Desire knows no reason...
When Lady Delilah Chambers finds herself stranded at a country inn on a rain-swept evening, she’s forced to fend off a group of ruffians with the help of a handsome gentleman. Irresistibly drawn to each other, Leela and the stranger spend one reckless night in each others’ arms—and then go their separate ways. But the very next day Leela receives the shock of her life when she meets the duke who is set on wedding her beloved stepdaughter.
When it finds two destined hearts...
One night isn’t enough with a woman as fierce, fiery, and brilliant as Leela. Elliot Townsend, Duke of Huntington, cannot believe his good fortune when their chance encounter leads to an unforgettable evening of passion. Yet Hunt’s luck runs out when he is introduced to his prospective mother-in-law. Dowagers aren’t supposed to look like this...
Leela and Hunt are determined to keep each other at arm’s length, which should be easy enough for two intelligent adults with reputations to uphold. The problem is all logic is lost when it comes to a passion that refuses to be ignored.
Elliot Townsend, the Duke of Huntington, led such an ordered existence that he failed to recognize disaster.
Until it was far too late to save himself.
Calamity appeared in the form of a rain-soaked female clad in a simple white gown. The thin fabric was plastered to every considerable curve of her womanly form. She surfaced at the same ramshackle inn, from the same punishing rainstorm.
A washed-out section of Watling Road outside the town of Coventry had forced him to seek shelter at the Black Swan Inn. It was a tattered structure with a lopsided overhanging roof. The inside proved even less inviting than the dubious exterior. Mingled odors of unwashed bodies, perspiration and spirits permeated the inn’s damp smoky taproom. Now sipping his too-sweet ale, Hunt cursed himself for not delaying his journey at the first sign of inclement weather.
He could be in London right now finding satisfaction between Georgina’s delectably plump thighs. He’d certainly prefer to inhale her delicate flowery perfume rather than a mildewy room full of malodorous strangers. He visited his mistress precisely three times a week, appearing at her Half Moon Street address, which he paid for, every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Hunt rarely deviated from the pattern he’d set early on in their arrangement. Or any arrangement really.
Soon he and Georgie would part ways. Hunt intended to marry before Parliament met in early November, at which time the Season would begin in earnest. He was on his way now to pay court to his future wife. Unease moved through him, but he pushed it away. Surely all men experienced a sense of foreboding before binding themselves to one woman for a lifetime.
He had no reason to be apprehensive. His choice was sound. Lady Victoria was a hidden gem, an unpolished diamond that society’s foolish young bloods had overlooked. Hunt congratulated himself on recognizing the fine attributes hidden deep beneath the bookish young lady’s retiring exterior and decided lack of conversational polish.
She met all of his qualifications for a wife. Her extraordinary shyness in his presence would eventually pass. What truly mattered was that she was agreeable, of good family, and possessed sufficient intelligence so that Hunt wouldn’t be bored to death. Most importantly, Lady Victoria’s countenance suggested she would never do anything to dishonor the Huntington title. God knows Hunt’s rakehell of an older brother had done enough damage to the family name to last this lifetime.
Phillip Townsend, the seventh Duke of Huntington, drowned during a drunken boat outing four years prior. He left behind numerous unpaid debts, broken hearts and ruffled feathers that Hunt had spent the past four years repaying, mending and unruffling.
From his rickety corner table in the crowded taproom, he swallowed his ale, his attention drawn to the latest castaway who’d joined the tavern’s motley group. Her back was to him. His gaze followed the single long dark braid that ran down her back almost reaching a curvaceous arse. Hunt’s eyes widened when his gaze hit the bottom edge of the lady’s gown.
What he glimpsed there was barely visible. He suspected the woman’s intention was to keep them hidden, but Hunt could make out what seemed to be the hems of billowing trousers beneath her straight-cut gown.
“I would like a chamber,” she informed the innkeeper.
The man’s heavy brows almost met in the middle of his considerable forehead. He cast an appraising look at the woman, his interested gaze lingering well below the woman’s face far longer than necessary. “Do you now?”
“Yes, and without delay if you please.”
The innkeeper’s brows lifted. He seemed uncertain of how to respond to a woman who dressed like a costermonger but commanded him like a queen. Before he could respond, the inn door blew open, and the rain ushered in yet another arrival, a brown-skinned man with a lived-in face stooped over a worn leather valise. The woman addressed the newcomer in an unfamiliar tongue.
She spoke so quickly that the words all seemed to run together. The woman’s male companion nodded, set the bag down at her side and withdrew, the wind and rain blowing leaves across the stone flagged floor as he made his exit.
