Genre: Historical Romance
Length: 300 pages
Heat Level: 4
eBook Price: $.99
Print Book: $11.99
Genre: Historical Romance
Length: 300 pages
Heat Level: 4
eBook Price: $.99
Print Book: $11.99
He owns three shipping companies, a diamond mine, and his own castle.
He knows Portuguese, Hindi, Mandarin and Morse code.
His assets net thirteen million.
Everyone thinks Andrew Tilmore, Lord Preston, the financial prodigy dubbed “The King of Threadneedle Street,” has it all, but he wants the one prize money can’t buy: his childhood sweetheart.
Alysia Villier can’t say if it’s worse having Andrew’s father in control of her inheritance or Andrew in control of her heart. He’s ruined her for any other man, but she simply can’t give in to him. She knows he’s destined for great things—marrying a courtesan’s daughter would jeopardize everything he stands for.
Keeping Alysia out of trouble and away from eager suitors becomes a cross-continental quest for Andrew, and he won’t be stopped by his old-fashioned family or the disapproval of the ton. After all, he’s a man with the power to play newspapers and investors like pawns, tumble world markets and incite riots…but can he win the biggest gamble of his life?
But men are men, and sometimes the best forget.
~Othello, William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Summer of 1870, Lancashire, England
Freedom. A dear luxury. Cloud-filtered sunshine and a leather-bound volume of Shakespeare so worn the pages lay open — simple pleasures. Alysia Villier lounged in the grass before the lake, sketching in charcoal. Scenes of Ophelia’s lunatic singing started taking shape when sounds of commotion wafted from the direction of Ashton Manor. The clatter of what must have been fallen drapery rods accompanied by a shrill voice gave her twinges of guilt, but not enough to make her run home and mediate. The Tilmores should accustom themselves to managing their own disasters.
Two weeks and she would be dropped from the nest, a baby bird with quills for feathers and the faintest instinct how to fly. A demimondaine had an air of sophistication, wit as sharp as a rapier, and ice in her veins by osmosis, apparently. Her mother, the legendary courtesan Violet Villier, had passed such improper magnificence to her daughter, or so all assumed.
After helping produce Elizabeth Tilmore’s wedding to the Duke of Belmont in two weeks, Alysia Villier — housekeeper, lady’s companion, family friend, whichever explanation seemed least embarrassing for the occasion — would become who she was born to be. Courtesan, ladybird, mistress, light-skirt, kept woman: pretty-sounding words with one ugly synonym.
She was already accustomed to the averted eyes and shallow curtsies. But Switzerland, Milan, Prague? Ballrooms, calling cards, gossip — all foreign. Ostentatious gifts from men, clandestine letters, discreet packages from unscrupulous apothecaries…
Oh, saints. Please, no.
She lay back on the grass and squeezed her eyes shut until red spots flashed over her eyelids. Young men will do't if they come to't, By Cock, they are to blame. Quoth she, 'Before you tumbled me, You promis'd me to wed. Alysia credited herself with greater wisdom than Shakespeare’s Ophelia; she had neither allowed men to tumble her, nor did she expect marriage proposals. If only she could convince the Tilmores she harbored no such ambitions, that she posed no such threat…
A long shadow blocked the sun, accompanied by broad footsteps trampling the grass.
“What have we here, a unicorn caught sunbathing? Prime hunting,” came a familiar voice. A sonorous chocolatey bass, somehow deeper than when she had last heard it, and his Lancashire accent replaced by a genteel inflection she found jarring.
“Not at all,” she replied without opening her eyes, rattled by the jolt in her pulse. “Such plodding footsteps could only belong to a troll. Easily outrun by a unicorn. But trolls are really quite harmless, if you keep them fed.”
“On unicorn meat?”
“No. Pomeranians.” An old joke stemming from their mutual love of mastiffs and disdain for yapping small dogs.
His laughter almost stopped her heart. She distrusted the easy, boyish, tone tempting her to believe all would be well now that he was there. She opened one eye, unsurprised to find their years of separation had rendered him not at all like a troll. Over six feet of Gallic demi-god sharing the same body with the most bookish man she ever met. Andrew Tilmore, Lord Preston, heir to the illustrious Marquess of Courtenay. Drew, to her, or when he deserved it, Troll.
