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Authors: Diane Whiteside, Maggie Robinson, Mia Marlowe

Improper gentlemen

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IMPROPERGENTLEMEN DIANEWHITESIDEMAGGIEROBINSONMIAMARLOWE  KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.www.kensingtonbooks.com All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.Table of Contents Title Page Talbot’s Ace Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 To Match a Thief Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 A Knack for Trouble Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12MY FAIR HIGHLANDER,Teaser chapterTeaser chapterCopyright PageTalbot’s Ace DIANEWHITESIDEChapter 1 Wolf Laurel, Colorado,High Rockies, September 1875 Silver and black spun through the man’s fingers in deadly pin wheels of steel under the lead-grey skies.Charlotte Moreland froze in front of the Silver King Hotel, unable to take another step even though the young man was more than a dozen paces away.Three years of playing poker in the West’s worst gambling dens had taught her much about the narrow margin between great shootists and the dead. She had no desire to join the latter near an establishment called Hair Trigger Palace.Handsome and harsh as a Renaissance angel, he was utterly absorbed in weaving patterns of light as he spun his revolvers. His black broadcloth frockcoat, black trousers, and black boots were as finely made as if they too bore homage to the death-dealing implements he worshipped.Her fellow stagecoach passengers streamed into the closest saloon to warm themselves with beer or whiskey. One headed swiftly into the hotel to claim his clean lodging, more priceless than a good meal in this hastily built town. A few pedestrians glanced at the effortless display of gun tricks, then walked swiftly past.He flipped the heavy guns between his hands and they smacked into his palms like a warrior’s salute. He immediately tossed them high and spun them back into the holsters at his hips.Last spring in Denver, she’d seen a shootist testing his pistols. He’d shot a can of peaches until it had exploded its innards across a wall, just like a person would. She’d been wretchedly sick in her hotel room afterward.This man slapped the leather holsters and, an instant later on a ragged beat, death looked out of the guns’ barrels.His expression hardened to that of an angry fallen angel leading armies of destruction. He shoved his guns back into place, clearly ready to teach them another lesson.Charlotte gave a little squeak and trotted onto the boardwalk in front of the hotel. No matter how flimsy its roof and planks were, it still offered more protection than the open street. Men, equipped with guns and a temper, were dangerous to both themselves and everyone nearby.The shootist whirled in surprise and his gaze drilled into her.Heaven help her, it was the samepistoleroshe’d seen in Denver—Justin Talbot, the fastest gun in Colorado.Recognition flashed across his face. But not greed, thank God. Perhaps he hadn’t recognized her photo, flaunted by those skulking Pinkerton’s men throughout the mining towns.Why had she dreamed about him for so many months?He bowed to her with a flourish and she froze. Her heart drummed in her throat, too fast to let her breathe or think.How should she acknowledge him—formally, with a bow or a curtsy? Heartily, with a wave inviting affection or perhaps intimacy? Or coldly, with an averted shoulder and gaze, as befitted such an experienced death-dealer, no matter what skills living in this town required?He frowned and anguish slipped into his eyes. A man whistled from behind him.Talbot’s mouth tightened and he bowed to her again, far more coldly. She gave him the barest of nods in return, all her drumming pulse would support.He disappeared into the Hair Trigger Palace an instant later, his expression still harsher than an ice-etched granite mountain.Truly, she should not feel bereft, as if she’d lost a potential friend.She slapped dust off her carpetbag and silently castigated herself for standing outside on the hotel porch like a wilted daisy. In order to dodge any Pinkerton’s men on the lookout for her, she’d given herself very little time to claim her hotel room after arriving in town. She’d be a damn fool to lose her chance of playing in the tournament by not making it out of her hotel room and down to the Crystal Saloon.The Silver King’s brightly lit lobby was even more crowded than she’d expected. Smooth-talking gamblers jostled elbows with rough miners under stuffed and mounted antelope. Buckskin-clad mountain men and sober businessmen shouted at clerks, who hovered over an immense mahogany bar.A little boy weaved his way through the room, pulling his mittens on with his teeth. His respectably dressed mother followed him, all the while admonishing him not to go outside until both hands were covered. The second mitten dropped out of his grasp just before he reached Charlotte, but he kept on running for the door.Charlotte snatched up the bright red lump of red wool an instant before he escaped into the fresh air, and offered it to his mother. “Ma’am? I believe this may be his.”The woman’s patient, weary face brightened when she saw the worn mitten. Then her gaze traveled upward to catalogue the newcomer’s attire, especially her diamond brooch, the telltale mark of a professional gambler.She gasped in audible horror and yanked her child’s glove out of Charlotte’s unresisting grip.“Ace Moreland,” she hissed.“Ma’am.” Charlotte bowed formally, the same way she would have greeted an ancestral enemy at a ball overlooking Boston Harbor. The only use for that nickname was as a disguise.Her stomach tightened in sickened resignation, but not surprise. She should have known better than to stay at a respectable hotel. But Wolf Laurel was such a young settlement that females traveling alone had very few options.The woman grabbed her son by the ear and hauled the protesting child away, without a backward glance.Charlotte laughed silently, mirthlessly, at herself. She should have learned not to approach a respectable woman by now, although not being allowed to aid a child hurt worse than any previous slight. There was nothing left to do but keep moving on.She headed for the front desk and the hotel manager, who should treat her with the courtesy due a guest. She needed to earn a bigger fortune soon, if she wanted women to be polite to her face.The men there were, as ever, friendlier than the so-called gentler sex, but they didn’t push the bounds of propriety. Any hints of that would probably come later at the poker table. Her famed ice-maiden visage should keep them at a distance. Or at least, it had always sufficed until Holbrook.She readily located the manager, who knocked his pen off his inkwell when she gave her name. He took so long to decide which room to assign her that she nearly demanded the name of a nearby boardinghouse. Only the surety that a blizzard would arrive that night and make the streets nigh-on impassable stopped her.Finally, the fellow fumbled an immense black key into his hand and set off. The stairs’ magnificence matched the foyer, with thick red carpeting, glossy wood, and glowing chandeliers flaring amid brightly polished brass. But the minute they stepped away from the stairs, the hallways darkened and the glossy wallpaper was replaced by thin paint.“And here’s your room, Miss Moreland,” the manager eventually mumbled when he reached the hotel’s far corner. He rattled his excuse for a key in the lock like a drunken drummer but finally managed to throw the door open. The solid pine panel swung wide until its casing creaked in protest.He carried Charlotte’s carpetbag inside without a second glance to see if the door’s hinges had separated from the frame. Instead, he struck a match and lit the wall sconces, causing the gaslight to hiss like Cleopatra’s asp in protest.Charlotte studied the room with eyes made wary by too many Western boomtowns. Its cleanliness was as welcome as the stagecoach driver’s liking for the hotel had been. Her grubstake was split up and hidden in multiple places so a robber couldn’t take all of it. The poker circuit liked the place, too, since they’d recommended it for the tournament. That and its discount for lady poker players had made her break her previously inviolable rule never to attend a major tournament.Even so, she was risking her money and her body. She’d make her own decision about whether or not to stay.The gaslight’s golden light spread cautiously over a bedroom tiny even by boardinghouse standards. A narrow iron frame was jammed against one wall to support a cheerless mattress. She could stand beside it in her bloomers without rapping her elbow on the wall. But could she twirl to check her bustle’s fit? Not likely.Two doors were somehow squeezed into the miniscule layout. Heavy velvet drapes framed the window like iron bars, while the neighboring building’s raw timber loomed through the lace curtains. A narrow gap allowed a view out to the street where heavy clouds obscured the distant peaks.“Hmm,” Charlotte remarked noncommittally. How much would it cost for a larger room? Complete privacy was always hard to guarantee in a Western boomtown, especially within its sole hotel during a high-stakes tournament.The manager shoved her carpetbag against the exterior wall. The gaily flowered wallpaper billowed and an ice-cold draft ripped through the room and across her toes.Charlotte’s smile tightened. Stage sets would be more trustworthy than this hotel’s walls. Both were painted paper over flimsy pine boards. At least theaters paid actors to hide behind the partitions. In these mountains, greedy hotel managers demanded that desperate travelers pay them for the privilege of doing so. A conversation could be heard three doors away and a fist could punch through walls. A blizzard’s howling gales could reduce the entire structure to firewood.Perhaps she’d winter in California, after all, away from Colorado’s heavy snows and any chance of being seen by somebody from Boston. It was only September, with no snow on the railroad routes yet. She took chances only with the cards, never with her life.She donned her most appreciative expression, the one applauded by her deportment instructors.“Sir,” she began and fixed her gaze on the hotel manager. After all, he was the man best equipped to improve her accommodations.“Well, well, Miss Moreland.” The doorknob rattled against the wall and its frame squeaked. “What do you think of my fine hotel?” boomed a harsh Georgia voice.Charlotte’s skin flushed and she silently cursed the lapse, a tell any beginning poker player could read. She couldn’t afford any handicap, especially not when it bared the truth. Not anymore, not without anybody to back her.She reluctantly turned to face Isaiah Johnson, the town’s notorious mayor.
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Chapter 2 He leaned against the door like a grizzly at summer’s end, too thick and contented to move fast yet sporting the biggest, sharpest claws in the forest. He was dressed like a bear, too. Though he was garbed in a great tailor’s finest efforts, his scarlet brocade vest displayed more tawdry self-indulgence than any dancing bear would sport.His gaze would admirably suit a grizzly—a self-satisfied smirk of anticipation for the coming meal.Her stomach flopped upward like a terrified salmon toward her throat. He couldn’t possibly be her enemy, not when they’d first met only days ago in Leadville and exchanged fewer than a dozen words.Behind her, she heard the manager’s breathing quicken.She sucked in more stale air through her gritted teeth.“It’s very beautiful and you must be proud The Silver King was built so quickly. Wasn’t silver discovered less than a year ago, after gold was found?” She offered her best conversational red herring.“Yes, ma’am, silver flowed right before my saddle-partner and I moved here.” He was watching his manager closely, even though he addressed her. “Do you find your room acceptable?”A chilly draft slithered past her neck and she rushed into a conversational platitude far too fast.“Yes indeed, it’s very lovely. I particularly admire the vibrant shade of red you found for the cabbage roses.” A shade she’d never choose for her own dwelling.“Thanks. Some fancy Atlanta company sent them up here.” He glanced around the room, as if congratulating himself on every detail. “Since you’re so happy”—the manager nodded vehemently—“guess I’d better be moving along to see how my other guests are settling in.”“Mr. Johnson!” Drat it, that came out more sharply than she would have liked.The hotel manager froze in his tracks, inches away from her elbow.“Yes, Miss Moreland?” Johnson’s tone turned hostile. He shot the hotel manager a sharp glare and the much smaller fellow spread his hands wide, quickly disclaiming any knowledge.“These quarters are elegantly decorated but not as”—she hesitated, then chose the most accurate, if not flattering, term—“private as I’d hoped for. May I please be transferred into another room?”The hotel manager trembled.“Miss Moreland, you do realize there is a big poker tournament being held here right now?”“Yes, of course.” What nonsense was he spouting? Dammit, she was entered in the tournament. “But I’d be happy to pay more.”“A lady of yourquality”—for the first time, his voice dripped insolence—“can hardly be expected to share a room with strange men.”“Certainly not, sir!” She stared back at him, her spine rigid with centuries of blue-blooded Bostonian self-possession.“I’m the owner of this hotel and I swear this is the only single room we have.”“It has two doors,” she snapped back. “And no lock on the second door.”“Yes, you’re sure right about that.” Johnson’s expression immediately transformed back into the lazy bear. “Since your objection’s to that door, why don’t you check it out?”A strangled noise escaped from the hotel manager.She shot a startled glance at the fellow but he wouldn’t meet her eyes.Johnson shifted slightly until his coat slid away from his hips and gunbelt. He raised an eyebrow.The manager quivered again, then clutched his notebook close to his chest like a shield.“I must check on the other guests.” He brushed past Charlotte, so desperate to escape that he almost ran on tiptoes to avoid stepping on her skirts.What on earth? Was Johnson so proud of this hotel that he didn’t want anybody else showing off his pride and joy?“The second door, Miss Moreland?” Johnson urged, his smile deepening into a gourmand’s anticipation. “I’m sure you’ll be greatly surprised by the wonders beyond.”A whisper ran over her skin but she shrugged it away.“Certainly, sir.” The sooner she refused the next room’s unknown contents, the sooner she could escape this hole, which didn’t even offer a chair to block any of its portals.She wrenched open the interior door and strode through.The room beyond was enormous compared to hers but dark as a goblin’s cave. Thick red velvet covered every surface, like a crimson invitation to ruin. Frosted globes on the ceiling and walls cast flickering pools of light, which barely dispelled the shadows.A big man, all tiny pig eyes above a starched shirt front and diamond studs stretched taut over an immense stomach, glanced up at her precipitous entrance. A slow smile spread over his face, displaying cracked yellow teeth. He set down his bottle of whiskey far too fast.Charlotte skidded to a halt, her skin colder than any arctic draft could account for.Oh damn, damn, damn.“Miss Moreland. I hadn’t hoped to have the pleasure of seeing you again so soon.” Jasper Simmons, Colorado’s most powerful legislator, bowed to her mockingly. His reputation was worse than foul. Broken bones, even rape, were the least of the crimes laid at his door.“Mr. Simmons.” She gave him a polite smile that she hoped didn’t resemble a grimace. She looped her bustle up behind her back where he couldn’t see, and started to reverse her steps.His lips curved in anticipation.Her pace quickened. She’d barely escaped the last time they’d met, back in Denver. She’d had a bolt-hole then but where would she go here, if Simmons decided to push his luck?“Thank you, Johnson, for bringing her to me so quickly.” He nodded to the other man.“My pleasure.”Charlotte froze in place, outrage stiffening her spine. The town’s mayor knew of Simmons’s depraved tastes? Would willingly assist him? She turned to confront the cur and fight for safety.“Say the word if there’s anything else you want.” Johnson raised his hand to Simmons, who lifted his glass in an answering salute.“You—you bastards!” Charlotte spluttered.“You Northern bitch!” Johnson mocked. He laughed, every note rich with satisfaction. “Don’t worry. Your adventure won’t last long, only a few days. After that, if you’re still alive, one of our local madams is willing to take you on as one of her girls.”“A common whore? Like hell.” Outrage banished the chill from Charlotte’s skin. Safety be damned. She’d die before she’d have anything to do with Simmons.“You see? You’ll do very well—you already have the language.” Johnson clucked his tongue at her, joy dancing through his eyes.Why did he want to see her destroyed? Did he hate her? Did it matter when the jaws were closing on the trap? She needed to save her life.“Remember our bargain, Simmons.” Johnson’s voice was sharp and confident, as if he counted off markers on a poker table.“Of course. You’ll have your charter.”Charter? That sounded official and important enough for Johnson to put aside any morals he might have.Dread crawled down Charlotte’s spine. Could she reach the hallway without being caught? Probably not, but what did she have to lose?Johnson slammed shut the other bedroom’s door in her face before she could reach it.She opened her mouth to scream.“Miss Moreland.” Simmons’s fingers dug into her arms tighter than manacles.She flinched then stilled. She would not give him the satisfaction of cringing, no matter how great the pain.“How kind of you to allow me to renew our acquaintance,” he crooned.“A few words in a gambling saloon do not make you my friend.” She squirmed and tried to yank herself away from him. His foul odor brushed the nape of her neck in a sickening combination of liquor, rank sweat, and cheap tobacco.“You will be.” He yanked her closer to him.She ground her boot heel into the flimsy carpet to anchor herself. He wrenched her around again until she faced him. Agony shot through her shoulders.Greed, slimy as his reputation, gleamed in his eyes. He stared at her avidly and his gaze stripped every inch of clothing from her. His hand lifted to peel back her jacket and she slapped him.He backhanded her carelessly. She staggered and her eyes blurred for a moment. Blood’s salty warmth trickled down her jaw. She brushed her fingers along her throat and crimson stained her knuckles.How much harm had he done? How much more would he do?“You’re even prettier when you fight, little lady.” He licked his lips. “You’ll look real fine under me at the end.”She stared at him, even more horrified than before. Why would he want to rapeher? Surely his money could purchase somebody willing.He reached for her dress’s neckline.“I’ll scream,” she warned him through a throat grown tight with terror. “Somebody will help me.”“Do so and I’ll enjoy listening.” He skimmed his finger across the delicate lace and her pulse skidded. “Nobody will come.”“There are still some decent men left in Wolf Laurel,” she assured him.Surely there had to be somebody even in the wickedest town in Colorado. But the hotel manager must have known what was planned, since he’d assigned the rooms. Yet he’d run away when he knew she’d be coming in here and didn’t warn her. She’d have to protect herself.“Silly little pigeon.” Simmons snickered. “Everybody here either works for Johnson or is terrified of him.”He slid two filthy fingers inside her neckline and started to pull it down.Charlotte brought her knee up sharply in a move learned long ago at the North Boston Soldiers’ Rest Home. Hard bone, only slightly muffled by cloth, slammed between Simmons’s legs and into his privates.He doubled over and shrieked like a woman.Nobody responded.The sick feeling in Charlotte’s stomach intensified. She truly was alone.She clenched her two hands together into a fist, then neatly clubbed her attacker on the back of his head. He collapsed onto the floor at her feet, with only the faintest stirring of his chest to indicate life.Her stomach lurched hard into her throat and she clutched her palm over her mouth. No matter what she’d seen before, she’d never dealt violence to another individual. The feel of Simmons’s hair, the sharpness of his skull dropping out from under her hand . . . The absolute limpness of his body in that first instant, like a fish tossed onto ice in a shop window . . .Her stomach heaved again. A lifetime’s training insisted that nobody should have to deal out such violence, no matter what the provocation. In Boston, the police would have answered her summons.His previous victims would no doubt mourn his continued survival but she didn’t have the time. Simmons had left other women with faces sliced into ribbons, or dying amid blood-soaked sheets. The hotel manager had run rather than help her. The town’s mayor had forced her into Simmons’s arms. She could only look to herself for help, no matter how ugly the deed.Now she needed to escape. But where?Another hotel? That wouldn’t be far enough. Johnson was the mayor and he would probably find her, then snatch her away. This was the best hotel, the only one considered safe enough for a woman traveling alone. She didn’t even have a recommendation for another one, only a boardinghouse “if she wanted to sit up all night with a gun.”She’d never gambled with her physical safety and this was no time to start, when the penalty for a mistake was rape by Simmons. She had to leave town.She needed to catch the last stagecoach out of Wolf Laurel before Johnson discovered what had happened.The fastest, quietest way to reach the depot was to go from the gambling saloon in the Silver King’s lower level, then through the Hair Trigger Palace to the stage depot across the street.Unfortunately, that meant passing through the wickedest establishment in Colorado without being spotted by Johnson’s best friend, who owned the place.Charlotte closed her eyes and willed herself to stop shaking. Then she opened the door to her room, grabbed her carpetbag, and started running.Chapter 3 Justin Talbot stepped out onto Wolf Laurel’s main street from his own piece of heaven, Hair Trigger Palace. Last time he’d been out here, Ace Moreland had cut his dreams down faster than a shotgun blast.A cold wind promptly investigated him and the first snowflakes drifted onto his broad-brimmed black hat. If he stayed outside very long, he’d need better boots to handle the freezing mud. Not that matters usually took long with the Aspen Kid.“Aspen!” Justin called, careful to keep his voice well below a shout. Even so, pedestrians within earshot turned to glance at him, then slipped into the nearest building like cats finding their fireside before a rainstorm.The smaller man slowly turned around in front of the stage depot. The black window shade smacked theClosedsign against the glass.“Talbot,” Aspen acknowledged. His hands dropped to his thighs and hovered inches away from his guns. Even from this distance, he reeked of expensive whiskey and cheap perfume. He should have stopped buying drinks after he’d lost his horse.“Got a dealer lying flat on the floor who can’t wake up. Care to explain that?” Justin asked.“Nothing to talk about.” The Aspen Kid shrugged, his brilliant red neckerchief sliding like sunset over his dark blue shirt. “I took my winnings and left. If your dealer got in the way, that’s his problem.”“Aspen.” Justin’s drawl deepened to a dark purr. At that note in his voice, the few remaining pedestrians scattered and all but ran for the nearest door.“The last time I saw my dealer, he was dealing cards for your game. You must understand that I view any affront to one of my men as an insult to myself.”Aspen fluffed out his coat like a bantam cock parading his tail feathers but paid no heed to the sky overhead. The storm clouds already hid the eastern pass with its stage road into Wolf Laurel. Snow must be falling there, with more to the west where the skies were darker on the higher mountains.“He was clumsy and didn’t know how to handle my action,” the careless newcomer insisted, his fingers twitching cloth into place over his leather gun belt and cartridge case.“What do you mean?” Justin kept his hands in the open, where they couldn’t provoke a nervous, drunken gambler into starting something irrevocable. Hours of daily practice had taught them exactly where his guns were. He didn’t need to flex his fingers to prepare, like an Eastern dude aching to display his measly skill and too green to realize how much he tempted his enemies.“I play for the highest stakes”—Justin doubted that, considering who’d sat down at the Hair Trigger’s tables before Aspen—“and that dealer kept too much of it for the house. When I challenged him, his answers were unsatisfactory.”“Perhaps you should reconsider your last statement, sir.” The fine notes of South Carolina aristocracy settled deeper into Justin’s voice on the last syllable. Just like his father, damn it.He eased forward to block the path to the livery stable and any hope of the stagecoach.A new gust of wind raced past the Hair Trigger Palace’s solid brick stability and sank its cold, dry claws into his cheeks. Justin automatically adjusted his stance for what it told him a bullet would have to traverse. He’d long since stopped arguing with fellow property holders about how they didn’t protect themselves and their employees against fire and wind.The Aspen Kid fell back before him but counterattacked verbally. “The bastard cheated!”“Are you saying that my dealer, in my house, was dishonest ?”Bill, my best dealer who’s lying on the floor covered in enough blood to paint a dozen Red Indians for war? Bill Tyler, the Methodist deacon who’s married with three kids? Never.Justin’s fingertips ached for his Colt’s triggers but he held them away.“Yes!” Aspen’s shout rang through the street and he glared at Justin.“Then I am dishonest, since it was my house.” Justin’s voice was very soft. The wintry world was crystal-clear now, since it was composed of only the Kid’s eyes and hands. Life would be much simpler if Aspen gave a different answer—but that would mean the fool admitting he’d been dishonorable.“Apologize now, Aspen, or I’ll run you out of Wolf Laurel like the lying dog you are.” Justin kept his hands out in the open, an honest man’s distance from his beloved Navy Colts. They were as reliable as the woman who’d given them to him almost fifteen years ago. His pulse was steady, even though the old familiar knot in his stomach ached like a cannonball.Aspen hesitated, his eyes narrowed on his opponent.A gust of wind brushed his coat against his leg and coins clanked musically in his pocket.Jealousy blurred through the other man’s eyes.Justin eased his fingers closer to his hips, and his guns.“Everybody knows Wolf Laurel’s mayor only keeps the Palace around,” Aspen said, his lip curled in a mocking snarl, “because it’s the fastest way to make more money. And he don’t care how he gets it—skimming it off the top of a crooked poker table makes greenbacks smell sweet as a silver mine. He’s just as dishonest as his stinking partner.”The Aspen Kid’s gun blazed forward from his holster, pointed straight at Justin’s heart—just before the Southerner’s Colt deliberately thundered into action.Aspen choked and clapped his hand to his chest. Anger burned through his eyes.A hot wind roared past Justin’s left sleeve, but he ignored it and kept his gun at the ready.Crimson seeped through the other man’s fingers and Aspen glared at his opponent. Horror flashed in his eyes an instant before his knees sagged like broken straw. He fell face-down, in a crumpled heap as void of movement as a barren field.Justin holstered his weapon, his stomach knotted into the same roiling octopus it always assumed after he killed a man. Mother’s gift had saved him once again.Now to clean up the mess and go back to what passed for life. Someday flowers would bloom in his life more often than gunfire and young ladies would take his arm instead of giving him the cut direct.A woman barreled into his back, all running feet and acres of skirt twisting between his legs to trip him up. Feathers brushed the nape of his neck like spring’s first blossoms.He lost his balance and tumbled toward the ground. Only bull-wrestling skills that he’d learned rounding up wild cattle in the Pecos River bottoms saved them both from rolling through the street’s frozen mud. As it was, he wound up cursing viciously, with an armful of unfamiliar female clasped to his chest and his knee thrust between hers.She was tall, slender yet curved in all the right ways to make his skin hum in anticipation. Scents of lavender and Castile soap teased his brain. He quickly glanced down to survey his catch but a black velvet bonnet, fashionably trimmed with ribbons and feathers, allowed him no more than a glimpse of creamy skin and a stubborn jaw.“Excuse me for disturbing you, sir!” A husky voice snatched his breath away, strong as a jab to his ribs.He’d heard that voice once before, in Denver under a springtime moon, when every rich note had shredded his wits faster than the finest brandy. Even Merlin’s beloved sorceress, released from those legendary ice caves, couldn’t be as lovely. Since then, he’d chased news of her like a bloodhound quartering a barren field.Justin’s heartbeat skittered for the first time that day.She slipped out of his suddenly lax grip but skidded, unable to find solid footing on the treacherous ground. He caught her again, careful not to hurt her arms.“Unhand me, sir.” Blue eyes, brighter than any hope of heaven, blazed into his and ungloved hands pushed at his shoulders. “I must catch the next stage.”She’d cut him down, right here, with an imperious look from those same eyes less than an hour earlier, as if he was a loathesome criminal. “Ace Moreland?”Purest terror flashed across her beautiful face, to be quickly replaced by arrogance. If he hadn’t been holding her and watching her closely, he’d never have seen the dread. She jerked her head in reluctant agreement.What the hell was she doing on the street again? What was she running from? Couldn’t be the Pinkerton’s agents who some bastard back East had sent to sniff out her trail across the Rockies.None of those buzzards roosted in Wolf Laurel. He could still smell them easily, after hunting them down during the War.He leashed his hungers tighter than the buckles holding his guns to his belt and loosened his grip on her.Damn it all to hell, blood was matted on the tips of her blond hair. Somebody would pay for that. In their own blood, once he found the bastard.His pulse settled into a slow, steady, eager battle rhythm that his first cavalry commander would have applauded.Townsfolk sprouted along the boardwalk to watch them, like winter wheat avidly seeking the false spring’s sunlight. More trotted down the alleys in fools’ ever-present search for entertainment.Brooks, the town undertaker, threw a tarp over the Aspen Kid’s remains, then scratched a few lines in his notebook, his small frame fading from sight behind a burst of falling snow. Far too many businessmen had profitably learned that anyone killed in the Hair Trigger Palace—or by Justin—received a proper burial at his expense.Moreland’s gaze searched his features and recognition burned bright as a Colt’s muzzle blast. She sucked in a short, harsh breath. “Talbot.”His name on her lips sounded like a church bell in a cemetery. He hurried to lay down words to erase those echoes before she could spook and start running again.“Justin Talbot, ma’am, very much at your service.” He bowed formally to her, as his mother had taught him.“Like hell you are.” Bitter knowledge, mixed with dread, filled her words. But she curtsied and acknowledged him with a quick brush of her fingertips across his hand.Praise the Lord, she’d accepted him this much.A door opened and slammed shut behind them with a dull thud, not the solidthwack!of good wood greeting honest brick.“Thank God, Talbot, I knew you’d catch the bitch for me.” Johnson’s nasal drawl ripped through the gathering crowd.Moreland’s mouth tightened to a thin, terrified line in a white face.What the hell is going on?Justin pulled her close against his hip, wrapped his arm around her, and turned to face his long-time saddle-partner.She twitched against him and dropped an inch, clearly ready to duck underneath his grasp. He promptly sharpened his elbow around her like a vise and tugged her even tighter against him. A snowflake couldn’t have passed between them.She harrumphed under her breath.“Afternoon, Johnson.” He kept his voice civil and his grip snug on Moreland. “What brings you out in this weather?”What the devil was that Georgia native doing outside in shirtsleeves?He loathed foul weather. For him to greet a snowstorm in anything other than a buffalo coat and beaver hat meant there was serious trouble afoot.“Hand her over and I’ll head back inside.” The shorter but equally strong man crossed his arms over his fancy vest and stomped his feet in their thin dress boots. “She can apologize to Simmons up in his room.”Simmons? That slimy weasel, who’s throttled more women than he has fingers to count them?Ten years of riding with Johnson side by side, fighting for their lives back to back, insisted that his pal had to have a good reason for forcing a good woman into that brute’s clutches. But he couldn’t discuss it here and risk exposing his friend’s devious tactics when half the town stood within earshot. Those gossipmongers had elected Johnson mayor with far less fuss than expected. Sure as two cups of cavalry punch could knock out a civilian, fewer bribes had changed hands than was customary during an election.Nine-Fingers Isham, Johnson’s favorite bouncer, appeared out of the shadows behind the mayor. He rocked back and forth slightly, his fingers ostentatiously shoving his coat away from his guns.Damn. Johnson would be twice as ornery with that jailbait to back him up.Justin needed time to create a private chat between them and stop his old friend from ruining himself in front of his constituents.“Don’t think so, Johnson.” Justin slowly, deliberately smoothed her beruffled mantle with his free hand and watched his old friend’s eyes widen at the unusually possessive gesture.She uttered a tiny squeak, which a chipmunk couldn’t have heard from a foot away. Then she patted his fingers and leaned confidingly against him, as if he was the most welcome man in the world.Good girl, she’d taken the hint, even though she was shaking like a leaf.“She insulted my most important guest.” The Confederate veteran’s expression darkened with rage and he leaped off the boardwalk into the street. “Nothing’s bigger than that.”
