Home > The Duke (Victorian Rebels #4)(2)

The Duke (Victorian Rebels #4)(2)
Author: Kerrigan Byrne

Why then the special treatment?

Del Toro plucked Flora Latimer as she sashayed by, proudly advertising the abundant flesh she had on display. Her eyes widened in astonished increments as he breathed orders into her ears. By the time he’d finished and shoved her toward the sideboard where Imogen and the others lingered, she resembled a big, blue-eyed owl.

“You’ll never guess ’ew just walked in,” she tittered, flushed with excitement. “Though what ’e’s doing in Soho, I couldn’t begin to imagine. Don’t get much of ’is like ’ere.”

“Spit it out, ye crooked whore, we’re not about to be guessing,” Heather demanded.

“See that one there?” Flora pointed at the officer who folded his long frame into a chair at the head of the table. “The tall one wot looks like a fallen angel?”

They all nodded, not wanting to interrupt her long enough to point out that a man such as he was impossible to miss.

“Well, your eyes be feasting on Collin sodding Talmage, fresh from the funeral of his father and brother. Del Toro tells me ’e’s leaving at dawn for his final service to the crown before ’e returns to take ’is seat as the Duke of Trenwyth.”

Of course. That was why he’d been so familiar. His story was inescapably sensational. His father, the late Duke of Trenwyth, his mother, the duchess, and their heir apparent, Robert, had all been killed when a locomotive derailed near the French Alps, leaving behind their second child, Harriet, and their youngest, Collin. His likeness had been on the front page of every paper and periodical for a week. Lord, but they’d never done him justice, hadn’t been able to capture the potent masculinity that draped like a royal mantle from his wide shoulders.

And a royal he nearly was. Some distant Hanoverian mixed in with an ancient family from Cornwall, directly related to their own dear Queen Victoria. It certainly made sense that he’d descended from those fierce Germanic barbarian hordes that kept Rome at bay so long ago. She could see it in his bone structure, in the way he surveyed his surroundings, as though he’d already conquered them.

He’d looked at her like that.

Furthermore, she’d been right. It was sadness she’d glimpsed on his features. A sadness he valiantly concealed.

“No time to dawdle.” Flora bustled them in the direction of the table. “Del Toro said it’s all hands on deck tonight, and that every man at that table must leave ’ere feeling like it’s ’is birthday. Especially His Grace, as ’e’s footing the entire bill.”

Simultaneously, the women turned and checked their reflections in the gilded mirror above the sideboard. Even Imogen adjusted her dark wig and made certain her lip rouge was fresh and even. It didn’t really matter what she looked like, so long as she kept the drinks coming. She wasn’t a prostitute, only part of the serving staff, someone to look at, someone to sneer at and grope, but never anything beyond that.

Such was the deal she’d struck with del Toro, that she work at night in the Bare Kitten for as long as it took her to pay off her late father’s gambling debts. She toiled here, even handing over her gratuities to the loathsome man, and then kept her mother and younger sister, Isobel, housed and fed with her job as a nurse at St. Margaret’s Royal Hospital.

“Ye heard her.” Heather dug her elbow into Imogen’s side hard enough to cause her to stumble forward. “Stop yer lollygagging, and get them ready for us.”

Imogen snatched an empty tray from the sideboard and clutched it to her middle, feeling the need for whatever scant protection it would provide.

She wound her way to the bar, where Jeremy Carson already had one pitcher of ale waiting, and was filling the next. At twenty or so, he was only younger than her by a few years, so Imogen felt guilty that she always thought of Jeremy as a boy rather than a man. His face, while clean, achingly young, and earnest, didn’t at all match his scouse accent, which hailed from the Liverpool docks. “Looks to be a night to remember, in’nt Ginny? A duke in here and all.”

“I can’t believe it, myself.” She placed the pitchers he provided and a stack of clean glasses on her tray. If she appreciated one thing, it was Jeremy’s cleanliness and attention to the needs of her customers.

“What do you suppose a man like him orders to drink?” the barkeep speculated, flashing a conspiratorial smile full of crooked teeth that made him seem even younger.

Even on the worst day at the Bare Kitten, Imogen found it impossible not to return one of Jeremy Carson’s smiles. “I’m about to go discover that very thing.”

“Well, you take care around them tonight, Ginny,” he warned with uncharacteristic gravity. “They say soldiers are to be feared and respected, even among those they protect.”

Imogen didn’t know who’d said that, as she’d never heard the saying before, but as she threaded through the sparsely occupied tables toward the duke and his rowdy compatriots on legs made of lead, she knew the truth of it.

Trenwyth adopted an expression of sardonic amusement, but rarely participated in the masculine conversation. Though she approached from his periphery, he glanced over at her the moment she moved, and didn’t look away. His intense regard turned the innocuous walk from one side of the hall to the other into a perilous, heart-pounding journey.

She only stumbled the once before she reached them, almost upsetting her tray. Cheeks burning with mortification, she placed herself between Trenwyth and a black-haired Scotsman who would have been handsome but for the cruel gleam in his marble-black eyes. She meticulously poured the ale, avoiding the awareness of the duke as he watched her in complete silence.

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