Ensnared By Innocence
Roaring Rogues Book 1
by Larissa Lyons
Genre: Paranormal Regency Romance
2022 Maggie Award of Excellence Finalist
Changing into a lion isn’t all fur and games.
A Regency lord battles his inner beast while helping an innocent miss, never dreaming how he’ll come to care for the chit—nor how being near his world will deliver danger right to her doorstep.
If Darcy possessed a roaring libido and grappled with feline curses…
Lady Francine Montfort may have led a sheltered life till her parents’ untimely demise but that doesn’t mean she’s ignorant. Neither is she blind to the conniving ways of her persistent aunt, who’s determined to marry Francine off for her own selfish gain. Forced to drastic measures to avoid the wretched woman’s scheming, Francine concocts her own masterful plan.
She might need to beg a favor from Lord Blakely—the sinfully alluring marquis who inspires all manner of illicit thoughts—but she’s determined to help him as well. To ease those mysterious, haunting secrets that torment him so…
When Lady Francine, the epitome of innocence, requests he pose as her betrothed, Blakely knows he should handily refuse. He’s baffled when unfamiliar, protective urges make themselves known, tempting him to agree while danger stalks ever closer.
Alas, it’s fast approaching the season when Blakely loses all control. Either Francine satisfies his sexual appetites or he’ll be forced to reveal his beastly side. And that will never do. Not now that he’s come to care for the intrepid miss.
Standalone ~ HEA ~ 80,000 word Novel
Note to Readers: This love story between two people contains a lot of sizzle, including one partial ménage scene that gets rather…growly.
A much shorter version of Ensnared by Innocence was previously published; this second edition is three times as long and freshly rewritten.
The Preposterous Proposition
I leave this recordation for my beloved sons. Erasmus and Nash. My heirs. Who will one day, pray God, live to manhood and conduct themselves in a manner more gracious, more fitting to their station and responsibilities than I have managed.
My dear offspring who I cannot believe I condemned to such a fate, however unknowingly.
A fate I share but one that was not known to me until after you were both conceived. (And which also no doubt explains the sparsity of children in our family, and siblings for you both.)
The urges for The Change first came upon me in the summer of the year I turned five and twenty. It was not yet the middle of July and yet I sensed the stirrings of what I would eventually learn was my animal blood. My feline side, if you boys will only set aside skepticism and believe. Please, sons, heed my warnings, for you do not want to be caught unaware as I—and irreparably harm the woman you love.
To see the fear in her eyes when she looks upon you and beholds a monster. A beast. Your inner beast. The lion, untamable. Unstoppable.
I pray not. ’Tis why I locked myself away, in this, my 28th year, the third of the curse. Why I place armed guards at the door for the entirety of the month.
As I battle the inner demon once again, my only consolation is knowing that you both are still too young to remark upon my absence.,
Too young to question why Papa turns into an ogre toward the end of the hot, sultry summer months.
Too young to recall how severely I injured your mother…
* * *
“Lord Blakely, pardon the interruption. Might I beg a word with you?”
Erasmus Hammond, Marquis of Blakely, looked down his long patrician—scarred—nose at the intrepid female who dared interrupt the boisterous group of men he currently conversed with.
Delicate, feminine young ladies such as this one definitely did not mix with his oft-beastly ways. Not unless they wanted to be torn asunder.
He didn’t recognize her, but judging from the looks his companions aimed her direction, they did. The meaning behind the smirks and elbow jabs was unmistakable, confound it.
Just what he didn’t need—another wedding-minded miss setting her cap for him. Every Season he remained unmarried, it seemed his value on the marriage market escalated. Despite the air of libidinous rake he cultivated in public—and indulged in private—his attraction as an eligible mate only increased with each year that passed, as though snaring his dissolute self would be something of a coup. Hardly.
Where was her chaperone?
“Gracious me,” he drawled as sarcastically as he could manage, “a bold little muff, are you not?” He gestured to his chortling companions, hoping the crude comment would be enough to send her heels flying. “Approaching me? Here?”
Here, at Lady Longford’s crush, celebrating the engagement of one of her many offspring, the place teeming with too many people and too much perspiration, offensive odors he chronicled as easily as breathing. Odors he tolerated, along with the boorish twaddle that surrounded him, because unlike some others he could name—ahem, his brother for one—Blakely bore his responsibilities, took them very seriously indeed.
Yet, no sweat-drenched, unpalatable odors emanated from the brash one before him, he couldn’t help but note. So she wasn’t here to dance and make merry?
Dance and make a marriage, more like. Is that not the ultimate aim of every young chit here?
Blakely grunted at the thought, taking her in.
The very definition of English miss—blonde, blue-eyed and insipid—stood before him. Granted, she was a trifle taller than perfection allowed these days, and her face looked decidedly powdered—smelled powdered too, the pale artifice likely hiding all manner of spots, blemishes and daunting imperfections.
But when she shifted, allowing the shawl curved within the crooks of both arms to slide, he noticed the two-inch expanse of skin between the short, puffy sleeves of her gown and her long gloves. Two inches of implausibly dark skin, which forced his attention back to her face. Caused him to study…to linger. Beneath the powder, ’twas smooth as silk. At least that’s how it appeared, making his fingers twitch with the sudden urge to test the observation.
So she wasn’t hiding spots? Perchance only an unfashionable liking of the sun? As one who spent more time than he’d like in the dark, that alone piqued his interest.
“Please, my lord?” She scooted further around the column separating his small group from the dance floor. “I promise not to take but a few moments of your time.” So earnest. Her voice so very serene, even as he scented her… What was it? Fear? Frustration? Apprehension that her asinine errand—approaching him, of all people—would prove unsuccessful?
