Note: Normally, I would post the first scene of the book as an excerpt. But in the case of this book, the first scene is just filled with spoilers for the first two books. So, in the interests of posting a nice long excerpt that won’t completely spoil Goddess or Siren for those who haven’t read them, I’ve skipped ahead just a bit. Enjoy!
With a laugh, Toby swept his temptress and her yards of green silk straight out into the night. Now there was a story the ton would remember, when the names Sir Toby Aldridge and Sir Benedict Grayson bumped against one another in conversation. Grayson might have eloped with Toby’s intended bride, but now Toby had stolen an admirer straight from Grayson’s own arms. He could not call it complete revenge, but he could call it a solid beginning.
And now, he could turn his attention to the gorgeous creature he held in his arms. Could it possibly have been just minutes he’d been yearning for this embrace? It felt like years. A lifetime. Or here, in this Greek-styled colonnade, he could imagine it an eternity. It was as though an enchantment had been cast around them, binding them together with some primeval, pagan magic.
“Remarkable,” he whispered.
She froze in his arms, though she made no attempt to pull away. The rush of cool night air surrounding them only emphasized the heat building between their bodies.
“What, precisely, is remarkable?” Her voice was melodic, and ﬂavored with some foreign spice.
“You,” he answered honestly. “Do you realize, your hair is actually a shade darker than the night sky?” He wound a jet-black tendril around his ﬁnger, enjoying the way her lower lip quivered in invitation. Oh yes, he was in ﬁne form tonight. “And softer than moonlight. How is that possible?”
“It’s not,” she said. “Dear heavens. You do this often, don’t you?”
“Sweep ladies onto secluded terraces and pay them nonsensical compliments.”
“Er… perhaps,” he said, chastened.
“Perhaps,” she echoed. Her look went from one of skepticism to one of dismay.
“Don’t fret, darling. With you, I actually mean them.”
Toby gave her his most disarming grin–that lopsided, mischievous boyish smile he’d honed on a mother and three older sisters, then polished to a seductive gleam. It was a grin that said, I know I’m impossible, but it’s useless to resist. We both know you can’t help but love me.
Except—evidently, this lady could. Her look of dismay became one of despair. She swallowed, then released a ﬂurry of words. “Please tell me you are a lord.”
Toby’s involuntary burst of laughter increased the distance between them. “A lord?”
“Duke, marquess, earl, viscount, baron…” Her eyes were grave and pleading. “Please tell me you hold one of those titles.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, but the arms holding you belong to a baronet. I’m not a lord, but a sir.”
“Ah!” She pushed away from him, ﬂinging her hands wide. The exasperated cry she made, the dramatic gesture—so unreservedly passionate, so deliciously un-English. What other cries of passion might she produce, if expertly provoked? A man could not help but wonder.
“What have I done?” She leaned against a marble column, framing her brow with her ﬁngertips. “Not a lord, but a sir. And a rake, to top it. This… this is a disaster.”
Her accent grew more pronounced as her agitation increased, her vowels tilting at interesting angles. Toby was almost too enthralled to take offense.
“A disaster?” he repeated. “Surely it isn’t so—”
“Such behavior… such impropriety. I’ll never ﬁnd a suitable husband now. What honorable man would have me?” She dropped her hands and looked up at him. “And I couldn’t possibly marry you.”
And that timeless, pagan enchantment? Popped like a soap bubble.
Toby was tempted to point out that he didn’t recall proposing anything, and that the notion of marrying her had not even formed in his mind. But neither of those facts mitigated the innumerable insults contained in her declaration. “Let me understand you. You couldn’t possibly marry me, because I am neither a lord, nor even suitable, nor do I qualify—by your estimation—as an honorable man.” He ran a hand through his hair, muttering, “Right, well. Doesn’t that sum up public opinion nicely?”
“I’m sorry. So sorry. I’m not thinking. You… you make it so I can’t think at all.” She turned and paced away from him. “I must go back inside. I’m a waste of silk, standing out here.”
“To the contrary,” Toby said, enjoying the sight of her nubile form in motion. “I’d say you’re putting that silk to excellent use.”
She gave him a horriﬁed look as she moved for the door. “I must return, before my reputation is completely destroyed.”
“Wait.” He caught her arm. She couldn’t go back inside yet, not before everyone noticed their absence. What sort of revenge would that be? He made his voice soothing. “Please, calm down. Truly, you’ve done nothing so scandalous. You merely became dizzied by the dancing and the closeness of the room, and I’ve brought you outside for some fresh air.” He tugged her over to a bench and motioned for her to sit. “Now, what you need is a bit of refreshment. Allow me to bring you a glass of champagne.”
“Oh, no. I never take spirits, not even medicinally.”
“No. No, thank you.” Her hands ﬂuttered in her lap. “You know I am not truly ill.”
“Aren’t you?” He crouched before her. “I distinctly remember you trembling. I told you I felt faint, feverish. You said you felt the same.” It didn’t seem possible that her eyes could widen any further, but widen they did. “You must have been ill. God knows, the attentions of an unsuitable, dishonorable, lowly baronet could not possibly bring you to such a state.”
