Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mistress by Marriage



Chapter 1
Edward Christie had been an utter fool six years ago. True, he’d had plenty of company. Every man in the room had his mouth agape at Caroline Parker’s entrance into Lady Huntington’s ballroom. There was her hair, of course, masses of it, red as lava and swirled up with diamonds. Diamond earrings and a diamond necklace and diamond bracelets were festooned all over her creamy skin, too, skin so delicious every man whose tongue was hanging out longed to lap it. Her eyes were liquid silver, bright as stars and fringed with midnight black lashes, so at odds with her hair. And her dress---a shocking scarlet for an unmarried woman---for any woman---had a diamond brooch hovering over the most spectacular assets he’d ever seen. The jewels were all paste, as he was later to find out, but her breasts were very real.


There were known drawbacks, which quickly circulated the room, prodded along by spiteful cats who were quite eclipsed by Caroline’s magnificence. She was old, at least twenty-five, and her family---what there was of it---was poor. Some said her brother died in a duel; others said he was killed by one of his many mistresses. She had a younger sister in Canada, living in some godforsaken outpost in the snow with her lieutenant husband and wolves. Her parents were dead and she was clinging to the ton by the weakest of threads, the distant cousin who inherited her brother's title and was anxious to get her off his hands before he put his hands all over her and irritated his irritable wife.


Edward had obliged in a courtship of less than five days. Baron Christie had spent his first thirty-four years never, ever being at all impulsive, and his sudden marriage by special license to a woman who looked like an expensive courtesan was the on dit of the season. He had buried one wife, the perfectly staid and proper brown-haired Alice, whose hair would never be compared to living fire and whose brown eyes could only be compared to mud. Alice, who’d quickly done her duty and provided him with an heir, a spare and a little girl who looked just as angular and forbidding as her father. Alice, who’d caught a chill one week and died the next and was no doubt rolling over in her grave to be supplanted by Caroline Parker.


Edward had no one to blame but himself. He didn’t need more children, and Caroline hadn’t any money. But what she did have---what she was---had upended Edward’s life for one hellish year before he came to his senses and put her away.


Caroline had no one to blame but herself. It was her pride, her dreadful Parker pride, which had prevented her from saying one simple word---no. If only her rosy lips had opened and she had managed to get her tongue to the roof of her mouth and expelled sufficient air, she would not find herself living in Jane Street, home to the most notorious courtesans in London.


When Edward asked her to marry him after less than a week’s acquaintance, she should have said no. When he’d asked her that horrible, vile, impertinent question five years ago, she should have said no. But instead she’d said yes to the first question, rather gratefully if the truth be known, and hadn’t said a word to the second, just cast her husband the most scornful look she could conjure up and showed him her back.


Caroline was no man’s mistress, despite her exclusive address and rumors to the contrary. In the five years since she and her husband separated, he had come to her door but once a year, the anniversary of the night she was unable to utter that one-syllable word. They took ruthless pleasure in each other, and then Edward would disappear again. She, however, remained, ostracized from polite society, completely celibate and despite her ardent hopes, a mother to only the curious contingent of young women who shared her street. The children changed, but the game remained the same. From opera dancers to fresh-faced country girls who had been led astray by rich gentlemen, Caroline had watched the parade of mistresses come and go. She had passed teacups and handkerchiefs and advice, feeling much older than her thirty-one years.


But when she looked in her pier glass, she was still relatively youthful, her dark red curls shiny, her gray eyes bright. She might have been stouter than she wished, but the prideful Parkers were known to run to fat in middle age. For some reason Edward had let her keep the Christie jewels, so there was always a sparkle on her person even if there was no spark to her life. She made the best of it, however, and had some surprising success recently writing wicked novels that she couldn’t seem to write fast enough. Her avocation would have stunned her old governess, as Caroline had showed no aptitude whatsoever for grammar lessons or spelling. Fortunately, her editor was grammatical and spelled accurately enough for both of them. Her Courtesan Court series was highly popular with both society members and their servants alike. There were happy endings galore for the innocent girls led astray, and the wicked always got what was coming to them. She modeled nearly every villain on Edward, and it was most satisfactory to shoot him or toss him off a cliff in the final pages. Once she crushed him in a mining mishap, his elegant sinewy body and dark head entombed for all eternity with coal that was as black as his heart.

Of course, sometimes her heroes were modeled on him, too---men with pride nearly as perverse as the Parkers, facile fingers who knew just where to touch a girl, and particularly long, thick, entirely perfect penises. Caroline missed Edward’s penis, although she didn’t miss his conversation much. He was so damned proper and critical, and had been beyond boring to live with. Controlled. Controlling. Humorless. Once he’d installed her as his baroness, it was as if he woke up horrified at what he’d actually done. Whom he’d actually married. It was no wonder that she---


No, she couldn’t blame him. She had no one to blame but herself.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Mistress by Mistake


Chapter One

“Honestly, Charlie! You’re ruined anyway! What difference does it make?”

Charlotte Fallon felt the room spin every time her sister said the words “honestly, Charlie.” Honesty had very little to do with Deborah. She was a mistress of prevarication. She was a mistress, period.

Charlotte looked at her sister, her beautiful, selfish, stubborn younger sister. The sister she was always trying to save in one manner or another. Charlotte wished she had tossed her letter into the fire without opening it. “I should never have come.”

“Nonsense. This is the ideal solution. Arthur wants to marry me, Charlie. Surely you cannot stand there all stiff and disapproving and deny me happiness.”

