Scandalous Desires, p.1Elizabeth Hoyt
NEW YORK BOSTON
Table of Contents
A Preview of Thief of Shadows
For my daughter, Honor, who wanted me to write a book about either a cross-dressing hero or a psycho-killer heroine. Yeah. That’s not happening, but this book is for you anyway. I love you! ;-)
One of the best things about being an author is getting a behind-the-scenes look at how books are put together. I had the exciting opportunity to attend the cover shoot for Scandalous Desires and I’d like to thank all the professionals involved: my super editor, Amy Pierpont; her excellent editorial assistant, Lauren Plude; Grand Central Publishing’s art director, Diane Luger; the photographer, Shirley Green; the cover shoot stylist, Sharon; the cover illustrator, Alan Ayers; the models, Ewa daCruz and Emmanuel Fremin; and, finally, my fabulous agent, Susannah Taylor.
I had a wonderful time and you all did a magnificent job. Thank you!
Now once there was a king who ruled a tiny kingdom by the sea. He had no sons, but he did have three nephews, and the youngest one was called Clever John….
—from Clever John
Wolves, as Silence Hollingbrook well knew, are savage beasts, little given to pity or honor. If one must face a wolf cleverly disguised in human form, it did no good to show fear. Rather, one must throw one’s shoulders back, lift one’s chin, and stare the damned beast down.
At least that was what Silence told herself as she eyed “Charming” Mickey O’Connor, the most notorious river pirate in London. As she watched, Mr. O’Connor did something far more alarming than any real wolf.
He smiled at her.
Mickey O’Connor lounged like the pirate king he was on a gilded throne of red velvet at one end of a lavishly corrupt room. The walls were lined with sheets of gold, the floor was a fabulous mosaic of different colored marbles, and around her, piled high, were the spoils of thieving: trunks overflowing with furs and silks, crates of tea and spices, and treasures from every corner of the globe, all of it stolen from the merchant ships that came into London’s docks. Silence stood in the midst of this illicit opulence like a petitioner.
Mr. O’Connor plucked a sweetmeat from a tray offered by a small boy, holding it between long, beringed fingers as he examined her. One corner of his wide, sensuous mouth curled in amusement. “ ’Tis always a pleasure to gaze upon yer sparklin’ hazel eyes, Mrs. Hollingbrook, but I do wonder why ye’ve come to see me this lovely afternoon.”
His mocking words strengthened Silence’s spine. “You know very well why I’m here, Mr. O’Connor.”
The pirate lifted elegantly winged black eyebrows. “Do I, now?”
Beside her, Harry, one of Mickey O’Connor’s guards and her escort into the throne room, shifted his weight nervously. Harry was a big man with a battered face—a man who’d obviously lived a rather rough life—yet he was just as obviously wary of Mickey O’Connor.
“Easy now,” he muttered to her beneath his breath. “Don’t want to get ’is temper up.”
Mr. O’Connor popped the sweetmeat into his mouth and chewed, his black eyes closing for a moment in pleasure. He was a beautiful man. Silence could see that even if she found him quite repugnant herself. His eyelashes were thick and black, surrounding dark, liquid eyes, his complexion a smooth olive, and when he smiled… well! The dimples that were revealed on his cheeks made him look both as wicked as the devil and as innocent as a small boy. Had a Renaissance master wanted to paint all the seductive allure of Satan, he would’ve painted Charming Mickey O’Connor.
Silence inhaled. Mr. O’Connor might well be as evil as Satan himself, but she’d braved him once before and survived—even if she hadn’t walked away entirely unscathed. “I’ve come for Mary Darling.”
The pirate’s eyes opened lazily as he swallowed his sweetmeat. “Who?”
Oh, this was too much! Silence felt her face heat as she shook off Harry’s restraining arm and marched right up to the foot of the small dais on which the ridiculous throne stood. “You know very well who! Mary Darling, that sweet little baby girl I’ve taken care of for over a year. Mary Darling, who knows only me as her mother. Mary Darling, who you took from the foundling home where we both live. Give her back to me at once!”
