Ravishing in Red
The first novel in a magnificent new quartet of historical romance
Audrianna Kelmsleigh is unattached, independent-and armed. Her adversary is Lord Sebastian Sommerhays. What they have in common is Audrianna's father, who died in a scandalous conspiracy-a deserved death in Sebastian's eyes. Audrianna vows to clear her father's name, never expecting to fall in love with the man devoted to destroying it...
An independent woman is a woman unprotected. Audrianna had never understood her cousin Daphne’s first lesson to her as well as she did today.
An independent woman was also a woman of dubious respectability.
Her entry into the Two Swords coaching inn outside Brighton garnered more attention than any proper young woman would like. Eyes examined her from head to toe. Several men watched her solitary path across the public room with bold interest, the likes of which she had never been subjected to before.
The assumptions implied by all those stares darkened her mood even more. She had embarked on this journey full of righteous determination. The shining sun and un- seasonably mild temperature for late January seemed de- signed by Providence to favor her great mission.
Providence had proven fickle. An hour out of London the wind, rain, and increasing cold had begun, making her deeply regret taking a seat on the coach’s roof. Now she was drenched from hours of frigid rain, and more than a little vexed.
She gathered her poise and sought out the innkeeper. She asked for a chamber for the night. He eyed her long and hard, then looked around for the man who had lost her.
“Is your husband dealing with the stable?”
The white crepe skin of his aging face creased into a scowl. His mouth pursed in five different ways while he examined her again.
“I’ve a small chamber that you can have, but it over- looks the stable yard.” His reluctant tone made it clear that he accommodated her against his better judgment. An independent woman also gets the worst room at the inn, it seemed. “It will do, if it is dry and warm.” “Come with me, then.”
He brought her to a room at the back of the second level. He built up the fire a little, but not much. She noted that there was not enough fuel to make it much warmer and also last through the night.
“I’ll be needing the first night’s fee in advance.”
Audrianna swallowed her sense of insult. She dug into her reticule for three shillings. It would more than cover the chamber for one night, but she pressed it all into the man’s hand.
“If someone arrives asking questions about Mr. Kelmsley, send that person up here but say nothing of my presence or anything else about me.”
Her request made him frown more, but the coins in his hand kept him mute. He left with the shillings and she assumed she had struck a bargain. She only hoped that the fruits of this mission would be worth the cost to her reputation.
She noted the money left in her reticule. By morning she expected most of it to be spent. She would only be gone from London two days, but this journey would deplete the savings that she had accumulated from all those music lessons. She would endure months of clumsy scales and whining girls to replace it.
She plucked a scrap of paper from her reticule. She held the paper to the light of the fire even though she knew its words by heart. The domino requests that Mr. Kelmsley meet him at the two swords in Brighton two nights hence, to discuss a matter of mutual benefit.
It had been sheer luck that she even knew this advertisement had been placed in the Times. If her friend Lizzie did not comb through all such notices, in every paper and scandal sheet available, it might have escaped Audrianna’s attention.
The surname was not spelled correctly, but she was sure the Mr. Kelmsley mentioned here was her father, Horatio Kelmsleigh. Clearly, whoever wanted to meet him did not know he was dead.
Images of her father invaded her mind. Her heart thickened and her eyes burned the way they always did whenever the memories overwhelmed her.
She saw him playing with her in the garden, and taking the blame when Mama scolded about her dirty shoes. She called up a distant, hazy memory of him, probably her oldest one. He was in his army uniform, so it was from before he sold his commission when Sarah was born, and took a position in the office of the Board of Ordnance, which over- saw the production of munitions during the war.
Mostly, however, she kept seeing his sad, troubled face during those last months, when he became the object of so much scorn.
She tucked the notice away. It had reminded her why she was here. Nothing else, not the rain or the stares or the rudeness, really mattered. Hopefully she was right in thinking this Domino possessed information that would have helped Papa clear his name.
She removed her blue mantle and the gray pelisse underneath and hung them on wall pegs to dry. She took off her bonnet and shook off the rain. Then she moved the chamber’s one lamp to a table beside the door, and the one wooden chair to the shadows in the facing corner, beyond the hearth. If she sat there, she would immediately be able to see whoever entered, but that person would not see her very well at all at first.
She set her valise on the chair and opened it. The rest of Daphne’s first lesson recited in her mind. An independent woman is a woman unprotected, so she must learn to protect herself. Reaching in, she removed the pistol that she had buried beneath her spare garments.
Lord Sebastian Summerhays handed his mount to a drenched stable boy. The lad got in the long line waiting attendance by the grooms of the Two Swords. Sebastian entered the inn’s public room. A cross section of humanity huddled there beneath its open-beamed ceiling. The rain had forced riders to take refuge, and coaches had been delayed. Women and children filled most of the chairs and benches, and men arrayed themselves around the perimeter, taking turns near the fire to dry off.
That was where Sebastian stationed himself while the worst of the weather dripped off his riding coat. The odor of damp wool and unwashed bodies filled the air. A few servants did their best to salvage some silk hats and crepe bonnets, while others served expensive, unappetizing food. Sebastian cast a practiced eye on the sea of faces, looking for one that appeared suspicious, foreign, or at least as curious as himself.
The advertisement’s use of a code name both annoyed and intrigued him. It would make this mission more difficult, but it also implied that secrets were involved. The notice itself, addressed to Kelmsley, indicated the writer did not know the man had been dead almost a year now. That in turn suggested the Domino was not from Lon- don, or perhaps not even from England. Since the name was not spelled correctly, Sebastian trusted that the Domino was not a good friend or close associate of Horatio Kelmsleigh. Hopefully, the Domino did not even know what Kelmsleigh looked like.
Kelmsleigh’s suicide had been unfortunate on many counts, one of which was the way it offered too easy an explanation for a mystery that Sebastian was sure had many more facets. Tonight he hoped to learn if he was correct.
“What ho, Summerhays. I did not expect to find you taking refuge along with me in this sorry way station.” The greeting near Sebastian’s ear jerked him out of his search of the room. Grayson, Earl of Hawkeswell, beamed alongside him with a near empty tumbler of hot wine in hand. A smile of delight stretched beneath his blue eyes and artfully clipped black hair.
“A cloudburst caught me five miles back,” Sebastian said. Hawkeswell was an old friend, and had been a close companion in his wilder days. Sebastian would normally be delighted to have his company to pass what promised to be a miserable night, but Sebastian’s reason for being here made Hawkeswell an inconvenient discovery. “Are you on your way up to London, or coming down?”
“I am returning. I met with an estate agent in Brighton this morning.”
“You are selling the property, then?”
“I have no choice.”
Sebastian communicated his sympathy. Hawkeswell’s ﬁnances had been bad since he inherited the title, and most of the unentailed property was gone. An attempt to rectify the problem through marriage had gone sadly awry when his wealthy bride went missing on her wedding day.
Hawkeswell looked around their environs. “No bag- gage? I trust you did not leave it on your horse. Anything of value will be stolen by morning.”
Sebastian laughed lightly, and noncommittally. He had no baggage because he planned to be riding back to Lon- don tonight, the weather and dark be damned. “Do you have a chamber above? Is your baggage there? I asked for one, but the innkeeper has hired them all out, he says. Even my title did me no good. But if you have one, we can go smoke and drink and escape the stench down here.”
“I do not have a chamber, I am sorry.”
Hawkeswell’s eyebrows rose above knowing eyes. “Not taking shelter at all, are you? And not heading for Brigh- ton either, I’ll wager. You are here to meet a woman. No, do not say a word. I understand the need for your elaborate dodges these days. All but the marquess now, aren’t you? Can’t be lifting skirts wherever and whenever any- more.” He put his finger to his lips, mocking the need for discretion.
It was as good an explanation as any, so Sebastian let it stand. He remained friendly and attentive while he completed his scrutiny of all those faces. None struck him as more apt to be the Domino than any other. Hawkeswell appeared likely to hang on all night. Sebastian needed to shake him, and decided Hawkeswell’s own theory would have to do.
“You will have to excuse me. I need to speak to the innkeeper about the person I came here to meet.” He made good his escape. He found the proprietor dispensing ale to a wiry fellow with a low-brimmed brown hat.
“Was there anyone here asking about Mr. Kelmsley, or inviting inquiries about that name?”
The innkeeper peered at him, then went back to taking his customer’s money. “Above, in the back, last door. The guest there would be the one you want, and I’ll not be wanting to know why.”
Sebastian aimed for the stairs. He wished Hawkeswell had been correct. Waiting out the weather on a feather bed, dry and cozy with some feminine warmth in his arms, would be a pleasant recompense for the miserable ride down here and the one waiting at mission’s end. Instead he was stuck with duty and obligation, and a long conversation with some- one known as the Domino.
Audrianna huddled beneath her shawl in the shadows. The low fire could not fight the damp chill in this chamber. That was not the only reason she shivered, how- ever.
Her vigil was depleting the renewed resolve that she had summoned by reading that notice again. She had be- gun to see this plan from a different perspective, that of her entire life up until the last seven months. From that viewpoint, her behavior today was utterly mad and inexcusably reckless.
Mama would certainly say so. Papa would have agreed. Roger would be appalled if he knew too. Proper young ladies did not ride alone on public coaches to public inns, and wait in dark chambers for unknown men to join them. This expedition had begun to feel like a bizarre dream. She forced her nerves under control and demanded that her mind regain some of its determination.
She was here because no one else would be. The world had buried her father’s good name with his body. His death had been proof enough that he was guilty of the accusations against him. Everyone assumed that remorse, not deep melancholy, had caused him to kill himself.
The whole family still wore his shame. Mama mourned the loss of friends even while she valiantly defended his memory. Even Uncle Rupert had ceased to write when the scandal broke, in an attempt to wash himself of stain by association. And Roger—well, his undying love could not surmount the scandal either.
