Darius: Lord of Pleasures (Lonely Lords Series #1)

Darius: Lord of Pleasures (Lonely Lords Series #1)

4.7 42
by Grace Burrowes
     
 

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A story that breaks all the rules...


Darius is a gripping and remarkable tale of desperation, devotion, and redemption from award-winning New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Grace Burrowes. Her gorgeous writing and lush Regency world will stay with you long after you turn the final

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Overview

A story that breaks all the rules...


Darius is a gripping and remarkable tale of desperation, devotion, and redemption from award-winning New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Grace Burrowes. Her gorgeous writing and lush Regency world will stay with you long after you turn the final page...

With his beloved sister tainted by scandal, his widowed brother shattered by grief , and his funds cut off, Darius Lindsey sees no option but to sell himself—body and soul. Until the day he encounters lovely, beguiling Lady Vivian Longstreet, whose tenderness and understanding wrap his soul in a grace he knows he'll never deserve...

"Grace Burrowes's writing is comfort food for the romantic soul."—Yankee Romance Reviews

"Burrowes creates memorable heroes...intelligent, sensual love stories show us this author knows what romance readers adore."—RT Book Reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The new Regency-set Lonely Lords series from bestseller Burrowes (Lady Eve’s Indiscretion) begins with a decidedly unusual hero. Scorned by his parsimonious father, Darius Lindsey keeps his head above water by accepting payment for his extremely discreet intimate services. When elderly Lord Longstreet offers Darius an immense sum to father a child and solve Longstreet’s succession problem, Darius decides it’s the perfect opportunity to achieve financial security and freedom. Complications ensue when Lady Vivian Longstreet warms Darius’s frozen heart and his regular clients refuse to relinquish their boy toy, forcing Darius to dodge, duck, and play dirty to reach his happy ending. Burrowes creates her usual intelligent characters, exciting chemistry, and flowing dialogue, but readers may be slow to warm to Darius, and Vivian is underwritten. Still, Burrowes’s skillful balancing act makes this unconventional redemption-and-reward story work, and the role-reversal adds a fresh twist to the “hooker with a heart of gold” trope. Agent: Steve Axelrod, Axelrod Literary Agency. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
"Very compelling... Likable characters with enough angst to keep the story moving along. 4.5 stars, Reviewer Top Pick" - Night Owl Reviews

"This rising author handles powerful romance and complicated family life with skill in romances with great appeal." - Booklist

"Burrowes brings to life a deeply moving romance that's sure to be remembered and treasured. 4 1/2 Stars, Top Pick" - RT Book Reviews

"Darius was an unconventional historical romance but it definitely paid off. I loved this book. Romance lovers, you definitely need to read this." - Imagine a World

"Charmed beyond belief is what happens when I have a Grace Burrowes book in my hand. " - Romantic Crush Junkies EZine

"Once I started reading this tale of redemption I didn't want to put it down... Grace Burrowes, just like in her Moreland series, enchants with love finding its way. " - Long and Short Reviews

"Kudos to Grace Burrowes for turning what could have been a routine, formulaic historical romance into something different... Burrowes creatively meshed many classic components to give this story a fresh twist on regency romance that is both complex and commanding. " - 3 Chicks After Dark

"This was really different to anything I've enjoyed before... In fact, the romance arc was one of the most realistic that I have read." - Book Chick City

"Grace Burrowes is becoming the queen of Regency romance. " - RomFan Reviews

"Grace Burrowes is a compelling author... [Darius] is beautiful and emotionally rich." - Love Romance Passion

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781402278525
Publisher:
Sourcebooks, Incorporated
Publication date:
04/02/2013
Series:
Lonely Lords Series , #1
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
384
Sales rank:
29,996
File size:
1 MB

Read an Excerpt

One


"If one knows precisely where to inquire, one hears you provide favors to a select few ladies in exchange for the next thing to coin."


William Longstreet-the Fourth Viscount Longstreet, no less-delivered this observation without so much as a quaver to his voice. His veined hands were rock steady, and his tone cordial as he held his glass out to his host. "Just a touch more, perhaps? The wind is bitter, even for November."