No one of importance had ever denied Deborah Fallon anything. One look at her cloud of black hair and mischievous sky blue eyes, her bee-stung lips and spectacular bosom, and they had fallen at her feet. Since the age of sixteen, she had flaunted her assets and traded one rich man for another. Now twenty-six, she was still lovely and in possession of a very tidy fortune. The latter was due to a rather recent infusion of money from the coffers of Sir Michael Xavier de Bayard, who was expected to arrive in London from his Dorset estate any day now and fall into Deborah Fallon’s bed. Sir Michael’s bed, actually. This house, every stick of furniture, every carpet, every lacy curtain belonged to him, as did the woman who was packing a sleek new trunk.

Charlotte Fallon did not belong to anyone. She also had black hair, only it was confined by hairpins and covered by a starched linen cap. Her sky blue eyes did not dance with mischief at present. Her bee-stung lips were drawn into a frown, and her spectacular bosom heaved in indignation. “You cannot take Sir Michael’s money and run off with Arthur Bannister.”
Deborah continued to fold clothes into the trunk. Wispy, sensuous underthings trimmed with frivolous ribbons and bows. Silk dresses in every color of the rainbow. Embroidered slippers. Sheerest stockings. Velvet jewel bags filled with precious stones.

“I shall leave you some of my wardrobe. And my pearl and sapphire necklace.” Deborah sighed with sacrifice. “It’s not as though I’m taking everything. I thought to take the paintings, but after consideration I just couldn’t do it to the man. He is very fond of his art, even if they’re only minor works by obscure painters. And I’ll leave him you.”

“I don’t want to be left! You cannot just install me in your bedchamber and expect Sir Michael not to notice!”

“Of course Bay will notice. He’s a very noticing kind of fellow. Those eyes! So black and knowing. They quite gave me shivers. But you and I are much alike, or would be if you didn’t look like such a prude. Honestly, Charlie, where is the harm? He’s a wonderful lover, and lord knows you could do with a bit of amusement.”

“You---you’ve slept with him already?”

Deborah tossed her black curls. “Don’t be absurd. I never let him touch me. Not even a kiss. That’s why he paid so much. But I’m on good terms with Helena Colbert, my predecessor. It was she who decorated this bedroom.” Deborah looked around at the grotesquely chubby cupids that lurked on every surface. “Granted, she does not have much imagination, but she assured me bedding Bay was not a hardship. She said he’s quite masterful.”

“If that is true, why have you chosen Arthur?” Charlotte had met Arthur Bannister. Charlotte doubted Arthur could master anyone, let alone Deborah. He was the prematurely balding third son of a baron, obviously not destined for the clergy if he married Deborah.

“Arthur is very sweet. He loves me. His family will come round in time.”

“You don’t love him, do you.” Charlotte did not tack a question mark to her words.

“Honestly, Charlie! What is love anyway? You thought you were in love and look how that turned out. You’re thirty years old and live in the country with cats.” Deborah slammed the lid of her trunk closed. “We haven’t much time. Thank goodness Bay’s grandmother got sick and died and he was called away.”

Only Deborah could say such a thing and look like an angel doing it. Charlotte wanted to throttle her sister’s slender white neck. “You are attempting to perpetrate fraud, Deb. Theft. For all I know the man will lock me up in prison in your place before he finds you.”

“Pooh. He’s quite besotted with me. And even if he doesn’t like you, you can explain this whole affair far better than I can in a letter. I should be quite thoughtless if I just left a note on the pillow.”

An understatement. Deborah had always been thoughtless. She had broken her late parents’ hearts when she ran off to London with George, although they did manage to spend the money she sent home at irregular intervals. Charlotte was ashamed to acknowledge that without Deb’s help, her cats might go hungry. Of course, the cats weren’t really her own. The half-dozen or so were ferociously feral and only visited her out of habit, not gratitude. They would not dream of curling up on the hearth or resting upon her bed pillow or being helpful mousers. No, they yowled for their scraps and milk at the cottage kitchen door when hunting was poor or the weather problematic. They would be perfectly fine until she returned to Little Hyssop after she put her sister’s ridiculous scheme behind her.

Deborah patted the feather bed. “Come. Sit down. I have many instructions to give you.”
Charlotte blushed as brightly as a virgin, although she could not claim the title. Surely her sister was not going to subject her to courtesan lessons. She was most certainly not going to take Deborah’s place in anything but conversation with Sir Michael, who was at least owed an explanation once he returned to Town.

Charlotte reflected it had ever been thus---Deborah would do something impetuous and Charlotte would pick up the pieces. She dearly hoped that Deborah’s new protector was not too badly smitten, for she was not good at mending heartbreak, especially her own. She listened with half an ear as Deborah recited a litany of practicalities and positions. Charlotte felt the beginnings of one of her vexing headaches. Any amount of time spent with her little sister was sure to produce such a result. She was never more relieved when Irene, the young maid hired by Sir Michael to attend to whichever mistress was in residence, announced that Mr. Bannister was below and his driver on his way up for the luggage.

Charlotte was tugged downstairs and reintroduced to Arthur, who was some years Deborah’s junior despite the hair loss and beginnings of a paunch. These shortcomings were more than mitigated by the recent death of his great-uncle, who had remembered young Arthur kindly in his will. A pity that the old man had died after Deborah had come to her arrangement with Sir Michael Xavier de Bayard. But then illness and another fortuitous death occurred, keeping the baronet in Dorset these past six weeks. Charlotte was afraid that Arthur Bannister had already slept beneath de Bayard’s sheets and could not like him for it.

