The Duke and the Lady Sleuth
by Nancy Pirri
After Miss Scarlet Warden proves to her sister that her husband is being unfaithful, word spreads. Soon Scarlet is getting calls from her other female friends begging her to spy on their husbands. To help them, Scarlet goes undercover as the governess in various households in her quest for the truth. Guilty men soon fear her, but Hugh Henry Hamilton, the Duke of Danescliffe, agrees with what Scarlet is doing. When Scarlet is accosted, Hugh takes it upon himself to watch after her. It does not take long for the duke to decide that Scarlet is the only lady for him.
Release Date: February 27, 2018
Genre: Historical Romance Novella
~ A Pink Satin Romance ~
The dark London skies opened up and slivers of icy rain poured down upon Scarlet Warden’s plumed hat just as she departed her coach. She glared up and pushed a fist at the sky. “Not now, when I’m on a mission!” Then she plucked up her subdued gray skirts and hurried up the Drury Lane Theater’s steps. When she reached the top, the attendant held the door open for her.
“Thank you,” she murmured as she swept inside.
Glancing around the crowded lobby, typical for a Saturday evening play outing in London, she despaired of ever finding her brother-in-law in the masses. Thankful for her stature, she easily searched over the heads of the attendees for her sister’s husband—her sister’s unfaithful husband—the Earl of Hawthorne, James Madison Humphrey. By the end of the evening, she would have the evidence she required to convince Emma of her husband’s unfaithfulness.
Her gaze swept the crowd as she moved forward, brushing against people as she passed them. She felt curious gazes upon her, but ignored them. Scarlet was used to people staring, due to her unusual height and unfashionable manner of dressing. Her gown, made of silk and adorned with matching lace, was old but serviceable and utterly unfashionable, in this age of opulent embellishment on women’s attire. Scarlet could easily afford more fashionable gowns, but her practical nature prevented her from purchasing new ones when the old gowns were just fine.
After taking up a position against a pillar, she searched for several minutes but couldn’t find James. She decided to visit her family’s box. She wouldn’t put it past James to do something so brazen as to use it for himself and his mistress. Heavens! Family and friends could see James and his mistress together, which would bring humiliation to them all, while her sister was at home, with her third pregnancy. As Scarlet took to another set of richly carpeted steps, she thought over her plan of attack against her brother-in-law.
A few weeks ago, Scarlet had spied James with Maureen Kenton together, at the Andreeson’s home. Maureen was the wife of a wealthy textile merchant. Scarlett, a good friend of Lady Audrey Andreeson, happened to be at the ball as well. Midway into the evening Scarlet decided she required some fresh air and made her way onto the balcony facing the back yard and the lush rose gardens.
The night had been dark and misting with light rain as she stood in the balcony’s shadows and looked upon the couple kissing in the garden below. With a sigh, she leaned back against a balustrade and watched them with envy, imagining what it would be like to be swept up in a man’s embrace and kissed—really kissed; imagined how it would feel to be some man’s wife. She had moved further back into the shadows when the couple turned and moved toward her to climb the steps leading into the manor. Their faces had been illuminated upon entry, and Scarlet had smacked her hand against her mouth to prevent her gasp of surprise at the sight of her brother-in-law, James, with Mrs. Kenton.
She had also spied Lord Andreeson in the gardens earlier that evening with his own mistress, and had reluctantly reported the episode to Lady Andreeson. Scarlet left Lord and Lady Andreeson the next day and, with a sad heart, went home to break the awful news about James’s infidelity to her sister.
What was wrong with people she’d wondered? Why would Lord Andreeson and James dally with another when they had perfectly wonderful spouses at home?
Scarlet had hated telling Lady Andreeson, but was glad she had afterwards. It seemed her friend had been gathering her own information about her husband’s behavior for some time. Scarlet’s news heightened the case against him. Lady Andreeson believed she’d gathered enough evidence to divorce him and maintain custody of her children and a healthy income upon which to live. This news did not make Scarlet happy for she had no desire to tear marriages apart, but to try to help mend them.
Upon hearing the truth, her sister had been furious—not at her husband—but at Scarlet. Emma had refused to believe James had been in the rose garden with another woman. With the darkness, Emma demanded, how could she tell? Never mind the fact Scarlet had had a clear view of James, a man she had known since childhood.
For as long as she could remember, James had been in love with her sister. His sudden infidelity disturbed and puzzled her. Before confronting him, she decided to pay a visit to her solicitor, Maynard Gandt. She’d been discouraged to learn that the laws regarding divorce were not in a woman’s best interest. A woman stood to lose her home and her children and any monetary compensation besides—unless there was definitive proof of a husband’s infidelity.
