To escape an arranged marriage, spirited Lily Bainbridge has staged her own death and, disguised as a boy, fled to London and a life of freedom. Yet her plans to masquerade as an independent widow are thwarted by an encounter with a powerful and dangerously attractive marquis who wants to make her his mistress. Lily is afraid that if she gives him her innocence, he’ll steal her heart.
Having agreed to a marriage of convenience to honor his family duty, Ethan Andarton, the Marquis of Vessey, has no intention of abandoning his rakish ways. Then fate intervenes in the guise of an impetuous young lady—a woman bold enough to scheme her way to London, who tempts him with her mystery and her sensuality. Kiss after kiss, caress after tender caress, Ethan vows to discover all of Lily’s hidden secrets. For beneath the layers of her clever ruse lies a burning passion that will ignite a tempestuous love neither of them can deny.
Winner of the 2008 Virginia Romance Writers’ Holt Medallion for Best Historical Romance.
Winner of the 2008 Romance Writers Ink More Than Magic Contest for Best Historical Romance.
"The second installment in the Mistress series is as sexy, fun and entertaining as a reader could want. Warren has a master’s touch when it comes to merging heated love scenes into a light plotline peopled with delightful characters. You’ll be eagerly awaiting the next chapter." –– Kathe Robin––Romantic Times BookReviews
Only a few more yards, Lily Bainbridge told herself. Only a little while longer and I will be safe. I will be free.
An icy wave struck her dead in the face. Gasping for breath, she pushed on, arm over arm, as she fought the unrelenting drag of the rough, rolling sea. Above her lightning flashed against a viscous gray sky, slashes of rain hurtling downward to sting her skin like a barrage of tiny needles.
Arms quivering from the strain, she put the discomfort out of her mind and kept swimming, knowing it was either that or drown. And despite the suicide note she’d left back in her bedroom at the house, she had no intention of dying, certainly not today.
Many would call her insane to plunge into the sea during a storm, but regardless of the danger, she’d known she had to act without fear or hesitation. Delay would mean marriage to Squire Edgar Faylor, and as she’d told her stepfather, she would rather be dead than bound for life to such a loathsome brute. But her stepfather cared naught for her wishes, since marriage to Faylor would mean a profitable business deal for him.
Slowing, she scanned the jagged shoreline, and the waves that crashed in thunderous percussion against the rocks and shoals. Although she’d swum these waters for nearly the whole of her twenty years, she’d never done so during such a seething tempest. Alarmingly, nothing looked quite the same, familiar vantage points distorted by the dim light and the churning spray of the surf.
Treading fast, she fought the clinging weight of her gown, the sodden muslin coiling around her legs like iron shackles. Doubtless, she would have been better off stripping down to her shift before taking to the sea, but her “death” had to look convincing, enough so that her stepfather would not suspect the truth. If she lived through this and he discovered she was still alive, he would hunt her down without an ounce of mercy.
With her heart drumming in her chest, she swam harder, knowing she dare not let herself drift and be swept out to sea. A knot formed in the base of her throat at the disquieting thought, a shiver rippling through her tired limbs. What if I’ve miscalculated? she worried. What if the storm has already carried me out too far?
Her apprehensions evaporated when a familiar sight came into view: a narrow fissure, black as coal, that cut its way into the towering cliffs that lined the shore. To the casual eye, the opening appeared no different than any of the other sea caves in the area, but Lily knew otherwise. For beyond its foreboding exterior lay protection and escape.
Giving an exuberant pair of kicks, she continued forward, crossing at an angle through the waves. With the tide now at her back, the surf pushed her fast. For a moment, she feared she might be dashed to pieces against the rocks, but at the last second, the current shifted and washed her inside with a gentle, guiding hand.
Darkness engulfed her. Tamping down a momentary sense of disorientation, she swam ahead, knowing better than to be afraid. The cave was an old smuggler’s pass that had fallen into disuse, a secret retreat that had once provided a perfect hideaway for inquisitive children, and now a truant, would-be bride.
With seawater eddying around her at a placid lap, she glided forward until she brushed up against the cave’s perimeter wall. A small search soon revealed a ledge that told her she was in the right place. Dripping and shivering, she hoisted herself up onto its surface, then paused for a moment to gain her breath before rising to her feet. Careful of each step, she followed the cave’s gentle bell shape until the interior gradually widened to provide a pocket of natural warmth and dryness. When her foot struck a large, solid object, she knew she had arrived at her ultimate destination.
Teeth chattering, she leaned over and felt for a wooden lid, opening the trunk. Her fingers trembled as they curved around the lantern she knew lay inside and the metal matchbox set carefully to one side. With the strike of a match, light filled the space, flickering eerily off the rough walls and low stone ceiling. Stiff with chill, she stripped off her clothes, then reached again into the trunk for a large woolen blanket, wrapping herself inside it.