“Come, my love. The carriage awaits and I’ve a special license.” Arthur patted his breast pocket smugly. No expense was to be spared to make London’s fairest Cyprian his own. By the time de Bayard returned, Miss Fallon would be Mrs. Bannister. Of course, they were to travel on the Continent first, just to give his family and Sir Michael a few months to calm down. Then Deborah would be a mistress of only his uncle’s estate in Kent.

Deborah kissed her sister good-bye, and to her horror, Charlotte discovered her eyes were filling with tears. Truly, she wished her sister happy. If she thought for a moment that Arthur Bannister could control Deborah’s dishonorable impulses, she might feel very differently about this hasty wedding. Deborah might make a poor wife, but at least one of the Fallon girls would be a bride at last.

Deborah left in a flurry of swishing skirts and lavender water. Suddenly the little house was quiet as a tomb. Somewhere below Irene and Mrs. Kelly, the cook-housekeeper, were engaged in dinner preparations for her. Charlotte didn’t think she could eat a bite. A glass of sherry, on the other hand, would steady her nerves for the task ahead. She poured a healthy tot from a crystal decanter and drank it down.

To think that her sister wanted her to become a harlot! As if she were at all suited to the position Deborah had cut out for herself almost a decade ago. To foist her on a stranger, to leave Charlotte holding the proverbial bag when Sir Michael returned made her heart skip erratically. She should have known to read between the lines of Deb’s badly spelled letter. Anything Deb considered to be an emergency was really a catastrophe.

Charlotte poured another drink. It would not do to get foxed. It was a family curse. Both the Fallon parents had drowned their financial sorrows in a bottle, then drowned in reality when they had the drunken idea to go for one last midnight sail before they sold their beloved boat. Charlotte had disposed of their crumbling manor house, paid off their debts and moved as far inland as she could. She had been scrupulous about sharing the pitiful proceeds with her sister. Judging from the contents stuffed in her trunk and stored in the country, Deborah had never needed a farthing. Her gentlemen had been generous from the start.

Charlotte sighed. Her sister had not been so very indiscriminate. She’d had only four lovers in ten years, each of whom had showered her with jewels, money and clothing. Deb had not been able to wheedle anyone out of a house yet---save for poor Arthur. Charlotte should turn tail and go right back home. A note on the pillow would do as well as any stuttering excuse she could give Sir Michael for her sister’s behavior.

She shoved a plaster cupid away and set her drink by the bedside. Lord, but she was tired. The flying trip to town when she imagined her sister dying---or worse!---had sapped every bit of strength she had. And then to discover what Deborah planned--- well, it quite took one’s breath away.

She lay in the cupid-infested room, nervously bunching the scarlet satin coverlet between her fingers. She would not unpack her own trunk but to pull out her tattered nightrail and robe later. She could not move in and assume her sister’s life. She didn’t even want to consume her dinner. But an hour later, fresh-faced Irene was at the door informing her that supper was on the table. Charlotte imagined it tasted delicious, but was too distracted to tell. Despite her earlier pledge, she gulped a great deal of wine in order that she might actually fall asleep in her sister’s bedroom. Woozy and warm, she allowed Irene to help her undress and bathe, then crawled under the covers, closing her eyes to the grinning statues. How Deborah had born them for six weeks was a wonder.

She slept as if dead, having the most delightful tipsy dream somewhere past midnight. But when morning came and she found her nightgown hanging from a fat angel’s head and a naked man with his lips planted firmly around her left nipple, she knew her dream was now a nightmare.
***

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Mistress by Midnight


Chapter 1
Laurette knew precisely what she must do. Again. Had known before her baby brother had fallen into the Marquess of Conover’s clutches. Perhaps Charles had not so much fallen as thrown himself headfirst into Con’s way. Charles had been as heedless as she herself had been a dozen years ago. She was not immune even now to Con’s inconvenient presence across ballrooms and card tables. She had shown him the elegant line of her back, but could feel the heat of his piercing black gaze straight through to her tattered stays on more than one occasion.


But tonight she would allow him to look his fill, going so far as to visit Madame Demarche for her naughtiest underpinnings so she would have one less thing for which to feel shame.


Purchased with credit, of course. One more bill to join the mountain of debt. Insurmountable as Everest and just as chilling. Nearly as cold as Conover’s heart.


She raised the lion’s head knocker and let it fall, once. Somewhere within she heard a clock chime midnight.


Desmond Ryland, Marquess of Conover, opened the door himself. Laurette swallowed her surprised gasp.


“Did you think I would allow you to be seen here at such an hour?” he asked, his face betraying no emotion. “You must indeed think me a veritable devil. I’ve sent the servants to bed. Come into my study.”


Laurette followed him down the shadowy hall, the black and white tile a chessboard beneath her feet. She felt much like a pawn, but would soon need to summon any royalty she possessed. Con must not know just how desperate she was.


Though he surely must suspect.


He opened a door and bade her cross the threshold. The room, she knew, was his sanctuary, filled with objects he’d collected in the years he’d been absent from Town and her life. Absent from his own life, as well. The marquisate had been shockingly abandoned for too long.


She had been summoned here once before, nearly two years ago. She was better prepared tonight. She allowed her filmy shawl to slip from one shoulder but refused Con’s offer of a chair.


“Suit yourself,” he shrugged, sitting behind his desk. He placed a hand, almost lovingly, on a decanter of brandy. “Will you join me? We can toast to old times.”


Laurette shook her head. She’s need every shred of her wits to get through what was to come. “No thank you, my lord.”


