In Victorian London, Emma Hale leads two lives. As Le Petite Oiseau, in corset and pink feathers, she's the reigning queen of the music hall; offstage she's a meek theatre seamstress. For years these two women have shared one body out of necessity; now they share something else—forbidden love for a man who could end their masquerade for good.
William Craven, Duke of Penhale, wants Le Petite Oiseau as his mistress, but he's also sworn to hunt down and revenge himself on the hazel-eyed girl who once shot at him with a dueling pistol. He's about to be surprised when he crosses paths with both women on the same night. And suddenly he faces a dilemma.
So which woman does Will want? The fiery, passionate actress or the quiet "mouse" hiding in her shadow?
Perhaps this notorious rake wants them both.
NOTE: This is a previously published work. The title has been edited for TEP.
It was the red he saw first. Like a spark of flame in a dry, dead forest, her crimson scarf caught his attention through the moon-licked, rain-washed carriage window, bringing an abrupt end to his sleepy contemplation of the street. Otherwise, it might have been just another dreary homecoming from a night on the town, familiar in its predictable routine, even if it had little else to recommend it. But that warm shot of color amid the dawn slurry disrupted everything and woke him from a torpid stupor as effectively as an alarm bell.
William tapped his knuckles on the carriage roof and the horses jibbed to a shuddering, snorting halt. Briefly, he considered the mistake he was about to make by involving himself in a matter that was not really his fault, but something very unusual and particularly bothersome forced him to stop the carriage. Much to his amazement, he conceded it must be his conscience, an item previously notable for its absence, wheezing to life.
He lowered the sash window and rain spat in his weary face. Better take the umbrella, he thought, fumbling for it in the shadowy carriage interior. It seemed the careless woman didn’t have the foresight to bring one out with her, nor wear a hat.
Lurching out of his carriage, he looked for the woman in the red scarf. She was exactly where he last saw her, at the edge of the pavement, under a gas lamp, only slightly more attractive than a drowned rat. The front of her coat was splattered with wet mud and slush, which had also splashed her face and darkened the loose ends of her brown hair. As he approached, William anticipated the first strike of her tongue. He’d had plenty of practice bracing for the wrath of a vengeful woman. No one’s feet were stomped upon by angry little heels quite so many times as his, no one’s face slapped so often. And upon whom else’s head should china ornaments be broken, if not the Duke of Penhale’s? He was usually the most convenient enemy.
But then she said, “Forgive me,” tearing his expectations asunder.
So, she hadn’t yet identified him as a rogue of the first order who could ruin her reputation just by looking at her and probably ought to have his face slapped before he got any ideas.
She was breathing too hard, her skin pale as the departing moon, her eyes very large. “I wasn’t looking,” she added. “It was my fault.”
An interesting development. Cautiously, his insides uncurled, but only a little. She could, of course, be up to something. Women generally were. He held the umbrella over them both, although in her case it was too late for that. The creature couldn’t get much wetter if she fell off Tower Bridge.
“Your coat.” he muttered. “You must allow me to have it cleaned, madam.” She was probably in shock now, but would send him a bill later with a solicitor’s letter. Once she knew who he was, she would certainly expect monetary compensation for her coat.
“That really isn’t necessary, sir. Excuse me.” Her voice was polite, well-modulated, but quite insistent, rather like a very proper, faintly impatient schoolmistress.
“Perhaps you would rather I buy you a new coat. That one is rather unflattering, ill-made, and distinctly shabby.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“And it looks as if you outgrew it some years ago.”
Her lips flapped. Finally, she sputtered, “Excuse me. I’ll just take my ugly, cheap coat and be on my way.”
When he didn’t move out of her path, she swept him with a wintry glare, cold and brisk. Her lashes were lengthy as the legs of a wily spider, plentiful as those of a centipede. Oh yes, there would definitely be a solicitor’s letter tomorrow. Perhaps she was already calculating an outrageous claim for the cost of her clothing, her shoes, her non-existent hat. For some spurious injury too, thrown in for good measure. Once she realized who he was, his reputation would inspire all manner of accusations.
Nudging him aside with her pointy elbow, she would have run off, had he not captured her wet sleeve in his fingers, tugging her back.
“Please accept the services of my carriage, madam. I can deliver you safely to your destination at a much greater speed. And in the dry.”
There! He wouldn’t give her the slightest chance to complain later that the Duke of Penhale treated her in any way other than gentlemanly. His mother, not to mention his solicitor, would be proud of him for thinking of the consequences for once. If that was, in fact, what he was concerned about, rather than getting this bedraggled waif into the private quarters of his carriage.
“I don’t generally accept rides from strangers.”
“Nor do I offer them to strangers. It seems we must both be on our guard.”
She looked down the street. “It’s not that far.”
“It’s a very unsafe hour for you to be out alone, madam.” Before she could pull her sleeve away, he tightened his grip. “And it’s raining.”
“A little rain never hurt anybody.”
“On the contrary. The obituaries are full of stubborn women who probably said the very same thing before influenza sent them to an early grave. Not to mention the scores of tragically trampled females caught airily daydreaming in front of fast horses. The Times has an entire section for them.”
She looked up, only as far as his lips, then immediately back down to his waistcoat. “You might be a kidnapper, an abductor and molester of innocent women.”
“You might be a highway robber, or a woman of ill-repute. Or an infamous body-snatcher. Now that I think of it, you could be all three. You have the face for it.”
“Face for it!” she exclaimed.
“Plain and unremarkable. Nondescript in a crowd and just innocent enough to fool justice.”
Her lips fell apart and he watched a little cloud of breath disperse around her mouth.
“As long as you don’t try to pick my pockets, I’ll resist my rapacious urges, madam,” he added dryly.
“Oh, for pity’s sake!” Snatching her arm away from his grip, she marched forward, leaving him to follow with the umbrella, like a servant.
He ran around her to hold the carriage door open, noting a very shapely ankle as she stepped inside; then he followed, closing the umbrella and shaking it, before he pulled the door shut.
“Where to?” He paused, giving her a sinister smirk. “Should I decide not to keep you my captive, of course, and inflict the unspeakable upon you.”
“Lambeth, I suppose,” she exhaled in a huff. “Park Hill, for heaven’s sake.”
William was amused, and he was rarely amused by women. He leaned out, repeating the address to his coachman, word for word, in the same peevish tone. Then they were off, the great wheels trundling to life again.
It was lighter now, rosy dawn chasing away the shadows, but some street lamps were still lit, and as the carriage traveled onward, amber flares occasionally brightened the interior. Her eyes, a very rich, warm shade of hazel, studied him thoughtfully through the swaying stripes of light.
“Thank you,” she muttered.
He said nothing, uncomfortable with gratitude, which was why he never let himself be caught doing anything gallant.
Damned woman was probably getting his leather seat damp with rainwater and mud. It would leave a stain. Women and children always left stains on things.