on May 9th 2017
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Four dukes. Two balls. One prizefight.
Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens will never be the same.
After England’s victory in the Battle of Waterloo, the Prince Regent arranges a series of lavish celebrations at London’s notorious Vauxhall Gardens. The royal festivities bring together the rich and the desperate, the criminal and the lordly…and allow four very different dukes to find the love of a lifetime.
A proper viscount is kidnapped by a duke of the criminal underworld, only to encounter a mysterious woman from his past. A retired prizefighter, once known as the Duke of the Ring, stakes his reputation on a scrappy young boxer for the sake of a long-lost love. A traveler who inherited a dukedom needs a tightrope dancer’s help with a fake engagement that just might turn real. And the buccaneer son of a royal duke goes hunting for a respectable, highborn wife to salvage his scandalous reputation.
Let the pleasures begin...
This week we will be visiting with the authors of The Dukes of Vauxhall. We will be posting our review at the end of the week.
In this excerpt from Shana Galen’s contribution to The Dukes of Vauxhall, “Taken By the Duke,” Henry, who is in charge of the festivities at Vauxhall and Kate, who is a master criminal, meet again after neither has kept their end of a previously arranged bargain.
If Henry judged by the crush of bodies, the masquerade held in the Grove was a resounding success. All of London—and a sizable portion of the other cities in England—had come to Vauxhall for the first night of celebrations in honor of the prince and Wellington’s victory over Napoleon.
The night was in its infancy, which meant the masquerade was still tame. Women wore the garb of ancient goddesses, shepherdesses, and milkmaids. Others dressed as brightly plumed birds or lushly attired lions and tigers. The men were more staid in their dominoes and masks. Some had dressed as heroic warriors of the past or political figures of the present, but most, like Henry, had worn a coat and breeches and donned a simple mask.
“Splendid,” Prinny said, slapping Henry on the shoulder. Henry glanced at the Prince Regent, whose face was brightly rouged and accented with a black beauty mark on one cheek. The prince had come as Zeus, the Greek god of Olympus. Henry didn’t know where the man had found so much gold fabric. There must have been yards and yards of it encompassing the prince’s large figure.
“Your costume is brilliant, Your Highness,” Henry said.
The prince preened. “Do you think so? Skiffy had it made for me.”
That explained quite a lot.
“Do you think it too risqué?” the prince whispered loudly. “Is it too shocking that I show my legs?”
Henry had studiously avoided looking at the prince’s pale and skinny legs. He might have preferred the prince dress more like his brothers, Cumberland and York who’d dressed as a knight and a gladiator, but Henry supposed it could have been worse. “It is a bold statement, Your Highness.”
The prince smiled, drinking in the flattery as he always did. “And you managed to do all of this on that meager budget you proposed?” he asked, extending his hand over the crowd of dancers.
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“But there will be fireworks later?”
“Of course, sir.”
“And we will not run out of champagne?”
“No.” At least, the prince would not. The rest of the guests had been given one drink ticket with the cost of admission. If they wanted additional glasses of champagne, they had to pay. Henry had expected more grumbling at the cost of a ticket to the masked ball, but despite the high price, people had eagerly paid it. It seemed to him that the more it cost, the more people clamored to attend.
The prince cared nothing for those details. He cared only that his ball was a crush and that the food and drink flowed freely.
“If you’ll excuse me, Your Highness, I have matters to attend to.”
“Always working, aren’t you, Bexley? Have a little fun!”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
The prince sighed when Henry didn’t immediately begin drinking or dancing and waved him away, turning to his friend Baron Alvanley.
Henry did not run in the other direction, not precisely, but he could not disguise his relief at having that part of the evening over and done. He’d have to speak with the prince again later this evening, but he would not think of that now.
Now he had more pressing concerns.
And the biggest of those was a criminal called the Duke of Vauxhall. He still couldn’t quite believe that little Kate Dunn was the notorious Duke of Vauxhall. Henry had read about the notorious rogue. Everyone from the Mayor of London to the Bow Street Runners had called for his apprehension. Of course, what they didn’t know was that the Duke of Vauxhall wasn’t a man at all. That was how Kate had managed to evade detection this long. No one was looking for a young woman, and Henry imagined she could switch disguises quickly if it became necessary.
What amazed him was that her men had kept her secret. It was possible some of the newer members of the gang did not know she was a woman. After all, the disguise had fooled him. But it wouldn’t have fooled him for long. Any close inspection of her face or the way her bottom was just a bit too curvy in her trousers would reveal who she really was. Her gang was either intensely loyal or too terrified to snitch on her.
Henry nodded at the two constables who now flanked him whenever he went out, and the three of them moved away from the prince and his cronies and to another box, where Henry might observe the ball. These boxes, raised platforms that were covered, had sold for an additional sum. It offered those who had the funds a place to sit and watch the masque between dances. Of course, patrons could always purchase one of the supper boxes that lined three sides of the Grove, but these new boxes were more ornate and offered better prospects. Henry had reserved this one for himself. The prince’s box had the best view of the dancing, but Henry had a clear view from this box as well.
He’d determined that everything seemed to be operating just as he wanted when a young girl all in white caught his eye. She wore a gold mask and a gold coronet over a long cascade of dark curls. Her dress was Greek in style, leaving her arms and shoulders bare. Gold braiding twined about the woman’s waist, accentuating its slenderness, and crisscrossed her chest, drawing attention to her small but round bosom. She was small and delicate, accompanied by a larger man wearing a mask and domino that completely concealed his face and all but the very back of his hair.
