Oh, Miss Whitmore. Just look at this horrid place.”
As she alighted from the coach, Clio took in the narrow, cobbled passage between two rows of warehouses. “It looks like an alleyway, Anna.”
“It smells of blood. Lord preserve us. We’ll be murdered.”
Clio bit back a smile. Her lady’s maid was a marvel with curling tongs, but her capacity for morbid imagination was truly unmatched.
“We will not be murdered.” After a moment’s thought, she added, “At least, not today.”
Miss Clio Whitmore had been raised by good parents, with the benefits of education and close attention to propriety, and she was engaged to marry England’s most promising young diplomat. She was not the sort of foolhardy young woman to go skulking about dodgy alleyways at midnight with an unloaded pistol in her pocket, in search of London’s most infamous scoundrel.
No, that would not do.
When Clio struck out in search of London’s most infamous scoundrel, she waited until midday. She entered the dodgy alleyway with a footman, her lady’s maid, and a minimum of skulking. And she didn’t carry any weapons at all.
Really, what could be the purpose? When the man you sought was a six-foot, sixteen-stone prizefighter, an unloaded pistol wouldn’t be any help. The lethal weapons in the mix were his fists, and a girl could only hope they were on her side.
Rafe, please be on my side. Just this once.
She led the way down the dank, narrow alley, hiking her lace-edged hem and taking care that her half boots didn’t catch on the uneven pavement.
Anna skipped from one to another of the cleaner cobblestones. “How does the second son of a marquess end up here?”
“On purpose. You may depend on it. Lord Rafe spurned good society years ago. He delights in anything brutish or coarse.”
Inwardly, Clio wondered. The last time she’d seen Rafe Brandon, the man who was to be her brother-in-law, he’d been nursing grave wounds. Not only the physical aftermath of the worst—more aptly, the only—defeat of his prizefighting career, but the blow of his father’s sudden death.
He’d looked low. Very low. But not so low as this.
“Here we are.” She rapped on the door and lifted her voice. “Lord Rafe? Are you there? It’s Miss . . .” She bit off the name. Perhaps it wasn’t wise to announce herself in a place like this. “I need only a few minutes of your time.”
That, and his signature. She clutched the sheaf of papers in her hand.
There was no answer.
“He’s not at home,” Anna said. “Please, Miss Whitmore. We need to be on our way if we’re to reach Twill Castle by nightfall.”
“Not just yet.”
Clio leaned close to the door. She heard sounds coming from within. The screech of chair legs across a floor. The occasional hollow thud.
Oh, he was in there. And he was ignoring her.
Clio was painfully accustomed to being ignored. Her engagement had given her years of practice.
When she was seventeen, Lord Piers Brandon, the handsome, dashing heir to the Marquess of Granville, had obeyed the wishes of their families and proposed marriage. He’d gone on bended knee in the Whitmore drawing room, sliding a gold-and-ruby ring on her third finger. To Clio, it had felt like a dream.
A dream with one snag. Piers had a new but promising career in foreign diplomacy, and Clio was rather young to assume the duties of managing a household. They had all the time in the world, he pointed out. She didn’t mind a long engagement, did she?
“Of course not,” she’d said.
Looking back, perhaps she should have given a different answer. Such as, “Define ‘long.’ ”
Eight years—and no weddings—later, Clio was still waiting.
By now, her situation was a public joke. The scandal sheets called her “Miss Wait-More.” The gossip trailed her everywhere. Just what could be keeping his lordship from England and the altar, they all wondered? Was it ambition, distraction . . . devotion to his duty?
Or devotion to a foreign mistress, perhaps?
No one could say. Least of all Clio herself. Oh, she tried to laugh away the rumors and smile at the jokes, but inside . . .
Inside, she was hurting. And utterly alone.
Well, that all ended today. Starting this moment, she was Miss Wait-No-Longer.
The brass door handle turned in her gloved grip, and the door swung open.
“Stay here,” she told the servants.
“But Miss Whitmore, it isn’t—”
“I will be fine. Yes, his reputation is scandalous, but we were friends in our childhood. I spent summers at his family home, and I’m engaged to marry his brother.”