Book 1 in the >Sinful Brides Series
In a place where lords rule polite society and ruthless men lead the underbelly, women are often left on the fringe. Only the most daring among them break free of their restrictions. The Sinful Brides series follows the sizzling romances of the men who run one of the most notorious gaming hells in 1820s London—and the women who scandalously fall in love with them.
London, 1821—Lord Robert Dennington, the Marquess of Westfield, has long reveled in the freedom afforded him as the ducal heir. He knows he must someday do right by the Somerset line, but he’s in no hurry to give up his carefree existence.
Helena Banbury is a bookkeeper in a gentleman’s gambling club, adept at analyzing numbers and accounts but helpless for lack of influence. She’s never belonged among the nobility on the gaming hell floors, but neither does she feel completely herself among the men who run the Hell and Sin Club, despite the fact that they are family. The once-illiterate girl from the streets wants more than the gilded walls her protective cage can offer.
When Robert mistakenly enters her chambers one night, Helena is forced out of her predictable life and thrust into the glittering world of Society. Will the charms of the marquess prove more perilous than any danger she ever knew on the streets?
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And when the powerful, austere, unforgiving Duke of Somerset summoned one, one answered that call.
Particularly when that man controlled the proverbial strings of one’s finances and status.
Even more so when one was hours away from marrying and, as such, very much in need of those funds.
Lord Robert Dennington shrugged out of his cloak and turned it over to his grandfather’s butler, Carmichael, with a murmur of thanks. “My grandfather . . . ?”
The aging servant averted his gaze. “Is in his office, my lord.” Color filled the man’s cheeks.
Of course he was in his office. Robert pulled off his gloves and stuffed them inside his jacket. Was there another place for the powerful peer? The duke controlled every aspect of the Dennington family with the same grasping control he showed in every manner of business.
The butler shifted back and forth. “May I show you to H-His Grace’s office?” Carmichael gulped.
The unflinching, smooth-faced servant, who’d served the miserable duke since Robert had been a boy of five, had never so much as cracked a smile, frown, or laugh. And he certainly did not swallow in that loud, troubled manner.
Nervousness seized him. There had been the curt summons to come on this day of all days . . . the timing was too precise, and His Grace, cold and unfeeling, never had been, nor ever would be one of those devoted, loving patriarchs who actually desired his grandson’s company. No, the same man who’d used traitorous servants to uncover Robert’s love for the nursemaid, and then coldly called his grandson a “bloody fool,” didn’t have a spot of warmth in his heart.
He knows about the elopement.
“M-My lord?” Carmichael interrupted Robert’s panicky thoughts.
Robert tugged his lapels and forced a smile. “I will see myself to His Grace’s office.” After all, at one and twenty, he was hardly a boy to be cowed by anyone—including the equally feared and revered Duke of Somerset. “I’ve certainly been called before my grandfather enough to know the way,” he added in a desperate bid for levity.
Instead, Carmichael gave a juddering nod and then bolted in the opposite direction with a speed better reserved for a man two decades his junior.
That isn’t altogether true, a taunting voice whispered at the back of his mind. If you were unafraid of him, you’d not be planning to elope this very night and would instead give Lucy Whitman the very public ceremony she deserves.
Forcing his legs into motion, Robert started down the hall and beat a familiar path to his grandfather’s office. The truth was, everyone was more than a little afraid of the man. After all, he’d cut off his daughter, Robert’s aunt, for marrying a servant, as easily as if he’d yanked the thread dangling from his jacket.
No, such a man would never, ever tolerate Robert’s marriage to a nursemaid. A governess, who’d come from a respectable family, mayhap, but never a nursemaid. He dried his damp palms along the sides of his trousers. The duke was too emotionally dead to ever see a servant as an equal, or at the very least, as a human being. As such, he could not know the goodness of Lucy’s soul. Or the way she teased and blushed and smiled. Not in the way Robert did. Robert, who daily, through her dealings with his sister, Beatrice, saw more than a maid or servant. He saw the young woman who cared more for him than his title, and wanted to be his wife because she wished to share a life with him and not because she’d be a future duchess.
