The Truth About Cads and Dukes(2)

By: Elisa Braden

She crept toward the opposite end of the room where she imagined the door must be, skirting around the edge of the desk and only slightly bruising her hip on the arm of a stout chair. Rubbing the spot absently, she felt along the wall until she reached a series of raised panels. Ah, yes. The door. She paused, listening for any noise. Nothing. Aside from her thunderously loud heart, that was. Hand slick with sweat, she struggled to turn the knob, managing to crack the door an inch and peek out at a dimly lit corridor. Empty. No footsteps. Of course, it was past midnight, and Jane had been assured Lord Milton was away for several days, so finding servants wandering about would have been surprising.

Taking a deep breath, she opened the door wider and stepped out into the hall. Fine tremors shook her arms and threatened to buckle her knees. A bit of moonlight from a window at the end of the long corridor allowed her to count the doors. The one she sought was the third on the right. Or was it the left? Her stomach dropped as nerves made her doubt herself. No, it was the right. She scratched at her mask and adjusted her spectacles.

You are a dashed fool, she scolded, carefully sidling along the wall. This is it. No more reaching beyond yourself. Those days are over. O-V-E-R. You are Plain Jane Huxley, and that is that. It was sound advice. However, it did nothing to get her out of her current illicit act. That had been a promise made to a friend. And Jane Huxley always kept her promises, even when it was hard.

Deep breath. Door two.

A few more feet. There, now, door three.

Air whooshed out of tight lungs as she realized she had arrived. Her task was nearly finished. All she had to do now was open the door, find the necklace, and return home. Simple. She reached for the knob.

The sound of whispering stopped her hand, her breath, her heart. It froze her feet to the oak parquet. She flattened herself against the wall, glancing frantically side to side. No one had entered the corridor. But she could still hear the sound, faint and undeniable. It stopped, but only for a moment. She put her ear to the door. There. Whispering and … and movement, like rustling clothing and shifting feet. Many feet.

Oh, dear heavens. Someone was in that room. More than one someone, if her ears did not deceive her. Ice bloomed beneath her skin. It should have been empty. She’d been told it would be empty. Swallowing hard, she backed slowly toward the library.

Hands grabbed her arms from behind, squeezing hard into the fleshy parts just above her elbows. “Hold there,” an effete, refined voice sounded above her head. She squawked, tried to twist against the man’s grip, but he simply shoved her forward like a bit of seaweed on the crest of a wave. The third door on the right opened, he shoved her again, and she stumbled into the room. “Light it up, gentlemen!” the voice ordered. “Let’s have a look at our intrepid intruder, shall we?”

Suddenly, two lamps were simultaneously lit, and she could see what had been awaiting her. Men. More than a dozen. She squinted at them, unable to believe the sight. Everything moved slowly, as though in a dream. Or nightmare, she thought with distant horror. For, as her mind began working again, she realized some of the men were familiar. The short, prematurely balding one was Sir Christopher Flatmouth. Another she recognized as the second son of Lord Gattingford. She glanced right. Leaning negligently against a settee wearing an elegant gray coat and an unreadable expression was the thin, inexplicably attractive Viscount Chatham. She did not have to look behind her to confirm the man who had shoved her into the room was Lord Milton; she would know that lisp anywhere. To a man, they were all sons of the aristocracy. And to a man, they were all wastrels, the dissolute, perennially bored scoundrels of the ton.

Presently, their surprise at seeing her was wearing off, because many began to laugh uproariously. She even thought she heard a few “huzzahs” amidst the glee. She did not understand it. Why were they laughing? Cheering? Her answer came moments later when one of their members was shoved to the front of the crowd.

Her eyes widened, shock moving through her with tidal force. Curling blond hair tumbled artfully above sheepish blue eyes. His boyishly handsome features did not appear pleased, despite the backslapping congratulations coming from his friends. His face was ruddy, his posture unusually slumped—he looked like a child caught in the middle of mischief.

She had done this for him. She was standing amidst this briar patch of rakes and cads, dressed as a fat, incompetent highwayman. Because of him.

Heat shimmered along her neck and cheeks, but in all other aspects, numbness settled over her, as thick and paralyzing as ten feet of snow. Please let this not be happening. Dear God, this humiliation was intolerable. Nothing made sense. She only knew she could not get enough air, could not move from where she stood.