Born to a family of infamous criminals, Lilah Marshall has left behind her past and made herself into the perfect lady. Working as a hostess at Everleigh's, London’s premier auction house, she leads a life full of art, culture, and virtue. All her dreams are within reach—until a gorgeous and enigmatic viscount catches her in the act of one last, very reluctant theft.
Christian “Kit” Stratton, Viscount Palmer, is society's most dashing war hero. But Kit’s easy smiles hide a dark secret: he is haunted by a madman’s vow to destroy anyone he loves. When his hunt for the enemy leads to Everleigh’s Auction Rooms, he compels Lilah to help him. But one tempting touch may be their undoing—for what Kit needs threatens all Lilah holds dear, and losing her may destroy Kit.
Lilah is an 'Everleigh Girl,' a hostess at London's most glamorous auction house. But she wasn't born knowing how to waltz or to make pretty conversation with rich men. In fact, in another life, she was Lily Monroe, niece of an infamous crime lord who rules the East End. If anybody at Everleigh's Auction Rooms knew the truth, she'd be sacked on the instant.
When her uncle blackmails her to do one last job for him, she risks everything, breaking into her employer's office during a ball - and finds herself caught hiding beneath the desk by no less than Britain's greatest war hero, Christian Stratton, Viscount Palmer, the man whom all England adores.
Alas for Lilah, she'll soon discover that Lord Palmer has his own dark secrets - and he's in need of a thief of his own . . .
The thief had marvelous composure. The first second, her panic showed plainly. It drained the blood from her face, exposing the artful blending of rouge that had lent her cheeks such fresh color. Her new pallor revealed freckles—a great many of them, long faded.
In the next moment, as though a switch had been flipped, roses bloomed again in her cheeks. She called up a lovely smile, which turned her blue eyes into cheerful half-moons. “Lord Palmer! Why, I hadn’t dreamed to be noticed by you. You are quite the most popular gentlemen in the ballroom!”
“Lucky that we’re not in the ballroom, then.” Christian spoke the words absently, surprised anew by the husky pitch of her voice. She was of average height and size; her voice, however, promised the ability to boom. It was rich enough to belong to a giantess in metal breastplate, with Viking horns atop her head. “I confess, I did not notice you there, Miss . . .”
“But of course you didn’t,”she said warmly. “It’s my good luck to catch you alone. But how selfish it would be to hoard you!” As she started past him, she nodded toward the direction of the ballroom, her fleeting touch along his arm—and her quick, flirtatious glance—suggesting her great desire that he follow.
She was clever. Christian captured her hand before it could slip away. Without hesitation, she twirled around to face him, her train hissing in a broad arc across the marble floor. Her wide smile had not budged a fraction. “Yes, Lord Palmer?”
He matched her light tone. “And once again, I feel my disadvantage. Must I beg your name from Mr. Everleigh?”
Mention of her employer, whose study she had so recently infiltrated, made her flinch. She had not expected him to segue so quickly to veiled threats. She glanced over her shoulder. The hallway was empty, of course, the strains of a waltz dim but distinct. Nobody would leave the ballroom until the next set.
Seeing her plight—alone, quite alone—she redoubled the brilliance of her smile, then surprised him by stepping closer. “It’s terribly awkward.” What a magnificent voice she had! And how well she used it. Her hushed tone conjured intimacy, inviting him into a sweet little conspiracy. “I do hope that I can rely on your discretion.”
He gave her a lopsided smile. “Well. You know what they say.”
She looked up at him through thick dark lashes. He could no longer imagine how he’d mistaken her earlier as servile. Between her voice and her oceanic eyes and her unflappable charm, she was a siren.
Her measuring look also suggested a shrewd mind. She was not yet sure how much trouble she was in. He might simply be a blundering idiot. Or he might be a cad, who meant to press his advantage. She was still making up her mind.
So was he. Blackmail was a precarious art, as likely to go wrong as to aid him. But her composure seemed promising. Only a trustworthy tool would serve his purposes.
“No,” she said. “I don’t know what they say. Will you tell me?”
He extended his elbow in an offer of escort. Her hand fluttered down, landing on his sleeve as lightly as a butterfly. “They say a man is only as good as his word,” he told her as they fell into step. “And I’ve been told by several sources that mine is irredeemably rotten.”
Her laughter held a carefree lilt, very convincing. “But that’s nonsense," she said. “You’re a great hero, Lord Palmer. Everyone has heard of your feats abroad.”
Ah yes. His bloody, much-celebrated bravery.
To prove her point, she began to recite the damned poem. “‘Who o’er yonder battlement, when enemy drums did pound—’”
“Yes,” he interrupted. “I believe I’ve heard that one before.” Five thousand times or so. It did not improve with repetition.
