Excerpt: To Taste Temptation

Excerpt: To Taste Temptation

Book 1: Legend of the Four Soldiers

CHAPTER ONE

London, England
September 1764

“They say he ran away.” Mrs. Conrad leaned close to impart this bit of gossip.

Lady Emeline Gordon took a sip of tea and glanced over the rim of the cup at the gentleman in question. He was as out of place as a jaguar in a room full of tabby cats: raw, vital, and not quite civilized. Definitely not a man she would associate with cowardice. Emeline wondered what his name was as she thanked the Lord for his appearance. Mrs. Conrad’s afternoon salon had been paralyzingly dull until he had sauntered in. 

“He ran away from the massacre of the 28th Regiment in the colonies,” Mrs. Conrad continued breathlessly, “back in fifty-eight. Shameful, isn’t it?”

Emeline turned and arched an eyebrow at her hostess. She held Mrs. Conrad’s gaze and saw the exact moment when the silly woman remembered. Mrs. Conrad’s already pink complexion deepened to a shade of beet that really didn’t become her at all.

“That is . . . I . . . I–” her hostess stammered.

This was what one got when one accepted an invitation from a lady who aspired to but didn’t quite sail in the highest circles of society. It was Emeline’s own fault, really. She sighed and took pity. “He’s in the army, then?”

Mrs. Conrad grasped the bait gratefully. “Oh, no. Not anymore. At least I don’t believe so.”

“Ah,” Emeline said, and tried to think of another subject.

The room was large and expensively decorated, with a painting on the ceiling overhead depicting Hades pursuing Persephone. The goddess looked particularly vacuous, smiling down sweetly on the assembly below. She hadn’t a chance against the god of the underworld, even if he did have bright pink cheeks in this portrayal. 

Emeline’s current protégé, Jane Greenglove, sat on a settee nearby, conversing with young Lord Simmons, a very nice choice. Emeline nodded approvingly. Lord Simmons had an income of over eight thousand pounds a year and a lovely house near Oxford. That alliance would be very suitable, and since Jane’s older sister, Eliza, had already accepted the hand of Mr. Hampton, things were falling into place quite neatly. They always did, of course, when Emeline consented to guide a young lady into society, but it was pleasing to have one’s expectations fulfilled nevertheless.

Or it should be. Emeline twisted a lace ribbon at her waist before she caught herself and smoothed it out again. Actually, she was feeling a bit out of sorts, which was ridiculous. Her world was perfect. Absolutely perfect.

Emeline glanced casually at the stranger only to find his dark gaze fixed on her. His eyes crinkled ever so slightly at the corners as if he was amused by something–and that something might be her. Hastily she looked away again. Awful man. He was obviously aware that every lady in the room had noticed him.

Beside her, Mrs. Conrad had started prattling, evidently in an attempt to cover her gaffe. “He owns an importing business in the Colonies. I believe he’s in London on business; that’s what Mr. Conrad says, anyway. And he’s as rich as Croesus, although you’d never guess it from his attire.”

It was impossible not to glance at him again after this information. From midthigh up, his clothing was plain indeed–black coat and brown-and-black-patterned waistcoat. All in all, a conservative wardrobe until one came to his legs. The man was wearing some type of native leggings. They were made from an odd tan leather, quite dull, and they were gartered just below the knees with red, white, and black striped sashes. The leggings split in the front over the shoes with brightly embroidered flaps that fell to either side of his feet. And his shoes were the strangest of all, for they had no heels. He seemed to be wearing a type of slipper made of the same soft, dull leather, with beading or embroidery work running from ankle to toe. Yet even heelless, the stranger was quite tall. He had brown hair, and as far as she could tell from halfway across the room, his eyes were dark. Certainly not blue or green. They were heavy-lidded and intelligent. She suppressed a shiver. Intelligent men were so hard to manage. 

His arms were crossed, one shoulder propped against the wall, and his gaze was interested. As if they were the exotic ones, not he. His nose was long, with a bump in the middle; his complexion dark, as if he’d lately come from some exotic shore. The bones of his face were raw and prominent: cheeks, nose, and chin jutting in an aggressively masculine way that was nevertheless perversely attractive. His mouth, in contrast, was wide and almost soft, with a sensuous inverted dent in the lower lip. It was the mouth of a man who liked to savor. To linger and taste. A dangerous mouth.

Emeline looked away again. “Who is he?”

Mrs. Conrad stared. “Don’t you know?”

“No.”

Her hostess was delighted. “Why, my dear, that’s Mr. Samuel Hartley! Everyone has been talking about him, though he has only been in London a sennight or so. He’s not quite acceptable, because of the . . .” Mrs. Conrad met Emeline’s eyes and hastily cut short what she’d been about to say. “Anyway. Even with all his wealth, not everyone is happy to meet him.”