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A rude comment linking Simmons’s reputation to Johnson floated past from somebody hidden deep in the crowd. The mayor’s hands twitched closer toward his guns. He glared at his partner, not the rabble-rouser.The crowd fell quieter, probably in anticipation of a showdown, the greedy cows.A muscle throbbed in Justin’s cheek. At least his so-called innocent would live to be haughty another day, if he did her fighting.“Ace Moreland’s here to see me.” Justin’s voice held steady on the biggest lie he’d ever told his partner. No way in hell would he allow her to be hurt—or the Georgia veteran to be bushwhacked by hypocritical townsfolk.He lifted her hand to his lips—and the sweet scent of lavender blurred his senses.“Don’t feed me that bullshit, Talbot.” Johnson glared at him from only a few feet away, his hazel eyes narrowed until they were almost yellow with rage. “We work together, like we have for the past ten years to build an empire.”“Not in this.” Justin kept his voice to the same harsh whisper his friend had used. “Not with a woman at stake.”“What’s different about her?” His saddle partner’s voice rose to a threatening growl. “You’ve never stayed with a lover for longer than a weekend, let alone flaunted one. Besides, Ace Moreland won’t settle down with any man.”“Certainly not you.” Moreland spoke for the first time, since Wolf Laurel’s mayor had burst onto the street. She nestled closer to Justin until her feathered bonnet teased his jaw.He knew damned well his face softened. Was it his fault he wanted to kiss her cheek and pull her closer?“Mr. Talbot’s invitation was irresistible.” Her rich voice deepened into a husky invitation to sin, unlike her earlier, sharper tones. “I find myself anticipating every minute in his company.”She stroked Justin’s hand with a cat’s elegant, anticipatory sensuality. Slow, drugging heat stirred to life within his blood and moved to follow her fingers’ every languid move.“I don’t believe either of you.” Johnson was still vehement.Everyone on the street had fallen silent in order to listen.How could he prove a prior connection to Moreland?“Go ahead and stick your head in the sand,” Justin drawled. “Miss Moreland and I will enjoy the music at the Hair Trigger Palace from my box.”“You’ll take Ace Moreland up to the top floor?”She jerked convulsively.A smirk broke over Johnson’s face and he slapped his thigh with a loud guffaw. “Pal, she will slap your face and bolt out of there faster than an overloaded mule breaking the plow’s traces.”Justin clenched his jaw against a profane retort to stop the Georgian’s ugly comments. Moreland saved him the difficulty.She rubbed her cheek against his shoulder like a cat claiming a well-loved fireside.“Mr. Talbot has promised me a most delightful show,” she purred. “Shall we go, darling?”Darling???Oh yes, of course, she needed to use an endearment for her so-called lover, no matter what she truly thought of him.She smiled up at him from under her bonnet. Blue ribbons fluttered across her mantle, as if fighting the wind. Hell, that bit of cloth wasn’t worth a damn against a Colorado snowstorm, let alone a blizzard’s beginnings.“Sure. Afternoon, Johnson.” He touched his hat to Johnson. It’d be easier to talk when they didn’t have dozens of listeners eager to pass on gossip.The other Confederate veteran nodded, equally curt, and stood aside. His eyes were dark and calculating, which put his temper in the certain-to-rise-again category.Crap, now he looked like a stubborn pig. Justin bit back a sharp retort, out of courtesy to his lady.Johnson snorted, flipped him a rude gesture, and stomped back into his hotel.Pity they couldn’t settle this here and now with their fists, as they would have ten years ago.Moreland didn’t wait for them, God bless her, but hurried toward the closest building. She slipped on the Hair Trigger’s icy steps and Justin caught her in a single long stride. This time, her fingers clutched at his lapels and a whiff of her scent teased his nostrils.Even more of his blood sprang to life despite the wind’s bitter lash.Lavender and Castile soap were clearly the Devil’s handiwork.He cursed, tossed her up into his arms—and greatly enjoyed her smothered shriek. She might slap his face in a few seconds, but he’d have this much to remember her by.Then he shoved the Hair Trigger Palace’s swinging doors open and carried her inside, with her carpetbag beating time against his leg.Chapter 4 Thump, thump!The great doors swung shut behind them and sent a burst of cold air swirling through Charlotte’s skirts. Wall sconces and heavy lanterns overhead flickered briefly, then burned sullenly once again to hint at ornate columns and dark green walls. In the distance, a long, broad shaft of light split the saloon’s center to mark the stage. From there, a curvaceous soprano sang passionately of death-defying love in songs translated from Italy’s latest operas.Card tables were stuffed onto the Hair Trigger Palace’s floor. Men crowded around them more intently than frogs ever studied dragonflies in a tropical jungle. Each side of the room below the balcony had its own bar. There an oil painting of a complacently nude female was surrounded by glittering rivers of glass bottles lit by dozens of candles. Skilled bartenders in crisp white shirts and dark vests served whiskey, bourbon, beer, and every drink known or imaginable to a constantly shifting throng.The air was hot and greedy, heavy with anticipation for the upcoming sights.She could have touched the balcony’s underside from where Talbot held her against his chest.She was trapped more completely than in Simmons’s room.Damn, damn, damn, why had she simply let herself be carried off? Surely being a woman didn’t have to limit her choices that much, did it? She could have done something else, the way a man would have.No matter how much drier this was than the town outside—which was hardly difficult with a storm about to begin—she was still inside the Hair Trigger Palace, the most dangerous concert saloon in Colorado’s wickedest city. Even worse, Talbot, the best shootist in the Rockies, carried her, steady as her father’s finest stallion.She was cold to her bones, yet everywhere he touched, her treacherous flesh longed to be closer. Closer to the soft glide of a fine wool frock coat shifting to follow the strong male form underneath, closer to the unhurried breathing caressing her cheek, closer to the sensual aroma of bay rum rising from his skin to invite her touch. This was insanity.She needed to escape, despite the unbidden warmth stealing into her from his proximity. She had to leave Wolf Laurel before the weather and Johnson combined to chain her to Simmons’s bed, no matter what Talbot did.“Put me down,” Charlotte ordered and thumped his shoulder hard. She’d fought and survived before. She could do it again. Somehow.“Try to look as if you adore me,” Talbot whispered and let her slide far too slowly down his front. His profile glowed dark gold in the shadows under his hat, like a Greek hero amid Hades’ fires.The saloon’s heat seeping into her toes was far less noticeable than the slow glide of woolen coat and silken vest across her skin, or the hard muscles in the shoulders and chest underneath. Protection and temptation incarnate.No, and no, and no. She could not afford to lose her head over another attractive man. No amount of loneliness excused her folly with that fast-talking gambler.“You . . . you . . .” She glared at him, for once unable to find words.A wickedly teasing laugh flashed through his eyes so quickly she almost missed it, before his countenance turned sober again. “My lovely Miss Moreland. I first glimpsed you in Denver at Ed West’s saloon.” He brushed a kiss across her knuckles.The simple touch jolted into her heart.Somebody coughed politely nearby and Charlotte blushed hotly, then immediately, silently cursed her own inexperience with flirtatious men. If only she was back at the poker table where she knew the rules and how to dampen the risks.“Evening, Garland.” Talbot drew out every syllable as if he was rolling out a welcome mat. He turned Charlotte with a dancer’s grace to face the newcomer. “My dear, may I present you to Sam Garland, my right-hand man? Sam, this is Miss Moreland.”“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Garland.” She extended her hand to the big man, whose neat black frock coat equipped him to disappear into New York’s Wall Street far better than into a mining town’s howling mob.“Pleasure is all mine, Miss Moreland.” He shook her hand briefly, his grasp nicely calculated to protect her from a potentially crushing grip. Formalities satisfied, he clasped his hands and waited.A passerby started to approach their circle too closely. Garland’s calm visage immediately shifted into a furious glare. The miner held up his hand in apology and stumbled away, seconds before spilling his beer on Talbot. Garland sniffed in dismissal and settled back, his duty accomplished far more efficiently than Johnson’s minion had done at the hotel.“Miss Moreland and I will watch the show from upstairs,” Talbot said.“All the regular boxes are sold, sir.” Garland frowned. “The poetry recital is a larger draw than expected.”“No, I meant my box. I don’t need to hear Poe’sRavenagain, and my box has curtains, like the others on that floor.”At the top of the house, where the fancy women plied their wares. She’d never thought a single night’s folly would dump her irredeemably into their class.Charlotte kept her expression bland and unreadable, despite the urge to run screaming into the storm outside. Thank God for the discipline so painfully learned in Boston’s finest finishing schools. It had proved useful in more than one mining town.“Of course, sir.” Garland carefully avoided looking directly at her. “Your box is ready, just the way it always is.”“Excellent. Please have Russell send up a pot of his special coffee.”Not liquor to numb her resistance?“Certainly, sir,” Garland agreed. “Anything else?”“I don’t want to have any trouble tonight.”“Sir?” Garland looked nonplussed, clearly startled by an unusual statement.“If anyone’s temper should be frayed by visitors—such as the mayor’s staff—don’t let them blow off steam in here.” Talbot’s voice was no less deadly for all its quiet.He’d set his staff to guard against Johnson’s men? For her?Surprise, then delight, raced through Garland’s eyes. But when he spoke, he was steady as a deacon making vows. “Whatever you say, boss. Hair Trigger Palace will be polite as a Boston dowager’s front parlor.”“Thank you. Come along, my dear.” Talbot urged her into a walk and she went willingly, after nodding goodbye to Garland. Her feet had thawed enough to obey her, although she couldn’t have carried off a full-dress ball amid Boston’s finest circles.He led her up the main stairs to the second level, where well-dressed men and women leaned forward to watch the show from boxes the equal of any in London or Boston. There was less tobacco smoke here above the tables, and Charlotte could see the singer for the first time.A man shoved his way into the center of the tables below and turned to look around. His scarred face was brutal under his bowler and Charlotte shivered when his gaze sliced across her and Talbot.“Nine-Fingers Isham,” her escort muttered and glanced down at her. “Johnson’s man.”The intruder started to charge toward the stairs but Garland blocked his path. Isham tried to object but the Palace’s man insisted on taking the newcomer over to the bar, close to two burly bartenders. A big tankard of beer appeared and Isham glared at it.A moment later, he grasped the handle and leaned back to ostentatiously stare at a single, empty box high above. Garland took up his station beside him, equally polite, equally deadly.Charlotte’s hair lifted off the nape of her neck. If she moved an inch away from Talbot, she’d lose his protection and that of his men. God help her.“Don’t worry, Miss Moreland. He can only watch, as long as you’re with me,” Talbot said under his breath.“Thank you,” Charlotte replied, equally softly.Talbot nodded in response to eager greetings from audience members and continued upward, still lightly holding her hand and carrying her carpetbag. They emerged into a much narrower, but equally clean, hallway. One side was painted in vibrant green, while the other offered a series of silk curtains in between gilded columns. Chinese lanterns swayed over narrow Oriental carpets. A man groaned happily from within one curtained box and a woman chuckled inside another.Charlotte twitched her skirts away from the fluttering drapes, as if they might speed up the frissons gliding across her skin. Walking with Jeremiah Holbrook had never felt like this.On the other hand, her escort took no notice—of either the goings-on in the boxes or the numerous bullet holes in the walls. He growled at a candle that had recently been shot in half and stopped to put the pieces back in the wall sconce.“Does that happen often?” she ventured to ask.“Nightly. We check on all of them frequently.” He ground his heel hard into an ember until it vanished. “It’s why I only use candles, not kerosene.”“You’d have had a fire.” She couldn’t keep the horror out of her voice. If it wasn’t built of brick, such a conflagration would turn this building into a bonfire within a handful of minutes. And afterward the block and the town, unless the citizens turned lucky in the wind and their ability to pump water and deliver it. Even big cities like Chicago and Boston had burned to the ground within the past few years.“That doesn’t happen to what I care about, not if I can help it.” He glanced at her, his expression as harsh as when he’d faced Johnson.“It has before.”“Yes.” His tone slammed the door on any additional questions. Not that she’d have inquired—she’d already gone further than Western manners deemed polite. Angering somebody who wielded guns so easily would be very unwise, no matter how ready he seemed to protect her.He twitched open the curtain to the last box at the end and she preceded him inside.It was a cozy nook, where the carpets were deep enough to block the floor’s chill. A leather settee, large enough for two big men to sit on with a jewel-toned, velvet quilt tossed across its back, occupied the center. A small charcoal stove offered cheerful warmth from one corner, while a single polished brass spittoon hid in another for the obviously few guests who’d dare chew tobacco.One man’s comfort ruled here, not careless ribaldry like the floors below or brazen sensuality like the corridor outside. It hardly looked suitable for somebody who spent hours practicing with those heavy, heavy guns in his hands, either. This was graceful and elegant, like a showpiece created for somebody bred from generations of blue blood.Charlotte was more confused—and more attracted—by her protector than ever.He set her carpetbag down in the niche beside the proscenium arch above the stage.“May I take your mantle?” he offered. “It must still be quite damp from the snow.”“Oh yes, of course.” She shrugged it off, into his waiting hands. Faint wisps of steam drifted up from the fine wool to merge into the tobacco smoke from below where the opera singer was bowing to raucous applause.He handed it outside, between the curtains.“May I take your bonnet, too?”She hesitated. It would be scandalous to uncover her head when she was so utterly at his mercy, especially when so many respectable women here wore their bonnets. And yet it was her sole bonnet. If she was to salvage its ribbons and feathers from their current bedraggled mess so she could leave town without appearing the fool, her headgear must be dried quickly.Damn.She bit her lip and unpinned the once-fashionable bit of millinery with almost military speed. Her hands were steadier when she untied its bow and handed it to him.“My servants will see to it. They’ve restored far more damaged clothing.” He shook the bonnet slightly, as if he could envision its former Parisian flair.“May I see your cheek? If it’s badly injured, I can send for a doctor—”“No!”“Are you sure?”Her eyes met his in the drifting golden light. He looked predatory, like a hunting cat. “Who hurt you?”“Why are you so eager to find out?” she parried, unsure of the look in his eyes.“It would give me the best excuse to destroy the man who did it to you,” he replied calmly.Her jaw dropped. For the first time in three years, trust blossomed in the pit of her stomach. Perhaps she might not be alone and helpless any longer.“It was Simmons,” she said cautiously.“That brute!” She didn’t like Talbot’s smile at all but it was comforting, too, mainly because his fury wasn’t directed at her. “It’ll take a little extra planning but I can dispose of him.”“Honestly, I’m just a little bruised.” Suddenly, she didn’t want her unusual protector injured. “I can move my mouth easily and . . .”He lifted her chin gently to inspect her cheek under the hanging lantern. His lean, strong fingers were very disturbing, perhaps because she wanted them to linger.
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“Besides, I don’t think you can completely blame Mr. Simmons,” she babbled on. “Johnson shoved me into his room.”“The mayor.” Her escort’s dark eyes flickered but his grip stayed protective.“He gave me the hotel room beside Simmons. Showed me through the connecting door, which didn’t lock, and . . .” She closed her eyes against the memories.“What about the hotel manager?” Talbot’s voice rasped in his throat.“Ran away before then.”“Damn.” The word was very soft. “I swear to you nothing like that will happen again,” he said strongly. “You’re right about the bruising. I can have a poultice fetched if you need it, but otherwise I suspect you mostly need a hot drink to take away the chill.”“What haven’t you seen and done in here?” Charlotte whispered. While she’d spent an eternity in gambling saloons over the past three years, she’d never thought much about concert saloons, their far rarer brethren.“I sell pleasure—but nothing illegal. I don’t run a brothel and I’m not a pimp. Adults rent space from me to pursue entertainment of their choosing.” He set her bonnet atop a coat tree. “Mining towns are frequented by hard men.”“And dangerous.” As she knew all too well.He draped the velvet quilt over her shoulders. “But they can be very profitable, if you’re prepared.”In the distance, the singer curtsied once more and ran offstage. The audience rustled and glasses clinked more loudly. “Hurry up with that red-eye,” somebody demanded.There was a soft knock and a bartender appeared. Charlotte quickly took her place on the settee, determined to appear an experienced woman of the world no matter what her hammering pulse said.Talbot offered her a cup of coffee, laced with cream and speckled with crimson and gold. She sniffed cautiously, then again far more happily. “What is it? It smells delightful.”“Coffee with chocolate and spices. It’s a Mexican recipe.” He sat down beside her with his own cup.A very tall, cadaverously thin man strutted onto the stage and fingered his lapels.“Yeehaw!” somebody yelled down below and a torrent of gunfire erupted into the ceiling.Charlotte cringed. She could endure one or two shots, however close, but a fusillade sounded like a massacre.“Gentlemen!” Talbot shouted over the railing. “The next man to welcome our guest like that gets a taste of his own medicine.”Charlotte managed to crack open her eyes, amazed she hadn’t dived under the settee. Where had she gained such confidence?Talbot had a shotgun at his shoulder, as did Garland and every bartender.There were a few apologetic coughs, then pistols disappeared back into holsters. The rowdier miners sat back down and the more cautious members of the audience emerged from under their seats or behind their boxes’ paneling. The actor poked his head onto the stage from behind a sturdy column, like a wary tortoise investigating the early spring air. Polite applause greeted him this time and he sauntered forth more cautiously.Silence fell when he reached the stage’s center. Even the bartenders’ usual clatter as they passed fresh drinks disappeared. The actor swept the crowded room with his pale eyes as if he could see through the darkness into everyone’s soul.“ ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe,” he announced and a woman loosed a long, heartfelt sigh of anticipation.Talbot shoved his shotgun under the settee. Only Charlotte’s fast action kept her skirt from being pinned by it.“Once upon a midnight dreary / While I pondered weak and weary,” the actor intoned. His hands inscribed circles as if casting spells upon his enthralled audience.“Do you want to listen or may I close the drapes?” Talbot asked softly. “I doubt you want to see Isham.”“Please shut them,” Charlotte assured him. He sealed them carefully, then joined her on the settee. “Besides, I enjoy Shakespeare better or even Burns. Do you like Shakespeare?” she asked, desperate to make conversation in these very intimate confines.“Very much. My mother used to read his sonnets and plays to me.” He took a sip of coffee, his lean length comfortably relaxed across the leather.“His sonnets, too?” Charlotte blinked at him. She could believe that a woman would teach her son to cherish the plays, since those were commonly performed. But the sonnets were frippery bits of rhyming words, more often relegated to the feminine sphere.“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past . . .”Talbot’s rich drawl, far more attractive than the actor’s melodramatic tones, faded and he shrugged. “She was an Anson of Chillington and wanted her only child to enjoy English poetry.”“Chillington? Earl Chillington?” Charlotte came up onto her knees to look at her companion more closely.“He’s a second cousin, who received the house and title in England, while my mother inherited everything else.”“A fortune,” guessed Charlotte, backed by generations of banking instincts.“She brought it as dowry to her Southern marriage.” He waved that off and swallowed more of his richly spiced drink, as if for solace. “The War wiped it out.” He swirled his coffee for a moment before answering the question Charlotte hadn’t asked. “My mother died only a year after the fighting started.”“I’m very sorry.” Charlotte dared to put her hand over his. His expression carried such anguish, similar to her father’s on the rare occasions when he mentioned her mother.“It was better that way. The Low Country’s climate was very hard on her and we still had enough property to keep her comfortable.” Ancient pain snarled behind his gritted teeth before his fingers laced through hers.“My mother was from Scotland,” Charlotte offered and shifted so she could sit next to him. She could at least offer the simple comfort of her presence, even if he didn’t want to say much about his mother. “Father made me memorize Mr. Burns’s poetry in her memory.”“Of a’ the airts the wind can blaw,” Talbot began and cocked an eyebrow at her.“I dearly like the west,” Charlotte finished triumphantly.“Here’s to poetry, Ace.” He lifted his cup to hers.“Charlotte,” she corrected him, the first time she’d freely given anybody her real name in three years.A true smile warmed his eyes and broadened his mouth. It changed his face from a sculptor’s masterpiece to a study in sensuality. “Justin,” he offered in exchange.“Justin,” she agreed and clinked her cup against his. Maybe it wouldn’t be too dangerous to take shelter from a blizzard at his side. At least if she could forget about his voice, scent, and body, it would be safe.Chapter 5 “This is my private bedroom,” announced Justin hours later and threw the door open.Charlotte blinked at a tiny chamber, barely sufficient to hold the wrought iron bedstead, plinth with a basin of water, and straight-backed chair. “Are you sure we can both sleep in here? It’s hard to believe you can fit in that bed.”“Normally I sleep at my own house, further up the mountain.”“Where it’s quiet.”“Where I can practice gunplay in private,” he corrected her.She hiccupped a breath. She’d forgotten all too fast the true meaning of the pistols riding so easily at his hips.“I only use this room to snatch a few hours’ rest or if the weather’s too foul to get home, like tonight.”A cold draft rustled her petticoats, emphasizing his point. She quickly stepped inside and he closed the door behind them, his lean body heating her back like a torch.“You can undress behind the screen.” He tilted his head toward the corner behind them. “After that, the bed’s yours. I’ll take the floor.”“You’ll freeze!”“Worried, Charlotte?” His white teeth flashed in a rare grin.She flushed. “Of course. You’ve been very kind.”“Not my standard reputation,” he said wryly. “But I’ve survived worse than a hard floor under a sturdy roof and I doubt you’d sleep a wink if I were anywhere near you.”She couldn’t think of a single response. That she was afraid of his guns? That after an evening spent bantering poetry with him, she didn’t know if she was more afraid of his lusts or her own?She was only certain her single night with Holbrook hadn’t equipped her to deal with a man like Justin Talbot.He gently tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “Go on now, get ready for bed. Everything will work out well.”“Thank you.” She tucked herself into the remarkably ample space behind the gilded Japanese screen and started yanking open buttons on her jacket.When this was over, she would make twice as much money as she’d planned before returning to Boston to lord it over her supercilious stepmother and stepsisters. She’d need the extra concentration and time at the poker tables to stop thinking about Justin Talbot. Ike Johnson lowered his lantern, satisfied. Talbot was locked down tight inside Hair Trigger Palace with the bitch. Almost as important, the season’s first storm hadn’t shown any gaps around the Silver King’s windows. Maybe this year would be better than the last.“Where is she?” His salvation’s huge frame blocked the hallway, like an avalanche closing off a road. “You promised I’d have her by now.”Shit. Ike’s heartbeat hit triple time but none of his nervousness showed in his voice. “She’s still with Talbot. You’ll have her tomorrow.”“I’ll lose an entire day of whipping her.” Simmons blew out a disgruntled breath. “You’d better get her to me fast or you won’t have your precious charter. Sweetwater can pay me more gold to become the county seat.”“Don’t worry about it!” Ike rushed to give an alternate explanation for his outcry than panic. “I’d like to see her under the lash myself. A Northern girl from the same blood as the soldiers who destroyed my home—and an adulterous bitch at that.”“Yes, she deserves to pay. She’s a rare treat, unlike whores or anything Sweetwater can offer.” Simmons licked his lips and stretched meditatively against the ceiling beams. Their creaking was hidden by the storm howling outside.“Tomorrow.” She’d be destroyed and Talbot would be his friend again. They always made up after a fight.Simmons’s eyes met his, narrow and red in the lamplight. “Better be soon so I’ll have full use of her before I leave. I must board the next stage to make my recommendation to the governor.”“You have my word.” Ike tossed him a salute like the infantry captain he’d once been. Just a few more hours and he’d rule Wolf Laurel again, with Talbot at his back. The snow hurled itself against the windows in a fusillade of icy darts. The trees outside beat their branches against each other in a series of thunderous cracks.Charlotte moaned and pulled the quilt higher over her head. But nothing could stop the wind from howling or her father from yelling at her, again and again.“How dare you betray yourself and your family by spending hours with such riffraff!” her father yelled at her. They stood in his library, where the books were a distant blur and the velvet curtains rustled unhappily in the drafts. Even the gilded ceiling, normally warm and close, seemed far away and forbidding.“How dare you call them that?” She glared back at him from an arm’s length away. Her cheek was swollen and bleeding on the inside from where he’d hit her, the first time he’d ever done so. But she’d never allow an outrage to her friends. “You should be ashamed to insult such heroes.”She raised her hands, ready to fight, as Alex Pelham had taught her. Her stepmother and stepsisters’ faces swam into focus from behind her father’s shoulder, smirking like carnival masks. She ignored them in favor of the greater danger to her heart.“Insult?” Her father’s voice dropped to an icy needle. “You have ruined your reputation and the family’s name—and you sayIdealt aninsult?”“Absolutely.” She folded her arms over her chest. Every inch of her eighteen-year-old frame vibrated with certainty. Anything she could do at the Soldiers’ Home paled before the sacrifices those brave men had made for their country. Surely playing card games, even poker, for hours, was respectable when conducted under the head nurse’s vigilant eye.“Go to your room, you impertinent whelp. You will have bread and water until you learn respect for authority,” her father snapped, tall and proud in his black broadcloth coat.She marched out to a chorus of her stepmother and stepsisters’ virulent whispers. They grew in volume as she climbed the stairs and the winds screamed louder among the trees. She could no longer hear the little voice in her head urging her to wait and explain everything to her father when they’d both calmed down.The stairs lengthened and flattened, surrounded by taller and taller walls, until they became the road out of Boston.She walked on and on, into the blizzard.The storm howled again and the quilt tightened around her until she couldn’t move her arms and legs. She thrashed wildly, fighting off the smothering blur.“Hush, darling. Hush.” A man’s rich voice, velvet-edged and totally unlike her father’s, pushed back the storm’s ice.“Help me.” She reached out, her eyes still shut. She’d had this nightmare so many times.Strong hands peeled the cloth away from the pillows and smoothed it over her limbs. He gently rolled it down from her face to lay it at the foot of the bed.She blinked up at Justin. His deep-set eyes were alive with concern under the blizzard’s white light.“Are you okay, Charlotte?” he asked very gently.She gulped.“Sounds like no.” He sat down on the edge of the bed, looking very different clad only in a nightshirt. “Do you want to talk about it?”She shook her head violently. Talk about where she came from—or her own stubborn stupidity in not giving her father an explanation?“That’s okay with me, sugar. A person’s past is their own business out here in the West.”She shivered. The big quilt was a long way away. So were the secrets of whatever forces had created Justin Talbot.“Are you cold?” he asked quickly.“You must be.” She started to shiver. “Perhaps we could share the bed.”“Are you sure?” He cocked his head at her.“Just for warmth?” she offered. Surely she could brazen out a single night with Justin Talbot. He hadn’t shown any signs of interest in her. Even if he did, it wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen and she had her experience with Jeremiah to inform her.“Very well.” He joined her under the remaining covers in a sleek movement, graceful as a cat diving into its den. His torso was warm under the fine linen but his extremities made snow-covered rocks seem cozy.His foot brushed Charlotte and she yelped in surprise.“Sorry,” he muttered and stiffened, taking himself away from her.“No, please.” She caught him by the shoulders and pressed herself closer. If she’d been bold enough to share a bed with him, she could be honest enough to share her limbs’ warmth.“Charlotte.” He wrapped his arms around her and relaxed slightly, enough that their toes brushed against each other. “You are full of surprises. Thank you.”“You’re welcome.” She dared to rest her head on his shoulder, since he didn’t seem to want to mention the erection that pressed against her thighs. Her breasts were warmer than the rest of her body, more than his proximity would account for.She stirred restlessly but said nothing.“Still upset by the nightmare?” Justin’s voice was a rich, sensual thread in the darkness.“Uh—yes, a little.” Could she say she’d been picturing him more the dream’s horrific denizens? Better not.“Let’s try distracting you a bit.”“With what?” she asked, honestly curious. There was no light to play a game by.He kissed the top of her head.“I, uh . . .” What would he expect her to do?“Just cuddle, sugar, that’s all.” Something in his tone hinted at nighttime comforts that she’d never known before. “All you need to do is relax and think about poetry.”“Okay.” She could do that. She settled more comfortably against him.“What does this make you think of? ‘That time of year thou mayst in me behold / When yellow leave, or none, or few . . .’ ” His drawl slowed to a velvet secret.“ ‘Do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold.’ ” She chuckled softly and closed her eyes. She’d played this game before. “Shakespeare, Sonnet 73.”“Very good. Your turn.”“Hmm. ‘When I consider every thing that grows / Holds in perfection but a moment . . .”“You know your Shakespeare.” His arms shifted her to a closer, warmer position. The storm’s dangers were very far away and his attractions so close. “Sonnet 15.”She dared to slip her fingers into the thick, raw silk of his hair. It glided over her knuckles, potent as a caress. Something stirred deep inside her and her pulse quickened.“Perhaps you should try a different poet,” she mumbled.“So you can fall asleep while considering the options?” He brushed his lips along her temple.“Yes, let’s try that.”He was silent for a long time. His heart beat heavily against hers before he spoke again.“I thought once how Theocritus had sung / Of the sweet years, the dear and wished for years . . .”“Elizabeth Barrett Browning,Sonnets from the Portugese,Sonnet 1,” she purred.“Congratulations,” he rumbled.“Mmhmm,” she purred and shifted closer to savor his cherishing. His mouth drifted over her eyes and her cheeks, setting off sparks in her blood.She stroked his head, echoing the shimmer in her body. He murmured approval and caressed her throat. His lean, strong fingers cupped her head with the same delicacy necessary for spring’s first flowers, not a Colt’s heavy frame.Their mouths glided over each other and their lips met. Their kiss was leisurely, sensual, as if they had all the time in the world and the storm raging outside was their personal guardian. But that wasn’t enough, not when every taste and texture sent need spiraling out of control. Justin delved deep until Charlotte could think of nothing but him, his mouth joined to hers, and his strong hands creating firebrands under her skin wherever he touched. Her breasts ached under her nightgown until every breath seemed an effort.Justin lifted his head and she whimpered a protest.“Patience, sugar, you’ll enjoy this, too.”“Promise?”He raked his teeth lightly over the tendons in her throat. A slug of purest lust jolted through her body and heated her pussy. Her eyes crossed. “Oh, dear Lord,” she muttered.He chuckled and did it again, nibbling on her until she writhed under him with her hands locked on his shoulders. His whipcord-lean body pinned her effortlessly, teasing her with the faint friction of linen trapped between his strong muscles and her sensitive, sweating skin.
