A heartbroken belle. A missing suitor.
A heroic duke in disguise...
Lucas Wakeford, the Duke of Fountainhurst,
has the whole ton fooled about his daring double life.
Including his fiancee.
Presenting your official Sneak Peek at Chapter 1 of
DUKE OF SHADOWS
(Moonlight Square, Book #4)
~ On Sale Now! ~
Chapter 1: The Highwayman
Lady Portia Tennesley clutched the leather hand-loop to keep from bumping her head as the carriage pitched along slowly. The horses could proceed no faster than a walk now that they’d turned off the road into the dark woods.
As the way before them narrowed to a leaf-strewn trail barely wide enough for the coach, she could hear the wheels grinding, the fine wooden chassis creaking in protest as the town coach labored along over the rough ground.
All the while, heart in her throat, Portia stared out the open window at the silver blades of moonlight piercing the thick tangle of black, twisted trees that hemmed them in on all sides.
Pale shafts of moonbeams pierced the forest’s inky gloom here and there, angling in through the ancient oaks’ thick, gnarled branches, winding vines, and masses of leaves.
The effect was eerie, menacing, while the June frogs croaked and chirped on endlessly in the hot, humid night. Their undulating chorus was deafening inside the airless woods.
There had been a breeze out on the road, but the wall of trees blocked it now; the heavy air stank of mulch and moss, layers of rotting leaves, and lush vegetation.
It was hard to imagine that this wild place lay just a few miles outside of London. Tonight, the moonlit barrens of Hampstead Heath felt like another world.
A dangerous one.
Everybody knew the place had been the haunt of highwaymen for centuries, as surely as Cornwall equaled smugglers and pirates. At that thought, a bead of sweat trickled down her nape and soaked into the collar of the black lace mourning gown she had donned to help hide her identity.
“Ach, my old bones can’t take much more o’ this,” Mrs. Berry said grimly beside her, likewise holding on for dear life as the coach lurched along.
“It can’t be much farther now.” Portia gave the old woman a brave nod before glancing out the window again, her senses on high alert.
For all she knew, spies in the trees might’ve already noted their presence and were even now carrying news of their approach to their underworld captain.
She sincerely hoped she and the servants would not all be murdered—though it was a little late now to be having second thoughts about the wisdom of her scheme.
Holding her dread in check, Portia peered out the window, keeping watch for a telltale light through the trees ahead that might prove to be the bandits’ forest hideaway.
It had to be here somewhere.
As she searched the darkness, a moth fluttered haplessly into the coach, since the windows were down. Twin clouds of the creatures had been drawn to the feeble lanterns mounted on either side of the driver’s box.
This one took a clever shortcut, passing through the coach’s interior to go and explore the other light. It brushed past Portia’s nose on its way, tickling her with light, silky wings, teasing her.
She waved it off, scowling—insects made her think of her fiancé—but a moth was nothing. Up on the driver’s box, the mosquitoes were apparently feasting on poor Cassius and Denny, by the sound of it.
“Ow!” she heard Denny mutter. Tonight, the husky young footman played driver. “Little bastards are eatin’ me alive.”
“Mind your tongue!” scolded Cassius the valet, also seated outside. “There’s a lady in earshot, you dolt.”
“Oops, forgot. Sorry I cursed, Lady Portia!” Denny called back.
“Shh!” Mrs. Berry retorted, poking her mob-capped head out the window to scold him. “Keep your voice down, Thump! Or forget the mosquitoes; you’ll have us surrounded by criminals. Young numskull,” the portly old housekeeper huffed, drawing her head back into the vehicle.
Mrs. Berry had long worked for Portia’s former beau, the Honorable Joel Clayton. Along with his valet, Cassius, and trusty (if dull-witted) footman, Denny, a.k.a. Thump, all three of the missing dandy’s devoted servants wanted their handsome young master back nearly as bad as Portia did. Once the inspiration for tonight’s risky venture had flooded her mind about a week ago, she’d had a feeling they might be willing to help in her mission, so she had sought them out and told them her plan.
Sure enough, the trio had been eager to join in her quest.
In truth, she got the feeling that Joel’s servants had been rather lost without some highborn person giving them any orders for over a year now, though they’d kept his fashionable bachelor apartments in tiptop order—as if the handsome rogue might come breezing in at any moment with a funny story about where the devil he’d been all this time.
Joel’s servants were all the more willing to heed Portia’s orders knowing she would have likely become the future lady of the house, if only their beloved Mr. Clayton had not disappeared without a trace.
Portia’s inspiration for how they might yet find and rescue him had filled them all with newfound hope, long after all hope seemed to have died.
And so here they were, creaking along through the woods. On their way to a meeting with a notorious brigand.
While Denny drove, slim, tidy Cassius played navigator. Sharp-eyed as he was—at least in matters of gentlemen’s fashion—the valet was in charge of following the mysterious instructions that the bespectacled newspaper reporter, Mr. Townsend, had entrusted to Portia in strictest secrecy about how to find the mysterious highwayman’s headquarters.
Townsend alone knew how to get messages back and forth to the legendary Silversmoke. Anyone wanting to plead for the famed outlaw’s help had to go through him. He was always the first to publish the latest tales of Silversmoke’s derring-do.
It was almost as if the reporter had inside information, and clearly, he did, for it was he who had set up tonight’s meeting for Portia.
No names, of course. It was also Mr. Townsend who had furtively given Portia all of her instructions on what to bring and where to go.
Apparently, Silversmoke trusted him. And so, the date and the time of their meeting had been set.
From the moment they had left Moonlight Square in London’s opulent West End tonight, Cassius, with Townsend’s directions in hand, had been directing Denny on which turns to take with the same meticulous care with which he would’ve ironed one of Joel’s fine bespoke shirts.
A sigh escaped Portia when she thought of her lost beau’s sartorial distinction, especially compared to her fiancé’s sad lack thereof.
Ah well. It was too late for her now, pledged to wed the duke, but if Joel was still alive and could be found, then at least his servants could keep their posts.
For her part, Portia would simply have to content herself with knowing he was safe. That would have to be enough.
But if the news was darker, if it turned out that her former favorite really was dead, then she didn’t care what became of her, so she might as well marry Fountainhurst as planned.
Such a grand match would be of great advantage to her family. Indeed, if she became a duchess, she might even be able to use her influence to help her wild elder brother reenter Society after his banishment.
If he ever came home to England, that was.
In any case, Portia knew perfectly well deep down that it was too late to back out of her lofty match now. She had stalled for as long as she possibly could, pushing the wedding back twice already with whatever excuses she could muster.
His Grace had barely noticed, thankfully. He seemed to shrug off her delays. At least, his letters gave no indication of annoyance, but it was hard to say, since the two of them had only been in the same room a total of three times.
Lucas Wakeford, the Duke of Fountainhurst, rarely came to London, so he’d written to her in reply, merely dashing off a line, saying: As it pleases you, my lady.
Beyond that, her rich, powerful future husband could not be bothered with her much.
Which was probably just as well. It seemed they both understood what this marriage signified: a typical, loveless alliance between two great houses.
And so much for her girlish dreams of ever finding true love.