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Authors: Lauren Smith

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Wicked Designs (The League of Rogues)

BOOK: Wicked Designs (The League of Rogues)
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Dedication

 

To Amanda who changed my destiny when she sat down next to me in Torts law class. To my grandmother who taught me to love romance novels and made sure I went home with a stack every Christmas. To my parents, for their love, support and enduring hours of writing “shoptalk”.

Acknowledgments

 

There are so many people I’d like to thank who offered support and encouragement. To Nadia and Rohit, who were the first to set me on the path of pursuing writing as a career. To Henry C. for being a wonderful muse when I wrote my hero Godric. I have to thank my parents who are always supportive of my desire to write and offer sage advice on working towards success. I want to give a special shout out to my brother who has supported me and even composed beautiful theme music for my Godric and Emily. Thanks to all my teachers who saw the spark of the writer in me, especially Joy Edwards, who gave out candy awards at the end of every year. She gave me the Oh Henry! candy bar and proclaimed I’d be a writer. I also want to thank the lovely people in my Regency Romance Critique group. They’ve read countless drafts and offered endless suggestions and support on my manuscripts. I couldn’t ask for a better group of writers and friends. Last but certainly not least, a special thanks goes to my editor Noah. He made me laugh more times than I could count during our revisions and most importantly he inspired me to be a better writer. Thank you Noah, from the bottom of my heart.

League Rule 4

 

When seducing a lady, any member of the League may pursue her until she has declared her interest in a particular member, and at such time, all pursuits of the lady by others must cease.

Excerpt from
The Quizzing Glass Gazette
, April 3, 1820, The Lady Society Column:

Lady Society was quite entertained earlier this week, when she was witness to yet another wicked scheme perpetuated by a member of London’s notorious League of Rogues. His Grace, the Duke of Essex, was seen to have been seducing a most attractive widow in the midst of a musicale hosted by Viscount Sheridan.

It seems the duke has truly broken with his long time paramour Miss Evangeline Mirabeau. For all marriage minded mamas, there is a collective sigh of sadness that His Grace is a determined bachelor with no intent to marry. Shame upon His Grace for not being a gentleman that mothers could safely marry their daughters to and indulging in his wicked lifestyle.

Lady Society will continue to watch the League with the keenest interest…

Chapter One

 

London, September 1820

Something wasn’t right. Emily Parr allowed the elderly coachman to help her into the town coach, and the queer look he gave her made her skin crawl. Peering into the dark interior of the vehicle, she was surprised to find it empty. Uncle Albert was supposed to accompany her to social engagements and if not him, certainly a chaperone. Why then was the coach empty?

She settled into the back seat, her hands clutching her reticule tight enough that the beadwork dug into her palms through her gloves. Perhaps her uncle was meeting with his business partner, Mr. Blankenship. She’d seen Blankenship arrive just before she’d gone upstairs to prepare for the ball. A shudder rippled through her. The man was a lecherous creature with beetle-black eyes and hands that tended to wander too freely whenever he was near her. Emily was not worldly, having only just turned eighteen a few months earlier, but this last year with her uncle had enlightened her to a new side of life and none of it had been good.

Her first London Little Season should have been a wonderful experience. Instead it had begun with the death of her parents at sea and ended with her new life in the dusty tomb of her uncle’s townhouse. With an insubstantial library, no pianoforte and no friends, Emily had started to slide into a melancholy haze. It was crucial she make a good match and fast. She had to escape Uncle Albert’s world, and the only way she could do that was to legally obtain her father’s fortune.

A distant cousin of her mother’s held the money in trust. It was a frustrating thing to have a man she’d never met hold the purse strings on her life. Uncle Albert despised the situation as well. As her guardian he was forced to give an accounting to her mother’s cousin, which thankfully kept him from delving too deeply into her accounts for his own needs. The small fortune was the best bargaining chip she had to entice potential suitors. Though the money would go to her husband, she hoped to find a man who would respect her enough not to squander what was rightfully hers. But arriving at the ball without a chaperone would damage her chances in husband hunting, it simply wasn’t done to show up alone. It spoke lowly of her uncle as well as their financial situation.

