The SS Valor, Atlantic Ocean, 1865
Lady Bronwyn Chase gasped for breath, tucking her body into the narrow alcove and not daring to breathe. He was here. On her brother’s ship. She had only met the Duke of Thornbury once, during her stepbrother’s wedding ball last season in London, and it had been enough to make a lasting impression. He’d struck her as sharp and intelligent, a man whose piercing gaze missed nothing.
And handsome too, she reminded herself.
Her memory wasn’t wrong. In the year since she’d seen him last, his striking looks hadn’t changed. They’d grown more pronounced. Or maybe that was because she’d idolized him in her dreams…an unreachable fantasy lover with tawny hair and citrine eyes. Bronwyn let out a silent breath to calm her racing heart that was pounding for a variety of reasons—fright, fatigue…and pure womanly fascination. He should not be here.
Why was he here?
Had she made a mistake? Perhaps she’d mistaken him for someone else. But even as she thought it, she discarded the notion. It was him, no doubt of that. That thick, sun-gilded, tawny-brown hair still curled around his angular face in unruly locks, a jewel-gold stare and a hawklike nose combining to make most people wary of the hunter prowling in their midst. The duke was attractive in a throat-drying, fierce way; everything about him made her silly heart thrum. Even dressed in formal eveningwear, he stood out like a tree in a field of pretty flowers.
Most steered clear of him.
Not her, obviously, because she had rocks in her head. Too bad he was taken, though like everyone else in the ton, she’d heard the whispers of estrangement, if they were to be believed. Bronwyn hadn’t seen anyone resembling his wife before fleeing the salon earlier, however. Then again, she’d run at the first sight of him. The girlish infatuation she’d quashed a year ago had returned in full force. The urge to throw herself in his path, look up into that sultry stare, and offer herself up like a too-willing Andromeda displayed on a rock for his pleasure had been too compelling.
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Good gracious, her thoughts were absurd.
Not that she hadn’t dreamed of being swept off her feet and shamelessly seduced by a man who greatly resembled her pursuer. Bronwyn scowled. Now was not the time to be reminiscing about private fantasies that had nothing to do with him whatsoever. The dratted duke was here to arrest her or worse. What were the odds that he was on this ship while she was in possession of documents that could get her thrown into jail?
Or executed for treason.
Perhaps Thornbury had only seen her in the dining room and recognized her as Ashvale’s sister. Perhaps he only wanted to say hullo. Then why were her nerves on edge as though she were teetering on the edge of a dangerous precipice? Her instincts were screaming at her to flee. Not that she could jump off the side of a massive ship and swim to safety. She would have to act, pretend to be taking a pleasure cruise or some such. And hiding in an alcove off the main salon only made her look guilty.
Sucking a breath into her tight lungs, Bronwyn eased from the space, peering up and down the corridor. He hadn’t followed her, thank God, though she’d felt the visceral tug when he’d set her in his sights in that room, eyes lighting with something. Recognition? Suspicion? She was letting fear get the best of her, and that was never good.
With a toss of her head, she smoothed her skirts, lifted her chin, and walked down the hallway. She wanted to run, but she cautioned her trembling legs to take a pace that didn’t stamp her as someone suspicious, just in case the duke was watching. The hairs on her nape stood on end at the thought. She walked until she came to a door that led to one of the main decks, her lungs filling with salty chilled ocean air and her gaze greeted by a twilight sky with stars beginning to glimmer in the distance. The endless horizon over the dark, white-crested sea was beautiful in a stunningly vast way, one that made her feel small.
Bronwyn wanted to make her mark. A mark…any mark that would deem her worthy, that would be a reminder that she had been here on earth at this time. It was perhaps what had pushed her to agree to this whole scheme. Using the nom de guerre “the Kestrel,” at first she had done small tasks in London. A delivery here, a word there, all with the goal of helping the oppressed to lift the yoke of subjugation. She had started out fighting for women’s rights with the suffragettes, but the world was so much bigger and broader than England.
Her brother, Courtland, and his wife lived in Antigua.
His duchess’s best friend hailed from India.
