Darcy Burke

Excerpt: Indecent

Book 4: The Phoenix Club

Chapter One

England 1815

Jolted awake as her head banged the side of the coach, Prudence Lancaster mumbled something extremely unladylike. If there wasn’t a sack over her head, she could see where she was going or if it was still night. She assumed it had to be. While she’d managed to doze, the rough road didn’t allow her to rest for long.

She had no idea where she was going or who had kidnapped her, let alone why. That anyone would go to the trouble of snatching her—an unimportant paid companion—was perplexing to say the least. Hopefully, she would have some answers when they got to wherever they were going. She prayed that would be soon.

With her hands and feet bound and a cloth tied around her mouth, she was quite uncomfortable. She’d long ago tumbled from the seat and hadn’t been able to get herself back onto it. Her captors were not the least considerate.

The sound of rain against the roof soothed her, at least.

She rolled to her back and was grateful that her hands were bound in front instead of behind. She’d prefer they weren’t bound at all, of course. Every attempt she’d made to loosen the rope had been utterly futile. She’d given up some time ago.

How long ago was that exactly? She wasn’t even sure what time they’d abducted her because they’d roused her from a dead sleep.

All she recalled was that she’d fallen into a dreamless slumber upon returning to the inn in Croydon after the boxing match. She’d rushed there from London with Cassandra, the duke’s daughter to whom she was companion, so Cassandra could find the man she loved. Lord Wexford had been one of the fighters. He and Cassandra had been happily reunited, then they’d gone to spend the night wherever he was staying.

Since Prudence was not a chaperone, as she’d reminded Cassandra repeatedly, she’d done nothing to stop them. On the contrary, she was thrilled that Cassandra was so happy.

Decidedly less thrilling was the manner in which Prudence had been rudely awakened at some point in the night. She hadn’t seen the face of whoever had grabbed her before a cloth was tied tightly around her mouth and a bag pulled over her head. Shock and terror had quite stolen her senses.

They’d then bound her hands and feet, and the pair had carried her downstairs and out of the King’s Arms. She assumed they were a pair since she’d heard only two voices by that point. They’d joined a third man outside before setting her into the coach saying she’d “be with him soon” and there was “nothing to fear.”

With whom? And how in the bloody hell could she remain unafraid given their careless handling of her? Many parts of her ached from bouncing about the floor of the coach, and there was a thoroughly disgusting taste in her mouth from the cloth they’d used to gag her.

But Prudence refused to break. She’d eventually get free.

And then what?

She supposed that depended on whom she’d be with soon. Since they’d said she had nothing to fear, Prudence clung to that. Perhaps there was a good explanation for her abduction.

The dread that had lived in her spine these many hours said otherwise.

The rain increased to a heavy staccato, and she hoped it wouldn’t slow their passage. She wanted to get wherever they were going. The thought of stretching her body and taking a deep, unhindered breath was incredibly appealing.

Eventually, she closed her eyes and was again lulled into a half sleep where she remained aware of the bump and rustle of the coach. Then the coach stopped. That catapulted her into full wakefulness.

She sat up just before the door opened—behind her, she realized.

“Oi! She’s on the floor!” one of them called out.

“Just pull ’er out!” another responded.

Large hands hauled Prudence from the coach into the rain. At least my head’s completely covered, she thought wryly. She was also glad for the cloak they’d thrown over her night rail before dragging her from her room.

The man tossed her over his shoulder and carried her some distance. She was cold and wet by the time they walked into a building. Warmth suffused her, and she closed her eyes in a mixture of relief and gladness.

The emotions didn’t linger, however, as she realized she was surely about to meet the “him” she wasn’t supposed to be afraid of. Tension knifed through her, and unease swirled in her gut. Bouncing against the brigand’s shoulder as they climbed stairs didn’t help matters.

A door opened, creaking softly, before they moved inside. She heard it close behind them. Then they set her on the floor, but the one who’d carried her kept his arm around her. As much as she would have preferred that he erupt into flames instead of touch her, she needed the support.

