The sleepless soul that perished in his pride...
"Come on, damn it." Sweat beaded on Caine's back as he
thrust into the woman beneath him, her customary mewling
sounds making bile rise in his throat. He wanted to be
done with her so she would leave.
She was always ravenous for sex when she woke up, which
was why he normally made himself scarce, but she had
caught him unawares, climbing into his bed late last night
after he had drunk himself into a stupor. He had come
awake abruptly when she mounted his morning erection, for
which he very nearly throttled her as he pushed her to her
"Oh, yes, Caine...that's it," she panted, her face
wreathed in ecstasy. Olivia Hamilton, widow of the late
Marquis of Buxton, and now Caine's patroness, was building
toward her climax. "Now, Caine. Now."
Her legs gripped his flanks like an industrial clamp,
urging every ounce from him, whether he wished to give it
She tossed her head back and moaned. A stream of bright
sunlight slanted across her neck, showing the fine lines
of her advancing age, which she claimed to be forty, but
which he suspected was closer to forty-five. But she could
have been twenty-five and it wouldn't have made his duty
any easier. Fitting punishment for a man who had once been
so immersed in a world of sin that he'd earned the
nickname Vice from his comrades-in-debauchery. What a
perversion of fate, to have been trapped by his own
Outside, the crisp snap of a gunshot signaled the start of
the morning's fox hunt and the beginning of yet another
weeklong house party, where he would hang on the fringes
while England's most dissolute peers descended upon
Northcote Hall. People he had once ignorantly called
friends, in a home he had, in another lifetime, called his
Northcote had belonged to Ballingers since the fourteenth
century, surviving sieges, the uncompromising elements of
the Devon coastline, and a fire that had nearly gutted it
a hundred years earlier. But it hadn't survived Henry
Ballinger. His father.
The earl had been a good man, but distracted, the death of
his wife pushing him deeper into his own world, his
business ventures faltering until debt covered his head,
and his son's head upon his death. Caine had barely
escaped with the shirt on his back when he had learned how
far-reaching the devastation. The entail on Northcote had
lapsed. There had been no way to save it from the auction
block, leaving an empty title as his sole inheritance.
Two years his father had been dead, his broken body found
upon the rocks at the base of the cliffs. The last step in
Henry Ballinger's march toward self-destruction was his
inability to pay back the money loaned to him by the
wealthiest nobleman in the region, Edward Ashton, Duke of
Exmoor. There were many defeats the earl could accept, but
not when it concerned a debt of honor. In that, his fall
from grace had been absolute.
And so began Caine's own descent, his mind increasingly
consumed with a growing hate, certain that his father
would still be alive if the duke had given him more time
to pay. Exmoor had pushed his father to his death as
though the duke's hand had been on his father's back.
Since then, Caine's life had become a hellish purgatory,
turning him into a man without a soul, without a
conscience. He had nothing -- nothing but the silent,
impotent rage that kept him rising day after day, instead
of taking his gun and putting a bullet through his brain.
Olivia whimpered beneath him, conveying that he was being
too rough with her. But even that wouldn't make her leave.
It wouldn't end this insanity, or change his
circumstances. Or bring back the life he had once taken
"No, Caine," she begged when he began to pull out of her,
his timing a near science.
She cursed his cruelty in tormenting her, which gave him a
perverse sense of satisfaction. She may have a hold over
him, but he had something she wanted badly. Eight inches
His lack of cooperation was only a momentary annoyance,
however, as she arched her hips up to draw him in and
stroked her sex until she came, her muscles convulsing
around his shaft, trying to wring his seed from him. But
he wasn't taking any chances. He always wore the
rubberized French letter to protect himself from
impregnating her. One seed swimming upstream, and she'd
have him in a choke hold for the rest of his life.
His duty complete, Caine rolled off her, letting the
breeze from the open window cool his anger and his
overheated body. Summer had finally settled in, banishing
spring's chill to the hours before dawn.
The smell of the white jasmine that grew in abundance
around the house drifted into the room, bringing with it
the only vivid recollection Caine had of his mother. She
had died when he was four years old, but the haunting
fragrance taunted him with brief flashes of memory, of an
ethereal figure with a sad smile.
"Caine," came the impatient voice of the new lady of the
manor. "Untie me." She tugged on the red silk scarves
securing her wrists to the bed posts.
Caine didn't bother to look at her. "No."
"Blast you, Caine! Untie me now."
He had tied her up for his pleasure, not hers. It kept her
from touching him. "I think I'll ring for the maid," he
said, reaching for the bellpull.
Caine's hand hovered around the black silk cord. "Why not?