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She flung her head back and fought to speak against the hunger pulsing in her blood. “When do you plan to end this?”“Darling, this is only the beginning.” His drawl was very thick.She shot him an incredulous look, then thumped her head back against the pillow.“We haven’t even started to explore the delights below your neck.”“What?” Holbrook had never gone below her throat.Justin’s hand cupped her breast and squeezed lightly. Charlotte arched into him and moaned. Dear Lord, her breasts were so agonizingly sensitive and he felt so wonderful.“That’s my sugar,” Justin crooned and slipped his hand inside her nightgown. He caressed her again, plucking and teasing her nipple. Everything centered there—sensation, yearning, pulses of lust between her breast and her heart—and she sank her hands into his back to encourage him.How could so much of herself have become such a giant, throbbing ache? Even when she was alone and played with herself, she’d never felt anything so intense. Oh, dear heaven, but she was wet.And when he switched to her other breast but continued to tease the first, it was better still. “Oh, Justin, Justin.”“Sweet, sweet darling, you truly don’t know what to do, do you?” he muttered somewhere near her ribcage. She ignored him in favor of rubbing herself over his leg. It wasn’t enough for satisfaction but it allowed her hot, aching core some relief.His big hand stroked the outside of her thigh. She sighed happily and her hips soon matched his rhythm. His fingers shifted to the inside of her leg and slipped higher, teasing and stroking. She tried to thrust down on him but he grunted disapproval. She stopped, disappointment burning hotter than her pulse.“Good girl,” he crooned. He shifted and suddenly his thigh was outside hers. His warm hand cupped her mound, heating it like sunshine on a winter garden. Even breathing was almost too much to bear when her hips wanted to hurl themselves into his grasp.She fought for words to plead with. The bedding was long since banished.“I, ah—oh, Justin!”His fingers slid in between her legs and he fondled her. He teased her folds, playing with them as if furling and unfurling them was his greatest joy.“Justin . . .” Charlotte helplessly opened herself completely to him. He rumbled praise and need burned brighter in her.All that mattered now was feeling his hands and mouth on her, the soft kiss of his clothing when he shifted position over her, the honeyed incitement of his voice building the fire in her blood.Her hips rocked closer and closer to him. The first blunt finger to enter her was all joy, while the second came with extra cream and teasing.He thrust his fingers into her hard again and again and her pearl was so sensitive. The brink was so very close.“More, please more,” she sobbed and ground herself down on his hand.He rubbed her clit hard and simultaneously nipped her shoulder.Charlotte shrieked and tumbled into rapture, as if she hurled herself down the finest sledding run in the world. Ecstasy flashed through her and her body shook over and over around his hand.She could barely manage to kiss his shoulder in thanks afterward before she dropped into a sound sleep, just as if she’d trudged home from a long day’s sledding. One eyebrow askew, Justin tucked the bedclothes around his oblivious—Lover? Protégé?He was the man who’d put that sated look on her face, not her so-called lover, not the idiot who’d ruined her reputation and earned her the title ofadulteress. No matter what had happened during those days—or hours?—it hadn’t taught her body anything about the pleasure to be found with a man. Or perhaps even touched her heart.She wouldn’t forget Justin Talbot.Somewhere deep inside, his heart shoutedHuzzah!just as when he’d celebrated more than one cavalry victory during The War.He had to protect her, for so long as the storm lasted and she was trapped here. But perhaps there’d be opportunities for fun too.What else could he teach her? What more could they enjoy together? He could stamp himself on her so thoroughly she’d always think of him, no matter whom she was with.She gave a contented little snore and her fingers curved over his arm. His cock twitched happily.Justin promptly slid under the covers beside her, a smug grin lurking on his mouth.Chapter 6 “Good afternoon.” Justin nodded to the dozen men crowded into the Crystal Saloon’s back room. Its abundance of leather armchairs, red wallpaper, mounted longhorns, and brass spittoons testified to its title of Unofficial Mayor’s Office.He’d dressed up a bit for this call, choosing his best black Stetson and the frockcoat a British tailor had deemed suitable for London’s finest clubs. It also hid all his weapons.“Greetings.” Johnson lifted his drink in a polite salute. Nine-Fingers Isham came to attention behind him, quivering like a bulldog eager to fight.The regulars gaped at Justin over their glasses of beer and whiskey and his eyes narrowed. Damn it, did they think yesterday’s quarrel had broken up his partnership with Johnson? It would take more than a few harsh words to destroy ten years of friendship.“Any other urgent business with the mayor, gentlemen, before next week’s council meeting?” Justin swung the door back and forth through a small arc, as if he was playing with a hatchet.The town councilmen shifted in their seats and glanced uneasily at each other. Drinks slammed down onto tables. Johnson froze with his glass halfway to his mouth, then finished swallowing.“No? If not, I’m sure you’re very busy men, who have many important things to attend to.” Justin held the door wide and stood aside so Johnson’s sycophants could depart. No audience needed if he was to hear the truth about what had happened between Charlotte, Johnson, and Simmons.His saddle-partner shot him a hard glare, then rose to shake hands and make polite farewells.Justin ignored the sideways looks directed at him. Most of Wolf Laurel’s so-calledmoneyed elitestill hoped to either bribe or intimidate him. Isham departed last, after a final, insolent scan of Justin’s weapons.Their mayor locked the door behind them. “You shouldn’t have chased them out like that.”“Thought you’d be bored by their constant prattle about the poker tournament’s profits.” Justin swung a side chair around and straddled it. “That’s in the bag now, since you collected the entry fees yesterday.”“Crap. How’d you know?” His old friend let out a rough bark of laughter and Justin joined in, glad to share a joke.“Where’s Moreland?” The question echoed like an officer’s parade ground command. “I thought she’d join the tournament, since she paid the fee.”“No, she’s at the Palace’s standing poker game, down in the basement.” Johnson’s intensity made Justin’s laughter fade into the same polite wariness he’d show a stranger.Heavy footsteps moved away from the other side of the door.Justin cursed the departing eavesdropper privately, then added a warning to his old friend. “She’s more than holding her own against the regulars. Half my bouncers are down there enjoying the show and ready to protect her.”The only other genuine Confederate officer in Wolf Laurel looked him in the eye, then folded his lips and walked over to the sideboard. “What’ll you have to drink?”“The usual.” There had to be something left of their friendship.Johnson handed him a glass full of rye whiskey. “Here’s to the blue-belly soldiers, without whose attempt to bushwhack you and steal your horse, we’d never have met.”“Here, here.” They clinked glasses in their oldest of toasts and drank.Christ, he hadn’t much cared where he went or what he did that autumn when he returned from surrendering to the Yankees. Not after seeing his home’s blackened rubble and sere fields, empty of life except vultures and shifting shadows.He’d spent a few minutes at his father and brothers’ graves in Charleston but shrugged off any condolences from their admirers. He had no need to remember bullies and demagogues, who’d spent years stealing their wives’ money and whipping up rabble then hiding from the resultant fight. Even at eighteen, he’d been cynically amused that he was the only Talbot to go off to war.His hand tightened on his glass and he drank again, to honor his English mother. She’d been his closest friend during childhood, even through his wildest escapades. In return, he’d tried to protect her from the world she loathed—where a wife had to make way for her husband’s concubines in her house and live with bastards who resembled her husband far more than his legitimate children. Where chains and whippings and screams sounded through the landscape as often as the clink of tea cups settling on fine porcelain and violin music drifting out of the ballroom.Justin had learned to be glad death had sent her to a better world. The only time he’d almost wished to join her was after he left her grave to head south and west. Surviving five years of war was easier than traveling that wasteland.He cocked an eyebrow at his old friend.“Ten years since you first saved my life back in Georgia.” Johnson’s vitality had shaken him back to life and given him a new purpose.“Done the same for any other scarecrow in a gray uniform.” Johnson slid the bottle down the table toward Justin and opened another for himself. “You’ve returned the favor a dozen times since, in good times and bad.”“As have you. Remember that flood on the Rio Grande, back in the San Luis Valley? I thought we’d never get out.”“Or that brawl in Abilene.” Johnson whistled. “I remember it every day when we practice gunplay together. An hour or two disappears mighty fast when measured against surviving fights like that.”Justin nodded agreement and took a small sip of whiskey. The bottle must have been a gift, since his friend normally preferred far better brands.“How’s the hotel business?”“Couldn’t be better.” Johnson glanced at him in surprise. “Between it, my two saloons, and the dry goods store, I should make back my investment within two years.”Too damn slow for a mining town that was likely built on a glory hole and would disappear the moment the ore did.“Hey, pardner, if you need a loan to tide you over—”“No!” The word rang through the room, sharper than an ice saw.Justin rocked back in surprise, then leaned his arms on the chair back to study his old pal. They’d shared cash through good times and bad before. What was the difference now?“No,” Johnson repeated more politely but his eyes were still angry and ashamed. “Some members of the town council gave me a loan months ago to cover everything I lost in the ’73 Panic.”“But—”“I was doing well before then, beating the damn Yankees at their own moneygrubbing games. Taking back everything and more than they cost me when they burned my farm.” He laughed bitterly. “From now on, maybe I’ll use your tactics—kill them in their tracks wherever I can.”“Johnson, you know damn well that’s not what I do!”“You’re fucking efficient at killing, Talbot, just like everything else.”Shit, what did Johnson think he was?Justin pulled his temper back and tried for sanity.“You know there are too many Yankees to kill them all. You can’t turn a wave by yourself. You have to make peace with it.” The way he laid flowers at a church every year on his mother’s birthday, in honor of everyone he’d left behind in South Carolina. Or drinking sherry every Christmas, in hopes one day he’d be respectable enough to celebrate it again with his mother’s cousins at Chillington Castle. Keeping the present alive and building for the future was more important than taking revenge for the past.“I want to use the bastards like manure, Talbot. Spread them like shit over my fields.” Johnson splashed more whiskey into his glass.Justin went back to cash, his saddle-partner’s favorite subject.“Everything you lost in the Great Panic? Look, you know we’ve shared the shirts off our backs before. Let me give you the money to cover that and you won’t have to worry about repaying strangers.”Johnson told him the amount.Justin gaped at him. “That’s enough to buy half of Denver.”“Certainly all of its saloons.”“I can still give you the cash.” He’d have to sell—Christ, what wouldn’t he have to sell? But Johnson had been more of a big brother to him than his long-dead blood kin had ever bothered to be.“No, I don’t have to make payments on the loan until next year. Just shut up and listen to me, will you?”Justin glared at him. Inside, he kept on calculating how to pay off his friend’s debts.“Talbot, you’re always so damn conservative.”“Am not!” He slapped his thigh for emphasis.“Are so—at least when it comes to making sure no fool can ruin your property.”Justin flung up his hand in agreement.“We invested our money separately and I put mine with the fancy folks on Wall Street. Bragged, too, about how well it was doing—until the Panic hit. And every penny vanished.”Justin couldn’t deny that. He was still glad he’d kept quiet back then, too.“Didn’t know what I was going to do until after we’d been here a few months.” Johnson broke the awkward silence. “A delegation from the town council offered me the job of mayor with the loan to clear my mind. Said they wanted somebody who’d stick around for a while and I said yes.”“You never told me.”“Didn’t think you’d like me making a deal that I could get out of just by watching the town melt into the hillside when the ore gave out.”“No, I wouldn’t have.” He’d have done his best to wring Johnson’s neck.“Yeah, sometimes that Palmetto Aristocracy upbringing gets in the way of your common sense.”Justin took another small sip of whiskey. Did the glass’s jagged pattern reflect his old friend’s true personality? “What did your new pals think I’d say to the deal?” he asked when he could trust his voice again.“Why would they worry about that?” Johnson stared at him over a fresh drink. “We’ve always worked together. I do the talking and you help carry the deals out. You’re more valuable than dudes like Isham because you frighten people better.”Shit. Justin closed his eyes. His reputation yawned before him, more appalling than an ice fall’s thousand-foot drop.“What about our talk of retiring someplace where guns are not necessities?” he asked, when he could trust his voice better.“That silly daydream? I always told you that if you stuck with me, I’d build you an empire, not castles in the air.” He raised his glass to an engraving of a Confederate veteran’s shattered farmstead. Then he poured the golden liquor down his throat, his eyes shut in ecstasy.Justin drummed his fingers for a moment, then shoved the decanter away. Neither memories of his childhood home’s burned-out remains, nor alcohol, spurred him as much as today’s problems. And honor.“When will you hand the woman over?” Johnson caught the decanter easily and refilled his glass.“I won’t.” Justin put down his glass, careful not to break the fragile crystal. Now they were getting down to this conversation’s true meat. Just a little longer and he could ask what had happened when Charlotte met Simmons.“I thought we just agreed that neither of us like big fights.” Johnson’s Georgia drawl grew thicker.“We did. But she’s a woman and I won’t let Simmons have her.” Shit, Simmons had hit her, and she hadn’t even been with him five minutes.“I don’t understand you. It’s not as if your morals are sunshine bright when it comes to bed partners.”Justin gritted his teeth and reminded himself to stay calm. He and Johnson never had the same tastes, which was why they didn’t share the same whores. “All of my lovers were willing. Miss Moreland is a lady and wishes nothing to do with Simmons.”“It’s only for a few days.”“She’d be lucky to stay alive. No.”He watched his friend rapidly swirl his drink in his glass until it resembled an abyss, rather than a lamp-lit cloud.“Why are you doing this, Johnson?” Justin dropped his voice to a lower pitch, as if his old friend was a skittish horse to be coaxed through a winter pass. “Why are you pushing so hard to get Simmons’s attention?”“I told you—he can make Wolf Laurel the county seat.”“Yeah, half the council is parading for his attention. If it happens, hordes of miners will come here to register their claims and spend their money.”“They’ll use my hotel—and visit your Hair Trigger Palace. We’ll be rich. Even after mining dies out, loggers and ranchers will spend fortunes here.”“But Sweetwater is a better bet to become county seat. It’s on the other side of the pass and it has better roads. The railroads already love it so its citizens have more money for bribes and chicanery in the legislature. How can you stand against it?”“By giving Simmons the only bribe he can’t find anywhere else.” The veteran fighter’s jaw set hard. “A beautiful white woman he can seduce—”
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“Flog!” Justin pictured Charlotte’s fragile white skin shattered and bleeding under the whip, while she screamed and screamed . . .The other Southerner shrugged indifferently. “Doesn’t matter. She’s an adulteress who sleeps with married men.”“One man.” Justin surged onto his feet. “Nobody knew he was married until his harridan of a wife arrived to drag him back to Cincinnati.”“So what?” Johnson matched him and glared at him from only a few feet away. “Moreland crossed the line and she’s now a fallen woman. She doesn’t deserve protection.”Justin’s hands twitched over his guns and he fought to control his temper.“If your sister,” he said as coolly as possible, “was in the same predicament—”The former infantry officer knocked him down with a hard right hook to the jaw.Justin fell over the straight-backed chair, which slammed into the side table. Glasses and decanters rattled, and alcohol sloshed out.Where the hell had that blow come from? Damn it, Johnson always got in the first strike.He sprang back up onto his feet, more than willing to fight.“My sister was never a Northern whore, lifting her skirts for married men!” his saddle partner roared.Oh hell, he couldn’t duel over a long-dead female’s honor. He managed a curt bow. “My apologies.”“Accepted.” Johnson’s nod was even briefer. “You’d better leave now before I kill you.”If you can . . .Justin glared back at him. They’d never fought each other, not even in the wildest barroom brawls.“Don’t send Isham and the boys to fetch Miss Moreland, Johnson. Ten years of friendship won’t stop me from shedding blood to defend her.” Wolf Laurel’s mayor wouldn’t act against him but he’d damn sure send his bully boys to wreck anyone and everything else.Justin closed the door as softly as he’d draw his knife from its sheath. Then he ran through the blizzard for the Hair Trigger Palace.He’d long since stopped believing in any god merciful enough to keep eavesdroppers from doing the worst harm imaginable.Chapter 7 Charlotte shook out her bustle and swiveled her hips one last time to make sure her skirts rustled well within the tiny powder room. It was always tricky to hide money within her crinoline’s wire hoops. Placing coins and greenbacks inside small silk purses was easy, even if she had to be careful not to let anything clank. The difficulty came in balancing everything so that her wool skirts and petticoats still floated over the floor like an ocean wave. Lurching like drunken sailors would shout what lay underneath.Today’s take was good but not enough to overflow her other hiding places in her corset or jacket. Somehow the Palace’s regulars had seemed more like friends than opponents, especially after Justin—no, Talbot—had introduced them to her by name. She’d competed for the joy of the game, rather than strip them of funds and speed her return to Boston.It had felt so natural, just like waking up to the coffee he’d brought. No embarrassment, just conversation—and the growing sensation she needed to go somewhere else soon, lest she sink roots here.Which she couldn’t.She scanned herself in the mirror over the washbasin and her mouth reluctantly slid into a smile. Justin would have to clean this room more often. The hallway outside, which ran between the poker parlor and the wine cellar, also offered bedrooms for rent to a few very expensive courtesans. It was a civilized space, painted green and decorated like a European hotel. One of their clients had used this latrine afterward to shave—messily.She’d get to tease Justin, the king of cleanliness and forethought.She gathered up her handbag containing her grubstake and sallied out, feeling much better about her prospects.The moment she stepped into the hallway, a man’s rough hand clamped over her mouth. He yanked her against his body, his other big paw manacled around her wrists, and started to drag her down the hallway. Nine-Fingers Isham matched strides with her abductor in a miasma of sweat and whiskey, his heavy Colt pointed toward the poker parlor.Charlotte’s escort, an older gentleman uncommonly good with both knives and jokes, lay crumpled and motionless just inside the bedroom door opposite. A thin trickle of crimson smeared his once-pleasant countenance. He’d been injured trying to help her, simply because a friend had asked him to.Sheer rage flashed through her, first heating then chilling her thoughts. By God, she wasn’t going to stand aside and wage her battles with words anymore, no matter what etiquette said about ladies’ behavior.She bit down on the filthy digit in her mouth. Her captor grunted, his thin mustache twitching like the rat he resembled, but he didn’t release her. He was almost running toward the wine cellar and its stairway to the Hair Trigger Palace’s back door.She ground her teeth harder. This time, her captor’s grip loosened slightly.She scrabbled for purchase in the thin carpet and tried to pull away.“God damn it,” Nine-Fingers cursed, “keep the bitch quiet. Get the ether on her, fast.”“Charlotte?” Justin called from ahead. “Charlotte, where are you?”Two men against one—and her as a hostage in the middle? What options would Justin have? None.Charlotte closed her eyes and sank her teeth into her enemy with all her strength, the way her friends at the Soldiers’ Home had attacked enemy battlements in the dead of winter.He howled and she bit harder, traveling past reeking flesh and stinking blood. She needed to protect Justin so these brutes wouldn’t shoot him over her head.He screamed again and yanked his hand out of her mouth, then hurled her away from him. She slid down the fern wallpaper and landed, her skirts a crumpled mass, between the doors to the courtesans’ bedrooms.The lighting was better down here than on the floors above, good enough to see Justin poised at the foot of the narrow stairs with Colts drawn and murder in his eyes.She could hear pounding from the hallway’s other end.“Put down your guns or we’ll kill her.” Nine-Fingers stirred her hem with his boot. His cohort shook blood off his finger and moved to his side.Charlotte cautiously came up onto her knees. She needed a weapon in order to help.“You’ll never get out of here with her,” Justin countered. “My men will kill you.”“Those big sturdy doors you’re so fond of? We locked the one leading to the poker parlor. At this hour, nobody’s looking for refills from the cellar so they won’t use the back door.” Nine-Fingers sniggered. “No, looks to me like it’s two against one.”Oh, dear Lord, may this work . . .Charlotte hurled her purse, with all of her grubstake’s precious gold in it, at the rat’s legs. It thudded into his boot and he jumped into the air. When he came back down, the long, corded handles wrapped around his ankles. He stumbled and fell onto the floor, cursing viciously as he fought to free himself.Now Justin only faced one man’s guns.Nine-Fingers fired first, almost directly over her head. Justin’s gun belched fire—and the brute crumpled onto the floor, his throat a crimson wreck. Thunder deafened her ears and black smoke filled the hall.The rat-faced man’s scarlet fingers grabbed for her out of the smoky haze, followed by his gun.She screamed—and Justin fired again. The hand twitched, then fell back.Justin pulled her up onto her feet and into his arms. Charlotte clung to him, trembling as if she’d never walk again. Her heart was beating faster than the winds still racing around the roof high above.She’d encountered violent death before, since her arrival in the Colorado mining country. But this was somehow far worse than seeing another poker player die at the table across from her. This time, the danger had pointed directly at someone she cared deeply about, rather than a stranger.Her protector pressed kisses to her hair. It took several moments before she realized he was shaking as much as she.“Justin, darling, I’m fine.”“The blood?” He ran his thumb lightly across her lips. Her pulse turned hot, rather than cold with terror. “By everything’s that holy, if a drop of it’s yours, I will—”“It’s all his. I bit through his hand.”Justin continued to stare at her mouth. “Damn, but I was terrified.”“Justin.” She wet her lips. Her hands twitched with the need to hold him. He had to stop looking at her like this.“Charlotte.” He kissed her ravenously and she answered him the same way, intent on reclaiming every bit of joy she’d so nearly lost. Holding him was like holding life itself—strength, heat, the headlong rush to share. Even the hot shaft rising between his legs promised ecstasy, rather than frustration and pain.His tongue plunged between her lips, enticing her. She rose onto her toes to come closer.More, please, more . . .A door slammed open behind them.Justin whirled and placed himself between her and the intruders. An instant later, he relaxed and Charlotte dared to peek around him.“Sorry for the interruption, boss.” Garland touched his hat and tucked his shotgun back into its sling. “Thought you might need some help down here. Happy to see I was wrong.”“Glad you came.”“Sorry we didn’t make it sooner.” Garland’s face flushed to a dull crimson. “Didn’t expect trouble, not with—”“The latrine being only two steps away from the poker parlor? And me taking such a ridiculously long time in there?” Charlotte came all the way around Justin to help protect Garland with an explanation for the attack.Justin nodded curtly. “Isham must have come through the back door, then waited in one of the bedrooms. We’ll do better next time.”“Damn right,” Garland agreed. His expression said he expected rough words from his employer later. “We’ll start by doubling the fire patrols. Johnson likes to watch things burn.”A muscle throbbed in Justin’s cheek but he agreed.Charlotte glanced up at him, then moved a little further away from the dead men littering the floor, victims of Johnson’s greed.Justin was fighting his best friend. God alone knew if he or anyone else would die.Chapter 8 The conjurer bowed again, flourished his two very-much-alive rabbits, then left at a brisk trot. Guards sauntered onto the stage with pistols prominently displayed.Last night’s poetic sensation strolled out, still looking as if he hadn’t eaten in a year. This time, the crowd cheered and clapped instead of shooting holes in Justin’s new tin ceiling.“Have you changed your mind about the actor?” He glanced at Charlotte. “The opera singer and cancan dancers follow him.”He rotated the bill of fare every evening for variety in order to attract a fresh audience to fill the Palace’s non-stop hours. So far tonight, she’d enjoyed the trained dogs, a cornet soloist, and the conjurer.“And listen to the audience shout ‘Nevermore!’ again, every time he cues them with ‘Quoth the raven’?” She shook her head with an exaggerated shudder. “I thank you, no. I’d almost prefer to stare at more snowflakes.”Justin chuckled.Outside, the air was clean and soft under a full moon and the storm’s last snowfall. Here in his box at the Hair Trigger Palace, the air smelled of lavender and the faint, lingering wonder of her pleasure. The world beyond Wolf Laurel would reach them tomorrow and the stagecoach would arrive within a day or so afterward.What would he do when she was gone? Survive. He needed to send her out of the mining town to get her away from its mayor’s attacks.His hand wasn’t entirely steady when he pulled the drapes shut. Sitting down beside her felt too much like coming home.“Thank you for saving my life this afternoon.” She kissed her fingers and laid them against his cheek.“I’m sorry you were abducted. If I’d had any idea that would happen, I’d never have left.” He caught her hand and pulled her close.“Of course you had to go alone. You needed to speak to your friend.” She leaned confidingly against his chest, for all the world as if she still trusted him to look after her. “It was my fault those brutes had a chance to capture me. If I hadn’t spent so long primping, they wouldn’t have had time to arrange their ambush.”He hugged her lithe form a little nearer, thinking her precious as the first taste of spring. She murmured a little noise of agreement that lifted his soul.The couple in the box next door were chanting Edgar Allan Poe’s verses, together with the actor.Justin forgot about them and the rest of the audience with the ease of long practice, and to protect his sanity. He’d memorized “The Raven” in childhood, long before he’d learned how well its performance filled concert saloons.“You need to leave town soon,” he told his darling.“Can Johnson mount an attack again so quickly?”“It’s the only way to keep you safe.” His heart lurched away from the thought. After so many years of fighting to save the man’s life—and so much shared laughter—he couldn’t simply take Johnson out as an obstacle and plant him in Boot Hill. Doing so would irredeemably stain his soul.But Charlotte had brought joy and light into his life. He couldn’t risk losing her now.She hesitated, then nodded.“I don’t want anybody else to die on my behalf—and I don’t want to destroy your friendship with him.”“It’s already gone on his side.”“Are you sure? What about you? Can you forget ten years that quickly?”He hesitated, then shook his head.Her quick look of sympathy pierced his heart.He cuddled her close, letting her pulse sing to his. More than anything else, he needed to know she was safe. Would he ever forget how helpless she’d looked crumpled on the floor at her kidnappers’ feet? And then how neatly she’d hurled that missile to knock one off balance?Where could he send her?“You should go back to Boston, not stay on the poker circuit.”“That’s impossible!”“Why? Were you convicted of a crime?”“No, but—”“Then there’s still a place for you there. You’d be safer beside the Atlantic Ocean than here in the Rockies, with Simmons offering a price on your head.”“My father said I was a slut.”“What the hell?” How could her parent be that deluded? Justin didn’t know whether to plot a lecture or a drowning.“My stepmother said all the time I spent at the Soldiers’ Home, tending the war veterans, was actually loose conduct.” Charlotte flushed.The darling probably didn’t know how to act immoral with a multitude of men. Her stepmother needed to be strangled.“The jealous bitch! And he believed her?”Charlotte nodded. “We had a dreadful fight and I stormed out. I haven’t been back in three years.”“Did you ever offer an explanation?” He caught her hands.“No, I was too angry.”Sounded like all the times he and his father had fought when he was eighteen.“Since then, I’ve concentrated on making money.” She looked up at him from under gold-tipped eyelashes, the same color as all the success she’d enjoyed. “I plan to return to Boston as a wealthy woman and make my stepmother and stepsisters jealous.”“Ah.” Now that definitely sounded like the relationship between him and his half-brothers—nothing but vicious competition every inch of the way. Regrets for what could never be regained stirred within him.“Honey, is your father still alive?” He kissed Charlotte’s hands.“Yes. I’d have seen his obituary if not.”Ah, the unconscious arrogance of class and fortune which expected to see their important announcements widely distributed.Justin closed his eyes for a moment to push away ancient grief. The old days were gone. Like wintertime, they’d passed by to be replaced by the new ways. No man could stand in the path of change.“Charlotte, you should make peace with him while you’re both still alive. You need to make the most of the time you have together.”“No! Do you know what he said? Do you know how he insulted the brave soldiers who fought for this country?”Justin’s mouth twisted wryly. Was he about to defend blue bellies, the long-hated Union troopers who’d destroyed his world? Or could he finally live in peace with them, the way Lee had surrendered his sword at Appomattox?“Darling, I’m sure if you speak gently to him, you can make him see reason, even about that.” Good, he hadn’t actually defended any blue bellies.“But . . .” Her chin still jutted defiantly.“Family is worth fighting for, at all costs, even if it means swallowing a little pride.”She tapped her fingers as if seeking a new argument.“You know I lost my mother to The War. I lost everyone else, too—including my father, my two elder brothers and their families, even my cousins.” His voice had turned soft, his drawl thicker than if he stood once again in Charleston. “I’d give anything to go back and have one more day with my father or brothers. Or sail down the Ashley River again and see Northwick Plantation rising fresh and clean from the gardens.”He halted. He’d said too much, far more than he’d told anyone. Even Johnson only knew he was a South Carolina veteran who’d lost everything to The War. The Georgia native preferred to dwell on his own lost farm and assume Justin’s heart ached for the same simple reasons.“Oh, Justin, I’m so sorry.” Charlotte leaned up and kissed his cheek.He turned his head and captured her sweet mouth. She tasted of youth and springtime, of hope for a civilized life in which battles were fought with words—and ladies’ handbags! —not guns.She kissed him back sweetly. Her tongue moved more confidently today than yesterday, as if she too hungered for his taste. Her slender fingers kneaded his shoulders like an eager little cat seeking warmth and pleasure.He rumbled encouragement and ran his hands down her back. Dear God, but she was deliciously strong under that delicate frame. Damn her corset, he wanted to taste skin. Here and now, in a public place, not in a bedroom’s respectable privacy.He needed her acceptance of his wildness, of his speed with guns, which matched her own dangerous skill with cards.The thought made his blood heat under his long black coat and starched shirt. He left her delectable mouth to nuzzle her sweet temples and eyelids. Tonight he could see all of her, unlike last night in his bedroom when she’d been a sorceress glimpsed under floating, icy shadows. Now he could savor the sweet flush that rose when he suckled her lip, and anticipate how she flung her head back to encourage his attentions to her neck.Ah yes, her beautiful throat. Long, white, flexible as a swan. She uttered the most delicious little sighs, too. She made him groan until he had to kiss her there even more often, so their neighbors wouldn’t hear him.Her breasts rose against his chest, fast and urgent like her hot breath ruffling his hair. “You’re wearing too many clothes,” she whispered into his ear.“So are you, even if you don’t have a hat.” He drew back slightly to fill his eyes with her beauty.“Are you sure you want to do this? Someone might hear us.”“The curtains are closed. It’s quiet.” She pointed her chin in the air, defying him to contradict her.“At the moment.” He kissed the inside of her wrist. “Until I do this . . .” He glided his teeth over her delicate tendons and she moaned.“Wretch.” She blinked at him, her breasts rising and falling faster. “Have you done things like this before?”“Frequently.”“Ooh!” Her eyes sparkled. “Secrets to learn another day.”She softly stroked his cheek and he leaned his head into the delicate caress.“Such a close-cropped beard.” she whispered. “It’s very soft.”“The barber enjoys my regular patronage.”“I enjoy the results, even though they’re not fashionable.” Her husky voice hinted at a shared conspiracy. Her slender finger slipped inside his starched collar. “Do you shave here, too? Your skin is so smooth—but your chest felt prickly through your nightshirt.”“Good Lord, didn’t that idiot Holbrook teach you anything?”“We only had one night together. Besides, you’re much more enticing.” Color burned in her cheeks and lust flared in her eyes before she veiled them.Justin’s pulse leaped. Sweet Lord, had she finally, completely forgotten her initial mistrust of him? Maybe he did stand a chance to win her.“Well, now, I do feel the temperature rising in here.” He cupped her jaw and stroked the delicate pulse points at the back of her head. Her hands moved restlessly over his chest and arms, in the untutored, hungry pattern of an eager yet uncertain woman. He smiled privately and began to unbutton her jacket. He’d had a lifetime’s training for this.“Take off yours first.” She caught his wrist. “I want to feel more of you.”His eyes opened wide before he gave her a very predatory grin. “As my lady commands.”Charlotte flushed but held her ground. She watched eagerly as he rapidly stripped off his coat and hung it on the coat tree. He turned to face her—and God help him, he paused nervously. His cock was thick and tense against his thigh.Would she spook over his guns or his lust?Her eyes darkened. “Take your vest off,” she whispered huskily.His cock surged happily.He removed the scrap of dark silk even faster than the heavy broadcloth. But he hung his weapons belt with his Navy Colts over the leather settee where they’d be within easy reach. Even if they frightened her, he had to protect her.Now only fine linen hid his chest from her and his cock was shouting its eagerness to greet her.She held out her hand to him.“Nevermore!” shouted his damn customers, as if they were speaking about any future for him with Charlotte.Even so, he kissed her again and her nails raked down his back as if she wanted to devour him. Slowly unbuttoning her fine wool jacket to further increase her excitement took an infinity of discipline.Ah, but when he finally opened the dove grey cloth to bare her, it was like revealing a flower. Her breasts rose and fell rapidly above her chemise’s ruffled lace and ribbon. Her sweet curves blossomed above a blue satin corset which disappeared into her skirt.His fingers itched to yank it open, peel everything else off, and bury himself within her. Impossible, no matter what the fire hurling through his blood screamed.Wild and decadent, just as he’d always dreamed.He kissed her breasts and traced every delectable salty trail of sweat and lust trickling across them. She moaned and pulled his head closer.He rumbled agreement and strummed her nipples with his fingers until they became sensitive, aching peaks. Damn it, he wanted her to feel that her corset was just as much a prison as his damn trousers were for his cock.