Of course it would. It has to.
Trying again to discourage her, he glanced around the ballroom, purposely avoiding her gaze, and employed his loftiest voice. “I do not believe we have been introduced and therefore, most regretfully, I cannot begin any manner of discourse with—”
“But we have,” she had the audacity to interject. “It was three years ago at the Seftons’ ball. We danced, but I have no expectation that you recollect the encounter.”
And he knew she was shamming him. If they’d met, if he’d been near her for a dance, he’d remember her scent.
A remarkably fresh yet earthy fragrance that appealed to him on so many levels ’twas dangerous. Dangerous for them both.
She stood her ground and spoke calmly, despite their eavesdropping, snickering audience. Taller than most women, she came nearly to his chin. Hers was tilted at such an angle he suspected she must practice the determined stance in front of a mirror.
More than that, most fresh-faced elegants weren’t bold enough to approach him directly, and he couldn’t help but admire this one in spite of himself. He almost hated to crush her spirit but dissuade her he must. Innocents were not for him. Especially now.
It was nearing the time of year he had two choices: Either secret himself away and privately battle his demons. Or find the wildest women he could to exorcise away his fiendish tendencies through exhaustive, nightly rounds of intense prigging. Smashing choice, that. No wonder he always chose the second, more sociable option. Something he seriously doubted would appeal to this one.
“By all means, do forgive me,” he stated, matching her tranquil tone. “But, alas, you are correct. I do not remember you.” There was more jostling from his cohorts. They knew the type of female he preferred—and the kind he avoided at all costs. Though several years beyond the schoolroom, the flaxen-haired miss in front of him definitely fell into the latter category.
Even so, he was surprised how her poise drew him. And if he tipped his head…just so…
Ah, yes, he could look straight down the front of her pale blue gown, to furtively gaze at the womanly endowments not quite hidden beneath. Of course, he had no business looking at her dugs, none whatsoever.
“A word?” she insisted, angling her chin a fraction higher. “Consider it imperative.”
Imperative? Intrigued despite his better judgment, he inclined his head in a show of assent.
’Twas odd, how her voice drew him, all calm assurance instead of the more heated, sultry tones he was used to hearing from his experienced lovers. Would she maintain that cultured, confident manner in the throes of passion?
What of it, man? She’s not for you.
True. So very true.
Especially now, with his latest suspicions? With even more danger surrounding London than before…
Had he missed one? Failed to pick up on a potential wrong-side-of-the-blanket Hammond offspring? Had all the sacrifices, the years spent miring himself in the dungeons of the ton, seeking out the most dissolute, reckless individuals, praying they were only human—and nothing more sinister—been all for naught?
Shaking off the dread that accompanied him these days like a persistent and bothersome fly, he followed her a short distance further, away from the periphery of the crowded dance floor.
When she reached a secluded corner and stopped, he did as well. And found himself curious, if only remotely so, why she had approached him directly—and without a formal introduction. Totally unheard of in the upper realms of the ton he inhabited.
“Lord Blakely, I have a proposition I would like to put forth to you.” For all her height and assured poise, she seemed dainty, almost fragile, standing before him.
“By all means, please do.” His curiosity grew by the second. And so did the reluctant attraction running rampant through his veins. Which would never do.
Never! Do you not have sufficient responsibilities, man? Ferreting out who’s destroying—
Blakely shook off the annoying reminder, the one that settled fear and concern heavily on his shoulders; far more pleasant to ponder the diverting package before him. “State your case,” he encouraged in as droll a voice as he could cultivate, “so I may rejoin my crew.”
When she hesitated, glancing behind her, he took possession of the gloved hand nearest—which brought her attention swiftly back to him. He then lifted it to his lips and kissed the air over her fingers before releasing them. Instead of scaring her away as he’d intended, a blush flared up her chest and over her face, delighting him, which was patently ridiculous.
Blushes were for maidens; whores were for him.
So why was it that the tinge of pink flushing her cheeks fascinated? The slight color was difficult to discern beneath the powder and her unfashionably dark skin but he saw it clearly nevertheless. Unbidden, curiosity rose regarding the extent of her exposure to sunlight. Where might the golden hue leave off and pale porcelain begin?
And why do you care?
Aye, definitely time to curtail their conversation. “You were saying? A proposition, I believe. I weary of being here,” he lied. “Speak in haste.”
The pale blonde ringlets surrounding her face swayed as she took a fortifying breath, readying for battle. “I know I presume much, but I would be eternally grateful if you could see your way to posing as my betrothed until—”
He laughed outright at her outrageous request, drawing the attention of several guests. Sobering, Blakely stated, “Completely out of the question. But thank you for asking. I needed some amusement this evening.”
When he turned to leave, her hand shot out, latching on to his arm with surprising strength. He halted and peered at her gloved fingers until she removed them. Damn if a bolt of need hadn’t flashed through him at the contact. Astonishing, for he’d just dallied with the amorous and very accommodating Mistress Rose of the Crown & Cock not twenty-four hours before.
“Lord Blakely, please. Hear me out.” She rushed on before he could say yea or nay. “It would be a pretend betrothal, a farce if you will, lasting only a few weeks. Surely you can find it in your heart to assist me for such a short time? I will pay you handsomely for your trouble and release you publicly from our agreed-upon understanding after you fulfill its terms.”
“We have no understanding,” he felt compelled to remind her. “But for the sake of argument, your reasoning is faulty. How would this assist you in any way? For upon becoming affianced to me, not to mention later breaking said betrothal, your reputation would be tantamount to ruined.”