The girl might discover a whole new appreciation for you,
especially after you docked her a day's wage for spilling
a cup of tea." Olivia reveled in her petty cruelties; it
was the only thing that gave purpose to her life.
"She deserved it, the clumsy twit. I should have fired her
on the spot."
"Your constant belittling made her nervous."
"Stop making excuses for these incompetent servants.
You're always taking their side. One would think you cared
Caine didn't want to think his actions were motivated by
anything other than a desire to prod Olivia. She needed
these little doses of humility, though it rarely took the
edge off the bitch she was when not lying flat on her back.
"I don't care about anyone," he drawled. "You of all
people should know that only too well."
"That's because you have no heart."
"True. But it's not my heart you want, is it? Now, you
might want to close your thighs." His fingers wrapped
around the bellpull.
"Someday, Caine, you're going to push me too far...and
then I'm going to burn your beloved house to the ground."
Caine's hand curled into a fist. He had already been the
recipient of her spite, as one by one she systematically
destroyed the paintings of his ancestors that had hung in
the portrait gallery for centuries. The few that remained
now moldered in the attic.
"I see I have your attention," she said. "Good. Now untie
With a snarl, he loosened her bonds. Rolling away from
her, he clasped his hands behind his head and stared up at
the ceiling, thinking about the depths to which he had
fallen; the single, fatal character flaw that had caused
him to barter his body and soul.
"That was not well done of you, my lord," his unwanted bed
partner chided as she rubbed feeling back into her arms,
the pampered, spoiled princess of doting parents and a
moronic husband who'd had the good sense to die.
"You got what you wanted, Olivia. Now leave me in peace,
for Christ's sake."
"You're a mean brute, Caine, but utterly delicious." She
slid her palm down over his stomach, the tip of her
forefinger circling the head of his penis, now free of the
He gripped her wrist and brought it down hard on the
mattress. "Leave off," he growled.
"Don't be angry with me."
"I told you not to come to my bedroom."
"But you didn't come to me, and I needed you."
"So find another bedmate for the night."
"You're the only one I want."
Caine snorted. "You don't actually believe that delusion,
"Please, Caine. Stop barking at me." She sidled closer to
him, her gaze running over his naked body. "Let me make it
up to you."
Caine knew what she was going to do and told himself to
stop her. He couldn't stand her, yet his body blared for
some kind of fulfillment.
Her warm breath whispered across his rigid flesh a moment
before she took him into her mouth, her blond hair teasing
his groin. She was mocking him, knowing how bitterly he
resented it when she did this.
She cupped him, massaging with expert fingers as her wet
mouth slid further down his shaft, sucking hard,
increasing its dimension as much as he tried to hold back
the stirrings of his treasonous body.
Her lips closed tighter around him, her tongue toying with
the crest, nursing just the head before going deep, her
hand pumping the base as her mouth took in as much of him
as she could manage, the suction building along with the
speed, the pressure expanding in his loins.
On the verge of spewing his seed, she mounted him, her
moan a husky contralto as she took the fully aroused,
unprotected length of him inside her body.
Caine immediately wrenched her off him. "Damn you!"
Anger flared in her eyes as she leaned back against the
pillows, her rouged nipples showing dark against the pale
outline of her body and the blue satin sheets behind her.
She looked like she wanted to hack him into little bits.
But knowing she would get nowhere by inciting him further,
she switched tactics, her lips curving into a pout, which
for some godforsaken reason she thought worked on him.
"Why must you deny me? You know how much I want a child,
yet you hold on to your precious seed like it's gold. I
have money. I could give a babe all it desired: a
governess to tend its dirty nappies, a wet nurse to offer
up a tit when it's hungry."
"But no last name -- unless you're suggesting marriage,
and of course there is the fact that you don't possess an
ounce of moral fiber."
"As though you do," she retorted. "Vice is your virtue.
You're as conscienceless as they come."
She was right, of course. Vice had always been his stock-
in-trade. "Don't you have guests to entertain?" he
remarked pointedly, rising from the bed and grabbing his
trousers from the floor. Shoving his legs into them, he
stalked to the window.
Not surprisingly, she ignored his cue to depart. "Give me
a child, Caine. Alfred was unable to do his husbandly
duty. It's unfair, I tell you. Who shall take care of me
when I'm old?"
"I don't give a damn."
"Every woman should have a child of her own."
"We've been through this before. The answer is still no.
You may hold my finances, but you won't hold my future."
"How horrible of you to say such a thing. Haven't I given
you everything you want? The finest clothes, pin money for
your gambling, the cellar stocked with your favorite
liquors, and my body to warm your bed. What else could you
The one thing he seemed destined to live without, Caine
"I try to be understanding of what prompts you to behave
so cruelly. I know things have not been easy for you."
