SHE WANTS REVENGE
When bluestocking Vivian Loren becomes the governess for the wealthy Spencer family, she's hunting for clues about the murder of her brother, not romance. But Vivian didn't count on one thing: James Spencer, the intrepid Duke of Abermont, who has a tortured past of his own.
HE NEEDS A WIFE
As head of Britain's elite intelligence agency, James can't afford the scrutiny the Marriage Mart would bring to his family once the Season starts. After discovering Vivian's quest for vengeance has made her a pawn in a treacherous plot of one of Napoleon's most deadly spies, James realizes they can help each other. She'll become his duchess, and he'll keep her safe.
Maidstone, Kent, March 1799
ON THIS OF all days, James Spencer, code-named Falcon, had even less patience for social niceties than the small amount he usually possessed. Today, he’d give the great majority of his vast family fortune to be on a boat in the Atlantic Ocean, or perhaps in a little villa in the south of Switzerland. Bloody hell, at this point, he'd even accept the stifling heat of India, if it meant he was far away from the confines of Abermont House and everything familiar.READ MORE
Yet he could go to the ends of the Earth and the memories of Louisa would not stop. Still, a year after her death, the recollections drowned him. Louisa, as she'd been as a child of four, her grubby hands digging through the dirt. A dozen governesses throughout the years could not curb her enthusiasm for nature. Louisa, a debutante during her first Season, wearing a pastel purple gown as she danced at her coming out ball. And lastly, Louisa's beaten and unconscious body, thrown over his shoulder as they escaped from the Talon's lair.
He curled his fist, desperate rage boiling within him as he pictured her mutilated body in the crude sickroom. Heard the pierce of her cries in his ears, then the shallow intake as she inhaled her last breath. He was useless to stop her death. Powerless. Still the fury seethed within him, a crazed, rancorous animal he could not cage.
Three hundred sixty five days had passed, and he remembered every damn detail as though it were yesterday.
In the hall outside his study, the clock chimed nine. Three more hours until this godforsaken day was over. Each minute dragged on interminably, compounded by the weight of his guilt. His blasted responsibility as head of the Clocktower. His failure.
He closed his eyes and breathed in. His office should have smelled like brandy, old papers, and soap from a fresh cleaning by the maids. Instead, his nose pulled in the pungent sweetness of dried blood, combined with the rancor of bile. His stomach lurched, brought on by the haunting smell insinuating itself on his mind once more. He was in Nicodème's dungeon again, as he was every night, but this time he did not need sleep to usher in the horror. This day had been a living nightmare all by itself, an onslaught of memories he could not fight off.
Opening his eyes, he let out a shoulder-shaking sigh. So much for the attempt at meditation. That had been a suggestion of his eldest sister, Elinor, and a part of him delighted in proving her wrong, even if it was on something as inconsequential as deep breaths not helping to relieve his stress.
As an alternative, he borrowed a tip from his second oldest sister, Korianna, and downed a third of a snifter in one gulp. The burn lit up his throat, a welcome diversion. He drank another third, and then the last. He'd conveniently placed the decanter on the edge of his desk in case of emergencies such as this one. A man had to have priorities, after all, and he now counted brandy very high on that list.
But even brandy was a temporary release. The miracles of spirits could not bring his sister back—no matter how many times he tried. They could not erase the fact that he'd allowed her to go on a suicide mission. His hand clenched around the empty snifter, wondering if the victory of shattering it in his palms would improve his mood.
Louisa's scratchy, pain-drenched voice resonated in his ears. The Clocktower had achieved a seventy-five percent mission success rate in the last year, and there had been no fatalities. He’d protected his fellow agents—but not his family, who should have meant more to him than anyone else.
Under James's leadership, a new era of prosperity appeared to be dawning for their organization. They'd managed to turn a key member of Fouché’s secret police to their advantage, and plant the seeds of rebellion against the First Consul. William Wickham, Under Secretary of State for the Home Department, had personally commended James for his service. The Clocktower was considered a secret sect of Wickham’s Alien Office.
But none of that meant anything when he'd failed Louisa. When the sound of her staggered, desperate cries filled his ears at every interval.
His hand tightened around the snifter. Squeezed the glass for all its worth. Suddenly, a crack resonated through the quiet office.
The crystal fractured.
He was left holding the sharpest piece, slit through his palm. For a second, he simply stared at the new wound, watching the blood drip down onto his desk, too numb to register it.
Pain pierced through him, drawing out a loud groan. With his good hand, he tugged the shard of glass from his palm, his breath hissing out as the fragment clinked onto the top of the desk. So much for being a hardened spy, used to bullet holes and stab wounds. His pain tolerance had gone to the devil with him not being in the field these past four years.
Blood splashed his desk, flowing freely from the open laceration. First things first, then. Pressure on the wound. He fished in his pocket, drawing out his handkerchief. He pressed the handkerchief to the cut, attempting to staunch the flow of blood.
Footsteps sounded down the hall, coming toward him. Blast it all. Most likely, it would be one of his sisters. He’d have to face their nagging questions, adding insult to injury. He steeled himself for the oncoming assault.
Yet the petite, blonde woman in the brown dress who rushed into his study was most certainly not one of his sisters. He didn’t know if he should consider himself lucky that his brother’s governess had found him, instead. After all, he barely knew her, outside of a few conversations they’d had since her hire six months prior.
Miss Vivian Loren’s large blue eyes rounded as she caught sight of his hand wrapped in the blood-soaked cloth and the shattered crystal. “Your Grace, I heard you cry out and came running. You’re hurt.”
He shrugged. “It’s nothing.”
She arched her brows at him, unconvinced.
“You may go, Miss Loren.” He adopted his most autocratic tone, the one usually reserved for when he wanted to remind members of the ton that he was a duke, and their opinion mattered little.
She stood her ground, her eyebrows still arched, and her nose crinkled. Her nose intrigued him—thin and narrow. Crooked, except somehow that made her more alluring. As if she could be as flawed as he was.
He decided he liked that she didn’t leave. It had been a damnably long time since anyone had stood up to him. He did not count his sisters—they’d argue with the king himself, if given the chance.
“Enough of that,” she ordered in a no-nonsense tone. “Your wound needs attention. I am quite used to blood. If you’re concerned about my fragile female mind, you needn’t be. I shall not faint.”
“That’s the furthest thing from my thoughts.” Growing up as he had with a fierce mother and even fiercer sisters, the “fragile female mind” myth had long ago been proved false.
“Good,” she said. “Then you needn’t be so strong around me. Let’s look at your wound.”
God, how he wished that was true, on today of all days. But it was his job to be strong. To hide his pain beneath a veneer of proficiency. “Really, this is not the first time I’ve been cut.”
She ignored him, coming to his side of the desk. Pushing up her sleeves, she leaned down to inspect his hand. He expected her to wince at the sight of so much blood—but again she surprised him. She pursed her lips, reaching for the edge of the handkerchief. No fainting, no histrionics, just pure efficiency.
“There might be a spot of bleeding again without the pressure, but I need to see how deep the cut is,” she explained to him in that same factual tone, as though he were a child like his brother.
He ought to bristle at this. He was a grown man fully capable of taking care of his own wounds—he’d done so many times before. Yet there was something comforting about her competence.
She tilted her head to the side, bringing the scent of roses from her soap to his nose. He clung to that smell, allowed it to fill every crevice of his lungs, for it blocked out the cloying tang of blood and memory.
“The cut is not too deep,” she determined with a swift nod. “It should heal nicely, provided we clean it now.”
Her azure gaze dashed around the office, evaluating every object. She settled on the brandy decanter, uncorking it without asking for permission. She balanced it in one hand, her other hand sliding underneath his palm, raising him up off the soiled handkerchief.
“This might sting a bit,” she cautioned.
The brush of her hand against his warmed him in ways he neither anticipated nor understood. His hand tingled. What in the devil? He never reacted this way when a woman touched him. He forgot the pain, focusing in on the comfortable heat of her flesh against his. This soft, supple woman was at best two heads shorter than he was, yet she seemed unconquerable in her self-possession and surety.
Belatedly, he realized she was waiting for a response—he could not leave her forever supporting his hand, the bottle of brandy poised and ready. “I’m no stranger to pain.”
That made her brow quirk once more. He didn’t know why that pleased him.
She slanted the decanter, splashing brandy on his cut. The air rushed out of his lungs, as the sting of the alcohol cut through his fog.
Bloody, bloody hell. No matter how many times he was injured, he’d never become at ease with this part of healing. The quick stab of pain was worse than a dull, constant ache.
“My apologies, Your Grace,” she murmured. “If it helps with the pain, the sting means it’s working.”
She set the decanter back down on the desk, but she did not release his hand. His bloody, oozing hand, which if he was any sort of gentleman he’d pull from her immediately, whether or not he derived some inexplicable relief from her touch.
His eyes fell to her face. He saw fortitude in the lock of her jaw, concern in the wrinkle of her forehead. But there was no sign that their proximity affected her in any other way.
He should not have been disappointed by that.
Eying his wound, she reached for her own wipe, but then decided better of it. “Might you have another handkerchief?”
He nodded. “In the top left drawer.” All the files pertaining to the Clocktower were kept in a secret room located behind the main library. There was nothing in his desk that she couldn’t see.
She opened the drawer, drawing out two handkerchiefs. The first she used to clean his hand with gentle strokes, until the red disappeared and there was only tanned flesh with a cut across the middle of his palm. Pushing the stained handkerchief off to the side, she spread out the second clean linen and then rested his hand on top of it.
“I’ll bandage you up now,” she said.
He was quite able to handle his own wound, but curiosity took hold of him. He wanted to see if she’d complete this task as proficiently as she had the rest.
As she began to wrap his hand, he reviewed what he knew about her. All servants employed by Abermont House were subject to a thorough investigation, given the nature of their business. Elinor had interviewed her after the last governess left to tend to her ill mother, but James had verified the dossier and made the final judgment.
After the death of her parents at a young age, Miss Loren’s aging uncle, the Viscount Trayborne, had raised her and her brother. When Trayborne died, the title passed to his eldest son, who wanted nothing to do with his father’s poor wards. In consequence, Vivian and her brother, Evan, had moved into a small cottage in Devon. Later, they’d relocated to London. A fatal move, for Evan was murdered in a robbery gone wrong. Left with no family to support her, Vivian was forced to enter service.
From a purely selfish standpoint, Society’s loss was his gain. She was the best governess his family ever employed. His brother, Thomas, adored her.
A fact he needed to remember, because when she leaned down to bandage his hand, her bodice gaped the tiniest bit—presenting him with an all too tempting view of the tops of her lush, creamy breasts.
Reluctantly, he averted his eyes. She might be beautiful, but she was not for him.
“All done,” she pronounced, bringing him back to the present.
He glanced down. His jaw fell in surprise at the sight of his hand all bound up in a secure, but not too tight, bandage. She’d not just completed the field dressing quickly—she’d done it correctly.
“Where did you learn to wrap wounds like that?”
Her lips curled into a small, almost enigmatic smile. “My brother and I were quite rambunctious as children. We grew up on my uncle’s estate in Devon with few other children to play with. I liked to fence, and my brother was convinced he could beat me. He was wrong, of course, but those battles usually resulted in one of us becoming injured.”
He had no problem imagining this headstrong woman running wild through the countryside. “Your uncle couldn’t have been pleased by that.”
Her smile grew. God, she had a glorious smile. “Which is why we learned to truss ourselves up before the servants could tattle on us.”
Oddly, she exhibited no chagrin at the change from having servants to being one. He marked that for future examination, for it did not align with what he’d expected.
But as much she amused him, he couldn’t have her regaling his brother with tales of her reckless youth. Thomas had enough bad influences already. Christ, last month he’d caught the boy down in the abandoned quarry with Korianna, watching as she lit the fuse on a black powder bomb.
“I don’t want my brother engaging in any sort of dangerous activity,” he said, a bit more authoritatively than he should have.
Thomas would have a normal childhood. His younger brother wouldn’t know of the Clocktower until he was old enough to make his own decisions.
“Of course not, Your Grace.” Her tone became more formal, respectful.
While it was his own fault for reprimanding her, he missed the officiousness from before. It had been nice for a few minutes to have someone else tell him what to do.
She crossed to the other side of the desk. He felt a momentary ping, not of pain, but of sadness that she’d leave so soon. For a few minutes at least, he’d been able to breathe normally. He’d not thought that possible today.
Decisively, she pulled out the chair in front of his desk and sat in it. He’d not asked her to stay—her audacity should have been offensive. Instead, relief trickled through him. He dared not examine it further, simply grateful for the distraction.
“How exactly did you hurt your hand?”
“The glass slipped.” Not the full truth, but even she couldn’t be so bold as to call a duke a liar.
Her eyes narrowed. “Is that so?”
Usually, when someone beneath him dared question his assertion, he’d strike back with a cut so brutal they would never again doubt his power.
Usually, when someone dared question him, he did not feel the urge to smile and chuckle at her forwardness.
Yet with Miss Loren, he sensed she did not mean to gainsay him. Her queries were driven by concern for his well-being. In his days as a field agent, he’d been most adept at reading people—deriving their motivations and goals from a glance or a particularly pithy remark. That talent carried over into his leadership role, as he had to identify the strengths of each of his agents and match them to the proper missions.
Except for that one horrible, agonizing time, he had never been wrong.
“It has been a long, terrible day,” he said. “Perhaps I gripped the snifter too hard.”
“Perhaps you did,” she agreed, the twinkle in her eye telling him she approved of his honesty. “If by some chance, you wish to talk about this long, terrible day...”
She let the offer trail off, incomplete but enticing. It wasn’t appropriate for her to engage him in conversation, nor should he have been drawn to accept. Talking about the past had never solved anything before. But it was the way she’d worded it; giving him the option of discussing it with her or not. As if it was quite normal for a duke to speak to a governess about his private life.
Evidently, she had not become accustomed to her new place in the social order, and he’d be damned if he’d remind her of it after her kindness to him. Her unexpected forwardness was exactly the distraction he’d wanted. Who was this woman?
She’d allowed him the opportunity of a sympathetic listener, which left him wondering if maybe he’d find solace in talking to someone who wasn’t connected to the spy game. Correction: not just talking to someone.
Talking to her in particular.
He leaned forward. Watched her as though he was seeing her for the first time—in a way, he was, for he’d never really noticed Miss Loren before. Oh, he’d known of her existence, and acknowledged her presence when they passed each other in the house. He’d appreciated her dedication to his brother.
She shifted in her chair, but she matched his inquisitive stare. He liked that too, almost as much as he liked the intelligence in her sparkling eyes. Her fine features were all sharpness and angles. A long heart-shaped face, high cheekbones, pointed chin, and a swan-like neck that immediately conjured images of pressing his lips to the juncture of her collarbone and neck.
He had not reckoned the skeptical swoop of her sandy brown brows, nor the slight blush across her arched cheekbones at his scrutiny. And he certainly had not realized how her pink lips, parted a little to reveal white teeth, would appear so kissable. Or how though she was delicate-boned, she’d have curves in all the right places—a body better suited for the risqué costumes of a Cyprian, not the drab dress she currently wore.
He carded a hand through his hair and tried to refocus his thoughts, repeating silently that she was his employee. Not the kind of woman he should be lusting over.
She looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to talk about what had caused him to cut himself on the crystal. Fine. If it would direct his mind elsewhere, he’d indulge her desire for conversation.
“The difficult thing about loss,” he began, hunting in the second drawer from the bottom of his desk for another glass, “is that you never quite escape it. A year goes by, a year in which you think you’ve made some sort of progress in moving on, and then you’re thrown back in time again.”
“I know exactly what you mean.”
He supposed she did, given what he had read in her file about the death of her brother. He placed the glass on the desk and reached for the decanter with his good hand.
“The anniversaries are the worst,” she murmured, her voice so soft he suspected she spoke more to herself than him. “My brother died only a year and a half ago. I spent the first anniversary of his death curled up in a ball in bed, sobbing. Everything reminded me of Evan, even the breakfast porridge.”
For a second, he could not collect himself. His hand paused before he lifted the decanter toward his glass. He was not used to hearing people speak so freely about their grief. The Spencer family motto alternated between “Bottle It All Up” and “Keep a Stern Upper Lip.”
He matched her soft tone, for these were words to be spoken in the darkness, not in the harshness of day. “Then you know precisely what I am going through today.” One turn of honesty deserved another, did it not? In the morning, he could return to a properly British decorum.
The flicker of the Argand lamp was the only light in the room, and it cast a gloriously golden glow on her, making her look almost angelic with her pretty flaxen locks.
“I am so sorry.” There was no sign of the grating condolence of the ton, uttered more to make one feel superior than to convey actual sympathy. Only compassion.
He liked that most of all.
She leaned forward in her seat, her hands starting to slide toward him. His body was tense with anticipation of her touch. Then, as if she remembered exactly whom she was speaking to, she stopped. He wanted to give her permission to run her fingers across his uninjured hand—to make him feel something other than sorrow.
But there was only so much propriety he could afford to dispense with and maintain his reputation, so he did not.
“Who was she? Or he?” she asked tentatively. “Or if that is too much, you don’t have to tell me.”
She’d been in the house long enough to know of his sister’s death. He saw her ploy—she hoped that through feigning ignorance, she might persuade him to talk.
And for the first time in a long time, he wanted to talk about Louisa.
“My sister.” He raised the decanter, sloshing brandy into the glass. This gave him something to do, for he could not risk seeing her expression transmute into one of pity. He needed her to be different. “It happened while she was on holiday in France with Miss Spencer. There was a terrible accident. Someone was hunting in the same woods. There was no chance to save her.”
Repetition did not make the faux story of Louisa’s death any easier. He could not summon up the actual feeling that should have accompanied such a story—not when he knew it was all a lie. A lie that hid his responsibility.
“Sweet Mary,” Miss Loren murmured. “Your Grace, that is terrible. Your poor sister. Poor you.”
“I do not deserve your sympathy.” He couldn’t stop himself, for the words came too fast, and with them the darker edge to his tone. His head screamed that it was his fault, all his fault. Louisa was dead because of him.
At his harsh tone, Miss Loren sat up straighter. He ought to tell her to flee from here, away from him. Away from what he could do to her, for if she was not careful, he’d hurt her too. He hurt those who trusted him.
Yet it would take more than a few sharp words to cow Miss Loren. She folded her hands in her lap. She met his gaze, a rolling tempest in her eyes. “Everyone always feels bad for the person who has died. But they are dead, and they can’t come back, no matter how much sympathy you have for them. No matter how much you wish you could bring them back. No matter how quickly you’d trade places with them.”
Her voice had become hollow. He was the worst of blackguards. Of all people, of course she’d understand. Of course she’d have felt his pain—at least she did not have the guilt of knowing it had been all her fault. Her brother’s death had been a random act of violence. Unavoidable, for there was no real reason behind it, other than Evan Loren having been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
He should say something. Help her deal with her pain, too. But he could not think of a single word that would give her comfort. He was too broken, too lost, too dark. He could not bring her light.
