Pleasure Me Excerpt

The following excerpt is unedited and may differ from the final format and/or published work..
2011 RTBOOKreviews Reviewers Choice Award
2012 Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence Best Historical
AAR Desert Island Keeper Status
Georgia RWA Maggies – Finalist, Historical
ACRA Heart of Excellence – Finalist, Historical
Aspen Gold – Finalist, Historical




Chapter 1

London, 1897

“I’m sure you understand, my dear. Miss Fitzgerald and I have formed a tendré for each other that transcends what you and I have had over this past year. I’m amazed she’s even countenanced my suit as she’s so much younger than me.”

Ruth flinched as she stood at the window with her back to Marston. What he really meant was that Ernestina Fitzgerald was younger than her. There was just enough complacency in her lover’s voice for her to know the bastard was enjoying himself. She’d been through this type of event so many times over the past twenty some years, but this time it was worse. This was the second time in less than two years that a lover was leaving her for a younger woman. And at forty-one years of age she was old—wasn’t she? Her hands trembled despite her death grip. Steeling herself, she pasted on a smile and turned around to face him.

“Of course, I understand, Freddie.” She deliberately used the nickname and earned a glare from him. She knew how much he despised anyone calling him that. “I’m certain Miss Fitzgerald will suit you well. As I understand it, her talent for skilled conversation equals yours.”

Marston sent her a suspicious look, but she knew he would never understand the double entendre. The man wasn’t nearly as intelligent as he liked to think. In fact, he was hopelessly inept at conversing intelligently about any subject other than hunting and fishing. Suddenly, she despised herself for even entering into a liaison with him. She knew why she had. She just hadn’t wanted to admit it until now. She’d been scared, afraid that time was running out for her. And now it had.

“Naturally, I’ll see that your allowance is paid through the end of the month.”

“Naturally,” she said coolly, not about to let him see she was shaken by the parting. It wasn’t as much unexpected as it was humiliating. “And Crawley Hall?”

“I am sorry, Ruth, but that seems a rather extravagant parting gift, don’t you think?”

“I prefer to think of it as a promise you made several months ago.”

She narrowed her gaze at him. She needed the estate. The orphanage on Aston Street was overflowing, and the more sickly children would benefit from the fresh country air.

“Did I? I don’t recall agreeing to any such thing.”

“Then perhaps I should have Wycombe refresh your memory, as he was present at the time you agreed to purchase the property for me.”

“I’m sure Wycombe will remember it differently,” Marston said with more than a hint of smug arrogance. “Besides, you already have property in the country. I see no reason why you would have need of another one. If you’re concerned about money, you can always sell the jewelry I’ve given you.”

The sanctimonious pig. The bastard knew why she wanted the Crawley Hall. He also knew good and well that the house she owned near Bath was far too small for her needs. There was barely enough room for her, Delores and Simmons let alone half a dozen orphans. And the jewelry he’d given her would bring her barely enough for half the purchase price of Crawley Hall. His refusal to buy the Hall meant she would need to dig more deeply into her resources. Something she’d hoped to avoid. She’d managed her finances well over the years, but buying Crawley Hall meant utilizing her long-term investments much sooner than she liked. Especially when her future was far from bright when it came to securing a new patron. She sent him a contemptuous smile.

“The jewelry you’ve given me? Darling Freddie, those trinkets will hardly fetch even a paltry sum. But if you refuse to keep your promise with regard to Crawley Hall, who am I to question your honor.” She caught a glimpse of the anger darkening his face as she turned away from him with a small shrug. “Since we’ve nothing further to say to each other, I think it’s time you left.”

Seconds later, a rough hand snaked through her hair and jerked her head backward. She never liked to show fear, but Marston pulled painfully on her hair and she cried out not only in surprise, but anguish as well.

“Listen to me, you old hag, if you even suggest that my attentions to you were ever anything but honorable, I’ll show you just how honorable I can be.”

A door opened behind them, and her butler entered the room. Tall and burly enough to make any man cautious of crossing him, Simmons occasionally acted the bodyguard in addition to his many other talents.

“I heard a scream, my lady. Is everything all right?” It wasn’t a question. It was the butler’s way of telling Marston to release her, which Freddie did with a rough shove.

“Don’t forget what I said, Ruth. I’ll not have anyone sully my good name.”

She remained silent, despite her desire to tell him exactly what she wanted to do to him, starting with castration. Lord, how could she have actually thought the man attractive? Because he was the only man who’d been interested enough to enter into a liaison with her. Nauseated by the thought, she swayed slightly on her feet.

As Marston left the parlor, she crossed the floor and gripped the arm of the settee as she slowly sank down into the cushions. Simmons didn’t comment. He simply followed her ex‑lover out of the room, obviously intent on seeing the man out of the house. The trembling of her hands expanded to wrack her entire body, and she closed her eyes against the pain sweeping through her. First one tear and then another rolled down her cheeks.

She’d always known this day would come, but it was even more horrible than she’d possibly imagined. Age had always been her enemy, and she’d never been able to find a way to defeat it. Bent over, she cupped her face in her hands to cry softly. A warm arm wrapped around her shoulders, and she looked up to see her maid’s concerned expression.

“Did he hurt you, my lady?”

“Not really, Dolores.” She pulled a handkerchief from a side pocket in her skirt and shook her head as she wiped the tears from her cheeks. “More my pride than anything else.”

“I never cared for the man. He never treated you as well as your other beaus.”

“I’m well aware of how you felt about Marston.” She couldn’t help but release a small laugh at the vehement distaste in her maid’s voice. “I’m surprised I didn’t come around to your way of thinking a long time ago.”

“You’re stubborn. That’s why. Stubborn, right down to the core, you are. Always so certain that man was the best you could do.”

“He was the only man who seemed remotely interested at the time as I recall,” she said with a
self-deprecating laugh. “I can no longer fool myself, Dolores. My age has begun to show.”

“Nonsense.” The maid snorted with disgust. “You still have the figure of a young girl, and a face as lovely as an angel’s.”

“Thank you, Dolores. You are a true friend, loyal and blind to the obvious.”

She winced at the truth. It wasn’t necessary to look in the mirror to know that her looks weren’t what they once were. She knew she was still an attractive woman, but her days of garnering accolades for her beauty were long gone.

“Harrumph. My eyesight is as good as it was twenty years ago.” The maid straightened her shoulders, hands clasped in front of her, and scowled down at her. “There are plenty of men who would be more than happy to enter a room with you on their arm. You’re far too hard on yourself.”

The woman’s chiding lifted her spirits slightly as she contemplated the way Lord Mackelsby had complimented her several nights ago. Marston had even spared enough time to leave Ernestina Fitzgerald’s side to come claim her as if she were a piece of property he owned. The analogy had been accurate at the time. Marston paid her bills and as such was entitled to her full attention.

But now he was gone, along with her monthly allowance. She released another sigh. It wasn’t the money that troubled her as much as the fact that Marston, like her lover before him, had left her for a younger woman. No matter how much she fought it, the knowledge threw her into a state of despair.

She swallowed back another rush of tears. Crying would do little good, and there were more important matters to consider than her bruised ego. She stood up quickly to pace the floor in front of the fireplace. The children had to come first. Whatever it took, she’d find a way to purchase Crawley Hall or another estate like it.

In addition to the few trinkets Marston had given her, she owned several other pieces of jewelry she could sell, but she knew it wouldn’t be enough. She breathed a sigh of resignation. In order to fetch the remainder of the Hall’s purchase price, she would have to sell her house outside of Bath. She cringed inwardly at the thought before dismissing her regret. She could just as easily retire to Crawley Hall as anywhere else.

“I think it’s time I sell some of my investments.”

“What?” Dolores’s horrified astonishment made her smile.

“My jewelry should fetch at least half the sale price of Crawley Hall, and selling the country house should make up the balance and hopefully pay for the necessary improvements to the Hall. If that’s not enough, I can easily rent the town house. There should be sufficient monies from my annual annuities to support me, as long as I’m careful with money.” Ruth glanced around the parlor wondering how much the house would rent for. It was in a reasonably fashionable district, which should make it an attractive offering.

“But you bought the house in Bath for your retirement, my lady. And if you rent this house, where will you live?”

“I shall live at Crawley Hall.” She saw her longtime companion flinch, and quickly moved forward to grasp the older woman’s hands. “And you’ll come with me, Dolores. And Simmons, too. You do want to come, Dolores, don’t you?”

“Yes, my lady.” The maid’s expression of fear disappeared. “I just thought perhaps you might not have need of me anymore.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” She sat down next to the woman and squeezed her hands. “I don’t know what I’d do without you. Who else will keep me on the straight and narrow?”

“This is true, my lady. Although I think you’ve a heart that’s far too big for your pocket where those children are concerned.”

“They haven’t anyone else to look after them, Dolores. I can’t simply abandon them as Marston has me.”

The words were a vivid reminder of her current state of affairs, and she fought off the wave of self-pity threatening to wash over her. As much as she wanted to give in to the emotion, she refused to do so. She’d always been practical in her outlook, and it was time she accepted the fact that her days as one of Society’s darlings was quickly coming to a close. Marston leaving her for a younger woman would make her an object of pity among the Marlborough Set, something she would abhor. The appearance of Simmons at the parlor doorway interrupted her train of thought.

“Lady Pembroke has arrived, my lady.”

As the butler stepped aside, Allegra Camden, the Countess of Pembroke, swept into the salon as Simmons retreated from the room. The smile on her face only enhanced her younger friend’s beauty, as Allegra took her outstretched hands in hers then kissed her on the cheek.

“I’m sorry I’m late, but Shaheen and the children took longer than usual with breakfast.”

“It’s quite all right.” Ruth returned her friend’s affectionate greeting then turned to her maid. “Dolores, bring us some tea, please.”

The older woman bobbed her head and left the room to do as Ruth had asked. With a small gesture, she invited her friend to sit down. Her movements elegant, Allegra sank into a wingback chair as Ruth took a seat on the settee across from her. A frown on her face, her friend eyed her carefully.