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She slid down the settee to lie half under him, flushed and panting, utterly desirable. Lust jolted through his veins, from his lungs to his balls. His chest was hot and tight, and even his shirt’s fine linen rasped his suddenly sensitive skin.He tipped one of her breasts out of its silk and steel cage. She gasped but kneaded his shoulders more deeply, her hands now moving to the same steady beat as her writhing hips—and the blood pulsing in his cock.“Hurry,” she whispered. Her sorceress’s voice was husky and irresistible.It only took a moment for his hand to find its way under her skirts. She was wet, so wet, and her cream hot as the fires of life. She tightened her legs around his finger.“More.” Her eyes met his under their heavy lids. She ran her tongue over her lips before she could force the remaining words out. “Not just your fingers.”“Here? Are you sure?”Her eyes had drifted shut again, but she nodded vehemently and clumsily tried to pull him closer.Responsive as she was, what the hell would she be like with more experience? Was there anything she wouldn’t do? Better finish this before his cock tried to find out. He’d already dreamed about fucking from behind.He fumbled for a condom among the shotgun shells in the table drawer. He was only slightly more steady when he unbuttoned his fly and sheathed himself.“Beautiful,” Charlotte murmured and fondled his hip.His heart stopped. All his blood rushed to the base of his spine, desperate to join her in the most primal manner possible.An instant later, he knelt between her legs. Some faint vestiges of intelligence were thankful that this settee was damn sturdy and disinclined to creak.He teased her and fondled her through the slit in her drawers until her pussy was ripe and wet and eager for him. He whispered to her about what he’d do with her pearl when they had more time, about how he’d eat her like the sweetest candy, and savor her juices like the greatest wine.The scent of her musk rose around him, hot and sweet to match her lavender.She slid her small hand down his belly and gently pumped his cock. “Justin.”That guttural growl . . .Why the hell was he waiting?He gathered her hips in his hands and lifted her onto his cock. By some miracle, probably lust, he entered easily. He tried to pause, to give her time to stretch. But the little sorceress grabbed his shoulders, arched her back, and drove herself straight down onto his cock. Her silky intimate hair tickled his thighs and her cotton drawers rustled across his trousers. Her little white teeth were a sharp crescent on her lower lip.His heart leaped into his throat. His balls were tucked high and tight, somewhere halfway up his cock. If he moved, he’d blow into orgasm like a sixteen-year-old kid.She took a deep breath—and lace rustled across her unfettered breasts. He tried to close his eyes.She took another—and those unskilled, inside muscles of hers shifted around him into a new pattern. This time, he did close his eyes.She took another, then rose up—and he prayed. He honestly didn’t think anybody, even a gentleman, could let her go. She came down on him again with a happy sigh.This time, he caught her by the waist and heaved himself upward to join her in the most primal stroke possible. She slammed herself back down on him—and climaxed on a long, rapturous sob.The sound triggered his own rapture. He exploded into ecstasy as if an artillery barrage had erupted throughout his body. Long pulses drummed every last bit of seed down his spine, out of his balls, and into her. Stars burst behind his eyes and he shuddered over and over again.He was vaguely glad afterward that the cancan’s dancers and wild music had hidden any noise they’d made. Of course, if anybody commented, he’d live up to his reputation and show them how unhealthy it was to hurt her feelings.He was also happy that Charlotte’s complete relaxation allowed her to sleep in his arms without any uncomfortable questions or small talk.Unfortunately, it also allowed him time to think about what he’d lose when she left.He couldn’t keep her here, since Johnson would be coming after her. The stubborn bastard would probably send her on to Simmons even if the brute had already left town.He couldn’t court her for marriage, at least not yet. While she was trapped here in Wolf Laurel, he was the only man who would protect her. If she said yes to his proposal, he’d never be sure she hadn’t just been making the best of a bad situation. He didn’t want that uncertainty hanging over their heads in the future.Marriage. Love. Yes.He smiled faintly. He wanted both. Hell of a time to figure that out about himself.Charlotte needed to be courted like any properly brought-up young lady he’d introduce to his mother. Pulling that off would be harder than getting her out of town alive. Ike Johnson kicked his safe’s door shut behind him. Damn it, why did Talbot have to be right about how much promoting the poker tournament would cost? He’d lost money on the damn thing, especially after pampering the highfaluting players who were the so-calledmain attractions.The floor creaked. Ike stiffened, then quickly smoothed on a hospitable smile.“Evening, Seward.” The damn town councilman weighed more than a two-horse hitch—and his mind moved faster than one. He ran the biggest bank in town and held Ike’s loan.“Evening, Johnson.” He probably thought his flat Ohio accent sounded powerful. “Do you have the charter yet?”“No, but I expect to have it before Simmons leaves.” Ike ground his teeth. His father always said not to yell when stating the obvious but sometimes that was fucking hard. “If he gave it to us before he makes a thorough inspection, the rest of the committee might suspect something, even though his is the only vote that counts.”“True.” Seward picked up an inkwell from Ike’s desk and turned it around in his hand. “What will happen if he doesn’t receive the right bribe?”Ike stiffened. “He’ll have it.”“Are you certain?”“Completely.” Ike spread his hands. He’d deliver the bitch if he had to burn down the Hair Trigger Palace to find her.“If Wolf Laurel doesn’t become the county seat, it’s hard to see how you’ll make the payments on your loan.”“There’s no due date on the loan.” Ike’s throat was suddenly very dry.The Northerner’s narrow eyes stared at him like a wolf eyeing a scrawny deer. “No, the date is blank because the bank gets to fill it in.”“You conniving bastard.”“Not at all. You received an extremely advantageous deal.” He tossed the inkwell into the air.Red filmed Ike’s vision but he beat it back. Seward had a partner here in town, plus another in Denver. Killing him would solve nothing.“Who will you find to deliver the bribe to Simmons?” The banker replaced the inkwell on the table, clearly satisfied with the conversation. “Word on the street is that Nine-Fingers’ death has scared everybody else off. It’ll cost four times as much or more to stage another attack on Talbot.”Shit. The only way he’d found anybody before was to use Nine-Fingers Isham. That piece of jailbait had owed him too much to even think about asking for money.“You don’t know everything I’ve got up my sleeve,” Ike said gruffly. “The bribe will reach Simmons in time.”He’d grab the girl by himself. Talbot would never shoot him.Chapter 9 “You should stay inside,” Justin said again.“I’m following you,” Charlotte repeated for at least the third time in the last ten minutes. “Who would possibly try to kidnap me on a sunny morning? All we’ll do is walk across the street to the telegraph office, check for news, and come back.”“If anything happens—” He didn’t look happy. But who would dare attack them when Justin was carrying two Navy Colts at his belt, plus another at his back? Not to mention all those knives secreted in various intriguing places.“I promise you, I’ll duck.” She gave him a hopeful smile, while Garland glared beside her. Unfortunately he hadn’t redeemed his reputation in Justin’s eyes after not preventing yesterday’s attack. So he couldn’t argue that he alone could protect her. She wouldn’t refer to that, but she wasn’t above ignoring him in favor of clinging to every possible minute with Justin.“Very well.”They stepped out of the Hair Trigger Palace’s front door and onto the boardwalk. Its roof had sheltered it from the worst snow and allowed Justin and Charlotte a brief pause to adjust their eyes to the morning’s brilliant sunshine.The last snow had fallen after midnight and the winds had died shortly thereafter. Brilliant sunshine turned the crisp, cold air into knife blades. Glistening spears of ice dangled from every roof. Gangs of men, paid by the saloons, had attacked the snowdrifts at first light. The alleys and streets were now hard-packed, slippery paths.Saloons and shopkeepers had thrown open their establishments to welcome miners and townspeople. Pedestrians bustled along the boardwalk or picked their way cautiously across the street.Simmons drank coffee and scratched his belly on the Silver King Hotel’s front porch, next door to the Palace. His hot eyes tracked her like a rabid dog.Charlotte followed Justin into the open, grateful for the sawdust somebody had spread to provide better footing.“Talbot!” Johnson yelled from the Crystal Saloon two doors away.Justin turned slowly and Charlotte kept pace.“Good morning, mayor,” Justin acknowledged, his response far more civil than the look on Johnson’s face.“I need to speak to your companion. She owes me her entry fee for the poker tournament.”“What? I never signed an agreement to play in that tournament.”“Everybody knows that’s why you’re here in Wolf Laurel.”People were disappearing into buildings like rats seeking their burrows.“I won’t pay you a nickel.” Not for the privilege of nearly being kidnapped and raped.His expression turned ugly and cold as a gallows. “Are you telling me you welsh on a debt?”Shopkeepers now slammed shutters into place. A few men, including Simmons, moved onto the boardwalk steps leading onto the street where they could see better.“Johnson, you know those are fighting words. Why are you trying to pick a duel with a woman?” Justin’s rich drawl held all the civilized memories of a long-dead world.“Because she’s a cheat and a coward. Any man who protects her—”“Johnson, we’ve been saddle-partners too long for me to listen to this nonsense.”“Talbot, for Christ’s sake . . .”“Miss Moreland and I are heading for the telegraph office, after which you’re welcome to join us for coffee. You have been, and will always be my friend—not my enemy. Good day.” Justin ostentatiously turned his back on the town’s mayor and started walking again.Charlotte tagged unhappily along behind him. Fine words from Justin, but what if Johnson placed money ahead of friendship? Somebody would have to take action.“Why, you son of a bitch—”Charlotte jumped at Justin’s back and knocked him aside.BAM!The bullet blasted across her arm as if a fiery train had hit her and she fell down, skidding into a water trough.BAM! BAM!Oh, dear Lord, Johnson was still shooting.BOOM!Justin fired his Colt over her head.A man screamed and somebody was running toward them.Charlotte cautiously lifted her head. Her sleeve was scorched. Crimson started to blur its edges.“Darling!” Justin dropped to his knees beside her. “Are you all right?”“I think the bullet grazed my arm.”He started to examine it. His dark eyes met hers for a moment. “You saved my life.”“Of course.”Justin shook his head and compressed his lips even tighter. He was very white.“Where’s Johnson?” she asked.“Dead. His last shot went wild and took out Simmons.”“They can share the same grave,” she muttered.Justin choked in unwilling laughter, then lifted her up. “Can you stand? We need to bandage this.”“Yes, of course.” Her feet wobbled underneath her but everything was easier with his arm around her.“Charlotte?” Another man forced his way through the ever increasing crowd.The well-remembered voice made her head come up from Justin’s shoulder. They turned back from the Hair Trigger Palace to face the newcomer.“Charlotte, my dear?” Her filthy, bedraggled father swung down off his exhausted horse and leaped onto the boardwalk. Behind him, two sage mountain men in fringed leathers and buffalo skins folded their hands on their saddle horns and grinned proudly. He couldn’t have arrived with more unusual attire and companions if Elijah’s chariot of fire had deposited him. He’d lowered himself to perform this hunt on his own, rather than send Pinkerton’s agents.The shock was enough to deaden even her arm’s increasing anguish.“Father,” Charlotte acknowledged cautiously. If he was about to demand she return to the same prison as before, overseen by her stepmother . . . “How did you get here?”“My friends brought me to Wolf Laurel. I was afraid you’d slip through my fingers again so we rode through the night.” He’d lost weight and his clothing was made for mining country, not Boston.“Through the storm—for me?” She couldn’t imagine how he’d traveled without his private railway car. “How did you find me?”“A Denver gunsmith told me you’d come to Wolf Laurel.” The Moreland patriarch cast a suspicious eye at Justin. “He warned me to hurry because he wasn’t sure you’d stick around long.”“He loves you,” whispered Justin in her ear.“I came alone, since I’m now a divorced man.”She gaped at her father. The head of the Moreland family divorced? That scandal would match or possibly outweigh anything she’d done. “I’m not sure I believe you.”“I bought that woman off with ten thousand dollars and Putnam’s old Beacon Hill townhouse, one of the few to survive the fire.”“The one with the gaudy ballroom and the huge dining room?”“The same.” A smile almost touched his lips.“You didn’t give her enough money to heat that enormous pile for more than a few years, once she buys clothes for her girls. They’ll be paupers.” Charlotte had never hoped to see such a perfect revenge on those harridans.“Yes, I understand they sailed for Europe to hunt in fresh waters. But I care not. I’ve come to beg my darling daughter’s forgiveness.” Her father’s eyes pleaded with hers. “I should have asked for your explanation, rather than believing shapeless lies and losing my temper.”“Oh, Papa!” Tears spilled down her cheeks. They’d always promised to be honest with each other and that lapse had hurt her the most. She reached out to him with her good arm and he kissed her cheek.“Who is this fellow?” he asked sternly a moment later.“The man who saved my life,” Charlotte answered.“Her suitor, with your blessing,” Justin said simultaneously.She stared at him. She’d never thought Justin would leave the West.Then she began to smile. Perhaps she could have a future with him after all. Boston, Christmas Sunday, 1875Decked out in garlands of pine boughs and roses, the Moreland carriage turned the final corner to the family mansion on Beacon Hill. Inside, Charlotte held hands with her new husband.The Boston church bells filled the sky with cascades of brilliant joy, as glittering bright as the skies. A stream of carriages like golden bonbons turned into the street behind them.The crowd broke out in cheers, hailing a pageant brighter than anything in a concert saloon or variety house.Scents of coffee and chocolate drifted from inside, as the Moreland servants carried hot drinks to the policemen guarding the street corners. Tempting aromas of hot cider and hot chestnuts wafted past, from the food provided to the crowds.Liveried servants in burgundy and gold flung open the mansion’s great double doors. Inside, Charlotte could glimpse garlands wrapped around the grand staircase and gilded angels dancing below the chandeliers. Red and gold ribbons transformed all the furniture into gigantic ornaments. Servants bustled between the kitchen and the drawing room, carrying even more edible delights for the banquet to come.Their sleigh drew up before the great mansion and her father stepped out. He scanned the throng for a moment and an unaccustomed smile touched his harsh, patrician face. He bowed and waved to his fellow citizens, then stepped onto the crimson carpet leading into his home.Justin handed Charlotte down from the carriage. She was swathed in furs and velvet against the cold, and sapphires glowed at her throat.She leaned against him for a moment, to catch every bit of intimacy before they faced the throng inside. The crowd’s cheers redoubled and Justin’s smile lit his eyes.It came more often now, on this side of the Mississippi.She reluctantly waved at the people nearby but didn’t take her eyes off her beloved husband.“Are you truly happy here?” she asked, low enough that the grooms couldn’t hear.“Completely.” His smile deepened. “I have everything my mother wanted for me, and more. Plus, the most glorious future imaginable in your arms.”His hand rested briefly on her waist where his child grew.She blushed, then her grin blazed to match his. They hadn’t mentioned that detail to her father yet.“Come, my darling Ace, let’s greet our guests.”She shivered happily at his use of their private nickname.“The sooner we introduce my cousin, Earl Chillington, to everyone, the sooner we can depart on our honeymoon.”“I adore you, Mr. Talbot.” She tucked her hand into his elbow, fully in accord with his grasp of the necessities. Life would be an eternal delight with him at her side.
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To Match a Thief MAGGIEROBINSONChapter 1 Jane Street, London, October 1820 Lucy Dellamar looked down with dismay at the diamond brooch in her hand.It had happened again.She hadn’t meant to steal it, though it was clear she had, for why else would it be cutting into her palm? But there it had been, carelessly twinkling on the bedside table of her neighbor Victorina Castellano, where anyone might come upon it and pocket it. At least Lucy had not taken Victorina’s matching earrings that were right beside it, although she probably should have. Sets were more valuable when kept together.Botheration. No time for regrets about her light fingers and inadequate forethought. Lord Ferguson would be happy, and that’s all that counted. It meant a roof over her head for another month at least, and perhaps a choicer cut of meat even if the cook had already quit. She would buy it and cook it herself.Lucy was hungry right now. Thieving was hard work, though whoring was worse. It hadn’t come to that—yet.Even if she did live on Jane Street, ‘Courtesan Court,’ the most wicked street in Mayfair.Lucy lived a total lie. Oh, too many ‘ls’ upon the tongue, but there it was. Six years ago, she had been plucked out of obscure quasi-poverty by Lord Percival Ferguson and offered a job she could not refuse.There was no reason to say no. She had been a twenty-four-year-old spinster, deserted by her fiancé, a thief far more cunning than she ever aspired to be. For all she knew he was dead—there had not been a word from him in over seven years.Lucy’s new job was remarkably easy. Lord Ferguson had asked her to pretend to be his mistress, because it was expected that a man in his position in Society would keep one. She was in fact, one of a long line of women that poor Percy had kept over the last twenty years.The earl swore he’d never touched a one of them aside from a gentle steer of an elbow, which she could easily believe, as he was having it on with her strapping young butler, Yates. Percy and Yates had been lovers for quite some time, and the Jane Street address had proven a convenient spot for their assignations. Everyone in the ton thought Lord Ferguson was visiting Lucy, when it was really Yates’s bed he sought. Lord Ferguson could be himself in his little house, and if that meant borrowing Lucy’s rouge pot and silk stockings, what was the harm, really?But some months ago, Percy had lost most of his fortune through spectacularly unwise investments, and Lucy was very much afraid her days on Jane Street were numbered. The maid and the cook were gone, resulting in Lucy herself dusting and polishing the few bits of silver that were left and tying her own laces. She supposed it was only right that she begin to earn her keep, for really, the past six years had been a blissful blur of indolence and amusement. Percy had exquisite taste and had dressed her in everything he himself would want to wear—and did—so she had been turned out beautifully. Expensively. Totally a la mode. There had been nothing new—not so much as a plain-edged handkerchief for either of them—in seven months, and Lucy had resorted to selling a few of her older dresses to help pay for candles.Percy’s mother was pestering him to marry an heiress, which would never suit. He couldn’t touch his Scottish estate or his London townhouse—they were entailed for the heirs he would have only with the most miraculous of miracles—but the Jane Street house would fetch a pretty penny. Everyone in the ton would forgive Lord Ferguson if he was forced to sell his love nest due to financial reversals. They would not forgive him if they caught him in Lucy’s black lace peignoir, nor would the inevitable heiress his mother would force him to marry if she had her way.Percy looked better in the peignoir than she did—black washed her out. She was too pale, her milk-white skin and red-gold hair better suited to pastels. Of course, a courtesan was expected to wear more vibrant colors, so she did, much to Percy’s delight.The clothes were an improvement over what she had been wearing the day Percy found her in her aunt’s Edinburgh millinery shop. He had stepped in to get out of the rain, he’d said (but truly, he had been drawn by a lovely peacock-blue hat trimmed with matching feathers Lucy had set in the window fifteen minutes before). She wore a plain gray dress with a starched white apron, its pockets holding needles and her long-shafted scissors. When he’d offered her a job, she’d been so shocked she sat down and stabbed herself in the thigh.Percy hadn’t hired her because she was beautiful, although she was more than passably good-looking. She’d turned a head or two in her time, not that she wanted to rememberthosedays. No. He said as soon as he looked into her light brown eyes—directly into them, because she was just his height—that he’d known she was just the girl for him. And when he glimpsed her enormous feet, he was in transports.Lucy was very tall for a woman, and slender—flatchested, if one wanted to be brutally honest. She and Percy were nearly identical in size, so she was able to fulfill his lifelong dream to deck himself out in the best women’s clothing without arousing suspicion. Of course Lord Ferguson accompanied Lucy for her fittings at the finest London dressmakers’ shops. Of course he fingered the fabrics, suggested the styles—he was paying the shot and knew what he liked to see his rather gargantuan mistress in.Under Percy’s tutelage, she had blossomed—the awkward ugly duckling had turned into a graceful, gliding swan, whose irregular height set her far apart from the ordinary. Lucy would be lying if she claimed she didn’t like to play dress-up, and her current position had released her from the tedium of pleating velvet onto straw and sewing stuffed songbirds onto bonnets and listening to her aunt’s continuous opprobrium. Her aunt now had to harangue some other girl, and pay her, too. Lucy had received very little for her efforts save the roof over her head and poor fare on her aunt’s table. Percy had made her eat so she could order bigger clothes to fit him.Her eating days were coming to an end. She could not keep stealing from the courtesans on ‘Courtesan Court.’ They already looked at her with distrust, and her invitations to the weekly amusements the girls hosted while they waited for their protectors had dried up. Stealing waswrong, even if the girls had more useless trifles than they needed at the moment. But someday their fabled beauty would fade—they’d grow stout and whiskery, and then all the diamond pins in the world could not replace their golden youth. A mistress had to make provisions for the future.But so did Lucy. She was thirty years old, after all, already well past her prime even if she didn’t look like an old hag—Percy’s special skin potions had seen to that. She just had to find a better—legal—way to secure her future. She didn’t fancy getting transported to the antipodean penal colony.She might bump into someone she knew.No, she would not think abouthimnow. He’d done enough to ruin her dreams without taking over her waking hours too.She fetched a hat—a quite pretty one she’d made herself, red ribbons and cherries to match her red pelisse, and went to see Mr. Peachtree with the pin tucked into her reticule. He was an honest, honorable broker who believed her lies and thought he was helping her to get free of the wicked Lord Ferguson. The fact that Lord Ferguson gave his mistress such odd gifts—mismatched teaspoons, jeweled snuffboxes, smallobjetsthat could easily be stuffed into pockets or down bodices—hadn’t seemed to occur to him yet.Lucy wasnota thief, although she had been taught by the best. And he had stolen her heart and sent it back broken.Chapter 2 No one who saw him now could ever guess precisely how primitive Sir Simon Keith’s beginnings were. Thanks to Providence, his teeth were mercifully straight, his black hair clipped a la Brutus, his shirtpoints starched high, his cravat snow white, his jacket tailored to perfection—the list could go on and on with a plethora of commas. He was a veritable nonpareil, tall, dark and almost too handsome.It was only when one noticed his long fingers, nails irrevocably grease-stained from years of manual labor in its truest sense, that one realized that Sir Simon had not been to the manor born. He’d been very good with his hands (whether with women or machinery or removing the odd watch from an unsuspecting cove’s pocket) since he was a boy on the streets of Edinburgh. When he joined the army at the age of seventeen, under some duress if it be known—there was a price on his head and the local constable was keen on his trail—the military seemed preferable to prison. His superiors had soon discovered that whatever one put in front of Private Keith he could fix. When he put his mind to something, he could turn a bit of string and a scrap of metal into anything one would like. His mid-battle adjustments to a crate of useless but much-needed rifles earned him a rapid promotion, until he was taken out of the field altogether and put to work at a drafting board in the War Office. One thing led to another, and now Sir Simon owned his own foundry and a fistful of patents.With peacetime cutting into his profits, he’d seen the way to convert his materiel to less deadly accoutrements and was now deep into the promulgation of a railway system that would stretch from one end of Britain to the other, using his own engines, of course. He had been knighted for his service to the Crown in squelching that fiend Napoleon, was unbearably rich and only thirty. Who knew what his future held?Itshouldhold a wife. Some nice, proper well-bred girl who would help him advance in Society. She needn’t be rich—he had more money than he knew what to do with—but she’d have to have a pedigree to make up for the one he lacked. Simon supposed a girl like that would be rather dull in bed, but that was all right. He had an appointment this very afternoon to meet with Lord Percival Ferguson, a fellow Scot. The gentleman was a bit eccentric—the earl preferred to wear his kilt even in town—but Simon didn’t mind. He’d heard old Percy was hard up and planned to sell his Jane Street house. Simon could set up a mistress there to escape from his boring future wife.If Simon purchased a property on that sought-after street, he really would consider himself ‘arrived.’ Imagine, a boy from the Edinburgh slums keeping a high-class London courtesan. What would Lucy say?Ah. Poor Lucy. His lost love. Dead and gone for years. Whilst he was out and about fighting and inventing for King and Country, she toiled like a slave for her wretched aunt. He’d come back for her too late. The aunt had chased him out of her hat shop with a fistful of hatpins and he’d lost himself in a pint or two for longer than he cared to remember.He’d promised to return, and had, once the war was over and he had something to show for it. But she’d died six years ago, poor wee thing.Well, ‘wee’ was not precisely correct. His Lucy was a Valkyrie, an Amazon among women. But she’d fit against him to perfection and he missed her every day.Calf love it may have been, but it had stayed true. Simon had even taught himself to read and write to surprise her. He still had every one of her letters—all five of them—unopened of course, because at first he could not admit to being such an ignorant sod as to need someone read them to him. His old gran had sent them after he was safely established in his regiment, if “safe” meant not having his head shot off yet.By the time he knew how to read, he couldn’t bear to be reminded of what they had shared. Poor Luce must have given up hope on him, or counted on the Corsican monster to win.But England had prevailed five years ago, in no small part due to Simon. And Simon would prevail too—buy Ferguson’s house, acquire a mistress to put in it, find a wife. Have a few little Keiths—for that was his name now—although with his imposing height, they wouldn’t stay little for long. Lord Percival Ferguson looked ill at ease, and well he should. It was not just because he was wearing a fine suit of gentleman’s evening clothes, either, although he had chosen a blindingly puce vest to add a bit of color. “All I’m asking you to do, my dear, is give the man a chance.”“How could you, Percy? You cannot sell me along with the house!” Lucy paced her sweet little sitting room, her long legs making short work of the distance. Pale copper braids flew behind her, striking her cheek when she turned.“Lucy, darling, I’m not selling you. I thought to give you some security, chatting you up with Sir Simon. You and I have been good friends—the best of friends—for six years. I don’t want to imagine you out in the cold.”And itwascold. October chill had set in. Winter would be upon them soon, and where would she go? “I suppose you’ll want to keep my fur cloak, too! Damn it, Percy, you can’t pass me off like a basket of dinner rolls.”“Just one meeting, love. If you don’t like him, you don’t need to stay. We can make some other arrangements. I can’t give you very much in the way of any congé, though, you know. I’m beyond broke. But I sang your praises—”“Lied, you mean!”“Nonsense. I’m sure you’ll be very skilled in the bedroom if you put your mind to it. There are books to help you, you know. That neighbor of yours writes them.”Lucy shot daggers at him at the idea of reading dirty books, even if she already had a time or two, so he changed his tack. “Sir Simon is handsome. Rich. If I didn’t have a tendre for my Yates I’d be quite taken with him myself. And he’s much taller than you, no easy feat. The man is an Atlas. I got a crick in my neck looking up at him, and we were sitting in chairs at my club.”Simon. The name alone was an ill omen. Just what she needed as a reminder of her past. Why couldn’t the bluidy man be called Harold or Henry or George? “And he’s a complete, utter stranger! Percy, you have gone too far.”He shrugged in apology. “That’s what I do, my dear. I’ve never known my limits. Bane of my existence. Mama’s, too.”Lucy did not wish to think of Percy’s dragon of a mother. She held a hand against her flat chest, as if to keep her crumbling heart from bouncing out and shattering on the carpet. “This is intolerable. I’ll have to go back to Edinburgh.”“You know your ghastly old aunt won’t have you. She’s told everybody you’re dead. You’ll scare the life out of the old neighborhood if you turn up. You’re pale as a ghost as it is.”Lucy stopped her march to the wall. “To her Iamdead. She thinks I’m a Fallen Woman.”Percy cleared his throat. “Youarea Fallen Woman,” he reminded her gently.“I should never have told you about that boy! And anyway, I was practically a child. I didn’t know any better.”“I know. You placed your fate in the hands of a handsome thief.” Percy sighed and looked rather like a sympathetic basset hound, all mournful eyes and wobbly jowls.Lucy and Percy reallywerefriends, really almost like sisters, so to speak. They had confided nearly everything to each other over the years. He knew all about that bastard Simon Grant, or as much as she was willing to tell him, and she knew—well, she knew enough to blackmail Percy for the rest of his life if only he had any money. She flung herself down on the sofa, allowing her misery to swallow her up.“Och! I’ll nae be able to do it!” she said, sobbing into the sleeve of her sensible white night rail.It was unusual for her to lapse into her Scots accent. Percy had drummed every conceivable ladylike lesson into her, and that included erasing the nature of her humble origins. She spoke English far better than Queen Caroline, and dressed more elegantly too.“Oh, you’re breaking my heart,” said Percy, tearing a lace-edged handkerchief out of his pocket and sobbing next to her. “I wish I’d never listened to that dastardly scheme to import those mulberry trees and silkworms from China. But I could have cornered the silk market! Just think of the dresses we could have had.”Lucy hiccupped. “You couldn’t have known the trees were diseased and the silkworms would become poisoned and die.” That had just been one catastrophic business failure. She was too kind to bring up the others, but Percy did himself after he blew his nose.“And that Nigerian prince took me in as well. All that money transferred to him, and he was nothing but the son of a goatherd. There isn’t even a king in his country! Well,” Percy said, flourishing his rather damp handkerchief, “I expect my luck is about to change. Steam engines, Lucy. That’s the future. Sir Simon has assured me that to invest with him will bring me untold fortune.”“Percy! Don’t tell me you’ve traded this house for shares in some fly-by-night enterprise! Again!” She smacked Percy on his hollow chest.“No, no. Nothing like that. Sir Simon says—”“I don’t give a fig what the bluidy man says! It’s cash you need, Percy, and a lot of it! How will you be able to pay our dressmaker?”“We’ll come to terms, never you fear. In six months I’ll be rich as Croesus. But not,” he said, wiping a tear from his watery brown eye, “in time to save you. It’s all I can do to find Yates a job at Mama’s.”Percy’s mother lived at Ferguson House in Portman Square, which was of course Percy’s and not his mama’s at all. If it were up to Lucy, she’d send the witchy old countess back to Scotland and hope she got lost in a Highland snowdrift.Percy brushed her tear-stained cheeks with a dry corner of his handkerchief. “Just try to like him, Lucy. That’s all I ask. He’s a wee bit rough around the edges—his knighthood’s a recent thing—but he seems a gentleman. And he is very good-looking. He wants a place to entertain his investors, and Jane Street has cachet. Think of the dinner parties you can preside at as hostess.”“You sold the damned dining table, Percy,” Lucy reminded him. Now she ate down in the kitchen or on a tray in her sitting room if she ate at all.“It was a signed Sheraton—of course I did. You should wear the fern-green-striped gown with the cream Brussels lace when he comes to call. The emerald parure, even if they’re paste. And you might want to pad your bosom until you sign your contract. After that, it’s every man for himself. Caveat emptor, don’t you know.”Lucy smacked him again, but her heart wasn’t in it. What choice did she have? This Sir Simon might not even like her anyway, unless he wanted to borrow her clothes. She was not the usual run of mistress, especially since she hadn’t bedded a man in thirteen years. She would always be too tall, too pale, too opinionated. Percy had done her no favors dragging her down here into this hotbed of sin. She could have happily gone blind stitching rosettes and ribbons to hats for the rest of her life, waiting to inherit her aunt’s millinery shop.All possibility of that was gone now.Lucy wiped her nose on her sleeve, eschewing Percy’s offer of the snot-ridden handkerchief. “When is he coming?” It had better not be tonight—Percy had found her with her hair in braids in bed with a good book—well, it was a very bad book, really, and that was the whole point—to tell her he’d given her away.“He’s going to call on you tomorrow morning. He says he wants to get a good look at you in daylight.”Lucy narrowed her eyes at Percy. If she didn’t love the benighted man, she’d wish him to the devil. “Like a horse.”“Now, now, like a beautiful woman who needs no dim candlelight to shine. But—er—ahem—I would appreciate it if you didn’t divulge the precise nature of our relationship when you speak to him.”“Of course I won’t betray you! Haven’t I been loyal for six years?”He took her hand and kissed it, the only part of her body his lips had ever touched. “I know you wouldn’t mean to, but he might ask unsettling questions.” Percy was blushing. He had a great deal to blush about.Lucy snatched her hand away. “Your reputation is safe with me. If your mother couldn’t worm it out of me the horrible day she came to visit, I doubt this Sir Simon will rattle me. But I will keep my fur cloak, Percy. It’s only fair. The red fox matches my hair.”Percy sighed. “Oh, all right. It’s too hot to wear indoors anyway. But I expect Sir Simon will want to dress you in new clothes. Perhaps we can put my things in storage for happier days ahead.”Lucy did not think there would be happier days ahead for her. In all likelihood, she would have to make the role of courtesan she had played for the past half-dozen years come true. The tiny bit of virtue she still possessed as a thief and a liar was about to be tossed out onto the cobblestones of Jane Street. “I haven’t agreed to become his mistress yet, Percy.”Percy grinned. “But you will. I believe he’s perfect for you. I have a feeling about these things.”Lucy knew all about Percy’s feelings, and wished she had never, ever put that peacock-blue hat in the window.
