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The first time she’d tried to sell her body outside the Drury Lane theatre, Anne Beddington approached a handsome black-haired gentleman, without knowing whom he truly was.
He had been gentle and kind. And young—perhaps only a few years her senior. Twenty-one to her seventeen, she guessed. He smiled patiently at her even as he refused her offer. Somehow he’d known at once that she was a virgin, that she had never prostituted herself before. He pressed a couple of coins into her shaking hands, then he tipped up her chin to look at her.
She’d never gazed directly into a gentleman’s eyes. He had violet irises—a color so unearthly it gave him a fey air—and thick black lashes. One look and she was bewitched.
“Angel, this is not a thing you want to do,” he’d said grimly. “You are an innocent and are pretty despite all that grime. Take the money and use it to go home to your family.”
He assumed she’d left her country family and run away to London, or that she had come to Town to find work, as so many girls had to do. Nothing could have been further from the truth for her.
She had clutched the coins in her palm—two gold sovereigns—embarrassed to be given his charity when she’d been quite prepared to earn her money, but she had swallowed her pride, lifted the hems of her threadbare skirts, and scurried back to her mother’s bedside.
The money had not lasted long. Her mother had needed so much laudanum for her pain. Eventually Anne had been forced to do what the gentleman had warned her not to.
Now, five years later, she was about to do the very thing she had failed to do that first night outside the theatre. She was going to convince the Duke of March to bed her.
This time she was not in London. And this time the duke was her captive quarry. She stood in his study in his hunting box—a manor house in Leicestershire—with her hand still on the door handle. He was sprawled out in front of her on the carpet, more than six feet of brawny, tanned, naked male. His long legs were splayed apart, his bare buttocks relaxed. His black hair fell in a mess of waves to his shoulders. An empty brandy decanter lay by his outstretched hand.
He appeared to be dead to the world.
Anne’s heart tripped in her chest. Was he only unconscious? With his chest squashed against the rug and his mouth turned away from her, she couldn’t tell if he was breathing.
If he had polished off an entire decanter of brandy, could he have drunk himself to death? She didn’t know. In the slums she’d seen men drink quite a bit, but could a man stomach that much?
She glanced to the study door. For privacy, she had closed it behind her. Should she summon the odd, terrifying butler who had met her at the door? The stooped man had a hump on his back, tufts of yellow-gray hair at his ears, and a large gap where his front teeth should have been. He’d tried to shoo her away. She had been firm, though he’d cackled in the most revolting way when she informed him she was a gift from the Earl of Ashton and must see the duke at once.
She really did not wish to deal with the butler again.
Lifting her hems, Anne hurried to the naked duke and crouched beside him. Her body cast a shadow over his face, but she could see scars on his cheek above the haze of thick black stubble. His lips were full and soft. They appeared completely motionless.
Her throat dried. She bent close and felt his breath whisper over her cheek. Then he gave a low, rasping snore, and Anne choked on a relieved giggle.
Should she shake him awake? She had been a whore for so long it meant nothing to touch a masculine body, but she didn’t know quite what to do with an unconscious duke who had no idea she’d invaded his home.
Would summoning help end with her tossed out on her rump? What if the butler suspected she’d knocked the duke over the head? She shivered. The room was damp and chilly even though it was late August. Drawing off her gloves, she brushed her fingertips over the bronzed shoulder in front of her. His skin was cool. A silk throw lay across a wing chair. She plucked it up. The chill of his skin made her feel cold; it made her shiver once more, just for him.
Gently, she arranged the blanket over his smooth, muscled back. She tugged it down to his slim waist, to cover his hips, buttocks, and legs. His bottom proved tighter, rounder, than any she’d ever seen, his legs long and powerfully built.
Any woman would quiver, faced with such male beauty, but she knew there was fear beneath the tremble of her shoulders. A man this strong could easily hurt her. He had been kind to her once, so long ago, but she now intended to lie her way into his bed.
First she had to wake him. She gently touched his forehead to brush back his hair. A thick lock had fallen into his eye—
His hand shot out and clamped onto her wrist. A scream flew out into the room. Hers.