“Something’s happened. Are you ill?”

The concern in Allegra’s voice tightened her throat, and she shook her head. “No. I’m fine.”

“You look rather peaked.” Allegra leaned forward then suddenly gasped. “You’ve been crying.”

Before Ruth could say a word, her friend sprang to her feet in a soft rustle of expensive silk and joined Ruth on the couch. Taking her hands in hers, Allegra studied her with an expression that said she intended to get to the bottom of whatever was troubling her.

“Tell me.” The command didn’t surprise her. Allegra had always been as protective of her friends as they of her. She sighed.

“Marston has left me.” Saying the words made tears well up in her eyes again. She blinked hard, fighting them back. The man wasn’t worth the effort.

“Oh, my dear. I’m so sorry, but I confess I never liked Marston at all. He has never treated you with the respect you deserved.”

“I’ve been a fool.” Ruth drew in a deep breath and shook her head.

“You most certainly have not. You did what you thought you had to do to survive.”

“No, not survival . . . a refusal to admit the truth. I am old, Allegra.”

“Nonsense. You’re only a four years older than me, and you look younger.” Her friend sent her a look of admonishment. She rejected the observation with a shake of her head.

“He left me for Ernestina Fitzgerald. She’s at least fifteen years younger than me.”

“And the woman is twice as dimwitted as Marston. The two shall make a handsomely dull pair.” The disgust in her friend’s voice made Ruth choke out a laugh.

“See, you agree with me,” Allegra said with great satisfaction. “There are plenty of men who would find themselves enthralled with you. And when you attend the Somerset ball this evening I’ve no doubt you’ll see how quickly men will flock to your side.”

“I couldn’t possibly go this evening.” She stared at Allegra in horror. “Marston will be there. He’ll have Ernestina with him, and everyone will know he left me for her.”

“Well, they’ll notice it more if you’re not there. You know as well as I do the sharks will close in the moment they smell blood.” Allegra eyed her sternly before suddenly flashing a wicked smile in her direction. “Besides, what better time to announce how delighted you are that Marston has finally found someone who equals his intellectual standing in the Set?”

This time Ruth laughed easily. “When you put it like that, it’s easy to see I’m crying over the man for no reason at all.”

“Precisely,” Allegra said firmly.

She forced herself to smile at woman seated next to her. No, there was no reason to cry over Marston’s departure. But her lost youth? She had no doubt there were far more tears still to be shed for that loss. How had it happened? It seemed only yesterday that Allegra had invited her, Bella, and Nora to stay with her while her friend weathered the scandal that had made her the renowned courtesan she’d been before her marriage to the Earl of Pembroke.

How could twenty years pass in the blink of an eye? She didn’t feel old. Her hopes and desires were still the same, although the ones buried deep inside her seemed doomed to go unanswered. She envied Allegra and the happiness she’d found with the earl. Her gaze drifted up to where her portrait hung over the fireplace. The Viscount Westleah had commissioned it when she was twenty-three. They’d spent almost three years together before they’d parted as friends.

Westleah had bought this house for her then taught her how to manage the generous allowance he’d given her. It was how she’d made several sound investments that would ensure her retirement wouldn’t be one of abject poverty as was that of so many other women like her. She had simply hoped to have a little more time before being forced to retire.

The soft rattling of china caught her attention, and she turned her head to see Dolores entering the room with tea. The woman set the tray on the round table in front of the settee, and eyed her carefully for a moment. With a quick shake of her head, Ruth indicated she was fine and reached for the teapot. The maid, somewhat satisfied with Ruth’s silent assurance, released a soft grumble then left the salon. Eager to talk of something other than her future, Ruth smiled offered her friend a cup of tea.

“Motherhood and marriage suit you, my dear. You’ve found a happiness most can only dream of.”

“I am happy, Ruth. If you had told me five years ago that I would be living such a wonderful life, I would have laughed at you.”

Neither one of them said it out loud, but for a courtesan to find love, let alone marriage, was a rare thing. The soft glow on Allegra’s face emphasized how happy her friend was despite the trials she’d endured in the Moroccan desert. Allegra had only shared some of the pain she’d experienced, but she knew her capture at the hands of Pembroke’s enemy had taken its toll on her friend.

Every so often, a dark emotion filled Allegra’s eyes that said the trauma would never leave her. When Lord Pembroke was present, he seemed to instinctively sense his wife’s distress and was immediately at her side. Robert, she would never grow accustomed to his Bedouin name, Shaheen, was devoted to his wife and children. The sound of a teacup clinking loudly against a plate pulled her out of her reverie.

“We’re not going to let him get away with this.”

“What?” Ruth sent her friend a puzzled look.

“Marston. Tonight, we’re going to see to it that everyone thinks Marston a fool for leaving you to take up with that flibbertigibbet, Ernestina.”

“And exactly how do you propose to accomplish that?” she asked in a skeptical tone.

“Do you remember how Mrs. Langtry stood out among the rest of the Set by wearing a simple black dress before Bertie took her under his wing?”

“Lily Langtry stood out because she was beautiful, not because she wore a simple black dress to catch the eye of the Prince of Wales. I’m reasonably attractive, but far from beautiful.”

“Nonsense. You’re lovely, and you have presence, Ruth. When you enter a room everyone stops to look at you. And that mysterious smile of yours makes men eager to discover all your secrets. Tonight you’re going to use that to your advantage.”

“And how, pray tell, am I going to do that?”

“Dolores is going to modify that hideous monstrosity of a dress Marston insisted you wear to his house party last winter.”

“The purple one with the enormous pink flowers?”

“Yes.” Allegra’s smile broadened. “The dress matches your eyes beautifully, but the flowers are horrendous. When Dolores makes the changes I have in mind, everyone will think Marston a fool for choosing Ernestina Fitzgerald over you.”

“Such a transformation seems highly unlikely, but I suppose a miracle is always possible,” she said with a skeptical laugh.

“Well, I for one believe in miracles,” her friend replied quietly. “And so should you.”

She met Allegra’s affectionate look with a doubtful smile, but her friend’s words were still in her head hours later as she climbed the steps to the Somerset town house. She should have known better than to question Allegra’s determination. With Dolores’s skillful sewing and Allegra’s vision, the two women had managed a miracle. The result was a daring dress that emphasized her ample bosom and rounded hips. But most of all, it was devoid of any lace, flounces, ruffles, or bows.

The sleeves, what little was left after Dolores had finished, barely clung to the edge of her shoulders, mere slips of material. The entire dress was one of stark simplicity, but symbolically, it represented her casting Marston off. The flowers, the ruffles, every decoration on the dress that had once weighed down the satin were gone, with the exception of a trail of pink flower petals bordering the hem. It would give her enormous satisfaction to point out that Dolores had refashioned Marston’s ostentatious choice into something much lovelier.

Her maid had pulled the original flowers apart to tack the pink trimming along the edge until they appeared to be actually falling off the hem. Before the night was over, they would be crushed and dirty. A silent sign of how unimportant Marston was to her. At her throat was the amethyst necklace she’d worn in the portrait Westleah had commissioned.

Her only other extravagance was a mauve-colored feather fan. As she entered the house, a tremor streaked through her as she caught sight of Marston entering the ballroom with Ernestina on his arm. In a mechanical fashion, she undid the frog loops of her cape, allowing the footman to gently remove it from her shoulders.

As more guests arrived, she stepped out of the way to inspect the sides and back of her gown for any unexpected wrinkles. It was more a need for time to collect herself than concern over her dress. The sudden whisper of sensation trailing across the back of her neck made her hand reach up to touch her skin. Satisfied her hair hadn’t unraveled from the knot on top of her head, she turned toward the ballroom. Another frisson skimmed its way over her skin as her gaze met that of a man who casually handed off his overcoat to the household staff without looking away from her.

He was almost a foot taller than her with hair the color of a moonless night. There was something intense and riveting about him. If Allegra thought she had presence, her friend hadn’t met this man. He seemed to dwarf everyone and everything in the entryway. He studied her for what seemed an eternity, yet she knew it was only a few seconds before another man she didn’t recognize drew his attention away. But the stranger’s look was enough to leave her heart racing.

She swallowed hard and gripped her fan tightly. Good lord, she was no longer twenty and attending her first soiree. She flinched at the thought. Suddenly overcome with the need to flee, she forced herself to cross the foyer floor toward the ballroom rather than claim her cape and head back out into the night. The sensation she’d experienced moments ago warmed her neck again, but she refused to turn around to look at the man. She hadn’t come here this evening to find a new paramour.

The moment she reached the ballroom doorway, her courage sagged. She didn’t see a single friendly face in the room. Dear God, where was Allegra? She wasn’t certain she could do this alone. The moment the thought entered her head, she stiffened her back. Her youth might be gone, but not her dignity. She’d hold her head high, and she’d make damn sure no one, not even Marston, would be able to tell how she was feeling inside. As she waited for those in front of her to pass through the receiving line, the tingle at the nape of her neck became a blazing heat.

Lord, it had been years since she’d had this type of a reaction to a man. In the crush of arrivals pushing their way toward the ballroom, the space between them evaporated. He was so close to her that the warmth of his breath singed her shoulder. The sudden image of his hands at her waist, pulling her back into his chest flashed in her head. The mental picture sent a shudder rippling through her that she was certain everyone around her could see.

Confused by the strength of the sensations assaulting her, she almost stumbled forward in her haste to greet Lord and Lady Somerset. The reception she received was a polite one simply because of her relation to the Marquess of Halethorpe. Her stomach lurched at the thought of her father. She didn’t know whether to despise the man or thank him for sending her down the path she’d chosen so many years ago. Either one was painful to contemplate.

She turned away from the Somersets and slowly descended the steps into the ballroom. Despite her attempts to deny it, she wanted to know the stranger’s name, and as she made her way down the staircase, she heard him introduced as Lord Stratfield. The moment she reached the ballroom floor, a small group of women to her right caught her attention and her heart sank. Ernestina. The last thing she wanted was a scene. Desperate to find a friendly face, she strained her neck to see over top of an older woman with three tall feathers sticking up in her hair.

