Too Tempting to Touch

( 6 )

Overview

Ellen Drake has seen firsthand how dangerous scandal can be. Her family was torn apart by an unjust accusation ten years ago, and now, working as a paid companion, Ellen must keep her reputation above reproach. Catching her employer's betrothed in a sizzling tryst is bad enough; even worse that Ellen should find herself so infernally enthralled by the spectacle! Ellen intends to prevent Alex Marshall, Lord Stanton, from dallying with other women before his wedding day, but the rogue turns the tables--with an ...

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Too Tempting to Touch

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Overview

Ellen Drake has seen firsthand how dangerous scandal can be. Her family was torn apart by an unjust accusation ten years ago, and now, working as a paid companion, Ellen must keep her reputation above reproach. Catching her employer's betrothed in a sizzling tryst is bad enough; even worse that Ellen should find herself so infernally enthralled by the spectacle! Ellen intends to prevent Alex Marshall, Lord Stanton, from dallying with other women before his wedding day, but the rogue turns the tables--with an invitation to be his paramour. It's a proposition that is too outrageous, too indecent…and strangely irresistible. With a single touch, Alex opens the door to a secret world of sensual desire, a world Ellen is burning to explore…

Alex intends to be faithful once he's married, but in the meantime, London offers so many tempting bed partners. Giving the prim Miss Drake a taste of the excitement she clearly craves will be a delightful diversion, nothing more. But their secret dalliance unleashes the vengeance of someone who is plotting revenge, someone whose own erotic pursuits are twisted with madness. And the scandal that destroyed Ellen's family is about to come calling once again…

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Cheryl Holt will ravish her reading audience with this well written tale. Her clever plot will lure the reader on, as she seduces one to continue reading page after page. Filled with sexual tension and loaded with secondary story lines, one comes away satisfied. If a delightful taste of erotica is what you are looking for, you will find your senses replete in Deeper Than Desire.
Romantic Times (starred review) on Further Than Passion

Fantastic...a keeper...Holt has finely tuned the art of delving into secret fantasies and drawing out what women want. In this deliciously sensual story, she keeps readers glued to the pages by infusing every one with plenty of sizzle. Very sensual.
A Romance Review on Further Than Passion

A deeply passionate book…very seldom does a historical novel find its way to my shelf, but this is one author for whom I will always make an exception. Fans won't be surprised to find this book on their keeper shelf.
Fallen Angel Reviews on Further Than Passion

Holt's most exciting story of all. Further Than Passion is an intriguing and spellbinding love story.
Historical Romance Club on Further Than Passion

Highly erotic…a poignant and emotional love story…only Cheryl Holt can write such sweet, erotic romances that touch the heart, body, and soul.
Fresh Fiction.com on Further Than Passion

Holt is an extremely talented author. Every book she writes is so sexy, the characters so real, that I'm sorry when the story comes to an end.
Old Book Barn Gazette on Deeper Than Desire

A jewel…intriguing, compelling, and passionate.
The Best Reviews.com on Deeper Than Desire

Romance fans will enjoy this erotic tale of forbidden love that feels and is right. Holt turns up the heat with this superior historical.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781250053633
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 3/7/2006
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 6.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

CHERYL HOLT is a lawyer, mom, and bestselling novelist who lives on the Oregon coast. Her varied employment history includes public school teacher, mediator, cook, bartender, lobbyist, musician, and political activist. A graduate of the University of Wyoming College of Law, she worked as a law clerk for the Attorney General of Colorado and Wyoming. Later, she served as a deputy district attorney in metro-Denver. She has numerous national writing awards to her credit, including the prestigious Reviewer's Choice award from Romantic Times magazine. Too Tempting to Touch is her fifteenth book.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

london, england, 1812 . . .

"Do you feel sorry for me?"

"Dreadfully sorry, darling."

At the sound of voices, Ellen Drake halted in shuffling her deck of cards. She'd been anxious for a quiet interlude and a chance to rest after a trying day, but apparently, no privacy was to be had. She was huddled in the shadows of the earl's library, hiding and playing solitaire at a writing desk that was situated behind a large potted plant. She peeked around it.

From her discreet location she couldn't see who'd entered, but it was a man and a woman. Considering that they'd sneaked away from the crowded party--as had she--and that they were cooing and purring, it was obvious that a romantic tryst was commencing.

When the man spun the key in the lock, Ellen's suspicions were confirmed. He was bent on seduction, and his partner eager for it to happen.

Of all the rotten luck!

Ellen glanced about, searching for a rear door by which she could escape, but there wasn't one. She was trapped, and the sole means of exit was her bumbling into the middle of the torrid scene, which she was loathe to attempt.

Though she'd been in London but a few hours, she was aware of how the members of the Quality were prone to amorous mischief, and she couldn't bear to witness which wife was consorting with which husband. She had a firm moral constitution, had had a decent and respectable upbringing, and when she knew a person had a penchant for adultery it was difficult to be civil.

Her host, Alex Marshall, Lord Stanton, was the prime illustration of how arduous it was to pretend nonchalance. A decade earlier, when she was a girl of eighteen, Stanton had been in the country, merrymaking at a local estate. She'd stumbled upon him in the woods, doing all sorts of things he oughtn't with a neighbor's daughter. Ellen had never forgotten a single detail of the spectacle, so how was she to exhibit any courtesy toward him?

