After Dark with the Duke by Julie Anne Long

Chapter One

Mariana made a little show of scrabbling about in her reticule, but she already knew all too well how much she intended to pay the smiling hack driver who’d brought her all the way to the docks.

“I’m af-fraid I’ve only two p-p-pence.”

She in truth had one pound, one shilling, and two pence.

But what was one more drop of shame in the ocean of it currently lapping around her conscience?

She couldn’t see the hack driver’s face anymore. The rain was sideways now. But she could feel his disappointment, like a light winking out.

Which made her feel lower than she already felt, low as a snake, which was low indeed.

He sighed. “Miss, if ye’re here nigh on midnight in the rain at the docks in that rig”—he gestured to the fur-lined pelisse, her satin slippers—“you’ve need of it more than I do. I’ll take one pence.”

“B-bless you, sir.” The unholy alliance of fear and cold and rain was making her teeth chatter.

“Oh, aye, it’s blessings what puts food on me table,” he said dryly.

He deposited her trunk with a thunk at her feet, and she paid him. His beneficence apparently did not extend to carrying the trunk over the threshold, and she could hardly blame him.

Should the door actually open for her when she knocked upon it, that was.

She couldn’t entertain any other possibility.

“Your name, sir? If I can ever rep-pay you . . .”

He heaved himself back up into the driver’s seat and took up the ribbons. “It’s Malloy, madam, should that unlikely day occur. Good luck to ye and Godspeed.”

He touched his hat and cracked the ribbons, and the horses lurched off into the wet night.

She was alone at the docks in dark interrupted only by the glow of the lamp on a hook, which illuminated a sign dancing on chains in the wind: The Grand Palace on the Thames. She squinted. Another word was very faintly visible behind them. Was it “rogue”?

One of the little gargoyles lining the roof drooled a rivulet of rain down her neck.

She cursed softly and bit her lip.

She took a breath, then seized the knocker and rapped.

She gave a start when the peep window in the door instantly flung open and an enormous, guileless, pale blue eye appeared.

“Well, good evening!” Mariana said brightly to it.

“Good evening,” the voice belonging to the eye said by way of greeting, albeit somewhat suspiciously. “I’m afraid our curfew is eleven, which was two minutes ago. I was just about to bring in the lamp.”

Mariana sensed room for negotiation.

“Oh, d-dear. I so apologize for the inconvenience and I shouldn’t blame you if you’d like to lock up, but I wondered if you might have a r-room to let? It’s a bit rough out here tonight, and I find myself in a bit of a p-pickle.” She couldn’t prevent her teeth from chattering, but she thought it best to keep her tone light and her accent posh. The one she’d learned from mimicking Madame Guillaume.

The blue eye narrowed thoughtfully.

And then the little peep window slammed shut.

Mariana crossed her fingers, closed her eyes, and prayed.

Suddenly the heavy door swung open, releasing a gust of warmth, and revealing a softly glowing marble foyer and a young woman wearing an apron and cap. “You’d best hurry, miss, or the rain will come in with you.”

“Oh, thank you. You’re very kind to trouble. Thank you! I’ve . . . I’ve a trunk. I hope that doesn’t seem presumptuous. I couldn’t leave it, you see, and I didn’t know if you would have a room.”

“I don’t know, either,” the young woman said cryptically, but she gamely pulled while Mariana pushed, and together they got it into the foyer. It left a glistening damp trail, and the dangling crystals of the chandelier above scattered little rainbows down upon it.

And then the maid, a fair-haired girl, ushered her into a pleasant parlor where a fire burned low. Mariana turned to look back at the foyer, arrested by the little rainbows thrown down upon it by dangling crystals on the chandelier.

“Oh, my, isn’t that the most beautiful chandelier?”

She was twenty-five years old and would never get over the enchantment of sparkling things.

The maid beamed at her as if she’d said magic words. And then she covered her mouth with her palm.

“Oh, ma’am, you’re steaming!”

Steam was indeed rising from her. Mariana gave a startled laugh. “So I am! It’s very chilly outside, and so wonderfully warm in here. Isn’t that funny? You’d think I was the devil himself arriving. Or . . . an apparition!”

“Have you heard of a book called The Ghost in the Attic, miss?”

“Cor, I love The Ghost in the Attic!”

“It’s my favorite!”

The maid and Mariana shared a moment of beaming accord.

