After Dark with the Duke (The Palace of Rogues #4) 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!”