“Lisa,” he said in a tone he should reserve for a hot bath or rare cognac, and sat beside her on the grass. “As lazy as ever, I see.” Adolescent teasing which meant, So you managed to sneak away. Bravo.
“You weren’t expected until Friday next, Drew. Unfortunate timing you will no doubt regret.”
“Why? Is something amiss?”
“Only the apocalypse.”
Andrew snorted, waiting for her to explain. She would not. Lady Courtenay trying to run her household for the first time — while pretending to arrange a ducal wedding, which Alysia was truthfully in charge of — would not mix well with the problem Andrew’s presence would bring. Specifically, his being in the vicinity with Alysia.
She pushed herself up on her elbows, mindful of the buttons she’d loosed on her bodice. He wasn’t looking, but fastening them would draw his attention. She sat up and wrapped her arms around her bent knees.
Andrew leaned in to catch her gaze, and she suppressed her shock. From anxiety or lust, she couldn’t say, but in the seconds it took to trade glances, it became clear that what his parents had tried to douse between them had not yet faded. He cradled her chin between his thumb and forefinger then stroked the edge of her jaw, which in times past heralded a kiss.
Two years ago, he would have mock-whispered, “See, I am making eyes at you, Lisa. Wet your lips, I will lean closer, and as soon as you close your eyes, the violins will start. When you see firecrackers, say so.” Then he would have overly puckered his lips, smacking them together like a fish, while she dodged, squealing. But sometimes his manner was quite serious, and those memories were best left buried in the back of her mind.
He was serious now. She knew that expression he wore, as plainly as if she’d heard his thoughts. Still it made her stomach drop and her lips tingle with longing. Alysia pulled away, not trusting herself to look him in the eye. If she had any hope of surviving two weeks under the same roof with Andrew, she had best set the precedent now for their behavior.
He opened his collar and yanked off his necktie then used it to dab the sweat and dust from his throat. He eyed the lake as though contemplating jumping in. Instead he blurted, “And how do you find the Duke of Belmont, Lisa? Does he deserve my sister?”
“He is everything one would expect of a duke.”
“As bad as that?”
“Judge for yourself. He is a guest at Ashton. You hadn’t heard?”
“What? No.” He scowled.
“You don’t approve?”
He spun the necktie around his finger and unraveled it again — still fidgeting as a habit, restless as ever. “I know Belmont only by reputation.”
“As bad as that?”
“Worse. Have a care, and watch your back. Or your skirts, rather.” He winked, as though the accusation was humorous rather than grave.
“Well. It seems you shall all have a lovely time here at Ashton.” High-strung, strong-willed, mischievous, and dubious characters with the addition of Andrew’s impending antagony, all under one roof? She rose and brushed her skirt. “Which way to the circus, please?”
He tugged her hand, forcing her to sit where he could gather her shoulders under his arm. Lovely how she fit against his side. She hadn’t forgotten, but what had once been simple affection now seemed alarmingly wonderful.
Andrew chuckled and pressed his lips to her temple, which made her eyelids drop. A shiver brushed her spine. Her poor pleasure-starved soul couldn’t manage even his casual affection. Familiarity had once shielded her with immunity, but it was utterly stripped now. She could afford no such weakness. Perhaps she should depart Ashton early and leave Lady Courtenay to her domestic chaos.
“You may not believe me, but I am half serious.” She finally noticed his post horse grazing in the reeds, still saddled and in need of a rubdown.
“Do not steal the horse. If I must endure it, so shall you. Will you be my Bedlamite?” He said it like a marriage proposal, and she couldn’t resist a smile.
He sighed through his teeth. “How I have missed you, Lisa. Let me have a look at you. It has been two years.” He reached to hold her face again, and she leaned away. “Keep still. Obey, wench,” he teased, raising her chin.
She met his warm brown stare as he studied the top of her hair to the bottom of her ankles, her raised hem exposing bare skin to mid-calf. He’d seen much more in the past.
“You are a woman.”
“Brilliant. I knew those years at Oxford weren’t a complete waste.” She tucked her feet under the skirt.
