Kent, England, August 1807
The scent of roses filled the summer afternoon, but Julienne Laurent scarcely noticed the sweet fragrance as she waited anxiously for her lover to arrive. What could be keeping him?
Her nerves on edge, she began pacing the cottage floor, her disquietude increasing with each passing moment. Today, Dare had intended to inform his grandfather of their betrothal, and she feared the elderly nobleman's objections had been fierce.
Finally hearing hoofbeats, Julienne went to the open window to look out. The diminutive cottage where they held their lovers' trysts lay nestled in a cherry orchard, hidden from direct view of the lane. When she spied the sleek horse and elegant rider, she momentarily forgot her anxiety.
Dare. Her heart thrilled at the sight of him, while her thighs clenched in anticipation. She could almost feel him moving inside her-
Flushing, Julienne tried to quell her shameful hunger. She was a wanton where Dare was concerned. She had surrendered her innocence to his expert seduction with a scandalous eagerness. But what mortal woman could possibly have resisted him?
She watched as he sprang lithely down from his horse and strode purposefully along the path through the overgrown rose garden. He moved with a combination of polished elegance and raw virility that stirred all her feminine instincts, while his handsomeness stole her very breath. Possessing lean, aristocratic features and fair hair that glimmered flaxen and gold in the sunlight, he was endowed with a physical beauty that startled at first glance.
But it was his outrageous charm and penetrating wit rather than his striking looks or exalted title that had ensnared her heart. His magnetism, too, was exhilarating. There was a hint of wildness about him, an unpredictability that made him dangerously exciting. Even his name, Dare, a shortened version of his middle name, Adair, fit him to perfection. He was called so by his friends because he was willing to dare almost any challenge.
Including her. He had worn her down with relentless persistence.
Despite all her scruples and misgivings, she had risked her heart and found love in the arms of a wicked rake she had once vowed to resist.
The door swung open, and Jeremy Adair North, the Earl of Clune, stood there, his vivid green eyes searching the small cottage impatiently. When his gaze fixed intently on her, the flare of heat in the emerald depths was unmistakable.
"Did you miss me?" he demanded, his low voice stroking her like velvet.
In three strides he was across the room, reaching for her. Only then did Julienne recognize the tension smoldering in him. She could see the fire of anger in his eyes, feel it in his touch.
"Dare, what is it-?" she began, but he cut her off.
"I don't wish to talk."
She was in his arms instantly, gathered hard against him. His hands twisted in her hair as his lips crushed down on hers.
His fierceness caught her off guard. Ordinarily he was an amazingly tender lover who made her feel cherished and adored. Yet his urgent hunger now aroused a matching response in her. Her senses reeling, Julienne forgot her questions and surrendered to his ardent embrace.
Moments later his scalding kiss ended and his attention shifted to her body. She wore no corset, and he easily freed her breasts from the confining muslin bodice. His hot mouth suckled her nipples forcefully as he backed her against the door.
Julienne gasped at the delicious sensations that flooded her. With no other preliminaries, he pulled up her skirts and thrust his seeking fingers between her thighs. She was already wet for him.
She heard his groan of approval, then his harsh whisper: "God, how I want you."
He yanked at the front placket of his breeches as if he was desperate to have her. His penetration was hard and deep; her body trembled under the impact of it. He had never acted with such primal urgency, yet she made no protest. Instead Julienne moaned with incredible satisfaction as he filled her, excited beyond bearing.
He took her against the door, thrusting heavily into her with the sheer, overpowering need to mate. His sexual hunger was almost frantic, his rough fervor overwhelming. She wrapped herself around him, attempting to ease the violence of his desire, the raw intensity of his need-but then she too was caught up in the rush of heat, the burning fever. She clung to him, gasping, her hips writhing as she strained to take him even deeper into her body.
His release came swiftly. She felt the shudders that rocketed through him before the same frenzied explosion swept her. A hoarse cry burst from her as she succumbed to him with abandonment.
When the searing aftershocks faded, she realized Dare had sagged against her, pinning her to the door with his lean hardness. He was still panting for breath as he buried his face in the curve of her throat.
"My lovely Jewel," he rasped finally. "Did I hurt you?"