The duke moved so fast, she couldn’t think. He pushed her down to the floor. His big hands pinned her shoulders and he was braced over her, his legs on either side of her hips. His knees pressed into her skirts. She stared up into his eyes. Still violet and every bit as astonishing as they’d been five years before.
“Your Grace.” Her voice was barely a croak. “Your Grace, I—I did not mean you any harm. I am the woman the Earl of Ashton sent.” The lie dropped off her lips. She prayed he believed it. Lord Ashton had no idea she’d overheard his conversation when he had been trying to coax another woman to come to the duke—her friend Kat, who already had a protector.
The duke’s heart pounded against her breasts. His gaze still focused over her head. His eyes didn’t look injured at all. It was only because he didn’t focus on her that she could tell he was blind. Everyone in England knew the hero of war, the Duke of March, had miraculously survived a bayonet wound to the head that should have killed him, but he had lost his sight. A deep scar disappeared into his hair.
“Hell,” the duke muttered. His head dropped, then he rolled off her, landing hard on his side on the floor. “Ashton sent you? You are the whore he thought would heal me with pleasure?”
Anne flinched. She still did at the word whore. Even though she had been one for a very long time. He spoke with such a dismissive tone, her stomach churned. “Yes,” she said, trying to sound confident. As saucy as a paid ladybird should.
“Didn’t Treadwell frighten you away?”
“He made an admirable attempt, but I was insistent. After all, I had direction from Lord Ashton to see you. I do not understand why you would engage such an odd creature as your butler. Do you wish to frighten callers away?”
“Yes, angel, I do.”
Anne struggled to sit up and her corset jabbed into her, below her breasts. She hissed in pain.
The duke reached for her. She took his hand and he pulled her upright.
“I’m sorry I leapt on you, my dear. But why in Hades did you creep up on me without announcing yourself?”
“Your butler directed me to your study, then left me to my own devices. I entered alone and found you asleep.”
“Passed out, you mean.” The lashes dropped. He stroked the stubble on his chin—more of a beard than simply stubble. He must not have shaved for many days. “Don’t ever do it again. I could have killed you.”
“Killed me?” she squeaked.
“Yes, angel,” he snapped. “I could have wrapped my hands around your pretty neck and broken it before I came to my senses. It’s a souvenir from the war: When I’m not expecting someone to touch me, I sometimes think the person is trying to kill me.”
A shudder tumbled down her back. “Well, I am not.” What had she gotten into? Could he really have killed her and then, when it was far too late, discovered she was no danger to him at all? Should she run from him now, before he hurt her?
She almost snorted at her own cowardly foolishness. Where would she go? Back to London to face the noose? Surely she had nothing to fear around him if she was careful.
“Angel, just what kind of whore are you?” The duke had cocked his head, obviously focusing intently on her words. “You sound as ladylike as my sisters. I haven’t heard such a cut-glass accent out of the most cultured of London’s courtesans.”
Of course she sounded ladylike. She had been raised as a lady until she and her mother had fled from their home. It was her speech that had distinguished her at Madame Sin’s brothel. She’d been called “the little duchess.”
His eyes narrowed; his expression was cold, and suspicion laced his voice. “This isn’t some sort of plan to push me into the leg irons of matrimony, is it?”
“Of course not,” she gasped. “I am very much a courtesan, I assure you.” She might have an ulterior motive, but it certainly wasn’t marriage. “If you want me to be a lady, I will play one, Your Grace. If you want me to be the boldest, brassiest siren who ever climbed on top of you, I’ll do that too.” Her cheeks flamed as she spoke—even after years of being exactly what she claimed to be. He couldn’t see it, thank heaven, but what on earth was wrong with her?
She saw his bare chest rise on a long, sharp breath. Apparently she’d said something that he liked to hear. But when he let out all that air in a whoosh, he groaned.
“Ashton had no right to engage your services, my dear.”
She froze. “P-pardon, Your Grace?”
“Ashton thinks a good fuck is all I need. He’s wrong.”
Wrong? Raw panic flared. Then she remembered what she’d overheard the Earl of Ashton tell Kat when he had pleaded with her friend to come and service the duke. “Lord Ashton worries because you are . . . hiding here, Your Grace. That was how he put it. He thought you should have some pleasure. That it would make you . . . feel better,” she ended lamely.
