He must be wealthy, wellborn, and want her more than he wants any other woman. Those are the conditions that must be met by the man Cassandra Belmont chooses for her lover. Marriage is out of the question for the destitute widow who stands accused of murdering her husband and must now barter her beauty in order to survive. With seduction in mind, she sets her sights on Stephen Huxtable, the irresistibly attractive Earl of Merton and London’s most eligible bachelor. But Stephen’s first intriguing glimpse of the mysterious, alluring Lady Paget convinces him that he has found the ideal woman to share his bed. There is only one caveat. This relationship fueled by mutual pleasure must be on his terms.
As the two warily circle each other in a sensual dance of attack and retreat, a single night of passion alters all the rules. Cassandra, whose reputation is already in tatters, is now in danger of losing the one thing she vowed never to give. And Stephen, who wants Cassandra more than he has ever wanted any woman, won’t rest until she has surrendered everything—not as his mistress—but as his lover and wife. . . .
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“What I am going to do is find a man.”
The speaker was Cassandra Belmont, the widowed Lady Paget. She was standing at the sitting room window of the house she had rented on Portman Street in London. The house had come fully furnished, but the furnishings as well as the curtains and carpets had seen better days. They had probably seen better days even ten years ago. It was a shabby genteel place, well suited to Lady Paget’s circumstances.
“To marry?” Alice Haytor, her lady’s companion, asked, startled.
Cassandra watched with world-weary eyes and scornfully curved lips as a woman walked past in the street below, holding the hand of a little boy who clearly did not want either to have his hand held or to be proceeding along the street at such a trot. Everything in the lines of the woman’s body spoke of irritation and impatience. Was she the child’s mother or his nurse? Either way, it did not matter. The child’s rebellion and misery were none of Cassandra’s concern. She had enough concerns of her own.
“Absolutely not,” she said in answer to the question. “Besides, I would have to find a fool.”
Cassandra smiled, though it was not a happy expression, and she did not turn to direct it at Alice. The woman and child had passed out of sight. A gentleman was hurrying along the street in the opposite direction, frowning down at the ground in front of his feet. He was late for some appointment, at a guess, and doubtless thought his life depended upon getting where he was going on time. Perhaps he was right. Probably he was wrong.
“Only a fool would marry me,” she explained. “No, it is definitely not for marriage that I need a man, Alice.”
“Oh, Cassie,” her companion said, clearly troubled, “you surely cannot mean—” She did not complete the thought, or need to. There was only one thing Cassandra could mean.
“Oh, but I do, Alice,” Cassandra said, turning and regarding her with amused, hard, mocking eyes. Alice was gripping the arms of the chair on which she sat and leaning slightly forward as if she were about to stand up, though she did not do so. “Are you shocked?”
“Your purpose when we decided to come to London,” Alice said, “was to look for employment, Cassie. We were both going to look. And Mary too.”
“It was not a realistic plan, though, was it?” Cassandra said, laughing without amusement. “Nobody wants to hire a housemaid-turned-cook who has a young daughter but is not and never has been married. And a letter of recommendation from me would do poor Mary no good at all, would it? And—ah, forgive me, Alice—not many people will want to employ a governess who is more than forty years old when there are plenty of young women available. I am sorry to put that brutal truth into words, but youth is the modern god. You were an excellent governess to me when I was a child, and you have been an excellent companion and friend since I grew up. But your age is against you now, you know. As for me, well, unless I somehow disguise my identity, which would not work when it came time to offer letters of recommendation, I am doomed in the employment market, and in any other, for that matter. No one is going to want to hire an axe murderer in any capacity at all, I suppose.”
“Cassie!” her former governess said, her hands flying up to cover her cheeks. “You must not describe yourself in such a way. Not even in fun.”
Cassandra was unaware that they had been having fun. She laughed anyway.
“People are prone to exaggerate, are they not?” she said. “Even to fabricate? It is what half the known world believes of me, Alice—because it is fun to believe such a preposterous thing. People will run screaming from me, I daresay, every time I step out of doors. It will have to be an intrepid man that I find.”
“Oh, Cassie,” Alice said, tears swimming in her eyes. “I wish you would not—”
“I have tried making my fortune at the tables,” Cassandra said, checking off the point on one finger as though there were more to follow. “I would have come away more destitute than I already was if I had not had a stroke of very modest luck with the final hand. I took my winnings and ran, having discovered that I do not have anything like the nerve to be a gambler, not to mention the skill. Besides, I was growing very hot indeed under my widow’s veil, and several people were quite openly trying to guess who I was.”