“That has no consequence,” she said rather convincingly. “I only want the appearance of a betrothal for the remainder of the Season.”
Which only intrigued him further. What manner of eligible miss cared naught for her reputation? ’Twas a young female’s only currency, all her real blunt controlled first by her father and then by her spouse. “And why is that?”
“My reasons are my own.”
Stubborn chit. He half wished he couldn’t see her so clearly in the candlelit ballroom. What was it about her that drew him?
The unspoilt scent of heather and fresh air? The sunshine she exudes? The hint of freedom from the chains that bind you to London as surely as if you were locked in Newgate.
“If you will not explain yourself, why should I even consider your ridiculous proposal?”
That willful chin lifted again. “Because I will pay you.”
“Not enough, not for what you ask.” She had no idea what she was asking, what being near her the next few weeks might cost him. Or her.
She proceeded to name an amount that sent his head spinning.
Good God. He’d just been propositioned by a bloody heiress.
To fight the deceptive allure she represented—because it wasn’t called a leg shackle for nothing—he shifted his weight, tightened the muscles in his legs. “You are a piece of intriguing baggage, I’ll grant you that. Why approach me and not some other titled gent in need of the ready and likely to agree?”
“Your standing as one of the most sought-after libertines in the ton ,” she stated baldly, her face flushing even more. “It suits my purposes quite well. And your title, for another reason. Not every marquis has a character such as yours.”
“I do not know whether to be insulted or flattered.” The inexplicable urge to touch her cheek stormed through him. Since when did he care about cheeks? He fisted his hands and anchored them firmly at his sides.
“I mean no offense, I assure you, but it is not in me to cavil at the truth. You and I both know that you have no intention of marrying this year, and I need someone of your…ilk to best ensure the successful outcome of my plan.”
He made a noise in his throat, one that could indicate he was considering her asinine idea, which was absurd—because he wasn’t. Neither was he convinced he wanted his ilk—well-suited to her asinine plan or not—to be what he was known for. Sought after for.
“I only ask that you show me the same courtesy and give me your honest reply posthaste.” Again, she looked over her shoulder, as if expecting a dragon to swoop in and steal her away.
Come to think on it, he was surprised they had been left alone this long. “And what is your next course of action, should I turn down your oh-so-tempting offer?”
“Sarcasm does not become you, Lord Blakely,” she admonished him.
“Do not talk down to me,” he told her, instantly irritated with himself. With her. Why was he still wasting his breath conversing? Why not simply tell her nay and be done with it? Why did he long to touch so much more than her cheek? To see her hair down, her dress gone and her legs wrapped around his waist?
Damn it, where was his control? It seemed to have abandoned him the very moment she abandoned her good sense and approached him.
“Forgive me,” she said contritely. “The stress of awaiting your reply has put me quite on edge.”
“Which is understandable. Considering you have propositioned a man who has not the faintest clue who you are.”
“Lady Francine Montfort, my lord.” She sketched the briefest curtsy on record.
“Please continue, Lady Francine Montfort.” He committed her name to memory; her scent he’d never forget—even if he tried. “When I refuse to be a part of your outlandish scheme, what will you do?”
“When you refuse?” She arched a single, chastising eyebrow.
How the hell an eyebrow lift could make him feel small only strengthened his resolve. Say nay and be gone!
“If you persist in claiming you have already decided”—she gave a prim little huff—“then there remains no further need to waste your time. Or mine. Good night.”
This time it was his hand that halted her retreat.
She spun silently on slippered feet back to him. “Yes, my lord?” Her tone had turned icy.
Blakely released her at once, the tingles attacking his palm something of a surprise. “Humor me, then. If. If I decline. What is your plan?”
“Why, I will speak with the next person on my list. Perhaps he will be more agreeable.”
Unaccountably, disappointment stirred in his chest. “Oh? So this is not an exclusive offer you make to me alone? I am only one in a long line?” And no doubt farther down the list than your pride deems acceptable. “Lady Francine Montfort,” he continued, and it was an effort to maintain his droll façade, “I must confess I am crushed by the knowledge. Quite.”
She looked over her shoulder again, distracted by whatever it was she sought. “If you must know…” Her gaze swung back to his. “You are my preferred choice and the first man I approached, but as you are determined to thwart my sincere overtures, I must move on. I beg of you, please do not speak of this to anyone. It—”
“I would not dream of it.”
“Are you positive I cannot persuade you to at least consider my proposition? You have yet to hear my terms in their entirety and yet you are refusing me outright.”
“There is more?” The entreaty in her sky-blue eyes was almost enough to convince him to reconsider. But then he saw past the appeal, to the innocence.
Pity. He didn’t deal with innocents. Ever. Only those women already hardened by life’s experiences, women who liked having their precious egos petted as much as they liked having their slits stroked. Women whose purses he was not averse to lining and who were willing to overlook his behavior, if, in the midst of things, he got a little rough. Certainly, his carnal appetites were too wild for the virtuous dainty before him.
Somewhat regretfully, he opened his mouth to decline.
The screech interrupted him.
“How dare you!” An older woman charged at them from the side, brandishing her fan like a bayonet and casting him a glare as if he were Lucifer come to life. Which perhaps he was—for even considering corrupting her charge.
“Franny! You evil child!” Sky-high plum-colored feathers stuck out of a forest-green turban, agitating the air above her mottled face. Ire definitely did not sit pretty on this particular matron. “What are you doing, talking to him?” the woman hissed. Her voice carried like that of a general commanding his troops. More than one curious head turned toward their secluded corner. “Come away this instant!”