She could feel the thread of attraction between them, frayed yet stubborn. She should be too old and wise now to view anything that was to come as more than a business arrangement. She was nearly thirty, almost half her life away from when Conover---just Des then---beguiled, and then left her. A pop from the fire startled her, and she turned to watch sparks fly onto the marble tiles. The room was uncomfortably warm for this time of year, but it was said that the Marquess of Conover had learned to love the heat of the exotic East on his travels.


“I appeal to your goodness,” Laurette said, nearly choking on her words’ improbability.


“I find good men dead boring, my dear. Good women, too.” Con abandoned his desk and strode across the floor, where she was rooted by feet that suddenly felt too heavy to lift. He smiled, looking almost boyish, and fingered the single loose golden curl teasing the ivory slope of her shoulder, begging to be touched. She recalled he had always been dazzled by her hair.


She had hoped to appear winsome despite the passage of time, but her plan was working far too well for current comfort. She pushed him away with more force than she felt. “What would you know about good men, my lord?” She scraped the offending hair back with trembling fingers under the prison of its hairpin. It wouldn’t do to tempt him further. Or herself. What had she been thinking to come here?


“I’ve known my share. Your brother, for example. A good, earnest young fellow. A divinity student, is he not? I fear his present vices make him ill-suited for the profession. Among other things, he is so dishonorable he sends his sister in his stead,” he said, his sarcasm evident. “I presume you’re here on his account. I hardly see why I should forgive this debt.”


“He does not know I’m here. He knows nothing ,” Laurette said quickly, stepping backward as Con advanced.


He was upon her again, his warm brandied breath sending shivers down her spine. She toppled backward onto a leather chair. A small mercy. At least she wouldn’t fall foolishly at his feet. She closed her eyes, remembering herself in such a pose, Con’s head thrown back, his fingers entwined in the tangle of her hair. A lifetime ago.


She looked up. His cheek was creased in amusement at her clumsiness. “He will not thank you for your interference.”


“I’m not interfering! He is much too young to fall prey to your evil intentions.”


Con raised a black winged brow. “He’s not that young, you know. Older than you were when you were so very sure of yourself. And by calling me evil you defeat your purpose, Laurette. Perhaps I am a very good man to discourage him from gambling he can ill afford. But I will be repaid. ” He leaned over, placing his hands on the arms of Laurette’s chair. His eyes were as dark as his heart.


Laurette felt her blush rise and shrank back against her seat. She willed herself to stay calm. He would not crowd her and make her cower beneath him. She raised her chin a fraction. “He cannot---that is to say, our funds are tied up at present. Our guardian…” If Con knew the calamity of their situation, he could ruin them in a moment with a well-placed whisper.


Con left her to return to his desk. He poured himself another brandy into the crystal tumbler, but let it sit untouched. “What do you propose, Laurette?” he asked, his voice a velvet burr. “That I tear up your brother’s vowels and give him the cut direct next time we meet?”


“Yes,” Laurette said boldly. “The sum he owes must be a mere trifle to you.” She glanced around Lord Conover’s study, appointed with elegance and treasure. Brass fittings gleamed in the candlelight. A thick Turkey carpet lay under her kid slippers. She twisted her fingers, awaiting his next words.


There was the faintest trace of a smile. “You give me too much credit. I am neither a good man, nor, despite what you see here, so rich man a man I can ignore a debt this size. We all need blunt to keep up appearances. And settle obligations.”


Laurette knew exactly to the penny what his obligation to her cost him and held her tongue. She had once been too proud to seek more, and was too proud to do so now.


Con leaned back in his chair, the picture of confidence. “If I cannot have coin, some substitution must be made. I think you know what will please me.”


Laurette nodded. It would please her too, God forgive her. “When, Con?”


He picked up his glass and drained it. “Tonight. I confess I cannot wait to have you in my bed again.”


“Very well.” She rose from the haven of her chair.


His face showed the surprise he surely felt. “You seem to be taking your fate rather calmly, Laurette.”


“Did you arrange it?” she asked softly.


“Did I engage your brother in a high stakes game he had no hope of winning? I declare, that avenue had not occurred to me,” Con said smoothly. “How you must despise me to even ask.” He motioned her to him. After a few unsettling moments, Laurette walked toward him and allowed him to pull her down into his lap. He was undeniably hard, fully aroused. She allowed herself a brief surge of triumph.


He placed a broad hand across her abdomen. “How is the child?”


Con had never felt her daughter where his hand now lay, had never seen her, held her. “Very well, my lord. How is yours?”


“Fast asleep in his dormitory, I hope, surrounded by other scruffy little villains. I should like you to meet him one day.”


Laurette looked into his face, testing the truth of his words. She could no longer read him. “I don’t believe that would be wise, my lord.”


“Why not? If you recall, I offered you the position as his step-mama two years ago. It is past time you become acquainted with my son, and I your daughter.” His busy fingers had begun removing hairpins. “I left her, you know, left my own home once I knew she had delivered my heir. It was the most I could do, Laurie. You know it.”


Laurette said nothing, lulling in his arms as his lips skimmed her throat, his hands stroking every exposed inch. Nothing had changed. Nothing would ever change. And that was the problem.


Laurette pressed a gloved finger to his lips. “We do not need to discuss the past, my lord. We have tonight.”


“If you think,” he growled, “that I will be satisfied with only one night with you, you’re as mad as ever.”


An insult. Lucky that, for she found her primness and relative virtue. “That is all I am willing to offer.”


He stood in anger, dumping her unceremoniously into his chair. “My dear Miss Winston, if you wish me to forgive your brother’s debts---all of them---I shall require a bit more effort on your part.”


“A-all? What do you mean?”


“I see the young fool didn’t tell you.” Con pulled open a drawer, fisting a raft of crumpled paper. “Here. Read them and then tell me one paltry night with you is worth ten thousand pounds. Even you cannot have such a high opinion of yourself.”