Thank heavens she’d had the foresight to secret away these supplies! After her mother’s death six months ago, she’d known she would eventually have to flee, aware that as soon as the mourning period ended, her stepfather, Gordon Chaulk, would likely decide “to do something about her,” as he’d been threatening to for years.
And so, while out on her regular daily walk, she had slowly filled the smuggler’s chest with necessities, including money, food, and a set of men’s clothes she’d altered from an old ones of her father’s. As for boots, she’d had no choice but to steal a pair from one of the smaller stable boys. Not wanting the lad to suffer for his loss, she’d anonymously left him enough coin to purchase new ones. He’d grinned about the odd theft and his propitious windfall for weeks.
To her knowledge, no one but a few old-time smugglers knew about this hideout, despite the thriving business of sneaking contraband tea and French brandy past the noses of the local excise men. Certainly her stepfather wasn’t aware of the caves. To most Cornishmen, he was still considered an outsider, despite having lived here for five years——ever since marrying her mother and taking up residence at Bainbridge Manor.
Five years, Lily sighed. Five years to wear the life out of a good woman who’d deserved far, far better than she’d received.
A familiar lump swelled in her throat, a single tear sliding down her cheek. Ruthlessly, she dashed it away, telling herself that now was not the time to dwell upon her mother’s untimely demise. If only she’d been able to convince Mama to leave years ago. If only she’d been able to keep her mother from falling prey to the blandishments of a handsome charmer, who’d turned out to have the heart of a poisonous viper. But having been a child at the time, her opinion had not been sought, nor would it have been heeded.
Toweling dry the worst drips from her hair, Lily crossed to a pile of kindling stacked against the far wall. Using some of the wood, she built a small fire. Blessed heat soon warmed the space, calming the worst of the shivers that continued to rack her body. Returning to the trunk, she dressed in a shirt, trousers and coat, the masculine attire feeling strange against her skin. At least the clothing is warm, and——even better——dry, she mused. And until I reach London, I had best get used to being dressed like a boy.
She wasn’t so foolish as to imagine she could journey to London on her own, at least not dressed as a woman. A female traveling without escort would invite comment, but worse, she would be subject to all manner of predators wishing to make her their prey——out to steal her reticule or, shudder the thought, her virtue. And in addition to providing her some measure of safety, the ruse would allow her leave the area without detection. Rather than accept help of any kind, she planned to make the long walk to the coaching inn at Penzance. That way, should her stepfather question anyone later, they would have no cause to remember a redheaded girl matching her description.
Nerves made her wish she could leave now, but until the worst of the storm subsided she would be better off staying here inside the cave. Pulling on a pair of long woolen socks that eased the cold from her toes, she reached once more into the trunk for a cloth-covered wedge of cheese. Belly growling, she broke off a chunk and ate, enjoying the sharp, satisfying flavor.
Minutes later, her meal finished, she prepared to complete one last task——an act she had been dreading. Just the thought of proceeding made her cringe. But the deed must be done.
Locating her ivory comb, she drew the teeth through her damp, waist-length hair, careful to remove every last tangle before tying it back with a thin, black silk ribbon. Drawing a deep, fortifying breath, she lifted a pair of scissors and began to cut.
Three days later, Ethan Andarton, Fifth Marquis of Vessey, swallowed a last bite of shepherd’s pie, then set his knife and fork at an angle onto his plate and pushed it away. Reaching for the wine bottle, he refilled his glass with a dry red of questionable vintage——apparently the best The Ox and Owl in Hungerford could provide.
Crowded full of men come to town for a nearby boxing mill, the public room hummed with noise and the occasional raucous burst of laughter. Drifting in spirals near the ceiling lay an acrid blue cloud of pipe smoke, combined with the yeasty scent of ale and the heavy aroma of fried meat. With the inn’s only private parlor already occupied, Ethan had decided to sit among the locals, tucking himself into a surprisingly comfortable corner table. From his vantage point, he could see all the boisterous goings-ons. But such matters were not on his mind as he quaffed another mouthful of wine.
It will be good to get back to London, he mused. Good to return to my usual amusements and haunts now that I’ve taken the necessary first steps to see my future arranged.
Not that he was eager to have his future arranged, but a long span of serious reflection on the matter had convinced him he could no longer afford to put off his duty. At thirty-five, he knew he must wed. He had a responsibility to his lineage, an obligation to sire sons, who would carry on the family name and title. And in order to do so he must have a bride——whether he truly desired one or not.