“But, Aunt,” Lady Francine protested, casting him a commiserating glance. “Lord Blakely and I are only conver—”
“The Lord Blakelys of this world are most certainly not for the likes of you, gel. Now come along.” A full head shorter and three times as wide as her niece, the harridan grasped Lady Francine’s slim arm and tugged.
Pale-blue eyes gazed at him as she silently succumbed to the forced retreat. Just before she disappeared from view, her mouth formed the words, The garden?
And he, purveyor of pleasure and avoider of innocents, found himself nodding in assent.
Damn his hide.
**On Sale for a limited time!**
Deceived By Desire
Roaring Rogues Book 2
Meet a Shakespeare-quoting shapeshifter who wants nothing to do with love…
Cursed into the form of a lion without nightly sex, Lord Nash Hammond wants only two things—his liquor strong and smooth, and his wenches wild and willing. What he doesn’t need is a virgin!
Nash senses the man across from him in the cramped stagecoach is trouble, a danger to the veiled woman accompanying her lofty “protector”. Nash knows he’s no hero, yet she keeps asking for his help. And how is it the vexing female knows so much about his secrets? Ones that could rip her apart if she only knew it…
And the spunky “lady” from the streets who masquerades as another man’s mistress…
Blessed with the second-sight—or cursed, depending upon which relative she believes—Laney sees her two possible futures: bleak and a soon-deceased victim (ack!) or frolicking with her fellow stagecoach passenger: a golden-eyed, tawny-haired gentleman—who’s anything but.
The miserable rip who’s already stepped on her dress, who keeps staring…
Nash is surly and rude and resistant to her every effort to speak with him. When they stop for the night and she overhears him order a “strumpet” to bed, Laney takes the doxy’s place, convinced she can pretend well enough. After all, she’s pretended to be a mistress for years. She’ll satisfy his needs, but refuse his money—demand he listen and help her instead. Then she’ll be safe.
Until, along with her body, Nash starts to claim her heart as well.
Reader Advisory: While Deceived by Desire is laugh-out-loud funny in places, it contains a short *vision* of violence and brief references to past abuse. Beyond that, expect a fun and sexy good time because…
Changing into a lion is all fun and growls—until it isn’t.
HEA ~ Book 2 – Roaring Rogues Regency Shifters ~ 97,000 words
A shorter version of Deceived by Desire was previously published; this second edition contains several new chapters characters, and is freshly rewritten.
Book 1 – Ensnared by Innocence, FINALIST – Maggie Award of Excellence 2022
The Wretched Hat and the Wretched Man
Nash roused from his latest bout of self-pity long enough to crack his eyes open and watch the newest passengers climb aboard the already cramped, soggy stagecoach. The pair settled directly across from the corner he’d occupied for the past several hours.
He shifted and pressed his foot solidly against the floor of the coach.
Demmed inconvenient it was, having to share the dank spot he’d staked out as his own with the outwardly perfect couple. He kept his head lowered in the guise of dozing and refused to admit, even to himself, that he’d cared enough to peek.
People. Who needed ’em?
Certainly not Nash Hammond.
The stagecoach? Now that he needed, though if the blasted sky would just cooperate, not for much longer. He had enough money to buy his own horse—a splendidious one if he wanted. Hell, an entire stable full if he so desired—and actually had a stable. But then he’d have to care for it. Them. No demmed matter!
It was easier to put up with public transport.
Gave him something to think about other than his own contemptible problems.
“Pardon me, sir, but your foot snagged on my dress.” The cultured voice cascaded over him like a heaven-sent waterfall, at odds with the jarring way its owner tried to wrench her long, surprisingly dry skirts from beneath his boot.
He refused to budge, kept his boot clamped down and continued to feign sleep as he’d been doing ever since the horses had splashed to a stop, the stagecoach rolling to a sodden halt behind them when the driver paused for a fresh team and additional passengers.
Folks left a slumbering man alone—Nash knew by now, reckoning he was drunk most likely—and refrained from asking him to scoot over. That was the pertinent motivation; if he was going to be trapped inside, then he’d make blame certain he had every bit of space he could muster. He always claimed an extra thumb’s width between his body and the side of the coach, celebrating whenever he managed to secure more than the typical sixteen inches allotted to paying chaps like himself.
He’d begun his flight out of London as an outside passenger on the Royal Mail Coach—because it moved faster than lightning—but the incessant rains drove him inside and onto a public conveyance. Never could abide being exposed to the elements when it was pouring.
“Mister! My dress,” the female hissed, trying in vain to arrange herself across from him. “It’s caught under your boot!”
She pulled harder and he glanced at her through slitted lids, but the frothy contraption perched precariously atop her head hid her face.
Did she know that he’d stepped on her trailing hem on purpose?
Could she tell he was fighting back a gloat at her pathetic efforts to free her skirts? Did she have any idea of his pathetic existence?
Just as he tensed the muscles in his thigh to lift his foot, a ripping sound exploded from the floor and she plopped backward on the opposite bench, her skirts flying up to expose surprisingly inviting petticoats.
“Wretched man!” she muttered under her breath.
Acting no better than an unlicked cub, he was, amusing himself at her expense. He should apologize.
But he didn’t move.
Or say a word.
He was too busy rumbling a fake snore and inspecting the luscious treat whose lacy hem remnants lay trapped beneath his sole and the fop who’d just climbed in after her, lurching more than a bit. The fop who she appeared to be wedded to, if the dandy’s sour look toward Nash was anything to go by.
