I told you. Rubbish. It is an overall waste of the agency’s time to unearth a nebulous threat that has offered up not one single suspect to investigate.”
That cold unfeelingness had driven the other man’s wife to seek comfort in Leo’s bed… many times. Refusing to rise to the pompous bastard’s bait, Leo stretched his legs out and crossed his ankles. “Is that what this is? Tattling on me to my uncle?” Color suffused the viscount’s cheeks, and Leo pressed him. “And for what? Because I’m attempting to ensure the safety of the people?”
“The people,” Rowley sneered. “Let us not forget on whose behalf you work.”
Leo sipped his drink. “Crown and country.” He arched an eyebrow. “Though, at times, I appear the only one to remember my allegiance to anyone outside the nobility.”
Rowley scoffed. “You do not remember anything beyond the contents of a bottle and whatever whore you’re currently bedding.”
With a cool grin, Leo again lifted his glass. “Oh, come. ’Tis hardly polite to refer to your wife in those crude terms.”
The viscount’s eyes bulged.
With a thunderous bellow, he surged forward.
Leo’s uncle and Higgins immediately moved to restrain him, grabbing him by the shoulders.
Rowley only renewed his struggles, fighting to get to him. “You are a wastrel, a lecher, unfit to do the work of the Brethren and unfit to move amongst Polite Society.” The viscount spit, catching Leo squarely on the cheek.
He stiffened. It was an offense that would have seen most men meeting over pistols at dawn. Leo, however, had been the recipient of every vile—and oftentimes accurate—insult, where they’d simply ceased to matter.
A thick tension instantly blanketed the room.
Removing a white monogrammed kerchief from inside his jacket, he dabbed the folded cloth at Rowley’s spittle.
“Are we done?” Uncle William snapped.
“We are.” Leo lifted his head. “That is, unless Rowley cares to further discuss his wife?”
Instead of his earlier show of fury, his superior ripped free of the hold on him. He peeled his lip in a condescending sneer. “Make light all you want, but you are nothing, Tennyson. Nothing. The end of your work for the Brethren is nearly twelve years overdue, and the day you are tossed out on your worthless arse is near. The only reason you ever had a post was because of your un—”
“That is enough,” the duke interrupted, injecting an edge of steel that drained the color from Lord Rowley’s cheeks. “You presume much and know even less.”
Instead of his uncle’s defense, Leo fixed on one utterance made by Rowley. Leo’s days were numbered with the Brethren. There had been the stir of warnings for years about his recklessness being a detriment to the organization. “The Brethren need me in my role.”
“That was the case,” Uncle William said quietly, with even more of his usual somberness.
“Was the case?” Abandoning his negligent pose, Leo straightened. “What is this?” he asked tightly, tiring of their games and the ominous partial statements. He downed his drink in one long swallow. “Whatever you have to say, be done with it.”
At last, silent until now, Lord Higgins spoke. “Rowley is recommending you be cut from the Brethren.”
Life without the Brethren? His stomach muscles clenched. It was all he’d been, and all he was. He searched for his usual flippant reply and came up empty.
“Rowley has doubts that you can change your ways.”
Change? There was a greater likelihood of a leopard shedding its damned spots. With a sound of disgust, he surged to his feet. “My ways are what allow me to move freely about and perform the work I do. The Brethren demanded a cold, callous, ruthless bastard, and that is precisely what I have become.” Nay, it is what you’ve always been.
Lord Higgins drew his gloves off with a meticulous precision. “Regardless of the role you fill, a code of honor must exist… among our members and the respectable members of Society.” He paused, leveling a meaningful stare at Leo. “Otherwise, we are no different from the men and women whom we bring to justice.”
Leo seethed. “You would place carousing, whoring, and wagering in the same category as you would treason?”
Lord Higgins’ silence stood as a resounding answer.
His uncle settled a hand on his shoulder, giving a slight squeeze. “It has become too much, Leo. Too much.”
He gnashed his teeth, wanting to spit and snarl like the beast they took him for.
“We would be done with you if it were not for your uncle.” Rowley’s slight emphasis left little doubt to his opinion on the reason Leo’s position would be spared.