"Do not patronize me," he warned.
"Fine. Since you wish to be frank, and have raised the
issue of your circumstances, let's discuss them, then. The
cold truth is, I do hold your future in my hand."
His gaze snapped over his shoulder, the fury on his face
making her flinch. "Don't doubt that I could find another
"But could you find one who owns your ancestral home?" she
said with a taunting lift of her eyebrows. "Northcote
obsesses you, Caine. It runs through your veins like a
drug and you can't exorcise it. Now it belongs to me. I
will get what I want eventually. I always do. So why not
stop fighting it?"
Caine shut her out, knowing he was trapped by his own
demons and unable to break free. Damn her for a soulless
bitch, for tossing his weakness in his face.
His gaze centered on the sea beyond the cliffs. The
turbulent blue-green water of the Bristol Channel mirrored
his mood, waves cresting with white foam as they crashed
thunderously against the jagged rocks that rose hundreds
of feet high.
Despite the ghosts left to haunt him, this was home, his
solitary link to the world he had once known. Northcote
was his identity, his safe harbor, and without it he felt
unanchored, adrift. Olivia had called it his obsession,
and it was. He couldn't just walk away, no matter how much
it ripped at his pride to submit to her sexual demands. He
couldn't relinquish this last piece of his life.
Caine heard her rise from the bed and move toward
him. "Though you deserve to be banished for your less-than-
lover-like behavior," she said in a sultry voice, "I can't
seem to send you away. You're very hard to resist, my
lord." She wrapped her arms around his waist, her breasts
flattening against his back as she purred, "And so very
well endowed." Her hands slid over the front of his
His fingers closed around her wrist with just enough force
to make her whimper. "Don't make me tell you again."
She pulled her hand away. "Please try to be civil today.
You'll scare off my guests with that black scowl."
"As if I give a damn. You know how I feel about having
those barracudas here." He hated being paraded about as
"I enjoy these gatherings. This place is as lifeless as a
"If you don't like it here, then why did you make your
dearly departed, cuckolded husband buy it?"
"Because I found a wicked sort of pleasure in its tragic
history. People throwing themselves off cliffs in despair.
How very dramatic."
Caine tensed, her intended barb striking true. "Shut up."
"Oh, dear. I'm sorry. That was your father, wasn't it? I
"You're a vicious bitch, and you damn well know it."
Christ, he had to get out. He was suffocating.
As he turned from the window, he caught a glimpse of two
riders. The duo burst from the woods at breakneck speed,
performing the most reckless of maneuvers as they raced
toward the house.
When the lead horse attempted a perilous leap over a
crevice, Caine's attention focused on the rider. Female.
An idiotic female who was taking unbelievable risks with
her life and that of her mount.
She was beating her male counterpart by a good two leagues
as they thundered into the courtyard in front of the
house, her husky laughter ringing in Caine's ears as she
came to a dust-raising halt.
With a light hop, she dismounted, not waiting for
assistance. With her feet now touching the earth, Caine
was surprised to discover how petite she was.
She shook her hair away from her face; it had become
unbound during her mad dash to the finish. The dark
cinnamon tresses were lush and reached just beyond the
middle of her back.
Beneath the straight, silky veil was a face of the most
striking features. Piquancy battled with classic beauty.
Incredibly high cheekbones melded with a mouth so
dazzlingly wide as to affect the whole aspect of her face
when she smiled. Dark brows slanted above eyes whose color
he could not discern, but which instinct told him were as
blue as the water behind her.
"I've beaten you, Court," she said to the other rider in a
breathless, laughing voice, pressing a light kiss to her
horse's muzzle. "Do you yield?"
From his mounted position, the man offered her an
exaggerated bow. His sandy brown hair, cropped close to
his head, gleamed in the mid-morning sun. "I do, my lady.
I submit to your greater horsemanship. You may count me as
another man who has fallen victim to your superior skill."
She tapped his knee with her crop in a playful
gesture. "Remember that when next you challenge me."
"Only a very foolish man would challenge you," he returned
in the same light vein. His attention was then diverted,
directing Caine's gaze to what he had spotted. Or rather
Lady Rebecca St. Claire, Olivia's niece, was strolling
along the garden wall, her maid a few paces behind. The
lady cast coy glances over her shoulder toward the man.
"If you'll excuse me, Cousin?" he said in a distracted
tone. "There's a matter that requires my prompt attention."
Her amused gaze traveled in the same direction. "Oh, yes.
I can see that 'matter' requires immediate attention," she
returned in a teasing voice, her eyes alight.
