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After escaping the guillotine, Noelle de Vallon takes refuge with her aunt
in England. Determined to make her own way, she joins the local
smugglers, but when their plans are uncovered, Richard, Lord Boltwood
steps out of the shadows to save her. Too bad he’s the last man on
earth she ever wanted to see again.
Years ago, Richard Boltwood’s plan to marry Noelle was foiled when his
ruthless father shipped him to the Continent to work in espionage.
But with the old man at death’s door, Richard returns to England
with one final mission: to catch a spy. And Noelle is the prime
Noelle needs Richard’s help, but how can she ever trust the man who
abandoned her? And how can Richard catch the real culprit while
protecting the woman who stole his heart and won’t forgive him for
Setup: Noelle needs Richard’s help, but she doesn’t want him interfering in the smuggling business. She refuses to marry him, and she can’t afford to let him seduce her, either. Richard has other ideas…
Noelle slid off Snowflake’s back, passed her to a surprised groom, and hastened toward the house. The wind ceased its fitful snatching at her bonnet and tore it off good and proper, dancing with it in the sunlight, tossing it around the side of Boltwood Manor.
Noelle picked up her skirts and ran after the hat. The wind teased it away from her grasping fingers and threw it this way and that across the lawn. Noelle followed, cursing, while the wind tugged her hair out of its pins and flapped it into her face. The bonnet flew through the herb garden, lit briefly on the outstretched hand of a stone nymph, and fluttered toward the terrace.
Richard Boltwood stepped through the French doors to the terrace, reached out a long arm, and rescued Noelle’s hat from the wind.
Sacré tonnerre, but he was beautiful. Most improperly, he wore only shirt and breeches. His sleeves couldn’t hide those powerful shoulders and arms, nor his breeches the muscles of his thighs. The open neck of his shirt revealed his firm throat and a few hairs of the masculine chest she had seen and touched only once.
His face was bright with laughter, his bearing confident. Masterful. Irresistible. In spite of herself, Noelle quivered inside.
No. This was no time for quivering. She hurried forward. “Richard, I must speak with you.”
“With pleasure,” Richard said. “Your bonnet, ma’am.” He held it out but made no attempt to touch her.
Noelle closed her fingers around the ribbons, and immediately Richard put his hands behind his back. She moved closer, and he inched away. “In private!” she whispered. She put her hands on her hips and scowled at him. The hat strained away from her hand, and her hair flapped in her face. “Stay here! It’s urgent. I need your help immediately.”
“Ah,” Richard said, “I am of course at your service, my love, but do consider. Your only legitimate excuse for such a precipitate arrival must be desperate love for me, but if there is to be no touching, it won’t look like love, will it?” He danced away like the bonnet on the wind. “You do look delightfully desperate, my sweet.”
“That was your idea,” Noelle fumed. “I never said I wouldn’t touch you, merely that it would be wiser not.”
“It would have been wiser not to involve yourself in the free trade. As to not touching me, do as you please, as long as you understand that if you touch me, I will consider it a clear invitation to touch you in return.” His lips twitched.
“Nom de Dieu.” She must keep her distance, but he was making that impossible. “Oh, very well. You may kiss my hand.”
“Your Majesty is most gracious.” He took her gloved hand in his and tugged at the tip of one finger.
She tried to draw away, but he wouldn’t let go. “What are you doing?”
“Exactly what it looks like. I won’t waste one of my burning kisses on a mere glove.” A few seconds later, the glove was in his breeches pocket. He took her cool hand into his large warm one and brought it within an inch of his lips.
The warmth of his hand, the heat of his breath, traveled all the way to her toes. “Get on with it,” she said, quivering with impatience. Get it over with before it kills me. When he did nothing, she pulled at her hand.
He didn’t let go. “It’s not enough. No woman who gallops to her lover’s door would be content with one little kiss.” He paused. “On her hand.”
Waiting for that kiss was torture, and she had urgent news. She said in French, “Richard, the excisemen are nearby! We don’t have time for playing games.”
“This is no game,” he answered in the same language. “Lives are at stake, and therefore our charade must appear real.”
Did that mean he accepted her refusal to marry him? In which case, she should be glad. Or at the very least, relieved.
She didn’t have time for emotions. “Lives are at stake, and therefore we must hurry.”
“But not appear to do so,” he said. “A bargain—both your hands. It’s not dangerous, surely . . . just a little hand kiss or two.”
Before she had a chance to respond, he took the other hand, pried her fingers open, and released the ribbons of her hat.
It fluttered away across the lawn. “My bonnet!”
“What’s a mere bonnet when one is deep in love?” Richard removed the second glove and stowed it in his pocket. He pulled her close and pressed his hot lips to the back of one tingling hand.
Something inside Noelle pulsed in response. Yes.
His lips settled hotly on the other hand.
“Enough?” Richard whispered. “We have demonstrated love, but what about passion?”
Noelle couldn’t bring herself to move. Her breathing quickened, and her knees felt abominably weak.
“Only a passionate woman would ride ventre à terre to the man she loves.” He turned her hands over and cupped them in his large ones. “You, my sweet, are the essence of passion.”
He pressed his lips into one palm and then the other. The pulsing inside her deepened to a throb.
She couldn’t help it. She whimpered, staring at his lips and her hand.
His tongue reached out and gently, devastatingly, licked her palm.
Dieu du ciel. His arms surrounded her and his heady aroma overwhelmed her senses. She drank it in through her very pores. I love you. Oh, how I love you. She pressed her face into the hollow at his throat.
She made a small despairing sound, and immediately his arms loosened. He pushed up her chin and deposited a swift kiss on her lips. “You do love me, and you know it.”
and Epic awards, Barbara Monajem wrote her first story at eight years
old about apple tree gnomes. She published a middle-grade fantasy
when her children were young, then moved on to paranormal mysteries
and Regency romances with intrepid heroines and long-suffering heroes
(or vice versa). Regency mysteries are next on the agenda.
bucket list: to make asparagus pudding (because it was too weird to
resist) and to succeed at knitting socks. She managed the first (it
was dreadful) but doubts she’ll ever accomplish the second. This is
not a bid for immortality but merely the dismal truth.
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