HIS MISTRESS is “powerfully done, and the scenes between Tobias and Jane mesmerized me. I loved it.” — Joey W. Hill, author of the Knights of the Board Room series
The following excerpt is unedited and may differ from the final format and/or published work.
The man had lost his mind.
Tobias fought to hide his amazement at the Earl of Culverstone’s offer. The last thing he needed was a wife. Lady Jane seemed pleasant enough, but he had more than one reason for not taking a wife before now. The unsavory prospect of the earl as his father-in-law was another reason he could add to the list. But the darkest reason was a much greater threat.
“In different circumstances, you would be unsuitable for Jane.” The earl’s expression was condescending with an air of superiority. “But experience has taught me that you’re an honorable man, and where you’re concerned, I can make an exception with regard to your background.”
“As much as I appreciate your willingness to accept a commoner for a son-in-law, I must refuse.” The note of sarcasm in Tobias’ quiet response went unnoticed by the earl.
“Refuse?” Culverstone snapped. “I’ve just handed you the golden goose, Lynsted. Why the devil would you refuse?”
“I have no desire to marry, my lord.”
“Nonsense. Every man needs a wife, if only to sire an heir.” Culverstone eyed him with a calculating look that hardened Tobias’ muscles with tension as the earl shrugged. “I know Jane is a mousy thing, and while she’s been on the shelf for years, an annual living of five thousand pounds should be enough for you to take her off my hands.”
“Nonetheless, I must refuse. As I have already stated, I have no wish to marry.”
Tobias suppressed his irritation at the earl’s assessment of Lady Jane. Although he’d never given much thought to the looks of the earl’s daughter, it didn’t excuse Culverstone’s cavalier manner when it came to his own progeny. He frowned slightly as he tried to remember what Lady Jane actually looked like based on the few occasions they’d greeted each other.
All he could recall were gray dresses, dark hair pulled severely away from a round face, and a wide-eyed gaze that was at odds with her straight-laced appearance. Regardless of the woman’s looks, Culverstone’s derision set Tobias on edge.
“I’m not willing to accept your answer, Lynsted,” the earl said. With an arrogant smile, Culverstone rose from his seat and moved to the window a few feet away from his desk. Tobias had never cared for the man, but the earl paid well.
“Unfortunately, I can offer you no other response.”
“Oh I think you can, my boy.” The earl turned to face him, a smug look on his features.
“I’m sorry my lord, but I have no need of a wife,” Tobias said as he rose to his feet. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be late for my next appointment if I don’t leave now.”
“Ah, yes, your appointments. What would happen if your clients knew what you did when you’re not tending to their affairs?”
“I’ve never hidden the work I do in the East End,” Tobias said with a cold contempt.
“Actually, I was thinking about your more…leisurely activities,” the man said in a complacent manner, and Tobias stiffened. The bastard sounded as though he held the winning card in a game of chance. He narrowed his gaze at the earl.
“How I take my leisure is no one’s concern.”
“Perhaps not if it were considered normal by society’s standards. Sit.”
A small smile of cruel satisfaction curved the earl’s lips as he nodded toward the chair Tobias had vacated only seconds before. There was an ultimatum in the command that Tobias obeyed with great reluctance. Antipathy snaked through Tobias as he visualized pummeling the earl until the man was pleading for mercy.
With an icy restraint he generally reserved for the criminal elements he dealt with in the East End, Tobias moved slowly toward the chair. Deliberately, he forced a thin smile to his lips as he struggled with the rage and darkness surging through him. As Tobias sat down, the earl clasped his hands behind his back.
Determined not to give the bastard any advantage in their conversation, Tobias rested his elbows on the arms of the chair. Fingers steepled in front of him, Tobias forced himself to maintain a casual demeanor and eyed the man with feigned curiosity. Despite his outward appearance of nonchalance, he was anything, but relaxed. Whatever information the earl possessed, surely it couldn’t be his darkest secret. The earl’s forehead furrowed in a scowl as if he were worried about something.
