Temptation came in many forms. The shine of a gold coin, the taste of fine whiskey. A fine woman with eyes the color of
expensive dark chocolate.
Rory Jameson knew temptation. And he liked chocolate.
What he could see of the woman’s hair beneath the voluminous hood of her cloak was as dark as her exotic eyes. He’d
felt her gaze pause on him as she’d squeezed into the crowded taproom, then made her way toward the long oaken bar
with an ease born of familiarity.
Buried in the smoke and noise surrounding him, Rory watched her, intrigued by the womanly shape her cloak failed to
hide. Everything about her brought to mind a night of sin. Over the rim of a shot glass of smooth Irish whiskey, a smile
slowly tugged at his mouth. He had finally found something worthy of his interest in this backwoods hamlet.
Rory was a man who enjoyed his vices. He’d lived hard, but unlike many of his peers, he hadn’t died young. And he had
no intention of doing so. At least not tonight.
Indeed, at two and thirty, he’d managed to live longer than most ever expected. A combination of luck and fortitude got
him this far in a profession that fed its young into the gristmill just to see what came out on the other side. He’d seen
much of the world in one fashion or another and intended to see the rest before old age or a bullet took him off the
playing field forever.
He feared little, except perhaps missing his niece’s birthday and disappointing his sister, which in the end had been what
brought him to this part of England on this sleepy summer’s eve. The letter she’d received a month earlier from their
estranged grandfather burned more than a hole in his pocket and, more than once, he’d wondered how Lord Granbury
had found him.
He relegated those thoughts to the back of his mind as he relaxed in his chair and felt it creak beneath his weight. He
sat in the shadows near the opened window, his legs casually crossed at the ankles. Soft leather riding boots hugged
his calves. He drank as he continued to watch the dark-eyed beauty’s progress across the room as she stopped to talk
to the barkeep. Her hood slipped slightly to her shoulders revealing her profile and he wondered for a moment at her
His eyes narrowed as he watched her exchange, her gloveless hands animated as she spoke, the movement of her lips
drawing his eyes to her mouth.
Arousal pressed against the fine black wool of his trousers, which he found damn hard to ignore. His mind noted that
everything about her seemed out of place in this crowded public room filled with a medley of drunken men, footpads,
and slatterns, yet no one accosted her. In fact, the burly barkeep currently eyed Rory, something of which he had just
became aware. The oaf ’s silent warning seeming to overtake other patrons as well for they too turned to peer toward
where Rory sat, as if he’d trespassed in forbidden territory. The air around him grew chilled. Recognizing the type of
men here, he suspected the only reason he’d not been challenged yet was that his manner and clothing warned them
he would prove to be something more than a casual mark.
Amused by his interest in the local entertainment, Rory tipped back the shot of whiskey, liberating his conscience as he
set the glass on the scarred table next to the half-empty bottle. He stood, removed a coin from his pocket, and flipped it
into his shot glass. At two inches over six feet, he had to duck his head to avoid bumping the low-hanging gas lamp. He
didn’t look back at the girl, though he could feel her eyes on him now. The sensation was as physically arousing as if
she’d put her hands all over him. And it was as novel as it was discomfiting. Perhaps even more so because she’d left
him with a curiosity. He wanted to know who she was.
Winter Ashburn’s hand paused on the frayed edge of the curtain separating her from the crowded taproom, her gaze
lingering on the door through which the tall, dark-haired stranger in black had just passed. The mammoth rack of antlers
above the oaken door seemed to frame the quiet drama of his exit in her mind as she stood hidden within the confining
shadows of the storage room. She dropped the curtain, shocked as awareness of him shimmied through her veins like
an electrical current. The man was a stranger, an outsider yet there had been something familiar about his lazy smile.
And the race of her heart had nothing to do with the frantic reason that had brought her to this inn tonight.