And Darius Lindsey, veteran of more unnerving moments, stiff beatings, and bad luck than any earl's younger son ought to have endured, took his guest's glass to the sideboard and filled it with another finger of cognac-a scant finger.


Lord Longstreet was known as a shrewd politician, capable of quietly negotiating compromises between embattled factions in the Lords. He'd sent around a note asking to make a call privately, after dark, and Darius had accepted out of curiosity.


A curiosity he was apparently going to regret at length.


Darius crossed his arms and leaned back against the sideboard. "You're repeating rumor, my lord, and slanderous rumor at that. Just what did you come here to say?"


"Blunt." Lord Longstreet's faded brown eyes gleamed with humor. "Suppose you've learned to be, and that's all to the good. Excellent libation, by the way, and I notice you aren't keeping up, young man." Longstreet raised his glass with gentlemanly bonhomie, while Darius wanted to smash his drink against the hearthstones-not that he had the coin for even such a small extravagance of temper.


"You needn't confirm or deny these rumors," Lord Longstreet went on, shifting a bit in a chair more sturdy and comfortable than elegant. "I have no intention of recalling the information or where I came by it once I leave you tonight."


"Gracious of you, when you're repeating the kind of insinuations that can get a man called out."


"Involving as they do, the honor of several ladies," Longstreet rejoined. "If one can call them that."


Darius didn't rise to the bait. Tonight was not a night when he was expected elsewhere in the wee hours-thank a merciful God-and in deference to his guest's age, Darius had for once built up the fire to the point where his quarters were cozy. This also resulted in more illumination cast on threadbare carpet, scarred furniture, and a water stain high up on the outside wall.


"Ah, good." Longstreet's amusement was in evidence again. "You don't rile, and you neither gossip nor disparage the women. This comports with your reputation as well."


Darius set his drink aside while foreboding and distaste-for himself, his guest, and this topic-roiled in his gut. "While I am pleased to have your approval for mere gentlemanly reticence, I must ask again if you troubled making my acquaintance only to banter gossip. You are an important man, both politically and socially, while I am the proverbial impoverished second son, making my way as best I can. What errand brings you to my doorstep, my lord?"


Longstreet nodded, as if acknowledging that opening arguments were over. "Lady Longstreet-"


"No." Darius paced off to the door, wanting to pitch the old man onto the stairs.


"I beg your pardon?"


"I will not be procured for your wife's entertainment," Darius said, "or for yours, or yours and hers. Finish your drink if you must, and I'll show you out."


"I would far rather you heard me out. Had I any other alternative, Lindsey, believe me I would be pursuing it."


Darius turned his back to his guest and resisted the urge to slam his fist into the wall. "Despite what you've heard, my lord, there are limits..."


"You don't swive them," Longstreet said briskly, as if conceding an otherwise unimpressive mount had good quarters and a sane eye. "You won't, in fact. Which is why you find me here, because any other man-any other young man with a need for coin and the ingenuity to go on as you have-would have taken what was offered and considered it his revenge on the feckless women throwing their money at him."


Darius turned a granite stare on his guest, even knowing the man had the ear of the regent. "I find this conversation exceedingly tedious."


Longstreet met that stare. "Lindsey, do sit down. Please. I am older than your braying ass of a father, and this is difficult enough without your wounded pride added to the general awkwardness."


"Did she put you up to this?" Darius took the other chair-the one that rocked slightly, though it wasn't supposed to-and didn't touch his drink.


"She would never do such a thing. Vivian is a lady in every sense of the word."


"Though you are procuring for her." Darius said it flatly, as nastily as he could, for this scheme Lord Longstreet was about to propose, it purely, rottenly stank. For all involved.


"I have my reasons, and Vivian understands them."


For the first time, Longstreet's patrician features showed a flicker of sentiment. Whatever the man's motivations, there was nothing prurient about them, and his lordship was very determined on his goal.


"As best I recall, you have two sons, my lord. What need have you of a... gallant for your wife?"


Gallant. A euphemism that loomed larger than the stain behind his lordship's head.