Proof was exactly what her sister wanted, and Scarlet planned to obtain it this evening. If she didn’t catch James with his mistress, then she would somehow have to force her brother-in-law to confess his unfaithfulness to Emma. Then Emma would have no problem gaining a divorce, monetary compensation from her husband and custody of her children. Once the divorce was final, she would live with Emma and help her care for the children.
Scarlet slowed her steps as she reached the landing that led to her family’s play box. The theater balcony on this side of the auditorium housed three boxes. Her family’s box was the first one in that row of three. She saw the curtain was closed on all four sides, surrounding the box so one couldn’t see inside. Heaving a deep sigh, she guessed James was there. Slowly, she parted the curtain, hating how her hand trembled, anxious, yet at the same time, dreading what she would see.
Her heart sank when she saw James sat in the front row of the six seats in the box, a woman astride his lap with her skirts raised, facing him, her body moving up and down rhythmically, her arms entwined around James’s neck. The woman tossed her head back and Scarlet saw pure pleasure on Mrs. Maureen Kenton’s face.
Scarlet swallowed the lump in her throat when she saw James’s hands on the woman’s waist, lifting her up and down upon his body. Heat flooded Scarlet’s cheeks and traveled down her neck to settle in her chest at the sight of the lovers. A strange feeling seemed to settle between her thighs as she watched them, unable to look away. Not wanting to watch any longer, for she had more than enough evidence, she started to release the curtain but paused when she saw the woman’s malevolent gaze on her.
“We have a voyeur in our midst, darling,” the woman murmured.
James immediately released Mrs. Kenton. He yanked her up from his lap, set her aside then scrambled to his feet. He kept his back to Scarlet and she knew he was likely putting his clothing back together. Then he whirled around to face her, anger and confusion in his eyes.
Scarlet’s grip on the curtain’s edge tightened as she looked at him contemptuously, then at Mrs. Kenton. Fury tore through her at the satisfied expression on the beautiful woman’s face. The woman turned away then and sat down on the seat, casually rearranging the skirts of her lavish gown.
Scarlet’s gaze narrowed on James’s visage. For a brief moment, she saw terror in his eyes, but now his expression was accusing.
“Scarlet,” he snapped, “I had no idea you would be attending the play tonight. I have heard it will be quite...disturbing. You shouldn’t be here.”
“Yes, I’d heard The Vampire is playing. I wonder what ever possessed Dion Boucicault to write such a gory tale.”
James continued glaring at her, swept an errant lock of hair back from his forehead and grumbled softly, “You had no business watching us. None at all.”
“True, but alas, quite necessary.”
He took a step nearer. She didn’t back down but lifted her chin and met his angry gaze straight on for they were of the same height.
Reaching out a hand, he implored, “Think about what you are planning. Think how this could hurt your sister.”
“Give me a good reason why I shouldn’t tell her.”
“If I promise not to...”
“I wouldn’t believe you,” she snapped, “especially since this isn’t the first time I’ve seen you with another woman—this woman, in particular.”
“When...?” She didn’t reply and then he decided it must not matter for he said, “What will you do?”
Scarlet heard the gravity in his voice. He should be wary, grave, and repentant toward her sister. “It’s not what I willdo, but what you will. You will tell Emma about your affair, and then she will decide what to do.”
He tugged on his vest and puffed out his chest. “I love Emma, you know I do.”
A shriek split the silence in the box and Maureen Kenton rose to her feet, her visage filled with hatred. She slapped James’s cheek a ringing blow. “You love her still? After she kicked you from her bed for months?” she asked shrilly. “You promised me—”
“I promised you nothing, Mrs. Kenton, absolutely nothing,” James snarled, rubbing his cheek.
Scarlet was thankful for the noise from the crowd, yet annoyed to see the lone play attendee in the neighboring box had heard the woman’s cry, for he was staring directly at her. Thank heavens no one could see the occupants inside. Scarlet met the man’s gaze, saw his lips twitch, whether in derision or humor, she was uncertain. He wore his hair as many men did—clipped short and slicked back with maccaser oil—smooth and shiny black in color. Before pulling her gaze away from his blue-eyed one, she caught a glimpse of cynicism in the man’s expression.
“Could we be a bit quieter,” she whispered, “and—”
“No! I won’t be quiet!” Mrs. Kenton’s voice heightened in fury. She turned her glare from Scarlet to James again. “Well!” she huffed. “You led me to believe you loved me.”
“I never made a proclamation of that sort, Mrs. Kenton,” James said softly. “I’m sorry you misunderstood me.”
“I’ll call a coach and accompany—”
“Do not bother!” Mrs. Kenton raised her hand, ready to strike him again when he caught her wrist. With another indignant snort, she pulled her hand from his, lifted her skirts, swept around him, and shoved Scarlet out of her way out of the box. James’s shoulders slumped as he sank into his seat. He ducked his head and closed his eyes.
