Welcome to Sugarbeat’s Books – The Home of the Romance Novel!
Mission: Keep Margaret Barlow distracted…using any means necessary!
Ranger Hunter Cross is the army poster child—excitement, danger and no strings in sight. And he’s been in town exactly three hours before a curvy blonde named Maggie flashes him a look that says “You belong in my bed.” It’s a night of wicked satisfaction. And it’s a night they can never repeat….
All Professor Maggie Barlow wanted was orgasm—or three—from the dead-sexy Ranger. Having him as her official army liaison while she works on her new book? That wasn’t in the plan. Especially when she learns that Hunter has orders to “control” her. Little does the army know that when it comes to their deliciously naughty nighttime activities, Hunter is at Maggie’s complete command….
Why do you need to read this book? Another Blaze book…they are short, hot and easily read in a couple of hours. Command Performance was super hot and well worth the read!
Command Performance can be purchased: Amazon
“Goodbye, control,” Maggie muttered, her hands trembling with a mix of excitement and nerves. “Hello, fantasy.”
She stepped into the car show refreshment tent and paused, her fingers playing with the clasp on her purse. Fans blasted, but she still feared she might break into a sweat. And wouldn’t that be attractive?
She forced her fingers to still. Sexy women, the ones who left men desperate to touch, possessed confidence, not anxiety. If she kept playing with that clasp, her bag might fall open and expose the box of ribbed-for-her-pleasure protection Olivia had given her in the car. Turning red with embarrassment wouldn’t help her confidence.
Why shouldn’t she feel confident? She was a careeroriented author and professor. And she knew she looked good tonight. She had big breasts and a trim waist—both of which were on display thanks to the backless green shirt Olivia had chosen. Wearing it meant Maggie had been forced to leave her bra at home.
She glanced down at the full D-cups pressing at the front of her shirt as if screaming to the room look at me! Had anyone noticed? Had one of these men caught sight of her and said, “Wow! I bet she would look great topless and bent over the hood of my car”? She scanned the tent and spotted a couple of men staring at her, their eyes never drifting above her chest.
“The shirt. It’s working,” Maggie murmured to her best friend.
Olivia stood half a step behind her, blocking the exit as if she feared Maggie might bolt at any moment. “Of course it is. Now all you have to do is walk to the bar and order a drink.”
Maggie nodded, squared her shoulders and wobbled to the bar, silently cursing Olivia for insisting she wear the four-inch heels. Her feet ached for her sensible, everyday flats. But she needed the height advantage. Without the stilettos, all five foot three inches of her would be lost in the sea of towering males.
And there were definitely Men here. Capital M. At the tables, on the folding chairs, leaning against the makeshift bar—muscular, don’t-mess-with-me Men. The type of guys she’d always admired from a distance, as if they were part of a display with a little sign that read Look, But Don’t Touch.
Tonight she wanted to touch.
Some wore uniforms, but most were dressed in civilian clothes. Still, their military-issue haircuts gave them away. They might be wearing jeans and T-shirts, but they were soldiers. Not that this was surprising. It made sense that a car show near a military academy would be overrun with soldiers and cadets. Most men liked cars. The guys in this tent probably spent 50 percent of their free time rebuilding their engines.
Not Maggie. She’d never even changed a flat tire. Not once.
Her nerves kicked into gear again. Her fingers drummed against her thighs as she picked her way through the crowd. She fought to quiet them and focus. She was on a mission. And it had nothing to do with car parts and everything to do with hard-bodied males.
When they reached the temporary wooden counter, Maggie signaled the bartender. “Vodka tonic, please.”
Olivia raised an eyebrow but didn’t say anything before adding a glass of white wine to the order.
Their drinks arrived and Maggie took a long sip from hers. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d ordered hard liquor. She rarely drank the stuff, always afraid she might have inherited her father’s love of booze, and when she did have a drink, she generally preferred a glass or two of wine, or a beer on a hot summer afternoon. One sip of vodka and she was feeling warm and a little tipsy, which was surprisingly pleasant. It even dulled her desire to drive back down to Manhattan and hurl something at her ex. A few more of these and she might have the guts to follow through with Olivia’s crazy plan.
“Liv, you do realize most of these guys are soldiers. Probably half either teach at or attend West Point.” Maggie noticed she’d downed half her drink. “What if I end up having to deal with one of them while researching my book?”
“Relax, you won’t.” Olivia shook her head. “Anyway, I thought the men you were interviewing were based in Tennessee.”
“They are, but the generals are in town.”
Olivia reached over and patted her hand. “I promise I’ll make sure he’s not a general.”
“But I could never date a soldier.”
“It’s only for one night,” Olivia reminded her. “Why should you care what he does for a living if you’re not planning on seeing him beyond tonight? Maybe you’ll get lucky and find a mechanic. This is a car show.”
Maggie drained the rest of her drink. “What if I pick a guy and he turns me down?” Her nerves—and the vodka—sent her stomach into somersaults. “What if I make a complete fool of myself? It’s not like I have a lot of experience with men.”
“Look at me.” Olivia leaned closer. “You can do this. Now. Tonight. If you don’t, then duty, responsibility, your need to be the best at your job—it will smother you.”
Maggie held on to the bar with one hand as Olivia’s words sank in. Her sense of duty had started smothering her years ago when her father began drinking. This was her chance to escape. If she didn’t act now, she might lose the part of herself that craved orgasms. The part of herself that wished she’d told her fiance she wanted wild sex on his desk and so much more.
“You’re right,” Maggie said softly.
Olivia smiled and signaled the bartender for a second round. “Now, look around. See anything you like?”
Feeling the vodka pulsing through her, Maggie boldly scanned the refreshment tent. What was she looking for? Muscles. The kind that came from the hard work required to transform a man into a soldier or from lifting engine parts. But four out of five guys in here looked like they could bench-press her one-handed. And thanks to her breasts, she wasn’t one of those hundred-pounds-soaking-wet women.
She took a second look and mentally eliminated about half of them. Too young. She wanted a man who knew things about sex. She wanted an orgasm that left her breathless, boneless and begging for more.
Her gaze landed on a green polo, tight but not too tight. And those biceps? They shouted touch me. Her eyes drifted over his shoulders to his face, framed by straight brown hair. She’d always liked brown hair. Staring at his profile—he was deep in conversation with an equally handsome but not quite as sexy man across the table—she could see his mouth curving upward in a half smile. Those lips. He had the type of mouth that begged a woman to say kiss me lower down, please.
Maggie clutched her drink and drew her gaze away from his face. Twelve months of unfulfilling sex had driven her mad if she was thinking about his lips kissing her therebefore she’d even said a word to the guy. She blinked and took in the rest of him. She could see the endless length of his legs stretched out beneath the table.
Her body tingled as she drank in the sight of him. With a long, sculpted body like that he must know how to do things, deliciously sinful, wild things that previously only existed in her fantasies. He turned and looked right at her, and then smiled. She tightened her grip on her nearly empty drink. Those eyes. That mouth. She’d bet her inheritance that man knew ten ways to give a woman the best orgasm of her life. If he looked at her like that much longer, she might come right here. Her thighs tightened at the thought. This man would say yes. He wouldn’t turn her down. Not after that look.
Maggie blinked and turned to the bartender. “Cancel the vodka tonic. Just water, please.”
The liquor had made her bold, maybe even a little reckless, but if she wished to remember every detail about tonight, she needed water. “Do you remember George Clooney when he was young? When he was on ER?”
“Oh, yeah.” Olivia took her wine from the bartender. “He was on the show when we first started watching it in high school.”
“Green polo, blue jeans at eight o’clock.”
Olivia raised an eyebrow. “He’s not your usual type.”
“He has George Clooney’s eyes. Bedroom eyes.” Maggie reached for her water and drained half the glass. “Tonight, he’s my type.”
Chief Warrant Officer Hunter Cross knew a come-on look when he saw one. A look that said, I want you naked in my bed. Tonight.
He leaned back on his rickety wooden folding chair and let a slow smile spread across his face, a move he’d perfected at sixteen to get the captain of the debate team into the backseat of his mother’s car. He’d always had a thing for supersmart girls. Of course, he’d moved beyond sex in the backseat since high school, but not much.Commitment was a dirty word in his mind, and long-term made him shudder. Not even the woman at the bar with her soft shoulder-length curls or touch-me breasts would tempt him to change his mind.
Across the room, the blonde pursed her lips, unsure if she should proceed with their unspoken dance. That expression. It was a mix of bold and innocent, an intoxicating combination that went right to his crotch. He let his eyelids lower slightly.
“I know that look isn’t for me,” Riley, his friend and former team leader, said from across the table.
“The blonde at the bar. She just gave me a green light.”
Riley chuckled. “You’ve been in town for less than three hours and you’ve already found a woman.”
“Hey, I’ve been laid up in a hospital for two months.” Before that, he’d been in Afghanistan. He would have left unscathed if his team hadn’t been ordered to rescue three female aid workers traveling to a remote clinic. And thanks to a teammate’s mistake, he’d taken a bullet in the process.
“How’s your arm?” Riley asked, his expression serious.
“Fine.” Hunter rolled his shoulder. It still ached. Nothing the blonde couldn’t fix.
“Logan feels awful about how it all went down.”
Hunter started to say it wasn’t Logan’s fault, but stopped. They both knew it was. His friend and teammate had been distracted after losing his young wife to cancer before they shipped out, and as a result he’d messed up—and Hunter had been shot.
“Any thoughts about getting out? Resigning your commission?” Riley asked.
“I heard one of those private security companies offered you a job,” Riley said quietly.
“Yeah, but you know me. I live for being a Ranger. Hell, I’m hoping they’ll give me your old job.” With Riley bowing out as head of their team, Hunter was in line for the job he’d always dreamed of and a pay hike. A small one. “I could sure use the extra cash.”
“Trust me, the pay bump is so small you’ll barely notice. It’s nothing compared to what those private companies pay.” Riley pulled out his wallet. “But I can help you out tonight. The beers are on me. I need to be getting home.”
“I like to be in bed with my wife before she falls asleep,”
Riley replied with a smile. “If you ever settle down, you’ll understand.”
“I think I’d take another bullet before relinquishing my freedom.”
“Someday you’re going to eat those words. When the right woman comes along, you’re going to fall so hard you’ll give up everything to be with her. Everything.”
“Did they brainwash you when you made those vows?” Hunter joked. Riley didn’t know he’d already sacrificed everything he had for his sister. He had nothing left to provide for a wife and family of his own.
“Listen, I think it’s great what you’ve got,” Hunter said. “But I’m committed to the army. I’m dying to get back to active duty. Married life? It’s not for me.”
“If you say so.” Riley set a twenty on the table and stood. “Think you can catch a cab back to the hotel if things don’t work out with your green-light girl?”
That’s no girl, Hunter thought. She has “woman with needs” written all over her. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll find my way to bed.”
Riley slipped his wallet into his back pocket. “If you end up sticking around the area for a while, give me a call and I’ll drive down for another drink.”
“Will do. But next time I pick the venue. Not that I didn’t enjoy picking out replacement parts for your wife’s truck.”
Riley patted him on the shoulder, his good one. “Deal.”
Hunter’s gaze shifted to the cash on the table as his friend headed toward the exit. In the past, he’d have insisted on paying for his own beer. But right now, his cash flow situation was pretty dismal. If he hadn’t been ordered to fly up here when he’d been released from the physical therapy center, he would be crashing on one of his teammates’ couches until they were deployed again. With his sister back in rehab and all the bills coming to him, he could barely afford the beer in his hand.
Hunter took a long sip. In his book, family came first. Always. His sister was the only family he had left. He refused to lose her to a meth overdose.
“Mind if I join you?”
The soft words yanked Hunter away from his thoughts. The woman from the bar stood with one hand on the chair next to his, her blue eyes wide and uncertain. Her other hand maintained a death grip on her glass. Nerves, he guessed. She might be playing the part of the brazen blonde tonight, but he’d bet his next paycheck that casting come-hither looks at strangers wasn’t a habit.
Hunter smiled and stood to pull a chair out for her. “Please.” He extended his hand. “Hunter Cross. And you are?”
“Maggie.” She shook his hand and then slipped into the chair. He’d noticed the smooth expanse of skin exposed by her backless shirt when she’d been at the bar, but seeing her up close made him want to touch, to run his hand over the place where her bra line should be, but wasn’t. He moved back to his chair to admire the view from the front. Little Miss Maggie’s taut nipples strained against the thin fabric.
God help him, he loved breasts. And full braless breasts? They drove him wild.
The woman who now stood beside him looked as if she’d gotten lost on her way home from a cruise ship. “Three questions and then I’ll leave you two alone.”
Little Miss Maggie’s friend had rushed over to “help.”
Great. But he didn’t try to send her back to her ship. He merely nodded, prepared to face the interrogation. “Okay.”
“Are you married?” she demanded.
“Fair question.” He didn’t take his eyes off her face. He could understand a friend looking out for her own. “No, ma’am.”
“Are you a soldier?”
Hunter hesitated. He knew lots of women picked up soldiers. As a rule, he tried to steer clear of them. Women on the hunt for a hero wanted commitment no matter how much they pretended otherwise. Marriage might be perfect for Riley, but the last thing Hunter needed was another person to support.
He glanced at Maggie. The brazen blonde who’d approached him sat biting her lower lip, her brow furrowed as if she was trying to decide whether she should punch her friend or turn tail and run. He lowered his gaze to her chest. Hunter wanted her to stay. Badly.
“Yes, ma’am.” He met the friend’s challenging gaze.
His interrogator frowned and turned to Miss Maggie. “He’s not a mechanic.”
A mechanic? Seriously? He’d never heard of women trying to pick up mechanics. Maybe New York ladies were more practical. Why snag a soldier when you could have someone around to fix your car?
But he couldn’t let Miss Maggie walk away because he didn’t take apart engines for a living. He smiled. “I’m not. But I know how to change a tire.”
“Great,” Maggie said, her brow relaxing.
“Are you a general?” her friend demanded.
He let out a bark of laughter. A general? What the hell?
Sure, some women went after navy SEALs. Maybe some even wanted army rangers. But autoworkers and generals? “No, ma’am.”
Why do you need to read this book? Carissa was totally delightful! The combination of Beau and Carissa had me laughing one moment and then reaching for tissues the next! Loved this book!