Of course, were his older brothers, Arthur and Frederick, alive, he wouldn’t be facing this particular dilemma. Arthur would be marquis now, no doubt long since married with children of his own. But by some cruel twist of fate, both of his brothers had lost their lives during an attempt to save a tenant’s child from drowning in a storm-swollen river. Frederick had dived in first; then, when his brother failed to emerge, Arthur had followed. In the end, all three had perished, both men and the child.
Ethan had often wondered what might have happened had he been home that fateful day instead of traveling on the Continent. Would he have been able to save them? Or would he too have lost his life? He knew he would gladly have traded places, gladly have died in order to save the life of even one of his brothers. Instead, in an instant, he’d gone from third in line to being marquis, a position he had never once craved for himself.
After the accident, he’d arrived home raw with grief over the loss of his brothers only to find every eye upon him——family, servants, and tenants, all looking to him for guidance and reassurance. Feeling his old, carefree life slip like sand from his grasp, he’d done his best to step into Arthur’s shoes and honor what his older brother had left behind.
In the twelve years since, Ethan had risen to the challenge, learning what he must, meeting each expectation and every demand with determination and fortitude. There was one obligation, however, upon which he had long turned his back, stubbornly retaining that last bit of independence——until now.
He remembered his friend, the Duke of Wyvern’s reaction when he’d mentioned his decision last week.
“You cannot mean it,” Anthony Black had said, his brandy snifter frozen halfway to his mouth. “Why on earth do you want to go and get leg-shackled? Especially when you’ve a surfeit of beautiful, willing women climbing in and out of your bed. Women, I might add, who have no expectations of achieving a ring out of the deal.”
Leaning back in his chair at Brooks’s Club, Ethan met his friend’s midnight blue gaze. “Because it’s time, Tony, whether I want it to be or not. I can’t put this off forever. I need to think to my future, the family’s future. It’s my duty to set up my nursery and father an heir or two to assure the title.”
Tony waved a dismissive hand, his ruby signet ring winking red as a prime Bordeaux in the mellow candlelight. “That’s what cousins are for——to continue the line when the present title holder doesn’t wish to be bound for life.”
“So you are as set against marriage as ever, then?” Ethan said, already knowing Tony’s answer. “But won’t you regret not having sons? Do you truly not mind the idea of letting your cousin Reggie inherit the dukedom?”
Tony produced a quiet snort. “Reggie is a bit of a dandified fool, I’ll grant, but he’ll do well enough. Besides, I don’t plan on dying anytime soon. If I have my way, I’ll outlive Reggie, and one of his sons or grandsons will take the title. As for sons of my own, well, one can’t have everything in life.”
The duke rubbed a fingertip over one of the understated gold buttons on his white Marcella waistcoat. “Besides, just think if I swore off my bachelor state and married some vapid miss. We’d likely end up at each other’s throats and she’d give me nothing but daughters, just to be spiteful. No, my friend, I prefer to remain single.”
I wish I could be so sanguine, Ethan had mused at the time. How much simpler everything would be.
“If you are determined to pursue this folly,” Tony said, “which I can see by your face that you are, then I assume you will be dancing attendance on this year’s crop of eligible debutantes.”
Ethan grimaced. “I’ve already viewed this year’s crop and last year’s as well——the past decade’s worth, come to think, and there’s none who strike my fancy. Each girl is just like the next, all of them silly, giggling misses who think of nothing but acquiring a fine title and enough money to keep them in fancy silks, grand carriages and extravagant parties for the rest of their natural lives.” He shook his head. “No, courting one would be grim work indeed, especially since any girl I chose would undoubtedly expect me to profess undying love for her, despite us both knowing such devotion to be a lie.”
“If not the marriage mart, then what? I fail to see how you plan to accomplish your goal otherwise.”
Ethan set a fist beneath his chin. “Have I ever told you about my neighbor, the Earl of Sutleigh? When my brothers and I were all just babes, my mother apparently made a pact with the earl, the pair of them deciding that one of her sons would some day marry one of his daughters. A tacit understanding has existed between our families ever since, though it is not widely known.
“Arthur, of course, was expected to marry Sutleigh’s eldest girl Matilda, but that idea ended with his death, and Frederick’s. If mother could have managed it, she would have pushed the match for me, but I wasn’t about to wed then no matter Mama’s protestations. The following spring Matilda married another and I was off the hook.”
“So what has changed?”
“Sutleigh’s youngest daughter, who just turned seventeen. After a great deal of consideration, I’ve decided to offer for her. Not only is she eminently suitable to be my marchioness, marrying her will honor the old agreement between her family and mine.”
“Good God, Ethan, have you even met the chit?”