She was gazing at him brightly. “So then my point is proved: who would dare call you rotten?”
Nobody called him rotten, of course. They begged for autographs instead. “Perhaps you will.”
He felt the slight, nervous dance of her fingertips on his forearm. “I can’t imagine why.”
They had been making very slow progress toward the ballroom. But now Christian drew her to a stop by the darkened stairwell. “Tell me,” he said. “I knew Everleigh was a man of particular tastes. Does he often require you to wait beneath the desk for him?”
The skin tightened at the corners of her eyes. “I wish you wouldn’t mention it,” she said.
He almost laughed. How odd that he should find this pickpocket diverting. But for a woman who’d gotten herself into a great deal of trouble tonight—removing and replacing her mistress’s bracelet, breaking into her master’s locked study, hiding beneath his desk to eavesdrop, and perhaps worse (for a pickpocket, surely, did not break into studies only to eavesdrop?)—for all these redoubtable sins, she nevertheless did a brilliant job of playing the breathy naïf.
He admired a good performance. After all, he played the hero on regular occasion.
“A gentleman wouldn’t mention it,” he said. “Alas, I already warned you. I’m a rogue.”
This time, she believed him. He sensed her reassessment, her subtle change of posture and tone. “Lord Palmer,” she purred. “I don’t expect your approval, of course. But Mr. Everleigh and I . . . That is, you must know that I’m one of the hostesses here, what they call an ‘Everleigh Girl’—”
She was still trying to cozen him. Make him believe he’d interrupted her plan to surprise her lover. To disconcert her—for clearly he hadn’t managed it yet—he lifted his hand to cup her cheek. “Indeed. I believe I’ve seen your face before.” He stroked her jaw. “An advertisement for Pearson soap, was it?”
She went still. Her skin was satin-smooth, warm, almost feverish to the touch. She smelled, he realized, like a garden in hot weather, climbing roses and jasmine and honeysuckle warmed by a noonday sun.
Their eyes locked. She blushed, then looked away. “That was Miss Ames in the advertisements,” she said. “I am not one of the girls who wins such honors.”
He studied her—the casual grace of one spiraling black ringlet; the faint trace of freckles on the crest of her round cheek. “I can’t imagine why.”
That was empty flattery, of course. He knew why the advertisers favored other Everleigh Girls. This woman before him had no special beauty, apart from the angelic magic of her eyes—and a certain sensual grace in the way she held herself, slim and erect—and the softness and warmth and scent of her skin.
None of which would translate in photographs.
He retreated a step. “I still don’t know your name.” Not a creative remark. But his brain felt oddly unfocused, as though he had just taken a few fingers of whisky.
“Ah.” She turned back to him, and he was oddly relieved when their eyes met and she looked, once again, quite ordinary to him. “You see that it’s hardly worth knowing, though. Miss Ames models for Pearson’s. You will find Miss Snow on the boxes of Ruben’s Toothpowder, and Miss Lowell and Miss Rousseau smiling on bottles of Mr. Munson’s Tonic. I am the lowest in our ranks—I know it very well. But if you imagine this would protect me from jealousy, you’re mistaken. Should the girls come to know of my . . . special friendship with Mr. Everleigh, I assure you they would make my life a misery.” She paused here, slightly breathless—a state that drew his attention, no doubt deliberately, to the snowy rise of her modest but excellently formed décolletage.
It felt wrong to be so riveted by her performance. He had far more important tasks than parrying words with a woman who made her living batting her lashes at the wealthy. Yet . . . what harm in admiring her? She was as cool under pressure as a professional soldier, but her talents clearly ran toward charm and coercion. She would fit his purpose splendidly. A fine spy.
“Such a peculiarly impassioned plea,” he said, “when all I ask is your name.”
“I . . .” Her face briefly went blank, as she groped for a new script to guide her.
He decided to help. The most predictable narrative was also the most credible. Grasping her by the waist, he eased her deeper into the shadows. Unwittingly, she helped by backing into the wall.
It was no hardship to place his face so close to hers that he could breathe the perfume of her hair. “It isn’t Pearson soap you use,” he murmured.
Without hesitation, she murmured back, “I see no need to support my competition.”
He hid his smile by turning his face into her throat. After a night spent in humorless company, she rather felt like balm on a wound. His lips brushed the tender spot beneath her ear as he spoke. “Perhaps you should adjust your aim.” But not her soap. Whatever she used was perfection. “I can think of many areas in which you would have no competition.”
“Oh?” The syllable was more like a croak. She cleared her throat. “Do tell.”
