Authors: Jess Michaels
This book is for every reader who has ever taken the time out of their day to tell me what they thought. I appreciate every comment.
And for Michael, my champion and best friend.Contents
“The woman must be stopped.”
Jeremy smiled as Penelope’s mouth dropped open and she stared…
Jeremy paced around his parlor, restless and agitated as he…
Jeremy leaned back against the plush leather seat of his…
Jeremy watched Penelope closely as she motioned him into her…
Penelope sat on her bed, staring at a small pile…
Penelope looked at herself in the mirror, watching as Fiona…
The frayed satin edges of Penelope’s torn drawers stroked her…
Jeremy jolted at the pointed question. From the focused, sensual…
Penelope stared at Jeremy, her eyes as wide as saucers…
How did one find a man with no name? A…
Dawn’s first light was starting to pierce into the room…
Jeremy took a deep breath as he paused before the…
Penelope shivered, though the low fire had warmed her room…
Jeremy strummed his fingers along the arm of the wingback…
Penelope sat on her bed, staring with sightless eyes at…
Jeremy stared out the window at Worthington’s Club, watching as…
“How could you? How could you do this to me?”
“You have barely eaten a bite,” Miranda said quietly. “Is…
Jeremy sat at his desk, afternoon sunlight dancing its way…
About the Author
Other Books by Jess Michaels
About the PublisherOne
“The woman must be stopped.”
Jeremy Vaughn, the Duke of Kilgrath, looked up from his snifter of port with a frown as he watched his friend Anthony Wharton storm around the private room at Worthington’s Club.
“What woman?” he asked before he took a long puff of his cigar.
David Forster, the Marquis of Chartsford glared at him. “Great God, Kilgrath, what do you meanwhat woman? We’re talking about Penelope Norman.”
Anthony nodded his head, his scowl deepening. “Exactly. The woman is a deuced menace.”
Jeremy shrugged, grinding out the remains of his cigar in a sterling silver ashtray as he pictured Lady Norman. With herlithe frame, long, flowing blond hair, and turquoise eyes, Penelope wasn’t exactly the kind of woman a man of his appetites could ignore. And even if he could, her recent crusade against the sensual excess of the men of the Upper Ten Thousand was making her the current talk of theton.
Still, he could hardly believe she was worth all this ruckus. He came to Worthington’s and met with his friends in order to avoid this kind of gossipy foolishness.
“How much effect can one woman truly have?” he asked mildly.
The other five men in the room all stared at him. These were his best friends. All men of means, aside from Ryan Crawford, whose father had cut him off years before. And all were men of appetites. They enjoyed every advantage their names and wealth afforded them. Especially ones that involved women.
They called themselves “the Nevers,” a silly name coined by Jeremy’s younger brother, Christopher, after a drunken night when the group of them had all vowed never to change or falter or love.
So far, only Jeremy’s brother had gone against that vow. Christopher had married six months before, and was the only one absent from their meeting tonight. Jeremy winced at the thought.
Finally, Anthony gave an outraged snort. “How much effect? Are you bloody daft? The woman stole my mistress.”
Jeremy bit back a laugh, but only because he knew the subject was a sore one with his friend.
“Come, Wharton,” Ryan Crawford said as he leaned back into a leather chair. “That is exaggerating it a bit. You act as thoughLady Norman swooped in and kidnapped Fiona. Fi went of her own volition.”
Nathan Ridgemont, the Earl of Dunfield, tipped his head back with a laugh. “Perhaps she thought this Penelope could satisfy her more.”
Jeremy would have taken a moment to enjoy the spectacular image such a statement put into his mind, but he couldn’t. Anthony lunged at Dunfield with a curse, and the room erupted in shouts as various friends grabbed for the scrapping pair. Jeremy caught Anthony by the arms and pulled him back as his friend struggled.
“Wharton,” he growled. “Come on, you know Dunfield is only being an ass.”
“And you aren’t the only one who has suffered,” Chartsford pouted when Anthony stopped fighting to be free and some semblance of calm returned to the assembly. “My wife, who was always so pliable and didn’t give a damn where I went or who I went with, is now haranguing me night and day and demanding I give up my mistress. And all because of that wretched woman.”
Jeremy released Anthony slowly and backed away. Wharton had become the closest thing he had to a best friend ever since Christopher abandoned him for the pleasures of hearth and home. Jeremy had a hard time reconciling this angry, red-faced man with the normally carefree gentleman he called a friend. Truly, Penelope Norman was more than just a mere annoyance for Wharton. She had come to represent the other man’s deepest humiliation.
“What do you suggest we do about her?” Viscount John Lockwood asked from the corner where he had been sitting quietly, watching the entire exchange. He was the only one who had made no move to interfere with the fight.
Chartsford and Anthony exchanged a look that made clear whattheywould like to do to Penelope, but said nothing. In fact, it was Dunfield who stepped forward.
“There are six of us here,” he said with a grin. “And we each have a certain reputation. Surelyoneof us could change her mind, put a stop to her meddling somehow.”
“How?” Wharton snapped with a peevish scowl. “What is your plan, if you even have one?”
Dunfield shrugged. “Seduction is one way. It would open the door to blackmail or exposure.”
“Seduce her?” Chartsford barked with an incredulous shake of his head. “Not bloody likely. She’s not called the Ice Queen for nothing.”
“Tried with her and failed, did we?” Jeremy asked as he tipped up his glass and took another slow sip of port.
Chartsford glared at him, but didn’t refute the charge. As the other men began to debate the subject, Jeremy let his mind slip, once again, to Penelope Norman.
He had never felt the epithet of Ice Queen fit her. She might appear cold and distant at first blush, but he’d observed the young woman many times over the past two years. He saw her watching everyone around her. And sometimes, when she thought no one was looking, he saw a hint of burning lust in her pretty eyes.Unsatisfieddesire, even before her husband tipped up his toes a year before.
No, Penelope Norman was no ice queen. Or if she was, she could easily be melted by the right man.
“Come on Kilgrath, draw a straw,” Anthony barked, stirring him from his thoughts.
Jeremy looked at his friend in wide-eyed surprise. Some time during his private musings, his friend had collected a batch of matchsticks and was now holding out a fistful expectantly.
“You are not serious,” Jeremy said as he stepped away.
Anthony advanced forward, his fist tightening. “Hell yes, I am! That little bitch Penelope Norman stole my mistress, and if she keeps up her crusade against men like us, it could be more than just Chartsford and me who suffer. I want her stopped. One way or another. And we are the only ones who have the balls to do it. Draw.”
Normally Jeremy would have made some pithy statement, but since his friend looked so angry and serious, he refrained. Instead, he reached out and pulled a matchstick from the bundle. He winced when he saw how short it was.
Anthony smirked and moved on to Dunfield. Each man in their circle drew a straw, and each one was larger than Jeremy’s. By the time Anthony opened his fist and revealed the last matchstick, Jeremy had already guessed the outcome of his friend’s little game.
He stared at the short little stick in his hand, a thin piece of wood that had sealed his fate.
“You don’t have to take Dunfield’s ridiculous suggestion to seduce her,” Anthony said as he threw himself into a chair and took a swig of whiskey. “You could threaten her. She’s alone inthe world now that her husband is dead. She only has one other association with any influence and that is her sister, Countess Rothschild. I have heard they’ve been estranged for at least as long as Lady Norman has been in London Society.”
Jeremy paced to the fire with a shake of his head and tossed the splinter of wood into the flames. “I may be many things, gentlemen, but I’ve never been reduced to threatening a woman. No, I’m sure I can find many more pleasurable ways to convince the lovely Lady Norman that her quest against illicit sensuality is one she should abandon.”
He stared at the flames as they devoured a log and thought about what he had been conscripted into doing. Seduce Penelope Norman for the purpose of manipulation.
He waited for a wash of dread or a slap of anger to fill him. But neither one came. Certainly, he normally bedded far more willing partners, but he had never turned away from a challenge.
And Penelope Norman was the ultimate challenge. Beneath her starchy exterior, he guessed there lurked a hypocritical, lustful woman. All he had to do was draw that part of her out. Once she succumbed to her own carnal desires, it would be easy to make her see how wrong she was to meddle in the affairs of others. Or, at the very worst, he could resort to blackmail, as Dunfield had mentioned earlier.
Either way, the entire seduction could be enormously pleasurable. Since Christopher had married, Jeremy had felt quite restless, even bored with his life. He’d parted ways with two mistresses in the past six months and had a decided lack of interest in the numerous opera singers, dance hall girls, and wicked widows who threw themselves at his feet.
Not that he didn’t have his pleasure, but nothing felt quite the same. Yes, ruining Penelope seemed just the thing to put the spring back in his step.
“So what is your plan, Kilgrath?” Dunfield asked as he approached Jeremy with a fresh glass of port. “Howdoyou intend to get into the Ice Queen’s good graces?”
Jeremy smiled as he took a sip of wine. “My plan isn’t complicated, gentlemen. I will simply convert to her cause.”
Lady Penelope Norman stood in the corner of the ballroom, staring out at a sea of dancers who were swaying together to the music of the orchestra. Everyone around her looked so happy, so content.
And she was anything but. She felt…stretched. Sour. Sort of like an oddity on display. The feeling was entirely unpleasant.
“There, you see, Lord Billingham just snubbed you!” her mother, Dorthea Albright whispered, loud enough that everyone within fifteen paces heard her. “He is the tenth person to do so tonight.”
Penelope sighed and didn’t look at her mother. “Don’t exaggerate, Mama,” she murmured.
Her mother tugged on her arm and Penelope turned. Dorthea’s round face was pink with indignation and her blue eyes, the ones that looked so much like Penelope’s, were wide.
“It isn’t an exaggeration! I have been counting.” Her mother’s fingers tightened around her arm to an almost painful degree. “Your behavior is exposing you to some pointed remarks and cutting you away from certain parts of Society.”
Penelope pursed her lips. She hadn’t even wanted to come tothis gathering, but Dorthea had insisted, saying the party was imperative to the future of Penelope’s two unmarried sisters, Beatrice and Winifred.
Unfortunately, neither one of them were dancing. Which only seemed to upset her mother all the more.
“If you will not think of yourself and your own ability to obtain a new husband, think of your sisters. Your little crusade is hurting them by drawing the wrong kind of attention to you.” Her mother suddenly released her and folded her arms across her chest. “Men like their wives to be pliable. Men like their wives to turn the other way. Men like their wives never to whisper the word,” her mother’s voice dropped, “mistress, let alone argue with him about having one. Penelope—”
Penelope rubbed her hand over her suddenly throbbing head. “Yes, Mother, I hear you. Half the room hears you,” she hissed. “I’m getting a drink.”
She pulled away from Dorthea before her mother could say another word and began to weave her way through the crowd.
How in the world had she become a crusader?
It was a question she asked herself at least once a day. She hadn’t intended to become a voice against the sexual excesses of the Upper Ten Thousand. She had simply had a spirited discussion one day with members of her Ladies Aid Society. And then more women had wanted to talk to her about her thoughts on male behavior outside the bonds of matrimony. And then more.
Suddenly everything had snowballed, rolling out of control until she was being called a demon and a savior, sometimes in almost the same breath. There were men of thetonwho hissed ather when she passed and women who squeezed her hand and told her how much they appreciated her “work.”
Penelope shook her head. Well, it didn’t matter how she’d gotten to this point. The fact was, she was now a voice against infidelity and rampant sexuality. And she believed in her cause.
She’d certainly seen and felt firsthand what kind of wicked power a man could wield with sex. Her life had been altered irrevocably by two men who did just that.
“Good evening, Lady Norman.”
Penelope stopped walking, frozen in place by a voice she had come to know well, despite all her best efforts to avoid it and the man who owned it. She forced her expression into a chilly mask and turned to face Jeremy Vaughn, the Duke of Kilgrath.
Her breath caught, no matter how much she didn’t want it to. That was something that always happened when she saw the man. He was beautiful. There was no other way to put it. With dark hair that curled lazily against his forehead, a harsh, strong jaw, sensual lips that seemed forever curled in a knowing sneer, everything about him was pure perfection.
But the one part that made him stand out, that frightened Penelope to her very core and also made her body shiver with a faint, undesired wanting, were his eyes. His dark brows and long lashes framed eyes that were the most striking green she’d ever seen. They were so dark they were almost emerald in color, and they sparkled with a sensuality that represented everything she was fighting against.
This man was sex and sin embodied. And he lived up to the things his handsome face and strong, well-formed body hinted at. Everyone knew his reputation, even the unmarried misseswho were generally sheltered from such things. But who could look at him and not see that he was a man of lustful, searing appetites? A man who reveled in the attention of too many women to count.
Ladies of all rank and circumstance had thrown themselves at his feet over the years. There were stories that discreetly circulated about trysts in back hallways, sinful behavior at country gatherings, and even one public coupling on a London stage with a shameless actress when the play she had performed in was over and everyone had gone home.
Thiswas her enemy.
And Penelope shivered as another little surge of desire made her a hypocrite of the highest order. Worse, Kilgrath smiled as if he knew exactly what she was thinking.
Penelope pursed her lips. “Good evening, Your Grace.”
His smile widened, and the wickedness in his stare doubled as he let his gaze move over her in a lazy sweep. She fought an urge to fold her arms over her chest in protection and instead arched a brow.
“I admit I am surprised you are speaking to me, Lord Kilgrath,” she snapped out. “Most of your friends are on the verge of throwing rotten fruit.”
His smile fell a fraction and he tilted his head. “Yes, I have heard some whispers. It isn’t often a lady of your rank takes up a cause at all, let alone one that affects the conquests of men of title.”
“Perhaps it should happen more often.” She shook her head. “I’m sorry to be rude, Your Grace, but if you have come to spit hateful words or threats at me, please refrain. I’ve heard enoughto last me a lifetime. Consider your quarrel with me to be duly noted.”
Turning on her heel, Penelope made to walk away, but before she could take one step, a strong hand wrapped around her forearm. She gasped at the feel of Kilgrath’s touch and immediately spun back on him, breaking the distracting grip of his fingers.
“I apologize, my lady,” he said softly, holding his hands up in mute surrender. “But you have misread my intentions entirely.”
Penelope frowned. She had no trust in this man, although his expression seemed totally sincere. In fact, he appeared open and friendly. It was the first time she’d seen such a look from a man of his stature since she started her “crusade.”
“Have I?” she asked, wary of giving him even a quarter.
He nodded. “May we speak privately?”
She sucked in a breath. Going anywhere private with this man was tantamount to stripping off her clothing and dancing naked in the middle of the ballroom floor. And he knew it.
“I am not some naïve little dancehall girl whom you can seduce, Kilgrath,” she snapped, putting her hands on her hips. “You know the consequences of being seen leaving this room with you. If this is your plan to discredit me, it will not work.”
He shook his head. “I’m not trying to discredit you, Penelope.”
She jolted at the sound of her given name coming from his lips. It was as intimate as a touch. But before she could correct him, he continued.
“I’m trying to tell you that I support your cause.”Two
Jeremy smiled as Penelope’s mouth dropped open and she stared at him in utter shock. Such a pretty mouth it was, too. One he could easily imagine closing around his length, or parting with a sigh of pleasure when he touched her in the most intimate ways.
Finally, she arched one fine eyebrow. “I don’t believe you.”
He stifled a chuckle. Damn, but he liked her spirit. No doubt she would bring a hefty dose of it to his bed when he finally had her there. He couldn’t wait.
“I understand, my lady,” he said, keeping his tone somber. “I have not given you any reason to have faith in my statement. My behavior has never been the kind that a lady such as yourself could approve of. But I am a changed man.”
“Indeed.” Her tone dripped with sarcasm as she folded herarms, unwittingly drawing his attention to the perfect curve of her small breasts.
He struggled to maintain focus. “Perhaps you heard of my brother’s marriage six months ago?”
She nodded slowly, almost as if she was uncertain if agreeing with him even in this was some kind of trap.
“Seeing his marital bliss has changed me,” Jeremy continued.
The words tasted bitter, perhaps because there was some truth in them. Christopher’s sudden and happy marriagehadset him out of sorts.
He shook off the thought and kept talking. “And though I have tried to continue down the wicked path I was once set upon, I’ve found it less and less satisfying. Hearing your thoughts on the subject of sensual excess and marital fidelity altered my view on life. On many things. You are—” he leaned a little closer. “You are quite persuasive, Lady Norman, in ways you may not even fathom entirely.”
She rolled her eyes. “And yet you say you have changed. You are flirting with me at this very moment.”
This time he couldn’t help but chuckle. “Indeed, I may be. Old habits, you know. But I’ve never felt there was any harm in a flirtatious exchange.”
Her face suddenly grew hard. “Of course you wouldn’t see the harm. But I have never known a man who didn’t use sex as a weapon.”
Jeremy drew back slightly at the heat in her tone. So that was it. She had been used or hurt by a man in the past. Her husband, perhaps? Or some other man? Or both? He would have to ferret out that secret as part of his plan.
He tilted his head in acquiescence. “You see, my lady, I need your help. This is exactly the kind of insight I require as I make my transformation into a respectable gentleman.”
Penelope stared at him, her blue eyes almost impossibly wide. She was utterly silent for a long time, longer than a minute. Long enough that Jeremy began to wonder if she had been stricken mute with shock. But finally she shook her head.
“I do not know what game it is you are playing at, Your Grace. But I will be no part of it. Your ‘transformation’ is no more authentic than Lord Norwich’s wig.” She tilted her head. “I have no time for your foolishness. Good evening.”
She turned away a second time, and Jeremy allowed her retreat with a smile. She was one step away when he said, “I shall change your mind about me, Penelope.”
She sent a glare over her shoulder and continued into the crowd. Jeremy watched her hips twitch away with the heat of desire curling in his stomach.
Oh yes, he was going to change Penelope’s mind about so many things. And enjoy every moment of it.
Penelope stepped into her chamber with a loud sigh. As she closed her door behind her, her lady’s maid, Fiona Clifton, entered from the adjoining bedroom. Penelope forced a smile for the woman.
Fiona had once been a mistress. Penelope wagered she was probably a very sought after one at that. With her shiny brown hair, porcelain skin, and light blue eyes, she made a stunning picture to behold. Just watching her, Penelope could feel the sensual power her maid was so very aware of. Fiona knew exactly how tomove, to look, to speak in order to gain masculine attention. Half the men on Penelope’s staff were in love with her.
But Fiona paid them no mind. Abused by her so-called protector, she had willingly taken a place in Penelope’s household after the two women met accidentally at the opera when Fiona’s angry lover had deserted her after a particularly vicious argument.
Fiona’s past, what she had been through, were part of why Penelope had started talking to her friends about the sensual excess of the men in their sphere. No woman should be forced to bear what Fiona had, no matter her place in life.
“Good evening, Penelope,” Fiona said as she stepped forward to start unlacing Penelope’s gown.
Penelope winced as the other woman pinched her. A good mistress she might have been, a good lady’s maid she most definitely was not. But one did not save another person, then complain about her skills.
“How was the party?” Fiona asked, and Penelope thought she heard a wistful hint in her maid’s voice.
She cast a quick glance over her shoulder, but the young woman was focused entirely on the task at hand. Perhaps she had only imagined the longing.
“Honestly?” Penelope sighed. “Quite horrid. I was given the cut direct by more people than not. Even the ones who whisper that they support me will not stand up with me in public.”
Fiona wrinkled her brow. “I’m afraid I know the feeling.”
Penelope nodded. She supposed that was true. Fiona had occasionally come to various parties on the arm of her protector before she ran away from him, and she had never been accepted, either. Everyone knew what she was. What she did.
And they punished her for it.
“What’s worse is that now some of them are attempting to play me for a fool,” Penelope said as Fiona pulled her gown away from her shoulders.
Instead of folding it properly, the former courtesan tossed it aside. In silent dismay, Penelope watched the yards of fine silk crumple into a pile in the corner.
“How so?” Fiona asked as she came around to the little bench in front of Penelope’s dressing table and flopped down on it as if the action of undressing Penelope had worn her out entirely.
“I was approached by the Duke of Kilgrath,” Penelope admitted with a roll of her eyes.
“Jeremy?” Fiona asked, straightening up. Her eyes lit up. “Oh, I always liked Jeremy.”
Penelope went still. She had all but forgotten that Fiona had once been part of Jeremy’s crowd. In fact, her former protector, Anthony Wharton, was one of the Duke’s best friends. She pursed her lips. Was that why Kilgrath had approached her? Was he trying to wheedle his way into her good graces so that he might speak to Fiona? Penelope had never thought of him as the kind of man who would condone violence against a woman.
But perhaps he wasn’t acting on behalf of his friend, after all. Kilgrath might simply want Fiona for himself now that Wharton no longer had her. Penelope had heard the small group of men who called themselves The Nevers had shared lovers in the past.
“How close were you to Lord Kilgrath?” Penelope asked, hoping she sounded nonchalant.
“Not as close as I would have liked,” Fiona laughed. “My, he is a handsome devil, isn’t he?”
Penelope remained silent. God yes, he was handsome. Too handsome. Just looking at him made her think things she was sworn to fight against. When she smelled that clean, masculine scent of his skin, it made her weak. When he smiled at her, it made her want.
But she also knew he was a complete liar. Especially about his supposed conversion to her way of thinking.
“Handsome or not, he’s trying to make a fool of me,” she said as she slipped her fingers into her hair and began taking her locks down. Normally her maid would perform that duty, but Fiona seemed far too interested in chatting.
One by one, Penelope tossed the pins she was removing onto her coverlet. “Kilgrath wanted me to believe that he is no longer interested in the debauched life he has enjoyed for so long. That he has been changed by the things I’ve said about the consequences of excess.”
Fiona covered a giggle with her palm. “Jeremy Vaughn? No, I’ve never known anyone who enjoyed his debauchery more. And with good reason. He can get anything he wants, any time he wants it with a mere crook of his finger. Why would he want to abandon that?”
“He wouldn’t,” Penelope conceded.
A little twinge of regret made itself known in the pit of her stomach. She frowned. Had she really wanted to believe him? In some tiny part of herself, had she wished he truly were changed and turning to her for guidance?
“Oh, I completely forgot,” Fiona said, rising from her place atPenelope’s dressing table and digging in the pocket of her plain gown. She pulled out a letter and held it out to Penelope. The envelope had been crushed by the careless manner in which Fiona shoved it into her pocket.
Penelope sighed. “What is this?”
Fiona shrugged. “It was delivered just after you departed for the ball. I told Smickens I would give it to you when you arrived home. He still despises me, you know.”
With a shake of her head, Penelope thought of her very proper butler. He, like the rest of the staff, had a hard time accepting a former lady of the evening as their equal. At least those who weren’t swayed by Fiona’s ample charms had difficulty.
“He will change his view in time, especially as you improve in your duties,” Penelope said as she took the letter. “I wonder who this could be from. I do hope it’s not another threat.”
She broke the blank seal that held the pages together and opened the note. She scanned the words within and could not help the sharp gasp that escaped her lungs. The pages in her fingertips fell away, drifting to the floor as she stared at them with a hand clamped over her lips.
Fiona rushed over to gather up the missive. “What is it?” she breathed, turning over the letter.
“No!” Penelope yelped, jumping forward.
But Fiona was too quick. She sucked in a breath as she began to read out loud.
“‘My dearest Lady Norman,’” she read, eyes widening. “‘You do not know me, but I have watched you from afar for many a month. I cannot remain silent any longer. Please allow me to tell you of my admiration. Where shall I start? The lips that a mancould easily imagine wrapped around his swollen cock? Or the throat I would spend an evening kissing, if only you would allow it? Your breasts, which would fill my hands. If I stroked my fingers over them, would you cry out? Sigh with pleasure?’”
Penelope stood frozen as Fiona read the words, the lascivious, erotic words that described in growing detail what the letter writer wished to do to her. It had been one thing to read them in a quick, shocked glance. It was quite another to have them recited to her in the sultry voice of a former courtesan.
“Stop,” she whispered, surprised at how husky her own tone had become. She reached out a trembling hand and snatched the letter from Fiona’s fingers.
Her lady’s maid stared at her with parted lips. Her cheeks were flushed and her breasts lifted with each breath. “Who in the world wrote that?”
Penelope shook her head. “Someone who is playing a cruel, foolish jest, no doubt.” She moved for the fire and held out the note toward the flames. But as she stared at the missive, she found she could not drop it into the devouring fire. Instead, she made a show like she had tossed it in, but in truth she hid it behind her back.
Fiona moved toward her. “It goes into great detail if it is only a jest,” she whispered. “A man who wrote that would have to truly desire you, have truly watched you, to go into such lusty particulars.”
The blood rushed to Penelope’s cheeks.Wanther? She didn’t think a man had ever truly wanted her. Her husband had used her body, but for his own means, not because he wanted her particularly. And most of the men of thetonhated her at present, they didn’t want to touch her unless it was in violence.
The words in that letter should have made her angry. Disgusted. But instead they…they moved her.
She blushed as Fiona tilted her head and looked at her closely. “Penelope?”
Penelope shook her head as if to dismiss the topic. “I shall not humor that kind of person with a response. Now, I am very tired. Is my bath ready in the next room?”
Fiona opened her mouth, but then shut it again, as if biting back a statement. “Er, yes. I did forget, but Smickens reminded me. It is ready for you.”
Penelope nodded. “Very good. I shall bathe myself. You may retire to your bedchamber.”
“Th-thank you,” Fiona said softly, then backed out of the room with a strange expression on her face.
As soon as Fiona had gone, Penelope padded into the bedroom. There, behind a screen next to her bed, was the big tub her servants had filled with steaming water. Penelope approached the basin with a sigh of anticipation. It had been a trying night and all she needed was a good, long soak to put her to rights again.
She set the letter on the silver platter that contained her soaps and slipped out of her chemise and stockings. Then she put one foot into the hot water with a hiss of contentment. Ah, yes. This was what she needed.
The water rolled over her body as she settled back against the tub wall, covering her to the very tops of her breasts. She gasped as the water slapped against her tingling nipples and made her very aware of the ache that had begun in her body. But when?
Was it when she read the letter? No, it had been before that. Probably while she sparred with Kilgrath. As humiliating as itwas, her exchange with him had started her body down a path of wanting that she could not allow. She had tried to ignore it at the time, but their exchange had been stimulating in more ways than one.
This was madness. She would not let the manipulations of a libertine like Kilgrath or the perverse scrawl of an anonymous “admirer” sway her from the morals she held so dear.
She grabbed for the soap on the little tray beside the tub, but her damp fingers touched the folded sheets of the letter instead. She yanked her hand back as if burned and stared at the white linen pages.
Who could have written those things to her? And how much more did that unknown person say? She had only skimmed the first page, which talked of her breasts, of her mysterious admirer’s desire to see them in moonlight, touch them, strum the nipples until she cried out, lick the delicate curves…
Penelope shook her head with a start. Every word that unknown man had written was already burned into her mind. She picked up a fluffy towel from the tray and slowly dried her fingertips, never taking her eyes from the letter. It called to her. Taunting her.
What if the letter gave her some clue as to the author? What if it contained some valuable piece of information? She would be remiss if she didn’t read it again. Read it fully.
Her shaking fingers already reached for the missive and she sank down lower in the water as she unfolded the pages. With a furtive glance around the empty room, she began to read.
The familiar words on the first page washed over her just likethe hot water in the bath. She lingered over each one, taking her time to absorb every description. And slowly she came to realize that she wasn’t just reading the letter, but imagining in detail what the writer described.
She could almost see him now. A faceless man, his body strong and ready, crossing the room to her. Looking at her, watching her as this stranger claimed to have done for many months. Would he like seeing her in the bath as she was now? Her entire body only protected by a clear wave of clean bathwater?
She shivered at the idea of a man seeing her this way. One who wanted her. She imagined him touching her breasts as he had described in the letter. Holding their damp weight in his palms, covering them with his fingers, dragging his thumbs over her already distended nipples.
A little cry of pleasure escaped her lips and shook Penelope from her fantasy. What was wrong with her? What was she doing, allowing some stranger’s vulgar words to arouse her?
And yet, her gaze fell back to the letter in her hand. Slowly, she lifted the first page away and read the second, the one she had only skimmed for a name earlier.
Have you ever felt your own arousal,Penelope? Not felt it in your gut or as a vague,passing thrill. I mean,have you touched yourself and felt how your body changes? Have you ever let your fingers play along your own skin and touch the slick evidence of your desire? Stroke your folds until you find the little clit hidden within. Played until your body spasmed with pleasure so intense that it borders on pain?
I have imagined you doing so. Longed to see you do so.
Penelope sucked in a harsh breath and shoved the letter away,throwing it back on the silver tray with enough force that the bar of soap there clattered.
Despite the warmth of the bath, she trembled at the words. They awoke memories she’d long hidden. Yes, shehadtouched herself, brought herself pleasure in the faraway past. Long before she saw how far desire would drive a person, she had been open to such activities in the furtive darkness of her bedchamber.
At one time, she had even looked forward to experiencing more sensual delights with some faceless future husband. But her eventual marriage had forced her to realize that passion was a weapon to be wielded. And pleasure wasn’t inevitable, but something that could be snatched away at a whim.
And yet, reading her mysterious admirer’s words didn’t only force memory but sensation. Her sheath clenched at nothingness, her nipples tingled fiercely and her thighs clamped together, which served nothing but to increase her desire.
Almost of its own accord, her hand dipped beneath the water, sliding across her skin with purpose. She shut her eyes as she let her fingers graze her nipples, tensing when ricochets of pleasure rewarded her touch. God, it had been so long since she felt like this.
And she wanted more. Even though she knew it made her a hypocrite. Even though it went against the cold façade she’d worn so long in public.
Her hand slid over her stomach and finally her fingers slipped through the soft patch of hair between her thighs. She rested her hand against her mound for a long moment, eyes squeezed shut as the frank words the unknown author had written taunted her.
Have you ever let your fingers play along your own skin and touch the slick evidence of your desire?
Slowly, she dipped her hand down and touched the swollen flesh between her legs. A little moan escaped her lips as she stroked along the folds there. Theywerewet and from more than the mere bath. She pushed deeper and came in contact with the hidden nub of flesh the letter writer had alluded to.
Stroke your folds until you find the little clit hidden within.
Clit.She’d never heard it referred to in that manner before. She circled her fingers around the hard little bud and gasped as a warm wash of pleasure spread from the point of contact through her body. Focused and powerful, the feeling multiplied, widened, until it seemed her entire being was focused on that one tiny spot.
She circled harder, lifting her hips slightly to reach for the pleasure. It felt good, but she wanted more. More.
Shaking, she brought the opposite hand to join the other. Increasing the pressure, she turned her head, bit her lip to hold back the cries that might bring her staff to investigate.
There was something coming. She felt the wall of pleasure building to a crescendo, but she couldn’t reach it. It was right there, over the edge.
She opened her eyes in frustration and found herself staring at the letter again. Somewhere in London, there was a man who claimed he wanted to watch her do exactly what she was doing right now. The idea made her hips arch helplessly and the pleasure jumped.
When she shut her eyes this time, she pictured that faceless man. Standing at the end of the tub, leaning over the water. Hisbreath short, his bare, muscular arms straining in an attempt to maintain control. She could almost see him watching her. Waiting until she exploded to join her.
“Oh, oh,” she couldn’t help but groan.
Yet still, it wasn’t enough. She pressed her fingers against her flesh, panting in frustration. The pleasure was so keen it was almost pain. She needed relief. She needed more.
She concentrated hard on the image of the man in her mind. What if his hands slipped beneath the water, strong fingers gliding up her bare legs, reaching higher and higher until they tangled with her own? Pushed her own aside.
Grinding down against her clit, she pictured him lifting her hips, spreading her legs wide, opening her body to him. She’d had very little experience with such true passion. Yet it didn’t take much imagination to believe such a man would circle his thumb around her clit just as she was doing. And then drive his fingers deep within her womb.
She cried out as she did what she imagined that man doing. Still, she danced on the edge of utter madness. Tears pricked her eyes, tears of impending release mixed with wild frustration.
The man, he was the key. What kind of man would take her so wickedly? Play and toy with her? She needed a face for the faceless. A voice for the words he had written.
And suddenly a face appeared, a voice echoed in her ears.
The moment she overlaid Jeremy’s handsome face on the blank countenance of her imaginary lover, her hips bucked wildly. Her sheath fluttered out of control against her driving fingers and she let out an echoing wail of relief that broke the silence in theroom. Her back arched and she was vaguely aware of the water sloshing wildly, churning over the edge of the tub as she rode out the intense pleasure.
Penelope collapsed back into the water with a final groan. She felt weightless, boneless. Utterly spent and satisfied.
For countless minutes, she laid in the rapidly cooling bathtub, simply feeling the aftereffects of desire and release. Then, slowly, she opened her eyes and faced her cold, empty room.
And the reality of what she had done.
The letter that should have been distasteful to her had instead aroused her to untamed, out of control levels. She had surrendered to her base needs and wants, thwarting all her own impassioned statements about the need for control from those who ruled theton.
And worse, the very worst, she had done it all while imagining Jeremy Vaughn, Duke of Kilgrath, as her illicit lover. A man she knew for a fact to be a flagrant seducer, a man who had lied to her face not three hours before. One who stood for everything she claimed to despise.
“What have I done?” she murmured as she sat bolt upright in the tub. More water sloshed over the edge and she looked down at the floor. The shiny wood was splattered with puddles, proof of how far her desire had taken her.
Rising, she stepped out onto the damp floor. She rubbed herself dry swiftly and then went to work soaking up the pools of spilled water. She didn’t want the servants to see the results of her passionate outburst. She didn’t want any evidence to exist that she had utterly surrendered.
Utter surrender was a luxury she couldn’t have. Even if she wanted it.
Which she didn’t.
She only had to fight to remember that, despite the distracting presence of Jeremy Vaughn or the erotic words of her mystery author.Three
Jeremy paced around his parlor, restless and agitated as he recalled the events at the ball tonight. Why, he could not say. All had gone as planned, perhaps better than planned. He’d managed to approach Penelope, garner her interest, and see, quite clearly, that she was hiding a most passionate spirit.
All in all, it was a successful night. So why did it feel wrong?
“Great God, Kilgrath,” Anthony Wharton said from behind him as he set his fourth sherry of the evening down with a smack. “The entire room saw you with that little bitch. It is the talk of theton, you know. The libertine and the crusader.”
Jeremy turned to his old friend with a scowl. Wharton had followed him home, already half drunk. Now he was far past half and a large cause of Jeremy’s foul mood. Wharton had been raging about Penelope and how she “stole” his mistress for at least an hour.
“If we are the talk of theton, then I have done my job,” Jeremy drawled as he returned his gaze to the dark night outside. “I want them to wonder what is afoot between Penelope and me. That way when I reveal her as a hypocrite, they will all be hanging on my every word.”
“How are you going to reveal her as anything if you befriend her?” Anthony slurred.
Jeremy spun on his heel and strode across the room. Snatching the drink from his friend’s hand, he downed it in one swig and snapped, “If she thinks I’m her friend, she’ll trust me. All the better to catch her in my trap. And I have other plans already in motion.”
His mind shifted to the letter he’d had delivered to Penelope’s home right before he departed for the ball tonight. The missive detailed every observation he’d ever made about her lush body, about all the things he’d wondered if she’d ever allowed herself to experience.
What would her reaction to that be? He could only hope his erotic words would open Penelope further to an ultimate seduction. That his two assaults would work in tandem. By day, he would be the Duke of Kilgrath, her unexpected ally. By night, a mysterious, faceless lover who awoke her desires in the shadows.
“Plans? What, seduction like Crawford and Dunfield suggested?” Anthony barked, breaking the pleasant spell of Jeremy’s fleeting fantasies. “Bah. I still say she won’t change her mind, no matter how many orgasms you give her. If she can even find pleasure. Frigid—”
Jeremy cut him off with a scowl. “If seduction won’t change her mind of its own accord, blackmail will.”
Anthony let out a sigh. “And if those don’t succeed, thereareother ways to handle a woman like her.”
Jeremy cocked his head, surprised by the suddenly lucid and utterly cruel glitter in his friend’s drunken stare. That focused expression was troubling.
But no. He shook off the thought. Wharton was a hothead, nothing else. He was rambling without thought. The words were meaningless. But his friend was in a total drunk and needed to sleep it off regardless.
Jeremy turned Anthony toward the door. “Trust in me, friend. I have the situation well under control. Now, my driver will take you home and be sure you get inside without killing yourself. Good night.”
Anthony pushed back against him momentarily, but finally acquiesced and allowed Jeremy to guide him to the parlor door and a waiting footman.
Once his friend was gone, Jeremy went back in to the parlor. Tonight he’d made the first step to conquering the beautiful and troublesome Penelope Norman. And he had no intention of failing in any way.
Penelope lifted her hands and raised her voice over the fray of chattering women. “Ladies, ladies, this chaos does us no good.”
The babbling crowd quieted a fraction, and a few of the ladies turned their heads toward Penelope. She sighed as she looked over the small group of about ten women, half of whom had given her the cut at the ball a night before, but were now in her parlor to “support” her. But what was support when it was all done in secret?
“Each of you has the power to help our cause,” Penelope insisted, harking back to the argument she had been making from the very beginning.
“Power?” Adela Forster, the Marchioness of Chartsford repeated with a sniff. “What power dowehave?”
Penelope looked at the young woman with a sad frown. Although Adela sometimes seemed haughty and abrasive, she was a very pretty woman, dark haired and bright eyed, with the most beautiful skin Penelope had ever seen. But her uncommon beauty had not protected her from a highly unhappy marriage to one of Jeremy’s best friends.
Jeremy. Color filled Penelope’s cheeks at the thought of him. The thought of what she had done last night while fantasizing about him. No one could ever find out about that shame.
“Penelope?” Adela repeated. “Do you have no answer for me?”
Penelope shook off her thoughts with a frown. “The men of thetonwill not change until their wives and mothers and sisters stand up and say that they do not condone their behavior.”
An older woman, Lady Pendergrath, nodded. “Lady Norman is wise beyond her scant years. My experience has told me that men generally want peace in their homes. If we do not give it to them, they will ultimately change their wicked ways.”
Adela shook her head and tears filled her eyes. Ones she blinked away with a scowl.
“I have made clear my thoughts on the matter of my husband’s…” She blushed. “His activities outside of our marriage. Do you know what David said to me? He told me he liked me better when I was pliable and uncaring about what he did.” Theother woman clenched her fists. “I was never pliable, nor uncaring. Merely silent.”
Penelope resisted the urge to touch Adela’s shoulder, offer her comfort. She didn’t think the other lady would appreciate the gesture, especially in front of others. She was far too proud.
The group began talking at once again, dissolving into arguments between those who thought they would only make things worse by standing up to their wayward husbands and those who felt it could change their world for the better. Penelope lifted her hand to her eyes and rubbed her temples. What good was fighting for something when half those in the war didn’t dare go to battle?
Before she could make any attempt to silence the group a second time, they did so themselves. An unnatural hush fell over the group, punctuated only by harsh whispers whose muted words Penelope didn’t understand.
Slowly, she lowered her hand and looked at the door. She staggered back at what she saw. Jeremy Vaughn stood there, leaning in her doorway, a smug smile on his handsome face. A smile that hit Penelope in the gut and forced her to recall her loss of control in the bath the night before. Heat burned her cheeks, and she wanted to run away.
But she couldn’t. Instead, she strode forward, hands fisted at her sides.
“Lord Kilgrath,” she said, her voice strained. As she drew nearer to him, she hissed, “What are you doing here?”
He looked down at her with a completely innocent expression. One that was woefully out of place on such a sinful face. “I heardyou were having a meeting regarding your thoughts on the behavior of the men of theton. I thought I would come and see if I could offer any insight.”
Penelope’s nostrils flared and she shoved her hands down straight at her sides. As she kept a withering gaze on Jeremy, she called over her shoulder, “I believe we have covered a great deal of ground today. Why don’t we adjourn to the Rose Terrace for tea?”
The women in the room got to their feet slowly, still whispering and glaring at Jeremy as they passed by. As the last few filtered from the room, Kilgrath gave Penelope a smile and offered her his arm.
Penelope reeled back at the idea of touching him. She wanted nothing to do with his heat. It would only court more images for her dark, forbidden fantasies.
“What are you doing?”
His smile fell a fraction. “Going to the Rose Terrace. I could use a spot of tea.”
Her jaw fell open in shock. “Youare not joining us, Your Grace.”
“You mean you wish to talk to me privately?” he asked, tilting his head closer. Close enough that she caught an intoxicating whiff of his spicy male scent. It was a pleasing and dizzying combination of sandalwood and something that was purely Jeremy.
“Yes,” she said.
He smiled. “I thought a woman of your caliber couldn’t take the risk of speaking to me alone. What did you tell me last night? That it would discredit you? And yet, less than twenty-fourhours later, you demand I stay with you alone in this parlor. Has something changed?”
She pursed her lips. Damn him. Even though he couldn’t know just how much had changed since her verbal exchange with him the night before and this afternoon, his words still reminded her of that fact.
In just a few short hours, she had become an utter hypocrite.
“You certainly have not changed, my lord,” she said, hoping her voice was cold even though her heart was throbbing madly. “So please stop trying to convince me that you have.”
She made to push past him, but Jeremy caught her arm and held her in place. Just as she had feared, heat equal to that of a furnace rushed from his touch and settled in the worst possible places. She looked up at him, her throat dry and full, her traitorous mind taking her to places she ought not allow.
“You have not permitted me to convince you ofanythingyet, Lady Norman,” he said softly as he released her and took a step back as if to prove he wasn’t touching her out of any attraction.
Her stomach sank unexpectedly at the thought.
“Why should I believe in your miraculous alteration?” she asked, rubbing the place where he had touched her. It felt…burned. Branded.
He cocked his head. “Because it proves you are correct in your assessment that a mancanchange. Think of it, my lady. What a boon I could be to your cause. I know of my own reputation. If I came out on your side, in support of you, it could change the tide of your movement. Are you so proud and do you hate me so much that you will not even consider my offer to assist you?”
Penelope’s lips parted in surprise. “I-I don’t hate you. Hatingyou would imply I knew you or cared for you. I-I don’t.”
He looked at her for a long, charged moment. Then he shrugged. “I would like to prove myself to you. I can help you if you let me. If you do not know me, nor care for me, you cannot truly know my heart nor my intentions. And yet you still judge me?”
Penelope stared at him. Damn him, he was correct on so many levels. If Jeremy were truly changed and worked beside her, it would add needed credence to her words.
But how could she believe he had changed? Or even wanted to change?
“And how do you intend to prove yourself?” she asked, slowly.
A little hint of a smile tilted his lips, arrogant, like he already knew he’d won. “I can show you exactly what it is you are fighting against. Secretly. Anonymously. Then you will understand your enemies all the better.”
She tilted her head, both confused and intrigued.Showher? What in the world could he possibly mean by that?
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” she said, pacing away from him and trying to look bored by their conversation. She didn’t want him to realize just how aware of him she was. Just how curious he made her. About what he could reveal. About who he was.
When she peeked over her shoulder, he was smiling again, but this time it was feral. Despite herself, her stomach clenched. Her nipples hardened in an instant. He was looking at her with such…desire.
And even though that fact only proved he was lying about the changes to his wicked personality, she wasn’t angry. Not athim, at least. No, her anger was all self-directed because she was drawn to him.
“May I take you somewhere tonight?” he asked quietly.
She started at the question. “What?”
“I think I can better explain my meaning byshowingyou, rather than explaining.” He moved closer. Just a fraction. “Allow me to take you somewhere, and I think everything will come clear to you.”
Penelope shook her head. This was a game, but she couldn’t understand the rules, or even the goal. What was he trying to gain?
“If this is some way to get near me—” she began.
He stared at her in shock, like he’d never even considered such a thing, and yet again she blushed.
“Please,” he said softly.
Penelope stared at her hands, fisting them together reflexively. Her mind spun both with all the reasons she should refuse and the reasons she should accept his offer. Of all the dangers and all the benefits.
And most of all, it spun with the fact that shewantedto take his offer. To see whatever he would show her. To be alone with him, if only for a little while. Perhaps if she did, he would reveal himself to be the cad she knew him to be, despite his grand claims of change. Then this silly spell of desire would be broken and she could return her attention to matters at hand.
At the very least, doing as he asked would appease him, and perhaps she could convince him to stop trying to play her for a fool, especially in the inconvenient presence of others. She couldn’t afford any scandal or misunderstanding his sudden interest in her could cause.
“Very well,” she finally murmured, letting her gaze come back up to his face.
He smiled, this time something more genuine. “Very good. I shall send a carriage for you at eight tonight.”
She nodded wordlessly. “And now you should go. Your presence is of some upset to my guests, I think. Until I’m certain of your true intentions, perhaps we should keep our association a secret.”
He tilted his head. “Very well. Then I shall see you later tonight. Until then, Penelope.”
With a little salute, he backed from the room. It was only when he was gone that Penelope realized her breath was short and her hands were shaking.
Jeremy leaned back against the plush leather seat of his carriage as it pulled to a smooth stop in the darkened shadows behind Penelope’s London estate. He peeled back the curtain and watched as she slipped from the servant entrance and hurried across the lawn to the vehicle. His footman bowed quickly, then opened the unmarked carriage door to allow her entry.
Jeremy leaned forward, offering her a hand in. Penelope looked up at him from below, her eyes wide as she stared at the offering. But finally, after a very long moment of hesitation, she took it. When he touched her soft fingers, sparks of awareness ricocheted through him, taking him off guard.
They seemed to take her off guard, as well, for she released his hand as if it burned her the instant she settled into the seat across from him. The door shut behind her, and the carriage jolted into motion.
He took in the sight of her. Though her gown was not as revealing as those she would see tonight, it was still quite lovely. A deep blue with a plunging neckline that showed him the tempting upper curve of her lovely breasts. He wondered if she was aware of just how provocative that fine, firm curve was. Did she show herself on purpose, proving her heated nature?
Or was she so innocent that she couldn’t fathom how utterly charming she was?
Another mystery to ferret out.
“Good evening,” Jeremy drawled. “I actually thought you might not come after all, so I’m pleased to see you.”
She was quiet for a moment, but then she shrugged. “I considered it. But I assumed you would come to my window and throw pebbles until you made the entire neighborhood aware of your presence, so I thought coming with you was the lesser evil.”
“You would rather do something naughty than have people believe you were doing something naughty?” he asked, watching her face in the shadowy light.
Her gaze jerked to his. “I would rather not have to make the choice. But if I must, then my reputation is all I have. Protecting it means something to me, yes.”
Jeremy nodded. It was a good piece of information, for it meant that he could likely blackmail Penelope into silence in order to protect the reputation she held so dear. And that was definitely preferable to him rather than revealing her as a hypocrite and ruining her irrevocably.
Why, he didn’t want to analyze too closely.
“I suppose that seems silly to a man like you,” she murmured, staring out the window again.
“Protecting your reputation?” he asked. When she nodded, he laughed. “No, it makes perfect sense. After all, I have a reputation of my own to uphold.”
“Except you claim you want to change that reputation. Perhaps with my help.”
Jeremy looked at her sharply again. She wasn’t looking at him, but he could feel her scrutiny nonetheless. He had to give her credit. No fool was Penelope Norman. Despite his charm, she refused to take his change of heart at his word.
Which meant he would be forced to prove himself to her, even while he seduced her. A challenge, indeed. One he thrilled at.
“Why don’t you tell me where we are going?” she asked, not waiting for him to answer her comment. “And how do you intend to keep me anonymous?”
Jeremy sat up straight. Yes, it was time to get to the point of tonight. Without preamble, he moved across the carriage to sit beside her. Penelope caught her breath at the sudden action and stared up at him with wide eyes. Jeremy couldn’t help but catch his own breath. God, she smelled good. Like cinnamon, a spicy heady scent that tightened his gut and hardened his cock.
Hopefully she wouldn’t notice that.
“What are you doing?” she breathed, her voice broken by what he instantly sensed was desire.
She wanted him. Despite everything.
He smiled as he drew an intricate mask from the inside pocket of his jacket. He’d chosen blue, a turquoise color that matched her eyes perfectly. It was sewn with little jewels and tiny feathers that framed her bright eyes.
He wrapped the soft satin fabric around her face, positioningit against her nose before he glided his fingers around the back of her head. Wicked, he leaned in as he tied it into place, moving far too close to her to be proper. He could actually feel the ragged swell of her breath and the tickle of her hair against his cheek.
Her fingers clenched against her legs and she muffled a little sound of…well, it was either distress or desire. Probably a combination of both.
Jeremy pulled away and smiled down at her. God, he just wanted to push her back against the cushions and slip his hands beneath her skirts. He would wager his best mount that she was already slick and ready for him, her thighs clenching and tingling.
And he could have. In her current state, it was likely he would be able to overcome her protests, awaken the core inside of her that wanted to be touched, licked, fucked. He had never doubted his own prowess before, there was no reason to start now.
But as much as he wanted to do that, as easily as he believed he could, his plan was far more intricate than a mere screw in a carriage that she could later dismiss. No, he needed tochangePenelope. If he wanted to win, he had to make her question every belief she had. Force her to see her true, sensual nature, not just in one situation, but in every moment of her life.
Thatwas the only way to end her little crusade.
So instead of dragging her against his chest, he leaned away. “Tonight, we are going to a Cyprian masked ball,” he explained.
Penelope’s lips parted in surprise. With the rest of her face covered in blue satin and lace, her mouth stood out all the more. Damn, but they were tempting lips. Full and plump, a little wet from where she had licked them.
“No!” she cried, breaking the spell. “You must be jesting. I cannot go to such a place.”
Jeremy pursed his own lips as he moved back to his side of the carriage. Being so close to her was having an odd effect on his normally solid control.
“I told you I wished to show you what you were fighting against. Help you understand your enemy. This gathering, it is exactly what you claim to despise.”
“And that is why I cannot go!” she repeated, her tone that which he guessed she would use with a slow-witted servant or small child.
He arched a brow. “You want to see your enemy, don’t you?”
Penelope was silent for a long moment, tilting her head as she stared at him across the shadowy vehicle. Jeremy shifted a bit under her scrutiny. It was almost like she could truly see him. See more than he was on the outside, more than his public persona. Seehim.
“Youare my enemy, Jeremy,” she whispered.
He might have been disappointed, he might have felt that he had made no progress with her, except that she called him by his given name. And hearing it from her lips was utterly arousing. It also showed him that despite all her protests, she was beginning to trust him…if only just a little.
“Iwasyour enemy,” he said softly. “But no more.”
The carriage stopped, but none of his servants came to open the door, just as he had ordered. He wanted Penelope to be the one who made the decision to go inside. She had to guide her own journey. If she could point to anyone else as the catalyst later, it would detract from her utter surrender to her own heart.
“Come inside with me,” he said, “and see what it is you are fighting against. No one will know who you are. They will assume you are just another woman I’ve claimed as my lover. You can watch the men of thetonin action and see what kinds of women they choose to philander with.”
Penelope swallowed hard enough that he could see her throat working. Such a delicate throat indeed, her pale skin nearly translucent it was so fair. She stared at the carriage door, then back toward him.
“Fine,” she finally said with a frown. “I will go inside. But I don’t want you to do anything that would make someone think we were lovers. No…touching me in a way that is familiar.”
Jeremy drew back. He could hardly contain his chuckle. He didn’t think he could remember the last time a woman had denied him. It spurned him on, drove him to make her change her mind all the more.
And it also piqued his curiosity. What had happened to Penelope Norman that put so much starch in her spirit? Who had made her fear sensuality and sin rather than embrace all its pleasures?
“I promise, I will do nothing more than take your arm,” he said softly.
At least for now.
She nodded, the motion jerky. “Then let us go inside. I want to see this infamous Cyprian ball.”
“Would you like a drink?”
Penelope jolted at the soft seduction of Jeremy’s voice. It raked across her raw senses like satin over her skin.
“W-Will I be safe here alone?” she asked, hating how her voice trembled.
Jeremy looked around. He had brought her into the Cyprian ball half an hour before. But when too many masked revelers identified him and wanted to know who his new companion was, he had escorted her to this small, private terrace that overlooked the ballroom below. Penelope was just as happy. Amongst the partygoers she felt surrounded, stifled. Exposed.
“You will be quite unharmed, I assure you. And I shall be back in a few scant moments.” He smiled down at her, and Penelope shivered.
She felt protected by her mask, but she also felt protected by Jeremy’s presence. Like he would keep anyone from harming her. Even though she knew the greatest harm could come from him. Despite all his declarations to the opposite, she still sensed a feral, animal quality that lurked beneath his proper attire.
“Very well.” She nodded. “My throatisparched.”
He nodded, then left her alone on the terrace. Penelope turned back to the scene below. The home they were in was large and very beautiful, although it didn’t belong to any gentleman she was aware of. She’d certainly never been here, in this room with tall pillars decorated by writhing, naked sprites and lewd mystical figures with swollen phalluses. Great God, the things some of the women in her acquaintance would say if they saw such erotic images.
But it wasn’t the sinful craftsmanship of the pillars that was the real shock to her. It was the behavior of the participants. Unlike at a ball that had been sanctioned and was attended by ladies of her own social sphere, there was an air of unabashedsexuality that permeated the room. Men and women danced and laughed together, staring openly and analyzing the physical attributes of their partners.
Everyone wore masks, though it seemed many knew the identities of their partners without seeing their faces. Or at least, they acted familiar enough. Their hands roamed over each other shamelessly, boldly, as erotic music lilted around them.
The women…Cyprians, wore shocking gowns. More than a few had bodices that dipped downbelowtheir breasts, revealing the pale, bare globes of flesh. Others wore gowns with strategic slits up the sides so that they could flash their admirers shocking glimpses of thighs and even more.
None of the women seemed ashamed of what their clothing revealed. Or embarrassed by the blunt appraisal of the men in their company. In fact, they appeared to like the attention.
In comparison, Penelope’s own gown, which was one of her more daring ones, seemed drab.
She leaned forward and stared over the crowd. As the night wore on and the drinks flowed freely, the behavior of the guests below seemed to be deteriorating. She sucked in a gasp when a gentleman leaned down to lick the naked nipple of his dance partner before he laughed and spun her away to another leering gentleman who cupped the same firm breast and ground his hips against her suggestively.