“No, I mean you’ve grown up.” He still held her chin, tighter when she tried to pull away. “The roundness is gone from your cheeks — you look like your mother. And you’ve outgrown your freckles.” He traced a finger across the bridge of her nose where the faint trail of sunspots had once been sprinkled. “It seems your hair is darker. Is it proper to call it chestnut or maple? And now you wear it up like a lady. So I can’t tug on your braids?” He pulled on a curl hanging over her shoulder then let it spring back into place. “Your famous lavender eyes are the same. That pleases me.”
“My mother’s eyes were famous, not mine.” He seemed oblivious to her unease.
Andrew looked across her collar, shamelessly down her torso, and back to her face. “I confess you are quite elegant, Alysia. Very well-formed indeed. When I last saw you, you were short and plump.”
“I was sixteen,” she defended. “And you were lanky, Andrew, with hands and feet far too large for your frame. And your ears…”
“Am I not at all improved?”
“I suppose. Your shaggy hair hides the ears, at least.” His hair, no doubt fashioned by London’s finest valet, waved around his temples and neck in a style that made him look like a poet. Teasing came automatically to her, and somebody should keep his ego in check. “Shall I study you in return?”
“Yes, please. Yours is the only honest opinion I shall ever get. Everyone else is either indulgent or mercenary.”
“Very well.” She assessed him from head to toe; inexplicably he flushed under her scrutiny. “My, Andrew. You have the look of experience about you. The rakish way you lounge propped on your elbow and how you square your jaw, and there is that directness in your expression. You know you are beautiful.”
Before he could object, she pressed, “A man only behaves in such a manner when he is accustomed to unerring approval from every female he meets. Gone is the self-conscious, curious schoolboy. In his place, I see a skilled lover. Enjoyed yourself at Oxford, did you?”
His brows furrowed. “I did not expect that.”
Then she studied him from the perspective of an artist, noting lean, graceful lines at odds with his shrewd manner. Utter confidence. A Gallic warrior at his leisure. “You wear your character on your face, all willfulness and introspection. DaVinci and Michelangelo would fight over you. I wish I could sketch you.”
“At your service.” He said it with a smirk, peppering his charming words with a salacious meaning, which she ignored.
He picked up her charcoal pencil and turned it in his fingers then squinted at her drawing of a spritely Ophelia garbed in what Alysia guessed might pass for a Renaissance Danish gown. She had only begun cross-hatching the background, so Andrew was likely unimpressed by the mess of lines and blocks of shadow. He turned the page sideways, scowling, then flipped the page and browsed through her sketchbook. A lock of pepper-black hair draped over his brow; unthinkingly she brushed it away. His eyes closed and he leaned into her hand.
His genial chatting lulled her into a pleasant languor, making it seem as though no time had passed since they had last talked that way. His knee bumped hers as he wagged it back and forth. Andrew still smelled of leather and ink, but also now of starch and balsam, like a town gentleman. There had been no conscious decision to lie on her back with her head on his shoulder; she didn’t think about it until his arm hugged their sides together. Comfort warred with anxiety until she shifted to sit up and complained, sniffing, “You need a bath, Drew. And so does that poor horse, though I can’t tell who needs it worse.”
“I rode from Mill Hill, and the day is warm. You know even Prince Charming perspires with exertion, Lisa.” His hand snaked over her ribs, likely in search of the ticklish spot on her side. She caught his hand and bent his fingers back until he howled.
“Boys are odorous, truly, and I declare I’ve had my fill. Let me up.”
“Kiss me first, for old times’ sake.”
Thankfully she had outgrown blushing, but her insides had misbehaved since the first moment she’d heard his voice. “So you can compare me to all the lonely widows of London? No, thank you.”
“Oh, come now. No need to be jealous. I taught you to kiss, and therefore you are the best. Remind me, will you?”
“Wherever you learned that wicked tone of voice—”
“Does it not persuade you?”
“Not at all. I have wedding correspondence to answer. Good day.” He let her go. She stood and smoothed her skirt, flustered she could still smell him on her skin. She had lied — he smelled marvelous to her.
Andrew scoffed and sprawled his limbs, as though he had been struck dead by a jealous deity. One with a low tolerance for mortal hubris. “Must I start all over wooing you?”
“You mustn’t start at all, Lord Preston.”
“Our adolescent flirtation is over.”
