Excerpt: A Midnight Dance

Prologue

“I have a plan!” Isabelle Laurent announced the moment she yanked Sabine inside the costume room at their father’s grand theater and slammed the door shut.

Elaborate costumes and colorful plumes, wigs, and props for the latest comedy, The Foolish Wives, filled the space. The very play that could be heard faintly, the actors’ voices seeping into the silence.

Sabine frowned. “What plan? What are we doing here?” Her ire was stirred. Mischief shone in her twin’s eyes. Tonight, Sabine wanted no part of her sister’s scheme. Whatever it was. The play was almost over, and she wanted to spend the remaining time watching her dark-haired prince from behind the stage. The only place Father allowed them to be when at his comedies.

Unseen and out of the way.

Her Dark Prince was in attendance. And it was all because of her lucky new shoes. Covered entirely in glass beading, Isabelle referred to them as “the glass slippers.” The last three times Sabine wore them, her Dark Prince had attended the play, her father’s theater drawing royalty and aristocracy alike.

Though he wasn’t really a prince, he was the firstborn son of the powerful and prominent Marquis de Blainville.

Jules de Moutier. He was nineteen.

And without a doubt, the finest male she’d ever seen in all her fifteen years. And oh how exceptional he looked…Tall. Beautiful. With dark hair. Mesmerizing dark eyes. And when he smiled or laughed–a rich masculine sound that was music to her ears–he had the most attractive dimples near his mouth that made her heart melt.

Always the center of attention, he had such commanding presence, drawing all eyes in the room to him. But he never noticed her. Never glanced her way. Not with so many silly females vying for his attention, all but giddy when they captured it.

Oh, but he’d definitely notice her next year, when she’d be introduced to society. And Sabine already knew what she’d wear–a golden-colored gown.

And of course, her lucky glass slippers.

She was counting the days. Had dreamed of their meeting at the ball. Their dance. The moment he’d declare his affections. And their first kiss. She was going to give him his best kiss ever! Better than any of the females she’d seen him kiss on those heart-sinking occasions, when he thought he wasn’t being observed.

She could barely stand the wait.

“I’m leaving.” Sabine turned, anxious to get back to Jules.

“Fine. Go. I’ll get close to the handsome Moutier brothers all on my own.”

That stopped Sabine dead in her tracks. Isabelle had a tendre for Jules’s younger brother, Luc. And a rash, impetuous nature. She adored her sister, loved her with all her heart. They couldn’t be any closer even though they were as different physically as they were in spirit.

“How are you going to do that?” She couldn’t stop herself from asking, despite being much more levelheaded and less adventuresome.

Isabelle smiled. “I’m going to slip out that door.” She pointed to the one at the opposite end of the room. “And run up the alley to the front of the theater. The audience is about to leave and I’m going to brush past Luc.”

Sabine’s mouth fell agape. “You’re not!”

Isabelle was now grinning. “I am.”

“Father will be furious.”

“Only if he finds out. You can stay, or you can come with me.” Isabelle blew her a kiss and bolted out the door.

Sabine remained indecisive for all of two heartbeats before she tore out of the room and was on her sister’s heels, the thought of getting close to Jules quickening her steps. As she raced up the darkened alley, Isabelle’s laugh drifted back to her on the warm summer breeze, inspiring her own. Sabine emerged onto the main street near the front entrance of the theater. Her foot slid out from under her, her bottom colliding hard with the cobblestone road; a sharp pain shot up her spine and made her wince.

The roar of laughter from the crowd exiting her father’s theater assailed her ears. Her left palm stung. Her derriere ached. And she blinked back the tears, mortified by the spectacle she’d just made of herself. Chin-down, she was too afraid to look up. Afraid that in the crowd she’d see her Dark Prince, or rather, see him laughing at her.

Isabelle was at her side in an instant, falling to her knees and throwing a consoling arm around her shoulder. “Sabine…”

A pair of black polished boots appeared next to her just then. She looked up. Her heart flip-flopped.

It was he. The handsomest man in the realm. Her dark-haired prince!

He lowered himself down on his haunches. “Are you all right?” he asked, his voice caressing over her. She was lost in the vision he made, his most kissable mouth voicing words of concern for her.

She blinked.

He frowned slightly. “Is she mute?” he asked Isabelle.