So great was her ire that Silence found herself out of breath at the end of her little tirade and pointing her finger nearly in Mr. O’Connor’s face. For a moment she froze, her finger only inches from his nose. Everyone in the room seemed to hold their breath. Mickey O’Connor had lost his smile, and without that expression to lighten his face, he looked quite, quite frightening.
Silence let her hand fall.
Slowly, the pirate straightened from his chair, his long limbs uncurling gracefully like a predator. He stood, his polished black jackboots thunking to the floor, and stepped down from the dais.
Silence could’ve backed up, but that would’ve shown fear. And besides, she thought she might’ve become rooted to the spot. The scent of lemons and frankincense drifted in the air. She lifted her chin in defiance as Mickey O’Connor’s smooth, tanned, bare chest nearly touched her nose—the man was so vain he left his extravagantly ruffled shirt unlaced—and looked him in the eye.
Mr. O’Connor bent, his mouth lightly touching her ear, and murmured, “Well, and why didn’t ye say so in the first place, darlin’?”
And while Silence gaped up at him, he straightened, his gaze still locked with hers, and snapped his fingers.
A door opened and Silence finally found the willpower to tear her gaze from those black, impenetrable eyes. And then she forgot all about Mickey O’Connor. A servant girl had entered, and in her arms was the sweetest, most wonderful being in the whole world.
“Mamoo!” Mary Darling shrieked. She began a frantic bouncing in the servant girl’s arms. “Mamoo! Mamoo! Mamoo! Up!”
Silence rushed to catch the toddler before she could completely squirm from the girl’s arms. “I have you. I have you, my love,” she murmured as Mary Darling wrapped soft, pudgy arms about her neck and squeezed.
Silence breathed in the scent of milk and baby, tears pricking her eyes. When she’d found the toddler gone—when she’d feared that she’d never see Mary Darling again—her heart had seemed to shrivel into a tiny, frozen thing.
“Mamoo,” Mary Darling sighed, and unwrapped her arms to pat Silence’s cheeks.
Silence ran her hands over Mary Darling’s black curls, touching and squeezing and rubbing, making sure the little girl was as well as when she’d last seen her, half a day before. The previous six hours had been the most frightening of her life and she never wanted to repeat—
“Ahem,” a masculine voice murmured nearby, and Silence suddenly remembered where she was.
She clutched Mary Darling to her breast and whirled to face the river pirate. “Thank you. It’s most… most kind of you to have given her back to me. I really can’t thank you enough.” Silence took a step backward, afraid to take her eyes from Charming Mickey’s face. “I… I’ll just be leaving—”
Mr. O’Connor smiled. “Oh, certainly, sweetheart, do as ye wish, but the little one will be a-stayin’ with me, I think.”
Silence froze. “You have no right!”
The pirate lifted one inky eyebrow and reached out to finger Mary Darling’s black curls. His tanned hand was large against her little head. “Oh, don’t I? She is me daughter.”
“Bad!” Mary Darling glared at Mickey O’Connor, dark eyes meeting dark eyes, black curls framing a face that might’ve been a feminine miniature of Mr. O’
The resemblance was quite devastating.
Silence swallowed. Mary Darling had been abandoned on her doorstep almost a year ago to the day. At the time she’d thought that the baby had been left with her because Silence’s brother, Winter, ran the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children. Now she wondered if there had been a much more diabolical reason. Fear that she was about to lose Mary Darling forever made her clutch the baby closer.
“You abandoned her upon my doorstep,” she tried.
He cocked his head, eyeing her with ironic amusement. “I left her with ye for her safekeepin’.”
“Why?” she whispered. “Why me?”
“Because.” He let his hand drop. “Ye were—are—the purest thing I’ve ever seen, me sweet.”
Her eyebrows drew together, confused. He didn’t make any sense, and besides, they’d wandered from the main point. “You don’t love her.”
“No. But I’m a-thinkin’ that don’t matter when ye do, Mrs. Hollingbrook.”
Silence felt the breath catch in her throat. “Let me leave with her.”
Mary Darling squirmed again with one of those mercurial shifts of moods that toddlers are prone to. “Down!”