Now, to make his grandfather see reason. Because there could be no doubt that the Duke of Somerset, who saw all and knew even more, had called Robert here because of the elopement he’d planned for that evening.
Robert came to a stop outside the dreaded office.
Searching for the strength to face the mighty Dennington patriarch, he drew in a deep breath, and ran his hands over the front of his lapels once more. Before his courage deserted him, he raised his hand to knock . . . just as a low, agonized groan penetrated the wood-paneled door. He paused, his hand suspended.
Another tortured moan, one that iced Robert’s veins, filtered into the hall—the sound of death.
By God, he’d never loved the man, but neither would he ever wish him on to the hereafter. With swift movements, Robert pressed the handle and frantically opened the door to reach his aging grandfather. He jolted to a stop.
As he stood motionless, a dull humming filled Robert’s ears. He blinked several times but no matter how many times he blinked, the horror remained and through it Robert remained rooted to the floor: an outside observer in a sordid scene of sin and ugly. Sprawled on her back, with the duke pumping away between her legs, Lucy ran her fingers down the old man’s back, urging him on. “You are so good, Your
Grace,” she panted, lifting to meet the duke’s quick thrusts. “I want more of you.”
Bile burned the back of Robert’s throat, and he shot out a hand and caught the edge of the doorway. Oh, God, no. Not Lucy. She’d been the only bloody woman to see him, and not a future duke. Surely he’d not been so very blind, so flawed in judgment, that he’d given his heart to a rapacious schemer? Except . . . how else to account for the licentious display before him now?
His grandfather looked up. He may as well have been evaluating his ledgers for the precise, methodical glint in his steel-grey eyes. “Am I better than my grandson?” he demanded, breathless from his exertions.
Lucy moaned in reply. “Oh, yes,” she panted.
“And you’ll leave him as you said and be my duchess.”
“Anything,” she cried out, arching her back.
Robert’s stomach lurched, and he pressed his eyes closed. I am going to be ill.
With an abrupt movement, his grandfather straightened. “That will be all,” he said with a thread of ice coating his tone. At the jarring cessation, Lucy lay prone on the desk. She creased her sweaty brow. “Your Grace?”
The lyrical quality of her voice that had once captivated him jerked Robert back from the edge of madness.
“You are late,” the duke snapped, and Lucy swiveled her head sideways.
A gasp spilled from her lips, and the color leached from her cheeks. “Robert.”
As his grandfather adjusted his garments, he stepped around Lucy. Lucy, the one woman who hadn’t given a jot whether Robert would one day be a duke. Lucy, who’d so wholly captured his heart. He fisted his hands at his sides so hard, his nails ripped the flesh jagged, and blood coated his palms. “You summoned me, Your Grace?” he said with an ice to rival a winter freeze, one that even his grandfather would be hard-pressed to not admire. All the while he deliberately kept his gaze averted from the crying, pleading lady who hurried to right her garments.
“Robert,” she cried out.
“Silence.” The duke’s quiet directive had the power to command with a greater strength than any thunderous shout. “I warned you about her.” He waved a hand at Lucy. “This one would have made you a terrible bride.”
A cynical laugh rumbled up from Robert’s throat. Those were perhaps the only true words this man had ever spoken. “Indeed,” he drawled, proud of that smooth deliverance, when inside his heart iced over, freezing him from the inside out.
“Robert,” Lucy pleaded once more, making to rush past the duke, but the powerful lord easily stepped between her and the path to Robert, cutting off her forward movement.
“There is something wrong with the blood in this line that you are all drawn to the inferior blood of your lessers.” His mouth tightened. “First, my daughter and the damned footman.” He inclined his head. “It was easy enough to sever her from the family. There is little need for a daughter beyond the connections she might make. But you,” he continued over Lucy’s copious weeping.
His heart hardened all the more. Those false tears of a lying whore.
“But you, Robert, will one day be duke, and I will be damned if I see a whore perpetuate the bloodlines.” Not pausing to take his gaze from Robert, the duke stuck his finger at the door. “You’re through here, Miss Waltman.” The old bastard had bedded her like a common whore on his desk, in midday, and didn’t even know her name. Then, isn’t that what she is? A shiver of disgust coursed along Robert’s spine. For the duke, for Lucy, and for himself in seeing a maid and believing in her station. She’d been different than all the ladies of the peerage, this woman he’d given his heart to and would have given his name, in a few short hours. His Grace spoke, cutting into Robert’s musings. “My man-of-affairs will see to your payment.”