“No, my lord. She can speak.” Her sister pinched her back.

Sabine flinched. “I–I am fine. Thank you.”

Then it happened. He smiled. At her! And what a glorious smile it was.

“You lost your slipper,” he said. Picking up her fallen shoe, he gently clasped her ankle and slipped it back on her foot. She forgot to breathe.

He rose, and to her amazement, he held out his hand. Isabelle pinched her harder. Sabine jerked and quickly placed her hand in his. It was warm, strong, and felt so right. She knew he’d held the hand of many beauties from the finest families in the noble class, but at that moment his hand was all hers. His attention was hers. His melting smile was only for her.

She rose with his help, ignoring the pain in her backside.

“Do be careful.” Then he leaned in. The world shifted beneath her feet. Her breath lodged in her throat. “You have beautiful hair,” he whispered in her ear, and with a wink he walked away, enveloped back into the throng that had been waiting for him.

“Oh, Sabine…” Isabelle stepped up behind her and, hugged her around the waist. Resting her chin on Sabine’s shoulder, she said, “Can you believe what just happened?”

Her hand and ankle still tingled where he’d touched her. The glass slippers had more than worked their magic this night. And she knew right there and then, down to her very marrow, that the next time they’d meet, there would be more magic to come…


Chapter ONE

Once upon a time there was a woman whose life was in cinders. Her story has been retold many ways, many times, throughout the realm. Throughout time. Her family’s wealth was gone, as were their elegant home, and their prestigious theater. They were as lost to her as her girlhood dream of marrying a man she’d loved from afar. A man who was well beyond her reach.

A man she’d dubbed her Dark Prince, for he was tall, dark, and oh so handsome. But her opinion of him had soured. No longer did she believe in a happily ever after.

Yet one night, at the stroke of midnight, the stars aligned.

Destiny stepped in.

And she came face-to-face with her Dark Prince.

But she didn’t arrive before him as she’d dreamed all those years ago. She was not in a golden-colored gown, but in humble attire, not in a gilded carriage, but in a rickety cart, as worthless as a pumpkin, driven by two men, as meek as mice…carrying wine mixed with a special potion…

August 1658–Just past the stroke of midnight…

This was sheer madness.

But what choice did she have?

Sabine Laurent struggled to maintain a brave facade before her two younger cousins.

The flickering flames of the campfire ahead drew closer and closer as her cousin Gerard drove their cart through the darkened forest. Her heart thundering in her ears, she could barely hear the crunching of twigs and leaves beneath the wooden wheels.

Robert, Gerard’s younger brother, sat silently in the back with the flagons of wine, the very air around them thick with tension and trepidation.

“Sabine, what if this goes terribly wrong?” Gerard whispered, his tone laced with dread.

That was the very question tormenting her. She prayed she wasn’t leading them to their death. But then, if they didn’t have the funds they owed in two weeks, they were all dead anyway. Not just the three of them, but the balance of her family, who were at home, thankfully unaware of what she was about to do. Unaware that at the marketplace, mere hours ago, she’d stumbled upon the very miracle they needed.

“You will call me Elise. Not Sabine. All will be well if we do not deviate from the plan,” she managed to say firmly, her tone belying her mounting fear. For the first time since her father’s death last month, there was a glimmer of hope. A way to clear their debts and spare their lives.

A means to more than restore her family’s fortune.

A means to search for Isabelle…Her throat tightened instantly. She missed her sister more than she could allow herself to feel. The pain was too excruciating to bear.

Isabelle was her other half. Her heart and soul now empty without her.

Sabine took in a quiet breath and steeled her courage.

Just ahead, in the heavily guarded camp, there was a wealth in silver.

And by God, she was going to steal it.

She couldn’t–wouldn’t–have anything else taken from her. Or lose anyone else she loved. Her losses in the last eight years had been too many. And too great.

Fate had finally shone in their favor. That morning she’d chanced upon the most incredible conversation between two thieves-of-the-sea. Clearly, the two degenerates thought that in a town filled with ignorant French peasants, so far from the Italian border, it was safe to discuss in Italian their latest captured prize from Spanish ships and the route they were taking to rendezvous with more men of their ilk.

But Sabine had understood every astounding word.

There were many things she blamed her father for. There were many reasons she still harbored bitterness toward him, even after his death, but the education he’d provided his twin daughters with was better than what most women of the upper class received.

