“T avistock!” Lady Viola Fairfax grinned at the welcome shouted by the men seated about the main salon of the Wicked Duke tavern, making the new faux whiskers glued to her cheeks pull against her skin. The discomfort of her gentleman’s disguise scarcely registered after two years, but the sideburns had required replacement, as they did from time to time. After exchanging pleasantries with a few of the regular customers, Viola took a seat at a table. Almost immediately, one of the barmaids, Prudence, deposited a tankard of ale in front of her. Prudence narrowed her gaze in a sly expression, and Viola wondered—not for the first time—if she’d guessed Tavistock was a woman. It wouldn’t surprise Viola. In fact, any surprise would lie in the fact that she was still fooling everyone. Well, everyone but her brother and his best friend, who owned the tavern. She’d revealed her identity—secretly—to Val the first night she’d appeared as Tavistock. He’d been shocked to learn she planned to dress as a man in order to report on the happenings at the Wicked Duke for the Ladies’ Gazette. Initially, he’d tried to dissuade her, but it hadn’t taken more than five minutes for her to convince him that she needed to do it, that writing would fill a void in her life. While he’d understood and even supported her, he’d insisted she let his partner, the Duke of Colehaven, in on the secret. As the owners of the Wicked Duke, they were responsible for what happened there, and since they opened the doors to any and every one with peaceable intent, they should both know if Val’s sister was masquerading as a man. Especially because she planned to do so on a regular basis. Viola sipped her beer.
As usual, Cole had crafted a masterful brew. Unless his wife had created the recipe. Viola smiled to herself, thinking it must have been Diana. “Langford!” came the next greeting as Giles Langford entered the tavern. Langford, a blacksmith who was every bit as comfortable driving a vehicle as he was building one, sat down to her left. “Ho there, Tavistock. Haven’t seen you in a few weeks.” “Been busy.” Pitching her voice to Tavistock’s lower octave was second nature. “Time for another column, eh?” Langford sipped his ale.
“Does anyone actually read the nonsense you write?” He was referring to her, rather S. D. Tavistock’s, well-known column in the Ladies’ Gazette, a monthly magazine. Viola worked to keep her tone even despite Langford’s irritating question as she swung her gaze toward his. “What makes you think it’s nonsense?” “I didn’t mean any offense. I just assumed you didn’t write what actually happens here, so I meant literal nonsense.” He shrugged. “You don’t read it, then.” Viola snorted before taking a drink. Langford laughed.
“Why on earth would I read the Ladies’ Gazette?” He had a point there. Viola could barely stomach reading it. The articles were written by men but directed at women, as if they were qualified to know what a woman might want to read. In fact, the entire magazine was produced—idiotically—by men. When Viola had first inquired about writing for them, they’d firmly informed her they did not hire women. Furthermore, they’d seemed horrified by the prospect. One would have thought she was some sort of monster instead of the very audience they were trying to reach. On a lark, she’d tried again a month later. If they only hired men, she’d give them what they wanted. She went the second time as Samuel Darius Tavistock, bachelor extraordinaire with an inside look on the happenings of the Wicked Duke, London’s most notorious tavern owned by two dukes and frequented by all walks of society, from the peerage right on down to the blacksmith seated beside Viola.
The publisher had delighted in Tavistock’s idea for “Observations on Gentlemen,” and the column had appeared monthly for the past two years. While it gave her the opportunity to write something, it wasn’t what Viola wanted to be doing. She wanted to write something important. She’d started a dozen manuscripts and hadn’t finished one. She’d drafted pamphlets addressing voting inequality and the steep divide between wealthy landowners and impoverished workers, but those had gone unpublished. Perhaps it was time she considered publishing them on her own. Surely Val would help her. Or not. Her pamphlets could potentially cause trouble for Val, given his responsibilities in the House of Lords. If anyone knew the Duke of Eastleigh’s sister wrote and published pamphlets advocating reform, there would be a scandal.
