Excerpt: The Rogue Prince
Book Three: Regency Flings
Thomas Thorne has come to London for one purpose: to have his revenge on the boys – now men – who were responsible for having him convicted of a crime and transported when he was just a lad. Through a quirk of fate, he is now fabulously wealthy, and can do as he pleases. But there is one small fly in the ointment: The one woman he wants is the widow of one of his accusers, and the sister of the other.
London. Late March, 1817
Anguish, dark and intense, ripped through Thomas Thorne when he gazed at number nineteen Hanover Square, the location of his ignominious downfall. By now, he should be over the incident that had occurred there more than seventeen years before. But his hatred for his accusers still burned, still sizzled like a flaming torch, deep in his gut.
Murder would be a far simpler solution than the revenge he’d planned at great length all these years. And though it would serve his purpose, murder would be far too easy. It offered nowhere near the satisfaction he sought.
He remembered Marquess Shefford’s sumptuous mansion as though he’d only arrived there that morning as a lad of sixteen. He’d accompanied his father from Suffolk to London with the six thoroughbreds the marquess had purchased on a trip to Newmarket, and somehow it had all gone wrong from there.
While Thomas had helped to prepare the horses to be shown, someone had put several valuables from the house into his pack. It could only have been Shefford’s wicked bull of a son, Leighton Ingleby, and the boy’s milksop friend, Julian Danvers, for they were the two who had accused him and held up his pack with the silver bowls inside for all to see.
The house had not changed in the least. As Tom stood gazing at the site, he could almost hear the wheels of the carriages and the clop of horses’ hooves on the street as they’d passed in front of Number Nineteen that day, and even the melodic calls of the street hawkers nearby.
But then the scars on his back began to itch painfully, and his wrists and ankles throbbed as he remembered the weight and shame of his shackles.
Tom inhaled deeply from his cheroot and looked around. It was dusk, and all was quiet now. The air was chilly, but he barely felt it, for his desire for revenge burned in his belly and warmed him far better than any coal fire could do. He did not know what he could possibly have done to offend the marquess’s son and his friend, Danvers. But they had surely known what the consequences of their conspiracy would be. Tom would have been hung or transported.
There were days Thomas wished he had hung.
He reminded himself that everything was different now. It was a long time since Judge Maynwaring had sentenced him to be transported to the violent and filthy Norfolk Island with its sadistic commandant, Major Foveaux. It was past time for his lying accusers, his indifferent judge, and all of their families to suffer as Tom and his family had done. He might not be able to send them to Norfolk Island, one of the hellish penal colonies where Tom had spent the seven horrifying years of his sentence, but Tom now had the means to make their lives a misery. He would make Leighton and Julian’s families pay for his lost years in the penal colony, as well as his subsequent years of hardship and degradation after he’d received his ticket-of-leave.
They deserved no less than what he had planned.
Tom’s men had orders to be exceedingly circumspect as they investigated Ingleby and Maynwaring, and the Danvers family, for he did not want to alert any of them to his presence or his plans. He wanted them to be absolutely vulnerable, to be taken entirely by surprise, just as he had been all those years ago.
Tom and his men had also taken on false, foreign-sounding surnames in order to carry out their deception, and they’d come up with a plausible explanation for why their English was better than it should be. Tom had no reason to think anyone would be suspicious of their story. Not when he possessed more wealth than a dozen kings.
He walked across the square and turned to look once again at the imposing edifice of Shefford House before returning to his hotel. He would feel no satisfaction, no contentment, until they were all destroyed as he had been. Until they suffered as his family had suffered.
Tom did not know if his parents and sister still lived, or where they might be. His father, a prominent Suffolk horse breeder, had been devastated by Tom’s arrest. He had pleaded with the judge for lenience, to no avail. Maynwaring would not give Tom’s father the time of day.
Some of George Thorne’s letters had reached Tom aboard the prison hulk, but after his transportation to the south seas, the letters stopped. Tom hated to think why his father might have stopped writing.
