October 1823; twelve years after Prologue ends
Miranda Clifford halted in the deep shadows cast by a stand of trees and watched her younger brother, Roderick, stride across a manicured lawn toward a massive mansion glowing pearly white in the moonlight.
About her, stretching away to either side, the thick bushes and mature trees of established gardens enfolded the house in a lush embrace. The breeze was a mere whisper, a soughing sigh stirring the tiny tendrils of hair that had come loose from her chignon to drift over her nape.
Silent and still, her gaze fixed on Roderick, she watched as he reached a shallow terrace and without hesitation strode up the three steps and went straight to a glass-paned door. Opening the door, Roderick stepped inside, closing the door behind him.
"Damn and blast!" Miranda stared at the door. This was far worse than she'd thought.
She'd first realized Roderick was secretly slipping out of the house at night three weeks ago. She'd told herself that unannounced and unmentioned nighttime excursions were only to be expected in a twenty-three-year-old gentleman, but she'd spent the last twenty-three years protecting Roderick; denying such long-ingrained instincts was difficult. Sufficiently so that she'd made a pact with herself-she would follow him one night, just far enough to assure herself that wherever he was going, whatever he was doing, he wasn't putting himself at risk in anyway.
It wasn't that she didn't trust him; her plan was purely to reassure herself. She would learn just enough to appease her instinctive anxiety, then she'd go home and Roderick would never know.
Ten minutes ago, she'd followed him down the darkened stairs of the house they shared with their aunt in Claverton Street, Pimlico; the hands of the long case clock on the landing had put the time at twenty minutes short of eleven o'clock. She'd trailed Roderick through the morning room, across the side lawn and out of the garden gate into the alley. Clutching her reticule and her new fashionable short cape close, she'd hugged the shadows along the alley walls, and like a shadow herself had flitted in his wake, puzzled when he'd stuck to the alleyways, until, to her considerable surprise, five minutes brisk walking from their own garden gate, he'd stopped at another gate set in a high stone wall.
He'd opened the gate and gone in. She'd hesitated for only an instant before following.
She hadn't known whose rear garden she was creeping through, not at first, but once she'd seen the house, once she'd been able to take in its size and magnificence, and most especially that telltale color… "What the devil is he doing visiting Neville Roscoe's house?"
The question needed only to be asked to be answered. Neville Roscoe was the most celebrated - as in infamous and notorious - denizen of the neighborhood. He was London's acknowledged gambling king, the owner of a vast array of hells, dens, and clubs catering to the wealthy, the affluent, the aristocratic; gambling was one of society's favorite vices and Roscoe was, by all accounts, a past master at supplying exactly the right drug to sate society's craving.
Roscoe was known to be immensely wealthy and also to wield significant power, both in his own arena and in murkier spheres. He wasn't, however, considered a criminal. Instead, he inhabited a nebulous strata between society and the underworld; he could rub shoulders with dukes one day, crime lords the next, and yet remain free of both worlds.
Speaking generally, Roscoe was an enigma, and very much a law unto himself.
He'd already been living in the huge white mansion on Chichester Street, overlooking the treed expanse of Dolphin Square to the Thames beyond, when Roderick had bought the house in Claverton Street, just around the corner, a year ago. Miranda had heard all about the neighborhood's most famous citizen within days of taking up residence.
She hadn't, however, as yet set eyes on him, but had no ambition to do so.
"Wretched man." She wasn't sure if she was speaking of Roderick or Roscoe; that Roderick might wish to chance his hand at gambling wasn't such a surprise, but…her lips thinned. "He can't afford to become involved with Roscoe."
It wasn't that Roderick couldn't afford to gamble; even at Roscoe's level, he most definitely could. But his wealth derived from trade, and as she and he had been taught all their lives, that meant that, far more than others born more acceptably, they had to cling, rigidly and beyond question, to respectability.
Seeing Roderick walk into Roscoe's house had instantly evoked the specter of their elder sister, Rosalind. The three of them had been orphaned as children; with her and Roderick, Rosalind had grown up in the care of their aunts. Rosalind had been subjected to the same lectures on respectability, the same unbending strictures, but when she'd reached sixteen, Rosalind had rebelled. She'd run off with gypsies, only to return two years later, diseased and dying.
Rosalind had died tragically, just like their mother, who had eloped with their father, the son of a mill-owner.