Mariana’s eyes began to droop. Oh, God, the warmth. It was like a hug, the room. She could not recall the last time she was hugged by someone whose main objective wasn’t to shag her.

“Have you a room to let?” she prodded the maid gently.

“Well . . . it’s not up to me, you see, miss. If you’ll just wait here, I’ll go fetch Mrs. Hardy and Mrs. Durand, and they’ll want to speak to you for a bit. Our place is exclusive, like. And we’ve rules,” she said proudly.

“Oh, my. Exclusive! How thrilling. Exclusive places are my favorite.” They were now. “And that’s very wise of them, of course. One never knows who might appear at the door in the middle of the night.” She said this with only a little irony.

“I’ll ask them if they’ll come down. Whom shall I say is waiting?”

Mariana paused. Somehow she had not anticipated this question.

She was disinclined to lie, but the truth might get her chased out the door with a broom.

“I think it wisest,” she said carefully, “if I tell Mrs. Hardy and Mrs. Durand myself who I am directly, if they are kind enough to meet me.”

Mariana thought she’d succeeded in sounding the proper combination of genteel, confident, calm, amusing, and harmless—precisely the sort of person one wanted to let a room to in the dead of a rainy night by the docks.

The maid paused. Mariana held her breath.

“I’ll go and tell them, then.”

“She looks frightened,” Dot stage-whispered. “And she’s so cold she’s steaming. And she’s doing this.” She clacked her teeth together noisily.

Delilah and Angelique reared back a little.

“Oh, dear,” Delilah said.

Dot had found the proprietresses of The Grand Palace on the Thames in the sitting room at the top of the stairs, where they liked to conclude their evenings and talk about the day and plan the next one. Gordon, the striped and plump resident mouse and rat catcher, was curled up in his basket at their feet, and two warm husbands, Captain Tristan Hardy and Lucien Durand, Lord Bolt, were stretched out in respective beds in their respective rooms, waiting impatiently for them.

But there was much to discuss tonight. They’d just said farewell to the Earl and Countess of Vaughn and their family, and to Mr. Hugh Cassidy, and had begun to wonder whether they ought to advertise for more guests straightaway. Guests tended to come and go, but expenses tended to come and stay. There was also the matter of the newly finished ballroom in the Annex, the stage freshly hung with beautiful green velvet curtains, and the possibility, which seemed remote at the moment, of holding musical evenings there for which the public would buy tickets. It would be a marvelous source of income and good fun. There was also the little challenge of hiring a footman.

“She’s young and has a very nice face, with one of these.” Dot pressed her chin to make a dimple. “She has pale eyes and red hair, and she sounds like a lady . . . and she looks like a lady . . . and her pelisse is lined in fur, but . . .” Dot lowered her voice to a stage whisper “. . . I don’t think she’s a lady, if you take my meaning.”

Angelique and Delilah exchanged a speaking glance.

Dot had once been the world’s worst lady’s maid, fired by a horrible duchess, then rescued and employed out of the stubborn, long-suffering goodness of Delilah’s heart. She’d become a valued member of the household and a friend, after a fashion, even if they’d finally needed to firmly but gently admonish her about dropping yet another tea tray, this time because a fly had landed on her nose, and she’d sneezed, and closed her eyes, forgotten to open them again, and walked into a wall. They hadn’t the heart to outright ban her from bringing tea. Opening the door to the surprise of new guests and bringing in the tea were her two favorite things to do.

And besides, she’d proven to be a veritable savant about describing the people who appeared.

“What makes you think she’s not a lady?” Delilah asked.

Dot bit her lip. “Well, her dress is good wool and of the first stare of fashion, mind you, but I took her damp pelisse from her—she didn’t hand it right off to me, like”—she made an imperious shoving motion—“and when I did, she said, ‘Thank you, you’re very kind.’”

Delilah and Angelique took this in ruefully. Dot knew most titled ladies didn’t typically thank the servants any more than they would thank the settee for supporting their bums.

“Did you take her name?” Angelique asked her.

“She says it’s better if she tells you directly.”

“Well,” Angelique said slowly, with another glance at Delilah.

Things had just gotten more interesting.

Dot clasped her hands in front of her. “Mrs. Hardy and Mrs. Durand, she . . . I do think she needs help. Will you go and see her?”

They both spared a thought for their husbands waiting for them.

And then Angelique and Delilah put aside their mending.