Some people in this world (fools) were happy minding their own
business. Miss Carissa Portland wasn’t one of them.Seated between her cousins, the formidable Denbury Daughters, with their governess, Miss Trent, snoring softly on the end, she trailed her dainty opera glass slowly over the capacity audience of about a thousand souls in attendance
that Saturday night at Covent Garden Theatre.To be sure, the little dramas, comedies, and farces playing out among the Quality present were far more intriguing than anything happening on the stage.
Besides, knowing everybody else’s secrets in the ton seemed the safest way to guard her own.
Perusing the three gilded tiers of private boxes, she scanned along at a leisurely pace, while the lenses of other ladies’ opera glasses winked right back at her.
Fluent in fan language, as well, she watched for those coy signals a lady could discreetly send her lover.
Hmm, over there. Lady S–, sitting with her husband had just flicked her fan in an arc to Colonel W–, who had come with his fellow officers from his regiment. The uniformed coxcomb
smiled slyly in receipt of the invitation. Carissa narrowed her eyes.
Typical tomcat male. She’d better be careful with him.Drifting on, she picked out the subjects of other various rumors here and there: the jeweled countess said to be dallying with her footman; the political lord who had just sired twins on the mistress he swore he didn’t have.
From opposite ends of the theatre, two branches of a feuding family glared at each other, while on the mezzanine, a notorious fortune-hunter blew a subtle kiss to the heiress of some encroaching toadstool who owned coal factories.
Tut, tut, poor man, she thought when her casual spying happened across the sad figure of a cuckolded husband who had just filed a crim-con case against his wife’s seducer.
Well, the demireps preening in their box and putting their wares on display in low-cut gowns seemed more than happy to comfort him.
Humph, thought Carissa.
All of a sudden, her idle scan of the audience slammed to a halt on a particular box, second tier, stage left.
A gasp escaped her.
He’s here!At once, her foolish heart began to pound.
Oh, my.Encircled in the lens of her dainty spyglass, there he sat, lounging in his chair, his muscled arms folded across his chest…
He was staring right back at her.
A wicked smile slowly crept across his face, and just to confirm that, oh, yes, he saw her ogling him, the handsome hellion sent her a cheeky little salute.
She let out an almost feline hiss and dropped her lorgnette onto her lap as though she had been burned.
She vowed not to touch it again–at which the audience let out another wave of rumbling laughter.
Oh, bother. She shifted in vexation in her seat and looked around uneasily. Of course, they weren’t laughing at her, though she probably deserved it.
Devil take him, that rogue’s glance made her feel like one of the
To her own dismay, Carissa Portland had secretly become fascinated by a libertine.
Where this weakness in her came from, this shameful susceptibility to a well-made man, she quite despaired to guess. Perhaps it was her auburn hair to blame.
Redheads were notorious for their more passionate nature. Probably hogwash, she admitted, but to her it sounded as good an excuse as any.
What his excuse was, well, he didn’t bother making one. A golden demigod striding the earth like a wayward son
of Aphrodite didn’t have to.
Charming, quick-witted, unbelievably handsome, with
a smile that could have melted ice floes across the Nordic Sea.
Sebastian Walker, Viscount Beauchamp, could have got away with murder if he fancied. He was the Earl of Lockwood’s heir, known to the ton as Beau.
They had been introduced some weeks ago by mutual acquaintances: Her closest friends, Daphne and Kate, were married to his fellow Inferno Club members, Lord Rotherstone and the Duke of Warrington. So they moved in the same
circles, and of course, she’d heard his reputation.
He had lived up to it in spades with her not long ago. The scandalous beast had actually kissed her.
She had made the mistake of stopping him when he was in a hurry on his way somewhere. She had been leery about confronting him, but she had needed a simple answer to a very serious question:
Where the dash has everybody gone?Both Daphne and Kate had been missing from Town for weeks without explanation. This was totally unlike them.
Because of Lord Beauchamp’s friendship with their husbands, she was sure he must know something. The aforementioned husbands had also disappeared, supposedly on some hunting trip to the Alps.
But Carissa was starting to doubt everything she thought she knew about her friends. Everyone in their set had been acting so mysteriously before they all had vanished. It was all very upsetting.
She had no firm information yet (maddening!) but clearly, something was afoot. Most of all, she did not understand why she should have been excluded.
The truth was, frankly, it hurt.
Thankfully, she had received a letter from Daphne at last, confirming she was safe, but her friend’s verbiage seemed deliberately vague. And so, with relief had come even greater annoyance.
Why on earth were they keeping her in the dark? Didn’t they trust her?!
In an effort to get answers, she had cornered Beauchamp in a safe (so she thought) public place. But when she had delayed him too long with her, as he put it, “nagging,” the gorgeous brute had simply snatched her up in his arms and put a stop to her questions with a lusty kiss.
As if she were some wanton trollop on the corner!
If it had not been raining . . . if he had not shielded them from public view with his umbrella . . . she was sure the scandal would have been so calamitous, she’d have hanged herself by now, or (more fashionably) drowned herself in the Serpentine.
Well, the blackguard clearly did not understand the first rules of decent behavior. Though he certainly knew how to give a woman one hell of a kiss.
She put him and the whole discomfiting episode out of her mind with a will, redirecting her attention toward the stage.
The evening’s program had begun with a concert of Vivaldi’s exuberant “Spring,” followed by a mediocre tragedy called
The Grecian Daughter.The comic afterpiece,
The Fortune of War,was the one everyone had been waiting for. It was the latest bit of hilarity by the popular Mr. Kenney, a notable wit of the day and founding member of the gentleman’s club, Boodle’s.Though the play lacked Mr. Kenney’s beloved recurring character, the rascally Jeremy Diddler, the crowd seemed to be enjoying it.
Waves of laughter washed over the audience as the characters bantered back and forth across the stage.
Carissa did her best to pay attention, but from the corner of her eye, she was acutely aware of Lord Beauchamp.
When the curtain whisked closed briefly for the stagehands to change the scenery, she could not resist another cautious peek in his direction.
Her curiosity instantly perked up as she spied one of the orange-sellers stepping into his box to deliver a message to the viscount. Carissa saw him take the little note and read it while the orange-girl waited for her coin.
Well, Carissa had no choice. Her innately nosy nature compelled her. She snatched her opera glass up from her lap and lifted it to her eye just in time to see the smoldering look that gathered on his chiseled face. Lord Beauchamp glanced across the theatre with a suave nod, acknowledging the sender: Carissa
zoomed her opera glass in that direction, too, trying to follow his gaze.
To no avail.
Whoever had sent him the note was lost amid the crowd.
Indeed, it could have been any of Society’s highborn harlots wanting to take her turn with him tonight. Scowling, she searched the tiers across from him. Honestly, she did not know if she was more vexed at Beauchamp for having all the morals of a blood stallion, or at herself, for being jealous at how free
he was with his meaningless affections.
She swung her opera-glass back to the viscount to see what he’d do next. Beau turned to the orange-girl and asked for something; she handed him a pencil.
While he scrawled his reply, Carissa memorized what the orange-seller looked like: a tall, weary lump of a peasant girl. Then the libertine handed her his note along with a coin, and sent her off to deliver his answer.
As the orange-girl disappeared through the small door of his private box, questions gnawed Carissa. Who was he involved with these days? Of course, she knew there were many women around him as a rule, but was there any one in particular?
And why do you care? her better sense inquired.
I don’t know. Do I need a reason?Yes, it answered.
She shrugged, refusing to admit to anything.
I just want to know because–because I want to know!
Suddenly, she was seized with a wicked inspiration.Why, she could either sit here festering on it, burning with curiosity about which feckless female meant to hurl herself into his clutches tonight, or do something.
And go find out.
After all, as a lady of information, she had long since discovered that orange girls . . . could be bribed.
Right. Instantly rising from her chair, she excused herself with a whisper. Miss Trent awoke with a disoriented jolt, while the Denbury Daughters rolled their eyes. Which was the spoiled beauties’ response to most things, actually.“What are you doing?” Lady Joss, age nineteen, complained at
“I have to go to the ladies’ lounge.”
“Can’t you just hold it?”
“That’s disgusting,” Lady Min, age seventeen, opined.
“Sorry.” Dismissing her cousins’ perpetual irritation with her, she slipped out of the Denbury box and closed the little door behind her.
At once, Carissa swept off down the third-floor hallway, her slippered feet pattering busily in the quiet.
She had to find and intercept that orange-seller.
She knew she should not care who Beauchamp would be bedding tonight, but everything in her had to get a look at that note.
Seeing it with her own eyes, she reasoned, would surely help remind her of certain cold realities.
hurt.She should know.On the other hand, in all fairness, she supposed, she had to admit there sometimes seemed to be more to him than just charm and charisma. And broad shoulders. Lovely muscles. Mesmerizing eyes the color of sea-foam that danced when he laughed, which was often, a rugged jaw-line, and extremely kissable lips…She shook herself back to the task at hand, hurrying on.
Indeed, physical appeal aside, he had actually done a few interesting things in his life.Using her usual methods, she had managed to ferret out a number of interesting tidbits about him, including some highly colorful exploits in his past.Of course, his origins came from a lineage as excellent as her own. His mother, Lady Lockwood, had been a great beauty of her day, indeed, still was, now in her fifties. His father, the Earl of Lockwood was said to be a brusque curmudgeon who did not often come to Town, but preferred the “huntin, shootin’”
life of a country lord.
She did not know where Beau had spent his childhood, but as a young man, he he had gone to Oxford, studied Greek and Latin, and excelled in his classes without having to try–so she’d heard. Too smart for his own good, according to her sources, he had been easily bored and had preoccupied himself with carousing and all manner of wild adventures.
And even from his teens, there had been women.
An indecent number of women.
But apparently, the lusty young aristocrat had his heroic moments, too. On one occasion, at age twenty-one, according to the rumor mill, he had been heading home in the wee hours after a long night’s revelries, when he had come across a lodging house on fire.
Whether the whiskey he’d been drinking all night had made him foolishly brave, or if he was always like that, she could not say. But he had rushed into the burning building and rescued everyone inside before the fire company could even get there.
He’d saved some twenty people’s lives.
Not long after that, his father, the earl, had made him a Member of Parliament for one of the pockets boroughs he controlled. He had thrust the post upon his son so he might gain experience to help prepare him for one day taking his seat in the House of Lords.
Little had the earl expected the young MP to stand up and outrage the leaders of both parties with his fiery idealism, his blistering reproaches, and his regrettable refusal to compromise.
It was nice to know he had not always been a cynic, she supposed, and that he had a sense of civic duty despite his many romantic peccadilloes. By the time he had resigned his post a year later in angry disgust and returned to his rakehell ways, he had made enough political enemies to last a lifetime.
These, in turn, got their revenge on the bold young viscount in due time, when word got out that he had fought a duel against some hot-headed rival for the favors of one of Society’s highborn wantons.
Beauchamp, universally acknowledged as a crack shot, had not deigned to kill the man who had challenged him, but had wounded him. As a result, his opponent had to have his leg amputated below the knee, and unfortunately, he had turned out to be the nephew of a Cabinet minister.
Of course, there were rules on the books against dueling, but as a courtesy to the upper class, who lived and died by honor, these laws were almost never enforced.
Unless one had enemies in high places.
The bureaucrats had come down on Beauchamp like a hammer, claiming they must make an example of him to teach other young Englishmen that they could not simply go around shooting each other.
It was all Lord Lockwood could do to keep his merry scapegrace
son out of Newgate. Instead, after a very large fine and damages paid to the now one-legged hothead, the handsome young duelist had been sent off, unsurprisingly, to travel. Sow his wild oats abroad, as it were. He was given some post loosely attached to the war effort, she’d heard, but on his father’s
insistence, was generally kept out of harm’s way, well behind the lines.
It was rather hard to imagine that one staying out of trouble, she mused, but somehow the war had ended, and here he was, back again, unscathed.
Rumor had it he had now returned home for good.
Of course, he was scarcely back in England three
months before he was in trouble again.
She wasn’t sure yet what the hell-raiser had done this time, but she had first caught wind of his latest scrape while snooping in her uncle’s study.
She knew that her guardian, Lord Denbury, and his cronies in the House of Lords kept each other informed about the goings-on in their various committees. One of these Parliamentary briefs sent to her uncle had revealed that Viscount Beauchamp was under investigation by a secret panel from the Home Office.
No details were given beyond that.
It was altogether perplexing–and just another piece of proof that behind that sunny smile, he was one beautiful, bad seed.
Hurrying down the empty stairwell, Carissa pressed on to the mezzanine level, glancing here and there, hunting for that particular, weary-looking orange-girl.
Muffled dialogue from the stage and swells of laughter from the audience poured through the walls from the play in progress. Mr. Kenney was obviously killing them with his famous sense of
Carissa had no time for mere entertainment, however, bustling down the mezzanine corridor, all business.
“Can I help you, Miss?” one of the uniformed attendants whispered as she passed.
She shook her head, gave what she hoped looked like an innocent smile, and hurried on.
It would not do for anyone to discover this secret method of hers for gaining information. Glancing into her reticule to make sure she had a few coins for the bribe, she whisked along the curve of the mezzanine hallway where it hugged the back contour of the closed auditorium.
As she came around the bend, she finally saw the orange-girl she was after, but she ducked into the nearest curtained alcove with a gasp. Someone had beaten her to it!
Ever so cautiously, Carissa peeked around the edge of the alcove. Blast it, who’s that? He stole my plan.
Then a chill came over her as she studied the man talking to the orange-girl.
He was beautiful, black-haired and wind-blown, as if he’d just come back from his travels; and from his muscled body to his dark scowl, he looked decidedly mean.
Her mouth went dry as she watched him bribe the orange-girl for a look at the note some lady, perhaps his lady, had exchanged with Beauchamp. Carissa’s heart pounded.
Beau, I hope you didn’t sign your name.They never did, on those clandestine notes.
Surely he was too smart and experienced for that. But if he had
made that mistake, she feared the rakehell might be headed for another duel. It looked as though she might not be the only one feeling jealous tonight.
Huddling behind the curtain of the alcove, she watched in trepidation as the handsome, black-haired man read the note and scoffed.
A snort of cynical laughter escaped him. He shook his head with a bitter smile, then tautly asked the orange-girl for another piece of paper, which she gave him. He crumpled the original note in his fist and stuffed it into his breast pocket.
Then he wrote back another message of his own.
With a dark look, he handed his note to the orange-girl, laying a finger over his lips, warning her to secrecy.