Emeline stilled as the back of her neck prickled.

Mrs. Conrad continued, oblivious. “I really shouldn’t have invited him, but I couldn’t help myself. That form, my dear. Simply delicious! Why, if I hadn’t asked him, I would never have–” Her flurry of words ended on a startled squeak, for a man had cleared his throat directly behind them.

Emeline hadn’t been watching, so she hadn’t seen him move, but she knew instinctively who stood so close to them. Slowly she turned her head.

Mocking coffee-brown eyes met her own. “Mrs. Conrad, I’d be grateful if you’d introduce us.” His voice had a flat American accent.

Their hostess sucked in her breath at this blunt order, but curiosity won out over indignation. “Lady Emeline, may I introduce Mr. Samuel Hartley. Mr. Hartley, Lady Emeline Gordon.”

Emeline sank into a curtsy, only to be presented with a large, tanned hand on rising. She stared for a moment, nonplussed. Surely the man wasn’t that unsophisticated? Mrs. Conrad’s breathy giggle decided the matter. Gingerly, Emeline touched just her fingertips to his. 

To no avail. He embraced her hand with both of his, enveloping her fingers in hard warmth. His nostrils flared just the tiniest bit as she was forced to step forward into the handshake. Was he scenting her? 

“How do you do?” he asked.

“Well,” Emeline retorted. She tried to free her hand but could not, even though Mr. Hartley didn’t seem to be gripping her tightly. “Might I have my appendage returned to me now?”

That mouth twitched again. Did he laugh at everyone or just her? “Of course, my lady.”

Emeline opened her mouth to make an excuse–any excuse–to leave the dreadful man, but he was too quick for her.

“May I escort you into the garden?”

It really wasn’t a question, since he’d already held out his arm, obviously expecting her consent. And what was worse, she gave it. Silently, Emeline laid her fingertips on his coat sleeve. He nodded to Mrs. Conrad and drew Emeline outside in only a matter of minutes, working very neatly for such a gauche man. Emeline squinted up at his profile suspiciously.

He turned his head and caught her look. His own eyes wrinkled at the corners, laughing down at her, although his mouth remained perfectly straight. “We’re neighbors, you know.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve rented the house next to yours.”

Emeline found herself blinking up at him, caught off guard once again–a disagreeable sensation as rare as it was unwanted. She knew the occupants of the town house to the right of hers, but the left had been let out recently. For an entire day the week before, men had been tramping in and out of the open doors, sweating, shouting, and cursing. And they’d carried . . . 

Her eyebrows snapped together. “The pea-green settee.”

His mouth curved at one corner. “What?”

“You’re the owner of that atrocious pea-green settee, aren’t you?”

He bowed. “I confess it.”

“With no trace of shame, either, I see.” Emeline pursed her lips in disapproval. “Are there really gilt owls carved on the legs?”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“I had.”

“Then I’ll not argue the point.”

“Humph.” She faced forward again.

“I have a favor to ask of you, ma’am.” His voice rumbled somewhere above her head.

He’d led her down one of the packed gravel paths of the Conrad’s town house garden. It was unimaginatively planted with roses and small, clipped hedges. Sadly, most of the roses had already bloomed, so the whole looked rather plain and forlorn.

“I’d like to hire you.”

Hire me?” Emeline inhaled sharply and stopped, forcing him to halt as well and face her. Did this odd man think she was a courtesan of some sort? The insult was outrageous, and in her confusion she found her gaze wandering over his frame, crossing wide shoulders, a pleasingly flat waist, and then dropping to an inappropriate portion of Mr. Hartley’s anatomy, which, now that she noticed it, was rather nicely outlined by the black wool breeches he wore under his leggings. She inhaled again, nearly choking, and hastily raised her eyes. But the man either hadn’t observed her indiscretion or was much more polite than his attire and manner would lead one to believe.

He continued. “I need a mentor for my sister, Rebecca. Someone to show her the parties and balls.”

Emeline cocked her head as she realized that he wanted a chaperone. Well, why hadn’t the silly man said so in the first place and saved her all this embarrassment? “I’m afraid that won’t be possible.”

“Why not?” The words were soft, but there was an edge of command behind them.

Emeline stiffened. “I take only young ladies from the highest ranks of society. I don’t believe your sister can meet my standards. I’m sorry.”

He watched her for a moment and then looked away. Although his gaze was on a bench at the end of the path, Emeline doubted very much that he saw it. “Perhaps, then, I can plead another reason for you to take us on.”

She stilled. “What is that?”

His eyes looked back at her, and now there was no trace of amusement in them. “I knew Reynaud.”