"No," she lied, ignoring the protest of twinging feminine tissues, content to savor the aftermath of his exquisite ravishment.
Eventually, however, he drew away. Lifting her in his arms, he bore her soft and willing to the bed in the adjacent room, where he undressed her with his usual attentive care.
When he was naked as well, he lay beside her and gathered her against him, then closed his eyes.
Silence reigned for a time.
Julienne yearned to know what had kindled his dark mood, yet she was afraid to ask if he had spoken to his grandfather. Finally, though, she could bear the uncertainty no longer.
"What did he say?"
At Dare's continued silence, her heart sank. The Marquess of Wolverton would not want his only grandson and heir to wed a French emigre, even if her pedigree was nearly as distinguished as their own. She was still considered a foreigner by many, for all that she had lived in England since she was four years old.
Julienne raised herself on one elbow so that she might search Dare's face. The frown between his eyes told her more than any words ever could. "Your grandfather refuses to accept me as your bride, is that so?"
"He has no say in the matter," Dare answered grimly.
She tried to steel herself against the hollowness in her chest. She was of noble birth, the daughter of the late Compte de Folmont, who had been guillotined during the Terror in France. But she owned a hat shop, and the stench of trade clung to her, tainting any claim to aristocracy she might have made. Yet she had never regretted her lost birthright as much as at this moment.
"He will not sanction our marriage," she said, her tone dismal.
Dare's lean jaw clenched. "My grandfather's wishes mean nothing to me." Reaching up, he clasped her face gently while his searing green gaze searched her face. "I want us to elope, Julienne."
"Elope?" she repeated doubtfully.
"Yes, elope… leap over the anvil… flee to Gretna. It is but three days to the Scottish border, and we could be married next week."
"If you love me, you will come with me. Do you love me, my precious Jewel?"
She loved him so much, it was an ache inside her. Yet it distressed her to think she would come between Dare and his grandfather, who was practically his only family. "Of course I love you. My heart is yours. But elopement… It is such an irrevocable step. Your grandfather will be even more enraged by such rashness, won't he?"
"I trust he will be," Dare replied darkly.
"Perhaps we would do better to let him grow accustomed to the prospect of our marriage."
His bark of humorless laughter told her how improbable her suggestion was, but then he shook his head. "Stop worrying so much about my damned grandfather."
"It is not your grandfather who worries me," Julienne said, carefully choosing her words. "It is you, Dare. If we rush into an elopement, you might someday regret it. You might even come to despise me."
His gaze speared hers, holding her riveted. "That could never happen." Rolling over with her, he pinned her naked body beneath his own. "I know what I want, Julienne, and it is you, as my wife. Forever. Nothing could change what I feel for you."
Despite the heat in his passionate declaration, a sudden chill swept Julienne with enough force to make her shudder. She couldn't shake the fear that their happiness would never last.
Yet she shut her eyes and gave herself up to Dare's embrace, hoping with all her heart that he would never have cause to rescind his fervent vow.
London, March 1814
Flickering firelight cast a golden glow over Dare's nude body as he stood before the bedchamber hearth, yet no flame could warm the chill in his heart. His mind flooded by thoughts of a beautiful, deceptive enchantress, he stared down at the playbill advertising her latest performance at the Drury Lane Theater.
He didn't need the artist's sketch to prod his recollection, for everything about her was burned into his memory. Images of her assaulted him: her exquisite body arched in passion. Her sleek limbs wrapped around him. Her luxurious hair like a mantle of sable fire about her shoulders. Her skin so flawlessly white, it looked like fine porcelain. Her laughter and her smile. Her keen wit. Her dark, luminous eyes with their incredible sensuality…
It was all branded upon his memory with a sharpness and clarity that still seared.
"What a bloody fool you were," he murmured, the accusation hoarse in the quiet of the bedchamber.
Dare locked his jaw, distressed that Julienne's sudden appearance in London had awakened emotions he'd presumed long dead. He'd thought himself over her years ago. Free of the tormenting memories, free of the regrets and loneliness that plagued him.
Yet given the savage pain that lanced through him now, he knew he still hadn't fully recovered from his shattering encounter with Julienne. Apparently the adage was true-that a man never forgot his first love.
