Always a Temptress Excerpt

AlwaysaTemptressAnd already garnering starred reviews by Booklist, Library Journal and Publishers weekly, AND a Top Pick and 4 1/2 * from RT.

Sexy, intense, and graced with heart-melting sensuality, this increasingly complex tale of treachery is another exquisitely written winner from a writer who just gets better and better” LIBRARY JOURNAL

“Readers would never know that Dreyer made her name in contemporary romance. Her novels have every hallmark of a memorable historic romance:passion, unforgettable characters, an engrossing plot.”  RT 4 1/2 *

“Fueled by a surfeit of sizzling sensuality, chilling suspense, and delectably dry wit, Always a Temptress brings Dreyer’s first historical trilogy to a smashingly successful conclusion”
Booklist

“An awesome read. Both Harry and Kate have depth beyond mere good and bad behavior. Commanding characters, sumptuous locations, weave Always A Temptress into a tantalizing tapestry of romance.” A Perfect 10 – Romance Reviews Today

“Dynamic characters and story-telling. Ms. Dreyer is a talented author who will have you smiling one minute and shedding a tear the next. It pulled at my heartstrings.” Bookwenches 4

I hope you’ve been waiting to read Lady Kate’s story. I know I couldn’t wait to write it. Kate is the person who says what everybody wishes they had the courage to. She’s outrageous, brash, and unapologetic. But she is not a traitor, no matter what Sir Harry Lidge thinks. The problem is that to prove it, she has to survive close quarters with Harry, after he kidnaps her to learn her secrets. Separated ten years earlier, the two of them have a lot of history to overcome on the way to finding the truth, and happiness. Oh, and my all time favorite secondary character, Lady Bea, has quite a role in Kate’s story. In fact, she gets to be a heroine.

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Chapter One

If there was one thing that showed Kate Seaton’s life up for what it was, it was a wedding. Kate loved weddings, especially if good friends were involved. She loved the flowers and thumping organ music, and the sloppy sentiment that brought handkerchiefs out to be waved like white flags of surrender. She especially loved the smiles. Everyone should smile at weddings. Everyone should have a wedding to smile about.

Which was why once she ate her surfeit of lobster patties and succumbed to the obligatory hug from the happy couple, she escaped as fast as a thief purloining silver. After all, the sentiment expressed on such a nice day should never be envy or cynicism.

Such had been the case today. She had attended Jack and Olivia’s wedding, and they were friends; good friends whose happiness she could hardly resent, their joy hard-won and universally celebrated. Jack had looked handsome and stalwart as he’d said his vows, Olivia lovely and honest-to-God glowing, as every bride should. Kate had joined wholeheartedly in the celebration. And then, at the first opportunity, she had run.

At least, that was her excuse. She refused to think how she had abandoned not only her cousin Diccan but her friend Grace. In a matter of only moments the day before, Diccan had lost his father, and Grace, evidently her marriage. Kate truly would have stayed to help, if her attendance wouldn’t have made everything immeasurably worse. Her family would have been appalled to have her attend her uncle’s services.  As for Grace, Kate kept thinking that maybe without Kate there to smooth the way, Grace and Diccan would learn to rely on each other and rebuild their marriage.

Pulling on her gloves, Kate stepped out of the door of the Angel Inn and into the gray afternoon. Guildford was bustling, as always, situated as it was on the main London-Portsmouth rod. Of its two coaching inns, Kate had always preferred the smaller Angel on High Street with its cozy half-timbered facade and efficient staff. It never took longer than twenty minutes to change out the horses and down a cup of tea.

Today seemed to be different. When she stepped out into the cobbled yard, her coach was nowhere to be seen. A stage was being unloaded, with much shouting and banging, and behind it a curricle waited. Kate tapped her feet, impatient to be away.

From her left came the sound of a muffled sob. She smiled. “Bea,” she gently chastised her companion, laying a hand on the older woman’s arm. “It is perfectly bourgeois to continue crying over a two-day-old wedding.”

