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The Rules of Seduction
" . . . .a carefully-crafted, riveting romance showcasing Hunter's talent for both great storytelling and unforgettable romance. ... Hunter finds herself in the enviable position of being a writer whose novels every reader will adore." —Romantic Times 4 ½ stars/Top Pick
"Hunter is masterful at drawing readers in and creating realistic characters and powerful emotions so that each of her romances both satisfies readers and leave them anxious for the next book." —Maria Hatton, Booklist
His rules will teach her the most sensual seductions and pleasures.
Her rules will bring him to his knees.
He enters her home without warning or invitation—a stranger of shadowy motives and commanding charisma. Within hours, Alexia Welbourne is penniless, without any hope of marriage. Until Hayden Rothwell takes her innocence in one impulsive act of passion. Society’s rules of seduction force Alexia to marry the very man who has ruined her family. What Alexia doesn't know is that her masterful, sensual new husband is driven by a secret purpose and bears a dark debt of honor. He will risk anything, give everything, to repay it. Except, he discovers, the woman who starts playing by her own rules.
Lord Hayden waited in the reception hall, surrounded by walls that had already been stripped of paintings. As Alexia entered he was bent, examining a marquetry table in the corner, no doubt calculating its worth.
She did not wait for his attention or greeting. "Sir, my cousin Timothy is not on the premises. I believe he is selling the horses. Miss Longworth is indisposed. Will I do for whatever your purpose in coming might be?"
He straightened and swung his gaze to her. She grudgingly admitted that he appeared quite magnificent today, dressed for riding as he was in blue coat and gray patterned silk waistcoat. His expression, bearing and garments announced to the world that he knew he was handsome and intelligent and rich as sin. It was rude to look like that in a house being deprived of its possessions and dignity.
"I expected a servant to—"
"There are no servants. The family cannot afford them now. Falkner only remains until he finds another situation, but he no longer serves. I fear you are stuck with me."
She heard her own voice sound crisp and barely civil. His lids lowered enough to indicate he noted the lack of respect.
"If I am stuck with you, and you with me, so be it, Miss Welbourne. My purpose in intruding is very simple. I have an aunt who has an interest in this house. She asked that I determine if it would be suitable for her and her daughter this season."
"You want a tour of the property so you can describe it to potential occupants?"
"If Miss Longworth would be so kind, yes."
"Kindness is in her heart in most situations. However, she is far too busy to honor your request. Being ruined and made destitute is very time-consuming."
His jaw tightened enough to give her a small satisfaction. The victory was brief. He set down his hat on the marquetry table. "Then I will find my own way. When I said my aunt had an interest, I did not mean a casual curiosity, but rather that of ownership. This property is already my aunt's, Miss Welbourne. Timothy Longworth signed the papers yesterday. I presented my requirements as a request out of courtesy to his family, not out of any obligation."
The news stunned her. The house had already been sold. So fast! She quickly calculated what that might mean to her plans, and to Roselyn and Irene.
"My apologies, sir. The new ownership of the house had not been communicated to either Miss Longworth or me. I will show you the house, if that will do."
He nodded agreement and she began the ordeal. She led him into the dining room where his sharp gaze did not miss a thing. She heard him mentally counting chairs and measuring space.
The rest of the first level went quickly. He did not open drawers and cabinets in the butler's pantry. Alexia guessed he knew they were already empty.
"The breakfast room is through that door," she said as they returned to the corridor. "My cousin Roselyn is there, and I must beg you to accept my description instead of entering yourself. I fear that seeing you will greatly distress her."
"Why would my presence be so distressing?"
"Timothy told us everything. Roselyn knows that you brought the bank to the brink of failure and forced this ruin on us."
A hard smile played at the corners of his mouth. The man's cruelty was not to be borne. He noticed her glaring at him. He did not seem embarrassed that she had seen that cynical smile.
"Miss Welbourne, I do not need to see the breakfast room. I am sorry for your cousin, but matters of high finance exist on a different plane from everyday experiences. Timothy Longworth's explanations were somewhat simplified, no doubt because he was giving them to ladies."
"They may have been simple, but they were clear, as were the consequences. A week ago my cousins lived in style in London and soon they will live in poverty in the country. Timothy is ruined, the partnership is sold, and he will have debts despite his fall. Is any of that incorrect, sir?"
He shook his head. "It is all correct."
She could not believe his indifference. He could at least appear a little embarrassed. Instead he acted as if this were normal. Perhaps he ruined families frequently.
"Shall we go above?" he asked.
She led him up the stairs and into the library. He took his time browsing the volumes on the shelves while she waited.
"Will you be going with them to Oxford?" he asked.
"I would never allow myself to be a burden on this family now."
His attention remained on the books. "What will you do?"
"I have my future well in hand. I have drawn up a plan and listed my expectations and opportunities."
He replaced a book on its shelf, quickly surveyed the carpet and desk and sofas, then walked toward her. "What opportunities do you see?"
She led him through the other rooms on the floor. "My first choice is to be a governess in town. My second is to be a governess anywhere else."
"Well, when facing starvation it behooves one to be so, don't you think?"
The third level was not as spaciously arranged as the public rooms. He cramped her in the corridor. She became too aware of the large, masculine presence by her side as she showed the bedrooms. It seemed very wrong for this stranger to be intruding up here.
"And if you do not find a position as a governess?" The casual query came some time after their last exchange.
"My next choice is to become a milliner."
"A hat maker?"
"I am very talented at it. Years hence, if you should see an impoverished woman wearing a magnificent hat artfully devised of nothing more than an old basket, sparrow feathers and withered apples, that will be me."
His curiosity raised her pique to a reckless pitch. It was unseemly for the man who caused this grief to want the details. She threw open the door of Irene's bedroom. "My fourth choice is to become a soiled dove. There are those who say a woman should starve to death first, but I suspect they have not faced the choice in reality, as I might."
She received a sharp glance for that. Beneath his annoyance at how she mocked his lack of guilt, she also saw bold, masculine consideration, as if he calculated her value at the occupation fourth on her list.
Her face warmed. That stupid liveliness woke her skin and sank right through to churn in her core, affecting her in a shocking way. It created an insidious, uncontrollable awareness of her body's many details. The sensation appalled her even as she acknowledged its lush stimulation.
She had to step back, out of the chamber and out of his sight, to escape the way his proximity caused a rapid drumbeat in her pulse. In the few seconds before he joined her she called up her anger to defeat the shocking burst of sensuality.
She continued her goads so he would know she did not care what he thought. She wanted this man to appreciate how his whims had created misery.
"My fifth choice is to become a thief. I debated which should come first, soiled dove or thief. I decided that while the former was harder work, it was a form of honest trade while being a thief is just plain evil." She paused, and could not resist adding "No matter how it is done, or even how legal it may be."
He stopped and turned into her path, forcing her to stop walking too. "You speak very frankly."
He hovered over her in the narrow corridor. His gaze demanded her total attention. A power flowed, one masculine and dominating and challenging. An intuitive caution shouted retreat. The liveliness purred low and deep. She ignored both reactions and stood her ground.
"You are the one who asked about my future, even though it does not matter to you what becomes of any of us." Her anger had been building since leaving the reception hall. His cool self-possession on this tour had only added fuel to the fire.
She peered up at him. "These are decent, good people and you have destroyed their lives. You did not have to remove all your business from Timothy's bank. You deliberately ruined him and I do not know how you can bear to live with yourself."
His dark blue eyes turned black in the corridor's dim lights. His jaw squared. He was angry. Well, good. So was she.
"I live with myself very well, thank you. Until you have more experience in financial matters, you can only view these developments from a position of ignorance. I am sincerely sorry for Miss Longworth and her sister, and for you, but I will not apologize for doing my duty as I saw fit."
His tone startled her. Quiet but firm, it commanded that no further argument be given. She retreated, but not because of that. She was wasting her breath. This man did not care about other people. If he did, they would not be taking this tour.
She guided him toward the stairs rising to the higher chambers, but he stopped outside a door near the landing. "What is this room?"
"It is a small bedroom, undistinguished. It was once the dressing room to the chamber next door. Now, up above—-"
He turned the latch and pushed the door open. He paced into the small space and noted every detail. The two books beside the bed, the small, sparsely populated wardrobe, the neat stack of letters on the writing table—all of it garnered his attention. He lifted a bonnet from a chair by the window.
"This is your room."
It was, and his presence in it, his perusal of her private belongings, created an intimacy that made her uncomfortable. His touching her belongings felt too much like his touching her. It created a physical connection that made the simmering liveliness more shocking and embarrassing.
"For now it is my room."
He ignored the barb. He examined the bonnet, turning it this way and that. It was the one she had begun remaking in the garden two days ago. No one would recognize it now. She had reshaped the brim, covered it all in finely worked cream muslin, and trimmed it with azure ribbons. She still debated whether to add some small muslin puffing near the crown.
"You do have a talent at it."
"As I said, being a milliner is only choice number three. If a lady works in such a shop, she can no longer claim to be a lady at all, can she?"
He set the hat down carefully. "No, she cannot. However, it is more respectable than being a soiled dove or thief, although far less lucrative. Your list is in the correct order if respectability is your goal."
She still hated him by the time they were finished with the tour. She could not deny he was less a stranger, however. Entering the private rooms together, seeing the artifacts of the family's everyday lives, being so close, too close, on the upper levels, had created an unwelcome familiarity.
Her susceptibility to his presence had placed her at a disadvantage. She wanted to believe she was above such reactions, especially with this man who probably thought it his due from all women. She resented the entire, irritating hour with him.
They returned to the reception hall and he retrieved his hat. She broached the reason she had agreed to receive him at all. "Lord Hayden, Timothy is distracted. He is not conveying the details to his sisters. If I may be so bold—"
"You have been plenty bold without asking permission, Miss Welbourne. There is no need to stand on ceremony now."
She had been bold and outspoken. She had allowed her vexation to get the better of her good sense. In truth, she had not been very practical in a situation where she badly needed that virtue.
"What is your question?"
"When have you told Timothy that the Longworths must vacate the house?"
"I have not said yet." He leveled a disconcertingly frank gaze at her. "When do you think is reasonable?"
"That is not reasonable."
"A fortnight. Please give them two weeks more."
"The Longworths may remain until then." He narrowed his eyes on her. "You, however. . . . . ."
Oh, dear heavens. She had raised the devil with her free tongue. He was going to throw her out at once.
"My aunt has a passion for hats."
She blinked. "Hats? Your aunt?"
"She loves them. She buys far too many, at exorbitant prices. As her trustee I pay the bills, so I know."
It was an odd topic to start on the way out the door. He sounded a little stupid.
"Well, they often are very expensive."
"The ones she buys are also very ugly."
She smiled and nodded and wished he would leave. She wanted to tell Roselyn about the fortnight's reprieve.
"A governess, you said. Your first choice. Do you have the education to be a finishing governess?"
"I have been helping prepare my young cousin for her season. I have the requisite skills and abilities."
"Music? Do you play?"
"I am well suited to be a governess for young ladies. My own education was superior. I was not always as you see me now."
"That is clear. If you had always been as you are now, you would have never dared be as rude and outspoken with me as you have been today."
Her face warmed furiously. Not because she had been rude and he knew it, but because his focused attention started that foolish excitement again.
"Miss Welbourne, my aunt, Lady Wallingford, will be taking possession of this house because she is launching her daughter in society this season. My cousin Caroline will require a governess and my aunt a companion. Aunt Henrietta is. . .well, a sobering influence in the household is advisable."
"One that would keep her from buying too many ugly hats?"
"Exactly. Since the situation matches your first choice in opportunities, would you be interested in it? If you are so honest with me, I think that you would also tell my aunt when a hat is ridiculous."
He was asking her to stay in this house where she had lived as a family member, only now she would continue as a servant. He was asking her to serve the man who had ruined the Longworths and destroyed her tenuous hold on security. He was asking her to help give his young cousin the season that Irene would now be denied.
Of course, Lord Hayden did not see any of that. She was merely a convenient solution to staffing his aunt's household. She provided a unique combination of skills that were perfect for the position. Even if he saw the insult, this man would not care.
She wanted to refuse outright. She itched to say something far more outspoken and rude than she had ventured thus far.
She bit her tongue. She could not afford insulted pride these days.
"I will consider your offer, sir."
The Rules of Seduction, copyright © 2006 Madeline Hunter