He would marry her, and possess her in every way possible
The Duke of Kylemore knows her as Soraya, London’s most celebrated courtesan. Men fight duels to spend an hour in her company. And only he comes close to taming her. Flying in the face of society, he decides to make her his bride; then, she vanishes, seemingly into thin air.
Dire circumstances have forced Verity Ashton to barter her innocence and change her name for the sake of her family. But Kylemore destroys her plans for a respectable life when he discovers her safe haven. He kidnaps her, sweeping her away to his isolated hunting lodge in Scotland, where he vows to bend her to his will.
There he seduces her anew. Verity spends night after night in his bed – and though she still plans her escape, she knows she can never flee the unexpected, unwelcome love for the proud, powerful lover who claims her both body and soul.
Avon Books ~ April 2007
THE MOMENT VERITY spoke, she recognized her mistake.
She’d meant the challenge to slash and wound. Instead it emerged as a sexual invitation.
And of course, Kylemore didn’t fling away in the offended sulk she’d set out to provoke.
A wolfishly delighted smile lit his face. “I’ll just have to try a bit harder, then, won’t I?”
She closed her eyes and tried not to hear the emphasis he placed on harder. “Don’t do this,” she whispered. “Please.”
He gave a soft laugh. “Begging for mercy already, Soraya? I thought you’d last longer against me than this.”
“I’m not Soraya,” she said, the little defiance all she could invoke.
Because he was right. She’d do anything, including sacrifice her pride, to avoid the slow seduction she knew he intended.
“Yes, you are.” He curled his hand around her head, spearing his fingers through her decorous widow’s braids and angling her face up towards his.
She braced herself for assault. But the duke was too subtle for that. With tantalizing slowness, he brushed his mouth across hers. It couldn’t even be called a kiss. Not really. It was like an extension of his gentle nuzzling before. Except now he touched her lips. And he’d kissed her so rarely and never with quite this concentrated purpose.
She tried to pull away but the hand on the back of her head was implacable. This time when he glanced his mouth across hers, he lingered a second longer, moved his lips into a ghost of a kiss, over before she knew it had begun.
She gave a whimper that held no desire, only fear. “Please stop.”
He raised his other hand and smoothed a few tendrils of hair away from her forehead. “Why? I’m only kissing you. After everything we’ve done with each other, this can hardly signify, can it?”
But of course, he knew it did. She could see that knowledge in his gentian eyes. Knowledge and no real tenderness, although his touch lied and told a different story. He was set on dominating her and luck or perception meant he’d lighted on the one strategy that would vanquish her.
She could fight force. But her life had been devoid of tenderness since she was fifteen. Even its false likeness had the power to open a rift in her heart.
Somewhere, though, she found the will to resist. “All right. Take me,” she said flatly. She glanced sideways. “If you untie my legs and bring me onto your lap, we should manage something to take the edge off you. At least enough to stop you plaguing me for the moment.” It was deliberately crude but she was frantic to shatter the tremulous desire hovering between them.
He gave another of those soft laughs that made the hairs on her arms rise. “Perhaps later, madam. Right now I’m quite content with the innocent joys of kissing.”
“But I don’t like to be kissed,” she said helplessly.
He stroked his fingers across her cheek until he held her head in both hands. “You kissed me when you left me, if you recall.”
“A mistake,” she said unsteadily.
She’d known that even at the time. How she wished she’d let him go on his way that afternoon. How she wished she’d followed her instincts and never taken the Duke of Kylemore as her lover at all.
Ever since she’d met him, a voice inside her had insisted he and only he could break through the protective shell that was Soraya. But calamitously, she’d ignored the shrill warning from her instincts. As his mistress, she’d endured a year armoring herself against the empathy she’d always felt for him. An empathy which was absurd. A Cyprian and a duke of the realm could have nothing in common.
Before her capitulation, he’d pursued, she’d resisted. Every lure he cast her way was a move in the game. Part of her had relished the contest. Even her final play was a challenge – she’d deliberately demanded an impossible fortune for her compliance, an amount no sane man would pay for a woman.
But no Kinmurrie was ever completely sane.
The duke had called her on her bid. She’d found herself unexpectedly having to pay her gambling debts. She’d assured herself she could survive a year, a little year, with him and emerge with her detachment intact. And she’d almost succeeded.
And the disaster that little word almost promised sat beside her now, plotting to destroy her.
Well, she wasn’t finished yet. The Duke of Kylemore needed to learn that. This time when his lips met hers, Verity remained as unrelenting as rock. She closed her eyes and deliberately enumerated all her reasons to hate this man.
The way he ripped her away from the life she’d planned for so long and had finally gained the chance to achieve.
The hands in her hair began to move in soothing circles, finding and loosening each knot of tension. And all the time, he kept nipping and nibbling and sucking at her lips.
