Dance of Seduction
It’s difficult enough for Lady Clara Stanbourne to run her London home for reformed young pickpockets without having to contend with a criminal in business right next door. The mysterious Captain Morgan Pryce is obviously dealing in stolen property, and she will never allow the handsome scoundrel to lead the children astray! Pryce is very much mistaken if he believes her a delicate rosebud he can make bloom with soft words and passionate, unspoken promises. Now if only Clara could douse the fiery yearning the charming cad ignites inside her…
Morgan wishes he could tell the exquisite Clara the truth: He is working undercover to break up a notorious crime ring. His mind should be on his duty—not wondering how it would feel to hold Clara in his arms and taste her luscious lips. But now that she has entered this most dangerous of games, Morgan knows he must have her, despite the very real peril to his secret mission… and to his heart!
Thanks to you wonderful readers, the book hit the following bestseller lists:
- #89 on the USA Today Bestseller List
- #9 on the Waldenbooks Bestselling Mass Market Paperbacks List
- Chosen as a Top Pick by Romantic Times
- #19 on the Borders Top 50 Romances List
- #5 on the Waldenbooks Bestselling Single Title Romances List
- All about Romance voted the cover the best two-image cover of 2003
- Nominated for the Reviewers Choice Award for Historical Romance of the Year for 2003
- Nominated for the Holt Medallion for Best Long Historical of 2003
“The biting, humorous repartee and slowly building sexual tension, along with a cast of utterly delightful characters, will have you captivated from the first page to the chilling climax. This delightful and passionate romance is guaranteed to win your heart and earn a space on your keeper shelf.” —Romantic Times
“With just the right degree of intensity and emotion, this story joins all of Sabrina Jeffries’ other books as ‘keepers.’”
—New and Previously Owned Books
Leaning back against the wall behind the counter, Captain Pryce finished his apple, then tossed the core into a slop bucket. “You should have stayed away as I asked you to.”
Lady Clara Stanbourne ignored his threatening tone, forcing herself to breathe calmly, speak rationally. “I’m only here to retrieve the watch and demand that you stop your illegal activities, at least with regard to my charges.”
“What ‘illegal activities’? I’m but a humble shopkeeper—”
“Oh, stuff and nonsense.” His smug confidence sparked her temper. “The one thing you are not, sir, is humble, and if you’re a shopkeeper, I’m the queen. You refuse to accept that I’m not some naive girl foolish enough to believe all your ridiculous lies.”
“That’s one thing we both agree on.” He pushed away from the wall, then leaned forward to plant his elbows on the counter, putting him at her eye level. His gaze slid slowly down her, devouring her. “You are hardly a girl.”
“What?” he asked in mock innocence.
“Looking at me as if you want to eat me up.”
His crooked smile was the very essence of wolf. “That’s exactly what I want.”
She fought down a blush. “You’d find me quite indigestible.”
“I doubt that seriously, mon ange.”
“I’m not your ‘angel,’ sir. I’m not your anything.”
“You could be,” he said suggestively.
“Don’t be absurd.” But a secret thrill coursed through her at the thought, making her scowl. Only her cursed Doggett blood would make her even consider such an outrageous possibility.
She forced herself to ignore his speaking looks. “And don’t try to distract me with such nonsense. I have proof that you’re lying about the true nature of your activities. You’ve bought goods from enough thieves in the neighborhood to acquire a reputation.”
He lifted one wolfish brow. “I see Johnny has been very talkative.”
“That’s what happens when you deal with children. They talk.” She held out her hand once more. “Now give me that watch.”
“What do you intend to do with it?”
“Return it to its rightful owner, of course.”
“Who might that be?”
Flustered, she glanced away. “I don’t know.”
“That might hamper your efforts to return it, wouldn’t you say?”
“I’ll find out who it belongs to,” she retorted. “Johnny would only say that it was a ‘gentry cove in Leadenhall Street,’ but there are ways to learn these things.”
“Oh? And what are these mysterious ‘ways’?”
“I’ll go to the police offices and see if anyone has reported a stolen watch.”