Penelope tore her gaze away, instead staring toward a corner of the room that was hidden behind a white linen screen. It wasn’t visible from the dance floor, but from her elevated position she could see over the top and to the empty space behind it. As tempting as the sensual images before her were, her senses werebeginning to be overwhelmed by the blatant eroticism all around her.
Overwhelmed and…and titilated. Penelope squeezed her eyes shut. She would never admit it, not to anyone, but watching the couples writhe together, kiss in full view of everyone around them, touch each other…it was all infinitely arousing.
It was so wrong to feel this way. These women were being used, weren’t they? They might laugh and moan and preen, but they had no other choices…did they?
She opened her eyes with a sigh and found that a couple had slipped behind the screen in the corner of the room while she mused on her own reactions to what she saw all around her. The woman was a pretty dark-haired lady, decked out in a beautiful red satin gown with lacy swirls around her shoulders. Her companion was a well-built gentleman wearing a bull mask that matched the shocking red of his companion’s dress.
Penelope watched as they whispered to each other for a few minutes. The lady leaned up toward the gentlemen, resting her hands against his chest with a familiar touch that spoke of a deep and physical relationship. And when he guided his hands along her spine and began to gently massage her backside through the silky dress, it became clear to Penelope that the two were lovers.
As they began to kiss with a passionate abandon that sent a wicked thrill through Penelope’s body. She knew she should turn away. It wasn’t right for her to watch such a thing, to be aroused by the very activities she was fighting against. And yet, she couldn’t stop herself. It was as if she were frozen, held still by some invisible power that forced her to observe from afar.
She glanced around. No one was nearby to see her shameful voyeurism. And the couple below had no idea that they were being observed. Perhaps they wouldn’t care even if they were aware of her presence, since they had chosen to begin their love play behind a thin screen at a busy ball.
No, no one ever had to know what she was doing. So Penelope surrendered herself to the images below.
The lady had broken the full, wet mouth kisses she and her companion were sharing and started to trail her lips along the front of his coat, then lower, lower until she had dropped to her knees before the gentleman. Penelope gasped as the two loosened his trousers together and the lady drew out his hard shaft into her hand. Even from a distance, Penelope could see the hard thrust of muscle curling up.
Then the woman leaned forward and wrapped her dark red lips around her companion, taking him as far into her mouth as he would go. The gentleman clutched at the wall behind him to brace himself, even as his fingers tangled in his companion’s hair to guide the speed and depth of her mouth.
Penelope shifted as she watched the scandalous activities below her. Warmth spread through her as she observed the lusty way the mysterious lady took her lover’s erection into her mouth. A tingling sense of desire and power made Penlope shiver against her will when she watched the man tilt his head back, his neck straining with pleasure.
Penelope’s husband had never wanted this act. Never asked for it. But she could see just how much power it gave a woman. And how much pleasure it gave a man.
The gentleman below suddenly caught his partner’s arms andpulled her up and away from his erection. He slipped his fingers beneath her mask and tossed it away, then did the same to his own mask so he could drop his mouth to hers. They kissed, wild and passionate, as he shifted her around so that her back was to the wall.
He pressed her against the wall, pulling at the low neckline of her sheer gown until both her breasts bobbed free. He lowered his mouth and suckled each nipple while the lady’s fingers dug at his wool-encased shoulders.
Even as he pleasured her breasts, he pushed at her skirts, gliding them up and up until he had access to her legs and the naked mound between them. Penelope gasped at the woman’s lack of chemise and other undergarments, but before she could grasp that shock, the couple had maneuvered into position and the gentleman’s hips thrust.
Penelope couldn’t hear them from high above, but by the way the woman’s lips parted and her eyes closed, it was clear she had let out a long, low sigh of pleasure as she was taken. The couple held there, still, their foreheads pressed together for a long moment. Then the gentleman drew back and thrust forward, his hips working in hard, harsh circles against his companion, who arched into each one, her face contorting with silent pleasure.
Penelope’s fists gripped against the terrace wall, clenching as she watched the scene. Her own breath was short, her body reacting to their coupling with wet heat and clenching tingles of frustrated pleasure. She leaned forward, gritting her teeth with every thrust and trying hard not to picture herself as the woman being taken.
She didn’t want that. She didn’t.
Suddenly there was the clink of glass along the terrace wall and a masculine hand set a champagne glass beside her hand.
Penelope jumped, spinning around to find Jeremy standing there, watching her intently. His dark eyes glittered in the candlelight, focused on her face. She felt heat on her cheeks and raised cold fingers to cover them.
“H-Hello,” she stammered, refusing to meet his eyes.
One dark brow arched in response. “Are you quite well? You are flushed.”
She nodded. Perhaps he hadn’t seen what she was staring at when he approached her. Perhaps he didn’t know that she’d been watching—
“Pretty young woman, isn’t she?” he asked, inclining his head toward the couple.
Well, so much for that hope. Without even looking, she knew which young woman he was referring to. The lady in red who was being taken so lustily.
Penelope spun away with an even darker blush and caught up the glass of champagne. Her hand shook as she took a long sip of the bubbly liquid. “I-I suppose.”
Her gaze flitted back to the corner. The couple was still mating furiously, but the end seemed near. The gentleman’s neck strained on every thrust and the lady had put the back of her hand against her lips, likely to muffle her mewls of pleasure. Finally the man caught her mouth for a hard kiss and stiffened, his legs shaking as he reached completion. They parted for a brief moment, then their lips met again, this time for a gentle kissbefore he set her down on the floor and helped her smooth her dress over her bare legs.
Penelope turned away. Somehow watching their postcoital gentleness seemed more of an intrusion than observing them have sex had been.
“Who is she?” she managed to ask.
“Her name is Cecilia Charles. She is the daughter of a very famous courtesan and has followed in her mama’s footsteps.” He tilted his head as the couple exited from behind the screen. “And she’s made a good match in Rannoch.”
Penelope stared at the retreating back of the gentleman and the twitching hips of the lady as they circulated back into the crowd. “That is Peter Rannoch?”
She hadn’t even recognized the popular gentleman. Her own excitement had blinded her.
Jeremy nodded. “Second son of the Duke of Turnberg.”
“That woman shouldn’t be forced to do such things at a ball,” Penelope murmured. But even as she said it, she thought of the expression on Cecilia Charles’s face. Never had she lookedforcedinto anything.
Jeremy turned toward her, and she felt his gaze on her face. She couldn’t help but blush once more. Did he know what kind of thoughts had drifted to her mind while she watched the couple? Could he read how aroused she had been and still was?
“Do you think she was forced?” he asked softly.
She swallowed, looking at him, but never meeting his eyes. “Wouldn’t she have to be to do something so bold, practically out in the open?”
He smiled, just a slight expression, but it made her feel very young and inexperienced. “Haven’t you ever done something naughty? Something you knew you shouldn’t? Something you might get caught at, but you did it anyway? Perhaps the idea of being caught only made the act all the more exciting?”
She caught her breath. “Are you implying that I ever—”
“It’s not all about sex, Penelope,” he said softly, and took a small step toward her. Close enough that she could smell the intoxicating combination of sherry and mint on his warm breath. “I mean any little thing you knew you shouldn’t do. Take a cookie from a housekeeper when she wasn’t looking. Ride a horse astride just out of the view of your Mama. Have you never done anything that involved a little risk?”
Penelope thought of her own childhood. Her overbearing mother. Her often absent and completely irresponsible father. Her elder sister, Miranda had often been forced to take the reins and make sure everything was all right. Penelope had never had the heart to do anything naughty and make her sister worry over her, as well.
“No,” she finally admitted softly. “I did was I was supposed to do. When I was supposed to do it.”
Jeremy stared at her for a long, quiet moment. “Then it might be difficult for you to understand if I explained to you why a lady would agree to doing something so taboo in public. But it is a predilection many have.”
Penelope clenched her fists. Again, she felt completely naïve. “Areyouincluded in that group?”
“Who have a predilection for pursuing their conquests inpublic?” he asked, eyes widening. When she nodded, they went even wider. “I will admit to being swept away by the moment a few times over the years. However, I have always preferred to take my lovers in private, where I would have more time to savor the surrender.”
Penelope wet her suddenly dry lips and forced herself to look up into Jeremy’s eyes. They were such a pretty green. So sensual and dark. And his mouth also drew her attention. How many women had he kissed with that mouth? His lips were very full; she had to assume they would be nice to kiss. They were standing so close now that it would be so easy just to lift up on her tiptoes and indulge. That would be very naughty. A stolen kiss from one of theton’s most talked about rakes.
Would he be swept away or want to savor the moment if she did so?
“But that was before I was reformed,” Jeremy said, and took a long step back.
Penelope shook her head to clear her mind. Great God, what had she been thinking? Standing here in the midst of a Cyprian’s ball, contemplating kissing this man?
“I-I think I have seen enough,” she said, voice shaking. “I want to go home.”
Jeremy nodded. “Yes, you have probably seen enough for one night.” He hesitated before he held out his arm. “Come, I will escort you home.”
Penelope took his arm, ignoring the spark of awareness that shot through her at his touch. As they weaved their way back down and through the crowd, she thought of what Jeremy had said.
Was he truly “reformed”? Or had he escorted her here for the exact reason that he wished for her to see such titillating sights?
And if the second were true…did he know just how fully she had fallen into his trap?Five
Jeremy watched Penelope closely as she motioned him into her parlor and said a few soft words to her servant. He had been surprised she asked him to come into the house for tea, but he’d been in no position to refuse. Not if he wanted to follow through on his plan.
Although tonight, perhaps, his plan had succeeded all too well. When he came onto the balcony at the Cyprian ball and saw Penelope staring at Cecilia and Rannoch’s frantic coupling, her breath short, her eyes glazed with desire, her legs shaking, it had taken all his willpower not to sweep her against his chest and kiss her until she couldn’t breathe. And that had been even more difficult to resist when she stared at his mouth, asked him questions about his own conquests that he hadn’t been ready to answer.
As much as he wanted this woman, those things weren’t part of his plans. No, he had to be careful. Prudent.
And it couldn’t be Jeremy Vaughn, Duke of Kilgrath, who seduced her. If he did, she could curl up into her shell and fight him. Hewouldhave her, but it would be in the guise of her mysterious secret admirer. So when he was with her, he had to remember that fact.
No, when he was Jeremy Vaughn, he had to play her friend. Someone she could trust.
“May I ask you a question?” he said as he took a seat by the fire.
Penelope paced restlessly to the window and stared outside for a long moment before she whispered, “What question?”
“You have always seemed to be a very proper lady,” he began, choosing every word carefully. “However, taking up a public fight against sexual excess brings the kind of attention to you that most women of your station shun.”
Slowly, she turned to face him. Her cheeks were pale and her eyes wide. “Yes. It’s true that having this crusade thrust upon me has altered my life in so many ways. Friends I’ve held dear for years have cut me. And people I never had any association with suddenly know my name. I’ve been praised and threatened, sometimes simultaneously.”
Jeremy tilted his head. “Thrust upon you? Are you saying you don’t truly believe in your cause?”
If that were the case, “convincing” her to end her intervention would be all the easier.
Penelope looked at him for a long moment, and Jeremy could sense the fight within her. She did not yet trust him, which hehad to give her credit for, and yet there was a longing in her eyes. A desire to tell him things that perhaps she couldn’t tell anyone else. All he had to do was cultivate her desire for a confidante free of judgment.
He stepped a little closer. “I understand your hesitance. But I promise you that I only ask from mere curiosity in how you came to this place.”
Her expression relaxed a little, but triumph was not Jeremy’s reaction. He had manipulated her by saying what she needed to hear, but that fact felt…empty. Cold. For the first time, he wasn’t proud of his ability to turn any situation to his own benefit. Especially when he knew what the ultimate outcome would be for Penelope.
“I only said a few things,” she said softly. “I only spoke out of irate frustration. And then it all spiraled out of control.”
He tilted his head. “I don’t understand.”
She paced the room restlessly. “It was a few months ago. I was almost out of mourning, at a tea with a few friends. One of them was very upset because she had found out her ‘perfect’ happy marriage was a lie. Her husband had secretly kept his mistress, who was now expecting his illegitimate child. Seeing my friend so heartbroken, so wrenched by her husband’s thoughtless actions, made meangry.”
Jeremy remained silent, observing the way her face lit up when she spoke. Her cheeks darkened with heightened color, her body became animated, her eyes glowed. If this was anger, it was worth inspiring. Suddenly she was more than just pretty. She was magnificent.
“I don’t know why I said it, but I launched into a tirade aboutmen of thetonand their foolish, selfish actions. Once I started, the words flowed. I talked about their sexual freedom and how we women could curb their out of control habits, if only we banded together.” She shook her head. “It was only talk. But the women who were in attendance seemed utterly mesmerized. It was as if none of them had ever thought to tell their husbands how they felt about their philandering, let alone demand something more.”
“Probably none of them had.” Jeremy chuckled. Certainly, he had never met a woman so bold as to think she could control him. “So you became their champion.”
She nodded. “Somehow word of my ideas that day spread. Suddenly I was being approached, ladies were seeking me out to have me repeat my thoughts. And then a few women began to actually put my words into action. That’s when the men began to hiss at me, glare at me…even threaten me.”
Jeremy’s smile fell. Although he understood the anger and frustration of men like his friends who had had their lives turned upside down by Penelope’s crusade, the idea that any of them would threaten her gave him no pleasure. As frustrating as Penelope was, she did not deserve to be harmed. Or even frightened.
It had always been his belief that if a lady was angry at a gentleman, it was the gentleman’s duty to use his charm to appease her. If his friends were incapable of that, that was their failing. Not Penelope’s.
“Do you think any of the threats are serious?” he asked, suddenly quiet. If Wharton could become so impassioned by her, it was reasonable that other men felt even more strongly about stopping her. By any means necessary.
She shrugged, but the way she dipped her chin and refused to meet his eyes told him that she had been frightened by the threats. “I think most are not any more than blustering talk. But I cannot pretend I haven’t angered some very powerful men.”
“You do not have to continue to pursue this,” Jeremy said, carefully testing the waters. “If you feel it endangers you, you could easily end it. I think if you simply left off, soon everyone would forget.”
Penelope sucked in a breath and shook her head. “No. Now that I have begun, I cannot stop.”
“Why?” he asked and moved closer, yet again. She stiffened at the movement and her turquoise stare came up to his face, filled with anticipation and trepidation in equal measure. “Why are you so driven?”
She fisted her hands at her sides. “I have seen the consequences of men’s actions,” she whispered, her voice harsh. “More than once.”
The moment the words escaped her lips, Penelope broke her stare with a little gasp. Jeremy started. That was the second time she had eluded to some kind of personal pain in her past that had to do with her crusade. Perhaps ferreting that pain out was the key to silencing her.
“Penelope—” he began.
But before he could finish the door behind them opened, and a woman stepped inside. “Good evening, Penelope—”
The woman cut off with a gasp and staggered back, even as Penelope’s gaze jerked up and her wide eyes moved to him, filled with fear.
Jeremy drew back. What could cause such a reaction? He staredat the woman who had entered the room. She seemed familiar, with her pale blue eyes and brown hair. Where had he seen her?
Wait. He knew exactly where he had seen this woman before. Although she no longer wore the shocking, expensive gowns or sultry makeup that had once drawn men to her like flies to honey, there was no hiding the sensual sway to her hips or the familiar pout of her full lips. It was Fiona Clifton. The mistress who had left Jeremy’s best friend, Anthony Wharton, because of Penelope’s prying.
The woman whose desertion had driven his friends to force him into stopping Penelope.
Why had Fiona come into the room?
Penelope clenched her fists in utter terror. Dear God, any other lady’s maid would have inquired whether her mistress had a guest before she barged into the parlor to interrupt.
But that was the trouble. Fiona had no training in any of the little nuances that separated a servant from her mistress. And now she had walked into a very dangerous situation. Jeremy was staring at her friend, and it was perfectly clear that he recognized the former courtesan. He knew she was his best friend’s former mistress.
“Fiona?” he stammered. “Great God, is this where you scurried off to?”
If Fiona was a terrible maid, Penelope had to give her credit for having other talents. Although fear sparkled in her blue eyes, the young woman never missed a beat. She simply stepped up to Jeremy with a smile that could only be called flirtatious and laughed.
“Kilgrath! Goodness, how long has it been? And you are looking simply devilish, as usual.”
Penelope pursed her lips. The woman couldn’t learn the proper etiquette of serving tea, but she still had all the lessons of being a courtesan firmly in hand. She was looking at Jeremy like she could devour him right in the middle of the sitting room. And worse, Jeremy was staring back like he wouldn’t mind that in the least.
And thoughts of “devouring” only made Penelope think about the sinful scene she’d witnessed earlier and struck her mute as a hot blush colored her cheeks.
“And how do you know Lady Norman?” Jeremy asked with a quick side glance for Penelope.
Fiona smiled, but there was a tightness around her lips that spoke of her own nervousness. Penelope stuffed her shaking hands behind her back.
“Lady Norman was kind enough to offer me a position in her home,” Fiona said, and she gave Penelope a glance filled with genuine gratitude.
It was that gratitude that made it easy to overlook Fiona’s other failings.
“Is that right?” Jeremy said, his surprise evident in both his expression and tone.
Fiona nodded. “Yes. Actually, I came to deliver this for you, Penelope.”
Penelope winced as Fiona used her first name. She hadn’t corrected the young woman before, mostly because it seemed difficult for the sweet but flighty girl to remember any more than one or two things at once. But hearing Penelope’s name from aservant’s lips made Jeremy’s eyebrows arch. Damn, he would certainly have questions. And if she wanted him to keep Fiona’s presence here a secret, she’d be forced to answer them.
Penelope stepped forward, hand outstretched.
“What is it?” she asked, finally finding her missing voice.
Fiona handed over a folded sheet of paper. When Penelope turned it over, she gasped. There was the sensual, swirling handwriting of her mysterious admirer. Damn, it was another letter fromhim.
“Thank you,” she stammered as she jammed the letter behind her back. “You are dismissed.”
Fiona cast Jeremy a quick glance. “Good evening, Your Grace. It was very pleasant to see you again.”
Jeremy inclined his head politely, but there was no denying the curiosity and interest in his eyes as he murmured, “And you, Fiona. Good evening.”
The moment her maid had left the room, Jeremy turned on Penelope, a dark eyebrow raised in question. “Fiona is under your employ?”
Penelope straightened her shoulders. “Yes. She is my lady’s maid.”
Jeremy nodded slowly, then looked at her with a hint of wicked humor. “Is she any good at that?”
Penelope’s eyes widened in surprise. She hadn’t been expecting that question and found herself blurting out, “Not very.” She covered her mouth, smothering a nervous giggle. “But sheistrying to learn.”
He laughed, and the sound was entirely pleasant. Deep and rich. She stared at him, despite herself. His entire face changedwhen he laughed. He seemed less the sensual devil and more just a man whose smile was…warm. Inviting. He had a little dimple in the corner of his lip on the right side of his face.
She blinked. Great God, what was she thinking?
“I, er, I would like to ask you not to mention Fiona’s presence here,” she said, forcing herself to maintain a very businesslike tone.
Jeremy stopped smiling. “May I ask why?”
She faltered, her doubts about the man before her rushing back. Fiona had told her terrible stories about the abusive anger of Anthony Wharton. Fiona’s past was part of why Penelope had continued on her quest, even when it felt like too much for her to bear. Was it truly possible that Jeremy wouldn’t be totally aware of Wharton’s abuse?
Or did he simply not see it as a problem, since Fiona was merely a woman—and a courtesan at that?
She pursed her lips at the thought that Jeremy would stand by while a woman was beaten. That she wasn’t certain what he would or wouldn’t do was a painful reminder that she couldn’t trust him.
“I simply wouldn’t want the people who come to my home to treat her with anything less than respect based upon her past indiscretions,” she explained. “It is the one favor I will ask of you.”
Jeremy shrugged. “I’m quite certain that the subject of the servants you keep will not come up in polite conversation, Penelope. But if it does, I shall not be the one to reveal that Fiona is under your employ, or the nature of her previous life.”
“Not to anyone?” she pressed.
He stared at her, his eyes lighting up with understanding. “Ah, do you mean Andrew Wharton, her former protector?”
She nodded slowly.
With a shrug, he said, “I see no reason why he should be told about Fiona’s whereabouts unless she chooses to tell him about them, herself.”
Tentative relief flooded her. Now she only had to hope that Jeremy would be good to his word.
“She brought you a letter,” he said with a little smile. “One you hid behind your back.”
Penelope darted her gaze to him, and her grip tightened on the letter behind her. “It is utterly impolite for you to point out something like that, you know.”
Jeremy laughed. “Is it? You must forgive me, I am still learning to be a reasonable man.” He hesitated, leaning to the side as if to peek at the missive she had hidden. “Is it a love letter?”
Penelope’s lips parted. Was it that obvious? Except, she wouldn’t really call it a love letter. What the man who wrote to her had said last time had very little to do with love. Desire, yes. Passion, certainly. Love…no.
“No, and even if it was, it would be none of your affair!” she snapped as she backed away from him.
He laughed again, and Penelope stopped backing up with a start. He was only teasing her. Like they were close. Like they were friends.
But were they? Could they ever be?
“Very well, forgive me,” Jeremy said with a gallant bow. “I shall not torment you any further. If you wish to keep your counsel on the letter, I won’t force your confidence. I merely hopedthat I had ferreted out some weakness in you, my dear. If someone of your stature has one, it might give me hope that I may one day overcome my own.”
Penelope stared at him. Was he still toying with her, or was he, in some part, serious? The man was so utterly confusing, she wasn’t certain what to think of him at any given time.
“I have many weaknesses, Jeremy,” she whispered.
His smile fell. “You would not be human if you did not.”
He reached for her and caught her hand before she could draw it away. He lifted it to his lips and brushed a featherlight kiss across her knuckles. She jolted at the firm contact of his warm lips against her skin. She had a sudden urge to feel them in other places. All over her.
With a jolt, she snatched her hand away and drew it up to her suddenly heaving breast. “Good-bye, Jeremyer, Your Grace,” she stammered, her cheeks flushing.
One dark brow arched. “Until later, Lady Norman. Enjoy your letter.”
Then he released her and backed from the room. Once he was gone, Penelope sank into the nearest chair. Her legs were trembling and her stomach was doing flip-flops. It didn’t matter that it was utterly stupid or that she still wasn’t certain she could trust Jeremy Vaughn; something about him still shook her. Moved her from her foundation. Made her question herself.
Much like the letter writer did. Penelope pulled the missive from behind her back and stared at the swirling handwriting. What would he write to her tonight? What fantasies would he weave?
And would she be strong enough to resist their pull?
She already knew the answer to that question, even before she broke the wax seal and unfolded the pages. She didn’t possess that kind of strength. Before the end of the night, she knew full well she would be writhing in her bed alone, thinking of the author’s words, remembering the wicked things she’d seen at the Cyprian’s ball…
And picturing Jeremy’s face all the while.
With a sigh, she began to read:
If you were mine, I would spend an eternity simply touching your skin. And then I would spend another tasting you all over…Six
Penelope sat on her bed, staring at a small pile of letters that she had placed there. Their presence mocked her. Tormented her.
They were all letters fromhim, her mysterious admirer who wanted to do such wicked things to her. Each night for a week, they had arrived at exactly the same hour. In fact, Penelope had become so accustomed to receiving them that when the time grew near, she found herself watching the door and waiting for the next missive. She grew restless and dull until she held the folded sheets of expensive paper in her hands.
I want to take you,Penelope. Hard and fast. Slow and easy…
Each one detailed more and more about the author’s fantasies about her. In truth, they had become her fantasies, as well. She’d read his pointed, poetic, and often pornographic words so many times that she could summon every sentence from memory without even trying.
And I want you to want me as desperately as I crave you…
Some of the letters had concentrated on what her admirer wished to do to her in detail. She had been forced to think about nights where this faceless man simply kissed every inch of her body. Of his hands and fingers stroking over every curve and invading every hidden, forbidden crevice. And finally, of the crescendo of him taking her in every position imaginable…and some she hadn’t even thought possible.
Would you surrender if I pressed you to a bed and opened you wide for my touch? Do you ever imagine I am doing so?
But some of the letters had been less blatant about activities. They were more about her charms. One letter had been entirely about the erotic beauty of her hair. Of his fantasies that she would take it down in front of him, let it tickle his body, wrap it around his cock…
Penelope surged to her feet and paced away from the letters. She had no illusions that those heated words weren’t altering her. Ruining her. Making her into something she didn’t understand.
She should burn them, but she couldn’t manage it. They brought her too much sinful pleasure. Haunted her nights. She had given up the pretense of resisting their erotic draw. The past week had been sleepless and restless as she brought herself to completion again and again, and yet felt less than satisfied each time.
She clenched a fist against the mantel. A deep hunger, one she had never allowed herself to feel before, had been awakened in her. A dark desire that made her thighs clench against empty wetness when she thought of the letters or the sinful things she had seen on Jeremy’s field trips.
Penelope turned with a hot blush to face the door and a waiting footman. She refused to meet his eyes, fearful anyone who looked at her now would see her wicked thoughts.
“What is it Appleton?”
“The Duke of Kilgrath has arrived, my lady. He awaits you in the west parlor.”
Penelope started. Her brain was becoming so addled, she had completely lost track of time and utterly forgotten the appointment Jeremy had made to visit with her.
“Please inform him I will be down directly.”
As the servant bowed away, Penelope moved to the full-length mirror in the corner of her dressing chamber. Although she was probably silly to think her servant would read her outrageous thoughts and fantasies with a look, Jeremy was a different story. He would surely see something sinful in her demeanor if she didn’t clear her mind.
She smoothed her hair and ran her hands over the high waist of her pretty blue gown. She looked like a lady. She could behave and think like one, as well.
Slowly, she made her way down the stairs to the comfortable parlor where Jeremy waited. Drawing a calming breath, she pushed the door open.
He was not sitting, but leaning against the wall beside the fireplace when she entered, one of the books from her library in hand. She caught her breath at the sight of him. His slightly too long hair swept over his forehead, his green eyes were utterly focused on the words he was reading.
Her knees began to shake at the sight of him. If her admirer’swords and the sinful images she’d been exposed to had haunted her, so had Jeremy’s face. How many times had she pictured him while she pleasured herself in the furtive darkness of her empty bed?
In how many dreams had it been Kilgrath who slid beneath her covers and woke her with the shattering pleasure another man wrote about in such detail?
“Byron,” he said, jolting her from her thoughts as he closed the book. “Rather sensual for a woman who leads the fight against excess.”
Penelope blinked. “I’ve always thought of Byron as romantic rather than sensual.”
He smiled as he set the book on a nearby table and approached her. “In my experience, sometimes romance and sensuality are close to the same thing.”
Penelope swallowed hard as he stopped no more than a foot in front of her. He stared at her face, then tilted his head to the side.
“Are you quite well?”
She blinked. “Of course.”
“You look…” He hesitated, as if searching for the correct word.
In the brief silence, Penelope tensed. She could think of a few to describe herself. Hypocritical. Wanton.
“Tired,” he finally finished.
She shook her head. “No, I’m fine. I simply lost track of time. I’m sorry if you were forced to wait overly long for me.”
“Not at all. But are you ready to depart now?”
She drew back. “Depart?”
It was the middle of the day. Where in the world could he possibly want to take her in the middle of the day? No Cyprian ball or courtesan’s bed or erotic opera could be going on now, could it? If any of those things were, she wasn’t sure she could bear them in her present state.
“Yes.” He nodded. “Will you do me the honor of riding with me? Come to my home.”
Penelope staggered away from him a step. “To your home? No, that would be utterly improper. Your reputation, our being alone together. If that were discovered…”
He frowned. “I would insure we weren’t seen, Penelope. I’ll protect you.”
Penelope sucked in a harsh breath. Protect her. That was the one thing she couldn’t afford to believe, that this man could be her protector. And she found, now that it had been said, that it was the one thing she wanted, perhaps more than anything else in the world.
She hadn’t had a true friend, a real confidante, since…since she and her sister broke faith years before. And that had been because of a man almost exactly like the one standing before her. Yet now, looking at Jeremy, she felt like shecouldwhisper her most intimate secrets to him and find no judgment. She could tell him her pains and be comforted.
And no matter how much she tried to convince herself that those appearances were nothing more than an illusion, she couldn’t bring herself to break from him, as she knew she should.
“You promise that you will not let me be seen?” she whispered.
He hesitated, then nodded. “I do.”
Her head dipped. She was defeated by her own secret desires and a loneliness that felt so keen when she was near this man. “Very well. I will gather up my wrap and we can go now, if you would like.”
Jeremy glanced down surreptitiously at the hand Penelope had slipped into the crook of his arm after he snuck her into the back servant door of his opulent London estate. She seemed so-sofragiletoday. Shaken and quiet as they rode in his carriage to his estate. She had barely met his gaze the entire time they were together.
He supposed he should take pride in that fact. It was perfectly clear that he was breaking her every time he exposed her to the erotic and she responded with muted arousal. And his anonymous letters moved her, as well. He was certain of it. Now it was almost time to progress to the final stage of his plan.
And yet, he felt no pride. Looking at her, so pale and quiet, feeling her cling to his arm as if she thought he would support her, he felt…guilty.
And that was not an experience he’d ever had before. Certainly not associated with a woman. His life was his to lead. He’d never led it thinking much of other people. If they didn’t like him, they could move out of his way. If they were hurt by his actions, that was their failing, not his own.
But with Penelope everything was…different.
“Why did you bring me here?” Penelope asked.
Jeremy started. He’d been so tangled in his own confusing, unwelcome thoughts, he had forgotten his purpose. Well, he couldn’t allow for that. He couldn’t allow for Penelope’s strangeappeal to manipulate him into abandoning his sworn duty. He had some honor, although his promises were so dishonorable.
“I wanted to show you something,” he said, letting go of her arm. Distancing himself was best. After all, he was supposed to be her convert, not her friend.
She stared at him for a brief moment, then broke the gaze with a blush as she forced her hands behind her back. “What is it?”
“I will, of course, be ridding myself of these things shortly, but before I did, I thought you would want to see them. They represent all you fight against,” he said as he stopped in front of a door.
Penelope tilted her head in question, but before she could speak, Jeremy gave a push and the door swung open, revealing his private gallery.
Penelope stepped past him, her mouth slightly open as she moved into the large, sunny room. Jeremy shut the door behind them and leaned back against it, watching her as she stared in awe at what she saw.
Jeremy had started collecting these pieces five years ago, when a friend returned from India with a few shocking statuettes that depicted couples intertwined in blatant acts of sexual hedonism. He’d bought one from his friend and immediately set out to find more erotic art.
Over the years, he’d added paintings, some of which he had commissioned, and others that had simply caught his eye. He’d also taken an interest in other forms of art. Pottery engraved with scenes of lovemaking, silverwork whose handles depicted nude women or were phallic in nature.
In a short time, he had gathered one of the most extensivecollections of such art in London. From time to time, he even allowed tours of the work.
But this “tour,” with Penelope as his only guest, was his favorite so far. What she saw around her would have been scandalous to most women who had been raised to be “good” and “proper.” Certainly this room wasn’t one he shared with just any guest.
This kind of art took a certain kind of personality to truly appreciate. He had thought Penelope would hardly be able to look at the statues and paintings, but to his very happy surprise, she did not cower.
In fact, she stared openly. Her fists were clenched at her sides and her body was stiff as she lurched closer, but she couldn’t hide the rapt expression on her face as she moved toward the large marble statue that was the centerpiece of the room.
He had commissioned that work a year ago and paid a very pretty penny for it. It featured a woman, long hair blowing back from her enraptured face. Her nude body was wrapped around the one of her marble lover. Her legs were clasped around his waist, his stone fingers pressed into her thigh, his mouth pressed to her breast. It was beautiful and arousing all at once.
And whether she liked it or not, it was clear Penelope reacted the same way he did. She was enraptured. With a shiver, she turned toward him, her face a flaming red, her blue eyes cast anywhere but his.
“What is the purpose of showing me these-these things?” she asked. “Is this a game to you?”
Jeremy swallowed back a chuckle. Sometimes it did seem like they were playing a game. A complicated chess match where she maneuvered and he countered, but neither one gained ground.But he could feel her defenses wavering, and it was only a matter of time before he put her in checkmate.
“Of course not,” he lied, doing his best to sound affronted. “When I approached you, I told you I could safely expose you to the underbelly of the Society that you wish to fight against. I’ve lived it for most of my life, and I am intimately acquainted with it. You agreed that you would like to see that underbelly firsthand, so that you could be better equipped to battle it. Have you changed your mind?”
She shook her head, but there was hesitation in her movements. Subtle, but undeniable. Penelope was beginning to question her fight, questionherself.
“I cannot change my mind now,” she murmured, turning back to stare at the intertwined lovers and their passionate embrace.
“Do you wish to?” he asked, his own voice as low as her own.
She looked at him over her shoulder and his stomach clenched. Dear God, she had no idea how alluring she was in that position. Little strands of blond hair curled around her pink cheeks, framing her face. Would her face be that pink if he was gliding in and out of her slick body as he bent her over the marble statue?
Damn, how he’d like to find out.
“No,” she said, this time more firmly.
She smoothed her gown and it seemed that the questioning he had sensed in her bled away. Covered, at least temporarily, by the stern, cold exterior Penelope presented to most of the world around her.
“Tell me, does every gentleman in your position have such a gallery?” she asked, sidestepping the statue and moving to look at the paintings.
Jeremy laughed. “I know of a few collectors, but nothing as extensive as this. I have pieces that I’ve commissioned, as well as works going back thousands of years.”
Her eyes widened when she looked at him in shocked disbelief. “Thousands?”
Motioning to a glass case along the back wall, he nodded. “Yes, most of these pieces are quite old.”
She stepped up to the case like she was approaching a ready executioner, but finally she leaned over the glass and gasped. Most of the ancient items were pieces that would have had a household use. Spoons with naughty images on their handles, a tarnished mirror with mating gods and goddesses on the cracked frame, even a piece of women’s jewelry that featured a decorated gold devil pleasuring a writhing maiden with his tongue.
“Sensuality, sex, debauchery,” Jeremy said, moving a tiny bit closer to Penelope. “Those things aren’t new. They were even celebrated by some societies.”
“And how many of those societies ultimately fell?” Penelope continued to stare at the items, her fists clenched along the cool glass top of the case. “These things, these images and the dissipation they represent may not be new, but they were dangerous then. Even as they are dangerous now.”
“Dangerous?” Jeremy repeated, surprised by her use of the word.
It could easily seem as though she meant dangerous to Society, dangerous to those who surrendered to their baser drives, but there was something in her tone and a sadness to her expression that made him think her statement was more a personal one than a broad reference.
He leaned down. “Penelope, what happened to you?”
Her fingers curled against the glass before she spun around, her face pale. She wouldn’t meet his eyes, but Jeremy saw powerful and dark emotions in the blue depths regardless. There was raw pain reflected there.
And for the first time, he actually cared about that pain.
“Someone I cared for—” she gasped out a breath, as if the mere act of speaking the words hurt her, “—was seduced in order to protect me.”
Jeremy drew back a fraction. That was the one confession he hadn’t expected. Who could she mean?
He caught his breath. Her sister. Lady Miranda Rothschild had been the subject of many whispers after her now husband, Ethan Hamon, the Earl of Rothschild, threw himself at her feet at a ball…wait, it had been Penelope’s engagement ball, hadn’t he heard that?
Could Rothschild have seduced Miranda? Jeremy wouldn’t put it past him. The two men had run in similar circles for many years, though Ethan had left all that behind once he married. Many of Jeremy’s friends had said the Earl’s wife had ruined him, though the man seemed happy enough whenever Jeremy saw him.
He searched Penelope’s face. There was more to her pain than something from her sister’s past. By all accounts, Miranda was now happy, and she certainly wanted for nothing. Rothschild showered her with gifts on a regular basis, to the point that even the women placed wagers on what magnificent bauble the beautiful Lady Rothschild would be given next.
No, Penelope’s pain went much deeper. It was personal. Caused by something that had no happy ending.
“But what happened toyou?” Jeremy pressed, his fingers itching to cover her hand. But he wouldn’t allow himself that. He wouldn’t touch her, mostly because he feared once he did, it wouldn’t end with mere comfort.
And if he gave her more than comfort, it would ruin his plans.
Penelope finally lifted her gaze to his. Her eyes shone with unshed tears and her bottom lip quivered just slightly.
“H-he-” she began, then cut herself off.
She backed away from him three long steps, shaking her head. “No. I never should have said anything. I apologize for my lack of decorum. I want to go home now. I will be attending the Trimble ball tonight, and there is much for me to do.”
Jeremy could have pursued her, but he stayed put, partly because he felt that pushing her would only hurt his cause. And partly because being so close to her was disconcerting.
“Very well. I will escort you home.”
He motioned for the door, and Penelope stood at least two feet away from him as they made their way to the hall.
“Will you be there?” she asked, her voice full of forced lightness.
“At the Trimble ball?” he asked.
He glanced at her from the corner of his eye. He had been invited to the ball, of course, and had intended to be present. But now he wasn’t sure that was the right course of action.
Penelope was ripe for the taking, but not by him. No, she couldn’t think it was Jeremy Vaughn, Duke of Kilgrath, who seduced her into surrendering her senses.
She needed the anonymous stranger who had already weakened her with his shocking words. And Jeremy was more than willing to play that role.
“I’m afraid I’m unable to attend,” he lied. “But perhaps we could speak tomorrow?”
“Yes,” Penelope said as he helped her into his carriage. “I would be happy to see you tomorrow.”
And as Jeremy climbed up and took his seat across from her, he couldn’t help but smile. Whether she knew it or not, Penelope would see him. And he would see her.
All of her.
And perhaps by the time the night ended, he would have completed his duty to his friends and purged himself of the strange draw that this pretty little miss had on him.Seven
Penelope looked at herself in the mirror, watching as Fiona brushed her hair in long, even strokes. It felt like she was looking at a stranger, for she had no idea who she had become in just a fortnight.
Since her husband’s death, since she started talking about the Upper Ten Thousand and their vices, she had begun to see herself in a particular light. She was Lady Penelope Norman, a woman who spoke her mind, who didn’t care what others thought of her. She had accepted that her unpopular opinions would likely preclude her from another marriage. And her moral code would keep her from having her baser desires fulfilled by a man’s touch again.
She’d believed she had accepted all those consequences.
But the more time she spent with Jeremy Vaughn, the more she realized her acceptance was nothing more than a pretty lie.She might have been able toignoreher darkest, most secret and sinful desires, but in truth, she hadn’t cut them away. They still lurked there, making her ache, making her weak.
Between Jeremy’s erotic influence and the secret author who left no detail to the imagination of what he would do to her wet body, she was dangerously close to the edge.
“Are you quite all right, Penelope?” Fiona asked, her voice cutting through Penelope’s thoughts. “You are so very pale.”
Penelope focused on the other woman in the mirror image. “Your life before,” she said softly, blushing when Fiona winced ever so slightly. “Your life with Wharton, do you ever miss it?”
Fiona placed the brush on the dressing table with a clatter. “Wharton…did things to me that I will never forget,” she said softly. “And never forgive.”
Penelope nodded. The look on Fiona’s pale face reminded her of everything she believed in. And she stiffened her spine. Shecouldfight her desires, she could battle her weakness. Tomorrow, when she saw Jeremy, she would tell him she no longer desired to meet with him. That she had seen enough. If he was truly changed, her denial would be enough for him.
And if he wasn’t, she would no longer be his fool.
The door to her chamber opened, and a footman stepped inside. “My lady, a missive for you has just arrived.”
Penelope spun around to look at the servant. Even from across the room, she could tell who the letter was from. Her secret admirer. Her tempting vice.
This was the first test to her newfound resolve.
“Bring it here,” she said, rising to her feet with a stern frown.
The young man delivered the letter. As he left the room, she stared at it. At the familiar handwriting. At the blank, round seal of wax on the back. Even before she read it, her body weakened, her breasts felt heavy. Her legs shook.
Her fingers clenched around the paper, wrinkling it as she stepped toward the fire silently.
“What are you doing?” Fiona asked, drawing in a harsh breath.
“I am burning it,” Penelope said through clenched teeth as she held the pages out to the flames. The heat warmed her shaking hand, but she couldn’t release the letter, as she knew she should. She stared at it, the orange glow of the fire turning the ecru a strange yellow.
“Penelope?” Fiona whispered.
Biting back a sob, Penelope yanked the letter back. She couldn’t do it. She was too curious about what the mysterious man would say next. If she burned the letter, she knew full well that it would haunt her.
“Damn,” she whispered beneath her breath as she broke the seal with enough violence that the sheet beneath tore. Holding the ends together, she read the message.
Penelope,you must know how seeing you without being able to touch you is a torment. I will be at the Trimble ball tonight. I will wait for you in the first parlor in the west wing of the estate. Come to me at midnight. Please.
“What does he say this time?” Fiona asked, stepping forward.
Penelope clutched the letter to her chest. Since Fiona saw the contents of the first letter, Penelope hadn’t allowed her maid toread the others. But she had no illusions that the former courtesan wasn’t utterly aware of the kind of sinful things the mystery author was writing in every letter that had followed.
“He wants to meet me. Tonight. At the Trimble ball,” Penelope admitted, her breath short as she crumpled the pages.
Fiona smiled, her bright eyes sparkling. “How exciting!”
Penelope stared. Dear God, she agreed. Itwasexcitement that swelled her chest and made her wet and needy.
She shook her head. “No!” she snapped, angry at herself, as much as Fiona. “It is not exciting. It is utterly inappropriate and foolish and outrageous!”
Fiona drew back at her shrewish tone. “I-I apologize, my lady,” she whispered. “I did not mean to offend.”
Penelope dipped her chin in shame. It wasn’t her right to take her problems out on Fiona. That made her no better than Wharton.
“No, I apologize. The last few weeks have beentrying. And this newest development only causes more confusion.”
Her servant smiled as if she understood Penelope’s feelings. “What will you do?”
Penelope considered the question. “Part of me wishes to hide here, avoid the party altogether like a coward.”
Fiona stepped forward with a shake of her head. “You, a coward? No, you are the strongest woman I have ever known.”
Penelope blushed with pleasure at the compliment. She wasn’t sure she deserved such glowing praise when her mind was so weak.
“Thank you. But whether I am strong or a coward cannot dictate this decision. I am expected at the gathering by Lady Trimble herself. She is influential. I cannot cry off.”
With a sigh, Penelope began to pace. “I suppose I could simply ignore the letter, as if I’d never received it. Then this man will wait for me in vain, and that will be the end of it.”
The idea of which gave her an unwanted sense of dismay that she crushed down deep inside her.
“But what if he doesn’t simply wait?” Fiona asked.
Penelope tilted her head. “What do you mean?”
“I’ve spent many years around men who are bold and sensual like the one who is writing to you,” the former courtesan explained. “He might not just wait for you and then fade into the crowd when you ignore his summons. He might approach you in front of all in attendence.”
Penelope swallowed hard. Dear God, she hadn’t thought of that possibility. If a man approached her in public, demanding to know why she hadn’t kept a secret rendezvous with him in the private area of her hosts’ home, the scandal could be quite vicious. There were those who would gladly capitalize on any mark against her character.
“That is true.” She paced the room twice, picturing every hideous scenario that could result in such a thing. Finally, she looked at Fiona. “I suppose I have no choice but to meet with him. I can tell him, without question, that I do not wish to receive his correspondence any longer. Perhaps that will end this madness.”
The other woman stepped forward, placing a hand on Penelope’s forearm with an expression of concern. “Are you certain he won’t…hurt you?”
Penelope placed her own hand over the other woman’s with a smile. Of course Fiona would fear for her physical safety after everything she had been through in her own tragic life. But Penelope didn’t worry for her bodily safety. The way the stranger wrote to her wasn’t threatening or crude. It was simply bold and erotic.
Her fears were more grounded in her own lack of control, rather than his. But perhaps, once she saw the man she had built up so fully in her mind, she would no longer desire him. Perhaps he would have bad teeth and padded calves and she would find him repugnant.
“He won’t hurt me,” she promised. “I won’t let him hurt me.”
And all she could hope was that she wouldn’t end up hurting herself when she came face-to-face with the man whose words had haunted her.
Jeremy stood in the long shadows that filled the darkened, empty expanse of Lord Trimble’s parlor. It was a family parlor, not a public one, far away from the buzzing crowds that flowed in the sparkling ballroom just a few twists in the halls away.
Although he hadn’t seen her, he knew Penelope was there. His driver had informed him of her arrival as he waited in an unmarked carriage outside. Jeremy had slipped in through a side door and was now waiting for her.
Waiting for the inevitable.
He thrilled at the thought. In just…he glanced at his pocket watch…just ten minutes, he would be with her. She wouldn’t be able to see him in the dark room, but he would finally touch her. Seduce her.
He hadn’t felt so needy since…actually, he couldn’t truly remember the last time. Raised the eldest son of a powerful Duke, Jeremy had grown accustomed to having what he wanted, whenhe wanted it. Whether it was blunt or horses or women, he could count on one hand the times he’d been refused.
It was rather boring, truth be told. There was no challenge in simply snapping his fingers and having a woman fall at his feet.
Penelope was a challenge. Pursuing her had been hard work, and tonight he would receive the benefit of that labor. It was an infinitely satisfying thought, and his cock hardened.
The click of the door latch being turned brought him from his reverie and focused his attention. He stared as the barrier slowly swung open, and a gloved hand curled around the edge.
She stepped inside. The moonlight washed down from the window in a long column that illuminated the doorway perfectly. In the misty glow, Jeremy could see every detail of Penelope’s form and face, but she could not see him in the shadows.
And look, he did. She was wearing a pale green gown with a fashionably low neckline and short, puffed sleeves. A darker wrap was draped around her forearms, the tassels brushing the curve of her hip as she moved farther into the room.
“Hello?” she said, her voice hoarse and weak. She pursed her lips and repeated it, this time with more conviction.
Jeremy continued to stare, watching her full lips form the word in fascination. Her face was almost as pale as the weak moonlight, her eyes wide and filled with emotion she wasn’t practiced enough to hide. She was afraid. She was anxious.
She was needy. Desire was sparkling in her gaze, along with those other emotions.
Her face fell when there was no answer from the room within. She looked down with a blush before she began to go.
Jeremy shook off his unexpected reaction to her appearance and whispered, “Penelope.”
He was careful to keep his voice low, disguised by its level and a slight roughness that he forced.
She jumped at the sound of her name and spun back, stumbling out of the shard of moonlight to join him in the almost complete darkness.
“What—?” she began.
He didn’t allow her to finish. Stepping forward, he caught her hand. She jolted at the touch, but didn’t stop him when he tugged her forward and pulled her into his arms. He wrapped himself around her, pulling her flush to his chest, her hips to his hips, her legs to his own. God, she felt good. An unexpected heaven that entered his seductive hell.
“Please,” she whimpered, but the intent of her plea was anything but clear. He didn’t know if she was saying please touch her or please don’t.
But it seemed she didn’t know, either. She at once bunched her fists against his chest to push him away and subtly arched her hips against his to bring them even closer. With a little chuckle of pleasure, Jeremy took advantage of her confusion by dipping his head down and pressing his lips to hers.
For a brief moment, she was completely still, her hands fisted against his chest, her mouth pursed beneath his own. But then she let out a little moan and clutched at his coat. Her lips parted, inviting him in and when he took the invitation, her wet tongue greeted him with hot and hungry fever.
Jeremy crushed her closer, forgoing technique for raw passion. He sucked her tongue, he stroked his hands down her spine, hecupped her backside to lift her up against his aching cock. He rocked into her as he backed her, step by step to the wall across the darkened room.
When her back flattened to the hard surface, Penelope moaned again and lifted her hips to his in a mute entreaty.
All the waiting had been worth this. Her surrender was sweet. True surrender, not a put on play like courtesans or even widows did. Jeremy had truly conquered Penelope, overcome her resolve, buckled the strength of her resistance. Every time she made a little sound of pleasure, it made his cock ache all the more.
Until he was almost mad with the wanting.
Moving his mouth from hers, he dragged his lips down her chin, over the curve of her throat. He slipped a hand beneath the neckline of her pretty gown and felt the beaded tip of her breast already straining toward his fingers. He rolled the bud between his thumb and forefinger as he dropped his mouth lower, over the silken fabric of her gown, lower to her stomach. He dropped to his knees as he glided his mouth even farther, blowing hot breath against the juncture of her thighs and reveling in the way her hips surged to meet his mouth while she let out a cry of pleasure.
He didn’t speak, didn’t ask as he shoved the layers of silky gown up, up until he revealed the delicate cotton chemise beneath. He pushed that away, too, and found the split in her satin drawers. He worked a finger inside, stroking the tip of his index finger along the wet, sweet slit hidden within.
“Oh God,” she groaned, her fingernails raking against the expensive wallpaper behind her.
He added a second finger, spreading and teasing her slippery folds, opening her until he could scent her desire, until it coatedhis fingers with the proof that she had been aching for him as much as he had ached for her. Even if she didn’t know who he was.
Penelope fought for purchase against the slippery wall. Everything was happening too quickly. She’d had every intention to end this madness. To demand her mysterious admirer cease his unwanted correspondence. Instead, she found herself half naked, his fingers now plunging into her wet channel and dragging out sensations unlike any she’d ever felt before, even with the furtive touch of her own hands.
He stroked her with a combination of wicked intent and infinite gentleness. He stretched her body, opening her for…
She knew what for. He had every intention of taking this heated, unexpected, animalistic coming together to its end. He was going to have her. Against a wall in the parlor of one of the most influential and stern leaders of London Society.
And Penelope couldn’t find her voice to stop him. Especially when his fingers curled inside her and she felt the whisper of his breath against her bare skin.
She jolted her gaze down and watched as the shadow of his head moved in. She squinted but could make out no features in the dark and still room. Just a shadow lover, as he had been in all her fantasies.
But this was real. The brush of his lips against her thigh was real. The way he tugged against her draws, ripping the fine satin until it hung useless around her legs and then brought his mouth up to give her the most intimate kiss was real.
She braced her legs, rolling her head against the wall behind her as exquisite sensation roared through her. His tongue stroked her outer lips, teased the little nub hidden within the folds ofher sex, sucked it until the dull, warm throb of desire roared into a mounting crescendo. She thrust against him, against both her will and her reason, and reached wantonly for the release she wanted so badly. A release of her body. Of her spirit.
A release of everything she fought for.
That thought brought her up short. Her body teetered on the edge of madness and she could not allow herself to fall. With a sob of anything but pleasure, Penelope detangled her fingers from his hair and skirted away from his wicked tongue.
“No,” she moaned, turning to face the wall. She sagged against it as she smoothed her skirt down between the cool surface and her body. “No, no I can’t.”
Jeremy stared up at Penelope, wishing he could see the details of her face in the darkness. He could only hear her ragged breaths, the ones that matched his own panting. Her body had been so close to release, he had already felt the first flutterings against his tongue. He’d tasted the desperate neediness of her flesh, felt the liquid relief as it poured over him.
And he had ached for more of it. In that moment, he hadn’t been thinking about anything but making her sob with release. Feeling her rock with pleasure. And doing it again and again until she lay weak and satisfied on the floor beneath his hard body.
The idea that she would refuse him without even allowing her own pleasure hadn’t entered his mind. Not when she had reacted so powerfully to his kiss, his touch, his heat.
Apparently, he had underestimated her dedication to her foolish quest and strange moral code.
He pushed from his knees and stood watching her shadow as she continued to lean on the wall, her back to him.
“Penelope,” he whispered, and this time it took no effort to make his voice rough and strange. “Why do you push me away when all your body’s reactions tell me how much you want my touch?”
She spun around and in the dim shadows he saw her shake her head. “My wants, they are not all I must consider. You must know that, since you know my identity. I don’t know why you chose me to write your…”
She hesitated and he heard her breath release in a shuddering sigh.
“…to write your letters to.”
He stepped closer and her body stiffened. “Because I have wanted you since the first moment I saw you.”
“No,” she whispered, but he had the distinct feeling she was saying it to herself, not denying him. “I can’t. I cannot allow you, I cannot allow this.”
She sidestepped him, staggering across the room until she stood in that shaft of moonlight by the door again. She rested her forehead on the barrier, her shoulders rolled forward.
“Please, I don’t know who you are. I don’t want to know. But you cannot write to me again. You cannot seek me out. Just…just leave me be.”
Then she threw open the door and rushed into the hallway, leaving Jeremy alone. He stared at the place where she had stood and let out a low curse, though he wasn’t angry.
No, there was some other feeling. One he rarely experienced. Disappointment, mixed with a tinge of regret. His body was so hard that he ached all over, and it was clear he wouldn’t have satisfaction tonight unless he sought it from another woman.
He licked his lips and tasted the sweet ambrosia of Penelope’s body on his tongue. Another woman would only satisfy him temporarily. It was Penelope he wanted.
She had run away tonight, rushed back into the crowd unsatisfied, but that did not mean she had been unchanged. Even if she had not allowed either one of them to find release, she had surrendered, given herself over to a man who existed only in shadow. To a stranger who had seduced her with words.
Her shaking body, her moans of pleasure, they had been proof that the lovely Penelope hid desires that were polar opposites of the proper code she lived by.
Jeremy smiled as he took a quick glance into the hall and made his way back to his waiting carriage. He might go home hard and aching tonight, but he had no doubt that with a little more time, a little more pressure, he would have Penelope. First her body, then her soul. And her cause would soon be crushed in the wave of pleasure he would surely introduce her to.Eight
The frayed satin edges of Penelope’s torn drawers stroked her still trembling thighs beneath her gown. The gentle brush of ragged fabric tormented her already edgy body. It was a constant reminder of what she had done. Of what more shestillwanted to do with a stranger whose intent she didn’t understand.
But that hadn’t mattered the moment he brushed his lips to hers. She had thrown away all hesitation and surrendered like a reckless wanton. She blushed as she recalled every pleasurable sensation that had washed over her in the dark. As she recalled that she hadn’t made any effort to stop the faceless stranger when he touched her.
Her hands shook as she took a glass of wine from a passing servant’s tray. As she swallowed a hefty gulp of the liquid, she willed herself to be calm, but it was all in vain.
She wanted to go home. She wanted to hide from her memories.
And worst of all, she wanted to talk to Jeremy, of all people. Even though she doubted his intentions, even though his presence made her nervous and needy, she wanted to see him. To tell him what had happened and ask his advice.
He wouldn’t judge her. He wouldn’t think she was disgusting. He would understand.
Penelope’s shoulders stiffened at the piercing sound of her mother’s voice coming across the ballroom behind her. Great God, of all the nights she didn’t want to see her mother. Spending time with Dorthea Albright was already trying enough, even when Penelope didn’t have ragged nerves and an aching, empty body that kept reminding her of her sins.
With a grimace, Penelope turned. Her mother was shouldering her way through the crowd with Penelope’s younger sister Beatrice at her side, a glower on the other girl’s face.
“Hello, Mama,” Penelope said. “Beatrice. Where is Winifred?”
Beatrice folded her arms with a frown. “Shewas asked to dance. Which isn’t fair. I’m older than her by a whole year. If a young man wants to dance with an Albright, he ought to choose me.”
Penelope bit her tongue. It would do no good to point out to Beatrice that her superior attitude and sour expression likely kept young men from pressing a suit for her hand. Beatrice had always been her mother’s child, raised with a sense of entitlement that did not fit her station in life. She was cold and spoiled, and her attitude alienated women and men alike.
Penelope had often thought her sister must be awfully lonelyin the ivory tower she had built around herself. But there was no stopping her, or their mother’s encouragement of such vanity and superiority.
“Don’t worry about Winifred,” Dorthea shushed. “That boy she’s with isonlya baron’s son. Not worth your time, certainly.”
Penelope bit back a gasp. Her mother had spoken so loudly that certainly a few families around them had heard her disparaging comment.
“Mama,” she whispered, clasping her mother’s arm. “You speak out of turn.”
“I do not,” her mother insisted, shaking herself free. “Your sister should not marry anyone less than an earl like her sister has married.”
Beatrice nodded. “Yes, and you shouldn’t talk, Penelope. After all, you’ve been working on landing a duke.”
Penelope’s jaw dropped open, and she stared at her mother and sister. “First, we are not a family who is titled, and even though Miranda married an earl, it does not follow that Beatrice and Winifred will marry men of that rank.” She turned on her sister. “And as for me marrying a duke, I have no idea where you heard that rumor, but I am not marrying anyone!”
Her mother smiled. “Come now, Society is buzzing with talk of how you and the Duke of Kilgrath have been spotted talking very closely. The man has six estates and at least fifty thousand pounds a year, Penelope! You will exceed even Miranda. I am so proud!”
Penelope swallowed hard. Her head was beginning to spin. Great God, were people truly saying such things? With hermother, it was hard to tell the difference between truth and hopeful delusion.
“The Duke of Kilgrath has shown an interest in my thoughts on the behavior of the men of his circles,” Penelope insisted. “We are not courting.”
Although that was something she occasionally had to remind herself of, like she had earlier in the day, when they had toured the sinful gallery where he kept his erotic art.
Her mother’s smile fell. “Your ideas. Dear Lord, child, you shall ruin everything if you continue your incessant babbling. You are garnering a reputation, my dear. One just as damaging as if you were cavorting around in dark corners like a woman of easy virtue.”
Penelope bit her lip. She had been doing just that not an hour before. A bit more than cavorting, actually. She had very nearly surrendered to the sinful touch of a man whose face she hadn’t even seen.
And she had liked it. Which made her the biggest fraud in the land.
“…and when you talk to Miranda and Ethan, I hope you will do just that,” her mother continued.
Although Penelope didn’t know what her mother had been rattling on about, the mention of Penelope’s sister and her husband made Penelope jolt back to attention.
“Speak to Miranda and Ethan?” she repeated as her heart jolted to her chest. “I have no intention of speaking to either one of them.”
Her mother frowned. “I do not understand what made youbreak ties with your sister. The two of you were thick as thieves until her marriage. It’s silly to be jealous of her accomplishments when you know her husband could be very influential in your life.”
Penelope bit back a bark of unladylike laughter. Oh yes, Ethan Hamon, Earl of Rothschild, could be very influential. She’d seen firsthand just howinfluentialhe could be. And if her mother knew just exactly how he had “wooed” Miranda, she wondered if Dorthea would approve of him so much.
Sadly, her mother might see only the money and influence the match had garnered their family. Perhaps she wouldn’t care about the means to the end.
But Penelope did.
“They are here tonight and youshallspeak to Miranda!” Dorthea insisted as she snapped her fan shut and rapped it against her palm. “This feud between you must end.”
Penelope gasped as her gaze moved around the room. Sure enough, no more than twenty paces away stood her eldest sister Miranda, her hand curved into the crook of her husband’s arm. She was leaning against him ever so slightly, looking up at him as she whispered something to him. It wasn’t hard to guess the topic of the conversation from the way Rothschild returned her smile with a wicked one of his own.
Penelope broke her stare away.
“I am going home,” she said through clenched teeth.
“No, you are not,” her mother snapped, reaching for her.
Penelope dodged her grip. “I am.”
She found her sister a second time and saw that the couple wasmoving toward them. From across the room, Miranda met her stare. Penelope’s heart ached. Miranda had once been her best friend, her closest confidante. Or at least, she’dthoughtthey’d been that close, but it had turned out to be a lie.
Still, when she looked into Miranda’s eyes she saw the close relationship they’d once had. She saw the warmth and care of her oldest sister.
But when she looked at Miranda and Ethan together, Penelope saw all the lies, all the deceptions. And she also saw a reminder of everything she couldn’t even want, let alone have. It was another shameful reminder of how close she’d come to throwing away the virtues she extolled.
“Good evening,” she stammered, before she rushed away, her mother’s calls of her name still ringing in her ears.
Jeremy paced his bed chamber, his robe flapping around his bare thighs with every step. Although it was almost noon and nearly twelve hours had passed since his powerful encounter with Penelope, the intensity of their exchange still rocked him. And the memories…well, he had perfect recall. He could still smell her light perfume, could still feel the warmth of her skin beneath his.
He could still taste her on his lips. An earthy, sweet combination that made his cock rock hard no matter how many times he found release at his own hand. It had been more than once since she left him, and yet, even now, his arousal taunted him from beneath his robe.
Allowing Penelope to go when he knew he could have coaxedher back with another kiss, another touch, had been very difficult. Almost impossible.
And that was troubling. He hadn’t felt this strongly about a woman in a long time. Desire was a hunger that he fed and then forgot. But with Penelope, it was different. Thoughts of her tormented him.
As did the knowledge that he could have very easily fulfilled his duty last night. He could have arranged for the two of them to be interrupted in that room. Any of his friends would have been happy to bring respected witnesses to the parlor at some prearranged hour and interrupt the passionate scene within.
If anyone had seen the wild, erotic display, Penelope would have been ruined. The ladies who were so enthralled with Penelope’s thoughts on the evils of Society’s unfettered sexuality could not have overlooked their leader’s wanton display.
His own friends would have been fully satisfied in Penelope’s ruination.
But Jeremy hadn’t made any arrangements of the kind. He hadn’twantedto be interrupted. He hadn’twantedto end his pursuit of Penelope.
He’d only wanted to touch her. And he still did.
“Your Grace, Lady Norman awaits you on the Sunset Veranda.”
Jeremy jolted at the sound of his butler’s voice from the door. He spun around to face the man. “Lady Norman?” he repeated, ignoring how his cock hardened even more at the thought that she was here.
“Yes, sir,” the servant said with a nod, keeping his eyes on Jeremy’s face.
“She is early, I did not expect her until two,” he murmured, more to himself than to the servant.
“Should I tell her you are not in house, sir?”
“No!” Jeremy said, a bit more forcefully than he had intended. He caught his breath. There was no need to allow his eagerness to show in everything he said and did. “No. Please tell her that I will be down when I have dressed. And prepare luncheon. I believe the lady and I will dine on the veranda together, since it is such a pretty day.”
He didn’t mention that he also looked forward to seeing the early afternoon sunshine dance off of Penelope’s golden hair.
“Yes, sir. I will send in Paddington, as well,” the butler said as he bowed from the room.
Jeremy grinned as he moved to his dressing room to await his valet. If Penelope had come to his home almost two full hours before their appointed schedule, it could only mean she had something important to share with him.
And he had a sneaking suspicion that thesomethinghad to do with last night.
He wasn’t dressed. That was what Jeremy’s servant had said before he bowed away, leaving Penelope to wait in the warm sunshine of the summer’s day. She wrung her hands in her lap as sinful thoughts bombarded her.
Thoughts of Jeremy’s naked body. Thoughts of the things Jeremy could do to her with that naked body.
She pushed to her feet and paced to the veranda wall. She fisted her hands against the railing and looked down to the gardens below. What was wrong with her? Last night she had let a totalstranger kiss her in the most intimate way imaginable, twelve hours later she was fantasizing about allowing Jeremy Vaughn to do the same thing.
Her principles were eroding at a shocking rate.
She dipped her head, shutting her eyes as shame washed over her. How had things come to this? She hadn’t grown up wanting to be some kind of crusader. She had dreamed of passion and pleasure just like any young girl.
But things had changed. They had changed when Penelope realized just how far Miranda would go to protect their family. They had changed when Penelope married and her husband’s concept of passion was far different from her own.
They had changed when she made a few frustrated comments about the sinful excess of the men of theton. Somehow those things had turned her into the woman she was now.
But it all felt like an illusion. Now, standing in the revealing sunshine of Jeremy’s terrace, she wasn’t certain of herself any longer. And in the darkness of the room last night, with a stranger pinning her to the wall, his hot, rough tongue coaxing wicked moans from her lips, she hadn’t felt like a crusader. She hadn’t felt wrong.
She had felt alive.
She covered her face with a shuddering sigh. She wasn’t even sure who she was anymore. Or what she wanted. She’d come to Jeremy Vaughn’s house two hours before their appointed meeting time, violating social niceties and opening herself up to even more remarks like the ones her mother had insinuated the night before, but she didn’t care. It was like she was nolonger in control of her own heart, her own body, her decisions.
“Penelope, I’m sorry I kept you waiting.”
She spun around to face Jeremy as he strolled onto the veranda with a broad smile. But the instant he saw her face, that smile faded into a look of pure concern that made her heart ache even more.
“Are you well?” he asked as he closed the distance between them in a few long steps. He caught her hands and drew her closer to look down into her eyes. “You are pale. Are you ill? Can I summon a doctor for you?”
Penelope blushed as she slowly extracted her fingers from his. It was almost impossible to think when he was touching her.
“No, I-I am perfectly well,” she stammered as she backed away a step. “I am simply tired. I had a trying evening.”
He frowned. “The ball was not pleasant, I assume. Did more people make impertinent remarks? Were you threatened again?”
She shook her head. “No, not last night.” She struggled to regain her composure. “My mother was in attendance, though. Did you know that some people are apparently whispering that you and I may be courting?”
Jeremy drew back, and Penelope didn’t miss the slight flicker of panic that darkened his already dark eyes. Even if he claimed to be changing his attitude, it was clear he had no interest in settling down with only one woman. Or at least not with her.
Which was fine, of course. She still wasn’t certain of this man’s motives. Even if shewerelooking for a new husband, which she wasn’t, Jeremy Vaughn was the last man she would ever consider.
“Your mother said as much?” he asked.
She nodded in response as she avoided his eyes. Just speaking to him, calmly, quietly, seemed to soothe her ragged nerves. It was strange that this man, of all men, could cause such a reaction.
“I do not mean to offend,” Jeremy said with a little chuckle. “But I would think your mother might say such a thing for her own motives.”
Penelope snapped her gaze up to his. Her blush deepened. “I suppose her mercenary desire for each of her daughters to marry powerful, rich men is no secret. Certainly, we must be mocked for her behavior in many circles.”
Jeremy didn’t respond, but motioned to the chair she had vacated earlier. “Come, sit down. Have a drink and we’ll share luncheon.”
She hesitated. Breaking bread with this man seemed socivilized, sonormalafter all the sinful things they had seen together. And despite how many erotic images he had shown her, sharing the meal also felt more intimate in some way.
“Please,” he urged, placing a hand on her back to gently guide her to the seat. “Clearly there is more going on here than a mere encounter with your mother. Perhaps I can be of some assistance?”
Penelope sat down and stared at the starched linen tablecloth that decorated the round table before her. The lines of the fabric blurred as she considered her options.
She needed to talk tosomeoneabout the troubling encounter last night. Penelope didn’t want to remind Fiona of anything unpleasant in her past, and she certainly couldn’t speak to any ofher other friends about the mysterious man who had seduced her with words and aroused her with his dark, faceless touch.
“I need to know something,” she whispered. She looked up into Jeremy’s eyes, seeking the truth there. Looking for his intentions, his honor. “Are you toying with me?”Nine
Jeremy jolted at the pointed question. From the focused, sensual expression in Penelope’s blue eyes, he initially feared she had determined the truth about her mystery lover’s true identity. But as he examined her expression, he realized that that was not the case. He had already surmised that Penelope wasn’t capable of hiding her emotions, no matter how hard she tried. She wore her pain, her fear, her happiness, and her desire on her face.
If she had guessed the truth, he would have known it from the first moment he stepped onto the terrace.
“Toy with you?” he repeated, letting the words create sensual images of last night in his mind. “What do you mean?”
She frowned, the expression causing little creases around her lips that he wanted to soothe away with a touch. Last night he hadn’t been able to see her face clearly once she stepped out ofthe moonlight. How had she looked when he touched her? When pleasure rushed over her in a wave?
“Your miraculous transformation from a man of vice to a man of honor. Is that real, or are you playing a game?” she asked.
Jeremy drew back a fraction. Though he’d always known Penelope didn’t fully believe in his change, a fact he respected, he had not expected her to put her doubts on the line so plainly.
“You may trust in me.”
He looked at her evenly. Unlike Penelope, he hadalwaysbeen able to mask his true emotions. Never before had he felt guilty for that fact. Now he pushed that unwelcome reaction aside.
His deceptions were for the best. For his friends, of course, but also for the woman before him. If he managed this situation properly, he could stop her war against sin with blackmail, not exposure. Once she ceased her battle, Society would accept her fully again. Her life would be much easier, and certainly safer.
And yet guilt continued to plague him when her face relaxed a fraction. She believed him.
“I hope that is true,” she whispered. “For both our sakes.”
“Tell me what is going on, Penelope,” he said as he reached out to take her hand gently. “Please.”
She nodded, a jerking motion. “Do you recall that letter you teased me about after we returned from the Cyprian’s ball?”
He inclined his head. “Yes.”
“You implied it was a love letter,” she said with a hard swallow. “But it wasn’t. I have been receiving letters that are…seductivefrom an author who keeps his identity a secret.”
Jeremy arched a brow. This honesty, he had not expected. “Seductive. You mean they detail—”
“Yes,” she interrupted, her cheeks darkening beyond pink.
His cock swelled as he again wondered if her blush had been so dark last night. “I see.”
She turned away. “Last night, before the ball, I received another. This time the author wished to meet with me.”
“And did you?” he asked, leaning forward with anticipation. How far would Penelope go? Would she confide in him what she had done? What she felt when he touched her?
She nodded, her motions slow and jerky.
“And who was he?” Jeremy asked, leaning away like he was only half interested in the answer.
“I-I don’t know,” Penelope stammered. “He hid in the shadows. He kept his face a mystery.”
“Interesting,” he mused, observing her expression for every reaction. She was watching him from the corner of her eye, doing the same. “He must have some reason for his anonymity. Tell me, what did you discuss?”
She clenched her fists against the tablecloth. “Nothing. I had every intention of telling him to stop writing to me, but instead…instead he-he…”
Jeremy leaned forward with a practiced look of concern. “Did he hurt you? Force you to do something you didn’t want?”
She shook her head instantly, and he felt a strange sense of relief that she wouldn’t accuse him of forcing her.
“No, I-I liked it when he touched me.” She covered her face. “Everything spiraled out of control, I don’t know what happened. It terrified me how quickly I let go of my manners, my morals. It was only in a brief moment of clarity, when I realized I would lethim do anything,everythingto me, that I pulled away. I told him I wanted him to leave me alone, and I ran.”
Jeremy swallowed. It was taking a lion’s share of his control to keep from flipping the table out of the way and hauling Penelope into his arms. Hearing from her lips all of her emotions and reactions was almost as erotic as touching her.
“And do you,” he asked, his voice a little hoarse, “wish for him to abandon his pursuit?”
She jerked her head up and looked at him strangely. Then she shook her head. “No,” she admitted on a sob. “I don’t want him to leave me alone.”
Jeremy stared at her. Her face was so sad, so lost.Hehad done that to her by drawing out the wanton she hid inside, the woman of fiery desire that Penelope insisted on tamping down out of some misguided fear.
“I didn’t know who else to confide in,” she admitted as she composed herself. “I don’t think anyone else could ever understand. But I thought…oh, you must think me the worst fraud after everything I said to you about the evils of desire and sin.”
Jeremy shook his head. “No, Penelope, I don’t think you are a fraud. And I’m pleased you are putting your trust in me.”
The fact that he was sworn to betray that trust was something he tried to ignore, even though it ate at his belly.
“What should I do?” she asked. “You are trying to change, yes? How do I ignore these feelings? These things I have never felt before, never understood.”
Again, he drew back a fraction. Penelope had been married. Yet she acted as though desire was a foreign concept to her. Shehad implied before that her marriage was unhappy, now Jeremy wondered just how broken it had been.
“Not long ago, we spoke of your past,” he said, his voice gentle, soft to soothe her like he would an untamed mare. “And I was under the impression that someone…perhaps your husband…had caused you pain.”
Penelope jerked, her hand slipping from the table into her lap as her wild eyes met his. She was so pale he reached for her on instinct, steadying her by touching her forearm.
“What happened?” he asked.
She stared at the hand that rested on her arm and again her stare was heated. Jeremy felt his body react to the look, hardening, growing heavy. Thank God for the protection of the tabletop over his lap, lest the intentions Penelope was forever trying to read would be more than clear, and all would be lost.
“Did you know my father?” she asked, her voice soft and shaking.
He nodded. “A little.”
“Then perhaps you knew a little about his…” She hesitated and her mouth hardened a fraction. “His lack of control?”
Jeremy frowned. Hehadseen Thomas Albright in the gambling hells a few times, many years before, when he had been little more than a green boy, himself.
“If you didn’t know, you weren’t the only one,” she whispered. “Very few were privy to the extent of his problems. Even our own family was quite in the dark until his death. It was only when my sister Miranda took over the household finances that we realized how deeply in debt he was. ‘Gentlemen’ came out of the woodwork, demanding payment.”
She shivered. “Some wanted their repayment in very disgusting terms. But Miranda refused them all. I thought her so strong. But we knew one of us, at least, would have to marry far above our station, however we had no funds to finance such a thing. But suddenly, two summers ago, Ethan Hamon, who was our neighbor, offered us money for a Season for me, as well as Seasons for my sisters, later. He claimed he had owed my father a debt, and this was his way of repaying it.”
Jeremy frowned. He might not recall much about Thomas Albright, but Ethan Hamon was another story. The Earl of Rothschild had once been notorious for his vices, his wicked way with women, his sexual prowess. He had not been known, however, for his charitable works. The idea that he would offer Seasons for the daughters of a neighbor didn’t ring true.
“Why did he do that? Was he close to your family?”
She barked out a laugh that was anything but pleasant. It was harsh and hard, just like her expression. “I did not think so. But it turned out…” She hesitated, and her gaze snagged his. “My sister had made a bargain with him. He promised to pay for our Seasons, and she-she…”
Jeremy’s eyes went wide. So Miranda Albrighthadsold her body to protect her sisters. There had been discreet whispers about the Rothschilds’ relationship prior to their marriage, but Jeremy had dismissed them as idle chatter. Miranda seemed so very proper, and she had certainly tamed Rothschild in the short time they’d been wed.
“I understand,” he said, holding up his hand. He wanted to hear how this story affected Penelope, and saying out loud what her sister had done was obviously difficult for her.
“Miranda and I had always been close,” she continued. “But she never confessed this wicked little arrangement to me. Instead, I uncovered it myself, when I stumbled upon them in an…anembraceduring a ball to launch my Season.”
Jeremy jerked his head up to stare at her. An embrace? No, he thought it was much more than that. Penelope had been an innocent, and she clearly loved her sister deeply. To see Miranda in the height of passion with a man like Rothschild, of all people…he could see how that might alter her.
“Later, Miranda confessed to me that she not only made the bargain of her own volition, but shelikedit. She had turned down the proposals of very suitable men simply because she wanted that kind of passion.” Penelope frowned. “I was so…angry.”
“Angry?” Jeremy repeated, genuinely confused.
She nodded. “Our family was in dire straights, our very lives were at stake, and my sister was willing to barter her innocence for some-some fantasy she built in her head. I vowed that night that I would make the sacrifice she had not. I would marry the first man of title and wealth who offered for me, no matter who he was. If only to prevent Miranda from making more mistakes. If only to protect my younger sisters from the consequences of her selfish actions.”
Jeremy looked at her. She was sitting so stiffly that he feared if he touched her, she would shatter.
“And that is when you met Viscount Norman,” Jeremy encouraged softly when Penelope had been lost in thought a few moments too long.
She jerked out a nod. “He was in attendance at the party that night. When I stumbled back into the ballroom after my confrontation with Miranda, I threw myself into what I saw as my duty. I felt nothing toward any of the men who surrounded me. And Ineverfelt anything for George. But he had a title and he had funds and he promised me that he would assist my family. So when he made an offer for my hand, I accepted.”
“But ultimately, Rothschild and your sister married,” Jeremy said with a shake of his head. “And the Earl has holdings and influence that outstripped Norman’s wealth by far. From all appearances, he would catch the moon if your sister asked for it, so why did you not break the engagement when it was clear Rothschild intended to do the honorable thing?”
Penelope caught her breath, and it was clear from her expression that the marriage between Miranda and Ethan was a source of much confusion and even jealousy. Yes, that was jealousy Jeremy saw flickering in her clear blue eyes. Interesting.
“My sister and I had shared such harsh words. After what he had done, I didn’t think I could truly trust Ethan. I certainly didn’t want to pin my future on his honor, nor did I wish to live under his roof.” She gritted her teeth. “And I admit, I was stubborn. I thought my life with George would be no worse, so I went forward with the wedding. But it was—” She caught her breath. “It was a terrible mistake.”
Jeremy saw the tears beginning to gather in the corners of her eyes, and his chest tightened at the sight. Hesitant, he lay a hand over hers. “Why?”
She shook her head. “I was a trophy for him. A way to prove his prowess, despite his advanced age. But he cared no more for me than I did for him. The prowess he was trying to prove, it was failing. When he couldn’t become aroused, he blamed me. Hesaid,” she faltered. “He said unimaginable things to me. Words that will ring in my ears until the day I draw my last breath.”
Jeremy’s lips pursed. He could well imagine the kinds of things Norman would have said. He’d never liked the bastard. Now he liked him even less.
“When hecouldperform,” she continued, and now one of those tears fell, silent. “He thought nothing of my pleasure. My only comfort was that those nights were few and far between, and his attentions were short in duration.”
Now Jeremy’s anger doubled. The idea that any man would have such a goddess in his bed and not worship her body rightly was a disgusting tragedy. That he would hurt her was an unforgiveable offense.
“I saw my sister, who had sacrificed everything for her own pleasure, settled into a happy marriage,” Penelope whispered, her voice harsh. “And here I was, sacrificing myself for everyone else, and I lived in a hell. It seemed so desperately unfair. The rift between us grew wider, I became more and more alone. And when George died, I was left with a large inheritance, a respected title, and an empty life. And now I don’t even have that life anymore. These past few weeks have changed me, Jeremy.” She shook her head. “I don’t know who I am or what I want or what I should do. This mysterious man is offering me pleasure and I find I want to take it, despite how wrong it is. Despite how I have spoken out on this very topic time and again.”
Jeremy nodded, pretending to consider how to respond. In truth, he was thrilled that Penelope wanted him, especially after the torment of her marriage. It made him all the more driven to bring her pleasure unlike anything she’d ever imagined. Toseduce her and make her see that the sensuality she fought against wasn’t only exploitive and cruel.
But it also made the fact that everything she thought was happening was in truth a manipulation all the more bitter. She had already been caused so much pain, and he was bound to bring her even more.
He shook his head. What was he thinking? A month ago, he wouldn’t have given a damn about her pain. Or her past. He had to forget the fact that he was beginning tolikethis woman and focus on the duty at hand.
“Do you want my advice?” he asked, rising and pacing to the veranda wall. He leaned back against the barrier and looked at her.
She nodded. “Yes. You have far more experience in these things. And you claim you are trying to improve yourself. Tell me, Jeremy, what should I do? How do I stop this madness?”
He tilted his head. “I don’t think you should make any attempt to stop it. I think you should take the pleasure you are being offered, Penelope.”Ten
Penelope stared at Jeremy, her eyes as wide as saucers, no matter how she tried to pretend she was unmoved by his suggestion.
“Take the pleasure?”she repeated, hoping her utter confusion and the temptation of that permission wasn’t clear in her voice and expression. “You cannot mean that.”
He nodded. “I absolutely mean it. This man is offering you a gift, and I think you would be a fool not to take it.”
She frowned. Somehow she had thought Jeremy would tell her to fight her inner urges. Or even be…jealousthat she had allowed another man such liberties. Although they were not courting, she had sometimes sensed a connection between them. A sizzling fissure of heat that drew her closer.
But perhaps she had misread the situation entirely. Perhaps Jeremy felt no attraction to her whatsoever. At this point, his bored expression and utter lack of emotion were proof of that fact.
“I don’t understand,” Penelope said. “If I surrender to this man, it will go against everything I’ve said and done. It will fly in the face of my arguments against the sexual excess of our class.”
He nodded. “I can see why you would see it that way, but I am thinking of it from an entirely different point of view. Let me explain.”
Penelope hesitated. Again, she wondered if she were being played a fool by this man. He had vowed that she could trust in him, but now he told her to throw all her ideals to the wind.
“Please,” she finally whispered, her curiosity overwhelming her reason.
“You are fighting a war, Penelope,” he said, moving toward her slowly. “It isn’t a pretty war, either. When you speak about the lack of morality in the men of theton, when you encourage unhappy wives to confront their husbands and demand better treatment, there are some in my circles that see that as an underhanded tactic. And they feel no compunction in fighting back with little regard for you. And the fact is, you are unarmed.”
“Unarmed?” she repeated, shaking her head in confusion. “What do you mean?”
“When I first spoke to you about my…” Penelope thought he hesitated a moment, but then he continued on, his face never registering any uncertainty. “About my change of heart regarding my activities in the past, I offered to show you a little of the world you were fighting against. I thought that would help you know your enemy better. But until this afternoon, I didn’t fully realize how ill equipped you are to fight them. A few nights hiding in the shadows while you see for yourself the sensual excess of the underground is not enough.”
Penelope got to her feet. “I still don’t understand.”
“You don’t, I know.” He sighed. “You see, I assumed because you were married that you had felt, firsthand, the pleasures of sex. That you had a basic understanding of why sins of the flesh would draw a person, and that when you saw the darker side of that pleasure that it would simply round out your education. But you have just told me that your husband’s bed was never a place of desire for you. Never a warm and pleasurable hideaway.”
Dark blood colored her cheeks and she moved to turn away, but Jeremy reached out to catch her arm, keeping her in place. He cupped her chin with his opposite hand and tilted her face up until she couldn’t avoid his pointed, dark stare.
“It wasn’t your fault,” he whispered. “What Norman did wasn’t because you weren’t desirable.”
She caught her breath. Without being told, Jeremy had struck upon the very fear that had plagued her for so long. One she had never spoken of to anyone, just as she had kept the bitter secret of her empty marriage to herself. But he saw through her.
He knew her. Without having to ask. And that was a terrifying prospect.
Did it also mean he knew what was best for her when it came to the stranger who had offered her seduction and sin in the cover of darkness?
“You said you liked it when that man, whoever he was, touched you last night,” he continued.
“You felt pleasure?”
“Yes,” she said, the word torn from her tight throat. “I stopped him before I could feel even more, but there was pleasure.”
He swallowed hard enough that she saw his Adam’s apple work with the action. “Good.” She tilted her head and he hurried to explain himself. “I only mean that feeling the pleasure will help you. I say that you should surrender to what this man offers because after a few nights under his tutelage you will fully understand the desires that drive others to sexual excess.”
Penelope slowly pulled her arm from his grip and backed away. When he explained his logic like this, it almost made sense. He was right that she had never fully understood why women surrendered to men or why men strayed with no thought to the consequence. Understanding that could give her great power, as long as she didn’t lose herself.
“But there are so many risks,” she murmured, more to herself than to him.
Jeremy shook his head. “Not really. What this man offers is temporary. It is secret.”
“No,” she said. “It is secret to me, but he knows my identity. He knows my name and my face. He could easily betray me.”
Jeremy pursed his lips and seemed to be pondering that thought. She found herself leaning forward, waiting for him to explain away that final fear. Hoping, in some secret part of her, that he would find a way to allow her all that pleasure.
Because she wanted it. She hated herself for it, but she wanted it.
“I suppose he might have some kind of nefarious motive,” he conceded, and Penelope’s heart sank. “But he had every opportunity to expose you last night and chose not to.”
Penelope stopped. “Yes, that is true. If he had arranged for someone to stumble upon us…” She tapered off with a shiver atthat thought. “I would have been ruined. And yet, he did not.”
“Then that is probably not his purpose in seduction.” He turned away suddenly to look out over the estate grounds behind him. “It is more likely that he simply wants you.”
Penelope sighed as she moved to stand beside him and look out over the cool green grass behind the garden below. “He may have wanted me last night, but I pushed him away. I told him to leave me alone. It is entirely possible he might not want me anymore, even if I knew of some way to contact him.”
Jeremy turned to face her. She drew back at the intensity in his eyes, the sudden focus that pulled her into the darkness she saw there.
“He would be a fool if he didn’t still want you,” he said, his voice low and seductive.
Penelope’s lips parted. Here they were, talking about her going to bed with some other man, indulging in a secret affair for the sole purpose of understanding pleasure, and yet she still felt that connection with Jeremy. Her treacherous body warmed under his gaze, beneath her skirts she grew wet and ready.
She found herself leaning forward, her trembling hands lifting up. He watched her every movement, though he didn’t step toward her. But just as she was about to wrap her fingers around the fine fabric of his lapels, the terrace door opened behind them, and a servant appeared, carrying a tray laden with food.
“Your luncheon, Your Grace,” the young woman said as she set the tray on the table behind them.
Penelope jolted away from him, staggering back. She stared at Jeremy, stunned by her lack of control. She had wanted tokisshim. And she very well might have if not for the interruption of the servant.
“I-I cannot stay,” Penelope stammered as she backed toward the door. “I’m sorry. I must go.”
Before he could respond, she ran, not daring to look behind her. Not daring to see if he beckoned her back to him. Not daring to test if she would be able to resist him if he did.
Jeremy strummed his fingers along the smooth wooden surface of the sideboard, staring with unseeing eyes at the glass of whiskey he had just poured himself.
“Whiskey so early in the day?” his brother asked from behind him. “Is there something you would like to discuss?”
Jeremy turned to look at his younger brother. Christopher Vaughn was sprawled across his settee, looking every bit as debauched as he had just a year ago when the two of them had prowled London together, seeking out vice and pleasure of all kinds.
Except now his brother’s appearance was only an illusion. Six months before he had married. Not a forced marriage, not one for show. He had married because he claimed to havefallen in love, of all things.
And the brothers had not shared the same relationship since then. In fact, Jeremy more often avoided his brother’s company than sought it out. He simply didn’t know how to handle Christopher’s newfound fidelity and peace.
And yet, after Penelope fled from his side, he had been driven to come here. To see his brother. To talk to him as they once had.
But now the words wouldn’t come and awkward silence filled the space between them.
“Jeremy?” his brother repeated, straightening up. “Issomething wrong?”
He shrugged as he threw himself into a chair across from Christopher. “No, of course not. What could possibly be wrong? I live the perfect life.”
His brother’s eyebrow arched, but if he had arguments against that statement, he blessedly kept them to himself.
“I only ask because normally you avoid my company unless Mama is in town. And she is on the Continent for another month, at least.”
Jeremy tightened his grip on the still-untouched drink. “Do you not desire my company?” he asked, his voice strained.
Christopher shook his head. “Of course I do, I miss our times together. I simply wasn’t expecting you today. And now that you are here, you seem distracted. Distant. I feel like there is something you want to share with me, yet you hesitate. If there is some way I can help you, you know I would do it. No matter how things have changed, we are still brothers, Jeremy.”
Jeremy stared at his brother. Christopher was younger than he by a year, and Jeremy had spent their entire growing up lording his elder-brother status over his head. Even as grown men, Jeremy by contrast had always felt a little more worldly, a little more experienced.
But now Christopher looked at him as if he were a child. And he felt like his brotherdidunderstand more than he. It was a strange feeling.
Could he tell Christopher of his plans for Penelope? Of his interactions with her and the odd way they made him feel? Would his brother even understand his motives anymore, or would he just be horrified by the lengths Jeremy had gone in the name of protecting their once mutual friends.
“I doubt you would understand,” Jeremy said with a wave of his hand that didn’t reflect his inner turmoil in the slightest fashion.
“Because I am in love?” Christopher asked blandly. He had a little knowing smile that Jeremy didn’t particularly care for.
“Love,” he snorted.
“You ought to try it,” his brother said quietly. “There is much to be said for the feeling.”
Jeremy shook his head. “You mean have only one woman, no one else?Bah!Sounds like a prison to me.”
Christopher’s smile fell, and the knowing glint in his eyes was replaced by something even more irritating. Pity.
“If that is truly how you see a union of souls, then that is your misfortune. I hope someday you will find a woman who changes that. Otherwise, you shall live an empty existence, indeed.”
“You lived that ‘empty existence’ yourself, not that long ago,” Jeremy snapped, more emotional than he wished to be.
Christopher nodded. “Yes. And I do not miss it.”
Jeremy stared at his brother. How could that be true? Christopher had been the one who celebrated his freedom most. Could he truly be content settled into the boring day-to-day life of a marriage?
As if on cue, the parlor door opened, and Hannah Vaughn stepped inside and interrupted their conversation. Jeremy stared at her as she moved into the room.
Christopher’s wife was a beauty, there was no denying that fact. With a heavy mass of auburn curls bobbing around her cheeks and bright, lively green eyes, she was exactly the kind of woman his brother had always been attracted to.
Except Christopher hadn’t merely seduced her as he had so many before her. He’d married her.
Jeremy staggered to his feet out of politeness as his sister-in-law gave a wide smile and pressed a kiss to her husband’s cheek.
“There you are, dearest,” she said. Then she turned on Jeremy. There wasn’t an ounce of hesitation in her eyes, despite Jeremy’s having spoken to her only twice in six months. She stepped forward, holding out both her hands.
“And Jeremy, how lovely it is to see you.” She squeezed the hands he held out briefly. “I’m so pleased you could come. Christopher and I think of you often.”
Jeremy shifted uncomfortably. “Th-thank you.”
He stared at Hannah as she took a seat beside his brother. Jeremy had not always thought of her in the kindest of lights, yet she was never anything but welcoming to him. He had disparaged her for being nothing more than a lady, yet her ladylike behavior shamed him.
She was a woman of Penelope’s class. And though Penelope was more jaded by the circumstances she had related to him just a few hours before, he had a sneaking suspicion the two women would get along quite well. He could almost picture the four of them, sharing tea together in this very room.
With a jolt of shock, he shook away that troublesome thought. Dear God, he was going mad to think that kind of thing would besatisfying in the least. That was because of his brother’s words, not some true desire.
“Have you heard from your mother lately?” Hannah asked, completely oblivious to his internal thoughts, though Jeremy thought he saw Christopher’s concerned expression.
Jeremy nodded. “I had a letter from her two days ago.”
“She is enjoying her tour enormously, it seems,” Hannah said, then laughed. “Who knew she would become such an adventurer?”
Jeremy wrinkled his brow. Their mother had been traveling since just after his brother’s wedding, and she’d written him many letters. But like the one sitting on his desk at home right now, most had been left unopened and others he had only skimmed. It wasn’t that he didn’t adore his mother, he simply didn’t have much interest in her doings. As long as she was safe, he was content to live his own life and leave her to hers.