FORBIDDEN NIGHTS WITH THE VISCOUNT
· Harlequin Historicals
Away from society's prying eyes…
After suffering the loss of her beloved husband, quick-witted Lady Margaret Roberts has sworn off the pursuit of passion…that is, until she meets Giles Hadley.
Bitterly estranged from his family, reluctant viscount Giles knows all too well the devastation of an unhappy marriage. So while he is prepared to indulge in an illicit affair, he must beware, for spirited Maggie awakens in him something even more forbidden—the desire to claim her as his wife!
“Every Justiss novel is a keeper! This is the start of a riveting new series, Hadley’s Hellions…Book One is full of politics, blackmail, scandal, and forbidden romance!”—4 stars, Maria Ferrer, Romantic Times Magazine
“Overall, Forbidden Nights with the Viscount is very smartly written: the prose flows along swiftly with no extraneous words and there’s a big story packed in its short category length. I loved it so much, I can hardly wait to dive into the next two books in the Hadley’s Hellions series.”— Grade A, Desert Island Keeper, Keira Soleore, All About Romance
A month later, from her seat in the open carriage in front of the hustings in the market town of Chellingham, Lady Margaret Roberts smiled out at the crowd. “You will all turn out for the election tomorrow, won’t you? I’d be most grateful if you’d vote for my cousin, Mr. Armsburn! I assure you, he will do his very best to serve your interests in Parliament.”
“If he promises to send you back every time he needs a vote, it’s his!” one of the men next to the carriage declared.
“Aye, and mine, too, for such a pretty smile,” the man beside him shouted.
“Thank you, gentleman,” she replied, blowing each of them a kiss. The crowd’s roar of approval made her laugh and blow another.
Ah, how she loved this! The excitement of the milling crowds, the rising anticipation on election day as the votes were given, knowing that the winner would take his place in Parliament and help forge the destiny of the nation. The thought that she might in some small way have a part in the making of history was a thrill that never faded.
Since the bitter pain of losing her husband Robbie, resuming the role of her father’s hostess and political assistant had been her chief pleasure in life, the only pursuit that distracted her from grief.
The love of her life might be gone, but there was still important work to do. Or at least, so she told herself in the loneliness of her solitary bed.
Pulling herself from her reverie, she looked up—and met a gaze so arresting she instinctively sucked in a breath. Deep blue eyes—like lapis sparkling in moonlight, she thought disjointedly—held her mesmerized, the pull so strong she felt as if she were being drawn physically closer to him.
And then she realized they were closer. The owner of those magnificent eyes was making his way through the crowd toward her carriage. At the realization, her heartbeat accelerated and a shock of anticipation sizzled along her nerves.
Those fascinating eyes, she noted as he slowly approached, were set in a strong, lean face with a purposeful nose, sharp chin and wide brow over which curled a luxuriant thatch of blue-black hair. The gentleman was tall enough that his broad shoulders, clad in a jacket of Melton green, remained visible as he forced his way through the crowd.
Just as he drew near enough for her to note the sensual fullness of his lips, he gave her a knowing smile, sending a shiver of sensation over her skin.
How could he make her feel so naked while she was still fully clothed?
And then he was before her, smiling still as he extended his hand.
“How could I not wish to shake the hand of so lovely a lady?” he asked, his deep voice vibrating in her ears like a caress. And though she normally drew back from physical contact when there were so many pressing close, she found herself offering her hand.
His grip was as strong and assured as she’d known it would be. Waves of sensation danced up her arm as he clasped her fingers, and for a moment, she could hardly breathe. If she were given to melodrama, she might have swooned.
Taking a deep breath, she shook her head, trying to recover her equilibrium. “I hope you will be equally amicable about according your vote to Mr. Armsburn?” she asked, pleased her voice held a calm she was far from feeling.
His smile faded. “I hate to disoblige a lady, but I’m afraid I’m here to support Mr. Reynolds.”
“The radical Mr. Reynolds? Oh, dear!” she exclaimed, her disappointment greater than it should have been. “I fear our politics will not be in agreement, then, Mr.---“
Before the gentleman could answer, a tide of men washed out of the tavern across the street. “Free beer, free men, free vote!” they chanted, pushing into the square. From the corner, a group of men wearing the green armbands of her cousin’s supporters surged forward. “Tories for justice!” they cried, shoving against the free-vote supporters. Several of the tussling men fell back against her horse, causing the gelding to rear up and fight the traces. Alarmed, she tugged on the reins, but the panicked animal fought the bit.
The gentleman jumped forward to seize the bridle, settling the nervous horse back on his feet. “You should get away in case this turns ugly,” he advised. Making liberal use of his cane to clear a path, he led the horse and carriage through the throng and onto a side street.
“There’s a quiet inn down Farmer’s Lane,” he told her when they’d turned the corner. “I’ll see you safely there, then locate your cousin.”
She opened her lips to assure him she’d be fine on her own, but in truth, the sudden rancor of the crowd, the shouts and sounds of scuffling still reaching them from the square, disturbed her more than she wished to admit. “I would appreciate that,” she said instead.
Within a few moments, they reached the inn, the gentlemen sent the horse and carriage off with an ostler and offered her his arm into the establishment. “A private parlor for Lady Margaret, and some cheese and ale,” he told the innkeeper who hurried to greet them.
“At once, sir, my Lady!” the proprietor said, ushering them to a small room off the busy taproom.
Once she was inside, shielded from the view of the curious, the gentleman bowed. “It is Lady Margaret, isn’t it?”
“Yes. But I don’t believe we have been introduced, have we? I’m sure I would have remembered you.” No woman under ninety with eyes in her head and any sense of appreciation for the male of the species could have met this man and forgotten him.
“We’ve not been formally presented—a lapse I am delighted to rectify. But the borough of Chellingham has long been in the pocket of the Marquess of Witlow, so what other lovely lady could be canvassing for his candidate than his daughter, the celebrated Lady Margaret?”
“Oh, dear! That makes me sound rather…notorious.”
He shook his head. “Admired and respected—even by your opponents. I don’t believe the squabbles outside will escalate into actual violence, but with ‘free beer’ and elections, one can’t be sure. Promise me you’ll remain here until your cousin can fetch you. Though I cannot help but feel a man lucky to have so lovely a canvasser working on his behalf should take better care of her.”
“How can I thank you for your kindness—and to a supporter of your opponent?” she asked. “Won’t you at least allow me to offer you a glass of ale? I hate to admit it, but I would feel easier if I had some company while I…calm my nerves.”
That might have been overstating the case—but for once, Maggie didn’t mind imposing on the gentleman’s obvious sense of chivalry, if it meant she could command his company for a bit longer.
And discover more about the most arresting man she’d met in a very long time.
He smiled then—setting those sapphire eyes sparkling, and once again sending shivers over her skin. “I wouldn’t want to leave you…unsettled.”
Oh, the rogue! She bit back a laugh, halfway tempted to rebuke him. Those knowing eyes said he knew exactly how he ‘unsettled her’ and didn’t regret it a bit.
With that handsome figure, fascinating eyes and seductive smile, he’d probably unsettled quite a few ladies, her sense of self-preservation argued. It would be prudent to send him on his way before he tempted her to join their number.
After all, she’d had a lengthy page from that book, and wanted never to pen another.
But despite the voice of reason, she didn’t want to let him go.
The landlord hurried in with her victuals on a tray, offering her a perfect excuse to delay. “You will allow the innkeeper to bring you a tankard of his excellent home brewed? Mr. Carlson, isn’t it?” she asked, turning to the proprietor. “My cousin, Mr. Armsburn, told me you have the best ale in Chellingford. I know he’s drunk many a pint when coming through to campaign.”
“That he has, Lady Margaret, and bought rounds for the taproom, too,” Carlson replied. “I’m happy to stand a mug to any of his supporters.” After giving them a quick bow, he hurried back out.
“Now, that is largesse you cannot refuse,” she told her rescuer.
“Even if I’m accepting it under false pretenses?”
“We needn’t upset Mr. Carlson by telling him that. He’s been a Tory voter for many years.”
“No wonder you charm the electorate—if you know even the names of the local innkeepers.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Of course I know them. One cannot represent the best interests of the district unless one knows the people who live there, and their needs. But you have the advantage; you know who I am, but have not yet given me your name. All I know is that you’re misguided enough to support a Radical.”
He laughed, as she’d meant he should, and made her an exaggerated bow. “Giles Hadley, ma’am, at your service.”
The note of challenge in his tone puzzled her for the few seconds it took for the name to register. “Giles Hadley!” she repeated with a gasp. “The leader of the Hellions, the infamous Viscount Lyndley—although you do not use the title, do you? Should I be expecting a whiff of fire and brimstone?”
He laughed again. “Rumors of our exploits have been highly exaggerated! I doubt we were any more given to frequenting taverns and consorting with the, um, gentle ladies who worked there than most undergraduates. We just patronized a humbler class of establishment, and consulted, rather than patronized, the patrons.”
“So what was this about being hell-bound?”
He shrugged. “One of the dons who was a clergyman heard that, if we ever had the power, we would eliminate churchmen’s seats in the Lords. The sacrilege of wanting to upset the established order, along with our ‘dissolute’ activities, led him to denounce us all as the Devil’s minions. As for my title as a viscount, it’s only a courtesy accorded to the son of an earl. I prefer to be known for what I’ve accomplished.”
“Which is quite a bit, I understand! I’ve heard so much about you!”
“If you heard it from my stepbrother George, no wonder you’ve been imagining me with wings and a forked tail,” he said drily.
She shook her head. “Most of what I know comes from my father and his associates—who see you as a rising star in the Whigs. My father, who does not praise lightly, has several times lamented that Lord Newville managed to snag you for the Reform cause before he could persuade you to join the Tories. I am honored to make the acquaintance of a man so esteemed by my father!”
And she was—awed enough at meeting the man even his opponents spoke of as likely one day to become Prime Minister that for an instant, she forgot his physical allure.
But only for an instant. With her next breath, the shock of learning his identity was once again subsumed in awareness of the powerful attraction he generated.
What a combination! she thought dazedly. That intense masculine appeal embodied in a man pursuing a career she admired above all others. And despite what he’d said, there was something of the wicked about him.
Rather than preening a bit at her obvious admiration, though, as most men world, he seemed somewhat discomforted—an unexpected display of modesty that only enhanced his charm.
She barely suppressed a sigh, immobilized by eyes that seemed to look deep into her soul.
“Thank you for the compliments, though I’m sure I do not deserve them,” he said after a moment, as if only then realizing that they’d spent the last several minutes just gazing at each other. “And forgive me for speaking slightingly of George. From the article I read recently in the Morning Post, it appears I should wish you happy?”
“Wish me happy?“ she echoed. As his meaning grew clear, irritation flashed through her. “Certainly not! As a member of my father’s Tory caucus, I see Mr. Hadley quite often, but there’s no understanding between us. Newspapers!” She shook her head impatiently. “The gossips have been pairing me off ever since I came out of mourning.”
“So you are not about to bestow your hand on my stepbrother?” At her negative shake of the head, he smiled again—that brilliant smile that made her stomach do little flips and curled her toes in her half-boots. “I have to admit, I am glad to hear it.”
No female he smiled at like that would ever look at his half-brother. Dazzled, she said without thinking, “George Hadley isn’t looking for a wife, but someone to reflect his glory, and I make a very poor mirror.”
Not until those honest but appallingly indiscrete words exited her lips did she realize how much Giles Hadley had unsettled her. She seldom voiced unflattering assessments of her acquaintances, and never to a stranger.
Flushing with mortification, she said, “Pray, excuse me! That was most unkind, and I should never have said it.”
“Even if you know it to be true? “
“Whether or not it is true is irrelevant,” she shot back, flustered. “I am not generally so critical. Or at least, I seldom utter such criticisms aloud,” she amended more truthfully.
“Then I am all the more honored by your honesty. And relieved, I must say. Women usually find George charming.”
“Truly?” She frowned, replaying in her mind’s eye a typical exchange with the man. “Perhaps with ladies he wishes to charm. When we converse, he always seems to be looking toward my father, as if he’s much more interested in Papa’s approval than in mine.” She made a wry grimace. “Makes me feel rather like a prize pullet he’s bartering to install in his hen house. And I should not have said that, either.”
Hadley laughed. “If that’s true, he’s even more a fool than I thought—and I should not have said that! But there’s bad blood between us, as I imagine you know.
“So I understand. I always find it sad when there is a dissention within a family.”
A bit more than dissention—there’d been a scandal of rather large proportions, she knew, although she’d heard none of the particulars. Hardly to her surprise, he did not attempt to enlighten her.
Before she could introduce some safer topic, her cousin’s aide, John Proctor, rushed into the room. “Lady Margaret, are you all right?” he cried. “Armsburn and I have been looking everywhere for you! When I heard about the ruckus on the square, and then couldn’t find you…“ He exhaled a shuddering breath. “I knew Michael would have my head for leaving you on your own, had you been harmed or even frightened! Please, forgive me!”
“Nothing to forgive,” she replied. Except his arrival, which would doubtless mean an end to her interlude with this fascinating gentleman. “Mr. Hadley took good care of me.”
The two men exchanged bows. “Hadley, we are much in your debt for safeguarding Lady Margaret,” Proctor said.
“It was my pleasure,” Hadley replied. “I’d advise you to take better care of your lovely canvasser in future, though. If I find her wandering unattended again, I might just keep her.”
His words, and the beguiling smile he directed at her as he said them, sent a little zing of pleasure through her. Empty gallantry, she told herself, trying to fight the affect.
Before she could try to determine how genuine the compliment might be, Proctor took her arm and all but tugged her out of her chair. “Can I escort you back now, Lady Margaret? Your cousin is most anxious.”
“I wouldn’t wish to worry Michael, of course.” With regret, she turned to her rescuer. “I very much enjoyed our conversation, Mr. Hadley. Despite holding opposing views, I hope we may continue it at some time in future.”
“You could not desire it more fervently than I! Good day, Lady Margaret,” Hadley said, and bowed over her hand.
As his fingers clasped hers, her heart fluttered and a flush of heat went through her. It took her a moment to remember to pull free from his grasp.
“Good day to you, Mr. Hadley,” she said faintly, acutely conscious of his gaze on her as she walked out.
She would like to meet him again, she thought as her cousin’s aide escorted her through the taproom. Though it would be better if she did not. She cringed inwardly as she recalled the unguarded words she’d let slip about his stepbrother. A man mesmerizing enough to cause her to suspend all of her breeding and most of her common sense was best avoided.
But oh, how he stirred her mind and excited her senses!
“I hope you weren’t too friendly with Hadley,” Proctor said after he’d helped her into the carriage.
“Since when do I become ‘friendly’ with men I hardly know, John?” she replied sharply.
Proctor held up a restraining hand. “Please don’t be offended, Lady Margaret! I know it’s not my place to question your behavior. But Michael—and your father—trust me to watch out for you. I’d have you steer clear of Hadley. He’s a dangerous man.”
“Dangerous—how? Surely you don’t believe all that nonsense about the Hellions! My father told me he admires him.”
“His own half-brother refuses to associate with him, and he’s completely estranged from his father. His views are extreme, even for a Radical: he’d give the vote to every man in England, from the highest lord down to a common stew from the London slums. I’ve heard he even favors abolishing the House of Lords entirely!”
“Shocking, certainly,” she allowed, unsettled to have the radical nature of his positions confirmed—if what Proctor said was true. “But Papa has always favored an open exchange of views, even if the two parties cannot ultimately agree. I doubt I could be endangered just by talking with him.”
“Perhaps. But a man with such extreme political views might have equally radical social ideas—advocating Free Love and the abolishment of marriage, perhaps. I wouldn’t trust a lady in his company, certainly not alone in a private room.”
Did Hadley believe in Free Love? No wonder he seemed wicked! The naughty idea sent a spark through her still-simmering senses. Oh, she could readily imagine making free with him!
She shook her head to rid her mind of the lusty—and pointless—thought. She had nothing more erotic in mind for her future than directing Papa’s dinners—and perhaps throwing a kiss to a voter.
Turning back to Proctor, she said, “At a busy inn, with the door to the taproom standing open? Hardly a convenient site to lure someone into impropriety. Although I wouldn’t mind debating Free Love and the abolishment of marriage with him,” she added, watching Proctor’s face.
At his look of horror, she laughed. “Relax, John, I’m teasing! Though it serves you right, trying to lecture a woman of my age about her behavior. How did the canvassing go? Does Michael think he’ll hold against Reynolds?”
It took only that bit of encouragement to launch Proctor into a detailed explanation of how the campaign had fared in the rest of the town.
Normally, Maggie would have listened with rapt attention. Today, however, her mind kept drifting back to a certain gentleman with vivid blue eyes and a seductive smile that had made her feel more like a desirable woman than she had since…since the debacle with Sir Francis.
That memory ought to apply a fast break to this runaway carriage of attraction. Recalling Hadley’s flowery last words, she frowned.
Of course it had been gallantry. What else could it have been? They’d barely met, after all. And handsome as he was, he surely was accomplished in the fine art of flattery, and of persuading women who should know better that he found them more desirable than he did.
She sighed. It seemed she was a slow learner.
And yet… She had not imagined the spark that flared before them. She might have little experience, but she could still remember that enchanted time, when love for her childhood companion Robbie had transformed into something more, a layer of desire enveloping the friendship and tenderness. Ah, the mesmerizing beauty of touch, the thrill of surrendering to passion, the ecstasy of possession.
How she ached for its loss!
No, she was not imagining the physical response she’d felt. But did Hadley truly find her desirable? Since an affair was too dangerous to contemplate, was there any point in pursuing this further?
Common sense warned to avoid a man who might prove such a temptation. But surely life was meant to be experienced, not hemmed in by caution. Such pleasures as it presented should be grasped greedily, before they were snatched away—losing Robbie had taught her that, too.
She was seven-and-twenty, a widow unwilling to risk her heart by marrying again, and she might not have many more opportunities to be tempted.
His seductive person aside, Hadley was a fascinating man, with views and values she would be interested to debate. From the not-so-flattering words his stepbrother had dropped about him, she’d expected he might be something of a wild man, and he did have an untamed essence about him. An aura of purpose, too, with a trace of impatience, as if he were in a great hurry to do important things. And there was more than a trace of anger smoldering under the surface, particularly when he mentioned his stepbrother.
Or was that just the passion that seemed to simmer in him? Recalling it sent a response swirling through her, and suddenly the carriage seemed too hot.
Yes, she would see more of him, she decided. He addressed the Commons frequently, her father said. Popular as he was, there was no question that he would be reelected to the next Parliament. If she visited the Lady’s Gallery after the sessions began again in June, she would surely hear him speak.
Before she heard more of his politics, though, she ought to learn more about the man. If he truly were dangerous, it would be best to know beforehand just how much of a risk he might pose.
But who to ask? Papa, who abhorred gossip, would be unlikely to tell her more than the bare minimum about Hadley’s background.
Then she recalled just the person who would happily spill every detail she might want to know. As soon as she returned to London, she decided, she would pay a call on her Great Aunt Lilly.
Lounging in his chair, Giles took his time finishing the home-brewed, which was as excellent as advertised. So he’d met the renowned Lady Margaret—and found her as witty and even more attractive than Davie had pronounced her.
He had to admit, he’d hoped to see her. When the four friends had drawn up that list of the boroughs to canvass, he’d chosen this one, because it was known to be controlled by her father—and she was known to often canvass on behalf of his candidates. After the discussion of the possibility that she might marry George, and Davie’s description of her, he’d been curious to meet the woman.
As he approached her carriage, he’d been impressed by her engaging smile and the ease with which she mingled with the crowd, by her obvious enjoyment of bantering with them and their enthusiastic response to her.
And then he’d caught her eye.
He shook his head, bemused. Some curious sort of energy had flashed between them, literally stopping him short. Despite the press of people, the babble of voices, the stamping of hoofs and rattle of passing carriages, he’d had the ridiculous feeling that nothing existed in the world but the two of them.
He didn’t remember walking closer, but suddenly he was beside her, unable to keep himself from smiling, compelled to touch her—even if all that was permissible was for him to shake her hand.
He hardly recalled what he’d said to her during their interlude at the inn, and could only hope it hadn’t been utter nonsense. He remembered only two salient points from their conversation: her father approved of him and she wasn’t going to marry George.
The relief he felt about the latter was surely excessive.
He couldn’t recall ever feeling such a powerful and immediate connection to a lady—and had no explanation to account for it. She wasn’t a Beauty in the traditional sense. Her hair was chestnut, not gold, her figure rather taller than average, her face longer than oval, with a generous mouth and pert nose decorated with freckles. But something in those vivid green eyes had sparked a physical attraction that went straight to his loins and drew him to her like a thirsty man to a cool, clear stream.
Though he was too bitterly conscious of his mother’s fate ever to become a rake, he was hardly inexperienced, having enjoyed his share of discrete liaisons, always careful to take precautions to protect the lady. He wasn’t some green lad just out of university, susceptible to being bowled over by an attractive woman.
In sum, he couldn’t figure out what it was about Lady Margaret that had struck him so profoundly.
He did know he would seek her out again, if only to see if his unprecedented reaction would recur a second time. Or whether upon further acquaintance, her attractions would seem no more remarkable than those of any other pretty, intelligent lady.
He paused a moment, frowning. Although Lady Margaret had emphatically disclaimed a relationship, if the newspapers had been puffing off a possible match between her and George, they must have been given some encouragement for the notion—very possibly from hisstepbrother. Marrying into an important political family would be just the sort of thing George would see as a prudent step toward the career as a government leader he coveted.
The prize pullet he’s bartering to install in his henhouse, Giles recalled her words with a chuckle. She certainly deserved better than that.
If associating with a woman George might have marked as his own caused problems with his stepbrother, so be it. Pursuing this fascinating lady would depend on his—and her—inclinations alone.
Copyright © Julia Justiss
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