Laurette’s face leached of all color. “It cannot be,” she whispered.


“I’ve spent the past month buying up his notes all over town.” Con’s smile, feral and harsh, withered her even further.


“You did this.”


“You may think what you wish. I hold the mortgage to Winston Hall as well. You’ve denied me long enough, Laurie.”


Her home, ramshackle as it was. Beatrix’s home, if only on holidays. Laurette had forgotten just how high-handed Conover was. She looked at him, haughty as a queen.


“What kind of man are you?”


“Not a good one, I wager. I offered you my name once. I shan’t do so again. Your refusal still rings in my ears. But I need a mistress. You once played the part to perfection. The position is yours if you want it.”


Laurette considered. She could do it, and he would pay---far more than the price of her brother’s losses.


She scooped up her hairpins from her skirt. “I shall send my solicitor around to see you tomorrow to work out the details. The notes, if you please.”


Con locked them into the desk drawer and pocketed the key. “Very amusing. You’d toss them into the fire and laugh all the way home. No, my dear. We are going upstairs. Now. The vouchers will be destroyed once I engage your services in a binding agreement. A year, I should think, will suit me.”


Laurette’s lips twisted in distaste. How had she though to get around this man? She was as much an innocent as before. “But it will not suit me.”


“Still full of misplaced pride, I see.” Con ran a long finger down her parchment-white cheek. “Six months, then. Surely you can endure my lovemaking for that amount of time.”


“I shall endeavor to do so.” He might own her body, but never her heart. “What of Charles?”


“He’s about to go on a Grand Tour. A trip to the Holy Land is in order, far from the gaming tables and whores. Yes,” he added, feeling her stiffen beneath his fingers, “your brother has devoutly been studying all manner of carnal pleasures. I spoke with him this afternoon. He’s most eager to get away.”


She shivered. “Does he know what you plan for me?”


Con raised another irritated eyebrow. “Come now. Give me points for discretion. I am a marquess now, not some love-struck boy. I’ve kept my tongue this time.” He cupped her cheek, almost tenderly. “It’s all arranged, Laurie. A little house, not far from here. You may even have the child visit if you desire.”


“Beatrix. Her name is Beatrix,” Laurette whispered.


Con pulled her to him, kissing her forehead. “I know her name. I am her father, after all.”

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Spell Check


Chapter 1

On a late September Sunday afternoon, Juliet Barton threw a lime green flip-flop at Cade Gray.

She’d missed by a mile. He watched her limp on down the beach. He’d called out to her, but the crashing waves washed away his voice. Cade stood still like an idiot until Juliet looked smaller and smaller. He was not going to jog after her. He was not going to explain. He hiked up the dunes to his Jeep and never looked back to see if she turned around. Her sandy sandal was in his back pocket.

Break-up up by plastic shoe from Target. That was a first. He supposed there were worse ways to break up. Her aim was bad, and that was good. She could have dropped a plate of spaghetti in his lap last night or beaned him on the head with a stale bagel this morning. She could have done the whole “it’s not you, it’s me” routine, or even worse, told him she’d been faking every time she cried out, “Oh, God, yesss, yesss, oh God, don’t stop.”

But he had to admit, he never saw it coming. The flip-flop or the break-up. As far as he knew, he was in love. He was almost ready to ask her to marry him. Almost. They’d only spent the summer together. He was prepared to go until Christmas before he stuck a ring in her stocking.

Cade started up the car. He wasn’t stranding her. Her Taurus was parked right next to him. Not that she needed it anyway. A girl like Juliet could always catch a ride. One look in her big brown eyes---

It had once been love at first sight for them. Gay love. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Cade’s goofy yellow lab Jack had sniffed and licked Juliet’s quivering wire-haired fox terrier’s most private bits in drooly ecstasy as the two humans tried unsuccessfully to untangle their leashes and remain upright.

It occurred to Cade if this had happened in a book, it would be a very cute meet. Cade was, in fact, a writer. If you’ve ever read the warranty to your toaster oven, put together a home entertainment center or read a tutorial for your computer, you might have seen his prosaic prose in its perfection, in English and Spanish. Being a technical writer was not what he had set out to do, but he made a decent living at it and still had time for a few half-started novels on his hard drive.

Trouble was, he had realized a while back he had nothing profound to say in either language. And it pretty much killed him now to throw adjectives around when simple was best. You’re hot. Let’s hook up was what he thought as he watched Juliet detach Rufus’s collar from the lead when it was clear the dogs were not going to stand still and cooperate. She held the writhing terrier in her arms as Cade patiently unknotted the leashes and avoided Jack’s deranged tongue.

“Come here often?” he asked. Jeez. This wasn’t a bar, but the dog park. For a wordsmith it wasn’t much of an opener, but it wasn’t even seven o’clock in the morning and Cade hadn’t had his coffee yet. And damn it, it was a Saturday, but Jack was a dog and didn’t know one day of the week from another. He just knew he had to pee and made sure he woke Cade up with hot dog breath.

Cade always got up before the alarm went off anyway, dog breath or not. Not that he had to get up early to commute. He worked from home, the envy of all his friends who thought he watched ESPN all day. He got up early because he had a lot of stuff to write about and wanted to knock off in time for Rome is Burning and Around the Horn, the first chance he allowed himself to turn on the TV. If he wasn’t strict, he might get sucked into Passions or The Price is Right, and then how would a father in Minnesota ever figure out how to put together Pretty Pony’s Little Pink Stable on Christmas Eve?