“Well, if there’s anything we’ve expertise in, it’s not-quite-ladies in distress,” Angelique said blithely. “Thank you, Dot,” she added pointedly.

Angelique was married to a formerly notorious, now (almost) entirely respectable bastard son of a duke, and Delilah was married to a famous former blockade captain who’d deservedly been called a bastard a time or two, but their unlikely friendship had been forged when Delilah’s first husband—an earl—had up and died, leaving both of their lives in ruins. They had risen from the ashes.

They were both ladies to their marrows, and they both knew a title didn’t make a lady.

“Do make some tea, Dot. And . . . perhaps bring in a snifter of brandy.”

They stood at once and shook out their skirts, removed their aprons, patted and smoothed their hair into place to reassure their potential guest of their own respectability. They would discover soon enough what manner of lady the steaming woman downstairs might be.

Dot had only been wrong about a guest once. And if she was wrong about this one, well, they knew where the loaded pistol was hidden in the parlor. And they knew how to use it.

Like a miracle, presently there appeared in the room two beautiful ladies who introduced themselves as Mrs. Durand, who was blonde, and Mrs. Hardy, who had very dark hair. Mrs. Durand held a knitted coverlet out to her.

Mariana accepted it with a sort of wordless peep of gratitude before lowering herself onto the settee. She closed her eyes briefly, savoring the comfort. Then snapped them open. It wouldn’t do at all to nod off. Best not to lower her guard just yet.

“Thank you for coming down to speak to me. I know it is very late, so I should like to tell you two things straightaway. The first is that I currently have in my possession only one pound.”

She inspected their faces for outrage or censure.

Delilah’s and Angelique’s expressions remained pleasantly interested.

Very slow, measured footfalls could now be heard on the marble of the foyer floor, accompanied by clinking and rattling sounds. It could easily have been a ghost in the attic dragging chains, but it was Dot bringing the tea.

“I’m owed more, mind you,” she added hurriedly. “And I presently expect to have more. But that—that—bounder Giancarlo hasn’t . . .” She pressed her lips together. “Forgive me. That is quite beside the point. The point is, I began the night with two pounds, but I needed one of them to bri—er, persuade my neighbor to spirit my trunk out through the back courtyard and over the fence.”

There was a little beat of silence.

“May we ask why this spiriting was necessary?” Mrs. Hardy had lovely, patient brown eyes and one of the best game faces Mariana had ever seen.

“To avoid the little mob in front of my building who seemed eager to tear me limb from limb.”

Through her slitted curtains, she’d looked down into upraised fists and furious, snarling faces shaping the word over and over: harlot harlot harlot. It hardly fit the circumstances, but it sounded clever when paired with “Haywood Street,” so that’s what the newspaper had printed. Three days in a row, as it so happened. There was a certain type of person who found that sort of thing delicious. It wasn’t true.

Then again, truth didn’t matter to those who feasted upon judgment like wolves on lamb.

“I found a hack right quickly, however,” she added somewhat more brightly, into the silence.

Mariana was still rather pleased about this. She had chosen to take it as a sign that things might go her way. Poor Mr. Malloy.

Dot had made it across the foyer, and she now crossed the threshold of the room bearing the tea on a tray as though she were edging along the side of a cliff bearing the crown jewels on a satin pillow. The cause of the rattling and clinking was revealed to be the cups and saucers and sugar jostling against spoons and the china pot.

They all watched as she began to lower the tray to the table.

“Which brings me to the second thing I need to tell you,” Mariana said. “Which is . . .”

It was somewhat gratifying to know that her audience was now on tenterhooks. Her mother had always claimed she’d had a flair for the dramatic.

“. . . my name is Mariana Wylde.”

Dot gasped, dropped the tea tray the final quarter of an inch to the table, and bolted from the room.

The rest of them watched, transfixed, while the single teacup spun and wobbled.

“I feel a bit as though I ought to put a half crown on black six,” Mariana said brightly, finally.

Delilah reached out a hand and touched a finger to the cup. It stilled.

If only a celestial finger would reach down and touch her life just like that, Mariana thought.

“I jest, of course. I don’t know a thing about gaming hells.” She crossed her fingers in her lap.

“My husband thought he wanted to open a gaming hell once,” Mrs. Durand said pleasantly and somewhat startlingly. “It’s indeed a pleasure to meet you in person, Miss Wylde.”