“What the devil have you done?” a fourth gentleman, who sounded vaguely familiar to Prudence, not that she could place him, asked with a mixture of shock and anger, his voice low.

“We brought ’er ’ere just like ye said. Where’s the money?”

“You were supposed to bring her, not truss her up like a pheasant after the hunt!”

A pheasant after the hunt? This was a gentleman, but she would have guessed that based on his refined speech alone.

“We don’t take chances when there’s this much blunt involved,” the same brigand responded. “Now give us what you promised, or we’ll take the chit and go.”

She heard a thump and wondered what that noise could be. How she wished she could speak!

“I hope you didn’t wake the innkeepers.”

“We came in quiet, just like you said to. Now give us our blunt.”

“Fine,” the gentleman said caustically. There were footsteps and some shuffling. “Here.”

“Count it,” the brigand growled.

“It’s all ’ere,” another of the kidnappers said. “Let’s go.”

“Pleasure doing business with you, m’lord.” There was no mistaking that the brigand was smiling as he said this.

Then the arm around her was gone, and Prudence wobbled. Another set of arms came around her, along with the scent of pine and bergamot. This was the gentleman.

The sound of the door closing filtered through the sack covering her head just before it was whisked away.

“My apologies, Lady Cass—”

Prudence blinked into a face she knew. Bright blond hair and stunning blue-green eyes, chiseled features with sculpted lips. Lord Glastonbury?

He recoiled in horror. “You aren’t Lady Cassandra!”

Prudence’s response was muffled by the gag. He’d planned to kidnap her employer? Not that Cassandra was her employer, but Prudence was her paid companion.

“Oh my God.” He reached behind her head and untied the infernal piece of fabric.

As soon as it was loose, she spit it from her mouth. “A drink, please.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Perhaps after you untie me,” she rasped, her body suddenly screaming of thirst, but not as loudly as it was for freedom.

Glastonbury hastened to pluck the rope from her wrists, then bent and did the same at her ankles. When she was free, she contemplated sending her foot into his chest and knocking him back on his arse. Instead, she rubbed her wrists and glowered at him as he stood to fetch her a glass of whatever was in the bottle on the table.

He handed her the glass, his brow deeply furrowed. “I don’t understand what happened.”

Prudence drank half the glass—it was ale—before pausing. “You had me kidnapped, it seems.”

“Not you. Lady Cassandra.”

That he’d planned to steal Cassandra, the daughter of a duke, from her very bed was beyond astonishing. “As you can see, they nabbed the wrong person.” And Prudence could guess why.

“I don’t know how. I told them where she would be and what she was wearing—a purple cloak.” His gaze dropped to the purple cloak draped around Prudence.

“We switched cloaks.” Prudence glared at him. “They woke me, gagged me, put a bag over my head, tied my hands and feet, and dragged me who knows where in the middle of the night. But you intended for that to happen to Lady Cassandra?”

His face flushed red. “I didn’t intend for them to do any of that. I paid them to bring you to me without being seen.” He frowned, his gaze dropping to her reddened wrists. “It seems they took things too far.”

“You think so?” she asked with razor-sharp sarcasm. She finished the ale and thrust the glass back at him. “Do you have anything stronger?”

“I do not. Would you care for more ale?”

“If that’s all you have. Though, port or madeira would be preferable,” she muttered darkly.

He flinched, then refilled her glass. “Miss Lancaster, I am terribly sorry for all this.”

She was shocked he recalled her name. Most gentlemen wouldn’t.

Though Prudence might have preferred a fortified wine to ease her pains, she was grateful for any flavor, even ale, to wash away the taste of the last hours. She took several more sips before lowering the glass. Then she walked to the hearth, where a low fire burned, and held one hand out to the warmth. “Your apology is inconsequential. I am glad they took me instead of Lady Cassandra. To think of her suffering what I have…” She shuddered.

Turning, she pinned him with a furious glare. “Why would you do this?”

He hesitated, frowning more deeply than before. His gaze flicked to the floor. “We were going to elope.”

“I’m fairly certain elopement involves both parties’ agreement and consent.”

