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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.
Her face still burned at the memory even as the insult echoed with dreaded familiarity. Master Brocklehurst's charge of vanity frequently rang out through the halls of Penwich for any girl whose hair showed beneath their caps. With her fiery tresses, Fallon had always attracted his particular ire.
Lifting her wool skirt, she increased her pace, eyeing the long length of hall. The small room she shared with another maid was at the far end, near the set of stairs that led up to the family's quarters.
Suddenly another sound rose on the air, mingling with the distant laughter. Her pulse skittered at the dull thud of approaching footsteps. She didn't know whether to quicken her steps or freeze in her tracks. The heavy tread grew. Air froze in her lungs.
A shadow descended, casting a pall over the corridor's floor. Her heart seized in her chest. Clutching the edge of her cloak near her throat, she prayed merely another servant approached, retiring for the night.
She lurched sideways, hoping—absurdly—to blend with the wall. She watched as black Hessians became visible, then buff trousers, then an opened waistcoat and rumpled lawn shirt. Her gaze drifted up and dread clawed through her.
Reggie. And well into his cups, if his rumpled appearance and the slight sway to his stance were any indication. His bleary eyes had no trouble spotting her where she hugged the wall.
"There you are, love." Hiccup. "Fancy that. Thought I would have to search every room to find you." Hiccup.Sins of a Wicked Duke. Copyright Â© by Sophie Jordan . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Sins of a Wicked Duke by Sophie Jordan
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