Refined thing like that. Her in her fancy hat and white traveling dress—white! As if she shouldn’t be covered from head to toe with a thick layer of mud and grime. How she managed to look so perfect and proper on a day like today, with her apricot-colored kid slippers, closed ruffle-edge parasol that matched her dress and immaculately gloved fingers was beyond him.
Her generous bosom looked anything but refined though, ready to spill from the not-quite-decent neckline with just the slightest encouragement.
Nash strangled on the sudden growl of desire that threatened to erupt, turning it instead into a garbled snore.
Criminal, the way his cock behaved. Rearing up as if it needed a warm quiver, as though he hadn’t attacked his brother’s woman just hours before. Blast him! His primed penis deserved to be ground beneath her heel.
“All set, m’dear?” the red-haired dandy asked on a hiccup, squishing close to the woman and plunking his arm across her shoulders in a proprietary move while he cast Nash a glower as if the man could read minds.
Nash’s first-rate wattles caught the slight hitch in her breathing, his conk the hint of sour fear. “Indeed, Mr. Tate.” She squirmed within her companion’s restrictive embrace. “Thank you for asking.”
Her cultured tones had turned puny. From vibrant waterfall to watered-down dribble.
Nash hunched lower, slightly lifting his lids to gaze at her from beneath the overlong fall of hair that blocked half his face. Some sort of netting hung from the brim of the ungodly confection perched atop her head, hiding her features. The curve of her cheek was visible—barely—but naught else.
Probably had the face of a sow, a pointy-nose, bulgy-eyed mama pig. God surely had to give such a one a curse to balance the bounty of figure He’d blessed her with.
The dandy patted his pocket and pulled out a snuffbox. He made a great show placing a pinch just inside his lower lip, which he ruined with another hiccup, then did everything in reverse, returning the snuff to his pocket. His actions were ludicrous, done with one hand as the other was still firmly ensconced atop the sow’s shoulder.
Nash hadn’t seen more flounces even at court. How the dandy’s chin moved as his pursed lips blathered at her with so much starched linen and lace at his throat was beyond him. The clunch likely spent more time at Weston’s than he did his own dinner table.
And shuddering fear, and green-eyed jealousy! his conscience taunted, compliments of Mister William Shakespeare.
Jealous? Jealous of the overdressed man and his feminine fortune? Never. Never! As if hearing the mental shouts, the man echoed…
“Never fear, m’dear,” Dandy drawled, “only two days confined in this infernal conveyance—three at the most if this Scotch mist keeps up—and we shall arrive at our destination.”
She left off gazing at the torn hem fraying in her fingers and glanced through that irritating netting at Dandy. “Will you please bring yourself to tell me where we are going?” she inquired so softly anyone without Nash’s exceptional hearing would have missed it.
He wished he’d missed it, for the dulcet sounds of her airy syllables would never let him think of her as a sow again. Pig-faced or not, she had the voice of a princess. “I am quite sure it will not ruin your surprise if you—”
“Nay! And leave off asking!” The dandy swatted her shoulder. “You will enjoy it,” he added cajolingly. “I assure you.”
At the threatening undercurrent in the man’s voice, Nash lifted his head and uncrossed his arms. He remained slouched, giving the appearance of only casual interest. “You would not be taking the lady somewhere she prefers not to go, now, would you?”
The woman flinched. The sour scent of her fear now blasting off her in waves.
“Of course he isn’t!” She trilled a practiced laugh. “Mr. Tate is forever treating me to new experiences and surprises.”
“Mind your own bloody business!” the dandy bit out.
“Hear! Hear!” an older man in the opposite corner grumped. “Females present and all that. Mind your mouth!”
“Forgive me,” the redhead reprobate said even as his knuckles whitened on her shoulder. To the others, he was all polish and shine. Slime.
Nash wanted to lose his breakfast on the man’s gleaming Hessians. Instead, he tried to see past the netting, clueless where his sudden bout of chivalry had sprung from. “Ma’am? Are you well?”
He sensed her nervous smile, practically tasted the salty thickness of her looming tears. “I am wonderful. My life is…wonderful.”
“See?” Dandy boasted, as if there had never been any doubt.
She was lying.
Nash cursed himself for caring. For even asking.
He didn’t want the responsibility of sheltering a blame horse. What made him think he was up for the challenge of saving a bountiful-breasted, soft-voiced princess?
Sow, he told himself. A veiled sow. Oink.
Oink, oink! so cries a pig prepared to the spit. He intentionally butchered Shakespeare’s original line, but couldn’t stop from wondering…
Did lions eat pigs?
Three days, maybe two, if the stinking rain didn’t sink this coach as it had the first one they’d climbed into.
Reginald curved his arm more securely around Eleanor’s shoulder. He couldn’t stay mad at her for more than a minute.
Damn but he was parched.
Thoughts of her always made his throat go dry. So why can she not make your twanger go stiff?
Ever since the Unfortunate Incident when his brother George John arrived unexpectedly at Reginald’s townhouse and caught him with Neils, life hadn’t been the same.
From the time they were in the nursery, Reginald knew he was different, knew with an inborn certainty that he should keep his sexual desires to himself. But even his sense of self-preservation couldn’t stop him from finally expressing his inner yearning once he and Neils met. Lovers. They’d become lovers and Reginald had never been so happy.
Eleanor made the perfect foil—she attended all appropriate venues for a mistress and played her part well, keeping George John pacified and mollified.
Eh, eh. Reginald chuckled at his private jest.