If Kate enjoyed the pomp of weddings, Bea positively wallowed. She hadn’t stopped crying since they’d walked into the tiny Norman church of St. Mary in Bury to find it bursting with friends and late summer flowers.

“Odysseus and Penelope,” her friend inexplicably answered, dabbing determinedly at her eyes with one of the aforementioned flags of surrender, this one edged in the honeybees Bee so loved to embroider on things.

“Yes,” Kate answered, giving her a squeeze. “It was particularly satisfying to see Jack and Olivia married, after all the years they’d been apart.”

“Devonshire,” Bea said, casting soulful eyes down at Kate.

This meaning Kate had to work for. “Devonshire? The duke? Was he invited?”

Bea glared, which on the tall, elegantly silver-haired woman, was formidable. “Georgianna.”

Kate frowned, wondering what the late duchess of Devonshire could have to do with the newly minted Earl and Countess of Gracechurch. Georgianna had been married to a cold fish who’d kept his mistress and children in the same house as his legitimate family. All Jack had done was divorce his wife and take five years to rectify the mistake.

“Unfair?” Kate guessed.

Bea beamed.

“To whom?” Kate asked, now cognizant of the looks that passed among the various travelers and ostlers who cluttered up the courtyard. She had to admit, following Bea’s unique conversational style could indeed be distracting. “Jack and Olivia? How could it be unfair that they’re finally happy?”
This time Bea gave Kate an impatient huff, and there was no mistaking her meaning. Kate, who never got misty-eyed, nearly succumbed.

“Oh, Bea,” she said, wishing she were tall enough to give her stately friend a smacking kiss. “How can you think my life is unfair? What more could I want than money, freedom, and my dearest friend to share it with?”

Bea sniffed. “Half loaf.”

“Not at all, darling. Or is it you?” She leaned close and whispered. “Do you long for an amour? Mayhap a young cicisbeo who would squire you about on his arm? General Willoughby would snap you up in a minute, if you just let him.”

Bea’s laugh was more a snort, but Kate saw the pain behind the humor. Bea thought no one would want her, no matter her impeccable lineage and bone-deep aristocratic beauty. Not only was Bea into her seventies, but a few years earlier, her brain had suffered a terrible injury that left her speech so tortured that many days, Kate was the only one who understood her.

But Kate also knew that, like her, Bea couldn’t tolerate coddling. So, with brisk fingers she pulled out Bea’s signature handkerchief and dabbed away the last of the old woman’s tears. “Now, then, my girl, we need to be going. After all, you’re the one who committed us to Lady Riordan’s memorial service tomorrow.”

Immediately Bea’s expression folded into pity. “Poor lambs.”

“At least Riordan has finally accepted the truth and declared her dead. Now maybe the children can move on.” Kate shuddered. “I can think of few things I find less appealing than drowning. ”

Just then, the coach clattered around the corner, the Murther lozenge shining against the black lacquered panels. The horses were unfamiliar, but they were handsome bays that seemed to be pulling hard at the reins.

“Your Grace,” one of the postboys said, bowing low as he opened the door.

Kate smiled and let him hand her into the carriage.

She had just settled and turned to help Bea, when suddenly she heard a shout, and the coach lurched.  She was thrown back in her seat. The door slammed. The horses whinnied and took off, as if escaping a fire.

Furious, Kate tried to right herself without success. How dare they abuse the horses that way? How dare they leave Bea stranded in the coaching yard, her hand out, her mouth open, still waiting to get into the coach?

The coach turned on two wheels and skidded through the archway. Kate could hear the clatter of the horses’ hooves against the cobbles, the scrape of stone against the coach sides. She heard the urgent cries of the coachman and thought, suddenly, that it didn’t sound like Bob Coachman.

It took her a few tries before she managed to sit back up. She pounded on the roof to get the coachman’s attention.  No one responded. The coach didn’t slow; in fact, it sped up,the horses clattering up High Street, their tack jangling like Christmas bells. It didn’t occur to Kate to be frightened. She was still too angry, too anxious for Bea, who simply could not be left alone in a coaching inn.