He slipped a paper bill into her hand and sent her on her way. Still unaware of Carissa, the stranger watched the orange-girl hurry off, his arms akimbo, his feet planted wide. Then, with a cold smile, as though satisfied his trap was laid, he pivoted on his heel and stalked out of the theatre.
Carissa eased out of her hiding place a moment later, dread tingling through her body.
Oh, Beauchamp, you’re being set up.She scarcely dared imagine what might happen to him if he went to meet his femme du jour, whoever she might be. He could be killed!Once more, Carissa was in motion, chasing after the orange-girl to stop her from delivering that note, which was naught but a piece of treachery.
Beauchamp might be a bad, decadent libertine, but she was not about to let anyone murder him!
Rushing after the orange-seller into the quiet side hallway that backed the row of private theatre boxes, she skidded to a halt.
The lump had just stepped through one of the narrow doors, halfway down the row.
Oh, no. What do I do now?
Heart pounding, she glanced around uneasily.Merely standing here, unchaperoned, in a part of the theatre where she did not belong was something of a gamble.
Having missed the orange-girl, the thought of venturing into Beauchamp’s box to try to warn him–to risk being seen there by the other snoops in the audience–made her blood run cold.
She could not afford in any way to become an object of gossip herself.
She already had too much to hide.
With that, she realized the intelligent thing to do was to abandon this mad quest immediately, go fleeing back to her seat, and pretend she had seen nothing.
But a man’s life could be at stake.
And although he was entirely exasperating, the world would be a darker, duller place without him. Come to think of it, perhaps she could turn this little twist of fate to her advantage…
Oooh, she mused. An exchange of information.
If he’ll tell me where Daphne and Kate went and what the deuce is going on, then I will tell him what I saw. That’s fair, is it not? If he refuses, then maybe the rogue deserves what he gets.Unsure what to do, she crept toward the door to his box, then stopped. He was probably reading the false note even now, getting drawn into the trap.
She stood there, torn and hesitating, as another little problem with all this occurred to her. If she tried to warn him what she’d seen, he’d realize she had been snooping into his personal affairs.
He’d notice she was jealous, and then, oh, then he’d laugh his head off and taunt her like a schoolboy–and then, never mind the jealous husband, she would murder him herself, wring the rascal’s neck.
At that moment, before she had quite made up her mind what to do, the little door to his theatre box opened and the orange girl scampered out.
Right behind her, the rogue himself emerged, tall and princely, en route to his assignation.
He stopped the second he saw her and, at once, his eyebrows arched high.
Carissa stood frozen, staring at him, tongue-tied.
She knew she was caught; he flashed a wolfish smile that made her want to shriek with mortified fury and run away. But she held her ground with a gulp while the orange-girl rushed off, leaving them alone in the dim, quiet hallway.
Close enough to touch.
“Well, my dear Miss Portland,” he purred, trailing his gaze over her in thoroughly male appreciation. “What a very pleasant surprise. Was there something you, ah,…wanted?”
Welcome to Sugarbeat’s Books – The Home of the Romance Novel!
His brother warriors fear the Earl of Westwood has turned traitor, but Emily Harper knows this is impossible for the man she has loved since childhood—as impossible as a marriage between them could ever be—she, the gamekeeper’s daughter and he, a bold and adventurous nobleman.
Driven by hatred and revenge, Westwood is playing a deadly game of deception, bent on destroying the enemy’s dark conspiracy from the inside, and he’s furious when Emily plunges herself into danger for his sake. Forced into close quarters, their long-suppressed desire explodes into all-consuming passion.
Emily knows her love can save him…but Drake is a man who doesn’t want to be saved.
Why do you need to read this book? This is my favorite book from the Inferno Club! The love story of Drake and Emily is not to be missed!
My Ruthless Prince can be purchased from Amazon
* * *
The Bavarian Alps, 1816
When another bullet whizzed past her shoulder, she whirled behind the nearest towering tree.
You’re as mad as he is, coming here! she thought. But what choice had she had? She was the last friend he had left in the world, and if she didn’t help him, nobody would.
All around her, the Alpine forest rang with shots and the angry, shouted orders of the black-clad guards who had come pouring out of Waldfort Castle the moment she had been spotted. Her back to the tree-trunk, chest heaving, Emily Harper waited for her next chance to run.
She had been tracking her quarry for weeks from a wary distance, but when he had arrived here, disappearing into the ominous mountaintop fortress, there was nothing she had been able to do but sneak through the woods and try to glimpse him, try to figure out how to lure him away.
But then one of the sentries had noticed her, and her efforts to rescue Drake had been cut short.
Now! Lunging into motion, she darted down the deer path once again, her brown woolen cloak flowing out behind her, her bow and quiver of arrows bumping at her back with every stride.
Golden shafts of sunlight pierced the forest’s verdant gloom ahead like angels’ lances, showing her the way. Her practiced gaze scanned for each next step over the rough, angled ground. The slope was sharp–she nearly slid–but turned slightly, dropping in an agile skid, then she leaped off the thick gnarled root of a tree that gripped a boulder like a bony hand, and raced on.
They were gaining on her.
The wild drumming of her pulse throbbed in her ears, but her footsteps fell silently over the thick bed of pine needles that softened the forest floor.
She had not stopped to count how many of these foreign mercenaries were chasing her, some on foot, some on horseback.
Some with dogs.
But if there was any doubt that the elite Promethean cabal was real, the presence of their security detail was awfully convincing.
As soon as her presence had been detected, their security forces had come pouring out from behind the walls of the remote Bavarian castle where a secret gathering of some the richest and most powerful men in Europe was underway.
If they were not up to something nefarious, then why did they need all these armed guards keeping people away?
Emily did not personally care what twisted new schemes of tyranny the highborn occult conspirators were dreaming up in their endless hunt for power. She had come for just one reason: to bring Drake home.
He did not belong here, no matter what he said, and even if these hired thugs drove her all the way back down the mountain, she vowed to herself she would merely climb it again. She refused to quit, refused to give up on him. Her beloved lunatic needed her–whether he knew it or not. Whatever it took, she was not leaving here without him. He had not abandoned her in her darkest hour, and now the time had come to return the favor.
Drake was in more trouble than he knew. Never mind his enemies–now even his friends wanted to kill him.
“Dort! Dort ist er!”
Hang it. A scowl flicked over her face as another bullet flew above her head, biting into the bark of the tree ahead.
They had seen her.
With an angry glance over her shoulder, she dodged behind an ancient elm to the side of the path ahead, shrugging her bow off her shoulder. Her hands smoothly nocked an arrow, as if with a will of their own.
As she waited for her moment, her memory was filled with images of the hours-long games of hide-and-seek she and Drake used to play as children on his family’s estate.
They had run like wild savages through the forested park of Westwood Manor back at home: the earl’s rambunctious heir and the woodsman’s untamed daughter.
Such grand rivalries had driven them to compete, trying brashly to out-brave each other in their little shared adventures, their feats of derring-do, swinging from trees, crossing fallen logs like bridges over the fairly deep ravine where the stream ran through the earl’s sprawling acreage. Who could skip a stone better, who could throw a stick farther, like a spear. They set traps for rabbits, but then were too tender-hearted to hand their prizes over to Cook. They had let the coneys go and had whiled away many a summer afternoon catching frogs.
But then, the Seeker had come, that towering, taciturn Scot called Virgil, and Drake had been chosen for the Order of St. Michael the Archangel. His parents had agreed to this secret duty laid upon his bloodlines centuries ago by the Crusader knights in his ancestry. With their blessing, he soon had gone away to that mysterious military-style school in Scotland, bragging to her that one day, he would become the Order’s greatest warrior.
She had kicked him in the shins for his boasting at the time, but then had wept her heart out when the next day came and there had been no one to play with, except for the odd collection of hurt wild animals she had nursed back to health and gradually turned into pets.
In time she got used to being alone, while Drake grew steadily toward his goal. Soon, the rowdy, black-haired boy had become a breathtakingly handsome young man, who was no longer allowed to tell her where he went each time the Order sent him out on one of those long, dangerous missions.
And then, last year, on one of the darkest days of her life, they got word from the Order that he had disappeared.
Emily pressed her back against the wide trunk of the tree, listening to her pursuers advancing.
Maybe I should let them catch me.
They would bring her into the castle, closer to Drake. But she dismissed the thought in the next heartbeat.
Too risky. She was not a lady, and angry enemy males like these were known to make rough use of lowborn women.
She would gladly give her life for Drake, but no Promethean dog would ever take her honor.
As her pursuers advanced, coming closer through the trees, Emily shot her arrow well beyond them into the woods: misdirection.
Immediately, they raced off in reaction to the sound. She nocked another arrow and fired a second for good measure. The guards rushed off to track down the source of the noise. As soon as they left, she slung her bow over her shoulder again and sped off in the other direction.
Ahead, the sunlight glittered on the rushing mountain stream where she had filled her canteen earlier. She bounded from rock to rock to get across it, but when she suddenly heard more men coming, she knew the time had come to hide.
Her gaze homed in on a low miniature cave, a mere hollow between the layers of rock, likely a fox’s den. Eyeing it up, she saw she was slight enough of build to fit in the narrow opening–and she was desperate enough to try it.
Quick as a cat, she ran to the narrow bank of the crystal stream. It was only a strip of muddy earth and a few piled boulders before it angled up into the steep rock face that bracketed the noisy little waterfall on both sides.
Emily climbed. Her heart was pounding, but she was somehow keeping fear at bay. Still, dying in these woods so far from home was a greater possibility than she cared to admit, and the prospect of being caught and used for cruel sport by these foreign mercenaries was not much better.
Pulling herself up to the edge of the little cave, she peered into it. No one was home, thankfully, but the rounded indentation in the dirt confirmed that it had once been some animal’s dwelling place.
Emily vaulted up the rock face and rolled into the den, concealed by darkness. She pulled her cloak around her; its brownish-gray hue blended into the stone.
“He came this way, Capitan!”
She smirked to herself in her hiding place. Of course, they would assume they were following a man, whether or not they had glimpsed her boyish garb. But it was just as well, for it meant they had not gotten a clear look at her face.
“Keep moving!” a strong, English voice replied.
Emily’s eyes widened and caught her breath; she knew that deep, slightly scratchy voice like the sound of her own heartbeat.
“Go that way,” Drake added, repeating the command in French and German to the others. “I’ll check over here.”
He had to know. He had to know it was she. Surely he had sensed her in his soul through the almost mystical bond they had shared since childhood.
Heart pounding, she bit her lip against a crazed smile at his nearness. At last! This was what she had been praying for, one chance to talk to him.
To bring him back to his senses. To coax him home like one of her wounded wild animals. He did not know what he was doing, coming here.
She waited for the other men to leave, joy and relief welling up in her, even though the last time she had seen Drake, the blackguard had put a knife to her throat and used her as a hostage so he could escape.
Of course, he’d never hurt her, she assured herself.
No matter how much the Prometheans might have scarred his body and damaged his mind, even blacking out much of his memory with their abuses during the months they had kept him in that dungeon–no matter how much their evil might have changed him–he was still Drake.
And in her heart, he was still her best friend, even though it was foolish to think so, since he was an earl and she was nobody in particular.
She could hear the others retreating into the woods to continue the hunt for the intruder. Nearby there was no sound above the rapid babbling of the mountain brook. Not even the birds called, frightened away by the gunfire.
She stayed motionless for a long moment . . . until she heard his voice, quiet and grim. “Tell me, please, dear God, tell me it isn’t you in there.”
Emily slowly pulled the edge of her cloak down from her face. At first, from her vantage point, she could only see the lower half of his muscular body.
The long, loose black coat. Well-worn black leather breeches. Black knee-boots.
Hoping he would not be angry, she whisked her cloak back and rolled out of her hiding place, peeking out to make extra sure the others were gone, and then dropping lightly from the fox’s den to the narrow bank below.
She grinned at him and tossed her long hair over her shoulders. “Surprise.”
From the other side of the stream, Drake pinned her in a cold, unsmiling stare.
Her saucy grin faded as she watched his angular face pale with dread, possibly fury at the sight of her.
Shaking his head in disbelief, not uttering a word, the tall, black-haired demigod of a man scanned her from head to toe, making sure she was not hurt.
She did the same to him as she warily approached, relieved to find no new injuries on his tall formidable body. In his eyes, however, she saw the same, fractured intensity blazing in their coal-black depths.
It was then that she knew that as mad as it was of her to come here, she had done the right thing.
He was not even close to being all right.
God, it pained her, that lost look in his soulful eyes after all he had been through. Clearly, he did not understand the consequences of his actions. What did he think he was doing? The Prometheans could not possibly trust him. They would kill him, and if they did not, now the Order would.
His brother warriors now viewed him as a traitor.
She took another step toward him, holding his gaze.
“How are you? Are you all right?” she murmured.
With a cold smile, he did not answer the question.
But Emily did not take offense any more than she had the time that falcon with the broken wing had bitten her finger. Drake needed help, and that was why she was here.
Holding his gaze, she approached, though it made her heart hurt whenever she looked into his eyes and read the pain left behind by what these Prometheans bastards had done to him. His time in their captivity had turned him into a remote, brooding stranger whose very presence seethed with silent hatred and rage–a man who had once been a practical joker.
As a lad, he’d been fond of pulling pranks. In his twenties, he’d been a fun-loving rogue with the unfortunate habit of singing rude tavern songs at the top of his lungs when he was drunk, laughing off the attentions of all those horrid painted women, high and low, who fawned on him and called him “Westie,” short for his title, Earl of Westwood. In his thirties, he was still just as beautiful on the outside. He had always been so beautiful . . . but inside, she knew the torturers had wrecked him. Destroyed his once-contagious charm, his fiery lust for life. Now she seemed to be the only one who could reach him, because of their history together.
He trusted her.
After months of beatings and interrogations, the Order had pulled whatever needed strings they could to get their agent back. Drake had been returned to them in such a damaged state that it had unsettled them all. He’d attacked his former teammates like a wild man, not recognizing them, thinking everyone wanted to kill him. Begging them not to put him in a cage, ranting that he had to get back to James. The old man was in danger, he had said over and over again. Instead of paying attention to any of this, his saddened friends had brought him home so he could mend.
It still filled Emily with rage to think of how thin he’d been when she had first seen him, how he jumped at the slightest noise.
