Story art by Fiona Jayde.
From the author: Helen Banks is going to die. When her twin brother gambles away their fortune, she must save his life and take his place in a duel to satisfy the honor of a man her brother couldn’t pay. Disguised as her brother, Helen faces the one man she’s admired from afar, a widower with a dark past and eyes that scorch her very soul.
The predawn sky shone brightly with flickering stars as Helen Banks readied herself for the duel. Her hair was coiled and pinned tightly against her head, concealing its thick mass and giving her a boyish look—a disguise she prayed would last. Checking the black mask covering her face, she resumed walking. She took a deep, steadying breath as she adjusted her breeches and the black coat she’d pinched from her brother’s wardrobe.
The open field near the spa city of Bath was quiet. Two coaches waited in the distance along the roadside, and ahead of her, two men waited, watching her approach. Not even a breeze dared rustle the knee-high grass as Helen walked up to her enemy and his second. Both men also wore masks to conceal their identities should someone witness the illegal duel. The paling skies played with the retreating shadows of night, lending a melancholy air to the moment she stopped inches from the men.
“You are late, Mr. Banks,” the taller of the two men announced coldly.
With his broad shoulders and muscular body, Gareth Fairfax cut an imposing figure. He seemed perpetually tense, as though ready to strike out at anyone who might offend him. Dark hair framed his chiseled features, and the eyes that glowered from between the spaces of his mask were a fathomless blue. They were the sort of eyes a woman lost herself in, like gazing into a dark pool of water that seemed to sink endlessly, drawing her in until she can’t find her way back to the surface. She recognized the sensual, full lips, now thinned by anger, and the gleam of his eyes on her. She was never more thankful that the early morning’s pale light did not expose her as being a woman.
If he ever discovered she was a woman, he would be appalled and furious. Especially given that she was only dueling him to save her brother’s life.
She briefly studied her opponent’s second. He was just as tall, his features nearly as striking as Gareth’s.
Helen choked down a shaky breath. “I was waylaid.” She prayed her voice sounded gruff and masculine.
Gareth’s eyes were dark orbs, burning with thinly controlled anger. He shifted restlessly on his feet, his imposing form momentarily revealed by the dark blue coat that contoured to his shape.
“Is this your second?” His growl sent shivers down her spine as his glaze flicked to the squat man in his mid-thirties standing behind her. She glanced over her shoulder, widening her eyes in silent encouragement for her second to come closer.
“I am,” Mr. Rodney Bennett replied and bowed.
“Mr. Banks, I am Mr. Ambrose Worthing,” Gareth’s second announced politely.
Well, finally someone was acting like a gentleman. “Mr. Worthing,” Helen said, making sure to keep her voice low. “Allow me to introduce my second, Mr. Rodney Bennett.”
Bennett passed by Helen, and he and Worthing shook hands. Bennett offered the pistols to Worthing for inspection. Since Gareth and Worthing had not brought the weapons, that duty fell to her as the challenged party. As the two men drew apart from her and Gareth, she tried not to stare at him. He was impossibly handsome, in that dark, mysterious sort of way that a woman simply couldn’t ignore. Like gazing upon a visage of an angry god, all fire and might, ready to burn her to ash with passion.
Her opponent glowered at her. “I suppose I should trust that you’ve not tampered with my pistol?”
His icy tone made her bristle with indignation. “You have my word it shoots fair,” Helen snapped. The nerve of the man to accuse her of cheating!
“Your word? We would not be here if I could trust your word. A man who does not honor his debts may not find it necessary to honor the rules of a duel,” Gareth retorted.
She wanted to scream. Her fists clenched at her sides. Her nails dug painfully into her palms as she struggled to calm down. She wanted to throttle her brother, whose rash and inconsiderate behavior had gotten her into this mess.
“Easy, Fairfax. Both pistols appear to be in working order,” Worthing announced as he and Bennett rejoined them.
Helen breathed a sigh of relief as Bennett resumed his position behind her. She’d paid him the last bit of money she’d had for him to appear as her second. She didn’t really know the man, having only met him briefly when she’d had to drag her brother away from the card tables a few nights ago. When she first approached Bennett with her plan, he had tried to talk her out of it, but when she offered money, he couldn’t refuse and had agreed to help her take her brother’s place in the duel. Even though he was a gentleman, the gambler inside him craved any bit of money he could get his hands on to return to the tables. She was lucky he hadn’t gambled away his pair of pistols, or else she would have been completely humiliated to turn up at a duel without weapons.
“Now,” Mr. Worthing said, “before we settle this, is it possible that you and Mr. Banks can reconcile the dispute?”
Helen started to nod, wanting desperately to find a way to settle the problem without bloodshed, but Gareth spoke up, stilling the bobbing of her head.
“Mr. Banks has run up a debt to me of over a thousand pounds. He has not been able to pay it back to me over the last three months. Furthermore, he created an additional liability of five hundred pounds last evening when he played with money he did not have.”
Helen swallowed hard, a painful lump in her throat choking her. Martin, you damned fool…
“Why did you accept his vouchers then?” Rodney spoke up. “I saw you agree to play with him. You didn’t have to.”