His head snapped up. “How do you know she didn’t give them?”

Prudence scoffed. “I’m her companion. I know precisely what we were doing in Croydon, and it had nothing to do with you.”

He exhaled. “Not an elopement exactly, but I feel confident she would have been amenable once she arrived here and saw me.”

“Amenable after being dragged through the night trussed, as you say, like a pheasant after the hunt? Tell me, Lord Glastonbury, how many pheasants have you trussed?”

“None. Others take care of that.”

“Of course they do,” she whispered through a sneer. “Your kind don’t do anything for yourselves. Mustn’t soil your hands when you can have someone else do it for you.”

My kind?

“Entitled gentlemen.”

Wincing, he extended his hand toward her, but promptly dropped it to his side again. “You clearly think quite poorly of me, and you’ve every right, but let me explain.”

“Explain what? How you would have ruined Lady Cassandra with your actions? You’re despicable. And that isn’t just my opinion. Anyone would objectively think that after what I’ve been through and upon learning you orchestrated the entire ordeal.”

He had the grace to look pained. Remorseful, almost. Actually, he did look as if he regretted his actions, but Prudence wasn’t going to forgive him. “I was desperate. I thought this would work—Lady Cassandra and I like one another. I was certain she would accept my proposal. But then her father meddled. I just needed to explain to her—”

Gripping her glass, Prudence took a step toward him. “What would you have explained?”

He said nothing, his features a mixture of obstinance and regret, the latter of which was beginning to annoy her.

“You would have stolen her choices—her entire future. She’s in love with Wexford. I expect they will be married.” Which meant Prudence would need to find a new position, and her sudden disappearance could greatly endanger her prospects. Her outrage increased.

The viscount’s face didn’t register surprise. There was resignation. And anger.

Prudence went on. “You would have stolen her from the man she loves, and for what? To refill your empty coffers?”

He opened his mouth, then snapped it closed, his lips whitening.

“There is nothing for you to explain and certainly nothing to excuse. And I think you know it.” She took another long drink, her gaze glued to his.

His jaw worked, and he finally looked away from her. “I regret my actions. As I said, I was desperate. You can’t possibly understand. I’ll return you to London in the morning.”

“Where are we?”

“Hersham. About twenty miles southwest of Mayfair.”

“I can’t begin to imagine the extent of your nefarious plot—where you were going, what you planned—but I hope the shame remains with you the rest of your days. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I would like to sleep.”

“Your bag is there.” He pointed to her case, which must have been the thump she’d heard when the sack was still over her head.

“I’m surprised they brought that,” she said before tossing back the rest of the ale.

“I asked them to.” He blinked at her. “I’m not completely horrid,” he added softly.

She set the glass on the table and curled her lip toward him. “You can tell yourself that as much as you like. Just know it isn’t true.”

Lifting her arms, she stretched, and it felt glorious. What would feel even better would be to wash up. She glanced toward a dresser with a ewer and basin on top. “Is that water clean?”

“It is.”

“Good. I don’t know where you’re sleeping, but it’s not in that bed.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.” There wasn’t an ounce of sarcasm in his tone, but she gave him no credit.

When he didn’t move, she narrowed her eyes at him.

He straightened. “I’ll just leave you alone.” Turning, he left the room, closing the door softly behind him.

What an absolute disaster. But it could have been so much worse. Hopefully, Prudence wouldn’t be missed by anyone other than Cassandra. In all likelihood, her reputation would be fine and her chances for future employment unhindered. That didn’t mean there wasn’t some amount of risk—if the truth of her situation ever got out.

The viscount’s behavior was shocking. She knew he was in need of funds, that this was the entire reason he’d courted Cassandra, but to be so incredibly desperate as to become a villain?

You can’t possibly understand.

His words echoed in her brain. He’d been shocked to see her—not just because she wasn’t Cassandra, but because of the way the brigands had handled her. He’d also apologized and seemed genuinely remorseful. What couldn’t she understand? Curiosity pushed her outrage aside, at least a little.

