“Jiminy! What am I to do now?” Hermione muttered as she glanced down at her sleeve. Though she could see the capucine silk, she knew from the mirror in the retiring room it was exactly as she wished, exactly as that foolish French novel had described the perpetually cursed Zoe. To everyone around her, there was no sign of her exquisite gown, her perfectly coiffed hair, or even the dainty slippers she’d chosen because the laces wound enticingly up her ankles and calves—and if a lady knew how to turn her hem just so during a dance, they offered a teasing glance at her legs.
Now it was all a complete waste of her pin money!
Just then, Lord Hustings wandered by, punch glasses still in hand, searching the wings for her. Hermione opened her mouth to call to him, then instead snapped her lips shut.
The poor man could barely find her when she was visible, but in her current state? But as luck would have it, Thomasin and India bumped into him, relieved him of his punch, and gave him the news of her “illness.”
Thank goodness for her friends, she thought, as the young baron took the disastrous turn in the evening’s events in great stride by asking India to dance.
“Oh, poor India,” Hermione whispered as she watched her friend accept and put her hand on the baron’s sleeve. Hustings was a terrible bore, and India and Thomasin were forever teasing her about his attentions. “She’ll never forgive me for having to stand up with him.”
And worse yet, how was he going to notice her. Not Hustings.
Him. The only man who truly mattered to her heart.
Rockhurst. She sighed and rose up on her tiptoes to search the room for him. Her gaze lit first on Quince making her excuses to her mother, and true to form, Lady Walbrook believed the story without fail.
There were advantages to having a mother who wasn’t . . . well, quite all there.
So where the devil was Rockhurst? It would be just her luck to make such a nonsensical wish only to find the man had already left! But even as she was about to give up, a tall figure swept past her.
Hermione’s stomach turned with that all-too-familiar queasy tilt. The one that always overcame her every time the earl came into view.
She spun around to find the Earl of Rockhurst standing not ten feet from her. He’d paused in a doorway, one she thought she’d seen a servant using earlier. Hermione swore his gaze bored directly into her.
Of course that was foolish. He couldn’t see her.
Not that he ever has before, she thought wryly.
Still, if being ignored by him was so devastating on her nerves, bearing the full light of his towering examination was enough to send her fleeing all the way back to the retiring room.
It was all she could do to breathe, for she’d never been able to just stare at him thusly.
Well, to be honest, gape at him, as she was doing now.
His tawny hair, like burnished gold, was combed back, though the style barely contained the wavy mane. Her fingers curled into her palm, as she gazed at the strong line of his jaw. How she’d always wanted to trace over his jaw, run her fingers over the stone cut of his lips. Then there were his eyes. How she’d longed for that cool blue gaze to cast its magic in her direction, to shine for her and her only.
For then he’d cross the most crowded ballroom, ignoring one and all as he rushed to be by her side, his gaze burning with desire. And there she would be, surrounded by beaux and would-be suitors, and he’d brush them all aside to take her hand.
But before she could get to her favorite part—where he kissed her and she swooned to a chorus of matronly protests at such rakish behavior—something nudged her awake.
Her eyes sprang open, only to find the earl was gone, having slipped through the door and out of sight. Odder still, she had no idea who had bumped her, for there was no one around her. Then that something nudged her again, pulling her toward the door through which he’d disappeared.
After a few involuntary steps, she stopped, only to find herself being yanked again, but this time she knew why.
She glanced down at her hand where the culprit sat wound around her finger. Charlotte’s ring!
Hermione froze, on the brink of nausea and something else. Curiosity. Undeniable, unbearable curiosity.
Wherever was the Earl of Rockhurst going in such a hurry?
And whether it was the ring nudging her forward, or her own desire to discover his secrets, she rushed to the door and slipped through it. Pulled along, the ring thrumming happily on her hand, she made her way down a narrow hallway, which she discovered led to the kitchens in the back, where the chaos of the evening was in full swing.
It was one thing to gracefully navigate a crowded assembly room—even when one was visible—but to get through a raft of servants bearing great collections of cups and trays of Almack’s infamously stale offerings, when one was unseen, was an entirely different matter.
Yet there was her quarry, dashing out the back door and into the alley, and Hermione could not resist the compelling and undeniable need to follow him.
She dashed and darted and weaved her way through the room and almost made it to the other side when a large man, laden with an enormous tray of cups swung around, another man side-stepped him, but in the process bumped into Hermione sending her skittering into the tray. She caught her balance by catching hold of the tray, tipping it and sending the cups flying in all directions.
“Why you idiot, look what you made me do!”
The accused turned a black eyed gaze on his fellow server. “I dinna come near ye. Dinna be blamin’ me for your clod-handed ways.”
