Vivacious Gabriella St. George is penniless yet proud. Thanks to the benevolence of a generous relative, she gets a chance for a new life in London, never dreaming that it will entangle her in a sensual battle of wills with an irresistible rogue who doesn’t believe in love. With one scorching caress, Anthony Black invites Gabriella to share his bed. But she wants his heart and his name, so the determined beauty embarks on a daring game of seduction to win both.
Firmly committed to the pleasures of bachelorhood, Tony Black, Duke of Wyvern, has no intention of offering to any woman more than shared moments of erotic delight. But Gabriella tests his mettle, undermines his resolve, and cracks the ice around his heart with each sweet smile, teasing glance, and rapturous kiss. Suddenly a man who relishes only carnal pleasures must confront the unexpected: a passion that may lead to everlasting love.Read an Excerpt
Winner of the 2008 Aspen Gold Reader’s Choice Award for Best Historical Romance.
Honorable Mention in the 2008 Romance Writers Ink More Than Magic Contest for Best Historical Romance.
"Warren senses what readers desire in their fantasies and gives it to them tenfold." Kathe Robin––Romantic Times BookReviews
All it will take is a single bullet straight through the heart, Gabriella St. George told herself as she clutched the pistol inside her palm.
She was a good shot, with confidence in her skills. After all, she’d been taught by the best—the Great Moncrief himself, who was known in entertainment circles as the finest sharpshooter in the civilized world. Her biggest concern was finding the courage to hold fast to her resolve and carry through with her plan—that, and keeping her arm from shaking so violently that she fouled her aim.
She supposed she had good reason for her jitters, since before tonight the only lives she’d taken had been those of animals—rabbits and birds that she’d hunted for food as she’d traveled around England. She’d even been known to poach a deer on occasion in order to hold starvation at bay. But tonight would be different.
For tonight, she planned to kill a man.
Easing deeper into the late evening shadows that painted the walls and corners of the study black, she waited, knowing that eventually he would come. She’d been observing him this past week and knew his habits, knew that he always stopped in this room for a few minutes each night before retiring upstairs.
Thanks to a maid who didn’t mind chatting with a friendly stranger while out completing her errands, Gabriella had learned that, except for the servants, he was alone here in this immense townhouse. His wife and young children, so she had been told, were at his estate in the north of England.
The information had come as a relief, since she had no desire to involve innocents. After all, his crimes were his alone; he was the only one deserving of retribution. Even so, she couldn’t completely set aside the guilt that nibbled at her like a school of tiny fish, aware that her actions tonight would bring grief to others. But she pushed aside her qualms.
One life, she argued, in recompense for another.
When she’d slipped through a convenient window a couple of hours ago, she’d heard the low rhythm of male conversation, punctuated by sporadic bursts of laughter. He’d invited friends over, a small group of men gathered to share dinner, then drinks while they played a few rounds of cards. Having long ago learned the art of patience, she’d settled into a corner, gun in hand, and allowed time to pass.
At length, the house had grown quiet as his guests said their farewells and departed, the servants retreating to make their way to their beds. Only the steady tick-tock of the room’s finely crafted satinwood casement clock broke the silence, together with the gentle crackling of the fire she’d watched a maid refresh about an hour earlier. Not long now, she judged, and he will be here. Shifting slightly, she worked to ease the stiffness and pent-up tension that had gathered in her muscles and joints.
Another five minutes elapsed before she finally heard footsteps. Pressing her back flat against the wall, she sank deeper into the concealing shadows and watched him stride into the room.
From the moment he entered the study, he dominated the space, commanding his surroundings with not only his impressive size and athletic grace, but with the innate forcefulness of his personality. Despite the tenebrous light, she recognized the arrogance in his gait, along with an unmistakable air of noble authority she would have assumed was bred into him from birth had she not known otherwise. Before tonight, she’d only viewed him from a distance, yet he seemed taller up close, his hair darker, so deep a brown as to be nearly black. A trick of the late evening shadows, she assumed.
