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The Inferno Club: In public, this scandalous society of London aristocrats is notorious for pursuing all manner of debauchery. But in private, they are warriors who would do anything to protect king and country…
They say that the very name of Warrington is cursed…
From a time as old as the cold stone of the duke’s ancestral castle, the Warrington men have been plagued by tragedy. But Rohan Kilburn, the Duke of Warrington, has vowed to escape the predestined torment by forsaking love and devoting his life to the Inferno Club and its secret mission.
And then she is brought to him unbidden by cutthroats hoping to calm the duke’s infamous temper—a sacrificial virgin of sorts. But even overpowered, Kate Madsen will be no man’s sacrifice. And the duke’s price for claiming her may be what he has sworn never to give—the heart he has so long and fiercely guarded—to the beautiful hostage he was never meant to love. (This book is #2 in the Inferno Club Series)
Why do you need to read this book? This book is awesome!! It a combination of a sizzling romance, and a swashbuckling adventure! I lost a lot of sleep finishing this book as I simply couldn’t put it down!
My Dangerous Duke is available from Amazon
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She was to be given to him as a gift–a plaything for some powerful, dark stranger. How her life had come to this, Kate Madsen could barely comprehend, but her rage at this horrifying fate was muted by the drug her kidnappers forced down her throat.
The tincture of the poppy soon dissolved her will to fight. Within half an hour of being made to swallow it, it had tamed her temper, blurred her mind, quelled the usual sharp-tongued retorts she blasted at her captors, and left her hands limp instead of her usual clenched fists when the smugglers’ wives came in to prepare her for her doom.
Barely two-third conscious, capable only of dull-witted yes’s and no’s, she was uncharacteristically docile as the women washed her roughly and dressed her like a harlot for their lord.
Kate did not know what the smugglers had done to anger the dread Duke of Warrington, but from what she could glean, she was to be the virgin sacrifice by which they hoped to appease his wrath.
His appetite for women was known to be voracious. This, along with his expertise in all manner of violence was, she had heard, why the locals privately called their landlord “the Beast.”
None of it felt real. When she saw her reflection clad in the indecent shred of white muslin they had made her wear, she could only laugh bitterly. She knew she did not have a prayer. Half naked, she shivered uncontrollably–not so much from the cold, but in terror of the night ahead.
Only the sedative offered sweet refuge, carrying her fears away to oblivion, like so much chimney smoke torn asunder by the winter wind that even now was howling through the seaside village.
The women nearly scalped her combing out the tangles in her long brown hair. They sprinkled her with cheap perfume, and then stood back to admire their work.
“Right pretty,” one weathered sea-wife declared. “She don’t clean up too badly.”
“Aye, the Beast should fancy her.”
“Still too pale,” another said. “Put some rouge on her, Gladys.”
It all seemed to be happening to someone else. A slimy daub of pink-tinted cream rubbed into her cheeks none too gently, then her lips.
“There.” This done, they pulled Kate to her feet and started herding her toward the door.
Through her dulled, distorted senses, the prospect of exiting the cramped room that had been her recent prison roused Kate slightly from her stupor. “Wait,” she forced out in a mumble. “I . . . don’t have any shoes.”
“That’s so you won’t try runnin’ away again, Miss Clever!” Gladys snapped. “Here, finish your wine. I’d take it if I were you. He’s like to be rough with ye.”
Kate stared at her, her glassy eyes opening wide at the warning. But she did not argue. She took the cup and gulped down the last swallow of drugged red wine, while the crude harpies cackled with laughter to think they had finally succeeded in breaking her will.
Lord knew, if not for the strong dose of laudanum they had given her, she would have been screaming bloody murder and fighting them like a wild thing, just as she had on the night of her abduction about a month ago.
Instead, she simply finished the cup and handed it back to them with a grim, lost gaze.
The women bound her wrists with some rope, then brought her downstairs to the ground floor of the cluttered little house.
In the room below, grizzled old Caleb Doyle and the other male leaders of the smugglers’ ring were waiting to take her up to the castle. She could not bear to make eye contact with anyone, humiliated by the way they had made her look like a whore–she, who had always valued herself for her brains, not her looks.