“Oh, dear,” Hermione whispered, as the two men came close to fisticuffs. She was going to have to learn to be more careful, she realized as she found her way the last few feet through the kitchen and out the back door.
The alley was a far cry from the grand entranceway of Almack’s and in the dim gloom it was nearly impossible to discern a path. She grimaced, that is until she looked ahead and spied at the end of the byway, silhouetted in the street lamp, the narrow figure of a wolfhound.
“Rowan,” she whispered, never so glad to see the earl’s grand dog. For if Rowan was there, the earl wasn’t far away.
And then, as if on cue, Rockhurst stepped from the shadows, his hand reaching over and giving his constant companion’s head a friendly ruffle. The dog gazed up at his master, and the two of them stood there, on the edge of night, not quite stepping into the light beyond, still clinging to the safety of the shadows.
This time her breath froze in her throat for other reasons. She couldn’t shake the notion that the two of them had stood thusly many times—countless nights—watching the darkness fall upon the city before they ventured forth.
And she had to imagine it had nothing to do with spooning broth to orphans or aiding war widows. A chill ran down her spine as she crept toward them, drawn by a desire she didn’t even understand.
Didn’t know if she wanted to . . .
Just then, a curricle pulled up to the curb, the driver hopping down from the high perch. “My lord,” the man said, bobbing his head.
“Evening, Tunstall.” Rockhurst said.
“Evening, my lord,” the driver replied. “I heard a fine one just a bit ago—”
Hermione continued to draw nearer still for she couldn’t make out all of what Lord Rockhurst’s driver was saying. That is until her slipper squished into something. In the meager light she couldn’t tell how bad it was, but she had to imagine that in the morning, her slipper would be beyond repair.
And she certainly wasn’t about to take it off and see the damage for herself, for she’d most likely ruin her gloves and they were her best pair—why it had taken her weeks to find just the right shade of silk and then another week to find the right embroidery pattern—
Rockhurst’s deep laughter drew her attention back to the matters at hand. “You say Trent and his wife were thrown out of the British Museum? Gads, that Miss Wilmont is a remarkable woman to have led Trent so far astray. Who’d have ever thought—” His words ended and she swore the earl glanced toward Mayfair, toward Berkeley Square where her brother would eventually bring his bride home.
A niggle of jealousy ran down her spine. So the earl had held a tendré for Charlotte! Still might . . . a little voice whispered in her ear. And without her ever wearing a hint of capucine.
Hermione shored up her shoulders. It was that blue opera dress she’d convinced Charlotte to buy. Well, first thing tomorrow she was going to Madame Claudius’s shop and engage her to make another gown just like Charlotte’s.
And then she’d wear it to Lady Hogshaw’s soiree and the earl would be unable to . . .
She stumbled forward as the ring once again nudged her. “Yes, yes,” she complained, realizing her dreams of new dresses were for naught as long as she remained invisible. So there was nothing for her to do but to continue to follow the earl until she could put an end to this wish. Simply discover his secret haunts and then she’d be back to her old self. That sounded sensible enough. But when she glanced up, she found Rockhurst leaping up into the driver’s seat of his curricle.
Tossing a coin to his man, Tunstall, he said, “Catch a hackney back home and then seek your bed. I don’t think I’ll be home before first light.” Then he whistled to Rowan, who trotted a few steps back and then turned and loped back toward the carriage, jumping into his place beside his master.
Hermione glanced over her shoulder toward the door to Almack’s. She had promised Quince quite faithfully that she would wait for her in the alcove, but how could she when she had this opportunity?
With the ribbons in his hands, Rockhurst whistled to his horses and the animals’ ears flicked and turned at the sound, their hooves dancing.
And like a child called by the sound of pipe, Hermione moved as well, dashing across the pavement and onto the back of the carriage, the spot usually reserved for the tiger.
Luckily for her, the street wasn’t well paved, so when she bounced onto the back, jolting the carriage, the only one to give any note was Rowan, who barked and growled.
Rockhurst shot a glance over his shoulder, and seeing nothing, gave the dog another scratch. “Settle in, you foolish hound. There’s nothing back there. Save yourself for the real fight ahead.”
Fight? Whatever could that mean? Hermione wondered, as she scrambled into place.
Oh, he must be jesting. Or so she thought. That is, until they left the more civilized part of London behind, at least the London she knew, and very quickly descended into the very depths of hell.
The house on the dark street was only discernible from the other dreary shops and doorways by the grand peacock painted on the double portals.
When Rockhurst had pulled the curricle to a stop before it, Hermione’s heart sank. For secretly she had wished, dreamed really, that Rockhurst’s nightly ramblings had some grand raison d’être—he was gambling to save orphans, or to rescue a distant, yet noble cousin from a French prison.