Juliet had looked up at him, kind of grim. Cade knew he’d brushed his teeth before he left his place, even if he hadn’t showered yet. He was not quite in Nick Nolteville. He gave her his best smile, and saw a little thaw.

She shook her head. “This is my first time. I moved here not too long ago.”

Her face wasn’t beaming with friendliness, but she had a nice voice. Southern. She was blushing, too. Probably because she was embarrassed to be caught still wearing her flannel pajama bottoms under the denim barn coat she wore to ward off the spring early morning chill. Her taffy-colored hair was crazy-curly and pulled back in a banana clip. Taffy-colored. Hmm. Guess he still had a few adjectives in him.

“Did you drive or walk?”

Cade could see her edging backwards. Well, duh. She probably thought he and his vicious perverted hound were going to stalk her back home.

“I’m Cade Gray. I live just down the street,” he said hurriedly, trying not to scare her. “I grew up here. There’s a great coffee bar right next to my apartment. Want to get some?”

Too strong. Too fast. Too desperate. Too late.

Taffy shook her head. “I’m sorry. I’ve got to go to work. It was nice meeting you.”

She didn’t bother to put her dog down, but carried him off. Cade knew his name but not hers, and it didn’t seem like she was going to tell him.

Okay. No problem. He was here every single morning with Jack, rain or shine. Around noon, too, when he took a break from his self-imposed home office schedule. He got a little lazy in the evening and lucked out since he lived in a rehabbed brick Victorian with access to his own tiny walled yard from the kitchen door. He didn’t even have to pooper-scoop unless he was having company and wound up outside sitting on the faux park bench, which he’d put together following his own directions. He’d see her again, even if she didn’t live in the neighborhood.

He watched her walk down the path and heard the determined slap of her green flip-flops on the cement. A girl with messy hair and plaid pajamas shouldn’t look so good to him, but she did. However, he had a date tonight anyway---Carol Kennedy. Carol was a friend of his cousin Deirdre, who had been trying to fix them up for years --- before, during and now after Carol’s failed marriage. Cade hated arranged dates. But he had been going through a bit of a dry spell, so maybe Carol would be a thirst quencher.

He’d never felt the urge to get married himself. He’d never wanted to drink coffee so badly with anyone before Taffy, either.

It only took him two weeks of being the Dog Park Stalker before he finally had that cup of coffee, both Jack and Rufus lying calmly under a bistro table on the sidewalk while their owners began the gentle mating dance. It took two full months to woo and wow Juliet into his bed and around other hotspots of Portland, Maine. But as he drove out of the beach parking lot, he was glad he hadn’t asked his mother for her old engagement ring. She’d probably stroke his stubbled cheek and sigh in sympathy and lament his lot. Nobody wanted his mom to feel sorry for him. A guy had his pride, after all.
***

That had been a close call, but it was for the best, Juliet reasoned with herself as she stomped off toward the jetty. She’d had the sense to take her other sandal off and felt the sharp shards of rocks and shells mixed with the cold sand, but that didn’t bother her a bit. Nothing could truly harm her. Well, nothing to be found on a Maine beach at the end of the season. Summer was definitely over. Ever since the Autumnal Equinox she had been searching in vain for some pretext to break up with Cade.

It wasn’t as though he made it easy for her. He was smart, her number one male requirement when she felt the need to indulge herself. He was more than reasonably attractive, with longish thick brown hair that wouldn’t lie down straight and hazel eyes fringed with the kind of eyelashes that pissed off all mortal women. He’d been hit in the face with a bad hop ground ball when he captained the Bates’ baseball team, but the crease across his nose only added to his charm. He was tall and fit from playing in some local “old man” slow-pitch league. He made excellent omelets loaded with vegetables. He drank local beer in moderation and had nice friends.

And he was more than adequate in bed. Really, if she had to admit it, extraordinary. All the more reason to hand him his conge. It had been a while since anyone had made Juliet feel the things she felt and say the things she said. She drew her golden eyebrows together. When was the last time she had a truly spontaneous orgasm that hadn’t been the result of some mechanical intervention?

She knew the answer perfectly well. It had been with her third lover, the Viscount Fforde. Major Anthony William Macclefield until his uncle popped off. Poor Tony didn’t even have a chance to enjoy his newly-acquired title. He’d died in the Crimea. Goodness, that was about one hundred and fifty years ago. She had been so upset that it had taken her almost a century and some intercontinental travel before she found herself in the arms of a young American training with the RAF in Canada. He’d been very sweet, but not very skilled. He’d died, too.

She sat down on a flat rock and sighed. She did not have good luck with men. Six lovers in over two hundred years, seven if you counted her impotent husband, and that didn’t seem fair. That had to be some sort of chastity record. But she was very fussy, and this longevity business was not all that it was cracked up to be. True, it was very useful for her antique store. Cade had kiddingly called it a junk shop, but she knew better. The advantage of living through several centuries was that you recognized the jewels amidst the junk. Ever since she had rented the Old Port store and hung the Magic Magpie sign, she’d done a brisk business with the throngs of tourists and locals who wandered down the charming cobbled streets. She got grudging respect from the other dealers who’d lived in Maine forever. She’d always be an outsider, but she was beginning to feel comfortable here. Too comfortable.

Which is why Cade had to be cut loose. It was for his own good, really. He’d be fine. He was certainly much too young to die, and it seemed everybody she chose to sleep with for any length of time, even if they didn’t bring her to orgasm, wound up taking a dirt nap. She burst into noisy sobs as the seagulls swirled around her head. With her luck, they’d be crapping on her head any minute.