Mrs. Hardy nodded. “Indeed, it truly is.”

Mariana exhaled. “Well, that is very kind of you, as it’s hardly the consensus since the . . .”

Without warning, the last grains of her bravado trickled away.

She could not force her voice past that word; it was lodged in her throat like a bone.

She brought her hands up and tipped her face into them. She was shocked to find they were like ice, given how scalding the shame was.

She breathed into her hands. She heard only the tiny cracks and pops of the fire.

“. . . duel?” Mrs. Hardy supplied gently, after a moment.

Mariana nodded slowly, resignedly, painfully.

She sighed, then pulled her hands away from her face.

To find that Mrs. Durand was holding out to her a snifter containing about one gulp of brandy.

Mariana took it. Sniffed it. Then mimed an ironic toast and bolted it.

“Oh, thank you,” she gasped. “That’s better.”

Neither of their faces betrayed a flicker of judgment. Though she wasn’t certain she detected undue sympathy, either.

Angelique poured the tea. “Sugar?”

“Yes, please. You’re too kind,” she said, amazed, near to tears now. “You’re being so kind.” She looked out toward the foyer. “I fear I frightened your maid. Will she be . . .”

“Oh, I expect Dot is more thrilled than scandalized. She reads the gossip to the maids in the kitchen every morning, and you are a particular favorite,” Angelique said. “We have followed the trajectory of your career since your role alongside Madame LeCroix last year.”

“A bit like the tea tray, the trajectory of my career,” Mariana said ruefully.

At first it had been thrilling to see her name in the gossip columns—she’d been compared to Angelica Catalani—the great Catalani!—for her pureness and depth of tone and her pretty face. She hadn’t known she was only skeet. That it was society’s hobby to launch a person skyward, and then aim and fire and shatter them into smithereens just for the joy of watching them fall.

“We’ve actually had the pleasure of hearing you sing, Miss Wylde,” Mrs. Durand said. “We didn’t recognize you without that magnificent wig and the beauty patches. You died very beautifully onstage. Nearly everyone in the theater had a handkerchief out.”

Mariana was thrilled. “Oh, then you saw the afternoon performance? I was meant to go in Madame Wilhelm’s place for the remainder of the run. Until things . . . took a turn.” Two nights later, as it so happened.

“My husband, Captain Hardy, was offered use of a box owned by an esteemed acquaintance. And while normally he would have needed to be press-ganged into attending an opera, he wanted to please me. So we went. As did Mrs. Durand and her husband, Lord Bolt.”

“It was the aria from Giancarlo Giannini’s new opera. Isn’t it an exquisite piece?” Mariana said wistfully. “He’s gifted . . . the knave, she added darkly.

Dot had made a somewhat sidling return to the foyer, trailing three other sidling maids. They’d brought a ladder, which they propped up. They began to mill about the chandelier.

“Funny. It usually only requires one maid to douse the chandelier lights,” Delilah murmured acerbically.

“I can’t remember the last time I heard anything so beautiful,” Angelique told Mariana. “I can truthfully say it was an honor to hear you sing, Miss Wylde.”

Mariana did not think compliments and tributes would ever lose their gloss, even though she had come to realize she deserved them. But taking a compliment was always that moment a bit like a curtain being whipped aside in a dark room to reveal a brilliantly sunny day: a certain inner bracing was required to accommodate their full splendor.

“Well. That was better than brandy for warming my cockles, Mrs. Durand. Thank you.”

Delilah got up and closed the door to the room against the shamelessly eavesdropping maids.

Mariana had experienced good luck and bad luck often enough in her life to know that one could easily masquerade as the other. She wasn’t certain what tonight’s events would turn out to be, but given the turn the conversation was taking, she was starting to like her chances of at least getting a room.

Still, she thought she’d better settle that part straightaway.

“You have been very kind to me, so I shall be straight with you. I’ve no other place to go at the moment. I’ve enough to pay for a room for a . . . night or two?” she hazarded.

They had the best game faces, she thought admiringly. They said nothing at all, pleasantly.

“If you can spare a room—any little closet that would fit me would suit, the scullery, this lovely room—and should you not wish to keep me for a guest, I shall set about finding a place on the morrow. If I attempt to return to my own room on Haywood Street, I think the crowd outside would tear me to pieces. And as of now . . .” She drew in a breath. “I’m worried I won’t be allowed to sing in England again.”

