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     Trapped in the countryside, facing an unwanted marriage and the theft of her fortune, Jane Mason is done behaving nicely. To win her freedom, she’ll strike a deal with the most dangerous man she knowsa rising star in politics, whose dark good looks mask an even darker heart.

     The bitter past has taught Crispin Burke to trust no one. He’ll gladly help a lovely young heiress, provided she pays a price. Yet when a single mistake shatters his life, it is Jane who holds the key to his salvation. And in a world that no longer makes sense, Crispin slowly realizes that she may be the only thing worth fighting for...

A Lady’s Code of Misconduct - Excerpt

“He’s not coming.”

The smooth words came from behind her. Jane felt a horrible surprise, followed by a bolt of acidic nausea. Of course it would be Crispin Burke who caught her.

She kept her eyes on the old clock in the corner. The tavern was crowded, ruddy workmen slumped in exhaustion at the wooden tables around her. These same men—miners, farmers, decent men all—were made of nobler stuff than anyone at Marylebigh. They would find the energy to protest, should they see a young lady dragged screaming from the taproom.

“I tried to warn you.” Burke’s voice remained calm, low-pitched. “I’ll do so again: don’t make a scene.”

She turned. Burke was straddling the bench on other side of her table, a tankard of ale cupped in his hands. How had she missed his entrance, much less his passage to the bar? Nobody overlooked Burke. When he strode in, great dark coat flapping, the world itself paused. He was beautiful, the rippling waves of his dark hair and the strong bones of his face framing black eyes that shone with a dangerous intelligence. Beautiful as a cobra.

“Why should I not cause a scene?” she asked flatly. “Sparing you is no concern of mine.”

His gaze was dark, cold and steady. “Then spare yourself. It won’t work.”

“Oh,” she said, struggling to keep her voice light, scathing, when it wanted to shake. She could not go back! “My uncle’s dog threatens to bite! Careful, sir. You will not want to injure the golden goose.”

One corner of his mouth lifted—the barest intimation of a smile. “Goose, indeed. If you wished to run away, you should have waited until your uncle went to town.”

Wait? She had already waited six years. If she waited any longer, she would…why, she would lose her mind. A woman could not pretend to be brainless forever without the charade becoming truth. Her wits were rotting by the hour.

But of course a man like Burke could not imagine what that was like. To live, day after day, as a shadow—to speak and be ignored, as though one’s words made no sound. To protest and be patted on the head, as though one’s concerns were a child’s. Her uncle had not burned the embroidery in an outrage, Jane thought suddenly, but in the righteous grip of moral duty. His niece’s role was to be used, not to think or speak or feel. And so, in the very act of communicating an opinion, she had committed the egregious offense of insisting on her humanity.

Burke glimpsed none of this. He barely knew her, for all that he was a regular visitor to Marylebigh. Nobody bothered to know her.

“You will have to tie me up and drag me back,” she said. “And I will make sure there are witnesses. Your political career will not profit from it.”

“Goodness. All for Mr. Pine?” He took a long swallow of his beer. “A heated passion, was it? Let me guess. He pledged his devotion while shoveling manure. Vowed to see to your comfort, while mucking out a box-stall.”

She refused to look away from him, though his dark eyes mocked her.

“How fierce you look,” Burke murmured. “If this is the face you showed your lover, it’s no wonder he chose to jilt you.”

She and Mr. Pine had never been lovers. Their agreement had been practical: an arthritic stable-master with failing eyesight required money for retirement. An heiress kept prisoner by her family required a husband to access her funds. Voila: the perfect match.

A terrible thought struck her. “What did you do to him?” She leaned forward. “If you have hurt Mr. Pine, I will make you regret it.”

He leaned forward too. “Will you now?” he asked, in a warm and interested voice.

She clenched her jaw. He imagined her powerless, of course—an heiress whose money was controlled by her guardian, who knew nobody that her uncle did not introduce to her.

But he did not know everything. Sometimes, watching her family speak so cruelly of others, plot so mercilessly to exploit the world, Jane felt an intimation of that same wickedness in herself. Only she would use it for noble ends. Given a chance, granted access to her own money, she would punish those who amused themselves by making others’ lives harder. “Justice finds a way,” she said. “Even if it takes time.”

Mr. Burke’s smile displayed white, even teeth. He’d been raised in luxury, but he had the lounging, easy posture of a man bred to street brawls. “The mouse grows claws.”

“You mistake me,” she said. “I have always had them.”

His glance flickered briefly. At least she was surprising him. “I did nothing to Pine. Your uncle made him an offer, which he accepted of his own free will. By now, if he is wise, he will be on the road to somewhere far, far away. Wherever five hundred pounds will take him.”

Liar. “Five hundred pounds is nothing next to what I offered.”

Mr. Burke drummed his fingers atop the scarred wood table. The ruby cabochon on his middle finger glittered violently. “Cowards take what they can get.”

She drew a strangled breath and looked away, her gaze fixing on the fire, which grew blurry through the haze of rising tears. It had taken a great deal of persuasion to talk Mr. Pine into her plan. A comfortable retirement in some warm, dry climate—absolute freedom to do as he wished. The prospect had finally won out over his fear of her uncle.

But she could well imagine that when confronted by the Masons, Mr. Pine’s dreams of a pretty cottage in Cornwall had collapsed under terror.

How smug her uncle must feel right now! She was only surprised that he had not sent Archie to route her. Burke was too lofty to run such errands. He was a star in the House of Commons, whose aristocratic connections gave him the upper hand over her uncle, despite her uncle’s access to her wealth.

“You make a fine messenger boy,” she said. “And here I mistook you for a man with a spine.”

“Your uncle did not send me.”

Startled, she frowned at him. The fire painted his skin golden; his black eyes reflected the flames.

It distressed her that she sometimes dreamed of him. In those dreams he was a different person, kinder, gentler. She always woke disturbed. Beauty had a horrible power. It did not conceal faults so much as it persuaded the viewer to ignore them, and to disregard the gut instinct that screamed,

“If my uncle didn’t send you, why are you here?”

Burke shrugged. “Mason intends to leave you stewing for a time. And then he will send Archibald to fetch you.”

She digested this bitterness. “Teaching me a lesson, is he?”

“You’ve been quite foolish.” Burke’s tone was almost gentle. “Archibald will come alone, you see. I cannot say, Miss Mason, what might transpire between you on the road home. But upon your arrival at Marylebigh, I feel certain that the Rushdens will discover you together. Returning at midnight, in a state of disrepair, your gown perhaps ripped, with no chaperone…”

She could not breathe.

“It could be covered up,” he went on with dreadful patience, “if only the Rushdens did not witness it. Your uncle will be alarmed and mortified. He will insist that his son does his duty by you. The Rushdens will approve, and carry the tale of your engagement far and wide—as well as the cause for it. You will not be allowed to refuse this time.”

Comprehension iced through her. “I will not marry Archibald.” She had said so time and again. “No one can force me.”

“No one could have done,” Burke agreed. “But you made it possible. You arranged your own disgrace.” He paused. “You, and Jonathan Pine. How convenient! Mr. Pine certainly earned his payment tonight.”

She recoiled so sharply that the bench tipped. As it slammed back against the flagstones, the noise drew attention from rough men nearby. Mr. Burke appeared unalarmed by their scowls. He lifted his tankard to them, his smile easy.

She battled a temptation to speak to the onlookers—to beg for their help. But nobody could help her. Her uncle was the most powerful man in the county, his influence built from the funds he steadily siphoned from her inheritance—and the cleverness and power of his friends.

Burke gave a soft laugh. “I wish you joy of your marriage, Miss Mason.”

As he rose, she leapt up. “Wait! I don’t—” She could not marry Archie. She would not live the rest of her life beneath her uncle’s thumb. “Please, you must help me.” Burke was allied to her uncle for a reason. Born high, but a second son, he had no fortune of his own. “I offered Pine five thousand pounds,” she said. “I will offer you the same if you help me to escape.”

Burke turned back, considering her from head to toe. The thoroughness of his inspection made her aware of her disheveled state. She had walked four miles in the rain and mud; her skirts were stained, her hair straggling.

Burke was right: the guests at Marylebigh would leap to the worst conclusion if they witnessed her returning alone, in Archibald’s company.

“I do not want your money,” he said.

“Ten thousand, then.”

He smiled faintly. “Perhaps there is something else you might do for me. We might, as they say, become friends.”

She had a vague notion of what friendship meant to a man like Burke. It had nothing to do with affection, and everything to do with conspiracies.

“I have nothing to offer but money,” she said.

“Not true.” Burke sat back down, and so did she. “You know everything that goes on in your uncle’s household. They speak freely around you.”

Jane hesitated. Did they not speak freely around him? She knew Burke had been quarreling more and more with her uncle—it was the debate over the Mutiny that had first put them at odds. Philip was a warmonger, whereas Burke preferred subtler methods of intimidation. Still, she had imagined their alliance unbreakable. “You want me to…spy for you?”

“I want you to use your brain,” he said coolly. “You don’t wish to marry Archibald? Then what you need is a friend—one who might do you favors, in return for those which you do him.”

She felt a wave of revulsion. Was this how Burke conducted his career? Like a spider in the dark, weaving webs of conspiracies and shameful debts. At least her uncle’s motives were straightforward, his politics dictated by what would enrich him.

But she’d long guessed Burke to be a more poisonous species. He had a cool temper, a clever mind, endless charm. He used people and then, elegantly, destroyed them. He never forgot a name or face or a slight against him. She had heard him quote, verbatim, conversations she had long forgotten, and pinpoint weaknesses in opponents that no honorable man would admit to knowing.

He would overtake her uncle one day, and eat him alive.

“You would do anything,” she said unsteadily, “to become prime minister. Wouldn’t you?” That Uncle Philip did not foresee the danger to himself amazed her.

Burke laughed, a low and beautiful sound that made her control a flinch. “Certainly,” he said. “Far worse things than this, to be sure. And more useful things, too. For whatever reason, I am feeling benevolent tonight.”

“How fortunate for me,” she said, full of sarcasm.

His sigh sounded impatient. “I’ll spare you the midnight ruination. In return, you will listen for a single name, and tell me whatever you hear spoken of it. Are we agreed?”

That did seem a simple trade. But she knew better than to trust such simplicity. Whosever name it was, it would lead her down a twisted path. “Oh,” she said softly, bitterly, “to be free of all of you!”

Burke snorted. “You are not on a stage, darling. Spare me the melodrama. If freedom is your aim, then do what you must. Otherwise, I’m off.”

She took a deep breath. What choice did she have? “Yes,” she whispered. “Tell me the name.”


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