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Prudence, Duchess of Blackmoor, has one desire—to be happy again. After struggling to overcome the horrifying death of her husband, she accepts an earl’s offer of marriage, confident she’s taking a step in the right direction. But demons, refuse to die, and Prudence finds herself caught in an intricate web of deceit that threatens the very foundations of all she holds dear.
Tobias, the Duke of Blackmoor, crosses the line when an assassination attempt on him fails. To restore the reputations of friends under attack by the same villain, and ensure his wife’s safety, he stages his own death, becoming The Black Regent, a notorious pirate bent on brandishing justice, never thinking he’d survive. But to his amazement, he has, and now the darkest-kept secrets are not worth losing the duchess his wife has become.
EXCERPT FROM THE BOOK
“Please tell me you didn’t bring that book to my wedding.”
“I did,” Chloe confirmed with a grin. “You know I never go anywhere without it. And I shall continue to read about blackguards and rogues while Markwick pampers you anon. I’ve never seen a man so smitten.” She closed the book and hugged the volume close to her chest. She sighed distractedly. “How I long for a gentleman like the Earl of Markwick to do the same for me.”
“That day will come,” Prudence promised. “And when it does, your wallflower days will be all but forgotten.”
Chloe released a hopeful sigh. “Do you think I shall find a man as worthy as Isabella’s Theodore?”
“I know so.” It was only fair. Chloe deserved a man who’d move heaven and earth to convey his love—a heroic man like Tobias.
I am such a fool hanging on to my ghosts. Tobias is gone. Basil is my future now.
“What I wouldn’t give to meet a man as dashing as the Black Regent, though,” Chloe said, drawing in another idealistic sigh.
Prudence released a horrified gasp. “The Black Regent? Why on earth would you glorify that rogue, especially when you brother is trying to catch him?”
“Bookkeepers under my brother’s employ verified that local men are receiving stipends in their accounts when none were to be had. Does that not remind you of Robin Hood?” She stepped toward the mirror as if conveying mere gossip, rearranged an errant curl, then turned back to Prudence to put on her gloves. “I’ve overheard Pierce say the Regent’s demeanor is darker than the clothes he wears. His ship, the Fury, is the wraith of the Cornish coast, painted blacker than night, and nigh uncatchable. You do know what this means, don’t you?”
“He’s even more complex than characters in our favorite tomes! How romantic!”
“A pirate? Preposterous!” How many times did she have to remind Chloe that the novels she read were works of fiction? “There is nothing romantic about pirates.” Prudence eyed the door, counting down the moments until she was summoned, unsure she wanted to hear more shocking details. But for some inexplicable reason, she went on. “Tell me. What has he done now?”
Chloe’s expression turned sheepish. “He targeted another one of Lord Underwood’s ships.”
“Another one?” she asked, lowering her voice to a whisper. If she knew one thing about Lord Underwood, it was this: he valued monetary worth over blood. And right now, with the dire straits he was already in financially, worry sunk deep in Prudence’s belly.
“Yes, the cunning devil,” Chloe continued. “He divided up the cargo and gave it to anyone who could carry it off the beach.”
Prudence chewed the inside of her lower lip. “Why wasn’t I informed about this earlier?”
“I assume Markwick didn’t want to worry you about it before the wedding.”
Prudence toyed with the Honiton lace at her wrists as her friend went on. “I’m sure the earl waits to divulge this unhappy state of affairs after your wedding night. Men do not feel obliged to burden women with their concerns.”
Pru looked up at Chloe sharply. “I am not most women.”
“Oh yes. I am well aware of that, dear friend. I feel positive Markwick simply wants to preserve your happiness, rather than encumber you with his father’s difficulties.”
Prudence tapped her bottom lip, then sighed. “I suppose you are right. Go on. Tell me what else you’ve heard.”
Chloe’s eyes brightened. “After the pirate’s last attack,” she said, thankfully leaving out her usual litany of the devil’s misdeeds, “Pierce was forced to escort debt collectors from Lord Underwood’s offices.”
Prudence had known Underwood was struggling, but was Underwood destitute?
“I assure you, these are not yarns. Not in the least. Pierce has it on good authority—”
“Your brother has been feeding your imagination again.”
Chloe’s smile faltered. “Balderdash.”
Prudence fanned herself more rapidly. “I’m surprised that you, of all people, believe your brother’s stories. Even if he does work with the Royal Navy and the Revenue Office, don’t you remember how he deceived both of us into believing we could swim?”
“But now we can swim,” Chloe said, leaving out the horrific way they’d learned to do so. “I’ve been telling you for nigh a year now that Pierce has chased the Fury out of the quay, down the Exe River, and into the Lyme Sea and never once caught it. He calls it a ghost ship manned by demons.”
Prudence shivered. She wasn’t comfortable talking about ghosts.
“The Black Regent,” Chloe said breathlessly, eyes wide, “is as real as you and me, and thankfully so.”
