How to Catch a Devilish Duke – Amy Rose Bennett

Lady Charlotte Hastings’s heartbeat hammered wildly in her ears as the hired hackney lurched to a halt in a narrow side street in St James’s. The entrance to the alleyway running behind the Rouge et Noir Club—a gaming-hell-cum-brothel that was highly popular with the ton’s gentlemen—was barely visible through the thick shroud of scudding fog. Perfect, thought Charlie as she peered through the cab’s grimy window. Although a hooded mantle of thick wool shielded her unusual and altogether salacious costume—it really amounted to little more than her unmentionables—she was grateful the roiling miasma would also disguise her identity to some extent. Well, at least until she entered the club and had to discard her cloak. And then she had but a cosmetic mask of face powder, rouged lips and cheeks, kohl-lined eyes, and an artfully placed beauty spot at the corner of her mouth to preserve her anonymity. Heavens above. She prayed with all her heart that she could infiltrate this notorious gentlemen’s lair and emerge unscathed. Although, given the morally dubious nature of her mission, she doubted the good Lord would be listening. Ignoring the censorious look that Molly, her lady’s maid, sent her way, Charlie raised a pewter flask to her lips with trembling fingers, then downed a large swig of French brandy. If she was to undertake this entirely foolish but absolutely necessary venture, she needed every ounce of courage—even if it was only Dutch courage—that she could marshal. She had to go through with this. She had to succeed. Because if she didn’t, the consequences didn’t bear thinking about. Her dry throat sufficiently lubricated by the strong liquor, Charlie summoned her voice.

“As we discussed, you must wait here for me, Molly,” she said as firmly as she could considering her insides were quivering like a barely set jelly. “I’ve paid the driver well, so you’ll be perfectly safe. If for some reason I don’t emerge after an hour, you must go to Exmoor House in Grosvenor Square and ask for the duke. He’ll know what to do. He’s a member of the Rouge et Noir Club and no doubt has some sway with the management.” “Yes, my lady. Only…” Molly’s throat worked in a nervous swallow. “What if the duke isn’t in?” “He will be. I know he was dining with my brother, Lord Malverne, at White’s earlier on, so he should be home by now.” The maid nodded, but even by the feeble light of the hackney’s carriage lamp, Charlie detected a worried flicker in her gaze; she wasn’t convinced at all that the young woman would comply.

“Molly, promise me you won’t go to my family,” she added in a stern tone. “They cannot know about any of this.” “I give you my word, my lady.” Charlie inclined her head. “Thank you.” Indeed, the reason Charlie was undertaking this escapade was to prevent her family from ever finding out the terrible, terrible mess she’d landed herself in. All because of her foolish, reckless choices. To see the disappointment in her father’s eyes if he ever discovered the things she’d already done and would do tonight… Charlie shuddered. Being expelled from a young ladies’ academy four years ago for unbecoming conduct was bad enough for the Earl of Westhampton’s daughter. She’d never survive another scandal of such monumental proportions.

Yes, by hook or by crook, she had to extricate herself from this new predicament. However, if the very worst should happen tonight and her plans went spectacularly awry, she knew without a shadow of a doubt that Maximilian Devereux, the Duke of Exmoor, her older brother’s best friend, would step in to help her. Of course, she might very well expire from mortification if the man for whom she harbored a hopeless tendre ever learned of her shocking secrets… Charlie shivered again and took another long draft of the brandy. One thing was certain, if she wished to keep her secrets just that—secret—she had to find Baron Rochfort and retrieve the notebook he’d stolen from her. A notebook that contained her most private thoughts and dreams. An unexpected loud rap on the carriage window made her jump and Molly shriek. “It’s Frank,” said Molly in a melodramatic whisper. Cracking open the carriage door, she hissed at her brother, “Lord love us, Frank. You mustn’t sneak up on a body like that. You’ve scared her ladyship and me half to death.

” Frank Turner, a tall, thin young man with an earnest manner, gave an apologetic wince. “I’m sorry, sis.” He sketched a quick bow in Charlie’s direction. “Lady Charlotte.” Charlie recapped her brandy flask and slid it into her reticule. “No harm done, Mr. Turner,” she said with a smile she hoped was gracious given her face felt oddly stiff all of a sudden. “And please, let’s dispense with formalities. A simple ‘miss’ will do. I can’t afford to share my real name with anyone in the club.

Also, before going any further, it would be particularly useful to know if Lord Rochfort is actually here this evening. There’s no point in proceeding with this visit if the baron is engaged elsewhere.” “Right. Of course,” said Frank. “Yes, Lord Rochfort is here. He was at the vingt-et-un table about half an hour ago, and I have reason to believe he’s currently consorting with his regular mistress, Madame Erato. I spied them leaving the club floor around midnight.” Excellent. Charlie’s pulse quickened. For her plan to succeed, the baron had to be distracted.

