Authors: Anne Mallory
To Bella Andre,
for the thwhack, the “aha!”,
and the many shared doughnuts.
Someday I'll get you to eat
the part not covered with frosting.
Miranda Chase leaned against the smoothly worn counter and absentlyâ¦
Miranda touched the freshly wrapped package, one book thicker thanâ¦
Miranda stood on the walk and stared up at theâ¦
Her cheeks were still blazing hours later, the book tuckedâ¦
Her pulse picked up speed when the viscount appeared, freshlyâ¦
He found dreams useless. Maximilian Landry, Viscount Downing, pushed theâ¦
Warmth from the sun's rays heated her skin, echoing herâ¦
A woman with powdered hair ornately and elaborately styled walkedâ¦
â¦He could feel her fingers on his skin, beneath hisâ¦
Miranda found her way to the library in a haze.
He smiled at her, confidently walking backward without a thoughtâ¦
Miranda walked blearily into the front of the shop theâ¦
His hands clasped around her waist, feeling as if theyâ¦
The equally grand but rented carriage rolled to a stop.
Miranda drummed her fingers on the counter, face freshly scrubbedâ¦
“Good morning.” His voice was a purr in her ear.
She stared at him, her hand upon a stack ofâ¦
“Get the carriage ready. I'll be leaving for London,” heâ¦
The carriage rocked slowly as they made their way toâ¦
Miranda rose from the bed, untangling herself from warm sleepingâ¦
The morning light shone through the windows. Too early forâ¦
Secret #1: Every good seduction first begins with a baited hook.
The Seven Secrets of Seduction
iranda Chase leaned against the smoothly worn counter and absently curled a finger around a tendril of hair, rubbing her thumbnail along the hump, creating a soft, steady rhythm of sound against her ear as she devoured the words on the page.
“Run faster,” she murmured. “No, not to the open gardensâthat is exactly where he wants you to go. Run to the tower. Lock the door.”
But the heroine darted into the maze of hedges instead. A circuitous route that could offer the freedom she desired or deliver her into his evil clutches for good.
A deep voice came from a hedge in her mind. “Where can I find the section on enlightenment?”
She could feel the warm breath of the villain as he closed in on the heroine's position. Cloven and
provocative to match the smoky timbre uttering each syllable.
Without lifting her eyes from the page, Miranda absently pointed a slender finger to a corner of the store. “Third shelf from the right.”
Dismissing the customer's interference in the twining hedges and the closing maze, she urged the heroine on. The villain was one thorny wall away. If he turned right at the forkâ
“And the section onâ”
“Hmmm?” she murmured, her concentration wavering for a moment. If only Peter hadn't taken ill and left her to work the late-afternoon shift in his absence. She had just received the advance book this morning, freshly printed and bound. It hadn't left her side since. And they so rarely received unplanned customers during the social hours that she hadn't argued with her uncle's pleas to man the desk.
“The section onâ”
The villain turned right at the fork. Of course. She shook her head. She had told the heroine to stay locked in her tower, that no good ever came of these wanderings. Best to remain where it was safe and comfortable.
“Miss, are you listening?” The deep voice had a husky, scratchy quality, as if the owner had played far too hard the previous night and had just woken to the new day. An appealing voice. Just such as the one possessed by the silver-tongued villain of the tale. The noble hero had a much more direct and transparent manner. If only the heroine hadn't been momentarily seduced by the silver. Miranda had
her not to trust him.
“Mmmhmm.” The silvery devil was inching closer.
“Where is the section onâ?” Was that amusement in his tone or mockery? Besides their regular customers, when she filled in for an absent worker, patrons rarely interacted with her beyond ordering or collecting their items. Especially voices that clearly indicated Quality. Flat voices and bored tones. Maybe some irritation. They rarely expended effort consulting with the hoi polloi.
But there was a caress beneath the unusually warm tone. The syllables. As if the owner were speaking to her directly, not addressing a nameless clerk. And the voice didn't have the nasal pitch so often found in the lofty gents attempting to mask their inferiorities through the regurgitation of the bookstore's classics. Those types of men liked to practice their arguments and debate on the employees, but so often merely practiced their
She sometimes found it hard to feign ignorance in their presence. Calm, gentle, nonargumentative, dutiful nieceâ¦that was Miranda Chase, shopgirl. Better to spend any unrestrained energy in letters and correspondence, where she could organize her thoughts and be free with her passion.
