Read an Excerpt
Late evening, 11:31 p.m. 16th of April 1829
Grosvenor SquareLondon, England
After the carriage had clattered off into the silence of the night, back toward the coach house, Tristan Adam Hargrove, the fourth Marquis of Moreland, continued to linger on the shadowed doorstep of his townhome. He eyed the entrance door before him, knowing full well that when he opened it and stepped inside, there would be no Quincy scampering over to greet him. There would be nothing but a large, empty foyer and eerie silence he wasn't in the mood to embrace.
Readjusting his horsehair top hat with the tips of his gloved fingers, Tristan turned and descended the paved stairs he had just climbed. With a few strides, he crossed the cobblestone street and veered beneath the canopy of trees dimly lit by several gas lampposts.
Though the hour suggested he retire, with the recent death of his revered hound Quincy, it had become far too quiet in the house. The silence punctuated the reality of his own life: that he was still a goddamn bachelor, and now he didn't even have his dog for company. Fortunately, he occupied himself well enough from day to day and did not dwell too much on his lack of prospects or the fact that his dog was dead.
On Mondays, after a long ride through Hyde Park, he met with his secretary for the day. On Tuesdays, he visited his grandmother. On Wednesdays, he tarried at Brooks's, almost always evading discussions with fellow peers about the debates plaguing Parliament. No one ever pestered him about it because they all knew his political views weren't held by the majority anyway.
On Thursdays, he spent the entire day at An-gelo's Fencing Academy, relentlessly scheduling match after match against the best opponents in an effort to remain fit. On Fridays, he roamed the British Museum, the National Gallery or the Egyptian Hall, never tiring of the same exhibits, although he did pester the curators more than any decent man should.
On Saturdays, he answered correspondences, including any letters forwarded by his publisher, and though he designated most evenings to balls, soirees and dinners in the hopes of meeting marriageable women, the invitations were usually sent by individuals he either detested or didn't care to know. He was desperate for a companion, but not that desperate. On Sundays, he became a moral citizen and went to church. There, he prayed for what all men pray for: a better life.
Tristan scanned the grouped homes around him, the endless rows of darkened windows reminding him that he ought to retire himself. Just as he was about to turn and do exactly that, his gaze paused on a brightly lit window high above, belonging to the newly let townhome opposite his own. His brows rose as he came to an abrupt halt, the soles of his boots scuffing the pavement.
There, lounging in a chair at the base of a window whose curtains had been pulled open, was a young woman brushing unbound, ebony hair. She brushed with slow, steady strokes, the oversized sleeve of her white nightdress shifting and rippling against the movement of her slim arm. The elegant curve of her ivory throat appeared and disappeared with each movement, displaying an exceedingly low neckline. All the while, her gaze was dreamily fixed up toward the cloudy night sky above.
In that single breath of a moment, Tristan's intuition insisted that this stunning vision before him was the divine intervention he'd been waiting for since he was old enough to understand a woman's worth. Hell, golden light was spilling forth from above with enough glorious intent to make the blind notice. All that was missing were the soft notes of a flute and the yearning strings of a violin. It really couldn't be any more obvious what God was telling him to consider.
Love thy neighbor.
Though the realist corrupting his soul demanded he retire and ignore his moronic intuition, the romantic that occasionally peered out from time to time whispered for him to stay. Wandering closer, he moved beyond the shadows of the trees and focused on the features of that oval face as it came into better view. The light in her bedchamber illuminated her entirely, tinting one side of her smooth, porcelain face and the edges of her dark hair with a soft, golden hue that was mesmerizing.
Who was she? And what sort of woman left her curtains open at night for the world to see her in a state of undress?
Weeks earlier, he'd noted that the house, which had been standing empty for months, had finally been let. Various footmen, attired in royal livery, had been carrying in furniture and trunks for days. Prior to tonight, however, he'd never once seen this woman.
Reaching the pavement leading to the entrance of her home, he lingered, sensing he would remember this night for years to come.
The woman paused. She lowered her hairbrush, shifting toward the window. Sections of her face faded into the soft shadows cast by the streetlamps, making him keenly aware that she was now privy to his presence.
He didn't know why he continued to stand there like some perverted dolt, but he did. He supposed limiting his association with women throughout the years had led him to do very strange things even he did not understand.
She hesitated, only to then wave, as if there was nothing wrong with waving to an unknown man lurking outside her bedchamber window at this time of night.
His pulse thundered as he stared up at her. Was she mistaking him for someone else? She had to be. Did he care that she was mistaking him for someone else? Hell, no.
Unable to resist, he touched his gloved hand to the curved rim of his hat in a gentlemanly salute, and hoped there wasn't a husband there in the room with her. A husband who could already be loading lead balls into a pistol whilst enlisting his wife's assistance in setting up the target.
The woman snapped up a forefinger, wordlessly requesting his patience, then unlatched the window and, to his astonishment, pushed it wide open. She leaned out, her wavy black hair cascading past the window in a single sweep, and casually propped herself against the sill as if she were Rapunzel in the flesh. The ruffled decolletage of her billowy, white nightdress shifted and spilled forward, exposing the golden glint of a locket swaying on a chain as well as the most stunning pair of breasts he'd ever had the pleasure of encountering.
Tristan fisted his gloved hands, forcing his mind and his body to remain calm.
She smiled flirtatiously down at him and spoke in a sensuous, foreign accent he couldn't quite place. "'Tis a pleasure to finally meet you, my lord. You live in the house directly across from mine, do you not?"
He couldn't help but be flattered, knowing she had been waving to him, after all. Trying not to stare up at those lovely breasts that taunted him beneath the low hanging scoop of her nightdress, he offered, "Yes. I do."
Awkward silence hung between them.
Should he ask for her name? No. That would be crass and overly familiar. So what should he say? Stupid though it was, he couldn't think of anything.
She half nodded and glanced up toward the cloudy night sky above, tapping the brush against the bare palm of her other hand. "A rather pleasant evening despite all the clouds. Is it not?"
Weather as a topic was death to any conversation. Why couldn't he be more dashing? Why couldn't he be more debonair? Why couldn't he"Yes. Yes, it is."
"And is it always this cloudy in London?"
"Unfortunately." Christ, he was pathetic.
Awkward silence hung between them again.
A playful, melodious laugh rippled through the night air. "Is that all I am worth? Two or three words at a time and nothing more?" She wagged her silver hairbrush down at him. "You British are so annoy-ingly coy. Why is that?"
He cleared his throat and glanced about the quiet darkness of the square, hoping that no one was watching him make an oaf of himself. "Coy? No. Not coy. Curt. Curt best defines us."
She laughed again. "Yes. Curt. That certainly explains everyone's apparent lack of conversational skills. Might I venture to ask how a woman, such as myself, is ever to befriend a man, such as yourself, when all forms of conversation here in London appear to be so stilted?"
Though the last thing he wanted was to expose this sultry foreigner to any gossip by continuing their conversation, ass that he was he couldn't resist. There was a playful intelligence in her demeanor that was as bold as it was fortifying. Even more intriguing was that delectable, soft twang of an accent. Unlike most foreigners whose English was irregular, coarse and difficult to understand whilst they struggled to find words, hers was clipped, perfect and beyond well versed.
Moving closer, Tristan grabbed hold of the iron railing lining her home. Propping his leather boot on the ledge between the railings, he hoisted himself up, wishing there weren't three whole floors separating them.
He observed her heatedly, admiring the way her long, dark hair framed her pale face and how it swayed past the window against the soft breeze. A sharp nose and wide, full lips, made her exotic-looking in a subtle way, though he couldn't quite make out the color of her eyes against the shadows and the light filtering out from behind her.
Damn, but she was alluring. A bit too alluring. "I am afraid, madam, that even if my conversational skills were to exceed all of your expectations, we still couldn't be friends."
Her lips parted. "Why ever not?"
Because friendship is not what I have in mind for us, he wanted to say. Instead, he smiled tauntingly and tilted his head, the weight of his top hat shifting. He wished he could reach up and glide his fingertips across her exposed throat. "I think it best I not comment on any of my thoughts."
She arched a brow. "Are you flirting with me?"
"Attempting to." And failing miserably..
"Shall I assist you in your attempt?"
"No. Please don't." Unlike most men, who eagerly chased after beautiful women, he avoided such stupidity at every turn because he knew what it would lead to: disaster. He had to be sensible when it came to women and do things properly to ensure nothing fell outside of his control. And this was not proper. Nor did he feel as if he were in control. He needed to retire and consider how to go about pursuing this in a civil manner.
He leaned against the railing he was balancing himself on. "Before I say good-night, madamwhich I am afraid I mustbeing the gentleman that I am, I feel compelled to say something that I hope will not offend."
She smiled. "I rarely find myself offended."
"Good." He lowered his voice. "Despite my pathetic attempt to capitalize on your naivete, for which I can only apologize, you really shouldn't be flaunting yourself like this. 'Tis indecent. Come morning, regardless of whatever did or did not happen between us, everyone in this square will assume we are lovers and you will be ruined. Is that what you want for yourself?"
She shrugged. "What others have to say about my character does not concern me. After all, I am a foreigner and a Roman Catholic, and as such, everyone will seek to condemn me in whatever it is I do. Though I suppose if a man of your size quakes at the thought of what others will think, perhaps we should end this conversation. I most certainly do not wish to place your reputation at risk."
He tightened his hold on the railing, squelching his urge to scale the wall, grab her and drag her over to his house for the night. "I suggest you cease being so flippant. London is extremely vicious when it comes to the reputation of a woman."
She rolled her eyes. "If you are so worried about my reputation, why ever did you initiate this conversation?"
"Me? " He laughed. "I beg your pardon, but I didn't initiate this conversation. You did."
"In theory, yes, I did. But in fact, no, I did not. You did."
"What?" he echoed, his brows coming together.
"You wandered over to my window, not I to yours. Whether my curtains were open or not, ultimately it was your decision to stay and watch me in a state of undress. Upon discovering you had no intention of departing, even after you had noticed that I had noticed you, I was therein compelled to open my window and offer you conversation, because I did not want any of our neighbors to think the worst of you. Regrettably, that makes you accountable for tarnishing both of our reputations. Would you not say?"
Damn. That actually made sense.
He dug the palm of his hand harder against the rail, the sting relieving his tension. "I assure you, I don't usually wander the streets at night seeking to"
"There is no need to apologize." She grinned, her cheeks rounding. "I am well aware of your respectability, my lord. Do you think I would have opened my window if I had any doubts as to who you are or did not know of your sterling reputation? Although this may be our very first formal meeting, I know everything about you and your renowned gentlemanly ways."