When the Rogue Returns
Victor Cale never imagined his sweet, shy wife, Isabella, would use her talent for creating exquisite imitation jewels for criminal pursuits. But there’s no denying it was Isa’s handiwork that turned up in the brazen heist of the Dutch royal family’s diamonds after she disappeared into the night.
Ten years later, still reeling from her betrayal and enraged that her duplicitous side was so undetectable, the sexy investigator heads to Edinburgh, where his cousin Maximilian has landed him a job tailing a wealthy baron’s bride-to-be. Simple enough—until the “fiancée” in question proves to be Isa, masquerading as an alluringly eligible young widow.
No longer the meek and mild girl he once knew, the bold woman vehemently asserts that it was Victor who abandoned her. Piecing together the past to prove Isa’s innocence reawakens a volatile passion, hotter than ever. With a decade of secrets between them, Victor and Isa must trust each other in order to bring the scheming thieves to justice–without getting burned themselves.
Thanks to you wonderful readers, the book hit the following bestseller lists:
#12 on the New York Times
#51 on USA Today
#11 on Publishers Weekly
“The second in Jeffries’ potently sensual series, the Duke’s Men, hits all the expected romantic marks with its superb characterization, vividly realized historical setting, witty writing, and an enthralling plot rich in passion and danger.” —Booklist, starred review
“Sabrina Jeffries’ When the Rogue Returns blends the pace of a thriller with the romance of the Regency era.” —Woman’s Day
“Not only is this a compelling story brimming with unexpected twists, but it’s also an emotional romance that touches on many levels.” —RT Book Reviews, 4½ stars, Top Pick
“Plot twists galore, a pair of appealing, conflicted protagonists, and a cadre of delightful secondary characters make this a perfect addition to Jeffries’s “Duke’s Men” series. This beautifully crafted romance reveals the gradual but exquisite renewing of a broken relationship; sure to become a keeper for the author’s many fans.” —Library Journal, starred review
By the time Victor Cale arrived at the Theatre Royal, he was fit to chew nails. He’d started his investigation of “Mrs. Perrot” at her shop in Prince’s Street, hoping to speak to her seventy-year-old partner, Angus Gordon. But the place was apparently closed on Saturdays, which, in itself, was interesting. Shops closed on Sunday, not on both Saturday and Sunday. Not unless they made very good money.
Judging from what those who ran the neighboring shops had to say, that was the case. Indeed, the other shopkeepers found Mrs. Perrot a fascinating subject for gossip. Some praised her talent as a jewelry maker. Others commented favorably on her willingness to contribute to charitable causes. A few speculated about her past—whether she was Gordon’s illegitimate granddaughter, why she had chosen to settle in Edinburgh, what battles her supposedly dead soldier husband had fought in.
None of them knew where she lived. Or anything about her family, beyond the fact that she was a soldier’s widow. Or even if she attended church. To hear the denizens of Prince’s Street tell it, Anna Perrot’s life began when she arrived at her shop in the morning and ended when she left it at night.
They all did agree on one thing—the Baron Lochlaw was sure to marry her within the year. He visited the shop with great regularity, he spoke of her in glowing terms, and he was often seen staring after her like a lovesick puppy. And she would be a fool not to accept any offer he made.
Mrs. Perrot was no fool.
Victor gritted his teeth as he entered the theatre, an unprepossessing building with only a statue of Shakespeare for adornment on the outside. The very thought of his wife attempting to marry that green lad made him want to smash a hammer through one of the marble pillars in the theater’s surprisingly lush interior. She was not going to commit bigamy, for God’s sake, even if it meant exposing his own past to the world.
Though the Theater Royale was more nicely fitted out inside than he would have thought from its spare and simple outside, it was still very small. Only thirty or so private boxes lined it, probably half of what was in a London theater. It took only one word with an usher, and he was promptly shown into the spacious Lochlaw box.
The Dowager Baroness Lochlaw rose to greet him with a kiss to each cheek, but though she made sure he got a good glimpse down the front of her very low-cut gown and though her heavy perfume swirled about his head like steam rising from a harem’s bathing room, the only woman he had eyes for was Isa. His wife. Who really thought she could get away with pretending to be Mrs. Perrot, a widow.
Isa was standing at the other end of the box under a sconce, perusing a program with her ladyship’s son, Rupert. She frowned as the lad tried to explain certain English words.
Lochlaw looked only marginally better dressed than he had earlier. There were no holes in his coat sleeve now, but both his cravat and his hair were rumpled, and the crease in his trousers had already started to vanish.