Shivering, a tingle whispered along her backbone, her heart pounding with the force of a hammer striking an anvil, a reaction she had never before experienced while observing the man. Likely the sensation was a product of the tension she felt, well aware that the moment she had been preparing for was now nearly upon her. Gathering her nerve, she tightened her grip on the gun and let him come farther into the room.
Reaching the desk, he searched for a match and candle. Light flared to life moments later, illumination spreading in a comfortable yellow glow over the space. She forced herself not to tremble, holding her position as he stepped toward a nearby bookshelf and began to peruse the titles.
She moved forward, the pistol held straight out before her. “Rafe Pendragon,” she declared in a clear, unwavering voice. “Prepare to pay for your crimes.”
His shoulders stiffened before he slowly turned to face her.
Only then did she see him fully, her gaze riveted to his impossibly handsome face.
Classically hewn cheekbones framed a long patrician nose; his forehead strong, his jaw and chin cleaved from a heritage of ancient aristocratic stock. His lips were blatantly seductive, as if nature had designed them to entice a woman into wanting to commit any number of earthly sins. Then there was his complexion—swarthy instead of pale, with a delicious evening’s growth of whiskers that only enhanced his aura of masculine sensuality. Yet of all his attractive qualities—and they were legion—his most compelling physical feature was his eyes. Rich and deep-set, they were a pure, almost velvety blue, dark as midnight yet brilliant as a summer sea. Right now those eyes were gazing at her, full of keen observation and powerful intellect. He is studying me, she realized, just as I am studying him.
A soft gasp escaped her lips, but she held herself and the gun steady nevertheless. “You’re not Pendragon!” she accused.
The stranger arched a dark eyebrow. “Indeed no, I am not. I trust you won’t shoot me for disappointing you, Miss . . .” He let the sentence trail off. “You are a miss, are you not, despite your present choice of masculine attire?”
Earlier this evening, she’d decided to dress as a boy. After all, sneaking into a townhouse to kill a man was not easily accomplished while wearing a gown, stays, and petticoat.
She ignored his query. “Where is he?”
“Rafe, I assume you mean? Well, I am not likely to aid you by revealing his whereabouts. Why do you want to harm him, anyway? Is it money you’re after?”
Her shoulders tightened. “I am no thief. If I were, I could have liberated a king’s ransom from this room while the lot of you were having dinner. Yes,” she offered when he tipped his head in unspoken inquiry, “I have been here for some while, waiting unobserved.”
“A regular little cat, are you? Tiptoeing in on silent feet. A useful ability for any person, I will admit.”
“I have many useful abilities, but I am not here to engage in a round of banter with you, whoever you might be.”
“Ah, forgive my lack of manners,” he drawled. “Wyvern at your service. I would make you a bow were I sure you wouldn’t put a bullet in me while I attempted the move.”
“I won’t shoot unless you give me cause,” she stated, inching the pistol higher. “In the interest of safety, however, I suggest you take a seat over there.” She nodded toward an armchair that faced the desk.
“Thank you, no. I am perfectly comfortable standing.”
“Comfortable or not, pray be seated.”
At a height of more than six feet, he towered over her. Aware she needed every possible advantage in a situation that was suddenly not going at all as she’d planned, she knew he would pose far less of a threat were he ensconced in a chair. Despite his apparent affability, she didn’t trust him for a second.
He met her gaze, then shrugged. “Very well, if you insist. After all, you are the one with the weapon. But first, tell me what grievance you have against my friend. He doesn’t generally engender such a violent reaction, especially among the fairer sex.”
Her breasts rose and fell beneath her threadbare linen shirt, a cold lump wedged deep within her chest. “He harmed me and mine, and that is all you need to know. Believe me, I have just cause for despising the man.”
“Did your family fall upon hard times, then? Did you lose your home and decide to lay the blame at Rafe’s doorstep?”
“Believe me, whatever blame I cast belongs at no other doorstep but his.”