“Banks had money on him. I assumed he’d replenished his funds and would settle his debts to me.” Gareth shot a withering look in Helen’s direction. “Shooting him will be a bonus.”
A man who would now take her life as payment for a debt she didn’t owe. But what else could she do? She couldn’t let Martin die. A man had options to survive, a woman did not, at least not one that wouldn’t make her despise herself for the rest of her life.
Her memory of the previous night was tinged with fury and disappointment in Martin. Her heart had plummeted into the pit of her stomach when she’d retired for the evening and found his room empty. All of her hopes were dashed the moment she’d learned he’d gone back to the gambling tables.
She’d hidden in the shadows outside the gambling hell, trying not to be seen by anyone passing by. The smell of alcohol stung her nose, and the raucous laughter echoing from the entrance sent chills of trepidation down her spine. It would ruin her completely if she were witnessed outside such an establishment. Bennett had promised to bring Martin out to her, but when Martin emerged, he was being roughly hauled out by a dark-haired gentleman, a man she recognized, a man she’d admired for the last few months from afar.
“I’ll honor my debt to you, Mr. Fairfax,” Martin had drunkenly promised, over and over again.
Gareth Fairfax, following behind her brother, grabbed Martin by his coat collar and rammed him up against the stone wall of the nearest building.
“Honor your debt? With what, pray tell? You played that last hand without a shilling to your name,” Gareth growled. “You haven’t even redeemed your vowels for the last few times of play. I demand satisfaction.” Gareth released Martin, who sagged against the wall in defeat.
Martin’s head had bowed wearily in submission. “Name the location and time.”
“There is a field two miles east of the Crow tavern. Be there tomorrow morning one hour before the sun rises. There is a full moon. That will do. I have no intention of being chased out of the country because of you. Bring a second and your choice of weapon.” Gareth had stalked off, leaving Martin alone. He shook his head as though to clear it, and with steps none too steady, started walking in Helen’s direction.
When he passed by the alcove where she was hiding, she stepped out and struck her brother as hard as she could on the shoulder. Her anger flared. “You fool! That man is going to kill you!”
“Helen?” Martin said in shock. “What the bloody hell are you doing here? You should be at home.”
She narrowed her eyes. “I had hoped to get you out of that place before you lost everything we have. It seems I am too late.” She hoped her accusation stung. It was nothing less than he deserved.
Martin glanced at her. Under the glow of the streetlight, she saw guilt deepening the color of his lightly tanned skin.
“I’m sorry, Helen… I thought I could win back our money and more.” His tone was apologetic, but it lost some of its effect when he hiccupped.
Helen waited for Martin to say something, but he did not. Her voice shook with a mixture of fear and fury. “I forbid you to go tomorrow morning. What will I do if you die, Martin?”
“I won’t die,” he replied sullenly. “I’m a crack shot. I stand an even chance.”
“An even chance of what?” Helen nearly shrieked. “Killing a man and being made to leave the country? Do you even care what would happen to me without you?”
“Is that all I am? Someone to take care of you?” he shot back.
Helen’s eyes burned with tears and she threw her arms around her brother. “No, you fool. I love you. I don’t want to lose you. How can you not understand that? After mama and papa…” her voice broke, but she forced herself to continue. “I cannot lose you, too.”
“Well it doesn’t matter, does it? I have to meet Fairfax tomorrow.” Her brother’s mouth assumed a mulish cast, and she knew it would do no good to argue with him.
He was as stubborn as their father had been. They did not speak the rest of the way back to their lodgings, but Helen’s mind worked frantically. She loved Martin, he was her other half, as any true twins were. She had to save him, had to find a way to fix what he’d done, or if not fix it, then sacrifice herself for him. It was the only way. One of them had to survive, and he stood a better chance on his own than she did.
She’d formed a plan. She and her brother were almost the same height, and their build was similar enough that as children they’d often been mistaken for one another. If she dressed as a male, could she pass for him? When her brother woke up early the next morning to prepare for the duel, Helen took her father’s cane, one of the last pieces of his belongings they hadn’t sold, and knocked Martin out. She dressed in an extra set of his clothes and locked Martin in his room.
It was a simple solution to a complex problem. Martin was a man and could live on without her. It was easier for men to make their way in the world. A penniless young lady with no family and no connections had no such luck. The best she could hope for was a position as a governess or companion, and without references, those positions were almost impossible to find. The only other possibility was one she would not consider. Even being a maid would be better than selling her body.
And that was how she’d ended up on this field, facing the one man she’d dreamt about dancing with and knowing she never would. A man above her in station, money, and power. A man with secretive smiles, and a soft, low seductive voice, surrounded by rumors whispered behind fans in the assembly halls of how he must make a good lover. She would never know if any of it was true now, not that she’d ever had a chance to earn his interest at the balls before.
Mr. Worthing cleared his throat. “Fairfax, would you be willing to work with Mr. Banks?”
Even in the pre-dawn light, Helen could see Gareth’s face darken in anger. “I would find a way to repay you, sir,” Helen said quickly. Like a man about to be hanged, she clung to the last few minutes she’d have of life, even if it meant lying. There would be no way to repay him, of course, but she had to try. She had to hope her opponent still had some kindness and would delay her demise a few precious seconds.