“You don’t seem concerned, my boy.” Again the feigned words of familiarity. Tobias gritted his teeth.
“Should I be?” He arched his eyebrows at the man’s statement.
“Actually, I think you should, given the information I received yesterday.”
“Information?” Tobias’ limbs became as rigid as freshly cut hardwood.
“Yes,” the earl said with a nod of satisfaction as if aware of Tobias’ tension. “I think you’re familiar with a townhouse near Regent’s Park at the end of Harrington Street.”
“Harrington Street?” Tobias successfully kept his voice devoid of emotion, despite the panic slicing through him.
“Yes. A house that caters to various types of sexual perversions and persuasions.”
The earl frowned then smiled as if fully aware that Tobias’ response was designed to avoid addressing the topic altogether. With the steely control he’d learned a long time ago, Tobias maintained his outwardly nonchalant composure. Inside, his anxiety threatened to take full control of his senses. He was unaccustomed to the sensation, and he didn’t like it.
How in the hell could Culverstone know anything about his choice of lifestyle? Over the past year, work had severely limited his visits to La Maison des Plaisirs Sombres. In fact, extremely limited those visits. In the last ten months alone, he’d visited the club only two or three times. And those visits had been private sessions, which Angélique had arranged with one of the more experienced Ladies in the club.
Even at the hand of that skilled Lady, those few moments had provided only a small measure of sexual release. The effort to quench his dark needs had barely touched the surface of the desires buried deep inside him. Now, Culverstone was threatening him with exposure and jeopardizing the one outlet he possessed for appeasing the demons that plagued him. Rage crushed the panic inside him. He narrowed his eyes at the earl.
“Are you suggesting I’m a sodomite, my lord?” Tobias’ anger made his voice harsh, and he bit down on the inside of his cheek. It was his first display of anger since the conversation had begun. A fact the earl did not miss as the bastard smiled pleasantly.
“Not at all. My informant assures me that your tendencies for buggery are quite unfounded.” The disclosure tightened the knot in Tobias’ stomach.
“I fail to see the point to this conversation,” he said in a voice devoid of emotion.
“Then let me clarify it for you, Lynsted. If you don’t marry my daughter, I shall expose your proclivity for deviant behavior, which will ensure a complete loss of income.” The earl’s calmly worded threat brought Tobias abruptly to his feet.
“What do you really want, Culverstone?”
“I’ve already told you. I wish you to marry Jane.”
“Why would you blackmail me into marrying your daughter?” Tobias snapped.
“Blackmail is a rather harsh assessment. I prefer to think of it as an incentive with regard to the opportunity I’m offering you.”
“Don’t take me for a fool,” Tobias bit out viciously. “You’ve just threatened to publicly denounce me as a sexual deviant. I’d call that blackmail. The question is, why?”
“Jane is an impediment to my upcoming marriage,” Culverstone said with a shrug. “Lady Hounslow and my daughter have an intense dislike for one another. Jane must leave if I’m to have any peace.”
“And marrying her off to me is the answer? A man you believe to be a reprobate?”
Disgust filled Tobias’ voice as he eyed the man with disdain. What sort of man was willing to sacrifice his daughter to a husband whose private lifestyle deviated from what society deemed acceptable? Culverstone wasn’t just a bastard, he was worse than some of the lowest gutter elements Tobias encountered almost every day in the East End.
“Jane has asked for a household of her own, but Lady Hounslow’s of the opinion that my daughter would be much better off if she were married. I am inclined to agree with Lady Hounslow’s opinion where Jane’s future is concerned. Unfortunately, Jane’s age makes it difficult to find someone equal to her station in life,” the earl said with a note of irritation in his voice. “Thus it was necessary to look further afield. I believe you will act honorably where Jane is concerned.”
“And what makes you so certain of that, given my, how did you say it, proclivity for deviant behavior?”
Tobias knew he would never impose his lifestyle on any woman, let alone an innocent like Lady Jane, but her father didn’t know that. For all the earl knew, he could be throwing his daughter to the wolves. The thought only deepened Tobias’ contempt for the man.