“Blast you, stop!” she shouted, pushing at the trap.

It was wedged shut. She pounded again on the roof. The coach sped on, rocking from side to side and throwing her off-balance.  “I am a duchess!” she yelled, –, for once resorting to her title to get attention. “I’m the daughter of a duke! Do you know what will happen to you if you don’t set me down immediately?”

In all truth, probably nothing. Her brother Edwin, the current duke of Livingston, would say she deserved it. Her step-son Oswald, now duke of Murther, would be delighted by the mistreatment. She had never gotten on well with either, especially since neither believed her more deserving of her wealth than they were. She had to try, though. She had to get back to Bea.

The carriage made another precarious turn and then straightened onto what Kate thought might be a turnpike. She barely caught the strap in time to keep her from falling again. She already felt bruised. She couldn’t imagine what injuries she would collect before the idiot driving her coach finally brought it to a halt.

That was the thought that finally gave her pause. What idiot? Brought it to a halt where? Why hadn’t he paid attention to her? Why hadn’t he so much as slowed through a busy town? She could hear shouting outside, and feared for nearby pedestrians. She tried to pull open the window shades, but they wouldn’t budge. She heard a crash and more shouting and cringed.

“Are you mad?” she cried, rapping again against the roof.  “Stop this thing!”

Could it be a kidnapping? She was certainly wealthy. But who in their right mind would think anyone would pay to get her back?

“Did you hear me before?” she called. “I said I’m a duchess. I’m a rich duchess!” It had to be good for something. “Put me down now and I’ll double whatever fee you’re being paid. Better yet, take me to my brother the duke, and he’ll triple it!”

The words were barely out of her mouth before she froze.

Her brother.

Suddenly her mind shuddered to a halt. Oh, God. Edwin. He’d been threatening for years to put her away for what he considered behavior unbecoming a Hilliard. Had he seen the painting? That might well be enoughto set him off.

Kate refused to be terrified. She categorically repudiated the idea that her brother had the power to incarcerate her for something she had no part in. And when she saw him, she would tell him so.

On the other hand, it would probably be better all around if she didn’t have to face him at all. She needed to get away before he did something irrevocable.

The coach was moving too fast, its balance precarious. She was holding onto the strap, and still being battered around. She would probably kill herself if she leaped. She laughed out loud. There were worse things than a split head, and this little jaunt threatened her with most of them. She would jump and happily take her chances.

She was still too furious to really be properly terrified. Which meant it was time to act. Pulling in a steadying breath, she crossed herself like a Papist and reached for the door handle.

It didn’t move. She jiggled it. She yanked. She tried the other one. Nothing. Somehow they had secured the doors, preventing her from escaping.  Thinking she could at least alert people passing by, she attempted to pull up the leather shades, only to find them nailed in place. She was truly imprisoned.

For the first time, she was beginning to realize how desperate her situation was. Damn Edwin to hell. She needed to get word to her cousin Diccan. He would intercede. He could at least threaten Edwin with the kind of public disgrace her brother loathed.

Diccan was thirty miles away burying his father. Too far for a quick rescue. Much too overwhelmed by the sudden death of his father to have any attention left for Kate.

She sighed, hating the shaky sound of it. She hated being out of control. She had long since sworn that she would never be at the mercy of another human being. She would never again know this feeling of  helplessness.

She should have known better. She’d never had that kind of luck before. Why should it start now?

“Please,” she whispered out loud, knowing it was  a prayer that wouldn’t be heard.

* * *

Back at the inn, people were just beginning to realize that there was something wrong. The ostlers had certainly seen carriages speed through the archway before. There was an entire generation of young bucks who refused to leave any other way. The  bystanders weren’t even particularly surprised to see the elderly lady standing flatfooted by the door, her hand still out, her mouth open and emitting garbled noises that made no sense. Obviously the young lady she’d been talking to had departed mid-conversation. Unsettling even for people who weren’t dicked in the nob, like the old gal seemed to be.

