The Bachelor Bargain
He’ll be her secret weapon…for a price.
Bachelors, beware. For those who keep secrets and prey on the innocent, you will be exposed, with all your dirty little secrets laid bare to one and all. You have been warned…
Lady Olivia Haliford has had enough. Tired of seeing women lose their reputations, futures, and sometimes even their lives to scandal while the men walk free, she is ready to take back power and stand up for women everywhere. Along with her two closest friends, she plans to start an anonymous publication dedicated to dishing the dirt and exposing the secrets of society’s most eligible bachelors. But in order to do so, she will have to make a deal with the devil…
Sebastian Colver, known as the Bastard of Baker Street, is feared throughout London as the city’s most notorious gambling den owner and undisputed king of the underground. His life is nothing but darkness and danger, so he is shocked when the petite lady gracing his doorstep seems anything but frightened of him. He agrees to be a silent partner in the publishing of the Gazette if she will use her connections to sponsor his sister and launch her into Society and away from his dark world.
But exposing the secrets of the rich and powerful can be dangerous. Almost as dangerous as a lady falling in love with the king of the underground.
Chapter One Excerpt
London, April 1885
The pelting rain lashed across Lady Olivia Haliford’s cheeks like the icy hands of death, battering the silent tears already coursing down her face without mercy. She stood there, soaked to the bone, her cloak and bonnet sagging after her parasol had long ago conceded defeat against the deluge, to now hang limply beside her cane.
But Livie was numb to it all. Numb to the cold. Numb to the pain. Numb to everything but the gleaming walnut wood of her friend’s casket as it was slowly lowered into the dark, yawning hole that had been freshly dug into the earth beneath.
Alice was dead. And Livie hadn’t been able to stop it.
She clenched her teeth tightly with the bitter thought. A thought that had been repeating itself over and over in her head since she’d heard the news.
The reverend snapped his bible closed, finishing his eulogy and jolting Livie from her grim musings. She watched, feeling frozen as the reverend nodded to one of the caretakers, who stepped forward and began shoveling some muddy dirt down upon her friend’s coffin.
The sound of the mud hitting the wood beneath was jarring in its finality. This was not a nightmare Livie was going to wake up from, as much as she’d been desperately hoping it was.
A sense of despair began to penetrate her numbness, and for a minute she couldn’t breathe as a tightness gripped her chest, her heart feeling as if it were being squeezed dry.
Instinctively, her fingers clenched even more firmly around the silver handle of her cane. Breathe, Livie, breathe. She inhaled a deep lungful of air, and then another, willing herself to maintain her composure as an overwhelming urge to rage at the heavens threatened to consume her. She mustn’t give in to the compulsion. Not here. Not now. She owed it to Alice to refrain from causing any embarrassment.
Alice, who had already suffered enough and was now lying cold and lifeless in that horrid box. Forever alone… Was this really her friend’s fate? Alice’s penance for being seduced and then discarded by an unknown scoundrel? A predator who had surely already moved on to some other unsuspecting young lady, having suffered no consequences for ruining Alice.
The injustice of it all was overwhelming, and Livie had to force down the fury trying to bubble to the surface. It was completely unacceptable. Someone had to do something, to stop such a thing from occurring again.
The fiend, whoever he was, had to be exposed and justice served.
Livie glanced first to her right and then her left. Her two best friends, Lady Kaitlyn Montrose and Miss Henrietta Merriweather, stood silently beside her. The expressions on their rain-streaked faces surely mirrored Livie’s own; equal masks of rage and despair.
“This situation is completely intolerable,” Livie whispered, loud enough for only her two friends to hear. “We must seek justice for Alice.”
“I agree.” It was Kat who spoke, her jade-green eyes flashing dangerously in the fading afternoon light, almost as wild as the wet strands of the flaming red of her hair peeking out from her bonnet, plastered against the sides of her face. “We cannot let this go unanswered. Alice must be avenged and the man responsible made to pay.”
Kat was the fiercest lady Livie had ever met, without exception, caused no doubt by her friend’s rather unusual upbringing. She had been raised by an uncle who had extremely liberal views when it came to women and what they should or should not be taught. As he was one of Britain’s most elite spymasters, he also believed Kat should be taught all he knew, regardless of the fact that she was female.
But Kat’s uncle was dead, murdered by an assassin not six months past, though the authorities had encouraged the rumor it had been a footpad who had stabbed the earl. But for those who’d known the man’s skills and clandestine occupation, the idea was ludicrous.
Not that such a thing was common knowledge—far from it, in fact. But the three girls, once four when Alice had been alive, were the best of friends and knew one another’s secrets well.
After her uncle’s assassination last year, Kat was also on a mission to find his killer, and she had control of her uncle’s extensive network of informants to do so. Livie assumed it would be only a matter of when the assassin was found, not if. And then, God help the fiend. But in the meantime, Livie knew how they could make excellent use of those informants to seek justice for Alice.
“What do you propose we do?” Henrietta asked, her warm chocolate-brown eyes fixed firmly on the grave. Etta was the only one of their group not born into the aristocracy, but Livie thought that was a blessing, even though the girl’s father obviously disagreed, throwing around a fortune to try to rectify the situation, much to Etta’s disgust.
“I propose we find the bastard who seduced and ruined Alice,” Livie answered. “And then we ruin him in turn.”
“We shall not simply ruin him; we shall destroy him,” Kat added, her words mirroring Livie’s own thoughts.
“What exactly do you mean by destroy?” Etta glanced first at Kat and then over to Livie, a look of concern in her gaze. “You do mean take revenge upon him, rather than physically destroying him, don’t you?”
For a moment, there was a grim darkness in Kat’s eyes that made Livie pause, but then Kat shook her head and the expression fled.
“As long as he is made to pay for his actions,” Kat continued, “then such an extreme measure shouldn’t be necessary. Though he must be made to pay, for if it wasn’t for his actions, Alice would never have jumped from that tower and—”
“Careful, Kat,” Livie said, glancing around, but the mourners had already mostly dispersed, heading for the afternoon tea that Alice’s sister, the Countess of Chilton, was hosting after the funeral. “There’s speculation enough surrounding Alice’s death.”
“Though the authorities may have ruled it an accident, we all know what her death truly was.” Kat’s voice was flat. “A suicide.”
“Well, we don’t actually know that for certain.” Etta spoke up before biting her lower lip in the usual manner she did when upset. “Just because that is the current whispered rumor…for all we know, it could well have been an accident. It was raining that night; perhaps in Alice’s distressed state, she wandered too close to the edge of the roof and slipped?”
Livie had thought of nothing else for the past several days, other than what the last terrifying moments of Alice’s life had been like. To first be seduced and abandoned by a scoundrel and then to fall to her death was heinous, but one thing of which Livie was certain, was that it was neither an accident nor a suicide.
In truth, Livie believed Alice had been murdered.
Especially after receiving a letter from Alice on the day of her death, where Alice had alluded to moving to the Americas and making a fresh start of everything. Alice had seemed positive and upbeat, certainly not like someone contemplating taking her own life.
Though Livie was not prepared to share the letter or her suspicions of Alice being murdered with her friends just yet, at least not until she had more definitive proof.
All three of the ladies fell into silence for a moment as they watched more dirt being flung into the grave.
“I feel absolutely wretched she didn’t come and talk to us about it,” Etta mumbled, fresh tears streaming down her face. “I was too busy with my writing that I neglected to even notice something was amiss.”
“We all feel guilty, Etta.” Livie placed a hand on her friend’s shoulder and drew in a shaky breath, for it was true. The four of them had been the very best of friends since meeting at the finishing school they’d all been sent to when they were younger. But in the last few years, they’d each become so busy with their own lives, they hadn’t stayed in as much contact as they’d all vowed they would. “We were too late to do anything while she was alive, but we will not rest until we ensure that the scoundrel who ruined Alice is uncovered and punished for his actions. We will stop him and expose him before he’s able to seduce another young lady and destroy her life as he did Alice’s.”
For too long, Livie had retreated as far as she could from Society, burying her head in books, unwilling to face the taunts and cruelty from her peers and the veiled glances of sympathy and intolerance that her limp seemed to illicit, even after all these years. Well, she was done caring about what others thought. If she’d been braver sooner, she would have noticed what was happening to Alice and she would have been able to help her.
“But how are we to seek justice when we don’t even know who the man is?” Etta asked, swiping away some of the tears still tracking down her cheeks.
“We must discover his identity,” Livie replied, raising her eyes directly to Kat.
Kat’s green gaze narrowed in understanding and she nodded. “I will get my informants to begin making inquiries immediately.”
“Thank you,” Livie said. “Though I don’t wish to take away any of your resources in trying to discover who the assassin was who killed your uncle.”
“There are more than enough informants in my—in Victor’s network to reallocate some toward finding the bastard responsible for Alice’s demise.” Kat’s voice brooked no argument as she straightened her shoulders to stand tall, her five-foot-nine inches towering next to both Etta’s and Livie’s rather average statures. “Though it would assist if we had a short list of suspects to start with.”
“I will meet with Lady Chilton and see what I can discover,” Livie said, her eyes straying to the far side of the cemetery where Alice’s sister was seeing off the various mourners and presumably thanking them for attending.
“Good,” Kat replied. “Once we have a list, we can discover who the scoundrel is, and all of his dirty little secrets.”
“But then what?” Etta asked. “How will we stop him from ruining another young lady?”
Livie adjusted her left leg, trying to ease the slight cramp that had gripped it, before standing straighter herself. “We will ruin him, just as he ruined Alice. We shall reveal his secrets to the world.” And if he did kill Alice, then he would spend the rest of his life in a rat-infested prison.
“But why would Society listen to us?” Etta asked. “You know we’re considered oddities.”
What Etta said was true. Even though Livie was the daughter of a duke, in the eyes of Society, her lame leg made her disabled and considered definitely not marriageable material. If it weren’t for her father’s position, or for her godmother’s iron influence on Society, Livie would have never been tolerated. And though Kat was the daughter and niece of earls, her lack of artifice and her bluntness had marked her as someone to be wary of, hence why no one would dare cut either of them.
Then there was Etta. Etta, whose father owned the largest newspaper in all of England. A man who none would dare slight for fear of being shredded to pieces in the pages of his paper. So Etta, like Livie and Kat, was acknowledged but never properly accepted, seemingly always on the periphery.
Probably why they’d been drawn to one another at school, for none of them had fit into what Society considered normal. So no, their peers probably wouldn’t listen if they began to speak the truth about a gentleman, especially as each of them was considered firmly on the shelf.
But Society would listen if those truths were printed by an anonymous source. After all, there was nothing Society loved better than gossip. And gossip in the form of scandal would be zealously consumed.
Livie glanced at both women. “We are going to enter the publishing arena, my friends, and start an anonymous monthly gazette, dedicated to exposing the nefarious bachelors of Society and all their dirty little secrets.”
“Oh Livie,” gasped Etta, her eyes twinkling in delight. “That is brilliant! Society will flock to it like a moth to a flame. And it will make those no-good bounders think twice before ruining another young lady.”
“It certainly will.” Kat nodded in agreement.
“The gazette will have one mission and one mission only.” Livie took a breath as the idea solidified in her head. “To expose the men in Society who seek to deceive and exploit those weaker than themselves. We will ensure all their secrets and scandals are aired for one and all to read about in detail. For too long, the bachelors in Society have been able to get away with seducing and ruining ladies at their leisure, with no consequences. Well, no longer. Let us give them a dose of their own medicine. We will seek justice not only for Alice but for all those women who have been used and discarded like rag dolls.”
A slow smile spread across Kat’s face, a rare occurrence on her friend’s more-often-than-not serious countenance. The gentlemen in Society didn’t call Kat “the Ice Maiden” for nothing.
“You’re a genius, Livie,” Kat said.
Livie’s lips twisted up as the idea took shape. “Indeed. There will be nowhere they can hide. Nowhere they can run. When we’re finished with them, they’ll not dare show their faces in Society again.”
“Justice for Alice,” Etta seconded. “But what about the cost of starting such an endeavor?” Though Etta was the writer in the group, she was also the most practical of the three of them, especially when it came to finances. “Even a small gazette will take a lot of capital to start up. Considering none of us has any independent funds apart from our pin money, which certainly won’t be enough to start up a publishing endeavor, how will we afford it?”
Taking in a deep breath, Livie glanced to the grave again and made up her mind. She’d known it would cost a lot to implement her idea, but she also knew of a potential source who had ample funds to assist them. An extremely dangerous source. But seeing Alice’s coffin solidified in her mind that something had to be done to seek justice for her friend. Whatever it took. “Leave it to me. I know who has the blunt and the temerity to invest in such an endeavor. I need only convince him.”
“Who are you going to approach?” Kat asked.
Livie straightened her shoulders. She’d never kept secrets from her friends before, and now she would be keeping two from them. But even Kat herself, who was the most unconventional woman Livie knew and could amply protect herself from threats, would think twice before approaching a man some called the most dangerous in all of London. “Please don’t ask me that, for it is a name I cannot reveal just yet. I’m asking you both to trust me. Please.”
“Of course we trust you, Livie,” Kat replied, her eyes narrowing, whether in concern or misgivings, Livie wasn’t certain. “But you do tend to believe the best in others when you probably shouldn’t. And to be honest, I can’t think of a single gentleman who would be happy to fund a gazette solely focused on destroying the reputations of other gentlemen.”
“Trust me. That will not be a problem.” Because the man Livie intended to ask was no gentleman at all. No.
The Bastard of Baker Street was said to hail from the devil himself.