A Lady's Code of Misconduct (Rules for the Reckless #5)

A Lady's Code of Misconduct (Rules for the Reckless #5)

Meredith Duran

To Joyce Littell, a teacher who not only revitalized my love of school but told me I would certainly grow up to be a writer. In dedicating this book to you, I at last fulfill the secret vow I made on the final day of the sixth grade. It’s long overdue.


Thanks to Lauren McKenna, Elana Cohen, Melissa Gramstad, Marla Daniels, and everyone else who makes Pocket feel like home; to Holly Root, S. J. Kincaid, and Janine Ballard for advice, feedback, and encouragement; to my husband, Matt, for his creativity, humor, empathy, and general perfection; and to family and friends for humoring me through another round of fevered research, late-night writing binges, and random digressions on parliamentary politics which you all graciously pretended to find fascinating.


February 1860

The first sensation was light. Red, the color of hellfire.

Then . . . weight. Weight compressing and lifting. Squeezing and relaxing.

Breathing. Air. Nose-throat-chest. A body—flesh, his own, his mind anchored within it.

He flexed his fingers.

“Look!” The soft voice startled him. It came from nearby. “Did you see that? His hand . . .”

Girlish voice. Recognition sifted through him, thinning the murk. He felt himself settling more deeply into this body. Pillow cradling his skull. His toes, trapped by smothering weight. Blanket. The air scratched in his nostrils. Smell of . . . soap.

“Open your eyes,” whispered the girl.

His eyes! Yes, he could open them.

The light was scalding. So bright! He could not bear it.

“Go fetch your mother.” A new voice, hoarse, masculine. “Go!”

Hurried footsteps. Floorboards groaning. Slam of a door.

A vise closed on his fingers, crushing them. “Crispin. Open your eyes. Now.”

He knew this voice. It was the voice of command, of expectations. It was the voice of disappointment, but he had always tried to answer it, to prove himself worthy.

He forced open his eyes, braving the glare.

His father gazed down at him. Face deeply lined. Rheumy eyes, shining strangely.

A tear plummeted, splashing Crispin’s chin.


Later. Much later. Or only minutes. Surfacing from deep sucking darkness. Exhausted, bone weary, so hot.

The light had gone. Square stamps of darkness filled the windows. A low fire revealed the contours of the room. A man, gray-haired, with pitted cheeks, slept nearby in a settee, his limbs contorted, slumped at an angle that guaranteed a backache tomorrow. The woman beside him, who nestled into his shoulder—her eyes were open, fastened on Crispin’s.

She blinked rapidly, then eased straight. “Can you hear me?”

What an odd question. He cleared his throat. Searched for his voice. “Yes, Mother.”

She reached for her husband’s arm, squeezing silently until he started awake, rubbed his eyes, saw what she had seen.

The wrongness registered on Crispin then. This bedroom—he knew it. It belonged in his parents’ London townhouse. But a Gainsborough now hung in place of the still life. The carpet was the wrong shade. And his parents . . .

They looked shrunken. Hollow-cheeked, aged.

He pushed upright. His head exploded.

Time skipped then. He was flat on his back, gasping. His parents were hovering over him, caught in the middle of an argument.

“—call the doctor back at once,” said his mother. “Let him decide.”

“No. I am going to wake him.”

Crispin took a strained breath. “What happened?” he asked.

Their relief was almost comical—wide-eyed, gaping. But they both fell silent. Some charged look passed between them. His mother laid her hand over his.

“You’ve been ill,” she said.

That much was clear. He tried to remember . . . anything. But recent days felt hazy. The tour through Italy? No, there had been much more after that. Studies with the German tutor? They felt very distant. He was missing something. But he felt sure he should be in Cambridge, cramming for the exam. “Why am I here?”

The question had a peculiar effect. His mother’s grip slipped away. She retreated a pace from the bed. “Oh, Crispin.” Her voice was clogged with tears.

“A fine question,” his father bit out. “Should we pretend to be strangers, then? Your goddamned stubbornness—”

“Stop it,” his mother choked.

Strangers? Crispin’s bafflement redoubled, pulsing in time to the ache in his head. The agony was . . . exquisite.

He felt for the source of it, moving gingerly, groping across his own skull. What on earth? A patch of hair had been denuded. It was growing back short and bristly. The stubble covered a thick gash, as though he’d been axed.

“What happened?” He heard fear in his own voice now, but for God’s sake—“How long have I been here?”

“Five days,” his father said. “But we can see you off by morning if that is your preference.”

“Stop it!” His mother loosed a sob. “I won’t have it—”

The door banged open. In came his sister. God above! She had brought a young woman with her, a stranger—here, to his sickbed!

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