A solid thud of the door sounded behind Winter, and she turned to greet the older woman who stepped into the room. A
soiled apron clung to Mrs. Derwood’s ample bosom where her hands now made use of the apron skirt as if it were a
Mrs. Derwood’s massively built son, the Stag & Huntsman’s proprietor and barkeep who had directed Winter into this
storage area, was also the sheriff. He had once been the overseer for Winter’s father’s stable of horses at Everleigh
Hall, and his mother a cook while they’d lived there. Winter had known both Derwoods her entire life, and always felt
safe inside the walls of this inn.
“I would have been here sooner,” Winter said, holding out the scrap of paper in her hand. “But I only just received your
Mrs. Derwood’s brown eyes softened as she approached. “Fie on that rascal brother of yers for not tellin’ ye we found
yer mam. She is with Mrs. Smythe.”
Last month, Winter’s mam had been making nightly treks to the cemetery where Winter’s father was buried. Father
Flannigan had found her asleep atop the grave. Tonight was worse though--Winter hadn’t even known Mam was
missing until she’d received Mrs. Derwood’s message. She’d been looking for her errant brother this entire evening.
Winter scraped a hand through her unbound hair. Tears suddenly filled her eyes. “I’m sorry to put you through this
again.” Suddenly tired, for these incidents had become too common this past year, she looked away. She disliked
showing emotions and took great care to keep them walled most of the time. But tonight had been too close a call. “I just
don’t know what I’d do if something happened to her.”
“Leave her be. Mrs. Smythe could do with the company as her husband just recently passed. Besides, ye take too much
on yerself.” Mrs. Derwood patted her like a babe and Winter laughed at the incongruous thought that it would be
perfectly natural to burp. “Now, that’s a good girl.”
Wiping the moisture from her cheeks with her fingertips, Winter drew away. “Thank goodness the baron is in London. He
would be none too pleased to learn of Mam’s latest escapade.”
Not that Winter cared what the bastard thought, but his money gave him the power to destroy their lives. And he would,
too, if he learned that in addition to Mam’s illness, she had now taken it upon herself to wander about the night. The
baron would lock Mam away.
“Your uncle should be the one brought to shame, lass.” Mrs. Derwood took Winter’s hands, her concern mitigating the
sternness of her expression. “You should be with them in London for the Season.”
“Goodness, no.” Winter withdrew her hands. She had never even danced a waltz in public. “I don’t care about such
frivolity and nonsense.”
“Nonsense. Your uncle don’t want you with him because you outshine that snippety daughter of his, lass. It is you what
should be weddin’ Granbury’s heir--”
“Mrs. Derwood.” Winter pulled the hood of her cloak over her hair. “It’s late. Please, I need to be getting back to Perry
before he and Robert get into their usual mischief.”
“I’ll have Old Ben fetch the cart and take you back.”
“I have no need to worry about ghouls, ghosts, or wild dogs surprising us the woods. Perry and Robert are in full
“If you would wait a minute, I’ve something for them in the kitchen.”
Mrs. Derwood bustled out of the room. The noise filtering through the curtained barrier from the taproom eased over the
silence that followed the elderly woman’s departure.
Barrels and crates filled the airless storage room. The smell of yeast and a hint of the night’s smoked boar teased
Winter’s senses. She touched a barrel as if it were an old friend. This place had been like a second home to her since
her father died.
Though on paper, Winter Ashburn might be the great-granddaughter of a duke, she never let herself think any more
about how things used to be when her father was alive. She focused these days on how to keep her life running as
smoothly as possible. As long as she did nothing to draw her uncle’s attention, he ignored her, which was just as she
wanted it to remain.
Baron Richly was the husband of her father’s older sister, and had entered Winter’s life just before her father’s death
left the family without funds to pay their debts. In a matter of months, Winter had gone from society’s prevailing darling to
someone her father’s once staid friends pitied. Not a single high-minded elitist stepped forward to stop the baron from
taking her beloved Everleigh. The only people who had aided her during those awful years were the estate’s tenants
and many of the villagers. They were Winter’s family now.
Winter held no love for the baron’s world and no allegiance to an establishment that made paupers out of other men’s
souls as well as their purses. In her mind, aristocrats and nabobs--aristocrat wannabes--were notoriously worthless, and
a wealthy reprobate might find his pockets considerably lighter before leaving the boundaries of this hamlet.