"Aldous died at Waterloo, and his older brother lost his life on the field of honor this fall." Longstreet ran a hand through thinning sandy-gray hair, then stared at his drink.


"I'm sorry."


"God, man, so am I," Longstreet replied, shifting his gaze to stare at the cheery blaze Darius really could not afford. "We put it about that Algernon eloped to the Continent, but he lies in the family plot at Longchamps. Some creative tale will be woven when the other fellow's family has recovered a bit, for each of the young fools managed to kill his opponent."


Darius pushed aside pity-burying two sons merited pity-and focused on practicalities, something he was good at. "So you seek somebody not only to bed your lady, but also to get her with child? If so, then I am assuredly not your man."


"That would be part of the bargain." Longstreet's voice did not betray a hint of shame about this proposition. "Hear my reasons before you make an old man face that bitter wind."


A lady's honor was to be compromised, but an old man was to be spared the nippy weather. This was what Darius's life had come to.


"Make your words count, my lord. While I am sensible of the dilemma you face, surely there must be cousins or nephews somewhere who can solve the problem by inheritance and spare your lady this unseemly contrivance you contemplate."


"There are none. If I die without legitimate male issue, then the entire estate reverts to the Crown."


Spare me from titled old men and their petty conceits. "This has happened in many a family, and you will be dead, so what does it matter to you?"


Longstreet shifted again in his chair, though Darius suspected that was a seasoned parliamentarian's delaying tactic.


"Were it simply a question of my needs, young man, you'd be absolutely right. However, upon close examination, I find the Crown could make a credible argument that there is virtually no personal estate. My wealth is significant, but the Crown's lawyers will twist matters such that none of that wealth is personal, but rather, all attached to the title. The regent would get everything, and Vivian would be literally a charity case."


"Your wife has no dower portion?"


"None worth the name. I am pained on her behalf to be so honest, but ours was not a romantic match. She needed marrying rather desperately, and I could not abide to see her taken advantage of by those who prey on women in such circumstances. I suppose I needed a bit of marrying too."


Darius sipped his drink, angling for time to absorb his guest's words. Usually, a woman desperately in need of marrying had conceived a child desperately in need of legitimacy. Lady Longstreet's difficulty was the absence of children.


"I cannot agree to anything without knowing all the facts, Lord Longstreet."


His lordship ran a bony finger around the rim of his glass. "Fair enough. Her stepfather would have sold her to any grasping cit with the coin," the older man said wearily. "Vivian deserved better than that. She was my first wife's devoted companion for the duration of Muriel's illness. Vivian and I became friends, of a sort, and when Muriel died, there was Vivian's stepfather, ready to snatch her back and auction her off."


"And she wasn't of age, that she couldn't avoid such a fate?" Darius frowned, because this sounded all too much like his sister Leah's circumstances, though the Earl of Wilton himself was the one intent on procuring for his older daughter.


"She was not quite twenty-one, so she was not of age in the sense you mean. Then too, Vivian lacks the... animal cunning to thwart her stepfather's schemes. She'd kill a man outright, but never by stabbing him in the back. And as you well know, a woman's lot in life leaves her little enough discretion regarding her choice of mate, particularly a woman raised in Polite Society."


Apparently Lord Longstreet was familiar with Leah's circumstances too, which notion brought no comfort. "So you've convinced Lady Longstreet to secure her future by disporting with me," Darius concluded. "How flattering."


Longstreet set his drink down with a thump, the first spark of temper he'd exhibited in a quarter hour of fencing. "You should be flattered, by God. Vivian chose you from a set of candidates I selected for her. There were precious few left on the list once I started discreet inquiries, but you were the one she chose."


"Am I to know why?"


"You can ask her," Longstreet replied, showing the guile of a seasoned politician. "She's a damsel in distress, Lindsey, and you have it in your power to provide her a lifetime of security and to preserve a fine old title from the maw of the regent's bottomless appetite."


Darius felt relief as insight struck. "That's what this is about, isn't it? You don't favor Prinny's politics or priorities, and you're loathe to see centuries of Longstreet wealth poured onto his side of the scales."


Lord Longstreet's brow knitted. "I wouldn't like that outcome, no."


