WYCLIFFE awoke to the sound of a door closing and cutlery clamoring about. His eyes fluttered open, and he turned his head to the side to see dark, beady eyes glaring back at him.

“I see you have awakened from a dead sleep. You had quite the swoon, sir. We were not certain if we should have had a pine box made up.” The old woman spoke while tapping at his leg. His bare leg. Good God! I’m nude!

He shuddered to think that the old bat had stripped him of his clothes. Come to think of it… He searched for them on the chair, then on the floor, but they were nowhere to be found.

Christ. “Woman, what have you done with my shirt and pants?”

“They are off to be laundered, sir. We thought that when you woke, you would care for a bath and clean clothes. We meant no offence.”

Of course not. After all, he was the one who had swooned like a woman, thinking he was seeing a ghost.

“If you do not mind my inquiring sir, what had you in a state? Should we summon the village healer?”

“Nonsense, I will be fine. Once my garments are dry and I have fed, I will be on my way.”

“Fine, fine, I will go and see to your things. You should know, you have upset quite a few of the patrons, including Mrs. Weylen. The moment she saw you, we did not know if she was going to toss her crumpets either. It was quite the fright, sir. Yes, it was. Should have seen her.”

“And where is Mrs. Weylen now? I would like to…err…apologize, for my dastardly behavior.”

“Oh, she does not live here in town. She be living east of here. Only comes to town to trade goods on behalf of old maid Corinne. The only spinster in these parts. With those two women out there in the middle of nowhere, I am quite surprised no highwayman has abducted the beauty. She’s a widow, you know.”

A widow, eh? His Cordelia was in hiding, masking as a widow. Or was it entirely all his imagination? “And how long has this woman been here?”

“I imagine for a while. She lost her husband some time ago, and it is only her and…”

His thoughts blanked out. It could not be her. She would have found a way back to him by now, if she had truly survived.

“Thank you, that will be all. My clothes would be much appreciated.”

“Very well, sir. If they are not yet dry, shall I find something else suitable to your size?”

He nodded. He didn’t want to spend another moment here unless he had to. It was humiliating enough to know what had happened, but to think it was all in vain—over a widow who was not her—did not do a thing for his peace of mind.

As soon as the old woman left the room, he kicked back the sheet and strode toward the tray of food on a table next to the bed. Eggs, bacon, and some lukewarm tea. Anything was better than heading back to his country home on an empty stomach, with his thoughts leaning toward how much of a lunatic he was. Not only was he a deviant lord, he was close to committing himself into an asylum for these visions.

The room lacked the fineries he was accustomed to. A warm fire didn’t burn as it should. His blanket appeared to have aged longer than dear Aunt Edith. The painted walls now peeled. Chips curling as if they had been shaved. Staring at the dilapidated structure around him, he thought more on what had driven him to this point in his life.

These were things he didn’t think his friends the Earl of Bridgeton and the Marquess of Stoughton would understand, and he certainly was not going to tempt fate. Just how would they handle knowing that an acquaintance preferred to have dominant sessions with his lovers? Expecting nothing less than their full submission, their bodies relinquished to his needs. He loved, adored, demanded to mark their skin in a way that served as a reminder of who they served.

That was one of the reasons why he had fallen in love with Cordelia. She had made his duty to command and master easy. She had given her submission without a question or battle. She had aimed to please him in every regard, and now she was gone. And never coming back.

Chapter 1

BASTIAN Wycliffe, the Earl of Wendelhem, gently tucked Mary Elizabeth’s petite hand into the crook of his arm and silently prayed the damned gel would cut their stroll short. For each time he escorted her about, she prodded him to make her his official mistress. A thought that on most days he abhorred, though with each passing day, the benefits outweighed the inconveniences.

He had only just begun to move forward and had spent the last month sober. After the sotted mess he had become all those months ago, he had nearly destroyed any respectability he had left. His man of affairs tended to his properties out of town, while he sorted himself out. He also had to make amends to Madame Martine for his previously obscene behavior.

Not only did he apologize to the brothel owner, but after explaining, in great detail, what his needs were, he paid handsomely for her to assign him a wench who wouldn’t take exception to his requirements.

Mary Elizabeth’s beauty and feminine wiles distracted him well enough. Her hair as black as coal and pale violet eyes had captivated him the first time she had pleasured him at Madame Martine’s establishment. The young woman had been willing to learn how to pleasure him with her submissiveness. Not once did she fuss over being bound, nor did she scold him when he punished her with a spanking for not taking his cock all the way in her mouth.