But Isa was a goddess in human form. This time her hair was ornamented with ostrich feathers and a glittering diadem, probably made of imitation diamonds though it was no less beautiful for it. If that was an example of her handiwork, it was no wonder she and her partner did well.
Her gown was far simpler than the baroness’s heavily furbelowed one—white taffeta ornamented with green piping, short puffy sleeves, and a respectable neckline—but the little it revealed and the way it nipped in at her waist reminded him of the last time he’d taken a gown off of her. Slowly, with the reverence of a hesitant new husband.
Now he wanted to rip it off her with his teeth. Then cover her soft, pale flesh with his body and explore every inch with his tongue and hands and cock. He wanted to bury his mouth in the enticingly shadowed valley between her breasts, lick his way down her slender belly to the dark brown curls that covered the sweetness below… drive his cock inside her until she begged him for more.
He fought an erection.
No wonder Lochlaw had stars in his eyes whenever he gazed at her. No wonder Lady Lochlaw saw Isa as a threat.
Just then the baron looked up and spotted him. “Ah, there you are, cousin!”
Lochlaw headed for him, but Isa stayed in place, her eyes widening and her mouth flattening into a tight line that he wanted to kiss until it loosened.
God, what was wrong with him? Ten years ago, she had left him to deal with the police alone, to make apologies for her even as he wasn’t certain if she’d stolen the royal diamonds. She had abandoned him without one look back.
And all of that seemed to melt away when he saw her in that gown. What a fool he was.
Yet he must continue to play this foolish role of the baroness’s cousin, at least until he could figure out what Isa was up to.
“Good evening,” he said as Lochlaw reached him. He nodded in Isa’s direction. “Nice to see you again, Mrs. Perrot.”
She nodded, a flush rising over her cheeks. Was she thinking about their nights together? Their very short week of marriage?
“I’m glad you’ve come,” the baron said. “The opera is about to start, and they frown on anyone entering after it begins.”
“Opera?” Victor said, stifling a groan. “I thought we were seeing some play called ‘The Iron Chest.’”
“They refer to it as ‘a musical play’ in the program,” Isa said. “But some of the reviews deemed it ‘operatic.’”
Her gaze met his, soft with memory, and he was catapulted back to Amsterdam. Her sister and brother-in law had dragged them to the opera once. He and Isa had only been able to afford the worst seats, and they’d spent most of it whispering together since neither of them had liked the singing. His opinion of opera hadn’t altered since then, despite his attending a couple of them with his relations in London.
A bell rang, and Lady Lochlaw took his arm to lead him to the two chairs sitting side-by-side behind two more. Lochlaw seated Isa in the chair directly in front of the baroness, then took the one in front of Victor for himself.
As the orchestra tuned up, Lady Lochlaw leaned over to Victor to whisper, “You see what I mean about that woman being vulgar? That tiara is the height of bad taste; I daresay the diamonds in it aren’t real.”
He could tell from Isa’s stiffened back that she heard every word.
“That is what she does for a living—make imitation diamonds,” he whispered back. “And as I recall, in London many women wear tiaras to the theater.”
Lady Lochlaw sat back with a sniff. A moment went by, during which time the music began. Then she leaned close again. “Clearly she knows nothing about opera. Why, she pronounced the word ‘aria’ like ‘area.’”
Just as he was about to point out that Mrs. Perrot wasn’t a native speaker of English, Lochlaw half-turned to hiss, “Quiet, Mother. I want to hear the music.”
And that was that.
Thank God, because Victor didn’t think he could tolerate many more of the baroness’s snide comments. But he did understand her reaction. Isa outshone her as a rose did a weed, despite the wealthier woman’s finery and expensive jewels. That had to gall.
The first act of the opera turned out to be not as bad as he expected. For one thing, it had a decent story, with some interesting political notes. And for another, from his vantage point he had a good look of Isa in profile. He could feast his eyes as much as he liked on her glorious hair, her delicate ear, her glowing cheek.
He knew it was foolish to do so, but he let himself dwell on the times he’d kissed her just there, where her pretty neck met her shoulder, or had run his tongue down the hollow of her throat. By the time the first act ended, every part of him ached to touch her.
As the interlude began, they all rose.
“How did you like it, Mrs. Perrot?” Lady Lochlaw asked, casting him a conspiratorial glance. “The contralto’s aria was lovely, don’t you think?”
A mischievous gleam shone in Isa’s eyes. “I didn’t really notice. I was too busy admiring the gorgeous necklace she’d purchased from my shop. It sparkled so nicely in the gas light.”