If she’d hoped that mention of the police would frighten him, she was sorely disappointed. “Then they’ll ask how you came by stolen goods, and your little Home will be put under immediate suspicion.”
Curse him, he had a point. “All right, I’ll tell them I found it.”
He straightened from the counter with a mocking smile. “Then they’ll take the watch, promise to find its owner, and keep it for themselves. One of them might even come sell it to me. Then you’d have gone to all that trouble for nothing.”
She feared he might be right. Some of the police at the Lambeth Street Office must be corruptible, judging from the number of receivers of stolen goods who thrived in Petticoat Lane. She might appeal to the magistrate who headed the office, but he’d simply send her back to his underlings for such a petty concern.
Still, it annoyed her to have this… this scoundrel pointing out the truth. “You are very cynical, sir.”
“Why? Because I see the disadvantages to your plans?” A sudden mischief leaped in his face. “Or perhaps you’re not disclosing your real plan. Perhaps you don’t intend to do anything with the watch at all.” He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial murmur. “Except keep it for yourself.”
“What! You dare to imply—” She broke off when he burst into laughter. “I see. You find this all so amusing. Very well. You won’t think it’s amusing when I bring an officer here to arrest you.”
Though his laughter died, he didn’t look worried. “If it satisfies your notions of morality, by all means bring one.” He edged around the counter until he was next to her.
Leaning one hand on it, he stood there loose-limbed and nonchalant… and still taunting her with a smile, curse his hide. “But you have no proof, as you well know. Besides, what police officer will take the word of a meddling lady reformer over that of a military man who served his country in our late glorious war? And yes, despite all your claims to the contrary, I was indeed a naval captain.”
“I know,” she muttered. “I found you in the navy lists.” She’d spent half the afternoon scanning the huge volume for his name.
He looked surprised. “I’m flattered. I must have impressed you very much if our encounter sent you straightaway to learn all you could about me.”
She ignored his sarcasm. “Five years ago, you captained a third-rater—the Titan. No mention of you appears after that, although rumor has it that you spent the time with smugglers and pirates. Not exactly the sort of thing to endear one to the police.”
“You shouldn’t listen to rumors.”
“So you deny it?”
“I don’t have to. The police won’t take gossip as proof.”
His smug self-assurance only drove home the futility of this debate. Threats wouldn’t work with a hardened villain like him, especially if he had a police officer in his pocket.
But there was one incentive Captain Pryce and his kind always responded to.
“I’d hoped to avoid this, but you give me no choice.” She drew herself up straight, trying to project a business-like demeanor. “What if I make it worth your while for you to leave Spitalfields?”
“That sounds interesting.” He crossed his arms over his chest, fire leaping into his gaze as he lounged back against the counter with a sensual smile. “I can think of one way you could make it ‘worth my while.’”
Oh, bother, she shouldn’t have put it like that. “I’ll give you two hundred pounds if you’ll close up here and reopen your shop elsewhere, preferably outside London where you can’t corrupt my charges.”
At last she’d managed to wipe the mocking expression off his face. “What?”
“Consider it a fee for moving expenses if you wish. Two hundred pounds. But only if you leave by tomorrow.”
“Have you lost your mind?”
“Possibly. But thanks to a generous uncle, I can afford to indulge my mad whims.”
“To pay me off.”
He searched her face as if to gauge her sincerity. Then he shook his head. “I like London. I like Spitalfields. I have no intention of leaving.”
Somehow that didn’t surprise her. She hadn’t expected him to come cheap. “Three hundred pounds then.”
“Ah, so that’s why you stationed your footman outside. You wouldn’t want him to hear you offering money to a scoundrel. Tell me, do you pay off everybody capable of corrupting your charges? If so, you must be very rich.”
“Quite the bargainer, are you? Fine. Five hundred pounds. But that’s the most you’ll get out of me.”
“Sacrebleu, I don’t want—” He broke off, dragging his fingers through his hair with a look of frustration. “See here, I can make that sum in a matter of days. Your paltry offer is beneath my consideration.”