A few people frowned when the old woman turned back and forth and cried out, “Sabine women!”, her hand still pointing toward the departed carriage.  A few more shook their heads, sorry to see such a pitiful thing right there in public.

But when she started to sing, and everybody stopped and stared. It wasn’t just that she was singing Cherry Ripe, which shouldn’t have ever been heard on the tongue of such a dignified old lady. It wasn’t even that she was singing the wrong words. It was that even with the wrong words in a tune she shouldn’t know, it was beautiful.

“Thrasher, come!” she sang, head back, hands out. “Thrasher, come! Lady Kate, follow the way! The carriage has her! Follow the way, Thrasher come!”

And just as if she were making any kind of sense at all, suddenly a motley gaggle of men in crimson and gold livery came thundering around the corner from the stables and headed for the old woman.

“That way I say!” the old woman sang, waving toward the street where the carriage had just disappeared. “Four horses brown, a driver strange. Follow the way, Thrasher, go!”

And darned if one of them didn’t respond. Without pausing in his tracks, a thin, sharp-featured boy waved at the old girl and took off after that carriage like a hare at the sound of a gun. As for the old lady, she just stood there, tears running down her cheeks as the other men circled her, her own mismatched army. She stopped singing, though. The people who had stopped to listen shook their heads and went back to their business.

“Well now,” the inn’s head groom said, turning back to his stable. “Wasn’t that somethin’?”

* * *

Kate frantically searched the coach. Not for escape; she knew the coach was too well-made to be easily pulled apart. For weapons. It was almost impossible, and she knew she’d be bruised from head to toe from trying, but even as she was thrown around, she rifled through the cushions and side compartments, ripping and tugging until the inside of the coach looked as if a mad animal had been caught inside.

Not so different, she thought, feeling more frantic as she failed to secure so much as a rusty spring with which to defend herself. She was left with three hat pins and her shoes. On the other hand, she had used hat pins to great effect on more than one occasion.

If only she could rip through enough of the coach to see daylight. The coach was beginning to close in on her, all the sunlight barricaded away, leaving only shadow and speed. Even throwing herself under the wheels seemed to be a better option than simply surrendering herself to the dark.

Bastard, she kept repeating to herself, although of any insult she could rain on her brother’s head, that would certainly be the most unlikely. Edwin truly was the one and only Duke of Livingston, holder of all titles and privileges, born to the strawberry leaves, and certainly happy to remind you if you forgot.

He was nothing like their father, who had been a good duke. A responsible man loyal to his people and generous to his community, that duke had truly been mourned when he died. When Edwin went, Kate had the feeling there would be a lot of show and no sincerity.

The problem was, he still had the power. And that meant, since he was head of her family, he was the male legally in charge of her life.

She worked for hours, tearing the coach apart like a starving women looking for the last bit of cheese. She unearthed two blankets, a writing desk, a tiny bottle of scent she didn’t use anymore, three vinaigrettes from Bea’s stash and a stale hunk of bread from behind the cushions.

To that pile she added a handful of  coins and a small sewing kit she’d been looking for since the Countess of March’s soirée six weeks ago. But no weapons. No escape. No hope.  Except she refused to consider that. She would go mad if she considered the places Edwin might want to incarcerate her.

She must have finally fallen asleep, sitting in the well with her head on the ruined seat. All she knew was that when she woke it was deeply dark. It took her a moment to realize that she had been alerted by a change of speed. They were slowing and turning.

Had she been brought to Edwin at Moorhaven Castle? Would he have the effrontery to drag her back home kicking and screaming just as he was burying his uncle in the family vault? For heaven’s sake, the Archbishop of Canterbury was supposed to preside. If it was Moorhaven, though, Diccan would be there. It was his father they were burying, after all.