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Chapter 3 After Percy went downstairs to celebrate the sale of his house with Yates, Lucy tossed and turned for hours, bunching up her tear-stained nightgown. In a fit of pique, she tore it off her head and tossed it on the floor. Now she was as naked as God made her. She supposed He’d known what He was doing, she thought doubtfully, but sometimes she wondered why He had not quite finished the job.Around three o’clock, with the church bells bonging melodiously throughout Mayfair, Lucy stalked out of bed and headed for the whiskey she kept in her cupboard. This night—this morning, now—required strong drink to get through. Unfortunately she’d had to water down the ‘water of life’ to make it last, but it was better than nothing. Shoveling some coals on the fire, she sat naked, drank, and grimly surveyed her future.She might seek employment with a milliner in town—she wasn’t well-known like Harriet Wilson and her sisters and would not be recognized. Percy hadn’t wanted to be seen everywhere with her except when he ordered their clothes at their private dressmaker’s appointments—he wanted to keep a low profile and wear his corsets and clocked stockings in privacy. Of course the Janes—the other courtesans on Jane Street—would know she had spent six years of her life here, but they were famously discreet. If Sir Simon Whoeverhewas didn’t like her—and how could he, she thought, looking down in the flickering firelight at her long, angular body in disgust—she would have to make alternate plans.She wasnotgoing to keep thieving.She drank her glass, then poured another. The bells struck four. By five she’d run out of whiskey and coherent rumination, and crawled back in bed.And that is where Sir Simon Keith found her at nine o’clock.He knew he was unconscionably early, but he was a busy man. It was best to start the day as early as possible, because, while he had invented a great many things, he still hadn’t figured out how to add hours to the clock. He’d rapped at the front door of the little house with no result.But Lord Ferguson had given him a key, so he used it. A gust of wind blew leaves in on this bright October day, and he bent to pick them up and put them in his pocket. He may have been raised in a hovel, but he liked things neat now. The leaves joined the collection of roller bearings which kept his hands occupied when he wanted to think.And this house was very neat, although not as furnished as he expected it to be. Empty squares on the tastefully papered parlor walls revealed where pictures used to hang. There was a sofa, one chair, an embroidered footstool. Double doors to a dining room led to three spindle-back chairs but no table. He examined the carpet—worn—and could see the impression where once the feet of a long table had rested. He pictured himself—after buying new furniture—having jolly parties with his mistress and men of industry who needed a light evening to be cajoled into investing in his enterprises.She would be a clever girl, pretty, diamonds sparkling at her throat, sitting at the head of the table and charming the pants off the other gents. Not literally, though. Simon had standards, and he didn’t like to share. Ferguson had said his mistress was exceptionally tall, and Simon liked a tall woman. He was such a big brute himself he’d always felt awkward covering some little dab of a girl. Lucy had been perfect for him, and he’d grown four inches and gained three stone since he ran away from her. Good food and plenty of it had that effect.Simon sighed, running his finger along the banister. No, he didn’t run away fromher, but the circumstances. He’d be quarrying rock in Australia if he hadn’t slipped away.Or worse.Where was everybody? The house was dead silent. He knew Ferguson was in dun territory, but surely there should be a maid somewhere for his mistress.“Hallo!” he called at the bottom of the stairs, and waited.Nothing. Maybe Miss Dellamar bunked it, not wishing to be transferred along with the deed to the Jane Street house. He could see her point. It was slightly distasteful, and he wasn’t altogether certain he’d keep her on anyway, no matter how lovely Ferguson said she was.But if they suited each other, it would save him the bother of finding a mistress. He’d been without a woman for too long. All work and no play had made Simon a very dull boy indeed. He was entitled now to a little fun.Each Jane Street house was a little jewel box, holding a jewel of a woman. His prospective gem might not be at home, but there was no reason not to inspect the house. He’d visited an acquaintance for a gathering down the street a few doors down—there were only twelve houses in the cul-de-sac—and the floor plans were identical.He climbed the carpeted treads. The first door at the top of the stairs led to a cozy sitting room. He entered, finding it filled with a good quantity of books piled haphazardly on rather homely furniture, the kind of stuff you might find in a country cottage, definitely not a brothel. Chintz and lace and what-not, feminine frippery. He was surprised there was no long-haired cat cluttering up the space. He picked up a book and read a few lines—bah, women’s stuff, some rubbishy novel meant to turn your mind from your troubles. Ruined castles and anguished dukes. Sheer nonsense.A half-finished straw capote—Simon was well-versed in ladies’ hats—sat on a faceless form, strips of ribbon and hatmaker’s tools laid neatly on a round table beside it. How quaint that Percy’s mistress made her own hats, although judging from the form, her head must be enormous.Good. He hoped she had brains. He wouldn’t want to be saddled with some empty-headed female. He was too proud of his own efforts to educate himself, late as they had come. Simon wanted someone to discuss the changing world with him after he’d fucked her, someone to tell his dreams to. He’d heard Jane Street girls were not only beautiful but brainy, the crème de la crème of courtesans.The door to the bedroom stood ajar, and Simon looked through the opening.Blast. He’d presumed everyone was out of the house. But there, on the middle of the mattress was Lord Ferguson’s sylph-like mistress, Miss Dellamar—a Long Meg if he’d ever seen one. She slept—and snored—on her back, her face obscured by the corner of a pillow. Her covers and nightgown seemed to be crumpled on the floor, so he could look his fill with no obstruction to the rest of her.Her skin was very white, as white as the sheets. She had no breasts to speak of, which did not bother him as much as it might have. His Lucy—well, there was no point in remembering what she’d looked like, but she had been small up top like this woman. Lord Ferguson’s mistress had a thatch of bright strawberry-blonde hair at her apex, about the same color as the braids that splayed on the bed. Titian red, just like in the painter’s portrait of Mary Magdalene, he reminded himself, now that he knew something about art. He supposed it was fitting that Miss Dellamar had hair like a Biblical prostitute.Lucy’s hair had been reddish too, but in their brief time together he’d never had the luxury of seeing it loose, falling down her back. In fact he’d never really seen her naked at all—just the odd few inches of skin as they hurriedly took their pleasure in one another in back streets and doorways in the dark.The closest they’d come to a bed was in the back room of the hat shop when her aunt had the gout and was resting right upstairs. There had been an old stuffed chair—lemon yellow, it was, and he’d put Lucy on his lap. The look on her face had been comical until she realized what she could do. They’d been quiet with difficulty, and poor Luce was a nervous wreck thinking the old battleaxe would come limping downstairs any minute with every gasp she took.Stolen moments for the boy who stole.He could make all the noise he wanted now in this house—it was his, or would be in six days. Simon had the signed bill of sale in his pocket. Ferguson had wanted to give his mistress a chance to make other arrangements if Simon didn’t like her, or vice versa. He wouldn’t try to charm her if she took one look at him and shuddered. He was handsome enough—no one had complained—but he was one braw Scot, big enough to frighten away half the people he met.Once he’d wanted to scare people into them giving him their valuables without a fight. Now he just wanted to get their money as investors, and it wouldn’t do to have the ton think he was some unlettered savage.If Miss Dellamar woke up right now, she’d probably toss the pillow at him and more besides. It wasn’t very gentlemanly of him to stare at her nakedness when they hadn’t even been introduced, even if she was a whore. He’d come back later.Simon took one last look around the bedroom. An empty bottle of whiskey stood on a little table in front of the fireplace. Lord Ferguson had said nothing about his mistress being a tippler. If she was, she’d have to drink alone. After he learned of Lucy’s death, Simon had lost himself for a bit. He couldn’t bollix up all his business plans again. Clearheaded at all times, that’s what he needed to be. And he had to admit looking at this woman’s glorious body, his mind was becoming somewhat foggy.Aye, he’d come back later. After noontime, when she’d slept off her drink and was dressed like a proper tart. He had plenty of things to keep him busy until then.He reached in his pocket for the key so he could lock up and not leave her prey to someone who had less self-control than he had. His hand came upon a leaf, pale red the color of Miss Dellamar’s hair.It was a sign, he thought. What it meant he didn’t know.Chapter 4 Lucy awoke with a pounding headache. She was freezing, too, her coals being long cold. There was no maid to bring her hot chocolate or hot water or hot anything. Cross, she snatched up her night rail from the floor and shoved her head through the opening, then covered herself with her warmest woolen robe. Her hair was a horror of half-braided tangles, so she twisted it all up in a kerchief and tied it under her chin. She put on two pairs of thick socks for good measure. Percy would not approve of her ensemble, but damn Percy anyhow. At least she was warm, or would be.“Yates! Percy!” she called as she descended the stairs.When she got down to the kitchen, the stove was cold too, and there was no sign of the lovers in Yates’s empty bedroom. Since the cook had decamped, young Yates had been splitting the cooking duties with her, and Lucy found a covered dish filled with apple tarts on the sideboard. She bit into one greedily as the clock chimed noon. Not enough cinnamon. But then, everything had been rationed here for months.Lucy supposed this Sir Simon could supply her with plenty of cinnamon, and anything else she might want. Right now, all she wanted was to get warm. She tossed some coal into the stove and lit a match with the tinder box. Her hands were black, but she was too dispirited to wash with cold water. Huddling up against the fitful stove, she waited to defrost.Thank heavens Sir Simon had not come calling. She was in no state to meet him, or anyone. Where were the men? It was not like Percy to rise early when he stayed the night, but she supposed it wasn’t early anymore.Lucy left the comfort of the stove and took a closer look at Yates’s room. All signs of his personal affects were gone.Blast. Perhaps Percy was getting Yates settled at Portman Square. Yates would be under-butler during the day, and over-butler at night if Percy could conceal his activities from Countess Ferguson. Lucy had her doubts. The woman was a ferret and looked like one too.Lucy reallywasalone. Percy had been so sure than she would suit Sir Simon he’d left with his lover. Lucy paced again, this time for warmth, sliding a bit on the tiled floor. She had knit the socks herself—one could only decorate so many bonnets in six years, even for two people. She really was quite domestic, she thought as she put the kettle on. By now she should have a husband and several children, but one was unlikely to meet husband material living with a cross-dressing earl as his faux mistress.But she’d had her advantages and couldn’t fault Percy for trying to shore up the Ferguson fortune. Life was expensive and fickle.Lucy poked a nose outside the tradesman’s door while she waited for the kettle to whistle. It was a lovely fall day—the sky was a brilliant blue, but there was a nip in the air which made her close the door in a hurry. There had been quite a few unpleasant transactions at the step the past couple of months—and at the front door too—which Yates had handled with his usual aplomb. He really was a very fine butler who never batted an eyelash when presented with an irate bill-collector or Percy in a ruffled scarlet ballgown.The clang of the knocker at the door above broke into her solitary reverie over her tea and second apple tart.Blast. If it was Victorina come for her brooch, she was too late. Lucy took another sip of tea and examined her painted nails. They were chipping, another sure sign of the destitution that was to follow if she did not accept Sir Simon’s protection. If he offered it.After three minutes of excessive banging, the ensuing silence was deafening. She waited another five minutes to make her way upstairs with a pitcher of warm water for her ablutions. A sponge bath was better than nothing.Mindful of the sloshing water, it was not until she collided with the giant at her bedroom door that she realized her defenses had been breached. She shrieked and tossed the pitcher and its contents at her trespasser. The nerve of these dunning leeches to break into and enter her home for some trifling debt!Well, perhaps not trifling. Percy, and she by association, really were up the River Tick.“Lucy Dalhousie!”For the longest minute she just stared at the giant, her brown eyes wide. She hadn’t heard her own name in six years, and had been perfectly content to let Percy change it—what her parents had been thinking of she had no idea. Dellamar was so much more musical, so refined. When she found her voice, she croaked, “SimonGrant?”“Sir Simon Keith now. The name Grant was too hot back then, so I enlisted in the army under my mother’s maiden name. I—I thought you were dead. Your aunt said—well, it doesn’t matter! I canna believe my eyes!” He was grinning rather idiotically, the babbling bounder, even as he drew out an expensive handkerchief and mopped the water away from his incredibly broad chest. “What are you doing here?”“I l-live here.”“Are you Miss Dellamar’s maid, then? I never pictured you in service, Luce. You were always such a fiery, spirited little thing.”Little? Lucy now knew the true meaning of tongue-tied. She believed hers was in a French knot. She unraveled the knot just slightly.“Youare Sir Simon? The Sir Simon Percy—I mean Lord Ferguson has sold his house to?”“The very same! I’ve risen up in the world quite a bit, Lucy. I came to tell you five years ago, but that aunt of yours told me you’d passed away. Did you run off? No one could blame you—she was a wicked old bit-bat.”“I—” Lucy looked around the doorframe wildly. Tiny black spots floated in front of her eyes, quite distorting Simon’s handsome face. His bright blue eyes—the color of the sky she’d just observed a short while ago—his firm jaw, his white smile—he was grinning at her like a looby!—his broad shoulders clad in dark blue superfine—she slid to the floor in a faint. It seemed like the right thing to do while she gathered her far-flung wits about her.Simon was alive.Not in prison.He had come for her five years ago.He was a knight.Impossible.He was looking to set up a mistress.Her!“Come now, lass! I know it’s a shock, running into me like this.” His laughter boomed. “And you did run into me, no mistake. I’m sorry I scared you, love. Wake up, now.”Lucy was not going to wake up. She wondered how long she could lie on the floor with her head in Simon’s lap before he called for a doctor.He was loosening the belt on her robe, palming her forehead, pulling off the kerchief. Suddenly her head clunked on the floor.“What’s this?” he growled. “Lucy Dalhousie, your hair!”Lucy cracked open one eye. The man was standing over her, twirling a leaf in his hand.“Uhhh,” she groaned. Her head truly did hurt, from the whiskey and the careless way Simon had stopped tending to her and dropped her.That was just like him. Here today, gone tomorrow.Gone for seven years with no word.Staring at her as if she was a dead silkworm on a mulberry leaf.She struggled to sit up. “I’m sorry my hair isn’t tidier. I wasna expecting company, especially you afterthirteenyears.”“Surely Lord Ferguson told you I was coming.” His tone was icy now, and that dazzling smile had disappeared.Lucy lifted her chin. “I cannot recall.”“Oh, really? You cannot recall you had an appointment with the new man who was going to offer you anothercarte blanche?” His French accent was atrocious.“Percy says a great deal of nonsense.”“Percy, is it? You are not the maid here, are you, Lucy? No wonder your aunt said you were dead. Och! The shame of it!”Lucy sprang to her feet and punched Sir SimonKeithin the chest, the third time she’d hit a man in the same spot in less than twenty-four hours. “Don’t you dare talk to me of shame! You were a thief! A liar! A seducer of innocents! I’ve only done what I had to do to survive.”“Fuck that fop? Really, Lucy, I would think you’d have better taste than Lord Ferguson. There’s something off about him.”Lucy bit her tongue and counted to ten. The nerve of him to accuse her of what she hadn’t been doing after all he’d done and planned to do! “The only thing ‘off’ about him is his inability to make wise investments! And now he’s given you this house in exchange for some pie-in-the-sky venture of yours. Did you tire of robbing people the old-fashioned way?”“I am not a thief. Not anymore. I learned I could do something else with my hands besides pick pockets.”“Bully for you,” Lucy grumbled. “I expect you’ll want me to clear out at once. Get out of my way so I can pack.”He grabbed her arm. “Not so fast.” He gazed down at her, his blue eyes assessing. Lucy really wished she was not wearing her lumpy socks on her feet. Or had coal dust on her hands. Or whiskey on her breath.“Where will you go?”“Oh, what do you care? You left me once. Now I’m leaving you.”He inched closer and Lucy stopped breathing. “Did you want to see me hang, Luce?”“The world would no doubt be a much better place,” she replied tartly.“I trust Napoleon agrees with you.”“Napoleon! What does he have to do with all this?”“I’ll tell you about it some time. In bed.”Lucy stumbled backward. “I am not going to bed with you!”“Just once. It might be nice to have you in an actual bed. For old times’ sake.”“You are mad!”Simon loomed over her. “A kiss then.”“I have not brushed my teeth!” She swept her tongue over her teeth, dislodging a chunk of apple. She was not dressed for seduction. She did not smell like seduction. And if she knew anything about Simon Whateverhecalledhimselfnow, he would not settle for a single kiss. “Absolutely not! Unhand me, sirrah!”“Och, you’ve been reading silly things, Luce. You sound like a heroine from a gothic novel.”“What would someone as ignorant as you know about books?” she asked spitefully.“You’d be surprised, lass, verra surprised. I’m a changed man, I am.”“Hah,” Lucy snorted. But she had no chance to say anything else, because Simon chose that moment to silence her with a kiss.Not just any kiss.A kiss that shook her down to her nubby socks.His mouth captured hers. His lips were warm, dry, and his tongue tasted of spearmint. He wielded that tongue like a weapon designed to vanquish her and anyone else who got in the way of what he wanted. Any thought she had of denying him entrance evaporated—the searing heat of his hands at her shoulders held her in place. Flames licked from his fingertips down her spine to the emptiness between her legs.Lucy forgot about brushing her teeth or washing or tidying her hair. She stood rooted in her doorway, standing on the wet carpet, her breasts pressed against his damp waistcoat as he kissed and kissed and kissed her.There might be another word for it, but Lucy couldn’t think. She could onlydo. She explored his mouth, shivering with cold and desire, her hands brushing against his tailored coat. He was so much bigger than he’d been—taller, heavier, stronger than the scrawny scarecrow boy she’d loved so. And his kiss was taller, heavier and stronger, too. He had been practicing.Lucy found her courage and stomped on his boot with a wet-stockinged foot.He pulled away, his face neatly arranged as if they’d done nothing more than shake hands. Lucy was sure her cheeks were on fire.“You’ve improved some, I see,” he drawled.“I was thinking the same of you, you rat.”“I thought you were dead, Luce. What’s your excuse? Fell for the first rich lord who came by? Or is Ferguson just the latest of many?”Lucy was so furious she couldn’t speak. And that was just as well. She’d promised Percy not to share his secret, and she had nothing to prove to Sir Simon Keith after what he’d put her through.Revenge. She wanted it, a great, heaping portion of it. With cinnamon.“Tell me, Simon, are you still a wanted man? I imagine the authorities in Edinburgh would like to get their hands on you, even after all these years, no matter what you call yourself now. You made fools out of all of them.”He scowled down at her, and for a moment Lucy felt a frisson of fear.“What are you saying, Lucy?”“I’ll accept yourcarte blanche,” she said, mispronouncing it as he had. “I’ll live in this house and wear your clothes and entertain your friends and keep my mouth shut about your past. But you’ll not have me in your bed again, Simon, for all the money in the world. I’ll need some time to make other arrangements—three months should be sufficient.” She lifted her chin again and stared him straight into his narrowed blue eyes.
