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Maiden Lane [6] Duke of Midnight

By:Elizabeth Hoyt

Chapter One




Many a tale I’ve told, but none so strange as the legend of the Herla King.…

—from The Legend of the Herla King



JULY 1740

LONDON, ENGLAND

Artemis Greaves did not like to think herself a cynical person, but when the masked figure dropped into the moonlit alley to confront the three toughs already menacing her and her cousin, the hand on the knife in her boot tightened.

It seemed only prudent.

He was big and wore a harlequin’s motley—black-and-red diamond leggings and tunic, black jackboots, a hat with a wide, floppy brim, and a black half mask with a grotesquely outsized nose. Harlequins were meant to be clowns—a silly entertainment—but no one in the dark alley was laughing. The harlequin uncoiled from his crouch with a lethal movement so elegant Artemis’s breath caught in her throat. He was like a jungle cat—wild and without a trace of compassion—and like a jungle cat his attack held no hesitation.

He launched himself at the three men.

Artemis stared, still kneeling, her hand gripping the little blade sheathed in her boot. She’d never seen anyone fight like this—with a kind of brutal grace, two swords flashing at once through the shadows, too swift for the human eye to follow.

The first of the three men dropped, rolling to lie still and dazed. On the other side of the fight Artemis’s cousin, Lady Penelope Chadwicke, whimpered, cringing away from the bleeding man. A second man lunged, but the harlequin ducked, sweeping his outstretched leg under his opponent’s feet, then kicked the man to the ground and kicked him once more—viciously—in the face. The harlequin rose, already striking at the third man. He hammered the butt of his sword against his opponent’s temple.

The man collapsed with a squishy thud.

Artemis swallowed drily.

The dingy little lane was suddenly quiet, the crumbling buildings on either side seeming to loom inward with decrepit menace. The harlequin pivoted, not even breathing hard, his boot heels scraping on cobblestones, and glanced at Penelope. She still sobbed fearfully against the wall.

His head swiveled silently as he looked from Penelope to Artemis.

Artemis inhaled as she met the cold eyes glittering behind his sinister mask.

Once upon a time she had believed that most people were kind. That God watched over her and that if she were honest and good and always offered the last piece of raspberry tart to someone else first, then, even though sad things might happen, in the end everything would work out for the best. That was before, though. Before she’d lost both her family and the man who’d professed to love her more than the sun itself. Before her beloved brother had been wrongly imprisoned in Bedlam. Before she’d been so wretchedly desperate and alone that she’d wept tears of relieved gratitude when she’d been offered a position as her silly cousin’s lady’s companion.

Before, Artemis would’ve fallen upon this grim harlequin with cries of thanks for having rescued them in the nick of time.

Now, Artemis narrowed her eyes at the masked man and wondered why he’d come to the aid of two lone women wandering the dangerous streets of St. Giles at midnight.

She winced.

Perhaps she had grown a trifle cynical.

He strode to her in two lithe steps and stood over her. She saw those intense eyes move from the hand on her pathetic knife to her face. His wide mouth twitched—in amusement? Irritation? Pity? She doubted the last, but she simply couldn’t tell—and bizarrely, she wanted to. It mattered, somehow, what this stranger thought of her—and, of course, what he intended to do to her.

Holding her gaze, he sheathed his short sword and pulled the gauntlet off his left hand with his teeth. He held out his bare hand to her.

She glanced at the proffered hand, noticing the dull glint of gold on the smallest finger, before laying her palm in his. His hand was hot as he gripped her tightly and pulled her upright before him. She was so close that if she leaned forward a couple of inches she could’ve brushed her lips across his throat. She watched the pulse of his blood beat there, strong and sure, before she lifted her gaze. His head was cocked almost as if he were examining her—searching for something in her face.

She drew in a breath, opening her mouth to ask a question.

Which was when Penelope launched herself at the harlequin’s back. Penelope screamed—obviously nearly out of her mind with fear—as she beat uselessly at the harlequin’s broad shoulders.

He reacted, of course. He turned, yanking his hand from Artemis’s fingers as he lifted one arm to push Penelope aside. But Artemis tightened her hand on his. It was instinct, for she certainly wouldn’t have tried to hold him back otherwise. As his fingers left hers, something fell into her palm.

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