Once Ruined, Twice Shy – Elizabeth Keysian

Bath, England “You want me to seduce someone?” Miss Hestia Normanton stared askance at Frederick Ebbworth. She must have misheard him. She’d been his mistress— unintentionally—less than a year, and their love was as strong as ever. Or so she’d thought. He leaned against the mantel above the empty fireplace. “You probably won’t have to go that far. He’s a cold fish, is Conall Methuen. Just win his trust, howsoever you can.” So, Conall Methuen was the man Frederick wanted her to deceive. She’d never heard of him. And she had no intention of complying anyway, no matter how Frederick railed and shouted at her. “This must be one of your jests.” Yes, that had to be it—he’d always teased her. It was one of the many things that had attracted her to him. He turned.

The spring sunshine slanted through the window, making his pale eyes translucent and gilding his fair hair. Even when they were at odds, Hestia wanted this man above all others. “No jest, my darling. How can we ever have enough money to marry if Methuen is intent on ruining me?” She bit her lip, struggling to contain the palpitations of her heart. Could it be Frederick was finally going to hold to his promise of marriage? Every time she’d mentioned the word of late, it put him in a pet. But to have him mention it himself… “You do still want to marry me, then.” Oh, how pathetic that sounded. How very much the little woman, the weaker sex. But without wedlock, her children would never have respectability. Her longed-for children.

“Of course. Would I have eloped with you if I didn’t? And I wouldn’t be living here from choice, let me tell you.” His gesture encompassed the modest parlour of their rented rooms. There was little familiarity—the furniture came with the property, and Frederick owned few possessions aside from several ornate mirrors now dotted about the walls. Hestia only had what she’d been able to carry away on horseback in the dead of night. What a long way away her family home seemed now, how distant her parents, and childhood memories. All given up in the name of love. “It makes no sense. If you love me, you’d never risk putting me into the path of another man.” He’d be too jealous, wouldn’t he? Frederick had always struck her as the jealous kind.

But then, her instincts about him had been proved wrong time and time again. “Oh, I’ve no fears of you falling for him. He’s an ugly bastard—disfigured, with only one eye. No woman would want him now.” Better and better. She must throw herself at a hideous gentleman, make him fall in love with her and stop him, somehow, from destroying Frederick’s precarious finances. She tried to sound matter-of-fact, though her heart raced so fast she feared she would faint. “It’s madness. How am I supposed to stop him from buying most of the shares in your favourite companies, then selling said companies at a loss? I know nothing of business–indeed, I barely understand how these stocks and shares things work. If this Mr Methuen has money and business sense, he’s not going to let a woman dissuade him.

Especially one he’s only just met.” “You underestimate your charms, my love. Anyway, I can wait. You’re not without wit —you will soon learn how his system works. You can spy for me, get into his study, copy his papers or borrow them and bring them to me, then return them unnoticed. That way, I can fight him. I can break him as he’s trying to break me.” “Do we actually need to ruin him?” Seeing the diamond-edged glint in Frederick’s eye, she felt sympathy for their unsuspecting victim. Frederick was not one to be crossed. She’d learned that in their eleven months, two weeks, and three days living together.

As man and mistress, she reminded herself bitterly. Not as husband and wife. She hurried to the window, fought with the catch, then lifted the sash and stared down onto the broad cobbled expanse of Great Pulteney Street. The air she sucked greedily into her lungs tasted of horse, barely masked by the perfume of mock orange blossom drifting down the hill from Sydney Gardens. But there was no comfort in the familiar clatter of open barouches or the subdued chatter of passers-by. “There has to be another way, my darling. Can you not get your friends to work on this Mr Methuen? They have more business sense than I—could they not do to him what you fear he’s doing to you? Damage him financially? Bankrupt him? That would be a far safer bet than sending your mistress into the lion’s den.” His mouth quirked up at one corner. “No one can bankrupt Methuen. Oh, no, he’s the Earl of Corsbury, and fabulously rich.

That’s one part of your assignment you’ll enjoy— you’ll be in clover every minute you spend with him.” “I have no intention of spending any minutes with him at all, however wealthy he might be. And anyway, if he’s so rich and important, what need has he of your money?” The blue eyes bored into hers, like light reflecting off cut glass, harsh and penetrating. “He doesn’t need my money. He hates me. Surely you must have worked out there have been other women before you? But this one was a non-pareil, and Methuen coveted her. He’s pursued me ever since, aiming to make my life a misery. It has to stop.” His voice softened to a purr. “Because only then will you and I be able to afford marriage, and the family I know you so desire.

” She frowned. “If this Lord Methuen is so ugly, how could any woman want him over you?” “She didn’t. But she thought I was dead at Waterloo. Now, I’ve said enough. It pains me to talk about it.” Hestia wondered why it had taken so long for this ‘other woman’ to come to light. How many more such interesting facts was Frederick concealing from her? Perhaps she should forgive him—not many women wanted to discuss their lover’s previous amours. But one more question needed to be asked. “What happened to this woman?” Why had Frederick not married her? Yet another to whom he had made a false promise? The crash of crockery jerked her away from the window, to gaze in horror at the wreck of a small porcelain figure on the hearthstone. Frederick’s face was thunderous.

“Now look what you’ve made me do. I told you, I don’t want to talk about her. You say you love me, so why do you torment me like this?” Confrontation was not the way to win him over. She hurried over and took his arm. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.” “Well, you have. Truth is—I lost her.” There was genuine anguish on his face, mingled with rage. “Oh.