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“Three months. And I suppose you’ll want money for your blackmail, too.”This plan was so new to her, she hadn’t thought of that. “Of course.”He shook his head. “You’ve grown to be a miserable bitch just like your auntie, haven’t you?”“Quite.” She turned her face so he wouldn’t see her hurt.Chapter 5 By God, she had bollocks. To think he’d keep a roof over her head without her getting under him. Or above him—he wasn’t particular at this point. He shifted so she wouldn’t see his cockstand. That kiss had been nothing like the hurried assaults they’d made on each other when they were kids.Simon doubted seriously she meant to turn him in—the warrants out for his arrest must be tattered scraps by now. Surely the authorities had more to worry about than a skinny seventeen-year-old boy who stole to feed himself and his old gran over a dozen years ago.He’d worked back then, too—anything he could get his hands on. Mended bridles at stables, hauled barrels of ale, ran errands for the local moneylender. One such ‘errand’ had been his undoing. He’d kept a little extra from the toff he’d had to persuade—not much, but enough to make his employer turn him in to the corrupt magistrate. And it hadn’t helped when he’d had to tie a sweet little old lady to a chair on his last job.Simon became expendable. His bad judgment meant he was running from both the law and his boss, even if the sweet little old lady hadn’t pressed charges. He’d only been back to Scotland once—to find Lucy Dalhousie—for all the good it did him. England was his home now.He was a new man—it was a new age with a new king, a time filled with the promise of industry, machinery, investment, invention. He had a different name, a different appearance. No one would connect the knighted, rich Sir Simon Keith with the impoverished boy he used to be.Lucy had changed too. Oh, physically she still looked the same, all pale and slender, with her mermaid hair and bee-stung lips. Like a princess from a fairytale book or a medieval madonna. She used to be putty in his hands, a fact that had once thrilled his youthful pride. It seemed she had grown a backbone.And she was a whore.A badly dressed whore, in an old rumpled robe and ugly woolen stockings, with a smudge of soot on her nose. Percy Ferguson had truly fallen on bad times if this is how his mistress comported herself.Simon imagined her in a copper bathtub, her hair unbound and floating on the surface of the water, her pink nipples hard peaks. He’d scrub the soot off and clean everywhere else personally and not mind a bit if she splashed him again.Three months. Simon supposed he owed her that. It wasn’t so long. But long enough for him to get her where he wanted her again.And to get her out of his system.He couldn’t go on carrying a torch for a Jane Street courtesan.“All right,” he said. He wouldn’t try to get her into his bed, but she’d said nothing about fucking anywhere else. It would be just like old times. He grinned.She looked taken aback, her well-kissed lips wide open in surprise.“I can’t have you looking like that when we meet with my investors next week,” Simon said, sweeping his eyes from her snarled hair and her wooly toes. “I hope Ferguson bought you some better clothes.”“I have an elegant wardrobe,” she said haughtily. Damn but her chin kept lifting. Soon it would hit the ceiling.“Good. I have an image to project. My mistress must be above reproach. And I’ll need new furniture immediately. Good china. Silver. See to it and put it on my account. I’ll write a letter of authorization for you.” He went to the little desk in the corner, hoped the spindly chair wouldn’t break under his weight, and began scratching away.Again, she gawked at him. “You trust me to buy your furnishings?”“Why not? You used to have aspirations to be a lady. Even when you had no money, you were nicely turned out.”He watched as the blush stole over her cheeks at his praise. But it was true. Lucy always had good taste. She’d chosen him, hadn’t she?“I’ll get my secretary to secure a household staff. A butler, a cook, a footman and two maids should be sufficient for a property this size. Maybe a kitchen boy.”“That’s more than we had before.” He heard an odd gurgle behind him. “Wait a minute! Simon, you’re writing!”He raised a brow. “I told you I was a changed man, Luce. I read too, but not the nonsense you keep in your parlor. Romances—pah!” he said in disgust.“Someone deserves a happy ending! There’s little enough of that in the real world.”Finishing his letter, he signed his name with an embellishment below, much better than the ‘X’ of the past. He scattered sand on the paper and pushed it toward her.“This should give you entrée into the best shops. And I want the best, Luce. Doona be mingy.”“I’ll be a total spendthrift. I shall enjoy spendingyourmoney for a change.”She’d given him all her savings the last night he came to her, full of fear and promises. “I told you I’d pay you back those seventeen shillings, and I will.”“With interest, if you please.”“What a canny businesswoman you are. It’s a pity I cannot employ you in my railroad scheme.”“I wouldn’t work for you for all the tea in China.”“I prefer Indian, by the way. Please inform the cook. I’ll give you a list of my favorites so that when I visit, I’ll have what I want.”Her blushes had disappeared. “W-when you visit?”“Did you think to be here all alone for the next three months, Luce?”“I thought—you said you’d have parties for your business associates.”“Aye, that I will. But a man in my position is expected to have a mistress. I’ve got to keep up appearances. Visit this house regularly.”“Just like p-powerful men,” she muttered. “They’re all the same, leaving their wives and children behind, living a lie.”“I’ve no wife or children. Not yet. And you’ll be happy to hear, I’m an honest dealer now. No shortcuts.” He pulled another sheet of paper from her short stack. “I suppose we should put our agreement in writing. I can get my solicitor to do up something more formal, but this is between us.”Lucy folded her arms. She must be tired standing in the wet patch, as far away as she could get from him and still be in the room. “Write down I will have absolutely no sexual congress with you.”Simon bit the end of the pen. “Hm. Would that include kissing? I canna see the harm in kissing, and it will be expected by our guests that you show me some affection.”“I won’t have you shoving your tongue down my throat!”“I believe that wasyourtongue downmythroat earlier.”She looked like she wanted to throw something. Simon hoped she wouldn’t remember the pitcher by her feet.“If I’m to spend all this money on your food and lodging for the next three months, plus pay you off at the end of it, we need to make compromises,” he said reasonably. “I hardly think a little peck is going to pass for the lust I’m supposed to feel for my Jane Street mistress. Your breed is notorious, you know.”“I am not—” She snapped her lips shut.“Yes, I know. You won’t actually be my mistress. But we’ve got to make it look good. Real. I want to be the envy of every man I know.”“Then you’d better get yourself another woman. I’m hardly a great beauty.”Simon gazed across the room. His heart still skipped when he looked at her, even if she tried to scorch him with her scorn and looked like a washerwoman at present. “You’ll do. For now. Perhaps I’ll have better luck with my next mistress—find a wee biddable girl who’ll look at me and thank her lucky stars.”Lucy snorted. He turned to the paper, wrote down a few brief, vague phrases and summoned her to the desk. “Here. Sign this. I’ll let Lord Ferguson know I’m taking the house—and you—over.”She glided across the floor, stopping short of coming too close. She took the agreement from his outstretched hand and frowned. “Well, you may write, but I canna read it.”“Aye, that’s why I keep a secretary. But this is too intimate an affair for him, wouldn’t you agree?”“I suppose.” She snatched the pen from the desk and wrote her name. The document was worthless—neither one of them were who they said they were, but Simon was sure he didn’t need a piece of paper to get where he wanted to be—inside his maddening, manipulative new mistress.Chapter 6 Within two hours of Simon—herSimon!—taking his leave, the Jane Street house was invaded by a very superior Scots butler, a French maid, a French cook and a Cockney potboy fresh from Sir Simon’s own townhouse. The footman and extra maid would not arrive until tomorrow, MacTavish told her in his soft burr; they had the day off. He had taken one look around Percy’s house, clucked disapprovingly, and set everyone to work.Lucy was grateful she had bathed and dressed to receive this swarm of people. Simon must have many more servants at home if he could spare all these for her. She had gotten used to having the house to herself these past months, with Percy and Yates occasionally coming up for air and a game of three-handed euchre. She was fairly certain she now had more servants than any other courtesan on the street, but nowhere for them to sit or sleep.Folding Simon’s letter in her reticule and taking the French maid Yvonne with her, Lucy went shopping and followed Simon’s instructions, spending an enormous amount of his money. She noted she had become Miss Dalhousie again, if she deciphered Simon’s bold chicken-scratching correctly, and she was apparently his cousin—his “cows” could not possibly be correct. It was apparent the shopkeepers could understand the intent of the letter even if they could not read the whole of it—it was amazing what the three words “Sir Simon Keith” did to light the gleam of avarice in their eyes. They fell over themselves to promise immediate delivery of bedding and paintings and furniture. Lucy didn’t dither—she knew what she liked, and since she’d been instructed not to be mingy, she took that to heart.By evening MacTavish had hung pictures back on the walls to cover the bare spots and Yvonne had put fresh linen on new beds in the attic. The French chef had taken over Yates’s old room after producing a fabulous meal which still resonated on Lucy’s palate. Lucy had tested every piece of new furniture downstairs, and now sat before her mirror, eyes half-closed as Yvonne brushed through her hair. It was lovely to feel the touch of someone, even if it was just her new maid.Yvonne spoke very little English and Lucy spoke very little French, but they seemed to understand each other perfectly well. But when Simon turned up reflected in the mirror, standing at the doorway looking like the richest, most delicious dessert, Yvonne missed Lucy’s panicked look and excused herself.“I did not expect you this evening, Sir Simon,” Lucy said, prim, as her heart beat erratically. She was grateful she was wearing a thick flannel nightgown buttoned up to her chin, none of Percy’s sheer confections. Simon didn’t need to see the pulse at her throat or her pointed nipples. She resolutely refused to face him, continuing to brush her hair without Yvonne’s assistance, tangling it only a little.“You’ve done remarkably well for one afternoon, Luce. The downstairs looks a treat.” His image came closer to the dressing table until he was right behind her, bringing with him a clicking noise. Curious, Lucy looked into the mirror. In one hand he had a set of small roller bearings, which he fitted on his fingertips as if they were rings. He seemed unaware of the nervous movement of his fingers, but watching him made Lucy dizzy. What would those fingers do next?She tugged the brush through a knot. “I’m not done yet. The tradesmen’s bills will be outrageous.”“As long as everything is in place for next Tuesday night. I’ve sent dinner invitations to my investors.”“You mean your marks,” Lucy said, her lip curling quite contemptuously.“Not at all. I told you I’ve gone straight. Your old protector Percy will be there as well. I hope that willna be too awkward for you.”Lucy wanted to give Percy a piece of her mind, but doing so in public would not be possible. “I’m sure I can behave myself. It’s a wonderyoudoona feel uncomfortable with another man’s leavings.”“Ferguson assured me you had a simple business arrangement. No one’s feelings were engaged now, were they?”“I’ve lived here six years. Percy and I began and parted as friends.”Simon lifted a slashing dark brow. “How quaint.”“Don’t you believe men and women can be friends, Simon?”“Don’t be daft. Of course they canna. Men have a responsibility to the wider world and a woman’s place is in the domestic sphere. They have nothing in common but the bedcovers.”Lucy picked up the abandoned hairbrush and ripped it through her hair again. “How ridiculous! You are a caveman!”“I’m not saying men and women cannot converse intelligently together. I’m quite looking forward to our talks again—you always had something to say and I could only shut you up with a kiss. But a true friendship between a man and woman—impossible. Sex always gets in the way.”She remembered those kisses, damn it. And the most recent one.Lucy couldn’t very well tell him about Percy’s lack of interest in her. But perhaps Simon was right—Percy was more like an addled big brother to her than a friend. Friends didn’t sell one along with one’s house.“Well, doona worry. I don’t intend to make friends withyou.”“Aye, t’would be difficult. A man is not apt to harbor much affection for his blackmailer.”Lucy chewed a lip. She was regretting this arrangement already, but she needed time to get things settled for herself. No matter what Percy said, she was not putting all their clothes in storage. Some of them would fetch quite a bit, give her some seed money to escape Simon’s clutches.Nay, he was firmly in hers. ’T’was time the boot was on the other foot.“Here. Let me.”Startled, Lucy watched as Simon took the brush from her hand and smoothed through her waves. His touch was not as light as Yvonne’s. She imagined sparks of fire flicking through her hair as he swept from scalp to end. Sitting stiffly so as not to betray her reaction, she waited for him to finish.But he did not. The brush came up again and again, massaging her head and flowing through her hair down her back so she could feel the soft boar bristles through the strands. Her eye flicked to the mirror where she could see Simon’s look of concentration—he had wound the end of her hair now around his hand and held it, bringing it closer to his nose. Hesniffed.Lucy jerked away, but he didn’t let go. “I am not a fellow dog, sir!”“That’s Sir Simon to you,” he said, cheeky as ever. “I think we should get into the habit of you giving me the proper deference. It will be expected Tuesday.”“It’s not Tuesday yet.”“Aye. Which is a good thing, for you’ve much to learn before then.”Lucy clamped down her tongue before she stuck it out at him. “I’m sure you’ll find my deportment unexceptionable in company. Percy has already given me instructions on anything that might be suitable for moving about in Society.” She’d had years of tea-pouring and frivolous conversations as Percy made her the bosom-bow he’d always wanted.“Ah.” Simon dropped her hair. “I’ve asked around. It seems Lord Ferguson kept his mistress very much to himself. Many had heard of you, but not a soul I talked to has ever seen the fabled Lucy Dellamar.”“Percy preferred quiet evenings at home. But you are mistaken. We often attended the musicales at Vauxhall Gardens.” Of course they had both been masked, Percy wearing the most elaborate of their dresses. Yates trotted behind until he was called into the Dark Walk for a naughty thumb-at-the-nose to the ton while Lucy played scout.“You like music, do you?”Lucy did, so she nodded.“Excellent. We’ll go to the opera tomorrow.”She choked. “The opera? You? You are not serious!”Simon slapped the hairbrush firmly back on her dressing table. “As you said, Luce, it’s been thirteen years. We no longer know everything there is to know about each other. I’ve discovered I have quite an affinity for opera, Gluck in particular. There is a performance of hisOrfeo ed Euridicetomorrow evening.”An affinity for opera? The boy she knew did not even know the word ‘affinity.’ “Really?” she asked, doubtful.“Aye. The poor sod Orpheus mourning his wife reminded me of myself when I found out you were dead. I suppose your aunt did me a favor, then, making me susceptible to the arts.”Susceptible? Simon must have been sleeping with a dictionary all these years.But with women too, most likely opera dancers. Why couldn’t he find one of them to torture?Nay, she was in a pickle of her own making. It was she who’d set the three-month rule. But three months of opera might broaden her horizons.“Very well,” she said, rising. “Do you have anything in particular you’d like me to wear for my public debut as your mistress?”“Let’s see what you have.” Simon picked up a branch of candles and followed her into her dressing room, where a long row of cupboards held Percy’s finery. Putting the candles down on a chest, Simon went through the clothes methodically in the dim light, shaking his head as he plucked up each one with his blackened fingernails. Lucy was glad to see there was at least one trace of the boy she knew in this immaculate stranger.“None of this lot will do. Expect a box tomorrow afternoon.”“What do you mean? These things are perfectly acceptable! You needn’t buy me new clothes, Simon.”“I should think you’d be glad to squeeze more coin out of me, Luce. Isn’t that what mistresses do?”“I’m not really your mistress.”Simon sighed. “Do you do nothing but argue?”Lucy knew she was being difficult, but having Simon loom in her little dressing room made her uncomfortable for too many reasons she was unwilling to examine.“I’m very tired, Simon.SirSimon. It’s been a long, harrowing day.”“You must want to get rid of me to dip into your drink.”“I don’t drink!” Lucy said hotly, and then paused. How on earth did Simon know she had buried her troubles in a bottle last night? And drank every last drop, too.“But before I leave you, I’ll need to take some measurements to give to Madame Bernette tomorrow morning.”“Pardon?”“Measurements, Luce. For the modiste. You’re not the average woman.” He looked down at her. “I see you come up to the knot of my neckcloth, so that helps, but what about the rest of you? Your arms and such. Here.”He snatched Lucy’s arm and held it aloft, studying it as if it were the lost tablet of the Ten Commandments. He dropped it gently and took her shoulders in his warm hands, counting the inches between the span. And then—Surely it was unnecessary for him to brush across her breasts like that to get to her waist. His thumbs seemed to take an eternity at her nipples as he patted his way down her body. Then they settled at her hips for a few seconds, while the rest of his fingers pressed against her bottom with intent, drawing her close to him.“Simon!” she warned.“Um,” he said, his blue eyes dancing downward between them.He could not see her huge feet from this angle, so what had attracted his attention so? Lucy followed his glance and saw the shadow of her pubic hair through her nightgown. All this time, she might have been naked in front of him!When she looked up, her brown eyes met his blue ones. They were dark, flinty, the eyes of a man who measured, took what he wanted and asked permission later.It seemed he wanted a kiss. Another one. All right, she could do it. She closed her eyes and waited.And then felt him set her back.His mouth was a grim line. “I willna have you looking like a martyr when I kiss you, Luce.”“I—I wasn’t thinking of you kissing me! I’ve got an eyelash in my eye.”“Oh? Which one?”“The, uh, left.”He cupped her cheek and examined her furiously blinking eye. “Hold still. You’re like a damn butterfly.”Lucy felt his breath on her face. She wished she could be repulsed, but it was spearminty again, clean. Gently he pulled down the skin at the corner of her eye and stared.She rolled her eyes away. His were too bright, too knowing, and he still had the longest black eyelashes of anyone she’d ever seen.“It’s fair dark in here. I canna see a thing.”“Mayhap I am mistaken,” she said.“Mayhap ye are.”Her Scottish Simon was back, his brogue rough on his tongue. She lifted her face to his, her own tongue licking her lips in nervousness.He calmed her with the quietest of kisses, a mere warm whisper, one hand still on her cheek and the other splayed flat on her back. She wanted him to push her hard against him, but there was still a maddening space between them.
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Och! What was she thinking? It was one thing to kiss the rogue but quite another to rub against him like a cat. Lucy took a half-step backward, and their kiss was broken.“I’ll come for you tomorrow evening. Until then.” He saluted her with one finger and walked out of the dressing room. Lucy stood rooted to the floor, the candles flickering in his wake.“He could have taken a dress to give to Madame Bernette as a sample! There was no need of him to ever touch me!” she said to the empty room. Dupedagain. It would be the very last time.Chapter 7 When the box from the dressmaker arrived in the middle of the afternoon, Lucy was tempted to throw it into the roaring fire her maid had set in her chamber. There was plenty of coal now to keep the chill of the fall day away, and Lucy had eaten so much at breakfast and luncheon she wondered if she would fit into whatever Simon had ordered for her.But when she opened the pale pink-striped box, any thought she had of destruction was nipped in the bud. Within was a dress made of apricot-gold tissue, quite simple, almost Medieval in design. The sheer sleeves were long and ended in a gold-thread-embroidered point to her knuckles. Gloves would be impossible to wear with such a sleeve—what had Simon been thinking? One went to the opera in opera gloves! The neckline, also embroidered, cut across her shoulders and was low yet not disgraceful. Lucy had little to show anyway and was happy that would not be revealed.The bodice fit her like a dream. Blushing, she remembered why. His strong hands had cupped her as they traced down to her waist, cupped her for far too long, as though Simon was a blind man trying to feel his way.“Zis dress, she iz divine!” Juliette crowed as she helped Lucy into it. “Regardez! Ze matching slippers.”Indeed, under the folds of the dress at the bottom of the box were gold satin slippers,giganticsatin slippers. Lucy would look like hammered copper from head to toe. The fabric was nearly identical in color to her hair.There was a letter beneath the shoes. Lucy recognized the bold yet illegible hand.Wear your ham down tonight.Sir Simon KeithAs if she didn’t know his name, when all too well she did. Ham must be hair in Simon’s dreadful handwriting, although she was tempted to visit the kitchen and make Simon’s written wish come true. Imagine a rope of meat dangling from her waist.Thatwould certainly cause talk.Lucy swallowed. She had been hidden away here for most of six years. She moved about only Jane Street with any freedom at the courtesan teas and card parties the girls hosted to keep ennui at bay while they waited for their gentlemen. Lucy may as well have been a nun.Tonight she would appear in public on Simon’s arm. She’d read plenty of Percy’s gossip rags over the years, and now knew who they meant when they occasionally mentioned “the brilliant and brawny industrialist Sir S——K.”And she was afraid.Percy had made her a pet project, so she knew which fork to lift. He’d taught her to stand tall and be proud of her height, calling her an ‘original.’ But she’d never had to acknowledge before the world that she was a whore.And now she did.Simon’s whore.Although she would not let the man anywhere near her again.Who was she fooling? She’d be trapped in a carriage with him in a few hours. If she knew Simon, he wouldn’t be satisfied sitting opposite and discussing the weather. Alone, most likely, in a darkened opera box. In this dress, she’d glow like a candle, inviting his caresses and kisses—it would be expected. She imagined hundreds of opera glasses trained upon them and shivered.At least she had her fox-fur cloak to guard against the crisp October night and her own stupidity. She’d wrap herself up to her eyelashes and claim she was cold. Simon had not expected Lucy to come downstairs in her cloak—he’d dreamed all day of seeing her float down the steps in the filmy dress he’d purchased for her. He’d been lucky—some other tall woman had fallen upon hard times and had been unable to pay for it. With a few minor adjustments, Madame Bernette had assured him it would be perfect for Lucy.And now he couldn’t see it.And he needed to, because he wasn’t quite finished dressing her.“Good evening, Sir Simon,” she said, her eyes cast down at her toes.“I see you are ready. But I am not.”She raised a sculpted brow. He remembered his Lucy having wilder eyebrows he’d had to smooth over with a thumb.“Take off those animal skins. It’s a wonder a soft-hearted girl like you can bear to wear the results of such cruelty.”Lucy stroked the pelt protectively. “Foxes are predators, Sir Simon. If you like an egg with your breakfast, don’t speak such nonsense to me.”“There’s nothing wrong with good stout wool.”“And yet you leave the poor sheep naked and nicked. Nay, there’s fault to be found in most anything man does.”“And women too.”“But not in such proportion, and not with Society’s blessing. Did you not make your fortune designing weapons of destruction and death?”Her barb hit home, and he felt his face flush.“I saved many lives as well—English lives.”Lucy sniffed. “And you a good Scot.”Simon drew a breath, puffing his massive chest to even greater size. “We’re not going to fight a war between us now, Luce. I can see I’d better be on my guard against your philosophical discourses.”She batted her rust-colored eyelashes at him. “And me a mere woman. It’s a wonder I have a worthwhile idea in my head.”Simon was not interested in her ideas at present, just removing that monstrous red fur from her body. He stepped closer and unhooked it from under her chin, dropping it to a puddle at her feet.Sweet Jesu. His throat dried.Lucy glimmered in the hallway candlelight like a living flame. She had left her hair down, securing it back from her face with a twist of golden ribbon. Her pure oval face was untouched by any maquillage, her whiskey-colored eyes unblinking. The dress—Holy Mother of God—the dress was so perfect Simon wanted to tear it from her body. He allowed himself to touch a bare shoulder with one fingertip, and felt a sizzle right down to his groin.“Very nice,” he croaked.“Thank you. The dress is lovely. Now that you’ve seen it, may be go? We wouldn’t want to miss the chorus of nymphs and shepherds.”Simon was taken aback. “You know the story?”“MacTavish does. It’s not every butler that gets to accompany his master to the opera.”Simon knew he was a democrat to his toes—he treated all his employees, whether they were house servants or foundry workers, with the same courtesy as he would want to be treated himself. He was generous to a fault, but at least it meant there was no unrest in his foundry. The workers had no reason whatever to feel exploited. Simon had been on the receiving end of discrimination all his life—and it was still coming from the snooty peers whom he could buy and sell in one afternoon. That would change, and Lucy would help him.“Mac is very fond of opera. There’s no reason why cultural opportunities should be reserved for the rich.”“What a reformer you are! I quite agree, else two people like us would not be speaking of classical mythology and German composers to each other.”His mouth quirked. “We have come a long way, haven’t we, Luce?”“Not far enough. I shall be delighted to see the back of you in three months.” She bent to retrieve her fur.Did he believe her? He didn’t want to. He wrestled the fur out of her hands and threw it over the banister. “Not yet. I have something else for you.”Simon reached into his pocket. She’d have to have a heart as cold as the stones not to appreciate this necklace. He held the gold strand of topaz and diamond flowers between his fingers to catch the light, with satisfactory result. Lucy’s mouth opened, but no sound was expelled.“Hold still.” He walked behind her, sweeping her amber waves over a shoulder and fastened the catch. Her neck was so long and so white and his fingers trembled just a little. He was usually steady—the smallest gear or bearing gave him no trouble, but damn this catch was a vexing thing. He turned her to face him. The necklace settled just above her collarbone as he’d thought, the golden leaves connecting each dazzling cluster. The pulse leaped at her throat, and Simon was compelled to kiss it, brushing his chin against the hard jewels.They were not the only thing that was hard, but Lucy was loose, pliant in his arms. In his experience, women liked furs and jewelry, and Lucy was no different. She’d turned into quite the adventuress, living on Jane Street and becoming the bought lover of a peer. He shouldn’t blame her—her options had been limited by her gender. It wasn’t as if she could design cannon and rifles to arm a nation.He moved from her throat to the soft, smooth flesh under her chin, and nipped her where only he would see his mark. She flinched but was still silent, allowing him to continue his journey to her mouth. Her lips were naturally rosy and tasted of vanilla. Her eyes were closed, but not, he thought, in martyrdom. Her lashes fluttered and her cheeks pinked.But if he kept watching her as he kissed her, his eyes might cross permanently. Instead, he concentrated on the task of making love to her lips, relying on touch and taste and scent. And hearing too—her breaths hitched, and a little moan traveled from her mouth to his.Their tongues joined. There was nothing tentative about the kiss or the lust that was still shared between them. It was as if they were still fifteen, in the first flush of discovery. Simon had courted her for two years, if courting was the correct word for hurried couplings in convenient—and inconvenient—places.Fifteen was half a lifetime ago for both of them. So much had changed, but not this. Simon did not want to go to his favorite opera. He wanted to haul Lucy upstairs and ravish her until neither of them could walk.Her hand scrabbled at his chest. He’d never be able to tie his complicated neckcloth if she succeeded stripping him in the hallway. Unless she was trying to push him away, but he didn’t think so. He gave a final, shuddering sweep inside her mouth, then kissed her on her nose.“We’d better go.”Lucy’s pupils were huge, black, almost obscuring the brown of her eyes. How often had Simon picked up a glass of whiskey and saluted his lost love?“Um, yes.”She stood like a queen while he covered her shoulders with the dead foxes, counting the minutes until he could slip it from her and show her off, let the ton know that the mysterious Lucy Dellamar washisnow.And would be far longer than three months if he had any say about it at all.Chapter 8 The music soared over the chatter in the theatre as Simon scowled into the darkness. How could these infidels titter and laugh as tragedy played out on stage? To think the ton thoughthimuncivilized—it was they who did not appreciate a work of such genius. Women dripping in too many diamonds and gentlemen—if they could be called that—more than half in their cups. The opera to them was another place to ogle scantily-clad women and tell ribald jokes. To flaunt their alleged wit before other vulgarians such as themselves. He had half a mind to yank Lucy up and leave—his evening was spoilt by the drunken young lords below who came to the opera to prevent anyone from being heard and seen except themselves. Christoph Gluck must be rolling over in his grave.“Bluidy hell,” Simon grumbled.“I’m sorry, Simon,” Lucy whispered. “Is it always like this?”“Not always. Tonight is especially bad. Opera is appreciated on the Continent. Maybe I should take you there.”But now was not a propitious time to leave England, not with his financial future in the balance. But wouldn’t it be fun to introduce Lucy to the wider world? Maybe someday.He reached for her hand, reassured to find it was still rough in spots from working straw and stitching trim. Lucy’s aunt had taught her well, and the hats Lucy had designed had been the talk of Edinburgh until she left six years ago. Everyone he had met when he went back home had told him how successful she’d been, not that her aunt let her keep the profits of her labor.Simon still had to pinch himself that Lucy was sitting beside him and not lying in some graveyard. All this while she had been kept by Lord Percival Ferguson, still making hats, but for herself now.She wasn’t wearing one tonight. A hat would have covered the river of rippling hair he’d asked her to leave loose, and she had complied. He had never seen her look so magnificent—gilded, pale, aloof, her head raised as he guided her through the throngs in the lobby. People had parted as though for a queen, and an instant buzzing behind his back told him they were now talking of the woman with Sir Simon Keith. He’d waved off the few curious faces he knew, not wishing to introduce her. Keep her to himself.It was an odd feeling. He had wanted to show her off, claim her, raise himself in Society just by owning a house on Jane Street and keeping a beautiful mistress in it. But now that he had what he wanted—more or less—he wanted to protect Lucy from the prying eyes and vicious tongues of the ton.He had her to himself now in the dim opera box, so close he could smell her lilac perfume. She’d always loved lilacs—one spring he’d hacked off branches from a house on St. Andrew’s Square and brought them to her. He’d robbed the garden more easily than the house, and was somewhat more pleased with Lucy’s joy at her flowers than what his fence paid him for Lady Murray’s jewels. He brought her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles, then the soft mound of her palm.The design of the dress assured her hands remained bare, and he had plans for each and every digit. His eyes never leaving the stage as Orfeo wept, he suckled each of Lucy’s talented fingers—the fingers he would soon turn from hat-making to making him hard. Harder. Her hand trembled in his, so he knew he was making progress. He ran his tongue lightly from base to the tip of her polished fingernails. She tasted of lilac soap and salt—her hands were damp. She had been nervous.Good. He wished to keep her off-balance, the better to topple her into a bed.“Stoplickingme,” she hissed.He paid no attention, circling his tongue in the center of her palm. Lucy shifted in her seat, reminding him there were other places to kiss. He was about to find out if she tasted as good as she looked.Simon slid off his ruby-velvet padded chair to his knees.“What are you doing? Are you ill?”“Och, aye. Quite prostrate. There’s only one thing that will cure me.” He raised her skirts over her long legs so quickly she didn’t have a chance to pull them down.She slapped the top of his head. “Simon, you are mad! People will see!”He looked up to her in the shadows. “No they won’t. If anyone looks this way, they’ll think I left the box for a moment. Sit back and enjoy yourself, Luce.”Her mouth hung open, then she rapped his head again. “You will not—I cannot—Simon!”Good. Now she was quiet as a clam. He angled her hips in the chair for better reception. She was, mercifully, not wearing drawers, just sheer apricot stockings banded with butterfly garters. He left her legs alone this time and homed in to her center. Her nether hair tickled his nose as he dipped his tongue into her pink folds. He found her bud and sucked it swiftly into his mouth. Lucy shrieked at a conveniently loud time in the libretto, then sat rigid as he plied his skills.Not quite lilac. But all Lucy.Soon he made it impossible for her to sit still. She turned liquid beneath his hands and mouth, bucking under him until he worried he’d lose a tooth in her frenzy. What if he pulled her down to the floor with him, took her as poor Orpheus argued with the Furies for admission to the Underworld?Simon wanted admission to Lucy’s underworld in the very worst way.He knew the instant she came apart, her juices bursting on his tongue. He gentled her until she came down from her transports, then pulled a handkerchief from his pocket.“How dare you?” came the furious whisper above his head. He ducked quickly as her hand came down again.“Fortuna favet audaci.”“What?”“Fortune favors the brave, Luce. It’s on my new crest.” Simon blotted his mouth, almost reluctant to wipe away traces of Lucy’s arousal. He’d paid good money for an escutcheon immortalizing his knighthood, for all it really meant—which was nothing.Lucy mumbled something unintelligible while Simon adjusted himself in his knee breeches. He had another act to sit through and was uncertain if that would be possible without some relief. It was unlikely Lucy would help him, despite what he’d just done for her.He bounced up and resumed his seat. Lucy was tugging frantically on her dress, removing her long white legs from Simon’s sight. Simon noted the silk tissue had been sadly wrinkled during the past few minutes.It hadn’t taken Lucy long to break down, he thought, smug. He’d been so busy lately he’d given little thought to sexual exercise, but that would change, whatever Lucy said. He observed her profile as she stared at the stage, her lashes batting a mile a minute. He pretended to concentrate on the music, but was aware of her vibrating angrily in the next chair, her rather large foot twirling in time to the orchestra.“Wait a minute! Orpheus is a woman!” Lucy said suddenly.“Yes. The role is almost always performed by a woman. Unless it is sung by a castrato.” He shuddered at the thought. Simon might like opera, but his devotion to it only went so far.“How ridiculous. I want to go home.”“Use your imagination, Luce. Madame Olivetti is built like a munitions factory.”“I don’t care how big she is—how can she be singing about her love for another woman?”“Such things do occur, I assure you. Close your eyes and just listen to the music.”The vehemence of Lucy’s glare was lost in the gloom. But she sat back, her fingernails scratching at the velvet on the chair arms. Simon blocked out the rudeness from the audience and lost himself from his cares until Lucy’s huffs and puffs were impossible to ignore.“All right,” he sighed. “We’ll leave. Stay here and I’ll get the carriage brought round.”The evening had not turned out quite as he’d planned, but the night was still young. If he was sufficiently brave, who knew how it would end? She couldn’t blame the dark, or the mournful aria, especially now that she knew that Orpheus was a fat woman with a lyre. She had succumbed to Simon with such ease she wanted to bat herself over the head with her reticule. But he had surprised her, doing such a thing. He had never—well, she hadn’t known a man could do that to a woman when she was young. She knew it now, of course—Percy’s lessons had included many other things besides elocution and table manners. She had spent most of the last six years agog at all the new information, far from her aunt’s narrow restrictions.What Simon had done had felt wicked. And so very, very good. His tongue had been rough and hot and perfect. He’d known just where to swipe and swirl it. No doubt he’d had his head buried under skirts for years practicing. In opera boxesandout.Lucy gathered up her fox cloak, although she was much too warm to put it on. The smoke from the limelight and the crush of the crowd could be felt even up here in Simon’s private box. She was sure she looked a fright, although at least her hair hadn’t fallen out of its pins because there had been no pins in it to begin with. She had shocked everyone wearing her hair down—she might as well have been wearing a sign that said ‘Courtesan.’Her fingers reached for the topaz flowers, wondering if Simon would expect his gift back when she left him. At one time she’d had a tidy little fortune salted away, but when Percy lost his money—threw his money away—she had contributed to their little household by whatever means she could. If she could worm money out of Simon, perhaps she could repay her neighbors for their missing teaspoons and jewelry.Damn Percy anyway. After all she had done for him, he had not even come to check on her yesterday or today, just abandoned her to Sir Simon Keith. She would summon him tomorrow to tell him his plan had worked only too well.She watched the stage as the hinges of Hades opened, feeling much like Orpheus. Then a warm hand rested on her shoulder. It was Hades himself.“Are you ready, Luce, or have you changed your mind? The ballet dancers are coming up.”“And I’m sure you’d like to see their legs as they prance around, but we are leaving,” she said tartly.“Och, I’ve seen the legs I wanted to tonight.” Simon grinned down at her, like a well-satisfied wolf.“You won’t be seeing them again!”But Lucy was afraid her words were empty of bite, just as her head was empty of rational thought when Simon Grant was near. He may have changed his name, but he was still the same Simon and she was still the same stupid, stupid girl.