"And even less would you like it known you'd schemed with your wife to avoid it by consorting with the likes of me."


"Shrewd." Longstreet blew out a breath. "You must see that as much as you desire my discretion, I need yours. I've worked for nigh fifty years for the good of the realm, Lindsey, and between the lunatic Americans, the equally mad King, and the greedy, mad Corsican, it hasn't been an easy fifty years. If word gets out I sent my wife off to some impoverished younger son, like a mare to the breeding shed, then nobody will recall the votes I won, the bills I drafted, the riots I prevented. I will simply be a greedy, unpatriotic old fool."


Darius reluctantly, and silently, admitted that Lord Longstreet's reasoning made a peculiar sort of sense. "You don't mind the old fool part, but the unpatriotic hurts abominably. Again, my lord, I do sympathize, or I would if the nation's fate interested me half as much as my own, but I cannot help you."


"You haven't heard the entirety of my proposal, young man." Longstreet held out his glass for a refresher, buying himself a few more minutes. Darius understood the ploy and allowed it only because of the pile of unpaid bills silently mocking him from the corner of his desk.


And the other pile in the drawer, aging not half so well as William Longstreet had.


"I'm listening," Darius said, foregoing any further drink for himself. "For the present."


Longstreet shoved to his feet in a succession of creaky moves: scoot, brace, push, totter, balance, then pace. "First, you and Vivian must spend enough time together that there is a reasonable likelihood of a child. Second, I'd like you sufficiently invested in the child's life that you will not, for any amount of money, divulge the facts of his or her paternity."


"If I may," Darius interrupted. "The chances are even any child born would be female, in which case your impoverished viscountess is left to support not only herself, but a girl child, which can be an expensive proposition."


Longstreet's gaze turned crafty as he propped himself against the mantel. "That would be the usual case, except my title is very old, and only in my great-grandfather's day was it elevated from a barony to a viscountcy. Nobody has looked at the letters patent in a century, save myself, and while the viscountcy carries a male entail, the barony can be preserved through the female line."


"You're sure?"


"It's that old. When the Black Death came through, there was pressure on the monarchy to liberalize its patents, as tremendous wealth was reverting when family after family lost its male line. Mine is one of the few surviving more liberally drafted letters, and thus the barony-and the estate wealth-will be preserved regardless of the gender of the child."


This scheme was madness-thoroughly researched, carefully considered, potentially lucrative madness. "The barony will survive if there is a child. If I agree to your terms."


"Stop putting that bottle up, young man. Having heard this much, I think there are terms you'll agree to, do we apply ourselves to their negotiation in good faith."


"Good faith? You're attempting to cheat the Crown, procure the intimate services of a worthless bounder for your lady wife, perpetrate a fraud on your patrimony, and you speak of good faith?"


"You're young." Lord Longstreet resumed his seat in another succession of creaks and totters, this time popping a knee joint as well. "You can afford your ideals. Imagine what might befall your family were your father to lose the Wilton title, his lands, his wealth-how might your sisters go on, if not in some version of the oldest and least-respected profession?"


Darius leveled a look at him such that Lord Longstreet flushed and glanced away.


"So you beat your sisters to it," he surmised. "Your father isn't just a braying ass, Lindsey, he's a disgrace to his kind."


"And yet it's his line you'll be grafting onto your own-if I agree."


It took two hours, the rest of the cognac, and very likely some of the toughest negotiating Lord Longstreet had seen in half a century, but in the end, Darius agreed.


***


"William will not be joining us."


In addition to lustrous dark hair done up in a prim coronet, Lady Vivian Longstreet had a low voice, a contralto, laced with controlled tension.


"I beg your pardon?" Darius succeeded in keeping the irritation from his tone, but only just. This civilized dinner a trois had been one of Lord Longstreet's terms, and Darius had grudgingly acceded to the older man's desire to see his wife politely introduced to her... what? Darius couldn't bring himself to apply the word lover. Stud was too vulgar, if accurate, though worse terms came to mind.


"William is under the weather," Lady Longstreet said. "May I take your coat? The servants have been dismissed for the evening, and yes, I truly mean he's feeling poorly. William is capable of diplomatic illnesses, but I'm sure if he told you he would be here, he meant to keep his word. It's just..."


