The Price of Temptation – Harmony Williams

Adam Darling pressed his wife into the door of their hotel room as he fumbled for the latch. The color rising in her freckled cheeks, she laughed and turned her head to peer around his shoulder. The sound warmed him like sunshine. “Adam—” He kissed her, swallowing her protest as his thumb found the latch. She squealed as the door swung inward, the sound dissolving into giggles as she stumbled into the modest room. The gray light of the day bathed the room, the window thrown wide to invite the trills of gulls and crash of the salty waves. Catching her balance, Lily whirled in a circle. Her skirts swirled around her legs in a froth of white muslin as she turned to face him with a devilish grin. She lit the room with a brilliance to rival the shrouded sun. Zeus, he wanted her. And she was all his. With a whimsical tilt of her head, she spread her skirts and started to dip in a curtsy. “Mr. Darling, why don’t you come i— Ee!” The question ended on a high note as she slipped. Paper scraped along the wooden floor beneath her shoe as she caught her balance.

Stifling his chuckle—if not his smile—he kneeled at her feet. The hem of her dress tickled his knee as he saved her from the scrap of paper. Her foot free, he lingered at her heel, running his finger along the sensitive hollow next to her Achilles tendon. Her eyes darkened. Her tongue darted out to taste her lower lip as she shifted her weight onto the other foot, suddenly serious. She planted her palm on his shoulder for balance. The promise in her gaze caressed him, sending a tingle to the tips of his fingers. His voice a low rumble, he whispered, “Don’t mind if I do, Mrs. Darling.” Those tantalizing lips tipped in a smile again.

In a barely audible whisper, she said, “I think you should shut the door.” Reluctantly, he removed his hands from the thin stocking shielding her ankle. Keeping his eyes on hers, full of intent, he groped for the door and shut it one-handed. The paper in his fist crumpled at the movement. With his thumb, he flicked open the note, giving it the barest of glances as the latch clicked into place. His heart skipped a beat. He looked at the words again, longer. “What’s wrong?” The words danced on the page in a familiar script. Your charade is up. Meet me at the pier at midnight.

He stuffed the offending paper as deep into his pocket as possible. Despite the ice chilling his veins, he offered his new wife a practiced smile. “It’s nothing. A discrepancy in the payment downstairs. I’ll sort it out later.” If she’d been looking at him, she would surely have noticed the brittle edge to his smile, however practiced. He could hide nothing from her. In the act of toeing off her slippers, Lily froze. Her eyes widened as she raised her gaze to meet his. “Are you certain we shouldn’t do it now? I wouldn’t want us to be turned out.

” She was beauty and intelligence and fierce independence. Everything a man could ask for in a wife —better if her arms were around him. But she was also as shrewd as an assassin’s blade, and her tongue was often as sharp. If he didn’t distract her, she would have the missive out of his pocket in a trice. And she, too, would recognize the scholarly scrawl. He crossed to her and snaked an arm around her waist, pulling her flush against him. The curve of her body fit against him as if made to settle there. It felt like coming home—a feeling only she evoked in his restless soul. He wasn’t about to let anyone, not even the cowardly sender of the note, strip that feeling from him. Lowering his head, he pressed his lips to hers in a slow, languorous kiss.

When he parted their mouths, the raw pants of her breaths tickled his skin. “It’s our honeymoon. They’ll let us be.” The last of her tension left her body as she twined her arms around his neck, fastening him to her. She returned his kiss without reserve, without self-consciousness. He lost himself in her. And as he did, he renewed his vow. For better or for worse. Adam had seen the worst of life. For Lily, it would only bring the better.

No matter the cost. … As he approached the lanky, shadowed figure on the end of the pier, Adam breathed shallowly through his mouth. The air stank of fish and brine, undoubtedly wafting from some of the crates clustered near the moorings. The moon was a sliver in the sky, casting the barest glimmer of light on the wood glistening with ocean spray. If not for this cretin, he would be nestled in bed next to his wife. A dark mood settled over his shoulders like a cloak. As he stalked forward, he slipped his hand into his jacket pocket, caressing the pistol within. No. He kept it for self-defense, but it would take a threat far more lethal than this man to force Adam to use it. He didn’t kill.

He had too much blood on his hands already. A half-shuttered lantern cast fluttering shadows in the ocean breeze across the lanky man’s cheeks, fat with affluence and youth. His disheveled hair wisped across his forehead, burnished with gold highlights from the lamp. As Adam approached, the man stared off into the distance, consumed by his thoughts. Adam fought the urge to hurl the figure off the pier, but his wife would not thank him if he tried. For whatever reason, she was fond of this worthless piece of sheep dung. Rigid, Adam stepped closer, commanding the situation. “You nearly bothered my wife with the note you sent.” The man flinched, returning to himself. He rubbed his thumb along his jawline absentmindedly.

