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He raised one hand to tuck a dark curl behind her ear, his fingers tracing its outer ridge before he forced his fist back down to his side.

"You, m'dear girl," he murmured, "are old enough to know better than to tempt a scoundrel."

"I know what I am doing," she spouted back indignantly. "I am not a child."

"No," he agreed easily. "You are certainly not a child."

"Then I would expect you not to treat me like one." Her eyes flashed, giving him a teasing glimpse of passion.



Lady Dumonte possessed passion?

Another surprise.

"Of course not." He frowned in mock seriousness. "How should I treat you? As a lady or a mistress?"

"As a woman," she ground out. "I am a woman!" Her lips pursed together as she glared up at him.

He smiled broadly; he couldn't help himself.

"Ah, yes," he agreed, looking her over as though he had only just noticed. "I believe you are."

She took in a deep breath, pushing her b.r.e.a.s.t.s against the tight fabric of her bodice.

His c.o.c.k jumped to attention.

"I was wrong about not liking you. I hate you!"

"And yet," he mused with a knit brow, "you throw yourself at me like all the others. You are either in denial of your overwhelming attraction to me or a glutton for punishment. For my own complacency, I choose the former."

Celeste shook her head slowly, her eyes narrowed and seething with anger.

"Regardless," he continued frankly at his own peril, "you had better run along, or you may find your offer accepted, and we both know you never expected that. Your bluff has been called, Lady Dumonte. Go on home like a good girl."

"I never bluff."

"Never say never, m'dear," he murmured with a purposefully wicked smile.

He'd had enough. No man could just stand there while this woman was offering herself up like a feast, especially with that temperament peeking through.

Lady Dumonte might just be quite the feisty, little cat had someone the courage and ambition to bring it out in her. Even so, that someone couldn't be Nick. All he could do was scare her into behaving herself and leaving him the h.e.l.l alone.

With that goal in mind, he let go of his restraint and touched her. She startled, but she didn't back away. He settled his hands high on her waist and hugged her curves as they slid down to her hips, testing her figure, not that he hadn't already known precisely how her waist curved into her perfectly rounded b.u.t.tocks. To his great discomfort, he had dreamt about said b.u.t.tocks the night before and had woken up irritable and unsated.

He did his best to push the memory of that libidinous dream out of his mind as he brushed the backs of his fingers just below her ear and down her neck to the curve of her bodice. He wanted to see her reaction.

She kept the same determined look she'd had before, but he could see she was wavering.

This ought to be easy. She would run, and be far too embarrassed to threaten him again.

He tipped her chin up and slowly lowered his head, stopping a hairsbreadth from her lips. "Are you sure?"

"Y-yes," she breathed.

His eyes narrowed. "Really? The big bad wolf doesn't scare you?"

"Of course not."

"Even when I kiss you here?" He brought his finger between them and lightly touched her bottom lip. "Or here?" He slid his finger to her earlobe. "Or here?" he whispered, lightly stroking her neck.

Her breathing had stopped completely.

"Well?"

She shook her head. "No."

The barely audible word was all he needed. His wolfish smile broadened, and he lowered his head and kissed her. Once, twice, three times, his lips met hers before he wrapped his arms around her, dwarfing her as he pulled her into him. He fastened onto her mouth as though she was air and he was suffocating.

To begin any bout of lovemaking in such a fashion was unpolished and gauche, but he wanted to overwhelm her. He wanted to show her that she was in over her head.

He expected her to put up a fight. He thought to scare her and let her go. Instead, she began to kiss him back, catching him completely off guard. His lips were paralyzed as she kissed him with unschooled awkwardness. He was dazed, trying to catch up to what was happening and react.

He opened his eyes to see hers were tightly closed as she kissed him, as though she were afraid sand might be shoved in them at any moment. He was dumbfounded, and her clumsy attempts somehow became the most erotic thing he had ever had done to him. It was an entirely new experience... for both of them, apparently.

He let her kiss him until he could no longer remain still. Then he raised one hand to support the back of her neck, tilting her face for a better angle. He softened his other hand to a gentle caress on her lower back. With his tongue, he softly traced her bottom lip until she opened for him. Then he slowly invaded, just touching her tongue before retracting and going in again with light, almost separate kisses.

When she began to seek out his tongue for more, he deepened the kiss and tightened his arms around her. She was a fast learner.