"Yes?" Darius turned slightly, so she could lift his coat from his shoulders, her touch conveying hesitance, even timidity, as she did.


She smiled slightly and hoisted his coat to a hook in the alcove. "I don't mean to babble. William is much involved in the Lords, and it tires him. I assured him we'd manage, but if you'd rather reschedule this encounter, we can."


Begin as you intend to go on.


"We'll manage." Darius offered his arm, noting with disinterest-professional disinterest-that Lady Longstreet was quite pretty. He'd put her age at around five-and-twenty, the same as his sister Leah. Her smile was polite, and her countenance was serene.


That serenity brought lovely features into submission-a perfectly straight nose, slanting dark eyes, full lips, and classic cheekbones-when a more animated expression might have rendered the same face arresting.


She was hiding her beauty, maybe even from herself.


He laid his hand over hers where it rested on his sleeve. "My business with Lord Longstreet has been concluded, my lady, leaving only my dealings with you before you can be shut of me."


"And you'll be relieved when that's the case?" She was barely, barely tolerating his touch, for all her calm expression.


Could he be intimate with a woman who disdained to touch even his sleeve? "Now how will I answer that?" He glanced down at her as they made their progress through the house, not sure if he was irritated with her or for her. "If I say yes, I'll be relieved to complete my obligations with you, you'll be insulted. If I say no, you'll think I relish a bargain I, in truth, regret."


She turned velvety brown eyes to him, her expression curious. "Why?"


Lady Longstreet was brave-martyrs were supposed to be brave-and despite the circumstances, she truly was a lady. The realization made Darius pause, and not happily. He was most comfortable when the women with whom he consorted intimately shared with him a kind of mutual resentment and scorn. They used him, he used them, and each could look down on the other's neediness and pretend the other party was the more venal, the more vulnerable. Lady Longstreet would not fit the same mold.


Perhaps she wasn't of any mold.


He resumed the thread of their discussion. "Why what?"


"Why do you regret this bargain? I regret that it can't be William's child I bear, but it will still be the child William gave me, in a sense. I can live with that."


"You're very sensible," Darius said as they entered a small dining room. The hearth at one end was blazing, bringing blessed relief from the unheated corridor. The table had been set à la française, with the various dishes covered and waiting over warming lights.


"William is the sensible one," Lady Longstreet said. "Practical to a fault, his wife used to say."


"You're his wife."


"I meant his first wife," Lady Longstreet corrected herself without a flicker of irritation. "The woman he was married to for thirty-some years, the woman who bore him two sons. Shall we be seated?"


The table was positioned near the hearth, their two places set at right angles to each other so it couldn't be said there was a head or a foot to the table. William's absence allowed that, and Darius had to wonder how honest the older man was with his composed young wife.


Darius seated her and gestured to the wine breathing in the center of the table. "Shall I pour?" The question seemed absurd, and yet, with such a woman, what else was there to do but continue the pretense of civility?


"I hope you like it." Lady Longstreet's smile was gracious. "We often entertain diplomats, and there is universal accord that a hostess gift must be either wine from one's own country or sweets. The sweets are invariably consumed while the company is present, though we've acquired an interesting cellar."


Darius peered at the label. "German?"


"We're working our way across the Continent," his hostess replied. "Tell me, have you traveled much?"


The meal was... odd, because Darius of late spent little time around women whom he wasn't obligated to deal with. He loved his two sisters, but they still put demands on him. And the other women... They put demands on him as well, demands he was compensated for meeting but would as soon forget.


Dinner with Vivian Longstreet had nothing of overt obligation about it, but rather, was a pleasant encounter with a woman whose mannerliness was such that she could draw him out in conversation, ply him with excellent food and good wine, and make him forget for a time why it was their lives were briefly entangling.


Her ladyship eyed the remains of the fruit and cheese nearly an hour later. "I wasn't sure quite what we were supposed to do with each other this evening, but William insisted that ours is a civilized bargain for civilized ends, and we should begin it on a civil note."


