To all my wonderful cyber pals at The Romance Journal, RBL Romantica, Romance and Friends, ALCAP, and GRAN.
My heartfelt thanks for your love and encouragement and for helping keep me sane (relatively) these past few years.
And a special thanks to Laura, aka Webmistress Extraordinaire.
And to dearest Maggie, who started it all.
The women of your house will be forever cursed for their beauty. Any man they love will die.
Gypsy curse, 1623
Cornwall, England, October 1813
Her gown fell to the floor in a whisper of silk, leaving her completely nude. Lucian drew a sharp breath at the alluring sight-her exquisite white body tinged golden in the flickering dance of candlelight, her radiant hair glowing like fire.
Was she bent on seduction… or betrayal?
Whatever her scheme, Lucian had to admit it was highly effective. Already he was hard enough to burst. Yet his every instinct remained alert to danger.
He forced a smile, his gaze roaming over the taut nipples, the luscious thighs parted slightly in sensual invitation. “Is this a seduction, my love?”
Her own smile was provocative. “Merely a welcome. I am glad you have come.”
A lie, he knew.
For a long moment he met her emerald eyes. Was that guilt he saw there in the jeweled depths?
Time stretched between them as Lucian stared at his beautiful wife, his gaze a veiled search. At length the soft hiss and crackle of the fire in the hearth broke the spell.
With a graceful shrug of her naked shoulders, she went to the mahogany side table, where a tray bearing a crystal wine decanter and goblets rested. When she had poured two glasses, she crossed the bedchamber to him and offered him one.
The wine was bloodred. Was it poisoned, or merely drugged? She’d had time to prepare either, even though he had startled her by unexpectedly following her here to the Cornish coast from London.
He took a sip, pretending to drink, and noted that she looked relieved.
She was too transparent, Lucian thought grimly, fighting the lure of her nude body and the heat rising in him. Her nervousness gave her away. She was an amateur at intrigue-unlike him. He had matched wits against the best spies France had to offer. Against Britain’s worst traitors as well.
Even as he stared at her, she averted her gaze, unable to meet his eyes any longer. His mouth thinned. Would Brynn betray him? Was his beautiful bride in league with his enemies? Had she committed treason with her damned brother, aiding the Frogs and their bloody Corsican leader, Napoleon Bonaparte?
The thought caused such an ache in his heart that he suddenly found it hard to breathe.
“Is the wine to your taste?” she murmured, sipping from her own glass.
“Yes. But then the French do make the finest wines.”
She shivered at his mention of the French.
“Are you cold?” he asked, keeping any inflection from his voice.
“I hoped you would warm me.”
She glanced up at him, temptation in her eyes. The impact sent savage heat flooding his loins. He could recall a time not too many weeks ago when he would have given most of his fortune to have an invitation like this.
“Why don’t you stir the fire,” he forced himself to say, “while I close the draperies?”
Tearing his gaze from her lush nudity, Lucian turned and went to one of the windows. Under pretense of shutting the drapes, he tilted his glass behind a table, letting wine trickle onto the carpet. With all his soul he wanted to believe Brynn innocent. Yet he didn’t dare trust her.
He could feel her gaze probing between his shoulder blades from across the room. Swearing silently, Lucian moved on to the next window. He was clearly a fool. He was obsessed with his own wife. With her vibrant beauty, her fiery hair, her defiant spirit. She was a temptress who made him ache with desire. The only woman he’d ever met who could drive him so wild that he lost control. She haunted him, even in his dreams. Especially in his dreams.
He would lose her forever if he sent her to prison.
Deliberately spilling more of his wine behind an armchair, he closed the drapery and moved on to the final window, where he stood pretending to drink from his glass. Outside a chill sliver of moon hung low on the black horizon, partly obscured by ghostly, scudding clouds. A blustery wind blew off the sea; he could hear waves beating the rocky shore below.
A good night for treason.
Inside, however, the bedchamber was warm and hushed. Lucian sensed Brynn before he heard her soft footfall as she came up behind him.
“Are you still angry with me?” she whispered in that low, sultry voice that could tie him in knots.
Yes, he was angry with her. Angry, heartsick, regretful. He had never known a woman who could bring him to his knees… until Brynn.
He snapped the drapes shut.