Andrew appeared puzzled, then injured as he took in her expression, which she hoped looked ruthless. He stiffened. “You have a lover?”
“Of course not.”
“Then you are betrothed?”
“Then you have suitors?”
“Whom, Drew? The stable boy? A footman? I have neither the time nor stupidity for dalliance, if even I desired it.”
“What do you mean, you are not precisely engaged?” He ripped shafts of grass and tossed them like miniature javelins.
“Andrew, never mind it.” Another moment and she would either shout or weep. No use confiding the truth — that she was desperate. He would charge into the fray, gallant and reckless, making yet more turmoil. She knew, because his past attempts to help her had only convinced his parents he had a dangerous attachment to a courtesan’s daughter. And as such, Alysia had one choice before her now, which she had no desire to discuss with Andrew.
“Oh, Lisa. Darling, what is the matter?”
She saw a flash — sunshine reflecting on taffeta. Lady Courtenay and Lady Elizabeth crested the hill, probably having heard from the guards at the gate the prodigal son had returned. Alysia darted past the tree line and took cover behind a hedge before they saw her. Andrew muttered a curse as he stuffed her dropped stocking in his saddlebag as he waved to his mother and sister.
She had just finished her last private conversation with him. Their last kiss had been more than two years before. After his sister’s wedding, she would never see him again.
The young bejeweled Dowager Baroness of Remington, cousin twice removed to Lady Courtenay, arrived with her weak-stomached Pomeranian. Andrew’s mother turned into a shameless matchmaker, embarrassing Andrew and giving Lady Remington false hope.
Dinner the previous evening had been horrid. Lady Remington had shot veiled insults at Alysia, “Why, I don’t believe I saw you at Almack’s last Season,” and, “Now, who was your mother, exactly?” Apparently Lady Remington saw Alysia as a threat to her designs on Andrew, who valiantly rose to her defense.
“I avoid that henhouse whenever possible myself,” he’d said with a scoff.
At the mention of her mother, his jaw had clenched, making the tiny muscle in the corner tick. She feared he would erupt. “Lady Mercoeur was thought the most beautiful and accomplished woman on the continent. She was like a mother to me. I have only ever met her equal in her daughter.” He hadn’t seemed to mind the stunned silence, nor Lady Remington’s squirming in discomfort under his drilling stare.
The Duke of Belmont, who tirelessly insisted on trading glances with Alysia for a reason she could not fathom, had resorted to outright staring, which Andrew had noticed. Each time Belmont caught her eye, Andrew shot her a pointed glance, and then she had two men distressing her with covert looks.
Bad luck she’d been seated opposite Andrew. His boots had been bumping her shoes under the table all through dinner, which is why she noticed his retaliation too late.
He’d pushed under her skirts, and at first she’d thought he’d meant to stroke her leg, which was scandalous enough. She’d tried not to squeak as he pinched her stocking garters between the soles of his boots and pulled the ties then bunched her stockings at her ankles. He’d worn a bored expression, and she’d fought an angry scoff. Her face had probably been on fire. It had certainly felt like it.
It had been impossible to ruck up her skirts and retie the garters; she’d had to walk like a goose to keep from tripping over her stockings. She had distracted herself with imagining something terrible for revenge when Lady Remington’s lap dog had gotten sick on Andrew’s sleeve. Served him right.
Lady Courtenay had woken Alysia early that morning — after she’d stayed up late writing seating charts for the banquet. Apparently spools of silk ribbon had been misplaced by the milliner, and that constituted an emergency. “And by the way, the menus need revising.” To accommodate Lady Remington, who apparently had as weak a stomach as her ever-vomiting dog.
Lady Courtenay dropped the problem in Alysia’s lap because she knew Jean-Pierre, the chef, would threaten to burn down the kitchen again, this time for the ignominy of preparing “Heedeous Eengleesh blood-poodeeng.” Alysia could shout back in French, which was how the man communicated on a good day.
Having survived le grand combat with the chef, Alysia passed through the gallery after breakfast, in a hurry to the water closet. She simply hadn’t even found a minute to—
“Miss Villier?” called a suave tenor voice. She turned to see the Duke of Belmont waving her over to the billiard room. Gritting her teeth against the offense of being summoned, she pasted on a pleasant expression.