Thank God, none of them saw fit to mock her. She did not think what was left of her pride could have borne it.
Despite the heavy, rolling fog that hung over her mind, she noticed how somber the men’s mood was. There was none of the cheerful vulgarity she had come to expect from the citizens of the smugglers’ village.
Tonight she could almost smell their fear, and it multiplied her own exponentially.
Good God, what manner of man were they taking her to, that he could make these rough criminals tremble like whipped dogs at their master’s approach?
“Finally made a lady of the little hoyden, have ye?” old Caleb, the smugglers’ chieftain, grunted at his wife.
“Aye. She’ll show some manners now. Don’t worry, ’usband,” Gladys added. “She’ll soften his anger.”
“Let’s just hope he takes the bait,” Caleb muttered. He turned away, but Gladys grasped his arm and pulled her husband aside.
“You’re sure you want to risk this?” she muttered to him.
He scoffed. “What choice do I have?”
Though the couple kept their voices down, Kate stood close enough to hear their tense exchange–not that she was able to make much sense of it, with her usually sharp wits deliberately dulled, as was no doubt their plan.
“Why don’t you just talk to him, Caleb? Aye, he’ll be furious, but if ye explain what happened—”
“I’m done groveling to him!” her husband shot back angrily. “Look at the answer our fine duke sent back the last time we asked him for help! Coldhearted bastard. Rubbin’ elbows with princes and czars, wrapped up in God-knows-what dark dealings on the Continent. His Grace is too important to be bothered with the likes of us these days,” he said bitterly. “I can’t even remember the last time he troubled himself with a visit to Cornwall. Can you?”
“It’s been a long time,” she admitted.
“Aye, and he only came back this time on account of the blasted shipwreck! He don’t care about us anymore, never mind we’re his own people. You ask me, he’s forgot where he came from. But this little lesson ought to help remind him.”
“Don’t worry. Once he’s had the girl, he’ll be up to his neck in this, too, whether he likes it or not. Then he’ll have no choice but to help us.”
“Aye, and if you’re wrong, there will be hell to pay.”
“I expect there will be,” he replied with a hard glitter in his shrewd old eyes. “But look at my choices, Gladys. Better the devil you know.”
“Right, well, if you’re sure, then. Off ye go.” Gladys folded her arms across her chest.
Caleb turned away, his weathered face taut as he gestured to his men. “Come on. Bring the girl. Let’s not keep His Grace waitin’!”
Two of the grubby smugglers took hold of Kate’s arms and, without further ado, ushered her out into the biting cold of the pitch-black January night.
Her brain seethed as she tried to sort out the sketchy information contained in the Doyles’ conversation. This was the first sort of explanation she had heard about what was going on, but with the laudanum working in her blood, her wits weren’t working properly to weigh it all out. She rose and fell on waves between euphoria and dread, and following one train of thought simply took too much effort. It was easier just to drift…
Meanwhile, the smugglers lifted her limp body and deposited her in the second of three battered, waiting carriages. Caleb threw her a flimsy blanket to keep her from catching her death. He locked her in with a wary look, as if he suspected her of eavesdropping.
A moment later, they set out for Kilburn Castle, the ancestral home of the Beast.
As their caravan rumbled out of the wind-whipped village, Kate stared blankly out the carriage window.
Above, the hooked moon tore like a claw through the smoky scattered clouds, revealing pinprick stars; winter constellations marched down over the horizon into the glossy onyx English Channel.
Feeble lanterns on the smugglers’ boats bobbed in the harbor, riding out the frigid night at anchor.
Ahead, the road hugged the hill as their small caravan ascended. And far up on the distant crest, the black tower of Kilburn Castle loomed.
Kate rested her forehead for a moment against the carriage window, staring dully at it. She had already had plenty of time to contemplate what she might find there, for through the window of the tiny bedchamber that had been her prison cell, she had been able to see the stark tower standing alone a few miles away on the bleak cliff-top.
According to local legend, the castle was haunted, its master’s bloodlines cursed.