“How very typical of Polite Society to berate me for my wildness while so glibly accepting in their folds one who made a fortune off the backs of men, women, and children,” he sneered in Rowley’s direction. It was a secret to none that the viscount’s dealings in the now-abolished slave trade had left him with a fortune to rival most small kingdoms.
“Pfft.” Rowley flicked an imagined speck of lint from his sleeve. “It was business. And common citizens and do-gooders in Parliament need to stop interfering in honest business, especially when it comes to a trade accepted all over the world.”
Higgins directed his next question to Leo. “You are of the opinion the Cato Street Conspiracy had different groundings?” Where Society had been content to believe it was solely unruly upstarts chafing at the restrictions placed upon them by the Tories, Leo had believed it was more. It was only a matter of puzzling through what the other reason, in fact, was. “You offered two names…”
“I personally know Ellsworth and Waterson,” Rowley snapped. “They are not men to subvert the government.”
Leo rolled his shoulders. “Their political leanings and influence in Parliament marked them suspect.” As had their votes with the Six Acts.
“I’m not here to debate the names that Tennyson’s produced,” he said with an air of finality. “See what you turn up. You are not permitted another misstep. I don’t want so much as a false rumor about you bedding a proper lady or member of the Brethren’s kin.”
“What of the widowed wives and sisters?” Leo stretched out that insolent question.
The Delegator went on as though he’d not spoken. “The Cato case is yours.”
A familiar thrill gripped Leo. This was the reason for his existence… flushing out traitors and uncovering crimes against the Crown. He’d devoted his life to the Brethren with the hope that he would one day ascend the ranks that his uncle had.
“I’ll remind you.” Higgins held up one finger. “One more incident, and you are done. Your work for the organization will be through. Are we clear?”
“Abundantly, my lord.”
Exchanging looks, Higgins and Rowley made their polite goodbyes to the duke.
“Well, that went better than I expected,” he said drolly, rescuing the bottle and glass from the floor. Settling back into his seat, he made to pour another drink.
His uncle plucked both from his grip. “That is enough, Leo.” He spoke in his tutor’s tones, as Leo had come to call them over the years.
He sighed. How very… cliché his uncle had always been. Every wicked scoundrel and unrepentant rake was in possession of a disapproving uncle who controlled the purse strings of a gent’s future. It was the very formula for any Gothic novel and a staple of societal expectations and, as such, a perfect cover for Leo’s dealings with his uncle, the Duke of Aubrey.
“You are out of hand.”
“I am a rake,” he said, bored by the increasingly familiar discussion even as annoyance lanced through him. When his uncle had plucked him from the schoolroom, a scholar hiding his love of books, the Brethren had, in turn, shaped him into… this. “It seems counterproductive to have me abandon my ways”—the very ways that had allowed him to ferret out invaluable details from enemies of the state—“when those ways have proven helpful to the Crown.”
“You were not always like…” His uncle waved a hand at him. “This.” While the duke launched into one of his ever-familiar diatribes, Leo took the glass back and sipped at his drink.
Yes, there had been a time when he was scared and crying and sniveling. No longer… and never again. He owed the Brethren, and the organization had his fealty until he kicked up his heels and went on to spend eternity writhing in hell. When his uncle had finished, Leo touched an imagined brim at his forehead. “Thank you.”
“It was not a compliment, Leo,” his uncle said bluntly, claiming the seat opposite him. “If I had known recruiting you for the Brethren would have turned you into a coldhearted rake, without a beating heart in your body, then I would have—” Splotches of color filled his uncle’s cheeks.
“What?” Leo waggled his eyebrows. “Left me as the whipping boy for my dear, departed father?”
Uncle William blanched. “Never,” he said on an adamant whisper.
Worthless, pathetic bastard…
Leo blinked as that hated voice thumped his memory into remembrances he could do without. Needing to put to flight those demons, he climbed to his feet. “I trust we are done here.” Leo forced the lazy steps the world had come to expect.
“Leo?” his uncle called out when he reached the door. “Do not forget… you have one more opportunity to redeem yourself. Do not squander it.”
With that sharp rebuke following after him, Leo left.