She tapped a second finger, but there was nothing further to add. She had not tried anything else, simply because there was nothing else to try. Except one thing.
“If I cannot pay the rent next week,” she said, “we will all be out in the street, Alice, and I would hate that.”
She laughed again.
“Perhaps,” Alice said, “you ought to appeal to your brother again, Cassie. He surely—”
“I have already appealed to Wesley,” Cassandra said, her voice hard again. “I asked for shelter for a short while until I could find a way to be independent. And what was his answer? He was very sorry. He would love to help me, but he was about to leave on an extended walking tour of Scotland with a group of his friends—who would be seriously inconvenienced if he let them down at the last moment. Where exactly in Scotland would I send this new appeal, Alice? And would I beg more abjectly this time? And for you and Mary and Belinda as well as for myself? Oh, yes, and for you too, Roger. Did you think I had forgotten you?”
A large, shaggy dog of indeterminate breed had got up from his place before the hearth and limped over to her to have his one ear scratched—the other was all but missing. He limped because he was also missing one leg from the knee joint down. He looked up at her with his one good eye and panted happily. His coat never looked anything but unkempt, even though it was clean and had a daily brushing. Cassandra ruffled it with both hands.
“I would not go to Wesley even if he were still in London,” she said, after the dog had lain down at her feet and set his chin down between his paws with a huff of contentment. She turned back to the window and drummed her fingertips slowly on the sill. “No, I am going to find a man. A rich man. Very rich. And he will support us all royally. It will not be charity, Alice. It will be employment, and I shall give excellent value for money.”
There was a hard edge of contempt to her voice, though it was unclear whether her scorn was directed at the unknown gentleman who would become her protector or at herself. She had been a wife for nine years, but she had never before been a mistress.
Now she would be.
“Oh,” Alice said, her voice filled with distress, “has it really come to this? I will not allow it. There has to be another answer. I will not allow it. Not when one of your reasons is that you feel obliged to support me.”
Cassandra’s eyes followed an ancient carriage as it lumbered its way along the street below the window, its coachman looking as aged as it.
“You will not allow it?” she said. “But you cannot stop me, Alice. The days when I was Cassandra and you were Miss Haytor are long gone. I may have very little left. I have almost no money and absolutely no reputation. I have no friends beyond these doors and no relatives who will inconvenience themselves in order to help me. But I do have one thing, one asset that will assure me gainful employment and restore comfort and security to our lives. I am beautiful. And desirable.”
Under other circumstances the boast might have sounded unpardonably conceited. But it was made with hard mockery. For, of course, though it was perfectly true, it was nothing to be conceited about. Rather, it was something to be cursed. It had secured her a wealthy husband at the age of eighteen. It had brought her countless admirers during the nine years of her marriage. And it had brought her, within a ten-year period, a deeper misery than she had ever dreamed a lifetime could hold. It was time to use it for her own gain—to acquire rent for this shabby house and food for the table and clothes for their backs and a little extra to set aside for a rainy day.
No, not a little extra. A great deal extra. Never mind bare subsistence and rainy days, when they would be so dearly bought. She and her friends would live in luxury. They would. The man who was going to pay for her services would pay very dearly indeed—or watch someone else claim her instead.
It did not matter that she was twenty-eight years old. She was better than she had been when she was eighteen. She had put on weight—in all the right places. Her face, which had been pretty then, had acquired a more classic beauty since. Her hair, which was a rich copper red, had not darkened over the years or lost any of its luster. And she was less innocent. A great deal less. She knew what pleased men now. There was one gentleman out there somewhere in London right now, at this very minute, who was soon going to be willing to squander a fortune on possessing her and buying exclusive rights to her services. There was more than one gentleman, in fact, but only one whom she would choose. There was that one gentleman who was aching for the sensual delight of possessing her, though he did not even know it yet.
He was going to want her more than he had wanted anyone or anything else in his life.
She hated men.
“Cassie,” Alice said, and Cassandra turned her head to look inquiringly at her, “we have no acquaintances here. How can you expect to meet any gentlemen?”
She sounded triumphant, as if she wanted the task to be hopeless—as no doubt she did.