“You’ve had weeks to repay me, and I’ve not seen one shilling. There will be no settlement.” Gareth’s tone was quieter, almost resigned, as he checked his pistol, flicked his glance at her, and then nodded to Worthing.
So much for compassion. The last hope of her survival had died with his curt nod. Helen’s heart kicked into a faster pace. Her fear created a bitter, metallic taste in her mouth as she realized she’d been hoping the duel wouldn’t actually happen. But of course it would. Men like Gareth valued honor, and her brother had none. This duel was unavoidable.
Worthing sighed heavily, apparently convinced there was no turning back. He and Bennett walked several yards away to watch the proceedings.
She and Gareth were alone, closer than they’d ever been before tonight. How many times had she peered through the crowds of dancers in the assembly rooms and watched him dance with other women, wishing she was the one that close to him? Now here she was, close enough to dance, but it was to be a dance of death. A hollow ache filled her chest at the thought, and a whisper of fear made her heart shudder behind her ribs.
I don’t want to die, but what choice is there?
The faint breeze brought his scent of sandalwood and the faintest hint of horses and leather to her nose. The aroma made her homesick for the stables in her parents’ home in the country, a home she and Martin had to sell in order to survive. The pistol grew heavier in her hands, the wood and metal sinking into her palm with force as she curled her fingers around it more securely. The silence and her fear made it all suddenly unbearable.
“Very well,” Helen growled, losing her ability to remain calm and still any longer. The only way to quell her fear was to embrace her anger. “Name your distance, sir.” If she was to die, let it be done already. This waiting and delay was eating away at her courage.
“Thirty paces.” Gareth replied after a moment’s hesitation. He seemed to be peering at her more sharply, as though something had attracted his attention. His usually sensual full lips were thinned into a frown. Surely he couldn’t have realized she wasn’t Martin… She had to distract him.
“Thirty.” She nodded, relieved to know it helped mask the way her entire body shook with a new wave of fear. She’d never imagined facing death like this, especially not at the hands of a man she desired. Fate was cruel. “Let us finish this.” She turned her back to Gareth and waited.
He closed the distance between them and put his back up against hers. She shivered at the sudden warmth of his body against hers, his backside pressed ever so lightly against her lower back. His clothing whispered against hers, like a strange sort of dance, and then Gareth moved away as Mr. Worthing began to count. She began to mark the paces as well, trying to ignore the roaring of blood in her ears and the realization that each step brought her that much closer to her death.
When Mr. Worthing called out to halt Helen and Gareth at thirty paces, they turned to face each other. The velvet skies were paler now, as though the stars had blinked, closing their celestial eyes to miss the grisly scene about to unfold below. Helen saw Gareth turn sideways and raise his arm. She copied the movement, aiming her pistol at Gareth’s chest. The pale moonlight glinted off the gun in his hand as he trained it on her chest. Her entire body started to shake as instinctive fear took over. There was a pistol pointed at her heart. Her hand trembled, the barrel of her own gun wavering. She wouldn’t shoot him, there was no doubt of that.
“One,” Worthing called out. “Two…”
Helen’s eyes shot up from Gareth’s pistol to his face. He was far enough away to appear more a shadow dressed in black with glowing eyes than the man she’d longed to share the secrets of her heart with.
Her finger clenched around the trigger and she fired without meaning to. Her shot went wide, grazing Gareth’s shoulder. He flinched but did not fire. Blood sprayed along his shirt, nearly black in the distance. She gasped and sucked in a violent breath, her vision spinning momentarily.
Horrified she had actually hit him, she dropped her pistol and it landed with a thunk in the grass. She ran over to him, reaching out to check the damage.
His dark eyes flashed in surprise as she clutched his arm and examined the wound.
“Oh Good Heavens!” she cried. “The one time I fire one of these stupid things…”
By the time she realized her higher feminine tone had betrayed her, Gareth, in one swift motion, had dropped his own pistol and grabbed her by the arm, dragging her against him. He ripped the mask from her face. Her pins sprung loose from the rough movement, releasing the bound up hair. The loose waves dropped down against her shoulders, the soft strands caressing her cheeks as she ducked her head, hiding her face from him. Gareth’s look of rage turned to sheer astonishment.
“Where is Martin Banks?” His voice was rough and low. “And who the devil are you?”
His grip was too strong and Helen started to lose feeling in her arm. “Please, you’re hurting me,” she gasped.
Her plea went ignored. He didn’t release his hold on her, but he lightened his hold so it was no longer bruising.
“Where is Banks?” He shook her and shouted angrily.
“Unconscious, in our lodgings.” Helen tried to break free, but his iron grip held her fast. “I could not let you kill him.” His eyes sharpened at her defiance.
Worthing and Bennett ran towards them.
“A woman?” Worthing called out in surprise. “Really, Fairfax…you should have told me,” When Worthing strode over to her and Gareth, his eyes shifted between them as they stood locked together by Gareth’s vice-like grip.
“Let go of her, Fairfax,” Worthing slowly reached out and pried her loose from Gareth’s arms.