“In our business dealings, you’ve proven yourself to be an honorable man. While I find your private perversion repulsive, I believe you will treat my daughter well.”
“And Lady Jane? Have you enlightened her as to my personal entertainment preferences?” Tobias eyed Culverstone coldly, no longer caring that his voice reflected his fury and disgust. For the first time, the earl displayed a less than confident air.
“Most certainly, not,” the earl snapped. “And you’ll hide it from her as well. You’re not to injure her with any mention of this perverted form of bed sport you practice.”
Like it or not, the earl had neatly backed Tobias into a corner. It left him with one of two choices. He could walk out of the earl’s study and find his livelihood destroyed or he could marry Lady Jane. As his mentor, John Fordyce, would say, neither choice was palatable, but he needed to swallow one or the other.
In his mind’s eye, Tobias could see John’s patient, understanding smile. The man he’d come to look upon as a father would never judge the decisions any of his protégés made. But like his friends who also owed their success to Fordyce, Tobias had always measured most of his choices by what John might think of him.
The muscles in his jaw tightened painfully as Tobias met the earl’s triumphant gaze. Culverstone knew he’d won. The self-satisfied look on the earl’s face said as much, and the man cocked his head to one side to study Tobias in silence. The bastard had laid his trap well. Every possible escape mechanism Tobias considered met with defeat. The one outcome he did have control over was breaking his association with the earl as the man’s solicitor. Resigned to his fate, Tobias kept his expression stoic and rose to his feet.
“I’ll provide you with names for my replacement as your solicitor by the end of the day. Once you’ve made your selection, they can draw up the nuptial agreement.”
“Simply because you’re going to be my son-in-law doesn’t mean I need a new solicitor.” Culverstone offered him a congenial smile.
“I insist,” Tobias said in a withering tone. When the earl opened his mouth to protest, Tobias shook his head. “Once you’ve made a decision as to your new representative, instruct your new man as to the details.”
“As you wish.” The earl shrugged his shoulders. “I shall inform Jane of our arrangement. Naturally, I expect you to court her for a short time to avoid any gossip. I don’t want Jane made the object of ridicule.”
“Naturally.” Tobias didn’t bother to restrain his harsh sarcasm, and the earl frowned.
“Come now, Lynsted. I’m not such a bad father as to be unconcerned about my daughter’s welfare.” Culverstone shook his head.
“The irony of that statement is far from amusing given the manner in which you’ve just secured her a husband,” Tobias bit out between clenched teeth, and the other man arched his eyebrows in disdain.
“If you’re worried my informant will blackmail you in the future, let me assure you that the matter is closed and will not be opened again.”
“You’ve just blackmailed me into marrying your daughter. Forgive me if I find your assurances far from reassuring,” Tobias sneered as he headed toward the door. “Good day, my lord.”
Tobias strode out of the study and closed the door behind him with a loud crash. For several seconds, he stood with his back to the door contemplating his fate. Culverstone had obviously been planning this for some time. The bastard must have paid someone to follow him. No, having him followed wouldn’t have been enough. Culverstone seemed to have intimate knowledge about the activities that took place in Angélique’s establishment.
The earl’s informant had specifically said Tobias wasn’t a sodomite. That meant only one thing. Someone who’d actually been inside Angélique’s place of business had broken the rule of silence. Secrecy was more than an expectation in the circles he moved in. It was a code one lived by to avoid financial and social ruin.
Betrayal had seen more than one traitor find their way into the Thames.
The sound of female voices echoed in the hallway, and his muscles drew up tight like a finely tuned piano wire. One voice he’d never heard before, but the quiet, unassuming one he recognized. Lady Jane. No, as his future wife, she was simply Jane to him now. He stood there for a moment, the reality of his situation sinking deeper into his bones. Culverstone had spun a web which offered no hope of escape.