He flashed a pretty smile. “Care to sit?” His Grace patted the space next to him on the sofa and blew a ring of smoke from his cigar.
“Thank you, no.” She held a pencil ready to take notes, hoping he would catch the hint.
“Ah, well. I have decided against the Laurent-Perrier for the wedding. It lacks distinction.”
He went on to list the illustrious guests attending his wedding and requested some imported champagne from farther around the world than a two-week voyage, all while his line of sight strayed to her bodice. She angled the papers to block his view and promised every effort to procure the obscure elixir he couldn’t do without.
She wanted to kiss Christian, Andrew’s twelve-year-old brother, when he passed by and paused in the doorway to chat. It gave her the perfect opportunity to slip away.
Alysia was cross with herself for giving in, but she held out only a few hours before tucking her hair into a serviceable chignon and confiscating the lists from a bedraggled Lady Courtenay.
“Miss Villier to the rescue.” A refrain she’d heard so often the honor of the praise had tarnished. Lord Courtenay had said his wife would either sink or swim in the matter of domestic management when Alysia departed, and her ladyship was supposed to learn what to do the next two weeks. The odds favored the bit about sinking, then.
Alysia corralled the mastiffs in the west wing to keep them from eating the Pomeranian and sent the peacocks to a neighbor so the Pomeranian wouldn’t chase them. She wired for a wine steward to take over the wedding libations, and bribed the staff with exorbitant bonuses to keep them from quitting.
She heard from Lady Courtenay thrice more before lunch, and the lists grew longer. Alysia resorted to commandeering Andrew’s personal telegraph, followed by his rather vocal objections. She’d stood her ground, saying, “Empires may rise and fall in your absence, Lord Preston, but heaven help you if Lady Elizabeth’s wedding falls behind schedule.”
Managing a household: that was what Alysia did best, and she had been doing it since age sixteen. The oddity of having the daughter of Lord Courtenay’s late mistress act as lady of the house had long ceased to bother everyone involved. Keeping herself occupied made her forget it was not her family and not her home.
She passed through the gallery for the dozenth time that day and noticed someone had forgotten to rotate the east-facing tapestries—
A strong arm grasped her waist and pulled her into an alcove. She gasped and dropped her lists. Andrew yanked the curtain closed.
“You failed to mention my mother has become a bloody convincing candidate for Bedlam!”
“It’s just the wedding, my lord. Her nerves are—”
“And you should have told me the baroness was coming.” He scoffed. “I would have run the other way!”
“Come now, Lord Preston. Is that any way to speak of—”
“With one stray word of encouragement I fear she will call the banns.” His nostrils flared and he edged closer, towering over her.
“Be reasonable, my lord—”
“Lisa, stop that. And why is the Duke of Belmont always leering at you? Never tell me you are—”
“Stop interrupting me!” She beat her fist on his chest, and it startled them both. Alysia had always done that — hit his chest to get his attention when he was being a stubborn, hotheaded troll. The reminder of how it had been between them drained the angst from their argument. His expression softened.
A dozen alarms went off in her head. She stepped outside the curtain, but he caught her arm, turned her to face him, and restrained her against his chest. Had it been any other man who held her so, she would have kicked him in the shins.
“I had forgotten how volatile your temper is, Andrew.” She peeked around the curtain to be sure no one was near.
He pulled off her lace cap with his free hand and loosened her chignon with his fingers, his hands gentle despite his scowl. “How long have they been dreadful to you, Alysia? It wasn’t like this when I left.”
“They aren’t dreadful. On the contrary, I have been treated with utmost generosity, considering…” She wriggled an arm free and took his hand, toying with his fingers while she tried to explain. “You do me a great honor in behaving as though my society is equal to yours, but now we must fulfill our respective duties. I don’t resist it, and neither should you.” She dropped his hand, shamed by her own words.
Without warning, his mouth came down on hers. A long, deep, pull frozen in time. Long enough for shock to shoot through her veins then circulate back through as fire. She was lost until he released her, and then she felt dizzy.
He cursed under his breath, then he grasped the nape of her neck and drew her close, capturing her mouth in a hard, angry kiss. She shoved his chest, but she might as well have pushed against the stone walls of the house. His lips punished, his kiss hungry and ill-behaved.