Composing his features into a mask, he turned slowly to face her. Her gaze, he noticed, went immediately to his glass that was now only one-third full. The relieved smile she gave in response ripped at him, but Lucian made himself remain still. He would play her game, would see how far she intended to take her betrayal.
Her finger dipped into his wine, then rose to glide along his lower lip. “How can I assuage your anger, Lucian?”
“I think you know, love.”
Her own lips were red and moist with wine, and he fought the urge to crush his mouth down on hers. He forced himself to remain immobile, even when she slowly, provocatively, slid her fingers into the waistband of his breeches.
When he gave no response, she relieved him of his wineglass and set it down along with her own. Then she began to undo the buttons at the front placket of his breeches.
His heart was thudding in his chest when she drew open the fabric to expose the stiff erection that stirred so eagerly between his thighs. With a tempting smile, she closed her caressing fingers around the base of his pulsing arousal and sank down to kneel at his feet.
A muscle flexed in Lucian’s jaw as he grimly struggled against the fierce ache she incited in him. He should be pleased that Brynn was willingly taking the lead. Since their first meeting she had fought him. For the three months of their stormy marriage, they had been locked in a contest of wills.
While her fingers stroked, she leaned closer to press her lips along his throbbing shaft. Lucian jerked when she kissed him there. Her lips were warm on his flesh. His skin felt hot, seared by the erotic touch of her mouth as she softly ran her tongue around the swollen head, the sensitive ridge below…
He felt her lips close around his distended length to take him more fully in her mouth. Lucian gave a grimace of pleasure, fighting for control. His now-rigid member thickened still further as she explored him with her mouth and tongue, tasting the slick contours.
Desperately he tried to keep his mind divorced from his senses as she made love to the most intimate part of him. He had been the one to teach her this-how to use her new skills to such devastating effect. He had shown her pleasures of the flesh, led her to embrace her woman’s passion.
Lucian shuddered. Her mouth was a firebrand, her teeth softly raking.
She was wrong about his feelings for her. He wanted Brynn for more than a broodmare or a convenient lover. Perhaps it had begun that way, but now… Now he wanted to possess her completely.
And yet she seemed more unattainable than ever. She was his wife in name and body, but he could not claim her heart.
He groaned at the thought, and at her exquisite ministrations.
“Am I paining you?” she asked, a smile in her voice.
“Yes,” he said hoarsely. “Dire pain.” A pain that was more than physical.
“Should I stop?”
Involuntarily his hands curled in her flaming hair. He felt her moist lips sliding down his aching shaft, and he strained against her mouth, even as his mind battled to resist her spell.
Nothing in their marriage had gone as planned. Admittedly he was mainly to blame for the initial contention between them. He had made countless mistakes with Brynn. Compelling her to wed him despite her fervent protests. Treating her with intentional coldness, keeping himself remote.
With supreme arrogance, he had expected her to fall at his feet, for his wealth and title if not his charm and looks. From the outset she had resisted him, but he’d vowed to tame her and make her his own. And once she became his bride, he’d demanded she share his bed and bear him an heir.
It should have been a fair exchange-a noble marriage for a son. He had wanted a child of his own flesh, some part of him to leave behind were he to die before his time, as his dark dreams seemed to portend.
He felt as if he were dying now. His hand clenched in her hair as hunger poured in hot waves through his body.
He was as captivated now as ever. Sweet hell, from the first moment he had been smitten with her. He couldn’t escape her.
She had tried to warn him how it would be between them, but he hadn’t listened. Instead his heart had stubbornly refused to abandon its infatuation, his enchantment growing into a dangerous obsession.
Brynn knew it, and she was using it mercilessly against him now.
He had few defenses against her. The more determined he was to deny his passion, the more fiercely his need grew to possess her, until he was willing to do almost anything, pay any price, simply for one of her luxuriant smiles.
Lucian squeezed his eyes shut. Was he actually considering betraying his country to save her? Sacrificing his honor, everything he believed in?
Damn you, Brynn.
He was shaking. He clutched at her shoulders and felt her shudder with pleasure herself. Gazing down into her passion-hazed eyes, he could see she was nearly as aroused as he. Perhaps she only intended to seduce him, but her desire was real.
That knowledge shredded the last of his control. Urgently Lucian drew her to her feet and lifted her up, his mouth feverishly capturing hers as she wrapped her legs around his flanks.