And what could be more distracting than engaging in sexual congress with a practiced cyprian? “Thank you, Mr. Turner,” she said. “That’s very helpful. And I hope this is too.” She reached into her reticule and pulled out a coin. “This is to grease the doorman’s palm. I trust a guinea will suffice…” Frank opened the carriage door wider, letting in a blast of cold, damp air before pocketing the coin. “Yes, miss, that will do nicely.” When he bent to let down the hackney’s stairs, Molly reached out and squeezed Charlie’s arm. “Godspeed, my lady.

I’ll be praying for your safe return.” Charlie gave the maid a quick nod as she gathered her cloak about her. “Thank you, Molly. All going well, I’ll be back before you know it.” The servants’ entrance to the Rouge et Noir Club lay at the bottom of a flight of narrow stairs, below street level. An oil lamp cast a weak, yellowish pool of light in front of the sturdy door of black wood fitted with studded iron hinges. As Charlie carefully picked her way down the steps, she tried to dismiss the thought that she was entering some hellish subterranean dungeon of depravity she had no hope of escaping. At Frank’s knock, the door swung open, and the young croupier traded nods with a burly but decidedly bored-looking doorman. Money exchanged hands along with a few quiet words, then Charlie was ushered into the dimly lit interior. Frank raised a quizzical brow.

“Your cloak, miss? You’ll stand out like a sore thumb if you wear that in the club.” The doorman grunted in agreement and held out a meaty hand. Charlie pushed back her hood with shaking hands, hoping that her elaborately curled, Greek-inspired coiffure would pass muster. However, revealing her scanty apparel to a pair of strange men was confronting indeed now that the moment was upon her. To think she would soon be parading through a gaming hell in front of a throng of foxed tonnish gentlemen with money in their pockets and lust on their minds… She gave an involuntary shiver as her fingers ineffectually fumbled with the knotted ribbon ties at her throat. In hindsight, perhaps she shouldn’t have dismissed the idea of donning the disguise of a gentleman. But unless she’d lopped off all of her thick chestnut curls, added another four or five inches of height to her relatively short frame, and was somehow able to flatten her ample bosom and squeeze her generously curved hips into narrow breeches, she really didn’t have a hope in Hades of passing herself off as a man. Her fingers stilled. But there’s no doubt I’d be safer… Oh, God! What was she thinking? “Miss?” prompted Frank. He glanced nervously down the corridor to a set of narrow stairs.

“I really do need to get back. And Mr. Fudge here doesn’t have all night.” At that moment, a narrow longcase clock at the far end of the corridor began to chime the quarter hour after midnight. Oh, dear. She really couldn’t afford to dither about either. Drawing a steadying breath, Charlie ventured, “As I only intend to have a quick word with Baron Rochfort, it might be easier if I just leave my cloak on—” The doorman, Fudge, gave a snort. “A shy woman in the Rouge et Noir Club. Now that’s a novelty. You’re sure to attract even more attention skulking about in that shapeless sack.

Unless…” All of a sudden, his eyes narrowed with suspicion as his gaze traveled over her still-shrouded form. “Hoy, you don’t plan on doing Lord Rochfort a mischief, do you?” he demanded. “I ’ope you ain’t got a weapon stashed somewhere underneaf there. Letting a young lady of quality like you in for a lark is one fink, but the club owner will ’ave my balls for breakfast if anyfink happens to one of the customers ’ere…” Oh, no. Being denied entry to the club would be even worse than being leered at. Steadfastly tamping down her bout of missish nerves—failure was not an option—Charlie straightened her spine and forced herself to meet the doorman’s gaze. “I assure you that ‘doing Lord Rochfort a mischief’ is not my intention, sir,” she remarked in a tone that she hoped sounded cool rather than apprehensive. “As I said, I simply need to…to talk to him about a private matter.” She shrugged a shoulder and prayed the doorman would believe her outright lie. Fudge smirked.

“Talk? You can call doing the deed whatever you like, miss, but I wouldn’t be doin’ my duty if I didn’t check you were unarmed. Now take it off, or it’s back outside wif you.” He gestured at the door with his thumb. Charlie sighed. It seemed there was nothing for it. She was going to have to abandon her dignity along with her cloak. Her stomach aflutter, she roughly yanked at the tie. The knot at last came undone, and she shrugged off the garment entirely. And then Fudge said, “Cor blimey,” and Frank Turner’s eyes popped wide open as he blushed to the roots of his hair. And so did Charlie.

Heat washed over her from head to toe. Good heavens. If she’d provoked such a reaction from the Rouge et Noir’s doorman and a croupier who no doubt saw barely clad females every single day, what a sight she must look. She moistened her dry lips. “I trust that my attire is…is suitable, Mr. Turner? Your sister and I only had your rather loose description to go by, after all.” Molly had helped her to assemble the two-piece ensemble—a figure-hugging ivory silk corset that barely contained her bust, and a pair of drawers fashioned from an old fuchsia-pink ball gown that was no longer à la mode. On her stockinged feet, she wore low-heeled satin pumps embroidered with seed pearls. Given her face was also painted rather garishly, she looked nothing like a respectable young lady of the ton. Rather the epitome of a whore from a French bordello.