She shook her head in woozy annoyance. Ignorant peasant superstitions.The Duke of Warrington was not cursed, merely evil, she could have explained to these unlettered brutes. What other sort of man would participate in such iniquity?
From the snatches of gossip she had overheard among the smugglers’ women over the past few weeks, the duke sounded like the very worst sort of aristocrat–rich, powerful, corrupt. Steeped in sheer debauchery. She had also heard the women say His Grace belonged to some unspeakable libertines’ society in London called the Inferno Club.
How he amused himself there made her shudder even to wonder.
Hating him, however, seemed as futile as wondering why all this was happening to her.
She had never really understood from the start why she had been kidnapped. She lived so quietly at the edge of the moors with her books and writings; she kept to herself, never bothered anyone. She had no enemies that she knew of. Nor many friends, admittedly.
But why would somebody target her?
For all her love of logic puzzles since she was a child, she could not riddle this one out, until at length, she had drawn her own conclusions based on the few facts she possessed.
The smugglers dealt in black markets, which, since the end of the war, had ceased to exist. Now that there was peace, there were no more tariffs on French luxury goods.
Lean times had come to Cornwall. Ergo, to make a living, the smugglers must have broadened their interests by venturing into a darker sort of commodity.
Oh, she had read about so-called ‘white slavery’ before. The newspapers spoke of criminal rings that abducted young females without any family, and sold them in secrecy to decadent noblemen and other rich perverts to rape at will, as though inflicting pain and terror was its own expensive form of depraved amusement.
Though she had heard of it, Kate had never dreamed it was anything more than a lurid myth, the stuff of the Gothic novels that were her secret vice. Yet somehow, to her horror, here she was, caught up in it.
It was the only explanation that seemed to fit at all.
The Doyles’ tense conversation of a few moments ago she had overheard offered new bits of insight, but in her current muddled state, she did not have the wherewithal to assimilate it into her working theory. Whatever their words had meant, it did not bode well. But more important than knowing why was figuring some way out of this.
They were getting closer. Her fear mounted with every yard of road the carriages covered. Rallying herself with a mighty effort against the heaviness of the laudanum, Kate sat up and tried the door-handle. She rattled it with some vague notion of escape, but it did not budge.
Even if she could succeed in breaking free, she realized that exposed to the elements, half-naked as she was, the wet, brutal cold would kill her within hours.
She could not even hope for justice someday, she thought in a flood of despair. Everyone knew that a duke was practically immune to prosecution for any sort of criminal barbarity.
Whom would she tell? For that matter, who would believe her? She barely believed it herself.
For all she knew, this man might kill her in his pursuit of twisted pleasure.
No, her only hope at this point was that when he was finally done with her, he might let her live, might let her just go home.
The thought of her cozy thatched cottage at the edge of Dartmoor brought tears of nearly unbearable homesickness to her eyes, all of her emotions intensified by the opiates. By God, if she ever made it home, she swore she would never complain again about her rural isolation out there on the heath. For she had discovered lately that there were worse things in the world than the loneliness.
The hardest part was thinking that stupid O’Banyon had not even kidnapped the right girl!
On the night of her abduction, the ringleader, O’Banyon, kept calling her by the wrong name—Kate Fox instead of Kate Madsen.
Her name was Kate Madsen!
With failing hope, she thought perhaps it might all be an outrageous case of mistaken identity. Perhaps she could convince the duke this was never supposed to happen, not to her. And yet…
A glimmer of a childhood memory, a tiny incident she had almost forgotten poked a hole in her neat little theory of why all this was happening. Indeed, it spawned a fearful bewilderment that shook her to the core.
But there was no time left to ponder the question.
Her fate was at hand. They had come to Kilburn Castle.
Surrounded by a landscape of bleakly frosted rock, its rugged stone face was silvered by moonlight, contoured with charcoal shadows.
Kate turned, looking this way and that as the three carriages pounded over the drawbridge and gusted under the archway of the barbican gate-house, a bristling portcullis hanging overhead. A pair of burly guards there waved them through without stopping them.
So. We are expected.
She stared out the carriage window at the castle’s outer walls. They stretched out on either side and disappeared into the night, like a steely embrace she would never escape.
