Book 2 in the Willoughby Family Series
Published by Carina Press/ Harlequin
“Cloaked in Danger has all the elements readers crave— larger-than-life characters, a vivid and believable setting, heart-pounding romance and just the right amount of mystery. Don’t miss it! It kept me reading deep into the night.“
Aria Whitney has little in common with the delicate ladies of London society. Her famous father made his fortune hunting archaeological treasures, and her rustic upbringing has left her ill-prepared for a life of parties and frippery. But when Gideon Whitney goes missing in Egypt, Aria must embrace the unknown—armed with only the short list of highborn men who’d backed her father’s venture, she poses as a woman looking for a husband. She doesn’t intend to find one.
Adam Willoughby, Earl of Merewood, finds London’s strangest new debutante fascinating, but when he catches her investigating his family’s secrets, he threatens to ruin her reputation. He doesn’t intend to enjoy it so much.
When their lustful indiscretion is discovered, Adam finds that he regrets nothing. But now, as her father’s enemy draws near, Adam must convince his betrothed that she can trust him with her own secrets…before it’s too late.
“In ‘Cloaked in Danger’ Jeannie Ruesch has crafted a taut, emotional thrill-ride through the streets of Regency London. Archaeological adventure and drawing room intrigue are combined in a story that will keep you reading late into the night. Jeannie Ruesch is an author to watch.”
Aria Whitney curled shaky fingers around the cold metal key she’d nabbed from the desk drawer. Voices filtered in from beneath the door for the tenth time in a score of minutes, and the knots in her stomach tightened. She turned to survey the dimly lit room.
Searching a man’s study was proving far more risky than she had anticipated.
In retrospect, she should have conceived a less foolhardy plan. Chosen a time when the man was not throwing a party. Or at least not a party with a guest list the size of a small village.
As Aria’s father often lamented, forethought was not one of her strengths.
“Dear God, please let me find something.” Her skills at asking for divine intervention were rusty, but she would settle for even a dribble of help.
She had searched almost everything. The windowless, wood-paneled room contained simple furnishings: couch, chaise, an armoire and desk, all impeccably maintained and neatly organized. It hadn’t taken long.
All what she might expect of a duke, with one exception: a chest that edged the wall—a piece so ostentatious it all but grew talons, snatched you and forced you to gaze upon its shiny gold embellishments. It seemed foolish to bother. Who would put something worth finding in such an obvious place?
But Papa wouldn’t have overlooked the chest.
Worry billowed in her gut like the heavy edges of a burlap tent.
“Miss Whitney is a title hunter.” The prickly words, snapped out by an even pricklier feminine voice, slid under the doorway.
“Are you sure you saw her walk this way?” The high-pitched voice was close. Too close.
Aria twisted around to watch the door.
The door she had left unlocked.
“I am certain she’s doing something scandalous.” Glee punctuated every syllable.
“And we’ll be certain the good people of London are well aware,” came the snide reply.
Since she had thrust herself into this impossible world, she had made few friends. And if someone caught her snooping around in the study, the tentative progress she’d made would be destroyed.
She would lose all ability to saunter through this world freely.
Her only opportunity to find her father.
The beat of her blood hammered in her head. She took silent steps across the hardwood and stopped at the door, flattening her hands against the painted surface.
“Did you see her dance with my George? Twice! And the way she boldly introduces herself to her betters. I shall not let George fall prey to her manipulations.”
“Don’t be silly. George adores you. She’s nothing…”
Their words turned unintelligible, and Aria bit down hard on her lower lip to keep from yelling a few insults after them. Her father’s men had taught her to swear like a sailor—in five languages, no less, so she had plenty to choose from.
Instead, with a quick flick of her wrist, she locked the door, dropped her head to rest against the solid wood.
A stupid mistake, one she couldn’t afford.
With that kind of carelessness, her reputation would be in tatters by the end of the week. That fact was as indisputable as the distance between England and her father’s encampment in Egypt. But she’d be damned if she’d let those prattling ninnies be the cause of her disgrace.
The temptation to find, fluster and annoy the debutantes beckoned, but she had to focus. She couldn’t remain cloistered in the duke’s study forever.
“Title hunter,” Aria muttered. “Hmmph.” How that persona grated.
Returning to the mahogany-and-gold chest, she ran fingers over the cool bumps and curves of the ornate carvings, pulled the icy old padlock into her palm. The key was discolored with rust, clearly unused. It could have passed for any relic her father dug up from the ground.
Aria wiggled it back and forth in the lock, frowning when the levers didn’t disengage.