If he’d managed to kidnap Cassandra instead, this truly would have been a catastrophe. She would have been ruined, her reputation shredded. In truth, Cassandra had already risked it by rushing to Croydon to find Wexford. However, they would wed, and all would be well.

And where would that leave Prudence? Without a job and with a potentially reputation-killing disappearance hanging over her. The thought of losing her hard-won security shortened her breath. Not too long ago, she’d been completely alone in the world, an orphan with no prospects after having to leave her position at a school for young ladies when the father of one of those young ladies had propositioned her most grotesquely. She’d had no choice but to depart unless she wanted to accept his disgusting advances.

Driven to desperation, she’d embarked on a foolish errand to find employment, only to find luck when she’d met Lord Lucien Westbrook, Cassandra’s brother. He’d rescued her from certain doom when he’d offered to help her find a position as a governess or a companion.

She would not allow Glastonbury to ruin her good fortune. She had to get back to London as soon as possible.

#

Bennet St. James, Viscount Glastonbury, jerked awake in a cold sweat despite the fact that he was sprawled in a chair near the warm hearth. Blinking, he saw that the first gray of dawn was just slipping over the chamber.

Glancing toward the bed, he detected the lump of Miss Lancaster and for the thousandth time berated himself for his stupidity. Not only had this turned into a horrible ordeal for the poor companion, he’d lost a pile of money for what amounted to total failure.

Rubbing his hand over his face, he forced himself to breathe. This was not the end of things. It was, however, one large step closer to defeat.

Unless he came up with a new stratagem. It could not, however, include marrying an heiress, since the Duke of Evesham would tell everyone that Bennet was a breath away from the poor house. Could viscounts even be admitted to workhouses?

Bennet shook his head. That wouldn’t happen. He would always have a place to live. Aberforth Place was entailed, and Bennet was stuck with it. Just as he was stuck with an abundance of female relatives to care for, some at Aberforth Place and others…elsewhere.

He could hope that Evesham—Cassandra’s father—wouldn’t tell anyone, but Bennet knew better than to expect that. Especially once everyone heard what Bennet had done, that he’d kidnapped Lady Cassandra’s companion and that he’d intended to abduct Lady Cassandra herself. His stomach folded over itself. If she went to Bow Street, there would be no stratagems and his family would be lost. What in the bloody hell had he been thinking?

He groaned softly, then sucked in a breath when he heard rustling in the bed. Leaning from the chair, he tried to discern if the companion had awakened. When she didn’t move again or make noise, he exhaled with relief. He wasn’t quite ready to face her furious disdain again. Though, he deserved nothing less.

What had he been thinking?

He hadn’t, and that was a terrible concern. People in his family sometimes acted impulsively, without concern for others, and, as with his behavior the previous night when he’d acted impulsively, bad things happened.

He’d been incredibly distraught upon receiving the note from Evesham in which the duke had informed Bennet that he was aware of his dire financial woes and would not allow him to wed his daughter. Frustration had turned to rage, and Bennet had lost sight of, well, everything. He’d been so close—the proposal was imminent, and Cassandra had given him every indication she was amenable to his offer.

Except she’d apparently been in love with Wexford instead. Not that Bennet had thought she loved him, nor did he love her. That might have come, however, since they liked each other at least.

All of it was moot now. And his chances of finding another heiress were slim. Once the ton learned of his destitution, he’d be labeled a fortune hunter, and no one would want to marry him. Save a wealthy merchant’s daughter in search of a title. He ought to consider that direction.

This was such a calamity! If only his father hadn’t lost every bit of money at the gaming tables, Bennet and the rest of his family wouldn’t be in this mess.

He glanced again toward the bed. He’d been livid after losing the chance to wed Lady Cassandra. He’d allowed his emotions to get the better of him, completely ruining the fight he was supposed to win and losing to Cassandra’s future husband of all people. That fight was supposed to change his fortune, just as marrying Cassandra would have done. If all had gone as planned, Bennet’s problems would have been solved.