Her pulse slammed. Escape from here? No. There is no way.Even if she were warmly dressed and in her right mind, there were armed men everywhere.
Why? Why does he keep all these guards?
It seemed to be more evidence that the duke had plenty to hide.
She had already drawn a few conclusions about his dealings with the smugglers.
As the aristocratic patron of these criminals, she had ascertained that the duke allowed the smugglers to operate freely along his coastal lands, no doubt in exchange for a cut of their ill-gotten gains. The smugglers probably supplied the girls that fed the demon appetites of the Inferno Club.
No wonder he kept all these guards, she thought. Even drugged, she could see it was only logical that a wealthy peer who dabbled in the criminal underworld would want to take added measures to ensure his security.
Perhaps he was merely as paranoid as every tyrant in history, she thought, missing her dusty historical tomes. Caesar and his Praetorian Guards— and the modern-day Caesar, Napoleon, with his elite Grand Armee, or what was left of it, after Waterloo last summer.
Lord, if the duke was this paranoid, her situation might be even more dire than she had thought.
Ahead, the Norman keep with its four rounded towers rose against the darkness. The carriages filed into the mighty quadrangle, arriving in a formal courtyard at the center of the inner bailey.
As the horses clattered to a halt, a fresh wave of terror gripped her, any hope of some miraculous reprieve dwindling by the second.
Quickly, the smugglers began jumping out of their three vehicles. The door to the middle one flew open abruptly; a burst of frigid air rushed in.
“Come on,” Caleb ordered gruffly. Reaching into the carriage, the old smugglers’ chieftain pulled her out.
Kate clutched the too-small blanket, trying to protect herself from the elements, but he ripped it away, leaving her exposed again in her harlot gown. “You don’t need that.”
When he set her on her feet, she let out a small cry of pain, for the thin white stockings she wore offered no protection against the coating of frost on the flagstones.
Doyle nodded to a pair of his underlings. “Help her walk.”
“Aye, sir.” The two men grabbed her by her elbows and began steering her toward the yawning Gothic entrance.
Teeth chattering, her body shivering violently, Kate did her best to keep up, but her legs were wobbly with fear, her almost-bare feet smarting with every step.
Still dizzy and disoriented, she thought surely anyone who saw her at this moment would believe she was indeed just a common drunken trollop. Oh, God, her highborn French mama would be turning over in her grave to see her now.
Fortunately, however, the cold served one purpose in Kate’s favor. It cleared away some of her stupor, forcing her to stay relatively alert and aware of her surroundings.
She kept a bleary eye out for any means of escape, either now or in the future. Scanning the smugglers who had come along, she did not see any of the three who had burst into her cottage on the night of her kidnapping.
She especially hated O’Banyon. Filthy, leering brute.
She had overheard the ringleader’s name on the night of her abduction when one of the two younger men had asked him for permission to rob her home after they had taken her captive. O’Banyon had generously allowed his assistants that night to help themselves to whatever money and jewelry they could find. Which wasn’t much, anyway.
The possessions Kate valued most all sat on her bookshelf, but those ruffians were too crude to care about the likes of Aristotle and the Bard.
Just inside the windbreak of the mighty stone entrance, Doyle called a halt. “Untie her hands,” he ordered his underlings.
The men holding her arms looked at their chief in surprise.
“His Grace might not like it,” Caleb muttered. “Let him tie her up himself if that’s how he wants her. Don’t worry, she ain’t goin’ nowhere. Lass barely knows her own name at the moment. Go on, be quick about it!” he ordered, nodding at the ropes around her wrists. “I’m freezin’ me arse off.”
To Kate’s relief, the man he had spoken to obeyed, removing the knotted rope that bound her wrists.
Before moving on, however, Mr. Doyle stuck his finger in her face and issued a dire warning. “Don’t you give His Grace any o’ your lip, my girl, or you’ll wish you was back in that cellar. Ye mark me? He don’t take kindly to insolence. He’s a very powerful man. If you’re smart, you keep your mouth shut and do as he tells you. Understand?”
She nodded meekly, rubbing her chafed wrists.