Silence let her slip from her arms, watching as the little girl carefully stood against one of the huge trunks of booty. She looked so small. So precious. “Why are you doing this? Haven’t you done enough to me in this lifetime?”
“Oh, not nearly enough, m’darlin’,” Mickey O’Connor murmured. Silence felt more than saw him reach out his hand toward her. Maybe he meant to fondle her hair as he had Mary Darling’s.
She jerked her head out of his way.
His hand dropped.
“What are you about?” She folded her arms and faced him, though she kept Mary Darling within sight.
He shrugged, the movement making his shirt slip further off one muscled shoulder. “A man in me position has many an enemy, I fear. Nasty, mean creatures who don’t let the thought of innocence or youth stop them from doin’ terrible, murderous things.”
“Why take her from me now?” Silence asked. “Are these enemies new?”
His mouth curved into another smile, this one entirely without humor. “Not at all. But me enemies have become more… er… persistent in the last month, ye understand. ’Tis merely a matter o’ business—one that I hope to soon tidy up. But in the meantime, should me enemies find the wee child…”
Silence shivered, watching as Mary Darling grabbed for a dark fur and pulled it half out of the trunk. “Damn you. How could you have put her in this danger?”
“I didn’t,” he said without any signs of conscience. “I gave her to ye, remember.”
“And she was safe with me,” she said desperately. “What has changed?”
“They’ve discovered where she and ye live.”
She shifted her gaze to him and was disconcerted to find him only a foot away. The room was big, and besides Harry and the sweetmeats boy, a gang of pirates sat around Mr. O’Connor’s throne. Was he worried they’d be overheard?
“Let me keep her,” Silence whispered. “She doesn’t know you, doesn’t love you. If there’s truly a danger, then send men to guard her where we live, but let her stay at the home. If you have any decency in you at all, you’ll let her go with me.”
“Ah, love.” Mickey O’Connor tilted his head, long coal-black locks of hair slithering over his broad shoulders. “Don’t ye know by now that decent is the last thing anyone would be a-callin’ me? No, the lass stays with me and me men, here where I can keep me eye on her night and day until I can put an end to this bit o’ bother.”
“But she thinks me her mother,” Silence hissed. “How can you separate us when—”
“And who said anythin’ about separatin’?” Mr. O’Connor asked with feigned surprise. “Why, darlin’ I said the babe had to stay with me, I never said ye couldn’t as well.”
Silence inhaled and then found she had trouble letting the breath out again. “You want me to come live with you?”
Mr. O’Connor grinned as if she were a pet dog that had finally learned a trick. “Aye, that’s the way o’ it, sweetin’.”
“I can’t live with you,” Silence hissed furiously. “Everyone would think…”
“What, now?” Mickey O’Connor arched an eyebrow, his black eyes glittering.
She swallowed. “That I was your whore.”
He tutted softly. “Oh, and we can’t be havin’ that, now can we, what with yer reputation bein’ all snowy white and all?”
Her hand was half-raised, the fingers balled into a fist before she even realized it. She wanted to hit him so badly, wanted to wipe that smirk from his face with all her soul.
Except he was no longer smiling. He watched her, his face expressionless, his eyes intent, like a wolf waiting for the hare to break from cover.
Trembling, she let her hand fall.
He shrugged, looking mildly disappointed. “Ah, well, it’d be a great inconvenience to have ye livin’ under me roof anyway. I ’spect ye’ve made the right decision.”
He turned away from her, sauntering smoothly toward his throne. She’d been dismissed, it seemed. He no longer found her interesting enough to play with.
In that moment, with rage and grief, and yes, love, swirling all inside, Silence made her decision.
He stopped, still turned rudely away from her, his voice a rumbling purr. “Aye?”
AH, BUT VICTORY felt so fuckin’ lovely. Mick smiled, his back still toward the little widow. She was so outraged, her dusty black feathers all ruffled, she probably didn’t even feel the net tangled about her prim little feet. And yet, how easy it’d been to make her walk into his palace of her own volition, simply by kidnapping the babe.