“How naive you are. The brigand is an elaborate sham conjured by free traders to cover up their own tracks. Or worse, he’s been invented by your brother to veil his inability to catch the marauder preying upon my future father-in-law’s assets.”
“Do you really think my brother would be so cruel?”
Prudence arched her brow and cast Chloe a meaningful glare.
Chloe picked up her reticule with a soft huff, shoved her book inside it, and hugged the bag tightly to her just as the door to the room creaked on its hinges. She stepped forward expectantly as the gray-haired clergyman reappeared.
“Apologies for the delay, Your Grace,” he said. “We are ready for you.”
The old wooden door creaked more as it moved farther outward on its hinges, casting shadows on the wall beside it. Her father, Cyril, Marquess of Heathcote appeared. “The time has come, daughter. Are you ready?”
“Yes.” She nodded, determined to put the Black Regent and Lord Underwood’s financial difficulties out of her mind.
She and Chloe exchanged an emotional embrace, despite their quarrel. “Do not worry. It will be wonderful, Pru.”
“Indeed,” her father added. He took hold of Prudence’s hand and placed it in the crook of his arm, glancing down at her with genuine affection. “We mustn’t keep your young gentleman waiting any longer.”
“No.” The thrumming wings in her stomach dissipated at the thought of Basil. She’d been through hell and looked forward to spending the rest of her life with a loving friend.
He patted her hand. She leaned her head against his shoulder and squeezed his arm.
They followed Chloe toward the rectory, and as the chapel doors opened, Chloe flashed them one more smile before she disappeared through them.
Prudence stood at the threshold with her father, looking out into the chapel. The pews were radiantly lined with flowers in shades of white and green, all leading up to where Basil patiently waited. His handsome face was eclipsed, his thick dark hair illuminated by fragments of light shining through the stained glass.
Father patted her hand again and gazed down at her fondly. “Shall we do this, my dear?”
She nodded. “Yes. I am ready.”
Her father wasted no time guiding her to the altar, past faces she’d known long and well, servants devoted to her as a child and, since her husband’s death, Blackmoor’s tenants, as well as notable gentry.
“It’s been two years since the duke’s passing,” someone whispered to her left.
Prudence pressed forward, past rightful members of the ton seated near the front.
“Imagine being a widow at three and twenty,” another voice said softly.
Tobias’s face momentarily replaced Basil’s, and her slipper caught on the hem of her gown. Father’s quick reflexes kept her from falling flat on her face before Basil, God, and their guests.
He squeezed her arm reassuringly. “Do not listen to foolish hen prattle, my dear. The earl is waiting for you.”
Straightening her shoulders, she focused on Basil’s handsome face and light-blue eyes that glinted like Blackmoor silver, twinkling, promising years of fidelity and conveying assurances that all would be well. Tall, lean, and clothed in simple black and white, Basil gave her a pleasant smile that lured her to him, and warmth swept through her. He was her future now. No more sleepless nights lying awake, feeling helpless and alone. No more nightmares or thoughts of what could have been.
Her father stopped just before the altar and placed a kiss on her brow. “Your mother would be so proud of you if she were here. You are strong, my girl.”
“Thank you, Papa,” she whispered, her heart filled with gratitude.
He turned her toward Basil, who sketched a bow, then lowered his hand and helped her step up to the altar. When she finally stood beside him, he raised her hand to his lips, kissing the amethyst ring on her right hand before clicking his heels together with practiced ease.
He leaned down to whisper in her ear as he removed her veil. “No regrets?”
“I promise you’ll never have them.”
“I accept your challenge,” she replied, returning his smile.
Together, they turned to Mr. Leyes, who stood like a rotund badger in front of his den, a book held open in each hand. He nodded to Prudence and Basil, then began reading from the first book, a copy of Fordyce’s Sermons.
Throughout Leyes’s literal depiction of a woman’s character, Basil held her hand in his, gently rubbing her knuckles with his thumb as brilliant light filtered through the windows behind the vicar’s back, bathing them in prisms of color.
Leyes paused, then said, “Is anyone present who can justifiably object to the joining of this man and woman in holy wedlock?”
Someone cleared his throat, and Prudence’s breath hitched. When the vicar craned his head to find the instigator, the room fell silent. Then Leyes nodded, smiling confidently at Basil, who turned to take hold of both her hands and gazed into her eyes.
“Basil Halford, Earl of Markwick, do you take Prudence Denzell, Duchess of Blackmoor, to wed?”
The doors to the chapel slammed open.
“He does not,” came a deep, angry voice from the back.
That voice! It can’t be . . .
Prudence’s body tensed. Surely she’d heard wrong.
She turned away from the vicar and Basil to see a cloaked man standing in dark silhouette, holding a silver cane. There was something ill-omened about the way he stood and angled his head. Her heart clenched, then raced.
“What is the meaning of this?” Basil asked, anger rolling off him in waves. “How dare you interrupt our wedding?”
“No one is going to marry my wife today.”