Gareth batted Worthing’s protective arm aside and gripped her by the shoulders, rattling her. “Who are you?” he snarled, his white, even teeth shining in the dim light. “Why are you here in Banks’s place?”
“Let go of her,” Bennett growled and moved a step toward Gareth. Worthing lifted a hand to stay Bennett and tried once more to intervene, but Gareth dragged her away from Worthing’s reach.
“Well? Answer me! I have no intention of hurting you, but I will get answers.” His angry gaze bore into her like a hot poker.
Helen bit back furious tears. “I’m his sister. He is my only family.” Her body started that awful shaking again, this time from the shock of being alive and unhurt. “I would be utterly alone should he perish.”
“Don’t you dare cry. I’ll not be moved by a woman’s tears,” he threatened, but his grip softened immediately, belaying whatever cruelty hung in his words.
“Fairfax,” Worthing cautioned at the same time Bennett said, “Release her!”
Everything happened so fast, it was almost a blur. Bennett tried to step between Gareth and Helen but stumbled back as Gareth pummeled him in the stomach. Helen screamed and struck out at Gareth, slapping him hard across the face. Worthing dove out of the way as Gareth tackled Helen to the ground. Bennett tried once more to rescue her but was felled by another punch from Gareth.
“Damnit Fairfax, hold off!” Worthing knelt by the unconscious Bennett.
“Keep that bloody fool away from me. I’m not going to hurt her,” Gareth growled. “I want her to answer me.” He was gazing down at her, a new light in his eyes, a light that was less dangerous, or perhaps more so, but in a different way. As though he was appraising her, or assessing her value, the way a man studies a good piece of horseflesh at the market when selecting a ride. It was not the gaze of a man who would strike out at her or wound her.
Helen gasped, struggling beneath Gareth’s body. She wasn’t afraid now, but more angry at the way he had manhandled her. He sat back on his heels, his knees on either side of her hips, still pinning her to the ground. His chest heaved with panting breaths, and his palms fell to his thighs.
She attempted to raise her hips but couldn’t budge. “Please, let me go.” He tensed at her movement, his fingers digging into his thighs.
“Whatever shall I do with you, Miss Banks?” Gareth’s breath evened out. “We have ourselves quite the problem.”
“Fairfax…” Worthing’s tone held an edge of warning. Gareth ignored him, a calculating gleam in his eyes.
Swallowing hard, she met his gaze as evenly as she could.
“I have a proposal for you, Miss Banks,” Gareth said peacefully, but the shadows in his gaze made her wary. One of his hands drifted to her hair, allowing her blonde curls to cascade around and through his fingers. He suddenly smiled, taking one lock and twining it around his index finger, his eyes meeting hers. “If you come to my home with me, I will forget the debts owed to me. Or I send you back to Bath, find that scoundrel you call a brother, and finish this duel properly.”
Helen blinked. Go home with Gareth Fairfax? She may have been an innocent, but she knew that if he were to take her to his home, she would be compromised—ruined for marriage. Certainly ruined for any other man. A blush warmed her whole body just thinking of what he would do to her if she agreed. Ruined. Part of her was filled with a secret, dark curiosity. Would he seduce her? She should have been more frightened by the fact that she was curious enough to wonder what it would be like to be with him. Women seemed to like seduction under the right circumstances. A spark of heat shot through her body at the thought of Gareth willfully seducing her.
“If I agree to go with you, what would you do with me?” The words came out thick, her tongue seemingly unable to form the words as she dared to ask about his intentions.
He didn’t speak for a long moment. Instead he rubbed his thumb and forefinger against the lock of her hair. Finally, he let the loose curl drop and settled his hand back on his thigh, shifting his hips slightly. It pressed him harder against her and her own body flashed with a strange, queer sort of fire.
“You can settle your brother’s debts to me one way or another.” His tone was black as midnight, dark as sin, and rather than frighten her, it made her tremble with longing. She had heard enough women speak behind closed doors at the balls to know that what could happen between a man and woman in bed could be pleasurable for both parties.
Worthing stood up and eyed his friend. “Fairfax, you can’t just take her home.”
Gareth’s eyes searched her face and settled on her lips. “She’s already said that Banks is her only relative, Worthing. No one will miss her. It’s her choice. She’s free to leave, or she can come with me and save her brother’s life.”
“You can’t be serious. The young woman was only defending her brother. You cannot ruin a lady over that.”
She watched the exchange, wondering why Worthing was so ready to defend her.
“Well, Miss Banks?” He continued to study her, his body keeping hers trapped as though there really was no option but to accept him. “Make your choice. Dawn is chasing us, and I, for one, don’t wish to be here when the sun fully rises.” He leaned down and whispered in her ear. “I promise to take good care of you and give you so much pleasure you might feel you’ll die from it.” The feel of his warm breath against the sensitive shell of her ear sent sparks shooting down her spine and she tensed.
