The Tower of London, December 1816
The large metal door to her cell scraped open and Kate closed her eyes. She stepped forward, summoned from one cold dank cell into another. She had a visitor. Her first since she’d been taken to the gaol.
She opened her eyes. The harsh winter light filtered through the only window in the antechamber. The yeoman warder wore a blank expression on his face. He and the other guards always gave her the benefit of respect due her title. Whether they liked it or not.
The guard stepped aside, revealing the room’s other occupant. Interesting. Her visitor was a man. She narrowed her eyes on him. Who was he and what did he want with her? He stood with his straight back to her. He was tall, that much she could discern. Tall and cloaked in shadows.
The smell of mold and decay, rife in the Tower, made her stomach clench. The unforgiving winter wind whipped through the stonework, raising gooseflesh across her arms. She shivered and clutched her shawl more tightly around her shoulders.
“Ye ’ave ten minutes an’ not a moment more,” the gaoler announced before wrenching open the door and clanging it shut behind him as he left. The loud scrape and subsequent clank sealed Kate and the stranger in the small room together. She took a step back. A small rickety table rested between them. She was glad for that bit of separation at least. Whoever the man was, his clothing marked him a gentleman. He had better behave like one.
The tall man turned to greet her. He doffed his hat, but she still couldn’t make out his face. He wore a dark gray wool overcoat of considerable expense. A stray beam of sunlight floated through the dirty air, let in by the one small window nestled in the stone wall across from them.
He executed a perfect bow. “Your grace?”
Kate cringed. Oh, how she detested that title. “Bowing to a prisoner?” she asked in a voice containing a bit of irony. “Aren’t you a gentleman?”
He smiled and a set of perfectly white teeth flashed in the darkness. “You’re still a duchess, your grace.”
She pushed the hood from her head and took a tentative step forward. The stranger’s eyes flared for a moment and he sucked in his breath.
Kate’s stomach clenched. No doubt she looked a fright. She hadn’t bathed in days and could only imagine her own smell. Her hair, normally piled properly atop her head, was a mass of tangled red curls around her shoulders. She might be grimy and in trouble, but she wasn’t broken. And she refused to let the stranger see that his reaction affected her. She pushed up her chin and eyed him warily.
He stepped forward then, into the light, and Kate narrowed her eyes on his face, rapidly assessing every detail. She didn’t know him. But whoever he was, the man was handsome. Devastatingly so. Perhaps in his early thirties, he had dark brown cropped hair, a perfectly straight nose, a square jaw. But his eyes were what truly captivated. Hazel in color, nearly green, assessing, knowing, intelligent eyes. They stole her breath. Her gaze moved lower to where the faintest hint of a smile rested upon expertly molded male lips.
“Do you know who I am?” His voice splintered the quiet cold like a hammer hitting ice.
She regarded him with a steady stare. “Are you a barrister? Come for my defense?”
The man furrowed his brow. “You haven’t yet been given access to a barrister?”
She straightened her shoulders. “I’ve been … waiting.”
The stranger’s captivating eyes regarded her calmly. “From what I understand, you’ve been in gaol for weeks. I find it difficult to believe a lady of your station has not yet met with a barrister.”
She lifted her chin. “Be that as it may, I have not.”
“I’m sorry to disappoint you, your grace, but no, I am no barrister.”
“Not a barrister? Then who are you and why have you come to visit me? Please don’t tell me it’s merely to see the spectacle of a duchess accused of murder.”
His gaze remained pinned to her face, his eyes still assessing, wary. “I am here to assist you, your grace.”
“Assist me?” she scoffed, stepping forward to get a closer look at the man. “I rather doubt that. Assist yourself perhaps. Tell me, how much did you bribe the gaoler to let you see the infamous duchess who shot her husband?”
The stranger arched a brow. “Did you? Murder your husband?”
She clenched her jaw. “Did you come here to insult me with your questions? Or do you mean to coax a confession from me?” She squeezed her fists against the fabric of her shawl, twisting it so tightly her fingers ached.
He shook his head. “My apologies, your grace. It was not my intention to offend. I assure you, I’m not a common gossipmonger come to witness your degradation. I intend to assist you. And yes, in return, there is something I want.”
Kate raised both brows. She respected the man’s honesty, but whether she intended to continue this conversation depended entirely upon what exactly the handsome stranger desired. “So, tell me, then. What is it you want?”
He swept another bow. “I’ve come to make you an offer. One that can benefit us both.”
Pulling her shawl over her shoulders more tightly, Kate crossed her arms over her chest. “Forgive me if I am a bit doubtful, sir. I’ve seen enough deception in my twenty-eight years to be highly skeptical of the promises of men.”
His head quirked to the side and he regarded her with an inquisitive look. Her statement had obviously surprised him. “I understand, your grace. And I fully intend to explain. But first, I must ask for your discretion. If we are to help each other, I cannot reveal my identity unless you promise to keep what I am about to tell you entirely secret.”
She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes on him. “Secret? Are you a spy?”
His brow rose, and tension seemed to radiate through his body. “Would you aid me if I were?”
She pointed toward the door. “Get out,” she said through clenched teeth.
Her nails dug so hard into her shawl she was certain she would rip the fabric. “I may be accused of a murder I did not commit, but being called a traitor to my homeland is not an insult I will bear. If you are seeking my aid in that manner, you most certainly have come to the wrong person. I am not, and never will be, that desperate.” She turned toward the door to call for the gaoler.
The stranger quickly held up a hand. “I assure you, your grace. I am no spy.”
Kate snapped her mouth closed and turned back to him, still eyeing him warily. “Then what exactly do you want from me?”
He nodded slowly. “Your promise, first?”
She watched him, assessing him from the top of his handsome head to the tips of his precisely polished—and obviously expensive—top boots. Apparently, this man was willing or desperate enough to trust an accused murderess, too. Interesting. She had absolutely no reason to trust him, however. Every reason not to, actually. But conversing with a good-looking chap about whatever daft idea he had was preferable to counting the cracks in the walls of her cell or writing letters to … no one. “Very well, you have my promise. Now tell me, who are you and why are you here?”
The stranger clicked his heels together and bowed again. “James Bancroft, Viscount Medford, at your service.”
She couldn’t help the tiny gasp that escaped her lips. The man was a peer. Why on earth would a peer pay her a visit? “Why are you here, my lord?”
Brushing back his coat, he pulled papers from an inside pocket and tossed them on the wooden table.
Her eyes still trained on him, Kate stepped forward and picked up the papers. It was a pamphlet. She scanned the first page and shuffled through it quickly, but the pages were blank.
She gestured to the papers with her chin. “What is this?”
His mouth quirked again. Distracting, that. “You might say I have a bit of a hobby on the side. I own a printing press.”
Her gaze snapped to his face and she stepped back, clutching the pamphlet, genuinely surprised. And a little bit intrigued. “A viscount in trade?”
He grinned. “That’s the secret.” His grin faded and he strode forward. Bracing his hands apart, he leaned across the table. “I offer women in scandalous situations a unique opportunity. This, your grace, is a chance to tell your side of the story.”
“What do you mean … exactly?”
His eyes blazed at her. His jaw tightened. “Write a pamphlet for me. It will be a top seller, I assure you.”
She shook her head. “A pamphlet? Telling my story? I don’t understand. What do I stand to gain from it?”
His eyes, dark green now, captured hers. “What do you want?”
Kate spun around, pacing across the small room. A chance to tell her story? A frisson of hope skittered down her spine. Yes. An opportunity to inform the entire city what a hideous husband George had been. To tell the truth. It was tempting. She must handle this carefully, however. There was something else she wanted.
She turned back toward the viscount. “Out of curiosity, if I agree to do it, what exactly will the pamphlet be named, my lord?”
His jaw relaxed and his eyes lost some of their intensity. He stood up again to his full height and regarded her down the length of his nose. “Secrets of a Scandalous Marriage.”
Copyright © 2013 by Valerie Bowman