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The Price of Desire
By Leda Swann
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Leda Swann
All right reserved.
Caroline Clemens pasted a smile on her face as she gazed belligerently over the assembled company.
Her insides cramped with fear, but she did not let her discomfort show on her face. At any sign of weakness, the pack would race in for the kill. They did not deserve the satisfaction of watching her crumble. She would outface all the malicious gossip from those old spinsters who had always envied her, and all the false condolences from pretend friends who had come to crow over her misfortune.
Heaven help her, but tonight she could even bear the unfeigned sympathy of the handful of people who genuinely loved her.
She cast her eyes over the sea of color in front of her, looking for the red and gold jacket of Captain Bellamy. He, at least, loved her well. The small matter of her family's bankruptcy would not matter to him a whit. Only last week, when the rumors of her family's financial troubles were starting to make the rounds, he had sworn to her that he would love her even if she were a pauper.
The Captain's earnestness had made her smile at the time, but she clung wistfully to the memory now. Last week she had known only that she could not afford the new pair of kid gloves she needed, even though her old ones were worn and stained. Tonight she knew the whole nasty truth. Her entire family was ruined. Utterly and irretrievably ruined.
Atthe end of the month their house in Mayfair and all their household effects would go under the hammer. Her father's untimely death had made absolutely sure that nothing would be left for them to live on. Nothing.
Were it not for her impending marriage to Captain Bellamy, she and her younger sisters and brother would be facing the workhouse. She shuddered. There was no point in dwelling on the horrors of the workhouse--the rough clothes, the hard labor, the poor food that scarcely kept body and soul together, and the disease that carried you off in the end if starvation and exhaustion didn't claim you first. The Captain would save her from that. He would save all of them.
As she scanned the crowd looking for her savior, her gaze was arrested by that of another man. He was a stranger to her, which in itself was enough to catch her attention. Few strangers successfully braved the close-knit society of London merchant bankers to which her family belonged. Though they took carefully calculated risks in their business dealings, when it came to making acquaintances for their wives and daughters, they eliminated any chance of risk. Only the most impeccably respectable personages were ever allowed to visit or to mingle with them in their infrequent evening soirees.
Caroline allowed herself a wry smile. No doubt those same impeccable personages were now watching avidly from the sidelines, salivating at the thought of ripping her to shreds.
The stranger caught her smile and evidently thought it was meant for him. He raised his eyebrows at her in a friendly if somewhat surprised acknowledgment and returned her smile with one of his own.
Caroline caught her breath at the sight. His smile transformed his face from that of an eminently respectable personage into an enticement to sin. Devilry danced in his eyes, promising delights that she had never dreamed of. His face, tanned a deep brown by the sun, no longer looked weather-beaten and oddly out of place in an English autumn, but somehow full of dangerously alluring mystery.
He stepped forward as if to claim the right to make her acquaintance. Though his figure was stolidly dressed in a dark suit similar to those worn by nearly every other man in the room, underneath the drab clothes he moved sinuously, gracefully, with the barely controlled energy of a panther. He radiated an energy too powerful to stop, wrapped in a gorgeous pelt that begged to be touched despite the obvious danger.
What caught her most about him, though, were his eyes. They hypnotized her; she could not look away. With deliberate focus he held her gaze with his, not allowing her any chance to move away as he came toward her.
"We have met before?" His voice was warm and deep, and it enveloped her in its richness. Though his diction was perfect, his accent was unusually soft and burred, and it fell on her ears like a caress.
She shook her head, still unable to look away from the deep brown of his eyes. "I do not believe so," she replied, her mouth so dry it was difficult to speak.
"Then allow me to introduce myself."
She inclined her head slightly. His presence acted like a powerful drug on her. Even if she had wanted to refuse his acquaintance, she was unable to deny him anything. His inexplicable power over her was too strong to resist.
He bowed low over her hand. "Dominic Savage at your service."
Her tongue sneaked out to lick her bottom lip as he bowed over her hand. He caught the movement and his smile grew fractionally wider.
"Caroline. C-Caroline Clemens," she replied, giving him her full name without a thought. His effect on her senses demanded such a familiarity.
His eyes narrowed. "You are related to Isaac Clemens, then? The Clemens who recently--"
Anger clutched at her soul at the look of distaste that flashed over his face, though she could not break the spell he cast over her. "Yes, I am," she broke in coldly, knowing what he was about to say. Her father's misfortunes would have been whispered into his ear by any number of gossips by now, but she had not thought anyone could be so ill-mannered as to mention it to her face. "I see."
The sudden veiling of his eyes finally allowed her to break away from his gaze. Moving her head almost imperceptibly to the side . . .
Excerpted from The Price of Desire by Leda Swann Copyright © 2007 by Leda Swann. Excerpted by permission.
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