book 4 in the Sons of Sin series
Anything can happen in the moonlight…
Justice. That’s all Nell Trim wants – for her sister and for the countless other young women the Marquess of Leath has ruined with his wildly seductive ways. Now she has a bold plan to take him down… as long as she can resist the scoundrel’s temptations herself.
From the moment Nell meets James Fairbrother, the air positively sizzles. Yet for all his size and power, there’s something amazingly tender in his touch. Could he really be such a depraved rogue? The only way to find out is to beat the devil at his own game… one tempting kiss at a time.
Grand Central Forever, North America ~ May 2015
Harlequin Mills and Boon, United Kingdom ~ 1st March 2016
Harlequin Mills and Boon, Australia and New Zealand ~ 22nd February 2016
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Alloway Chase, Yorkshire, late September 1828
Finally he was home.
James Fairbrother, Marquess of Leath sighed with relief and whipped off his heavy topcoat as the footman fought to close the massive oak door against the blustery night. This year, winter came early to the moors. Most years, if Leath was honest. When he’d left London, lovely, golden autumn had held sway. The further north he’d ventured, the less lovely and golden the weather became, until he’d arrived at his family seat in a freezing gale.
“Go to bed, George. I can manage from here.” At three in the morning, he wasn’t selfish enough to keep the man at his beck and call. Knowing that he’d beat any message he sent to Alloway Chase, he’d left London in a rush. He’d considered putting up at an inn before the final desolate run across the heath, but the moon was full and the night was clear, if brutal, and his horse had been fresh.
“Thank you, my lord.” The young man in crimson livery took the coat and bowed. “I’ll light the fires in your apartments.”
As George left, Leath collected his leather satchel of documents, lifted the chamber stick from the Elizabethan chest against the great hall’s stone wall, and trudged down the long corridor toward his library. Against the looming darkness, the candle’s light seemed frail, but Leath had grown up in this rambling house. The ghosts, reportedly legion, were friendly.
Physically he was exhausted, but his mind leaped about like a cat with fleas. The roiling mixture of emotions that had sent him hurtling up to Yorkshire still warred within. Anger. Disappointment. Self-castigation. Confusion. A barely admitted fear. He wasn’t ready to seek his bed, although the good God knew where he did want to go, except perhaps to blazes.
Usually when he reached Alloway Chase, the weight of the world slid from his shoulders. Not tonight. Nor any time in the near future, he grimly suspected. There was a difference between visiting the country at one’s own prompting and having one’s political advisers demand a rustication for the nation’s good.
Outside his library, he paused, puzzled.
A line of faint light shone beneath the door. At this hour, the household should be asleep. Stupid with tiredness, he wondered if at the grand old age of thirty-two, he’d finally encountered one of the ghosts. The most active specter was Lady Mary Fairbrother, murdered during the Civil War after her husband caught her in bed with a Royalist.
As the door slowly opened before him, the unreal sensation built.
Flickering gold filled the widening gap. Leath found himself staring into wide dark eyes.
The apparition gave a breathy gasp of surprise. A stray draft extinguished both candles, and then he heard a dull thud as the girl lost her grip on the light.
Instinct made him drop the satchel and reach for her. It was as dark as a thief’s pocket, and something told him that she’d use the cover to flee. His hand closed around a slender waist. This was no visitor from the spirit realm. The body he held was undoubtedly human. Warm. Lissome. Taut with outrage or fright. Perhaps both.
“Are you a burglar?” she asked in a low voice, wriggling to escape.
“Isn’t that what I should say?” he asked drily.
“I don’t understand,” she hissed back.
She sounded young. Before the candles went out, he’d merely glimpsed her features. He wondered, although it could have no importance, whether she was pretty. “Damn it, stop squirming.”
Uselessly she pushed him. “Then let me go.”
“No.” He caught her more securely and back-stepped her into the library.