“Yes, for a few minutes at last year’s family yuletide celebration. She’s a pretty child, well-bred and biddable. What more do I need to know?”
“That you are insane to bind yourself to her. You’ll be bored in a fortnight.”
“If I am, what will it matter? She will provide me heirs, and in return I will allow her to go her own way so long as she is discreet. The arrangement is sure to suit us both.”
So why does it already seem so hollow and dissatisfying? he wondered.
Perhaps he’d spent too much time around his friends Rafe and Julianna Pendragon. Of all the couples he knew, their marriage was one of the few based on genuine, lasting love, the relationship made even more special for its uniqueness. But such unions were rare, particularly for those of their class.
“So when is the felicitous event?” Tony questioned with a cynical twist to his lips.
“Not for some months yet, since Amelia is still in the schoolroom. I’ve sent a letter asking to call upon her father and he has agreed. I have no doubt he will greet my offer with felicity. So I am off to Bath, where the earl is taking the waters. I don’t expect the two of us to arrive at anything more than a casual understanding for now. Next year, after Amelia has enjoyed a bit of the Season, will be soon enough to discuss a settlement and make the engagement official.”
And so everything had gone——his assumptions proving true a couple days later over glasses of the foul-smelling water served at Bath’s Pump Room. The earl expressed great pleasure at Ethan’s proposal, granting him the right to seek his daughter’s hand in marriage. Nothing would be said to Amelia for now, they agreed, but the earl assured him she would accept his offer without hesitation when the time arrived.
With that settled, Ethan had headed back toward London.
Tired and hungry from the journey, he’d stopped here at the Ox and Owl to change teams and break his fast. Raising a hand now, he signaled for the serving girl, sending her off for a bottle of brandy.
Hips swaying, she soon returned, an open bottle and a snifter in hand. Setting the glass on the table, she leaned forward to pour, making sure he had a keen view of her very healthy breasts, her bodice straining wildly to contain them.
Once his beverage was poured, he handed her a coin. “Thank you, love.”
The girl giggled, then made a little cooing noise before slipping the sovereign between her breasts. “Is there anything else I can be gettin’ fer you, my lord? Anything at all?”
For a second, he debated the offer. “The brandy will do.”
Bobbing a curtsey, she sighed out her disappointment. “If you change your mind, you’ve only to say.”
Forgetting her the moment she’d gone, he removed a cheroot from his inner coat pocket and used his own silver cutter to snip off the end. He was withdrawing a match when a new group of people entered the room.
By the weary look of them, he assumed they were travelers fresh off one of the mail coaches that made regular stops along this route. As he watched, three men and a woman shouldered their way forward, leaving a boy to stand alone in the doorway.
Top hat pulled low across his eyes, the youth was a curious figure. Slight as a wisp, the child’s out-of-date clothing hung a bit too large on his lean frame. Just as antiquated was the thick rope of fire-colored hair he’d gathered into a queue along the back his neck. Possessed of a soft chin and rounded jaw, his smooth cheeks were years away from whiskers.
What a babe-in-the-woods, Ethan mused. Not a day above fourteen, if I don’t miss my guess. Looking again, he noted the boy’s delicate heart-shaped face, fair skin and pretty pink lips that were shaped in a perfect cupid’s bow.
As he watched, the child scanned the room, clearly seeking a place to sit. After a long moment, the youth spied an empty spot along the far wall and crossed to slide onto the end of a bench seat. Ethan couldn’t help but smile at the obvious gap the boy left between himself and the burly laborer to his side.
The servant girl arrived moments later to take the youth’s order, a teasing grin on her lips that the boy was clearly too young to appreciate. With a laugh and a shimmy of her hips that drew suggestive remarks from a pair of men at another table, she soon retreated into the kitchen.
Pouring more brandy into his glass, Ethan quaffed a slow mouthful, then lighted his cigar and took a leisurely pull. As he did, his eyes went again to the child, watching as the serving girl returned to set a steaming cup of tea and a plate of biscuits and jam before him.
Laying a napkin across his lap, the boy took up a knife and cut open one of the biscuits, his movements delicate with none of the usual ham-fisted carelessness of a boy still learning to control his developing body. When the youth reached for his tea, his movements betrayed him once more, as he lifted the cup between a pair of slender, elegantly balanced fingers.
The kind that clasped “just so,” employing a hold no male——man or boy——could ever hope to achieve.
A burst of knowledge suddenly sizzled in Ethan’s brain. Staring harder, his eyes narrowed as he more closely studied the shape of the youth’s face——the soft sensuality of his lips, the almost porcelain smoothness of his translucent skin.
By God, Ethan realized, that’s no boy. That’s a woman!
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