© 2023 by Jordan Summers

GOTHIC PASSIONS CHAPTERS 1-3

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Lady Lily Devlin sat before her dressing mirror while her maid, Tildy, put the finishing touches to her hair. “You look beautiful, my lady.”

“I don’t know why I bother, Tildy, every year it’s the same thing, boring gentlemen standing at attention while I’m being paraded around like a prize to be won. Yet Father dangles me just out of reach. No one ever has deep enough coffers.”

“It’s not as bad as that, my lady. I’m sure your father simply wants to find a fine upstanding man for you.”

Lily caught Tildy’s gaze in the mirror. “There have been many attempts in the past couple of years by gentlemen to catch my eye—gentlemen Father had picked out, but none were of interest to me. I want someone who wants me for me, not my dowry or title.” Lily trembled with anger. “Father must realize after all this dreadful folly that it’s probably too late for me to make a suitable match. I’m practically on the shelf.” Her voice cracked, despite her resolve to remain strong.

“Shelf.” Tildy snorted, pushing at an unruly lock, twisting it back into place on Lily’s head. “’Tisn’t as bad as all that, Lady Lily, surely there must be someone who has captured your fancy.” Hope rang steady in Tildy’s voice.

Lily frowned. “The type of gentleman that is acceptable to Father is in no way acceptable to me. I will not live my life like Mother, wondering when my husband is going to return from visiting his mistress, and crying when he doesn’t.”

Tildy’s face dropped. “God rest her soul. Your dear mother was a saint, I tell you.” She slid the gold hair wrap in place. “Not all men are cut from the same cloth, ‘tis best you remember that when you’re at those fancy balls. You never know who is just around the pillar.” Tildy smiled at Lily encouragingly.

Lily squeezed Tildy’s hand. “I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have you.”

A rap sounded at the door. “Enter,” Lily called out.

Archibald Sterling, Viscount of Devlin walked into the room. His eyes immediately took in the gown Lily wore. “That’ll do,” he said, giving a curt nod.

Lily’s shoulders tensed, but she still managed to hold his gaze. “I’m so glad you approve, Father.” She didn’t bother to conceal her displeasure.

The years of drink had finally taken their toll on the once strapping viscount. His hair, mostly silver, stood out in stark contrast to his sallow complexion and watery blue eyes. His height, although average, had faded from the weight of gluttony resting on his shoulders. Every once in a while, Lily caught a glimpse of the sly fox that lurked just below the surface, the one who’d so thoroughly captured her mother’s heart. At one point Lily and her father had been close, but like time, that day had long since passed. He valued his pleasurable pursuits more than anything…including his own daughter.

“Don’t you have somewhere to be?” Lord Devlin glared at Tildy.

Tildy’s eyes widened and her skin flushed. “Beggin’ your pardon, my lord.” She bobbed a curtsy and all but ran from the room, leaving Lily to face her father alone.

“You will not talk to me in such a manner in front of the servants, do you hear me, daughter?”

Lily bit the inside of her mouth to keep from voicing her instant retort. She calmly rose from her dressing table. “I hear you and obey. As always,” she muttered the last two words under her breath.

Archibald’s eyes narrowed, but he said no more.

“What is it you wished to speak to me about, Father?”

He straightened his jacket and cleared his throat. “I’ve got a couple of gentlemen I’d like you to give special attention to this evening, Lord Thomas Wells and Lord Nathanial Martins. Nothing overt, we don’t want to draw unwanted notice from the gossipmongers.”

“Of course not, we must maintain our reputation.” Lily flashed back to a time when her father’s reputation as a rake reigned supreme in their household. There were periods when he didn’t come home for days. As a child she hadn’t understood, once she’d asked her mother where papa was and when he’d come home. Her mother had been unable to answer. Even at her young age Lily hadn’t missed the fresh tears that had filled her mother’s eyes that day.

As she grew older, Lily realized much of her mother’s life was spent in tears and pain—the pain that comes from having your heart broken one too many times. Lily vowed on the day they laid her mother into the dank moss-covered ground, that she’d never suffer the way her mother had, never cry over a man—never give her heart away to a rake.

Her father cleared his throat, bringing Lily’s thoughts back to the present.

“These two gentlemen have vast estates, particularly Lord Nathaniel Martins. A match with either of these men would be able to return us to the manner in which we wish to live.”

Lily’s jaw tightened. “How do you know these gentlemen?”

Archibald snorted. “Our acquaintance is no concern of yours.” His voice hardened, effectively stopping all argument.

“Does Aunt Margaret know these men?”

He visibly paled. “The Duchess does not enter into the business affairs of gentlemen. Now finish getting ready, the carriage is waiting.” He lumbered to the open door. “If you can’t find yourself a good match, I will.” Archibald tossed back before exiting.

He’d been promising that very thing for years now. Normally Lily wouldn’t have been concerned, but tonight he seemed different. More determined. Desperate.Like it or not, she was running out of time.

 

Lord Lyon observed the crowded ballroom as the first strings were plucked, signaling the beginnings of a waltz. The dancers had already twirled through a couple quadrilles, a cotillion, and a polka or two. A rush of energy filled the room as men and women bustled about, jockeying for position on the dance floor.

The excitement and heat from the crowd sent pulses racing, hearts pounding, and blood rocketing through people’s veins. He’d been in town two days now and still needed time to adjust to the sensory overload.

From his vantage point, lazily perched in the doorway of the salon, it appeared as if half the tonwas here. Richard brought a fingertip to his temple and casually rubbed. It was always the same thing.

For several hours now, he’d been listening to boring dowagers and matrons with half an ear while they gossiped about the poor unsuspecting debutantes. Deciding the fate of the young women with a flick of a fan, as the music strummed on.

The press of the people, the warmth of their heated bodies triggered his hunger. Normally Richard would have found the combination of blood types and present company enticing, instead it left him cold. He missed his manor in Ireland. There he’d been able to inconspicuously sup from the finest necks around, while enjoying the honest friendliness of his neighbors. London seemed cold and dreary by comparison, unwelcoming. And frankly, he was bored. It didn’t look as if this Season would bring him any closer to meeting his bloodmate than the last.

Lady Clayton’s words wafted in the air. Richard smiled, as if her comment about men and their sausages had been amusing, before excusing himself and turning away.

He scanned the crowd. There hadn’t been a single neck that had been able to hold his interest for more than a sip or two of blood, not that he’d indulged. It wasn’t necessary to taste, when you’d been around long enough to obtain the ability to determine uniqueness with one whiff. That’s why he’d paid Rose so handsomely. She kept him satisfied so that he could remain in public without seeming depraved. Unfortunately, since she wasn’t his bloodmate he was never fully sated. Only a bloodmate’s blood would allow him to achieve such a state.

Ignoring his hunger, Richard tugged at the ivory cuff sticking out of his navy jacket, a nervous habit he’d developed years before his human death that he’d been unable to dispel. With Parliament back in session, the ton’sseason was in full swing. Young dandies pranced like peacocks at the balls, catching the eyes of wealthy matrons. Dalliances were arranged in the speed at which it took to bat a lash. At the same time the young Corinthians tried to avoid the parson’s mousetraps.

Richard arched a brow. He knew better than most that wasn’t possible without much experience. The randy bucks’ naiveté amused him, not that he hadn’t dallied with many ladies in the past. Richard’s reputation as a notorious rake was well established in the mind of the ton. Men feared him on the field of business, for he was known to ruin anyone foolish enough to cross swords with him, while women welcomed him with open legs into their beds, his lovemaking skills legendary.

The grand dams had all but given up on him making a suitable alliance, which was for the best considering his special needs. Of course that didn’t stop the matrons from holding out hope for their daughters—and themselves.