Tobias turned his head in the direction of the voices as they pierced his thoughts once more. The earl had said he would inform his daughter about their upcoming nuptials, but Tobias was tired of having the bastard dictate to him. Jane deserved at least the semblance of a proposal. Tobias winced.
The only words spoken between them had been polite greetings as they’d passed each other in the earl’s house. His proposal would come as a complete surprise to her. How was he supposed to explain his sudden interest when they were barely on speaking terms? Tobias gritted his teeth at the notion he would have to surrender to Culverstone once again.
“Fuck,” he rasped softly.
“I beg your pardon, sir.”
Tobias jerked his gaze up to meet the condemnation in the butler’s gaze. He simply stared at the servant until the man’s look of contempt changed to one of discomfort.
“My hat and cane,” Tobias snapped.
“As you wish, sir,” the butler said in a voice that echoed with disapproval. “But Lady Hounslow asked me to show you into the parlor once your business with his lordship was concluded.”
Tobias arched his eyebrow at the servant’s clipped response. The butler’s cold emphasis on Lady Hounslow’s name left Tobias with the impression that Culverstone’s bride-to-be was managing the household as if she were already mistress.
Although the butler’s expression was stoic, Tobias had learned to read people well. Instinct and experience made him certain the butler cared little for the lady in question. With a sharp nod, Tobias followed the butler down the hall to the parlor. The moment he entered the room, a petite woman sitting on a green velvet-upholstered sofa looked up from her needlepoint and smiled with pleasure.
“You must be Mr. Lynsted. How lovely to finally meet you. I’m Lady Hounslow. The earl has spoken highly of you on more than one occasion.” The woman rose from the couch, and moved toward him with one hand outstretched. “I do hope you’ll forgive my presumption in asking you to join us.”
“Lady Hounslow,” he murmured as he bent politely over her outstretched hand.
Straightening, he noted Culverstone’s choice in bride was exquisite, but there was a hard glint in the woman’s eye. It was obvious her gentle appearance was little more than an illusion. This woman would be a fierce enemy if someone challenged her. The smile still on her lips, Lady Hounslow turned away from him.
“Jane dear, come greet our guest.”
Lady Hounslow turned toward a corner of the room where Lady Jane sat bent over a fragile looking secretaire. With more interest than he’d done in the past, Tobias took careful inventory of the woman he was to marry. The line of her back was rigid with tension, a clear indicator she didn’t like her future stepmother’s authoritative manner. Her movements stiff, Jane slowly stood up and turned to face them. Her mouth was tight with displeasure, and her demeanor hinted at a stubborn streak he hadn’t noticed before.
“Lady Jane,” he said quietly as he bowed in her direction.
“Mr. Lynsted.” She offered him a quick curtsey then clasped her hands in front of her. “Irene, I’d like to speak privately with our guest.”
“I couldn’t possibly leave you unchaperoned, Jane.” Lady Hounslow’s scandalized gasp was as contrived as her look of shock. “It would be inappropriate, and—”
“As inappropriate as you sharing my father’s bed most nights?” Jane’s retort was soft, but brutal, and Lady Hounslow gasped in outrage.
“How dare you—”
“Leave us now, my lady. I will speak with Mr. Lynsted, alone.”
There was a steely note in Jane’s voice that made Tobias suddenly realize she was far from the demure creature he’d thought her to be. From the antipathy vibrating in the room, it was obvious this wasn’t the first time Jane had thwarted the older woman’s wishes.
A familiar darkness edged its way along his senses as he watched Jane silently exert her will over the other woman with a look even he would find difficult to ignore. Few men appreciated the strength a woman like Jane possessed, but he did. Lady Hounslow huffed her anger then swept from the room with an air of affront that had Tobias biting back a smile. The woman clearly did not like taking orders from her future stepdaughter.
Tobias turned his attention back to Jane. The relief flashing across her face resembled that of someone who’d just dispensed with a disagreeable cur. Her gaze shifted to meet his, and like a door closing, her expression became unreadable. The room filled with tension again, but this time it was between the two of them. She turned away from him to walk back to the secretaire. Her fingers brushed over the surface of the light oak furniture as if seeking comfort from the touch. Like her, the small desk seemed out of place in the large salon. Even with her back to him, her tension was almost a tangible force.