Every time anyone in their family stepped off the path of rigid respectability, disaster and death followed. Miranda didn't want Roderick to die young, much less tragically; returning home and leaving him to his fate wasn't in any way an acceptable option.
Keeping to the shadows, she circled the lawn, making for the house and that glass-paned door. Her mind threw up images of what she might find inside - a private gambling party or…an orgy? From all she'd heard, she might stumble into either. Women were invariably a part of Roscoe's entertainments; his clubs were renowned for their large female staffs.
"With luck, I'll pass, at least for long enough." She was old enough, looked experienced enough. Reaching the terrace, she glanced down at the lilac twill walking dress she wore under her cape. It was hardly evening wear but was elegant enough to establish her class.
Regardless, she wasn't about to retreat. She didn't intend remaining for longer than it took to find Roderick and catch his eye; that would be enough to shock him to his senses, after which he would walk her home.
Crossing the terrace, she opened the door and stepped inside. A corridor wreathed in dark shadows stretched before her. Quietly shutting the door, she registered the oddity of the pervasive silence, of the dark, unlit rooms. Even from the other side of the lawn where the entire back of the house had been visible she hadn't noticed any lighted windows, any sign of a party, no matter how refined. Halting, she let her senses stretch.
The ground on which the house stood sloped sharply down to Chichester Street, leaving the rear garden elevated. The floor she'd entered on was in fact the first, not the ground floor which fronted the street. Presumably the party, the gathering, whatever it was, was being held in a reception room on the ground floor. She strained her ears for some sound to show her the way, but heard nothing.
Puzzled, she started along the corridor. Roderick must have gone that way; other than the occasional room to either side, all silent, their doors shut with no light showing beneath, there was nowhere else to go. She followed the corridor toward the front of the house, step by step growing more aware of an omnipresent sense of quality and solidity. The house wasn't old. Roscoe had had it built for him, which presumably explained the workmanship she sensed more than saw; there was an understated elegance in every line, complemented by luxurious finishes and furnishings. She didn't have time to stop and peer, but the paintings on the walls, each perfectly framed, looked to be originals, and not by any back alley artist, either.
She wondered if the solidity of the house explained the lack of noise. That, and the furnishings; the runner on which she was walking was so thick she couldn't hear her own footsteps.
The corridor opened into a wide semicircular space, a gallery of sorts circling the well of the main stairs. Pausing inside the corridor's mouth, she peeked right, then left. Three other corridors gave onto the gallery, but silence prevailed. No lamps were burning, either, the space lit only by weak moonlight washing through a domed skylight high above and a large window directly opposite; through the latter she could see the tops of the trees in Dolphin Square and the distant shimmer of moonlight on the river.
Directly ahead, in front of the large window, lay the head of the wide staircase that swept elegantly down.
Drawing in a breath, she raised her head and walked calmly toward the stairs, and finally heard the rumble of male voices. Those speaking were somewhere on the ground floor, but deeper in the house, still some way away.
The clacking of hooves on the cobbles outside drew her to the window. Looking out and down, she saw a gentleman, fashionably dressed and hatted, alight from a hackney. The man carried a silver-headed cane. He paid off the jarvey, then walked toward the front door of the mansion, a little further along the façade from where she stood.
She didn't recognize the man, but his style, the way he moved, suggested he belonged to the upper echelons of the ton.
A bell pealed within the house. Almost immediately the measured tread of a butler's footsteps crossed the tiles in the front hall below. She debated going to the head of the stairs and looking down, but the risk of being seen was too great; she stayed where she was and listened.
"Good evening, my lord."
"Good evening, Rundle." The visitor stepped inside; the door shut. "I fear I'm late. Are the others here?"
"Yes, my lord, but the master has yet to join the gathering."
"Excellent." Rustlings reached her as the visitor divested himself of his overcoat, gloves, hat, and cane. "I won't have missed anything, then."
"Indeed not, my lord."
"The library as usual?"
"Yes, my lord."
"No need to bestir yourself, Rundle-I know the way."
"Thank you, my lord."
Two pairs of footsteps strode away from the hall, going in different directions. She hurried to the head of the stairs; she was too late to see which way each man went, but a door at the hall's rear was still swinging. The butler must have gone that way, which meant the visitor's footsteps were the ones fading down the corridor leading away from one corner of the hall. The library and the "gathering" lay in that direction.
