ARTEMİS’S LİFE ENDED on the day she discovered she was engaged to a duke. She didn’t die. That in itself might have been a small mercy, but she was far too stubborn to go willingly into the good night. No, death wasn’t in the cards for a woman like Lady Amelia. But running away from home, changing her name, and taking up residence in a den of ill repute…well, that came second nature. For seventeen years she had put up with fancy dresses that itched and shoes that pinched. She’d endured ball after ball, soiree after soiree, tea party after tea party. She’d paraded, and she’d preened, and she’d pretended to give a damn about what her peers thought. But the duke… The duke was the last straw. Maybe if her prospective fiancé was anyone but him she might have been able to stomach it. After all, there was a certain freedom that came with marriage. If one married the right man. Which Adam Sinclair, Duke of Warwick, was most decidedly not. Why her parents had chosen her arch nemesis as her groom she hadn’t a clue. Well, that was a lie.
She knew why they’d selected him. He was a duke. She was the daughter of an earl. It was a match made in blueblood heaven. But her mother and father must have been stricken temporarily insane if they ever thought she would willingly marry Warwick. Unfortunately, they hadn’t appreciated her telling them as much. There had been a lot of yelling. Even Lady Anne, a woman with the emotional range of a glacier, had raised her voice. There had also been tears. And threats.
And, Artemis was ashamed to admit, a spectacular temper tantrum that would have done her nine-year-old self proud. But in the end, her parents had refused to budge. She would marry Adam Sinclair, Duke of Warwick…or else. Artemis hadn’t stayed around long enough to discover what the ‘or else’ entailed. Stuffing her clothes in a sack along with enough jewelry to buy herself passage across the Atlantic if need be, she’d climbed out of her bedroom window and disappeared. At least, that’s what all the papers would say in the weeks to come. “Lady Amelia Vanishes into Thin Air” “Nefarious Play at Work? Heiress Still Missing after 3 Months” “Duke of Warwick Heartbroken Over Loss of Beloved” She’d snorted out loud when she read the last headline. How could a man be heartbroken when he didn’t have a heart? Over the months that followed, the ton had eventually lost interest in the mysterious disappearance of one of their own. And in the three years that had passed since Lady Amelia, future Duchess of Warwick, became Artemis Bishop, thief extraordinaire, there had been no new headlines. She had completely and successfully vanished.
Until the day Warwick strolled into her pub…and ruined everything. CHAPTER ONE THERE WERE MANY things a man could tolerate losing. A cufflink. His favorite cravat. A game of whist. But there was one thing-or rather, one person-a man would rather not misplace. His bride-to-be. Particularly when all signs indicated she hadn’t been lost so much as she’d chosen to run away. A notable distinction that had brought the Duke of Warwick no small amount of humiliation and quite a bit of fury since Lady Amelia disappeared in a puff of proverbial smoke. If only there’d been a ransom note.
A lock of hair delivered in a box. Or a finger. Preferably a pinky, as it was the smallest and most useless of all digits. Warwick could marry a woman with nine fingers. Certainly it wasn’t preferable, but he wasn’t such a horrible bastard that he couldn’t overlook a small flaw. Except a ransom note had never come. Nor had Lady Amelia ever returned, or her body discovered. Leading him to draw the only conclusion that remained: she’d left of her own volition, six months shy of their wedding date. The brat. In hindsight, he should have seen it coming.
It wasn’t as if they’d ever gotten on to begin with. She had detested him from the first moment they met and he had made no attempt to hide his dislike of her. Whenever they spoke, it always ended in a spat. But that was exactly why he had proposed. There would be no illusions of love between them. No expectation of fidelity. Once they were husband and wife he could continue to be his awful, debaucherous self and she…well, she could do whatever the hell she wanted. Except vanish into thin air. She’d done it to spite him, he was sure of it. As well as to make him a laughingstock.
The latter, he could deal with. His skin was thick, and he’d suffered far worse jabs over his twenty-seven years. But allowing her to have the final say in how their relationship ended…that he could not allow. If anyone was going to call off this damned engagement, it was him. And since he had no intention of doing so, they would be married. Whether his wayward bride-to-be liked it or not. Of course, first he had to find her. Which ended up being much more difficult than he could have ever anticipated. For three years, Warwick searched. He turned London inside out.
Hired the best investigators his considerable fortune could buy. Sent Bow Street Runners to every town and city within a hundred mile radius. But it didn’t matter. Amelia was simply…gone. And no matter how much money or time he spent, he could not discover her whereabouts. Until an acquaintance made an offhand remark about the infamous Duchess of Glastonbury, whose notoriety had been well-earned after she left her husband for a commoner of questionable moral background. Which was to say the man was a thief, and a scoundrel besides, and the ton was beside itself over the news. Having traveled in the same social circles as the Duke of Glastonbury since they were both at Oxford together, Warwick could not fault the duchess for venturing outside of her marriage bed. Glastonbury was a bully, and a coward, and if he had a single redeeming quality, Warwick had never seen evidence of it. Given his own propensity for promiscuity, he’d declined to share in the collective outrage directed at the Duchess of Glastonbury (he may have been an irredeemable rogue, but he wasn’t a hypocrite), and had been about to change the topic to something that actually interested him when his acquaintance made mention of another thief.