The burning hole of loneliness that had hurt more viciously than any of Tom’s beatings returned full force. During the first few weeks of his incarceration, he’d missed his parents and sister to the point of despair. It had become a dull ache in the following months, and dwindled to nearly nothing as he’d fought to survive. But he felt it again, now that he was back. Seventeen years fell away, and he was the raw youth who’d been desperate for his father’s solid presence and the comfort of his mother’s touch.
A small boy suddenly burst from the front door of a nearby house, and rushed into the street. He was well-dressed, but disheveled as a boy at play might be. As he ran full-bore toward the center of the square, a fashionable barouche barreled into the street, moving much too fast. In an instant, Tom realized that the barouche was not going to be able to stop in time. The horses were going to trample the child.
Tossing his cheroot to the ground, Tom dashed toward the boy and grabbed him, gathered him in his arms, then threw them both out of the way just as the barouche sped past them and came to a halt some yards away. Thomas rolled to the ground, protecting the child as best he could, barely aware of the shouts and cries all around him.
He hardly dared open his eyes, afraid he might be missing a vital part, or that the boy had been hurt. Yet when he felt a hand on his arm and smelled the soft, feminine scent of roses, he cracked one eye open.
“Zachary!” cried the woman who dropped to her knees beside him. Her cheeks were flushed with color, her dove-gray eyes bright with terror.
Her unabashed maternal concern touched a chord deep within him. She was entirely fresh, with no artifice about her, just an open horror at what might have happened to her child.
Her face was a perfect oval, with full, sweet lips and a deep dimple creasing each cheek. Her nose was unremarkable but for the pale freckles that skittered across it. A lock of wavy, dark brown hair had escaped the knot at her nape, but most enticing of all was her half-unbuttoned bodice. Her rush from the house must have interrupted her dressing. Or undressing. For the curve of her full, soft breast pushed against the gap in her bodice, and her apprehension for her son outweighed any semblance of upper crust arrogance.
Thomas swallowed hard and sat up with the child in his arms. It had been many long years since he’d felt the punch of arousal so quickly, so completely. And it was absolutely unwelcome now. He had to remind himself that it was this spoiled aristocracy that destroyed his life as though it meant nothing.
“Are you all right, sir?” Her question contradicted what he knew of west end residents. She took the child from Tom’s arms, then returned her hand to his forearm, even as she admonished the boy. “Oh, Zachary!”
Thomas extricated himself from her grasp and stood, shocked by the force of lust he felt from their slight contact. “Quite all right, madam.”
He tamped it down and attempted to be furious with the boy for putting them both in danger. Yet the child’s puzzled expression tugged at something inside Tom. An appreciation of innocence he’d thought long-buried.
“Maggie! Come away from there!” came a carping female voice from the direction of the boy’s house. “You look like a.”
The young mother – Maggie – ignored the older woman, keeping her eyes on him as he gave her the regal nod he’d practiced so assiduously. He had to take his leave as quickly as possible. He could not afford another minute with this pretty lady, with her pulse thrumming wildly in her smooth throat, and each breath coming fast in the wake of her distress.
She was far too tempting. Her emotional intensity and the state of dishevelment made his body yearn for impossible things.
The boy’s nanny arrived, a plump matron in a gray gown and white apron. “I’ll take him, my lady,” she said, hardly able to contain her horror at what might have happened.
“No need, Nurse Hawkins. I have him now,” said Maggie, never breaking her gaze with him. Her voice broke, but she did not weep. The woman might have backbone, but Thomas felt an overwhelming urge to draw her into his arms and hold her close. Provide comfort.
Perhaps he was more shaken than he thought.
“Please, do come to the house and. and. allow someone to see to your clothes.”
“No harm was done,” Thomas replied as several more people from the house started across the street toward them. “A quick brushing will suffice.”
Holding her son close, a crease of consternation appeared between her softly arched brows, and when she bit her lip, he noticed a thin sliver of a scar that underscored it. The flaw only added to her appeal.
“Are you certain, sir?” she asked quietly. “I would be entirely remiss if I-“
“It was nothing, madam. All is well,” he said, as the older woman with the harsh voice crossed the street along with the rest of them. Here was the well-dressed, the privileged elite, all talking at once.
The distraction of their voices was exactly what he needed to remind him why he was here. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll bid you good night.”