Perhaps it wasn’t so simpleminded to hide something inside. The genius lay in the fact that the lock wouldn’t open unless assaulted by a hammer.
Footsteps echoed against the wooden floor in the corridor. Why wouldn’t those gossipmongers go away?
She turned back and wiggled the key some more. Drat! The key wouldn’t turn. Her heart pummeled her chest. Aria yanked the key out and tried again with an unsteady hand.
Ah! Relief charged through her, buzzing her skin with warmth. The padlock slipped out of its casing. The lock clanked loudly against the chest.
“Is someone in there?” a muffled, but very male voice asked through the door. The doorknob rattled; the door shook. “Why is this locked? Who the hell locked my study? Blythe? Where is the blasted key?”
Aria’s heart stopped for a moment that stretched with the agony of a camel ride across a formidable desert. Her next heartbeats thumped together, sending a rush of urgency through her.
She twisted the key to remove it, but it wouldn’t budge. She yanked, but her swollen fingers made her clumsy. This was ridiculous. She had solid arm strength, thanks to years of digging in the sand and dirt and reining in horses across long treks, but this small lock made her feel as useless as a child.
A heavy-handed knock pounded the door once again.
She was so close! Just one more minute—
The door rattled, followed by the clinking sound of a key unlocking it.
Finally, the key in her hand slid free of the lock. She palmed it, leapt up with a decided lack of grace, the best she could manage without tangling in the endless layers of fabric in her blasted ball gown.
God Almighty, but she missed her breeches and boots!
She scurried to the couch nudged against the adjacent wall, dropped onto her back, and just had time to fling an arm over her head, her hand fisted about the key. The door flew open and light filtered in. She heard the soft rustle of skirts. Footsteps on the floor.
Then a cloud of jasmine floated above Aria, and she calmed the urge to push the looming presence away and escape.
“Michael, over here.” The voice was feminine, soft, with a thread of alarm in the tone. “I think she’s hurt.”
Warm, gentle fingers touched her arm, and Aria snapped her eyes open, discovering a set of worried green ones inches from her face.
“Shhh, do not distress,” Lady Blythe Ashton said.
Aria sat up, rested the back of her hand to her forehead. She felt ridiculous, but she was posing as a debutante.
“Did someone hurt you?” the duke demanded.
“No.” Aria struggled to soften her tone to a sleepy one of a debutante taking respite from the crowd, rather than a woman caught invading his privacy. “Of course not. I had a headache and thought to lie down. I hope I didn’t intrude.”
“There are plenty of rooms upstairs. You have my permission to make your way to one of those.” He crossed his arms in a gesture that might have been intimidating, if it hadn’t been so petulant. “And why did you lock the door?”
“Do be quiet, Michael—she’s in pain.” Lady Ashton’s warm smile and delicate blond beauty offered the perfect contrast to his darker, more brooding appeal.
“Then a quieter place would be more suitable,” the duke said.
“Please forgive him. He is simply, well, a man.” Amusement threaded the word. This woman was being gracious, friendly. Aria hadn’t been shown much kindness since she’d invaded society several weeks ago.
“Then perhaps we can go upstairs?” The duke’s tone was that of a five-year-old asking for a treat.
And then their purpose dawned on Aria. Prickly heat infused her cheeks. They had escaped their own party for privacy.
That realization sunk to the middle of her stomach with the weight of a thousand pounds of sand. The Duke of Ravensdale cared for his betrothed.
Aria’s path to gaining his confidence and finding out what he knew about her father had just become challenging. Without the easy route of flirtation and pursuit, how was she to get the information she needed?
She searched the floor for her shoes, pushed by a need to escape. “I should return to the party. My head feels remarkably restored.”
“We should return, as well. It is our betrothal party, after all.” Lady Ashton crossed her arms, arched a brow, and Aria swore she could hear the tiny tapping of a foot.
“But it’s doubtful we’d be missed at all,” the duke muttered, loud enough for Aria to hear.
Shoes in place, Aria turned to leave, offering, “Thank you for the use of your study, your grace.”
Once out the door, she strode down the corridor, her gait more suited to boot-covered feet sinking in the sand than slippers and silks, but no matter how her stepmother tried to correct that, Aria couldn’t—or yes, wouldn’t—change the way she walked.
Stopping outside the doors of the ballroom, she leaned back against the cool wallpapered wall. Her insides were knotted tight as a sailor’s hitch. But she lifted her chin, squared her shoulders and painted a smile on her face. She was nothing if not pragmatic.
The duke’s name was on her father’s list.