For months, since the moment she'd learned that she'd be traveling to London and staying in Stanton's home, she'd been panicked. In light of her post as a lady's companion, she couldn't have refused to accompany her employers, Rebecca and Lydia Burton. Nor could Ellen voice her opinion as to why she was opposed to Rebecca's betrothal to Stanton. As the disaster unfolded, she could only observe and stew.

As she was a spinster who'd been forced to make her own way in the world, Ellen's reputation had to be beyond reproach. She could never mention Stanton's base character, for then she'd be compelled to recount how she'd spied on him.

Fortunately, during the brief period they'd been in his house, Stanton hadn't deigned to appear, so she'd avoided meeting him, and she hoped to delay an introduction for as long as she was able. Rebecca was Stanton's cousin, their marriage arranged when they were children. Rebecca had spent most of her twenty-two years waiting for Stanton to decide he was ready to tie the knot, which he finally had, so at his behest they'd scurried to the city to set the process in motion. Rebecca was thrilled and excited, but Ellen was convinced that Rebecca would be miserable with such a rampant libertine for her husband.

"The nuptial noose is tightening," the man was commenting. "I'm about to have my wings clipped."

"Poor dear," the woman soothed. "Matrimony can be so tedious."

"Can't it, though?"

An engaged man! Ellen fumed. Who was about to be wed! The cad!

There was a lengthy pause, a rustle of clothing, some giggling; then the woman said, "You're a beast to lure me away from the festivities."

"Why did you let me?"

"You're so . . . tense."

"Oh, I'm definitely tense," the man agreed. "Very, very tense. I need to relax. And soon!"

"I thought I should offer my assistance."

"Oh, you should!" the man replied. "You absolutely should."

Each sentence was punctuated by intervals of silence, and though Ellen would have poked her eyes out rather than look, her curiosity was piqued. What--precisely--were they doing?

She leaned farther to the side, discovering that the ribald scene was every bit as tawdry as she'd envisioned. The couple were wrapped around each other so completely that they might have been glued together.

The woman was a short, buxom brunette, while the man was tall--six feet at least--with a fit, muscled physique. He had dark hair, and though Ellen couldn't see his face, she was sure he'd be handsome as the devil.

He was cupping the woman's buttocks, and as they writhed and wrestled, Ellen rippled with equal parts disgust and exhilaration.

Don't watch! she scolded, declining to be drawn in to the squalid rendezvous, yet she couldn't stop staring.

Once prior, she'd viewed such licentious conduct--as a girl in the forest when she'd glimpsed Lord Stanton--and evidently, naught had changed since that shameful day. Maturity had neither bestowed wisdom nor granted heightened judgment. She was as intrigued as ever by sexual endeavor.

What was the matter with her?

At twenty-eight, she was resigned to her situation. Circumstances had guaranteed that she would never marry, so why was she enthralled? Was she secretly pining for a beau? Had she a lusty aspect to her personality to which she was oblivious?

How peculiar! How terrifying!

She'd often heard that a woman needed to wed, that--after a certain age--it was unhealthy to shun matrimony. She'd always scoffed at the prospect, but what if the stories were correct?

What if she had a buried need for male companionship? What if it became worse with time? Could she grow crazed from unfulfilled desire?

"We really shouldn't be dallying," the woman contended.

"But I can't predict when I'll manage to slip away again. This could be my last chance. You wouldn't ask me to pass it up, would you? It's like ordering a starving man to ignore a feast, a thirsty man to walk by an oasis."

Ellen rolled her eyes. She hadn't had much experience with men, her deceased father and her tormented brother, James, being the two main examples, but she recognized the statement for the banal remark it was. What sane female would succumb on the basis of such drivel? If Ellen were the one being seduced, she'd insist on something a tad more romantic!

"So . . . my participation would be an act of kindness?" the woman queried.

"Think of it as your Christian duty to a deprived soul," he advised. "As I said, it may be my only opportunity."

"Then we shouldn't waste it."

Instantly, the tryst was pitched to the next level. They were kissing with a mutual fervor. Her arms were draped around him, her leg, too, a heel anchoring him as she stroked her foot up and down his calf.

His crafty fingers were fondling her bosom and ultimately slithering under her clothes to caress and pet. With a smooth yank, he tugged at the bodice so that a breast was bared. He pinched and squeezed; then, stunning Ellen to her very core, he dipped down and sucked at the nipple. The gesture was so surprising, and so unexpected, that Ellen clamped her hand over her mouth, lest she gasp aloud. Though she'd previously seen Lord Stanton frolicking, and thus assumed herself an expert in libidinous affairs, that assignation had entailed a great deal of enthusiastic kissing and hugging, but nothing similar to this.

She was so naïve! She'd had no idea that a man would do such a thing to a woman, that a woman would enjoy it, and her body responded with an impatient zeal. Her breasts were inflamed, her nipples throbbing, and she suffered from the strongest urge to massage them.

Cheeks burning, temperature rising, she was so hot that she worried she might ignite, and she could scarcely keep from fanning herself.

The lovers were next to a fancy sofa, and they lay down and stretched out, so they were shielded from sight. Ellen couldn't see what was transpiring, but there was heavy breathing, sighs and murmurs, more rustling of fabric.

What was occurring?

How frustrating to have her analysis stymied by a piece of furniture! She was desperate to know all, her salacious tendencies raging, and she had to physically grip her chair so that she didn't sneak over for a closer look.