The beating of Emeline’s heart was very loud in her ears. Because, of course, Reynaud was her brother. Her brother who had been killed in the massacre of the 28th.


She smelled of lemon balm. Sam inhaled the familiar scent as he waited for Lady Emeline’s answer, aware that her perfume was distracting him. Distraction was dangerous when in negotiations with a clever opponent. But it was odd to discover this sophisticated lady wearing such a homey perfume. His mother had grown lemon balm in her garden in the backwoods of Pennsylvania, and the scent pitched him back in time. He remembered sitting at a rough-hewn table as a small boy, watching Mother pour boiling water over the green leaves. The fresh scent had risen with the steam from the thick earthenware cup. Lemon balm. Balm to the soul, Mother had called it.

“Reynaud is dead,” Lady Emeline said abruptly. “Why do you think I’d do you this favor simply because you say you knew him?”

He examined her face as she spoke. She was a beautiful woman; there was no doubt about that. Her hair and eyes were dramatically dark, her mouth full and red. But hers was a complicated beauty. Many men would be dissuaded by the intelligence in those dark eyes and by the skeptical purse of those red lips. 

“Because you loved him.” Sam watched her eyes as he said the words and saw a slight flicker. He’d guessed right, then; she’d been close to her brother. If he was kind, he’d not presume on her grief. But kindness had never gotten him much, either in business or in his personal life. “I think you’ll do it for his memory.”

“Humph.” She didn’t look particularly convinced.

But he knew otherwise. It was one of the first things he’d learned to recognize in the import business: the exact moment when his opponent wavered and the scales of the negotiation tipped in Sam’s favor. The next step was to strengthen his position. Sam held out his arm again, and she stared at it a moment before placing her fingertips on his sleeve. He felt the thrill of her acquiescence, though he was careful not to let it show.

Instead, he led her farther down the garden path. “My sister and I will only be in London for three months. I don’t expect you to work miracles.”

“Why bother engaging my help at all, then?”

He tilted his face to the late-afternoon sun, glad that he was outside now, away from the people in the salon. “Rebecca is only nineteen. I am often occupied with my business, and I’d like her to be entertained, perhaps meet some ladies of her own age.” All true, if not the whole truth.

“There are no female relatives to do the duty?”

He glanced down at her, amused by her unsubtle question. Lady Emeline was a small woman; her dark head came only to his shoulder. Her lack of height should’ve made her seem fragile, but he knew Lady Emeline was no delicate piece of china. He’d watched her for some twenty minutes in the damnably small sitting room before approaching her and Mrs. Conrad. In that time, her gaze had never stopped moving. Even as she’d talked to their hostess, she’d kept an eye on her charges as well as on the movements of the other guests. He’d lay good money that she was aware of every conversation in the room, of who had talked to whom, of how the discussions had progressed, and when the participants had parted. In her own rarified world, she was as successful as he.

Which made it even more important that she be the one to help him gain entry into London society.

“No, my sister and I have no surviving female relatives,” he answered her question now. “Our mother died at Rebecca’s birth and Pa only months later. Fortunately, my father’s brother was a businessman in Boston. He and his wife took in Rebecca and raised her. They’ve both passed on since.”

“And you?” 

He turned to look at her. “What about me?”

She frowned up at him impatiently. “What happened to you when both your parents died?”

“I was sent to a boys’ academy,” he said prosaically, the words in no way conveying the shock of leaving a cabin in the woods and entering a world of books and strict discipline.

They had reached a brick garden wall, which marked the end of the path. She halted and faced him. “I must meet your sister before I can come to any decision.”

“Of course,” he murmured, knowing he had her.

She shook out her skirts briskly, her black eyes narrowed, her red mouth pursed as she thought. An image of her dead brother suddenly rose up in his mind: Reynaud’s black eyes narrowed in exactly the same manner as he dressed down a soldier. For a moment the masculine face superimposed itself over the smaller, feminine face of the sister. Reynaud’s heavy black brows drew together, his midnight eyes staring as if with condemnation. Sam shuddered and pushed the phantom away, concentrating on what the living woman was saying.

“You and your sister may visit me tomorrow. I’ll let you know my decision after that. Tea, I think? You do drink tea, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Excellent. Will two o’clock suit you?”

He was tempted to smile at her order. “You’re very kind, ma’am.”

She looked at him suspiciously a moment, then whirled to march back up the garden path, which left him to follow. He did, slowly, watching that elegant back and those twitching skirts. And as he followed he,r he patted his pocket, hearing the familiar crinkle of paper and wondering, how best could he use Lady Emeline?


“I do not comprehend,” Tante Cristelle pronounced that night. “If the gentleman did indeed wish the honor of your patronage, why did he not pursue you through the channels usual? He should compel a friend to make the introduction.”

