Secrets of a Scandalous Marriage Online - Valerie Bowman

CHAPTER 1

The Tower of London, December 1816

The large metal door to her cell scraped open and Kate closed her eyes. She stepped forward, summoned from one cold dank cell into another. She had a visitor. Her first since she’d been taken to the gaol.

She opened her eyes. The harsh winter light filtered through the only window in the antechamber. The yeoman warder wore a blank expression on his face. He and the other guards always gave her the benefit of respect due her title. Whether they liked it or not.

The guard stepped aside, revealing the room’s other occupant. Interesting. Her visitor was a man. She narrowed her eyes on him. Who was he and what did he want with her? He stood with his straight back to her. He was tall, that much she could discern. Tall and cloaked in shadows.

The smell of mold and decay, rife in the Tower, made her stomach clench. The unforgiving winter wind whipped through the stonework, raising gooseflesh across her arms. She shivered and clutched her shawl more tightly around her shoulders.

“Ye ’ave ten minutes an’ not a moment more,” the gaoler announced before wrenching open the door and clanging it shut behind him as he left. The loud scrape and subsequent clank sealed Kate and the stranger in the small room together. She took a step back. A small rickety table rested between them. She was glad for that bit of separation at least. Whoever the man was, his clothing marked him a gentleman. He had better behave like one.

The tall man turned to greet her. He doffed his hat, but she still couldn’t make out his face. He wore a dark gray wool overcoat of considerable expense. A stray beam of sunlight floated through the dirty air, let in by the one small window nestled in the stone wall across from them.

He executed a perfect bow. “Your grace?”

Kate cringed. Oh, how she detested that title. “Bowing to a prisoner?” she asked in a voice containing a bit of irony. “Aren’t you a gentleman?”

He smiled and a set of perfectly white teeth flashed in the darkness. “You’re still a duchess, your grace.”

She pushed the hood from her head and took a tentative step forward. The stranger’s eyes flared for a moment and he sucked in his breath.

Kate’s stomach clenched. No doubt she looked a fright. She hadn’t bathed in days and could only imagine her own smell. Her hair, normally piled properly atop her head, was a mass of tangled red curls around her shoulders. She might be grimy and in trouble, but she wasn’t broken. And she refused to let the stranger see that his reaction affected her. She pushed up her chin and eyed him warily.

He stepped forward then, into the light, and Kate narrowed her eyes on his face, rapidly assessing every detail. She didn’t know him. But whoever he was, the man was handsome. Devastatingly so. Perhaps in his early thirties, he had dark brown cropped hair, a perfectly straight nose, a square jaw. But his eyes were what truly captivated. Hazel in color, nearly green, assessing, knowing, intelligent eyes. They stole her breath. Her gaze moved lower to where the faintest hint of a smile rested upon expertly molded male lips.

“Do you know who I am?” His voice splintered the quiet cold like a hammer hitting ice.

She regarded him with a steady stare. “Are you a barrister? Come for my defense?”

The man furrowed his brow. “You haven’t yet been given access to a barrister?”

She straightened her shoulders. “I’ve been … waiting.”

The stranger’s captivating eyes regarded her calmly. “From what I understand, you’ve been in gaol for weeks. I find it difficult to believe a lady of your station has not yet met with a barrister.”

She lifted her chin. “Be that as it may, I have not.”

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, your grace, but no, I am no barrister.”

“Not a barrister? Then who are you and why have you come to visit me? Please don’t tell me it’s merely to see the spectacle of a duchess accused of murder.”

His gaze remained pinned to her face, his eyes still assessing, wary. “I am here to assist you, your grace.”

“Assist me?” she scoffed, stepping forward to get a closer look at the man. “I rather doubt that. Assist yourself perhaps. Tell me, how much did you bribe the gaoler to let you see the infamous duchess who shot her husband?”

The stranger arched a brow. “Did you? Murder your husband?”

She clenched her jaw.