Cassandra smiled at her.
“I am still Lady Paget, am I not?” she said. “A baron’s widow? And I still have all the fine clothes and accessories Nigel kept buying me, even if they are somewhat outdated. It is the Season, Alice. Everyone of any importance is here in town, and every day there are parties and balls and concerts and soirees and picnics and a whole host of other entertainments. It will not be at all difficult to discover what some of them are. And it will not be difficult to find a way of attending some of the grandest of them.”
“Without an invitation?” Alice asked, frowning.
“You have forgotten,” Cassandra said, “just how much every hostess wants her entertainment remembered as a great squeeze. I do not expect to be turned away from any door I choose to enter. And I shall walk boldly through the front doors. Once will be enough—more than enough to serve my purpose. You and I will go walking in Hyde Park this afternoon, Alice—at the fashionable hour, of course. The weather is fine, and all the beau monde is bound to turn up there to see and be seen. I will wear my black dress and my black bonnet with the heavy veil. I daresay I am known more by reputation than by looks—it is a number of years since I was last here. But I would rather not risk being recognized just yet.”
Alice sighed and sat back in her chair. She was shaking her head.
“Let me write a calm, conciliatory letter to Lord Paget on your behalf,” she suggested. “He had no right to banish you from Carmel House as he did, Cassie, when he finally decided to move there almost a year after his father’s passing. The terms of your marriage contract were quite clear. You were to have the dower house as your own residence in the event of your husband’s predeceasing you. And a sizable money settlement. And a generous widow’s pension from the estate. None of which you ever got from him during that year, even though you wrote a number of times, asking when you might expect all the legalities to be settled. Perhaps he did not clearly understand.”
“It will do no good to appeal to him,” Cassandra said. “Bruce made it quite clear that he considered my freedom a generous exchange for everything else. No charges were ever brought against me in his father’s death because there was no proof that I had killed him. But a judge or a jury might well find me guilty regardless of the lack of conclusive evidence. I could hang, Alice, if it happened. Bruce agreed that no charges would be pressed provided I left Carmel House and never returned—and provided I left all my jewels behind and forfeited all financial claim upon the estate.”
Alice had nothing to say. She knew all this. She knew the risks involved in fighting. Cassandra had chosen not to fight. There had been too much violence in the past nine years—ten now. She had chosen simply to leave, with her friends and with her freedom.
“I will not starve, Allie,” she said. “Neither will you or Mary or Belinda. I will provide for you all. Oh, and you too, Roger,” she added, tickling the dog’s stomach with the toe of her slipper while his tail thumped lazily on the floor and his three and a half paws waved in the air.
Her smile was tinged with bitterness—and then with something more tender.
“Oh, Alice,” she said, hurrying across the room and sinking to her knees before her former governess’s chair, “don’t cry. Please do not. I will not be able to bear it.”
“I never thought,” Alice said between sobs into her handkerchief, “to see you becoming a courtesan, Cassie. And that is what you will be. A high-class pr— A high-class pros—” But she could not complete the word.
Cassandra patted one of her knees.
“It will be a thousand times better than marriage,” she said. “Cannot you see that, Alice? I will have all the power this time. I can grant or withhold my favors at will. I can dismiss the man if I do not like him or if he displeases me in any way at all. I will be free to come and go as I choose and to do whatever I will except when I am . . . well, working. It will be a million times better than marriage.”
“All I ever wanted of life was to see you happy,” Alice said, sniffing and drying her eyes. “It is what governesses and companions do, Cassie. Life has passed them by, but they learn to live vicariously through their charges. I wanted you to know what it is like to be loved. And to love.”
“I know what both are like, silly goose,” Cassandra said, sitting back on her heels. “You love me, Alice. Belinda loves me—so does Mary, I think. And Roger loves me.” The dog had padded over to her and was prodding one of her hands with his wet nose so that she would pet him again. “And I love you all. I do.”
A few stray tears were still trickling down her former governess’s cheeks.
“I know that, Cassie,” she said. “But you know what I mean. Don’t deliberately misunderstand. I want to see you in love with a good man who will love you in return. And don’t look at me like that. It is the expression you wear so often these days that it would be easy to mistake it for your real character showing through. I know it well enough, that curl of the lip and that hard amusement of the eye that is not amusement at all. There are good men. My papa was one of them, and he certainly was not the only one the dear good Lord created.”