Helen gazed up at him, desire running riotously through her body, and her mind whispered dark suggestions, borne of long years of need for things she barely understood. This was a chance to taste temptation, to be with a handsome man and know passion. There would never be love, she knew that, but passion might prove a memory worth having, especially with a man like him. Did she dare, though? Any chance of marrying, having children, would be at an end, and if anyone discovered where she was, her reputation would be ruined. Even obtaining employment as a maid would become difficult. Yet Martin would be safe, and he may yet find a way to make a living and support himself and her. It was a feeble hope, but that would be the only future she could hope for. Gareth had said he’d treat her well. Really, what choice did she have?
“Yes, Mr. Fairfax. I’ll go with you.”
The finality behind her words was heavy, and Gareth tensed above her, eyes widening. He hadn’t expected her to agree? A ripple of power flowed through her. She liked surprising him. He scanned her face again, his eyes darkening, but not with anger. This time it was something else that gleamed in their depths.
Worthing moved towards them, one hand raised. “Now, hold on Fairfax. I must insist you think this through.”
Gareth slid off Helen and grabbed her arms, pulling her onto her feet. She barely heard the men arguing. All she was aware of was Gareth’s hands on her body as he lifted her up and into him, letting her lean against his arm, as though aware she needed help to stand. The muscles beneath his shirt were taut and large. Heat emanated against her palms when she rested them briefly against his chest as she finally pushed away to stand on her own. He kept hold of her wrists, though, despite the tentative tug she gave to be released.
“I’m not in the mood for a lecture, Worthing. You take care of that…fellow. I will bring Miss Banks to my house. After you’ve seen to him, you can come and rescue the woman if you feel you must.” There was a mixture of amusement and warning in Gareth’s tone that confused Helen. “Provided you can convince her to go.”
She tugged at her wrists, still trapped by his hands. Even though she’d agreed to accompany him, the fact that he still held her caused an unsettling heat to stir between her thighs. Helen clenched her legs together, desperate to stop the sensation. She tugged her hands again.
“Stop that,” he growled and started walking.
Helen obeyed instantly. He was too strong for her to resist, so she followed, struggling to keep pace with his long-legged strides. They crossed the field and moved in the direction of the road where Helen had been dropped off by the hired conveyance. Gareth’s coach stood waiting. The driver jumped down to lower the steps, and Gareth pulled her against him as he lifted her into the vehicle. Once they were settled inside, sharing the same seat, he shouted an order to the driver and the coach jerked forward. She rubbed her wrists, wondering if they’d bruise, and tried not to look at him. She failed.
He turned his head towards the window and away from her, his expression cool and unemotional. She couldn’t believe that he actually desired her. Not when he’d had his pick of women in Bath. Compared to those other ladies, Helen knew she didn’t measure up, so Gareth’s choice made little sense.
“Why did you want me to come with you?” Helen dared herself to ask when the silence had stretched too long between them.
He fixed his cold gaze on her once more. “Because your brother must learn that his actions have consequences. If I have you, it will cause trouble for him. He’ll have to find a way to marry you off after I’m done, not an easy task for a man with a ruined sister. It won’t amount to the money he won off me, but it will be some measure of revenge.”
Helen shut her eyes for a few minutes, jostled by the battering of the coach wheels on the rough road. Her stomach roiled with nausea. So he didn’t desire her. Using her was only about revenge. Disappointment weighed her shoulders down, pressing on her chest. She sucked in a much needed breath. It was a cruel sort of feeling to go from believing she was desired to learning her seduction and ruination were merely payback for her brother’s carelessness. In that moment, Helen felt very small and alone, uncared for, and unloved in the worst way. The most awful part was the way it seemed to take the wind from her sails. All of her high spirits, even the angry ones, were dashed upon the rocks. Would it be worth it—going with him, exploring her own passions—even when he might not feel them in return? There seemed no ready answer.
When she opened her eyes, he was staring at her still. This time, his eyes were more curious than cold. He had a beautiful profile—strong and straight like the statue of Da Vinci’s David. How many hours at the balls and soirees had she spent studying each feature of him? Too many. As a wallflower, she’d had endless hours to memorize him, fantasize about him. What would she have said if only he’d asked her to dance once? A girlish dream, one that now lay dead in the field they’d just left. She would never be that woman, the one that handsome men would ask to dance or pay court to. She was just another woman who would go without love, and now, without marriage. Still, his face would haunt her forever. She could recall each line, each shape of his features…draw them perfectly from her dreams, if needed.
“What is your given name?” His question drew her from her thoughts.
“Helen,” she replied, her eyes drawn to the curve of his lips as he smiled.
“Like fair Helen of Troy…do you bring ruin to my kingdom?” he mused, more to himself than to her.
“I only wished to save my brother’s life. Had I died, he would be no worse off than before. But had our positions been reversed… I would have no one to protect me.”
“A tragedy to any woman,” Gareth agreed.
At least he understood. She had no money and no friends. Without her brother, she’d be lost to decent society. She might have to sell herself to survive. Helen’s lips quivered at that thought—to be so desperate for food that she would… A dark thought trespassed in her mind. Was agreeing to Gareth’s proposal any better? She shivered at where such ideas led.
“Calm yourself.” There was an underlying callousness to his words that rekindled her fire. “I’ll not hurt you. No woman has ever left my bed with any complaints.” His tone was layered with smug satisfaction. He leaned back in the coach seat, stretching out long, muscled legs, and crossing his boots at the ankles. She was reminded of a tomcat merely biding his time to make his move on the unsuspecting female cat he planned to mate with. She was the female cat in this scenario, and it did not make her feel safe at all. What little she’d heard of him from other ladies in society was that he wasn’t rumored to be a cruel man. That was her only solace—that he wouldn’t truly harm her.
The ride was long. Helen couldn’t help but wonder what type of house he had, to live so far from Bath. At some point, fatigue overcame her. She didn’t want to show weakness in front of him, but when her eyelids kept falling shut, she knew she was lost. Her head fell against Gareth’s shoulder as she drifted off to sleep. She woke a while later when the pattern of the horses’ hooves changed and the wheels slowed to a halt. Still drowsy, she raised her head from his shoulder, blushed when she realized he was staring at her, and scooted a little ways away. Running her hands through her hair, she tried to tame the wild waves.
Gareth opened the coach door and helped her out. He kept a gentle but firm grip on her arm as they walked up a set of stone steps. A matronly woman with graying hair waited for them just inside the door.
“Good, evening, Mary. Prepare a room for Miss Banks. She will be our guest for a time,” Gareth said to the woman.
Mary’s eyes widened in surprise, but she did not question him.
Helen gulped. How long was her stay to be? Gareth had not given any indication of its duration.
“Mr. Fairfax, how long do you intend to keep me here?” She held her breath so long her lungs burned.
He did not look at her as they followed Mary. “As long as necessary. I’ll likely tire of you in a few weeks.”
His words were a slap to her soul and she flinched.
Mary departed, winding her way up the grand staircase to prepare a room for her. Helen was once more alone with the brooding and frightening Gareth Fairfax. He still held her arm as he escorted her to a mahogany and wine colored drawing room where a warm fire was lit. A pair of deep-backed chairs faced the fire, and Helen was pushed toward the one furthest from the door. Gareth took the other, his chair slightly angled toward her.
The dimness of the room, lit by only a few candles, and the roaring fire’s warmth was seductive and inviting, like a strange sort of dream. Perhaps she was dreaming, and none of this was real. She’d wake soon and prepare a meager breakfast for Martin and…but she knew the truth. This was all too real and she was very vulnerable. A little tremor stole through her arms and chest.
“You find yourself in an unfortunate predicament, Miss Banks. I owe your brother a bullet. The duel was not finished. I’ve taken you, by your choice, in his place.” His eyes reflected the fire’s glow, wild and untamable.
Helen could not respond. Fascination rippled through her as she studied his lips, his eyes, his dark hair that gleamed in the firelight. He was a devil, but a handsome one, and his harsh gaze made her heart beat rapidly. It was madness to long for his seduction, to pray for it with every breath. Surely the fires of hell awaited her for her thoughts.
“My temper has cooled. I have no interest in shooting anyone at the moment, but your brother owes me a great deal of money.” She’d expected him to be more businesslike, but there was a pensive musing to his voice that drew her in…made her wonder what he was truly thinking.
He seemed to be watching her for some reaction, but Helen did not understand the weight his words carried.
“We have no way of repaying you,” she replied gravely. “I used the last bit of money I had to secure Mr. Bennett’s support for the duel. I had hoped to gain a position as governess…that is, before Martin quarreled with you. If you give me time, I’m sure I could think of a way to settle our debt.”
“Would you deny me, should I demand a different form of payment? It is why I brought you here, after all.” The question was delivered very slowly and deliberately. His gaze raked up and down her body more savagely than she thought a look ever could. Helen paled, her earlier suspicion had been right.
“What would you have me do while I’m here?” Her words came out a strangled whisper. She knew what he would say, hoped breathlessly that he would, as dangerous and foolish as it was to wish for him to desire her.
Gareth stood up and, in one elegant move, came around behind her chair, his hands falling lightly onto her shoulders. He slowly swept her long hair away from her neck, baring part of her throat. One of his fingers drew a lazy pattern on her skin, teasing the tiny hairs which rose at his touch, and she shivered. He bent over the back of the chair, his lips brushing her ear as he spoke, stirring her senses.
“Remain here, at my beck and call, as a companion of sorts.” He caught her chin with his hand and gently turned her face towards his, his lips so close to hers she could almost feel them. She swallowed uncomfortably as her mouth grew dry. “When I tire of you, I shall return you to Bath, and your brother’s debt will be fully paid.” His hands slid down her shoulders, along the sides of her arms. For the first time in her life, she was torn, her mind and heart were warning her against him, but her body was enticed by the slightest touch of his hands, the brush of his lips. Her face flushed with heat as he kissed her softly below the ear.
“And if I refuse?” The room slowly spun, and her head filled with a strange buzzing. Her skin tingled beneath his touch. She ought to refuse. Staying here would ruin her respectability…the last thing she had left that couldn’t be bought or destroyed, except it seemed, by this dark, brooding man. Yet she’d chosen, as he’d reminded her, to come here voluntarily. She couldn’t lie to herself. She’d known of his intentions to bed her from the start, but she longed to test him, to see what he would say if she pretended to change her mind.
“Then I lock you in a room here and ride straight to Bath to find your brother.” Gareth’s words were sinister, but his voice was as smooth as honey. Helen’s eyelashes fluttered down against her cheeks as she fought to hide her emotions. It wouldn’t be wise for him to know his power over her…how easily he enthralled her with the carnal promise in his eyes. He came back around to stand in front of her.
“So, Miss Banks, will you accept?” He crossed his arms in front of his chest, looking down at her imperiously.
Helen rose from her chair, glad for her height. She needed to be his equal if she was going to accept this bargain. He didn’t tower over her as much as he would have other women. For a long moment, she gazed back at him, weighing her options. Ruin herself and save her brother? Or save herself and sign her brother’s death sentence. Sadly, the choice was easier than it ought to have been. She would do anything to protect Martin. And she’d also not refuse herself this one chance to know passion.
“I accept, so long as you vow that my brother will not be harmed and his debt to you will be satisfied.” Her voice didn’t waver.
Gareth nodded slowly. “I will honor those terms.”
Helen held out a hand to shake upon it. “Then we have a bargain.”
Gareth looked down at her hand, a slow smile spreading across his lips. He took her hand and before she could protest, he tugged her into his arms. It was her first kiss, and not at all what she had expected. This was no innocent meeting of lovers’ lips. Gareth’s mouth caught hers, moving in deep, teasing motions that sent shivers down her spine. One of his hands coiled in her hair, twining his fingers in her silky strands. He clenched, just enough to cause her to open her mouth wider in a gasp born of pleasure at the slight pain. He plundered her mouth, his tongue diving to mate with hers.
A throbbing pulse burst into life between her legs and her knees gave way, knocking against his. He wound an arm about her waist, holding her to him. Like a limp ragdoll, she surrendered to his amorous attentions, the sensations overwhelming and intoxicating. She wished she knew what to do—how to move her lips, where to place her hands—to please him in return.
His hand in her hair held her captive for his exploring mouth, which tasted her lips, her neck, her collarbone, and behind her ears. And then it was over. He spun her gently out of his grasp, grinning at her smugly.
“That is how we seal our bargain, my darling.”
The glare she sent him only made him smile.
He gestured for her to follow him. “I’m sure Mary has prepared your chamber by now.” Helen trailed behind him as they left the drawing room. An upstairs maid stood at the foot of the stairs, waiting.
“The lady’s room is ready, sir,” the ginger-haired maid bobbed in a shallow curtsey.
“Thank you, Mira. Which room is it?”
“The third guest room on the right, sir.” The maid looked expectantly to Gareth.
“That will be all, Mira. Run along to bed.”
Helen watched as the maid ducked back down the stairs and through a door that probably led to the servants’ quarters. It took every ounce of her will not to call out for the maid to stay and not leave them alone. She wasn’t afraid of him, but nerves made her shaky. There was so much about being with a man in bed that she didn’t know. Any woman with good sense would be nervous about her first time, even though he’d assured her she would enjoy it. Gareth tugged Helen’s hand, forcing her to follow him up the stairs and down the hall. He paused at the third room on the right, just as the maid had directed. The door stood open, the room ready for her.
It had a beautiful four-poster bed with velvet hangings and a ruby red coverlet. A thin white nightgown lay draped over the middle of the bed. Walking away from him, Helen picked the garment up, admiring its beautiful but simple design. She had never owned anything so fine in her life. Rather than bid her goodnight, Gareth came into the room and shut the door. The snick of the door settling into the frame held a frightening finality. They were alone again. Helen backed away in fear, her heart racing. Did he mean to take her so soon?
I am not ready. I want him, but I am not prepared.
Gareth walked over to the armoire that faced the bed and tapped it lightly.
“There are gowns in here. They may not fit properly, but I will have my housekeeper send for ones that will. You may rest a while if you wish. Mary will be here to help you dress later in the morning. It has been some time since you’ve eaten, I assume. The servants will prepare whatever you wish after you’ve rested.” He came back to her, cupping her chin, his voice gentler than it had been since they’d first met on the field for the duel.
“Th…thank you, Mr. Fairfax,” Helen stammered, her body shaking slightly with fear.
She’d had such courage in the field, ready to face death for her brother, but this was so different. She’d come here, agreeing to be his mistress, in a fashion. She had little knowledge of the ways of men. Would he prepare her for their joining? Or would he be ruthless, take her hard, and not think a moment about her pleasure? The second the thought passed her mind, she shoved it aside. Helen had made a study of Gareth over the last few months, seen him interact with men and women, and she knew enough of reading a person’s character to know he wouldn’t hurt her. But he also wouldn’t let her walk away from what she’d promised to give him.
“Mr. Fairfax—” she stammered.
“I give you leave to address me by my Christian name, Gareth.” He smiled again, his eyes shining with hidden laughter. “You’re afraid of me.” He teased.
Helen clasped her shaking hands together. “Of course I am. You were going to shoot me. And now I’m here…unchaperoned in your house with the agreement between us that I share your bed. I’ve never been with a man, and frankly, the prospect of it scares me a little. I would be a fool to not be a little afraid.”