Wyvern crossed his arms over his chest and leaned a seemingly negligent hip against the desk. “How old are you? You look little more than a girl.”
She drew herself up. “I fail to see what difference that makes. I am a woman grown. Seventeen, if you must know.”
“That old, hmm? It strikes me, though, that most young women your age would be tucked up tight inside their houses, far too afraid to venture out on their own, let alone go about dressed in male attire, and brandishing a pistol.”
“You will find that I am not like most young women.”
The edge of his mouth tipped upward, a twinkle glittering in his brilliant blue gaze. “Yes, so I am beginning to see.”
A fresh tingle inched down her spine as if he had reached out and stroked a hand over her skin, the sensation having nothing to do with the peril of the situation, and everything to do with her awareness of the man himself. Indisputably, he is the most breathtaking man I have ever encountered. But I have no business noticing such things, she scolded herself, particularly not now when I have come on a mission of vengeance. A mission I cannot afford to delay.
“Now, Mr. Wyvern,” she said, determined to move matters forward. “If your curiosity has been satisfied, I suggest you take that seat.”
“It’s Wyvern. Just Wyvern.”
“As for my curiosity,” he continued, “you have done nothing but further whet my appetite. You haven’t even told me your name.”
“No, I have not,” she stated emphatically.
He inclined his head. “As you prefer, then. Now, which seat is it that I am to take?”
Mildly surprised by the question, she hesitated, relaxing her stance a bit as she gestured toward the correct chair. “That one. Just there.”
“Here?” He pointed, stretching out a hand.
She frowned, wondering if he might be hard of hearing. “Yes, there.”
Quick as a flash, he reached out and seized hold of her wrist, yanking her off balance. She gasped, unable to recover from his trick before he wrested the gun from her grip and imprisoned her inside his arms. In the blink of an eye, she found the tables turned, going suddenly from captor to captive.
“Ooh!” she cried, wriggling inside his hold. “Let me go!”
He tightened his arms, her body pressed firmly against his own. “Tut, tut. Quit your squirming, girl.”
She stomped on his foot, wincing as a rebounding pain jolted along her instep.
“Quit that, too,” he admonished, a spark of amused annoyance gleaming in his eyes. “You’re only causing yourself harm, since I have no intention of releasing you before I am ready to do so. In case you had not noticed, I am bigger and stronger and you are now entirely at my mercy.”
Grasping her so tightly the air wheezed out of her lungs, he leaned back and set the gun atop the desk. Turning around, he moved the two of them a few steps away——too far for her to have any chance of recovering the weapon. Only then did he ease his hold enough to let her breathe normally again. On a sharp inhale, she filled her lungs with air, the movement pressing her breasts against the solid wall of his chest.
Gazing downward, he quirked a brow. “I must admit I have to agree with your assessment.”
“My assessment of what?” she demanded in a winded voice.
“That you are a woman full-grown.” He snuggled her closer, and stroked a hand over her back and across her hip. “You may be young, but you are curved in all the right places. Considering our current proximity, you really ought to tell me your name, you know.”
She squirmed against him. “Release me!”
He chuckled softly. “So you would rather have me use persuasion, would you, to force out the answer?” His gaze lowered to her mouth, his tone dropping to a husky drawl. “You will find I have a rare talent for persuasion.”
“And you will find that I am well used to the blandishments of smooth-talkers and confidence tricksters. I doubt your efforts will prove any more successful than theirs.”
“A challenge, is it? I like challenges, especially ones issued by pretty little minxes like you.”
Before she knew what he meant to do, his lips came down on hers. At first she stiffened inside his embrace, straining to be free despite the futility of the action. But even as she struggled, a part of her brain registered the captivating pleasure of his mouth moving against her own, the breath she’d barely managed to regulate becoming fast and shallow once more.
Still, with a last ounce of determination, she gave another wriggling push. To her dismay, however, her attempt did nothing but encourage him to reach down and secure her wrists behind her back before he slowly bent her body into his own, leaving her plastered to him, her breasts flattened against his hard chest.