“Aha! So you admit that you’re receiving stolen goods.”
“I admit nothing.” He shoved away from the counter, his expression stormy. “Is this the purpose of your offer? To trap me into confessing to a crime?”
“No, truly it isn’t,” she said hastily. “It’s an honest offer.”
“I’m still not interested.” His gaze flicked past her to the front of the store. “You’d better leave before your watchdog wanders off. He’s presently flirting with a milk-woman and has probably forgotten you’re even in here. Good day, Lady Clara.”
He turned on his heel and strode into the back room.
She hesitated. Though a quick glance at Samuel showed he was indeed preoccupied, she refused to give up. Throwing caution to the winds, she headed into the back room after her quarry. He was lighting a lantern, his head bent at the task.
“I’m not asking you to stop your activities, you know,” she said.
He froze with his broad back to her.
She hastened on. “I merely wish you to do them elsewhere. It’s a good opportunity for you to make easy money. It’s funds you wouldn’t have otherwise, and all you need do is pack up and move your shady enterprise.”
“This isn’t a shady—”
“Your accepting the money needn’t even be an admission of guilt. In fact, if you’re engaged in honest labor, you ought to leap at the chance to receive money for something so easy as moving your shop.”
Slowly he faced her, eyes ominously black. “Perhaps I simply don’t trust fine ladies when they offer me money for so little.”
“It’s not ‘so little’ to me.”
“All the same, you’ll forgive me if I refuse to risk my life or livelihood on a dubious offer of funds.”
“Besides, I have a good berth here.” He swept his hand to include the entirety of the small, windowless room.
She glanced around. This had once been a kitchen, judging from the small stove at the back, but for some reason he’d taken it for his bedchamber. Lord knows why, for with the stairway against the left wall, there wasn’t much space. He had a rickety bed scarcely big enough for a man his size, a scarred dresser, a washstand, a basket of apples, and not much else.
Good Lord, for a wicked receiver, he certainly lived spartanly. “You call this a ‘good berth’?”
“It suits my purposes. More importantly, I pay no rent. In the long run, leaving here would actually cost me money, even with your attempt at compensation.”
That roused her suspicions. “How do you manage to pay no rent?”
“Friends of mine own the building.” His gaze hardened. “But that isn’t your concern. Nor is my shop or my activities.” All hint of his earlier smug amusement vanished, and only the menacing wolf remained as he stalked up to her. “So you’d best steer clear and mind your own business, Lady Clara, if you don’t want trouble from me.”
If she let him cow her now when the fight had just begun, she’d never defeat him. Tamping down her apprehension, she met his gaze evenly. “All right, if you won’t listen to reason and leave London, just give me the watch and I’ll be on my way.”
She glared at him. “The watch we’ve been discussing, for pity’s sake. If you’ll recall, you didn’t pay Johnny for it, so by rights it’s still his. Since I’m the one presently responsible for him, I demand that you give it back.” At the very least, she must keep Johnny from coming here to get money for his thievery.
He glowered at her. “I can’t give it to you. I don’t have it anymore. I sold it to a man shortly after I acquired it.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I don’t care.” He paused. “But if it will ease your mind, I’ll give you the payment I would have given Johnny.”
“Certainly not! Then I’d be as guilty of a crime as the two of you.”
“That’s the best I can do. If you won’t take it, you might as well leave.”
“I’m not going anywhere without that watch.” Sucking in a breath, she held out her hand. It occurred to her that Samuel couldn’t see her now that she’d come into the back of the shop. Still, every ounce of her pride balked at letting the captain win. She forced herself to stare up into eyes chilly with threat. “Give it to me, and I promise I’ll go.”
“You’ll go, all right.” He stepped so close she could feel heat emanating from his body. “You’ll go this minute. Because if you stay even though I’ve made it clear I don’t have your confounded watch, I’ll assume you have other reasons for waiting around.”
He dropped his gaze deliberately to her mouth, and a trembling began somewhere in the vicinity of her belly. “L-Like what?”