And just that fast, her thoughts returned to the dark-haired stranger whose eyes had boldly assessed her in the pub.
Maybe it was the music coming from the other room as the fiddler took up his bow and a jaunty tune drifted back to her.
Like the shadow of a great bird slowly spreading its wings, the stranger began to fill her thoughts. Or maybe he had
been at the back of her mind all along. In persona, he embodied every aristocratic attribute she despised, but somehow
she sensed he was not like the other gentlemen of her narrow acquaintance. Despite his languid sprawl, he’d exuded
danger--along with his palpable sexuality and arrogance. She couldn’t place where she might have seen him before. But
there was something familiar about him.
Winter walked to the small window that looked out over the livery where she’d left her brother. But it wasn’t for Perry
whom her eyes searched.
Idly folding her arms beneath her cloak, she narrowed her attention to the white-washed livery and surrounding
paddock. A full moon picked out the mist rising silently from the ground and the fleeting shadow of a spotted hound.
Had the stranger already ridden out of the yard? An odd sense of loss fell over her.
Mrs. Derwood returned carrying a basket filled with goodies. “Here ye be, mum. Don’t be shy about eatin’ some of these
victuals yourself. They’re fer sharing. Ye tell Master Perry and that scamp, Robert, I said so, mum.”
“I will.” Winter thanked the woman, not only for the basket, but also for helping take care of Mam.
Mrs. Derwood opened the back door to the crisp night air. “Now run along and give that sweet potato pie to those two
young pirates outside. Then hie yerself home. No good ever comes on a night with a full moon.”
Once outside the Stag & Huntsman, and despite Mrs. Derwood’s ominous full-moon superstitions, Winter found herself
in better spirits than she had been inside. She followed the familiar sound of laugher and discovered her brother with his
friend behind the livery. Perry loved caring for the horses, his father’s son to be sure. He had been too young when their
father died to remember the celebrated Ashburn stables.
Her brother turned at her approach. Wearing a pirate eye-patch, Perry still managed to see the white basket in her hand
first. He and his friend Robert were dressed in their swashbuckling costumes. They liked to leap from trees and terrorize
the unsuspecting at the most inopportune time, sending animals and people screaming.
Her errant brother already had to make restitution to Mrs. Peabody for scaring her nearly to death, but mucking stables
for a week wasn’t enough. Just last week, he’d nearly broken his neck after constructing wings from bed sheets and
leaping off the stable roof on the assumption he could fly.
Perry ran to her and, with the instinct of a growing eleven-year-old, ferreted out the pie. The two boys tussled over who
would get first bite until Winter thought they’d resort to fisticuffs.
“Perry! Robert!” she admonished just as the two dropped the pie on the ground between them.
Fortunately, Mrs. Derwood had wrapped it. But then what was a little dirt to two rambunctious boys dressed up like
Blackbeard and Henry Morgan? “You can both eat that pie at home. It’s getting late.”
Robert ignored her and unwrapped the pie, replying for Perry, who, though taller, was the younger and shyer of the
pair. “We can’t go yet, mum.”
“Show her what the gent gave ye,” her brother mumbled excitedly over a mouthful of crust.
Robert displayed a coin. “I earned a shilling.”
“It’s part mine, too.” Perry shoved the battered wig off his brow.
“You weren’t begging coins from people?” Winter demanded.
“Nah!” The two boys snickered, then Robert said, “A tall highbrow gent come ridin’ in earlier and tells Old Ben to keep ’is
mount in the stable away from them other nags in the corral.”
Winter flinched at Robert’s annihilation of the King’s English. She had been teaching both boys their letters and had
taught Robert especially to speak with better syntax and less verbiage. As if reading her mind, and ever conscious of
her approval, Robert swallowed. “Away from them other horses,” he corrected. “The gent’s a regular toff, ’e ’is,” the
urchin forged onward with a lowered voice. “Butter won’t melt in ‘is mouth, mum. Gisette offered to tup him for less than
six pence and the chap turned her down flat.”