Closing her eyes, as if that could keep the darkness at bay, Kate assessed her options. She loathed the idea of putting her fate in someone else’s hands. Especially a man. That had never exactly worked well for her in the past. But she could trust Diccan. No matter the risk to his social standing, he would speak out against Edwin.

The coach ground to a halt. Kate could hear the jangle of harness as the horses settled. She heard men’s voices, and the creak of the coach as the driver swung down from his perch. She heard the hollow caw of a raven.

And then, nothing. No movement. No voices. No appearance by someone who would offer explanation. Obviously a move orchestrated to heighten her terror. Considering how dark it was inside the coach, it was working.

Well, she’d be damned if she showed him how frightened she was. Even as her stomach threatened revolt, she straightened her clothing and tidied her hair. Stuffing the horsehair back into the cushions as well as she could,  she perched herself in the center of the seat and lay her hands in her lap, a duchess come to call.  Except this duchess had a quiver of large, very sharp hat pins tucked in her hand.

She settled just in time. The door swung open and a  homel,carrot-topped man in an old fusiliers uniform reached in a hand. “If you’ll come out now nice ‘n easy, ma’am.”

“Not ma’am,” she said, assuming her haughtiest posture. “Your Grace. And if you lay a hand on me, I’ll hurt you.”

He guffawed. Kate stayed put.

“Go on, then, Frank,” another man called from beyond Kate’s sight. “Haul the old girl out.”

Frank sighed and reached in. Kate struck like an adder, sinking the hat pin deep into the meat of his hand.

“Jesus wept!” Frank shrieked, hopping back. “Now, why’d you go and do that?”

Kate didn’t bother with an answer. She just glared. “You can tell my brother he can come collect me himself.”

He didn’t answer. He just tried to sneak in past her reach. She struck again. He howled. His companion laughed.

It’s nothing personal,” Kate assured  him. “I just believe that a man should do his own dirty work. Now, go get him.”

Frank shook his head, as if Kate were mad. “He ain’t gonna like it.” But he shut the door.

Kate turned forward. She didn’t want the men to realize how fast her heart was beating, or the fact that it was only through force of will that she still sat there. She should have run. She knew, though, that she wouldn’t get four steps. So there she sat, a queen on her way to tea in a ravaged coach.

Suddenly the door was yanked open again. It was all Kate could do not to jump. She didn’t, though. Proud of her composure, she turned to face her brother, or whatever henchman he’d sent to represent him.

She froze. It wasn’t Edwin at all. For a moment, she couldn’t say a word. She could only stare, sick with betrayal. Not him, she thought. Not again.

“Harry,” she drawled, hoping he didn’t see how lost she suddenly felt. “Imagine seeing you here.”

Harry Lidge made it a point to look around the disaster she’d made of the carriage. “What the hell have you been doing?”
Kate didn’t bother to look. “Redesigning. You know how easily I bore.”

He offered a hand. “Get out.”

She didn’t move. She hated the fact that his hair gleamed like faint gold in the lamplight, that she could see even in the deep shadows that his eyes were sky blue. He had grown well, filled out into a strong man. A hard man who had survived the wars with fewer scars than most. He was no longer the boy she’d known, though, and it showed in more than the web of creases that fanned out from the corners of his eyes. It showed in the unforgiving rigidity of his posture, the impatient edge to his actions.  But maybe that was just for her.

“I don’t think I will,” she told him. “Not until you explain yourself.  Are you working for Edwin now, Harry? I certainly hope he’s paying you as much to kidnap me as my father paid you to desert me.”

His expression, if possible, grew colder. “You don’t get to ask questions, Your Grace. You get to answer them. Now, get down before I drag you out bodily.”

“Go to hell, Harry.”

Harry didn’t answer. Faster than even she could react, he reached in and yanked her out of the carriage. When she shrieked and fought, he tossed her over his shoulder and turned for the building Kate could only see as a deeper shadow in the darkness. She lifted a hand, ready to drive a pin in his back. He swung her around, never letting her down. His expression flat and cold, he wrapped his hand so tightly around hers that it drove the pins into her palm. She instinctively opened her hand and they fell. She saw Frank scramble for them.

