Captain Durant's Countess - By Maggie Robinson

Chapter 1

London, December 1820

“You cannot go up there, madam!” The butler, whose cauliflower nose made him look like he had once fought—and lost regularly—for a living, tried to block the stairs.

He didn’t want to grant her admittance to the house, and Maris really didn’t want to enter. What she had to do there was beyond scandalous, and she’d spent her whole life—well, practically her whole life—avoiding scandal like the plague. Never taking a false step or breaking a rule or speaking up for herself.

Except once, and how she regretted that.

Would she regret today? She was trying to convince a strange man to come home with her and—and—she stopped herself from thinking any further.

Maris dodged by the butler and stood at the bottom of a vast marble staircase. One good push from above and one could very easily fall, with no hope of recovery. Marble was hard. As hard as her heart needed to be at present.

“I can and I will. You will not hit a lady, I am sure.” The Countess of Kelby pinned back her veil and smiled. The effort was nearly painful as her cheek muscles were unused to the exercise. Maris had spent the last ten years caring for her elderly husband Henry and slaving over his ancient texts, and there had been little occasion to turn up her lips to strangers. But now the earl needed something else done, and the recalcitrant man he had chosen to do it was somewhere upstairs in a den of utter iniquity.

She must speak with him. It was a matter of life and death—his death if he wouldn’t cooperate, she was that angry. Let him tumble down the stairs and break his neck. Henry had counted on him. Placed his trust in him. She had been writing to the man for weeks with no response. It was past time he do his duty, go to Kelby Hall, and begin the job for which he’d been hired.

And paid.

Maris stood in the foyer of the most infamous address in London—the Reining Monarchs Society. Even buried in the country, she had heard of the place and the men—and, unbelievably, women—who belonged to the secret club.

Not so secret, after all. It had been a matter of a few shillings and another one of her rare smiles to induce Reynold Durant’s valet to reveal where his employer was spending his misbegotten afternoon.

Interesting, since two months ago, Reynold Durant couldn’t have afforded a valet or membership in such a place.

The butler crossed his muscled arms before him. “He’s not to be disturbed, madam. I’ll lose my position.”

Maris attempted the smile again. “Then I’ll wait. Right here at the bottom of the stairs. Captain Durant is bound to come down sometime.”

The man’s dismay was comical. “You can’t do that! You’re a . . . you’re a lady! It’s not proper having someone like you here at all.”

“It’s not proper having anyone here. You must be desperate to work in such an environment.”

The butler’s bloodshot blue eyes dropped to the carpet. “It ain’t so bad. You get used to it.”

Maris could not imagine a more unlikely thing. To get used to unending carnal depravity would simply not be possible. She’d rather jump from the Tower of London than bare her breasts like that brazen woman she’d glimpsed through the open parlor doors. Before she’d blinked away, Maris could have sworn there were jewels on the woman’s nipples—rubies, or at the very least, garnets.

She opened her reticule and fished out some bribe money. She’d have to walk back to her hotel if she had to dole out any more, but it wasn’t far. The Reining Monarchs Society was located right in the heart of Mayfair, conveniently close to the best houses. Captain Durant’s bachelor lodgings were only around the corner. One had to conserve one’s energy when one was sinning at such a spectacular rate.

Henry had given up his house in town years ago. Maris had not been to London very often since her unsuccessful Season. It had overwhelmed her then, but she didn’t have time to be frightened now. It was she who planned to do the frightening.

She passed the butler the coins. “I promise I’ll not bother anyone. I’ll just sit in silence in that chair over by the wall. Could you describe Captain Durant so I’ll recognize him when he comes down?”

Maris’s money disappeared with breathtaking speed. “You don’t know him?”

“Not at all.” And she wished they didn’t have to become acquainted. A man who restrained and