And never mind how it might affect Val or Viola. Their grandmother would suffer a fit of apoplexy. Returning to Langford’s comment, Viola had to admit he was right. She did write nonsense. Not in the sense that it was fictional, but it was silly in the larger scheme of things. Who cared how gentlemen behaved when they were together in a tavern? A pair of gentlemen came in to the chorus of “Caldwell!” and “Sir Humphrey!” Members of Parliament, they were two of many MPs who frequented the Wicked Duke. Instead of sitting, they went to the bar where Doyle, the barkeep, gave them each an ale. Caldwell, a tall, thin man with sharp blue eyes, always made Viola think of a predator. He seemed to assess every situation for vulnerability; at least that was how he made her feel. Sir Humphrey was far more affable, often joking and eager to make those around him laugh.
He softened Caldwell’s edges, making the man somewhat palatable, and since they were nearly always together, Viola had often wondered if that was the reason Caldwell had befriended him. Sir Humphrey turned toward the table. “Evening, lads. Good to see you, Tavistock. Seems as though it’s been a while. Must be time for another column. Let’s see if I can think of something sensational for you to include.” He tapped his finger against his thin lips. “I’m merely observing,” Viola said. “If you tell me something outright, it’s not quite as authentic.
” And yet he did it every single time she saw him. Clearly, he was angling for a mention in the column. Perhaps she’d satisfy his desperation this month. “Unless it’s something the readers of the Ladies’ Gazette simply must know.” “The Viscount Orford is looking for a wife.” Sir Humphrey waggled his brows. “You heard it from me first.” Caldwell rolled his eyes. “Ignore him,” he said crisply. Then he shot Viola a look tinged with…humor? “Come, old man.
” Caldwell dragged Sir Humphrey who wasn’t “old,” but probably only a decade more than Viola’s twenty-six years, into the private salon where more intimate conversations could be held. Langford narrowed his eyes at them and snorted as they left. “Probably coming up with new ideas to cheat the working class.” He polished off his ale and stood. Viola looked up at him. “Before you go, any races coming up I can mention in my column?” Giles Langford was precisely the type of man the readers of the Ladies’ Gazette wanted to read about. With his golden hair, bone-melting smile, and skill with the whip, he made ladies of all ages and status swoon. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t titled or wealthy. He was handsome, and he won every race he competed in. That was a man women dreamed about.
But not Viola. She didn’t dream of men at all. “Stop by Rotten Row at dawn this Saturday if you want to see Adolphus Fernsby burst into tears,” Langford offered, his hazel eyes sparkling. In ton gatherings, Fernsby was a nuisance at best. On the racetrack, he was even worse—infamous for self-important speeches about why he, his carriage, and his horses were better than everyone else’s. “Whom will he be racing?” she asked. Langford grinned. “Me.” Viola couldn’t help but return his smile. She had no doubt most of the men in this tavern would be there to cheer on one of their own.
Viola lifted her tankard toward him. “Thank you for the tip.” Langford inclined his head before departing. After chatting with a few other gentlemen while she nursed her ale, Viola eventually stood and went into the private salon. This was where she typically overheard gossip that might be of interest to the readers of the Ladies’ Gazette. Several of the tables in the salon were occupied by two, three, and four gentlemen. She swept her gaze over the room, mentally cataloging those present, most of whom were known to her. Gregory Pennington, another MP, came in behind her. He was a larger fellow—thick in the middle with what seemed to be a disappearing neck—and she had to step farther into the room to make way for him. She followed him with her eyes as he wound his way to Sir Humphrey and Caldwell’s table.
The three men’s heads tipped toward the center as they began speaking in an animated fashion. Two popular gentlemen, the Marquess of Raymore and the Viscount Keswick, sat at a table, laughing. Viola made her way in that direction and took up a position near the hearth so she could hear at least snippets of their conversation. They were discussing what was on the lips of many people at present: the new seditious meetings law. “Careful there,” Keswick said with a laugh. “If someone says the wrong thing at a ball, it might be against the law!” Both men chuckled as Viola sipped her beer. The law was horrible, but everyone was in a heightened state of distress after the riot in December and the attack on the Prince Regent in January—all the responsibility of radicals who met en masse and apparently plotted mayhem. Or so some believed. Sir Humphrey and Caldwell stood and left, and Pennington transferred himself to Raymore and Keswick’s table. His gaze wandered, and a moment later, his small, dark eyes settled on Viola.
“Tavistock, come join us!” he invited. She looked toward Raymore and Keswick, since Pennington had sat down uninvited and was now encouraging her to join them. “If you don’t mind?” “Not at all,” Keswick said, gesturing to the remaining open chair. “Good to see you, Tavistock. Dare we speak freely now that you’ve arrived, or shall we expect our utterances to appear in the Ladies’ Gazette?” He laughed, and the other two gentlemen smiled in response. “I am always kind,” Viola said, flourishing her hand. “Unless someone deserves to have their true nature revealed.” She narrowed her eyes at them and chuckled, which elicited more laughter from Keswick. “Best not get on Tavistock’s bad side, eh, Pennington?” Keswick elbowed Pennington. Pennington slid her an arrogant smile.
“Bah, I’m not concerned about what he might write for a women’s publication.” Now Viola would definitely try to find something to write about him. Pennington sniffed. “Far more important things happening than whose cravat needs more starch.” As if that was what Viola was writing about. Except sometimes, it was. “Then give me something more important to write about,” she dared, staring him in the eye. Pennington shot a look toward Raymore, then curled his hand around his tankard. “All right. There’s a rumor that a certain MP has aligned himself with the radicals.
” Keswick waved a hand. “There are plenty of MPs who sympathize with that lot.” “Sympathy is one thing, but when they take steps to aid them…” Pennington lifted a shoulder. “That’s something different entirely.” Viola’s pulse tripped over itself. “Are you saying there’s an MP who helped them? How?” “Didn’t you say it was a rumor?” Raymore asked. At Pennington’s nod, the marquess picked up his ale. “Then it’s probably best not to spread gossip.” “But Tavistock here deals in gossip,” Keswick said, winking in Viola’s direction. If there were any truth to this rumor, it would transcend “gossip.
” Viola’s mind worked. How could she find out? Pennington rose. “Well, I’m off to Brooks’s. Cheers!” He picked up his mug and strolled back to the main parlor. Raymore shook his head. “No one would be foolish enough to help the radicals. Not now after all that’s happened.” Viola agreed the MP would be a fool. Habeas corpus had been suspended last month, and anyone could be imprisoned for any reason. It was a dangerous time for those who sought change and equality.
“Perhaps he did it before,” Keswick mused. “As I said, there are plenty of MPs who some see as ‘radical.’ Burdett, for one.” Viola filed the name away. She suddenly stood. “Excuse me, gentlemen, I must mingle.” In truth, she was keen to leave… As she made her way back toward the main salon, she had to stop short before running straight into her brother, Valentine Fairfax, the Duke of Eastleigh. Val’s blond brows pitched over his green eyes. “Tavistock, I didn’t realize you would be here tonight.” Though he kept his voice low, he still addressed her by the fake name.
“Just on my way out, actually.” Val stepped toward the corner, and she felt she had to follow. He lowered his voice even further. “You’re supposed to tell me when you plan to come in.” “And tear you away from Isabelle?” Viola referred to his new wife, whom he adored. “I’m not about to disrupt your newfound—and well-deserved—happiness.” “It’s not as if I don’t come in here just about every day.” “I know, but you don’t spend as much time here as you did. Neither does Cole. Too busy enjoying being married.
As you should be.” Val frowned. “We had an agreement. If you’re going to continue this deception, you’ll do it under my supervision.” She gave him an apologetic smile. “You aren’t always here, and I have a column to write. Anyway, I’m leaving. I promise I’ll inform you next time.” “Where is Grandmama?” Val asked. Viola resided with their grandmother and occasionally went out with her in the evening, depending on her destination.
Most of the time, however, Viola preferred to stay home—or come to the Wicked Duke. “At a card party.” “If she only knew…” Val breathed. “She never will.” Viola glanced over the salon to see if anyone noted their whispered conversation in the corner. They didn’t appear to. “Perhaps it’s time you cease this behavior. Every time you dress as Tavistock, you risk being discovered.” “After all this time, I highly doubt that would happen. However, we’re drawing attention standing here whispering.
I’m going now. Give my love to Isabelle.” “I will. Go straight home,” he said. Viola nodded, then she walked into the main salon and deposited her tankard on the bar. After bidding good night to Doyle, she left the tavern and hailed a hack. “Where to?” the driver asked. Anticipation curled through her as she contemplated her destination. “Brooks’s.”