But this voiceâ¦this clipped caress, didn't speak of argument and strife, it spoke of ballrooms and bedrooms.
Her attention half shifted back to the environs of the store. The man had asked for what?
Miranda's eyes crashed away from the page, the heroine frozen with her back to the brambles, as the unseen man answered the question she must have spoken aloud.
Shocked back into reality, her view shot upward
and met coal black and startling white. The strands of hair slipped from her fingers, and the hand holding the book thumped against the counter. It took a moment for her to regain her voice. She cleared her throat, trying to recall her mother's strict lessons in decorum and not succumb to the shock of the man in front of her. “Pardon me?”
“No, I think you're finally paying attention.” Amusement, yes. Mocking, definitely. “Though I had to rephrase my question in three different ways. That the last was the one that caught your attention”âone perfectly dark brow rose along with the curve of his mouthâ“is intriguing. Your answer?”
“Did you just ask me for sex, sir?”
A strange smile stretched across his face, no less appealing than the previously half-mocking one but more mysterious in nature. “I asked for the section on erotic matters. Though if you feel the desire to pass over the instruction and go right to the participation, I would be delighted.”
She stared at him. She couldn't help it. It wasn't every day that a man this well dressed andâ
âcame into her uncle's shop. And it definitely wasn't every day that a man thisâ¦she searched for the right word under his heavy eyes and the way he seemed to move even when standing stillâ¦
â¦made inappropriate remarks to her. To Georgette, who dressed in order to enjoy men's eyes following her on the street, maybe. But not to Miranda Chase.
She looked down at her simple frock. Everything was still in place. Nothing untoward, like a gaping hole or raised hem, that might make a man think something other than mundane thoughts.
His head tilted, an amused smile still firmly in place on a face that seemed to have been carved, then lightly, lovingly smoothed. Sharpness beneath a polished veneer. “Are you attempting to see if you'd be dressed for the occasion?”
Completely nonplussed and disbelieving, she continued to stare at him, probably more than a little stupidly. “Are youâ” She paused and examined him, scrunching her brows to peer more clearly into his dark eyes. “Are you
“Quite fit, yes.”
She carefully examined his tailored clothing and lean, strong frame. Even in the starkness surrounding him, he exuded some predatory quality. A heated focus, the confident way he leaned against the counter, an edge to the lazy way he regarded her. Some unnameable, completely male attribute that would have ingÃ©nues running from and mature women running
. Georgette would be batting her eyelashes and inching up her hem already, elbowing Miranda to do the same.
The man was a study in black and white, which just seemed to highlight the lack of severity in his amused eyes. The fading sun cast dying rays through the shop's dusty panes, highlighting the startlingly white skin on the left side of his face against the mostly black attire and darkening shadows on the right.
And his handsâ¦
There was that faintly mocking thread again. Woven into the gravelly whiskey of his voice. Her daydreaming came to an abrupt end.
“Quite.” She slipped a square of paper into her book and closed it, cover down on the counter. He was just
a customer. He'd be gone as soon as his business was finished. Nothing she couldn't handle. She wasn't as tongue-tied as she had once been. She smiled brightly. “Now, how may I assist you?”
But one corner of his mouth curved, and his eyes strayed to her book.
He had lovely lips. Not stark at all.
She nervously ran her thumb along the corner of the cover and tried to stifle such thoughts. “Sir?”
“What are you reading?”
She squared the sale books on the counter near himâall of the most popular titlesâin an attempt to shift his attention. “We have some fabulous new works. May I help you locate something?”
“I'd like a copy of whatever you are reading.” The other edge of his mouth lifted.
It had been the risk she had assumed by reading the book where others might see. But she had wanted to read it
much that she had given in to vice.
She smiled pleasantly, though the edges of her mouth strained. “I'm afraid we don't have copies. Is there something elseâ”
“No copies? This is a bookstore and printer, is it not?” He cast an eye around the cluttered shelves in a studied gesture. The bare fingers of his right hand caressed the edge of the worn counter.
“It is. And we can order any title for you, of course.” She lifted her chin and tucked her hair behind her ear. “But it is not yet in wide print, so you will have to wait a bit, I'm afraid.”
“Then how did you obtain a copy?” One long finger snapped out and touched the binding before she could react. “Especially of that?”
Her heart skipped at least two beats as his bare
finger grazed her gloved one. “I, umâ” she stuttered, trying to get her breathing under control. “I suppose I was just lucky, sir.”
It was a prerelease copy of the latest Gothic romance. All the rage. And he seemed to know what it was if his mocking expression was anything to go by. Most men seemed to run in fear of them. As if the parson's trap was waiting on the last page, or they'd discover the curious secrets of a woman's mind.
“I have little patience for ordering and waiting for something I am eager to read now.”
She nodded, trying to still her fingers from touching the spot he had grazed. There was something about the man that set her on edge. A knowing look in his eye that said he could pull forth her deepest secrets. Her fingers touched the spot without her permission and she could feel the warmth sliding up her throat. “I know the feeling. As I said, we can have it delivered as soon as it is printed and released.”
The left edges of the man's white shirt dipped into the shadows, causing the whole effect to darken and the remaining white to stand out sharply. Somehow she had the feeling that unrelieved black would also do him justiceâand not just in the physical sense.
Some otherworldly figure come to make her think odd thoughts and do embarrassing things. To cause the tremors beneath her skin.
“You can pay a bit extra for express, if you wish.”
The man would surely give up his game. He didn't actually want the book.
“I'll give you two pounds for that copy.”
Her hand hesitated on the bound leather, and her thoughts froze. “Pardon me?”
“Two pounds. Right now.”
Two pounds would buy her a bevy of books. Or a new frock. Or be stashed away in her small cache.
His hand strayed to his pocket. His eyes held some sort of weary cynicism.
But there was something about the way the man was speaking that put her on her guard.
Everything about the man put her on guard, really. A man who dressed so well, albeit starkly, but without gloves? As if he were hiding some long, delicious, earthy secret beneath the cloaked darkness. He all but screamed danger.
“No thank you, Iâ”
“Twenty pounds then.”
She choked on the rest of her sentence.
She didn't make twenty pounds in a
. She could use her every contact and haggle down at Paternoster Row for another early printed copy, surely. For
But this copy was a cherished gift. She had been giddy since its arrival. And she was at the very crux of the story. She wanted to know what happened. She could ask if the man would wait while she obtained another advance copy on the Rowâone of their contacts might be able to secure one for five pounds' payment, no less twenty!âbut she instinctively knew the man in front of her would not acquiesce to such an arrangement.
It was etched into the lines of his body and the cynical, knowing look in his eyes. This was a game. He would pay the twenty pounds. Oh, he would payâthere was something about the way he held himself, the stark,
noble tilt of his head, that assured her of such. It was a game to him.
“A generous offer, but I must decline.” Turning down twenty pounds almost physically hurt. Every penny would help her gain ground for her travels, and twenty pounds was more than a few pennies. But she was
the book. And the gift of it was unexpected and precious. She'd tour the Continent eventuallyâgo on the Grand Tour that had been planned, then destroyed years before.
She absently rubbed the scar on her thigh.
Enjoy life now.
She shook away the thoughts. “I'm sorry, but I am enjoying it too much, and I plan to finish the tale.” She allowed the mantra to filter through, erasing any uncertainty. She felt her shoulders ease, her smile become more natural.
Something in his eyes deepened, and his lazy stance against the counter tightened.
“Now, you were looking for the sections onâ¦” She pulled the memory back and separated it from the book passage she had been actively reading. “Enlightenment. Andâ¦more intimate pursuits?”
She had thought herself immune to heated cheeks after being friends with Georgette, but there it was, that telltale creeping warmth. Drat. Customers did sometimes request books of that nature, and her uncle kept a supply stocked in the back. And after the recent explosion of books in that vein, it was hardly a
No need for blushing. Still, she usually dealt with coy, giggling women or furtive men who had no desire to engage in conversation.
Not men who looked like they excelled at the sport.
He raised a brow, and his posture once more took on an indolent edge, though his eyes were unreadable behind a feigned look of amusement. “You have a section combining them? Be still, my lost heart.”
She stared at him. “Do you require sexual enlightenment?”
There were times when her tendency to blurt out whatever was on her mind was useful. Unfortunately, those times were few. That was why it was better just
not to talk