Anger began to rise in him again. The boxing match had been his idea. He’d offered himself as a lure—a viscount fighting in a bout—to the owner of his boxing club. Frederick Dodd had immediately warmed to the idea and had even agreed to give Bennet a healthy portion of the ticket sales. If he won.

Instead, Bennet had lost—not only his pride, but a major source of income he’d been expecting. How in the hell was he going to meet his obligations? It wasn’t as if he could continue to let them lapse, especially where his relatives were concerned.

He began to shake as a familiar sensation of panic and desperation crept over him. His skin felt cold and clammy, and the room began to fade. This couldn’t be happening. He’d staved it off for so long, but he worried his collapse was inevitable. Last night’s criminal actions had proved that Bennet was no better than the most afflicted in his family…those who fought to keep themselves in check, to battle the darkness that threatened to overwhelm and drive them into inescapable despair and delusion.

Sitting up, he dropped his head between his legs and braced his palms on his thighs. He took deep, staggering breaths, willing himself to settle before his mind was completely out of his grasp. That had never happened—not yet. But it would. Someday.

Gradually, he began to calm, his pulse slowing and his breathing becoming more even. He could manage this. He would find an heiress. There was nothing wrong with marrying into the merchant class.

And what of Miss Lancaster? He looked toward her again, feeling weary. Was there a chance she wouldn’t tell what had happened? Surely, she’d want to protect her reputation.

He closed his eyes and silently cursed himself. Not only was he destitute and a scheming criminal, he was also an absolute scoundrel. The worst sort of gentleman.

But when he thought of those who would suffer because of his father’s actions, Bennet felt a renewed purpose. They were his responsibility, and he would ensure they were taken care of for the rest of their days.

Pushing himself up from the chair, Bennet caught the thin blanket before it slid to the floor. He set it on the cushion and stoked the fire, building it back into a low flame. Satisfied, he meandered toward the bed.

Miss Lancaster lay on her back, one hand resting beside her cheek against the pillow. Her features were barely visible with only the light from the kindled fire and the gray dawn to illuminate her. She was very beautiful, far more attractive than he’d ever noticed, truth be told. But then she’d always been a part of the background. Now she was in the center, her outrage demanding attention.

Her blonde hair was braided, but wispy curls had escaped, some brushing her temple and jaw. Long lashes curled against her cheek. Beneath them glittered moss-green eyes that had appeared almost jewellike in her well-justified fury. Pink bow lips had berated him with great effect, and her pert nose had wrinkled with her distaste of him.

He felt truly awful about what had happened to her. Hiring a trio of questionable fellows at the fight had been an abominable idea, one borne of abject desperation. But a part of him must have known Cassandra wouldn’t want to come. Why else would he have hired men like that or arranged to have them deliver her to him here, twenty miles from Croydon? He was a villain, deserving of Miss Lancaster’s outrage and much more.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “I’ll get you back to London first thing.”

And then what would happen? Would she tell everyone what he’d done?

Her employer was the Duke of Evesham, who was already inclined to at least dislike Bennet, if not loathe him. Perhaps the duke would prosecute him for kidnapping.

A ball of tension formed in Bennet’s gut, and he expected it to remain for quite some time.

Turning, Bennet fetched his boots and threw on his coat. He left the room, careful to close the door quietly behind him. He crept downstairs and was glad to find the innkeeper, Mr. Logan, already about. The man was old enough to be Bennet’s father, though he was far more helpful and caring than Bennet’s own had ever been.

“Morning, my lord,” Logan said with a smile. “I trust your betrothed arrived last night as planned?”

Bennet had informed Logan and his wife that his future viscountess would be joining him. It wasn’t as if he could have hidden her, and he wasn’t going to have her stay in another room, not by herself.

“She did, thank you,” Bennet lied. Logan didn’t need to know that Miss Lancaster wasn’t the woman he’d expected.

“Splendid. I’m sorry you won’t be able to leave today, but it’s just as well since the rain is so heavy.”

On his way to the table situated next to the hearth, Bennet snapped to attention. “What’s that? Why can’t we leave?”

Logan’s brow creased. “Begging your pardon, my lord, I thought you knew about the coach. The journey with her ladyship seems to have been rough, and the brake block is in dire need of replacement.”

