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Tessa Dare a part-time librarian, full-time mommy, and swing-shift writer. She makes her home in Southern California, where she shares a cozy, cluttered bungalow with her husband, their two children, and a dog.
Gravesend, December 1817
In fleeing the society wedding of the year, Sophia Hathaway knew she would be embracing infamy.
She’d neglected to consider how infamy smelled. She paused in the doorway of the fetid dockside tavern. Even from here, the stench of soured ale accosted her, forcing bile into her throat.
A burly man elbowed her aside as he went out the door. “Watch yerself, luv.”
She pasted herself against the doorjamb, wondering at the singular form of address implied in “luv.” The man’s comment had clearly been directed toward both of her breasts.
With a shiver, she wrapped her cloak tight across her chest.
Taking one last deep breath, she sidled her way into the dank, drunken confusion, forbidding her gray serge skirts to brush against anything. Much less anyone. From every murky corner– and for a squared- off tea caddy of a building, this tavern abounded in murky corners– eyes followed her. Suspicious, leering eyes, set in hard, unshaven faces. It was enough to make any young woman anxious. For a fugitive young lady of quality, traveling alone, under the flimsy shield of a borrowed cloak and a fabricated identity . . .
Well, it was almost enough to make Sophia reconsider the whole affair.
An unseen someone jostled her from behind. Her gloved fingers instinctively clutched the envelope secreted in her cloak. She thought of its brethren, the letters she’d posted just that morning, breaking her engagement and ensuring a scandal of Byronic proportions. Seeds of irrevocable ruin, scattered with the wind.
A cold sense of destiny anchored her rising stomach. There was no going back now. She could walk through far worse than this shabby pub, if it meant leaving her restrictive life behind. She could even endure these coarse men ogling her breasts, so long as they did not glimpse the secret strapped between them.
Her resolve firmed, Sophia caught the eye of a baldheaded man wiping a table with a greasy rag. He looked harmless enough– or at least, too old to strike quickly. She smiled at him. He returned the gesture with a completely toothless grin.
Her own smile faltering, she ventured, “I’m looking for Captain Grayson.”
“ ’Course you is. All the comely ones are.” The gleaming pate jerked. “Gray’s in the back.”
She followed the direction indicated, moving through the crowd on tiptoe in an effort to keep her hem off the floor. The sticky floorboards sucked at her half boots. Toward the back of the room, she spied a boisterous knot of men and women near the bar. One man stood taller than the others, his auburn hair looking cleaner than that of his company. A brushed felt beaver rested on the bar nearby, an oddly refined ornament for this seedy den. As Sophia angled for a better view, a chair slid out from a nearby table, clipping her in the knee. She bobbled on tiptoe for a moment before tripping forward.
The hem of her cloak caught on her boot, and the cloak wrenched open, exposing her chest and throat to the sour, wintry air. In her desperate attempt to right herself, she clutched wildly for the wall–
And grasped a handful of rough linen shirt instead. The shirt’s own er turned to her. “Hullo there, chicken,” he slurred, his breath rancid with decay. His liquorglazed eyes slid over her body and settled on the swell of her breasts. “Fancy bit of goods you are. By looks, I would have priced you beyond my pocket, but if you’s offerin’ . . .”
Had he mistaken her for some dockside trollop?
Sophia’s tongue curled with disgust. Perhaps she was disguised in simple garments, but certainly she did not look cheap.
“I am not offering,” she said firmly. She tried to wriggle away, but with a quick move, he had her pinned against the bar.
“Hold there, lovely. Jes’ a little tickle, then.”
His grimy fingers dove into the valley of her bosom, and Sophia yelped. “Unhand me, you . . . you revolting brute!”
The brute released one of her arms to further his lascivious exploration, and Sophia used her newly freed hand to beat him about the head. No use. His fingers squirmed between her breasts like fat, greedy worms burrowing in the dark.