Beautifully dressed women stepping out in their first, second, and third Seasons secretively kept their eyes on the available men, calculating how best to align themselves with a good match. Some had been mere chits, while others had gone so far as to dampen their petticoats to accentuate the day’s revealing styles.

Richard dismissed them unceremoniously. He wanted no chit or brazen woman for a wife. Many had tried unsuccessfully to catch his attention. Richard watched his step carefully, never feigning attention to maidens longer than good manners dictated. No one would be able to accuse him of social impropriety or undue interest.

The dowagers obviously hadn’t informed those same maidens about the thrill of a good chase. They stepped past him, sliding glances his way that the blind wouldn’t have missed. Richard’s lips quirked and he shook his head. He knew the temptation of bucking society’s rules well. It was a continual struggle to confine his true nature. Richard watched in anticipation and casually flexed his muscles. It had been a long time since he’d participated in a good game of cat and mouse. He’d find the challenge refreshing.

He supposed he was not so different from the horde. Richard had come to London in search of a very special kind of woman. He looked for neither titles nor for riches, for he had both; more than enough to last several lifetimes. What he sought was infinitely more precious and far more difficult to find, if not impossible.

Richard sought a strong mate who had an innate intelligence, one who could accept life in Ireland, who didn’t need the excitement of the ton, and someone with whom he could converse. He had no patience for birdwitted chits. Beauty would help, but was not essential. Loyalty was absolutely necessary. He couldn’t exactly have the woman he chose running around town screaming that he was a seven hundred-year-old vampyre. What would his peers think?

Richard believed himself to be a reasonable man. He was not hard to get along with, but he was a little set in his ways. He knew what he sought was a tall order to fill. Richard held little hope this Season would be different than any other. A true bloodmate didn’t come around often, in fact out of his many Dearg-due friends, only one of the vampyres had succeeded. Years later, Katherine lost her mate to an attack. Richard arrived in time to save her—barely. She now devoted her time to helping others.

He grimaced. The past held far too many ghosts and the future seemed endlessly bleak. His mood soured. Richard scanned the ballroom, locating the hostess across the room. He’d give his regards, then retire for the evening. He had taken a couple of steps in her direction, when a flash of yellow crepe caught Richard’s eye. Normally he’d just ignore something so minor as a flip of fabric, but not much captured his attention, so he decided to investigate. It would take but a moment, and then he’d be on his way.

Richard pushed through the crowd, stopping to chat along the way. At no time did he lose sight of his ultimate goal. His gleaming Hessians heralded his approach, the soft click indistinguishable to all but him in the throng. There was a flutter of yellow on the dance floor as the lady’s skirt bowed out. The young dandy twirling her took the waltz turn too quickly. Richard cursed inwardly at the man’s clumsy moves. He still hadn’t managed to see the woman’s face, but what he could see of her captivated him.

Lily’s dance partner, Lord Nathaniel Martins took the last turn of the waltz wide, bowing her skirts for all to see. She forced a smile as the music continued. Would this waltz never end?There was no way she would encourage this cretin one moment longer. He’d practically pawed her on every turn, all but slobbering on himself. For the past two hours she’d been by his side on and off, there’d been no attempt at conversation on his part only innuendo, that truth be told, she hadn’t understood.

He ran his thumb over her wrist. Lily shuddered, hoping he didn’t mistake revulsion for encouragement. Lord Martins reminded her of her father in his youth. Extremely overconfident, bordering on obscene vanity, with a smattering of dashing good looks. He relied on his charm to get him by in polite society with no ambition to do more.  She had no doubt it worked on some people, just not her. Lily wanted no part of it. No part of him. She didn’t care what her father said, this match was unacceptable. She’d have to have a word with her Aunt Margaret, the Duchess of Dreyer. Only she was powerful enough to sway her father when his mind was set.

Why her father had suggested Lord Martins was beyond her. As far as Lily could discern he held no attributes other than wealth and a minor title. His character was entirely lacking and wit seemed beyond his comprehension. Yet when her father had escorted her into the ball and Nathaniel had immediately joined them, it had been clear the men had reached some sort of understanding, their acquaintance well beyond mere social politeness.

Lily glanced at the young lord once again, with his smarmy good looks and arrogant face. She swallowed her dislike, slipping on her social mask. The waltz had not changed her opinion of him. She’d placated her father and would do nothing to encourage Lord Martins further.

The dance ended and the ladies were escorted off the floor. Richard found himself standing a few feet away from a vision like Botticelli’s Venus. She wore a cadmium crepe over a pale sarcenet, neatly trimmed with shimmering pearls. Short sleeves, boasting a shower of glowing gems, fit closely to her slender arms. The material gave only a glimpse of her alabaster skin, before it was once again covered by white kid gloves.

Her golden hair hung Roman style with tresses confined at the back of her head in sun-kissed ringlets. A demi-turban formed of pale tawny satin blended beautifully with her hair’s rich color giving her the appearance of a radiant angel sent from heaven. Richard’s lungs seized, if she was an angel then he most certainly represented the devil.

His gaze caressed the sprig of vibrant flowers, which had been placed on one side of her head. So fresh, so full of life, Richard’s gut clenched as he fought the urge to turn away from her beauty. Her only other adornment came from a single strand of luminescent pearls, framing her exquisitely long neck.  She held an ivory circular fan, waving it swiftly, yet daintily in front of her flushed face. The subtle flick of her wrist indicated a good deal of independence.

Richard sucked in a breath and his senses came alive. Every muscle in his body went on high alert. He had to get closer. Did she smell as good as she looked? How would she taste? Richard eased his way through the thickening crowd, greeting old friends along the way, taking great care to appear nonchalant.

As he approached, her rose water perfume assailed him, drawing him nearer, surrounding him, taunting like a mistress trying to lure her lover to bed. Her white skin glistened under the flickering candlelight. Richard’s mouth watered and his fangs exploded through his gums. He swallowed hard, willing his canines to retract. Now was not the time to show his true nature.

A young rakehell of questionable lineage by the name of Lord Nathaniel Martins stood to the lady’s right, along with several other couples. Richard knew him well from his extensive circle of friends. The lady must have considerable connections for Martins to press his suit. He caught the young dandy’s wandering eye and arched a brow, sending out a slight mental compulsion to introduce him to the woman. The man coughed and fidgeted for a second, his face flushing red, before he acquiesced. Martins leaned in and whispered in her ear. She nodded slightly.

The young man turned to face Richard. “Lady Lily Devlin, may I present Lord Richard Stuart, the sixth Earl of Lyon.” The man’s lips were tight as he forced out the words. Richard willed Martins to join the others in conversation, leaving Lily for himself.

Lily turned and inclined her head gracefully then offered her hand. Richard clasped her fingers and bowed. He felt the tremble his touch ignited as he rose to meet her face. Her eyes were of the clearest, palest blue Richard had ever seen. They glowed like the Oughterard sky on a fresh spring morning when everything was in bloom. They widened almost imperceptibly as they locked on his face.

Richard felt himself falling into those blue depths, drowning in the honesty and vulnerability he saw there. He glanced down and realized he still held her hand. Turning his head slightly, Richard coughed and released her fingers, before anyone could claim impropriety.

“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lady Devlin.” His lips quirked and Richard managed to flash Lily a smile without exposing his fangs.

The rose scent clung to her skin, but didn’t mask the sweet smell of the blood coursing through her veins. It was distinctive, rich and pungent, unlike any other he’d encountered. Richard blinked, a tremor of awareness raced through his senses, as his mind assimilated the information his nose sent him. He shifted casually in an attempt to hide his growing arousal from prying eyes. His cock ached almost as much as his fangs. He hadn’t had a reaction like this to a woman for almost seven hundred years. It was…invigorating.