As relieved as she was to not have her uncle or Mr. Blankenship escorting her, her stomach still clenched. She recalled the cold way the elderly driver smiled at her just before she’d climbed inside. The slickness of that grin made her feel a little uneasy, like he knew something she didn’t and it amused him. It was silly—the old man wasn’t a threat. But she couldn’t shake the wariness that rippled through her. She would have been thankful for Uncle Albert’s presence, even if it meant another lecture on how costly she was to provide for and how kind he’d been in taking her in after her parents’ ship was lost.

The driver was engaged to bring her to Chessley House for the ball, and nothing would go wrong. If she kept saying it over and over, she might believe it. Emily focused her thoughts on what tonight would bring, hoping to ease her worry. She would join her new friend, Anne Chessley, as well as Mrs. Judith Pratchet, an old friend of Anne’s mother, who’d kindly agreed to sponsor Emily for the Little Season. There was every possibility she would meet a man and catch his interest enough that he would approach her uncle for permission to court her.

Emily almost smiled. Perhaps tonight she would dance with the Earl of Pembroke.

Last night, the handsome earl had smiled at her during their introduction and asked her to dance. Emily had nearly wept with disappointment when she informed him that Mrs. Pratchet had already filled her dance card.

The earl had replied, “Another time, then?” and Emily nodded eagerly, hoping he would remember her.

Perhaps tonight I shall have a spot of luck.
She desperately hoped so. Emily wasn’t so foolish as to believe she had any real chance of marrying a man like the Earl of Pembroke, but it was nice to be noticed by a man of his standing. Sometimes that attention was noticed by others.

The coach halted sharply a moment later, and she nearly toppled out of her seat, her thoughts interrupted, her daydreams fleeing.

“Ho there, my good man!” a man shouted from nearby.

Emily moved toward the door, but the vehicle rocked as someone climbed onto the driver’s seat, and she fell back in her seat again.

“Twenty pounds is yours if you follow those two riders ahead and do as we ask,” the newly-arrived man said.

Having regained control of her balance, she flung the coach curtains back. Two riders occupied the darkened street, their backs to her. What was going on? A sense of ill-ease settled deep in her stomach. The coach jerked and moved again. As she had feared, the driver didn’t stop at Chessley House. He followed the riders ahead.

What was this? A kidnapping? A robbery? Should she stick her head out of the window and ask them to stop? If robbing her was their intent, asking them what they were doing might be a bad idea… Why would they take her when there were so many other heiresses, ones more lovely than her, having their first come out this year? Surely this wasn’t an abduction. Her mind reeled as she struggled to cope with the situation. What would her father have done in this situation? Load a pistol and fight them off. Having no pistol, she’d have to think of something clever. Could these men be reasoned with?
Unlikely.

Emily worried her bottom lip as she debated her options. She could scream for help, but such a reaction could worsen matters. She could open the door and throw herself out onto the street, but the clatter of hooves behind the coach erased that idea. She’d be lucky to survive the fall if she tried, and the horses behind were too close. She’d likely be killed. Emily fell back against the seat with a shaky sigh, her heart racing. She’d have to wait until the driver stopped.

For what seemed like an hour she kept nervously glancing out the windows to assess what direction the coach was going. By now London was far behind her. Only open country stretched on both sides of the road. A rumble of hooves heralded an approaching rider, and a man astride a sleek black gelding galloped past the window. He was too close and the horse too tall for her to get a good view of him. The moonlight rippled off the horse’s shiny coat as it rode past.

She knew by the close proximity of the rider and the determined way he rode in the saddle that he was involved with this business. Who in their right mind, except perhaps that foul old man, Blankenship, would kidnap her? He’d be the sort to engage in such a nefarious activity.

