In Victorian London, Emma Hale leads two lives. As Le Petite Oiseau, in corset and pink feathers, she's the reigning queen of the music hall; offstage she's a prim-faced theatre seamstress. For years these two women have shared one body; now they share something else—forbidden love for a man who could destroy them both.
Marcus Craven, Duke of Penhale, wants Le Petite Oiseau as his mistress, but he's also sworn to hunt down and revenge himself on the hazel-eyed girl who once shot at him with a dueling pistol. On this winter's evening when he finds both women in his path, he suddenly faces a dilemma.
What exactly does Marcus want? The fiery, passionate actress or the quiet "mouse" hiding in her shadow?
Perhaps this notorious rake wants them both.
Holly swung through the door, slamming it hard behind her, sliding the bolt across. “Lucette,” she called for her maid, who also appeared to be absent from the dimly-lit dressing room. “Where the devil is everybody?” Forgetting her purloined French accent, she cursed broadly, now much less little French bird, more cockney sparrow. “This bleedin’ corset is killing me.” Reaching for the gas lamp beside her dressing table, she turned it up and then sat before the mirror to remove her velvet choker.
She paused, hands at her nape. Was that a movement she saw behind her reflected in the looking glass? Something lurked in the shadowy corner. A spark of light moved in the darkness.
“Hope you liked the earrings, Miss O’Neil.”
Over her shoulder she caught the sparkle again, a gleam of diamond cufflinks, as he moved his hand. It was a man in evening clothes, sprawled in the corner chair, his face in shadow, legs stretched out, crossed at the ankle. His casual repose raised her hackles.
“I didn’t invite you into my room.”
He shifted forward. Soft, amber light from the gas lamp caressed his features, long, narrow nose, dark brows, and thin lips; a lean, tanned, aristocratic face.
“Don’t be cross with your maid.” There was a flare of gleaming white when he smiled crookedly, the wolf that tricked Red Riding Hood. “She very obligingly agreed to leave us alone for a few minutes while you thanked me for those diamond earrings I sent you today.”
In a flutter of feathers, she swiveled to face him, fingers trembling too much now to fuss with the clasp on her choker.
“I’m sure it was an oversight on your part,” he added calmly, “not to wear them for me tonight.”
“Those ghastly, big things?” She wrinkled her nose. “You can have them back.”
For the last three nights, he’d haunted her on stage, then appeared in her dressing room, waiting for her like this. It was a mistake letting him in, she realized, eyeing his lounging, arrogant sprawl. He looked as if he owned the place–as if he owned her. And no man owned Holly O’Neil.
Not even the blasted Duke of Penhale.
On fire, her nerves stretched so thin they were ready to snap. Her fingers clawed across the dressing table, searching for the unwanted gift. “I don’t want them.” She never accepted jewelry from men; it was a rule of hers. One of many.
He stood, unraveling his lengthy limbs, filling the corner of her untidy room, making everything else seem miniature, the space too tight for air. Before he took a step toward her, she was up, facing him, her fingers clasped around the wooden chair-back, ready to use it as a lion tamer would. “I’ll return them in the morning, when I find them. Lucette must have moved the box.”
If he reached up with his hands, he could press his palms flat to her ceiling and very probably rip her room apart at the seams. “Why are you so angry with me?”
She tossed her hair over one shoulder, chin high. “Because you’re an arrogant bugger.” Her fingers tightened around the chair-back as he approached slowly, until he towered over her. “Who the hell do you think you are?”
“I’m the one you’ve been waiting for, Miss…O’Neil.”
His gall was breathtaking. Eyebrow arched, she exclaimed pertly, “You mean you’re the chimney sweep who was supposed to come on Tuesday?”
He paused, eyes narrowed. There was a very slight twitch in his jaw.
“Or are you the man about the rats in the attic?”
When he began to crack his knuckles, a frisson of anticipation leapt along her spine.
“Don’t tell me.” She held up one hand, small palm in his face. “You’re a brush salesman and you’re going to offer me the bargain of a lifetime.”
He grabbed her wrist, his firm fingers wrapped tight around it, bringing her hand to his lips. “I can be all those things. Whatever you need.”
“I’m sure.” She barely restrained her eyes from rolling.
Against her clenched knuckles, his lips were very warm and insistent. Many men had kissed her hand, but never did she feel so much raw danger in that gentlemanly gesture. His free hand wrestled her for the chair she held between them. “Where shall I begin? With your chimney that so desperately needs sweeping?”
Her tone was sarcastic, “Or the wondrous bargain I’m sure you’re about to offer me, like any other toff.”
The chair wrenched from her grip, he tossed it aside like a piece of firewood and his long, lean thighs crushed her to the dressing table. He was too hot; the steam from his body dampened her flimsy costume. And his arousal, pressed hard against her, might best be described, she thought mischievously, as ungentlemanly and distinctly unapologetic.
“Oi! You’re wilting my feathers,” she complained.
“I’ll pluck them all off, shall I? One by one.” His voice softened, breaching her defenses, trickling through her like heavy drops of warm rain, settling deep inside, pooling in some very inconvenient places. “As I did last night and the night before.”
She lifted her head and their eyes met. Gentle gaslight flickered under his half-lowered lashes; a slight, wary smile tugged on his lips. He hadn’t shaved today, she noted. Had he slept since last night? Probably not. The man was a dissolute rogue.
He needed someone to take care of him. Quickly she shook off that idea. Let some other foolish woman assume that thankless task. After all, she’d made up her mind to take care of herself now. And about time too.
“I can’t believe this is happening. Again.” She didn’t want him to think it was a habit of hers. “I don’t know what came over me last night, or the night before.”
“I did,” he whispered wickedly in her ear. “And I’m about to do it again.”