“Lady Hounslow informs me that my father has spoken to you regarding a personal matter that is related to me…as well as yourself.”
The tension in her body seemed to ratchet even higher as her posture became rigid and inflexible. Her voice was devoid of emotion, but he recognized the unspoken understanding running beneath her words. She knew exactly why he was here.
“Yes.” Tobias nodded. “I’ve come to ask if you would do me the honor of becoming my wife.”
Jane dropped her head in resignation. Based on the altercation with Lady Hounslow, it was clearly difficult for Jane to submit to the forces dictating her future. She straightened and turned to meet his gaze with cool assessment.
“I suppose I should be grateful you asked me the question directly as opposed to viewing the matter a fait accompli.”
Humiliation echoed in her voice, and Tobias barely suppressed a vicious expletive. The earl had done more than back Tobias into a corner. The bastard had made his daughter feel like second-hand goods. A sudden desire to comfort her, help her restore some semblance of control to her life, hardened his body with a lust that appalled him.
Christ almighty. The woman was to be his wife. She would never understand his needs or the darkness that drove him. Tension tightened his jaw painfully as he crushed the urges threatening to rise to the surface. When he didn’t respond to her accusation, Jane’s humiliation swiftly changed to anger.
“How much?” Bitterness filled her question, and he didn’t pretend to misunderstand her.
“Five thousand a year,” he said quietly
“As little as that?” Her words were barely audible as her shoulders slumped slightly before she straightened upright. “You settled too quickly on a sum, Mr. Lynsted. My father would have easily paid up to twenty thousand to rid himself of me.”
Brittle and sharp, her accusation made him stiffen with anger until he saw a flash of vulnerability cross her face. Once more he experienced the urge to comfort her. The sensation spread its way through him like a raging fire. What the hell was wrong with him? If this woman discovered his secret she’d be horrified and shocked. A pink flush of color darkened her cheeks, and he realized he’d been staring.
“You judge me too harshly, my lady,” he murmured soothingly.
“Do I?” Jane eyed him with restrained anger as she shook her head. “You agreed to marry me.”
Uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation, Tobias clasped his hands behind his back. The past, and his work in the East End, gave him insight into what it felt like to be powerless in a situation not of one’s own making. He wasn’t about to tell her that Culverstone had blackmailed him into marrying her. It would only heighten her sense of being sold, and the last thing he intended to do was reveal his private reasons for agreeing to the arrangement. He quickly dodged the oncoming bullet.
“Am I to understand that you have no desire to marry me?”
“I have no desire to marry at all,” she snapped, an undefinable emotion layered beneath her response.
“I see. So we have a problem.”
Jane turned her head away from him for a moment. Tobias studied her profile with curiosity. The curve of her cheek suddenly made his fingers itch to caress the line of her jaw to see if her skin was as soft as it looked. Despite the stubborn set of her posture, the vulnerability he’d seen moments ago was still visible. She turned to face him again, her expression filled with determination and a quiet strength that intrigued him. The emotions she displayed were at odds with the nondescript woman with whom he’d exchanged only a few polite greetings over the past three years he’d been Culverstone’s solicitor.
“I’m the one with the problem. I can either marry you or be cast out on the street without a farthing to my name.” Hands still clasped and knuckles white from the tightness of her grip, Jane met his gaze unflinchingly. “Since I have no desire to be destitute, it seems I must marry you. All that remains is for us to reach an understanding.”
“And that would be?”
“Our marriage will be in name only, and we will lead separate lives.”
The emphatic statement didn’t surprise him, but his disappointment did. He stiffened as his head was suddenly filled with thoughts of exploring the curves beneath the hideous gray shroud she wore. Curves that said her breasts would be full and lush in his palms. He drew in a quick breath at the image then swallowed hard. Their gazes met, and she frowned. A sudden urge to give her pleasure rose up from deep inside Tobias until his stomach was tied in knots. His mouth went dry. He’d not experienced something this visceral in a very long time.