"I'm not sure I'd agree with him." Darius sliced her off another bite of cheese and put it on her plate. He'd never realized how intimate sharing a meal could be and wasn't sure he liked the revelation. She'd be sharing a damned month of meals with him if they kept their bargain.


"You agreed to this." Lady Longstreet's hand waved over the table. "Hasn't there been benefit to you in sharing this meal?"


He'd eaten every bite offered to him, though he sensed she wasn't alluding to that. "Some. I'm not as hungry, and I've made the acquaintance of three very respectable German wines." To his own ears, he sounded a tad... churlish, though not petulant.


"One vintage was Rhenish. Aren't you also a little less uncomfortable with what lies ahead of us, Mr. Lindsey?"


"Are you?" Her answer mattered, when it should not. The bills stacking up apace on Darius's escritoire had to be what mattered most.


She lifted the slice of cheese, eyed it, and set it back on her plate. "I see what you mean, about giving answers that can be either flattering or honest. I've said I will do this for William-he posited this eventuality as a condition of his proposal, though at the time both of his sons yet lived. I will honor my word to him, but it is... odd."


"Yes. Odd."


"Not as odd as we think." Her smile was fleeting, impish, and entirely unexpected. Not her gracious-hostess smile, it was devilish, full of mischief.


"What does that mean?"


"Lord Longstreet is fairly certain he himself was a cuckoo in his papa's nest, by design. He calls himself a judicious outcross."


Darius grimaced to think what his own father might have made of such a notion. "By design?"


"The Longstreet line has not been blessed with a great lot of male progeny." Lady Longstreet popped the cheese into her mouth. "It helps me to know other ladies in the family have been called upon to serve as I have."


Darius watched her chew. "And the late Lady Longstreet would not object to this scheme?"


The present Lady Longstreet blinked. "I was Lady Muriel Longstreet's companion in her final years, and yes, she would approve. One is to hedge one's husband's bets, or so she said. I think forty years ago marriage was a more pragmatic undertaking. She and William loved each other, and they were most assuredly best friends by the time Lady Muriel died."


"If you say so, but I cannot imagine..."


"Neither can I." Lady Longstreet's tone was a little forlorn. "And in a just a few weeks' time, I won't have to imagine it, because I will be on your doorstep, bag and baggage. Oh, dear."


He smiled, mostly because the double meaning was embarrassing her. "I'll be the baggage, if you'd rather."


"We'll get through this, won't we, Mr. Lindsey?" Now her tone was hopeful, and in her brown eyes, he saw she wasn't at all as poised and certain as she'd have him believe. Maybe it was the German wine or the realization that they were indeed to be intimate when next they met or the quiet all around them, but as he held her gaze, Lady Longstreet's trepidation peeked out at him.


She was anxious as hell, bloody scared to death.


"We'll manage," he said. "It is ever a failing of mine to take things too seriously, and in this case, you mustn't allow it of me."


She nodded solemnly. "Nor you of me. I think you have the right of it."


Darius held out his hand to her, palm up. She glanced down at his bare fingers in consternation then tentatively put her own hand over his. He brought her knuckles to his lips, planted a kiss there, then drew her to her feet.


"We've put off the more delicate subjects," he said as he led her over to the fire. There was a tea service waiting there, a kettle on a swing over the hearth, and two cozy chairs catching some of the fire's heat.


She took a seat, all grace and composure, though his observation had made her eyes widen. "Isn't a month long enough to sort through those?"


He considered what he wanted to ask her-regarding her intimate preferences, toys, games, fantasies-and then realized her elderly husband was likely asleep on the next floor up, and really, the discussion could wait.


"We can talk more later. If there is a later. You need to know I won't hold you to this bargain."


"What does that mean?" She motioned him into a seat and prepared the tea, her grace as soothing as the warmth of the hearth. "I'm to be your guest in Kent for a few weeks, but you'd take William's coin and deceive the man?" She wrinkled her nose. "I won't lie to my husband just for your gain, Mr. Lindsey. If I'm that unappealing, you need only..."


He leaned forward, placed a single finger to her lips, and shook his head.