“Once an old cow is put out to pasture, you would think she’d stay there.” Ernestina’s comment sliced deep, and Ruth stiffened as she continued forward. She didn’t get far.

“Lady Ruth, what a delightful surprise to see you here this evening.”

Words failed her as the renewed tingling on the back of her neck ignited a fire that raced across her skin. Dear God, was that the way he always sounded? Like he’d just woken up and was inviting her to sin in ways she’d never dreamed. The wickedly deep, dark note of his voice sucked the air out of her lungs as she slowly turned toward him and extended her hand.

“Good evening, my lord.” She fought to keep her voice steady, and a shiver streaked up her arm as he politely kissed the back of her hand.

“Simplicity becomes you, my lady. I’ve never seen you look so exquisite.”

His gaze suddenly shifted to stare at the ruffles, lace appliqués, and bows adorning Ernestina’s gown. It was a deliberate snub, and everyone within hearing distance knew it. A part of her almost felt sorry for Marston’s new paramour. Still, she experienced a twinge of pleasure to see the other woman’s viciousness silenced, but she was leery of the man’s motives for coming to her rescue. When her eyes met his again, his gaze revealed nothing, but he smiled as he offered her his arm. Her heart immediately skidded out of control.

It was a smile that would be lethal to a woman’s heart if she allowed herself to fall under its spell. She accepted his arm and allowed him to guide her away from Ernestina and her friends. The frisson skimming over every inch of her body made her want to run as far away as she could. This man was far too attractive for his own good, which made him dangerous. Besides, he looked younger than her. A flirtation with him would only serve to make her feel that much older, and she was feeling far too vulnerable tonight.

“While I appreciate your gallantry, my lord, I can assure you I was not in need of rescue.” She heard the catch in her voice and forced herself not to look in his direction.

“It was a sincere compliment. The fact that it served to rescue you was secondary.” The husky note in his voice made her blood flow sluggishly. Lord, but the man was a mesmerist. She caught sight of Allegra and came to a halt. He turned his head toward her, his eyebrow quirking upward in either amusement or curiosity. She couldn’t determine which.

“Then I thank you again. If you’ll forgive me, I see a friend I must greet.” Something flickered in the depths of his vivid blue eyes, and it made her mouth go dry. Lord Stratfield bowed his head in her direction.

“A pleasure, my lady. I look forward to our next meeting.”

There it was again, that husky note of sin in his voice. Her chest tightened in reaction. Blast it, she was acting like a woman half her age. She was too well seasoned to allow herself to be affected so easily. She swallowed hard and gave him a slight nod as she fled his side. And she was fleeing. She was crossing the floor entirely too fast, not in her usual restrained manner. Despite reaching the safety of her small circle of friends, her pulse was still racing. Allegra offered her a small hug then stepped back to study her with a look of concern.

“Good heavens, you’re shaking.”

“It’s nothing, simply nerves.”

“Are you certain it’s not a devilishly handsome stranger that has you in a dither?” The amusement in Allegra’s voice sent a wave of heat into her cheeks.

“Of course not.” She sniffed with irritation as her friend sent her a look of disbelief, but chose not to question her.

“You look stunning. I knew Dolores would make this dress a work of art. And the petals bordering the hem . . . it’s a masterpiece at saying the man isn’t good enough to kiss the hem of your gown.”

“Let me add to my wife’s observations, my lady.” The Earl of Pembroke offered her a slight bow. “You look enchanting.”

“Thank you both.”

“Might I add my own compliments as well, my dear? Everyone is talking about how radiant you look tonight.” The warm voice of Lord Westleah’s voice drifted over her shoulder, and she turned around with a smile of delighted surprise.

“William. How lovely to see you again.”

He greeted Allegra and the earl with warmth before turning back to her and leaning down to kiss both her cheeks. It had been months since they’d last seen each other, and to see him here tonight reminded her how long ago it had been since they’d first met. She pushed the thought aside as she stared up at her old lover.

“It’s been far too long, Ruth. How have you been?”

“Quite well.”

She forced a smile as she saw him narrow his gaze at her. Westleah knew her well, and could easily see through the façade she’d deliberately thrown up for the evening’s event. She was grateful when he didn’t press her. As Allegra and the earl turned away to greet another couple, Westleah eyed her carefully.

“How do you know Baron Stratfield?” The question caught her by surprise, and she darted a quick look at her champion, engrossed in a conversation with several gentlemen across the room.

“I don’t. He overheard a rather nasty comment directed at me when I arrived and rescued me from further insult.”

“Doesn’t surprise me. He’s a decent fellow. Rarely takes offense at anything except the mistreatment of others.”

Allegra turned back to them at that moment, and her friend tipped her head to one side in a questioning manner. “What doesn’t surprise you, Westleah?”

“Lord Stratfield. It seems he rescued Ruth from some rather unpleasant gossip when she first came into the room.”

“Do you mean the handsome gentleman headed our way?”

Allegra’s question made her turn her head toward the last place she’d seen Lord Stratfield. To her astonishment, the man was coming toward them. No, her. He was heading directly toward her. Instantly, her palms felt clammy and her heart was pounding a hard rhythm against her chest. What in heaven’s name was she going to say to him? The question irritated her. Had she suddenly lost her wits? The art of flirtation was something she’d excelled at for years. Now suddenly one man had her doubting herself. No, it wasn’t him. The break with Marston had shaken her confidence. Nothing more.

Not to mention Lord Stratfield had to be at least five years younger than her, although there was something about his mannerisms that made him appear older than his years. She winced inwardly. Her interest in him was bordering on the absurd. The strains of a waltz faded into the background as her body hummed a melody all its own the moment the man joined them.

Westleah dealt with the introductions before excusing himself to speak with another friend, and in seconds Allegra had dragged her husband away to greet other guests. If she hadn’t known better, she would have thought the entire thing staged to leave her alone with Lord Stratfield. The silence stretched between them for a long moment before he cleared his throat.

“Might I have this dance, Lady Ruth?” The low sound of his voice skimmed along her senses as she struggled to reply in a quiet, reserved manner. Instead, she simply nodded, then placed her hand in his. A moment later he whirled her out onto the dance floor. The electricity pulsing its way through her was as exhilarating as it was terrifying.

Not even Westleah had affected her this way. Frustrated by her faltering composure, she straightened her spine. For more than twenty years she’d perfected the art of seduction, and she refused to let this man reduce her to a state of confusion, especially when he was younger than her.

“How is it we’ve never met until this evening, my lord?” She offered him a small well-practiced smile.

“When it comes to events such as this, I’ve seen far too many of my acquaintances ensnared in the spider web of some mother with a marriageable daughter. I prefer my freedom.” His straightforward response made her laugh. He smiled with a hint of satisfaction.

“Good, I’ve made you laugh. It suits you.”

As much as she wanted not to, it was impossible to keep the heat from flooding her cheeks. The man was far too charming, and it was irritating to know how susceptible she was to him. She breathed in his clean, woodsy scent, and her heart skipped a beat. Even at the most base levels her body responded to him. When she didn’t say anything, he sent her an intense look that sent a shiver racing down her spine.

“The man’s a fool.”

There was a dark note of outrage in his voice, and she stumbled. He immediately pulled her closer as she collected her wits.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Marston. The man needs his head examined.”

“Oh.” Forcing a smile to her lips, she gave him a brief nod. “And I should have my head examined for ever having been seen with the man.”

He released a soft laugh that drifted across her skin like sinful velvet. His large hand in the middle of her back pressed her into him even tighter. As the heat and scent of him filled her senses, she found it difficult to breathe normally. A primitive rhythm hummed in her blood, and her mouth was so dry not even champagne could wet her tongue enough. She tried desperately to regain control of her senses.

“And I’m certain there are many here tonight who are delighted to know that your heart is no longer occupied,” he murmured as the music came to a halt.

Slowly letting her go, he stepped back from her as she sank into a low curtsey. His words eased her bruised feelings for only a split second before she realized he hadn’t included himself in the compliment. Why would he ask her to dance if he had no interest in pursuing her acquaintance?

Confused she frowned. What was it Westleah had said? The man rarely took offense except at the mistreatment of others. Anger slashed through her. Damn him. The bastard had asked her to dance out of pity. She came upright and snapped her fan open to flutter it quickly in front of her then collapsed it again in a sharp movement.

“Thank you for your second rescue attempt this evening, my lord. But in the future, please note that I neither want nor appreciate your interference in my affairs.”

Without giving him the opportunity to respond, she swept away from him with her back ramrod straight. The insolence of the man. She was more than capable of looking after her own interests. And she certainly didn’t need any man treating her like a lost cause.

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Chapter 2

The fist connecting with the Right Honorable Lord Stratfield’s jaw sent his head flying backward. Garrick could taste the blood in his mouth, and he quickly stepped to one side to avoid another blow from his opponent. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Worthington’s fist heading toward him and quickly ducked before sending his own fist upward into the man’s lower jaw. Somewhere in the back of his head, Garrick heard the sound of cheers and jeers from the men forming the circle around him and Worthington.

He blotted the sounds out of his head and landed another hit to the man’s jaw with his other fist. The minute he hit the man, he knew Worthington would fall. Garrick danced back a couple of steps and watched the younger man collapse on the grass fresh with early morning dew.

With dueling outlawed, a boxing match was the next best thing for avenging his sister’s honor. Grace was more than worthy of marrying the Earl of Bainbridge, even if their mother had abandoned them and their father had committed suicide. Defeating Worthington would also ensure his reputation as a man of principle when it came to protecting his family’s honor. A hand slapped him on the back as his friend Charles, the Viscount Shaftsbury congratulated him.

“Brilliantly done.”

Garrick accepted the cloth Charles handed him and wiped the blood from his cut lip. He wouldn’t go so far as to say his performance had been brilliant, but he was satisfied with the result. Grace’s honor had been redeemed, and he knew Worthington wouldn’t have the audacity to make any other comments. He looked at his unconscious opponent, and met the gaze of one of the man’s friends. He tossed his head toward Worthington.

“I suggest you ice his jaw or he’ll not be able to eat for a week,” he said. Lord Millbourne nodded his head with a chuckle.

“I’ll see to it. Although if it keeps the boy’s mouth closed for a while, it will do him no harm. I feel certain he’ll be calling on you to humbly beg your forgiveness in a few days.”

“Then I shall make the apology as painless as possible for him.”

With a cool nod, he turned away from Worthington’s friend and accepted his coat from Charles. Damn, but he was tired. He needed sleep. After being up for almost twenty-four hours, he was dog-tired. And the boxing match had done little to ease his exhaustion or his restlessness. He raked his black hair back off his face and met Charles’s amused gaze.

“What?” He asked as he shrugged into his coat with a wince. His young opponent had managed to land a couple of well-placed blows, and he was feeling decidedly uncomfortable.

“You let the boy hit you.” At the observation, Garrick arched his eyebrows at his friend.

“He got lucky. I wasn’t paying attention.”

“That I find difficult to believe, but I’ll indulge your delusions and not argue with you.”

Garrick snatched his top hat from Charles’s hand. His friend’s amusement irritated him. It was the second time in less than a day that he’d been caught acting magnanimous to his fellow beings. He preferred to keep his benevolent tendencies hidden from the Marlborough Set. To do otherwise could easily make him appear weak and impotent. He tightened his mouth at the thought.

Last night the Lady Ruth. Now Worthington. Charles was too damned observant. The truth was Worthington’s youth and penchant for one too many brandies had gotten in the way of his tongue when he’d insulted Grace. And what was his own excuse for rushing to the Lady Ruth’s rescue? He pushed the question aside.

While he couldn’t let Worthington’s insult go unanswered, he’d had no desire to humiliate the boy. He’d been young once and understood how shame could leave brutal scars. He grimaced. Worthington was only six years younger than his own twenty-nine years. He felt fifty at the moment.

“You should have let Bainbridge handle the matter. She’s his fiancée.”

“My future brother-in-law would have pulverized the boy.”

It was an honest statement. If the Earl of Bainbridge had heard the insult, Worthington would be in the care of several physicians at the moment instead of just his friends. The earl was as good a pugilist as he was, perhaps better. But Grace’s betrothed would have made Worthington pay in a far more savage contest.

“True. Bainbridge would be furious no matter how trivial the insult where your sister is concerned. Short of my cousin Robert, I’ve never seen a man so devoted to a woman.”

“It’s the only reason I accepted his offer for Grace’s hand,” he said coolly.

He’d had Bainbridge investigated thoroughly before he’d agreed to let the man marry his sister. No one was going to marry into his family without his believing they were devoted to his siblings. The fact he’d failed Lily in that regard had made him even more vigilant in determining Bainbridge’s suitability for Grace. He could only hope Lily and her husband worked out their differences. He wanted his sisters and brother to have the one thing their parents had never had—a happy marriage. As for him—his fate was already sealed.

“With Lily married and Grace soon to be wed to Bainbridge, that leaves you free to find a wife.”

Charles’s cheerful tone made Garrick clench his teeth until his jaw ached. Taking a wife was something he’d never do. Nor did he bother to explain the less than happy state of Lily’s marriage. He had no desire to let his sister’s marriage become fodder for the gossip mill.

“You’re forgetting Vincent,” he said in a tight voice.

“Surely the boy is capable of finding a wife.” Charles narrowed his eyes at him. “I thought he was courting the Clayton girl.”

“He is, but I’ve some concerns about her suitability.” He looked away from his friend’s surprised expression and headed toward his carriage.

“Care to join me for lunch later?” Charles asked as he fell into step beside him. Garrick shook his head in an apologetic fashion.

“I’ve plans to visit a piece of property I’m thinking of purchasing.”

“Another estate. What the devil are you planning to do with another piece of property?”

“It’s an investment.”

“Yes, but must you buy up the whole of England? Pretty soon, we’ll be calling the country Stratfield. And I can just imagine how Her Majesty would react to that.”

His friend’s comment tugged a small smile to Garrick’s mouth. He could see where others might view his numerous holdings as extreme, but they were more than simple investments. They were necessary. As he opened the door of his carriage, he arched his eyebrow at Charles.

“Property that pays for itself is always a good investment.”

“And a sound means of providing for your children when you get around to marrying.”

His fingers gripped the edge of the carriage door until his fingers ached from the pressure. The only heir he would ever have would be Vincent. When he didn’t answer his friend, Charles quirked an eyebrow at him.

“For a man who’s just avenged his sister’s honor, you’re looking rather dismal.”

“I’m tired and my jaw aches.”

“Perhaps your mysterious mistress, Mary, could minister to your . . . aches.”

The words made him grimace. The none too subtle inference was meant to amuse him, but did just the opposite. It was depressing to acknowledge that the only thing he did when he visited his mistress was sleep. Alone. But for Charles to call her mysterious . . . he frowned.

“Exactly what do you mean by mysterious?”

“Nothing, except that after more than what, two years without ever having seen the woman, people are beginning to do more than speculate—”

“Speculate?” His terse response made Charles suddenly look uncomfortable.

“Well there’s always been talk . . . people have always wondered if the woman even exists . . . or if she’s actually a . . .”

His body went rigid at the unspoken implication. He quickly forced himself to make his expression unreadable to cover up the sense of stunned dismay he was feeling. Christ Jesus, he’d been a fool to think he could convince the Set he adored his mistress too much to take her out in public. There had always been gossip about why he never showed Mary off.

Some rumors he’d overheard, while at other times, friends and family had delicately shared the fact that he was the topic of curiosity. But this was the first time it had been suggested the Set was viewing him in less than a manly light. His stomach lurched at the sound of his uncle’s mocking laugh echoing in the back of his head. He could have at the very least taken Mary to one of the finer establishments catering to men and their mistresses. No. He could never have subjected her to that. Not after what Tremaine had done to her, but he could have done something different. Furious with himself for his lack of foresight, he sent his friend an icy look.

“I can assure you that Mary is quite real. The two of us simply prefer not to socialize in public. It would be extremely uncomfortable for her. She wasn’t brought up to handle the savagery that is the Marlborough Set.”

That was entirely true. Mary’s parents had owned a farm on one of his properties. He’d seen that her education would allow her to mingle with those in the upper classes, but she’d openly expressed her objection to the idea.

In fact, she seemed far more content with her book learning than she did anything else. Not even clothes seemed to interest her all that much, although lately she’d taken a heightened interest in them. He’d taken her to Paris for new clothes twice in the last eight months alone.

“I believe you, but perhaps showing her off from a distance might not be a bad thing either. I know how you loathe gossip. Perhaps a carriage ride in the park?”

“I have no intention of appeasing the Set’s curiosity.”

“Fine. But be prepared for some people to do more than speculate. I understand Wycombe made a bet with Marston the other day at the Club that he would prove this Mary of yours didn’t exist.”

“Bloody hell.” This time he couldn’t hide his shock.

“You’ve a great many friends who will stand by you, Garrick, but we both know Wycombe will do whatever he can to discredit you.”

His head jerked in a sharp nod. Older by several years, the Earl of Wycombe had been one of his tormentors at first Eton and then Cambridge. The man had made him the brunt of malicious pranks for more than three years until Garrick had learned how to box. He’d beaten the man in a match that was now legendary in the halls of Cambridge.

Wycombe had arrived unconscious in the university’s infirmary, while Garrick had walked away without even a scratch. The man had even missed his graduation ceremony as a result. While Wycombe had never crossed him since, the earl hated him beyond measure for that humiliating defeat. If Wycombe thought he could bring humiliation upon his head, the man wouldn’t hesitate. Even if it meant lying.

He climbed into the carriage, his body aching more from the battering his friend’s news had given him than his match with young Worthington. As Garrick closed the door behind him, Charles looked at him through the window with a sympathetic expression on his face.

“I understand your desire for privacy, Garrick, but you cannot ignore this. I think a weekly carriage ride might go a long way toward satisfying the avid interest the subject has raised. Perhaps even an introduction to the Prince himself will prevent Wycombe from making any mischief.”

“The last thing I intend to do is present Mary to His Royal Highness. The man would terrify her simply by virtue of his position. I won’t subject her to that.”

“At least introduce her to several of your friends—”

“No. I’ll not sacrifice her simply to protect my own skin. I appreciate your warning, Charles, but I have no intention of putting Mary on display.”

“Devil take it, Garrick. Wycombe will be merciless where you or your Mary is concerned.”

“The Earl of Wycombe be damned,” he snapped. “I took care of him once, I’ll do it again.” With the silver head of his cane, he tapped the carriage ceiling to instruct the driver to leave. Charles eyed him with worry and grimaced, but didn’t argue with him. He gave his friend a sharp nod good-bye as the carriage pulled away.

It was a bumpy ride across the grassy expanse at the farthest edge of Hyde Park. But then he’d chosen the isolated spot not for its access, but its seclusion. The quiet grove, in the early morning hours had seemed the most logical place for his match with Worthington, but the rough ride was doing little for the headache he’d suddenly developed.

Damn it to hell. He should have anticipated his refusal to bring Mary out into the limelight would pique people’s curiosity. He’d kept her hidden away to protect her, while insulating himself from anyone learning the real reason he kept a mistress that no one ever saw. He groaned and rested his head on the leather squabs behind him.

Now what was he supposed to do? Perhaps Charles was right. Maybe a weekly ride through Hyde Park would lay to rest some of the speculation. He knew it wouldn’t allay all the gossip, but Charles was correct. He couldn’t abide rumors or innuendo. Nor could he allow Wycombe to poke around in his personal affairs.

The thought brought the Lady Ruth to mind. Last night he’d meddled in her affairs and had earned her wrath. He rubbed his sore jaw in contemplation and immediately grimaced with pain. No doubt, she would enjoy knowing he was feeling suitably chastened where she was concerned. It hadn’t been his intent to interfere, but he’d not been able to help himself.

In the Somerset foyer, he’d watched the way she’d gathered herself as if preparing to face a horde of barbarians. She’d been a beautiful warrior princess ready to do battle with an enemy whose weapons were words. Word of Marston’s break with her had reached the Marlborough Club long before evening. It had taken great courage to enter that ballroom alone. And the moment he’d heard that insult flung at her, he’d been unable to do anything but charge to her rescue.

He hadn’t helped matters any when he’d asked her to dance. His motives had been not quite as suspect as she’d believed. While his first rescue had been rooted in sympathy, dancing with her had been a spontaneous action. It had also been a mistake. Not because he’d angered her, but because holding her in his arms had been far too pleasurable.

The carriage rocked to a halt, and he grunted with annoyance. What else could go wrong with his life at the moment? He got out of the vehicle and wearily climbed the steps of the small house he’d provided Mary with. He’d been so busy thinking about the Lady Ruth, he still had no solution as to how to handle Wycombe’s intent to malign him. He sighed. Sleep would help clear his head, and he’d be able to come up with a plan of action later today.

He didn’t even have to pull his key from his pocket, as Carstairs opened the front door when he was only two steps from the top of the stoop’s stairs. He handed the butler his top hat and cane then headed toward the staircase. Carstairs cleared his throat.

“Forgive me, my lord, but Miss Mary would like a moment of your time.”

“Now?”

He pulled out his pocket watch to see the time. It was only six forty-five. She was an early riser like him, but never quite this early. He frowned. What could be so urgent—had Wycombe been so crass as to visit her unannounced? The staff had explicit instructions not to let anyone cross the threshold unless he or Mary said otherwise. Sleep would have to wait.

“Where is she?” he asked as he met the butler’s stoic gaze.

“In the parlor, my lord.”

With a nod, he headed toward the salon where Mary spent a great deal of her time studying with the tutor he’d hired for her. As he entered the room, she was waiting for him. She jumped to her feet at his entrance, a look of trepidation on her face. Her blonde hair was piled fashionably on top of her head, and her blue day dress complimented her peaches and cream complexion. While he knew other men would find her exquisite, he’d never found himself aroused while in her company. It was one of reasons he’d offered to provide for her with the understanding that their relationship would be strictly platonic.

“Good morning, Mary. You’re up unusually early.”

“I wanted to talk to you.” She seemed nervous. He frowned, but forced himself to smile at her.

“What about? Is the new cook not working out to your liking?”

“Oh no, Mrs. Boardwine is wonderful.” She hesitated then rushed onward. “Actually, I needed to tell you that I’m getting married.”

If she’d pulled a gun and shot him, he couldn’t have been more stunned. What the devil was happening to his life? First, the Set trying to root out information about his mistress, and now Mary was telling him that she was leaving him for another man. No, she was getting married.

“Who is he?” It was impossible to keep the sharp note of anger from his voice, but he was too upset to care.

“Jeremy . . . Mr. Routh.”

The tutor. Christ Jesus, he’d been cuckold by the goddamn tutor. His mistress no less. No, that wasn’t possible. One couldn’t be cuckold if one hadn’t consummated the relationship. And he and Mary had never been together in that way. The fact was he’d never been with a woman. At the ripe old age of twenty-nine, he’d yet to discover whether a woman could find him desirable. He cringed inwardly.

Did it matter? Did he really care what anyone thought? He didn’t need to explain himself to anyone. The harsh voice in his head sounded as clearly as if his uncle were standing in the same room with him. You’re half a man, boy. No woman will have you, let alone want you. You’ll never understand what it’s like to be a real man.

“I see.” His voice bitter, he glared at Mary.

“Oh please, Garrick. Please don’t be angry. We didn’t mean for it to happen. It just did.”

Knowing Mary as he did, he knew she was telling the truth. He suddenly grew still and narrowed his eyes at her.

“Does he know the truth?”

“Yes.” She nodded as a look of sorrow flitted across her features. “I told him everything. He loves me in spite of it all, and he wants us both. He loves Davy as if he were his own son.”

The mention of his godson made his heart sink. Naturally, she’d take the boy with her, and the knowledge cut deep. Davy had become the son he’d never have. He’d been there at his birth, held him and loved him. Parting with the two of them would not be easy. Damn it, he didn’t want things to change. He wanted everything to stay the way it was.

Guilt streaked its way through his veins. He’d made Mary into a whore in the eyes of others. For almost three years, he’d deliberately ignored that fact. The two of them knew the truth, but it didn’t change the fact that in everyone’s eyes, even the servants’, she was a fallen woman. Remorse snagged at him like a piece of cloth ripping on a nail. Christ, he was a selfish bastard. He’d used her for the sole purpose of impressing on Society that he was something his uncle had continuously said he wasn’t. A real man. Closing his eyes, he turned away from her.

“I regret ever offering you such a devil’s bargain. It was self-serving of me.” She was at his side in seconds to tug hard on his arm, forcing him to look at her.

“That’s ridiculous, and you know it,” she snapped. “As I recall, you were the one who found me after . . . after what happened. You offered me a safe harbor.”

“It doesn’t change the fact that I took advantage of you as well. You were vulnerable. I could have taken you to a different part of the country. Presented you as my recently widowed sister. I should have found some other way to protect you from Tremaine.”

“He would have found me no matter where I went. He found me here.” A flash of emotion flared in her blue eyes. “The only reason Tremaine never came back was your threat of having him thrown into prison.”

The memory of finding Viscount Tremaine here in the house still made his gut clench. The libertine had threatened to take Davy from her in his attempt to get Mary to leave with him. The man had been lucky he’d not beaten him to an inch of his life. Instead, he’d dragged Tremaine down the stairs and thrown him out of the house with the warning that if he ever laid eyes on the man again, he’d kill him. But not even that excused his own selfish behavior. Almost as if she could read his mind, Mary gave him a slight shake.

“It didn’t matter to others whether or not the bastard forced himself on me. I was soiled goods in the eyes of everyone who knew me. I had few options open to me. You saved me from a horrible existence. You saved Davy, too.”

Perhaps she was right. They’d needed each other at the time, and the arrangement had given Mary a chance to heal emotionally and physically. Her resilience amazed him given what she’d gone through. And the fact that she’d insisted on keeping her baby despite the violence of the conception had made him admire her that much more.

“You’re generous in your assessment of me.”

“And you are far too hard on yourself. You’re a good man, Garrick. The woman you marry will be a fortunate one.”

Her words sent a chill through him. If she knew the full truth, she’d realize such a thing would never happen. Resigned to his fate, he walked across the floor to stare down into the fire in the hearth.

“How soon before the wedding?”

“We were hoping to be married this week. Jeremy accepted a headmaster position in America. A boys’ school outside of Philadelphia, and he needs to be there in two weeks. They’ll even take Davy as student.” She crossed the room to touch his arm. “I was hoping you . . . that you might give me away.”

Anyone else might have thought it a strange request, but with her parents dead, she had no one. He actually found it touching that she thought so highly of him as to even ask. He glanced at her and nodded.

“It would be an honor to do so, Mary.” His response elicited an impulsive hug and a kiss on his cheek as she smiled happily.

“Oh thank you, Garrick. You don’t know what it means to have you say you’ll give me away. It just wouldn’t seem right to not have you there.”

He released a sigh of resignation at her enthusiasm. While he was happy for her, he couldn’t help but feel a touch of envy at the joy that made her face glow. It filled him with a longing for something he knew he’d never find. No woman would be able to accept him as he was, let alone his inability to sire children. Garrick squeezed Mary’s hand and forced a smile.

“I’m happy for you my dear. I shall have to think of a suitable wedding present.”

“But you’ve given me so much already.”

“All the same, it would be remiss of me to let you run off and marry your Mr. Routh without a dowry. I’ll have my solicitor see to it.”

“You’re far too generous, Garrick. I only wish you could find someone to make you happy.”

“I’m quite content with my life the way it is, thank you.” He suppressed a yawn.

“You’re tired,” she exclaimed softly. “I should have waited until this evening, but I—”

“It’s all right, Mary. You expected me to be up early, not just coming home at this hour.” He flinched. Home. This was home. More so than Chiddingstone House. This was where he came when he wanted peace and quiet. It was a place to gather his thoughts. Chiddingstone House, on the other hand, was a house of constant frenetic energy, and as much as he loved his siblings, he found it wearing on his soul. Now everything was going to change.

“I have an afternoon appointment, which shouldn’t take long. Why not invite your Mr. Routh to dinner? I would like to ensure he intends to be good to you.”

“I’m sure he’d be honored.”

With a kiss to Mary’s forehead, he left the salon and quietly closed the door behind him. He leaned against the hardness of the carved mahogany for a moment before he pushed himself away and climbed the main staircase. Now what was he going to do? It had always been difficult keeping his secret, but at least the illusion of a mistress had left everyone thinking that he wasn’t ready for a wife yet.

He muttered a harsh oath of frustration, and the door to his bedroom crashed back into the wall before he slammed it shut. With a vicious movement, he removed his coat and threw it over the back of a nearby chair. Unlike his friends, he had no valet. Shame had taught him to do without a manservant. He jerked off his tie then unbuttoned the collar of his shirt, uncaring when a button popped off and flew across the room.

Stripped to his bare skin, he caught a glimpse of himself in the floor-length mirror he passed on his way to the bed. He paused at the sight of his reflection. A sense of revulsion rose up inside him. His uncle was right. With only one ballock, he wasn’t a real man at all. He abruptly turned away from the mirror.

He’d been eleven at the time of his father’s suicide, when Beresford had assumed guardianship of him and his siblings. Not only had his uncle managed Garrick’s home and inheritance as if they were his own, but for some twisted reason, the man had taken pleasure in tormenting him. His uncle had tried to do the same to his sisters and brother, but Garrick had managed to shield his siblings from the majority of the man’s cruelty. And Beresford had excelled at it. A sliver of a memory taunted him, and he fought to push it back, but failed.

An image of Bertha flashed through his head, and he drew in a sharp breath. He closed his eyes as the painful past reared its ugly head. His uncle had routinely held parties, inviting the worst of the demimonde to the house. Bertha had been a pretty ballerina he’d stumbled across the first night of one of Beresford’s decadent house parties. He’d been smitten with her from the moment he’d first laid eyes on her.

At seventeen, he’d thought himself in love. He’d courted her persistently, and when she’d asked him to visit her rooms, he’d been giddy with excitement. But what was supposed to have been a night of passion had turned into one of deep humiliation. It wasn’t until he’d undressed in front of her that he’d realized his mistake. Bertha had been revolted by his physical deformity. Mere moments later, her revulsion had changed to mocking peals of laughter he could still hear in his head.

His hands curled into tight fists at the memory of his uncle barging into the room. At that moment, it had been evident the entire event had been staged by Beresford for his own sick amusement, which only sealed Garrick’s mortification. His gut knotted viciously as he fought to bury the past deep in the back of his mind.

From that night forward, he’d done everything in his power to make people view him as a man who other men wanted to emulate. A man who could ride and hunt better than anyone else, an exceptional boxer, a man of discriminating taste in all things, even women. The illusion where women were concerned had been the most difficult one to create and preserve.

He’d made it a point to develop a skill for kissing, but had used it sparingly. On the one or two occasions when desire had actually become a problem, he’d quickly extricated himself from the situation. Mary agreeing to pose as his mistress had freed him from those types of problems. Now she was leaving, and with it his ability to keep up appearances.

He didn’t begrudge Mary her happiness, but hearing that Wycombe had a wager to learn more about his mistress made the timing of her impending nuptials awkward. The mattress gave way slightly beneath his weight, and he pulled the covers over him. Well aware how hedonistic sleeping in the nude was viewed, he took a small amount of satisfaction in defying the social norm.

Arms tucked behind his head, he stared up at the ceiling as he tried to figure out what to do next. Where in the hell was he going to get a new mistress who wouldn’t question why her patron refused to touch her? Ruth’s face fluttered its way into his head. Absolutely not. He was far too attracted to the woman. And she was far too intelligent not to question his reasons for their relationship to remain platonic. A groan rolled out of him. Maybe he could go to Paris for a few months. No, he had responsibilities, and he wasn’t about to walk away from those.

Perhaps he could say he was between mistresses at the moment. The thought was laughable. It had always been difficult to avoid the marriage-minded matriarchs who constantly pushed their daughters in front of him. The moment news circulated that he was no longer supporting a mistress the vultures would circle. Even the somewhat rakish reputation he’d worked hard to foster would do little to keep some mothers away.

Images of Ruth forced their way into his thoughts. She’d been a tantalizing vision in the gaslight with hints of gold in her chestnut hair. The dress she’d worn had highlighted every delicious curve of her, right down to the fullness of her breasts. His cock stirred to life as he recalled the sweet sensuality of her lips. She had a mouth begging to be kissed. Even more pervasive was the memory of her scent. A mysterious, exotic mix of jasmine with a touch of spicy citrus. Would she taste as delicious as she smelled?

The moment the question dashed through his head, he cast it aside. Christ Jesus, that fact was precisely why he needed to forget about Ruth as a replacement for Mary. He rolled over and punched at his pillow. All too aware of his growing erection, he groaned. He was exhausted, but his body was demanding something he couldn’t give it.

What would it be like to have Ruth beneath him? To taste her throat, her breasts, and her nipples. He swallowed hard at the image. He wrapped his hand around his stiff rod and allowed himself the pleasure of visualizing her in every carnal position he could imagine as he worked his cock hard until he spilled his seed. It wasn’t enough. He wanted something more. Something he could never have.

Even if he did the unthinkable and offered his protection to Ruth, this was the closest he’d ever get to being with her. He dragged in a deep breath as he cleaned himself up. God, he was tired. He yawned. His problems weren’t going anywhere. They’d be here when he woke up. He closed his eyes and just before he drifted off, he thought he heard the sound of his uncle and Bertha laughing. It made his stomach lurched.

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Chapter 3

Through the black veil covering her face, Ruth slowly turned around to study every aspect of the parlor. Nothing about the room had changed since the last time she’d visited Crawley Hall. It was still as bright and cheery as she remembered. Behind her, Smythe waited impatiently in the doorway.

The man was beginning to become annoying. She wanted to take her time viewing the house. She’d already made up her mind to buy the estate, but she knew it was important to scrutinize it just in case her instincts were wrong. The only time she’d visited Crawley Hall had been shortly after she’d become involved with Marston. Their carriage had broken a wheel near the entrance to the Hall, and the owner had invited them to tea while repairs were made.

Although they’d never met before, Ruth had immediately recognized the woman as a former mistress of the Prince of Wales. She hadn’t realized it at the time, but the older woman had been a prophetic sign of Ruth’s future. Perhaps that was why she’d never forgotten Crawley Hall. Subconsciously, she’d known then that her own retirement was close at hand. When she’d heard the woman had died and the estate was for sale, she’d mentioned to Marston that she was considering buying the house.

He’d immediately offered to purchase the estate for her, but requested she wait a couple of months for some of his investments to mature. She released a soft noise of disgust. She should have pressed him about the estate weeks ago. although something told her the man would have put her off just as he had the first time.

The sound of a carriage rolling across the gravely drive caught her attention, and she crossed the drawing room floor to peer out the window. Having removed her gloves earlier, the sheer curtains that lined the interior portion of the window brushed over her skin like a fine sandpaper as she pushed the material aside. The position of the carriage made it impossible to see who’d arrived. With a frown, she turned back toward the salon doorway to see that Smythe had disappeared.

Her chest tightened with fear. Damn, the little toad. This couldn’t be a coincidence. The man knew she had limited funds. The sales agent was using her simply to extract a higher price from another potential buyer.

Perhaps the other bidder wouldn’t like the house. It had been on the market for more than a year, and that meant Smythe might find it difficult to sell to this new prospective buyer. Male voices echoed in the hall, and she sighed with resignation as she moved toward the doorway. She’d taken only two steps into the foyer when she came to a dead stop.

Stratfield.

Almost as if he were expecting to see her, the man bowed in her direction, and as he straightened, a small smile curved his sensuous mouth. She clenched her teeth as she directed a sharp nod toward him.

“Lord Stratfield.”

“Lady Ruth.”

He moved toward her and she was forced to offer him her hand. The moment his mouth brushed across her skin, it was as if she’d been burned. She jerked her hand free of his to turn her attention toward the sales agent.

“I would like to see the upstairs now, Mr. Smythe.”

“Of course, my lady.” The sales agent bowed slightly, his manner hesitant. “Would you mind, if Lord Stratfield joins us?”

“Not at all,” she bit out. Did she mind? Of course she did. She didn’t want the bastard anywhere near her. That wasn’t exactly true. Determined to ignore the small taunting voice in her head, she turned away from Lord Stratfield in a dismissive manner and pinned her gaze on the sales agent. “Might we continue, Mr. Smythe?”

“Certainly, my lady. If you’ll both follow me.” The sales agent, suddenly realizing she wasn’t happy, bowed obsequiously to her as he headed toward the main staircase. At least the man finally understood that his efforts to provoke a bidding war might be in danger. But she already knew Crawley Hall was lost. She was certain Stratfield was far better off financially than she was, which meant the man could outbid her.

Muscles stiff with anger, she followed the balding sales agent toward the steps. It seemed pointless to see the remainder of the house, but perhaps Stratfield would decide the estate wasn’t to his liking. Fingers sliding over a burnished oak railing, she climbed the stairs that rose up from the center of the foyer to branch off to the left and right at the first landing.

As they reached the second floor’s main hall, she counted the number of doorways. Eight rooms. She entered the first bedroom and carefully assessed its dimensions. If the rest of the bedrooms were this size, she could easily accommodate more than twenty children on this floor alone, while still leaving two rooms for her and Dolores to use. The servants’ quarters would no doubt allow for two or three more children. She moved toward the window to look out at the landscape.

The sunshine made the late winter snow on the ground glisten. It was lovely now, but in the spring it would be even more so. She whispered a silent prayer that her rival wouldn’t want the house. The children she brought from the orphanage would flourish here. Smythe’s voice echoed in the corridor in an obvious attempt to capture Stratfield’s attention. She turned back toward the door only to see her competition leaning against the doorjamb. There was something beautiful about him in the nonchalant position he’d assumed that stole her breath away.

Irritated that she could even think to find him attractive after last night, she gripped the stem of her umbrella so tightly she thought it might snap. Not bothering to speak, she crossed the floor and waited in silence for him to move. With a frown, he straightened and she quickly tried to pass him. As she drew abreast of him, his hand caught her upper arm to hold her in place.

“Let me go,” she snapped.

“I’d like to explain about last night.”

“There is no explanation necessary, my lord.”

“I think there is,” he said as he leaned into her. She immediately shrank back, aware of the heat spreading its way through her that was becoming all too familiar. Equally familiar was that steady gaze of his. “I danced with you because I wanted too, Ruth. Not because I pitied you.”

Surprised by his fierce declaration, she stared at him in silence. In the deepest reaches of her mind, she acknowledged that she liked the way he’d said her name. There was a warm intimacy to the sound that threaded its way through her senses. She swallowed hard as she remembered the humiliation she’d felt last night as she walked away from him. Was it possible he was telling the truth?

The earnest expression on his face made her think he was. There was such an intensity about him that she could almost swear he was mentally willing her to believe him. The knowledge that he’d danced with her because he wanted to sent a warm rush of pleasure pulsing through her veins. Alarmed by her reaction, she gave him a quick nod and drew in a deep breath.

“I believe you.”

“Thank you.” The simplicity of his response made his confession all the more sincere. Rattled by the intensity of his gaze, she looked down at the hand wrapped around her arm.

“I’d like to see the remainder of the house, my lord.”

“Garrick.”

“I beg your pardon?” She knew exactly what he was doing, but the intimacy of using his first name frightened her. Everything about this man frightened her.

“My name is Garrick.” A stubborn look crossed his handsome features, and she studied him for a minute before nodding.

“Very well. Garrick.” She kept her tone crisp, expecting him to say something else, but he didn’t. He just stared at her. She grew self-conscious under his gaze and nodded toward his hand one more time. “May we continue, my . . . Garrick.”

“What? Yes. Of course.”

He seemed almost dazed for a moment as she darted a glance in his direction. He quickly released her, and stepped back to give her access to the hallway. As she moved past him, a whiff of cologne teased her nostrils. It was a heady aroma of spice and cedar. The scent lingered on her senses as she put distance between them. Smythe appeared out of one of the other rooms down the hall.

“There you are. If you’ll come this way, my lord, my lady, I’ll show you the master suite.”

Eager to finish viewing the property so she could escape, she hurried toward the sales agent, all too aware of Stratfield following close behind. As she entered the master bedroom, her first impression was that she’d entered a male domain. The furniture was heavy and masculine, while the drapes were a deep maroon brocade. She darted a look in Stratfield’s direction as he strode to the window and flung the curtains back. The room was a perfect complement to his sinfully dark looks. He turned around and as he met her gaze, his mouth curled upward in a small smile as if he had a secret. She immediately looked away.

“Is the furniture included in the sale price, Mr. Smythe?” she asked quietly as she looked around the room. There was little here she could use.

The stocky sales agent nodded his head. “Everything is included, but if the buyer prefers, the furniture can be sold at auction prior to moving into the house. Of course, this room in particular was clearly made for the master of the house.”

The reminder that she wasn’t the only one considering the purchase of Crawley Hall renewed her sense of frustration. The Hall should have been hers. Now she was forced to bid on the house and hope that Garrick didn’t offer more money.

“I’d like to see the dining room and kitchen if you please,” she said with a brisk note in her voice. She quickly turned toward Garrick. She winced. How quickly she’d fallen into thinking of him by his first name. “That is, if you’ve seen enough on this floor, my lord.”

He arched his eyebrow at her abrupt tone, but his only response was a brief nod and a slight bow. It was as if he was humoring her, and she didn’t like it. Struggling to keep her irritation hidden, she turned around and headed toward the door.

“Smythe, do you know anything about the current owners of the estate?”

Garrick’s question brought her to a halt as she turned and waited for the short, stocky sales agent to answer. To her surprise, Smythe suddenly appeared distinctly uncomfortable. He threw her a quick glance then averted his gaze.

The owner died recently and her heirs wish to sell the Hall.”

“And the lady who owned the house. Do you know anything about her?”

“Only that she was one of the Prince’s . . . lady friends from his youth.” Smythe’s pained expression almost made her laugh, and her gaze met Garrick’s, whose mouth was twitching with amusement.

“Ah, then that explains the mirror.”

Puzzled, she watched Smythe swallow uncomfortably as the sales agent’s gaze shifted toward her then back to Stratfield. “Mirror, my lord?”

“I’m disappointed, Smythe. Don’t tell me you’ve not noticed it.”

With a nod toward the bed, Garrick arched his eyebrows at the sales agent. Frowning, she crossed the floor and looked up at the underside of the canopy. Attached to the ceiling, the canopy hid a large mirror centered over the bed. Etched boldly into the glass was the inscription For Queen and Country.

“Good lord,” she gasped, trying not to laugh.

The woman Ruth remembered from their only meeting had exhibited a wicked sense of humor, and she wondered if the Prince of Wales had actually slept in the bed. Somehow she was more inclined to believe Bertie’s old mistress had commissioned the mirror long after her affair with the Prince had ended. It didn’t really matter. She was certain Bertie wouldn’t want anyone else to see the mirror, and she was certain Mr. Smythe knew it too. No wonder the man looked so uncomfortable. “Forgive me, my lady. My lord.” Smythe cleared his throat and one glance showed sweat milling on his forehead. “I apologize. I left word the mirror was to be removed this morning. Obviously my instructions were not followed.”

“I trust you’ll see to its removal soon,” Garrick said with a hint of steel in his voice.

“Most assuredly, my lord. If word ever reached . . . well I’d be ruined.” The sales agent eyed both of them with terror in his eyes.

“I have no desire to see your livelihood jeopardized, Mr. Smythe,” she said with a sigh. Despite his annoying manner, the man wasn’t to blame for the previous owner’s decorating choices. “But I agree with Lord Stratfield that the mirror should be removed without delay.”

“Yes, my lady. Thank you.” The sales agent bowed his gratitude then hurried toward the bedroom doorway. “Now if you’ll follow me, I’ll show you the remainder of the house.”

Ruth resisted the impulse to look in Garrick’s direction as she turned to follow the sales agent out of the room. In the space of less than an hour, the man had forced her to completely redefine her opinion of him. It had been easy to keep her distance from him when she found him despicable. But now . . . now she was struggling hard not to like him.

Unable to help himself, Garrick was entranced by the gentle sway of Ruth’s hips as she turned and walked toward the bedroom door. There was no artifice in her movements, and the sensual elegance with which she moved stirred his blood in a manner he’d not experienced since he was seventeen. But not even Bertha had created this strong of a reaction in him. He ran his finger just beneath his stiff collar in an effort to ease his breathing. Christ Jesus, the woman was a heady experience.

Just moments ago, she’d sent him reeling when he’d inhaled that sweetly tart scent of hers. It beckoned a man to see if she tasted as good as she smelled. It was a distinctly different fragrance from last night. Today she smelled crisp and fresh, while last night she’d been an exotic mystery for his senses. He suppressed a groan.

The minute he got Smythe alone, he was going to pummel the man for putting him in such a devilishly tight spot. He wanted Crawley Hall, but it was clear she did, too. And that was a problem he’d not had to consider on his way here. Although she didn’t show it openly, he could tell by the way she touched the doors, the banisters, everything, she wanted the property badly.

She didn’t just touch things. She caressed them. As gently as she might stroke a lover. He swallowed hard as his collar tightened around his neck again. He followed her out of the bedroom at a deliberate pace. He was walking a dangerous path with the woman. First last night, and now the proposition he’d seriously contemplated the entire ride to Crawley Hall.

It would have been best to just let sleeping dogs lie. Easier to let her think pity had been his motivation last night when he’d asked her to dance as opposed to his spontaneous desire to hold her. No, the only thing piteous about dancing with her last night had been his reaction to her. As he followed her down the corridor, his gaze dropped to small of her back, where his hand had rested as he’d guided her around the dance floor. She’d been a soft heat in his arms, and he had no doubt she’d be a fiery creature in a man’s bed.

He shook his head slightly as he obliterated the images beginning to take hold in his head. That was never going to happen. It couldn’t. But if the woman could cloud his senses so easily in the company of others, what would it be like when he was finally alone with her? He clenched his jaw as they made their way downstairs.

Perhaps Smythe had done him a favor. In the light of day, he was seeing just how difficult things could be if he were to approach Ruth about being his lover in name only. It wouldn’t be as cut and dried as it had seemed in the carriage this morning. In fact, he had the distinct feeling it would be one of the most difficult challenges he’d ever undertaken.

Despite the dimly lit hallway leading to the back of the house, the kitchen was bright and open. It was an enormous room with a large brick oven and a cookstove that was so shiny clean it could have easily been brand-new. Delight lit up Ruth’s features as she carefully rolled her veil up onto the brim of her hat.

He couldn’t remember ever having seen a more beautiful woman. Her cheeks had a slight blush to them, and a pair of widely set eyes offset her slender nose. He could think of no one he’d ever met who had eyes the color of hers. They were dark violet and filled with secrets. But it was the dark pink of her full, plump lips that made his own mouth go dry.

Clasping his hands tightly behind his back, he jerked his gaze away from her animated features. His reaction to her was aggravating. He knew better than to let physical desire take command of his senses. If he had any intention of presenting his proposition to Ruth, he needed to make damn sure he could maintain control of himself when near her. It was the only way the arrangement would work between them. He needed to keep the relationship strictly platonic.

“Do you know if the flue is capable of supporting a second cookstove, Smythe?”

Startled by her question, he looked in her direction. What the devil did she need a second cookstove for? The sales agent seemed equally puzzled as he shook his head.

“I’m not certain, my lady. I would have to have the local blacksmith inspect it.”

“Before I even consider making an offer, I would need that question and several others answered.”

“Of course, my lady,” Smythe said with a look of defeat.

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to see some of the garden.”

“But there’s snow on the ground, my lady!”

“Thank you for that observation, Smythe, but all the same, I’d like to take a walk outside. I’m sure Lord Stratfield has questions, so there’s no need to accompany me.”

Before either of them could stop her, Ruth headed toward the door that led to a small mudroom and then outdoors. Smythe’s dumbfounded look almost made him laugh out loud. The agent had no idea how to react to her, but then he wasn’t sure he would have had a response either. As she disappeared out the back door, Smythe turned to him with amazement.

“My lord, do you have—”

“I think I’ll join the Lady Ruth for a stroll outside as well, Smythe. I suggest you wait for us in the main hall.”

He grinned as he walked past the man on his way outside. For a second time the stocky sales agent was at a complete loss for words. The door to the kitchen closed behind him as he paused for a moment in the mudroom. Had Ruth actually gone out into the snow without overshoes? He rapidly donned a pair of the rubber coverings and followed her out into the snow.

From the size of her footprints, she’d foregone the galoshes, which meant she could easily fall if she wasn’t careful. Concerned for her welfare, he moved quickly along the path she’d made in the snow. The garden was lifeless at the moment, small bits of dead plants pushing through the few inches of snow on the ground. Fruit trees, their bare branches like spider legs crooked in every direction, lined the rear of the garden, while a barren white arbor crossed the path he followed.