There was no call to keep touching her. She was clearly disconcerted. Yet the scent of her skin . ..
With the very tip of his tongue, he tasted her.
Salt. Flesh. Sweetness. How peculiar and perverse, after so many months of deadness, to feel desire stir now.
But why not? The ferocity of desire was only a shade away from bloodlust, and she would make a very good weapon for him. A fine advantage in the battle to come.
As he breathed against her, her hand briefly tightened at his waist. He understood that the gesture was not meant to encourage him. Nor was it a protest. She touched him merely by way of acknowledgment. He had intentions; she understood that; she would not object.
Had he nursed any doubt about her guilt, this moment would have killed it. Her passivity answered the question he’d yet to ask. What were you doing in that office? Nothing innocent. Otherwise, she would have protested by now.
How far would she go to avoid explaining herself? His curiosity on the matter was as pragmatic, he supposed, as her willingness to distract him. After all, the first rule of war was to know the constraints and potentials of the weaponry at hand.
Taking hold of her chin, he lifted her face. She did not flinch from his regard. Her blue eyes were wide and bright as robins’ eggs.
“Perhaps you’re right,”she said lightly. “You’re rather rotten, after all.”
How refreshing to be viewed so honestly. He offered her a faint smile. In reply, her own lips curved the slightest degree, the angle defiant.
Defiance did not suit him. He leaned forward and kissed the smile from her lips.
Flirt, evade,parry, giggle, flatter . . . The moment his mouth touched Lilah's, these desperate tactics fell away like so much irrelevant fluff.
He tasted like champagne. His lips were warm and soft. He sucked on her lower lip, leisurely, testing, and God help her but the pit of her stomach dropped away. She realized her arms were around him. Only to placate him, of course—and to test a theory.
His suit was not padded. This broad, hard muscle was all his by effort and training. A soldier. Well, she should have known. Not a gentleman after all, with apologies to Fiona. He had not saved her as an act of chivalry. He meant to press his advantage.
He pressed it now as he stepped into her fully, and she felt the size of him, his height and the muscled brawn of his thighs and the . . . distinct protuberance hardening against her skirts. Large, everywhere. Think. A brute. A bully, to catch her in this hall and harass her. She knew how to handle a bully. She—
He opened her mouth with his own. Ah, God, his tongue was clever; the kiss was skillful and gentle in the way that a spider was gentle; as he teased her, as he tasted her tongue and lured it, he wove a snare to trap her. And her body liked it. A delicious heat curled through her; she sagged back and his arm tightened around her waist to hold her against him, keeping her compliant to the ministrations of his clever, clever mouth.
A dozen gentlemen had kissed her. She knew how to handle this. Keep his interest at bay, accept the kiss and then break free, with every show of flustered flattery—
He angled his head. Oh yes, he was clever. Go deeper.
Appalled at herself, she turned her face aside. What was wrong with her?
He made some noise in his throat, a growling sound like approval. Like she’d done something wonderful. He kissed the corner of her mouth, then kissed his way down her jaw. He nuzzled her throat—ah, he smelled of some brand far rarer than Pearson’s. He smelled expensively clean, like foreign spices and Christmas wreaths.
He bit her neck lightly. A sound escaped her. She opened her eyes, goggling at the empty hall over his shoulder. What was she doing?
Perhaps he sensed her distraction. His hand pressed harder at the small of her back, reminding her of the raw power of his large, hard body. Instincts like a predator. Ah, heaven help her, a man who knew how to read a woman’s signals . . . How solidly his muscular thighs cradled her. She could intuit, as though her hand had already pressed against his belly, the hard planes of muscle that knit him together.
She had to stop this. She grasped his shoulder, ready to push him away. But the unyielding bulk fascinated her fingertips. She squeezed, amazed, as his hand slid down her arm, cupping the point of her elbow. His callused fingers stroked her, soothing and then gripping harder as they massaged her forearm, testing her strength as she tested his.
He kissed her mouth again. So sweetly. Had she ever been kissed like this? Pray God this would not be the last time—
“Wait.” That wasn’t the right thought. “I—”
“Shh.” He looked into her eyes, his own the shade of tarnished gold, intent and sharp. He placed a fingertip very lightly against her lips. She stared at him, ensorcelled.
“Someone will hear,” he told her.
Yes, someone would hear. It made a very good reason to stand quietly, passively as he laid his thumb on the wing of her collarbone. His gaze dropped to follow the trailing stroke of his thumb. The backs of his knuckles brushed her breastbone. He seemed only curious. Harmless. Intent on following the slope of her breast.