“Can your stable master fix it?” Bennet asked. Riverview wasn’t a typical inn with a steady stream of travelers where problems like this could more easily be repaired. It was unfortunate that his own coachman, Tom, wasn’t with him on this trip. He’d been ill, so Bennet had hired someone to drive his coach to Croydon. Then he’d hired a horse to ride here on his own while the men he’d paid to take Lady Cassandra had driven his coach to the inn.

“Indeed, my lord. However, the stable master will need to send his lad into town to purchase a block when the rain settles down a bit. It’s unlikely he’ll be able to finish the repair and get you on the road before late afternoon or evening.”

Bennet had known they couldn’t leave until afternoon, at least, since the horses would need to rest, and he couldn’t afford to switch them. He’d already been struggling to afford to hire someone to drive to Aberforth Place, which wasn’t necessary now. Still, he needed someone to drive them to London, unless he wanted to add to his notoriety by playing coachman. Christ, this had been an incredibly short-sighted plan.

“What will that cost?” Bennet asked cautiously. “I don’t carry much blunt on me—don’t like to travel the road with a great deal of coin, you understand.”

Logan smiled. “Of course not, my lord. Never mind the cost. I know you’ll cover it on your next visit.”

Bennet had always done that. He did his best to pay his debts, and so far always had. Settling his father’s debts, however, was another matter entirely.

“Thank you, Logan, I appreciate you very much.” The innkeeper and his wife were unfailingly kind. Bennet had stayed at Riverview several times on his way to London from Aberforth Place. Their small inn, which was as much a farm, was outside Hersham and thus cheaper, which was why he’d chosen it the first time—everything Bennet did was based on economy. It was why he’d had ale last night and not the fortified wine Miss Lancaster would have preferred. And frankly should have had.

“I’ll let Mrs. Logan know you’re down. She’ll want to bring your coffee personally.” Logan gave Bennet a warm grin before bustling off. He was a small man, but bursting with energy and surprising strength. Bennet used to wonder how he and his wife managed everything, but after coming to know them, he understood completely. They worked hard and found joy in their toil. The innkeeper liked to tell Bennet that if one wasn’t bone-tired at the end of the day, he ought to redouble his efforts the next.

Bennet had taken that advice to heart when it came to finding a way out of his financial mess. He winced inwardly as he realized that had led him to make some very poor decisions. Such as kidnapping an heiress on a whim.

Sitting at the table in front of the cozy fire, Bennet vowed to indeed redouble his efforts. He had to. Too many people depended on him. His retainers, the tenants at Aberforth Place, and most of all, his family. He thought of his many aunts and cousin, especially Aunt Agatha, who relied on him the most. If he didn’t settle the payments owed for her care, he didn’t know what he would do. She’d have to come home, he supposed. And who would care for her there?

Hell, it was all so bloody complicated.

Frowning, he silently cursed his father. Though, Bennet supposed it wasn’t even really his fault. The man had tried to fulfill his duties and had even occasionally been successful. He hadn’t chosen to be afflicted in the way he was, nor had any of Bennet’s other relatives. Still, his father hadn’t made the best choices. A lack of self-awareness had been one of his greatest flaws. Along with his inability to manage his emotions, especially his terrifying rage and heartrending anguish. At least Bennet was aware that he carried the family curse and could very well end up like his father…

“Here you are, my lord.” Mrs. Logan brought him a steaming mug of coffee. “Just the way you like it.” She’d added a dollop of cream on his first visit, and he’d quite fancied the taste.

He smiled at her as she set the mug on the table. “You are too kind.”

“Mr. Logan says your bride arrived. I’m so looking forward to meeting her.” Mrs. Logan’s blue eyes moved to the corner where the stairs were located. “Good morning, my lady!”

Bennet leapt to his feet and turned to see the companion at the base of the staircase. Her blonde braid was coiled and pinned atop her head, and she was dressed in a plain blue traveling costume.

He hated to have to be the one to tell her that they wouldn’t be going anywhere.

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