In fact, since that first night she had entered the room, whenever they were together, the unconventional beauty insisted that she be punished. His cock stirred from its flaccid state into a semi-erect position as she boldly flagged a carriage, stopping the driver.

“You there! Might I have a word with Lady Morton?”

The driver bowed and stepped down to seek permission from his mistress. Lady Eloise Morton, the daughter of Lord Hamish Morton, who had inherited his title and family’s meager fortune, had had to endure an embarrassing let down last season. The Earl of Bridgeton had made his intentions clear from the get go, but her dear mama would see the truth for it was. Her precious daughter was to be made a fool of, and he couldn’t help but empathize with the girl.

“What do you think you are doing, Mary Elizabeth? This is highly irregular, and I do not approve of how you are blatantly drawing attention to us.”

“Why on heaven’s earth are you upset, Bastian? I, for one, am extremely pleased with our arrangement, and I always knew that we would have a special bond. One that you obviously do not mind all of London to witness, as we are walking about so openly in Hyde Park.” She huffed with displeasure before continuing her rant. “Besides, my dear, I desire to speak with an old friend, is all.”

The moment she finished speaking, the carriage door opened, and an un-amused Lady Morton glared at his companion. “What is it that you desire to speak with me about, Mary Elizabeth? I have not got the time to be stopping, nor the patience for your drama. Besides, being seen with you is scandalous enough.”

“I simply wanted to point out that what I always told you was true—that I am worthy of being courted by an earl. What do you have to say now at my inability to fit in with the rest of town?”

“Henry,” Lady Morton shouted. “Drive on, and do not stop again.” The carriage door slammed in their faces.

Mary Elizabeth gripped his arm. All he could do was pat her hand. “Calm yourself, dear. Next time, do try to avoid making a spectacle of yourself. London is hardly a forgiving place, and I suppose that this will be gossiped about tonight whilst she is entertaining company.”

“I only meant to—”

“It matters not what you meant. I, for one, could do without scathing gossip for a little while. You, madam, should be grateful for the privacy we are afforded for the time being.”

The wench scowled, crossed her arms over her chest, and pouted. “Honestly, Bastian, I have no idea why you haven’t moved me into your town house yet. Martine has made it quite clear that if you do not make a decision soon this arrangement will end. There are other lords who will be happy to make me their mistress. Surely you can make a decision on the matter soon?”

Christ! The woman is determined to make me mad. “And I have already told you that I am undecided on the matter, Mary Elizabeth. But let me make amends by taking you to Vauxhall this weekend. I am positive that you will appreciate the entertainment, and perhaps if I can rearrange my schedule, we could continue to the city of Bath. What do you say now of my indecision?”

Her frown faded, and instead he found her lips curling into a mischievous smile. The gleam in her eyes was all the approval he required. Hopefully, the distraction would be enough to keep her insistence at becoming his mistress at bay.

* * * *

“Mrs. Weylen, are you sure that you really want to go to London?”

“I am. Enough time has passed, and I am eager to see how much has changed since my departure to the country.”

Cordelia Waite, formerly the Duchess of Downsbury, watched her companion quizzically. Were it not for the old woman’s quick thinking, kindness, and generosity, she and Matthew would have never survived that terrifying night. It had taken days before she had awoken, and many nights after that for her to recollect how she had ended up in the country.

Her blasted husband, the conniving prig that he was, had shipped her off in secrecy for the remainder of her confinement with the expectation that she would give up the child. What he had not expected, however, was that she had a plan all her own.

She had intended to send word to her beloved Wycliffe and deliver the unthinkable ultimatum—trade in all his wealth to travel with her to the Americas and begin a new life together, but when Missus Miller had taken that nasty fall, she had postponed her trip for a bit. The elderly woman needed more help with her trading business, and she would have been the only one who could have cared for her.

Cordelia’s love for the earl meant more than all the wealth and power her husband had. ’Twas an unfortunate thing that the Duke of Brimley had been caught in the crossfire. His poor widow. She would make amends with the dowager duchess before she left England. The poor dear had a right to know that the rumors of Brimley siring her child were nothing more than gossip.

Although, it was no secret how much of a scoundrel he truly was. The man sorely lacked any scruples and had not one care for those he hurt. One could say the same about the type of marriage she and Richard had. They both had been adulterous, and while she would never apologize for her affairs, she only wished she had found a way to annul the marriage in its infancy. So much hurt could have been avoided. Not to mention the scandal.

Now a year later, she was planning to face Wycliffe and make the proposition she had desired to years ago. And finally announce a little surprise. But first things first. If she had heard proper, the dowager duchess was now addressed as the Marchioness of Stoughton, so she had to make sure the driver knew exactly where they were going.

“Has Matthew been readied for our journey, Missus Miller?”

“He has, though he’s decided to fall asleep again.”

Bah! If he fell asleep now, he will be up all night again. ’Twas terrible enough she had barely slept these last few nights and that tonight would be the same, but if she kept him up now, then he would be sour and restless for their ride into London.

“Very well. Are we ready then to leave?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Excellent. Please tell Davy that we shall be travelling to Stoughton Hall first, and from there, we will backtrack to the nearest staging inn.”

The ride went faster than Cordelia had expected. Matthew slept for the entirety and still slumbered peacefully in her arms. Even despite the rumbling of thunder in the distance and flashes of lightning. When the wagon came to a stop, she handed the babe over to the dour-faced old woman. Her gentle eyes, warm and caring most times, now had a worrisome glare to them.

“Mrs. Weylen, I know not of your previous troubles, but I do not think now is the right time to address them. It appears that hell is about to unleash its fury upon us, and if you do not hurry, the child will get catch the death of him.”

“I promise, ma’am, I will not be long. I have only come to say my piece, and then we will be on our way.”

Missus Miller waved her arms with impatience as Cordelia climbed down the rickety steps of the carriage and walked the gravel path to the main house. Today was the first time she would witness the grandeur of Stoughton Hall.

About to use the knocker, the door opened before the iron clasp even touched the door. “Can I help you?” the gray-haired, brown-eyed butler asked.

“I was hoping to speak with the dowager duchess…err…I mean, Lady Thompson. That is, if she will see me.”

“May I tell her who is calling?”

“My name is, Mrs. Wey…Cordelia Waite, the Duchess of Downsbury.”

He glared at her with suspicion. “Just a moment. Please wait here inside—there’s a seat just by the alcove—while I see if she is taking visitors.”

The marchioness’ voice carried into the foyer as she moved closer. “You must have it wrong, Lewis. Cordelia has been dead for some time now. There must be a mistake…”

The marchioness stopped talking the moment she saw Cordelia. Her face paled, and she quickly raised her hands to muffle a cry before swooning into the arms of the butler. A maid walking by the front entrance screamed. Suddenly, all of the house appeared.

When Lord Thompson came to his wife’s aid, he glanced at Cordelia and then back to his wife. About to take the marchioness into his embrace, he looked at her again, only this time, he registered who she was. “Your Grace, what are you doing here?”

“I have come to clear my—” Boom. The sound of thunder crashed above them. Off behind her, she heard her son wailing as lightning rippled through the sky. She looked back at the wagon as rain pelted it mercilessly. “I have to go now, I cannot stay.”

“Your Grace, please, come in. Your servants are welcome as well. Just have the driver take the coach over to the stable.”

Cordelia waved to Missus Miller. The old woman transferred the crying baby to Cordelia’s arms before she ran off to tell Davy where to bring the cart around.

The marquess ordered the butler and the maid to take his wife to their room, stating he would be along shortly. Then, he addressed Cordelia. “Your Grace, if you will follow me, you can warm up by the fire. Can we provide the baby a dry blanket?”

“You are most kind, my lord.”

He waved to another maid, who left, only to reappear with a fresh gown and blanket. “Allow me.” The young woman offered to take the now calm babe.

“No, just leave the items here, and I will tend to my son. Thank you.”

The maid curtsied and took her leave.

As she undressed Matthew and wrapped him in the dry clothing, she looked up at the marquess and frowned. “I truly meant no harm in my stopping here, Lord Thompson. I know not of what horrid gossip has been spread, or what my husband has been told. All I want is to let your wife know that I had no relations with Henry, nor did I have any designs on him.”

Cordelia rocked her son to sleep while she continued. “The fact of the matter is, I have no intentions of ever returning to Richard, but I am in need of your assistance. I need to see Bastian right away. He is the only reason why I have travelled this distance. The earl and I have much to discuss.”

Lord Thompson looked at the child and then back to her. “You should know that I do not blame you in any way, however, I am not sure Isabel will say the same. Her life was nearly ruined, and my sisters as well, by your husband. How do you think London will react to learn that you are still alive?”

“I care not for what they think, because they will never learn of my return. Let me assure you, Lord Thompson, once my business with Bastian is finished, I will happily return to my humble life in the country with my son. The accident was providence’s way of giving me a second chance at life. And while I had hoped it would have ended differently, I have learned much these last few months.”

The marquess frowned. “Your Grace—”

“Please do not address me as such. Cordelia Waite no longer exists. Remember that always. To the world, I am a widow by the name of Mrs. Weylen.”

“Very well, Mrs. Weylen. You are welcome to stay here. Get some rest, and know that you are safe. When you are ready, and my wife is calm enough to talk, we shall discuss your plans.”

“Thank you, my lord. I am indebted to you.” Though I am sure your lovely wife will not think the same. In fact, I am sure she will turn us out on our arses.

* * * *

Bastian scanned the room for where he had tossed his shirt and cravat. There they were, in the middle of the floor, too far out of reach, and more than likely wrinkled from his hastiness. Blast it! I still have an appointment to attend. He tucked his manhood back into his breeches, while a very satisfied Mary Elizabeth lay grinning from satisfaction. “Well, don’t we look like the cat that ate the canary?”

“Mmm…indeed, my lord. Your masterful skills of pleasure, Bastian, never cease to amaze me. Your wicked tongue, in all its glory, knows how to drive a woman mad. Where ever did you learn all that?”

The question made him chuckle, and while no one had ever sought out such information before, he would never give up his secrets on where he had learned of how to pleasure women. His parents would turn over in their graves if he ever spoke such tales aloud.

What would they say of my visits to brothel upon brothel? What would my mother do if she knew that one of her widowed companions had taken me under their wing and educated me on the needs of women who wished for more than a simple fucking? Who knew that I would not be happy until I bound a woman, spanked her, and used implements to ensure her pleasure?

All this thinking was making his cock thick with need again. And while his companion, Mary Elizabeth, deemed to please him in any way that she could, absolutely no one would whimper, purr, or scream out his name like Cordelia. With a heavy heart, Bastian shook his head to keep thoughts of her out of his mind. Cordelia is gone. Move on, man!

With his shirt and cravat back on, he walked over to Mary Elizabeth’s bed, planting a heavy hand on her round, creamy arse. “My dear, I need to leave now. Try not to get into any trouble until I come calling again. Am I understood?”

She grinned back at him, her mischievous green eyes indicating that she was prepared to disregard his order and make trouble at a moment’s notice. Yet her words sang a different tune. “Of course, my love. I would not dare to ignite your ire. Besides, I have some shopping to do. I have my eye on several new gowns, which I think you will approve of very much.”

“Well, in that case, I look forward to seeing them soon.”

“Bastian, before you leave, I was wondering if you gave some more thought on—”

The earl pinched the bridge of his nose. Here we go again. “Mary Elizabeth, how many times must we go through this? I am not sure having a paid mistress is how I would like to proceed. I happen to like our current arrangement, and I wonder why you do not. If you want more money, I can certainly offer it.”

The courtesan scoffed and bounced from the bed to dress. “How many times must I tell you, Bastian? Martine is hoping to draw a more long-term clientele. The woman is set on seeing her experienced girls settled, so that she may begin training others to prepare them for gentlemen of your league. As I said the other morning, if you do not commit to that sort of arrangement, there will no longer be an agreement for either of us.”

“Then so be it, my dear. Shall we depart, then, knowing that this was our last moment together?”

She glared at him with a scowl. “You infuriating man!” Mary Elizabeth grabbed her porcelain water jug and tossed it at him. “You cad! Get out! I’ve had enough of this nonsense…after everything I’ve done…”

Bastian backed away, watching her fury with increasing fright. He had taken a chance with her, showing her the ways of being submissive to a man’s heavy, but loving touch. She could turn around and blackmail him, report their activities to Martine. He could just imagine all of London learning of their tryst and how he prefers to spank women.

Christ! How many people would consider that assault? He could end up incarcerated, or even worse, locked away in an asylum for his deviant behavior. That would top any scandal brought on by the Marquess of Stoughton and his tryst with the marchioness in the pleasure gardens, as well as the Earl of Bridgeton marrying Lady Thompson in Gretna Green moments before she was due to marry the Duke of Downsbury.

I’m doomed.