1880 Noblesville, Indiana
“I am not a child!” Audrey Harper resisted the urge to stomp her foot as, once again, her father ushered her from his office and closed the door behind him, leaving her in a smaller, outer reception area, staring at his door. A soft snicker filled the air and a heated blush crept into her cheeks. Justin Redding, her father’s junior partner in the bookkeeping business, was undoubtedly watching every moment of her humiliation.
Well, he could choke on his own tongue for all she cared. She wouldn’t give him the time of day let alone the satisfaction of knowing that she heard him. There was one thing she wanted in the world and it did not involve him.
In spite of her resolve, she cast a glance over her shoulder and gave him the tiniest eyebrow arch, daring him to say more. A conservative, brown tweed suit fit his lean frame to perfection with the collar of his linen shirt so starched she was surprised he could move his neck at all. When he caught sight of her gaze, he stood, and the strong morning sunshine winked off the links of a silver watch fob on his waist coat. An expensive trinket on an accountant’s salary. She tore her focus from the accessory to his face.
“Did you need something further, Miss Harper?” His voice, deep and smooth as her father’s imported brandy, flowed over her and was just as warming. A mocking grin lifted the corners of his lips and one of his eyebrows quirked in query. “I believe your father has asked you to go along home.”
She narrowed her eyes. “I’m aware of what he asked, thank you, Mr. Redding. The last time I checked, I wasn’t deaf, nor am I dumb. I can decipher commands, especially if they come from my parent.”
Justin chuckled and the rich notes tickled places deep inside she’d rather not give life to—at least not here. Maybe in the privacy of her room. He’d ignored her awkward teenaged advances when she’d been a stupid girl of eighteen and him a young man of twenty-three. Granted, he probably didn’t remember her as that shy, slightly overweight, freckled girl. She kept close to the house much of those years, especially following after her brother’s death. Now, Justin didn’t deserve a response to his casual flirting—yet he never missed an opportunity and she always looked forward to his attempts.
“Well-spoken as always. No wonder your father is about to tear his hair out keeping you in line.” Slowly, as if he prowled the outer office like a panther, he came around the polished, cherry wood desk.
“I don’t need any man to keep me in line, thank you.” Swallowing hard, she turned around, her hands behind her back and resting on the cool metal of the doorknob.
“Be that as it may, isn’t your father planning to match you with an unwilling victim, I mean beau, at the Halloween party this evening?”
“How can you know that?” Even though it was true, she held his limpid brown gaze and dared him to contradict her.
“Your father becomes chatty during lunch.” Justin’s grin flashed even white teeth. “He also invited me to the bash should I wish to attend.” Another few strides brought him close enough that she felt the heat rolling from his body.
“Will you come?” Her voice sounded breathless to her ears and she wondered how she came across to him. Did she appear a desperate twenty-seven-year old woman, on the edge of a trapped life yet wanting so much more?
“I haven’t decided, but I am considering it.” He edged another foot forward until his knee bumped hers, so close the tiny gold flecks in his eyes danced in amusement at her. “I don’t have a costume.”
“Ah, that is a problem.” Her heart thumped against her ribs, trying to escape, beating out a warning, yet even as it did, gooseflesh rose on her arms. Her chest clenched and tiny pulses of pleasure curled in her belly to be in such proximity to him. The doorknob slipped under her suddenly sweaty palms.
“Indeed.” A tiny trace of a Southern drawl clung to his words, but he didn’t possess the consummate charm of a gentleman. He was a rogue to the core.
Another step brought him so intimately close a mere inch of space separated their bodies. Audrey couldn’t breathe. It felt as if the confining corset would snap her in half. She greedily swept her gaze along the strong cut of his jaw, the rugged face that spoke of hard work and secrets, the dark, sloping brows. His raven black was kept short and held rigidly in place by slick pomade. As a rule, she didn’t care for beauty products on men. Why couldn’t they embrace their masculinity and be confident in it? A thought niggled its way into her brain that he’d be much more handsome if that hair were allowed to meander over his head in gentle waves, free so she could run her fingers through it.