“Like you’ve grown tired of your lonely existence corralling a lot of thankless scamps.” He lifted his hand to run one finger down her cheek, sending a sensual shiver along her skin. “You’d like to experience something more… exciting.” He bent close to whisper, “With me.”
She jerked back. “Don’t be absurd.”
He dropped his hand and gestured to the doorway into the front room. “Fine. You know the way out. Good day, Lady Clara.”
She stared at his self-assured expression. Clearly he expected her to abandon her quest for the watch and run screaming from his shop, clutching her virtue to her chest and vowing never to come back.
It was almost certainly a bluff, just the sort of tactic her roguish uncles would have tried on any hapless female who’d given them trouble. But did she dare to call him on it?
Why not? If he tried anything, all she had to do was scream and Samuel would be in here in seconds. But she’d wager good coin that he wouldn’t try anything anyway.
She tilted her chin up. “I told you—I’m not leaving without the watch.”
Disbelief, then anger, flashed over his face, and before she could even react, he advanced forward, forcing her to back up or be run down. She came up short against the wall, where he trapped her by planting his hands on either side of her shoulders.
She stared up into his determined expression and felt a moment’s panic. “What in the dickens do you think you’re doing?”
“Rousing your sense of self-preservation.”
“I’m not afraid of you, you know,” she said stoutly.
He flashed her a smile of pure wickedness. “You should be.”
Then he kissed her. Hard. Thoroughly. As she’d never been kissed before.
His audacity so stunned her that she didn’t react at first. Then she tried pushing him away, but it was like shoving a boulder. Nothing gave, nothing moved.
Nothing but his mouth …which explored every inch of her lips with merciless thoroughness. She smelled apples on his breath, mingling with the spicy aroma of bay rum that clung to his roughly shaven jaw.
A wanton heat flashed through her, mortifying her to her toes. Surely she wasn’t actually responding to this…
This incredible, alarming kiss that went on and on until she grew dizzy.
When he tore his lips free, she was so rattled all she could do was stare at him. Her heart thundered in her ears as she fought frantically to rein in her wildly careening senses.
At least he looked nearly as rattled as she. His breath came in ragged, urgent gasps, and his face mirrored her own surprise.
Until he wiped it clean of all expression. “Now,” he whispered, “I hope I’ve made it thoroughly clear why you’d best not come around here anymore.”
She understood his words for the threat he meant them to be. “You mean, because you might kiss me senseless?” How dare he assume he could run her off so easily?
“Or worse.” His eyes glittered wolf-like in the dim light. “I might ravish you.”
“R-Ravish me?” A bubble of hysterical laughter rose in her throat before she could prevent it. “Good Lord, that sounds like something out of a Gothic novel! Ravish me, indeed. Don’t be ridiculous.”
Judging from the flare of frustration in his face, her response wasn’t what he’d hoped for. His mouth tightened into a grim line as he leaned into her, reminding her only too well that he had her trapped. “You think I wouldn’t?”
“I think you’re not that stupid.”
That seemed to give him pause. “What do you mean?”
“You were right when you said going to the police to complain about your business affairs might gain me nothing. But if I complain about your attacking me…well, that’s another matter entirely, isn’t it? Englishmen are odd that way. They don’t take a lady of rank seriously until she cries that she’s been ‘ravished,’ as you so colorfully put it. Then I need only point the finger, and they’ll hound you to the gallows.”
Not that she for one moment believed he actually would “ravish” her. If he’d intended that, he wouldn’t have stopped kissing her to deliver his dire threats in that bullying tone of his.
“Excellent point,” he muttered.
“I thought so.” She was finally winning a round. Buoyed by the possibility of success with this new tactic, she added smugly, “Indeed, if you don’t move away and give me that watch, I might be tempted to complain of your behavior anyway. It would be my word against yours, and as I said, in such a case mine is more likely to be believed.”
She’d expected to make him capitulate at last. Instead, humor glinted in his eyes. “Then I might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, mightn’t I?”
She had only a second to wonder what he meant before his mouth came down on hers again.