Whatever his captors had done to scramble his wits, he’d had no recognition of his own mother or the country estate where he’d grown up.
The only thing he had remembered . . . was her.
While Lord Rotherstone, one of his closest friends in the Order, had guarded him at Westwood Manor, Emily had thrown herself into the task of healing her beloved childhood companion.
They had been making fine progress after a few weeks. She had slowly, gently, quietly, begun to lead him out of the dark storm he lived in. She had even claimed the victory of seeing him wake up one morning having slept the whole night through.
He seemed to be doing so well after a time, that the last thing she had expected was for Drake to take matters into his own hands, escaping by taking her hostage, all so that he could return to his precious James and those who had abused him.
In the face of all this evidence to the contrary, Emily still could not bring herself to believe that Drake had turned traitor. It was impossible.
No, she had an awful feeling that his real motive for coming back here was to try to get revenge.
Which just went to show how unstable he still was.
The Order had been battling the vile Prometheans for centuries. One man was not about to take down the whole organization alone. Mad or sane, though, she thought, leave it to Drake to try.
Whatever he had up his sleeve, though, clearly, he had not figured her into his plans.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he demanded in a low, taut voice as she ventured another step toward him.
“Aren’t you happy to see me?” she attempted in an airy tone.
He looked at her in exasperation. “Not in the least.”
“You know why I’m here, Drake,” she chided softly, willing patience. “I’ve come to take you home.”
He closed his eyes. Lowered his head. And scratched his eyebrow. Which did not bode well.
Then he flicked his jet-black eyes open again and glared at her. “Get the hell out of here. Now.”
“I appreciate the gesture, Em, but you made the trip for nothing. I’m staying here, and you are going home. Go on. Climb back into that cave and hide until we’ve pulled back to the castle. I’ll cover for you.”
“No! I’m not going anywhere without you! Do you think I came six-hundred miles for nothing?” She glanced into the woods to make sure the others were not returning.
But she warned herself not to lose sight of the fact that she was dealing with a dangerous man who was no longer quite the master of his faculties. If she pushed him too hard, there was no telling what he might do.
She reached out her hand to him. “Come with me, Drake. Escape with me now, before they come back. I’ll take care of you.”
“Oh, Emily,” he whispered with an fleeting, anguished wince.
“I already lost you once. I can’t go through that again.”
“They will kill you,” he whispered. “They will kill us both.”
“Not if we move right now. We can still get away. You know we can, you and I, together. These woods. It’ll be just like old times. Let me take care of you, sweeting. You are confused. I know you don’t want to be here.”
He shook his head, turning away from her in agitation. “Why don’t you ever listen? I can’t believe you’re here. I told you I have to do this!”
“But you don’t. Whatever you think you’re trying to do here, you’re only going to get yourself killed. I can’t allow that, Drake. You’ve bitten off more than you can chew this time, and you need to come home. Whatever James might have told you, this is notwhere you belong.”
“You’re the one who doesn’t belong here!” he shot back in a fierce whisper, taking a large step closer. “How could you put yourself at risk this way?–and you say I’m the one that’s mad?!”
“Drake, denying what you’ve been through is not going to help you get better. You’re not well! You need time to heal. Just be patient. You will get back to your full strength in time, and then maybe–”
“I’m back to my full strength,” he growled.
“Physically, perhaps. But inside, we both know you’re not ready for any sort of mission. Come home with me. You’ve got to let me help you. You know you can trust me. Please, Drake. Let’s escape now before they come back.”
She paused, taking a new strategy. “So, you want to send me back six-hundred miles all by my myself?” she asked, for she could be as ruthless as he when the occasion called. “You know how dangerous it is in these forests. Wolves. Bears. Men.”
He narrowed his eyes at her, well aware of what she was attempting.
He had killed the last man who had threatened her.
“You’d have me travel back through three war-torn countries alone? I’m out of money. I don’t speak the language.”
“It’s a wonder you made it this far alive,” he muttered. “You’ve never even been outside the shire.”
“I followed you,” she said simply, shrugging. “You and James. I thought you almost spotted me a few times.”
He lowered his gaze. “I thought I was imagining it.” Then he shook his head at her. “Why did you do this to me?”
“Not to you. For you. Because you need me.” She took his hand in hers and pulled. “Come on, we’ll talk later. We need to go right now.”
He remained planted, though his fingers lightly encircled hers. “I’m sorry, Emily. No.”
“Drake, you’re not an agent anymore!” she whispered in exasperation. “The Order fears you have betrayed them!”
“Maybe I have. Did you ever think of that?”
“Don’t be absurd. If you turn yourself in, I know it’ll be all right. I’ll vouch for you. We’ll go to them together and explain that you just made a mistake, an err in judgment, thinking you could come here and take them down alone–”
“I did not make a mistake,” he answered darkly.
Just then, the sound of male voices nearing through the woods made Emily suck in her breath.
“Come on, Drake! Please!”
“No! I am not going with you. Now get back in that bloody cave and hide right now–”
“Enough,” she cut him off, resorting to her pistol.
He arched a brow as she drew her gun and aimed it at him.
“Let’s go, now.”
“What, you’re taking me captive?”
“Come on, you idiot!” she pleaded.
He let out a low, cynical laugh. “Pull the trigger, please.” He parted the neckline of his shirt, presenting the top of his chest. “You might as well. I’d rather you do it than anyone else.”
She glowered at him for calling her bluff, but grabbed him by his shirt with her other hand, prepared to physically drag him back to England if she had to. “I’ve had it with you. Come on, now!” she ordered, taking him captive at gunpoint. “Don’t give me any trouble. Walk!”
He was laughing at her.
“You’re coming with me. Blast it, Drake, I am trying to save you here!”
“What makes you think I have any desire to be saved?” He grasped her wrist where her hand clutched his shirt. “Let go of me, Emily.” He looked deep into her eyes and repeated in a meaningful whisper: “Let me go.”
“No,” she breathed, staring into his eyes as she shook her head. “Never.”
“I already told you it’s too late for me. I know what I’m doing, Emily. Now, go. You’ve got to do this for me. Nothing’s worth it if you should die.”
Her eyes welled with tears.
“Don’t cry.” He touched her face wistfully. “Don’t make a sound. Just go back to that cave and stay out of sight. They’re coming. Go on, now. I’ll get them out of here. Wait till we’re gone and then you run like hell down this mountain and go home. You’ve got to trust me. Tell the same to Max.”
Emily refused to move. “It’ll never be home again,” she choked out. “I can’t leave you here to die.”
He looked over his shoulder. “If you don’t run, you’re going to die with me. Is that what you want?”
“Maybe. It’s better than going back alone.”
He looked taken aback at her answer, but she held his stare in defiance. Did the idiot still not know how she felt about him?
“You have no idea of what you’ve yourself gotten into,” he uttered.
“I don’t care, I can’t let them hurt you again!”
“Damn it! I’m going to wring your neck for this,” he muttered, then suddenly grabbed her by her wrist and yanked her to him, taking the pistol out of her hand and tucking it into the back of his waist. A second before the Promethean guards rushed into the clearing by the stream, Drake did something he had never done before.
Something that shocked her to the marrow.
He caught her up in his arms and kissed her, claiming her mouth with unabashed, lusty intent.
She was too shocked at first even to react. After all, his mother had made it very clear to her years ago as an awkward fifteen-year-old that this must never happen, or her father would be sacked.
She had done her best since then not even to let girlish daydreams of kissing him play across her mind.
Not that her efforts had not always been successful.
She was old enough to know now that she wanted him, and to sense that he had often stayed away precisely because he thought about it, too.
But none of her daydreams had ever pictured their first kiss happening like this, with a dozen Promethean guards rushing into the clearing and surrounding them.
Terror mingled with intoxication: Both made her knees weak. She clutched his broad shoulders to keep from falling over, tentatively following his lead.
Drake ignored the men completely and went on kissing her, his tongue in her mouth, his fingers sensuously clutching her hips while the men jeered and shouted in surprise to find them thus.
When he finally ended the brash, rather rude kiss and released her, Emily saw stars.
“False alarm, boys,” he drawled at last, sounding slightly breathless. He licked his lips and hungrily held her stunned gaze–though she noted his exasperation with her still simmering in the midnight depths of his eyes.
She could not look away, quite in shock at him and at the potent mix of fear and want pounding in her blood.
“What’s this?” one of the guards demanded in English.
“This?” Drake cast the man one of his old, devilish grins. “This is my girl.”
“Your girl?” they exclaimed in skeptical surprise.
“Aye. You boys nearly shot my favorite little servant wench. I’d have been very cross if any of you had so much as scratched her pretty bottom.” He slapped her on the arse, and Emily gasped outright.
The men exchanged wry, humorous glances.
“Your servant, Capitan?” a leathery Frenchman questioned, as though not quite buying it.
“Oh, yes. She’s quite devoted to my comforts,” Drake said slowly, with an innuendo that roused their laughter. “Aren’t you, love?”
Emily could not manage an answer at first, blushing and tongue-tied. She knew she had better play along, but was completely out of sorts and rather mortified.
Above all, she was stung by his insulting choice of terms for her–a servant wench, indeed?
The difference in their stations had long been a sore spot for her, as he knew full well, since this was obviously what had made his parents deem her unworthy of their splendid son. His pointed reminder of it now just went to show how furious he was at her for coming here. She quite believed His Lordship had just put her in her place.
“I had a feeling she might follow me. We’ve been doing this for years, haven’t we, sweetling? Ever since she was old enough to know what to do with a man. But alas, she got addicted,” he drawled, staring into her eyes. “Every time I try to set her aside, she just keeps showing up again.”
“Humph,” said Emily, lifting her chin, half amused, half outraged at his braggadocio, and well aware there was a grain of truth in it.
Indignation at his sly goading helped her find her spunk again. Very well, she could play along as brazenly as he if it meant the difference between life and death.
“If I’m the only one addicted, then why do you keeping sending for me–milord?” she countered with an arch look.
“Good question,” he murmured, staring at her in lusty approval. “You are my dirty little secret, aren’t you?”
That’s what your mother’s afraid of. She grasped the lapel of his black coat and moved closer to him. “We both know you need someone lookin’ after you.”
“And we both know what you need, as well,” he replied with an extremely wicked smile. When he ran his hands down her waist to her hips, she could not hold back a gasp; her eyes glazed over slightly.
She cursed herself for the haze of desire he cast over her, for her beloved spy was only putting on a show to deceive the others.Don’t get so excited, she told herself. This was just a ruse.
After all, it had long been established that the wild rogue Inferno Club member Lord Westwood would happily dally with any woman in England.
Except for her.
She huffed and looked away, blushing. Half of her wanted to throttle him for thwarting her perfectly sensible plan to get him out of here, while the other half wanted these onlookers to leave so the two of them could finish the game they had just started, right here on the soft forest floor.
Her pulse raced as he held her against his muscled body. No wonder the men appeared to believe their charade. She could feel Drake’s heart pounding in response to her, as well, and the thickening swell of his nether regions against her navel.
“I was beginning to think he didn’t like women,” one of the soldiers muttered.
“No, he just likes the wrong women,” Emily tossed out with a cheeky sideward glance. “Mind your own business, anyway. I didn’t come here for you.”
“Oho! She told you!”
The men guffawed at her impertinence.
“I wish,” another opined under his breath.
She dismissed them with a queenly toss of her head while Drake watched her with a serene smile. She returned her full attention to him, running her hand up his chest in playful chiding. “As for you, sir, if you didn’t want me to come, you should’ve been more convincing in your goodbye. It was quite half-hearted, as I recall.”
Drake laughed softly and captured her chin, lifting her face to his. “Well, you’re here now, you cheeky little minx, so you might as well come in. I’m sure I can find a few uses for you when I get off duty.”
“What do you mean to do with her, Capitan?” the weathered fellow clipped out in a business-like tone.
“Good God, Jacques, use your imagination,” he retorted with a scoff. “And you call yourself a Frenchman.”
The others laughed.
“That’s not what I meant, as you well know,” Jacques answered impatiently. “What is Falkirk going to say about this?”
Drake shrugged, sliding his arm more snugly around Emily’s waist as he inspected her curves at closer range. “Nothing, likely. Whatever modest amenities I require for my personal comfort are of no interest to the Council.”
“Well, you had better ask him. He’s the one who pays us, not you.”
“True. But I’m the one who hired you sorry bastards. And I can get rid of you just as easily, don’t forget it. Falkirk would not have made me the head of his security if he did not trust my discretion. Besides, she won’t be any trouble, will you, sugarplum?” With an indulgent half smile, he tapped her fondly on the nose. “You promise to be a good girl for me?”
Emily managed an obliging smile, but the look in her eyes was a glare. Now you’re pushing your luck. “Aye, milord.”
“See? She’s very obedient.” He was deliberately goading her.
Just you wait.
“She’ll stay out of the way, so don’t you mind her. She’ll share my room,” Drake added. “That way she’ll be close to hand whenever I have need of her.”
Her pulse raced at the heated promise in his eyes.
But then, one of the younger soldiers made the mistake of an ill-timed jest. “Eh, I have a few tasks in mind the chit could do for me when you’re done with her, Capitan.”
“Ja, why don’t you pass her around when you’re through?” a tall, strapping German rumbled with a grin.
All humor vanishing, Drake slowly turned to the mercenaries, his stare icy. “What did you say?”
The feckless French lad started to repeat himself, but the older, leathery Jacques held up his arm. “Shut up, Gustave.”
Gustave looked confused. “What? Ah, come, she’s just a servant.”
“My servant. My property.” Drake said something to them in French that immediately silenced their jokes and wilted their wolfish grins.
Emily did not understand the words, but Drake’s murderous snarl was that of the pack’s dominant male warning his underlings away from a choice piece of meat. His tone of voice matched the bristling tension in his body, and his hand drifted down to the weapon at his side, as if he was quite prepared to back up the verbal rebuke with any degree of violence necessary.
She had also tensed, rather frightened. She lowered her head.
“Comprenez?” he barked.
The men mumbled in assent, shrinking from the challenge.
“Good.” He returned to English so she could understand, too, and kept his arm around her shoulders, a visible declaration of his protection–and apparent ownership. “Then let’s get back to the castle. Return to your posts and stay alert. Next time, it might not be a false alarm.”
The chastened men mumbled agreement, following the second-in-command, Jacques, out of the grove.
Furtively, Emily sent her fierce protector an anxious glance. He was still in a bristling stance as he watched them walk ahead, indeed, he was watching their every move.