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Chapter 9 Three months. Ninety days. Two-thousand, one-hundred and sixty hours, give or take a few minutes. Lucy was very good with numbers—she’d kept her aunt’s books as well as surpassed the woman in creating the loveliest hats this side of Paris. Many a marquess’s wife would insist on a springtime trip to Edinburgh to purchase Lucy’s hats. In three months she might be able to set up a small business right here in London, if she could stay away from Simon.Not likely. He sat opposite her in his expensive carriage, whistling as the horses clip-clopped to Jane Street. She snuggled into her fur, resentful of his good cheer.Well, why shouldn’t he be cheerful? He’d seen half an opera and half of her. But that would be all, she swore it.MacTavish opened the green-glazed door before they could alight from the carriage. “Is anything amiss, Sir Simon? The opera cannot be over so soon.”“It is for us,” Lucy said, sailing into the house with her nose high.“Miss Dellamar does not share our love for Gluck, I’m afraid. Mac, would you be so kind as to open a bottle of port and bring it upstairs to Miss Dellamar’s sitting room?”Lucy turned on him. “You can’t stay!”“Now, Luce. I remember to the letter what my limits here are. There’s nothing in our agreement that says I can’t have a drink with you upstairs any time I want.”“I don’t drink!”Simon raised a dark brow.“I don’t! Not very often.” And when she did drink, it was good Scottish whiskey. “Mr. MacTavish, you may bring port for Sir Simon, but I’d just as soon have a glass ofuisge beatha.”The butler didn’t bat an eye. “Very good, Miss Dellamar.”“And send Miss Dellamar’s maid off to bed, Mac. We’ll have no need of her tonight.” Simon unhooked her cape and tossed it to the butler, then extended an elbow for the trip upstairs.“I suppose you thinkyou’llundress me.”“Only if you ask,” Simon said innocently.“I’ll never ask the likes of you to help me do anything!” Unfortunately in her anger, Lucy missed a step and Simon saved her from plummeting down the stairs.“Lucy, Lucy. It is I who should be angry—I’ve been denied my rights in bed.”“You have no rights, you wretched man! We are not married.” Lucy shook him off and threw herself down on a cozy chintz chair in her little parlor. The fire had been lit, and the room tidied. She didn’t like that one bit. Tomorrow she’d speak to MacTavish to have the staff leave her things alone.“But I am your protector for the next three months. It’s not every man who would agree to keep a mistress and not make proper use of her.”“Properuse?” Lucy saw stars, felt her blood pound at her temple. Simon would give her an apoplexy before those three months were done.Simon stretched his legs before him on the sofa, knocking the table askew. “You know what I mean. A mistress is supposed to be biddable. Flatter a fellow. See to his needs. You wouldn’t even let me sit through my favorite opera.”Lucy straightened the table between them, not that it was a sufficient barrier. “No one is keeping you here, Sir Simon. Perhaps you should go back. Right now. They’ll let an important man like you back in.”“No doubt. I invested in the production, for all the pleasure I got out of it. The audience would have enjoyed a troupe of trained monkeys just as well.”Lucy almost laughed, which would quite go against the animosity she was projecting. She was saved from herself by MacTavish, who carried a silver tray with two bottles, two glasses and a crystal bowl of shelled walnuts. He placed their refreshment on the table and left. To Lucy’s surprise, Simon leaned forward and poured two glasses of whiskey.“How can you do without Mr. MacTavish at your house?” Lucy asked, taking the glass from Simon. She glared at his dirty fingertips on principle.“Oh, I’ve an under-butler, and an under-under butler. Mac’s sons. One of them serves as my valet, too. They’re glad to be out from under his thumb and are out-Mac-Tavishing him at every turn. The house is so damned proper now I’m afraid to drop my stockings on the floor.”Lucy did smile now. Once Simon had more holes than socks on his feet. He’d never known his parents, and his ancient grandmother had been too frail to fight his youthful follies.Simon had been wild, and Lucy had been tame. They were doomed from the start.She took a sip of whiskey and watched as Simon tossed a walnut up in the air and caught it between his teeth. He was like a blue-eyed lion, toying with his prey. Lucy did not want any part of her to wind up between his teeth again.Although—what if she were to set more rules? Rules that only benefitted her? She might not allow him into her bed and into her, but what was stopping her from having Simon repeat his performance at the opera?Lucy held the cards, or at least Simon thought she did. In truth, she could not imagine turning him into the authorities. And who would believe that rich Sir Simon Keith, industrialistextraordinaire,was once a scrawny Edinburgh thief? Simon had progressed even back then from pickpocket to cat burglar, so how natural it was for him to continuously rise and improve himself.She’s seen the looks he’d received tonight at the opera—looks of curiosity, envy and grudging respect. She’d always known he was smart, and far too skilled with his hands. Now it seemed she had his tongue to add to his attributes.“I have an alteration to our agreement, Simon,” Lucy said abruptly.Simon put his drink down. “Oh?”Lucy picked hers up and took an enormous swallow of Scotch courage. “Yes.” And then she proceeded to tell him, stumbling over only a word or two. Simon did the best to keep a straight face. His plan was working even more quickly than he’d hoped. To have Lucy dependent on him for her pleasure would be the first step into getting her to give him his. She blushed and stammered her way through the new rules and Simon nodded his head like an old sage considering their wisdom. When she was done, he leaned back on the flowery couch and pursed his lips. He pulled out a bearing from his watch pocket and stroked it absently.“And you say I may touch you everywhere but you will not touch me?”Lucy nodded.“So, really, I’m to be your mistress and you’re to be my master.”Her eyebrows knit. “That sounds very odd.”“Odd it is. Let me get this straight. I’m to feed and clothe you. Keep you in style at Jane Street for the next three months. Make love to you from head to toe—”“Not really!”“Your distinctions are negligible, Luce. Just because I’m not thrusting my cock in your quim doesn’t make it any less satisfying for you. Be at your beck and call. Pay you off at the end of it—you haven’t yet mentioned the sum of your extortion, by the way—just so you will not have me arrested for my boyhood indiscretions.”“They were a bit more than indiscretions. There was a price on your head.”“Do you plan on collecting it?”Lucy gaped at him.“Suppose I say no to all this. Are you prepared to tap the night watchman’s shoulder and ask him to summon you a constable so he can take evidence?”Lucy lifted her stubborn chin. “Aye. And don’t forget my seventeen shillings. With interest.”Simon closed his eyes. She really was too beautiful when she was angry. “Very well. You’ve got me over a barrel, you do. I’m shaking in my boots.”“You don’t believe me.”“I might not. But I can’t take the chance, can I now, Luce? I’ve built up a nice new life for myself—I’ve got hundreds of people dependent upon me for their livelihoods. I can’t change the face of England from a prison farm in Australia.”“They might hang you instead.”She said it with a great deal of enthusiasm. Aye, his Lucy was definitely angry at him. Damn it, hehadcome back for her. He couldn’t help it if she’d gotten impatient and run off with that popinjay Ferguson.“An excellent point, and I’m fond of my neck.” He slipped the bearing back in his pocket and tugged at his neckcloth. There would not be much need to think tonight if he was lucky. “Well, I suppose I’d best begin these onerous duties, seeing to your comforts. You don’t mind if I remove my jacket and tie, do you?”Lucy’s mouth dropped open. “N-now? But you just—”Simon grinned. “I did, didn’t I? But it can’t hurt you to do it again. I don’t think anybody’s ever died of too many orgasms. Well, perhaps a lecherous old man may have met his Maker a time or two, but you’re still young yet, and in reasonably good health, I trust.”Lucy had no answer to that. She continued to stare at him as he unbuttoned his figured black satin waistcoat. When he reached the top button of his fine lawn shirt, she shot up off her chair.“That’s enough.”“I live to serve. What would you like me to do?”He was fairly certain she mumbled “Go to the devil.” He’d already been there and back—he could still hear the cannon and smell the sulfur.“I need help with my dress.”“Certainly, my lady.”She was still as a marble statue as he twisted her gingery hair out of the way and attacked the row of golden thread and hooks. He’d always had nimble fingers, and in seconds the fabric gaped at her back. She wore a back-lacing demicorset over a plain white shift and he loosened the strings without being asked. “Now what?”She pivoted to face him. “Now you are to sit back down on the sofa and finish your whiskey. I will call when I’m ready for you.”So he was to be deprived of seeing her glorious naked body revealed, but he had his memory of yesterday morning. It was probably just as well he not see all of her tonight—he was already hideously uncomfortable in his nether regions.Simon sipped his whiskey standing up, leaning an elbow on the marble mantel. The room was cozy, not like the lair of any courtesan he’d ever visited. There were no naughty inspirational pictures on the walls, or much in the way of valuable objets d’art. Sold, probably, to keep Ferguson afloat. The earl had been up to the tips of his ears in hopeless schemes—Simon would alter the man’s luck before too long.And then would Ferguson want his mistress back?He couldn’t have her.Bluidy hell. Simon loved Lucy still, after all these years. He wasn’t sure why—she was no longer the stars-in-her-eyes girl who permitted him liberties in the shadows. She was, come to think of it, a bit of a shrew, her tongue as sharp as her cheekbones.But he couldn’t marry her—she’d been Ferguson’s mistress for six years. Any idea he had of assuring his children’s place in Society would be shattered if he made a woman like Lucy his wife.Double bluidy hell. Simon tossed the rest of his whiskey into the flames, where the flare was so bright he had to step back before he singed his silk stockings.But no one had ever seen her.Except for tonight—but he had not introduced her to a soul. She could have been his cousin come to town. She’d been around to the shops with a note that said just that, although it was not likely a country cousin would furnish a love nest on Jane Street for him. But Simon had the money enough to bribe the storekeepers. If Ferguson’s silence could be bought—and Simon was sure it wouldn’t take much as the man was fair desperate—Lucy might have a chance.Triple bluidy hell. His investors’ dinner here next week. He’d have to cancel it.Simon’s mind whirred like the gears to his inventions. He might not have a formal education, but no one could say that Sir Simon Keith was not a canny Scot. If anyone could see a way to turn wicked Lucy Dellamar back into innocent Lucy Dalhousie, it was he.However, first he had to gentle Lucy with his hands and tongue, a task that was altogether more simple.Chapter 10 Lucy’s hands shook as she tied the ribbon of her pale yellow robe. It had not been to Percy’s taste—he was altogether into more flamboyant jewel-tones. She smoothed her hands down the silk and contemplated kicking herself for changing her arrangement with Simon.But damn it. She’d been without so much as a peck on the cheek in thirteen years. She was almost half-dead already, if she was lucky enough to live to be a septuagenarian. Her prospects for marriage were dismal at best—how could she explain to a decent man that she’d lived on Jane Street for six years?Everyonehad heard of Jane Street.Six years ago she’d jumped at the chance to escape her aunt and her empty future. It was even more empty now. Lucy was a fool then, and a fool now.But she would have something to remember on those cold future nights as she tacked silk flowers onto the crown of a hat and shooed away her cats. She’d have a cat right now, but Percy claimed they made him sneeze.Percy. Her brows scrunched.Simon. They scrunched even more. Men were impossible, but a necessary evil.Lucy fluffed up her pillows and her hair, swallowed her reservations and called Simon’s name.Her voice wavered, but he must have been listening closely. He walked through the connecting door in an instant, his dark hair gleaming like polished ebony in the candlelight.His eyes were bright too, flicking over her form as she sat propped up on her bed.“You’re lovely, Luce.”“You don’t have to talk at all—there’s no point to your flattery.”“It’s nae flattery. I mean it.” His voice was pitched low, his Scottish burr fighting back from the English civilization he’d imposed upon it. She wanted to stick her fingers in her ears.“Words are cheap. Get on with it.”Och, but she was bold as brass, when inside she felt like a puddle of oozy oatmeal. But it was rather fun to order Simon about. She had been much at his mercy when they were young, always waiting for a snatched kiss or a few minutes when she could simplylookat him. He’d been beautiful in his way. But she had to admit he was far more beautiful now—he’d grown into his height, filled out. His body rippled with muscle as he walked across the room toward her.However, she’d never ask him to remove his clothes. That would be too much temptation. Lucy might lose her head and forget that she was in charge here.“What is it you want, Luce?”She didn’t know. She shrugged. “You’ll think of something appropriate.”“It’ll nae beappropriate,” he said, grinning like a wolf. He’d always had good teeth for a poor boy. Lucy was particular about teeth. Soon these teeth might be skimming down her skin, taking a wee nip here, a wee nip there—“What was that, Luce? I didn’t quite hear.”She must have let out a groan. She could barely think for the buzzing in her head. “N-nothing. Perhaps you can start by kissing me. That would be pleasant.”“Aye. Pleasant. And how do you want me, Luce? Sitting next to you on the bed, or lying down?”“Sitting is fine.”He reached out and put a finger on her mouth. “So you’ll be wanting a kiss on these lips here then, not the other ones.”He looked so terribly proud and pleased with himself for bringing up that wicked thing he’d done at the opera. She whacked his hand away. “To start.”“Your wish is my command, my lady, else I’ll find myself in the bowels of a prison ship. I hear there are rats and very bad men aboard. ’T’would be a waste of my talents to be transported.” He scratched his shadowed chin—his beard was coming in dark at this late hour. “I’m not sure King George would let me go.”Lucy sat up straight, forgetting all about kissing. “You know the new king?”“Sure and I do. Who do you supposed knighted me? I’d met him several times before, o’course, when I—och, never you mind. You wouldn’t understand.”“I’m not stupid!”“Nae, you’re sharp as a tack, but you’re not an engineer, are you? I did some things for the Crown during the war—and after too—that are complicated. I should have asked for a pardon then.” He took a step backward. “Who knows, perhaps it’s not too late now.”Lucy’s heart stilled. The evening was not turning out quite as she hoped. She should be in Simon’s arms and he should be kissing her senseless, not that she had much sense to begin with. “You’d admit your guilt? Let people know who Sir Simon Keith really is?”“Aye. Then people from my past could hold nothing over my head. And let me keep it.”Lucy was appalled—if he confessed he’d have no reason to stay here and do what she wanted. Do what sheneeded. “You’d be ruined.”“Aye, that I would. All my pretentions to fit into Society would be shown to be the foolish dreams of a gutter thief. Ah, well. It was too much to hope for that I could get away with it all forever.”“No, Simon! You’ve worked too hard, come too far.” She swallowed. “Never mind about the kissing. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.” She looked down at her hands, so white against the yellow of her robe, and sighed. “You should know I couldn’t clap you in jail. I was wrong to try to blackmail you. I thought I needed time to get settled—and teach you a lesson, too—but I’ll be fine. Better than fine. Just give me a day to pack and I’ll be out of your hair and you can get a new mistress.”Simon sat down on the bed, shifting her into him. He put his arm around her. “Those are the most words you’ve said to me in two days.”“I said quite a lot to you in my head.”He brushed her cheek with a fingertip. “I’ll bet. You never were a shy one.”“But I was. I was bold only with you, and look where that got me.”The stubble of his cheek tickled her forehead. “I’m sorry you felt you had no choice but to become Ferguson’s mistress.”“I—” She couldn’t say anything. She’d promised Percy.She needed to talk to Percy—explain to him that Sir Simon Keith washerSimon, come back as if from the dead. Percy was a romantic—surely he’d release her from her promise, or possibly even explain things to Simon himself. He didn’t have to go into every excruciating detail—and he owed her something, since she’d resorted to thieving for him.“But it’s all water under the bridge, Luce. We can’t change the past now, can we? We wouldn’t be the people we are today without it.”This philosophical Simon was a stranger to her, but the comfort of being in his arms was familiar. She snuggled in closer, grateful that he’d shed the layers of clothing a gentleman—even if he was a pretend gentleman—wore.“I’d like to kiss you anyway, blackmail or no,” he whispered. “Will you let me, Luce? Will you be my mistress tonight?”Why not? She would leave tomorrow—today, now, from the hands of the little china clock at her bedside. One night with Simon might not make up for thirteen years without, but it was the best she could do.“All right.” She’d save being sorry for later.She couldn’t miss the flash of smug triumph on his face.Damn. Lucy hadn’t put up much of a fight. She had folded from her blackmail scheme at the first sign that he was willing to throw his life away and confess to his sins, and had agreed to sleep with him despite the harm to her heart.But Simon would never have been so stupid as to tell the king or anyone else—more likely he would have stuffed Lucy bound and gagged in a closet like he did to poor Lady Murray when she came home to discover him rifling through her jewel box. Lady Murray had testified that the young man had been remarkably gentle and courteous as he had done so—nevertheless, it was considered kidnapping, even if Simon had seated her on a padded chair in her own closet, with her gouty foot up on a footstool.Simon fumbled with the ribbons of her peignoir.“I’ve changed my mind.”His fingers stopped tugging. “Pardon?”“A lady is entitled to change her mind.” Lucy wiggled out of Simon’s arms. She was immediately chilled.“I dinna understand.”There was no smugness on his face now, just a few wrinkles on his brow and a petulant lip. He was the picture of adorable confusion, but she vowed not to succumb to that puppy-dog look.“I misspoke. I don’t want to be your mistress. Or any man’s mistress.”“You’re coming a bit late to that conclusion, aren’t you, Luce?”Lucy clutched her hands into fists before she slapped him. But now that she had two fists good and ready, why not? She punched him on his stubbled chin. Not hard. But hard enough.“Oy! What’s that for, now? I’m not laying a hand on you, you daft wench.”She scrambled off the bed. “You’re right, Simon. Iamdaft. To think I almost—well, never mind. I’ll thank you to leave now. I’ll be out first thing in the morning. Percy wants all the dresses, so I won’t have much to pack.”Simon rubbed his chin, looking wounded, as if such a hulking man could really be injured by anything smaller than a large-bore cannon. Then he shook his head, a dark curl flopping over his left eyebrow. “Nay. I’ll not leave. We have an agreement. In writing.”Lucy swallowed back a shriek. It would do no good to work herself up anymore—she was already feeling an uncomfortable pulse at her neck. “Very well. Sleep with your agreement.I’mgoing to go sleep on the sofa in the upstairs parlor. Good night.”She made it halfway through the door before she was trapped in Simon’s arms again.“Let me go!”His breath was warm on her cheek. “Never.”She could feel the pounding of his heart against her chest. “You let me go before. Why do you want me now when I don’t want you?”He looked down at her, his blue eyes feral. “Don’t you, lass?”He was insufferable.He was right.What was it about this thoughtless brute that made her lose her wits? She was practically elderly now—she should know better. Shedidknow better.One night with Simon might lead to two—or more—and then she really would be losing her pasted-over virtue. He’d soon tire of her.He’d marry.And then where would she be?“Pleaselet me go.”“I canna. Ye fit perfect, Luce. Can ye nae feel it?”Oh, she felt it. She felteverything. His erection pressed into her belly, his fingers stroking her back and playing with her unbound hair, his lips against her temple. He sounded now like the boy she had loved, who had sweet-talked her until she’d gorged and sickened on his honeyed words. Tears spilled down her cheeks.“Och, Luce, dinna ye cry.” He brushed the tears away, then kissed their traces. Lifting her mouth to his, she tasted her salt and his mint. She allowed him to delve into a deeper kiss, for how could she not? She could stand in the doorway forever kissing him, as long as he held her up.But it seemed Simon had other ideas. He scooped her up as if she weighed nothing and carried her back to the bed, where he laid her down as if she were a fragile egg. But that was his last gentle maneuver, for his hands tore at her clothing and his mouth feasted on her newly exposed skin. He nipped her throat and worked his way down her chest, thumbing her nipples to diamond-hard peaks. Somehow he made her feel full and womanly, cupping one breast in his large warm hand as he suckled and swirled at the other. Lucy felt a tug to her womb as his tongue worked his new magic.For it was new—her Simon had not the expertise that Sir Simon possessed, nor had he had the luxury of making love to her in a soft feather bed all those years ago. The combination of his skill and her comfort—and discomfort, too, for how could she combat the scorching heat that washed over her?—made her sink deeper into the mattress in confusion, torn between purely receiving and reaching out to him.Lucy ached in places that had been neglected too long, most especially her heart, which threaded and jumped as if being squeezed. She might die any minute, but please not before he finished with her. Before they finished with each other.Her body was waking, each brush of his fingers and lips sparking against her skin. It was no longer enough to lie passively as he swept her up in sin. She needed to feel his skin, too. Somehow she emerged from her dazed languor to pull up Simon’s shirt. Lucy wanted to touch his chest as he was touching hers, but with a growl he captured her hand and thrust it lower. His cock was enormous, stiff, straining to be relieved of the constraint of fabric. She obliged, fingers trembling at his falls.
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His cock was hot and velvety in her hand. It, like the rest of him, seemed to have grown from what she recalled. But she couldn’t see for herself, as Simon’s shaggy dark head obstructed her vision. So she went on sensation alone, thumbing the raised vein from root to tip. It jerked in response and Simon’s tongue twinned with it in a desperate thrust around her nipple. Lucy fitted her hand around his cock and drew it up, then down in the dimly-remembered dance they’d perfected in their snatched moments. She had not lost the knack—Simon expressed satisfyingly anguished sounds as she glided slowly around his member. His hand abandoned a breast and sought her center, replicating what he’d done in the theatre, using a thumb instead of a tongue to press against her pubic bone. A few short, hard strokes and she was crumbling again, fragmenting, shattering, breaking apart and grateful for every scattered shard.Her breathless cries didn’t stop him. Simon had said something about too many orgasms. She had lost count already and she was as good with numbers as he was good with his hands. As Simon continued the onslaught, Lucy quite forgot to touch him, so witless was she.But he soon remedied that, easing his fingers away. Before Lucy could come down from her heights to miss him, he settled himself over her and inched inside her.She was tight. It was slow going, but he was patient, his shadowed face a study in concentration. He was too beautiful to look at, so she turned her head. His arms corded at her sides, muscled and entirely masculine, his hands splayed near her shoulders. His blackened fingernails fascinated her—he was so clean everywhere else. The nails were clipped short and buffed—by a MacTavish, no doubt, if Simon sat still long enough. He seemed like a tightly-coiled spring, bursting with energy and industry. It was only at the opera he’d been physically quiet, mesmerized by that outrageous woman who played Orpheus. Lucy supposed after Percy she should be used to people switching genders, but she was still not entirely comfortable with the idea. The thought of it all would send her strict aunt into a state of permanent vapors.Lucy chided herself for thinking of her aunt at a time like this, when Simon was doing his damnedest to connect himself to her. But perhaps she should distract herself—not think about how perfect he felt as he entered her and withdrew, how hard and hot he was, how—oh! that twisty thing he still did that touched her just where she needed most to be touched—how liquid and loose she felt as she lay under him, like a pond that still rippled from a rock being tossed in.But Lucy felt the ocean coming, crashing waves and lunar pull, and thoughts of aunts and opera dissolved in the storm that was Simon, his face in exquisite agony—she had to look up now—his blue eyes beseeching. There was perfect understanding between them. No barrier. No hesitation. No regret.“Yes,” she whispered. Yes and yes and yes. He swept down to kiss her when he came, an uncontrolled kiss and clash of teeth and tongue that took her along with him. Her hips rose to meet the last deep thrust and she wrapped her long legs around him, drawing him in and keeping him safe.They shuddered together, damp, disheveled, exultant. Simon still kissed her, moving his lips from hers to her nose, her eyelids, her forehead. She felt like a child blessed at church.Lucy had wondered all those years ago what this would be like—to love Simon in a proper bed, to not be afraid of discovery, to allow him to spill within her. They had been remarkably careful as youngsters, not wanting to bring another poor baby into the world. If she fell pregnant after tonight, she expected Simon would see to it that she and the child were provided for.A child would be a miracle—she’d not allowed herself to think along those lines for years, watching her youth vanish along with her reputation.Simon’s baby. Lucy envisioned a dark-haired busy boy whose pockets would be filled with clockworks and coils of wire.Och, she was a sentimental fool, dreaming of a future that was not to be. This was just one night—it meant nothing. Would lead to nothing, and shouldn’t. What would she do with a child, bringing it up alone? Simon thought she was a whore, would probably take the child from her. Even if she told him the truth, he was not apt to believe her. What woman who lived on Jane Street for six years could be innocent?Lucy shut her eyes, smoothing a cheek on Simon’s shoulder, the scent of his skin as familiar to her as her own reflection. Some things never changed. She’d fallen victim to him again but she couldn’t blame him. Lucy had been hungry for a man’s touch for too long. The fact that Simon seemed to be the only man who made her heart stutter was not his fault.She should say something to him as he held her tight, but she didn’t trust herself to speak. He was equally reticent, the only sound in the room the steady hiss and hum of burning coals in the fireplace. They lay entwined until Lucy’s heart slowed and the sweat chilled her skin.Simon noticed her shiver and hugged her. “Are you cold, Luce?”She nodded. He reached for the edge of the blanket and wrapped it around them, but it was still not enough to warm the ice within. She would have to leave tomorrow—today. Where would she go? She hadn’t a friend left in the world except Percy.Percy. Perhaps he’d take her on his staff. She could be his secret lady’s maid. A hopeless chortle erupted.“What’s so funny, Luce? Dinna tell me you find this pickle funny.”Lucy pulled away. “This pickle?”“Aye. I’ll not be fighting you tooth and nail every time I take you to bed. We need to set some ground rules. I’m that fond of my chin.”Lucy was too. Right now it was dusted with the beginnings of his dark beard and he looked like a delicious pirate. “Just because—” Lucy swallowed. “This was a one-off, Simon. I still plan to leave.”His lips quirked. “This meant nothing to you? You needn’t lie to me, Luce. I know women. I know you. You were every bit as engaged as I.”“Are you expecting me to sing your praises? You’ll have a long wait. I’ve had better.”Lie, lie, lie.It was the only thing that would free her.Simon didn’t seem in the least perturbed. He stroked her flushed cheek with a fingertip. “Perhaps you can teach me a trick or two from your repertoire. I’m always interested in learning new things, especially if they add to my pleasure. If I could teach myself to read, I don’t doubt you could teach me to fuck you with greater finesse.”Finesse. Hehadbeen reading the dictionary. The look on his face told her he didn’t think it was possible for him to improve his amatory skill, and he was right, damn him.“You are revolting.” She wriggled in his arms but he wouldn’t let her go.“I hear the courtesans on Jane Street are unsurpassed in the sexual arts. So, what’s your first lesson? I’m an eager pupil.”She resolutely shut her eyes. “I’m tired, Simon. I want to go to sleep.”“All right.”Lucy waited for him to let her go, but she was still clamped in his arms. She poked his chest. “Go home, Simon.”“Nay. I’m perfectly comfortable right where I am.”“Well, I am not! I can’t sleep with you here, all over me. I can’t breathe.”“You seem to have enough breath to yell at me. Hush now.” He kissed the top of her head.Unbelievable! She writhed a bit, but it was clear Simon would not give way. Lucy would just have to hope he forgot to hold her once he fell asleep.But it was dawn before he disentangled himself from her, and that was only so he could stoke the fire and kiss her body awake in warmth.Chapter 11 There was much an important man like Sir Simon Keith had on his plate this day, but at the moment he could not recall a single appointment or obligation. In fact, he really never wanted to leave the bed again to do anything but make love to Lucy, now that the chill had been driven from the room. The fire roared merrily, the October sun streamed in between the chintz curtains, and his mistress lay dazed and dazzled in a patch of light. Her hair was the color of the fine copper wire he used in his electrical experiments, a lovely rose-gold. He wrapped a strand around his finger, almost feeling its own current to his heart.They’d shared a connection years ago, when she was coltish and shy but the most beautiful girl he knew. Lucy was beautiful still—in her own particular, out-of-the-ordinary way. Or would be if she weren’t scowling at him, her bronzy eyebrows beetling. Had she already forgotten what he’d done to her this morning? Twice.At some point he’d have to devote a portion of his brain to rescuing Lucy from this life of debauchery and make her his wife. For there was not a question in his mind after last night and this morning that he wanted to marry her. The idea of her sleeping—and not sleeping—beside him filled him with intense, obstinate desire.Simon didn’t care how many men she’d slept with. He’d been her first, by God, and he would be her last. If having Lucy meant giving up his tenuous hold on London Society, well then, so what? He’d still have his money and his ideas. He could work from anywhere. Wouldn’t it be restful if he spent more time at his Cotswold estate? The fresh air would put roses in Lucy’s cheeks, and the country was a better place to raise children anyhow.Simon’s blurry vision of domestic bliss was interrupted by a sharp elbow to his ribs. “Get off me.”Simon raised an eyebrow. “What’s the magic word?”“Now,” Lucy ground out.He glanced at the china clock. She had a point. If he stayed here much longer his secretary and the MacTavish boys would not forgive him.He nuzzled her long white neck. “I’ll leave after breakfast.”Lucy whuffed her disapproval through flaring nostrils. “Surely it’s too late for breakfast.”“That may be, but I’m hungry nonetheless and my staff will have food warming for us. Shall we eat here or go downstairs?”She sat up, nearly breaking his nose. “Eat inbed?” She sounded fair horrified. What kind of imbecile was Percy Ferguson that he didn’t eat in bed with his mistress? There were any number of things that could be done with a pot of strawberry jam.“Never tell me your maid doesn’t bring you a pot of chocolate to your bedside.”“Yourmaid does. But I sit in my upstairs parlor with it and read the news sheets. I’m not a lazy slugabed. I have things to do.”Odd. He thought mistresses lolled about until their protectors came each night. “What are all these things?”“I read. I still make all my own hats. The girls on the street have their entertainments. Card parties and such.”“It sounds like a grueling schedule.”“You may mock me, but it’s not as though we women have as many choices as you men. You belong to some silly club, don’t you? I expect you read and play cards there, too.”“Not often. But I’ve got to be where the important men are.”“Therichmen, you mean.”Simon laughed. “You make being rich sound like a crime. Perhaps you missed your century. You should have been born French fifty years ago.”“I don’t want anyone to part with their head. Only you,” she muttered.“Luce, tell me you’ve not enjoyed being Ferguson’s mistress all these years, here in the lap of luxury. It may have been a little lean these past few months, but you had a nice long ride while it lasted.”Damn it. There came her fist again. He ducked just in time. “Be reasonable, woman! Can you honestly tell me you’d rather be hunched over making hats in your aunt’s backroom, lucky to get a few farthings when she thought to pay you? I know I wouldn’t want to go back on the streets, cadging for my crusts of bread.”“You could have found a steady job.”“I was willing to do honest work, but there was so little of it.” And hehaddone all he could, legal or illegal, to keep his old gran in medicine and food. It still grieved him that his soldier’s pay was not enough to keep her alive longer. He’d sent every bit of it home.“You’re still a thief. You’re robbing me of my time.”Simon laughed. “And what is so pressing today that you must leap out of bed?”“Have you forgotten? I’m leaving. I need to pack.”Simon felt a deep stirring of anger. He’d gone long enough without what he needed in life. Lucy wasnotgoing to leave just when he’d found her again.“The devil you say. I forbid it.”“You forbid it? That makes me even more determined.” She squirmed in his arms, rubbing up against him in a delightfully vexing way.“We have an agreement. In writing.”“And who can read it with your dreadful penmanship? I signed it under duress. With a false name. You couldn’t possibly hold me to it.”“I can hold you to anything.” To emphasize his point, he squashed her to him. All of him. She made him randy as Pan, bless her. Lately he’d been reading up on Greek mythology to pass the time. Terrible, violent stuff. Those gods were capricious, they were. “And the duress was strictly on my end. You were, I believe, blackmailing me.”“And you’ve broken our bargain! You are in my bed!”“Inmybed. I own every stick of furniture in this place.”“But you don’t own me.”Simon sighed and relaxed his grip. “Aye. That I do not. You are your own woman, Lucy Dalhousie.”She punched him in the shoulder feebly. “Stop calling me that! It’s a ridiculous name.”He could change that. If he could change Lucy’s mind about leaving. What she needed was a proper wooing. With strawberry jam.“Be sensible, Luce. You have nowhere to go now, do you? What harm can befall you by staying on Jane Street a wee bit longer?”“I wish I’d never come here,” she mumbled into his chest. Her breaths tickled a bit. So shewassorry she’d lived a life of sin. That was a start to getting her back on the straight and narrow. How strange that a lad such as he had turned out more respectable than she. Lucy had been one long lecture in the past, when he wasn’t kissing her to shut her up.What an excellent idea. He lifted her stubborn chin and swept his tongue against the seam of her lips. She didn’t make it easy for him, but she didn’t draw back. He toyed with the corner of her mouth, lifting it to a lopsided smile, then skimmed his way to the other side.Simon felt tentative fingertips exploring his jaw. He didn’t want to burn her delicate white skin with his beard, so he flipped her on top of him, giving her more control. He was rewarded with her opening mouth and the silken warmth of her long body. By all the saints, he never wanted to stand up again. Possibly couldn’t. He thumbed her pale nipples until they pebbled beneath his touch, wishing he could kiss her there as well as her soft, sweet mouth. Wishing he could kiss her everywhere all at once. Devour her with kisses. Every sharp angle. Every gentle curve. Taste her from tip to toe and make her come again and again.He opened his eyes to see Lucy’s closed, her gilt eyelashes fanning the blue flesh beneath her eyes. She had not slept well, then. He had not let her. It had been impossible not to take her at dawn as she drowsed in his arms, and then again just a scant half-hour ago, when she was wide awake and prickly. But he’d smoothed her the best way he knew how. She was temptation incarnate, and he was as starved for her as he’d been as a callow youth.Without breaking the kiss, he lifted her hips and impaled her on his cock. She shuddered around him, liquid and lush. She slid up as he raised her, came down as he sank into her, so deep they were one being. How could she think of leaving?Was her responsiveness just an act? His Lucy had never been a good liar. But many years had passed since she’d fibbed unconvincingly to her aunt and snuck out with him. She was a famous courtesan now, a woman Lord Ferguson bragged about throughout London. Did she kiss Percy like this, so hungry and angry? Did that fop ever cause that flush to her cheeks and the hammering pulse at her throat? It was torture for Simon to think of her with anyone else, for all that he’d been no saint himself.But there would be no other woman. No woman but Lucy. All he had to do was make her see their future the way he did. He was a persuasive fellow—he’d managed to wangle his way all the way up to the king. One mere commoner should be no problem.Ha. There was nothing common about her. He thrust up one final time, his seed spilling where it was meant to be. Lucy was his. For the next three months. For a lifetime.She struggled out of his arms and flopped on her back, her heated body fragrant with lilac scent. “You canna keep doing this, Simon.”He held back his chuckle. He was rather proud of his performance, not that he was about to take all the credit. “Doing what?”Lucy waved a limp arm. “This. I canna be your mistress. ’T’isn’t right.”“ ’T’was right for me, Luce. No more nonsense, now. It’s only for three months. Then you’ll have your money and go your own way.”Over his dead body.Lucy’s chin jutted skyward. Simon was beginning to dislike the ambition of that chin. But she said nothing, just huffed a little and pulled up the covers to rob him of seeing her beauty.He sat up. “I suppose I should leave you then. I have things to do, too.”“What, no breakfast in bed?” she asked, her tone sarcastic.“Not today. But tomorrow. Definitely.”He was rewarded with another huff. Simon got up and went to the pile of neatly folded clothing and dressed without the benefit of a valet. Today he’d have fresh sets of clothing sent around so he wouldn’t be seen in yesterday’s dirt and opera attire again. But so what if he was spotted unshaven and in evening wear in the daylight? That would only add to his reputation.It was Lucy’s reputation that concerned him. He hoped she wouldn’t wander all over town claiming to be his mistress.Not likely. She did not seem completely won over to the idea, but he had to make sure.“You are not to leave the house today. I’ll instruct MacTavish to see to it.”Lucy flashed him an incredulous look. “I am to be kept prisoner here?”“It’s a pretty prison, Luce. We’ll discuss my plans for you when I return tonight.”“I won’t be here!”“Aye, you will, if Mac has to tether you to the bed.”“You bluidy bastard!”Simon grinned. “Tis true my mum wasn’t married when she had me. Everybody knows that.”Lucy gave a strangled cry and hurled a pillow. Simon deftly stepped out of its path and into his shoes.“You canna keep me here against my will!”She was sitting up now, blankets dropped, chest heaving. Lucy’s nipples were raspberry-hued and looked as if they’d taste even sweeter. If he kept staring he was never going to get any work done. He fiddled with his gold cufflinks.“As I said, we’ll talk tonight. Have a nice day, Luce.”Simon shut the door behind him. The thuds and shattering of objects and rather violent oaths were somewhat muted as he descended the stairs.MacTavish awaited him, looking understandably nervous. “Good morning, Mac. Please see to it that Miss Dellamar is confined to the house today. She’s in a bit of a temper, so do whatever you think is necessary.”The butler paled. “Is she not amenable to this arrangement, Sir Simon?”“Don’t worry. She will be.”Mac opened the front door for him, and Simon took a deep breath of Jane Street air. The other eleven houses were quiet, their mistresses probably sleeping the day away. Maybe Lucy would nap too, if she wasn’t too cross. Simon wanted her awake tonight, however. He was going to do more than talk to her.