The thick darkness was confoundedly suggestive. He was overwhelmingly conscious of the curve of her waist and the brush of her breasts against his chest. The soft, urgent rasp of her breathing indicated fear, but sounded disconcertingly like sexual excitement. Hell, he could even smell her. Her intentions might be murky, but she smelled of freshly cut meadows and soap. If she was a burglar, she was a dashed clean one.
As he kicked the door shut behind him, she released a soft yelp and made a more vigorous attempt to break free. “I’ll scream.”
“Go ahead.” He dropped his candle to the carpet and reached behind him to turn the key in the lock. When he rode up to the house, he’d been mutton-headed with weariness. This riddle of a female in his library stirred him to full alertness.
“You’ve locked us in,” she said accusingly. “Who are you?”
A snort of laughter escaped him. She was a direct wench. This encounter became more bizarre by the second. Perhaps he’d fallen asleep in the saddle and he was dreaming. If not for the living woman under his hand, he might almost believe it. “More to the point, who are you? And what are you doing in my library after midnight?”
A bristling silence descended. “Your library?”
“Yes.” Unerringly he approached the high windows and flung back the curtains. Moonlight flooded the room. He turned to inspect the woman, but she lurked in the shadows by the door and he discerned little, apart from her slenderness and unnaturally upright posture. Her hands twined nervously at her waist.
She piqued his curiosity. A welcome change from the bitter dissatisfaction that had dogged him this last year. Using the tinderbox, he lit the branch of candles on the table under the window.
Briefly Leath caught his reflection in the glass, outlined in gold light. Large, looming. If he’d made the girl nervous in the dark, she’d be terrified now that she saw him. He didn’t look like a welcoming, easy sort of man. Recent trials had added sternness to a face not blessed with charm at the best of times.
Slowly, he turned. And his heart slammed to stillness.
His mysterious lady was a beauty.
Ignoring the way her lips tightened with resentment, he raised the candles to inspect her. A plain gray dress with white linen collar. Silvery blond hair drawn severely away from her face. No trace of curl or ribbon to soften the austerity. Her face was austere too, as perfectly carved as an angel on a cathedral doorway. High forehead; long slender nose; slanted cheekbones; pointed chin. Assertive brows darker than her hair above widely spaced eyes that regarded him with impressive steadiness. Few men could withstand the Marquess of Leath’s intense stare, yet this girl didn’t even blink.
Her mouth provided the only hint in that pure, calm face that she was more than a beautiful marble statue. Her mouth was… marvelous.
Full. Lush. Sweetly pink.
He was so big that most women seemed tiny in comparison, but the repressed energy radiating from her made her appear taller than average. His eyes lingered on the delightfully rounded bosom beneath her demure bodice.
Her gaze turned frosty and despite the uncertain light, he saw a flush on those high cheekbones. Good God, whoever she was, she had spirit. He reduced most young ladies to blushing silence. This girl – and she was little more, mid-twenties at the most – might blush, but she was far from intimidated.
When she bloody well should be.
The childishness of that last reflection had his lips twitching. He’d feared months of boredom ahead, but his return started in a most intriguing fashion. If he’d known this odd, fascinating creature waited in Yorkshire, he might have visited more often, instead of burying his head in parliamentary business in London.
“Just what are you up to?” he asked softly, placing the candles on a table and stepping closer.
Ah, she wasn’t totally foolhardy. She retreated toward the door, eyes widening. He wished he could see their precise color. The light simply wasn’t good enough. “You’re trying to frighten me.”
“Perhaps I’m seeking a little respect,” he said smoothly.
She curtsied, but he could tell that her heart wasn’t in it. “Your lordship.”
He folded his arms and surveyed her under lowered brows. “So you know I’m Leath.”
“You said it’s your library. And her ladyship has a portrait in her room. I recognized you when you lit the candles.”
The world toadied to his wealth and influence, but the spark in this girl’s eyes looked like hostility. A challenge sizzled between them. Or perhaps the beginnings of attraction.
“At last a straight answer,” he said wryly. “Now can you bring yourself to tell me who you are?”
“Will you let me go if I do?”