There was something about Lady Lily Devlin that went far beyond her beauty. She struck a cord deep inside him as if her spirit alone could speak to his soul…if he had one.

Lily stared into an unusual pair of obsidian eyes. It was like she peered into the great abyss. Light seemed to be absorbed by them, instead of being reflected back. For a second she saw their naked bodies joined, slick with sweat, twisting in sheets.

Shocked, she drew in an unsteady breath and covered her reaction with her fan. Just as quickly as it had appeared the vision faded. Lord Lyon flashed a practiced smile as if he knew what she’d imagined, which was ridiculous not to mention scandalous. She’d obviously exerted herself on the dance floor and needed to move to the drawing room to recover.

Lily planted a smile upon her face and tilted her head to get a better look at the strange man with the black eyes. True to his breeding, he was tall, well developed—a gentleman to his toes. Muscle was clearly outlined beneath his gray formfitting breeches. Lily swallowed hard, willing her gaze away. Since when had she become so brazen? He wore a navy-colored jacket, cut to perfection, with an ivory shirt and a matching ivory cravat. His Hessian boots had been shined and polished to glimmer in even the faintest of lighting.

Mahogany hair, the color of the finest wood, had been pulled back in a tight queue, which wasn’t particularly fashionable, but looked becoming on him. Lily longed to run her hands through the thick mass. Was it as silky soft as it appeared? Her fingers started to itch. She gripped her fan tighter. His skin was pale, unusually so, but quite the fashion of a gentleman of his caliber. Lord Lyon was a regular Beau Brummell, without the pretense.

Lily shuddered as his eyes raked over her. She had the distinct impression if they weren’t in the middle of a crowded ball he would devour her on the spot. His attention hadn’t gone over the lines of propriety, but it certainly skirted the edges. She had to do something to break the crackling tension. After all, she had no wish to encourage a known rake.

“So Lord Lyon—“

“Please, my lady,” he interjected. “My friends and family call me Lyon.” His eyes flashed, but did not sparkle.

She gave him a curt nod of acknowledgement. “Seeing as though I am neither, I shall stick with proprieties, my lord.” Lily hid the urge to grin behind her fan, while Lord Martins shuffled his feet beside her making small talk with the rest of their group.

Richard’s eyes widened, but he said nothing, only deepened his smile approvingly.

“Is that an Irish brogue I detect in your speech?” she asked, further considering his dress.

“Aye, indeed.” He inclined his head. “It is nice to know the lady not only outshines everyone with her beauty, but is intelligent as well.”

“Thank you for your ’pon rep’.” Her lashes dropped shuttering her eyes. “But I feel your flattery shall be wasted upon me.” She smiled again, this time showing him.

“Why is that, my lady?” Richard arched a brow and took a step closer, still well within propriety, but near enough to impress his size upon her.

She laughed nervously and swung her fan around to tap him on the arm. “Because, my lord, this is neither my first Season, nor my second. I am well versed in the ways of the ton.” The smile she gave him was smug.

His lips twitched. “Then we find ourselves in similar straights, I fear.”

“Why?” Confusion marred her voice.

“Because, my dear lady, up until now we have not found what we have been seeking.”

Lily arched a brow. “And you think that has changed?”

He grinned devilishly, a small dimple appearing on his cheek. “I know it has.” His voice dropped to a husky murmur.

Delicious shivers raced up Lily’s spine as his deep cadence washed over her. Lord Lyon was cocksure. If he weren’t so charming it would be irritating. She looked at him once more, drinking in his handsome features. Lily knew that with his obvious wealth there was a good chance her father would immediately approve of such a union, if Lord Lyon were so inclined.

She tamped down the rush of excitement zinging through her veins and reminded herself not to encourage his attention. Lord Lyon was a rake of the first order and therefore quite unacceptable to her. She had her own requirements to consider. Lily sighed, a bit disappointed.

She held out her hand once more. “I hope you enjoy the rest of the Season, my lord. If you’ll excuse me, I must join my aunt, Lady Margaret.”

Richard quirked a brow, noting her slight blush. If the lady thought he’d be so easily dismissed, she obviously wasn’t used to dealing with rakes of his caliber. The thought eased some of the tension in Richard’s chest. “It shall be my pleasure to escort you to her side,” he said smoothly, capturing her hand and placing it upon his arm. Her fingertips fluttered, then settled.

Lily’s censorious glance called him on his impertinence, but Richard was unrepentant. “Martins,” he said, inclining his head to the man who’d introduced them.

“Lyon.” Martins frowned as they stepped away.

From her first feather-light touch, Richard felt the predator in him stir. He was being socially challenged for the first time in…well, he couldn’t remember how long. How could he have missed such a succulent flower? She’d been under his nose the whole time and like a fool staring at the sky, he’d missed her. He walked Lily across the room to where her aunt awaited. She nodded. He bowed over her gloved hand.

Allowing temptation to get the best of him, Richard brought Lily’s slender fingers to his mouth. At the last moment he flipped her hand over and placed a chaste kiss upon her bared wrist without allowing those around them to see. Lily trembled beneath his lips. Richard hid his smile of triumph and released her.

“’Til we meet again.” He inclined his head, not missing the speculative glance Lady Margaret, Duchess of Dreyer sent him, and then walked away.

Richard wasn’t positive what his next move would be, but he had no doubt he’d be seeing Lady Lily Devlin again. He’d make sure of it. Despite her coolness, she had showninterest.

The beast within him raged as he imagined her naked. He wouldn’t be satisfied until he was able to take Lily in his arms, sink his cock and fangs deep inside her virginal flesh, tasting his fill of her unblemished bounty, all while listening to her scream out the first of many releases. Richard’s shaft rose as the images burned in his mind. He turned on his heel and went in search of familiar prey.

It was time to feed.

CHAPTER TWO

 

Hours later, Richard left the ball. He’d been unable to bring himself to dance with any other women, since his introduction to Lily. In a few short moments, she’d managed to slip beneath his skin, heating his blood to an inferno. Dismissing his valet, Hurley, before leaving, Richard wandered down the street past the many discreet vice dens that catered to gentlemen of his station.

He weaved his way through alleys, having arranged for his man to pick him up later at Caulfield’s. He knew Hurley well enough to know he’d be waiting around the back of the building long before Richard ever reached the entrance. He laughed to himself. His man was extremely predictable and Richard truly appreciated it.

Hurley had been with him for ages, a trustworthy and loyal servant who would defend Richard with his life if necessary. After almost losing Hurley in a villainous attack, Richard made sure that the latter was never necessary.

Like it was yesterday, Richard recalled that horrific moment when he’d thought he’d lost his friend. The night had been black as pitch, much like this evening. Hurley’s body lay in a crumpled heap upon the ground, while three men circled him like a pack of ravenous dogs. In the darkness, the three had mistaken Hurley for a gentleman, growing angry when they’d realized they had attacked a penniless man. The men had kicked and beaten Hurley to within an inch of his life. Fortunately for Richard, they had lingered over Hurley’s body, hovering like vultures, debating whether to finish the job they’d started.

The men’s words became garbled as rage engulfed Richard. Razor sharp talons sprang from his fingertips. A red haze blanketed his mind. Bones snapped. Fangs sank deep. Richard drained one man while ripping out the throat of another. By the time he’d recovered his control three men lay dead with Hurley balancing on the edge. Richard carried Hurley home, later forcing him to drink a bit of his ancient blood. Enough to heal him, yet not trigger a change. It was the only reason Hurley was alive today…one hundred years later.

Because of that hard-earned lesson, Richard was careful…very careful, deflecting suspicion away from his true nature by not drawing unnecessary attention to himself.

On the few occasions Richard had to defend his person, the humans involved had not faired well. He regretted the need for killing, but sometimes it was necessary—just not for food. Contrary to popular myth, vampyres were not mindless monsters and they did not have to kill during feeding.