” She pulled him into her arms. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have pried—forgive me.” He leaned against her and nuzzled at her neck. A good sign. He was always incandescent after they’d lain together, for a while at least. She ran a hand slowly down his back, her fingers lingering on his buttocks. “You weren’t to know.” He kissed her temple, then her cheek, his heated lips stirring a flame of desire deep in her womb. She sighed, her body relaxing and melding with his as she pressed her hips against him.

His mouth met hers in a hard, sudden pressure, and she was slammed back towards the window. She struggled. “Don’t—people will see!” “I care not.” He nipped at her lip, then her ear, and trailed his tongue along her collarbone. Her head tilted back—she couldn’t help it. Already, he’d bared her shoulder and was applying his mouth to it, making her bosom heave and her nipples rise in response. She smiled, brushing a hand over his golden curls. Perhaps this time, when he made love to her, he wouldn’t pull out after he’d reached his peak. Maybe this time, he’d spill his seed in her, and fill her belly with a child, quell that loneliness she’d suffered most of her life. Her chest heaved in delicious anticipation, but he jerked his head up, tugged her bodice back into place and took a pace backwards.

The sensuous look had left his face. “No.” He raked a hand through his hair. “I’m too tense to make love, too annoyed with you—I’ll not bed you now. We must settle this. I shan’t take you again until you comply.” Sexual blackmail? She had no idea such a thing existed. How could he sink to such depths? She wondered—not for the first time—if this man was truly deserving of her love. Ice skittered over her skin. What a fool she’d been, to put herself in his power, to isolate herself from the support of family and friends.

They’d never forgive her, never take her back now she was ruined. Frederick was her only hope for future respectability, for a family life again. And now he was pushing her away. Or would do, if she didn’t agree to manipulate and deceive another man. She sank into the nearest chair, pummelled by her thoughts, detesting herself for her weakness. It was wrong to do what Frederick wanted—that was the brutal truth. But not to do it would have dire consequences. She had no rights. She was a kept woman. If Frederick chose not to keep her, she could end up on the streets, drunk, dejected, and sick, as had that most famous of mistresses, Lady Hamilton.

Her parents would never take her back—they held their respectability too dear. Papa had made his way to the rank of colonel through hard graft and by making the right acquaintances. Those powerful friends of his would drop him like a hot poker if he took his ruined daughter back under his roof. He’d done so much to keep her from the world, to deprive her of the company of others lest she be led astray, that she’d rebelled from frustration. She’d done exactly what he had always feared—run off with a soldier. She knotted her hands together. “If I attempted it, and failed, what would happen then?” Frederick fell to his knees before her. “You’ll consider it? You’re an absolute angel. I would marry you anyway. We’d live on air, admittedly, but you would have proved your love for me beyond a doubt.

” I rather think I’ve proved that already. She couldn’t look at him, could only stare at her hands while she fought back the tears. He shouldn’t be compelling her to do this. It was wrong, in so many ways. She forced her voice to remain steady. “How is your scheme to be achieved?” He leapt up, animated, happy now. She thought she’d never seen him look more handsome, more Apollo-like. “I’ve thought it all through. You and I will take rooms at an inn not far from Spyle Court, Methuen’s residence. You are to fabricate an accident, that you may be carried into the house to be cared for.

Don’t let any physicians look at you—cite modesty or something. You will appear to make a slow recovery so it’s evident you must remain under his roof as long as possible. Work your magic, Hestia. Make him love you if you can. I’ve taught you enough tricks to enable you to tempt a man. If we can’t hurt him in his purse, you can wound him in his heart, which will be revenge enough. And if you can find out by what means he’s undermining my financial stability, then I can work out how to put a stop to it.” “I must make him care for me?” How was she supposed to do that? She was dark, plain, and ordinary—and no man before Frederick had ever shown any great interest in her. Not that her father had ever encouraged interest from any gentleman. “Why, yes, for you will have to admit to having recovered from your injury eventually, and then what reason would he have to keep you there? No, you must get under his skin, make your presence essential to his happiness—as it is to mine, of course—so he cannot bear to part with you.

But once we have destroyed all his documents pertaining to me, learned anything he has that could damage me, you will vanish from his life.” “How do you know he won’t pursue me? Anyway, you said earlier he was a ‘cold fish’. So, even if I can win him over, he wouldn’t have heart enough to regret my departure.” Frederick stiffened. “You put too many obstacles in the way of your happiness. Can you not trust me? Think of this as a gentleman’s bargain. I will do right by you if you do right by me. Anyway, we won’t be doing anything criminal—we won’t be stealing Methuen’s money. And even if we did, I’d feel no guilt over it, considering what he’s stolen from me.” From below, the sound of children laughing filtered up through the opened window.

Perhaps it was the Beckett girls coming home after a walk in the Sydney pleasure gardens. Such sweet children, devoted to one another, eager to please everyone they knew. If only she’d had a sibling with whom to share her secrets, her joys and disappointments. If only she had a child now upon whom to bestow her vast store of affection. “A gentleman’s agreement. For marriage, and then we may start a family?” He nodded. “Of course. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted?” Her hands clenched. “Very well. I’ll do it.

” “Excellent.” He clapped his hands together, then rubbed them. “I’m so glad you’ve agreed. I can feel the luck running through me—today, I’m certain, would be a most auspicious day at the gaming tables. I should take myself there this evening and see what fortunes I may win.” Hestia moved to the window again and gazed down, unseeing. He would go out, lose all his money, and leave her alone all evening to reflect on the devil’s bargain she’d been forced to make.

.

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