Ironically, when it came to his older brother, no matter how much he positively loathed the man, Reginald secretly aspired to emulate him in every manner. George John was a true out-and-outer—the man boxed with Gentleman Jackson, rode with the prince, and was a top-notch gambler and womanizer to boot. With his wife tucked away in the country raising their three brats, two mistresses ensconced in London and reputations at more than one high-class brothel, George John was all the crack. And he had mistaken illusions that his younger brother was made of the same stamp.
When in fact, the only thing Reginald ever dreamed of cracking…was Neils.
Eleanor winced and he consciously relaxed his fingers, patting her shoulder. Leaning forward, he slid his tongue inside his bottom lip and gathered up the spit-soaked snuff. Hated the stuff. Only did it to look manly and because Eleanor had started clearing her throat and coughing every time he lit a cheroot these days—not that he blamed her on that score.
The fancy snuff tin had been the most recent gift from Neils and that alone made it worth using, though the constant reminder brought a pang each time Reginald pulled it out.
Determined to put his past love affair and liaison behind him, Reginald spat the wad of tobacco on the lurching stagecoach floor. The brown blob slid toward the impertinent rogue in the corner.
Reginald straightened and smiled. He’d just shown the other man who was in charge. Easily discounting the way the stranger’s eyes narrowed, he leaned into Eleanor, knowing he couldn’t make his claim any clearer.
He really didn’t need to. He owned her. Body and soul.
Owned her. The knowledge didn’t bring the comfort it usually did. Because from the moment George John discovered Reginald in his own home, in his own bedchamber no less, and in an extreme state of dishabille with another man—and Eleanor nowhere in sight to mask his true actions—George John had made it his mission in life to “make Reginald into a real man” and “purge his soul of those detestable, perverted leanings”.
Father would be appalled, Reginald had heard countless times. Usually followed by A sodomite! In my god-damned family? or A Miss Molly—in the Tate family tree? Take care, Reg, the authorities don’t get wind of this or you’ll soon find yourself swinging from a branch.
Yammering on and on, over and over, as if Reginald were to blame. If anyone was to blame, ’twas Eleanor.
At the thought, Reginald ground his teeth. If she’d been at home as she should have been, instead of flitting off to the sweet shop with her little teacher friend, then she would have been there to salvage his reputation.
But oh no. She’d been gone, George John had found Neils in bed next to him and Reginald hadn’t had a moment of solitude since.
“If that juicy flap under your roof cannot harden your cock, I will break it off myself,” George John had threatened. “You take that bitch, prove to yourself—and to me—that you are capable of siring a babe. Damn you, Reg! You know how I have begun negotiations with Lord Volmering about his youngest chit. I expect you to do your duty and get her with child within a year of the nuptials.”
Reginald had protested. But as always, it hadn’t made a lick of difference. George John had his mind set on a connection with Lord Volmering—more decisively, a connection with Volmering’s youngest’s excessively large dowry entering into the Tate family coffers. Seatmates in the House of Lords ever since George John had unexpectedly inherited his title, they’d struck up a friendship three years and two babes late for George John himself to make the connection a reality.
So it was left to Reginald.
Left to Reginald to find a way to bed Eleanor and prove to both himself and his brother that he could.
Stupid everlasting stipulation in the marriage contract, if you asked him, requiring him to father a child before the dowry changed hands.
Nagging pressure made his loins twitch. The gin he’d downed earlier had gone right through him. He needed to piss.
Knowing they wouldn’t stop for hours only made his bladder burgeon. Too bad his newest beaver couldn’t double as a chamber pot. Deuced hot in here with all these muggy bodies clumped together like barnacles on a barge. Maybe he’d just sweat it out. But if that was going to be the case…
He removed his fine beaver and set it in his lap, not wanting to soil the hat band with perspiration.
He squeezed Eleanor’s shoulder, thinking of how his brother promised—had damned well guaranteed—this trip would purge the “suck-pricking” urges—George John’s term—right from Reginald’s soul. Would cure him so that his cock would stiffen and spew each time he so much as looked at a woman.
Evidently, in addition to the mistresses and madams he consorted with in town, his brother had quite the collection of acquaintances with rather varied sexual tastes. At the thought of everything George John had hinted awaited him at the end of this journey, Reginald shuddered.
He just needed another drink. He’d get there. His blade would get there—be able to pierce the prize next to him and make his brother proud.
He had Eleanor. And his brother’s friends to help him.
The look on the stranger’s face made all sorts of twittery discombobulations churn Laney’s guts. Just like being with Reginald did, only in a not-quite-horrible way. Almost a good way, for even though her stomach had nigh lodged in her throat and her skin hummed at the fiery glint in his eyes, she couldn’t look away.
Mayhap ’twas simply riding backward? Squished between the side of the carriage and the man who owned her—body, not soul—until her indenture expired. If she didn’t expire first, that recent—dire—vision overriding her every waking thought and action the last few days. Until this gruff stranger demanded her attention and refused to let go.
Her stomach pitched again. Knowing the four horses and driver were just a meager distance away, barreling forward at a breakneck pace, didn’t help. They travelled far too fast for the inclement weather. But then, Reginald had insisted they both change clothes after the morning’s coaching debacle and he’d just tipped their new driver substantially to “Push on, man. Horses are strong, make ’em earn their hay.”
Thanks to Reginald and his ill-timed impatience, she was now stuck enduring not only the stranger’s avid inspection, but the coach jiggling her body so ferociously it was stewing up the Banbury cake she’d eaten to break her fast. Ugh. She knew better than to indulge in her love of sweet breads, especially when such an arduous, unknown journey awaited her.
And now she paid for such ill-thought-out—
Nay, it wasn’t the public coach ride responsible for the locusts plaguing her belly. It was him. The surly stranger whose knees crowded her own, the heat from his expression warming her straight down to her previously wet toes.