Richard approached Caulfield’s. The elegantly appointed doorman bowed and then opened the door, granting him permission to enter. The familiar odor of smoke, whisky, and heavily laden perfume wafted in the air. With his exceptional hearing, Richard could make out the conversations of the men participating in the many faro and whist games currently taking place in the other room. He’d join them later. First he needed to assuage his thirst. The owner of the house approached. Richard bowed low in greeting, taking Josephine’s hand.

“Ah, Madam Josephine, you look ravishing as always tonight.” He pressed his lips to her fingertips, then straightened.

Josephine giggled then batted him away. She tossed her ebony hair over her shoulder, removing the only obstacle blocking the view of her bountiful curves. “You’re back, dearest Richard. What may I offer you this evening…the usual?” She cocked her hip and batted her eyelashes.

Richard shook his head. “You know me too well.” He smiled and winked at her.

“I know allmy clients well.” She grinned back, then led him into another room, sequestered away from the gamblers. “You have already purchased Rose’s services for a fortnight, but I’ve got a new girl, if you’re interested.”

He quirked a brow. “Do tell.” Richard wasn’t interested, but he was curious.

Josephine’s full ruby mouth widened into a salacious grin, as she leaned toward him, resting her hand on his elbow, exposing a bounty of cleavage.  Her berry-colored nipples poked out from the top of her neckline, in striking contrast to her pale skin, giving Richard an eyeful as she spoke with a seductive French accent. He knew she teased. It was Josephine’s way of amusing herself. She no longer serviced clients, but she loved to flirt nonetheless.

“Are you going to tell me about your new arrival? I’m intrigued,” Richard purred, trying to sound interested, but not too interested.

“She is everything a man is looking for and more, breeding, grace, and of course a fresh unscathed beauty.” Josephine’s brown eyes sparkled devilishly in the dim light. Then she lowered her voice to a conspicuous whisper. “She’s a virgin. I’ve checked.” She leered. “It’s just a matter of finding the right client to break her in.”

Richard squelched the anger that flashed through him. If his face showed an iota of concern, Josephine wouldn’t allow him access to the woman.

He blanked his expression and hitched a tone of boredom to his voice. “Will I do?” To add to the illusion of calmness, he raised his hand and glanced at his fingernails.

Josephine stared at his face for a few moments in consideration, before smiling again. “Of course, darling, Rose raves about your—expertise. It almost makes me consider coming out of retirement.” For a second, Josephine’s public mask dropped. She licked her lips, glancing down to the front of his breeches before returning her gaze to his face. “Almost.”

Richard cocked a brow.

 As if realizing her slip, Josephine cleared her throat. “You are exactly who I had in mind when I saw her.”

Such an elegant liar, Richard thought, but didn’t say it aloud. He simply smiled.

Josephine was a shrewd businesswoman. She had two ape-sized bruisers with fists the size of mallets that enforced her rules without question. She believed strongly in buying loyalty and made sure they were paid well for their services. It was why she’d been successful for so long. She weighed and measured every man who crossed her threshold and was merciless if you owed her money.

In the past, it wasn’t at all unusual to have a gentleman turn up bashed and battered after being unable to pay his gambling debts, although she was careful to make sure not much claret spilled in the process. Everyone learned by the example she’d had set with her bruisers, so getting cleaned out at the tables and being unable to pay was tantamount to accepting a thrashing.

Josephine led Richard to a small room up the back stairs and down a narrow corridor. Thick red silk draped the windows. The lights had been dimmed so low, it was almost impossible to identify anyone passing by, unless you were standing face to face—which was exactly what Josephine had intended. It was a way to ensure her clientele’s anonymity.

Richard could see everything as if it was the light of day. She pressed a key into his hand, then leaned in to kiss his cheek. Her cloying lavender water perfume almost choked the air out of his lungs, but he managed a smile. Luckily, it wasn’t imperative that he breathe.

Josephine spun on her heel and disappeared down the hall swinging her full hips. Richard slipped the key in the lock and stepped into the room. No candles or oil lamps were lit, leaving the room encased in darkness. Not even a fire warmed the hearth. He scanned the area until he located the woman huddled naked in the corner, rocking back and forth, her arms wrapped around her knees. He stepped deeper into the room, until he could shut the door behind him. Her blonde hair was disheveled and hanging in her face. She had bruises about her slender wrists, as if she’d been shackled. Richard bit back a curse. What in the hell was Josephine up to now?

“It’s okay.” He held up his hands, as if the poor creature could see him. “I’m not going to hurt you.” He purposely added a mental compulsion, willing the girl to calm down. She definitely didn’t belong in here with all the high priced incognitas.

Her eyes widened and she bit her trembling lower lip to keep from screaming.  Her mind operated in a vortex of near madness. Richard walked across the room until he was able to reach out and touch her. He slid a cold finger under her chin and lifted her head.

“What is your name?” he asked.

“A-Amelia,” she sobbed.

Eyes wild with fright, the woman trembled…except she wasn’t a woman at all. Richard stared into the green eyes of a child. She couldn’t have been much more than twelve, if that, although an acceptable age for some, it definitely wasn’t for him. Her youthful innocence reminded him of another…

His sister Meara’s urchin-like face flashed before him. Her bloodcurdling screams still echoed in his mind. The O’Learys had invaded their castle, murdering and pillaging as they progressed. When they reached the inner sanctum, they’d ripped Meara from Richard’s hands as he fought to protect her. In the end, he’d watched as they used her body to slake their lust. Richard flinched in remembrance, his stomach clawing at his insides in impotent rage.

She’d died staring at him, pleading wordlessly, her blue eyes mad with fright and dulled by pain. They ran Richard through with a pike afterwards, laughing as he tried to crawl to Meara’s side. If he hadn’t been "rescued" by a vampyre, he too would have died that day. Richard snorted. Technically he had, but this particular brand of death allowed him to rise every night. On Meara’s grave he vowed to find the men responsible and make them pay. And he had, but their deaths hadn’t lessened his feelings of guilt. It took well over a hundred years for him to realize nothing would. Ever since, Richard went out of his way to protect the weak, the innocent whenever possible.

The girl whimpered drawing his attention away from the painful memories that to this day haunted his black heart. “What are you doing here, child?”

She sniffled, fresh tears forming in her eyes. “M-my father, he owed Madam Josephine much. We were going to lose the house if I didn’t agree to come here and work off his debts.”

Richard fisted his hand as anger surged through him. What kind of man would send his child to pay off his debts, especially in a sporting house of all places? Unfortunately Richard knew his type all too well, a coward unwilling to take the beating Josephine’s men would provide. He shook his head in disgust, stamping down the hunger, beating at his insides.

He scanned the room until he located her clothes, which had been thrown haphazardly in a corner. He strode across the carpeted floor, retrieving them and then handed the muslin gown to the girl.

“Get dressed,” he commanded.

She clutched the clothes, unmoving.

“Now.”

Amelia scrambled to her feet and pulled on her stockings. When she’d finished dressing, Richard lit an oil lamp. Her face flushed and her gaze immediately sought the floor.

“I’m going to get you out of here.” She looked at him, searching his expression for deception. “I want you to take this.” Richard handed Amelia a monogrammed handkerchief. “My carriage is around back. My man Hurley will be waiting. Tell him you wish to seek passage to Ireland. He’ll know what to do.”

Richard waited for her response. He knew she had little choice in the matter given the circumstances. Her reputation lay in ruin despite the fact she’d retained her virtue. He could hardly risk returning Amelia to her home, for she’d probably end up right back here or worse. She slowly nodded, clutching the kerchief in tiny white knuckles.

He snuffed out the light, and then opened the door. A quick glance up and down guaranteed there was no one in the hall. Richard stepped out pulling the girl behind. He’d taken four or five steps when a door opposite theirs swung open and a portly gentleman stepped out blocking Richard’s way.

The man’s forehead leveled with Richard’s chin. His gaze went to Richard’s face, then past him to the girl. The man’s eyes widened and he leered, but said nothing. He stepped aside and let them proceed on. Richard glanced back. The man continued to stare after them, a look of obscene envy plainly written on his pudgy features.

Richard shrugged off the tension in his shoulders. He didn’t give a fop about what the man thought. He knew he’d done the right thing. Richard escorted the child out the back and pointed out his carriage before pushing her on. Amelia clamored down the stairs, then raced for his transport.

Upon encountering Hurley, she handed him the handkerchief and pointed over her shoulder to where Richard stood. He gave his valet a quick nod then returned inside, not missing the final wave the child had sent him. Richard smiled. The girl would be safe. He’d set up a dowry for her upon his return to Oughterard. In the meantime, Katherine, a dear friend, would take good care of her.

His lips thinned as he thought about Josephine. She would not take the escape of her prize possession well. He’d have to make it worth her while. Richard walked to the gambling area, hoping to spot the lovely madam. Instead he encountered the same man he’d seen earlier in the hall.

The rotund man sat at a whist table, losing what appeared to be a substantial purse, his blue eyes locked on Richard’s face. The man continued to stare as he pushed a fortune in blunt forward to match his opponent’s bet.

An inkling of familiarity raced up Richard’s spine, but he knew he’d never met the gentleman. Richard broke away from the man’s weighing gaze to locate Josephine. She stood across the room flocked by several young dandies, attempting to catch her favor. He could hear her delicate laughter over the din of the gamblers.

Richard strode across the room, keeping his eyes on his quarry. The ebony-haired beauty glanced up in time to see his approach, a brilliant smile pasted on her handsome face. It only took her a second to decipher his expression. Her eyes widened and she stepped away from the gentlemen, excusing herself to meet him halfway.

“What’s wrong, darling? Was she not to your liking?” she purred.

Richard reached up and grabbed her elbow, his firm grip looking deceptively light.

“Richard, darling, you’re hurting me. If you don’t stop I’ll be forced to summon Luc and Armand.”

“That won’t be necessary.” His words came out on a hiss. He gave Luc and Armand a look that stopped them in their tracks. Richard released her as they exited the room and headed for the small parlor across the hall. He could easily dispatch both men with little effort, but explaining how he’d done so might cause complications.

Josephine’s smile was back, the line tight with strain. “You must tell me what happened.”

“You sent me in to deflower a mere chit of a girl,” he seethed. “You know my tastes, Josephine, or need I remind you?” He rolled his shoulders, power vibrating off him. “There are other establishments that wouldn’t make such a costly mistake.”

Worry momentarily flitted across her sculpted brow, before returning to its usual placidness. “I only wanted to make you happy. I’ll be sure and punish Amelia for her insolence.”

He choked out a bitter laugh, imagining how easy it would be to squeeze the life from Josephine without ever laying a hand on her body, then quickly dismissed the thought. He wasn’t a monster, at least not wholly. “That won’t be necessary. I’ve rid your establishment of her presence.” 

“You what?” Josephine’s voice rose unchecked.

“I knew from the quality of your chattel you would not want someone like Amelia sullying your reputation. As you know, a child that young couldn’t legally sign a binding agreement. I’m sure the magistrate would agree.” Richard tugged at his ivory cuffs. He knew Josephine would read the threat between his words.

Her eyes widened momentarily, then her lids dropped. “Don’t threaten me, Richard. It’s positively vulgar coming from you.”

“I did no such thing. I’m appalled you’d even think it, Madam.” He cocked his head and arched a brow, giving Josephine his most condescending look. Richard wanted more than anything to let his mask of civility drop long enough for Josephine to see the creature beneath, then she’d truly know what a threat he really was to her. But he’d never purposely harmed a woman and he wouldn’t start now.

She straightened. “Very well.” Josephine sauntered over to a small curio cabinet as if viewing the items contained there. “But you’ve put me out at considerable cost to my person.”

“Of course, I will compensate you for your loss.” Richard stepped forward closing the distance between them. “And I’ll take Rose for the evening. She is aware of my special needs, has already been accommodated, and is able to please me well.”

Josephine swung around, her face aglow. “I’ll make sure Rose is ready in her room. I knew you would not leave me in such a…a precarious situation.”

He inclined his head. “No, indeed.” Checkmate.

 

After ensuring Josephine received a king’s ransom, Richard returned upstairs to the room he’d vacated a couple of days before. Rose lay on the bed, her vermeil-colored hair flowing over her shoulders, and around her lush nipples. Richard sucked in a breath as his cock leapt to attention. The woman wasn’t a true beauty, age having faded her, but she was striking. Her creamy thighs were spread and awaiting his arrival. The oil lamp had been lit, sending a soft glow across her pale skin. Her full lips parted in a welcoming smile. He grinned back.

“Rose, you look good enough to eat.” A growl rumbled from his chest. Richard ran his tongue along his teeth and over his fangs. “And I think I shall.”

He loosened his cravat as he crossed the floor. Rose giggled, then reached down and lifted her nipples up for his inspection. They beaded instantly, flushing a deeper pink.

“Lovely,” he rasped, as he shed his coat, shirt, and boots.

In a matter of moments, he was left standing before her in his gray breeches and nothing more. Richard heard Rose’s sharp intake of breath, then the sound of her heart as it sped up with excitement. It took every fiber of his being not to pounce on her. Rose’s eyes stared, transfixed on his hands, as he unbuttoned his breeches, freeing his impressive cock.

“Have you recovered enough to play, Rose?” he rasped.

She nodded.

He stood before her in all his naked glory. To Rose he must appear a man in his prime. Richard glanced away as he realized the truth of his age would horrify both her and Lily. He shrugged. Guilt was for the living. Richard locked Rose with his fathomless gaze, then moved to the end of the bed before sinking to his knees. Rose squirmed and tilted her hips exposing her moist sex.

The thatch of red curls between her legs glistened in the candlelight. Richard reached out a finger, stroking her gently. The room smelled of Rose’s sex and sweet blood. He closed his eyes for a moment and inhaled deeply, then set about pleasing the woman before him, since he couldn’t lay hands upon Lady Lily Devlin—yet.

He grazed her hidden bundle of nerves with his thumb, causing her hips to buck beneath his touch. Richard circled her needy flesh until Rose writhed, begging for release. Instead of giving it to her, he dipped his head and began to lap at her folds. She moaned, her hands instinctively reaching for his head, burying his face deeper. Richard devoured Rose, until she cried out her first release.

As the spasms hit her, he pulled away, sinking his fangs deep in her inner thigh and began to drink. With the first delicious swallow, Richard’s mind plunged into Rose’s, merging, colliding with her tumultuous emotions to where the secrets lie buried. Beneath the layers erected to protect her battered heart, she longed for a man like him, but older—more settled, someone she could call her own without society looking sourly upon the union. Richard felt the white-hot pain and pleasure increase the sensation of her orgasm. Her body tightened as it surged toward a second completion. Rose screamed, her body bowing beneath his lips. Richard held her with his strong hands, the connection driving her over the edge.

Rose shuddered one last time, then her lids slowly dropped as she drifted off to sleep. Richard continued to feed. The blood he took tonight would have to last him for a while. He couldn’t afford to slip in front of Lady Lily Devlin. Thoughts of Lily filled his mind, her creamy skin and blonde hair. Would the crisp curls covering her woman’s center be as fair? What would her skin feel like beneath his lips? He longed to experience the same mind connection with her as he’d just shared with Rose.

Richard’s cock throbbed, demanding release. Unfortunately, he found the thought of driving into Rose’s wet channel tonight decidedly unappealing now that he’d met Lily.

Damn her, what had she done to him?

The coppery sweet taste of blood filled his mouth, regenerated his body, leaving him drowsy and content. Richard stopped himself, when he heard Rose’s heart skip a beat. He sealed the pinpricks with a swipe of his tongue, then kissed her on the already healing bite marks. She would sleep for the rest of the night and in all likelihood all day tomorrow. He’d visit her again in a couple of days after she’d sufficiently recovered.

He glanced down at her spread legs. Rose’s sex was swollen and flushed red from her orgasm. A musky odor that was all woman enveloped him. His cock throbbed in response. Richard once again considered fucking her, simply to assuage the pain in his shaft, but decided against it. The only woman he wanted was Lady Lily Devlin.

He stood, staring down at Rose’s content form. Guilt over what he was about to do clawed at Richard. After she’d learned his secret, he’d decided to never be dishonest with Rose. But how could he explain his sudden change in behavior, when he didn’t understand it himself? He certainly did not want to get her hopes up. The last thing in the world he wanted to do was disappoint her again.

So with a heavy heart Richard used his powers and planted a pleasant memory of wild sex in Rose’s mind. She would wake sated, having nothing but wonderful words to say, when it came to her evening with Lord Lyon.

Thanks to their mutual exchange…she always did.

CHAPTER THREE

 

Richard returned to his home as the sun began to rise and immediately sought rest. He could feel the tiredness the day brought on all the way to his bones. Hurley wouldn’t disturb him until the evening was once again upon them, unless there was an emergency, in which case he could try, but they both knew it was like attempting to raise the dead. He smiled at his own wry humor.

Evening came quickly, like clockwork Hurley stood at the door ready to help his master prepare for tonight’s masked ball. Richard shook his head at the number of invitations he’d received. So far he had been scheduled to attend forty-eight balls, sixty or so parties, and at least thirty dinners. He’d turned down all requests for breakfasts or afternoon tea soirees. The hostesses assumed his time would be taken up with other manly activities such as gaming or sport at Watier’s. He glanced up at his bathing tub, which sat before the fire, waiting to be filled.

“Did the girl get sent off on time?” Richard asked, although he knew there was no need. Had there been a problem, Hurley would have informed him immediately.

“Aye, she did. Katherine will receive her with open arms, just like she does all the strays we send her.” Hurley laughed.

When no one was around Richard allowed Hurley to address him casually, after all they were friends first and foremost.

“Well done.” Richard nodded. He could always count on Hurley to get any job done, and Katherine. She had been a dear friend for almost four hundred years now. In that time she’d cared for every human Richard had sent her way. “Please draw up a bath, while we consider what I shall be for tonight’s events. I have a very special quarry I wish to trap.”

“A lady has caught yer’ fancy, my lord?” Hurley didn’t attempt to hide the hopeful note in his voice.

Richard smiled. “You could say that.”

Hurley grinned, exposing several missing teeth. “’Tis about time you settle down.” The man’s gray eyes sparkled with mirth. “Your days of prancing about as a young cock should have been over long ago.”

“You are worse than an old hen, fussing over me,” Richard teased.

Hurley laughed again before slipping from the room to fetch hot water.

Richard stripped off his clothes and took a long hard look in the mirror. He still bore the scar from his fatalwound so many years ago. Strange how becoming a vampyre hadn’t been able to remove the painful reminder of his family’s demise. He ran his fingers across the angry white gash that still tingled beneath his touch. Other than the scar, nothing marred his white skin.

He considered his appearance, trying to imagine the look on Lily’s face when she’d first catch a glimpse of his naked form. Failure did not cross his mind. Would she shrink back like a timid virgin or would lust tinge her fair skin a lovely shade of pink?

Hurley returned to fill the tub, then excused himself, leaving Richard to his thoughts. Richard sank into the water, the warmth penetrating his bones.

He considered the lady in question, trying to imagine her naked, lying before him like an offering to an ancient deity—no, demon. His hand stroked down the length of his chest, nearing his hardening cock. Richard clasped himself, enjoying the weight in his palm. The thought of entering Lily’s tight opening had him groaning. Richard squeezed once, before releasing his cock. He would not seek completion by his own hands. He had something far more pleasurable in mind.

An hour later, bathed and dressed as the great Asian conqueror, Genghis Khan, Richard departed. His costume was a bit of a private joke, considering he’d actually met the man and received the helmet he wore from the warlord himself. Tonight he felt like a bit of a conqueror. It would be nice if he could reach out and seize what he wanted, without the dictates of society interfering. But just like the times, his behavior had to adjust for him to keep up the appearance of civility.

Lady Melbourne’s ball teetered on the preposterous, but everyone who was anyone in the haute tonwanted an invite. Richard gained permission to enter the lady’s house from the butler. To this day, he had no idea why permission was needed for him to enter any home, only that it was—peculiar yes, unfortunate perhaps, but one of the many things he’d had to learn to live with over the years.

Fortunately he only needed permission once, and then he could go and come as he pleased. That small fact didn’t stop Richard from asking for entry, especially if he’d been away for a year or two. It couldn’t hurt to be cautious. He checked his reflection in the mirror and straightened his helmet. He chuckled at the thought of vampyres being unable to see themselves in looking glasses. Utterly ridiculous.

He made his way down the hall to the grand ballroom. The room was a flurry of costumes. Many of the ladies wore elaborate masks, disguising their faces, leaving them with a feeling of anonymity they seldom experienced. They’d probably be shocked to know he could identify them by scentalone.

Richard acknowledged the hostess with a deep bow and then entered the throng. He had one thing and one thing only on his mind, Lady Lily Devlin. Richard knew she had to be here somewhere. He also knew that if he got close enough to her, he’d scent her immediately. He could flirt with her outrageously under the pretense she was one of his dalliances, without letting on that he knew her true identity.

He smiled and moved deeper into the crowd. Richard had fed before arriving, so that no clumsy mistakes like nibbling would occur due to his insatiable hunger. He was pretty sure the thief he’d encountered in the alley would by now have repented or at least thought twice before trying to accost a gentleman.

Richard’s thirst was unquenchable, like a living, breathing thing, it clawed at his insides as if he hadn’t tasted a drop of blood. Being around so many warm bodies with crimson churning through their veins was enough to tempt even the most devout. That’s why he so desperately needed to find out if Lily could be his bloodmate. Anticipation rushed through him. It wouldn’t do to get too excited. There’d been prospects in the past and all had led to disappointment.

Richard passed a small group of men and women gathered off to the side of the dance floor. He’d taken two steps beyond when Lily’s sweet scent filled his lungs. He stopped, turning on his heel to join the group.

After general greetings, the gathering continued their conversation of fashion and the rare bit of gossip, careful to skirt true scandal. Lady Lily stood dressed like a Greek goddess, gold adorning her sandals, as well as being draped in her hair. An ivory and gold mask hid her face from his prying eyes, but it didn’t take much imagination to picture her pert nose and creamy skin.

“Mademoiselle, would you care to dance?” He held out his hand. “I’ve never held a goddess in my arms.”

The group around them burst into giggles, as they all paired up and headed to the dance floor.

Lily stood eyeing Lord Lyon from behind her mask. He was far too handsome for his own good. And dressed like a conqueror he was positively lethal. She willed her fingers to stop trembling as she allowed him to take her hand and place it on his strong arm. Electricity shot through her body, sending tingles racing over her skin. All her awareness focused on the man at her side.

Even with the false moustache secured to his face, his profile was striking. From the arch of his noble nose, to the strength of his squared jaw, power clung to him. His lips were perfect, not too full, and not too thin. For the first time in her life Lily wondered what it would be like to have those firm lips pressed to hers, sharing one breath.

The air caught in her lungs as heat swept through her body. Lily tried to tug free only to have him press his fingers upon her hand. She glanced around hoping the revelers didn’t notice the intimacy of the action. Lily didn’t need anyone thinking there was anything going on between them, and heaven forbid if her father received word. It would be a position she couldn’t easily extract herself from.

As panic started to rise, Lily remembered her disguise. In all likelihood, Lord Lyon had no idea whom he escorted to the dance floor. Lily had made sure none of her closest companions recognized her. The thought gave her pause. She relaxed and smiled behind her mask. She could very easily enjoy Richard’s company without impinging upon societal mores. The thought was empowering and a little dangerous, which suited Lily just fine. Her beloved mother had crowned Lily spirited at birth, saying no yoke would ever harness her. Lily went out of her way to honor her mother’s words and make sure they came true.

Richard swung her around in his arms, positioning her for the waltz that was about to begin. Any other time, she’d worry about the propriety of being seen with a rake, but behind the disguise she felt protected, warm and delicate beneath his cool fingertips, a treasure to be cherished.

He pulled her closer, but not too close and waited for the first strings to be plucked. As the music started he turned her, taking her gently around the dance floor. Their feet moved as if they’d been dancing together for lifetimes.

His thumb brushed over her hand and he heard the thud as her heart jumped beneath his touch. Richard fought to keep his smile in check. The soft swell of her breasts was clearly visible with each intake of breath, thanks to her daring costume. He swallowed hard and kept his eyes glued to her masked face, clamping down on his raging need. It would take at least a few more encounters before the lady would allow even the slightest liberties to be taken by him.

Richard knew he could always use mind control on her, but that would defeat his purpose. He wanted Lily to come to him of her own free will, the only acceptable way to ensure their happiness together. He spun her again, his chest scraping her breasts, his thighs brushing between her legs and Lily’s breath caught.

Too quickly the song ended and he escorted her from the floor, but did not release her. Instead he quirked a brow and stared down into her masked face.

“Would you care to take a stroll with me, my lady? You look as if you could use some air.”

She frowned.

“Quite within acceptable distances,” he added quickly.

Lily’s neck flushed pink and her lungs heaved in and out, sending the swell of her creamy breasts even higher. Richard wet his suddenly dry lips. His cock was hard enough to extract diamonds from the ground. Luckily his costume hid his need.

After a moment’s pause, Lily inclined her head and they began to meander. She felt good on his arm—right. They’d made it half way around the room, when they encountered the portly man Richard had observed at Josephine’s a few nights before. The short man’s eyes narrowed on his face.

Lily’s steps faltered.

“Lily?” Archibald Sterling frowned.

“F-father…it is so nice to see you.” She leaned in as if to kiss the man’s cheek, but remembered at the last second the mask and her disguise. Not that it mattered now. She’d all but announced who she was.

Richard felt what little blood his body carried drain from his already pale face.

“Lord Lyon, may I present my father, Archibald Sterling, Viscount of Devlin.” Lily swept her trembling hand forward.

The men inclined their heads, but their gazes never wavered from each other’s faces.

Lily looked from one to the other. “Are you acquainted?” Her tone darkened.

“No,” Richard said at the same time Devlin said yes.

Her father coughed, then reached out and took her hand from Richard’s sleeve. “My dear, do an old man a favor and fetch me some punch, before you get the dowagers to nattering.”

Lily stiffened, but inclined her head. “Of course, Father.” She turned to Lord Lyon. “Pardon me, my lord.”

He gave her a curt nod and smiled, despite the tension in his body.

Lily walked away, heading for the refreshments in the other room. Lord Devlin watched her retreat, along with Richard. Once she’d disappeared, the older man turned to him. His voice was a harsh whisper as he began to speak.

“I want you to stay away from my daughter,” he hissed. “She’s not yourtype.”

Richard felt his anger rise as he realized the man’s implication. He knew it would do no good to try to explain his actions of the other night. From the set of Devlin’s jaw he was in no mood to listen. Richard fisted his hand at his side. “You are making a dire mistake, my lord. My intentions toward your daughter are nothing but honorable.”

“I’ve seen what you consider honorable, my lord, and I shall have none of it. You are a rake and a scoundrel and you’ve ruined too many good men. My friend, Lord William Longfellow is still struggling with funds thanks to you.”

Richard stomach clenched. This wasn’t about the girl after all. It was about friendship—and money. “So you’re a friend of Longfellow, I should have known.” He’d never regretted what he’d done to Longfellow until this second, but he knew in his heart he’d do it again given the same circumstances. Richard’s gaze pinned Archibald in place. “I’ll have you know I’ve never ruined a good man, only bad men who’ve cheated me or innocent and defenseless women. Are you a bad man, Devlin?”

Devlin’s face flushed with anger. “Justify your behavior anyway you choose, but you shall not cost me again.” His body trembled with rage.

“Cost you?” Richard arched a brow, unsure how he’d cost Archibald a thing. There was only one way to find out. Richard entered Devlin’s mind like a shadow cast upon stones, creeping forward inch by inch. The man was focused on the blunt his friend had been about to loan him. Richard had entered the picture, putting an end to Lord William Longfellow’s funds.

He withdrew slowly, keeping his presence cloaked. Before exiting completely he caught a glimpse of Martins in Devlin’s mind. What was Devlin up to now? His mind recoiled as the ugly truth washed over him. Lily’s father had just unwittingly confirmed Richard’s worst suspicions. This wasn’t about his daughter’s welfare. Lily was nothing more than chattel in Devlin’s eyes. It was about money. He may wrap it in the guise of loyalty and friendship. Try to make it sound as if he were an honorable man. Maybe at some point he had been, but not anymore.

Archibald blinked and shook his head as if to clear it. “You’ll find I shan’t roll over quite as quickly as my friend. It’ll take more than a few whispers in select ears to cast aspersions on my character.” Devlin gestured wildly.  “Heed my warning or suffer the consequences.”

“I do not like to be threatened.” Richard smiled, for a split second flashing his fangs. “As your friend, Longfellow found out…the hard way.”

Devlin’s eyes widened and he gulped, but then as if realizing what he’d seen must have been his imagination, he puffed out his chest once more. “You heard me, Lyon. I shall not have you sniffing around Lily. You are not welcome to pursue her acquaintance. You are not welcome anywhere near her. Arrangements are in place that do not include the likes of you.” With that Lord Devlin spun around and sauntered off in the direction he’d sent Lily.

Arrangements? Richard felt the skin tear in his palm as his nails dug into his flesh. Despite Devlin’s warnings he had no intention of giving up his prize. It had taken him far too long to find her. Although he was certain Lily would frown upon being referred to as such.

The thought of her outraged expression brought a smile back to his face. It wilted as his gaze fell upon the viscount. Devlin’s decree had left him no choice, but to act. Richard surged into his weak mind, disorienting him as he directed the man’s movements to keep him from reaching Lily. The viscount would wander aimlessly for a while, but would eventually recover within an hour or so.

Lily returned carrying two glasses of punch.

Richard reached for one of the glasses. “Thank you, my lady.” He raised the punch in salute and pretended to drink.

“Where’s Father?” She looked around, searching the crowd. She lifted her mask just enough to take a sip of punch, but still managed to keep her face concealed.

Richard grinned. “He excused himself from my company, saying something about a prior engagement.”

From the set of Lily’s fine jaw and the color rising up her neck, Richard could tell she was upset. “The only important engagement he’d have at this time of night is at Caulfield’s with Madam Josephine.” The disgust in her voice was evident.

Richard quirked a brow. “And just how would a lady such as you know about such a place?”

Lily slanted him a glance from beneath her gold and white mask. “Just yesterday you praised me for my intelligence. Do you now accuse me of being addle-brained?”

“Not at all, just pleasantly surprised.” Richard laughed. “But you needn’t worry about Josephine. I believe your father said he was off to find your aunt, Lady Margaret, Duchess of Dreyer.”

She visibly relaxed.

Although for Lily to be aware of her father’s frequent visits to Josephine’s he’d have to spend an unusual amount of time at the den. Amelia’s innocent face flashed in his mind. Would Archibald place Lily in the same position given time if his debts accumulated?

For Lord Devlin’s sake, he’d better hope not. Richard knew that if her father gambled away her virtue the way he did his blunt, he’d show the man very little mercy, if any after Luc and Armand finished with him.

“Come stroll with me.”

“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea, my lord.”

Richard smiled reassuringly. “We shan’t be more than a few minutes and I promise not to bite.” This time.

They set their punch glasses down on a cluttered sideboard and continued through the crowd, until they reached the open French doors leading onto the terrace and out into the gardens. “I believe I promised you some air before we were interrupted.”

Other couples strolled along the terrace, near the balustrade, in view of various chaperones, so there was no chance of creating a scandal. Lily looked back over her shoulder one last time to scan the crowd before giving her assent. Richard led her out. They passed several people, exchanging greetings, before continuing on.

He was familiar with all the houses in town, because he’d been visiting them for centuries. The first time he’d come to London most had not been constructed. In this particular house, Richard knew if he turned the next corner, they’d find themselves in the shadows—easily protected from prying eyes, but still within acceptable boundaries.

A sliver of a moon peaked out from behind wispy cloud cover. The smell of roses wafted in the night air from the garden below. Richard couldn’t decide which was lovelier, the flower itself or the delicate rose perfume coming from the lady beside him. He chose the latter. Richard guided Lily around the corner, where darkness closed around them. She reached up and slipped the clasp holding her mask in place.

“Why, Lady Lily Devlin, I had no idea it was you,” Richard teased.

Her lips tilted into a smile and her blue eyes narrowed. “You’ve known all along it was me, even before encountering Father.” She laughed.

Richard laughed, too.

“I must confess.” His hand went to his heart and he stood a little straighter. “I did recognize your beauty behind that fiendish mask.”

Lily glanced down at the mask in her hand. “’It is not so fiendish. I thought it rather clever.”

He reached for the mask and held it up, only a tuft of moonlight reflected against the painted features. Richard grimaced. “It almost scared the wits out of me. I’m surprised you didn’t notice me shaking during our waltz.”

He smoothed his face, trying to appear serious, but it wasn’t achievable in her presence. She brought out the goodness in him, if that was even possible. Richard reached out and captured her hand, bringing it to his lips. Lily’s eyes widened and her breath caught.

“My Lord, I do not think this is appropriate. Perhaps we should return.” She glanced around.

He did not release her hand.

“There are others nearby who could bring scandal upon my head, if by chance they viewed our exchange,” she whispered.

“I would never allow such a thing to happen.” His face morphed into a mask of rage as he imagined anyone trying to disparage Lily. “You have my word as a gentleman and my protection, if it is needed.”

He kissed her fingers again. Lily’s mouth parted, forming a silent ‘O’. Richard could see the confusion swimming in her eyes. She was attracted to him. He could hear her heart speed up anytime he neared. She just didn’t know what to do about it in her innocence.

His gaze traced the curve of her mouth. The temptation of those rosy lips was more than Richard could stand. Without thought, he swooped in, his mouth coming down on hers in a crushing embrace. The first taste was like being catapulted to the stars. Soft and warm, heavenly bliss, her mouth was like escaping into another realm. Richard wallowed in her unguarded response, savoring her honeyed essence.

Remembering her inexperience, he calmed his movements, softening his touch. Her hands unconsciously slipped around his neck, her fingers sinking into his hair, driving her slender body impossibly closer. He stepped forward until they were within a whisper of touching. His body thrummed with need. Richard’s mouth continued to ravish her, nipping at her lower lip, tasting the sweet nectar, uniquely Lily’s.

Within moments she was kissing him back, tentatively at first and then with more confidence. Her teeth sought his lips as she mimicked his earlier actions. Richard’s cock hardened to the point of madness, driving all reason from his head. He hadn’t had anyone bite him since his change so many years ago. Her nibbles ripped away his defenses, leaving him raw and exposed. He slipped his tongue inside her mouth and heard her gasp. It only took a few stabs until she sparred back. Her innocent exploration inflamed him. He willed his fangs to stay drawn.

Lily’s rose perfume surrounded them. Her lips were soft and pliable beneath his fevered kiss. Richard longed to draw her to him, feel her full breasts crushed against his chest. But not yet, it was too soon. He had already stepped over the line by embracing her. Gently he pulled back from the kiss, giving her swollen lips one last lick before allowing them both to catch their breaths.

It was better than he’d imagined. Like seeing the sun for the last time, her brilliance was flawless. He didn’t believe in love at first sight. He was far too cynical for that, but… She truly was everything he’d ever searched for in a woman…in a bloodmate and he planned to make her his for all eternity, if only she’d agree.

Richard banished any thought of Lily turning him away. He couldn’t imagine existing for centuries without her beauty and light surrounding him, so he purged it from his mind. He would woo her as he should, and convince her beyond doubt that they were meant to be together. Perhaps in time she would grow to love him. Richard swore he would find a way to convince Lord Archibald Devlin to grant his suit without using his powers of control.

Lily’s lungs heaved. She couldn’t seem to get enough air. Her head spun from Richard’s powerful kiss. She could still taste him in her mouth, on her skin, a spicy mint with a hint of coppery tang that refused to leave her senses. Lily had never been kissed like that before. In truth, she’d never been kissed at all. Like any curious young lady, she’d imagined what it would be like, but in all her imaginings Lily had never conjured a moment like this.

Lord Martins had tried, but his clumsy groping had left her cold. Her toes were still curled from Richard’s embrace. So much so, she didn’t think she’d be able to walk back to the ballroom. Her body trembled and an unfamiliar ache had begun between her thighs that she had no idea how to assuage.

She wondered whether all of Richard’s kisses were like this, so drugging, so addictive. On the rare occasion she’d come upon a couple in an embrace they hadn’t seemed to be so breathless and disoriented as she felt now. It had to be Richard and something he’d done to her. But for the life of her, Lily couldn’t figure out what. His rakish ways had somehow invaded her wits, slipped below her defenses. She put her mask back on.

“We’d better return before we’re missed.” His voice sounded ragged and unusually strained.

Her eyes went to his face. He didn’t appear to be as confused as she, but the urgency in his gaze hadn’t been there before. A look of steadfast determination emerged clearly written on his chiseled features. Lily smiled and extended her hand, grateful for the added support, albeit temporary.

They returned in time to join another quadrille. Richard led her right out onto the dance floor without pause, his firm arm supporting her unsteady weight. They danced one last time, before the evening drew to a close. Lily couldn’t miss the speculative glances as Richard escorted her back to her father and her aunt, Lady Margaret, Duchess of Dreyer.

The expression on Lord Devlin’s face was stony and unreadable.  His eyes flicked to the tonsurrounding them, causing Lily to look, too. From the dowagers' whispers and a few arched brows, Lily realized Richard’s intentions toward her had been made clear to the whole tonby his actions tonight. She’d been a fool to think a simple mask could protect her virtue. If he chose to back off now, there was a very good chance her reputation would be tarnished, if not ruined. Yet, Lord Lyon made no attempt to hide. He made a great show of bowing low over her hand. His actions spoke volumes. He’d claimed her, plain and simple. And despite the fabulous kiss, Lily wasn’t at all sure how she felt about that.

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