“One of the sexiest, most sensual historical romances I’ve ever read.”Fiction Vixen
A word from her lips can bring him to his knees.
Gaspard Toussaint is known throughout 1820 Parisian society as the destitute “molly comte,” but his entire life is a twisted mass of secrets and lies as a spy for the French Crown. His final covert act will have him fleeing his broken country forever…but before he can escape, he needs the power and safety that only money can provide.
No one has more money than English heiress Claudia Pascale. The only child of a wealthy tradesman, Claudia has continually failed to catch a husband—due in large part to her uncontrollable stutter. Spurned by a dashing lieutenant and desperate to escape her parents’ cruel household, she joins forces with the seemingly harmless Gaspard to learn how to properly ensnare a spouse: through seduction.
All too soon, Gaspard’s lessons in delicious debauchery and sinful sensuality make Claudia suspicious that he is not who, or what, everyone believes him to be. And Gaspard realizes his quest to possess her is becoming less about her dowry…and more about the woman herself.
“What is wrong with you tonight?”
Her eyes slid shut, and she sighed, so weary a sound he felt exhaustion weight his limbs in sympathy. “I’m t-tired.”
“Liar.” He strode to the bed, stopping only when his thighs hit the frame, and folded his arms across his chest. “Tell me what has upset you.”
Her shoulder lifted in jerky response, the shrug aborted due to her position on the bed. The capped sleeve of her gown, puffed and tucked around her upper arm with dainty pleats, shifted lower to reveal the smooth curve of one pale shoulder. She didn’t answer.
Not answering was no longer an option for the lady tonight, however. “No more silence, Claudia. If you do not speak to me, we cannot fix what ails you.”
“You.” Her dark-lashed eyes snapped open, flashing sparks at him. “You ail me. I c-can’t do this.”
Though he expected such an pronouncement, Gaspard nearly stumbled back a step, away from her harsh words, her animosity. “I see.”
“Do you?” She pushed upright, tugging at the bodice of her gown. “Because what I s-s-saw downstairs makes m-me ill.”
“I…see.” He couldn’t say anything else, and so simply stood there, looking down at her while she glared up at him. There was no softness in her gaze, nothing but stiff misery in the straightness of her spine, and his chest felt as though it had been on the receiving end of a swift kick from horses’ hooves. Except horses’ hooves hurt less than this, he knew, having been kicked more than once growing up in a smithy. He brought up a hand to rub over the phantom ache in his sternum.
Shaking her head, she dropped her chin, then began plucking numerous pins from the elegantly styled mass of her hair. “You don’t understand.”
He swallowed around the lump in his throat, unable to stop watching her nimble fingers search out the pins from one curl to the next because he wanted to be the one to loosen her hair. He wanted his blunt peasant’s fingers to be responsible for that shining dark silk to tumble haphazardly down her back. “Explain it to me.”
Her look lashed him with contempt. “You never c-c-cease trying to m-make me s-s-speak. It’s always ‘tell m-me’ this,” she mocked as she flung a pin across the rug. “‘Explain it to m-me.’ I don’t have to s-s-speak if I don’t w-want to!” With an aggravated growl, she tossed the hairpins from her lap, sending them flying into the air and against his legs, after which they plunked soundlessly to the floor.
She always looks at me like a wounded animal might. One that’s been kicked repeatedly by its owners.
Except this time, Gaspard had done the proverbial kicking. His head buzzed at the memory of Sabien’s words, and he followed the descent of the pins until he crouched before her, his weight resting on his heels. He picked up an errant hairpin to hold between his thumb and forefinger, neither offering it to her nor keeping it for himself.
He studied the delicate metal object. So tiny, and yet it could carry such a heavy burden. A tool as much for practicality as it was for beauty.
He glanced up at her. Yes—practical, beautiful, and burdened. That was his kitten.
She sighed unsteadily and shook her head, hair falling around her face in thick chocolate waves. “I was an idiot to think we c-could ever b-be…”
“Happy.” Her hand rested over her heart, and she lifted her head to meet his gaze. “Happy, Gaspard. B-but now I know what it will be like f-for us.”
He fisted the hairpin. “I know it now, too.”
“I can’t live m-my life b-being laughed at,” she whispered brokenly. “And there’s nothing you can d-do to change that.”