“Angel, I can’t even see you. You could be the most voluptuous beauty in England for all I know. Not seeing you is only frustrating me.”
Unfortunately, she was not the most voluptuous woman in the country. Fear was coursing through her, making her ice cold. She had known she was not the courtesan Lord Ashton wished to hire, but she’d thought the duke at least wanted a courtesan. She hadn’t anticipated he would be as unwilling now as he’d been outside the theatre. She didn’t know what to do. At Madame Sin’s, she’d never had to work to coax a man into bed. She hadn’t had many clients. Madame had kept her exclusively for valued customers, had charged the earth for her. The men had willingly paid the exorbitant price, because they wanted her.
“He’s very concerned for you, Your Grace.” Her nerves jangled like bells, but she managed to drop her voice to a purr. “He only wanted you to be pleased. I’m very good.” She stroked her fingers along his arm. Along the largest bulge of muscle she’d ever touched. He was correct: If he wanted to, he could hurt her badly. Once more, fear rippled through her veins, but she forced herself to speak. “We could do it in the dark. Then it wouldn’t matter that you can’t see me.”
“It will always matter that I can’t see, angel.”
He grasped her hand, gently this time, and lifted her fingers from his skin. He didn’t even want her to touch him. Groaning, he leaned back, his broad shoulders falling against the side of a chair. There was such a look of emptiness on his face. “You’ve wasted your journey.”
“Please.” She had to become this man’s mistress. That would not happen if she did not get into his bed. She scuttled across the floor until her breasts pressed against his muscular arm and her words brushed across his ear, which was mostly hidden under his long, unkempt black hair. “Won’t you let me pleasure you?”
He took a harsh breath. “God . . . you do have a lovely voice, angel. I grant you that.”
Her voice was tempting him. He could not see her, but he could hear her. That and touch were the only weapons she had. She lowered her voice to a husky whisper. “Thank you.”
“But it’s not enough.” He moved away from her so they no longer touched.
She refused to let hope sputter out, but why wouldn’t he yield? A man didn’t need sight to make love. Any number of gentlemen preferred the dark.
“You can travel in my carriage to the staging inn at Welby, my dear. My man will purchase your ticket to London and see you safely onto the coach.”
Harsh laughter fell from her lips before she could stop it.
Safety and London did not belong in the same thought for her. She could not go. Instead, she had to take desperate action. Even if she had to leap upon him. Or take him into her mouth and drive him so mad with desire he couldn’t resist. Surely once they were joined, he would forget his lack of sight and think only about pleasure—
Abruptly, he grasped the side of the chair, hoisted his long, powerful body with one swift motion, and landed gracefully on his bare feet.
He towered above her. Gazing upward, she felt her jaw drop. Despite spending the last five years first as a viscount’s mistress and then a lowly prostitute, she hadn’t seen many men completely naked. Certainly none with broad chests and abdomens formed solidly of muscle. None as lean, roughly hewn, and beautiful as the duke.
A strange, long-forgotten yearning fluttered deep inside her.
Fool. This was business. Best dealt with unemotionally.
The duke went to take a step but swayed slightly on his feet. He let out a ripe curse and clapped his hands to his temples. “Bloody head. I should hack it off with an ax for all the use it is to me now.”
Anne supposed he meant he was suffering the aftereffects of too much brandy, but there was so much bitterness in his voice. The Duke of March was troubled and angry. She understood why the Earl of Ashton had pleaded with Kat to help his friend. Good sense told her to agree with the duke—how could sex make up for being injured in battle and losing his sight? But she had to believe in it and convince him of it, or she would have to return to London with nothing and probably end up hanged.
She needed a different approach.
She clambered awkwardly to her feet, but at least the duke could not see that. Hesitantly, she touched his elbow. Perhaps because she did it lightly, it didn’t disturb him. He didn’t move away.
“I came all the way to make love to you, and that is exactly what I intend to do, Your Grace. The earl said you hadn’t been with a woman for ages. Months. Why deny yourself the release you must need?”