Stop dreaming, Audrey. He works for your father and is no good besides.
“Do you want to know what I think, Miss Harper?” His warm exhalation caressed her lips like heated silk, recalling her attention to the conversation.
“I’m not sure.” The common sense part of her mind urged her to slap his face for his intrusion, but the part of her that begged for adventure compelled her to hold her ground.
His grin was slow and sensual, and very much that of a jungle cat on the hunt. “You don’t need a man to keep you in line. You need a man to be your equal, one who will give you as much as you’ll take and demand you give just as much.” His eyes darkened to the hue of black coffee. “You need a man who will satisfy your every desire, even those locked away in your heart of hearts—the ones you never tell a living soul.”
“What makes you think I have hidden desires?” It was all she could do not to throw her arms around his neck.
“Every woman does, but I think a woman as restless as you has many. Too bad you’ll probably never fulfill any of them if your father has his way.”
The building excitement his words created deflated faster than a hot air balloon as reality rushed in. “Unfortunately, Mr. Redding,” she swallowed around the lump of tears in her throat, “you are correct.”
And it wouldn’t matter what she wanted.
“Indeed. More’s the pity. I pray someone will come to your rescue and soon.” For long agonizing seconds, he stared into her eyes, and then with slow, measured movements, Justin eased away. “Well, I have work to do.” His gaze met hers once more. “I certainly hope you find what you’re searching for, Miss Harper.”
“Thank you, I’ll bear that in mind.” She turned the handle and went through the doorway into her father’s office, closing the door as her heart pounded even harder now. She would never allow anything to come of the flirtation, since it was wholly on his part. Her reaction was simply because he’d taken her off guard with his naughty suggestions.
He had his chance.
“Audrey, I thought I told you to go home.” Her father, Gavin Harper, cleared his throat and made no show of hiding an annoyed sigh.
“Not until I say what I came here to tell you.” She straightened her spine and walked toward his massive oak desk. Nerves chewed her stomach, bubbling and gurgling. She ignored the uncomfortable sensation. “I know you’re concerned for my future, but I beg you, if you already have a gentleman in mind for me, please don’t make plans.”
He rose to his impressive height of six feet two inches and glared over the top of his spectacles. Thinning brown hair laced with silver clung to his head while the deep wrinkles on his cheeks spoke of too much heartache in his life. This was a man who’d faced death more than any man should. “Listen, my girl, I have already lost one child with another loss not far off.” Profound sadness shadowed his expression. “Seeing you settled will make me happy. I refuse to bury another.”
Seeing him as less than the imposing figure she’d grown up with drove home the sad fact he was getting older—they all were. Now that her brother was gone and her sister slowly fading away from consumption, she, Audrey, was the last child left.
“Don’t you care what will make me happy? How can I be if you saddle me with a man I can’t love, let alone know? Do you know how archaic that is in this day and age?” How could that possibly be enough foundation to build a life on?
“I know you’ll be cared for and set financially. Love will come later. It did for your mother and me.” He slid an arm around her shoulders and pulled her into a brief hug that reeked of pipe tobacco. “You’ll have to trust me on this, little one. I won’t live forever.”
“I know.” All too well. She thought she’d have forever with her siblings but fate got in the way. “I just want to be content. I want adventures and excitement. I’ve looked after this family my whole life. Don’t I deserve to reap a reward?” She shuddered as the thought of spending the rest of her life cleaning up after a man she hardly knew through her brain. She’d already wasted time waiting for life to begin. Would she now wait for it to end?
Not if I have any breath left in my body.
“’Course you do, which is why your mother and I are throwing this party tonight. All the men will be masked. You can choose one when they’re unveiled at midnight for supper. Whichever of the lot takes your fancy will make me happy. They’re all from good families.” He steered her to the door and yanked it open with his free hand. “Justin? Do me a favor and take my daughter home so she can take a nap before the party. I think she’s been over stimulated.”
Before Audrey could protest, her father once more thrust her from his office and this time when the door shut, she heard the faint click of the lock.
Justin guided her away with a gentle grip on her elbow. He leaned in close and whispered in her ear, “Your father is wrong. It’s my firm belief you haven’t been properly stimulated at all.”
