A Marriage Most Convenient
Ladies’ Amateur Sleuth Society series: Book Four
Robyn receives more reader emails regarding this missing book than anything else. She’s heard you and she won’t let you down. The 4th book in her popular Ladies’ Amateur Sleuth Society series is coming, hopefully in 2013. Until then you can enjoy the prologue here.
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There are four ladies in London who have a most unladylike hobby: solving mysteries. No conundrum is too great for these young women. Until they stumble upon the Jack of Hearts, a scandalous rogue who steals jewels from the rich and may well steal the heart of one of their own.
It was beginning to bore him. It being stealing. Pilfering, burglary, thievery, as it were. Initially, he’d had a task at hand. Stealing something quite specific. But the thrill of the charade had been enthralling, a challenge, and a rather daring one at that.
But now he had become a novelty. The Jack of Hearts.
If the Jack of Hearts made an appearance at your ball or soiree, then it was instantly considered a smashing success. He’d been intent on hanging up his mask, even though he’d failed to acquire all of the family heirlooms his mother had sold. The Viscountess who’d purchased one of the pieces—a brooch—rarely appeared in public. When he’d heard she would be at tonight’s soirée, he’d known the Jack of Hearts would make one final appearance. The brooch was just too tempting. And now here he was — his bag full of useless bobbles, half of them not even authentic stones — crouched in the shadows outside of Mayfair Hall. Jack sighed and turned to go.
“I said, no thank you, Winthrop,” a familiar female voice said firmly. “I do not take kindly to unwanted advances.”
Jack stopped and listened intently to the exchange on the balcony above him. He peered between the bushes and watched Winthrop Cowell grip Charlotte Reed’s arm.
“Don’t be so demure, Miss Reed, I merely wanted a kiss,” the man’s words were badly slurred. Clearly he was well into his cups. “Now, hold still.”
Jack stepped forward, primed to make a move, to stop the man from taking advantage of Charlotte, but before he could step out of the shadows, she shoved against Winthrop’s bulky chest knocking the man off balance. He stumbled backwards and knocked over a potted topiary, the ceramic base shattered against the stone balcony.
“Go back inside before I find your intended and tell her of your outrageous behavior,” Charlotte said, her voice sharp with authority. “I have absolutely no desire to kiss you tonight or any other night.”
Winthrop turned and skulked back into the ballroom, leaving her alone in the darkness.
Jack took a moment to watch her. He, the real him, had known Charlotte Reed for years. He’d watched her grow into the stunning beauty she was today. The legendary Charlotte Reed who’d turned down more proposals than any woman ought to receive let alone reject. He’d be a liar if he said he hadn’t wanted her too once upon a time until he’d seen Charlotte’s true character, seen her vanity. And he knew that Charlotte Reed was not interested in him, at least not the real him. Jack waited a moment longer to ensure Winthrop didn’t return before turning to leave.
“Who’s there?” Charlotte called out. She took the steps from the balcony to the yard and peered into the darkness. Her dark brown hair was piled atop her head coupled with the low cut neckline of her gown and it made her neck seem impossibly, seductively long. The graceful curve called to him, immobilizing him. He loathed his own weakness and that he couldn’t make himself walk away.
“How did you know I was here?” Jack asked, but he kept himself hidden in the shrubbery.
“I heard you rustling in the bushes. What are you doing out there?” Her eyes squinted, still trying to make out who stood in the shadows. Then she smiled broadly. “Are you alone out there or am I interrupting you tryst?” Curiosity shimmered in her eyes. She took the stairs down from the balcony and looked out into the yard, directly at the clump of shrubs that shrouded him.
He cleared his throat. “I am alone and I was planning to come to your rescue, to save you from your unwanted suitor, but you managed matters on your own quite nicely,” he said, intentionally deepening his voice. It was on his tongue to remind her she should not have put herself in such a position, that she should be more careful with her safety. But tonight he was Jack and Jack cared for no one’s safety, not even his own.
Charlotte took several steps towards him, twigs cracked beneath her slippers as she approached him. He stepped around a bush, revealing himself as he knew he’d never leave without her seeing him.
Surprise etched her features as a smile slid into place. He had heard rumor that she, in particular, fancied the Jack of Hearts. Many women in London did. Many of the fashionable young ladies did, those with nothing in their heads but gossip and scandal. “Have a lovely evening, Miss Reed,” Jack said as he turned to go.
“Wait,” she said. “Don’t go yet.” She shook her head. “How do you know my name?”