Drawing in a breath, she reached for the stair rail -
A frisson of awareness streaked down her spine.
She froze. She hadn't heard anything, but she'd just proved that it was easy to move silently through the house, even without trying. And her senses, previously focused on the hall below, were belatedly screaming that someone a great deal larger than she was was standing directly behind her.
Her breath caught, strangled; her lungs seized. Senses flaring, she forced herself to turn slowly…
Her gaze, level, landed on an exquisitely tied ivory silk cravat.
Roscoe watched the woman's large eyes, already wide, widen even further, then she jerked her gaze up to his face.
He didn't smile. "Can I help you, Miss…?"
She didn't immediately reply, but he didn't make the mistake of thinking her mind paralyzed by shock; swift calculation showed in those wide eyes as she debated her response. Fine boned, graceful, and quintessentially feminine though she might be, accustomed as he was to sizing up people with a glance, he didn't need to look further than the refined strength in her face, echoed in her upright carriage and the gliding stride he'd glimpsed when he'd first seen her crossing the gallery, to guess what manner of lady she was.
Determined, resolute, and, at least when it came to those things she believed in, unbending.
Consequently, he was unsurprised when she drew in a tight breath, straightened to her full, significantly taller than the average height, and haughtily stated, "My name is Miss Clifford."
The information very nearly made him blink.
Her gaze drifted from his face, skating over his shoulders and chest to land on the ledger he carried in one hand. A frown crimped her finely arched brows. "And you are?"
Her tone made it clear she thought him some lowly secretary.
Despite his intentions, his lips quirked. "I'm the owner of this establishment."
Apparently, that news was more of a shock than discovering him at her back. She stared, patently stunned and making no effort to hide it. "You're Roscoe?"
He could imagine the speculation she'd heard; an inner devil prompted him to further confound her. He bowed, imbuing the gesture with all the grace he'd once exercised daily. Straightening, he drawled, "I would welcome you to my humble abode, Miss Clifford, only I have to wonder why you're here."
"Humble abode?" Her voice was husky, the tone a low contralto. Her gaze flashed to the three paintings hanging on the walls between the corridors - two Gainsboroughs and a Reynolds - then shifted to the large Gobelin tapestry on the wall behind him. "For a gambling king, sir, you have remarkable taste."
Interesting that she'd noticed, but he didn't distract that easily. "Indeed. But that doesn't answer my question."
Miranda was frantically assessing a different question: how to get out of this without a whisper of scandal. While most of her mind wrestled with that problem, the rest was thoroughly distracted; she hadn't had any mental image of Roscoe but not in her wildest dreams would she have imagined him as he was. As he stood before her.
He was tall, significantly taller than her, but his shoulders, chest, and long muscled limbs were in perfect proportion, creating an elegance of form that simply took her breath away. His attire, too, wasn't what she would have associated with a gambling king; in a superbly tailored dark coat over pristine ivory linen, with that gorgeously tied cravat, a subdued blue-, gray-and-black striped waistcoat with simple black buttons, and plain black trousers, he could give any ton exquisite points and he would still come out ahead.
As for the way he moved, and that drawl…quite what manner of man he was she wasn't sure, but a single glance into that chiseled face, at those well-set dark eyes steadily regarding her, at his patriarchal nose and sharply cut jaw, was enough to assure her that he wasn't manageable. More, that he was dangerous, on multiple levels and in complex ways.
The man who stood before her was a conundrum.
She had no experience dealing with such as he, but following her instincts had got her into this-perhaps they'd get her out. Tipping her chin higher, she held to her hauteur. "I'm here to rescue my brother."
One dark brow slowly arched. "Rescue?"
Undefined warning shaded the word. She ignored it. "Precisely. You cannot be so distanced from the polite world not to know that association with a man of your…propensities would be ruinous for my brother, should such an association become widely known."
No reaction showed in the hard planes of his face. An instant ticked by, then he said, "My propensities?"
She refused to be intimidated. "Your business. Your activities." She glanced at the front hall, then looked at him. "I'm unsure what form of entertainment you and your patrons are indulging in tonight, but if you would be so good as to let Mr. Clifford know that I am here and require his escort home, you will not be troubled by either him or me again."
Far from showing any inclination to accede to her request, he regarded her steadily, his dark eyes - she couldn't tell what color they were, but she didn't think they were black - studying her eyes, her face. His expression was unreadable, utterly uninterpretable.
"Tell me, Miss Clifford," he eventually said, his deep drawl almost a purr, "just what forms of entertainment do you imagine I provide for my…close acquaintances in the privacy of my home?"
Yes, she was in the wrong venturing into his house like this, but she'd be damned if she allowed a gambling king to patronize her. "I have no idea, and less interest, but the two that leapt to mind when I realized that Roderick was coming here were a private gambling party, or else an orgy. Regardless, I believe attending will not be in my brother's best interests, just as I know that associating with you will definitely not be to his advantage."
His heavy lids flickered, fleetingly screening his eyes. "Are you accusing me of corrupting your brother, Miss Clifford?"
She refused to quake at his quietly steely tone. "Are you?"
"No." But she wasn't the first lady to view him as a corrupter of innocents; perhaps that long ago echo was why Roscoe felt compelled to prove her wrong. To open her eyes to her misjudgment of him, to make her acknowledge it, and apologize, now, tonight.
He wasn't normally so sensitive; some part of his mind found it strange that she, a lady he hadn't previously met, had so quickly got under his skin sufficiently to needle him in such a very private spot.
A spot he was surprised to discover still tender. Regardless…
"I suggest, Miss Clifford, that you come with me." Stepping back, he waved her to the corridor leading off the far end of the gallery.
She viewed the corridor with open suspicion. "Why? I can just as well wait here until you send Roderick to me."
"Ah, but I have no intention of embarrassing your brother in such a way." He started strolling toward the corridor.
Three strides, and she huffed out a breath and came after him.
"Where are we going?"
"To a place from where you can watch our proceedings without any of my guests being aware of it."
"No!" She halted.
When he didn't stop walking, she hurried to catch up, then tipped up her chin and breathlessly amended, "That is, there's no need for me to see - "
"Oh, but there is." He kept his expression utterly impassive, but inside he was smiling.
Reaching a door set in the paneled wall, his hand on the knob, he halted and faced her. "You would have to possess a remarkably peculiar view of such things to imagine I would host an orgy in my library."
She blinked. "I would?"
"Trust me - I hold no orgies in my library. So the worst you're going to see is eight men gambling, although in fact it won't even be that." He met her gaze, open challenge in his eyes. "You followed your brother here intent on discovering what he was about-are you going to turn tail and run at this point, or are you brave enough to face the truth?"
He was enjoying himself, and despite his best efforts some glimmer must have shown. Her eyes slowly narrowed, then, lips firming, she nodded. "Very well. Show me."
Opening the door, he waved her in.
Head high, she stepped over the threshold. He followed her into the first floor gallery that circled the library proper, on the ground floor.
She clung to the shadows by the book-lined walls, staring down at the seven gentlemen seated about the central table. Ledgers and notebooks at the ready, they were waiting for him to open the meeting, meanwhile trading the usual social conversation gentlemen of their ilk used to pass the time.
The gallery was thickly carpeted, allowing Miss Clifford and him to move without attracting attention. Lifting a large armchair, he set it down by the gallery railing and waved her to it.
She hesitated, then crept forward and sat. He waited while she settled her cape and set her reticule in her lap, then, standing behind the chair, he leaned over her and whispered by her ear, "Unless you stand up, they won't see you. Unless you make a loud noise, they won't hear you. You, however, can see, and you'll be able to hear every word said about that table."
Ruthlessly suppressing the intense, unprecedented, and unnerving sensations that deep voice murmuring in her ear, his breath stirring the tiny tendrils of hair dangling about her nape, evoked, Miranda tuned her ears to the conversations about the table, and discovered he was right. The gallery was perfectly positioned acoustically; she could easily make out all that was said, even though the men were speaking relatively quietly.
Roscoe was still hovering over her-close, too close; his warmth, his strength, his scent-everything about his nearness made her senses seize. Her lungs felt so tight she could barely breathe; with an effort, she managed a nod.
Satisfied, he started to draw back, paused, then returned, lowering his head to murmur, again maddeningly in her ear, "Incidentally, we call ourselves the Philanthropy Guild."
Before she'd fully processed his words, he'd slipped back to the door and left.