Whitefawn Abbey, Devonshire
H e woke with a splitting head and a hard cock.
The situation was not uncommon. He had, after all, woken each day for more than half a decade with one of the items in question, and on more mornings than he could count with both.
William Harrow, Marquess of Chapin and heir to the dukedom of Lamont, was wealthy, titled, privileged and handsome—and a young man blessed with those traits rarely wanted for anything relating to wine or women.
So it was that on this morning, he did not fret. Knowing (as skilled drinkers do) that the splitting head would dissipate by midday, he moved to cure the other affliction and, without opening his eyes, reached for the female no doubt nearby.
Except, she wasn’t.
Instead of a handful of warm, willing flesh, William came up with a handful of unsatisfying pillow.
He opened his eyes, the bright light of the Devonshire sun assaulting his senses and emphasizing the thundering in his head.
He cursed, draped one forearm over his closed eyes, sunlight burning red behind the lids, and took a deep breath.
Daylight was the fastest way to ruin a morning.
Likely, it was for the best that the woman from the previous evening had disappeared, though the memory of lovely lush breasts, a mane of auburn curls, and a mouth made for sin did bring with it a wave of regret.
She had been gorgeous.
And in bed—
In bed she’d been—
He couldn’t remember.
Surely he hadn’t had that much drink. Had he? She’d been long and full of curves, made just the way he liked his women, a match for the height and breadth that was too often his curse when it came to them. He did not like feeling like he might crush a girl.
And she’d had a smile that made him think of innocence and sin all at once. She’d refused to tell him her name . . . refused to hear his . . .
And her eyes—he’d never seen eyes like hers, one the blue of the summer sea, and one just on the edge of green. He’d spent too long looking at those eyes, fascinated by them, wide and welcoming.
They’d crept through the kitchens and up the servants’ stairs, she’d poured him a scotch . . .
And that was all he remembered.
Good Lord. He had to stop drinking.
Just as soon as today was over. He would need drink to survive his father’s wedding day—the day William gained his fourth stepmother. Younger than all the others. Younger than him.
And very very rich.
Not that he’d met her, this paragon of brideliness. He’d meet her at the ceremony and not before, just as he’d done the other three. And then, once the familial coffers had been once again filled, he would leave. Back to Oxford, having done his duty and played the role of doting son. Back to the glorious, libidinal life that belonged to heirs to dukedoms, filled with drink and dice and women and not a worry in the world.
Back to the life he adored.
But tonight, he would honor his father and greet his new mother and pretend that he cared for the sake of propriety. And perhaps, after he was done playing the role of heir, he’d seek out the playful young thing from the gardens and do his best to recall the events of the night before.
Thank Heaven for country estates and well-attended nuptials. There wasn’t a female in creation who could resist the sexual lure of a wedding, and because of that, William had a great affinity for holy matrimony.
How lucky that his father had such a knack for it.
He grinned and stretched across the bed, throwing one arm wide over the cool linen sheets.
Cold linen sheets.
Cold wet linen sheets.
What in hell?
His eyes flew open.
It was only then that he realized it wasn’t his room.
It wasn’t his bed.
And the red wash across the bedsheets, dampening his fingers with its sticky residue, was not his blood.
Before he could speak, or move, or understand, the door to the strange bedchamber opened and a maid appeared, fresh-faced and eager.
There were a dozen different things that could have gone through his mind at that moment . . . a hundred of them. And yet, in the fleeting seconds between the young maid’s entrance and her notice of him, William thought of only one thing—that he was about to ruin the poor girl’s life.
He knew, without doubt, that she would never again casually open a door, or spread sheets across a bed, or bask in the rare, bright sunlight of a Devonshire winter morning without remembering this moment.
A moment he could not change.
He did not speak when she noticed him, nor when she froze in place, nor when she went deathly pale and her brown eyes—funny that he noticed their color—went wide with first recognition and then horror.
Nor did he speak when she opened her mouth and screamed. No doubt he would have done the same, had he been in her position.
It was only when she was through with that first, ear-shattering shriek—the one that brought footmen and maids and wedding guests and his father running—that he spoke, taking the quiet moment before the coming storm to ask, “Where am I?”
The maid simply stared, dumbstruck.
He made to move from the bed, the sheets falling to his waist, stopping short as he realized his clothes were nowhere in sight.
He was naked. In a bed that was not his own.
And he was covered in blood.
He met the maid’s horrified gaze again, and when he spoke, the words came out young and full of something he would later identify as fear. “Whose bed is this?”
Remarkably, she found her answer without stuttering. “Miss Lowe.”
Miss Mara Lowe, daughter of a wealthy financier, with a dowry large enough to catch a duke.
Miss Mara Lowe, soon-to-be the Duchess of Lamont.
His future stepmother.
The Fallen Angel
Twelve Years Later
T here is beauty in the moment when flesh meets bone.
It is born of the violent crunch of knuckles against jaw, and the deep thud of fist against abdomen, and the hollow grunt that echoes from the chest of a man in the split second before his defeat.
Those who revel in such beauty, fight.
Some fight for pleasure. For the moment when an opponent collapses to the floor in a cloud of sawdust, without strength or breath or honor.
Some fight for glory. For the moment when a champion looms over his beaten and broken adversary, slick with sweat and dust and blood.
And some fight for power. Underscored by the strain of sinew and the ache of soon-to-be bruises that whisper as victory comes with the promise of spoils.
But the Duke of Lamont, known throughout London’s darkest corners as Temple, fought for peace.
He fought for the moment when he was nothing but muscle and bone, movement and force, sleight and feint. For the way brutality blocked the world beyond, silencing the thunder of the crowd and the memories of his mind, and left him with only breath and might.
He fought because, for twelve years, it was in the ring alone that he knew the truth of himself and of the world.
Violence was pure. All else, tainted.
And that knowledge made him the best there was.
Undefeated throughout London—throughout Europe, many wagered—it was Temple who stood in the ring each night, wounds rarely scarred over before they threatened to bleed again, knuckles wrapped in long strips of linen. There, in the ring, he faced his next opponent—a different man each night, each one believing Temple could be bested.
Each one believing himself the man to reduce the great, immovable Temple to a mass of heavy flesh on the floor of the largest room of London’s most exclusive gaming hell.