When he relaxed slightly, he looked down at her with an inquiry in his dark eyes. You all right?
She nodded, but then glanced toward the fortress in distress. To the castle, really? Must we?
You only have yourself to thank, his dark smirk replied, but his eyes were grim. “Come on.” He kept his arm draped across her shoulders, emphasizing his proprietary claim on her to the other soldiers who now caught up with them as they came back out onto the dusty mountain road.
Glancing around at all the armed mercenaries cowering from Drake, Emily saw no choice but to go along with this charade. He was clearly all that stood between her and an unspeakable fate.
Perhaps you should have thought of that earlier, she chided herself, her emotions in an angry tumult at this unexpected turn of events. She was furious at him for thwarting her rescue plan, and besides that, her pride still smarted from his rude reminder of her lower status.
Well, she might be a servant, but she was nobody’s ‘wench.’ How depressing, that after a lifetime’s daydreams, her idol had only kissed her at last for the sake of a ruse.
Her frustration climbed with every step they took up the winding road toward the Promethean stronghold. Blast it, this was not supposed to happen! She had not tracked him for hundreds of miles and crossed the Alps to join the madman in whatever game he was playing.
If it was a game.
A chill ran down her spine at the darkest possibility, the one she’d been refusing to consider.
Maybe he hadn’t come here for revenge.
Dread gripped her at the thought, but could it be possible that old James Falkirk really had succeeded in turning him, as his fellow agents feared?
After all the years that Drake had devoted himself to the Order, it seemed completely counter to reason. But the mind was a mysterious thing, and for a time, the wounded Earl of Westwood had forgotten everything, even who he was.
If the Prometheans could do that to him, why couldn’t they persuade him to renounce his old life and join their dark cult?
Maybe the months of torture had broken him so deeply inside that the Drake she knew and loved was truly gone, replaced by someone else, as he had tried to warn her back in England. A mindless slave with all the lethal skills of a top Order agent. Someone willing to do the enemy’s bidding without hesitation.
Emily looked askance at him . . . and wondered.
Welcome to Sugarbeat’s Books – The Home of the Romance Novel!
The Inferno Club: In public, this scandalous society of London aristocrats is notorious for pursuing all manner of debauchery. But in private, they are warriors who would do anything to protect king and country…She has loved him for as long as she can remember…Once, she had vowed to marry the Earl of Falconridge. Now, she vows to forget him. After he abandoned her for a life of shrouded secrets, Mara, Lady Pierson, has succeeded in keeping him away, until he appears in London unexpectedly, making her fall in love all over again.
Forced back into Mara’s life by duty, Jordan quickly stays for love. He has never forgotten this passionate beauty and never meant to break her heart. But their newfound happiness is endangered—because the Inferno Club demands much of its members, and his vital mission is exposing a deadly plot that could threaten their very lives.
Why you need to read this book? You need to read this book to learn about Jordan and Mara. I’m a huge fan of the Inferno Club Series – the heros are just so deserving. They sacrifice so much that they deserve a strong woman by their side. A marriage to Mara is years in the making, but so deserving! A Must Read!
As a newly minted agent, twenty-two years old, Jordan Lennox, the Earl of Falconridge, had just completed years of rigorous training at the Order’s remote, military-style school in the wilds of Scotland.
There, with his brother warriors, he had mastered all sorts of dangerous fun. He could scale sheer rock faces with naught but ropes and pulleys, had already swum the English Channel, could devise explosives out of a little saltpeter and random everyday objects found at hand. He was fluent in six languages, could navigate by the stars, and was so much at one with his smooth-bore rifle he could hit a bull’s-eye at fifty yards blindfolded.
These were basic requirements for any young knight of the Order about to be deployed on his first mission.
Jordan, however, more prudent, sensible, and cautious, than his headstrong teammates even at the start of their illustrious careers, had already made up his mind about how he did not want the spy life to affect him in the long term.
After years of observing the grim demeanor of their handler, Virgil, he had made a pact with himself not to end up like that.
Too many of the older agents had that same dark look: cynical to the point of bitterness, hard-edged, stony.
What was the point of taking the Order’s blood-oath to protect the Realm and everyone he loved–friends and family–if a man ended up as dead inside as an old, blackened hunk of petrified wood?
And so, wherever his future missions might take him, he vowed, he would not let his work for the Order become the only thing that he had in his life.
The key, as best he could figure, was not to lose touch with normal people, normal life, as silly and trivial as it sometimes seemed compared to the high-stakes shadow war that he and his brother warriors had pledged to fight.
Max and Rohan preferred to scoff at the oblivious people in Society, but Jordan, with his wonderful parents, adoring siblings, and countless cousins, found a certain quaint charm in ordinary goings-on.
Participating in all the social rituals helped him keep his balance–and it was for this reason that he accepted the invitation to the country house party.
He probably wouldn’t be able to stay the full month of July, he supposed, for any day now, he expected to receive his first assignment to one of the foreign courts presently under threat.
With Napoleon running amuck across the Continent, every agent was needed, especially those of high birth who could receive entrée into places and meet with people to whom common folk had no access.
But all this was a care for another day.
For now, there would be picnics, outdoor games, strawberry picking with the delicate young ladies, quadrilles with debutantes, perhaps a home theatrical at their hosts’ elegant country estate.
It was all so deliciously normal, the sort of pursuits in which any highborn young gentleman might while away the long, lazy weeks of summer. Jordan relished the chance to pretend for a while that he was no different than any of the other, well-heeled young rakes, aside from having already come into his title.
He was even prepared to let the other lads win most of the athletic contests. What he was completely unprepared for, however, was meeting Mara Bryce …
Welcome to Sugarbeat’s Books – The Home of the Romance Novel!
The Inferno Club: In public, this scandalous society of London aristocrats is notorious for pursuing all manner of debauchery. But in private, they are warriors who would do anything to protect king and country…
They say that the very name of Warrington is cursed…
From a time as old as the cold stone of the duke’s ancestral castle, the Warrington men have been plagued by tragedy. But Rohan Kilburn, the Duke of Warrington, has vowed to escape the predestined torment by forsaking love and devoting his life to the Inferno Club and its secret mission.
And then she is brought to him unbidden by cutthroats hoping to calm the duke’s infamous temper—a sacrificial virgin of sorts. But even overpowered, Kate Madsen will be no man’s sacrifice. And the duke’s price for claiming her may be what he has sworn never to give—the heart he has so long and fiercely guarded—to the beautiful hostage he was never meant to love. (This book is #2 in the Inferno Club Series)
Why do you need to read this book? This book is awesome!! It a combination of a sizzling romance, and a swashbuckling adventure! I lost a lot of sleep finishing this book as I simply couldn’t put it down!
My Dangerous Duke is available from Amazon
* * *
She was to be given to him as a gift–a plaything for some powerful, dark stranger. How her life had come to this, Kate Madsen could barely comprehend, but her rage at this horrifying fate was muted by the drug her kidnappers forced down her throat.
The tincture of the poppy soon dissolved her will to fight. Within half an hour of being made to swallow it, it had tamed her temper, blurred her mind, quelled the usual sharp-tongued retorts she blasted at her captors, and left her hands limp instead of her usual clenched fists when the smugglers’ wives came in to prepare her for her doom.
Barely two-third conscious, capable only of dull-witted yes’s and no’s, she was uncharacteristically docile as the women washed her roughly and dressed her like a harlot for their lord.
Kate did not know what the smugglers had done to anger the dread Duke of Warrington, but from what she could glean, she was to be the virgin sacrifice by which they hoped to appease his wrath.
His appetite for women was known to be voracious. This, along with his expertise in all manner of violence was, she had heard, why the locals privately called their landlord “the Beast.”
None of it felt real. When she saw her reflection clad in the indecent shred of white muslin they had made her wear, she could only laugh bitterly. She knew she did not have a prayer. Half naked, she shivered uncontrollably–not so much from the cold, but in terror of the night ahead.
Only the sedative offered sweet refuge, carrying her fears away to oblivion, like so much chimney smoke torn asunder by the winter wind that even now was howling through the seaside village.
The women nearly scalped her combing out the tangles in her long brown hair. They sprinkled her with cheap perfume, and then stood back to admire their work.
“Right pretty,” one weathered sea-wife declared. “She don’t clean up too badly.”
“Aye, the Beast should fancy her.”
“Still too pale,” another said. “Put some rouge on her, Gladys.”
It all seemed to be happening to someone else. A slimy daub of pink-tinted cream rubbed into her cheeks none too gently, then her lips.
“There.” This done, they pulled Kate to her feet and started herding her toward the door.
Through her dulled, distorted senses, the prospect of exiting the cramped room that had been her recent prison roused Kate slightly from her stupor. “Wait,” she forced out in a mumble. “I . . . don’t have any shoes.”
“That’s so you won’t try runnin’ away again, Miss Clever!” Gladys snapped. “Here, finish your wine. I’d take it if I were you. He’s like to be rough with ye.”
Kate stared at her, her glassy eyes opening wide at the warning. But she did not argue. She took the cup and gulped down the last swallow of drugged red wine, while the crude harpies cackled with laughter to think they had finally succeeded in breaking her will.
Lord knew, if not for the strong dose of laudanum they had given her, she would have been screaming bloody murder and fighting them like a wild thing, just as she had on the night of her abduction about a month ago.
Instead, she simply finished the cup and handed it back to them with a grim, lost gaze.
The women bound her wrists with some rope, then brought her downstairs to the ground floor of the cluttered little house.
In the room below, grizzled old Caleb Doyle and the other male leaders of the smugglers’ ring were waiting to take her up to the castle. She could not bear to make eye contact with anyone, humiliated by the way they had made her look like a whore–she, who had always valued herself for her brains, not her looks.
Thank God, none of them saw fit to mock her. She did not think what was left of her pride could have borne it.
Despite the heavy, rolling fog that hung over her mind, she noticed how somber the men’s mood was. There was none of the cheerful vulgarity she had come to expect from the citizens of the smugglers’ village.
Tonight she could almost smell their fear, and it multiplied her own exponentially.
Good God, what manner of man were they taking her to, that he could make these rough criminals tremble like whipped dogs at their master’s approach?
“Finally made a lady of the little hoyden, have ye?” old Caleb, the smugglers’ chieftain, grunted at his wife.
“Aye. She’ll show some manners now. Don’t worry, ’usband,” Gladys added. “She’ll soften his anger.”
“Let’s just hope he takes the bait,” Caleb muttered. He turned away, but Gladys grasped his arm and pulled her husband aside.
“You’re sure you want to risk this?” she muttered to him.
He scoffed. “What choice do I have?”
Though the couple kept their voices down, Kate stood close enough to hear their tense exchange–not that she was able to make much sense of it, with her usually sharp wits deliberately dulled, as was no doubt their plan.
“Why don’t you just talk to him, Caleb? Aye, he’ll be furious, but if ye explain what happened—”
“I’m done groveling to him!” her husband shot back angrily. “Look at the answer our fine duke sent back the last time we asked him for help! Coldhearted bastard. Rubbin’ elbows with princes and czars, wrapped up in God-knows-what dark dealings on the Continent. His Grace is too important to be bothered with the likes of us these days,” he said bitterly. “I can’t even remember the last time he troubled himself with a visit to Cornwall. Can you?”
“It’s been a long time,” she admitted.
“Aye, and he only came back this time on account of the blasted shipwreck! He don’t care about us anymore, never mind we’re his own people. You ask me, he’s forgot where he came from. But this little lesson ought to help remind him.”
“Don’t worry. Once he’s had the girl, he’ll be up to his neck in this, too, whether he likes it or not. Then he’ll have no choice but to help us.”
“Aye, and if you’re wrong, there will be hell to pay.”
“I expect there will be,” he replied with a hard glitter in his shrewd old eyes. “But look at my choices, Gladys. Better the devil you know.”
“Right, well, if you’re sure, then. Off ye go.” Gladys folded her arms across her chest.
Caleb turned away, his weathered face taut as he gestured to his men. “Come on. Bring the girl. Let’s not keep His Grace waitin’!”
Two of the grubby smugglers took hold of Kate’s arms and, without further ado, ushered her out into the biting cold of the pitch-black January night.
Her brain seethed as she tried to sort out the sketchy information contained in the Doyles’ conversation. This was the first sort of explanation she had heard about what was going on, but with the laudanum working in her blood, her wits weren’t working properly to weigh it all out. She rose and fell on waves between euphoria and dread, and following one train of thought simply took too much effort. It was easier just to drift…
Meanwhile, the smugglers lifted her limp body and deposited her in the second of three battered, waiting carriages. Caleb threw her a flimsy blanket to keep her from catching her death. He locked her in with a wary look, as if he suspected her of eavesdropping.
A moment later, they set out for Kilburn Castle, the ancestral home of the Beast.
As their caravan rumbled out of the wind-whipped village, Kate stared blankly out the carriage window.
Above, the hooked moon tore like a claw through the smoky scattered clouds, revealing pinprick stars; winter constellations marched down over the horizon into the glossy onyx English Channel.
Feeble lanterns on the smugglers’ boats bobbed in the harbor, riding out the frigid night at anchor.
Ahead, the road hugged the hill as their small caravan ascended. And far up on the distant crest, the black tower of Kilburn Castle loomed.
Kate rested her forehead for a moment against the carriage window, staring dully at it. She had already had plenty of time to contemplate what she might find there, for through the window of the tiny bedchamber that had been her prison cell, she had been able to see the stark tower standing alone a few miles away on the bleak cliff-top.
According to local legend, the castle was haunted, its master’s bloodlines cursed.
She shook her head in woozy annoyance. Ignorant peasant superstitions.The Duke of Warrington was not cursed, merely evil, she could have explained to these unlettered brutes. What other sort of man would participate in such iniquity?
From the snatches of gossip she had overheard among the smugglers’ women over the past few weeks, the duke sounded like the very worst sort of aristocrat–rich, powerful, corrupt. Steeped in sheer debauchery. She had also heard the women say His Grace belonged to some unspeakable libertines’ society in London called the Inferno Club.
How he amused himself there made her shudder even to wonder.
Hating him, however, seemed as futile as wondering why all this was happening to her.
She had never really understood from the start why she had been kidnapped. She lived so quietly at the edge of the moors with her books and writings; she kept to herself, never bothered anyone. She had no enemies that she knew of. Nor many friends, admittedly.