She licked her dry lips. Someone will hear. She could call out—
The neckline of her gown conspired with him. The tightness with which she’d laced, to compress her waist that extra inch—it caused her bodice to gape, slightly. He reached beneath her neckline, beneath her corset and chemise. His thumb, it knew what it was doing. He found her nipple. Rubbed gently.
This throb between her legs . . .
His next kiss felt like approval, a reward. His tongue played with hers as he stroked her nipple. He was . . . dangerous.
“I don’t think . . .” How dazed she sounded. Like a dash of ice water, it sobered her. She pushed him away.
He stepped back agreeably, one hand slipping into his jacket. Why?
He produced a handkerchief, offering it to her. Befuddled, she said, “No, thank you.” And then, as he retreated another step, the full awareness of her idiocy broke over her, and she felt the blood drain from her face. God above! Everleigh Girls had been sacked for consorting with clients.
She peeked around the corner. The hall remained empty. Thank heavens!
She crossed her arms over her breasts, unhappily aware of how bereft they felt, before she turned back. He was watching her, those chiseled lips quirked in a faint smile.
Her dazzled agitation died instantly. How satisfied he looked with himself! As though he imagined he had been seducing her, instead of using his discovery earlier—her hiding place beneath a desk—to coerce her into a kiss.
Oh, bloody hell. He hadn’t coerced her. She had been seduced. Absurd!
She reached for her composure. Squared her shoulders and straightened to her full height. “But I’m still waiting,” she said, and was proud that her voice did not tremble.
He cleared his throat. “Waiting for what?”
His voice was not so steady, either. That bolstered her. “Waiting to hear the areas in which I might excel.”
He gave a soft laugh. “Apart from the obvious?” His gaze dropped briefly to her mouth. “I’ll gladly tell you, if you tell me your name. Or must I beg?”
She edged away from him before remembering to flutter her lashes. “I imagine you do so very handsomely.”
He laughed again. “I think you’ve seen precisely how I do it.”
She blushed, then wanted to kick herself for it. It was not her way to fall in with the competition. Every other woman in England pined after this man. She counted on herself to remain at least somewhat immune to his charms. “I’m Lilah Marshall. And the rumors are true: you, Lord Palmer, are a flirt.”
“Lilah. A very pretty name.” His smile was dimpled, that long scar on his cheek as pale as silver.
“Now,” she said, “your reply.”
He shrugged and glanced down the hall. “I’m sure, Miss Marshall, that there are many fields in which you are unmatched. Certainly, for instance, the field of lock picking.”
She could not have heard him right. “I beg your pardon?”
When he smiled again, she felt her heart skip a beat. Only now, for the first time, did she notice that his smile did not reach his eyes. His smile was easy and charming; his golden eyes were watchful and dispassionate. His gaze belonged to a sharpshooter in battle.
“I liked you better flushed and sighing,” he said. “Alas, frankness will serve us better. Where you don’t excel is keeping hold of what you’ve stolen.”
What on earth? Her hand flew to her hidden pocket. The letters were gone!
Why, this toff had not been seducing her—he’d been distracting her in order to pickpocket her!
Palmer bowed and started past her. She grabbed his hand, and he pivoted. “Not here,” he said, and nodded down the hall.
The set had ended. Guests were filtering into the corridor to enjoy the cooler air.
Desperation made her reckless. “I don’t care! You—”
His hand twisted in hers, took control of the grip. His palm was much larger, hardened and callused. She tried to yank free. His grip tightened—not to the point of pain, but certainly to the point of clarity. He was far stronger. He could hold her against her will without breaking a sweat.
She looked up, startled, and found herself pinned in his sharp, steady gaze. Silently he waited for her to acknowledge the truth: she was the one who was caught.
A chill ran through her. She took in the size of him, his brawny, strapping build. The gentlemanly polish—his dimples, his clean-cut good looks, his title and fame—had fooled her before. But now she saw the man behind that charming mask. His cool-eyed composure, and the power of his carefully gauged restraint, caused her instincts to sound an alarm.
She made her hand go limp in his. Without hesitation, he bowed over it. “Good evening, Miss Marshall.” As though they had just concluded a dance.
Frozen, she watched him walk away, tall and straight-shouldered. Faintest suggestion of a limp—or was that her imagination?
Guests caught sight of him. Merry greetings rang out. He lifted his hand to them. Never once did he look back.
A war hero! Pah! A thief, a rogue—what did he mean to do with those letters?
She cupped her hands over her mouth as the disaster registered. Why, he could have her imprisoned. Those notes were solid proof that she’d gone into Peter Everleigh’s study to steal.
Worse yet—without them, she could not keep her bargain with her uncle.
Panic robbed her of strength. She sagged against the wall. No matter what Palmer did now, he had already ruined her.