But she supposed it shouldn’t surprise her that wealthy, titled men might be titillated by the idea of scantily-clad women being at their beck and call for bed sport, or whatever sort of “sport” took their fancy. After all, most of them believed they owned the world and everyone in it. Lord Rochfort certainly did. “Ahem…” Frank tugged at his cravat and looked everywhere but at her. “Yes, I’d say it’s suitable, my…miss…” Fudge simply grinned and didn’t even attempt to raise his gaze from her exposed décolletage. “Lady of quality or not, wif tits that big, I’m sure you could get a job ’ere if you wanted to, miss. I could put in a good word wif the manager when I see him later tonight.” “Thank you, but that won’t be necessary,” Charlie said stiffly. While it was true that her bust was decidedly generous—especially after all the cakes and sweetmeats she’d eaten since Christmastide (and even during Lent)—that didn’t mean the man had to make such a crude remark. “As I keep saying, I just need to have a word with Lord Rochfort, then I’ll be on my way.

” Gathering the last remnants of her failing courage about herself, Charlie followed Frank up the stairs at the end of the corridor. When they reached the landing, he paused by a baize-covered door. “We’re about to enter the club’s gaming area,” he explained in a hushed tone. “I must return to the hazard table, so you’re on your own from here on in.” Charlie nodded. “I understand. But perhaps you could tell me how to find Madame Erato’s chamber. I’d rather not waste time looking for it.” She’d locate the baron, take back that which belonged to her while he was “busy” with the courtesan, and then all would be fine. Simple.

What could possibly go wrong? Armed with the croupier’s directions, Charlie donned an air of nonchalance as she skirted the club floor, heading for the main staircase that led to the brothel area. Massive chandeliers lit a high-ceilinged chamber furnished with plush Turkish rugs and ornate mahogany gaming tables. Groups of well-dressed men—all strangers, thank goodness— milled about, chatting and laughing with a handful of young women wearing attire not dissimilar to her own. Off to the far right, there was another arched doorway swathed in curtains of rich crimson damask. When a footman emerged, Charlie caught a glimpse of two bare-breasted courtesans sprawled upon a chaise longue beside a gentleman smoking a hookah pipe. Heavens above. The tableau brought to mind the folio of erotic etchings that she’d once discovered in Hastings House’s library. Blushing hotly, Charlie hastily looked away. Thank goodness she didn’t have to go in that direction. And then anger surfaced at the rampant misogyny on display.

She was by no means a prude, but witnessing how these “noble” men thought nothing of indulging their fantasies of subjugating women made her blood boil. If she didn’t have to hide the fact that she’d set foot inside the Rouge et Noir Club herself, she’d take her brother to task about his past habit of visiting places like this when he was a bachelor. And she’d jolly well admonish Max Devereux for coming here too. Even though she kept to the shadows as much as possible, she still managed to attract the attention of a middle-aged gentleman. With a glass of brandy in hand and his cravat askew, he was weaving his way toward a nearby settee. Ignoring his low whistle and clumsy wink, Charlie slightly altered her course to avoid further interaction. She didn’t have the time or inclination to fend off unwanted advances from drunken “nobs.” Once she reached the stairs, she quickened her pace, and within a few moments, she’d gained the first floor. Turning to the right as Frank had instructed, she soon found herself in a sumptuously decorated hallway that was thankfully devoid of lecherous noblemen, foxed or otherwise. The soft light of gilt wall sconces illuminated the flocked wallpaper, gleaming oak panels, potted palms, and claret-hued curtains.

If it weren’t for the paintings of frolicking naked nymphs and a rather well-endowed bronze statue of Bacchus, she could be at home. But then again, perhaps not. As the hubbub of voices from the main club faded away, other sounds that would never be heard in Hastings House became evident—an erotic chorus of rhythmic grunts and moans and cries punctuated with the occasional burst of tittering laughter filtered into the corridor. Although Charlie tried to tell herself the heat burning her cheeks was simply a result of rushing and nerves, she knew that beneath her discomfiture, she might even be a little aroused. A mortifying and undoubtedly shocking circumstance indeed, that simply listening to the sounds of sexual congress could provoke such wanton and unladylike feelings inside her. But then, she’d always been a little more wicked than most young ladies. Her mouth twitched with a wry smile. It was her propensity for wickedness that had landed her in this mess in the first place. Swiftly padding her way down the Turkish runner, Charlie focused on counting off the doors until she reached Madame Erato’s boudoir—according to Frank, it was the ninth room along. As she pressed her ear to the cool oak panels of the door to listen—she wouldn’t even attempt to slink inside until she was absolutely certain Lord Rochfort was thoroughly engrossed with the courtesan—she suddenly sensed a presence behind her.

A large male presence standing much too close. A hand, warm yet firm, closed about her bare upper arm, and an all-too-familiar baritone grazed the edge of her ear, raising gooseflesh. “Charlotte Hastings. What the devil are you doing here?

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