Lady Lochlaw’s smug smile vanished. “Did it have real gems? Or imitation?”
“You mean you couldn’t tell?” Isa asked sweetly. “How odd. I would have thought it obvious to a woman of your discernment.”
Victor nearly bit his tongue to keep from laughing. A servant entered just then with a tray of champagne glasses, which was a good thing since Lady Lochlaw looked fit to be tied. Feeling decidedly cheery, Victor took a glass for himself. But when the baron handed Isa one, too, and she smiled up at him engagingly, Victor’s mood suddenly soured.
“So, Mrs. Perrot,” he said in a hard voice, “what made you decide to leave the Continent for Scotland?”
She took a sip of champagne, her eyes darkening. “The death of my husband. I wanted to escape the bad memories.”
“Of his death?” he bit out. “Or of your marriage?”
“Both,” she said pointedly.
His heart dropped into his stomach. Was that really how she’d seen their marriage? She certainly hadn’t acted as if she’d hated it at the time.
Lochlaw had begun to frown, and even her ladyship looked wary, but Victor ignored them. “Why? Was he cruel to you? Did he mistreat you?”
“Neither,” she shot back. “But then he didn’t have to. He just acted as if I were his pet. That was the problem. He never told me anything of himself or his family, never let me see inside him. After he was gone, I realized I never really knew his character at all.”
He grimaced. On that subject at least, she spoke the truth. He had not let her see inside him. He’d been afraid that if she learned the dirty secrets of his childhood or the things he’d been forced to do on the battlefield, she would bolt.
In the end, she’d bolted anyway. “Perhaps you hadn’t been married long enough to take his measure.”
“Perhaps. But that’s all the more reason I was stunned to learn how much he’d lied to me, how much he’d pretended to be one thing when he was quite another.”
“You make him sound like a villain,” he growled.
“See here, cousin,” Lochlaw interrupted, “this conversation is becoming very rude.” He cast Isa an uncertain glance. “Don’t you agree?”
“Your cousin is perfectly aware that it is,” Isa said. “But I’m happy to tell him whatever he wishes to know.” Setting her glass down, she came toward Victor. “Still, Mr. Cale, we needn’t bore Rupert and his mother with such nonsense. Perhaps you’d like to take a tour of the theater? I understand there are some very fine statues in the lobby.”
“And I’ll go with you,” Lochlaw broke in with a scowl.
Lady Lochlaw put her hand on her son’s shoulder. “No, you will not.” When he glowered at her, she added, “You can’t leave me here alone, dear boy. What would people think?”
“I’m fine, Rupert,” Isa said as she took the arm Victor offered. “Your cousin and I will take a little walk and be right back. I need to stretch my legs anyway.”
Victor exulted. He’d succeeded in provoking her. And this time he would make sure she gave him some solid answers. During the play, he’d spotted an unoccupied box a few boxes over. He would lead her there so they could have some privacy for this discussion.
As soon as they were in the hall, she said, “Speaking of lies, are you really her ladyship’s cousin?”
He debated what to say. He wasn’t ready to tell her what he’d been hired to do, since that might spook her into fleeing. “What do you think?”
“I think you will say or do whatever you must to insinuate yourself into her life, no doubt for some devious purpose of your own.”
They’d reached the other box, so he dragged her inside and pulled her behind a pillar where no one could see them from the theater. Thrusting her against it, he braced his hands on either side of her to glare down at her.
“My devious purpose is to unmask my wife,” he growled. “You can hardly blame me when I find you frolicking with the likes of Lochlaw.”
“Frolicking?” she exclaimed, half-laughing. “Are you mad? I keep telling you, Rupert and I are just friends!”
“And you are either blind or a fool.” He lowered his head. “He watches you incessantly whenever he thinks you don’t see. He stares at you with such yearning . . .” He muttered a curse. “Perhaps you consider him a mere friend, but I assure you, he sees you differently. I’m a man—I can damned well tell when another man covets my wife.”
Her stunned expression told him that she truly hadn’t realized that the young man’s feelings for her ran that deep.
Then she steadied her shoulders. “Even if you’re right, even if he does have an interest in me, why do you care? You don’t want me, so—”
“Don’t want you?” he said incredulously before he could stop himself. His eyes fixed on her mouth, and his heart began to thunder in his chest. “Now you really are a fool.”
Then, driven by the rampant need that had been boiling up in his blood ever since he’d first seen her this afternoon, he seized her mouth with his.