Her audacity stole his breath. Nobody defied him or denied him or bargained with him. Most people tripped over themselves to do his bidding before he’d even worked out what his bidding was. “We’ll see.”
Her eyes narrowed, confirming his impression that she didn’t like him. He wondered why. “You have a reputation for keeping your hands off the housemaids, my lord.”
“What in Hades?” Her meaning smashed through his burgeoning interest. “Are you saying that you’re a… housemaid?”
A fleeting smile tilted her lips. His wayward heart jolted at the promise of other, more generous smiles. “Yes.”
“You don’t look like a blasted housemaid.” Nor did she speak like any housemaid he’d ever known. She sounded like a lady.
“You…you caught me at a disadvantage.”
“I’ll say I did.”
He waited for some retort, but her expression turned blank. For the first time, to his disappointment, she looked like a servant. Although this sudden docility meant that he might discover why she was in his library. Housemaids started work early and generally didn’t have the energy to run around after bedtime. “What’s your name?”
She dipped into another curtsy. He could have told her she overdid the meekness, but he held his peace.
“Trim, my lord.”
Trim? He couldn’t argue with that. “Trim what?”
He thought she might smile again, but she’d leashed her rebellious spirit as tightly as she tied back her hair. He wasn’t a man who experienced profound and sudden sexual urges. But he’d give this girl every sparkling diamond in the family vault if she’d take down her hair. If she let him touch it, he’d throw in the damned house as well.
“Nell Trim, sir.”
“Helen or Eleanor?”
“Eleanor.” Her voice retained its curiously flat quality and she stared somewhere over his shoulder.
Eleanor. An elegant name for an elegant woman. An elegant woman who was his housemaid.
“Very good.” Except Eleanor wasn’t a suitable name for a junior servant. Eleanor was a queen’s name. It brought dangerous, powerful women to mind. “What are you doing in my library, Trim?”
By rights, he should call a housemaid Nell, but with her slender neatness, Trim suited her so well.
“If I tell you, you’ll dismiss me.”
He kept his expression neutral. “I’ll dismiss you if you don’t.”
She leveled that direct stare upon him. “I couldn’t sleep, and I wanted something to read. I always return the books, my lord; you have my word.”
A housemaid who rifled his bookcases and offered her word? She became more extraordinary by the minute. “You can read?”
“Yes, sir.” In a show of deference that didn’t convince, she lowered her eyelids. Years in the political bear pit had taught him to read people. He was sure of two things about the trim Miss Eleanor Trim. One was that deference didn’t come naturally. The other was that somewhere in this odd conversation, she lied.
“So what did you choose?” She hadn’t carried a book when she’d run into him at the door.
“Nothing appealed. May I go, my lord? I’m on duty early.”
“Do I need to search you to see if you’ve stolen anything?” She could be a master criminal bamboozling him into complacency. Except he didn’t feel complacent. He felt alive and interested as nothing had interested him in months.
Temper lit her eyes. She didn’t like him questioning her honesty. “I’m not a thief.”
Ah, the false docility cracked. He hid his satisfaction. “How can I be sure?”
“You could check the room for anything missing, my lord.”
“I might do that.” Abruptly his sour mood descended once more. What the hell was he doing flirting with a housemaid in the middle of the night? Perhaps his political advisers were right about him needing a break.
He bent to pick up the candle the girl had dropped when he’d barged in on top of her. He lit it from the branch and passed it across, then unlocked the door. “You may go, Trim.”
She raised the candle and surveyed him as if uncertain whether this dismissal was good news or not. Her curtsy this time conveyed no ironic edge, then she backed toward the door. “Thank you, my lord.”
“For God’s sake, I’m not going to pounce on you,” he said on a spurt of irritation. It niggled that for a different man living in a different world, the thought of pouncing on the delectable Miss Trim was sinfully appealing.
Her eyes flashed up and he saw that beneath her drab exterior, she was fierce and strong. He awaited some astringent comeback. Instead she dragged the door open and fled.