When she slid her slender hands up his chest to curl in the hair at his nape, he groaned into her mouth. She felt good, too good, better than any of the brainless chits he would normally take to bed-the kind he never wanted more than one night with. A need intensified inside him, thickening the air. He wanted to taste her neck, her shoulders, her chest, her arms-everything. He wanted to sink into her, but he refused to abandon her sweet mouth. As sweet as an innocent's would be, as a bride's would be.

"Ah, lo-" He stopped himself, but he had already gone too far. He had set out to overwhelm her and ended up losing himself in some fantasy. She was a widow, not a maiden. And he was not a gentleman free to marry. His title would expire with him.

He pulled away and stepped back, taking a slow, deep breath. He watched dismally as her eyes slowly fluttered open, her lips fetchingly swollen from his kiss.

"You have not a clue of what you are doing, love. And I am afraid I have not the time nor the desire to teach you." he said coolly.

"Re-regardless," she managed firmly, "if you want entrance in Paris, you will find out why my husband killed himself and who brought him to it."

"See here, m'dear," Nick said, frowning down at her.

"This is no game."

"You are taking unseemly advantage of your position and my ambition. Not to mention, this is a threat with no set expiration. How do I know you will not hold this over me long after the job is done?"

"After you finish the investigation, you are none of my concern. I shall not seek to destroy or manipulate you again," she promised with conviction. "I earned my reputation, my lord. I am good for my word."

Nick's eyes narrowed. "I shall have you know I am not a willing partic.i.p.ant."

"Noted," she replied simply.

"So I shall take a favor as payment, one which I may cash out whenever I choose."

"What sort of favor?" she asked warily.

"The platonic sort," he answered evenly with one raised brow.

"I see," she said, watching him with narrowed eyes.

Distrustful wench.

"Perhaps an introduction or something. I have not had much time for thought on the subject. I do not often sit in my study by the fire with a snifter of brandy and think, 'What would I want if a prominent lady were to corner me with extortion?'" Nick had to admit the thought had him fighting a chuckle at his own expense, d.a.m.n her eyes. He ought to be furious.

After a moment of what looked like careful consideration, she jutted out her chin decisively. "Agreed. Will you escort me back?"

"Er, perhaps you would rather make a timely exit by the less traveled corridors." At her confused look, he added, "It is my opinion there can be a certain charm to the bedraggled balcony-affair look, but I doubt that is the image you wish to present at Mrs. Talbot's soiree."

Her hand flew to her hair, and her eyes widened. "Oh!"

Nick chuckled, then set a dignified pose. "How do I look?"

A reluctant smile spread over her face. "Your hair, here," she said, pointing to the corresponding area on her own head. While he was smoothing out his hair, she added, "And your lapels are askew. Your cuffs need to be straightened. I am afraid I ruined your cravat."

"I have more cravats than there are days in a year," he said. "I shall try not to miss this one." As Nick was righting himself, he added encouragingly, "See? You were not the only one left a bit untidy. These things can happen whilst gallivanting about with a scoundrel, you know." He offered his elbow to her. "Shall we? I believe we can return to our conveyances undetected."

Nick fought the urge to smooth her loose tendrils around her ear and, instead, tucked her hand into his arm and led her discreetly back to her carriage. The journey across the house was not long, but it felt like an eternity. He still felt her... tasted her. It was a long walk of self-berating.

He helped her into the closed carriage and watched it disappear around the block. He hoped that was the last he would see of Lady Dumonte. Letters would work very well for what information she needed from him when he had something to say.

He ought to be furious with her. Instead, he had teased her, made her feel comfortable about looking like a strumpet. What the h.e.l.l had gotten into him?

He supposed, in a way, he admired her. She was either very loyal or very foolish for standing up to someone like him, but she had done it because she believed the man who had left her dishonorably had been honorable.

Nick's father had eaten his own bullet in much the same fashion. It had taken Nick exactly six months before he had accepted his loving father had been craven and a traitor to the crown. That was how long it had taken him to realize the extent of the late earl's transgressions. He had found evidence of his father's dealings with the French, selling them England's secrets-military secrets-whilst Nick had been away at war. h.e.l.l, those secrets might easily have gotten Nick killed. He had come to Paris searching for the men his father had been involved with, hoping to put that demon to rest, but he knew even that would not be enough had he been successful.

What Lady Dumonte did not or could not understand was, whether there had been a reason or not, knowing would not ease the pain. If there were a reason, it would never be good enough. If there were none, no one had looked hard enough yet. Then, when the truth finally sinks in, there is no way to fix it, no matter how hard one tries. Even knowing all that, whatever he found or did not find, he was going to tell her the truth. The rest would be up to her.

end.





CHAPTER DISCUSSION