Carrying her to the bed, he lowered her to the silk sheets and followed her down, pressing himself between her welcoming thighs.
For a moment, then, he hesitated. Her face was so incredibly beautiful in the flickering candlelight. He curved his hand to her throat, wishing he could draw the truth from her. Wishing he could see into her heart and mind.
“Please… I want you, Lucian,” she whispered hoarsely.
And I’ll want you till I die, he thought as he entered her.
She was wet and eager for him. She wrapped her supple legs around his hips, clutching him to her as he thrust into her, driving his engorged phallus deep within her hot, pulsing flesh.
Lucian shuddered, needing her more than he needed air.
How had it come to this? If he had known their marriage would lead to this day, would he still have coerced Brynn to wed him? Would he have made the same mistakes? Would he have blindly ignored his stark dreams of warning?
What had she been thinking that day three months ago when he had encountered her in the secluded cove alone? Could he have changed the outcome had he behaved differently toward her?
Had she known then what would happen between them? Was she plotting treason even then?
He groaned, spilling his seed deep within her body.
If only he knew…
The Cornish Coast, three months earlier…
It was not one of her better days. Brynn Caldwell dove beneath the warm surf, trying to drown her simmering anger in the deep tidal pool. Her frustration with her oldest brother, Grayson, had reached the limits of her endurance.
With a muttered oath, she surfaced and rolled onto her back, willing herself to calm. This was not the first time she had futilely argued with Gray and sought refuge in the secluded cove below their house. The inlet was flanked on two sides by jagged boulders and behind by a low cliff that shielded the natural rock pool from prying eyes. She came here whenever she could, or whenever she felt a need for peace, as now.
Here she could be free of the confining restrictions she imposed on herself. Here she could forget the troubles that constantly worried her: how to make ends meet for her impoverished family, how to protect her youngest brother, Theodore, from Gray’s dangerous notions of upbringing.
The afternoon July sun was warm on her face as Brynn floated, the salty seawater soothing her frayed temper. Yet she had never felt so helpless. Gray intended to take Theo out on a midnight smuggling excursion tonight, and despite arguing herself hoarse, she could do nothing to stop him.
“Devil take him!” she murmured, an imprecation she used frequently of late toward her oldest brother. Grayson was very dear to her, but dragging a mere child into their illicit activities was utterly criminal.
It galled her to feel so powerless. She had raised Theo from a baby-ever since their mother had died in childbirth twelve years before-and she was desperate to spare him the danger that had ensnared her four other brothers and herself as well.
Smuggling was a way of life on the Cornish coast. Having grown up here, she accepted the illegal means to which the local folk resorted simply to survive, trafficking goods such as brandy and silk past government revenuers to avoid crushing taxes.
But Free Trading was so very perilous. Her father had perished in a storm several years ago while trying to elude a revenue cutter. And so had numerous other men of the district, leaving behind widows and young children with no means of support.
And now Grayson meant to involve Theo in an upcoming brandy-smuggling foray so he could “learn to pull his weight” and help relieve the oppressive debts their father had amassed. It was enough to make Brynn want to do violence.
She made herself float awhile longer, then swam some more, trying to burn off her frustration-to no avail. She was physically spent by the time she turned toward shore, but her feelings of guilt and anger and helplessness were just as strong as she clambered onto the ledge of the rocky pool.
For a moment she stood dripping wet in her shift, wringing out her long hair. The sea breeze would dry it quickly, for this stretch of Cornish coast boasted one of the warmest climes in England.
When she started to reach for the towel she had left lying on the ground, however, she realized it was gone. Her gaze lifted, searching, then fell upon the intruder in her private sanctuary. Brynn froze, her heart thudding in her chest.
He was leaning casually against a boulder, watching her from the afternoon shadows. He was dressed informally as well in breeches and gleaming top-boots and a white cambric shirt with no cravat. Yet there was nothing casual in his look as his measuring gaze slowly raked her.
Alarmed, she took a backward step. How had he found his way to the rocky stretch of beach below the cliff? Had he discovered the cave below the house with its secret tunnel? He didn’t look like a revenuer, but government men sometimes roamed these shores, searching for contraband.
“Who are you?” she demanded in a breathless voice. “How did you get here?”