There was more she could do…a better way she could make a difference with her time and her efforts. Despite the stringent rules impressed upon her as a woman in England, Bronwyn was acutely aware of her own privilege and the fact that she held power that others might not have. While she could not own property or vote, she still had some self-governance. Little actions, no matter how small, could have big ripples. And so, here she was, en route to Philadelphia with sensitive documents.
Bronwyn had known what she was getting into when she had agreed to ferry the packet across the Atlantic. She did not know what was in the letter, only that it would aid in the cause of the Northern states during the American Civil War. Seeing some of the opposition her brother had endured as a man of mixed heritage in England, despite his status as a peer, a fire had been lit beneath her to do something.
“The Duke in Question”
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But unlike her brother who was the Duke of Ashvale, Bronwyn did not have a seat in the Lords. She wasn’t a man. She might not have the power he had at his fingertips to effect change, but she wasn’t incapable, and so she had agreed to hand-deliver the package, despite the personal risk to her person, her reputation, and her family name. Though right now, the thought of being caught and imprisoned by a man rumored to be the greatest spy in London left her cold.
Should her mission be compromised or the documents fall into the wrong hands, lives would be endangered and innumerable losses encountered. The packet was safe in her stateroom, thank God, hidden where no one would find it, but she felt the weight of her choices with every breath. Bronwyn swallowed, resting her fingers on the metal railing.
You’re doing the right thing.
“Lady Bronwyn, I thought that was you,” a low voice said.
Bronwyn didn’t have to turn to know who had found her, even as that lush baritone shivered over her senses like raw silk gliding over bare skin. The greeting wasn’t untoward, considering they’d been properly introduced in town, but her heart kicked against her ribs all the same. She’d been wrong to come out here alone. At least in the dining room, there were other people.
Scolding herself silently, Bronwyn lifted her chin. She could do this. She wasn’t some ingenue fresh out of the schoolroom. She was a woman grown and more than capable of handling a simple gentleman. There was only one problem with that logic—the Duke of Thornbury was hardly simple. No, he was highly intelligent, distressingly alert, and nobody’s fool. Least of all hers.
Act natural, Bee.
Pasting a demure smile on her lips, she turned and took him in up close. Fitted bespoke clothing, tremendous height—he practically towered over her smaller form—those angular cheekbones, hooded golden eyes, and lush mouth all conspired to make her lungs squeeze. His pale skin took on the silvery gleam of the moonlight, making him appear more chimerical than he should be…some fantastical sultry specter from her imagination come to taunt her. She’d take that option if it meant she didn’t have to speak to him, but alas, he was indeed real.
“Your Grace, what a surprise.”
A thoroughly unwelcome one.
He leaned against the railing and perused her. “It is, isn’t it? Fancy seeing you here. I thought I had been mistaken in the dining salon, but here you are…in the flesh. Are you alone?”
“My chaperone retired with a headache,” she replied, thinking quickly. Her flighty lady’s maid, Cora, who was prone to the vapors and disappearing at the most inconvenient times was hardly a proper chaperone, but beggars could not be choosers.
Particularly beggars turned international spies.
Though Bronwyn wasn’t a spy, per se; she was more of a discreet informant. “Is your wife here as well?”
He cleared his throat. “The lady is, though we are no longer married.”
Goodness, her heart shouldn’t have raced so violently at that, but Bronwyn could feel it hammering like a bird about to take flight. His marital state had nothing to do with her. He was her brother’s friend! And a former British undercover agent. A man who would put her in handcuffs without blinking. A different scenario involving restraints—a much naughtier one with rather less clothing—crept into her mind, and she felt her face flame. Did he carry handcuffs?
Stop it, stop it, stop it.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she managed to say.
The duke nodded. “Where are you headed?” he asked. It was a casual inquiry, and yet, Bronwyn recognized that nothing was casual for this man. A seemingly basic question could lure out secrets, ferret out clues. He was a master at interrogation and artifice…while she was a mere novice.
She feigned a coy look and fluttered her eyelashes. “Did the Duke of Ashvale send you to follow me, Your Grace? Very well then, I am visiting an aunt in Philadelphia.”
Speculation gleamed in that shadowed gaze. “I didn’t realize that you had family in America.”