“You are teasing me.” The words were an accusation, spoken in a wounded tone. As though teasing were an offense tantamount to stealing bread from beggars. “And we shouldn’t be alone.”
“We’re not in hiding. Anyone could come by at any moment.” Toby tilted his head toward a cluster of guests down the colonnade. “And a few minutes in a secluded corner with me are hardly a barrier to marrying well. Just ask half the ladies in that ballroom.”
She turned a puzzled glance toward the glass-paned doors and the colorful blur of dancers beyond them. “Really, I should be—”
“No, you shouldn’t,” he said, scrubbing the teasing tone from his voice. He needed her to trust him. He needed her to stay. “You’ve nothing to fear from me.”
“I’m an unmarried woman with a reputation to guard, and you are clearly the worst sort of rake.” She touched a hand to the lone ornament she wore: a slender gold pendant in the shape of a cross. “I have everything to fear from you.”
“Have you been reading that nonsense in The Prattler?” Toby rose to his feet. “My dear, don’t believe everything you read in the papers. You ought to thank me for whisking you out of that ballroom and rescuing you from your partner—now there’s a true scoundrel. That Grayson’s the one you ought to fear.”
“But…” She shook her head, her black curls inky against the gleaming marble. “Why should I fear my own brother?”
“Your…” He stepped back, stared at her. “Your brother.”
“Yes, my brother.”
Toby returned to a crouch before her. He braced his hands on the bench, one on either side of her skirts, and stared hard into those dark, solemn eyes. “Tell me your name.”
“Miss Isabel Grayson. I thought everyone knew. True, we’ve only just arrived from Tortola, but the gossip…” Toby bent his head, and her tone sharpened. “Are you laughing?”
When his shoulders stopped shaking, he wiped a tear from the corner of his eyes. What an ass he was, congratulating himself on his revenge. Drawing a lady’s eye from her own brother, what a triumph.
“Miss Isabel Grayson. Good God,” he said, laughter quaking his chest anew. “Have you any idea who I am?”
She lifted her eyebrows. “Other than a baronet? No.”
“I’m Sir Toby Aldridge.” He waited for recognition to dawn in her eyes. He waited in vain.
“Sir Toby Aldridge,” he repeated. Still nothing but blank indifference. “Did Sophia—Did Lady Grayson never speak of me?”
“Never. Should she have?”
Toby ﬂinched inwardly. How quickly she’d forgotten him. “No, I suppose there is no real reason she should. And you don’t read The Prattler?”
She shook her head. “I abhor it. I despise rumor and innuendo, though it seems these people think of little else.” She waved toward the ballroom—another of those expansive, impassioned gestures. “These are the leaders of government and society, yet they seem hopelessly shallow. Children starve in the streets, free men live in chains—but their attention is absorbed with illicit liaisons, marital disputes…”
“Broken engagements,” Toby added bitterly. “Elopements.”
“Revolting, isn’t it?” He clucked his tongue. “Insupportable. I’m quite weary of scandal myself.”
She perked with enthusiasm, a pretty ﬂush warming her complexion. “Do you know, I’ve been in London over a month. I’ve attended dinners and card parties, my brother’s fete, and this ball. I’ve heard ever so many words from these people’s mouths, and all of it scandal and nonsense.”
“And this disappoints you.”
“Of course!” There went her vowels again, lilting and stretching. “It seems no one has any ideas or opinions worth the breath to speak them aloud.”
“But you, Miss Grayson? Something tells me you are full to bursting with ideas and opinions. Not only worth your breath to speak them aloud, but worth the silence of others, to be heard.”
“Oh.” Her lashes trembled. “Truly?”
Such wonderment in her voice, as if he’d divined the very key to her soul. No, he’d done nothing so impressive. He’d merely paraphrased what he knew to be every girl’s desire: someone willing to listen.
Toby was a very good listener.
“Believe me, I come from a family rife with opinionated females.” He felt himself sinking back into those wide, dark eyes, and there he perceived an inner depth to rival her fathomless gaze. Not every girl had that. “I know an intelligent, principled woman when I meet with one.”
Blushing deeper, she looked away. God, she truly was beautiful.
“Feeling feverish and faint again?” he teased. “I know I am.”
A smile pulled at the corner of her mouth.
“Oh, no. Don’t smile. You’ll kill me. I stop breathing when you smile.” Those sensuous lips curved wide, and all teasing aside, Toby’s heart gave his lungs a deﬂating kick.
The irony did not escape him that here sat the sole lady in London who had no knowledge of his recent jilting, nor his outrageous reputation. The only lady who would not regard him as her entrée into the scandal sheets, or a delicious brush with infamy. With her, he could simply be his old, carefree self.
He hadn’t realized, until this moment, how much he’d missed that. Just one more thing Grayson had stolen from him. How the same parents had produced both that scoundrel and this angel, Toby couldn’t comprehend.
A thought struck him. Smacked him, really, with all the force of a brick. Of course. This was Grayson’s sister. If he wanted an opportunity to exact revenge, well then…
Here she sat.