But why would somebody target her?
For all her love of logic puzzles since she was a child, she could not riddle this one out, until at length, she had drawn her own conclusions based on the few facts she possessed.
The smugglers dealt in black markets, which, since the end of the war, had ceased to exist. Now that there was peace, there were no more tariffs on French luxury goods.
Lean times had come to Cornwall. Ergo, to make a living, the smugglers must have broadened their interests by venturing into a darker sort of commodity.
Oh, she had read about so-called ‘white slavery’ before. The newspapers spoke of criminal rings that abducted young females without any family, and sold them in secrecy to decadent noblemen and other rich perverts to rape at will, as though inflicting pain and terror was its own expensive form of depraved amusement.
Though she had heard of it, Kate had never dreamed it was anything more than a lurid myth, the stuff of the Gothic novels that were her secret vice. Yet somehow, to her horror, here she was, caught up in it.
It was the only explanation that seemed to fit at all.
The Doyles’ tense conversation of a few moments ago she had overheard offered new bits of insight, but in her current muddled state, she did not have the wherewithal to assimilate it into her working theory. Whatever their words had meant, it did not bode well. But more important than knowing why was figuring some way out of this.
They were getting closer. Her fear mounted with every yard of road the carriages covered. Rallying herself with a mighty effort against the heaviness of the laudanum, Kate sat up and tried the door-handle. She rattled it with some vague notion of escape, but it did not budge.
Even if she could succeed in breaking free, she realized that exposed to the elements, half-naked as she was, the wet, brutal cold would kill her within hours.
She could not even hope for justice someday, she thought in a flood of despair. Everyone knew that a duke was practically immune to prosecution for any sort of criminal barbarity.
Whom would she tell? For that matter, who would believe her? She barely believed it herself.
For all she knew, this man might kill her in his pursuit of twisted pleasure.
No, her only hope at this point was that when he was finally done with her, he might let her live, might let her just go home.
The thought of her cozy thatched cottage at the edge of Dartmoor brought tears of nearly unbearable homesickness to her eyes, all of her emotions intensified by the opiates. By God, if she ever made it home, she swore she would never complain again about her rural isolation out there on the heath. For she had discovered lately that there were worse things in the world than the loneliness.
The hardest part was thinking that stupid O’Banyon had not even kidnapped the right girl!
On the night of her abduction, the ringleader, O’Banyon, kept calling her by the wrong name—Kate Fox instead of Kate Madsen.
Her name was Kate Madsen!
With failing hope, she thought perhaps it might all be an outrageous case of mistaken identity. Perhaps she could convince the duke this was never supposed to happen, not to her. And yet…
A glimmer of a childhood memory, a tiny incident she had almost forgotten poked a hole in her neat little theory of why all this was happening. Indeed, it spawned a fearful bewilderment that shook her to the core.
But there was no time left to ponder the question.
Her fate was at hand. They had come to Kilburn Castle.
Surrounded by a landscape of bleakly frosted rock, its rugged stone face was silvered by moonlight, contoured with charcoal shadows.
Kate turned, looking this way and that as the three carriages pounded over the drawbridge and gusted under the archway of the barbican gate-house, a bristling portcullis hanging overhead. A pair of burly guards there waved them through without stopping them.
So. We are expected.
She stared out the carriage window at the castle’s outer walls. They stretched out on either side and disappeared into the night, like a steely embrace she would never escape.
Her pulse slammed. Escape from here? No. There is no way.Even if she were warmly dressed and in her right mind, there were armed men everywhere.
Why? Why does he keep all these guards?
It seemed to be more evidence that the duke had plenty to hide.
She had already drawn a few conclusions about his dealings with the smugglers.
As the aristocratic patron of these criminals, she had ascertained that the duke allowed the smugglers to operate freely along his coastal lands, no doubt in exchange for a cut of their ill-gotten gains. The smugglers probably supplied the girls that fed the demon appetites of the Inferno Club.
No wonder he kept all these guards, she thought. Even drugged, she could see it was only logical that a wealthy peer who dabbled in the criminal underworld would want to take added measures to ensure his security.
Perhaps he was merely as paranoid as every tyrant in history, she thought, missing her dusty historical tomes. Caesar and his Praetorian Guards— and the modern-day Caesar, Napoleon, with his elite Grand Armee, or what was left of it, after Waterloo last summer.
Lord, if the duke was this paranoid, her situation might be even more dire than she had thought.
Ahead, the Norman keep with its four rounded towers rose against the darkness. The carriages filed into the mighty quadrangle, arriving in a formal courtyard at the center of the inner bailey.
As the horses clattered to a halt, a fresh wave of terror gripped her, any hope of some miraculous reprieve dwindling by the second.
Quickly, the smugglers began jumping out of their three vehicles. The door to the middle one flew open abruptly; a burst of frigid air rushed in.
“Come on,” Caleb ordered gruffly. Reaching into the carriage, the old smugglers’ chieftain pulled her out.
Kate clutched the too-small blanket, trying to protect herself from the elements, but he ripped it away, leaving her exposed again in her harlot gown. “You don’t need that.”
When he set her on her feet, she let out a small cry of pain, for the thin white stockings she wore offered no protection against the coating of frost on the flagstones.
Doyle nodded to a pair of his underlings. “Help her walk.”
“Aye, sir.” The two men grabbed her by her elbows and began steering her toward the yawning Gothic entrance.
Teeth chattering, her body shivering violently, Kate did her best to keep up, but her legs were wobbly with fear, her almost-bare feet smarting with every step.
Still dizzy and disoriented, she thought surely anyone who saw her at this moment would believe she was indeed just a common drunken trollop. Oh, God, her highborn French mama would be turning over in her grave to see her now.
Fortunately, however, the cold served one purpose in Kate’s favor. It cleared away some of her stupor, forcing her to stay relatively alert and aware of her surroundings.
She kept a bleary eye out for any means of escape, either now or in the future. Scanning the smugglers who had come along, she did not see any of the three who had burst into her cottage on the night of her kidnapping.
She especially hated O’Banyon. Filthy, leering brute.
She had overheard the ringleader’s name on the night of her abduction when one of the two younger men had asked him for permission to rob her home after they had taken her captive. O’Banyon had generously allowed his assistants that night to help themselves to whatever money and jewelry they could find. Which wasn’t much, anyway.
The possessions Kate valued most all sat on her bookshelf, but those ruffians were too crude to care about the likes of Aristotle and the Bard.
Just inside the windbreak of the mighty stone entrance, Doyle called a halt. “Untie her hands,” he ordered his underlings.
The men holding her arms looked at their chief in surprise.
“His Grace might not like it,” Caleb muttered. “Let him tie her up himself if that’s how he wants her. Don’t worry, she ain’t goin’ nowhere. Lass barely knows her own name at the moment. Go on, be quick about it!” he ordered, nodding at the ropes around her wrists. “I’m freezin’ me arse off.”
To Kate’s relief, the man he had spoken to obeyed, removing the knotted rope that bound her wrists.
Before moving on, however, Mr. Doyle stuck his finger in her face and issued a dire warning. “Don’t you give His Grace any o’ your lip, my girl, or you’ll wish you was back in that cellar. Ye mark me? He don’t take kindly to insolence. He’s a very powerful man. If you’re smart, you keep your mouth shut and do as he tells you. Understand?”
She nodded meekly, rubbing her chafed wrists.
The smugglers’ chief looked startled by the absence of her usual fighting spirit. The frown on Caleb’s lined face deepened to a scowl. “Aw, don’t look at me like that—some wee lamb brought to slaughter!” he blustered. “Dozens o’ lasses around these parts would give their right arm to spend a few nights in his bed! You’ll live.”
Kate stiffened, but his rough tone had succeeded in chasing off the threat of tears that stung her eyelids and calling up the last reserves of her courage. She steeled herself the best she could and squared her shoulders, determined to survive. By God, she would not go into this already cringing and defeated.
“Come on, you lot,” Doyle muttered to his men, shrugging off her ruin. “Let’s give the devil his due.” With that, he banged on the iron-studded door with the huge metal knocker.
At once, a wiry, black-clad butler admitted them.
“Evening, Mr. Eldred,” Caleb greeted him with all the charm he could muster as they all stepped inside.
The butler bowed like an animated skeleton in black clothes. “Mr. Doyle.” He had shrewd, deep-set eyes, a bony face, and a gaunt, foreboding stillness about him.
Behind his pale high forehead, a storm-cloud of wild gray hair stuck out in all directions at the back of his head. His expression inscrutable, Eldred the butler glanced at Kate, but was apparently too shrewd to ask any questions.
He turned away, lifting his lantern high. “This way, please. The master is expecting you.”
Their whole party followed as Eldred led them down a tall, shadowy corridor, all stone and aged plaster and carved dark wood. Kate stumbled along on her frozen feet, staring all around her. She had never been in a castle before, but it was hard to believe that anyone could actually live in such a place.
It was not a home, it was a fortress, a mighty barracks left over from the days of knights and dragons.
Everything was dark and hard, cold and threatening. Ancient weapons, shields and pieces of armor, tattered battle flags hung on the walls instead of paintings. There was not one cozy thing about it, yet perversely, despite its unwelcoming atmosphere, the castle’s historical significance made her forget her dread for one or two seconds.
Her scholar’s unquenchable curiosity was roused about the place, the battles it had seen, and all the other mysterious things that might have happened here over the centuries.
Then she noticed her captors becoming increasingly nervous.
“’Hoy, Eldred.” Doyle leaned toward the butler as they trudged down a darkly paneled corridor. “How’s his mood tonight?”
“I beg your pardon, sir?”
“The Beast!” he whispered. “Is he in a foul temper?”
The butler eyed him in disapproval. “I’m sure I couldn’t say.”
“So, that’s a yes,” Caleb muttered. Stepping past the screens passage, Eldred led them into a cavernous great hall with a soaring vaulted ceiling.
Darkness clustered thickly between the arching beams. Moldering tapestries draped the side walls here and there, with an empty space for the minstrel’s gallery, a small balcony that jutted out slight from the far wall of the room. Here and there several pieces of thick, ancient furniture hewn from dark wood provided barren comfort.
Two black-clad guards like those stationed at the gate-house were posted in the nearest corners. They stood at attention, as immovable as the ancient suits of armor that adorned the great hall.
The only real sign of life glowed from the blazing bonfire in the yawning fireplace, far away down at the dais end of the hall–and it was there that Kate caught her first glimpse of the Beast.
She knew at once that it was he.
The huge, crackling power of his presence filled the hall before he even turned around. His back to them, the Duke of Warrington stood before the fire, a towering figure silhouetted against the flames.
He was toying with a large, strange weapon with a long, notched blade, some sort of deadly cross between a lance and a sword. Balancing it on its tip, he twirled it slowly in a most ominous fashion.
Eldred announced them with a polite cough. “Ahem, Your Grace: Caleb Doyle and company.”
He lifted the weapon, resting the bar of its long handle on his huge shoulder.
Her heart leaped up into her throat as the iron giant slowly pivoted to face them. He paused, studying them from across the hall with a dissecting stare.
Then he began prowling toward them, his long paces unhurried yet relentless: a medieval warlord in modern-day clothes. Each fall of his mud-flecked boots boomed in the hollow vastness of the chamber.
Kate’s mouth hung open slightly as she stared at him in fear and some degree of awe.
Caleb whipped off his hat and took a couple steps forward, gesturing to his men to do the same.
The smugglers’ party advanced in cringing dread, with Kate in the center.
Her stare stayed locked on the warrior duke as he sauntered closer. She searched in vain for any sign of softness in the man, but instead, a capacity for ruthless force emanated from him. He was hard and dark and dangerous, intimidation incarnate.
It was clear he had just arrived, his wild, windblown mane of thick sable hair tied back in a queue. She studied him, wide-eyed. The dark knotted cloth around his neck was nothing so formal as a cravat. His loose white shirt hung open a bit at the neck, disappearing into a black waistcoat that hugged his lean, sculpted torso.
Rain and sleet still dotted his black riding breeches, while the reddish firelight gleamed on the blade that he wielded so idly as he advanced, as though he’d been born with it in his hand.
Heart pounding, Kate could not take her eyes off him.
He appeared to be in his mid-thirties; she scanned his square, rugged face as he drew closer. He had thick, dark eyebrows with a scar above the left like the mark of a thunderbolt. His skin was unfashionably bronzed, as though he had spent years in sunnier climes. His nose was broad but straight, the grim set of his hard mouth bracketed by lines.
His eyes were terrifying.
Steely in color and expression, they were narrowed with suspicion, their depths gleaming with a banked fury that she realized he was waiting to unleash on the smugglers–and might take out on her, as well, before the night was through.
Dear God, he could kill her easily, she understood at once. The man was huge, nearly six and a half feet tall, with arms of iron, and shoulders like the Cornish cliffs. He looked strong enough to lift a horse, while she only came up to the center of his massive chest.
No wonder the smugglers were terrified of him. A fresh wave of fear left her lightheaded, as well. He had the imposing physique of a conqueror, and all the worldly power of the aristocracy’s highest rank, save the royal family.
She tried to back away as Warrington stalked closer, running a bold stare over the length of her.
“What is this?” he growled softly at Doyle, nodding at her. She reacted instinctively to his notice, pulling against her captors’ hold in panic. She tried to run.
They stopped her.
“A gift, Your Grace!” Caleb Doyle exclaimed in forced joviality.
As the smugglers dragged her over to him, Warrington studied her like a predatory wolf.
“A gift?” he echoed in a musing tone.
Caleb thrust her toward him with a cheerful grin. “Aye, sir! A token of our regard to welcome you back to Cornwall after all this time! A fine young bed-warmer for a cold winter’s night. Right little beauty, ain’t she?”
He was silent for a long moment, perusing her intently. Then he answered barely audibly, his deep voice reverberated like a distant rumble of thunder drawing closer: “Indeed.”
Caught in his stare, Kate could not even move. She was lucky she remembered to keep breathing.
When Caleb laughed again uneasily, the other men followed his example, but Warrington barely took note of them, his stare trailing over her in appreciation.
“Very thoughtful of you, Doyle,” he murmured, taking lecherous note of how the chill effected certain regions of her anatomy.
His brazen stare erased any faint hope in her that he might not be in on it with them. Of course he was.
She was naught but merchandise to him.