"Oh . . . oh . . ." the woman panted. "Oh . . . Stanton, you're so good at that!"

Stanton! The annoying Romeo was Lord Stanton? The swine!

As if she'd been doused with icy water, Ellen jerked to reality. Fury replaced curiosity. How could she not have guessed it was he?

Over the years, there had been appalling rumors about him, and she'd believed them all. He was a wastrel and roué, who trifled with any willing female, but beyond his profligate habits, Ellen was positive he was a liar and perhaps a thief, as well.

That fated summer, when he'd been loafing in the country, a countess's ring had been stolen. In Ellen's opinion, everyone who'd been staying at the manor was a suspect--Stanton included--but her sixteen-year-old brother, James, had been accused instead. He'd been naught more than a boy, the estate agent's son, and he'd been sentenced to twenty years hard labor and transported to the penal colonies. The disgrace and shock had killed their widowed father, so Ellen had been left all alone in the world to fend for herself.

Her cherished family had been ruined by the calamity, and she blamed Alex Marshall and his affluent friends.

Plus, he was engaged to Rebecca! Since he'd been too lazy to arrive on time, she was down the hall, entertaining his guests. No wonder he couldn't be bothered to join them for supper. He was too busy dishonoring himself with every hussy in attendance!

Ellen was so angry that if she'd been holding a pistol, she'd have marched over, aimed, and shot him through the middle of his black heart.

So far, she'd remained hidden, but she was finished with wallowing in the corner. If Stanton presumed he could behave so despicably toward Rebecca, he was in for a surprise. He wasn't going to philander! Not if Ellen had anything to say about it.

His wicked ways were about to end!

She reached for her cards, split them in half, then shuffled--slowly and loudly--each card falling with a determined snap. It was a new deck, the paper crisp and stiff, and it made a brittle noise that echoed off the high ceiling.

Across the room, the woman hissed, "What was that? Did you hear it?"

After a brief hesitation, Stanton replied, "No."

There were whispers, more shifting on the sofa, so Ellen shuffled again, and she started to hum, stridently and out of tune, but impossible to disregard.

Lord Stanton's head popped up over the edge of the couch. "What the devil?"

"Stanton? Is that you?" Ellen asked, acting as if they'd been acquainted forever, which, in an odd way, they had been. "I hadn't realized anyone was in here but me."

"Who are you," he barked, "and what are you doing in my library?"

"I'm playing solitaire," she answered evenly, "but it's so boring. Would you care to let me beat you at another game of gin? It's been an eternity since I've taken any of your money." She was fibbing--they'd never socialized in the past--but it was amusing to pester him.

"Gin?" he sputtered. "You want to play . . . gin?"

"Unless you'd like to suggest something else."

His expression was comical. He scowled at Ellen, gazed down at his Jezebel, scowled at Ellen, then grumbled, "Bloody hell."

The woman pushed at him, tossing him on the floor in her frenzied effort to right herself. In seconds, they were both standing, their backs to Ellen, as they straightened clothing and tucked in bodily parts.

Ellen rose and sauntered over, only to ascertain that she knew the woman--the circles of the Quality were quite small--and, she hoped, to shame her into better conduct.

"Why, hello, Mrs. Farthingale," Ellen greeted with a cold calculation.

"Have we met?" Farthingale inquired.

"Have you forgotten me already?" Ellen prodded. "I'm Rebecca Burton's companion."

"You are?" Farthingale gulped with alarm as Stanton muttered, "Dammit!"

"We were introduced when you were visiting her last autumn."

"Oh yes," Farthingale claimed, clearly not recollecting at all. She paled. "How marvelous to see you."

"Isn't it, though?"

"Alex . . . that is, Lord Stanton . . . was helping me with my dress. It . . . ah . . . came loose."

"Dresses can be so tedious, can't they?" Ellen commented. "Like matrimony."

"We slipped away to . . . ah . . . to . . ." Farthingale halted. There was nothing she could say to extricate herself from the mess with any aplomb.

"I'll just be going," she finally mumbled. "If you'll excuse me . . ."

She slinked away, groped at the key in the lock, then bolted into the hall. As she went, Ellen and Stanton were frozen in place, watching her flee, but once the door shut, Stanton whipped around.

He advanced until they were toe-to-toe, until his boots dipped under the hem of her skirt. He towered over her, every inch of his six-foot frame aching to wring her neck.

When she'd spied on him a decade prior, she'd seen him from a distance and had figured he was handsome, but she hadn't grasped how attractive he would prove to be up close. She was disconcerted, by his height, by his demeanor, by his blatant masculinity.

He appeared dark and dangerous, his black hair swept off his forehead to reveal high cheekbones, an aristocratic nose, a sensual mouth. His shoulders were wide, his chest broad, his waist narrow, and he had lanky legs that were braced with fury.

He was studying her, his blue, blue eyes roaming across her face and torso, and she was uncomfortable with the intoxicating scrutiny. She felt too short, too old, too skinny, too . . . too . . . ordinary, when she suddenly didn't wish to be. She yearned to confront him in a stylish sapphire gown that would match the color of her eyes and set off the blond of her hair. She craved silk gloves, a lace shawl, tasteful jewelry, and she shook off the foolish whimsy.