Her payment. Again, Robert’s stomach pitched and he fixed on the hatred building inside like a slow-growing cancer, anything but the gradual, endless cracking of his heart.
Cheeks damp and red from the force of her tears, Lucy rushed around the duke, and came to a quick stop before Robert. “Robert,” she begged. “He promised me I would be his duchess.”
I would have made you my wife and you would have been my duchess . . . Except, her greed too great, her grasping even greater, she’d been unable to wait for this man to kick up his heels. Robert sneered. Then, there was still his father, who in robust health would have never seen this woman a duchess . . . not anytime soon.
“Surely you understand, Robert. I-I am no governess. I am not of noble birth, I’ve always—”
“I have nothing to say to you,” he cut in. Incapable of looking into those treacherous brown eyes, he looked beyond her shoulder and held his grandfather’s stare.
“I’ll not ask you again, Miss Waltman,” his grandfather said in bored tones the way he might ask a parlor maid to apply an extra coat of wax to his treasured desk. “If you don’t leave this instant, I’ll advise my man-of-affairs to see you have nothing.”
That sprung her into movement. Without another look, or so much as a backward glance, Lucy Whitman stepped out of the room, and out of his life.
His grandfather moved to his sideboard and poured himself a glass of brandy. “You hate me, and that is fine, but I saved you from yourself,” he said as he carried his drink to his desk.
Robert stood, hands tightly clenched still at his side. “I am touched by your devotion.” Hatred laced his tone, and the duke pursed his lips. “As a duke, and in your case a future duke, you’d do well to remember, the only risks worth taking are in matters that can grow your wealth.” His lip peeled derisively. “We do not make decisions with or for our hearts. So you may have your tantrum and hate me for now, but someday you will thank me for this.”
Except, even as the silent protestation sprung to mind, he tamped it down. Even if he’d wed Lucy and become a cuckold, the greatest fool, he’d never thank his grandfather. Not for this. The duke claimed his tall- backed chair and sprawled in his seat. “I am not your father, my foolish son, waxing on about romantics the way he did with your mother.”
No, the duke’s soul was stamped black, in ways his only son’s never had been, nor ever would be. When the duke had cut his own daughter from the fabric of the family for marrying a footman, Robert’s father had shown them kindness and support. It had been that act which had made him hope . . . nay, believe . . . that Robert could have an honorable union, built of love, with Lucy. The muscles of his stomach clenched. Fool. Fool. Fool.
“My son has a good head for business, but he’s a foolish heart.” He made a sound of disgust. “He’s done you no favors by presenting a weak, romantic view of women and marriage.”
The truth of his grandfather’s harsh words hit him. No, the roman- tic notions his father had instilled in him hadn’t done him any favors. His parents had found love, but Robert was now facing the stark reality of how very rare their bond was.
“You’ll do well to remember the lesson of this day, Robert.” Then in a dismissive movement, the duke set down his glass, grabbed his ledger and pen, and proceeded to work.
The audience was over. Robert collected himself. His heart might be shattered, but his grandfather had taught him an invaluable lesson. The only sincerity he could hope for in marriage would be to a woman of the ton. He’d previously scorned them for their coldheartedness. Now he appreciated the ruthless sincerity of those grasping creatures. At least, with their hungering for his future title, they were clear in their desiring.
Unlike Lucy, who’d given him nothing but lies, and who would have sold her soul for the title of duchess if the Devil had offered that barter. The duke glanced up from his work. “Is there anything you require, Robert?”
He flattened his mouth into a hard line. “Go to hell,” he said quietly, and not allowing the man just below a prince another word, strode from the room. He didn’t bother to close the door in his wake, but made his way steadily and purposefully from this hated home.
He’d been wrong earlier.
In two regards: First, he did, in fact, wish the Duke of Somerset dead. And second, women were not to be trusted.