“Both would be tragedies,” Angelique said sweetly.

It might have been the brandy, but Mariana laughed. Something about the very dark dryness of that was fortifying.

In fact, something about the place, these women, and this little room, made her feel certain she was safe. That she’d done the right thing at last after a series of inadvertently doing quite the wrong things.

Although this sensation could also be the brandy.

“We sometimes negotiate fees based on special circumstances, Miss Wylde,” Delilah added.

Angelique darted a look at Delilah.

“Here’s a question I’ve been mulling, Miss Wylde. What brings you to The Grand Palace on the Thames? It’s hardly on the beaten path, so it’s unlikely one would stumble across it as they fled. It would have been your specific destination.”

Good heavens, these were clever women.

She took a breath. Then reached beneath the coverlet she was gripping closed, found her reticule, and retrieved the folded scrap of newspaper.

“This was wrapped around a little drinking glass I purchased in a shop some weeks ago. I know you are not quite like me . . . but I kept it, because when I read it I thought . . . here is another woman who has had a complicated life. Who is more than the newspapers would have her seem. And now she’s married to Lord Bolt, because it’s something everyone seems to know now. They had the name of your establishment wrong, but my hack driver, Mr. Malloy, somehow knew how to find it anyway.”

Delilah glanced at Angelique worriedly. She already knew what it was. They both did. It was another of the hateful gossip sheets.

But Angelique, after a brief hesitation, took it from her.

“You must believe me when I say that I hope this does not stir painful memories for you, Mrs. Durand,” Mariana said.

For Angelique, this little paragraph had indeed been shocking. Painful. Terrifying, even.

Now, reading it, she realized that it had become a source of strength. Because it had exposed to the light an old, shameful wound, and in so doing, the wound had finally healed.

Lord Bolt was bound to blow and blow he did at White’s! Seems his devil’s blood got stirred when Lord Hallworth dared to reminisce about a certain Mrs. Angelique Breedlove, dead Derring’s former mistress and current mistress of a boardinghouse called The Rogue’s Palace on the Thames. Hallworth was pinned against the wall with his own cravat for the trouble. No duel was fought and Hallworth croaked out an apology. But there is one doxie in the world who can rest easy knowing Bolt will rush to her defense. Probably because he took Derring’s place.

Angelique looked up at Miss Wylde, wordlessly, and she waited for any hint of the sensations she’d felt when she’d first read it—the shock, the horror, the shame.

She found, oddly, that she felt nothing at all but gratitude. Revisiting the moment reminded her of how far she’d come; it was a bit like reading a page from an old diary about someone she used to be. It was a reminder that she, Lucien, and The Grand Palace on the Thames had survived such casual ugliness because they were all surrounded by such love.

But Miss Wylde had worriedly sunk her teeth into her bottom lip.

“I . . . I thought . . . this Mrs. Breedlove is a woman who knows that life takes many twists and turns. And while I don’t believe you were ever a doxie—because, regardless of a few, er, decisions I have made, I am not—I thought that if any part of this is true, you might be inclined to . . .” she gulped a breath “. . . believe me when I say that things are not as the gossip sheets would have you believe. What they wrote isn’t true. Even if I can appreciate how the saucy little pairing of ‘Harlot’ and ‘Haywood Street’ is so very, very tempting for a gossip writer.” She said this tautly.

Delilah and Angelique were quiet for a few pensive moments.

Angelique quirked the corner of her mouth. “Your insight is uncanny, Miss Wylde. It’s convenient to blame the woman for things, especially when a man of power is involved.”

“I am not claiming to be utterly blameless. But I am not to blame, if that makes sense. You look happy now, and that . . . gives me hope. And this place is just so beautiful,” she said wistfully. She turned her head this way and that to take in the worn but pretty settees in shades of rose, the flowers on the mantel.

This was precisely the right thing to say to these women.

“I will understand if you prefer not to keep me here in light of the scandal. But if I’ve a roof over my head for a day or two”—she was already negotiating—“I can perhaps get word to Signor Giannini, in the hopes that he can pay me the balance of what he owes me for my performances so far, and then I can head for Scotland, where my mother has gone to live with a cousin.” This had been deemed more practical than Mariana and her mother attempting to squeeze into the tiny room on Haywood Street that Mariana could afford.

Her poor mother. You’re destined for greatness, Mariana, she’d always predicted. How on earth would she ever be able to tell her what had happened?