Male laughter erupted from the camp. Sabine jumped.

Stay calm. You can do this. You can.

She was no stranger to the theater. Her late father was the prominent playwright Paul Laurent. She’d been raised around actors and knew how to put on a convincing performance. As children, she and Isabelle used to write their own plays and perform them for the servants. Acting was in her blood. She could play any role.

Even the role of a whore.

Sabine adjusted her neckline a fraction lower, her fingers fidgety, the coarse material a sharp contrast to the sumptuous gowns she once owned. Her wealthy middle-class family had had social standing once. A magnificent townhouse in one of the most prestigious areas in Paris. A bright future.

Now their future was bleak–that is, if they didn’t get hold of that ever-nearing treasure.

“What will we do if we cannot get them to drink the tainted wine?” Gerard pressed. “What will you do if, when alone with their leader, he wishes to sample you before the drink?”

Another round of laughter rushed up at her from between the trees and shrubs. Tightening her jaw, Sabine stared straight ahead at the camp with cold resolve.

She’d come to terms with exactly what she’d do. Though she’d never admit it to her cousins, she was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice and let the scoundrel have her body. She’d detach herself from the act, numb herself to it–just as she’d numbed herself against the loss of her sister these last five years–and acquiesce.

Whatever it took to succeed, that’s what she’d do.

She couldn’t enter a situation like this and not be resigned to the very real possibility that he’d have her before she’d get him to down the wine.

“They could murder you, Sabine. All of us. But not before they rape you. Repeatedly,” Gerard added.

Dear God, she didn’t need this. His words were only shredding her courage.

“Leave Sabine alone, Gerard,” Robert defended. “If–If she says it’s going to work, I believe her.” Sweet Robert, just sixteen, trusted in her. Her family had always looked to “sensible Sabine” to fix matters. There was nothing “sensible” about this plan. But desperate people were forced to do desperate things. It sickened her that this was all she could come up with to save them from the consequences they faced.

“If we don’t pay the taxes we owe the Crown, they could arrest us and throw us into debtors’ prison,” she said tightly. “You’ve heard the stories. You know what happens to women confined in cells with all male guards. They are raped. Repeatedly. And let’s not forget the conditions of the prison. Disease is rampant within its walls. I doubt we’d all survive the incarceration. And if they decide instead to cast us off our land, we’ll starve. One by one. There will be no escaping it. Hunger is still widespread. The realm has yet to recover from the ravages of the Fronde.” The Fronde–the civil uprising incited by a group of ambitious noblemen had almost dethroned their young King and thrown the country into chaos. Five years since the end of the unrest, and still the realm reeled.

If only there had never been an uprising.

If only her father hadn’t sunk them further into debt once they were forced to move out of the city to their country home. If only he hadn’t sent Isabelle away. She’d still have her sister. Then she wouldn’t be so hollow inside.

“But, Sabine…this plan…” Gerard’s voice trailed off.

Why did he insist on arguing with her? He knew the reality they faced.

“Gerard, if you”–twisting around, she looked back at Robert–“either of you have a better plan, speak of it now.”

Robert lowered his eyes.

“Well?” she pressed, demanding a response.

“I’ve no other plan,” Robert murmured. “Though I wish I did.”

So did she. Sabine turned her attention to Gerard.

“What about you, Gerard? Have you something better to suggest?” In the moonlight, she could make out his profile as he stared straight ahead.

His face was taut and he swallowed hard before he said softly, “No.”

“Then we’ll proceed with my plan.” Good God. She was really going to go through with this.

She was going to have to face a camp full of men, convince them that a woman who was still a virgin was an experienced harlot, and persuade their leader to purchase her services. It was the only way to enter the camp. Once inside, she and her cousins would have to make sure every man ingested at least some of their tainted wine.

Heaven help them. This plan is beyond mad…

She readjusted the neckline of her dress, desperate to distract herself from the terror twisting in her belly.

This is going to work out in our favor because it has to.

“A King’s ransom in silver is just ahead. Our plan will work. Be brave.” It amazed her how courageous she sounded while her very entrails quivered and quaked, unsure exactly whom she was trying to reassure more–them or herself.

“Well, well, what have we here?” The voice came out of nowhere.

Her heart lurched.

A dark-haired burly man had appeared from the thicket with several large intimidating friends. He scratched his scruffy chin and grinned. It was mirthless and menacing.

She met Gerard’s gaze. The fright in his eyes was unmistakable. Her courage faltered.

“Go on,” she whispered, forcing the words out. There was no turning back now.

These men didn’t look as though they’d let them simply drive on past.

Gerard glanced at the men and gave her one last look. Holding his gaze, she silently pleaded for him to proceed before her courage completely gave out, her bottled-up fright so barely contained.

Finally, he cleared his throat and got down from the cart.

“Sir, we’re hungry and your cooking fire drew us. Spare us some food and we’ll provide you with wine to wash it down.” Gerard sounded so convincing, it elated her. All those times she and Isabelle used to force him to act in their plays had rubbed off on him.

The brute chuckled, his comrades joining in.

Slowly he unsheathed his sword. The ominous blade gleamed in the moonlight. Sabine’s stomach dropped. He placed the tip to Gerard’s chest in proximity to his heart. Her cousin stiffened. A scream lodged in her throat. Dear God…

“We don’t share,” the brute said, “unless it’s the woman you’re offering.” The roar of male laughter assailed her ears. Every pair of eyes from the unruly bunch was fixed on her in lewd assessment.

“Wh-Who is the leader among you?” Gerard asked. “I w-w-will offer the woman to him and only him in exchange for food.”

Jésus-Christ, Fabrice, put the sword down before he pisses his breeches.” A tall thinner man with blond hair approached.

With a muttered curse, Fabrice reluctantly lowered the blade.

“Who are you?” the blond man asked Gerard. “State your business here in these woods truthfully, or I’ll have Fabrice finish what he started.”

Gerard looked up at her, his reluctance to continue clearly readable on his face. She nodded to him to proceed. Courage, now. The blond man didn’t seem as frightening as his friends.

Gerard looked at the ground. Taking in an audible breath, he released it slowly before he was able to speak again. “We’ve been traveling all day and are hungry,” he wove his tale. “We offer some wine to your men–and the woman only to your leader–in exchange for food.”

“Why only him?” Fabrice lamented.

“Silence!” the blond man snapped. He then looked up at her and said, “Step down and come closer.”

Sabine clenched her teeth to keep them from chattering. The moment her feet touched the ground, she was relieved her knees didn’t buckle beneath her.

She approached the blond man on shaky limbs, managing to conceal her disquiet.

He looked over her upturned face, then down her body with a dispassionately critical eye. She held in her outrage. Never in her life had she been so crudely assessed. But then, whore wouldn’t mind the preview.

And that is how you must act.

“Turn around,” he demanded.

Sabine turned slowly, allowing him time to assess her backside, fighting down the humiliation with purposeful resolve. This is all part of the role.

When at last she faced him again, he said, “Good. Wait here. I’ll speak to the commander and suggest your deal to him.”

********

Merde, Raymond, have you lost your fucking mind?” Jules Thomas de Moutier snarled. Members of his crew who’d been sitting around the fire immediately rose and cleared the area, noting his escalating ire. “You allowed someone close to the camp when we hold our biggest capture to date?”

The rest of the men stood guard around the perimeter of the camp. Too many desperate peasants would risk death for what he had in his covered carts.

Raymond shook his blond head. “They’re harmless–a woman and two men, no, more like boys, merely looking for food. Take a look at the woman. You will like what you see,” he implored.

“I don’t care what she looks like. Jésus-Christ, I’ve more important things on my mind.”

Five years. Five horrific years he’d spent privateering, preying on Spanish ships and ports during the realm’s ongoing war with Spain. And finally he’d accumulated enough wealth.

With this latest prize he could repurchase his family’s lands. Or at least part of them. By God, he’d repurchase parcel by parcel if he had to until he’d reclaimed everything that had belonged to his family.

Everything that had been wrongly stripped from them.

Everything that was rightfully theirs.

Once he had enough land, respectability would follow. Enough time had passed since his family’s disgrace. He prayed that he could convince someone to talk. Someone out there knew the truth about who’d so treacherously doomed his father.

And why.

