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Not the Dukes Darling by Hoyt, Elizabeth (1)

Now this is how it all began.

Long, long ago there lived a powerful prince who had but one child, a daughter.

She was beautiful, haughty, and spoiled, and her name was Rowan.…

—From The Grey Court Changeling

May 1760
London, England

Had someone asked Freya Stewart de Moray at the age of twelve what she expected to be doing fifteen years later, she would’ve listed three things.

One, writing a pamphlet on the greater intelligence of females compared to males—especially males who were brothers.

Two, indulging in as much raspberry trifle as she pleased.

And three, breeding spaniels so that she might have an endless supply of puppies to play with.

She’d been very fond of puppies at twelve.

But that was before the Greycourt tragedy, which had torn her family apart and nearly killed her eldest brother, Ran.

Everything had changed after the tragedy.

Which was possibly why Freya’s twelve-year-old self could never have predicted what she was actually doing at seven and twenty: working as an agent of the ancient secret society of Wise Women.

Freya hurried along the London street toward Wapping Old Stairs. At the last cross street she’d realized that they were being followed. She glanced at her charges. Betsy was a nursemaid only just turned twenty. The girl was red faced and panting, her mouse-brown hair coming down around her damp cheeks, her eyes wide with terror. In the nursemaid’s arms was Alexander Bertrand, the seventh Earl of Brightwater.

Age one and a half.

Fortunately His Minute Lordship was asleep in Betsy’s arms, round cheeks pink and tiny rosebud mouth pursed.

Behind them were two disreputable men who looked very much as if they were stalking Freya and her charges.

Freya racked her brain, trying to think of a plan of escape. The day was sunny. Seagulls screamed above the Wapping streets. She and Betsy walked parallel to the Thames, only blocks away, and the fetid smell of the river was strong in the air.

She estimated that it was less than a quarter mile to Wapping Old Stairs. The street was busy at this time of day. Carts rattled by, filled with foreign goods brought through the Port of London. Smartly dressed merchants and ship captains bumped shoulders with staggering sailors already in their cups. Working-class women made sure to avoid the sailors, while women who worked the streets made sure to accost them.

Freya chanced another look behind.

They were still there.

The two men might simply be traveling in their direction. Or they might have been sent by Gerald Bertrand, Alexander’s paternal uncle, with orders to bring back the baby earl. If they took him, she wouldn’t have a second chance to rescue the toddler.

Or, of course, they might be Dunkelders.

Freya’s pulse picked up at that last thought. The Wise Women had long been hunted by Dunkelders—nasty, superstitious fanatics who knew about the Wise Women and believed they were witches who should be burned.

If the followers were either Dunkelders or Bertrand’s men, she had to do something soon, or they’d never make it to the stairs.

“What is it?” Betsy asked breathlessly. “Why do you keep looking back?”

“We’re being followed,” Freya told her as a huge black carriage came around the corner, moving toward them at a snail’s pace due to the crowded street.

Betsy moaned and hitched His Lordship higher in her arms.

The carriage door bore an ornate gold crest Freya didn’t recognize. Not that it really mattered. They needed safety and a place to hide from the men. Whoever the aristocrat in the carriage was, Freya was certain she could stall him for a minute or two.

That was all they needed.

She seized Betsy’s arm. “Run!”

Freya darted behind the carriage, pulling Betsy along with her. There was a shout from the men following them, and the carriage shuddered to a stop.

On the far side of the carriage she dragged Betsy to the door, wrenched it open, and shoved both nursemaid and baby inside. Freya leaped in, slamming the carriage door behind her.

She landed on hands and knees and looked up.

Betsy was sitting on the floor of the carriage, cowering away from a large yellow dog, who appeared to be regarding the maid with surprise. Miraculously, Alexander, the tiniest earl in all the land, hadn’t woken.

The gentleman beside the dog stirred. “I beg your pardon?”

At least that was what he said. What he quite obviously meant was, “What the bloody hell?”

Freya tore her gaze from the dog and looked up into cerulean eyes framed by thick black eyelashes. Lounging on the squabs, his legs stretched clear to the opposite seat, was Christopher Renshaw, the Duke of Harlowe.

The man who had helped destroy her brother Ran.

Freya’s breath seized, her eyes dropped, and she saw something else.

The bastard was wearing Ran’s signet ring.

Her gaze snapped back to his, and she waited for him to shout her name. For her true identity to be revealed after five long years of hiding in London.

Instead his expression changed not at all as he said, “Who are you?”

He didn’t recognize her.

He and Julian Greycourt had been Ran’s best friends. He had seen her every week of her life until the Greycourt tragedy. She’d once vowed to marry the swine. Of course she’d been twelve and that was before he’d nearly gotten Ran killed, but even so.

He didn’t recognize her.

What a complete and utter ass.

Freya straightened her bonnet and glared up at the duke. “You are not Lady Philippa.”

The duke’s eyebrows snapped down. “I—”

“What,” Freya said with rather enjoyable ire, “are you doing in Lady Philippa’s carriage?”

Said carriage lurched and began moving as Alexander woke with a whimper.

Outside a man cursed.

Freya made sure to keep her head below the level of the open window.

Someone pounded on the carriage door.

Harlowe looked from Freya to Betsy and the baby and then back to Freya again.

Holding her gaze, he stood.

Freya stilled.

Betsy and the baby sobbed.

Harlowe leaned over Freya and glanced out the window before shutting it and drawing the curtain. He resumed his seat, a muscle twitching in his jaw as his right hand dropped to the dog’s head. “I don’t know what trouble you might be in or why those brutes are after you.”

Freya opened her mouth, desperately thinking of a story.

The duke held up his hand. “Nor do I care. I’ll take you to Westminster. After that you’re on your own.”

Harlowe was offering to help them, two strangers? That didn’t make sense from the man who had so coldheartedly abandoned Ran.

But she had no time to ponder his vagary.

“Thank you,” Freya said, the words like acid etching hatred on her tongue. “But that won’t be necessary.” She looked at Betsy. “I’m going to jump out when next the coach slows. I want you to wait to the count of twenty and then follow.”

“What of the child?” the duke interrupted imperiously. “Surely you don’t wish to endanger the both of them by ordering her to jump from a moving carriage?”

“Then stop the coach for her,” Freya replied sweetly.

For a second they locked gazes. His face was wrathful. Obviously he wasn’t used to being given orders by anyone—a woman least of all.

Too bad.

Freya leaned close to Betsy and murmured in her ear, “Remember to head for Wapping Old Stairs and to look for the woman wearing a black cloak with a gray hood.”

“But what of you?” Betsy whispered frantically.

Freya straightened and gave the girl an encouraging smile. “I’ll find you, never fear.”

“Oh, miss—”

Freya shook her head firmly, bussed the baby earl on his adorably fat cheek, and winked at the duke. “A pleasure, Your Grace.”

Then she leaped from the carriage.

She stumbled when her boots hit the cobblestones, and for a ghastly second she thought she might go under the carriage wheels.

But she recovered.

Just as she heard a shout from behind her.

Freya hitched up her skirts in both hands and ran. She ducked down a road, heading to the river.

Behind her came the clatter of pursuit.

She turned into a narrow alley and skidded to a stop. At the other end was the second man.

Freya spun.

The first man was behind her, closing fast.

She darted into an arched opening to her right, coming out almost at once into a small courtyard enclosed on all sides by the surrounding buildings. The stink of the public privy was near overwhelming. She could see, straight ahead, the back of a tavern.

A man opened the door to the tavern and threw slops to the side.

Freya ran up the steps, pushed past him, and rushed into a steaming kitchen. Two maidservants looked up in astonishment as she ran through. The man at the back door belatedly swore behind her.

She found herself in a dark passage. There was a common room ahead and stairs to her right. She could try to hide in one of the rooms above, but that was a dead end. If they chased her up there, she’d be cornered.

Freya ran through the common room, where, except for a single lewd suggestion, no one paid her any mind. She came out of the front of the tavern onto the wharves. She could see the Thames beyond, the water sparkling in the sun prettily. Of course that was deceiving: the privy she’d just run past would empty directly into the river.

Freya turned to the left, heading east with the river on her right hand. She walked rapidly, for she’d gotten a stitch in her side from running. Her pursuers hadn’t emerged from the tavern. Perhaps she’d lost them.

Perhaps they’d caught Betsy and the baby.

Dear God, no.

A figure emerged from the alley just ahead. Freya started before she recognized Betsy. Relief nearly made her stumble.

The nursemaid was wild eyed. “Oh, thank the Lord I found you, miss. If Mr. Bertrand’s men catch me I don’t know what he’d do.”

“Then we shan’t let that happen,” Freya replied stoutly. She glanced at the earl and found him grinning at her around a fat finger stuck in his mouth. She pressed her lips together. “No, I won’t let either of you fall back into his hands.”

Behind them came a shout.

They’d been found.

“Hurry,” Freya urged, breaking into a jog. She could see the alley that led to Wapping Old Stairs just ahead.

Betsy was praying under her breath.

They weren’t going to make it. The stairs were too far, the men behind them too close.

“Give me the baby,” Freya said.

“Ma’am?” Betsy looked terrified, but she did as Freya ordered.

Freya wrapped her arms around Alexander’s little body. He started to cry, his open mouth wet against her neck. “Run for the stairs!”

Unencumbered by Lord Brightwater, Betsy flew.

The earl was wailing in Freya’s ears as she ran, his body shaking, his little face bright red with distress. If they caught her, she’d be unable to fight them off with the baby in her arms. She’d lose Alexander. His uncle would hide him away behind walls and guards and the laws made by men and she’d never get him back.

Up ahead a figure emerged from the mouth of the alley leading to the stairs. She was short and slight and wearing a black cloak with a gray hood.

She raised her arms, a pistol in each fist.

Freya dove for the ground, landing hard on her shoulder so the baby wouldn’t be hurt.

The blasts were simultaneous and so loud Lord Brightwater stopped crying, his mouth open, his eyes wide as he gasped.

He blinked up at her, tears in his big brown eyes.

Freya kissed him and then checked behind them.

One man was on the ground, swearing. The other had turned tail and run.

When Freya looked back, the Crow was striding to her. “You’re late.” She held out her hand to help Freya up.

“Thank you,” Freya muttered, taking the hand.

Together they hurried to the stairs.

Betsy was there, sobbing in the arms of an elegantly dressed woman with a beauty patch on her upper lip.

“Alexander!” The woman turned to them.

The Earl of Brightwater started struggling in Freya’s arms. “Mama.”

Freya handed the baby to his mother.

“Oh, my precious darling.” The widowed Countess of Brightwater hugged her only child close, pressing her cheek to his. She looked up at Freya, her eyes shining. “Thank you. You cannot know how much this means to me. I thought I’d never see Alexander again.”

The countess’s fears had nearly come true: her brother-in-law, Mr. Bertrand, had barred her from her son so that he could control both the countess and the estate left to his tiny nephew.

Freya nodded, but before she could draw breath to reply, the Crow said, “Best we leave immediately, my lady. We don’t know if there’s other men behind.”

Lady Brightwater nodded and turned to descend the stairs with Betsy. Freya could see a wherry waiting below.

“She and her servants have passage on a ship to the Colonies,” the Crow murmured. “They’ll be out of her brother-in-law’s influence there.”

“Good,” Freya replied softly. “A child should never be raised without a loving mother if it can be helped.”

The Crow cocked her head at Freya, but said only, “Be in the mews at midnight tonight. I have word.”

She turned and swiftly ran down the stairs.

Freya inhaled. Her part of the matter was finished. She watched as the little party got in the wherry and the wherryman pushed off from the steps. Betsy raised a hand in farewell.

Freya waved back. She’d probably never see Betsy, the adorable earl, or his mother again, but at least she’d know they were safe.

And that was everything.

*  *  *

Christopher Renshaw, the Duke of Harlowe, stared out the window of his carriage later that day as he traveled toward the West End of London.

His morning had been like any other since he’d returned to England—tedious—until a spitting wildcat had hurled herself into his carriage. He found himself entirely unable to stop thinking of her. She’d been like a splash of cold water to the face: shocking, but also refreshing. And like a splash of water she’d woken him up for the first time in months.

Perhaps years.

The woman had glared up at him from the floor of his carriage with beautiful green-gold eyes and challenged him, indifferent to the disadvantage of her position, literally at his feet.

It had been dumbfounding.

Intriguing.

In the two years since he’d rather implausibly gained the dukedom, he’d almost grown used to the awe, fawning, and frank greed his rank prompted in others. Few if any regarded him as a living, breathing man anymore.

And none treated him dismissively.

Except the wildcat.

She’d worn a plain brown dress and one of those ubiquitous white caps with a ruffle around her equally plain face, hiding both the color and style of her hair. She might’ve been a tavern keeper’s wife or a fishmonger, and had she not opened her mouth, he would’ve assumed her accent to be common. Instead he’d detected both education and a hint of Scotland.

And then there’d been that venomous glare, as if she knew him somehow and had cause to loathe him.

Tess leaned against his thigh as the carriage swayed around a corner.

Christopher absently dropped his hand to her head, rubbing the soft points of her ears between his fingers. “Perhaps she’s mad.”

Tess whined and placed her paw on his knee.

A corner of his mouth lifted. “In any case, no doubt that will be the last we see of her.”

He sighed and once again glanced out the carriage window. They were past Covent Gardens and nearly to Jackman’s Club. After a morning spent in Wapping warehouses, overseeing a new venture in shipping, followed by a tiresome afternoon in the city center, consulting with men of business, Christopher had a strong urge for coffee and an hour or so reading the newspapers in quiet.

And, as always, alone.

For years he’d been exiled from these shores. Had lived in a country with foreign sights and smells and people. And he had thought all that time—thirteen years—that when he returned to England, his birthplace, everything would be different.

That he would be home.

Except when he returned it was to a title too grand. To parents dead and friendships destroyed and turned to dust. To enormous manors that echoed with his solitary footsteps when he walked through them.

England was no longer home. All that he could’ve built and loved there had been lost as he spent his youth in India. It was too late to find a home now.

He did not belong anywhere.

*  *  *

Five minutes later Christopher entered Jackman’s with Tess. The livery-clad footman at the door blinked at the dog padding by Christopher’s side, but was far too well trained to make any objection.

Being a duke did have some advantages.

Jackman’s was fashionable but not too fashionable, and frequented by gentlemen who had lived in India and abroad. The selection of newspapers was one of the best in the city and the main reason he’d become a member.

He found a chair near the fire, had a footman open the window behind him, and was soon immersed in the news, a coffeepot on a small table at his elbow. Tess lay nearly under the table. He’d ordered a plate of muffins with his coffee, and every now and again he dropped a torn-off piece to Tess, who snapped it up.

Christopher was frowning over an account of the battle with the French at Wandiwash in southeast India when someone sat in the chair across from him.

Tess growled.

Christopher tensed. No one bothered him at Jackman’s.

He raised his head and saw that idiot Thomas Plimpton looking nervously at Tess.

Christopher snorted. He’d been back in England for nearly two years now and hadn’t seen Plimpton in four, but unless a miracle had occurred, the man was still the worst sort of coward. Plimpton had startled blue eyes, a round face, and a mouth that always seemed to be half-opened. Oddly these features somehow combined to make the man handsome—at least in ladies’ eyes.

Christopher stared at him.

“Ah…,” Plimpton said, sounding nervous, “might I have a word, Renshaw?”

“Harlowe,” Christopher drawled.

“I…beg your pardon?”

“I am,” Christopher said slowly and precisely, “the Duke of Harlowe.”

“Oh.” Plimpton swallowed visibly. “Y-yes, of course. Erm…Your Grace. Might I have a word?”

“No.” Christopher turned his attention back to the newspaper.

He heard a rustling and glanced up.

Plimpton had a piece of paper in his hand. “I’m in need of funds.”

Christopher didn’t reply. Frankly, he saw no point in encouraging the man’s impertinence. Plimpton knew well enough that Christopher despised him—and why.

But Plimpton must’ve found a shred of bravery somewhere. He lifted his chin. “I need ten thousand pounds. I’d like you to give it to me.”

Christopher slowly arched an eyebrow.

Plimpton gulped. “A-and if you don’t I shall make public this.”

He shoved the piece of paper at Christopher.

Christopher took it and opened what was obviously a letter. The messy handwriting inside was instantly recognizable and brought a small pang to his heart. Sophy.

His wife had been dead four years, but that didn’t end Christopher’s vow to honor and protect her.

He balled up the letter and flung it into the fire.

The paper immediately caught, flaming brightly before dying almost instantly. Gray ash crumpled into the grate.

“That’s not the only one I have,” Plimpton said predictably.

Christopher waited.

Plimpton still had his chin up, a gallant, defiant look in his eyes. No doubt the man fancied himself some sort of chivalrous knight. He’d certainly cast himself in the role of hero in India. “I have many more letters, hidden in a safe place. A place you won’t be able to find. A-and if something happens to me, I’ve left instructions to publish them.”

Did the idiot think he’d murder him? Christopher merely looked at the man, but Tess growled again, the sound low and threatening.

Plimpton’s eyes widened, darting to the dog and back up to Christopher’s face. “In a fortnight your brother-in-law, Baron Lovejoy, will hold a house party. I’ve been invited and no doubt you have as well. Bring the money there and in exchange I’ll give you the letters.”

Christopher inhaled and for a moment debated his next action. He despised social events, and a house party by its very premise was a confined affair without respite from fellow guests. He could refuse and do something nasty to Plimpton instead, but really in the end paying for the damned letters was the easiest and least complicated course.

All the letters.” Christopher made it a statement.

“Y-yes, all the—”

Christopher stood and walked away while Plimpton was still stuttering out his reply, Tess trotting by his side. Better to leave rather than do something he might regret later.

He’d failed Sophy once. He wasn’t about to fail her again.

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