“What happens, Gaspard?” She leaned forward suddenly, wrapping her hand around his fist. Her fingers were warm where they curled over his knuckles. “What happens if everyone d-discovers you lied about your…s-s-sexual p-preferences?”
He felt himself swaying toward her, dropping from the balls of his feet to his knees and covering her hand with his. Their faces level, he watched as the tiniest hint of pink returned to the high curves of her cheekbones. Where before dread left him cold, a tentative heat began to filter through his bloodstream, warming him, giving him foolish confidence. “Maybe nothing.”
“Now who’s the liar?” Her hand lifted toward his face but stopped an inch shy of his brow. Instead, she pulled away, tugging her fingers free of his hold as she sat upright on the edge of the bed. “I know s-spies, remember? You’re always looking over your sh-shoulders. Waiting. J-just waiting.”
The threat of retribution. It was what kept them all in check—him, Sabien, even Évoque to a certain extent. And it was what made him reckless enough to say, “We could leave.”
They could leave London, leave England, and reinvent themselves just the two of them, somewhere completely new, as completely new people. In a matter of days, Auguste Pascale would transfer the dowry into the new Bank of England account Gaspard had opened only that morning. They could take the ten thousand and his title could rot, along with whatever promises he’d made Évoque.
Something akin to desperation clogged his chest, and he grabbed her wrists, squeezed. “We could run.”
Watching the flicker of hope in her eyes bloom and die was the most tragic thing he’d ever seen in his travesty of a life. “Then we’d b-be running forever.” She shook her head. “D-decades. Eventually…eventually, we would c-come to resent each other.” She attempted to wriggle free, but he held fast, even when she continued speaking with that slow, low voice of hers, so English it hurt his ears. “You s—” A pause. “You suffered for this chance, Gaspard,” she said quietly, perfectly. Horribly. “I won’t t-take it from you.”
His thumbs pressed against the pulse points of her wrists. “What do you propose we do?” Because they needed to do something.
Because she was right, about everything.
Because for once he didn’t have a plan up his sleeve, strangling the hilt of his ever-present knife.
“We m-marry. You s-s-save your estate, your t-title. I escape my p-parents. And then—” She took a deep breath. “We take up s-s-separate residences.”
He sucked in a harsh breath, his fingers tightening with bruising force around her wrists. “No.”
“No.” He hadn’t survived warring, spying, and screwing any man who looked at his cock sideways, not to mention the fucking Channel crossing from hell, to be separated from his reward by the reward herself. “You will not live apart from me.” He wanted her so constantly that it was inconceivable to think of a life—bloody decades, she’d said—where he couldn’t coax her into bending over the nearest flat surface and bury himself in her whenever desperation gripped him, selfish beast that he was.
Her jaw clenched, her stubbornness only making him want to take a bite out of her. “I’ve never knowingly s-s-subjected m-myself to ridicule, and I don’t p-plan to st-start now.” She flexed her fingers until he loosened his grip. “Let m-me have this s-s-sliver of control, G-Gaspard. P-please. Everything else is yours.”
Control. She needed control, or she’d leave him.
Their entire future hinged on this moment. He’d still get her dowry. He’d still get her, but unless this wounded animal stole a little power for herself, he wouldn’t get her. Not in the way he wanted, and certainly not in the way he feared he needed.
His body made the decision before his brain, his mouth already moving as he released her hands and yanked viciously at his cravat. “You can have control, kitten,” and he purred the words, as he had in so many seductions past. “If control is what you need…” He tossed aside the cravat and began to shrug out of his evening coat. “If this is what will make you happy…” The coat discarded, along with the knife and sheath on his forearm, his mind finally caught up, and nervous energy made him shake as he continued stripping, unbuttoning his waistcoat.
He had promised himself that he would never submit to another soul after leaving France, would never let himself be mastered again. Yet here he stood, ready to break that promise and allow her to control him as she saw fit.
His stomach twisted. Even when he’d whored for the Crown, the reins stayed firmly in his grasp, the situation his to change, to manipulate. Forfeiting any sort of control to her, even knowing in the back of his mind that he could physically overpower her in a heartbeat if panic suffused him…it was terrifying.
Was their future worth the fear? Was she?
“Tonight, I am yours, Claudia.” His fingers dropped to his trouser fall, teased the top button. “Command me.”
2013, 2017 © by Edie Harris