“My lord, as a loyal servant to your family for many years, to you, personally, during your time in the King’s Navy, I know how difficult it has been for you since your father’s death. But-“

Death, Raymond? He didn’t simply die.” Jules couldn’t keep the venom from his tone. “He was falsely convicted and executed for treason.” Why the bloody hell was Raymond bringing up the subject? He knew better. The mere mention of his father’s tragic end immediately hurled him into a volatile mood. Just about anything set him off now. He barely recognized the man he’d become over the last five years. Angry. Bitter. The man he once was, was gone, along with his birthright. His family’s honor.

His beloved father.

“Be that as it may,” Raymond said. “What I do not understand, my lord, is this celibate lifestyle you’ve adopted. How many times have we come ashore and you have allowed the men to sate themselves? Many. How often have you indulged yourself? Rarely. You’ve always had your share of beautiful women, all but begging for any sexual favors you were willing to bestow upon them.”

Unwanted memories of his past sexual exploits flooded his mind. His body tightened, a physical reminder that his latest stint of celibacy had been lengthy.

“Raymond,” he said, his voice low, edged with fury, “are you trying to torment me this night?”

“Of course not! I’m trying to alleviate some of your torment.”

His torment wasn’t going to be alleviated by thinking about those days when he’d had it all–when he was heir of the Marquis de Blainville. A distinguished officer in the King’s Navy. And had his choice of women wherever he went, indulging in carnal diversions–his favorite vice–when he wasn’t occupied with his naval duties.

In his absences from home, he never imagined anyone would fabricate lies–that his father had been in league with those who’d tried to overthrow the King during the Fronde. Or that he and his brother Luc would be stripped of their nobility, their lands, tossed out of the Navy, and forced to feed themselves by captaining privateer ships for Simon Boulenger, the captain of the realm’s unofficial fleet.

He hated what he’d been reduced to, what had been done to his family’s name. Not a friend to be found in the cursed lot of his peers.

And now Raymond wanted him to purchase sex. This added a different dimension to his humiliation. A humbling example of how far he’d fallen for a man who had always been offered carnal pleasures in abundance for free.

It was damned difficult for his pride to bear.

And so he took to abstaining until he reached a point where he could stand it no longer; then and only then did he allow himself a brief fuck, the women utterly forgettable. In fact, in the last five years, he couldn’t remember a single one of their faces.

He’d sooner take his cock in hand than pay this camp follower for sex.

Jules placed his hands on his hips and gazed at the crackling fire. “Get rid of her. All of them. I’m not interested.” His life was on the verge of changing at last. As soon as he delivered this latest capture to Boulenger, he’d take his share of the bounty and walk away from privateering for good.

“No,” Raymond answered defiantly for the first time ever.

Jules’s gaze shot to his servant. “What did you say?”

Raymond swallowed. “It–It is out of regard for you that I decline. To speak frankly, my lord, it has been difficult to watch your self-induced suffering with these long periods of abstinence.” He shifted his weight, nervously. “Did–Did I mention her fair coloring? It is the very type you have always preferred…”

Jules crossed his arms over his chest, wrestling with his ire.

“M-May I be frank again, my lord?”

“Well, of course, Raymond,” he responded tightly. “There seems to be no stopping you tonight.”

“This latest capture is significant. It would be beneficial if you had a clear mind. Knowing you as I do, you’re ready to leap out of your very skin.”

Jules tamped down his resentment. He knew Raymond’s words were true, but he was damned if he was going to admit it.

“My lord, she is attractive, blond, and here. It is something you need.”

Jules’s patience finally snapped. He stalked up to Raymond and growled in his ear. “What I need is my life back, not a fuck in the forest.”


Chapter tWO

Robert began to mutter a prayer.

“Stop that!” Gerard whispered forcefully, immediately silencing his younger brother.

Sabine ignored them, trying to peer between the trees in the distance, her attention focused on what she could see of the camp–more particularly, the “commander.” The blond man was speaking to someone, but she couldn’t see to whom.

Fabrice and another man remained a short distance away, keeping guard and preventing them from getting any closer.

It was then that the blond man stepped back, revealing the commander to Sabine.

Her breath caught.

It couldn’t be…Sabine stared harder. No. It only looked like him. It couldn’t actually be…

She watched intently as the dark-haired man stalked away from the blond man, disappearing behind the trees then reemerging near Fabrice and the other guard.

Robert gasped. “It’s the Marquis de Blainville’s son!”

