Women rarely refuse the wicked Earl of Hepplewood, whose sensual skills are the stuff of legend. But when his new governess answers his proposition with a slap to his face, then stalks out with references in hand, Hepplewood finds more than his face is left burning . . .
Isabella Aldridge has brains, bravado, and beauty-but the latter is no use to a servant. With orphaned sisters to feed, eviction nearing, and Hepplewood’s words ringing in her ears, Isabella realizes she must barter her most marketable asset . . .
But when fate unknowingly sends Isabella back into Hepplewood’s arms, the earl must make an impossible choice-draw Isabella down into his sensual darkness, or behave with honor for the first time in his life.
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With a look of reluctance, Lady Petershaw took the money Isabella counted out. “He was generous with you, then?” she said, her lips thinning. “He damned well better have been. I have some notion of the tricks that cheeky devil gets up to. Tony has developed rather a twisted streak these last few years, if all I hear is true.”
It was this discussion that Isabella had so dreaded. “I could not say, ma’am.”
“Of course you could not,” said the lady, nodding with approval. “No mistress worth her salt would. But I am glad, my dear—desperately glad—that Hepplewood let you go if he has become truly depraved. I mean—that sort of life with that sort of man—oh, my dear, it is a hard one. After all, one feels so desperately sorry for them.”
“Sorry for them?” squeaked Isabella.
“Dear me, yes.” The lady waved her hand again. “That sort of man is more wounded, and more angry with himself, than with any woman he might subjugate to his perversions.”
“Wounded? Angry?” Isabella was incredulous. “I fear, ma’am, we are talking about two different sorts of men. The Earl of Hepplewood seemed the most arrogant, most cocksure gentleman of my acquaintance.”
“Oh, that’s as may be,” she said, “but his sort of wicked desires, once they rise beyond mere bed play, become self-loathing in its purest form. And man like that, my dear . . . well, any woman who could want him would not be worth wanting, would she? That, you see, is the twisted way such men think. And so she must be punished. For being available to him. For being beautiful to him. And above all things, for being desirable to him.”
Isabella shook her head, her mouth gaping. “You were quite right at the outset,” she finally said. “I do not know how to go about this business.”
At this, Lady Petershaw cast her a wary, assessing glance. “Is it at all possible, my dear, that you misunderstood?” she said. “Was it more than bed play? For Tony’s not a bad man. Indeed, as a boy, he was a very sweet sort—so very charming and kind—and so unflaggingly devoted to his lovers, if you know what I mean.”
Isabella felt color flood her face. “He doesn’t seem sweet now. Yes, he seems angry at someone. Did marriage change him?”
Lady Petershaw laid a finger to her cheek. “It worsened things, perhaps, but he’d altered slightly even before that, I should have said. And I can’t think as I laid eyes on the man during his marriage. He must have stayed in the country—he always did have rustic leanings—but he took up again in Clarges Street after his wife died. Long before that, however, there was . . . some little scandal.”
A lifelong Anglophile, Liz Carlyle cut her teeth reading gothic novels under the bedcovers by flashlight. She is the author of over twenty historical romances, including several New York Times bestsellers. Liz travels incessantly, ever in search of the perfect setting for her next book. Along with her genuine romance-hero husband and four very fine felines, she makes her home in North Carolina.
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