She barely had a chance to adjust before he slanted his mouth and kissed her harder, compelling a response from her that she was helpless to resist. For in spite of having previously fended off unwanted advances from men, this was the first time she’d ever been caught by one.
The first time she had ever been kissed.
And what a kiss it is! she had to confess, her limbs turning warm and waxen as if they had a will of their own. Her brain might argue that she didn’t want this—want him—but her body most decidedly did not agree. Ragged heat washed over her, a shiver following as he coaxed her lips to part.
Using his tongue, he painted her mouth with the lightest of strokes, a move that sent her heart racing at breakneck speed. Trembling from the almost shocking carnality of the act, she let him continue, let him delve inside her mouth to play there with a finesse that quite literally made her whimper.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the kiss ended, Wyvern lifting his head to peer down into her eyes. His own gaze was lambent, eyelids half-lowered as if he, too, was trying to recover from an unexpected surfeit of pleasure. Yet he didn’t release her from his hold, obviously not so far gone as to forget why she had come into his possession in the first place.
“Have you had enough,” he asked roughly, “or shall we try for another?”
Seeing his expression that was half challenge, half anticipation—as if he knew he would win no matter her answer—she decided it might be wise to acquiesce to his original demand. “It’s Gabriella,” she murmured. “My name is Gabriella.”
His lips turned up on a smile. “It suits you. A pleasure to meet you . . .” Pausing, he shifted so their bodies rubbed together. “ . . . Gabriella.”
She gasped, a quiver running like an electrical spark over her skin.
Easing his hold fractionally, he set an inch between them. “Well now,” he drawled, “what am I going to do with you?”
Just then, footsteps rang out near the door as Rafe Pendragon strode inside.
“Sorry for the delay,” he remarked. “I had a note from Julianna and wanted to write back despite the late hour. Did you find that book I—” Whatever else he may have planned to say, the statement dwindled off to nothing as his gaze landed on her. “What in heavens have you got there? Or should I more aptly say whom?”
“This,” Wyvern declared, “is Gabriella, and from what she tells me, she came here tonight with the sinister intention of shooting you. As you can see, I have relieved her of her weapon. The pistol is just there on the desk.”
“How extraordinary.” Pendragon strolled forward. “Snuck in, did she?”
Wyvern nodded. “During dinner, it would seem. I should think you’d know better by now than to leave your windows unlocked. One never knows what might find its way inside.”
“He didn’t leave his windows open,” she interrupted, struggling a bit again inside Wyvern’s implacable hold. “I picked the lock. And I am not an it and do not care to be spoken about in the third person as if I were absent from the room.”
“Fiery, isn’t she?” Wyvern commented in an amused tone.
“And obviously determined.” Pendragon lighted another candle, then strolled closer, pausing to inspect her face. “So, child, why have you broken into my home? More to the point, what is it you imagine I’ve done that would lead you to wish me harm?”
“I imagine nothing, you murderer!” Anguish and fury burned like acid through her veins, along with the frustration of knowing her plans for vengeance had been thwarted. Considering what a heartless brute Pendragon was, she knew she had little time remaining until he had her arrested and cast into gaol. But before she found herself hauled off and tossed inside a dank cell—an idea she shivered to imagine—she vowed she would speak her piece.
“You deserve to pay for your crimes,” she spat. “I may not be able to kill you as I’d hoped, but I want you to know the suffering you’ve caused.”
Pendragon arched both of his dark brows. “Those are serious charges, indeed. And while I freely admit I have lived neither a pure nor blameless life, I can assure you I have not murdered anyone. Mayhap you have mistaken me for someone else.”
“Liar!” she declared, “I know it was you. My mother told me what you did, how you drove my father to ruin, then lured him into the countryside so you could finally finish him off.”
Pendragon stared at her. “Gabriella, did you say? Good God, I should have known straight away.”
“Known what?” Wyvern questioned.
“That this girl you’re holding captive is Burton St. George’s daughter.”
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