“Did I?” His breath came a bit quick, the only outward sign that he was intimidated by Adam. At his full height, Adam topped him by a few inches, and he’d retained the hard muscle he’d earned while in the navy. “See it doesn’t happen again.” “You’ve lost the right to make demands, Mr. Darling.” The way he drew out Adam’s name, the ring of his voice smug, sent icicles splintering into Adam’s lungs. “Have I?” Adam registered the bored tone of his voice as if from a great distance. He studied his enemy, but the other man’s demeanor only grew in confidence. He took a paper from his pocket but didn’t hand it over. Without breaking the hard stare of challenge, the other man drawled, “You have.

And if you truly want to remove Lily from our dealings, you’ll do precisely what I say. You see, you should never underestimate a scholar. I’ve learned something about you.” His tone of voice spoke volumes. Whatever he’d learned, it was something Adam would rather keep hidden. He’d run from his past for years. And now that true happiness was within his reach, his ghosts had finally caught up to him. No matter what, it would not affect Lily. He would pay the price. Alone.

“What have you learned?” “Why, Mr. Darling, I’ve learned that you ought to be dead.” A chill raised gooseflesh on the back of Adam’s neck. If he’d been facing any other man, he would have considered the words a threat. But this indolent scholar didn’t have the spine. Unfortunately, as he flapped the paper—his sharpest weapon—he appeared to have none of the scruples those of his class pretended to have. “This is information I’m certain others would be keen to know as well. Perhaps a certain personage aboard the Nemesis?” If the officers aboard the Nemesis had had the wherewithal to care about the absence of one young conscript, they would have searched far harder for his corpse. However, navy captains were nothing if not self-serving opportunists. But if Adam suddenly landed in their laps… Worse than the very public punishment due to fall at his feet, Lily was now tied to him—body, soul, and name.

Whatever befell him, he would be hard pressed to keep her unaffected. “Show me the page,” Adam said through gritted teeth, needing the morbid confirmation. “Or what, you’ll take it from me by force? You’re out of options.” “And you’re bluffing.” The young man laughed, but there was little mirth in his expression. “Even if I were, you’ve only confirmed there is something to find. It’s a letter from the captain of the Nemesis and no, I’m not imbecile enough to let you have it.” Although every muscle in his body urged him to move, to push this cretin off the pier and put an end to this foolhardy attempt at intimidation, Adam held himself still. “So you admit the letter is your only copy?” For a moment, the younger man quavered. Then his chin firmed and he answered, “I wouldn’t do anything rash, if I were you.

The good captain is awaiting my response. What I tell him depends entirely on what you do next.” If Adam had only himself to think about, he would have taken his chances. However, with Lily’s future in the gamble, he had to tread carefully. Clenching his fists to concentrate his simmering anger away from his tongue, he tried one last time to end this peaceably. “I thought you cared for Lily.” “I do. Which is why I’ve undertaken to ensure her happiness.” “She’s happy with me.” Her bright smile, her warm laughter.

She was his light in the dark. The one good thing he’d ever had in his life. “She doesn’t know your true character. She doesn’t know what you’ve done.” For a moment, it looked as if the young man’s temper would get the better of him and he would inadvertently tear up his bargaining chip. Then he stuffed the paper out of sight, safe in his pocket. “I know the sort of man you are, which is why I know you will do exactly as I say to ensure she remains unsullied by your misdeeds.” Adam took three breaths, buying himself time to think. Still, with Lily’s future at stake, the only words he found were, “What would you have me do?” When the scholar grinned, he looked more like a fool. All he was missing was the face paint and the hat.

“To begin, you will never approach or contact Lily again. Not tonight or any other. If you so much as sniff her shadow, I’ll consider her complicit in your crimes and act accordingly.” Never. Adam felt the word as a visceral reaction, a hook reaching down into his bones to chisel out the marrow. He could never walk away from Lily Darling. His wife. His life. “You cannot claim to be her friend if you do this.” With a gaze as cold and empty as glass, the man snapped, “She belongs in the bosom of her family, not gallivanting around with you.

The ends justify the means.” He was a prick who took to heart the words of a man dead for three hundred years. “In a way, she has been harboring a fugitive.” He’d probably learned that out of a book, too. “Not knowingly,” Adam answered, his voice hoarse. The scholar cocked his head to the side, his soft cheeks making him look younger in the moonlight but no less devious. “I wonder if the courts will see it the same way.” Adam had no faith in the moral character of magistrates. His heart squeezed for what he knew he must do, if only to buy himself time to move Lily out of the line of fire. If he’d known when he’d risen from bed that would be the last he’d see of her… Her family will take care of her.

They were a sight more loyal and supportive than his, barring his late brother. Lily would survive. She’d be spared the humiliation of a trial, the torture of prison. But will she ever forgive me? “I see from your silence that you have enough intellect to see reason, after all.” The scholar took a step forward, strutting like a rooster. “Now, then…” His smile widened. “Let’s discuss the money you owe me.” Adam ran his tongue over his lower lip. “I don’t have it all.” With his most recent windfall, he’d been generous one last time, distributing much of it to injured veterans unable to work and keeping the rest to begin his life with Lily.

“As I recall, you’ve recently come into a fortune.” Reid was referring to the dowry. Lily’s dowry. Chapter One Four years later It is a truth universally acknowledged that when a married man crosses his wife, it is expected of her to sell every precious item he ever bequeathed her. However, this keepsake was different. Lily Bancroft stared at the intricately etched ring on her left finger, poised above the black velvet backdrop of the jeweler’s display. If she caught the owner’s attention, he would give her thirty pounds for the ring, if not more. It was, in her estimation, a masterpiece. Artfully wrought vines climbed the gold band that glinted in the sunlight streaming through the lone window of the Bond Street shop. The vines opened into delicate curved petals with a deep, clear sapphire in the center.

In the past four years, Lily hadn’t removed the ring once. Not due to sentimentality over her capricious husband. No, he—and his gifts—meant less to her than Prinny’s ablutions. But the ring represented more than the naive flight of fancy that had led her so far down the path to perdition that she’d stumbled to the altar with an unsuitable man. The ring had been sold to her husband by her father. It had been one of the last creations Papa had ever made. She couldn’t part with it. Not even to feed my sisters? Papa would have wanted that. If Papa had gotten what he’d wanted, she wouldn’t have to deal with so much confounded resistance to her attempts to step into his shoes. He’d had no sons.

Therefore, when his health had started failing a month after her wedding, he’d trained her in the art of crafting jewelry. But without a man at her back—even with the dubious respectability of her married state—the shop was failing. Her gaze drifted to the Bond Street wares. The delicate chains attached to pendants might have fooled the vapid lords and ladies who frequented the shop, but Lily’s trained eye noticed every imperfection in the cut of the jewels and the fragile chain work. How lowering, to contemplate selling a work of art to a mountebank. But if she didn’t, she and her sisters were in danger. More creditors haunted their doorstep every day, and Lily alone was no longer enough to assuage them. If Mama had been in the proper mind to handle this… No ifs. Lily stopped herself from contemplating what could have been. Her mistake had cost her family everything.

Because she’d married the wrong man, their lives had careened out of control. The once-lofty Bancroft family, mingling with the upper crust of Society due to the wealth and affluence of Papa’s shop, now relied solely on Lily for sustenance. And the only thing she had left to buy them a little more time was Papa’s ring. The ring Papa had given to a man who’d wanted to marry his daughter. Lily had once flattered herself into believing she knew every facet of Adam Darling, including his long list of misdeeds as a confidence man. She’d fallen in love with him anyway. He’d taken everything, including her innocence. She was no saint, but she had been a naive clodpoll who had danced on air at the sight of one of his smiles. “Not anymore,” she mumbled under her breath. The ring was a reminder of the dolt she’d been.

She should have cast it off four years ago, when she’d woken in the Bristol hotel room to find her husband of a week gone without a word. But she hadn’t. Her gaze drifted to the display once more as memories drifted like snowflakes through her mind. Their courtship. His entreaty for her help with jewels while he swindled one last target. The way he always had a kind word and a small pouch of coins for the injured veteransturned-vagabonds on the streets of London. Everything, all the memories of what had led to her downfall. But he’d given as well as taken. Thanks to him, she had the knowledge and the skill to steal from anyone she pleased, if she deigned to sink to his level. Think of Willa and Sophie.

She had two sisters to feed—not to mention a mother nearly catatonic with the grief of Papa’s unforeseen passing three years prior. With careful planning, she could snatch every last gem in this shop. But she was nothing—nothing—like Adam. A breeze stirred the stray hairs on the nape of her neck. For a moment, the bustle of the clotted London street swelled before the shop door closed again. Lily glanced sidelong at the shop proprietor. Greet your customer so I may forget I was ever in here. Better she spare herself the humiliation. However, the charlatan was too deep in wooing a young buck hoping to impress the woman he courted. All the jewelers near Mayfair traveled in the same social circle, competed for the same deep pockets.