The other evening he’d come to dinner at her uncle’s house and when her uncle had turned away for only a second, Blankenship had twined one of this thick, stubby fingers around a lock of her hair, tugging it hard until she’d nearly cried out. He’d whispered horrible things in her ear, nasty things that made her sick as he told her he planned to marry her as soon as her uncle had approved. Emily had stared back at him, stating she’d never marry him. He’d only laughed and said, “We’ll see, my sweet. We shall see.”

Well, she wouldn’t back down. She wasn’t some pawn to be captured and held at someone’s mercy. They’d have to fight to take her.

Emily looked out the window on the other side to count the riders. Two led the party at the front, mere yards ahead. Another two flanked the coach on either side. One of them rode with a second horse roped to his saddle, likely for the man who rode now with the driver. Not the best of odds. Perhaps she could outsmart them.

The coach slowed, then gently creaked to a stop. Emily took stock of her situation. She fought for composure, each breath slower than the one before. If she panicked, she might not survive. She had to hide. But she could not physically escape
five
men.

Her eyes fell to the seat across from her.

Maybe—

Godric St. Laurent, the twelfth Duke of Essex, leaned back in his saddle watching the abduction he’d orchestrated unfold. Covering his mouth with a gloved hand, he stifled a yawn. Things were going smoothly. In fact, this entire kidnapping bordered on the point of tedious. They’d intercepted the coach ten minutes before it reached Chessley House. No one witnessed the escort of riders or the driver changing his route. Oddly enough, the young woman hadn’t shown any signs of resistance or concern from inside the coach. Wouldn’t she have made some protestations when she realized what was happening? A thought stopped him dead. Had she somehow slipped out of the coach when they’d slowed on a corner before they’d left town? Surely not, they would have seen her. Most likely she was too terrified to do anything, hence the silence from inside. Not that she had anything to fear, she would not be harmed.

He nodded to his friend Charles who was perched next to the driver. A bag of coins jingled as Charles dropped it into the jarvey’s waiting hands.

They had reached halfway point between London and Godric’s ancestral estate. They would go the rest of the way on horseback, with the girl sharing a horse with either him or one of his friends. The driver would return to London with a message for Albert Parr and a wild story that exonerated himself from blame.

“Ashton, stay here with me.” Godric waved his friend over while the others rode the horses a good distance away to wait for his signal. Abductions were tricky things, and having only himself and one other man take hold of the girl would be better. She might have a fit of hysterics if she saw the other three men too close.

He rode up to the coach, curious to see whether the woman inside matched his memory. He’d seen her once before from a window overlooking the gardens when he’d visited her uncle. She’d been kneeling in the flowerbeds, her dress soiled as she weeded. A job more suited to a servant than a lady of quality. He’d been ready to dismiss her from his mind when she’d turned and glanced about the garden, a smudge of dirt on the tip of her upturned nose. A butterfly from a nearby flower had fluttered above her head. She hadn’t noticed it, even as it settled on her long, coiling auburn hair. Something in his chest gave a funny little flip, and his body had stirred with desire. Any other woman so innocent would not have caught his interest, but he’d glimpsed a keenness in her eyes, a hidden intelligence as she dug into the soil. Miss Emily Parr was different. And different was intriguing.

Ashton handed the driver the ransom letter for Parr and took up a position near the front of the coach. Taking hold of the door, Godric opened it up, waiting for the screaming to start.

None came.

“My deepest apologies, Miss Parr—” Still no screaming. “Miss Parr?” Godric thrust his head into the coach.

It was empty. Not even a fire-breathing dragon of a chaperone, not that he’d expected one. His sources had assured him she would be alone tonight.

Godric looked over his shoulder. “Ash? You’re sure this is Parr’s coach?”

“Of course. Why?” Ashton jumped off his horse, marched over and thrust his head into the empty coach. He was silent a long moment before he withdrew. Ashton put his finger against his lips and motioned to the inside. A tuft of pink muslin peeped out from the wooden seat. He gestured for Godric to step away from the coach.

BOOK: Wicked Designs (The League of Rogues)
5.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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