Ruth’s footsteps led toward an orangery a short distance away, and he could see her shadowy figure through the steamed windows of the hothouse. He reached the building quickly and stepped into its humid warmth. The size of the indoor garden was larger than he expected. Someone had obviously been caring for it as he could see tomato plants bearing small fruit.

Ahead of him, he saw the top of Ruth’s hat. He really needed his head examined for seeking the woman out. But something beyond his comprehension drove him forward. Worse, he knew whatever was compelling him onward would most likely bring him nothing but trouble. He rounded a corner to find Ruth examining an ornamental pear tree. Whether she’d been so preoccupied inspecting the hothouse or that his tread had been lighter than he expected, she cried out in surprise the moment she turned and saw him standing behind her.

“Good lord,” she gasped as her eyes flashed with anger. “You scared me half out of my wits.”

“Forgive me. I thought you heard me come into the building.”

“No. I didn’t.”

She turned away from him to continue along the pebble-lined path in silence. With a frown, he followed her. After several steps, she whirled around to face him.

“Is there something I can help you with, my lord?”

“I thought we’d settled on you calling me Garrick.”

“Oh for heaven’s sake. Is there something you want, Garrick?”

He ignored the lustful images that immediately flooded his head at her words. Folding his arms across his chest, he eyed her cautiously. “Why do you want Crawley Hall?”

“What?” Shocked, she took a step back from him and shook her head as she stared at him in mute surprise.

“I asked you why you want Crawley Hall.”

“I . . . it’s an investment,” she snapped.

“No. It’s more than that.” He frowned at the way she blanched. “You want this estate. Badly.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes you do. You show it with every thing you touch in the house, even with these plants. A man could easily die in your arms of pleasure if you were to stroke him the same way.” He stiffened as he saw her eyes widen, and he realized he’d said too much.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” She sniffed, her cheeks flushed with color. “It’s a house, nothing more.”

“If that’s true, then why don’t you answer my question, Ruth?”

He saw her swallow hard the moment he said her name, and the flash of emotion in her eyes propelled him forward until there was little more than an inch between them. She was breathing rapidly, and her scent filled his nostrils as he concentrated on the lushness of her lower lip. He stood there breathing her in, feeling her heat press into him despite the fact that he wasn’t touching her.

What the devil was wrong with him? At the first sensation of desire, he’d always managed to put distance between himself and a woman. But not this time. Christ Jesus he knew it was a mistake, but he wanted to taste her. He lowered his head toward her, but she suddenly darted out of reach.

“You must excuse me, my lord. I must return to London now in order not to be late for a supper engagement.” Clearly agitated, she started to move past him, but he blocked her path.

“Not until you tell me why you want Crawley Hall.” His persistence puzzled him. Why was it so important to him to know her reasons for wanting the Hall? The answer to that question eluded him. He simply knew he had to know.

“Step aside please, my lord. Your tenacity is most annoying particularly when I’m not obliged to tell you anything.”

“True,” he said quietly. “But I would like to know why it’s so important to you.”

She stared at him for a long moment, her gaze filled with a wariness that made him frown. He wanted her to trust him as she might a friend. The thought made him question his sanity again. Resignation furrowed her brow as she released a sharp sigh.

“Very well. I wish to retire here.” Another emotion darkened her gaze as he stared at her. He was certain she was telling him the truth as to why she wanted the estate, just not the whole truth. She didn’t need a house as big as Crawley Hall. It was meant for a large family, or as in his case, as a home for orphans. He clasped his hands behind his back and arched his eyebrow.

“Retirement? You’re far too young for that.” It was a sincere observation, but it made her eyes open wide with amazement. Suddenly, she laughed out loud. It was a melodious sound that generated a bolt of pleasure inside him. He liked the sound of her laughter.

“I thank you for the compliment, but I’m forty-one. And for a woman in my position, that makes my prospects shall we say . . . limited.”

“I think you underestimate your charms, Ruth. There are plenty of men who would eagerly seek out your company. You’re a beautiful woman.” And younger looking than she gave herself credit for. The woman could have easily passed for little more than a few years older than him instead of the twelve that was between them.

“You flatter me, but you have the blindness that comes with youth, something I lost a long time ago.” She sent him a wry smile. It irritated him that she could dismiss his compliment so easily. She was more desirable than she realized. He ignored the alarm ringing in his head.

“You seem to think me a callow youth attempting to gain your favor with flattery,” he snapped. “I’m not in the habit of saying something I don’t mean.”

Her violet eyes turned a stormy hue as she stared at him in surprise before she tipped her head in his direction.

“Forgive me. I’ve clearly forgotten how to accept a compliment.”

Despite her quiet apology, he was still annoyed. There might be a substantial gap in age between them, but it wasn’t as if he was fresh out of the schoolroom. Nor had she captivated him so completely that he’d lost his senses. An unconvincing lie, but one he could live with at the moment. He might not have the experience of a woman’s bed, but he was far from innocent as to what happened between a man and woman. More importantly, he wasn’t the kind of man who would unceremoniously discard a mistress simply because of her age.

And Marston had made that point brutally clear by his comments and current relationship with a woman half Ruth’s age. What the bastard had done to Ruth was reminiscent of the humiliation he’d suffered more than ten years ago. He’d lost his youth and innocence in one fell swoop the night his uncle and Bertha had deliberately humiliated him. He understood more than she’d ever know how deeply insults could cut.

The thick silence between them obviously made her uncomfortable, and he saw her fingers fidget with the handle of her umbrella. A ridiculous thing to be carrying out here in the snow. Of all the things about women, their fashions and need for fripperies was the one thing he’d never understood.

“If you’ll excuse me, my lor . . . Garrick, I think I’ll return to the house.”

“You continue to have difficulty with my name. Do I make you nervous?” He narrowed his eyes as he saw color flush her cheeks.

“It . . . it denotes an intimacy that doesn’t exist between us.”

“There are various forms of intimacy, Ruth. Could we not at least be friends?”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible.”

“Because there are a couple of years difference between us?” He saw her flinch at the question. The devil take it, he would have to remember how sensitive she was about her age.

“No, of course not.” The tone of her voice told him the age difference between them was precisely the reason why she’d refused his offer of friendship.

“And if I bought Crawley Hall for you? Would that change the way you feel?”

Bloody hell, had he lost his mind? This was the largest place he’d found in months that would house more children, while allowing for the expansion he knew would be needed in the future. And here he was offering it up to her on a silver platter. He frowned as she glared at him.

“A generous offer, my lord, but I must refuse. I’m not ashamed of how I make my living, but I am not so desperate as to sell myself off to the first man who comes calling after another breaks with me.”

With a scornful nod, she spun away from him and left him to stare after her with what he could only define as intense remorse. A feeling he didn’t like at all. Not only had he jeopardized his own plans where she was concerned, he’d proven her right. His inexperience in securing the services of a mistress was more than evident and only served to emphasize his youth all the more.

Irritated by his lack of finesse, he clenched his teeth in self-disgust. He’d insulted her. It wasn’t his habit to insult people he liked. And he definitely liked Ruth. He grunted with anger. There was definitely a protocol involved in these types of matters, but in his ignorance, he’d blundered badly.

Worse, his treatment of her, whether intentional or not, differed little from the contempt Marston had shown her. The sound of the hothouse door slamming shut jerked him out of his stupor, and he ran after her. As he stepped out into the snow, he saw her making her way quickly, yet cautiously, down the slight hill toward the garden. He easily caught up with her before she could reach the barren rose trellis.

“Ruth . . . I’m an ass.”

“Of that I have no doubt,” she bit out viciously.

He touched her elbow only to have her yank herself free of his grip to continue toward the garden. She’d only taken two steps when her feet went out from under her. Her soft cry made him leap forward, and he caught her in his arms as she fell. The scent of her swept over him as a soft shoulder pressed into his chest. He’d never realized a woman could smell so delicious all in one breath. The sound of her ragged breathing stirred something deep inside him.

It was a predatory response on his part. He knew it wasn’t the fall that had affected her breathing, and it excited him. A tremor shook her body, which only heightened the sensation. Desire barreled its way through him as he glanced down to see his fingers splayed against her stomach, mere inches from the lush fullness of her breasts.

An image of her naked, her nipples stiff and begging to be licked flashed through his head. Almost immediately, his cock swelled in his pants. Christ Jesus, the woman was temptation personified. Her head was slightly turned away from him, exposing a delectable neck he wanted to nibble on. Without thinking, he bent his head toward her, his mouth barely brushing across her skin.

Her sharp gasp made him jerk his head up. Where the hell was the control he’d always managed to maintain with other women and the desire they’d aroused in him? He’d already erred with her twice and had no wish to repeat his mistake. He immediately pulled back and helped her straighten upright. The minute she pulled away from him, his body protested with a strength that tightened every muscle in his body. A stark hunger gripped his insides as he noted the slight flutter on the side of her neck. He crushed his urge to reach out and drag his finger across the spot. Instead, he took a step back from her.

“I made a mistake.”

“More than one,” she snapped.

“Perhaps we might start over.”

His gaze met her wary one as he watched her mulling his suggestion over. Her violet eyes darkened suddenly, and a composed mask settled over her features.

“I see no point in doing so, my lord. I have no wish to enter into a new liaison with any man. Particularly one who thinks gaining access to my bed is little more than a simple monetary transaction. I’m not ashamed of the way I make my living, but I offer a great deal more than the ordinary whore you mistake me for. Even Marston, for all his faults, knew that much.”

Without giving him a chance to respond, she turned away and proceeded to make her way to the house. He stood there watching her walk away, her back ramrod straight with what he was certain could only be indignation. The idea that she’d placed him on a rung lower than Marston made him stiffen with anger. He wasn’t sure if his irritation was rooted in self-disgust or if it was the fact that Ruth didn’t like him. Either way, it was best that he stayed away from her, and the idea he’d even thought of asking her to be his mistress in name only was laughable. Unfortunately, he was far from amused.

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