From where had it sprung? Why would she pine to be all that she was not? And for him, of all people? She loathed him and all he represented.

"What is your name?" he seethed.

"Miss Ellen Drake."

"How long have you been in here?"

"The entire time."

"Gin indeed," he ultimately griped. "I've never seen you before in my life."

"No, you haven't," she agreed, grinning, "but you've definitely seen me now. And"--she arched a brow--"I have seen you."

He loomed until there was no space separating them. She'd never been so near to an adult male, so she hadn't understood that the experience could be so invigorating. She reeled with excitement--but dismay, too. She found him intensely intriguing, when she didn't want him to be, and she pulled away, which he wouldn't allow.

He moved with her, very much like a hawk stalking its prey.

"Are you threatening me, Miss Drake?"

"Not at all, Lord Stanton. I'm merely stating the facts."

"To what end, you aggravating tart?"

"Tart!"

He snorted with derision. "There are a few other terms I could call you, but I don't think I ought."

"Minding your manners, are you?"

He ignored the taunt. "What is your relationship to Rebecca?"

"As I said, I'm her companion."

"She has no companion."

"Oh yes, she has," Ellen asserted, "and if you don't reform your scandalous behavior, I'll notify her of what I've witnessed."

He evaluated her again, searching for her petty secrets and apparently locating them all. He chuckled. "No, you won't. You'd never hurt her."

"I wouldn't consider myself to be hurting her. I'd be doing her a favor."

"A favor!"

"Yes."

"But I'm the catch of the kingdom," he mocked, "and Rebecca has me on her hook."

"You are so vain!"

He stepped in, and she stepped away. They were like a pair of dancers, gliding across the floor. They continued on until she bumped into his desk and could go no farther. She was wedged against the polished oak, her bottom perched on the edge, and he leaned in so that she was tipping over, and his firm palm between her shoulder blades was all that kept her from being prone.

"You don't like me, do you?" he asked.

"Not a bit, and I wish Rebecca didn't like you, either."

"Why, you arrogant, uppity--"

"Uppity!"

"How dare you malign me! If you are who you say you are--and I admit that I have grave doubts as to your veracity--you're living under my roof, employed by my cousin, and friend to my fiancée, which indicates that you have more audacity than anyone I've ever met. I ought to talk with Lydia and have you fired."

"If you try, I can promise that my farewell to Rebecca will involve a vivid description of Mrs. Farthingale's bosom."

Ellen didn't know where she'd garnered the courage to spar with him, or why she was bent on provocation. He brought out her worst traits, making her bold and rash. Their wrangling gave her an exhilarating sense of power. She felt as if she could do any wild thing without repercussion.

"Listen, you cheeky little--" He paused in mid-insult and reined in his temper. With an undignified scoff, he sidled away. As if his cravat had shrunk and was choking him, he tugged at it. "How much?"

She sat up. "How much . . . what?"

"Don't play dumb--which you're obviously not. What will it take for you to be silent?"

"You suppose I'm blackmailing you?"

"Well, yes." He shrugged. "I don't want to upset Rebecca. Neither do you. So name your price. Cash? Baubles? A few new gowns from Madame LaFarge?"

She let her own gaze wander down. He really was a fine masculine specimen. How sad that so much low character could be wrapped in such a pretty package.

She smirked. "Celibacy."

As if she'd struck him, he blanched. "Celibacy!"

She wasn't certain what celibacy entailed, but the mysterious deed included some of what he'd been doing with Farthingale. "Yes. I would have your word on it."

"Not bloody likely."

She nodded, latching on to the idea with a particular relish. "It shall be celibacy till the wedding, and your complete devotion to Rebecca. Or else!"

"Or else what?" Struggling for calm, he pinched a finger and thumb to the bridge of his nose. "Miss Drake, is it?"

"Yes."

"I realize you're a spinster."

He uttered spinster as if it were a vile disease, and she was incensed by the denigration. "By choice, Lord Stanton. Absolutely by choice."

"You probably hate all men."

"Not all," she assured him. "Just some."

"I only meant that you're in no position to fully grasp the nature of the male beast."

She glared at the couch where he'd enjoyed his torrid embracing. "Actually, I think I grasp it quite well."

"I shan't be officially engaged for another month, and the wedding won't roll around till six months after that. You can't expect me to . . . to . . ."

"Can't expect you to what?"

A muscle twitched in his cheek. Murder gleamed in his eye, and she was positive he'd have throttled her if he could have figured out how to conceal the crime.

"I'm calling your bluff," he said. "Go ahead and tell her. Lay bare the entire sordid episode. I dare you."

"I will," Ellen insisted. "I swear it. I'm not joking."

"I'm betting you are."

He assessed her, taking her measure, and she had the strangest impression that he knew everything about her, that he could read her mind. There was no way to keep him from discovering that she would never hurt Rebecca by passing on such terrible news.

"Good evening, Miss Drake," he stated. "I won't say it's been a pleasure to make your acquaintance, because it hasn't been, and if I'm very, very lucky, I shan't suffer the misfortune of speaking with you ever again."

She'd lost the upper hand--and so quickly, too!--but she was determined to get it back. He seemed to have a genuine fondness for Rebecca, so perhaps she could use it to stir his dormant conscience. "Have you no feelings for Rebecca, and how the information will wound her?"

"I have many feelings for Rebecca, but they are none of your concern. Just as my personal affairs are none of your business. I am a man, Miss Drake. Not a eunuch. Go blackmail someone else--if you can find anyone who's not already weary of your tiresome company."

With that deftly hurled slur, he strutted out, leaving her to dawdle in the quiet, to fume and stew about how weak she was. She'd never had any control. Not over her fate. Not over her circumstances. Not over her income or her reduced status. She was dependent, beholden, alone, and the tedium of her situation reared up as though it were a living, breathing creature that was suffocating her.

What she wouldn't give to be free and self-sufficient. She was like a slave who yearned to break out of bondage, and the fierce burst of discontentment rattled her.

When had she grown so dissatisfied? So unhappy? Long ago, she'd accepted her dreary lot. Hadn't she?

Stanton was correct: She would never confide in Rebecca as to what she'd seen. But if he thought she'd let the matter rest, that she'd ignore him as he gamboled with every strumpet in London, he was in for a huge shock.

Celibacy she'd demanded, and celibacy it would be. Stanton's life was about to change--drastically!--and she was the one who'd make it happen.

Copyright © 2006 by Cheryl Holt

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First Chapter

Chapter One
London, England, 1812 . . .

"Do you feel sorry for me?"

"Dreadfully sorry, darling."

At the sound of voices, Ellen Drake halted in shuffling her deck of cards. She'd been anxious for a quiet interlude and a chance to rest after a trying day, but apparently, no privacy was to be had. She was huddled in the shadows of the earl's library, hiding and playing solitaire at a writing desk that was situated behind a large potted plant. She peeked around it.

From her discreet location she couldn't see who'd entered, but it was a man and a woman. Considering that they'd sneaked away from the crowded party--as had she--and that they were cooing and purring, it was obvious that a romantic tryst was commencing.

When the man spun the key in the lock, Ellen's suspicions were confirmed. He was bent on seduction, and his partner eager for it to happen.

Of all the rotten luck!

Ellen glanced about, searching for a rear door by which she could escape, but there wasn't one. She was trapped, and the sole means of exit was her bumbling into the middle of the torrid scene, which she was loathe to attempt.

Though she'd been in London but a few hours, she was aware of how the members of the Quality were prone to amorous mischief, and she couldn't bear to witness which wife was consorting with which husband. She had a firm moral constitution, had had a decent and respectable upbringing, and when she knew a person had a penchant for adultery it was difficult to be civil.

Her host, Alex Marshall, Lord Stanton, was the prime illustration of how arduous it was to pretend nonchalance. A decade earlier, when she was a girl ofeighteen, Stanton had been in the country, merrymaking at a local estate. She'd stumbled upon him in the woods, doing all sorts of things he oughtn't with a neighbor's daughter. Ellen had never forgotten a single detail of the spectacle, so how was she to exhibit any courtesy toward him?

For months, since the moment she'd learned that she'd be traveling to London and staying in Stanton's home, she'd been panicked. In light of her post as a lady's companion, she couldn't have refused to accompany her employers, Rebecca and Lydia Burton. Nor could Ellen voice her opinion as to why she was opposed to Rebecca's betrothal to Stanton. As the disaster unfolded, she could only observe and stew.

As she was a spinster who'd been forced to make her own way in the world, Ellen's reputation had to be beyond reproach. She could never mention Stanton's base character, for then she'd be compelled to recount how she'd spied on him.

Fortunately, during the brief period they'd been in his house, Stanton hadn't deigned to appear, so she'd avoided meeting him, and she hoped to delay an introduction for as long as she was able. Rebecca was Stanton's cousin, their marriage arranged when they were children. Rebecca had spent most of her twenty-two years waiting for Stanton to decide he was ready to tie the knot, which he finally had, so at his behest they'd scurried to the city to set the process in motion. She was thrilled and excited, but Ellen was convinced that Rebecca would be miserable with such a rampant libertine for her husband.

"The nuptial noose is tightening," the man was commenting. "I'm about to have my wings clipped."

"Poor dear," the woman soothed. "Matrimony can be so tedious."

"Can't it, though?"

An engaged man! Ellen fumed. Who was about to be wed! The cad!

There was a lengthy pause, a rustle of clothing, some giggling; then the woman said, "You're a beast to lure me away from the festivities."

"Why did you let me?"

"You're so . . . tense."

"Oh, I'm definitely tense," the man agreed. "Very, very tense. I need to relax. And soon!"

"I thought I should offer my assistance."

"Oh, you should!" the man replied. "You absolutely should."

Each sentence was punctuated by intervals of silence, and though Ellen would have poked her eyes out rather than look, her curiosity was piqued. What--precisely--were they doing?

She leaned farther to the side, discovering that the ribald scene was every bit as tawdry as she'd envisioned. The couple were wrapped around each other so completely that they might have been glued together.

The woman was a short, buxom brunette, while the man was tall--six feet at least--with a fit, muscled physique. He had dark hair, and though Ellen couldn't see his face, she was sure he'd be handsome as the devil.

He was cupping the woman's buttocks, and as they writhed and wrestled, Ellen rippled with equal parts disgust and exhilaration.

Don't watch! she scolded, declining to be drawn in to the squalid rendezvous, yet she couldn't stop staring.

Once prior, she'd viewed such licentious conduct--as a girl in the forest when she'd glimpsed Lord Stanton--and evidently, naught had changed since that shameful day. Maturity had neither bestowed wisdom nor granted heightened judgment. She was as intrigued as ever by sexual endeavor.