A female thief named Artemis Bishop. Whose name and occupation was unusual enough to snag Warwick’s fleeting attention. Particularly after he learned the woman in question had rose to underworld acclaim seemingly overnight…precisely three years ago. There was absolutely no logical reason Warwick had to believe that this Artemis Bishop and his Lady Amelia were the same person. No logical reason at all. When she wasn’t snapping at him, Amelia had been meek and mild-mannered. If his acquaintance was to be believed, Artemis was dangerous and deadly. And beautiful. That was how he really knew Amelia couldn’t be this Artemis woman. Oh, his betrothed was pretty enough.
He’d never consent to marrying someone ugly. That being said, there was nothing to distinguish her from any other blonde, blue-eyed lady of the ton. But having exhausted every other lead his investigators had managed to dig up, Warwick saw no reason not to pursue this one, as farfetched as it may have seemed. At worst, he’d have himself a cheap bottle of gin and return to Grosvenor Square with a good story to tell. At best, he’d have himself a cheap bottle of gin, find his missing betrothed, and return to Grosvenor Square with a good story to tell. What the devil did he have to lose? And that was how Warwick came to find himself standing outside a pub in the middle of Seven Dials. Knowing the sort of depraved lot that lived in London’s filthiest rookery, Warwick had wisely divested himself of anything that might point to his being a duke before he’d set out. Dressed in a plain tailcoat with cheap pewter buttons instead of silver, he peered through the open doorway of the Fox and Bull. The pub wasn’t anything he hadn’t seen before. A bit dingier and dirtier than the private clubs he frequented, but a bar was a bar.
What did catch his interest was the slight, feminine figure bending over a table with her curvy derriere thrust up into the air. The breeches she wore left little to the imagination, and his tongue passed between his lips as he savored the view. She was humming as she wiped the table clean. A soft, quiet song that he found vaguely recognizable. She wore her long hair in a tawny gold braid down the middle of her back. He couldn’t see her face as she remained turned away from him while she moved from one table to the next, but he imagined that if it was anything like the rest of her, it was a sight to behold. And those hips. Warwick passed a hand over his mouth. Lucifer knew what he was doing when he designed hips like those. For surely such sin could have only come straight from hell.
When Warwick felt his bollocks tighten, he grimaced and adjusted the lay of his coat so that it covered the growing bulge between his thighs. He must have been in serious need of a good lay if a common barmaid was enough to rouse his cock. Not that there was anything wrong with barmaids. It was just that his personal tastes usually lent themselves to more…refined women. Such as his last mistress, a French theater actress whose skills off the stage had far exceeded her talents on it. The things that woman could do with her tongue… Before the actress, he’d entertained Baroness Klein, the widow of a German diplomat. Preceded by Lady Collinsworth, the disillusioned wife of an earl twice her age. Suffice to say, Warwick had a type. And this tavern wench wearing breeches and scrubbing ale and God knew what else off filthy tables fell far short of his usual requirements. But maybe if he cleaned her up…put her in a gown and did something with all that hair…thoughtfully rubbing his chin where he’d allowed two days’ worth of dark, rough bristle to grow, Warwick stepped into the pub.
The betraying creak of a floorboard announced his arrival and the barmaid’s hands instantly stilled. “We’re not open yet,” she called over her shoulder. “I can give you a tankard to go, but if you want a seat, you’ll have to come back at noon.” Warwick’s eyes widened in shock. The only part of his body that was capable of movement, as the rest of him had gone as stiff as his loins. Bloody hell. He knew that voice. He hadn’t heard it for the better part of three years. But damned if he knew it. Quickly composing himself and shuttering his incredulity behind an expression of indifference, he shoved his hands into the pockets of his coat and drawled, “I did not come here for a tankard.
” His entire fortune on the table, and Warwick couldn’t have anticipated what happened next. Without the courtesy of a by-your-leave, a knife came whistling through the air and lodged itself in the wall two inches from his face. Any closer, and he would have gotten the shave he needed. Were he a man of lesser fortitude, Warwick might have found it necessary to change his trousers. Fortunately, a childhood with a violent father prone to bursts of temper and an erratic, mentally unstable mother, had prepared him for the unexpected, and he did not so much as flinch. “You missed,” he said mildly. “I didn’t miss.” Reaching behind her, the barmaid procured a second knife. “That was a warning. Now turn on your heel, and get the hell out.
” Warwick suppressed a smirk. Silly girl. A team of horses couldn’t have dragged him away. Not when he’d finally found what he was looking for… And so much more. All this time, Warwick had been searching for what he had lost. A timid, demure, occasionally illtempered fiancée whose most positive attribute was that she didn’t excite him. Instead, he’d discovered…well, come to think of it, he didn’t know what the hell he was looking at. But he very much intended to find out. “Now, now,” he said, sauntering further into the pub. “Is that any way to greet your betrothed?”