But whatever he was doing here had nothing to do with anything grand, she surmised as he got down, not that she could see. Shadowy people made their way along the dark street, creeping along, giving the earl and his carriage a wide berth, as if he were the one to be feared.
Yet there he stood, casually leaning against the side of his curricle. He struck a match to the heel of his boot and lit a cheroot, paying no heed to anything other than the bright glow of the burning tobacco.
Above them, soft light spilled from the various windows, while laughter, a kind she’d never heard before—rough and rowdy—echoed out. Some of it masculine, and some, decidedly female.
Hermione had to guess this was just the sort of place she’d heard Sebastian chastising Griffin for frequenting. At least she thought it was—one of London’s infamous gaming hells, where fortunes noble and grand and illicit and ill-gotten were won and lost on a nightly basis. Corinthian and bounder, cit and duke could be found deep in cards or dice.
Rockhurst continued to wait, but for what, she couldn’t imagine.
Rowan, on the other hand, leapt down from his spot and made his determined way straight for her side of the curricle.
“Nice doggy,” she whispered down to him. “Nice Rowan.”
The earl’s dog replied by growling low, then barking as if the world were about to end.
“Rowan!” the earl snapped, dropping his cheroot and crushing it with the heel of his boot. Then he came around the carriage to where Rowan had her cornered in the tiger’s seat. “Be still.”
Hermione held her breath, for she’d only been this close to Rockhurst a few times, and that odd flip of her stomach was starting to rise again.
Oh, no, I can’t, she realized, her hand coming to her mouth. If she tossed up her accounts, he’d discover her for sure. That is, if his demmed dog didn’t give her away first.
Just then the door with the peacock opened, light and music and laughter pouring out. Down the steps teetered the largest woman Hermione had ever seen. She wasn’t just fat, she was tall, as tall as the earl, and honestly, all the more intimidating in her grand red gown and garish makeup.
Then Hermione took a second glance at both the woman coming down the steps and up at the various windows, her mouth dropping open. This wasn’t some gaming hell . . . but a . . . a brothel!
Up until now, Hermione had been quite content in her fantasy that the outrageous rumors about the earl were just that: outrageous and hardly grounded in fact.
But now . . . well, certainly, as she stared up at the woman on the steps, she knew without a doubt she was going to be sick.
This was the sort of woman Rockhurst preferred?
But that was before the proprietress spoke—in a gravely, rough-hewn voice that drew Hermione’s gaze faster than a sale on silks.
“Rockhurst, demmed fuckin’ time you got your arse down here. The entire place is going to hell! Literally. And I blame you for this. I won’t see a single profit tonight if you don’t do something. And do it now.”
“Jiminy,” Hermione whispered. The woman on the steps was . . . a man.
And now that she took another look, she realized she, or rather he, looked like something out of one of her mother’s amateur theatricals. Which didn’t give Hermione any sense of comfort.
“I could leave, Cappon,” the earl said, whistling to Rowan and climbing back up into his curricle. “Serve you right if I did. Haven’t paid me for the last time I got dragged down here.” The two men stared at each other for a moment and then Rockhurst shrugged and started to pick up the reins.
“Don’t you dare, Rockhurst!” Cappon called out, coming down the steps, his thick meaty hands fisted into his red silk skirts to lift them above the filth on the steps and pavement. “You’ve a duty here.”
“And you’ve a duty to pay me,” Rockhurst shot over his shoulder. “That’s the way the tribute works.”
Again, they stared at each other, the earl calm and easy, while Hermione could see Cappon’s rouged jowls and lips working back and forth. After what seemed an eternity, the madame snapped his fingers, and a dwarf of a man dressed in equally bright silks came from within the house and hurried down the steps to the sidewalk.
“Pay his nibs, Tibbets,” Cappon ordered. The dwarf tossed up a pouch and Rockhurst caught it and gave it a simple heft, as if to measure it.
“A bit short,” he said, curling the ribbons around his hands, his horses dancing in the traces, as if as anxious as anyone in their right mind would be to leave such a place.
Cappon heaved another aggrieved sigh and said, “The rest, Tibbets. Give him the rest.”
Another pouch flew up from the little man’s stubby fingers and Rockhurst caught this one just as deftly, it landing in his hand with a heavy thud and the jangle of coins.
“Now that’s more like it,” the earl told Cappon, tossing the reins down to Tibbets and climbing back down. He reached under the seat and hauled out a large bag, slinging it over his shoulder, the contents rattling about with the same heavy mystery as the coins in the pouch. “Now who is it you want me to kill this time?”