The scowl on his face should damage his countenance, but on the contrary, his churlish expression combined with the daring lack of care he showed in his dress only piqued her interest. His jacket wasn’t properly buttoned and his neckcloth was tied so haphazardly the hollow beneath his throat where his collarbones didn’t quite touch was visible. Absolutely scandalous!
Now if he owned her instead…
Laney groaned at her fanciful imaginings. Only one person owned her at the moment—for the next ten months, twenty-two days and some-odd hours—and that was Reginald Tate, the handsome…bastard next to her.
To distract herself, both from Reginald’s smothering arm across her shoulders and the stranger’s piercing gaze, Laney chanced a look at Reginald, confirming his attention was elsewhere, and left off tearing the torn hem to shreds to bring her reticule to her lap and a comforting rustle to her ears. Mary Delilah’s letter. She’d read it again this evening, after they stopped for the night, see whether she could make heads or tails of her friend’s uncharacteristic wild rambling.
Reginald patted her shoulder and then removed his arm. Finally. Calling him Reginald in her mind was just one of a handful of defiant measures she’d undertaken lately to assert her independence, whether he knew it or not.
She took a shaky breath, but still smothered by his presence, it wasn’t nearly deep enough. Why couldn’t the knave have remained outside and ridden on top of the coach? The loud blast of thunder overhead mocked the question.
“I’ll just enjoy another little nip, m’dear. I daresay it’ll help the time pass.” He scooted closer, branding her entire side, then pulled his ever-present flask from inside his coat pocket and tipped it back, pouring the contents down his gullet as if it were a race he had to win. At this rate, he’d be out before the next stop.
Would the stranger disembark there or remain on the coach? If that was his destination, would Reginald notice if she disembarked with him—and never got back on?
Oh, the fanciful ideas running through her mind. The tingly quivers running through her abdomen…
She found herself unraveling her torn hem again and trying not to acknowledge the increased flutters in her stomach at the thought of putting herself under the stranger’s power. She should know better. She’d already put herself willingly under one man’s control and that certainly hadn’t improved her lot in life, now, had it?
The man she once thought the answer to her prayers. The man she now concentrated heaven-bound prayers on nightly, requesting Divine escape.
She’d been barely sixteen when the dashing Reginald Tate had begun frequenting Mrs. Michaels Millinery and Fine Accoutrements where Laney had been indentured shortly after she turned thirteen. After three solid years making hats and waiting on “ladies” who looked down their fashionably pale noses more often than not—and pricking her fingers with milliners needles, hat pins and bracing wire just as regularly—the flattering attention the handsome Mr. Tate showered on Laney practically made her swoon. His visits certainly brightened dreary days and long afternoons.
Two scant months after they met, he’d offered to buy her papers from Mrs. Michaels. Laney assumed he wanted her for his “Lady of the Night” and other than being woefully uneducated in the art of nighttime activities, she was otherwise agreeable. Since losing her grandmama and mother within a few months of each other and being passed from one relative to another until winding up on the doorstep of an aunt who was already burdened with her own gaggle of children and didn’t want another, indenturing Laney at the first opportunity, she was nothing if not practical.
The allure of being pampered like a “lady”—even one bought and paid for—far surpassed the daily drudgery as the life of an unappreciated servant. At the time, her indenture to Mrs. Michaels was for another four years, which to the young Laney was a veritable lifetime. The position offered by Reginald seemed a godsend.
Instead, the rotten Mr. Tate had only wanted her to pretend to be his amour while he’d dallied in ways she’d often heard called sinful and sordid. She could hardly think of it without blushing, even now, half a year after Reginald had parted ways with his male paramour and renounced his despicable, detestable acts—Reginald’s words, parroting his brother, she suspected—only to turn his immoral attention to her. Immoral because he didn’t want her, but he kept trying to take her anyway.
His efforts and her fear only mounting until he’d brought her to this—stuffed like kippers on a plate among the other passengers. What if she’d declined Reginald’s offer and remained with Mrs. Michaels? Would she have, perhaps, crossed paths with the gentleman sitting across from her?
And should he even be termed “gentleman”?
Most assuredly not. Not with the way he went without a hat when everyone knew the importance of fine head wear. “Choose your hat first,” Mrs. Michaels had always told her customers, “and the rest of your ensemble will then magically follow.”
And not with the way he brazenly persisted in staring at her so intently, his eyes glowing like orange embers. Why, her face felt naked, as if her veil hardly protected her at all.
“Stop staring.” The words escaped before she could grab them back.
Reginald had gone slack. He leaned heavily against her, indicating his slumber, and Laney supposed she’d unknowingly relaxed her guard as well. Relaxed too much, given her awareness of the man across from her and her hastily spoken command.
Judging by the increased heat in his gaze, he hadn’t stopped contemplating her either.
Did no one else notice his unusual eyes? The way they fairly shimmered with heat?
“Remove your hat.”
The lace slipped from her fingers. “I beg your pardon?”
He leaned forward and caught the scrap before it drifted to the ground. Their knees collided. “Take off your hat. You appear to be the best view around, and I want to see the rest of it.”
“Shhh!” she sputtered, never more grateful for the shielding netting than she was at this very moment. She tried to angle her legs from his, but between Reginald’s sleeping body wedged along her side and the stranger’s knees pressed intimately against hers, she couldn’t move. “Please. You mustn’t say such things.”
He gave Reginald’s sleeping form a disdainful glance and leaned even closer. “Why do you fear him?”
How did he know? “What?”