She tried to maintain a semblance of indifference about that, but deep sorrow squeezed her heart at the thought of Roger. Eventually that would no longer happen, she trusted. At least she could take some small comfort in the knowledge that she would never be so disillusioned again. With the bad turn life had taken, no other man would ever propose. She had told her mother that she would live with her cousin Daphne in order to mitigate the financial burdens caused by Papa’s death, when the family was reduced to the income from Mama’s small trust. In truth she had wanted to escape an old life stuck in the doldrums, and build a new one where she would find contentment within her changed expectations.
The crowd below created a soft din that reached her ears. Up here on the second level all was quiet except for an occasional door closing. The silence provoked more ill ease. There were other travelers in those chambers, though. If this “Domino” attempted anything untoward, and she screamed, she trusted that aid would arrive quickly.
She pulled the shawl higher to ward off another chill. Beneath its woolen warmth, she closed her hand around Daphne’s pistol. She had brought it to give her courage and so Daphne would not scold later that she had been un- protected.
Unfortunately, its weight in her hand only made her shiver again.
Sebastian pressed the latch. To his surprise it yielded. He eased open the door to the chamber.
A lamp just inside flashed its light up at him. The strong glow made the rest of the room a sea of darkness. He stepped inside so he could escape the harsh illumination. His eyes slowly adjusted.
A low blaze in the fireplace created its own sharp chiaroscuros. However, much like in paintings that exploited a similar effect, the dark began to come alive with forms and shapes the longer he gazed.
The head of the draped bed that faced the fire emerged, to join its foot that the flames bathed. Pegs on the wall beside the door showed hanging fabric. The corners of the chamber finally revealed their contents. A writing table. The hulk of a wardrobe.
A soft collection of shapes in another corner took form too, beyond the light of the fire. They gathered into some- thing he recognized. A woman.
Her presence made him pause. He had thought the Domino was a man. He could be forgiven that mistake, he supposed, but it had been an unfounded assumption.
The discovery that the Domino was only a woman immediately raised his spirits. He would learn what he needed to know quickly, and make short work of this meeting.
He smiled a smile that had charmed many women in his day. He walked toward the fireplace.
“Please stay there,” she said. “I must insist that you do.” Insist, must she? That made him smile more. She had a young voice. Not girlish, though. Her appearance became more distinct as he focused on her.
Dark hair. Perhaps that interesting color where red shoots through the brown, like a chestnut horse’s hue. Hard to judge her age, but he guessed middle twenties. Her face looked pretty, but in this light most women would be attractive. A dark shawl draped her lap and chest. Her dress appeared to be either gray or lavender, and was fairly plain from what he could see.
“I was only going to warm myself by the fire,” he said. “The ride here drowned me.”
Her head tipped back while she considered his explanation. “The fire then, but no closer.” He shed his riding coat. She visibly startled.
“So I can hang it to dry, if you do not mind,” he explained. She nodded.
He set it on one of the pegs. Accustomed now to the room’s lighting, he could tell that the other garments there were a woman’s mantle and pelisse. He took position at the fire and pretended to concentrate on its comfort, but he watched her out of the corner of his eye.
He smiled at her again while he turned his back to the warmth. She fidgeted under that shawl.
“I should warn you that I have a pistol.” Her voice shook with anxiety.
“Rest assured that you will not need it.”
She did not appear convinced. Green eyes, he thought. They expressed determination and some fear. The latter was a good sign. It indicated she was not stupid, and a bit of fear would be useful.
“I expected a man,” he said.
“Mr. Kelmsleigh was not available, so I am here in- stead. I assume that you want compensation for your information, and I am prepared to pay if the sum is reasonable.”
He masked his stunned reaction. She thought he was the Domino. Which meant she was not, of course. He had never believed that the bad gunpowder that reached the front had been a matter of mere negligence on Kelmsleigh’s part, although such negligence was bad enough to ruin a man. Instead he suspected conspiracy and fraud, and he doubted Kelmsleigh had devised and controlled the scheme. All the same, he had never expected to learn that any women were involved. Now this accomplice indicated at least one had been.
Only who the hell was she? Her identity might provide a link to the others involved in that plot.
She watched him cautiously. He could see her fear better now. She was not what he expected, but he guessed he was a surprise to her as well.
He had come here to pass himself off as Kelmsleigh. Instead someone else had read that advertisement and had come to buy information too.
He changed plans. He could not be Kelmsleigh anymore. But he could be the Domino.Audrianna Kelmsleigh had no intention of shooting Sebastian Summerhays; it was an accident. The only reason Audrianna even brought a weapon with her was because she thought she might need some protection when she met the man who held the key to clearing her father's name: the mysterious "Domino." Much to Audrianna's disappointment, the man who turns up is Sebastian, one of the government officials whose accusations of treason drove Audrianna's father to suicide. When Domino finally arrives, he quickly flees once he discovers that Audrianna is not alone. In the confusion, the gun goes off, Sebastian is wounded, and the resulting scandal threatens to destroy what's left of Audrianna's reputation. Of course, there is a solution, but the very idea of marrying Sebastian is enough to make Audrianna seriously consider picking up the pistol and finishing off what she started. Richly spiced with wicked wit and masterfully threaded with danger and desire, the superbly sexy first book in Hunter's new Regency historical quartet is irresistible and wonderfully entertaining.
-John Charles, Booklist
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: