Sins of a Wicked Duke Page 1

Prologue

Tears ran cold paths down Fallon O’Rourke’s cheeks, but not a sound passed her chilled lips.

Not a sob. Not a whimper. In the past fortnight, she’d bled all noise from her tears. Tucked into bed on the second floor of the Penwich School for Virtuous Girls, she held herself still as death and managed not to shatter into sobs.

Her breath fanned before her in frothy clouds of white, one after another. Shivering, she huddled beneath the threadbare blanket and wondered if she would ever feel warm again. If a night would ever descend when her feet did not ache from chill. Oh, _Da _.

“Pssst.”

Fallon lifted her head. Two girls crouched at the foot of her bed, blankets draped over their thin shoulders. She recognized them. Not because they looked so very different from the other whey-faced girls in starched pinafores to march the halls every day, but because they had watched her since her arrival with a curious intensity. Their wide, solemn eyes followed her everywhere, unlike the other girls who minded their affairs, busy about their own misery.

And it was misery. A constant battle against the hunger, the cold… each other.

She sat up, tense and instantly wary. A pair of older girls had jumped a smaller girl only yesterday, stealing her meager ration. Yet she possessed nothing these girls could want. And at thirteen, she was bigger and heavier than most here. The dark-haired one looked as if the wind howling on the moors outside could knock her over. No doubt her rations were stolen with some frequency.

Fallon shifted, rising up on her elbows. Almost in reminder, her back stung from the strap Master Brocklehurst had administered to her only today, punishment for daring to remove her cap from her head. Any more such beatings and she would soon be as pitiable as the forty-odd girls battling for survival at Penwich.

Wetting parched lips, she spoke. “Yes?”

The oldest-looking of the pair—possibly older than Fallon even—blinked bright blue eyes, the only color in her otherwise wan face.

“We mean you no harm.” She rounded the bed. “Come with us.”

Perhaps it was the kindness of her voice…or simply that she spoke at all in a place where none seemed inclined—or permitted—to speak. Whatever the reason, Fallon swung her legs over the side of the bed. Slipping on her well-worn boots, she laced them up and followed the girls past cots of sleeping girls and downstairs.

They crept through the kitchen where Cook slept, snoring loudly near a hearth of dying embers.

Fallon focused on the back of the smaller girl, watching the rhythmic sway of her dark plait, thick as a man’s wrist, bouncing against her back.

A blast of frigid wind met Fallon when she stepped outside, slashing her cheeks. The older girl took her companion’s hand and held out another for Fallon. She looked down at that hand, hesitating to take it in her own.

The girl smiled, as though understanding. “My name is Evelyn.” She shrugged. “Evie.” She dipped her head toward the smaller girl. “This is Marguerite.”

Marguerite lifted her gaze, revealing witchlike eyes that glowed gold in the murky night. She gave a shy nod.

“Come along,” Evie directed before plunging into the winter’s very teeth. She and Marguerite moved over the frozen ground with the speed of hares, the frayed hems of their nightgowns flashing beneath their blankets.

Biting her lip, Fallon glanced behind her, almost as though she suspected the specter of Master Brocklehurst to rise up on the night. He had enjoyed her beating. She heard it in the pant of his breath as he brought the strap against her back and saw it in the gleam of his eyes when it had been over. He would relish doing it again. She swallowed against the tightness in her throat. She did not wish to give him an excuse. Evie and Marguerite grew smaller, their gray blanketed figures dirtlike smudges on the white horizon.

Muttering, she dove into the slicing wind, her legs working fiercely through the drifts to catch up with the other two as they rounded the back of the sprawling school.

Moments later, she arrived at a ramshackle stable crouched in Penwich’s shadow, a stitch pinching her side, cold snow slithering down the inside of her boot. The girls held the door open for her, and Fallon helped them fight the wind to close it. With the thick wood door shut, the wind sounded far away, a dull howl in the distance. Evie and Marguerite clambered up a ladder to the loft. Fallon followed, clearing the top as Evie dragged a bucket from behind a pile of hay and Marguerite crouched in a corner, unraveling a bit of cloth.

Chafing her hands together, she watched Evie crack a thin sheet of ice from a bucket of milk.

Evie grinned. “Goat’s milk.”

“Where did you get it?”

“Jean-Luc from the village leaves it up here for us once a week when he delivers coal.”

Fallon glanced up from the bucket. “Why?”

“Marguerite speaks French. He fancies her a countrywoman.”

Fallon glanced at the dark-haired girl, gasping as she revealed a large hunk of cheese from the cloth. “He leaves that, too?”

Marguerite offered a portion to her. Fallon barely stopped herself from falling upon it in a ravenous fit.

They ate in silence, taking turns at the bucket of rich milk. Falling back on the soft hay, Fallon sighed, replete. Evie rose and opened a shutter in the loft. Dropping in the hay beside Fallon, she tucked an arm behind her head and stared out at the wintry night.

Fallon felt a moment’s peace. Perhaps the first since Da’s death. She frowned. It would not last.

Best she not become too at ease. “Why did you bring me here? With you?”

Evie replied, “You look like you needed a friend.”

Fallon nodded, her throat tight at the unexpected kindness. Friends were lost to her. And family.

She scarcely recalled her mother, lost to fever before she could truly know her. Da had been everything. And now he was gone. She could use a friend or two.

Marguerite spoke, her voice a feather’s stroke on the air. “Girls at Penwich come and go—”

“They most often _go _ in a coffin,” Evie muttered savagely, her blue eyes glinting.

Marguerite continued, “You’re not like the other girls. We saw that when you shared your bread with Helen.”

Fallon shook her head. “Helen?”

“Little Helen. About five years old.”

“Oh.” Fallon nodded, remembering. Some older girls had filched the child’s food, and pinched her arm viciously when she started to protest.

Marguerite drew her knees to her chest. “You reminded us of…well, _us _.”

Fallon digested this, unable to respond for the thick lump in her throat, simply pleased to have found affinity with two other souls. To no longer feel so terribly alone.

“There!” Evie shot up off the hay, pointing to the ink-dark sky as a single flash of light arced across the night. “Did you see that? A shooting star! See it?”

Fallon nodded, staring.

“Quickly, make a wish.” Evie jammed her eyes tightly shut, her lips moving in a rush as she proclaimed, “I wish for adventure! To visit places far, far from this vile place.” Opening her eyes, she fixed her gaze on Marguerite, nudging the smaller girl. “Come, what do you wish for?”

Wetting full lips, Marguerite stared thoughtfully out at the night. “I wish…I wish to _matter _.”

Evie nodded slowly, then turned her attention to Fallon, who had been holding her breath, knowing her turn would come. Her heart was greedy. She wished for so much. For the impossible. _For Da _.

She settled on the important, and, hopefully, attainable. “I wish for a home.”

The streak of light left from the falling star vanished after the words left her lips, but Fallon could still see it in her mind against the night sky.

Their hastily formed requests lingered on the air, the words floating as reverently as prayers uttered aloud in a chapel.

 I wish for adventure.

 I wish to matter.

 I wish for a home.

Chapter 1

Fallon’s steps slowed along the cobbled walk as she approached the modest brick townhouse, home to Widow Jamison. Her toes pinched inside her boots and she longed for her other pair—

the men’s boots tucked under her bed that Mrs. Jamison deemed unacceptable. A female on my staff shall look as a female ought to and not wear articles intended for men. Fallon sighed and shook her head. Her vanity had long ago accepted she would never be feminine or dainty. Why could not the rest of the world?

The hour was late. She had lost track of time during her visit with Evie and Marguerite. They had a great deal to catch up on—more than their correspondence had ever been able to convey in the two years since they parted ways.

Her gently swishing skirts cut through the night’s low-rising fog. Burrowing deep into her cloak, she stopped and gazed ahead at the looming townhouse, lingering in its shadow for a reason she could not pinpoint. Wariness skittered through her as she studied the shadows dancing along the pale brick facade. Dark sensation zinged through her, prickling her nape. An awareness she could not easily dismiss…an instinct that had been bred into her ever since her father’s murderer dropped her on Penwich’s steps.

Her fingers curled around the cold steel gate surrounding the residence. Shivering in the frigid night, she commanded herself to move out of the chill and into the warmth of the house. And yet she could not move.

Then it came to her with the suddenness of a hare bolting from the brush. Lights blazed from the front parlor window. A low hum of conversation floated on the air, gentle as wind.

Usually, the house sat silent this time of night, Widow Jamison and her three pugs long since tucked into bed following her evening “tonic.” What marked the situation as even more unusual was the fact that the widow had departed yesterday to visit relations in Cornwall. Most of the staff had made free with the night to follow their own leisure pursuits, but certainly none had decided to make merry in their mistress’s absence. In the parlor, no less. The stern housekeeper would never permit such an occurrence. So the question remained: Who was in the parlor?

Deciding it none of her affair, she eased the gate leading to the back of the house open, shutting it carefully, making certain it did not clang.

Fallon paused as she slipped inside through the servants’ back entrance. Loud, indistinct voices overlapped. A female’s shrill laughter carried from the front of the house. Then a second female laughed, the sound just as coarse. Fallon winced and resumed her pace down the narrow corridor, her swift steps falling dead on the well-worn runner.

Who could possibly be in the house? Mrs. Jamison possessed no female relations who would make free of her home in her absence. Only a…

Fallon stopped, cold dread and absolute certainty sweeping through her simultaneously. She closed her eyes in a long blink and shook her head. Reginald. Of course. Or Reggie as his doting mama called him.

The rare times Mrs. Jamison’s thin lips curved in smile were during her son’s visits home from school—only twice since Fallon hired on, but twice too many. She had grown well acquainted with the face of _darling _ Reggie on those visits—a face like so many gentleman and noblemen scattered throughout her life. Not gentle. And not noble.

The lad was near her age. Even without the spots on his face and gangly awkward limbs so disproportionate to the rest of his body, he struck her as far younger than her own twenty years.

But his youth hadn’t fooled her. Nor his mother’s blind, absolute affection for him. It hadn’t taken her long to learn why all the maids steered clear of him.

She had very nearly flung a book at the cad’s head when he corned her in the library. His mother’s sudden appearance had stopped Fallon before she did anything so dire. Instead of reprimanding her son, the widow had sent Fallon off with a swift warning. I’ll have no tarts working beneath my roof. Take better care to cover that outrageous hair of yours and get yourself to the kitchens.

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