“Stop this,” she cried, making her hand a fist and clouting his ear, to no avail. Her efforts at defense only amused her drunken attacker.
“S’all right,” he said, chuckling. “I likes my girls with plenty o’ pluck.”
Desperation clawed at her insides. It wasn’t simply the insult of this lout’s hands on her breasts that had her panicking. She’d forfeited her genteel reputation the moment she left home. But his fingers groped closer and closer to the one thing she dared not surrender. If he found it, Sophia doubted she would escape this tavern with her life intact, much less her virtue.
Her attacker turned his head, angling for a better look down her dress. His grimy ear was just inches from her mouth. Within snapping distance. If she bit it hard enough, she might startle him into letting her go. She had all but made up her mind to do it, when she inhaled another mouthful of his rank sweat and paused. If her choices were putting her mouth on this repulsive beast or dying, she just might rather die.
In the end, she didn’t do either.
The repulsive beast gave a yawp of surprise as a pair of massive hands bodily hauled him away. Lifted him, actually, as though the brute weighed nothing, until he writhed in the air above her like a fish on a hook.
“Come now, Bains,” said a smooth, confident baritone, “you know better than that.”
With an easy motion, her rescuer tossed Bains aside. The brute landed some feet away, with the crunch of splintering wood.
Sagging against the bar with relief, Sophia peered up at her savior. It was the tall, auburn- haired gentleman she’d spied earlier. At least, she assumed him to be a gentleman. His accent bespoke education, and with his dark- green topcoat, fawn- colored trousers, and tasseled Hessians, he cut a fashionable silhouette. But as his arms flexed, the finely tailored clothing delineated raw, muscled power beneath.
And there was nothing refined about his face. His features were rough- hewn, his skin bronzed by the sun. It was impossible not to stare at the golden, weathered hue and wonder– did it fade at his cravat? At his waist? Not at all?
The more she peered up at the man, the less she knew what to make of him. He had a gentleman’s attire, a laborer’s body . . . and the wide, sensuous mouth of a scoundrel.
“How many times do I have to tell you, Bains? That’s no way to touch a woman.” His words were addressed to the lout on the floor, but his ro guish gaze was fixed on her. Then he smiled, and the lazy quirk of his lips tugged a thin scar slanting from his jaw to his mouth.
Oh yes, that mouth was dangerous indeed.
At that moment, Sophia could have kissed it.
“The proper way to touch a woman,” he continued, sauntering to her side and propping an elbow on the bar, “is to come at her from the side, like so.” In an attitude of perfect nonchalance, he leaned his weight on his arm and slid it along the bar until his knuckles came within a hair’s width of her breast.
Mouth of a scoundrel, indeed! Sophia’s gratitude quickly turned to indignation. Had this man truly yanked one lout off her just so he could grope her himself? Apparently so. His hand rested so close to her breast, her flesh heated in the shadow of his fingers. So close, her skin prickled, anticipating the rough texture of his touch. She wished he would touch her, end the excru - ciating uncertainty, and give her an excuse to slap the ro guish smirk from his face.
“See?” he said, waggling his fingers in the vicinity of her bosom. “This way you don’t startle her off.”
Coarse laughter rumbled through the assembled crowd. Retracting his hand, the scoundrel lifted his voice.
“Don’t I have the right of it, Megs?”
All eyes turned to a curvy redhead gathering tankards. Megs barely looked up from her work as she sang out, “Ain’t no one like Gray knows how to touch a lady.” Laughter swept the tavern again, louder this time. Even Bains chuckled.
Gray. Sophia’s heart plummeted. What was it the bald man had said, when she asked for Captain Grayson? Gray’s in the back.
“One last thing to remember, Bains,” Gray continued.
“The least you can do is buy the lady a drink.” As the tavern- goers returned to their carousing, he turned his arrogant grin on Sophia. “What are you having, then?” She blinked at him.
What was she having? Sophia knew exactly what she...