And she would become better acquainted with each and every one of the men whose names her father had scrawled on that piece of paper, be they betrothed, married with ten mistresses or hiding from matrimony. She would find out what they knew about his disappearance.
But the duke… she needed a new plan on how to approach him, so tonight she would focus on one of the other men.
Fortunately, it would never occur to the ton that she didn’t dream of ascending into their hallowed realms, and they had bought her ruse without a blink. After all, money excused any variety of unsuitable traits, and Aria’s father had plenty of wealth.
She swiveled on a slippered toe to peer in the wide-open double doors. The small but sumptuous ballroom overflowed with partygoers, who had doubled in number during her absence.
The gentlemen milled about, sizing each other up as if their birthright and bank accounts had been inked on their foreheads.
The ladies were worse. They acted with one single thought in their combined empty heads: secure a marriage. Whether for themselves or a relative, that goal tainted every discourse, every conversation.
The very idea of marrying someone here, spending her life among them, sent shudders down her spine. But what she thought about it didn’t matter.
She squared her shoulders and prepared to live up to her newfound reputation as a calculating flirt.
And perhaps she’d find George—somebody’s George—and dance with him again just to be contrary.
4 Star Amazon Review
“Adam Willoughby, brother to Blythe from “Something About Her”, gets his turn here, and a challenging romance with Ariadne, daughter to a well-known archaeologist/treasure hunter. Aria’s dad, who had taken her along with him on all his digs after his wife’s death, decides she must go to London to live with his young and pregnant second wife and to learn how to maneuver among the haute ton. When Aria’s “Uncle John” arrives home from Egypt more than half-dead with news their camp had been attacked and Aria’s papa is missing, Aria suspects one of his aristocratic investors might be to blame. Aria is quickly out of her depth, pushing far beyond the bounds of propriety, and ends up in an awkward and compromising situation with Adam that can be salvaged only through marriage (at the insistence of Adam’s wonderful mum). Adam feels drawn to Aria’s refreshingly confident and un-debutantish nature, and is fine with the notion of marrying her — even if he had planned to hold off marrying until after his three sisters are hitched. Then Aria finds out one of her London friends is not what he seems, and her life spins down into hell.
Adam Willoughby is flawed in expecting that he will be able to control everything in his mother’s and sisters’ lives, but he gradually grows in wisdom and learns to let them make their own mistakes. It takes him longer than I liked to realize he was wrong to leave Aria in peace when she breaks off their engagement and tells him to go; and he was plain muleheaded to assume she wasn’t what he thought her to be. (listening to her stepmother, with whom she does NOT get along? Also not bright.)
The strongest point? Ruesch handles the subject of post-traumatic stress disorder with depth, insight, and honesty, leading in to it with a degree of trauma that most historical romance novelists would shy away from (though even she shies away from rape). Seeing Aria struggling to find a way through the tripwires and minefields survivors must confront, and Adam finding his way back to her when she needs him most, is heartbreaking even while it’s life-affirming.
An added benefit: Michael, the oh-so-aggravating and deceitful hero of Book 1, redeems himself in helping Adam through some extremely rough patches. By the time he’s done, Adam, and the readers, can’t help but acknowledge he’s become worthy of Blythe Willoughby. And I no longer wanted Adam to pound him to a pulp.”
“Jeannie Ruesch has one of the freshest and most original historical romance voices I have read in a long while. I loved her unconventional heroine and the fact that her hero was willing to break society’s rules too. The conflict in CLOAKED IN DANGER is strong. At times it was so dominant that it almost overshadowed the romance between Adam and Aria. Yet, on the other hand, I appreciated that the heart-wrenching conflict Ruesch developed was one not easily overcome with a simple conversation or the resolution of a misunderstanding. Her characters felt flesh and blood real, and their pain felt was as vibrantly written as the love and passion that held them together, despite the odds against them.” ~ Night Owl Reviews, Christy Carlyle
“A thrilling read, Cloaked in Danger was a wonderful historical romance. It was full of romance, secrets, and I really enjoyed reading it…The plot was fast paced and I was hooked the entire way through. There were tons of thrills and secrets along the way that kept me on the edge of my seat.” ~ Imagine A World, Farrah Sayyed
“Very delightful! Warm, likeable characters, murder, danger and sweet romance make this a lovely Regency reading experience…Aria and Adam are very warm, likeable characters, even though they both have their share of bullheadedness and there was a point where I rolled my eyes at Aria’s headlong foolishness. The mystery is wrapped in danger and intrigue and the details are well crafted. … The romance is sweet and sensual… I recommend this to any reader who enjoys a good historical romance.” ~ Martha’s Bookshelf