There was a little silence.

“Well, Miss Wylde,” Mrs. Hardy said. “We do thank you for your candor. It is our custom to take a few minutes to privately discuss whether we ought to admit a potential new guest, as the safety and comfort of all of our current guests is paramount, and we like to make certain the atmosphere here remains congenial for all. If you’d like to review our rules to see if you have any objection to them while we have a chat, do feel free.” She handed Miss Wylde a little card printed with the rules of The Grand Palace on the Thames. “Meanwhile, please drink more tea. We suspect you need it.”

Delilah and Angelique opened the door of the reception room to the frantic scuffle of slippers on marble, then the thunder of footsteps retreating up the stairs. Fleeing maids.

Delilah sighed. Eavesdropping maids could be dealt with in the morning. At least the foyer was empty now and the chandelier doused.

As was their habit, they crossed into the main sitting room, the site of much merriment, familial joy, knitting, spillikins, secret lust, a pantomime pirate battle, and on at least two occasions, vigorous sex.

The fire was still burning but was scarcely more than a glow. They both pulled their shawls tightly about them, thinking wistfully of the warm husbands waiting for them in their snug rooms.

“I like her,” Delilah said at once, in a whisper. “And I believe her.”

“So do I. Furthermore I think I know what else you’re thinking, Delilah . . .”

“And?” Delilah’s breath seemed to be held.

Angelique bit her lip. “It could work,” she said.

Delilah gave a little hop. “Oh, Angelique! She landed on our doorstep like a gift! Well, she would have been more of a coup before two fools decided to shoot each other over her, but now we can afford her. We can ask her to sing for one night in exchange for her board. We’ll send out invitations . . . sell tickets . . .”

“But the costs involved.”

“And the fun involved!” Delilah brought her hands together in a little clasp as she thought of something. “Angelique . . . we can decorate the ballroom with bunting! And flowers!”

“Bunting, yes. But flowers are an outrageous expense. And we can’t completely denude the blossoms in our little park outside.”

Delilah thought furiously.

“Tissue flowers?” she ventured on a whisper. “Can you see it?”

Angelique was silent. She pressed her lips together. “Delilah, I think my pulse is racing.”

They both muffled laughs.

“We’ll have a program printed. We’ll call it . . .” Delilah swept a hand out dramatically “. . . the Night of the Nightingale.”

“Sublime! But the cost of printing tickets and programs and ads in the newspaper . . .”

“Well. We’ll do the usual.”

The usual was to beg, borrow, trade, barter, charm, and occasionally gracefully coerce to get the things they needed for The Grand Palace on the Thames. Partially out of thrift, as their fortunes did tend to fluctuate, and partially out of the pure joy of the sport. They could make quite a bit of what they needed by hand. Actually purchasing something besides food was usually for when all else failed.

“But a mob wanted to kill her tonight, she says. Will we make a target of her if she’s onstage?”

“Well, they’ll have to buy expensive tickets to kill her,” Angelique said.

“Angelique!” Delilah pretended to be scandalized.

“In all seriousness, my sense is that many aristocrats like to get a good look at those they’re judging so they can feel superior,” Angelique added.

Delilah had once been married to an earl, which made her a countess, and she knew this was true. “Will they pay to experience that particular delicious sensation?”

“They should be so lucky! She’s extraordinarily talented. But we shall sell some tickets at a lower price, too, and perhaps give a few away, because everyone deserves to hear her, not just the rich.”

“Oh, yes. That is, if she agrees to do it.”

“If she agrees.”

“And besides, no one will be able to lay a finger on her, especially with Captain Hardy and his former regiment in attendance.”

“Oh, are they coming, too?” Angelique asked.

Delilah laughed softly.

“It’s a gamble,” Angelique said.

“Literally every moment of our lives, from the moment I hired Dot to this place, to Tristan, to Lucien, has been a gamble. And yet here we are.”

They looked across the foyer, where poor Miss Wylde’s head was drooping into her chest.

“Let’s get her tucked into a room for the evening and tell her our idea in the morning before we get carried away,” Delilah said.

“Oh, Delilah, you may be forgetting about something. Or rather . . . someone.”

Delilah went still. “Oh. The duke.”

“The duke.”

They fell silent.

“Well, perhaps she won’t even notice he’s here.”

They stifled laughs at that.

And with fingers crossed, they went to tell Miss Wylde the good news.