He hadn't intended to lose his heart to her. He'd been young and hot and full of himself, eminently secure in his powers of seduction. But the girl he set out to conquer had become the woman who taught him about love. About betrayal.
The first time he'd laid eyes on the beautiful French emigre, Dare knew he had to have her. He'd come to Kent in June for a cousin's wedding, putting up at his grandfather's estate of Wolverton Hall near the small seaport of Whitstable, where Julienne's millinery was located. He'd wound up staying for the entire summer, intent on wooing her.
His intense attraction had surprised him. He'd had dozens of women as alluring, in countless affairs that had never touched his heart. Love for him had never been fiery and urgent, as it was with Julienne.
He'd wanted her far beyond the usual dalliance or casual taking. He wanted to possess her, to give her everything in return. His heart, his body, his very soul.
He hadn't known she lied as easily as she breathed.
Bitter memories of her rushed through him, centering on their final shocking encounter… Julienne's look of dismay to have been discovered in the arms of another lover; his own anguish when he comprehended the depth of her deception. He hadn't believed it until he saw it with his own eyes, heard Julienne's admission from her own lips.
Against his will, Dare traced her sketch with his fingertips. His grandfather had claimed the Earl of Ivers was her lover, but he'd scoffed in the old man's face. After stalking away from another violent argument with the marquess, Dare had sought Julienne out at her millinery, where he'd caught her with Ivers.
Only the slightest hint of remorse had shown on her patrician features when Ivers revealed they were longstanding lovers, and no remorse at all when Julienne had curtly ended their betrothal.
With her simple declaration, Dare felt as if his heart had been ripped from his chest. Her pretense of virginal innocence had been a sham from the very beginning, he realized. Her professed love for him merely a charade.
Only afterward had he put the pieces together and understood how completely he had been played for a fool: Julienne had wanted greater riches than he could give her if his grandfather disowned him. It was even possible she had plotted to wed him from the first but reconsidered when his grandfather's wrath rendered his inheritance uncertain. Perhaps she'd even planned to share the spoils with her lover-
Dare's throat tightened on the razor-sharp edge of memory.
Admittedly, though, he was glad to have discovered the truth about her before he threw his entire future away.
"A scheming French jade," his grandfather had called her, but Dare hadn't listened. He'd been remarkably stupid to fall for her display of virtue, or to believe she could be faithful. He should have known better. His own mother had enjoyed too many lovers to count, making a mockery of the word fidelity. He had thought Julienne cut from a different cloth, but she had deceived him so thoroughly, he'd never suspected her treachery until he felt the knife sliding between his ribs.
Dare cursed again beneath his breath. Julienne had vowed to love and cherish him, yet she had shattered those promises with lies and deceit.
He wondered if she regretted her choice now. He finally had come into the title of Marquess of Wolverton, along with the vast Wolverton fortune, for his hated grandfather had died the previous year.
But more than half a decade would have been a long time for a scheming fortune hunter to wait. She apparently had been busy meanwhile developing a successful acting career.
And no doubt cultivating other lovers. Dare had seen her in the park today for the first time, holding court for her love-struck swains.
The sight had rocked him to his core, for until two days ago, he hadn't even known she was in London. He'd been away for weeks, first on an assignment in the north, then on an unrelated mission to Ireland. He'd returned to discover Julienne Laurent the toast of the town, being pursued by a multitude of bucks and dandies. London's brightest new Jewel was how she was being termed. Reportedly every man wanted the dazzling actress for his mistress.
Hiding the unexpected pain knotting his chest at the sight of her, Dare had shifted his attention back to his companion, Lady Dunleith. Moments before, the lovely widow had beckoned to him from her carriage as he rode through the throng gathered in Hyde Park for the social hour.
When he questioned Lady Dunleith about the ton's latest novelty, she was cheerfully forthcoming.
"Miss Laurent? She hails from York, I believe. She is all the rage, but deservedly so. She sings like an angel, and she is quite an accomplished actress. Not in the class of Mrs. Siddons, perhaps. But Edmund Kean himself praised her last dramatic performance when she played Desdemona to his Othello."
Dare's mouth tightened. He would have to agree that Miss Laurent was an accomplished actress, although he had yet to see her upon the stage. During their enchanted summer together, he had never once suspected that the same sweet lips that promised him love would betray him so completely.