“What are you?” The innkeeper flushed as he stared after the man. “A blackamoor?”
“She’s Persian,” one of the old soldiers cried out. “No, Arabian, that’s it.”
One of his companions guffawed. “As if you’d know the difference, you old drunk.”
“I ’eard that kind of guttural talk in Egypt,” the old soldier insisted, “when we fought against the frogs in Alexandria in ’01.”
“They got camels out there, don’t they?” another of their companions inquired.
The innkeeper scowled at the woman. “We do not accommodate heathens.”
“I require a chamber. The roads are impossible to travel on.” The woman did not cower. To the contrary, Hunt admired the way she seemed to grow taller. She set a small bulging money pouch on the scarred counter. “I will pay handsomely.”
A hush came over the taproom. The once-boisterous throng of soldiers and laborers grew silent, their eyes now fixed on the woman. Even a group of miscreants singing vulgar songs stopped their racket.
The innkeeper realized he had an audience. “You need a place to sleep?” He crossed his arms over a high belly. “Perhaps one of these fine men will see to you. I am certain a wench such as yourself is well used to accommodating her betters.”
“Maybe she learned some tricks in her master’s harem,” one man called out amidst guffaws of approval.
Hunt set down his pewter tankard. He did not care for the restless tension that stretched the air. Nor for the fact that the woman was the lone female in a crush of drunken men already agitated about being cooped up at the inn. Even the serving girls had vanished.
“I will take that chamber now,” she said firmly, as if she was ordering fripperies in Mayfair. She paid no mind to the leering ruffians edging ever closer.
Hunt slowly rose from his chair, sliding his hand beneath his tailcoat. His fingers brushed the cool barrel of the flintlock pistol he’d removed from his valise and clipped to his trousers.
He never traveled unarmed. Country roads could be treacherous for a man on his own, particularly a duke. His security team blanched whenever he indulged in these occasional solitary sojourns. The outings were much needed reprieves from the strictures of a title he’d never expected to inherit. A bachelor duke under seventy with fifteen thousand pounds a year tended to draw unwanted attention.
“I got a room yer can share, sweet’eart.” A man sitting with the old soldier separated from the crowd and sauntered up to the woman. A huge scar ran down the left side of his face, a jagged line dissecting one ruddy cheek. “’Ow about we go up now and yer ride me like yer people ride a camel in the desert?”
“I got a bigger . . . chamber.” Another man, this one small and ragged, stood up, gyrating his bony hips indecently. “Come with me and I’ll take yer for the ride of yer life.”
“Ain’t no reason the wench can’t screw us both.” Scarface grinned amidst the hoots of encouragement and slid a meaty hand down over the woman’s bottom.
Hunt vaulted across the room. “Get your hands off of her!” he bellowed.
A sudden burst of activity followed. Hunt barely registered the woman pivoting. Something glimmered in her hand. Before Hunt, or Scarface for that matter, knew what she was about, the woman had Scarface’s arm twisted high up behind his back and the gleaming edge of a curved dagger lodged under his chin.
She stared at Bony Hips, who gaped back with wide, shocked eyes. “Would you still care to be next?” The words were mild, but Hunt noted that her breaths came faster and deeper. “I am more than happy to oblige.”
“’Twas just a jest.” Raising hands, palms facing front in surrender, Bony Hips edged backward. “Be careful, little lady. Yer might injure someone with that.”
“Yes,” she agreed, “I very well might.”
Scarface paled. “Let me go. Yer hurting me.”
“Have you managed to learn some manners?”
He spat his disdain, although his spittle had no hopes of reaching her, given her position. “I’ll teach yer some manners, yer barbarian bitch.” He attempted to wriggle free, but then winced and groaned when her grip on him didn’t ease. “Look around. Yer alone. Do yer think one stupid wench can take us all?”
Murmurs of assent sounded from the assembled crowd. “Let’s make ’er pay,” somebody called out.
Hunt stepped forward, every muscle in his body rigid. “The lady is not alone.” He withdrew his pistol, holding it down by his side, but keeping the weapon in clear view. “She is with me. My flintlock and I shall take it quite personally if anyone tries to take what is mine.”
The woman released Scarface with a shove. Fury flashing in her eyes, she pivoted toward Hunt, giving him his first good look at her.
He almost dropped the pistol. She was extraordinary. Enormous almond eyes the color of black tea regarded him with unfettered scorn. Golden honey skin drew tight across a proud forehead and razor-cut cheekbones. She was so striking that he almost forgot to notice that her curved blade was now pointed directly at him.