Thursday, May 31, 2007

Paradise



Prologue
When he was done, she’d be the greatest whore in all Christendom. If they’d been in London, her body would have already been sold to the highest bidder. He’d have had to dower her for some other man to take his pleasure in her innocence. Since London was out of the question and marriage would not be on her horizon, there was no better man than he to teach her. She was destined to be a prim little prude if he didn’t intervene.

And she might prove more capable than her mother in providing him with an heir.

Baron Ivor Hartford watched his stepdaughter Eden carefully as she sat across the gleaming mahogany table. He’d planted the seeds patiently, and it soon it would be time for the harvest.
Her pale face was flushed. She giggled.

Excellent.

She was not usually a giggler, but a serious girl. Clutching her dead father’s dusty books to her ripening bosom with fervor, she had long surpassed the learning of the governess who was abovestairs. But Ivor would further Eden’s education beyond her wildest imaginings.
Now he saw her attempt to rise from the table and sway. The footman rushed to catch her.

“I’ll take care of her, Henley,” the baron said.

All night he had signaled Henley to refill her glass. They had been quite alone at dinner. His wife was upstairs recovering from yet another miscarriage, deep in her laudanum dreams.

When Eden had placed her hand unsteadily over her wine glass, the baron had teased her. “Why, puss, you’re a grown woman now. Eighteen. If you were in Town, you’d be drinking champagne and whirling about the dance floor with the young bucks. You might even be married and a mother yourself. A little wine won’t hurt you.”

He had cajoled and flattered, and she had drunk.

He picked her up now and carried her up the stairs. She was not small, but he was very fit, younger than his wife by a year. He sent her maid Mattie away to fetch some headache powder. No doubt Eden would have need of it.

Hartford placed her on her bed. Her arms were still around his neck. He disentangled her, brushing against her breasts, then settling his hands firmly on each luscious mound. Her eyes flew open in surprise.

“So beautiful, puss,” he whispered. “You’ve bewitched me. I cannot help myself.” Then he bent to kiss her full on the mouth. As her lips opened in protest, his tongue took advantage.
“Mm. You taste like spring wine. Delicious. Sleep well, puss, and dream of me.”


Monday, May 14, 2007

Bride by Midnight


On the London Road, January 24, 1824

Cynthia Elling awoke mummified by a coarse linen sheet. She turned to her left and her heart stopped. She was hungry. She was uncomfortable. She was married. Lying on his side beside her was Sir Harry Chalmers, naked as the day he was born, one arm flung carelessly across her breasts.

He brought her closer to him in his sleep, a lazy smile upon his lips---lips that so far hadn’t even kissed her, even when the vicar looked at them expectantly at the end of their marriage ceremony. Surely two people who were so anxious to be married that they had dragged him from his slumber in the wee hours of the morning must share a grand passion. But the baronet had simply lurched off with his bride, nearly forgetting to sign the register.

Cynthia’s nose wrinkled. In such close proximity, her husband’s stale brandied breath was most evident. She tried to flatten herself under the weight of his arm so she could slip out of the bed. Somehow sensing her departure, he gripped her more firmly than ever, his fingers searching for and finding the tip of her capacious right breast under the mended sheet. Cynthia’s sharp gasp of surprise penetrated the gentleman’s dream, and his thick dark eyebrows knit together for a fleeting moment. Still, his eyes remained closed. Cynthia was not even exactly sure what color they were.

The pressure on her nipple through the fabric was intensifying. It was not precisely hurtful, rather the opposite, a slow and subtle circular motion which was causing the new bride some delightful discomfort. Cynthia was well aware of the midnight bargain she had made, but not quite prepared to succumb in the dim light of morning. “Please, Sir Harry,” she whispered, “release me.”

Harry Chalmers awoke with a jolt and stared into a stranger’s round rosy face. She possessed a pair of gray eyes fringed by pale lashes. Her wavy silvery blond hair was spread about the pillow case very attractively. His hand was placed on a breast of delicious proportion.

“Good God,” he said, snatching his hand way.

“Good morning, Sir Harry,” Cynthia said gravely. His head must be throbbing unmercifully after last night if she were any judge.

“Good God,” he repeated. He closed his eyes, which Cynthia had noted were a rather bloodshot hazel green.

Cynthia unrolled herself from her wrapping and stood up in her shift, hands modestly and incompletely covering her bosom. Sir Harry hastily tugged the fallen counterpane over himself, but not before Cynthia had the opportunity to observe him in all his full morning glory.

“I’ll just go to my room now and dress. I believe we need to get to Prospersfield today, do we not?” Cynthia padded barefoot out of the room, closing the door with a firm push. Harry’s head exploded at the noise.

He groaned. What had he done? Only what he had to do.

Waking Beauty


London, 1826
“Read this.” Dominic tossed a dog-eared letter across the desk to his friend Charles Adams, the Earl of Clare.

Charlie looked at it with distaste. The paper had suffered mysterious vicissitudes in Dom’s keeping and he was tempted to don his gloves. He scanned the lines quickly, dropping the missive to the desk before its putrefaction permeated his noble fingers.

“Good God. Well, you’re out of the running, my boy. Too bad. You could have used the blunt. Is this aunt of yours a complete crackpot?”

“Evidently. I haven’t seen her since I was a boy. She was a dreadful old dragon even back them. Scared me witless.” Dominic pushed a lock of dark hair from his handsome brow and suddenly smiled, looking not one bit frightened.

Charlie had seen that smile before. And remembered its consequences. “What are you thinking? No, don’t tell me. I won’t like it. You scare me.”

“What if---” Dominic asked slowly, “what if I could find a wife and child for this benighted family reunion?” At Charlie’s gasp, he smiled again. Boyish. Beastly all the same. “Not a real wife, mind you, but an actress who could play the part.”

Charlie was accustomed to playing Viscount Drummond’s ignored Voice of Reason far too often. He marshaled his forces once again. “I suppose anything is possible for the right price. But what about securing an infant? You’d never have any luck. My children certainly don’t do what they’re told and I’m their actual father.”

“Mmm. Bribery. Sweets. Promises of trips to the zoo. Orphans are very underprivileged, y’know. You would not believe the poverty I’ve seen, even in England. When my ships come in---but I digress. I count on you to keep me on track, Charlie. Perhaps this actress will already have a child stashed somewhere. I’m sure I can work out the details.”

Charlie had seen the smile. He’d heard the words before, too. Many an adventure had begun with those eight words, one of the reasons why Dominic MacAllister, the impoverished and reluctant fifth Viscount Drummond, had spent the last seven years outside England, fleeing his creditors and seeking his fortune.

Charlie rose from the torn but comfortable leather chair. “Dom,” he said sternly. “Don’t do this. If you’re so desperate, I can float you a loan again. No, no, make that a gift. What are friends for?”

“This could work,” continued Dominic, undeterred by Charlie’s generosity. In fact, he seemed positively deaf. “No one’s seen me in years. I could have married. I could be a father. I say, didn’t I write you ages ago with my good news?”

“No, you most certainly did not! You’re back in England now, my boy. You won’t last a minute with such a faraddidle!”

“I agree, it might not work, but it certainly won’t hurt to try.”

“What if your aunt actually picks you?” Charlie sputtered. “Then what? Offer the actress a permanent role as your wife? Burp the little guttersnipe? Really, Dom, you’re going to drive me to drink.” Charlie ran a hand through his hair, wondering if his fevered brain was leaching through. Dominic always had a deleterious effect upon his equilibrium.

“What an excellent idea! I brought back a case of the most magnificent cognac. Stolen from Napoleon’s cellars on Elba. And even if its provenance is not quite accurate, it’s still ambrosia. I’ll ring for Bramley.”

With a deep sigh, Charlie sat back down in his chair and accepted the inevitable. Napoleon in his heyday had nothing on Dom.

Dominic rummaged around the desk drawer and pulled out several sheets of shabby writing paper. “You can help me with the advertisement. You have such a way with words, Charlie.”

“Leonie doesn’t seem to think so,” Charlie muttered. Why, just this morning she had burst into tears when he told her he loved how much bigger her breasts were from nursing the latest little Adams.

“That’s to be expected. She’s your wife, after all. What’s the challenge of trying to sweet-talk you now? She’s got you under her dainty foot.” Dominic paused. “How is married life?”

Charlie looked out the window at Dominic’s scraggly back garden. “Not so bad. Just rather settled.” Between the crying and the screaming. And that was just Leonie. Add the children---

“Capital! Then this is just what you need to shake you out of your doldrums. Spice up your life. Now then.” Dominic dipped a pen into a clouded-crystal bottle of ink. “If we don’t get busy, this antique desk will be sold right out from under me. I’ll have to repair to Drummond Hall and start selling more pictures off the walls. If in fact there are any left. I really can’t remember.”

Wanted: A young lady of quality

“You’re asking too much right there,” reasoned Charlie, reading his friend’s bold stokes upside-down. “What respectable young woman would accede to this insanity?”

“Best to begin as you mean to go on. It wouldn’t do to have one of the goddesses from Mrs. Brown’s Pantheon of Pleasure think she could be the next Viscountess Drummond. I need someone who can be a lady at all times. Exposure to my family’s enough to turn anyone into a fishwife.”

Charlie thought of Leonie and closed his eyes.

Wanted: A young lady of quality to be a companion for a gentleman

“No, no, no. Now you really will get nothing but whores. Best not even to mention yourself.”
Charlie downed some of the remarkable cognac that the obedient and unobtrusive Bramley had brought in. Leonie would give him hell if she ever found out. It was, after all, not quite ten o’clock in the morning. He grabbed the pen from Dominic’s hand.

Wanted: A young lady of quality to attend a family country house party. Must be virtuous, intelligent, and good with children. Substantial compensation for a month’s employment plus any traveling expenses incurred.

“There!” said Charlie with satisfaction.

Dominic’s tanned face was marred by a frown. “I don’t know, Charlie. You’ve made her sound like a dead dull governess.”

“Exactly. That’s the kind of girl you want. And if she’s really hard up for money, she’ll play along.”

Interviews to be held

Charlie put the pen down, dropping a splash of ink on his neatly pressed trousers. But he had dozens. “Damn it. When?”

“If I have any chance of getting up to Scotland in time, they’ve got to be soon. I need to make the necessary arrangements.” Charlie scribbled in a date.

“I don’t suppose I could borrow one of your brats for a few weeks?” Dominic asked, an evil twinkle in his eye.

“I wouldn’t wish any one of them on you,” shuddered Charlie, pouring himself another tumbler of cognac. He deserved every drop.

“We’ll visit a foundling home then. How many are in your nursery now?”

“Five,” said Charlie with another sigh, rubbing futilely at the ink stain with a monogrammed handkerchief. He hadn’t missed his inclusion on the visit to the orphanage, either.

“I have been gone too long. What else is new?” The two friends spent the next few hours in happy inebriation and semi-nudity as Charlie acquainted the viscount with the latest talk of the ton and Bramley worked magic upon the earl’s trousers. The butler then set off to the newspaper office with the letter that would soon change all their lives.