The smugglers’ chief looked startled by the absence of her usual fighting spirit. The frown on Caleb’s lined face deepened to a scowl. “Aw, don’t look at me like that—some wee lamb brought to slaughter!” he blustered. “Dozens o’ lasses around these parts would give their right arm to spend a few nights in his bed! You’ll live.”
Kate stiffened, but his rough tone had succeeded in chasing off the threat of tears that stung her eyelids and calling up the last reserves of her courage. She steeled herself the best she could and squared her shoulders, determined to survive. By God, she would not go into this already cringing and defeated.
“Come on, you lot,” Doyle muttered to his men, shrugging off her ruin. “Let’s give the devil his due.” With that, he banged on the iron-studded door with the huge metal knocker.
At once, a wiry, black-clad butler admitted them.
“Evening, Mr. Eldred,” Caleb greeted him with all the charm he could muster as they all stepped inside.
The butler bowed like an animated skeleton in black clothes. “Mr. Doyle.” He had shrewd, deep-set eyes, a bony face, and a gaunt, foreboding stillness about him.
Behind his pale high forehead, a storm-cloud of wild gray hair stuck out in all directions at the back of his head. His expression inscrutable, Eldred the butler glanced at Kate, but was apparently too shrewd to ask any questions.
He turned away, lifting his lantern high. “This way, please. The master is expecting you.”
Their whole party followed as Eldred led them down a tall, shadowy corridor, all stone and aged plaster and carved dark wood. Kate stumbled along on her frozen feet, staring all around her. She had never been in a castle before, but it was hard to believe that anyone could actually live in such a place.
It was not a home, it was a fortress, a mighty barracks left over from the days of knights and dragons.
Everything was dark and hard, cold and threatening. Ancient weapons, shields and pieces of armor, tattered battle flags hung on the walls instead of paintings. There was not one cozy thing about it, yet perversely, despite its unwelcoming atmosphere, the castle’s historical significance made her forget her dread for one or two seconds.
Her scholar’s unquenchable curiosity was roused about the place, the battles it had seen, and all the other mysterious things that might have happened here over the centuries.
Then she noticed her captors becoming increasingly nervous.
“’Hoy, Eldred.” Doyle leaned toward the butler as they trudged down a darkly paneled corridor. “How’s his mood tonight?”
“I beg your pardon, sir?”
“The Beast!” he whispered. “Is he in a foul temper?”
The butler eyed him in disapproval. “I’m sure I couldn’t say.”
“So, that’s a yes,” Caleb muttered. Stepping past the screens passage, Eldred led them into a cavernous great hall with a soaring vaulted ceiling.
Darkness clustered thickly between the arching beams. Moldering tapestries draped the side walls here and there, with an empty space for the minstrel’s gallery, a small balcony that jutted out slight from the far wall of the room. Here and there several pieces of thick, ancient furniture hewn from dark wood provided barren comfort.
Two black-clad guards like those stationed at the gate-house were posted in the nearest corners. They stood at attention, as immovable as the ancient suits of armor that adorned the great hall.
The only real sign of life glowed from the blazing bonfire in the yawning fireplace, far away down at the dais end of the hall–and it was there that Kate caught her first glimpse of the Beast.
She knew at once that it was he.
The huge, crackling power of his presence filled the hall before he even turned around. His back to them, the Duke of Warrington stood before the fire, a towering figure silhouetted against the flames.
He was toying with a large, strange weapon with a long, notched blade, some sort of deadly cross between a lance and a sword. Balancing it on its tip, he twirled it slowly in a most ominous fashion.
Eldred announced them with a polite cough. “Ahem, Your Grace: Caleb Doyle and company.”
He lifted the weapon, resting the bar of its long handle on his huge shoulder.
Her heart leaped up into her throat as the iron giant slowly pivoted to face them. He paused, studying them from across the hall with a dissecting stare.
Then he began prowling toward them, his long paces unhurried yet relentless: a medieval warlord in modern-day clothes. Each fall of his mud-flecked boots boomed in the hollow vastness of the chamber.
Kate’s mouth hung open slightly as she stared at him in fear and some degree of awe.