He turned, eyebrows arched as if surprised. “Ye’ll be stayin’ with me, is that what yer sayin’, Mrs. Hollingbrook?”
Her pointed chin was raised as if to challenge him in his own palace, poor foolish wench. She was an odd creature, Silence Hollingbrook, pretty, of course—or he’d not have looked twice at her in the first place—but not his usual type, oh no. She didn’t flaunt her charms, didn’t try to lure a man with titties overflowing from a low bodice or a wicked wink. She didn’t try to lure at all, come to think of it. She held her womanliness locked up tight like a miser, which, on the whole, was a bit irritating.
Irritating and alluring at the same time—made a man want to find the key to her locks, truth be told.
Mud was splashed on the hem of her plain black frock; her shawl and cap were tattered, and yet her eyes stared at him all defiant like. Ah, but what eyes they were—large and wide, and a glorious hazel—made of golden brown and grass green and even a bit of gray blue. Hers was a face that might haunt a man’s dreams, make him wake in the night sweating and lonely, the flesh between his legs heavy with longing. Why, it made him think of those ghost tales his mam used to tell him when he was but a wee lad, crying for lack of a dinner and the burning from the welts upon his back. Wailing women, dripping water in the night, searching for their lost loves.
Mind, the tales might’ve been lovely, but his belly had still ached with hunger, his back had still stung with pain when he’d woken in the morning.
“Yes,” Mrs. Hollingbrook said, her nose tilted proudly in the air, “I’ll come and live in this… this place. Just to take care of Mary Darling, nothing else.”
Oh, it was hard not to grin at those words, but he was strong, keeping his expression as solemn as a judge’s. “And what ‘else’ might ye be thinkin’ about?”
The color flew high into her pale cheeks, making her eyes sparkle. Making his cock twitch. “Nothing!”
“Yer sure now, Mrs. Hollingbrook?” He took a step closer, testing, watching for her to flee, for despite his enjoyment of this sparring, ’twas a serious matter that she stay beneath his roof. Her very lif
But she stood her ground, his little widow. “I’m quite certain, Mr. O’Connor—”
“Oh, do call me Mickey, please,” he murmured.
“Mister O’Connor.” Her eyes narrowed on him. “Despite what the rest of St. Giles thinks, you and I both know that my honor is quite intact, and I’ll thank you to remember that fact.”
She was a brave one, was Silence Hollingbrook. Her small chin outthrust, her hazel eyes steady, her pale lips trembling. Any other man might’ve felt a twinge of guilt, a trickle of remorse for the sweet innocence he’d taken and smashed to the ground like a fine china dish.
Any other man but he.
For Mick O’Connor had lost any vestige of guilt, remorse, or soul on a winter’s night sixteen years before.
So now he smiled, without any conscience at all, as he lied to the woman he’d hurt so cruelly. “Oh, I’ll be sure and remember, Mrs. Hollingbrook.”
She heard the mockery in his voice—her lips thinned—but she soldiered on. “You said that you’ll soon have your business tidied up.”
He tilted his head in interest, wondering what loophole she thought she’d found. “Aye?”
“And when you’re done with your… your enemies, then Mary Darling will no longer be in danger.”
He merely watched her now, waiting patiently.
She inhaled as if to fortify herself. “When that happens—when your enemies are defeated and Mary isn’t threatened anymore—I want to leave here.”
“O’ course,” he said at once.
Oh, now, but the lass wasn’t daft, was she? “She’s me own flesh and blood,” he said softly. “The only soul in London related to me—or at least the only one I’ll acknowledge. Will ye be partin’ a fond papa from his wee little one?”
“You’ve said you don’t love her.” Mrs. Hollingbrook ignored his pretty words. “I can provide a loving home for her, a wholesome, decent life.”
Well, and he’d already admitted to a lack of decency, now hadn’t he? The corner of his mouth curved, a bit too sharply. He glanced at the babe, playing with the furs from a chest. Her down-bent head was topped with hair the exact shade as his own—and his mam’s, come to think of it—and yet the sight didn’t cause anything to stir within his chest.
Scandalous Desires by Elizabeth Hoyt / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes