Sweet Siren – Cerise DeLand

Killian Hanniford stared at the priest. Focusing on Marianne, his niece, the bride, he tore his mind from the lady in the third row who had eluded him months ago —and given him the cut direct at another family wedding. Waiting in the vestibule for his niece to arrive, he’d spied the woman as she arrived at the church with a girl who, by her resemblance, had to be her daughter. Surprised to see the lady again, he made no effort to hide his interest. He was called a blackguard, and by God, he could act like one. So he skewered her with hot eyes. She glanced away…but returned to lock her umber gaze on his. Proud, wickedly pleased he’d made her turn, he grinned at her like the scoundrel he’d been. She’d caught her breath and spun away, then hastened down the aisle. He’d jangled her nerves. Good. He’d do more. Few people ever insulted him. She’d done it in public. To say nothing of the fact that she was sin in motion.

Tall, regal, with a crown of bright red hair, luscious pink lips and ripe breasts no corset should touch. He inhaled, burning to have this ceremony end. To waylay her. Trap her. Not let her escape him. Not again. She’d answer for her pique. Answer to him. And he’d enjoy undoing her. Her black witch’s eyes on him in the vestibule had told him she found him hellishly attractive.

Well, that makes us even, dear lady. He snorted. The priest glared at him. Then continued the marriage ceremony. Killian smiled, counting all the fabricated reasons why women were attracted to him. Clear-eyed, he had no illusions about his so-called allure. First, foremost, he had money. Millions. Ridiculous wealth by American standards. A damned fortune by current European measures, considering the Irish upstart he was.

He had friends, too. Bankers like the Rothschilds. Industrial leaders like the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste André Godin. Businessmen like John Garrett, president of the B&O Railroad in Baltimore. Painters like Renoir and Degas. The sculptor Remy and his bride-to-be, Killian’s niece, Marianne. Noblemen like his son-in-law, the duke of Seton. If Killian also possessed moderate good looks and a healthy body, he called himself fortunate in that also. At forty-seven with another birthday next month, he still had a full head of black hair, albeit with a few strands of gray to add a distinguished mark to his poor Irish origins and his dastardly robber baron reputation. When a woman approached him, Killian made it a rule to discern her motives quickly.

Did she wish to dip her fingers into his pockets? Did she want a brief escapade, diamonds or a house for her trouble? Did she want the excitement of a longer affair with the man who could afford to buy and sell most British aristocrats and still live like a king? For more than a decade as a widower, he’d enjoyed himself with women who’d desired each of those arrangements. He’d found not one woman who challenged him or understood his drive. He needed no mistress of his homes. He needed no heirs. He had a son and two daughters, plus a niece, all of whom he adored. His wife had died thirteen years ago. Loving her dearly as he had, he never intended to replace her. And when he used his wealth to expand his empire from Baltimore and New York, Texas and Connecticut to England and France, he found women everywhere eager to please him. Especially ones in need of funds. Ready to sell their bodies and their souls to get rights to his check book.

In drawing rooms and gambling halls, at the opera and in restaurants, women of breeding and refinement flocked to him. He was never lonely. Never bored. Alone only when he wished to be. So it struck him as bizarre—funny, really—that a woman who refused to permit an introduction to him should command his attention. The Catholic priest cleared his throat. Killian snapped to attention. “Sir?” The man gave him the signal that he could place the hand of his niece Marianne into that of her soon-to-be husband, the duc de Remy. Killian handed her over. He should be listening to their vows.

Rejoicing in their union, the culmination of a stunning love affair begun in the Rue de la Paix in Paris on the same day that his oldest daughter Lily met her future husband, the love of her life. But his duty done for Marianne, Killian stepped backward to the front row of chairs in the church. He sat wrestling back the urge to turn and meet the gaze of the woman who had dodged his reach. The hair at his nape bristled. Did she watch him? He smirked to himself. Of course she did. He filled with satisfaction that they might enjoy a mutual attraction. Certainly, she had lived in his thoughts for months. But he was no love-sick youth. No callow boy.

His oldest daughter swayed against his side. With a steadying hand to her elbow, he glanced at her. She gave him a shake of her head and a smile of small apology. Lily and her husband, Julian, had arrived from London on the train two days ago. She’d seemed pale then and though she’d gone to bed early each evening, even after their dinner party last night, she didn’t seem much better this morning. He frowned. Marianne, his niece, had not looked any better. She, too, had seemed wan this morning. A bride might have nerves, but Marianne was not normally ill. Nor was Lily.

And both young women looked decidedly unwell. Unsteady on their feet too. He should be focused on them. Not the woman behind him. Whatever her name is. “We’ve not met,” he had said to her the first time he’d laid eyes on her five months ago in London at Julian’s sister’s wedding breakfast. She’d caught his eye with her vibrant red hair, her radiant gown of blue moiré and a funny blue feathered toque. She caught his imagination with her exuberant smiles and animated conversation. From across the crowded room, she seemed alone, without a male escort, which pleased him the longer he looked at her. When he made his way to her side, she looked surprised.

Worse, affronted, as he said, “Allow me to introduce—” “But I know who you are,” she said in a rich voice that soothed like old brandy. Outrageously beautiful, she had an oval face, high cheekbones and delicate winged brows. Accenting her pearl-like complexion, she had dark chocolate eyes and an elegant bearing that spoke of breeding…and condescension. “You have me at a disadvantage. Unfair.” He took a flute of champagne from a footman and placed it in her gloved hand. Her delicious looking mouth curved in a polite line as she accepted the glass and raised it to him. “We must keep it that way then.” Undaunted, he cocked a brow. “You have no name?” “I have one that is immaterial to you.

” He chose not to consider her response rude, but teased her. “How do you know?” She chuckled. “Because we meet here only by chance. This once. Never again.” His eyes locked on hers. She denied him even the courtesy of introducing himself? Scandalous. Intriguing. “I could ask about. Learn your name.

Your age. Your father’s and grandfather’s birthdate and—” “My husband’s too?” That gave him pause. Married. He never stole other men’s wives. Not even for one night. “I wish to compliment you on your wonderful laugh. I overheard you as you talked with that gentleman there.” “Thank you. I believe it’s important to laugh fully, cry until you’re sick…and to avoid dangerous men.” All humor had drained from her large fathomless eyes.

Then, she’d put her glass to his for a brief click and had left him where he stood. Mesmerized. The priest droned on with more of the Catholic wedding service. Killian winced, focusing on how lovely his niece Marianne was in her pearl-encrusted gown that Monsieur Worth’s staff had hurried to sew in three weeks’ time. Next to him, Lily leaned a bit toward her husband. “I’m sorry,” she whispered to Julian who took her hand. “Are you well?” Killian asked his daughter. “Light-headed. My apologies, Papa.” The service required that they take the kneelers.

“I think you should rest. Go straight back to Boulevard Haussmann and lie down.” “And miss Marianne’s and Remy’s wedding breakfast?” She stared at him as if he’d grown two heads. “Never.” He patted her arm. To Killian’s left, his younger daughter Ada leaned forward and arched her brows. “What’s wrong with Lily?” she mouthed. “Excitement,” he offered. Ada shot him one of her cat-ate-the-cream looks. “Pregnant.

” Killian blinked. At eighteen, his youngest chick could be too precocious. She rolled her eyes at him. He winked at her. She had predicted this months ago, soon after Lily and Julian were married. Whenever this conception had occurred, he did not care for a date, only that his daughter and her child be healthy. The organ music swelled and the congregation rose to their feet. The priest offered a few more words and Marianne and her new husband faced the one hundred assembled guests in the Church of St. Paul and St. Louis.

His niece who had weathered the ravages of the civil war in Virginia and who had endured marriage to a petulant, irascible man, had remained a widow for too many years. Here in Paris, she’d found enchantment with a Frenchman who was a duke and a prince of the realm and above all, utterly devoted to her. Marianne—bright, blonde and thirty years old—beamed like a first-time bride at those in the congregation. Her husband—exuberant and a breaker of all kinds of rules— swept her up into his arms and carried her down the aisle. Grinning, Killian turned to watch them go. And his eyes met those of the woman with no name. She was laughing. That same melodic peel of joy that had caught him spellbound months ago lured him again. She stopped. Her magnetic gaze flowed from his to his hair and his lips and back to dwell softly in his eyes.

Madam, whoever you are, you must not tempt me like this. As if she’d heard him, she glanced away. Her lashes fluttered. Confusion had her regarding the newlyweds as they passed her. But once they were gone, she stole another glimpse of Killian. He was ready for her. Their gazes held and delved. Ah, my dear lady, this time you will not deter me from knowing you. Fascinations are, like your laughter, uncontrollable. S CHA PTE R 2 he should not have come to this wedding.

Standing to one side of the gilded drawing room of Remy’s palais on the Rue di Rivoli, she sipped her champagne and studied Killian Hanniford standing before a white marble column. The sun beamed through the floor-to-ceiling windows, silhouetting his muscular physique against the golden walls and crystalline mirrors. In his formal attire of grey striped morning tuxedo and stark ivory shirt and waistcoat, he was a vision of stark masculine power. What had she been thinking? That she could appear here, enjoy the festivities, the wedding, especially this reception and avoid Killian Hanniford? After what I did the last time we met? If gossips are to be believed, he’ll give me the cut direct. Or more likely, crush me with one hand. She downed a gulp of champagne. Oh, I’m an idiot. And a liar. She bit her lower lip. Be honest with yourself, Liv.

Hadn’t she come specifically to see him once more? “Mama, Marianne is so lovely. Remy has chosen well, don’t you think?” Her daughter Camille, soon to be fifteen, had begged to attend this wedding with her. To take one’s sweet child out in to society was not done when she was not old enough to have debuted. But then, Camille would be different from other young ladies of her class and her age. Lovely with a riot of golden red hair and earthy dark eyes, Camille looked more like a bold poppy than a frilly white flower. She’d attract men with her dramatic looks, and make her way in the world while fending off their indecent proposals. She had education and charm, but no dowry to commend her. Indeed, even her pedigree was a mark against her. But by her nature, sunny and jubilant, she belied the calamitous pasts of her parents. From birth, Camille had been a happy soul.

Burbling. Talkative. Eager to embrace life. Butterflies and puppies. Roses and books. Liv enjoyed her. Applauded her. And in Camille’s wish to attend Remy’s wedding, Liv had decided last week she would indulge her. She’d called upon Camille’s headmistress, packed her up and taken her from her school near Brighton. Camille had been shocked nearly speechless, and Liv was certain the child would expire with joy yesterday before their train pulled into Gare du Nord.

Everything about the journey had become an adventure for her darling daughter. The extraction from that hideous school. The announcement they were to attend their cousin Remy’s wedding in Paris. The new gown Liv had ordered her dressmaker to fashion for Camille. The train trip. Paris itself, the city that shimmered and sparkled with delectable food and fine wine, vibrant music and art. And Killian Hanniford. She spied him across the room, talking with a woman who looked familiar. Liv told herself not to care who it was or why he beamed down at the lady with that predatory smile. After all, she and Camille were here briefly.

Liv was ready to depart at a moment’s inclination. Nerves eating her alive, she’d been thrilled at the lack of a receiving line. She wished to have a glass of champagne, thank her hostess, wish the newlyweds great joy and depart. “Ma cherie, Olivia, I am delighted you have traveled all this way to join us.” The distinguished Duchess de Remy and Princess D’Aumale appeared at her side. “I know Remy will be thrilled to see you. And you must meet my new daughter-in-law.” “Madame la Princesse,” Liv said with the French accent the Princess preferred and gave a curtsy to her distant cousin, “I am honored to have been invited.” And received. That is so rare among English society for me and my daughter.

“But I must tell you that I met the young duchess a few months ago in London when I attended the marriage of the duke of Seton’s daughter to the Earl of Carbury. Marianne is lovely in face and spirit. I know she is a perfect match for our Andre.” “She gave him a merry run, but I do believe they are meant for each other. And Camille, how charming you are, ma petite chou.” Liv’s daughter curtsied to the elder lady. “I am honored, Madame la Princesse. I begged Mama to attend.” “Right you were, too, Camille. Your mother remains too cloistered.

I meant to bring you out, Olivia.” “You succeeded, Madame.” “A lovely party, Madame la Princesse.” Liv froze. He’d come. His rough voice wrapped around her like a velvet vise. He seized the opportunity to appear at her side now that the princess spoke with her. In such company, especially with Camille here, how could she once more be rude to him? She stared up at him. He was so tall, he hovered over her. Like a gargoyle.

Or a dark angel. “Monsieur Hanniford, it is nothing,” the Princess said. “I’m glad you allowed me to host the reception.” “I see what you mean now,” he said. “Your home is much larger than our drawing room in Boulevard Haussmann. Better able to hold all the guests.” “We have so many in Paris whom we must acknowledge. I must extend greetings to all I know when I see how happy my Remy is with the woman he adores.” The lady tipped her head. She was haute Parisien society, a descendant of the dethroned Bourbons and the rascally Bonapartes.

She fluttered her fan against the necklace of sapphires and diamonds that some said Napoleon had purchased for his second wife, the Austrian girl. Marianne today wore the pearls that the first emperor had indebted himself to buy for his beloved first wife Josephine. “Have you met Monsieur Hanniford, my dears?” “Not formally,” Liv answered attempting politesse, but the princess knew the reasons why introducing her was nothing she’d ever wanted. Still, no matter those hideous facts, Liv had to set a good example in society for Camille. Hanniford, infamous rogue that he was, did not turn a hair. He bowed slightly, a mischievous smile curving those full lips. The princess did the honors. “Lady Savage, may I present my daughter-in-law’s uncle, Monsieur Killian Hanniford?” There was nothing for it. Liv held out her hand. He took her fingertips and bowed over her hand like a prince.

“Lady Savage, I am delighted to meet you.” “Miss Camille Bereston is Lady Savage’s daughter whom I am to understand persuaded her mother to take her from school just to witness Remy finally take a wife.” Camille held out her hand and Hanniford took it and sweetly shook it. “I am honored to meet you, Miss Bereston.” “And I you, sir. Mama says you are one a person must know.” Liv sucked in air. “Did she?” His eyes seared Liv’s with silver flames. “My reputation precedes me in far too many ways.” “Oh, sir, she said nothing derogatory about you.

” The princess was smiling. Liv felt her cheeks flame. “I’m glad to hear it, Miss Bereston.” “Camille, ma cherie,” said the princess, “I understand you and your mother will return to London tomorrow. Come talk with me, will you? I miss our discussions of novels. Forgive us, will you, Olivia, Monsieur Hanniford? I shall return Camille to you in a few minutes.” Liv agreed. Of course she did. What else could she do? “The princess engineered that nicely,” he said, his gaze following the lady and Camille, but turning back to her with a wicked smile. Liv would not surrender to his charm.

“She is very adept socially.” “One would believe it,” he said, moving ever so slightly closer, engulfing her in his subtle bergamot cologne. “I am grateful.” She licked her lips. He narrowed those incredible silver eyes on her. Piercing her with his intent, he said, “You’ve heard of me. What I do. Who I am. And you thought I was a monster. That’s what Camille was referring to, wasn’t she?” “You do have a reputation, sir.

Ruthless, indomitable.” “I am not always that. Especially not when I meet a lovely woman who—” “Sir, this is not proper. I must go.” “Where is your husband, Lady Savage?” How dare you ask that. “Not here.” “Clearly. Will he not come with you to social events?” “You are bold, sir.” His silver eyes sparked with interest and no shame. “Is that why you stay away?” “No.

” She pressed her hands together. Could she not escape? Hanniford stepped closer. “Will he look kindly on you attending dinner alone here tonight?” “Yes. No. Mister Hanniford, do stop.”

.

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