With a conspiratorial grin, he saluted her with his crop
and cantered off toward his quarry. She stood for a
moment, watching him, sunlight glinting off the gold
buttons of her riding outfit, a hunter green confection
with a daring neckline and a clever split skirt that
allowed her to sit her mount astride.
Unexpectedly, she glanced up and caught Caine watching her
from the window. Her unflinching regard conveyed that she
knew he had been eavesdropping. That didn't bother him. He
had never claimed to be a gentleman and wouldn't pretend
to be one now.
The whinny of her restless mare ended the long moment of
appraisal. She inclined her head, the gesture distinctly
mocking, as she turned and led her horse away.
Impudent baggage. She didn't know whom she taunted, and he
was of a mind to educate her. Images ran rampant through
his brain as his gaze followed the provocative swing of
her backside, which held his undivided attention until she
disappeared from sight.
"Don't drool, darling," Olivia chided in a proprietary
tone. "I might take offense."
Caine reluctantly turned to look at her, forcing a bored
expression to his face. "Jealous, Lady Buxton?"
She lightly fingered the ties of her dressing gown, her
nipples showing clearly beneath the filmy material.
"Don't be absurd, darling. I can have you whenever I
want." As if to prove her point, she took the three steps
separating them and pressed her body to his.
Caine stared down at her with disinterest. "The equipment
needs a rest." He brushed past her and grabbed his shirt.
"She really affected you, didn't she?"
He tucked in his shirt, playing obtuse. "Since I've had
the misfortune of knowing more than one 'she' in my life,
perhaps you'd care to elaborate?"
"You know exactly who I'm speaking about. The little tart
with all the hair." Envy rang in her words. Olivia's own
hair was beginning to thin in spots, forcing her to wear
hairpieces to enhance what nature had not given her.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Caine shoved his foot into
his boot. "And if she did?"
"Then I'd have to remind you that you can look but not
Caine clenched his jaw and rose slowly from the bed.
Closing the short distance between them, he stared down
into Olivia's sly green eyes. "I give you certain
liberties, but I'm not a man who takes well to women who
attempt to control me. Remember that."
Her catlike smile told him she would humor him until it
suited her to do otherwise. "This gathering has suddenly
become far more interesting than I would have imagined."
"For you, maybe." Caine headed for the door, knowing full
well where he was going. To the stables -- questioning his
motives the entire way for allowing a fiery bit of
temptation to garner a reaction from him.
Olivia's words stopped him halfway out the door. "You
don't know who she is, do you?"
Something about the way she framed the question unnerved
him. He looked over his shoulder and noted the gleam in
her eyes. "I assume you're referring to the hellbent-for-
"I guess you wouldn't recognize her, would you? There
really is no familial resemblance, and she does spend a
great deal of her time in Paris, from what I understand."
"Get to the point."
"Does the name Edward Ashton mean anything to you?"
Everything inside Caine froze.
"Yes, I can see it does." She met him at the doorway.
Caine stood immobile as she reached up to trace a finger
along the jagged scar on his left cheek. "Does it still
"No," he bit out, jerking his head away, his entire body
suddenly feeling taut and explosive.
The scar was a reminder of his folly, compliments of one
of the duke of Exmoor's henchmen. But Caine figured he
deserved what he got for going to the man's London
townhouse, drunk and wanting to avenge his father's death.
He never made it past the front door. A burly footman had
the advantage of sobriety, heft, and a broken bottle.
Caine remembered waking up in a charity hospital, where
someone had deposited him, his brain feverish and his body
awash in sweat as infection set in. Two months he had
stayed, his world reduced to a solitary sphere of
His gaze narrowed on Olivia's face. "Who is she?"
She reveled in her secret a moment longer, then
replied, "Lady Bliss Ashton. Exmoor's darling daughter."
Caine felt as though someone had reached down his throat
and divested him of his innards. "What is she doing here?"
he demanded in a deceptively soft voice. "Did you invite
her?" He took a menacing step toward her. "I swear, if you
did -- "
"No, blast you. I didn't invite her." For an instant she
looked frightened, but then her hauteur surged back in
full. "She must have come with her cousin."
"Well, get her the hell out of here."
She arched a brow. "And only five minutes ago you wanted
to fuck her. How mercurial you are, my love."
Caine took another step forward, purposely crowding
her. "Don't push me, Olivia."
"If you want her gone," she said, lifting her pointed chin
and glaring at him, "then do it yourself. Certainly a big,
bad man like you can drive away one little female. You do
so excel at being a bastard."
"Remember that when you find her body washed up on the
rocks," Caine snarled as he stalked from the room.