What was the matter with her?

At twenty-eight, she was resigned to her situation. Circumstances had guaranteed that she would never marry, so why was she enthralled? Was she secretly pining for a beau? Had she a lusty aspect to her personality to which she was oblivious?

How peculiar! How terrifying!

She'd often heard that a woman needed to wed, that--after a certain age--it was unhealthy to shun matrimony. She'd always scoffed at the prospect, but what if the stories were correct?

What if she had a buried need for male companionship? What if it became worse with time? Could she grow crazed from unfulfilled desire?

"We really shouldn't be dallying," the woman contended.

"But I can't predict when I'll manage to slip away again. This could be my last chance. You wouldn't ask me to pass it up, would you? It's like ordering a starving man to ignore a feast, a thirsty man to walk by an oasis."

Ellen rolled her eyes. She hadn't had much experience with men, her deceased father and her tormented brother, James, being the two main examples, but she recognized the statement for the banal remark it was. What sane female would succumb on the basis of such drivel? If Ellen were the one being seduced, she'd insist on something a tad more romantic!

"So . . . my participation would be an act of kindness?" the woman queried.

"Think of it as your Christian duty to a deprived soul," he advised. "As I said, it may be my only opportunity."

"Then we shouldn't waste it."

Instantly, the tryst was pitched to the next level. They were kissing with a mutual fervor. Her arms were draped around him, her leg, too, a heel anchoring him as she stroked her foot up and down his calf.

His crafty fingers were fondling her bosom and ultimately slithering under her clothes to caress and pet. With a smooth yank, he tugged at the bodice so that a breast was bared. He pinched and squeezed; then, stunning Ellen to her very core, he dipped down and sucked at the nipple. The gesture was so surprising, and so unexpected, that Ellen clamped her hand over her mouth, lest she gasp aloud. Though she'd previously seen Lord Stanton frolicking, and thus assumed herself an expert in libidinous affairs, that assignation had entailed a great deal of enthusiastic kissing and hugging, but nothing similar to this.

She was so naîve! She'd had no idea that a man would do such a thing to a woman, that a woman would enjoy it, and her body responded with an impatient zeal. Her breasts were inflamed, her nipples throbbing, and she suffered from the strongest urge to massage them.

Cheeks burning, temperature rising, she was so hot that she worried she might ignite, and she could scarcely keep from fanning herself.

The lovers were next to a fancy sofa, and they lay down and stretched out, so they were shielded from sight. Ellen couldn't see what was transpiring, but there was heavy breathing, sighs and murmurs, more rustling of fabric.

What was occurring?

How frustrating to have her analysis stymied by a piece of furniture! She was desperate to know all, her salacious tendencies raging, and she had to physically grip her chair so that she didn't sneak over for a closer look.

"Oh . . . oh . . ." the woman panted. "Oh . . . Stanton, you're so good at that!"

Stanton! The annoying Romeo was Lord Stanton? The swine!

As if she'd been doused with icy water, Ellen jerked to reality. Fury replaced curiosity. How could she not have guessed it was he?

Over the years, there had been appalling rumors about him, and she'd believed them all. He was a wastrel and roué, who trifled with any willing female, but beyond his profligate habits, Ellen was positive he was a liar and perhaps a thief, as well.

That fated summer, when he'd been loafing in the country, a countess's ring had been stolen. In Ellen's opinion, everyone who'd been staying at the manor was a suspect--Stanton included--but her sixteen-year-old brother, James, had been accused instead. He'd been naught more than a boy, the estate agent's son, and he'd been sentenced to twenty years hard labor and transported to the penal colonies. The disgrace and shock had killed their widowed father, so Ellen had been left all alone in the world to fend for herself.

Her cherished family had been ruined by the calamity, and she blamed Alex Marshall and his affluent friends.

Plus, he was engaged to Rebecca! Since he'd been too lazy to arrive on time, she was down the hall, entertaining his guests. No wonder he couldn't be bothered to join them for supper. He was too busy dishonoring himself with every hussy in attendance!

Ellen was so angry that if she'd been holding a pistol, she'd have marched over, aimed, and shot him through the middle of his black heart.

So far, she'd remained hidden, but she was finished with wallowing in the corner. If Stanton presumed he could behave so despicably toward Rebecca, he was in for a surprise. He wasn't going to philander! Not if Ellen had anything to say about it.

His wicked ways were about to end!

She reached for her cards, split them in half, then shuffled--slowly and loudly--each card falling with a determined snap. It was a new deck, the paper crisp and stiff, and it made a brittle noise that echoed off the high ceiling.

Across the room, the woman hissed, "What was that? Did you hear it?"

After a brief hesitation, Stanton replied, "No."

There were whispers, more shifting on the sofa, so Ellen shuffled again, and she started to hum, stridently and out of tune, but impossible to disregard.

Lord Stanton's head popped up over the edge of the couch. "What the devil?"
"Stanton? Is that you?" Ellen asked, acting as if they'd been acquainted forever, which, in an odd way, they had been. "I hadn't realized anyone was in here but me."

"Who are you," he barked, "and what are you doing in my library?"

"I'm playing solitaire," she answered evenly, "but it's so boring. Would you care to let me beat you at another game of gin? It's been an eternity since I've taken any of your money." She was fibbing--they'd never socialized in the past--but it was amusing to pester him.

"Gin?" he sputtered. "You want to play . . . gin?"

"Unless you'd like to suggest something else."

His expression was comical. He scowled at Ellen, gazed down at his Jezebel, scowled at Ellen, then grumbled, "Bloody hell."

The woman pushed at him, tossing him on the floor in her frenzied effort to right herself. In seconds, they were both standing, their backs to Ellen, as they straightened clothing and tucked in bodily parts.

Ellen rose and sauntered over, only to ascertain that she knew the woman--the circles of the Quality were quite small--and, she hoped, to shame her into better conduct.

"Why, hello, Mrs. Farthingale," Ellen greeted with a cold calculation.

"Have we met?" Farthingale inquired.

"Have you forgotten me already?" Ellen prodded. "I'm Rebecca Burton's companion."

"You are?" Farthingale gulped with alarm as Stanton muttered, "Dammit!"

"We were introduced when you were visiting her last autumn."

"Oh yes," Farthingale claimed, clearly not recollecting at all. She paled. "How marvelous to see you."

"Isn't it, though?"

"Alex . . . that is, Lord Stanton . . . was helping me with my dress. It . . . ah . . . came loose."

"Dresses can be so tedious, can't they?" Ellen commented. "Like matrimony."

"We slipped away to . . . ah . . . to . . ." Farthingale halted. There was nothing she could say to extricate herself from the mess with any aplomb.

"I'll just be going," she finally mumbled. "If you'll excuse me . . ."

She slinked away, groped at the key in the lock, then bolted into the hall. As she went, Ellen and Stanton were frozen in place, watching her flee, but once the door shut, Stanton whipped around.

He advanced until they were toe-to-toe, until his boots dipped under the hem of her skirt. He towered over her, every inch of his six-foot frame aching to wring her neck.

When she'd spied on him a decade prior, she'd seen him from a distance and had figured he was handsome, but she hadn't grasped how attractive he would prove to be up close. She was disconcerted, by his height, by his demeanor, by his blatant masculinity.

He appeared dark and dangerous, his black hair swept off his forehead to reveal high cheekbones, an aristocratic nose, a sensual mouth. His shoulders were wide, his chest broad, his waist narrow, and he had lanky legs that were braced with fury.

He was studying her, his blue, blue eyes roaming across her face and torso, and she was uncomfortable with the intoxicating scrutiny. She felt too short, too old, too skinny, too . . . too . . . ordinary, when she suddenly didn't wish to be. She yearned to confront him in a stylish sapphire gown that would match the color of her eyes and set off the blond of her hair. She craved silk gloves, a lace shawl, tasteful jewelry, and she shook off the foolish whimsy.

From where had it sprung? Why would she pine to be all that she was not? And for him, of all people? She loathed him and all he represented.

"What is your name?" he seethed.

"Miss Ellen Drake."

"How long have you been in here?"

"The entire time."

"Gin indeed," he ultimately griped. "I've never seen you before in my life."

"No, you haven't," she agreed, grinning, "but you've definitely seen me now. And"--she arched a brow--"I have seen you."

He loomed until there was no space separating them. She'd never been so near to an adult male, so she hadn't understood that the experience could be so invigorating. She reeled with excitement--but dismay, too. She found him intensely intriguing, when she didn't want him to be, and she pulled away, which he wouldn't allow.

He moved with her, very much like a hawk stalking its prey.

"Are you threatening me, Miss Drake?"

"Not at all, Lord Stanton. I'm merely stating the facts."

"To what end, you aggravating tart?"

"Tart!"

He snorted with derision. "There are a few other terms I could call you, but I don't think I ought."

"Minding your manners, are you?"

He ignored the taunt. "What is your relationship to Rebecca?"

"As I said, I'm her companion."

"She has no companion."

"Oh yes, she has," Ellen asserted, "and if you don't reform your scandalous behavior, I'll notify her of what I've witnessed."

He evaluated her again, searching for her petty secrets and apparently locating them all. He chuckled. "No, you won't. You'd never hurt her."

"I wouldn't consider myself to be hurting her. I'd be doing her a favor."

"A favor!"

"Yes."

"But I'm the catch of the kingdom," he mocked, "and Rebecca has me on her hook."

"You are so vain!"

He stepped in, and she stepped away. They were like a pair of dancers, gliding across the floor. They continued on until she bumped into his desk and could go no farther. She was wedged against the polished oak, her bottom perched on the edge, and he leaned in so that she was tipping over, and his firm palm between her shoulder blades was all that kept her from being prone.

"You don't like me, do you?" he asked.

"Not a bit, and I wish Rebecca didn't like you, either."

"Why, you arrogant, uppity--"

"Uppity!"

"How dare you malign me! If you are who you say you are--and I admit that I have grave doubts as to your veracity--you're living under my roof, employed by my cousin, and friend to my fiancée, which indicates that you have more audacity than anyone I've ever met. I ought to talk with Lydia and have you fired."

"If you try, I can promise that my farewell to Rebecca will involve a vivid description of Mrs. Farthingale's bosom."

Ellen didn't know where she'd garnered the courage to spar with him, or why she was bent on provocation. He brought out her worst traits, making her bold and rash. Their wrangling gave her an exhilarating sense of power. She felt as if she could do any wild thing without repercussion.

"Listen, you cheeky little--" He paused in mid-insult and reined in his temper. With an undignified scoff, he sidled away. As if his cravat had shrunk and was choking him, he tugged at it. "How much?"

She sat up. "How much . . . what?"

"Don't play dumb--which you're obviously not. What will it take for you to be silent?"

"You suppose I'm blackmailing you?"

"Well, yes." He shrugged. "I don't want to upset Rebecca. Neither do you. So name your price. Cash? Baubles? A few new gowns from Madame LaFarge?"

She let her own gaze wander down. He really was a fine masculine specimen. How sad that so much low character could be wrapped in such a pretty package.

She smirked. "Celibacy."

As if she'd struck him, he blanched. "Celibacy!"

She wasn't certain what celibacy entailed, but the mysterious deed included some of what he'd been doing with Farthingale. "Yes. I would have your word on it."

"Not bloody likely."

She nodded, latching on to the idea with a particular relish. "It shall be celibacy till the wedding, and your complete devotion to Rebecca. Or else!"

"Or else what?" Struggling for calm, he pinched a finger and thumb to the bridge of his nose. "Miss Drake, is it?"

"Yes."

"I realize you're a spinster."

He uttered spinster as if it were a vile disease, and she was incensed by the denigration. "By choice, Lord Stanton. Absolutely by choice."

"You probably hate all men."

"Not all," she assured him. "Just some."

"I only meant that you're in no position to fully grasp the nature of the male beast."

She glared at the couch where he'd enjoyed his torrid embracing. "Actually, I think I grasp it quite well."

"I shan't be officially engaged for another month, and the wedding won't roll around till six months after that. You can't expect me to . . . to . . ."

"Can't expect you to what?"

A muscle twitched in his cheek. Murder gleamed in his eye, and she was positive he'd have throttled her if he could have figured out how to conceal the crime.

"I'm calling your bluff," he said. "Go ahead and tell her. Lay bare the entire sordid episode. I dare you."

"I will," Ellen insisted. "I swear it. I'm not joking."

"I'm betting you are."

He assessed her, taking her measure, and she had the strangest impression that he knew everything about her, that he could read her mind. There was no way to keep him from discovering that she would never hurt Rebecca by passing on such terrible news.

"Good evening, Miss Drake," he stated. "I won't say it's been a pleasure to make your acquaintance, because it hasn't been, and if I'm very, very lucky, I shan't suffer the misfortune of speaking with you ever again."

She'd lost the upper hand--and so quickly, too!--but she was determined to get it back. He seemed to have a genuine fondness for Rebecca, so perhaps she could use it to stir his dormant conscience. "Have you no feelings for Rebecca, and how the information will wound her?"

"I have many feelings for Rebecca, but they are none of your concern. Just as my personal affairs are none of your business. I am a man, Miss Drake. Not a eunuch. Go blackmail someone ethat deftly hurled slur, he strutted out, leaving her to dawdle in the quiet, to fume and stew about how weak she was. She'd never had any control. Not over her fate. Not over her circumstances. Not over her income or her reduced status. She was dependent, beholden, alone, and the tedium of her situation reared up as though it were a living, breathing creature that was suffocating her.

What she wouldn't give to be free and self-sufficient. She was like a slave who yearned to break out of bondage, and the fierce burst of discontentment rattled her.

When had she grown so dissatisfied? So unhappy? Long ago, she'd accepted her dreary lot. Hadn't she?

Stanton was correct: She would never confide in Rebecca as to what she'd seen. But if he thought she'd let the matter rest, that she'd ignore him as he gamboled with every strumpet in London, he was in for a huge shock.

Celibacy she'd demanded, and celibacy it would be. Stanton's life was about to change--drastically!--and she was the one who'd make it happen.

Copyright © 2006 by Cheryl Holt
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 7 of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 18, 2012

    I was greatly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. I read

    I was greatly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. I read it twice.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2006

    Disappointing

    Sadly,the book was disappointing to me. Holts is known to link pervisions with romance, which in the end romance and passion always triumph. However, in this book pervisions seem to have overtaken the entire story line, and the ending could have been better. Despite the poor characters and poor plot, Holts weaves her magic with the possibility of love.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    great Regency romance

    In 1812 London, Ellen Drake plans to remain out of the limelight as companion to Lady Rebecca Burton. However, she becomes upset when she notices Lord Alex Marshall flirting outrageously with another woman. Unable to ignore the tryst as she cares for Rebecca, Ellen intercedes. --- Alex finds his stalker a pain in the butt, but quite attractive. He decides to seduce her as one of his acts of sowing his wild oats before he settles into marriage. He succeeds beyond his wildest imagination not realizing that Ellen was already in love with him. While Ellen is contrite and filled with remorse, Alex realizes he loves her, but knows Rebecca is too nice a person to be hurt by his ending their engagement besides Ellen is irate with him and does not believe his sincere cries of love. --- TOO TEMPTING TO TOUCH is a great Regency romance filled with a comedy of errors much more complex than described above. The key players seem genuine to include besides the main triangle Ellen¿s brother and Alex¿s best friend and his sister. Each effort to straighten out who loves who while adhering to the manners of the great society only complicates the relationships in this zany historical romp. --- Harriet Klausner

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    Posted August 23, 2010

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    Posted October 27, 2008

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    Posted January 20, 2010

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