Scarlet moved into the concealed box, sat down in the seat beside him, and held her reticule tight on her lap. “So that is the reason you sought another woman then? Because Emma wouldn’t allow you...to touch her?”
He raised his head and stared at her. “No. I wouldn’t allow myself to claim my conjugal rights. Her doctor said she’s too delicate.”
“Does Emma know this? Did the doctor inform her?”
“Yes.” He chuckled mirthlessly. “She told me to ignore what the doctor said and that she was fit as can be. Still I refused to endanger her or our child.” The pleading look he gave her didn’t move her to feel one iota of sympathy for him. “I’ve hurt her, I’m afraid, by rejecting her, even though I explained once the babe is born, we would be together again.”
Scarlet snapped, “You say you love her, and yet you have the inability to stay true to Emma during her confinement.”
“I know, I know,” he groaned. “I am the weakest of husbands.” He sighed. “Did Emma know about this? Did she send you to spy on me?”
“No. She didn’t know, as a matter of fact, when I saw you at the Andreeson’s home I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
“Why couldn’t you have turned a blind eye to all of this, Scarlet?”
How could I?” she protested. “Emma is my dear sister. Do not paint me to be the villain here, young man!”
He laughed mirthlessly. “Damn, Scarlet, but you cannot play the big sister to me, just because you’re three years older. We’re not children anymore.”
“Sometimes I feel eons older than you and Emma.”
They had played together as children—at least Emma and James had. Three years was not much difference in age, but Scarlet had always felt much older. James and Emma had always been so lighthearted, and they had loved each other from their first kiss at the age of fourteen.
Scarlet thought about Emma, huge with child, sitting at home alone, sobbing, and wondering on the whereabouts of her husband. Ever since Emma and James married five years ago, Scarlet wished and dreamed of a husband of her own. Pragmatic now, after seeing the failure of her sister’s marriage, perhaps it was better being alone.
Yet, after speaking with Emma, and now with James, she knew they loved each other, even though James had given into the temptation of the flesh with another woman. Perhaps, now that he’d been caught, he’d stay true to Emma. She prayed he would because Emma loved him dearly. And she believed James’s words—that he loved her sister. Scarlet shook her head then, refusing to be so sympathetic when her sister’s heart and livelihood were at stake.
At twenty-seven, she didn’t fault a man for bedding a woman—if the couple was unattached and the arrangement mutual. If, however, a man was married, then he was married, bound by God and man to be faithful. He should only turn to his wife and no other woman, even if it meant months of suffering when the wife was with child before she accepted him into her bed once more.
Irony tore through her. Perhaps she was a romantic, after all.
She saw James swallow, his eyes misting with tears. Music started playing, which forced her to speak louder. “Why couldn’t you remain celibate during those months of Emma’s confinement?”
“Seven months of celibacy is a long time to suffer. You, of course, don’t know of such things, but it is a very long time.”
Heat flared through her cheeks. True, her spinsterhood did not include love and passion. She’d never made love with a man—actually, she’d only been kissed twice in her life. Still, she had dreams of what it would be like. What it would feel like to be the one important person in one man’s life. To have her own husband, and children. She imagined what it would be like to snuggle in bed with her husband and share talk of a day’s happenings in his arms, and… She snapped back to the present when the lights dimmed, and the music grew louder, the play about to begin.
“Do you think this has been easy for Emma?” she asked. “Can you ever imagine her turning to another man for what you two have together?”
“No,” he choked. “I cannot. I dare not think of that ever happening.”
“Then you must stop. Or you will lose her.”
“Only if you tell.”
Despairingly, he said, “Then she will hate me—will never forgive me.”
“And why should she?” she spat. “You’ll need to earn her love and trust again. If she means as much to you as you say, then you’ll do so, and you’ll have to suffer during the journey to win her love again. Do you understand?”
His nod was his only reply.
“I think it’s time you returned home to your wife, don’t you?”
He nodded again, heaved a deep sigh, and rose. Looking down at her, he gave her a sorrowful little smile. “I gather you have transportation home?”
“Yes. I have arranged for the driver to return for me shortly.”
When she stood, he took her into his arms, gave her a brotherly hug, and then stepped back. She looked at him eye to eye.
“Good night, Scarlet.”
“Good night, James,” she whispered.
She watched him open the curtain completely, then leave, saw how his shoulders were slumped and rounded. Before leaving, she glanced to her right. Even though she couldn’t see the handsome man there due to the darkness, she felt his gaze upon her, and a chill traveled up her spine. Tilting up her chin, she left the box and made her way down the stairs.