The third story in this series is as entertaining and charming
as the first two, with the highlights of paranormal and Regency romances well enmeshed. Allen continues to claim new territory
in the world of paranormal Regency.
An excerpt from A Duke at the Door
The Saturday night patrons’ lackluster cheers faded as Jack Bunce crept through the backstage gloom to the beast wagons. Not content to mimic Wombwell’s tour of zoological curiosities, Bunce’s employer aped Astley as well: Phineas Drake’s Equestrian Spectacular and Exotic Traveling Menagerie wed equine arts with ferocious creatures; if you asked Bunce, the combination was less than the sum of its parts, much like the animal who was his prey this evening.
Like the rest of his ilk behind the scenes of Drake’s Spectacular, he knew when a tide was about to turn. They were newly returned to London after a tour of Scotland, where they’d been welcomed with less than open arms, not to mention purses. If the box office continued its decline, Drake would be hard-pressed to keep things ticking over.
If he packed it up, went bankrupt…well, that was not Bunce’s problem.
Bunce’s problem was about to be solved, thanks to a keen eye and an utter lack of fear.
Animals rustled in dry straw, stirring themselves at the sound of an unexpected visitor. The beast wagons ranged in a semicircle for the punters to view in promenade before the main event, but one was off on its own, in the near dark, the better to frighten the spectators with the shadowy threat of the greatest predator of them all.
While covering for the lion keeper, Bunce had clocked a golden chain fixed around the animal’s paw, and he was after having it tonight; he feared no creature, even if the one he crept up on was the king of them.
“Some king you are.” He slithered along to reach the sturdy lock on the cage. “Look at this, will ya? Could keep in ten of your kind. Won’t keep me out.” He slipped a slender lockpick from his sleeve. “Someone as clever as me can take a bit o’ gold off an old cat like you. Old, innit? That’s why you’re all gray, yeah.”
Though the horses were Jack Bunce’s main responsibility and did not require cages, he made sure to keep up skills that had served him well in previous enterprises. A fellow like him did not come of age in the worst stews of London without having a trick or two up his actual sleeve. He coaxed the padlock open, and light as a feather, with the ease born of slithering through more than one second-story window, he climbed into the beast’s den.
The lion stirred, and as confident a chap as Bunce was, he hesitated. The cat’s great paws ended in greater claws, blunted though they were. As the creature rolled his head to look at the intruder, Jack’s skin erupted in gooseflesh. For it was as if the lion saw him, and that was not possible, to be seen for what he was—a man on a mission of ill intent—by a mere animal.
The creature yawned, and it was all Bunce could do not to laugh. “My apologies, Your Highness, for disturbing your slumber. You’ll be on to your eternal rest, you will, if Drake doesn’t shape up this show. Won’t be chucking in a whole deer for your tea, no, he won’t.”
The great eyes blinked as though the animal understood every word the man said. “Speak English, do ya? Here’s some news for you, then. You’re to be sold on, and by sold on, that’s to the abattoir, once they figure out how to feed you enough opium. Your days are numbered, old son. And you won’t be needing that shiny…ah, yeah, there we are.”
It had taken a sharp eye to catch what Bunce spotted, as the lion’s grooming was a disgrace: the once luxurious mane was tangled and filthy; its whiteness and that of the lion’s coat was the result of old-fashioned wig powder, and cleansing it between the creature’s performances in the equestrian revels was not on the cards, due to the keeper’s laziness and fear of the beast. Performances was putting a fine point on it: the lion was dragged out by its handlers acting as though they were trying to keep him in check rather than convince him to move. The sight of the beast outside of his cage was sufficiently impressive, even for the short traverse upstage; it didn’t matter if he was not in the least bit threatening in practice: he was in theory, and that was enough for the watchers in the stalls.
The thief edged forward and reached for the chain that lay beneath the matted fur of the beast’s ankle. A credulous observer, had there been one, might have thought the creature helpfully angled his paw in aid of the thief’s light fingers. Bunce smiled and slid his smallest pick into the lock, a complicated little clasp made to stand up to wear and tear. It would not stand up to him: he shimmied the pick right, left, right again, and the chain slid away.
When the porters from Bedlam arrived to fetch Jack Bunce, naked and screaming, he swore over and over that the lion had become a man.