She hated him.
Her captive hands clenched as she fought to remain unmoved.
He was unmistakably aroused, in spite of her lack of encouragement. Any moment, heÆd fling up her skirts and force himself into her. She almost wished he would so she had no choice but to loathe him.
At least rape would end this torture that hovered so close to drugging pleasure. She tried to summon disgust. But in truth, he was heartbreakingly gentle.
He knew gentleness was his greatest weapon, damn him.
And he smelt wonderful. Clean, strong, healthy male, free of the cloying toilet waters so many of his sex used. He smelt of the outdoors. For one lost moment, she yearned towards that alluring scent before she remembered she was made of stone and stone didn’t yearn.
But he, so attuned to her, so close to her in this confined space, noticed her momentary weakening. ôI can do this all the way to Scotland, you know,ö he murmured against her mouth.
“I’m not a toy,” she retorted.
“You’re what I say you are. That’s the price of betrayal.” A few deft movements and her hair cascaded around her shoulders. He ran his fingers through the tumbled mass, straightening the kinks. “That’s better. Now you look like my mistress. Although I own to finding the seduction of the virtuous widow rather piquant. We must save it for another occasion.”
His easy confidence rankled, as she was sure he meant it to. “I’m not your mistress any more. I told you – Soraya has gone forever.”
The relentlessly combing hands paused then resumed. She tried to tell herself the stroking didn’t disturb her, but each movement was a promise of delight.
Lying promises, she reminded herself.
“Soraya is just hidden, that’s all.” His certainty made her want to hit him.
“You’ll get tired of this.” She hoped she was right.
“Perhaps. But do you really doubt whose will is stronger?” His hands slid around to rest on her shoulders.
If he shifted those hands an inch, they could be around her throat. He’d already threatened her with violence. She struggled to awaken her fear as a barrier against him, but it was impossible when his touch conveyed only tender possession.
Curse her, but she was a fool.
He connived endlessly at her destruction while she sat here gulling herself into thinking he had some regard for her. She deserved to be in this fix if she allowed herself to credit such sentimental drivel.
Verity heard Kylemore sigh. “I’ll make a deal with you, Miss Ashton.”
She lifted her chin. “I already know you don’t keep to your bargains, Your Grace.”
At least when he talked to her, he wasn’t kissing her. Even though his deep voice slid along her veins like warm honey and the motion of the speeding carriage rubbed his body against hers in a ceaseless erotic rhythm.
“Well, this is my offer. Kiss me properly and you are safe from my attentions until we reach my hunting box.”
“Properly means what exactly?” she asked with suspicion.
He laughed. “That’s familiar = you barricading yourself behind legal definitions. Their protection is spurious, as you should know by now.”
Devil take his confidence. “If I cooperate, will you untie me?” She had nothing to haggle with. They both knew she was totally in his power.
“It depends how genuinely you cooperate.”
As he sat back, she took a deep breath. And unwillingly inhaled his essence. He seemed to have permeated the very fabric of the carriage. She wondered despairingly if he’d similarly permeated her life. Would she ever be free of him, even when this ordeal was over?
As surely, one day, it had to be over.
His fine-boned face indicated his irritation with her havering. “I needn’t offer you anything. You’re my prisoner. You have no say in what I do to you.”
The bastard was right. This time, hating him was no effort at all. “So I let you kiss me and in return, you maul me no further until we reach our destination?”
Another curl of his lip. “If you participate fully in the kiss, I swear not to toss you on your back and plow you with the thoroughness you deserve.”
She swallowed nervously. “That’s not what I said.”
“No, but that’s the proposition on the table. Take it or leave it.” He folded his arms and waited for her decision with ill-concealed impatience.
Her inevitable decision. One kiss in exchange for a breathing space? A breathing space in which surely she’d find some chance to escape. She had no alternative but to agree.
Verity met his eyes in the shadowy interior. “All right.”
She waited for him to take her in his arms but he didn’t move from his relaxed pose against the shiny dark leather of the upholstery. Although she told herself she should be grateful for any reprieve, however short, his lack of action quickly began to irk her.
“I’m ready,” she said sharply.
Those supercilious eyebrows rose. “I believe the arrangement was you were to kiss me.”
Would this humiliation never end?
No, it’s just started, a bleak voice inside her whispered. “Damn you,” she said in a low hard tone. “Damn you to hell.”
“Too late, I’m afraid.” He gave her a wintry smile. “Are you reneging? To think a mere kiss defeated the great Soraya.”
She’d used her mouth on his whole body. She’d taken him in her mouth and brought him to climax. But she’d never given a lover’s kiss to him. Or any man.
It was an unwelcome and melancholy reflection.
He leaned against the padded side of the carriage, angled towards her. It was a simple matter to wriggle closer and balance herself with her bound hands on his thighs. The long muscles in his legs stirred under her fingers. He wasn’t as composed as he wanted to appear. That insight gave her the impetus to continue.