Caleb whipped off his hat and took a couple steps forward, gesturing to his men to do the same.
The smugglers’ party advanced in cringing dread, with Kate in the center.
Her stare stayed locked on the warrior duke as he sauntered closer. She searched in vain for any sign of softness in the man, but instead, a capacity for ruthless force emanated from him. He was hard and dark and dangerous, intimidation incarnate.
It was clear he had just arrived, his wild, windblown mane of thick sable hair tied back in a queue. She studied him, wide-eyed. The dark knotted cloth around his neck was nothing so formal as a cravat. His loose white shirt hung open a bit at the neck, disappearing into a black waistcoat that hugged his lean, sculpted torso.
Rain and sleet still dotted his black riding breeches, while the reddish firelight gleamed on the blade that he wielded so idly as he advanced, as though he’d been born with it in his hand.
Heart pounding, Kate could not take her eyes off him.
He appeared to be in his mid-thirties; she scanned his square, rugged face as he drew closer. He had thick, dark eyebrows with a scar above the left like the mark of a thunderbolt. His skin was unfashionably bronzed, as though he had spent years in sunnier climes. His nose was broad but straight, the grim set of his hard mouth bracketed by lines.
His eyes were terrifying.
Steely in color and expression, they were narrowed with suspicion, their depths gleaming with a banked fury that she realized he was waiting to unleash on the smugglers–and might take out on her, as well, before the night was through.
Dear God, he could kill her easily, she understood at once. The man was huge, nearly six and a half feet tall, with arms of iron, and shoulders like the Cornish cliffs. He looked strong enough to lift a horse, while she only came up to the center of his massive chest.
No wonder the smugglers were terrified of him. A fresh wave of fear left her lightheaded, as well. He had the imposing physique of a conqueror, and all the worldly power of the aristocracy’s highest rank, save the royal family.
She tried to back away as Warrington stalked closer, running a bold stare over the length of her.
“What is this?” he growled softly at Doyle, nodding at her. She reacted instinctively to his notice, pulling against her captors’ hold in panic. She tried to run.
They stopped her.
“A gift, Your Grace!” Caleb Doyle exclaimed in forced joviality.
As the smugglers dragged her over to him, Warrington studied her like a predatory wolf.
“A gift?” he echoed in a musing tone.
Caleb thrust her toward him with a cheerful grin. “Aye, sir! A token of our regard to welcome you back to Cornwall after all this time! A fine young bed-warmer for a cold winter’s night. Right little beauty, ain’t she?”
He was silent for a long moment, perusing her intently. Then he answered barely audibly, his deep voice reverberated like a distant rumble of thunder drawing closer: “Indeed.”
Caught in his stare, Kate could not even move. She was lucky she remembered to keep breathing.
When Caleb laughed again uneasily, the other men followed his example, but Warrington barely took note of them, his stare trailing over her in appreciation.
“Very thoughtful of you, Doyle,” he murmured, taking lecherous note of how the chill effected certain regions of her anatomy.
His brazen stare erased any faint hope in her that he might not be in on it with them. Of course he was.
She was naught but merchandise to him.
“We thought you’d like ’er, sir. We brought a few other tokens of our regard, as well–” Doyle gestured hastily to his followers. “Show him. Hurry!” His men leaped into motion, presenting their lord with a case of premium brandy and a selection of fine tobaccos.
He barely glanced at these offerings, however, still studying Kate with a speculative gleam in his eyes.
She barely knew what to do with herself. She had never been looked at this way by a man before—inspected, nay, devoured.
Warrington’s glance flicked down from her still-damp hair to her stockinged feet, assessing her from top to bottom; then, to her surprise, he stared, hard, into her eyes—but only for a moment.
In that fleeting instant, she was not sure what she read in his penetrating gaze, other than a chilling degree of intelligence, like a man in the midst of a chess game.
“The gift is, er, acceptable, Your Grace?” Caleb ventured in a delicate tone.
The duke flashed a dangerous smile more potent than the laudanum.
“We’ll soon find out,” he said. Never taking his stare off her, he nodded to his silent guardsmen. “Put her in my chamber.”