Her dress was one of Kat’s old ones, but still too fashionable for her to reach the fastenings herself. A few tugs and she managed to push the bodice down. Gathering courage, Anne clasped his hand and placed his palm over the upper curve of her left breast.
She gasped at the contact. At a sudden, surprising jolt that made her breasts ache. It must be the fear roiling through her that made the simple touch so intense—she had never felt anything like that before. A shock of sensation rushed through her as his hand slipped under her bodice and shift, and the calluses on his palm scratched across her bare nipple.
“It is just sex,” she whispered. “Surely you must want to have sex.”
But instead of cupping her breast, he dragged his hand away, then raked it through his hair. He looked as though he’d accidentally stuck his fingers in the fire.
She had to try harder.
His lips parted, and she knew he was about to command that she go. She surged forward and did the one thing she hadn’t done for years and years. Arching up on tiptoe, she kissed him.
She hooked her arms around his neck. She felt the strong, corded muscles of his throat, unyielding against her arms. He tasted tart—of brandy. His lips were hot and firm and stayed closed against her assault. She pressed her tongue to the tight seam of them, but he wouldn’t let her inside. Instead, he moved his face back, breaking their kiss.
Refusing to give up, she wriggled against him until there wasn’t a breath of air between them. Then she felt it—felt his shaft lift and stiffen against her skirts. It was hard and long, pressing against her belly. A surge of victory took her. She had done it. She’d made him want her.
Breathless, she slid her hand from his shoulder, across the curls of hair on his chest, following the line of the soft downy hair to his navel, then lower. To take him in her hand and caress him.
“Stop,” he growled.
She did. But she kept her fingertips against the firm, warm skin of his lower abdomen. He didn’t move her hand. It must mean his resolve to send her away was weakening.
Suddenly, idiotically, she felt guilty. It seemed wrong, this calculated seduction she must carry out. Normally, her encounters were straightforward. Madame’s brothel had rules, of course. Any gentleman who purchased her knew exactly what she was willing—and allowed—to do. If he desired something different, he must go to another girl. She’d never had to be a seductress and entice a man to do what he didn’t want.
The duke hadn’t wanted her five years ago either. But she had to win now: Her life depended on her success.
She teasingly stroked the hard ridge of his nude hip. “I want to pleasure you. Nothing more than that.”
“And payment,” he pointed out drily.
“Of course I have to earn a living,” she said simply. “But you must need sex, after so long.”
“I attacked you, you damned stupid girl. Didn’t that frighten you, or don’t you have the wit to understand what I am?”
“You are a wounded man—”
“Hell.” The duke grasped her arms and pushed her away. He took a brisk step back. His hip banged the arm of the settee, but he did not even flinch. “Do you know what wounded animals do, or haven’t you encountered a beast like me in Town? We bite. We just might kill.”
“You didn’t really hurt me, though.” No, she knew what it was like to be truly beaten and wounded. If she clamped her teeth together, pain still shot through her bruised jaw. Her face was still sore from her madam’s slaps. Her chest and back bore faded purplish-yellow bruises from the punches inflicted by Madame Sin’s brute of a bodyguard. Her only saving grace was that the duke could not see how battered she was.
Every twinge of pain from those bruises was a reminder she was facing death. Whether it came at his hands, the hands of the law, or from starvation, what difference did it make? He was, in fact, her best hope for survival.
She forced her voice to lower an octave. “How would you like to have sex, Your Grace? Perhaps hard and fast, with a big explosive climax at the end? Or slow and sensual? You could spend an hour or two lazily thrusting your hard cock into me.”
“Damn . . . damn. Damn.” His breathing was ragged. It was obvious, when she let her gaze slide below his waist, what her suggestions and his imagination were doing to him.
“All right.” He bit the words off.
She couldn’t quite believe her ears. “You want to do it?”
“Yes. I suspect it’s the only way I will get rid of you.” His mouth quirked up for an instant, then dropped into a grim line.
Anne steeled herself for the next step. She licked her dry lips and pushed her gown lower to expose her breasts, which sat high, perched on the shelf of her stays. She tugged down her filmy shift to completely uncover them. Feigning bold confidence, she asked, “How would you prefer it, Your Grace? You can have anything you want.”