“Why didn’t yer say so ta start with, guv?” Scarface backed away. “That’s some prime female flesh you got there, but I ain’t one ta poach a gent’s doxy.”
“As if you could,” the woman said. She was not a young girl. Hunt judged her to be in her late twenties. A sense of certainty, a womanly maturity, emanated from her.
Around them, the other miscreants threw jibes.
“Be careful she don’t use that blade on yer Thomas, guv!”
“Looks like a ’andful that one, but ’is lordship looks man enough ter tame ’er.”
Hoots of amusement followed. Tension seeped out of the taproom as quickly as it had ratcheted up just minutes before. The men in the tavern shuffled back to their tables, leaving Hunt facing the woman and the sharp point of her knife.
Despite his mild alarm, Hunt didn’t believe she intended to run him through. Unless, of course, he did something to deserve it. “Is this how you thank me for coming to your rescue?”
“I certainly do not mean to show appreciation by accompanying you to your bedchamber.” Her smoky voice slid along his nerves like silk. Hunt had never before encountered anyone like her. He admired her fierceness, the way she wielded that strange dagger like a conquering female samurai.
“Besides,” she added. “I did not require assistance. I had the matter well in hand.”
“Oh?” She really was magnificent. “Was your plan to stab every man here?”
“You may be certain that if I had intended to kill you, or anyone, with my janbiya, you wouldn’t have known it until well after my dagger was buried deep inside your chest.”
“A bloodthirsty woman. I quite admire that.”
“Do you? Is that an invitation for me to draw your blood?”
“I would be much obliged if you did not poke any holes in me. I am quite partial to keeping my blood contained within my body.”
He watched her suppress her amusement as she sheathed her dagger. It dawned on him that he very much would like to see what she looked like when she smiled. Although he remained on edge, unconvinced the agitated tavern-goers had lost all interest in the lady, his vigilance did not keep his body from being supremely aware of her proximity.
“Who are you?” She regarded him with open curiosity. “Few people on the business point of a dagger manage to keep their wits about them. Unless, of course, they are very stupid.”
“Or very brave. My name is Elliot Townsend. Just a man passing through.” If the reprobates surrounding them realized they had a duke in their midst, particularly one traveling alone, Hunt would find himself rolled and left for dead before dawn.
That’s why he wore serviceable clothing more suited to his secretary than a duke. His drenched old greatcoat was more than a decade old, and threadbare enough not to attract undue attention. He’d sent his staff and carriage ahead to the house party hosted by Lady Victoria’s brother. He needed time alone to sort through the changes in his life that would come with marriage. “I have told you who I am,” he said to the woman. “And who are you?”
“The same as you. Just a woman passing through.”
“Your private parlor is ready for you, sir.” The innkeeper paused on his way to deliver ale to a nearby table. “It is just as well that your wench will be sharing your private parlor since I have no chambers or parlors left.”
The woman cut a resentful look at the innkeeper’s departing back. She smothered a sigh. Hunt sympathized. She looked cold, wet and so weary that she might just fall asleep on her feet, yet her steel-blade gaze reflected an unwavering awareness of her surroundings.
“You are most welcome to share my parlor,” he offered. “I give you my word that I will behave as a gentleman.” Which would be a disappointment. He wouldn’t mind seeing what that tall, supple body looked like stripped of clothing. Hunt imagined bedding her would be anything but boring. She’d be a welcome diversion on this dismal evening.
The woman looked around the taproom. “Perhaps I will just be on my way.”
“In this weather? It is unsafe.”
“And sharing a chamber with a perfect stranger is not?”
She could hardly remain in the taproom alone. “Surely your chances of enjoying solitude and a quiet meal are much enhanced if you are away from this rabble.”
“I shall have a bit of sustenance and then be on my way.”
He sighed. “I cannot allow you to go back into that storm. You should take the parlor. It is the only room they have left.”
“I could not ask you to give up your parlor.”
“You have not asked—I have offered.” He did not relish the thought of passing the evening in this noisy smoke pit, but he was a gentleman.
Two delicate lines appeared between her bold dark brows. “But where will you pass the night?”
“I shall find someone to bunk with. A little coin can be most persuasive. Besides,” he lied, “I am accustomed to less-than-desirable accommodations while traveling.”
She hesitated. “Very well.”
“Then it is settled.”
“I suppose,” she said with obvious reluctance, “that I should invite you to take a meal in the parlor so that you shall not be forced to dine in discomfort.”
“I accept,” he said with alacrity. Ignoring the disappointment in her face, he reached for her valise. “It is this way. Shall we?”
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