How would it look to find the owner of a jewelry store frequenting another’s shop? She held herself rigid and bent over the display, letting the curls at her temples fall forward to obscure her profile. She had too few customers to risk alienating one. A man swaggered along the floor behind her. His loud footsteps, far from the dainty little clicks made by women’s slippers, announced his gender. His stride bespoke his arrogance. She knew his type. The disdainful men who stepped into her shop demanding to deal only with the jeweler—the male jeweler. When she’d had the income to hire a man to wait on customers, the demands of arrogant men hadn’t cut so deep. But after… Her chest clenched as a deluge of memories took root. Too many instances when she’d had to inform the men calling that the renowned jeweler of whom they’d heard had passed from this world.

Oh, Papa. But today, this blatherskite was another’s problem. To men like him, she was little more noticeable than the drapery. If she wasn’t to sell her wedding ring, she had no business being here. As she drew herself up and tensed to flee for the door, awareness tickled her neck like an errant feather. A man’s voice murmured near her temple, far closer than she’d thought him. “Are you contemplating taking them for yourself?” A frisson climbed her spine. It cannot be. She hadn’t heard that voice in four long years. Her lungs seizing painfully and her eyes suspiciously wet, she turned.

He stood so near, hemming her against the pedestal housing the jewels, that her skirts brushed both with the movement. Blinking rapidly to compose herself, she battled the indescribable ache in her chest. Anger. It must be. She certainly hadn’t mourned his absence. She tilted her face up, and there he was. The dimple in his clean-shaven chin winked, begging for her touch. His hazel eyes danced with a devilish twinkle she recalled in mortifying detail. He looked older, his sun-kissed skin forming faint crow’s feet in the corners of his eyes. His hair, in dire need of a trim, curled to caress his cheek.

Lily fought the inexplicable urge to surrender to the same desire. The last time she’d seen him, they’d been face to face, skin to skin, celebrating their marriage. She’d awoken to find the bed empty. No note—and no money. He’d left her with nothing, not even a kind memory. The betrayal sliced through the unwanted desire boiling between them. Adam Darling was a dangerous man. And she knew better than to let him walk back into her life unscathed. … As the woman turned, confirming her identity, Adam’s innards winged into knots. Lily.

He ravaged her with his gaze, drinking in the sight of her. After all these years, he was parched for her. A man shouldn’t feel this way about the wife of a week he’d knowingly left in his dust. But, lawks, Adam’s knees weakened at the sight of her. His heart throbbed painfully in his throat. Heaven preserve him, even if he didn’t deserve it. He still loved Lily. Which made her presence in this shop all the more alarming. Mr. Bancroft was a proud man, too proud to see his daughter shopping at one of his competitors.

Why would she risk the disapproval of the father she adored? Unless this was now her shop. Because, upon his leaving, she had married a man more suited to her upbringing. He fought not to wheeze. His chest felt wrung out like a damp cloth as the possibility circled his mind. Four long years had passed since he had last seen her. But they were married. Surely she couldn’t have sought an annulment or a divorce without his signature? The look in her eye sharpened, skewering him along with an angularity to her face and form he didn’t recall. She’d always been soft of figure. She must have lost two stone or more since they’d last parted. Judging from the glint in her green eyes, she’d lost none of her shrewd wit or her bravery.

The momentary confusion in her face washed away, replaced by a veneer of confidence and poise. He’d taught her to do that, taught her to look fate in the face and spit. She hadn’t forgotten their time together entirely. Even if cordiality seemed beyond her. Waspish, she snapped, “I’m afraid I occupy a higher moral ground than to steal from a person of my acquaintance.” The barb cut him to the quick. He gritted his teeth. I deserve her censure. Yes, but… In his bloodiest of nightmares, he’d never foreseen the cruel twist of the knife fate had wedged between them. If he’d had his druthers, he would never have left—never have taken the money they’d intended to set up as a dowry for their future daughters.

Both choices had been wrenched from his control on one dastardly evening on the end of a Bristol pier. The only other time he’d felt so helpless, he’d held his dying brother in his arms. He hadn’t been able to save him, but after four years of back-breaking work to provide them with an escape, Adam might yet be able to salvage the situation with his wife. Unless she had married again. Or taken a lover. Or…

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