“You certainly are no fool. Feisty, but not foolish. A unique trait in a woman. You’ve no reason to fear me. There will be only pleasure between us.” Gareth slowly reached out and captured her hips, his fingers digging for a better hold as he drew her against him. The smile that curved his lips heated her blood and sent her heart skittering. He rocked her into him, as though he meant to give her a gentle, teasing shake to cheer her up and relax her.
“Prepare yourself, Helen. I am going to kiss you again.” And he did. A feathery brush of lips on lips. Helen’s eyes drifted shut at the pleasurable sensation of his embrace.
The kiss changed, becoming slow and deep, his tongue easing between her lips. The sensation was strange, but Helen found herself kissing him back, her own tongue exploring him in turn. She was barely aware of him pushing her back against the bedpost until the wood dug between her shoulder blades. Gasping against him, she shuddered as he unbuttoned her breeches and slid his palm down her abdomen to part the thatch of pale curls between her legs. Gareth pinned her body with his, trapping her against the bedpost while using his hand to cup her mound. She tensed, gasping as he rubbed her with the heel of his hand. The rough pad of his thumb brushed her sensitive bud while another figure probed at the throbbing folds. She bit her lip, whimpering at the powerful zing of pleasure from his touch, and her body bucked forward. Was this how it really felt to be with a man? To feel the riotous waves of building excitement? She wanted more, so much more.
“Please!” Helen could barely form a coherent thought. His thumb tweaked her again, stronger this time, and a second finger joined the first, pushing deep into her tight sheath.
“You like this?” Gareth growled against her neck, taking tiny tastes of her skin as he slid his fingers in and out, thrusting in a slow, deliberate pattern designed to drive her mad.
Her answer was a plaintive moan. She wrapped her arms around his neck, clinging to him for support.
“Soon, I will taste you here,” he pressed firmly on the bud, and the lightning flash of that touch exploded like a fire inside her.
“And I will take you here, hard and fast. Then so slow you will beg for mercy. And just when you drift off to sleep, I’ll cover you again and thrust my cock so deep into you that you’ll scream for more.” As he spoke, his words were rough against her neck, tickling her skin, which was still damp from his kisses.
Helen gasped in breathless wonder as a powerful sensation spread through her, tingles, fire, and sparks alternating beneath her skin. Her knees knocked together as her legs gave out. His arms around her were the only thing keeping her upright. Gareth cupped her mound hard, holding her up as he continued to kiss her. She barely responded, too relaxed from the pleasure weighting her body with lethargy, so she merely consented to his rich plundering tongue. The fingers in her sheath withdrew, leaving her feeling strangely empty. But he moved his hand to her bottom, patting it softly as though to reward her for her inability to walk or talk. She knew she ought to have been indignant at his treatment of her, but she was too elated and drunk on the aftershocks of the explosion of sated desire which flashed and burned between her thighs.
He broke away when she started to seek his lips for another kiss. With a smirk of satisfaction, he left her alone in her bedchamber. She heard a click as something turned in the door. He had locked her in! She had agreed to stay here, but the sound of that lock turning infuriated her. She stumbled on weak legs to the door, tugging fiercely at the handle, which did not budge.
“Please… Gareth, let me out!” she called. “I said I would stay! Please!”
He wanted her locked away. Why? Did he lie to her? Was he going to return to Bath, kill her brother, and return to take her to his bed? Surely, he couldn’t be so cruel. Helen twisted at the knob again, hating that it didn’t open, didn’t budge an inch. She turned to look about the room. The thick paned windows weren’t the type to open, and she wouldn’t be able to break through it fast enough to escape without waking the entire house with the noise.
Helen choked down a panicked sob and abandoned the door. She prayed with every bit of her heart that Gareth hadn’t decided to return to Bath and kill Martin. Maybe he had another reason for locking her in, even if she couldn’t fathom why.
“Gareth, please…” she whispered into the wood of the door. Still silence. A wave of exhaustion swept her with such force that her head was too thick with a fog that made it hard to think. Gareth wouldn’t kill Martin. He’d made a promise to her. Tomorrow she would demand to know why he’d locked her away tonight, and she would not let him do it again.
She retrieved the nightgown and, after a moment, prepared for bed. When she climbed between the sheets, she buried her face in the soft mound of pillows. Hot tears leaked from the corner of her eyes, soaking the cloth. Helen fought off the drowning despair that swamped her, but she couldn’t hold long. Between this morning’s near disaster on the field and the way Gareth had so coldly abandoned her just now, she was completely confused, both mentally and physically, and her crying grew harsh and ragged.
What had she done? She was trapped here by her own foolishness. And Martin… Would he try to find her? Would Gareth kill him if he came here? It was a long while before Helen cried herself into a deep sleep, unaware of the shadow that lingered outsider her door, listening to her weep.
Helen Banks is going to die. When her twin brother gambles away their fortune, she must save his life and take his place in a duel to satisfy the honor of a man her brother couldn’t pay. Disguised as her brother, Helen faces the one man she’s admired from afar, a widower with a dark past and eyes that scorch her very soul.
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