As she moved through the crowd, men stopped her to exchange a word or two. She smiled up at them, her teeth white against the red of her lips. She spoke with one man now. His gaze was intent upon her, and Henry happened to wonder what her partner thought of the attention she garnered. He glanced at the man in the domino just as he reached into the pocket of the man speaking to the lovely woman. When he had the other man’s purse under his domino and out of view, he put his hand on the lady’s elbow and they moved on.
Henry felt ice slide down his back. It was Kate. It had to be. And the man with her—Henry narrowed his eyes and caught the flash of ginger hair—was Red.
Henry shouldn’t have been surprised she was here. He supposed it was too much to hope that she’d leave Vauxhall to him for the duration of the celebration. But when she hadn’t answered the letters he’d sent to her at The Griffin and the Unicorn, he’d thought perhaps she had reconsidered. Now he began to worry she hadn’t received the letters, which meant she would be looking to punish him for lying to her.
He flexed his fingers. He liked them all in one piece.
Clearly, the cautious thing to do—the safe thing—would be to stay here with his constables where he was protected. Of course, that was also the cowardly thing. Not to mention the irresponsible thing. In the time since he’d spotted her, she and her partner had stolen from three more men. At this rate, all of his guests would be complaining about being robbed. That certainly wouldn’t show the prince and his celebration in the best light. Henry glanced about for his constables. Why didn’t they stop the little thief?
But though they were watching, their gazes sharp, it seemed they either looked past Kate or their gazes lingered on her figure, not on the man taking advantage of her charm and beauty to rob the guests—Henry’s guests—blind.
“Bloody hell.” Henry turned and started for the door.
“Should we follow, my lord?” one of his private constables asked.
“Yes, and be ready. We must apprehend a thief.”
“Yes, my lord!”
Henry walked quickly and with purpose to the edge of the dance floor. Of course, when he reached the last location he’d seen her, she wasn’t there any longer. But he soon spotted the long curls threaded with gold. It must have been a wig, but it was an expensive one. It looked real enough, especially as he neared and saw it in more detail. Before he could reach out to touch her arm, Red stepped in front of him.
“Step back, sir. She is with me.”
Henry raised his mask. “I think you are the one who had better step back. As of right now, you are both with me.” He jerked his head toward his men, who moved forward. But just then Kate whirled and gave him a bright smile. Henry blinked and had to remind himself to breathe. She obviously had a similar effect on his constables, because they stopped midstep.
“Lord Bexley,” Kate said sweetly, her accent distinctly upper class. “How lovely to see you again.”
Henry inclined his head. “And you, Miss Dunn. I’d like to speak to you in private.”
“Would you?” Her smiled remained fixed in place, but her dark eyes were hard and cold. He was right to think she would be angry with him. She was furious. If she had any iron bars within reach, he was done for.
“I think there might be a misunderstanding,” he said.
“Is that what you are calling it?” She lifted her hand and made a shooing motion. “By all means, lead the way. I find I have a few words for you as well, my lord.”
He offered her his arm, because it was the correct thing to do and because he didn’t trust her not to stab him in the back. His constables flanked Red, and the five of them started away. But as soon as Kate realized they were headed for the boxes, she drew back. “No, not private enough, and I don’t like to be boxed in.” She smiled. Kate and her bad puns.
“I’m not sure exactly how private I want to be with you, Miss Dunn,” Henry said.
“Then you shall have to trust me when I say we will want to be very private indeed, my lord.” She whispered the words, her tone teasing and full of promise. To his annoyance, Henry felt himself go hard. His body reacted to her, even though his mind knew she would rather slit his throat than allow him to kiss her.
And in spite of what he knew about her, what he’d learned about her, he did want to kiss her. The problem was that he’d kissed her before—years ago, true—and he’d never forgotten those kisses.
“Where would you suggest, Miss Dunn?” he asked.
“I know a grotto not far from here. I would think it deserted this early in the evening. If it’s not, then Red will speak with the occupants on our behalf.”
Henry glanced over his shoulder at her thug. “Yes, I’m sure he will.” He allowed her to lead the way, and though she led him into a part of the gardens with which he was unfamiliar, it was not so far from the ball that he worried he would be lost or would not be heard should he need assistance. The grotto was in shadow, but the nearby lamps shed some light. It was also empty, the cave being shallow enough that he could see inside to where an iron bench sat beside a small waterfall.
“Shall we?” she asked, indicating the grotto. “Your…friends may wait out here with Red. We can choose to be in full view the entire time.”
Choose to be in full view… Did that mean the grotto curved back so that a portion of it was shielded from passersby? Knowing Vauxhall as he did, Henry suspected that was the case. He tried not to ignore the way his heart pounded harder at the thought of being alone with Kate, out of view, and her in the thin white costume.
He followed her into the grotto, sitting beside her when she situated herself on the bench. The waterfall behind them was small enough that they didn’t have to raise their voices to be heard, but it would muffle their words and keep sound from carrying.
Kate turned to him as soon as he sat. “Do you know how close to death you are?”
Too late, Henry caught the glint of the knife in her hand.