Tante Cristelle was Emeline’s mother’s younger sister, a tall, white-haired lady with a terribly straight back and sky-blue eyes that should’ve been benign but weren’t. The old lady had never married, and privately Emeline sometimes thought it was because the males of her aunt’s age must’ve been terrified of her. Tante Cristelle had lived with Emeline and her son, Daniel, for the last five years, ever since the death of Daniel’s father. 

“Perhaps he wasn’t aware of how it’s properly done,” Emeline said as she perused the selection of meats on the tray. “Or perhaps he didn’t want to take the time to go through the customary maneuvers. He said they were to be in London only a short while, after all.” She indicated a slice of beef and smiled her thanks as the footman forked it onto her plate.

Mon Dieu, if he is such a gauche rustic, then he has no business attempting the labyrinths of le ton.” Her aunt took a sip of wine and then pursed her lips as if the red liquid were sour.

Emeline made a noncommittal sound. Tante Cristelle’s analysis of Mr. Hartley was accurate on the surface–he had indeed given the appearance of a rustic. The problem was, his eyes had told another story. He’d almost seemed to be laughing at her, as if she were the naïf.

“And what will you do, I ask you, if the girl is anything like the brother you describe?” Tante Cristelle arched her eyebrows in exaggerated horror. “What if she wears her hair in braids down her back? What if she laughs too loudly? What if she wears no shoes and her feet, they are so dirty?” 

This distasteful thought was apparently too much for the old lady. She beckoned urgently to the footman for more wine while Emeline bit her lip to keep from smiling.

“He is very wealthy. I discreetly inquired about his position from the other ladies at the salon. They all confirmed that Mr. Hartley is indeed one of the richest men in Boston. Presumably, he moves in the best circles there.”

“Tcha.” Tante dismissed all of Boston society.

Emeline cut into her beef serenely. “And even if they were rustics, Tante, surely we should not hold lack of proper training against the chit?”

Non!” Tante Cristelle exclaimed, making the footman at her elbow start and nearly drop the decanter of wine. “And again I say, non! This prejudice, it is the foundation of society. How are we to discern the well-born from the common rabble if not by the manners they keep?”

“Perhaps you’re right.”

“Yes, of course I am right,” her aunt retorted. 

“Mmm.” Emeline poked at the beef on her plate. For some reason, she no longer wanted it. “Tante, do you remember that little book my nanny used to read to Reynaud and me as children?”

“Book? What book? Whatever are you talking about?”

Emeline plucked at the bit of gathered ribbon on her sleeve. “It was a book of fairy tales, and we were very fond of it. I thought of it today for some reason.” 

She stared thoughtfully at her plate, remembering. Nanny would often read to them outside after an afternoon picnic. Reynaud and she would sit on the picnic blanket as Nanny turned the pages of the fairy tale book. But as the story progressed, Reynaud would creep unconsciously forward, drawn by the excitement of the tale, until he was nearly in Nanny’s lap, hanging on every word, his black eyes sparkling.

He’d been so alive, so vital, even as a boy. Emeline swallowed, carefully smoothing the raveled ribbon at her waist. “I only wondered where the book could be. Do you think it’s packed away in the attics?”

“Who can say?” Her aunt gave an eloquent and very Gallic shrug, dismissing the old book of fairy tales and Emeline’s memories of Reynaud. She leaned forward to exclaim, “But again I ask, why? Why do you even think to agree to take on this man and his sister who wears no shoes?”

Emeline forbore to point out that as of yet, they had no intelligence concerning Miss Hartley’s shoes or the lack thereof. In fact, the only Hartley she knew about was the brother. For a moment, she remembered the man’s tanned face and coffee-brown eyes. She shook her head slowly. “I don’t know exactly, except that he obviously needed my help.”

“Ah, but if you took all who need your help, we would be buried beneath petitioners.”

“He said . . .” Emeline hesitated, watching the light sparkle on her wineglass. “He said he knew Reynaud.”

Tante Cristelle set down her wineglass carefully. “But why do you believe this?”

“I don’t know. I just do.” She looked helplessly at her aunt. “You must think me a fool.”

Tante Cristelle sighed, her lips drooping at the corners, emphasizing the lines of age there. “No, ma petite. I simply think you a sister who loved her brother most dearly.” 

Emeline nodded, watching her fingers twist the wineglass in her hand. She didn’t meet her aunt’s eyes. She had loved Reynaud. She still did. Love didn’t stop simply because the recipient had died. But there was another reason she was contemplating taking on the Hartley girl. She felt somehow that Samuel Hartley hadn’t been telling her the whole truth of why he needed her help. He wanted something. Something that involved Reynaud.

And that meant he bore watching.