"You appeal." He could say that sincerely, which wasn't necessarily a good thing. "You'd appeal to any man with red blood in his veins, but I'm suggesting a lady can change her mind."


"Change her... Oh." She looked intrigued then resigned. "Not this lady." She added cream and sugar to his tea and passed it to him. "I've given my word, and if you change your mind, I'll simply have William contact the next possibility on the list."


"Who might that be?"


The name had him raising his eyebrows, because the man was a fortune-hunting bounder with no decorum when in his cups, which was nightly. "And if he won't serve?"


"Is this necessary?"


"Yes."


"Then we're prepared to ask another, and another, because William is intent on his plans, and there is no force of nature equal to William Longstreet when he is determined on his goals."


Or Lady Longstreet, her tone implied, when she was determined on William's goals.


"Then I will see you in Kent around the tenth of December." Which was soon. Very soon. "I'm not sure if you should be insulted or reassured, but at least part of me will be looking forward to it."


She sipped her tea delicately. "Part of you?"


"A man doesn't seek to earn his coin in such a fashion, Lady Longstreet." Darius rose rather than belabor what ought to be obvious. "Were I to say all of me looked forward to seeing you at my farm in Kent, then I'd be admitting I've not even a scintilla of gentlemanly honor left, wouldn't I?"


She kept her seat, for which he accorded her tactical points. "Perhaps you would, but we weren't going to be overly serious about this, were we? And in that regard, don't you think you could call me Vivian?"


He reached down and traced his finger over the curve of her jaw, a slow, lingering touch he'd been imagining since he'd taken her hand in his at the table. Her skin was as soft as it looked, as smooth and pleasing to the touch as her soft daffodil scent was to the nose or her perfectly configured features were to the eye. And her hair would be...


"Vivian suits you," he said. "Vivid, alive, vital. I will see you in a few weeks, but you have my direction should you change your mind."


"I won't change my mind," she said, setting her tea aside and getting to her feet. "I will lose my nerve and fret and dread and argue with William, but I won't change my mind."


"Taking it seriously already, Vivian?"


She went still at the sound of her name, and he could see in her expression genuine misgiving threatened her calm. A damsel in distress, indeed.


"A kiss for luck," he suggested, bending his head to brush his lips across hers. He'd surprised her-and himself-when their entire evening had been politely correct, without flirtation or overtures of any kind. And he hadn't meant this as an overture but rather as a reassurance. He was just a man, she was just a woman, and it would be... just sex.


Except it wasn't just a kiss. She went up on her toes and slipped a hand through his hair, around the back of his head. She wasn't as tall as she seemed, he realized when she tucked herself closer and brought her mouth back to his. She used the same slow, brushing approach he'd just shown her, but she lingered as their mouths joined, then sighed a little into his mouth.


Her body sighed too, sinking against him enough that he could feel her curves and planes and softness. He resisted the urge to hold her, to do more than let her press her mouth to his as if she couldn't puzzle out what came next.


When she stayed just there, poised between ending the kiss and seeking more from it, he took the initiative from her and turned his face slightly away, so he could inhale the fragrance of her hair even as his arms came around her.


"It's so odd," she said, leaning into him. "I'm cheating on William, you're poaching on another man's preserves, but we're... not."


He tried to focus on her words, not on the soft, trusting abundance of her resting in his embrace. She sounded as bewildered as he felt, for her words were true.


He was crassly bought and paid for, a stud to service a highbred filly, a cicisbeo in the most vulgar, unflattering sense. A dancing bear of a sort, exploiting his own lusty nature for the simple expedient of coin.


But that kiss... it had been neither expedient nor crass nor vulgar.


He withdrew from her embrace, bowed punctiliously, and met her eyes, putting as much distance into his gaze as he could.


"Until I see you in Kent." He left her standing there in her cozy little dining parlor, her index finger brushing at her lips, her eyes troubled.


She clearly sensed possibilities too, and in his gut, Darius knew he should bow out of the agreement. What should have been tawdry, or at best flirtatious, had been lovely, and no amount of sophisticated humor, good luck, or pragmatism was going to get them through this without somebody getting badly hurt.

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