“You heard me.” He made a show of returning the torn hem to her gloved hands, giving hers a gentle squeeze before releasing them. The unexpected gesture soared clear to her toes, which remained locked between his heavily booted feet.
“I asked why you fear him.” His rumbling voice had gone all low and gruff.
“I’m quite sure you must be mistaken,” Laney whispered, glancing at the other passengers, who all appeared intent upon passing the uncomfortable time as privately as possible, gazing out the windows or snoozing.
How was it no one took notice of anyone else? Least of all the intimate encounter between her and the stranger? Or how Reginald’s head lolled about his neck with every jostling revolution of the coach’s wheels? Laney couldn’t miss how Reginald’s jaw hung unhinged, his sour breath gusting over her shoulder. She had the sudden urge to upend the contents of his flask inside his mouth. Maybe he’d drown.
“You do not deny it.” The firm statement, voiced with perfect elocution, drew her attention back to the ill-dressed man before her. The most unrigged gentleman to cross her path.
Gentleman? Gads! She had to stop thinking of him as such. No matter that his speech was as fine as she strived to make her own, he was nothing more than a shabbaroon. But one who so boldly demanded, “Remove your hat. I will not ask again and I want to see your face.”
His tone made her think he’d be uncouth enough to rip it from her head if she refused. “You cannot! I cannot. Oh, do please sit back.”
She couldn’t think with his knees touching hers, with his finger idly nudging her leg. Was this desire, then? This awful achy, nervous, splendiferous feeling? The need to brush his hair back, to really see him? The need to be his?
For the thousandth time, Laney bemoaned her misspent youth and cursed her impatience. She hated Reginald and Mrs. Michaels all over again.
“How long have you been wed?”
His words startled. “Wed? I assure you we most certainly are not!”
And just like that, he was gone. No more teasing fingers. No more obscene nuzzling of her kneecaps. No more glowing eyes.
“Ah,” he murmured once he’d straightened and returned fully to his own seat. His expression once again inscrutable, the playful, albeit intent, interest he’d shown seconds before wiped free.
“And what, pray tell, does that mean? Ah? You utter that as if you pass judgment upon me. Are not negative judgments reserved for those of clerical persuasions?”
He fairly growled from his shadowy corner. If anything, he looked darker, more brooding. “You claim not to be bound to him, yet you choose to remain,” he stated, disdain dripping from his scowling lips. “Keep the blasted hat on, then. I no longer care what you look like.”
Unaccountably, she cared that he no longer cared. Stupid, stupid. She should be jumping from the stagecoach and running as far away from Reginald as she could instead of bantering with a moody stranger.
“You don’t understand,” Laney hissed, incensed with herself. Why in the world should it matter whether he understood or not?
Nash turned away from the shrouded feminine mystery, dismissing her and pulling the thin volume of Shakespeare from his pocket. One could only feign sleep for so long. “I no longer have the inclination to understand. Keep your protestations and your fear to yourself, madam. What you choose to do with your life is of no interest to me.”
It was a blatant lie, but if he said it enough, mayhap it would become truth.
He had no business caring for anything, much less anybody, at the moment.
Blast her and her infernal voice for tempting him to think otherwise.
For unlike his older brother who preferred hardened women—at least until Lady Francine came along—Nash himself had always lusted after innocence and purity. Virgins. From the moment he became cursed and realized his body was no longer his own, he day dreamed about once-upon-a-times and happy-forever-afters, envying ordinary men with ordinary wives living ordinary lives.
He dreamed of one day having a pure wife. An innocent. As long as she composed herself as he imagined a lady would—caring for her family (which, to his way of thinking, meant her man—him) and caring for her home (the one he’d never had, not since his mother abandoned them shortly after his father did the same)—she didn’t have to be a lady in truth or even very beautiful. A simple refined peasant or even a clean servant—he wasn’t overly particular—would suit him fine. A woman who had saved herself just for him. That was what he truly desired.
But those were imaginings—the scant moments of fantasy he allowed himself in the lull before full wakefulness intruded and reality crashed down. He couldn’t take a virgin. He couldn’t have a wife.
Or children, or a family of his own. He wouldn’t have peace.
Not as long as he was a monster.
Who’d practically raped his brother’s woman.
Like a hive of angry bees the irate attention the veiled, behatted female still directed at him, buzzed and needled, made a mockery of his feigned disinterest. Dodging the annoying pests—both her and his reactions, he moved the curtain that was drawn against the rain.
Making a great show of gauging the location of the sun—asinine, as it was blocked by storm clouds—he peered out the coach. “By my reckoning,” he said to himself but intending that she should hear, “and barring a broken wheel or axle, or washed-out roadway, we should arrive at our overnight stop in six and a half hours.” He sighed and sank back into his corner, letting the curtain drop. “Plenty of time to find myself a pretty wench for the evening, one who avoids wearing ugly hats. Or anything at all…”
“Wretched, wretched man!”
Good. He’d gotten to her. So why did he feel lower than the bottom of muddy pigs’ feet? And why couldn’t he rid himself of the unwanted concern mired in his chest?
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A lifelong Texan, Larissa writes steamy regencies and sexy contemporaries, blending heartfelt emotion with doses of laugh-out-loud humor. Her heroes are strong men with a weakness for the right woman.
Avoiding housework one word at a time ;-), Larissa adores brownies, James Bond, and all things feline. She’s been a clown, a tax analyst, and a pig castrator (!) but nothing satisfies quite like seeing the entertaining voices in her head come to life on the page.
Writing around some health challenges and computer limitations, it’s a while between releases, but stick with her…she’s working on the next one.