“You bastard,” she rasped, her hand bleeding and hurt. “Put me down!”

Harry didn’t bother to answer, just swung her back over his shoulder with a grunt as if she weighed fifteen stone and stalked up the stairs into the building.

Kate was breathless with rage. “Stop this! You’re being ridiculous!”

He didn’t even slow. “Shut up, Kate.”

She tried to answer, but the position cut off her air. She struggled, but it did no good. Harry hauled her into the house, up a dim, grimy set of stairs and into an even grimier bedroom, where he proceeded to dump her on the bed. She bounded back as if the mattress were on fire and scrambled to her feet.

She was suddenly afraid and disoriented. This wasn’t Moorhaven. It wasn’t any place she recognized, a wreck of a room that looked as if it hadn’t been inhabited this century. Suddenly she was truly afraid.

“When did you start doing Edwin’s bidding, Harry?” she demanded, straightening her clothing with her uninjured hand. “Are you under the hatches, or do you need another promotion?”

“I don’t work for Edwin,” he said, his voice dripping ice. “I work for the government. And I have the dubious pleasure of keeping you here until you give us some answers. Where is it, Kate?”

Her hands stilled. She found herself blinking like a child. “The government? Our government?” She laughed, angry that she sounded shrill. “Pull the other one, Harry.”

He took a threatening step closer, his rugged features as hard as granite, the forest green of his Rifles uniform off-putting. “Oh, I think you know perfectly well what I’m talking about.  Just before he died, the Surgeon told us. You’re mixed up with the Lions. Do you have it, Kate? Do you have the verse with you? Because if you do, we’ll find it.”

“The verse?” she echoed, stumbling back from him, only to have her knees fold and land her back on the bed. “You mean that poem we’ve been searching all over creation for like a lost easter egg? That verse? ”

He merely tilted his head.

“I don’t have your bloody verse,” she snapped, still feeling pathetically overwhelmed. And then, the second betrayal sank in. “You believed the Surgeon? A man whose favorite pasttime was carving poetry into people’s foreheads? Are you mad?”

“Not as mad as you if you think I’ll fall for your stories again.”

He stepped back toward the door, and it was all Kate could do to keep from reaching out to beg him not to lock her in. She could barely breathe in this room. It was infested with shadows and dark corners, just a candle away from darkness.

“Don’t,” was all she could say.

Harry stopped, his eyebrow quirked with disdain, but she couldn’t get another word out.

“What?” he asked. “No clever quotes? No Latin or Greek or German, Kate? What happened? No more ignorant farm boys to impress?”

She found herself blinking again. He couldn’t believe that of her.  Hadn’t he loved that game as much as she? They’d once spent hours teasing each other with arcane quotes and elaborate curses in as many languages as they could learn.

“I certainly see no one here I want to impress.”

She didn’t recognize Harry any more. She’d known him once; an open, easy-going son of the earth with a brain too big for farming. She had loved him once, with the passion reserved for a first love. She’d seen him as the hero who would save her from her father’s plans.

But he hadn’t saved her. He had betrayed her. And over the last ten years, grown into this implacable, humorless, spiteful man.

“Now then, your grace,” he said as if to prove it, his voice  a razor. “You can make this easy or you can make it hard. Your luggage is being searched. If we don’t find the verse there, you’ll be searched. You can cooperate or not.” He shrugged. “Until then, you can consider yourself my prisoner.”

“I told you,” she repeated, rising to her feet like a doomed Mary Queen of Scots. “I wouldn’t recognize the thing if it came up and asked me to dance. Now, stop being such an ass and let me go. I need to get back to Bea.”

She was furious to hear a note of pleading creep into her voice. It stiffened her spine, at least, so she could brace her feet on the floor and confront the enraged stranger she’d once known so well. Or thought she had.

He shrugged and turned for the door. “No.”