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Chapter 12 MacTavish had raised a silvery butler-brow but sent the footman to Percy’s house with Lucy’s desperate message. If she was not allowed to go out of the house—as if she were a criminal—well, she thought ruefully, she supposed shewasa criminal what with the pilfering she’d done, just uncaught—then Percy would have to come to her. Simon had said nothing about her receiving visitors. By the time he got around to forbidding them too, she would be gone.Percy would help her. He’d have to. And she wouldn’t have MacTavish or anyone else spying on her when she talked to him. She sat now in her little back garden, wrapped in her necessary fox fur against the fall chill. She hoped MacTavish didn’t notice that all the back gardens were connected by doors set into the brick walls. Most of the doors were unlocked, so the courtesans could visit each other when the spirit moved them. More than a bit of gossip was passed or a cup of sugar borrowed—one never knew when one needed a good weep, an extra French letter or bottle of champagne.But Lucy’s neighbors had locked their garden-wall doors, fearing Lucy’s light fingers. Smart girls. Lucy was sorry for all the thefts, she truly was. If she ever had a way to make it up to her neighbors, she would do so.She tapped her foot on the brick path. She felt the cold of the marble bench on her bottom even with the barrier of fur. What was keeping Percy anyway? She had been most explicit.Her impatience was stilled by the site of Lord Ferguson stepping from the dining room French door. It was obvious he’d taken considerable care in his toilette—his shirtpoints were so high they might poke an eye out if he wasn’t careful. He was wrapped in a Ferguson plaid great coat, its predominant color royal purple. Oh dear. The man really was not subtle at all in his preferences.“Lucy, my love, whatever is the matter? I came as soon as I could. Your note sounded quite dire.”She grimaced. “Dire indeed, Percy, and it is all your fault.”Percy swept his many capes behind him and sat down. “Whatever do you mean, love? What has happened?”“Sir Simon Keith has happened, Percy.”“Ah, your gallant Scottish knight.”“Not mine!” Lucy snapped. “I don’t want him. He’s keeping me a prisoner in this house, even worse than you did.”“Now, buttercup. You were never my prisoner, just my mystery. We ventured out now and again.” Percy reached for her hands, but she jumped off the bench and began to pace on the short brick path between the browning shrubbery. She was not about to succumb to his excuses or his boyish charm.“Listen to me, Percy. Sir Simon is not who you think he is. He ismySimon.”“I thought you just said he wasn’t yours,” Percy said, frowning.“He’s not! I mean he is the Simon I knew when I was a girl.”“Thethief?” Percy asked, his plucked eyebrows rising to his receding hairline.“The very same. And worse than ever. You have to help me escape.”“Where will you go? You know I cannot bring you to Mama’s. She’s met you.”Lucy shivered. She remembered the occasion well. She’d rather pitch herself down an extremely tall cliff than live with Countess Ferguson. “I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. I want you to go next door to Victorina Castellano’s and ask her to unlock the garden gate for me. I can get out that way.”Percy rubbed his chin. “The Spanish Spitfire? I thought you were not on good terms with her. Why should she help you?”“Of course we are not on good terms! I’ve robbed her blind—for you, you ridiculous man—and she suspects me. Tell her I’ve changed my ways. Tell her I’ll pay her back. Eventually.”“I don’t know, Lucy. I shouldn’t want to jeopardize my investment in Keith’s consortium. He’s bound to find out I assisted you. Can’t you stay and just make the best of things?”Lucy broke a fallen branch in half, not sure whether it was Simon’s or Percy’s neck she was snapping in her imagination. “Percy, you are a lily-livered coward.”“I’m apoorlily-livered coward. You of all people know that. You stole for me, Lucy, and I shan’t forget that. Ever. It shames me, it truly does. But helping you run off from Jane Street, with no place to go, no money—why, I would be doing you a dreadful disservice. You can’t just fly off into the mist like this. You need a plan.”“I don’t have time for a plan,” Lucy said crossly, sitting back down. “Will you at least take a note to Victorina?”“I—I suppose I could. She wears the most marvelous mantillas.”Lucy rolled her eyes heavenward and was rewarded with a piece of ash falling from a neighbor’s chimney. “Bluidy hell.” She stuck a finger under her lid and rooted around.“Don’t rub it in!” Percy fished a lace-edged handkerchief out of his pocket and dabbed at the corner of her eye. “Now, Lucy, such language. What of our lady lessons?”“I doona give a rat’s arse about our lady lessons. Ouch.”“Hold still, I’ve almost got it. There. Good as new, although your eyeball’s quite pink. You should go inside and rest.”“Doona change the subject, Percy. I’ll go inside, but only to write to Victorina. Will you take the letter to her?”Percy nodded. “If you can wait a day or two to leave, I’ll see if I can’t sell something to give you a little going-away gift.”Lucy squinted at him with her one good eye. “I thought you sold everything of value already.”Percy colored. “There may be something I overlooked. Yates can help me.”“All right. But the day after tomorrow is my absolute deadline. I shall simply die if I have to put up with Simon for longer than that.”“Is he no’ a braw, strapping laddie?” Percy asked, mimicking her accent.“He’stoobraw and strapping. You would faint dead away if you saw his ballocks.”“Lucy! Your language.” Percy looked more titillated than disapproving. Lucy was not about to share what she had done with Simon, however. It was all too mortifying how easily she had fallen under his spell again.“Let’s go inside to write the note. You can go straight to Victorina’s and then come back to tell me what she says. If it’s no, I’ll ask Sophie Rydell on the other side.”“I shall try to be as persuasive as possible. I’ll make her my bosom-bow.”“Just don’t ask if you can see her closet,” Lucy grumbled. Lucy resumed her pacing, this time in her upstairs sitting room. She would miss this space—it had taken her six years to make it cozy and comfortable. She’d sewn the slipcovers and collected the books and arranged every stick of furniture to suit herself. It was her little kingdom—well, queendom might be more appropriate, as Percy had shared many afternoons and evenings here with her while he waited for Yates to finish up his various duties. Lucy had lost count of the number of hats she’d made or the pages she’d cut from romance novels and poetry books in six years of keeping loneliness at bay.Percy had been good company when he was there, but Lucy had never really warmed up to the other women on the street. Their innate elegance had been intimidating, making her feel even more unlovely and awkward than she had as a girl in Edinburgh. Plus she had been afraid that somehow the true nature of her relationship with her benefactor would be revealed. Lucy certainly could not hold up her end of the conversation when the Janes compared notes and positions. Her dim recollection of adolescent sex with Simon was entirely inadequate.After the bedroom—and opera—activity of the last few days, she had more of a base of knowledge to discuss from now. But since her thieving, the girls shunned her, and rightfully so. One day she’d make it up to them, even if she had to supply them with a lifetime of new bonnets.Which reminded her. While she waited for Percy to return, she could work on the straw capote. The hat was intended for him anyway. How and where he’d wear it was no longer of concern to her, but braiding trim for it would keep her busy. If Victorina refused to help her, Lucy would simply send Percy to her other neighbor. Sophie was so high in the instep she could pass as a duchess, though a very naughty one. Sophie might be cooperative—she would be delighted to see the back of her. Lucy had never quite fit in, her Edinburgh edges roughing up the Jane Street silk.Lucy unrolled some red velvet cording from its spool in her sewing box and snipped it into three lengths. It was soothing to cross the strands over and under, and before she knew it, she had a nice, tight braid. She fixed it to the edge of the brim with tiny, even stitches. The color would bring out the ruddiness of Percy’s cheeks.She heard the front door slam below—Percy had never been subtle—and waited for him to come upstairs. Instead she heard an altercation below, with MacTavish taking umbrage that Percy had let himself in, as always. Lucy tossed the hat aside and popped her head over the banister.“It’s all right, MacTavish. Lord Ferguson is used to making himself at home here.”The butler sniffed. “Most irregular, Miss Dellamar. I shall have to report this to Sir Simon. Your key, please.” He held out a long, work-worn hand.“My key?” Percy asked, his voice rising.“Your key, my lord. Miss Dellamar is no longer in your—er, employ. It is one thing to visit at calling hours, ringing the bell and awaiting admittance like a gentleman. Sir Simon would not be best pleased that you have access to this establishment at any hour of the day. Or night,” MacTavish said darkly.“Are you implying I’m not a gentleman?” Percy was now as red as the braid on his new hat. The color on his cheeks clashed with his purple and green plaid cape.“I am doing nothing of the kind, my lord,” MacTavish said, unperturbed. His hand remained outstretched. “You are indeed a peer of the realm, the—the flower of English manhood. But it is my understanding that Sir Simon wishes Miss Dellamar to be protected in her home.”“Protected!” cried Lucy. “Locked up, more like! Percy is my oldest friend, MacTavish, and he may come and go as he wishes. AsIwish.”“I’m afraid Sir Simon’s instructions preempt your wishes, Miss Dellamar. The key, Lord Ferguson.”“Devil take it!” Percy mumbled, but handed it over to the implacable butler.“Come upstairs, Percy.”“Miss Dellamar, if I may be so bold—”“No, you may not, not that I can stop you.” Lucy gritted her teeth in frustration.“It is improper for you to entertain a gentleman upstairs in your boudoir.”“I am notentertainingLord Ferguson. We are simply talking. We are friends. We talked in the garden. Now we are going to talk upstairs.”“I’m afraid I’ll have to report that to Sir Simon as well.”“Report away!” Lucy snapped. “Station yourself outside the door so you can eavesdrop!” That was the last thing she needed, but if necessary she and Percy could write notes to each other. She could readhishandwriting.The butler’s neck stiffened. “I never eavesdrop, Miss Dellamar. I know my place.”“Hmph. Are you coming?” she called down to Percy irritably. This was becoming like a Romeo and Juliet farce with exceptionally star-crossed lovers.“Yes, Lucy, but I can’t stay long.”“May I take your cape, Lord Ferguson?”Percy struggled with the silver clasp. MacTavish clearly intimidated him—he was indeed a lily-livered coward. Lucy turned on her heel and went back into her sitting room. She had half a mind not to give Percy his hat.He finally entered, blushing.“Well? What happened? You were gone long enough!”Percy removed a speck of lint from his sleeve. “Do you suppose MacTavish suspects? That bit about the flower of English manhood was a bit much. And an insult. I’m as Scottish as he is!”“Bugger the damn butler! Stick to the subject, Percy!”Percy pulled out his handkerchief and gingerly blotted his brow. He hated arguments of any kind, and the scene with MacTavish had discomposed him. But Lucy was not going to let him off the hook. “Out with it!”“Your Senorita Castellano is a very vivacious young lady. She insisted I have a drop of wine, and one thing led to another.” He slipped the handkerchief back into his pocket, and Lucy saw a wisp of black lace.“Oh, God, Percy. What’s that in your pocket?”Percy covered the bulge in his waistcoat. “I didn’t steal it. She gave it to me.”Lucy covered her face. The image of Percy prancing around in a black mantilla was disconcerting.“Don’t worry—I told her it was for Mama. She doesn’t suspect our little arrangement was not what it seemed. Vicky listened quite carefully to your predicament—sympathetic little soul, she is, all liquid dark eyes and mournful mouth. If Mama had not made me give up painting, I should have liked—”
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“Enough about your mama! What did—Vicky, is it?— say?” Lucy was rather put out. She’d never been asked to call Victorina by her diminutive.“She’s agreed to open the door in the wall. She would have done so at once, so taken was she by the tale of the brutish Sir Simon keeping you here against your will.”“He’s not—I’m not—never mind.”“The door will be opened at noon, and she’ll be ready to escort you through her domicile. She’s sleeping in, what with her protector expected later tonight.” Percy’s fingers crept into his pocket. It was obvious he could not wait to get home and cover himself with lace.“Noon. Noon is fine.” Lucy began to pace again. “Can you get me money by then, Percy? As much as you can?” If Victorina was walking her through the house, there would be no opportunity for Lucy to filch anything else from her. It wouldn’t be sporting anyway.Percy straightened his shoulders. “I’ll try, buttercup. I’ll try. I’ll send Yates around first thing in the morning. What will you do? Where will you go?”“I don’t know. Anywhere but here.”Percy shook his head, looking a bit mournful himself. “I feel responsible for you, Lucy. Is this really what you want—running away from a man who can keep you in style?”“Sir Simon’s style is vastly overrated.” A lie, from beginning to end, but she had to get away while she still had a shred of independence. A few more nights in Simon’s arms or wherever he put her was bound to lead to insanity.“He’s rich as Croesus, Lucy. Are you sure you cannot come to terms with him, especially if he is, as you suggest, a very fine figure of a man?”“I’m positive.” She picked up the capote and stabbed it with a needle. “I’ll have this finished for you before I go.”Percy reached across the table and stilled her hand. “I don’t care about the hat. I care about you.”“Then bring me money. Steal from your mama if you must.”Percy turned parchment-white, but he nodded in solemn acceptance. “For you, my dear, I might even consider it.”Chapter 13 Simon had had a hellish day. He’d spent the afternoon and evening holding the hand of a reluctant investor who could not see the benefit of sinking his fortune into a passenger railway system. Hauling coal and iron he could understand—inanimate objects could not complain over rough terrain and belching smoke. No civilized persons would consent to being loaded aboard a train like cattle, and so he had said. Over and over. Simon had plied the man with drink and a rich dinner, but had failed to part him with his money. Add to that this morning’s fight with Lucy and the worrisome news MacTavish gave him as he crossed the threshold, and Simon was in sore need of comfort.And not apt to receive any from his mistress, who was still, apparently, carrying on with Lord Percival Ferguson.Faugh. What had Lucy ever seen in the earl?The answer was distressingly obvious. Even though Ferguson had lost the money he had lured Lucy with, she still had feelings for him. According to MacTavish, she’d embraced him in the garden and let him wipe her tears away—tears of misery that she was forced to be with Simon now, no doubt. Then she’d taken the man up to her cozy sitting room and closed the door. Who knew if they’d slipped into the bedroom through the connecting door? MacTavish had timed the earl’s visit, and perhaps its brevity was a function of Lucy’s skill or Ferguson’s lack thereof.Damn it all to hell and back. Simon was jealous—jealous of the flamboyantly-dressed dandy. Percy the Peacock. Simon’s own clothes were good quality, the first stare of fashion, but they were conservative—a man of his background could not afford to risk impropriety. He wondered if Lucy would like him better if he wore a scarlet waistcoat and too many watch fobs.Six years was a long time to be one man’s mistress. Some of the men Simon knew picked up and discarded women with alarming alacrity. He had to give Percy credit—the man knew how very special Lucy was.Could FergusonloveLucy? Worse, could Lucy love him back?Och. There was no point to fash himself. Lucy belonged to him now. He would make her see reason and marry him. He would ask her. Tonight. There was no point in waiting—they’d waited thirteen years.Of course, he had asked her once before, although Simon could not recall his precise words. It had been assumed by both of them that they would wed once their financial circumstances improved. He seemed to recall that Lucy had wanted him to stop stealing first, and he would have—he just never had the opportunity to quit until he ran away into the arms of the army. Now he had more money than he knew what to do with, although not quite enough to finance his ambitious railway project on his own. He didn’t want to beggar himself again, either. As a frugal Scot, he had money tucked away for a rainy day. For a snowy one, too.Aye. He’d propose. He should have brought a bouquet of flowers. Or a ring. Simon pictured Lucy tossing either item at him—she was so snappish when he wasn’t fucking her.That’s how he’d do it! Get her wet and hot beneath him, bring her to the brink, then whisper in her ear. She’d scream yes before she knew what she was saying.With a growl of satisfaction at a problem solved, Simon began to unwind his neckcloth as he mounted the stairs to Lucy’s bedroom. He wouldn’t jump on her right away at this late hour, although God knows he longed to. Nay, he’d woo her a little. Wake her slowly with feathery kisses along her swan-like white neck. Warm the gentle swell of her breast in the palm of his hand. Circle a tender pink nipple with his tongue.With every step he stiffened, aching for Lucy in a way he couldn’t explain. Simon was not a poetic man by nature, much better with his hands than his words. But Lucy—her flaming hair and alabaster skin and brandy-colored eyes—unlocked something within his humble heart.He paused at the sitting-room door. The room was in darkness, but a flickering light beneath the connecting door told him Lucy was still awake. He moved quietly, trying not to bump into the odd collection of furniture Lucy had crammed into the space. He almost made it when he tripped over a stack of books piled next to a crewel-work chair. He reached for purchase, but the chair toppled right along with Simon. He landed awkwardly on his chin and his cock and heard the unmistakable crack of breaking bone.Damn him for a clumsy oaf—once he’d been like a cat in the dark, climbing trellises and trees, nimble and stealthy. Now, if he wasn’t mistaken, he had snapped his left wrist because Holy Mother of God and all his Saints the pain was excruciating.Lucy flung the door open. “What are you doing on the floor?”Simon swept the blood from his tongue. “Inspecting the carpet.”“Well, get up and let’s get this over with. I’m tired.”“What an enticing invitation to your bed. Just what a man wants to hear.” Perhaps he wouldn’t propose tonight after all. He rolled onto his back, the corner of one book biting into his shoulder blade. “Lucy, would you please ring for MacTavish?”“What for? From the smell of you, you’ve had enough brandy. No wonder you’re falling on your face.”“It was the damned books,” Simon ground out. “I am not drunk.”“Ha. I suppose you’re going to tell me it was only a business dinner.”“Itwasonly a business dinner. I admit I had a brandy. One.”Now he wished he’d had more. Simon closed his eyes, willing the spiraling stars away. He heard Lucy take a long sniff, and couldn’t resist looking up at her to see her lovely nose twitch. She had some nerve being so judgmental when she was dead drunk that first morning he found her in bed.“Lucy, I’m sorry if the smell of my breath offends you, but you must get MacTavish. I believe I’ve broken my wrist.” Simon’s stomach flipped and he wondered if he was going to puke on the carpet. He devoutly hoped not.“What?” She stepped closer and bent over, a long braid dangling above Simon’s face. “Your chin is bleeding!”“My tongue, too.” He hoped his cock was in one piece. “I landed funny. Broke my—dignity.”“Devil take it! Let me see your wrist.”Simon realized he had been squeezing it with his right hand. Good thing it was only the left, although he was ambidextrous. He’d made his fortune with his hands, and damn him if he was out of commission for any length of time.Lucy was on her knees now, a lovely sight, backlit from the firelight of her bedroom. She was all copper wire and porcelain, her eyes narrowing as she examined him without touching. “Does it hurt?”Simon considered telling the truth. But he was a man, and men did not complain of pain. “I’ll be all right.”“Of course you will! It’s only a broken bone. Maybe just sprained.”He wanted to tell her there was nothing ‘only’ or ‘sprained’ about it, but held his bloody tongue.Lucy bit her lip in concentration. “It doesn’t look right.”“Aye, that’s what I’m telling you. Fetch MacTavish.”“Don’t you trust me to splint it?”Simon considered. Lucy would probably love to torture him as she wrapped his wrist, wiggling and waggling it until he’d want her to cut his hand off. On the whole he thought he’d rather have MacTavish. Or a doctor. Or, if it came to it, a priest. The priest could marry them and then give him extreme unction.Lord, but he was being missish. It was, as Lucy said, ‘only’ a broken bone. He was nowhere near to dying, just wishing he was.“MacTavish has experience with this kind of thing. He raised two boys.”“Yes, boys are known to be daredevils. I rememberyou.”“I’ll not be scaling any walls tonight. Please, Luce, get MacTavish.”It was all he could do to screw his eyes up and not cry. The pain was shooting to his elbow now, like sharp shards of glass pricking up under his skin. He’d escaped injury in the war—he’d been hustled off the battlefield once his superiors recognized he had a brain to go with his brawn, and had lived a relatively charmed life. One broken wrist was not going to get the better of him.“Don’t move.”As if he could. He watched the flounce of Lucy’s nightgown flutter around the doorjamb. He wished he’d asked her to remove the book out from under him before she left.What rot. He didn’t have to lie there like a beached whale on wool carpet. Simon struggled to sit up, the room spinning unhelpfully. He looked down at his cuff, suddenly much tighter than it had been. Clumsily he unfastened the small knot of gold that pierced the linen of his shirt and tossed it aside. His hand was swelling and turning red. Blast.Lucy returned with MacTavish in tow, holding a leather satchel. The butler had donned his nightwear after delivering the bad news about Lord Ferguson, and he had apparently stuffed his nightcap into the pocket of his dressing gown. The tassel flicked forward as he bent to Simon.“What have ye done now, lad?”“You needn’t make it sound like finding me on my arse is a regular occurrence. Miss Dellamar will think I’m a bull in a china shop.”“Hush. Can you move your fingers?”Simon gritted his teeth and tried. The shards of glass united into one giant pane of pain.“I see not. Aye, it’s likely broken. Miss Dellamar, if you will be so kind as to step out of the room?”Lucy looked very pale above him, like an angel, or what Simon thought an angel should look like. He wasn’t really anxious to go to heaven anytime soon and find out for sure. He had plenty of time left on earth to atone for his faults, and the first order of business was to make Lucille Elaine Dalhousie his bride, even if she’d been sinful enough for both of them. He’d speak to God, explain. Build the Old Fellow an engine if words wouldn’t work. Good Lord, he was losing his mind and was very much afraid he was about to lose his expensive dinner.His future wife twisted her braid between nervous white fingers. “Will he be all right?”“I’ll see to it. Dinna fash yourself.”Simon watched her swallow, her long neck a lovely thing. She should have diamonds around her throat, bright stars that proved his love for her. He would see to it tomorrow—not stolen jewels, but a set from Rundell, Bridge and Rundell. If the firm was good enough for Prinny—King George IV now—Simon supposed he could find something that suited his Lucy.“Don’t worry about me, Luce. I’ll be fine. It’s only my left hand, after all.”After a moment’s hesitation, Lucy slipped from the room. “A chamber pot, Mac. Or a vase. Anything will do.”“That’s the way of it then.”For an older man, MacTavish stepped lively and supplied Simon with an empty receptacle into which he promptly vomited. “Sorry. Tried to keep it in.”MacTavish nodded, pitching the vile contents down into the garden through a hastily opened window. “Trying to look the hero for your lady. If you ask me, you’ll use this mishap to your advantage.”“I’m not asking you,” Simon said, wiping his mouth on his coat sleeve. “What do you mean?”“Anyone with an eye in his head can see you’re head-over-heels for the woman. And women like to play nurse. Let her take care of you and you’ll work your way into her heart.”“It’s only a snapped wrist, Mac. It’s not a mortal wound.”MacTavish knelt beside him, rummaging through the satchel for a splint. “Aye, I know it. You’ll soon be good as new. But think, man, you won’t be able to button up your own breeches.”“You know I can do anything, even one-handed. And Jamie can help me if I have a spot of trouble.”“Why use my useless son when you have a lovely lady with a soft heart?” MacTavish wrapped a length of linen tight around Simon’s hand, criss-crossing the fabric around his thumb. “I’ll brew up some willow-bark tea for the pain. You certainly can’t go home tonight in your condition. Let’s get you undressed and put to bed,” the butler said, fashioning a sling from another length of linen from his bottomless bag. “We’ll put this on you tomorrow. I’ll tell Miss Dellamar you’re half off your head from a complicated break and can’t be moved.”“Damn it, Mac. My feet still work. She’ll think me a weakling.”The butler winked. “Aye. There’s nothing a woman likes more for a while but to be in charge.”Simon shook his head in exasperation and got to his feet with some assistance. “This is like some bad melodrama. Next you’ll suggest I cough up some blood.” He crossed into the bedroom. Wherever Lucy had gone, she was not hovering in here.“That could be arranged. Not real blood, mind, but some substitute. Pity raspberry season is passed.”“You are a diabolical man.” Simon stood as MacTavish efficiently stripped the clothes from his body without too many jolts to his arm.“Aye, and you pay me too well for me to be anything else. How are the boys doing anyhow?”“Jamie is on his way to being as stiff-necked as you,” Simon said as he stepped out of his smallclothes. “Hamish puts too much starch in my cravats, but he means well.”
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