Except his flirting minutes before left her heated and unfulfilled. Not that she’d ever let him know that. “Mr. Redding, you go too far!” She wrenched out of his grasp then with her chin held high, she swept out of the suite, two steps ahead of him, and her cheeks burning.
She’d show her father and Justin combined that she was very much in control of her destiny. Tonight at the party, under the guise of secrecy, she’d pick a man with whom to begin an affair. For once, she’d start living the life she wanted—far removed from death, mental stress and sadness. She’d live for her.
* * * *
Justin Redding couldn’t believe his luck. He’d seen Audrey settled into the two-person buggy then clambered in beside her, taking the horse’s reins in hand. Cramped and cozy, the voluminous yards of her brown silk skirt took up much of the floor space. The conveyance also had the added benefit of being intimately pressed against her side due to necessity. The rush through his body was more fulfilling than enjoying the spoils of a jewel thief, which he did heartily enjoy. He stifled a chuckle. He’d be more apt to compare the two after tonight’s party.
“Are you warm enough, Miss Harper? There is a lap blanket beneath your seat.”
“My personal comfort is not your concern, thank you.” She stared straight ahead, never once glancing his way.
“Pardon me for attempting to make the drive home pleasant.” He grinned and set the horse in motion, driving out of the small carriage yard situated behind her father’s accounting house. “Am I to assume from your prickly attitude the second attempt to sway your father didn’t work as planned?” He remembered her blush from his words shortly before she’d gone into Mr. Harper’s office.
The woman had an inner fire she couldn’t hide. He wanted to be the man to stoke those flames and show her how they could consume her—as well as them both, but only if she’d let him near enough. She’d done a fair job at holding him at arm’s length for years.
Finally, she turned her head to glare. “His answer was expected.” Her shrug lifted the ivory wool shawl, sliding it off one shoulder. “He never listens to what I want.” She raised blue eyes as clear as lake water, looking into his face. “Is he as stubborn while conducting business or is it just with me?”
The frustration in her voice pulled at his heartstrings. Her life hadn’t been the most ideal, and for as long as he’d known her, he’d tried to make her smile, cajole laughter from her. In the five years since he’d worked for her father, he’d had minimal luck, but it didn’t diminish his optimism in that regard. Unfortunately, her beauty grew more pronounced with every passing year and his lust for her rose exponentially as well.
Justin shifted in his seat to hide how much he admired her unconventional curves. “Your father thinks he knows what a person needs. He tries to fix what’s wrong with people and I can’t say that I blame him. He’s only looking to see someone find the happy ending he couldn’t.” That was the truth as he’d come to know it. Two years ago he’d asked Mr. Harper for permission to court Audrey and the man had refused the offer. When Justin pursued the reason, her father said Justin couldn’t care for his daughter in the way she’d been accustomed to.
In the years following, as he’d embarked on part-time life of crime, Justin often wondered if that refusal hadn’t been the motivation for his shady deeds. Though he gave away much of the profits from selling the fenced jewels, he retained a portion, padding his bank account with enough savings until he could, indeed, look after a wife in style and comfort.
“That might be true.”
Her soft words brought him back to the present. He cleared his throat. “I think he’s become overly protective of those he cares about since Jack’s death.” God, that day must have been tough. He’d missed the funeral because he’d been stuck in hellish Atlanta following the War Between the States due to his mother’s final illness. The way Audrey talked of her dead brother, one might think the man had supernatural powers. Maybe to her, he had. He’d met Jack while in Georgia during the final months of the conflict and found him to be an average, good kid.
She nodded. “Poor Jack.” Holding her lower lip between her teeth, she transferred her gaze to the road. “He would have been your age next month. I wonder what his life would have been like had he lived.”
“I’m sure he would have been an advocate for personal happiness. Very much like you, I’d imagine.” She needed someone who could make her smile even through the tears, someone who understood the little intricacies of her personality, bring her to the brink of pleasure and farther still, and then be a devoted companion when the heat faded and friendship remained. “From all the stories I’ve heard of him, he lived for adventure, thrived on excitement. Death represented that for him.” Not to mention Justin had fallen in love with Jack’s stories of his feisty sister back in Indiana, waiting for him to come home and tease him.
“Thank you.” For a few, fleeting moments, she laid a gloved hand on his arm. “I’d like to hope that as well.” Though her smile was small, its force could rival the sun.
“You are much like him, I reckon. I get the feeling you’re not happy and haven’t been for a long time. A woman like you deserves to hand pick her own destiny like Jack did.” Since the horse knew the way to the Harper home by rote, Justin took the opportunity to study Audrey’s profile while she kept her eyes carefully on the road.
Smooth ivory skin infused with rosy color in her round cheeks made his fingers itch to touch it, stroke it. Her upswept hair glowed in the morning light like rich caramel. He preferred when she wore it loose about her shoulders, slightly curling and so thick a man could tangle his fingers in its depths.
So close, he inhaled her rose-scented skin. How she’d gotten through life without accepting a marriage proposal, he’d never understood. Those bewitching curves alone would tempt a man to his doom. Justin swallowed heavily. He’d give up a year of his life to see her without clothes, to skim his palms over her tempting hips, brush against her full breasts, especially after he’d spent the last few years dreaming about just that.
Except there was one tiny problem with her accepting a courtship from him. Not only did he work for her father in a junior position, his moonlighting job wasn’t exactly something a woman could brag over the tea tray—if only her father knew. Being a jewel thief brought a challenge to his life he didn’t get by being an accountant, yet without the questionable employment, many people would suffer.
One crazy night two years before, he’d been filled with liquid courage and asked her to marry him. She’d laughed and turned him down flat. He’d never forgotten. Perhaps she needed to see the man she’d said no to, or give the man he was now a second chance.
Tonight’s party would be perfect on both counts. If she refused his flirtation, he’d be in costume and she’d never know the identity of the man who propositioned her.
They rode in emotion-filled silence for several miles before Justin spoke again. “Who will you be dressed as this evening, Miss Harper? What will you tempt the men with tonight?”
She stirred from her thoughts and a dazzling smile animated her lips. “I have chosen to be a French courtesan.” As she turned toward him, her eyes sparkled like the finest gem and the blush deepened on her cheeks. “If Father wishes me to choose a man to marry, I intend to use my costume to find my own entertainment for the evening. I want to have a fling just for me before I must settle down and take care of someone else.”
Definitely passionate, his Audrey. He raised an eyebrow at the effrontery. After tonight, if things went well, she’d either love him or hate him so thoroughly he’d need to find other employment two states over.
“I told you at the office you need a man to unlock your passions, but I must warn you.” He tugged on the reins until the horse halted at a crossroad between cornfields. As he turned toward her, his knees knocked into hers sending jolts of sensation through his body. “Choose that man carefully. He may be the watershed moment in your life.”
“Is that so?” One of her full, arched eyebrows inched upward. “How can you be certain?” Her low, sultry voice, posing such a question, caused his cock to push against his trousers. “Maybe I won’t find anyone who catches my fancy.”
“Oh, you’ll find him.” Her lips beckoned and he couldn’t deny their siren call. “Any decent man would jump at the chance to be with you.” Holding her gaze, he leaned in, lifted her chin with a finger and claimed her mouth.
He moved over her silky and pliant lips, nibbling the corners then returning to draw the tip of his tongue along their seam, teasing. When she gave a faint mew of pleasure, he pulled away, putting as much space between them as the carriage confines would allow.
Audrey’s breathing sounded rough but he didn’t glance over for confirmation for fear he wouldn’t be able to leave their next encounter with such an innocent embrace.
“What if I don’t want a decent man tonight?”
“That is a choice you’ll have to make yourself, Miss Harper.” The kiss had been a reckless idea yet he hadn’t mistaken the stark need in her eyes or the answering hunger roaring through his body. It was real, and no matter what, he intended to be the man she wanted this evening. Once he’d given her everything she hungered for, he’d steal the Harpers' valuables, pilfer a few of their guests’ jewels and flee into the dark.
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