She could do this. She could do this.
For God’s sake, it was only a kiss. She was the notorious Soraya. Surely she could kiss a man and survive the experience.
Tentatively, she pressed her mouth against his. He tasted familiar. He should. They’d been lovers for a year. He remained impassive as she rubbed her lips across his, testing taste and texture. His lips were firm beneath hers, firm and smooth. And utterly unresponsive.
Clearly, he meant to make her work for her reprieve.
Of course he did. She had to remember this was about revenge and nothing else. The bargain for her kiss was just a twisted plan concocted in the tortuous labyrinth of his mind.
Well, if she could become London’s greatest courtesan from her unlikely beginnings, she could certainly kiss a man into forgetting his cold-hearted agenda.
Verity took a deep breath, trying to ignore his damned evocative scent, and used her imagination. She began to copy the way he’d kissed her earlier, coaxing him into joining her. The muscles of his legs hardened beneath her hands. She didn’t look down to check if anything else was hardening.
But still he didn’t kiss her back.
“What’s the matter, Your Grace?” she taunted softly against his skin. “This was your idea, if you recall.”
“You’re yet to engage my interest sufficiently,” he said in a negligent tone.
His answer would have infuriated her if she hadn’t heard the unsteadiness in his voice. Making her service him was apparently to be part of her penance. Service him without engaging his participation, it seemed.
Except he was far from unmoved. She briefly considered bringing her hands further up his thighs to confirm that.
Soraya wouldn’t have hesitated. Verity was more cautious. This was meant to be just a kiss after all. She didn’t want to end up flat on her back while the duke plowed her, to borrow his regrettably graphic terminology.
She returned to her task with renewed determination. And still he didn’t surrender.
“I know you’re trying to teach me a lesson,” she panted against his cheek.
He didn’t bother to deny it. “And are you learning anything?”
“I’m learning you’re not the only one who is as stubborn as a mule.”
She could tell he laughed against his will and she fought not to find that sudden glimpse of his humanity disarming. “You know, Verity or Soraya or whoever you are at this moment, sometimes your gall takes my breath away.”
In spite of everything, she smiled. “I hope not just my gall does that, Your Grace.”
He started to reply but she slammed her mouth against his and began to use her tongue in an open-mouthed passionate kiss. This time Kylemore answered her with desire. Not because he wanted to, Verity knew, but because he had no other choice.
That was her last rational thought for a long time as the kiss swept her up in a conflagration of dark pleasure she’d never known before. It was hot in this firestorm, hot and dangerous. But she hurled herself into the blaze without a thought to her own protection. His arms lashed around her as he dragged her across his lap.
Shamingly, Kylemore was the one who eventually pulled back.
He lifted himself slightly away from her. She lay on the bench. Somewhere in that tempestuous kiss, he’d brought her beneath him. A few moments more and he’d have been inside her. The weight of him, hard and hot against her belly, even through her skirts, indicated that was still a possibility.
Even this wasn’t enough to return her to reality. Without a squeak of protest, she lay beneath him lost in delight.
“If I don’t stop now, I won’t,” Kylemore said tautly. His expression was strained. The arms he supported himself upon imprisoned her in a cage she could summon no great eagerness to escape. “Unless that’s what you want.”
“Want?” she repeated stupidly, blinking up at him. Her mouth felt swollen and her heart pounded as though she’d run from him instead of surrendered mindlessly to his importunity.
“Shall I take this embrace to its natural conclusion?” Briefly, he was the courtly lover she’d known in London.
She sucked in a shaky breath to steady her rioting responses. The creaking of the coach was loud in her ears as she scrambled to gather her scattered thoughts and even more importantly, her scattered defenses. Fleetingly, she remembered the duke describing his kiss as innocent. It had been about as innocent as Lucifer overseeing an orgy in hell.
“Madam?” he asked, then very deliberately pressed his erection into her stomach.
The crude gesture brought her back to herself as nothing else could have. All the lovely bonelessness drained away from her body as she stiffened in unspoken rejection.
“No,” she managed to croak out. Then on a note of desperately sought recklessness, “But I believe my sterling efforts have earned the end of my bondage.”
He looked at her strangely. “I untied your hands while you kissed me.”
“What?” she asked uncertainly, then realized it was true. Worse, her arms encircled him and she caressed his back.
She was only a breath away from drawing him down for more of those devastating kisses. She vaguely remembered him tugging at her hands during their tempestuous embrace. He must have released her then.
A different heat clawed its way up her face. Of all the humiliations her abduction involved, she’d hated those bonds the most. Yet she’d been so lost in the whirlwind of his kiss, she hadn’t even noticed she was no longer constrained.
“Get off me,” she snarled, snatching her hands away from him.