His eyes widened in distress. “Ye shoulda ’eard what Gisette said.”
Perry laughed, completely unaware that such a topic could not possibly be proper. Suddenly the two boys were best
friends again, planning how to spend their newly acquired wealth, her presence entirely forgotten in their gluttonous
orgy as they discovered the roasted chicken in the basket. Perry acted as if he hadn’t eaten in a week.
“You said the man was tall?” Winter asked. “Was he dressed nicely? Black leather boots?” Tailored riding clothes as
impeccable as the body they draped? “Woolen jacket? Dark hair?”
Tucking away the coin, Robert considered her question. “He were tall. Don’t know ‘bout the boots, but he was wearin’ a
“Dark hair,” Perry confirmed.
“He ain’t like the others, what come through here, mum, who just come to...you know.” Robert swallowed his mouthful
and didn’t say the word ‘tup.’ “He wanted to know which road went to Granbury Court.”
“I told ’im, and that’s when ’e gave me my shilling.”
Winter looked around the mist-shrouded yard. The old Marquess of Granbury’s estate sat amid thirty thousand acres
owned by the Jameson family since before the English civil war. Anyone who had grown up within a hundred miles of
London would know how to find Granbury Court, which meant the man who had inquired, was not from this part of
England. But with the exception of anyone visiting Lord Granbury’s rakehell grand-nephew, who was currently in
London, the cantankerous marquess rarely had visitors anymore.
“The man who asked, is he still here?”
Robert shrugged a shoulder toward the back entry of the stable. “The toff’s stallion is still ’ere, cause I’m guardin’ it.”
Caught by the sudden inexplicable flutter in her stomach, she glanced toward the stable. “Start home,” she told the
boys. “I’ll catch up--”
“But we have to stay, Miss Winter.”
“I’ll ask Old Ben to keep an eye on the horse. It is late. I want you both to start home. I’ll catch up to you.”
Winter left her brother and Robert grumbling, but they packed up the basket. When she turned in the doorway of the
stable, she saw them walking toward the woods. She was not one to chase after the identity of any man, but neither was
she content to live with a curiosity burning through her mind.
Adjusting the hood of her cloak, she entered the stable. A horse snorted. The pungent smell of straw, aged leather, and
manure touched her senses. Oil lanterns hung from a post at each end provided dim light. She peered up and down the
narrow aisle, listening, but heard no one present.
Moving toward a bay stallion in the last stall, she kept to the shadows. Quietly stopping, she picked an apple from the
barrel next to one of the stalls, keeping her ears alert for any noise that told her she wasn’t alone as she approached
The horse was a beauty with long legs, a full chest and glossy coat, a thoroughbred of stellar bloodstock.
Whoever the stranger was, he knew horseflesh. This stud was worth more than most common people would ever see in
a lifetime. The bridle and saddle boasted the highest craftsmanship. Wanting to get near the valise attached to the
cantle, Winter eased cautiously into the stall all the while crooning softly. She held out the apple and powerful jaws
crunched down on the sweet morsel.
If she could but learn the name of the dark-haired stranger, she could settle the matter of his identity.
Liar, her wicked self whispered.
Even as something about him warned her to be wary of her initial reaction when she’d seen him in the pub, a flicker of
long-repressed femininity focused her memory on the touch of his gaze. Men undressed her with their eyes all the time,
but no one had ever made her body tingle. Her reaction had both alarmed and intrigued her, for at the base of it all was
an unfamiliar sense of awareness.
She saw no identifying marks or initials emblazoned on the saddle or on the valise. She struggled with the clasp before
noting it needed a key. The horse stirred and Winter slid her palm gently across its powerful shoulder.
“His name is Apollo.”
Winter whirled, horrified to find the voice’s owner lounging against the stall door, his smile flashing white in the lamp
light. “Mine is Rory,” he added. “In case you were wondering the name of the man you were attempting to rob.”
|Passion and Pleasure In London
Order from Amazon
This one is definitely going on my
keeper shelf. ~~Maura
Reviewer for Coffee Time Romance