“We thought you’d like ’er, sir. We brought a few other tokens of our regard, as well–” Doyle gestured hastily to his followers. “Show him. Hurry!” His men leaped into motion, presenting their lord with a case of premium brandy and a selection of fine tobaccos.
He barely glanced at these offerings, however, still studying Kate with a speculative gleam in his eyes.
She barely knew what to do with herself. She had never been looked at this way by a man before—inspected, nay, devoured.
Warrington’s glance flicked down from her still-damp hair to her stockinged feet, assessing her from top to bottom; then, to her surprise, he stared, hard, into her eyes—but only for a moment.
In that fleeting instant, she was not sure what she read in his penetrating gaze, other than a chilling degree of intelligence, like a man in the midst of a chess game.
“The gift is, er, acceptable, Your Grace?” Caleb ventured in a delicate tone.
The duke flashed a dangerous smile more potent than the laudanum.
“We’ll soon find out,” he said. Never taking his stare off her, he nodded to his silent guardsmen. “Put her in my chamber.”
Welcome to Sugarbeat’s Books – The Home of the Romance Novel!
To London’s aristocracy, the Inferno Club is a scandalous society no proper young lady would acknowledge. But though they are publicly notorious for pursuing all manner of debauchery, in private they are warriors who would do anything to protect king and country.
The Marquess of Rotherstone has decided it’s time to restore the family’s good name. But as a member of the Inferno Club, he knows there is only one way to redeem himself in Society’s eyes: marry a lady of impeccable beauty and breeding, whose reputation is, above all, spotless.
Someone quite unlike Daphne Starling. True, she’s temptingly lovely, but a jilted suitor has nearly ruined her reputation. Still, Max cannot resist her allure—or the challenge of proving London’s gossips wrong. He would do anything to win her hand . . . and show that even a wicked marquess can make a perfect husband.
Why do you need to read this book? I love this series! The male characters are true heros, and the females are strong self-sufficient women. I loved this book! Go read it now!
My Wicked Marquess is available from Amazon
Excerpt ~ From Ch. 3 ~ Daphne & Max’s first private conversation
Safely ensconced in the ladies’ lounge, Daphne gave her reflection a firm look in the mirror. Having taken a moment to steady herself, she knew what she had to do, and it did not include one more moment of hiding in here. She had faltered for a moment, but she was no coward. She had to go out there and talk to him.
Talk…to the Demon Marquess.
She swallowed hard at the prospect. Her ladylike sensibilities protested at the notion of approaching a man to whom she had not been properly introduced. But if Albert had told him lies about her, her pride insisted on defending her reputation, at least to him.
Why she cared so much what this stranger thought of her, she dared not examine. She preferred to tell herself it was simply a matter of etiquette. The man had saved her life yesterday. The least that she could do was go and say thank you.
Gliding back out to the ball, she moved with a graceful but alert stride, glancing around for him watchfully from behind her open fan.
He was no longer standing in the doorway of the crowded dining hall, nor did she see him in the ballroom. Daphne frowned. Where had he gone? Just when she was starting to fear she had missed her chance, she spotted him striding down a lonely marble hallway toward a side door off Edgecombe House. He’s leaving?
Oh—dash! She picked up her skirts and hastened after him, her heartbeat quickening in time with the soft pattering rhythm of her satin-slippered footfalls. Her stare was glued to the broad V of his back.
Say something! she ordered herself. He’s getting away!
He was almost to the few stairs at the end of the corridor. These led up into a small foyer before a less-used door. She knew she had to stop him, but Daphne now found herself ridiculously tongue-tied.
Oh, this was so unlike her. “Um–excuse me.” Her voice came out as barely a whisper, too soft for him to hear. She rushed after him, determined to try again–not that she had any idea of what she’d do with such a dangerous man once she had caught him.
Watching him, she could not help but admire his bold, confident walk ahead, like he could march through fire and not get burned. “Excuse me!” she called in a louder tone. She faltered–rallied quickly. “Er, don’t I know you?”
He stopped in his tracks.
Daphne winced at her decidedly unoriginal greeting, then bit her lower lip. At least this time it seemed that he had heard her call to him.
She waited, wide-eyed, for his reaction, not knowing what to expect. But she decided on the spot to hide the fact that she already knew his name.
Just in case he had been making sport of her with Albert, why give him the satisfaction of knowing she had cared enough to note that information?
Ahead of her, he stood very still; he had not yet turned around.
If he had, she might have seen the startled flicker of victory in his eyes, and then the sly satisfaction that curved his lips.
“I beg your pardon, sir.” Her heart thumping, Daphne bolstered up her courage and took another uncertain step in his direction. “You are leaving—so soon?”
Finally, his motions wary and deliberate, the darkly handsome marquess pivoted to face her. His guarded stare traveled over her. “I’m not sure,” he said slowly, “there is any reason for me to stay.”
He lifted one eyebrow slightly after his words, as though challenging her to tell him otherwise.
Daphne’s knees knocked beneath her petticoat, threatening to give out as she faced the Demon Marquess in all his raw, male magnetism.
She swallowed hard. “I can think of one.”
She fiddled with her fan, but was determined to have her say. “I-I wanted to thank you for yesterday,” she asserted. “It was—noble of you to come to my aid.”
“Noble?” he echoed, both raven eyebrows arching high now.
“Yes.” She nodded fervently. Something in his stare made her fingertips tingle. The tingle crept up her arms with sweet warmth, into her chest, and straight into her bosoms. She ignored the odd sensation with a will. “It was a clever ruse—oh, but it was risky!” she chided. “It could have gone quite badly, you know. I’m not sure you should have done it.” She swallowed hard. “But, fortunately,” she continued, “since you appear unharmed, do please, accept my gratitude.”
When he just stared at her in mild bemusement, his eyes slightly narrowed, as though examining some strange species of prey animal, Daphne, not knowing what else to do, sketched a modest, formal curtsy to punctuate her thanks.
Her acknowledgment of his heroics appeared to entertain him; his chiseled face softened considerably as he held her gaze.
“I am happy to be of service, Miss Starling, and am humbled by your concern. The honor was mine.” He offered her a gallant bow in answer.
They stared at each other for a second, with several yards of marble hallway still between them.
Daphne barely realized she was holding her breath, as though she were in the presence of some magical creature, a unicorn in a moonlit grove.
Belatedly, she noted Lord Rotherstone’s use of her name. “I take it Lord Albert informed you who I am.”
“No, actually,” he said in a casual tone, “I already knew.”
“No light as bright as yours, Miss Starling, can easily escape notice.”
Well, that was prettily said, she thought. Maybe he was not as quick as some people to believe Albert’s lies. She watched him in fascination as he walked back down the few steps from the landing ahead, approaching her at a leisurely saunter.
“The patron saint of newcomers, I presume?” he greeted her with an enigmatic smile.
“Oh—right.” With a quick, modest smile at the nickname the ton had given her, Daphne lowered her gaze. “I take it that would include you? I have not seen you in Society before. Are you new to Town, sir?”
“I have been traveling abroad for some time.”
As he closed the distance between them, she had to lift her chin to keep holding his gaze, for he was quite tall.
“Traveling abroad? During a war?”
“What is life without a little danger?” he countered, flashing a very dangerous smile, indeed.
“Oh.” She dropped her gaze, cursing herself for the blush she could feel stealing into her cheeks. “I have never been beyond the, um, Home Counties, myself.”
“Nevertheless, I daresay you have visited a dangerous place or two in your day.” He smiled faintly, a knowing look in his light-tricked eyes; their outer corners crinkled with a hint of amusement. He was referring, of course, to yesterday, she realized, and her little trip to the orphanage in Bucket Lane, or Slops Bucket Lane, as the rough locals laughingly called it.
Lord Rotherstone stopped just in front of her, and stood gazing into her eyes for a moment with that same thoughtful expression she’d noticed before.
He seemed to peer down into her very soul. “You looked upset when you left the dining hall a little while ago.”
His frank observation took her off guard. “Oh—yes, well—it’s nothing. I-I just thought… ”
“I think I know what you thought,” he murmured when her stammering trailed off into awkward silence.
Daphne lowered her head, but he shocked her when he touched her gently under her chin. She caught her breath sharply as he tilted her face upward again and looked into her eyes.
“I know what you thought,” he repeated, “but, I can assure you, you were mistaken.”
“Was I?” Her heart pounded at the light but sure pressure of his warm fingertips against her skin.
Very. I should never wish to be the cause of your distress, Miss Starling.”
“What did Albert say to you about me?” she blurted out in a hushed tone, struggling to form a clear thought against the magic of his touch.
He smiled and lowered his hand to his side once more. “Better you should ask what I said to him about you.”
She shot him a wary look of question.
He shrugged with a nonchalant smile. “I simply let him know that he can either mind his tongue or lose it.”
Her eyes widened. “You threatened him?”
He sighed regretfully, folding his hands behind his back. “I’m fairly sure that’s why he left the party. Pity, no?”
Daphne stared at him astonishment bordering on laughter. Well! I was right from the outset. He is a lunatic.
“You look surprised.”
“I thought you were his friend!”
He looked away with a low laugh. “Not exactly.”
She shook her head in wonder, trying to make sense of it all. “How do you know him?”
“He grew up near me when we were boys in Worcestershire.”
“I see…” It was hard to imagine the tall, formidable man before her as a boy.
“Miss Starling, I could never let any man insult you in my presence. Rest assured of that.”
“Oh,” she whispered, trembling at his chivalrous vow.
It dawned on her that she was making a cake of herself, but she couldn’t seem to help it. Her wits were somewhat routed by their exchange so far. Oh, but she was relieved to hear he had not been making sport of her, nor even tolerating Albert’s rudeness.
Quite the contrary. The magnificent hellion had defended her.
She beamed. Daphne suddenly found herself growing desperate for a proper introduction. He was a positively thrilling man!
Eager to get that formal step out of the way, she cast about for some means to nudge the marquess into telling her his name. Yes, of course, she already knew it, but just now it seemed too forward, rude, and gossipy to admit that she had heard it while eavesdropping on his conversation with Albert.
“Well, I barely know what to say!” she exclaimed, trying to sound like the blithe Society coquette she could be when the need arose. “Two rescues in twenty-four hours, and I don’t even know your name!”
Again, the eyebrow lifted. Perhaps she should have read it as a warning. “Shall I reveal it to you, or do you prefer the mystery to continue?” he asked dryly.
Oh, dear. The cynical tone of his voice instantly made her wonder if he could somehow tell that she was lying.
“Why, that’s an odd question,” she evaded with a quick, uneasy smile, opting to be vague.
He sighed and gazed toward the ceiling. “Yes, it’s just that once you realize who I am,” he mused aloud, “you may run from me. And that would make me sad.” He looked at her again, intently, his pale green eyes keen and searching beneath the coal-black fringe of his short lashes.
Trapped in his stare with the strange sense that he could almost read her mind, Daphne was still unsure if he saw through her amateur deception.
Unfortunately, having started down this path, she saw no choice but to carry it through. She waved her fan faster, and kept smiling, though her cheeks were beginning to hurt. “Well, you can do as you please, I’m sure! I think you’ve earned that right. On the other hand,” she countered with a coy flutter of her lashes, “I can’t dance with you if I don’t know your name, now, can I?”
“But my dear Miss Starling, I haven’t asked you yet.”
Her fan stopped. “You were going to, weren’t you?” she exclaimed in indignation.
He flashed a smile. “Maybe.”
“Well!” She tossed her head. “I had planned a dance as your reward for rescuing me, but now I’m not so sure.”
“My dear young lady, if I had done it for the reward,” he murmured, moving closer still, “I promise you, I would be asking for more than a dance.”
Daphne stared at him, wide-eyed.
The sheer wickedness of the slow, lazy smile he gave her made her catch her breath against the squeeze of her tight stays. All of a sudden, she longed to be rid of them, rid of most of her clothing, actually, when he looked at her that way. Her own little game was completely overwhelmed by his palpable expertise, and she thought again of the brothel. What would he be like to…?
She warded off the naughty thought before she could complete it. Feeling slightly faint, shocked at the extremely unladylike drift of her imaginings, she looked away, waving her fan again very fast, indeed.
Having left her speechless with his silken innuendo, Lord Rotherstone now paused, as though he had all the time in the world to play with her and steer the conversation wherever he willed.
“You see, my dear, even more than a dance, what I really want from you is a promise,” he murmured.
Her eyes flared as she sent him another swift glance. “What kind of—promise?” she asked hoarsely, barely daring wonder what a Demon Marquess might want from a girl.
To her surprise, however, he leaned down to glower into her eyes and pointed his finger in her face. “Do not ever go back to that treacherous alley again.” he ordered her matter-of-factly. “Next time, I may not be there to rescue you. Do you understand me?”
His command and his domineering stare took her aback.
She looked at him in astonishment. Who exactly did he think he was?
“I beg your pardon.” Not about to be told what to do by a man she had only just met, she lifted her index finger and pushed his aside with a dainty strike, as if in a miniature duel.
“You heard me,” he murmured in a husky tone, hooking his finger and effectively capturing hers. He held onto it, and locked stares with her at close range. “Promise,” he whispered, with a dark, irresistible charm that seemed to engulf her.
Daphne studied his lips for a second, then shook off the shiver of awareness that ran through her body. “No,” she informed him in crisp tones. “I cannot promise that, I’m afraid.”
“You can,” he told her sweetly, “and you shall.”
“No,” she repeated, just as kindly, and as firmly. “I’m afraid you do not understand, my lord. The children at the orphanage, they need me.”
“Alive, one presumes,” he said with an equally unflappable smile, though his eyes were flinty. “You are no use to them dead, now, are you, sweet Miss Starling?”
Losing patience with his highhandedness, she tugged her finger free of his light hold and scowled at him. “You don’t understand, Ihave to go back there whether I like it or not—at least until the orphanage is moved! I can’t let those poor children think I’ve abandoned them, like their own parents have. Besides, I didn’t question your business in Bucket Lane, now, did I? I hardly think it fitting that you question mine.”
She relished his startled look at her polite reminder of his visit to that disgusting brothel, but he recovered quickly. “Young lady, you listen to me—”
“Pish-posh,” she said with an idle wave of her hand. “All’s well that ends well.”
He looked at her in amazement. “Did you just say pish-posh to me?”
“Why, yes, I believe I did.” She folded her arms across her chest, giving him a serenely stubborn smile.
“Lord Rotherstone?” a voice intruded.
They both looked over.
“Yes? What is it?” The marquess frowned at Daphne, while a harried-looking footman came rushing down the hallway with a folded piece of paper on a silver tray.
“A message arrived for you, sir. I was afraid I’d missed you! Forgive the interruption. The courier said it was urgent.”
“Here, I will take it.” He beckoned the man forward with an impatient flick of his fingers.
“Lord Rotherstone,” Daphne echoed softly, sending him a twinkling smile. “Are you sure it’s not made out to the Demon Marquess?”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “So, I was right. You already knew my name, you saucy thing.”
She grinned, feeling better to come clean. “I could not let you have the advantage of me, now, could I?”
He snorted and shook his head, turning away with a low laugh to read his note. “If you’ll excuse me for a moment?”
“Of course, Lord Rotherstone.”
He gave her another sardonic look at her arch repetition of his name and unfolded the letter, swiftly scanning it.
Daphne kept a polite distance, but she watched his chiseled countenance with avid curiosity. She was not one to read over anyone’s shoulder, but she could not resist teasing him in the hopes that she might pry a little intelligence out of him as to its contents. “Do I detect a whiff of brimstone in the air?”
“Quite,” he said dryly, then folded the note again and slid it into the pocket of his waistcoat. With a wave of his hand, Lord Rotherstone dismissed the footman, who had stood waiting for any reply he might wish to send. He glanced at her. “Regretfully, Miss Starling, I must go.”
“Oh, but we were only just getting acquainted,” she countered with a playful little pout.
“Trust me,” he murmured with a roguish look, “we will pick up soon where we left off.”
“But what of our dance?”
“You’ll owe me one.”
She frowned in sudden concern. “It’s not bad news, I hope?”
“No, no, it’s excellent news, but the sort I must attend to at once. An arrival, actually, that I have long awaited.”
“Arrival?” A sudden horrible thought flashed across her mind out of nowhere. “Is your wife having a baby?” she cried as he began to turn away. In the next second, she was even more aghast at what she had just blurted out; she clapped a hand over her mouth and stared at him.
“My wife?” He stopped and turned back to her, frowning in surprise. “What do you know of my wife?”
She lowered her hand slightly from her mouth, longing to hide under the nearest rock. “Nothing! Oh, God—I beg your pardon. I didn’t mean, that is, I’m sure it’s none of my—”
His soft, tickled laughter put a halt to her mortified stammering. His pale eyes danced. “My dear Miss Starling,” he teased, laughing warmly at her flustered attempt to find out if he was a married man. “If I had a wife about to give birth, I would hardly be here, letting a charming young beauty enchant me. Though, I must admit, I can’t help but feel a little flattered that your thoughts turn so easily to breeding in my presence.”
She gasped, rendered speechless. Still chuckling as she turned rosy, he captured her hand and bowed over it, pressing the briefest of kisses to her knuckles. “Au revoir, cherie. Until we meet again.”
“Oh, will we?” she retorted, yanking back her hand as he released it, barely recovered from her embarrassment at his ribald teasing.
“Count on it,” he whispered, and took leave of her with a wink.
Welcome to Sugarbeat’s Books – The Home of the Romance Novel!
From emerald jungles to the high seas to the glittering ballrooms of Regency London, beloved author Gaelen Foley tells a sweeping, sensual tale of the ruggedly handsome Lord Jack Knight and the passionate beauty who lays claim to his heart.
An English rose blooming in the untamed jungles of South America, Eden Farraday lives a life of independence–unheard of for a lady–with her doctor–turned–scientist father. But Eden misses England desperately. When the dangerous and darkly charming Lord Jack Knight sails into her life, she seizes her chance to return to civilization, stowing away aboard his London–bound ship.
Roguish and charismatic, a self–made shipping tycoon with a shadowy past and a well–guarded heart, Jack is sailing on a vital secret mission. When the redheaded temptress is discovered aboard his vessel, he reacts with fury—and undeniable lust. Forced to protect her from his rough crew, the devilish Lord Jack demands a scandalous price in exchange for Eden’s safe passage across the sea. As his wicked kiss ignites an unforgettable blaze of passion between them, Jack and Eden confront a soul–searing love that cannot be denied.
Why do you need to read this book? This book brought the first part of this series to a perfect ending. Like the other books, I loved the characters, but Lord Jack is WONDERFUL!
His Wicked Kiss is available from Amazon
Excerpt (from the author’s website)
Eden made a note on where she had found the orchids, doing her best to shield her paper from the rain. The little capuchin monkey observing her from a nearby crook of the great tree swiveled his head and went motionless, peering upriver for a second.
Suddenly, the capuchin let out a warning screech and fled up into his leafy towers. Eden froze, scanning the branches around her and praying she did not see an early-waking jaguar.
Her heart pounding, she listened in fright for any sound above the soft, steady patter of the rain on the leaves and searched the surrounding canopy, knowing full well the animal’s spotted coat made it almost impossible to see until it was too late. She was trying to decide if it was better to be eaten there on the branch or to tumble into the river below, when suddenly, she heard voices.
Male voices, many in number.
And they were speaking English!
Turning to stare in the direction the capuchin had first looked, she now beheld a most astonishing sight.
A squat, tubby river boat pulling a barge piled with timber was emerging slowly from around the river bend.
Whatever are they doing here? she wondered as she stared with excitement bubbling up in her veins. Never mind that! This could be the opportunityshe had been praying for.
As the boat drifted closer, she studied the rough-looking men at the rails and lounging under the canvas shade on deck. Admittedly, they did not look like a promising lot, resembling so many pirates.
Many were shirtless in the heat, their swarthy hides tattooed and sinewy. Hope rose, however, when she noticed a young blond man striding toward the prow.
Unlike the others, he was quite fully dressed, though perhaps slightly wilted in the damp jungle heat. He seemed unwilling to be daunted by it. With his gentlemanly cravat in good order, cuffed white shirt sleeves neatly fashioned in self-conscious propriety, and ebony knee-boots, he looked like a proud and very correct young officer.
Her heart fluttered. Gracious, he was the handsomest creature she had seen in ages . . . until, following his progress, her gaze came to rest on the magnificent man that the younger fellow now joined at the rails.
An indescribable awe–or fascination–came over her as she stared at their kingly leader. She had studied animals long enough to be able to pick out in an instant which was the dominant male, and there was no question whatsoever that he was it.
Welcome to Sugarbeat’s Books – The Home of the Romance Novel!
Lord Alec Knight, the most daring and handsome rogue in all of London, is a smooth-talking aristocrat with an abundance of high-society lady admirers. With his irresistible wit, lucky hand at the gaming tables, and enticing charisma, he can have any woman he wants. But when the only girl he would have considered marrying ties the knot with someone else, Alec realizes he doesn’t want to be with just any lady—he wants to find the love of his life.
The beautiful and boldly spirited Miss Becky Ward takes his life by storm after he rescues her from peril. Alec soon learns that Becky is on the run, having uncovered a menacing secret about her cousin, the murderous Prince Mikhail Kurkov. In the midst of danger, Alec and Becky find themselves deeply drawn to each other. After the two spend an all-consuming night of sin, Becky’s knight in shining armor vows on his honor to protect her until the end. But before long, Alec is protecting her with more than honor – and it seems the once untamed rake of London just may have found what he has been searching for all along…true love.
Why do you need to read this book? I love the character of Alec! To me he personifies a realistic hero – not a fairytale hero! I picked up this book at my local used bookstore and was floored to find this author, whom I’ve never read before. I loved this book – finally finishing in the wee hours. I’ve since found more of Ms. Foley’s books (there are a lot of them) so stay tuned for more treasures!
One Night of Sin is available from Amazon
Excerpt (from the author’s website)
“Oh-ho!” he laughed as he approached slowly. I like this girl. “What are you going to do with that thing? Put my lights out?”
“Keep your distance or I’ll brain you! I’ll do it, I will!”
He disobeyed, of course. “Easy, kitten–”
“Don’t you ‘kitten’ me!” Whoosh! The metal bar sang through the air in her grasp. Her dark tresses flew; the dirt-streaked skirts swirled around her trim figure as she swung her weapon with admirable ferocity straight at Alec’s head.
He ducked, his fencer’s reflexes yanking him under the arc, but the nearness of her miss left him astonished. Women had been threatening to kill him for years, but none had actually tried it before. “Jesus!” he exclaimed, then started laughing. He couldn’t help it.
“Don’t you dare laugh at me, you coxcomb! A hero’s blood flows through these veins, I’ll have you know!” she cried in wrath, trying—rather adorably, Alec thought—to scare him away. “My father fought beside Nelson at Trafalgar!”
He held up his hands. “I surrender, don’t hurt me!”
“Ugh, you–” Another massive crash of thunder cut off her words and sent her darting under a nearby awning of one of the shops that lined the darkened street.Alec followed eagerly, but when he joined her, she was already in position to defend the small rectangle of dry territory she had claimed. With her weapon at the ready, she begrudgingly allowed him to step under the cover of the striped tin awning.
The shadows were deeper in their shelter. He smiled wickedly at her as he approached.
“Well, isn’t this cozy?”
The warm rain drummed upon the awning’s painted tin, dampening the sound and casting an air of intimacy over their taut standoff. The girl backed up a step uneasily, adjusting her grip, more than willing, it seemed, to try again to break his head if he made one false move.
Alec was on his guard and half smitten—but that meant nothing. He was known to fall in love six or seven times a day. Beautiful eyes, he thought as he studied her by the distant streetlamp’s glow through a haze of rain. Big stormy eyes full of fight and spirit, their violet hue a rare and fascinating color. Her thick, dark hair was slicked back with the rain, accenting the delicate sculpture of her face. Raindrops starred her lashes and turned her plump lips to dewy roses. Dirty little stray, he thought. Ravishing.
And he wanted her.
Welcome to Sugarbeat’s Books – The Home of the Romance Novel!
In the quiet English countryside, far from the intrigues of London, Lizzie Carlisle slowly mends her broken heart, devoting herself to her new on as lady’s companion to the Dowager Viscountess Strathmore―until her peaceful life is turned upside-down by a visit from “Devil” Strathmore, the old woman’s untamed nephew―a dangerously handsome man whose wicked reputation hides a tortured soul.
Devlin Kimball, Lord Strathmore, has spent years adventuring on the high seas, struggling to make his peace with the tragedy that claimed the lives of his family. But now he has uncovered the dark truth about the so-called accident and swears retribution. Then, to his astonishment, his eccentric aunt’s will forces him and Lizzie together, and Devlin finds his path to vengeance blocked by the stubborn but oh-so-tempting Miss Carlisle. Her passionate nature rivals his own, but disillusioned once by love, Lizzie will accept nothing less than his true devotion…
Why do you need to read this book? You need to read this books because it made me cry – twice! Get a full box of kleenex and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
Devil Takes A Bride is available from Amazon
Excerpt (from the author’s website)
“Tell me, my clever Miss Carlisle,” he asked in a sinister purr as he pressed his advantage, stalking her aggressively through the room. “Are you in the habit of deceiving my aunt as you did me?”
“Obviously you have not heard a word I’ve said. I see there is no point in trying to reason with you in your present state.”She cleared her throat, determined to bring the situation under control, backing away as he advanced, step by slow, tantalizing step. “Wh-why don’t you go upstairs, change out of your wet clothes, and have something to eat? Then perhaps you will be in a more receptive humor— ”
“Don’t…manage me, little miss,” he taunted just as she found her retreat blocked by the sofa behind her.
She blanched, bending back as he leaned closer, trapping her against the couch. Her heart pounded wildly.
All dressed in black and wickedly handsome, he loomed over her, his shoulders so broad she could no longer see the door behind him. She gasped when he reached out and captured her chin between his black-gauntleted fingers, raising her face to inspect her.
She stared up at him, wide-eyed. A cynical smile full of menace and mockery curled one side of his lips as he studied her at close range, his pale eyes gleaming with dangerous intelligence.
Lizzie felt absurdly faint, a trifle dizzy. He smelled of winter and leather, wet horse and warm, ruthless male. For a moment, she could only watch, transfixed, as an ice crystal melted off his long, jet lashes with the throbbing heat of his body. Her gaze tracked the droplet’s trickling course down the scratched side of his sculpted face to the corner of his hard, beautiful mouth. When he licked it away, she caught her breath abruptly, jerking her face out of his light hold…
Welcome to Sugarbeat’s Books! – The Home of the Romance Novel!
Impetuous Lady Jacinda Knight is the daughter of a scandalous woman–and Society predicts she’ll follow in her mother’s footsteps. Then one night, in flight from an arranged and loveless marriage, Jacinda finds herself alone on a dangerous street face-to-face with Billy Blade, the notorious leader of a band of thieves. His stolen kisses awaken in her a longing for a man she can never possess.
A handsome outlaw running from a secret past, Billy Blade has never met a woman like Jacinda-her fiery innocence and blossoming sensuality set his rebel’s heart ablaze. Having turned his back on the privilege and power of his tyrannical father’s house years before, he vows to return to reclaim his title, Earl of Rackford-to win the love of the ravishing beauty who has stolen his heart.
Why do you need to read this book? This is my second favorite book from this series! Lady Jacinda totally rocks this book! I love her character!
Lady of Desire is available from Amazon
Excerpt (from the author’s website)
“You are such a bad influence on me,” she whispered.
“Give me my necklace, you rogue.” Stifling a giggle, she reached into his coat pocket, but he captured her hand, whirling her around gently so that she found herself backed up against the closed door. She narrowed her eyes at him, fighting a smile. “What are you up to now?”
Lean and tall, all compact muscle beneath his formal black evening clothes, he braced one hand on the door by her head and leaned toward her, dangling the necklace before her eyes. “Want it? Come and get it.”
She tried to snatch it out of his grasp, but he lifted it higher with a taunting smile.
“Don’t you want this fine bit o’ sparkle?” He bent his head closer, the moonlight casting a silvery glow along his finely chiseled profile and the narrow plane of his cheek. “Give me a kiss and it’s yours.”
“It already is mine.”
“No, no, my lady, you gave it to me.” His emerald eyes gleamed as he slung the diamond strand around his fingers and swung it before her face, mesmerizing her. “But if you kiss me, I will give it back to you again.”
“But, Lord Rackford, we have agreed that we are only friends.”
“A friendly kiss,” he whispered, moving closer, tilting his head slightly.
She felt herself weakening under the potency of his charm. “Perhaps…one…”