Stunned, Sabine stared at the unmistakable sight of Jules de Moutier. He was in profile talking to the blond man once more. And he seemed angry.

Sabine tore her gaze away and looked at the ground, trying to control her breathing. Good God. She couldn’t believe it!

“You–You said they were thieves, Sabine,” Robert whispered. “We cannot steal from a noble.”

“Quiet, Robert!” Gerard snapped. “He is an ex-noble. His family was stripped of everything when the Marquis was convicted as a traitor. Their lands reverted to the Crown. That’s why we owe taxes to the King and not him or his family. He is nothing.”

Not true.

Jules de Moutier had had too much impact on her life to be dismissed as nothing.

Memories of watching him arrive at the theater, always surrounded by men and women who hung on his every word, were still vivid in Sabine’s mind.

Sinfully beautiful, his potent appeal–that knee-weakening smile and those fathomless eyes had had her utterly enthralled. Heart, body, and soul.

Yet that was all before the mighty Moutier family had brought about her family’s ruin.

Except for his occasional irritating invasion into her dreams, she hadn’t seen him in eight years.

You’re going to have to entice Jules de Moutier into purchasing your sexual favors. Incredulous, she reeled.

Her eyes were drawn back to him standing in the distance.

He wore a white shirt and black breeches. His hair was longer than the last time she’d seen him; his shoulders were broader, too. He looked more muscled, stronger. Gone were all signs of his boyish charms. With his confident manner, his tall powerful body, he exuded authority on a whole new level. He was every bit a man, with an edge of danger. And even more devastating to behold. Her stomach fluttered wildly.

The unexpected physical response ignited her ire.

She wasn’t the same foolish girl who used to drain inkwells writing stories with Isabelle about the two gorgeous Moutier brothers, and how the men would fall madly in love with them and whisk them off to their castles. Back then she’d had more romantic, utterly unrealistic dreams of Jules than she could count.

She’d been naive about how corrupt the Moutier family was.

Until the Fronde, when traitorous families like the Moutiers had thrown the realm into turmoil for five years. And driven so many into financial despair.

Her father had lost their theater because of it and sold their country estate, land that had belonged to her family for generations, to the powerful Moutiers, obliging them to pay taxes to Jules’s family just so they could continue to live in their deteriorating chateau–when her family had never been governed by any lord before.

Taxes that were raised at whim.

His family had inflicted incredible hardship on hers.

After all these years, after everything that had transpired, it galled her that she trembled–just being in his presence.

And now her former infatuation was the leader of sea bandits. It shouldn’t surprise her. Further proof of his unsavory character.

“If he recognizes us, we are dead. What do we do, Sabine?” Robert asked.

Sabine looked at Robert’s young face. He and his brother had rarely attended her father’s plays. He actually believed Jules had noticed him the handful of times he’d ridden past while traveling to and from the Moutiers’ neighboring grand country estate.

“He won’t recognize us,” she assured him. He’d always looked right through her at the theater. And the incident with the slipper had been significant only to her. He’d never remember it. “He wouldn’t know us from other lowly commoners. We are going to proceed as planned.” They were going to steal the silver. From a Moutier.

Oh, this was going to be sweet.

She’d show him as much mercy as his family had shown to hers.

Sabine marched up to him and his men, her cousins quick on her heels.

“Good evening,” she said with a smile.

He turned his head, his gorgeous dark eyes locking with hers. A thrill shivered down her spine. She held her smile, irked by yet another physical response he effortlessly inspired.

“Good evening,” he said.

Say something provocative.

“‘Tis a beautiful night. The stars are bright. A perfect eve for one’s delight. No?”

Jules and the blond man exchanged curious glances. A few of the men chuckled. Mentally she cringed.

Whores did not recite poetry.

Not even bad poetry.

You’ll cease behaving like a fool, and start behaving like a prostitute. She wasn’t completely ignorant on the matter. Far too curious for their own good, she and Isabelle had often spied upon the patrons at the theater. She’d overheard sexually explicit conversations between lovers in dark corners, and between whores and their customers in the alley outside.

Focus.

Sabine clasped her hands behind her back and pulled her shoulders back a little, a casual pose that also helped emphasize her breasts–and she needed all the help she could get there.

She was delighted when his gaze dropped to her breasts, knowing they were more visible with her top fastenings undone.