The tempo of his heart picked up. He was risking much by standing here, holding a bag full of stolen jewels and wearing a mask. Attracting the attention of a girl like Charlotte was one thing, but if anyone else stumbled out onto the terrace and discovered them, he’d be in serious trouble. Jack would be quickly apprehended and unmasked. The scandal that ensued would ruin his life and likely Charlotte’s as well. He should leave, yet he made no move to walk away.
“I won’t call for help,” she said. “I merely want to converse. For a moment.”
He turned back to face her. Her rich blue dress molded tightly to her full breasts, leaving little to his imagination. The color of the fabric was dark enough to enhance the alabaster of her skin. Even though he doubted the dress was new, the Reeds did not have deep pockets, she had taken great care with her appearance. She was a vision. Quite easily the loveliest woman in all of London.
Her brilliant smile gave his breath pause and made his hands twitch.
He concentrated on his tone as he spoke, “A lady, such as yourself, shouldn’t be out here alone.”
“Well, you won’t harm me,” she reached out as if to touch him, then thought better of it and brought her hand back to her side. So she did have some sense. “Will you, Jack?”
The sound of the name, his name on her lips sent a mixture of pride and anger coursing through him. He reached up to ensure his mask was firmly in place. She was flirting with him. He could see it in her face, and the way her mouth was set, the subtle batting of her lashes. So the rumors were true, Charlotte fancied him.
Well, not him, per se, but the him she believed him to be. He winced. For a moment he considered reaching up and ripped the mask from his face, but he kept his hands still. He had managed to keep his identity a secret for this long, it wouldn’t kill him to do it one more night. Revealing himself to Charlotte wouldn’t change anything. It certainly wouldn’t make her want him, the real him.
“You could escort me to the gardens,” she suggested. “Like any gentleman could with a lady.”
Well, if he had to play the part, he would do it right. “What makes you think I am a gentleman?” he took a step towards her.
Her head tilted down a little as if she were trying to see him more closely. “You don’t have a reputation for ravishing, only theft.”
“Are the two so different, then?” It was easy now. This role of Jack. He was in his skin, feeling every bit the rogue. And he knew he was playing a dangerous game, but no matter the warnings in his head, he couldn’t make himself turn from her.
“Touché.” Her voice was sultry and if he didn’t know any better, he’d assume she was far more worldly then he knew her to be.
“Tell me, Miss Reed, are you always so brazen with men?” Perhaps if he called her on her behavior, she’d cease her recklessness. What if she’d fancied some other rogue, a true cad would take advantage of her?
She shook her head, her blue eyes never leaving his face. He would have sworn she could see right through that mask. But if that were true, she would no longer be standing in front of him. If she could see him, the real him, she would have walked away moments ago, bored with their exchange.
“Only those I find intriguing,” she said. Her lips curved in a slight smile revealing the dimple in her left cheek.
It seemed a bit amusing, if not ironic, that the lovely Charlotte Reed was enamored with the Jack of Hearts. The untouchable, beauty who had turned down countless proposals. The woman he himself had once fancied. “Intriguing,” he repeated.
She took several steps towards him. “Utterly captivating.”
Her flirtations were dangerous and with another other man she would have been in serious danger of losing her virtue. She needed to be warned, but he knew words would not send the message. Without thought to the repercussions, Jack placed one hand on her elbow and pulled her to him.
“Captivated or not, you should be more careful where danger lurks.” And with that he leaned down and planted a firm kiss on her lips.
He was careful not to allow himself to indulge his own desires, just a quick kiss meant to warn her. A kiss intended to let her know how dangerous her behavior was, flirting with a rogue. But her lips were warm and pliant so maintaining control was a test of wills. And soon his only thought was his desire to coax her mouth open and explore precisely how far this fancy of hers went.
She was most assuredly a willing partner, being kissed in the moonlight by a masked stranger. Her willingness was intoxicating and he knew he would take more than he ought if he did not walk away from her now. In the next moment he forced himself to break away from the kiss, then he quickly turned and disappeared into the darkness.
Once seated inside the confines of his carriage, he pulled off his mask and tossed it to the other side. He swore loudly. He’d let his guard down with her and with it, his ability to make intelligent decisions. He hadn’t maintained his secret identity this long by being foolish and reckless. Yes, it had taken considerable nerve and risk, but equal to that was the extensive planning. And tonight he’d forgotten all of that. He’d told himself he was teaching her a lesson, but he knew that wasn’t completely true.
It was time. Time to make Jack disappear. Time to just be himself.