“You don’t understand,” she said, stepping closer to him. “Bea can’t simply be abandoned. She isn’t strong. She’ll fret herself to flinders worrying about me.”

“Don’t be melodramatic, Kate. She was with your staff. Nothing’s going to happen to her.”

“All violence isn’t physical, Major.”

“You don’t leave til I get what I want. Your hand is bleeding, duchess. You might want to see to it.” He smiled. “And consider the consequences of your own violence.”

Kate clenched both of her hands. “Diccan will kill you for this.”

He stopped, his stare implacable. “Diccan told me to take you.”

Kate wondered whether shock really had a sound. She thought she heard a whirlwind; she thought she heard the echo of a cold void. “Don’t be absurd.”

Diccan would never do this. He would never threaten her with imprisonment. He knew…no, she realized, he didn’t. Only Bea knew. But Bea wasn’t here.

She snapped out of her reverie just in time to see Harry step through the door. She grabbed him by the sleeve. “Damn you, at least get a message to Bea.”

“I told you,” he said, his voice cold as silence. “Give me the verse and we’ll see.”

She bit back a sob of frustration. “You’d torture an old woman just to get back at me?”

It was as if she’d snapped some restraint in him. Suddenly Harry spun around and advanced on her, forcing her across the room until her back was pressed against the peeling, dingy wall.  He kept crowding her with his body, battering at her with the fury in his eyes.

I’m not the one doing anything,” he snapped. “I’m certainly not betraying my country.”

“And you immediately assume I am.”

She was trembling, the cold wall damp against her back. Her first instinct was to cower, to throw her arm up to protect herself.  She knew too well, though, that cowering only made it worse. She held perfectly still.

“Yes,” he all but snarled, too close. Too angry. “I do.”

She had nowhere to go. Harry loomed over her, heating the air between them. She wanted to spit at him, to laugh and walk away. But inexplicably, caught like cornered prey, her body suddenly remembered. It wouldn’t move; wouldn’t fight.  It began to soften, to open, to want, and she hadn’t wanted in so long she’d forgotten the feel of it.

Even if she didn’t want Harry, her body did. It remembered how she’d hungered for the scent he always carried, horses and leather and strong soap. It remembered how he’d touched her with the raw wonder of an explorer. It remembered how it felt to trust those guileless blue eyes enough to offer him her virginity.

It only lasted a moment, that sense of elation, before she remembered exactly what it was she had once wanted. Before she found herself fighting the urge to curl into herself and hide. And that made her angrier than ever.

Somehow she must have betrayed her momentary weakness, because suddenly he was smiling like a wolf. “On the other hand,” he murmured, leaning even closer, too close, only small inches away, “maybe you want me to find it myself. Shall I look for it? Should I strip you until I can see every inch of the skin you bared for that painting? Should I search you, slipping my hands under your breasts to make sure you haven’t tucked it inside, where it would be warm and damp?”

She couldn’t think. She couldn’t tell if it was fury, fear or arousal, even though her nipples tightened with his words and a light flared in her belly. She couldn’t breathe because he was taking the last of her air.“I could do it,” he whispered, his mouth next to her ear. “All I’d have to do is kiss you, right here behind your ear. You’d let me do anything, then. Wouldn’t you, Kate?”

Reaching out, he pulled a pin from her hair, loosing a thick curl. Kate shivered, frozen with memory. Suddenly she was fifteen again, balanced on the edge of womanhood. Trembling with possibility, with wonder, with hunger.  For the first time in a decade she remembered what it had felt like to anticipate, and it shredded her control.

“Or would you like to offer a bit of incentive not to look?” he murmured into her ear. “I’m sure it wouldn’t be difficult. From what I hear, it’s your favorite thing to do.”

He wrapped one hand around her throat. Not squeezing, just controlling. It was too much.  She felt the familiar wings of terror beating against her ribs. She had nowhere to run.

And then, Harry made his mistake.  He took that last step as if he had the right, as if she would never think to defend herself. She did the only thing she could. She rammed her knee straight up into his bollocks.

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