“What say you, my handsome lord? Shall we dismiss these gentlemen?”

He studied her for a moment. She forced herself to stand still and not fidget under the weight of his scrutiny. He crossed his arms and tilted his head to one side. “Have we met before?”

One of her cousins choked on a cough. His response unbalanced her briefly.

She pushed back the apprehension. “I think not. You would be one man a woman wouldn’t easily forget. And I”–she paused for dramatic effect–“leave a lasting impression.”

Male hoots filled the air.

She was pleased with herself. And the double entendre. She would leave a lasting impression on him. Just not one he’d like.

Jules simply arched an eyebrow. “What is your name?”

“Elise.”

“Well, Elise, about your offer, I wish to–“

Sensing the impending rejection, she stepped closer to him, suddenly enveloped by his scent–rugged, masculine, and all too appealing. She tried to ignore it.

“To accept?” she prompted.

He frowned and rested his hands on his hips. “That wasn’t what I was going to say.”

“What a shame. I think you should reconsider.”

“And why is that?”

“Because I’m willing to wager you give a woman a tumble as good as you look.”

Again, male hoots rippled through the small group of his men.

“Commander, she is hot for you!” one guard said.

“If you don’t want her, I’ll take her,” Fabrice suggested.

Her stomach clenched. God help her if he gave her away to the others. It was something she had to prevent at all cost.

Ignoring his men and her compliment, his expression remained unchanged. “That doesn’t give me reason to have you.”

“Ah, but you see, your appeal inspires me.” She rose up onto the balls of her feet and leaned close to his ear. His proximity sent her nerve endings into a frenzy. In as sultry a whisper as she could muster, she said, “I am well worth your time when I am…fully inspired.”

She dropped back down onto her heels and looked into his eyes. Arousal flared in their dark depths sending a hot jolt through her system. She fought against it, refusing to let these annoying physical responses distract her. She would best him. And exact a little bit of revenge on a Moutier, to boot. She’d be the victor.

She had to be.

Sabine forced herself to stare into those disarming eyes, wishing she could curb the calamity he incited inside her. “Oh, what I intend to do to you…will make it impossible for you to ever forget me.” Her smile was genuine.

More male hoots erupted.

A smile twitched at the corners of his lips, despite the heated interest that burned in his eyes. “Really? Do tell, Elise. What are your intentions?”

Boldly, she moved her gaze down his sculpted body, a provocative appraisal, playing her role, buying herself time to think of an appropriate response. It was then she saw the unmistakable bulge in his breeches. Her pulse leaped.

She, a sexual novice, had done that to him–a seasoned rake?

A surge of much-needed confidence filled her. She moved her gaze slowly, suggestively, back up his body, using the time to steady herself against the fresh wave of heat that shot through her blood. She shouldn’t be reacting this way toward him. She understood just what kind of man he was.

By the time she met his gaze again, she’d returned a firm smile to her face. “It would seem that I have sufficiently raised your . . . interest. You can send me away and ponder whether you made the right choice during this long, warm night…here alone in your camp…of all men. Or you can sample what I offer and find out firsthand what I intend.” She tilted her head coquettishly. “What say you?”

Sabine held her breath and waited for his response.


Chapter THREE

No doubt about it. Jules had definitely gone without sex for too long if this woman’s odd attempts to entice him were actually having an effect.

His cock was as stiff as a spike.

He’d had every intention of sending her away. Yet the longer he spent taking in her petite appealing form, her delicate curves, the longer he inhaled the sweet forest scent emanating from her hair, the more his head and his cock were at odds.

And he most definitely liked her pale-colored hair.

Illuminated by the night’s silvery light, it was the color of starlight and moonbeams. Twined into a thick braid, resting on her bare shoulder, it looked silky soft. He was gripped by a powerful urge to untie the bit of ribbon that held it bound and drive his fingers into it. He wanted to tilt her head back with a sensual tug of her pretty hair and feast from the column of her slender neck down to those perfect perky tits she wanted him to notice.

Merde. He was actually lusting after a prostitute.

One who looked like an enchanted creature from the Fae. He could easily envision her lying naked for his pleasure, basking in the light of the moon, like a forest nymph. All his for the taking.

He couldn’t believe it, but for the first time in a very long time, he found himself actually desiring the woman. Not just the release.

Better still, he was affecting her, too. Each time she neared, he sensed her arousal. Even in the night’s light, he could tell she was flushed. A glance at her graceful neck told him that her pulse raced. And her pretty nipples, ones he was dying to taste, were pressed ever so enticingly against her chemise, begging for his attention. Reactions that were peculiar for a common whore. Yet extremely tantalizing.

For a woman of her trade, it was odd to find one who looked so fresh and lush instead of dulled and jaded. It meant she was either a lusty little piece who’d prove to be a spirited sex partner. Or new at her craft.

“Sir?” The elder of the two young men with her spoke up. “The woman for you, some burgundy for you and your men, in exchange for food–and perhaps a few coins. What say you? Do we have a bargain?”

Jules glanced briefly at the young man then returned his attention to his tempting forest fairy. He saw apprehension flash in her eyes for just an instant. That, too, struck him as peculiar.

All right. He’d ask a few questions to allay the niggling doubts that were nibbling at the fringes of his mind, and if she answered them to his satisfaction, he’d have her, and indulge in some much-needed sexual oblivion.

Jules reached for her braid and lifted it off her shoulder, letting its silky weight rest on his palm. Her eyes widened ever so slightly.

Holding her gaze and the braid, he stroked down along the satiny hair–purposely brushing his knuckles lightly against her soft skin–languorously making his way down to the scrap of material tied in a bow that rested so enticingly on her breast. She made the faintest sound. So soft, in fact, he wasn’t certain he’d heard it at all.

He leaned in toward her ear and said, “Elise, you’ve not had a lot of experience whoring, have you?”

Then he pulled back and looked into her eyes, half expecting to see her falter, hoping desperately she wouldn’t. To his delight, she was sporting her usual smile. “I have enough experience to make certain you will be well pleased. Rest assured.”

Good answer. Next question.

He caressed his thumb over the velvety braid. “Who are these men with you?”

“No one of importance. Simply traveling companions. For protection.”

“Are they forcing you to do this?”

“No,” she said without a moment’s hesitation. “I do what I want–” She cocked one delicate brow. “And I want you.”

A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. By the smug look in her eyes, he could tell she was convinced she’d have him at her mercy. He was a born leader. He’d always been naturally dominant, in and out of bed. He planned to have this beautiful, spirited woman completely undone and at his mercy.

Oh, this was going to be sweet.

He hadn’t had good sex in too damn long.

He released her braid. “Raymond?”

“Yes?” He heard the smile in Raymond’s voice. Normally it would have irked him, but in his ardent state, he didn’t care a whit.

“Have a private spot prepared for Elise and me.”

“Immediately, Commander.” Raymond turned and ordered one of the men to do his bidding.

“Martin,” Jules said.

The young man stepped forward from the group. “Commander?”

“Escort Elise and her companions into the camp and provide them with some food.”

“Yes, Commander.”

Jules turned to her and said, “I’ll be with you shortly.”

Her smile grew. “I will follow your man,” she said obligingly. “But at the moment, I find my hunger for you supersedes my appetite for food. I’d rather devour you.” She gave him a saucy wink.

He found himself fighting back another smile, despite the hungry twitch of his cock, his every rakish instinct telling him that they were going to be a perfect sexual match. “I look forward to it, Elise.”

Once everyone had left, Jules turned to Raymond. “Watch the young men.”

“Of course, my lord. They will be guarded the entire time.” Raymond was still smiling.

“And about the burgundy they offer, anyone who drinks a drop forfeits his share of the bounty. I’ll not have any of the men drunk while we possess our capture. Besides, their insistence about the burgundy being part of the bargain gives me pause.” Aside from a handful of people, Jules trusted no one. No matter how harmless they seemed. Not since his world had fallen apart. Not when his silver treasure was going to change his life.

His appealing little blond camp follower was there to serve only one purpose. Once the sexual encounter was over, she and her friends would be turned out. With their wine.

“As you will. No one will drink the wine. And, my lord, you are most welcome.” Raymond’s smile broadened.

Jules slanted him a look. “Don’t be so smug, Raymond, simply because you did well tonight in convincing me to see the girl for myself.”

“We’re quite fortunate that such a fetching and fiery woman came along. Enjoy her–as I’m sure you will–and do take your time.”

Jules smiled. “I plan to.”

This was going to be a night neither of them would forget.


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