Gracious but he was quick. Bronwyn shook her head, smile pasted on firmly. “On my mother’s side, I fear. She is ill, and Mama thought I would be able to offer some comfort.”
Now, that was a mistake. She almost kicked herself when those heavy-lidded eyes narrowed. “Lady Borne sent you to play nursemaid to an ailing relative,” he murmured slowly. “Unless she has changed in temperament, that is a rather surprising kindness.”
Bronwyn stopped herself from gritting her teeth in frustration. A man like Thornbury, an expert in body language and human behavior, would not miss it. Her mother was not known for being the most generous or kind of ladies. In fact, she was a terrible person to her core. It still astounded Bronwyn that her mother had attempted to oust Courtland—the legitimate heir to her dead husband’s estate—by sending him away from England in hopes of elevating her own son. Perhaps that was another reason why Bronwyn felt so compelled to do what she was doing…to make up for the grievous wrongs within her own family.
“Surprising or not, Your Grace, it is the reason for my journey. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must check on Cora.” She moved to walk past him, only to be stopped by a firm grip on her elbow. Heat spread across her skin at the contact, even though he wore gloves and she wore long sleeves. Bronwyn couldn’t help the gasp that passed her lips, nor the instant tightening of her belly. A wild gasp throttled in her throat, the sensation of his grasp almost too much for her wayward brain to handle. She glanced up, and the moment their eyes collided, something all too visceral shot between them.
“Does Ashvale know you are here?” he asked.
No, because her brother would hardly approve if he knew she’d name-dropped him to commandeer one of the owner’s suites onboard. Hiding out in a common stateroom would not have been ideal—what if she’d been recognized?—so she’d elected to travel in plain sight. A loud and obnoxious heiress was dismissible. She had no doubt that Courtland would hear about the incident, but she hoped to have delivered the packet and be on the return voyage by that point. As far as anyone was concerned, Lady Bronwyn Chase was a vapid nuisance, abusing her brother’s connections and wealth and visiting an ailing family member.
It was a thin camouflage at best, but the only one she could come up with.
“Ashvale doesn’t keep track of my every step, Your Grace,” she snipped, her stare dipping pointedly to the long fingers still pressed in the crook of her elbow. He did not take the hint, damn the man, one corner of that indecent bottom lip kicking up in a way that suggested he was well aware of what his touch was doing to her. Bronwyn pushed a haughty smirk to her lips. “And besides, it’s not as though everyone onboard doesn’t know who I am. My brother owns this vessel, after all.”
Distaste flickered across his face, and she winced. Better he think her a shallow, frivolous excuse for a chit who was using her brother’s title and property than the reality. Still, something inside of her rebelled. She wanted him to keep her in some esteem.
Duty won out over pride, of course, as she widened her coy smile. “Don’t tell anyone, but I cannot wait to see Philadelphia. Do you know how much they fawn over aristocrats? As if our blood is so blue, it’s gold. Perhaps I shall find myself an obscenely rich husband for my efforts. I suppose that’s why Mama agreed to let me go. Fatten the coffers and all that.”
“Indeed.” The word dripped with derision.
Heavens. She almost loathed herself in that moment, but the unguarded disgust blooming on the duke’s countenance was like a blow. She ignored it…his instant and unguarded contempt. Bronwyn felt her cheeks heat, but played into her performance. Her gaze canvassed him in an almost covetous way, lashes dropping bashfully. “I hope you don’t think me forward, Your Grace, but perhaps we should have dinner one night. For my brother’s sake.”
The hefty flirtation worked like a charm.
He released her like a hot coal and bowed, the slightest dip of his head as though he couldn’t muster much more than that, his face going studiously blank. Cold. Untouchable.
“Perhaps. Enjoy your trip, my lady.”
Amalie Howard is a USA Today and Publishers Weekly bestselling author. Her books have also been featured in The Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly, and Seventeen Magazine. She is also the author of several critically acclaimed, award-winning young adult novels, including her latest YA release “Queen Bee.” When she’s not writing, she can usually be found reading or serving as president of her one-woman Harley Davidson motorcycle club. She lives in Colorado with her family.