“Rarely does anyone ever speak of the survivors,” she continued. “I think that is a mistake. It is left to us to fight for justice for the departed. To seek revenge against those who took them from us.” She drew herself up to her full seated height, and her chin lifted.
This diminutive beauty became quite intimidating when she turned her cold, unwavering gaze upon him. He knew the haunted look in her eyes too well—the same look he’d worn when tracking Nicodème that fateful night.
So her next question did not surprise him, though he wished so badly that she did not have to share this kind of ache.
“Did you catch the blackguard who killed her?”
His hand shook as he reached for the glass of brandy. He remembered the last breath escaping from Nicodème’s throat, a winter wind roaring in the relative quiet. “Yes. I made sure he could never hurt anyone again.”
She gave a perfunctory nod, signaling her approval. “Then you have done your duty to your sister.”
It was on the tip of his tongue to tell her she had no idea what she’d said. She was a gently bred lady who should have no acquaintance with such brutal bloodshed. But he stopped; reminding himself that in her eyes, ‘revenge’ probably meant arresting the man seemingly responsible for his sister’s death. It did not mean a righteous execution. Or a heinous, grisly death.
He reached into his desk drawer, bringing out two more glasses. Pouring brandy into it, he passed the snifter to her.
She did not take it, staring at him as though he’d lost his mind.
Perhaps he had. In the last year, he’d existed in halves, never complete. But he could not shake the feeling that tonight was a new beginning.
“To us.” He motioned for her to lift the glass, raising his own. “For we have survived when we wish we had not. We are too strong for our own good, but we cannot change.”
“I appreciate your sentiment, Your Grace, but you cannot expect me to drink that.” She eyed the glass, then him, seemingly tempted but unwilling to chance such scandalous behavior.
“I can and I do.” He kept his glass level, again indicating she should lift hers. “Tonight, honor the dead. You are not just a governess. You’re a sister who lost her brother.”
She hesitated for a second more. He watched her make up her mind, a definite shift passing over her face. Swiftly, she grabbed her glass and clinked it against his. “To Evan.”
She knocked back a quarter of the glass in one gulp. He blinked, startled by her alacrity.
And then, slowly, surely, she winked at him. “I did not say it was the first time I have honored the dead. Only that I was not sure it was proper, given my station.”
As he drained his snifter, he was left wondering just how improper Miss Loren could beCOLLAPSE
April Renn on My Book Addiction wrote:
Monroe creates an entertaining albeit slightly dark world filled with spies, humor, wit, intrigue, suspense, and an emotionally rich romance. Though heavily character driven, Monroe does a wonderful job of balancing the dynamic characterization of her characters with a story rich in details and plotlines. -B Rating
Jennifer Hayes on Jenerated Reviews wrote:
Filled with intrigue, danger, spies, loss,grief, secrets, passion, engaging characters, to say the least and of course romance, passion and finally finding love amongst grief and angst...feisty, dangerous and courageous females makes this a not to miss series.
Char Sowers on Lightning City Book Reviews wrote:
A quick moving espionage subplot coupled with liberally peppered humor, introspection, kindness and simmering attraction adds to the momentum of this novel. Showcasing this author's writing talent and marvelous imagination I Spy a Duke could easily be called I Spy a Great Read!
I get as giddy as a schoolgirl when an Erica Monroe Historical is going to be released! Ms. Monroe always makes the time period and the British settings come alive with the glorious details that she provides. And then her characters are so engaging: serious, vulnerable, and loyal
Letter to Readers
In the case of I Spy a Duke, Vivian and James are two people who appear ordinary to most of the world--yet they each hold secrets that could cost the lives of the others. Their marriage at first is one of convenience, yet as they bond of their shared pain from the loss of their loved ones, they discover that sometimes love isn't so easy after all. And sometimes, the most dangerous thing the union between a duke and a governess faces isn't society's scrutiny, but instead the cold steel blade of an assassin's knife.
Will love triumph over evil? You'll have to read to find out. (But spoiler, it's a romance novel, so of course there's a happily ever after.)