Her rebellious fingers gripped the hair on the back of his neck and pulled hard, but she knew he liked that. For a few sublime moments, she kissed him back. A dance with a longtime partner. Lazy afternoons in their soaked underclothes, chatting in the cave behind the waterfall. Napping on his shoulder in the library window seat where sunshine baked through the glass.
His thumbs stroked up and down her throat and his lips gentled, but then he angled her head so he could slant his mouth over hers and stroke his tongue along the side of hers.
Pure bliss. The alarm bells in her head waned as though sinking underwater.
Andrew made a humming sound that vibrated in her mouth. He traced her upper lip with the tip of his tongue, and in turn she caught his bottom lip between her teeth and sucked on it. He groaned and tightened his arms around her, breaking away to trace his mouth down her throat.
She was too far gone to stop him when he exploited her vulnerability, did what he knew made her delirious with pleasure: he sank his lips into her neck where her jaw met her ear then kissed deeply down the side of her throat. She sighed, helpless and pliant.
He teased and tormented her, a sensory overload she succumbed to in less time than it took to sing the alphabet song. Completely seduced, she pulled his collar open and dragged her hands over his skin. She let him rake his hands down her sides, molding them together from shoulder to knee. With an instinctive stroke of her hips, she brushed against him in a plea for more.
He bit down on her lip and grunted, shattering the thrall.
Alysia startled and darted backward. Staring numbly at him, she raised her fingers to the place on her lip he’d bitten. Every nerve in her body prickled as though burned.
The unspoken truth loomed between them: separation had done nothing to weaken their attachment. That seemed a trite word for the tumultuous feeling squeezing her chest and throbbing in her pulse like an end-of-the-world storm.
How could she be so stupid? Asking for torture, tasting the forbidden fruit one last time before banishment from Eden. She smoothed her tousled hair with a trembling hand and gathered her papers, an excuse for not looking him in the eye.
Andrew fixed his collar and started to speak. They heard voices and clicking footsteps — his mother and Lady Remington. Alysia opened the curtain and whispered, “Quick, Drew. I think I should faint. Now.” She let herself drop, and he had no choice but to catch her. He found her fan and opened it.
The women approached in time to see him haul Alysia to the window seat by the tops of her arms, trying to fan her and looking distressed. Thanks to Andrew, her skin was genuinely flushed.
Alysia revived as the baroness and Lady Courtenay rushed to her aid. She blinked weakly and sat up. “Oh, dear. It seems I had a swoon.” She pretended to notice Andrew for the first time. “Lord Preston? Oh. Thank you. I suppose I am fortunate you happened by at the right moment.”
“What? No. Do you not remember, Alysia?”
She shot him a glare for not calling her Miss Villier. So did his mother.
“We were chatting by the window there, and you fell laughing near to fits at something I said. I suppose the heat through the window overcame you, because then you fainted.”
He ignored her covert look of incredulity.
“Either I’m overwhelmingly clever, or your corset laces are too tight,” he added innocently without releasing her from his arms, though he should have done so several moments past.
The women gasped. Alysia resisted closing her eyes in resignation at his outlandish remark. Instead she punished him by digging her nails into his arm until he righted her on her feet and let go.
Lady Remington looked between Lord Preston and Alysia with unmistakable jealousy and disdain. Lady Courtenay wore her usual expression of displeasure.
“I am much obliged, your lordship.” Alysia gave him a curt nod, retrieved her lists, and left him to his mother and Lady Remington. Alysia tried not to be too satisfied by his martyred expression, even though his clenched jaw and pleading eyes made it clear he’d rather she left him trussed up with cannibals.
Perhaps now she could finally visit the blasted water closet.
Moriah Densley sees nothing odd at all about keeping both a violin case and a range bag stuffed with pistols in the back seat of her car. They hold up the stack of books in the middle, of course. She enjoys writing about Victorians, assassins, and geeks. Her muses are summoned by the smell of chocolate, usually at odd hours of the night. By day her alter ego is your friendly neighborhood music teacher. She lives in Las Vegas with her husband and four children.
Published in historical and paranormal romance, Moriah has a Master’s degree in music, is a 2012 RWA Golden Heart finalist, 2012 National Reader’s Choice Award winner in Historical Romance, and 2012 NRCA Best First Book finalist.
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