“I shall also receive an allowance of one hundred and seventy-five pounds a month to do with as I please.” Her demand was more than one third of the annual living her father had settled on her, but with his own personal wealth, he had no need of the earl’s money. About to nod his head, his gaze swept over her drab dress. The desire to see what possible treasures lay beneath the garment made his mouth go dry.
“I shall agree to your conditions provided you grant one or two of mine,” he said quietly.
“And those are?”
Anger flashed across her face as she studied him with an imperious tilt of her head. In the space of a heartbeat, his body tightened with anticipation. She was a natural. What he wouldn’t give to have her exerting her will over him in their bedroom. His jaw tightened as he tried to redirect his thoughts. He failed.
“You’re to buy several dresses that are more colorful than this depressing gray you seem so fond of.” He waved his hand at her gown in a sweeping gesture.
“I don’t understand.” A startled look crossed her features, and she looked down at her dress then back up at him in puzzlement. “My gowns are quite serviceable.”
“Nonetheless they are drab. Despite our leading separate lives, it will be impossible to avoid seeing each other while sharing the same house. I see enough dark colors in my daily work. I have no wish to see more when I come home.”
He pushed aside the fact that there was more to his demand than he was willing to admit as she slowly nodded. From the wary expression on her face, he had no doubt she would balk at his next condition. There was only a small risk tied to his demand, but an image of her hovering naked over him with her dark hair loose about her shoulders compelled him to name the additional price.
“As for our martial relations, you will agree to welcome me into your bed for at least one night before our first anniversary. The time shall be of your choosing, and you shall have complete control of your pleasure.”
“No.” It was a staccato beat that echoed loudly in the room despite her soft voice. Cheeks flushed with a dark pink, she eyed him with righteous indignation.
“Then I shall bid you good day, my lady.”
Tobias kept his features unreadable as he turned away and walked toward the door. The fact that he was pushing her deeper into the corner her father had penned her into made Tobias’ gut clench. He was just as much a bastard as Culverstone.
It was a firm, simple command that tightened his gut with an inexplicable emotion. He slowly turned around, and his gaze focused on her rebellious expression. In a split second, pure, dark lust unleashed its fury inside him. His unexpected reaction to her made his muscles grow taut as he forced himself to rein in the anticipation coursing its way through him. What the hell was wrong with him? It wasn’t like him to be moved by a woman outside of his dark world.
“Yes?” He cocked his head in a display of nonchalant curiosity, while desperately fighting off the urge not to tug at the shirt collar that had suddenly become quite snug against his throat.
“Like my father, you leave me with no choice but to accept your conditions, Mr. Lynsted.”
Like a proud Amazon princess, she studied him with contempt. The strength in her tugged the dark lust back to the surface as his gaze met her challenging one. He crushed the rising tide of desire, but with greater difficulty than before. Bloody hell, he’d gone too long without sexual release. What else could explain the intensity of his base reaction to Jane?
“Then we are in agreement,” he said through clenched teeth and extended his hand to her.
“We are.” Jane stepped forward to shake his hand.
The moment her hand slipped into his, a jolt of electricity streaked up Tobias’ arm and spread its heat through every inch of him. Like a fire out of control, it stirred his blood until he craved even the smallest taste of her. Citrus and the subtle hint of vanilla filled his nostrils, and he barely managed to let her hand go after sealing their bargain with a handshake.
Disappointment slashed at him the instant she withdrew her hand from his. Almost as if she knew the effect she had on him, a small smile touched her lovely mouth as she met his gaze. God, but she would be magnificent if she were ever to learn how to exert that incredible feminine power dwelling just beneath the surface.
Desire surged its way through him until he hungered for her to lay siege to his body in every way possible. The abrupt sound of alarm bells clanged wildly in his head. Damnation, Culverstone’s inescapable web had just become a cocoon. He swallowed hard. Ruination might have been the better of option after all.