Lizzie Paxton's dream in life is to be a widow--if only she could skip the wedding and the husband. When her childhood friend Captain James Marlowe proposes a marriage in name only, she accepts, knowing she'll have the independence she craves once he sets sail. Though James is the only man Lizzie trusts, she doesn't trust the scintillating desire he evokes in her.
James knows he shouldn't get involved with anyone, especially with his uncertain future. But he just can't help himself when he overhears Lizzie's declaration. Though he's promised her a marriage of convenience, he wastes no time in seducing her and taking her over the precipice of desire. Yet not even his beautiful wife can deter him from his cause.
But when Lizzie discovers her husband has deceived her, James must choose between devotion to duty and loyalty to the woman he cannot live without...
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Kensington Publishing Corporation
November 30, 2010
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Excerpt from The Pursuit of Pleasure by Elizabeth Essex
"Ido say I'll never marry, but I have always wanted to be a widow."
The young woman's voice, with its droll, self-aware tone, wafted down the length of the assembly room's dimly lit balcony, floated into the darkness beyond, and entwined with the smoke dancing off the hot end of Jameson Marlowe's cigar.
Marlowe clamped down on the cheroot to keep from laughing out loud into the warm night. He didn't need to look around the other side of the column to know who was speaking. He'd spent years away, and still, he knew. She came to his mind as swift and unbidden as a gunshot.
Lizzie. No one else could manage to be so ridiculously charming.
"A widow? You must be joking." Another girl, her voice as young but much less world-weary, sounded scandalized. Her breathy little voice rose higher with each word.
"I'm not. If I were a widow I'd have everything I need. Independence. Social standing. Financial stability." Lizzie blewout a long sigh full of wistfulness. "It would be perfect. A marriage without the man."
"You can't mean it!"
The owner of the breathy little voice didn't know her friend very well, it seemed. Lizzie always meant it. Always. He could picture her impudent, challenging smile as she tossed her opinions off like grenades.
Marlowe grinned, leaned his head back against the column, and took another deep drag from the cigar, his mind whirling like a steel clockwork, ticking away, crystallizing his plans. He had waited a long time for this moment. He would make this work.
Defiant little Lizzie Paxton.
Yes, she would do very well. In fact, she was perfect.
He ground out the cigar with the toe of his boot and stepped out from behind the column. "She always means it, don't you, Lizzie?"
At the sound of his voice, two young women, dressed in fashionable white muslin chemise dresses, turned their heads towards him. But only one of them smiled. Ever so slightly.
A sharp pang lanced through him at the sight of her, like the ache of a long-healed bruise. Despite the years he'd spent away, despite the fact she'd grown up, Marlowe still recognized the girl he'd known inside the beautiful young woman leaning negligently against the balcony railing. The same ginger- tinted hair. The same boneless, feline physicality. The same slightly feral smile. The smile that always led to mischief.
Lizzie slowly straightened from where she lounged against the railing. The pale dress, belted with a sash of bright green satin that matched her eyes, accentuated the liquid grace of her body. On anyone else, it would have looked demure. On Lizzie, it looked like a challenge.
One he was definitely going to accept.
"Is that you, Marlowe?" Her tone was all jaded indifference, but her voice poured over him like whisky, full of warmth and bite. Oh yes, with her, he'd need to keep his wits about him. "It is indeed, Lizzie."
Her sparkling gaze flicked over him. "Back from the wars, are you?"
"Yes," he acknowledged with a sketch of a bow, "from service in His Majesty's Royal Navy."
"Oh. Well, good for you." She turned back out to the night, but he caught the flash of a smile brewing along her lips.
Ah, perhaps she wasn't as indifferent as she wanted him to think. Nor was her companion, who sent her an urgent look. And an unpleasant little jab in the ribs.
"Oh, all right. Celia, may I present Mr. Jameson Raphael Marlowe?" Lizzie flourished a fine-boned wrist in his direction. "Miss Celia Burke."
"Captain Marlowe, at your service, ma'am." He bowed over Miss Burke's perfumed hand and graced it with a kiss. The young woman's cheeks colored prettily.
"Come to make moon eyes at the ravishing Celia, have you? You'll have to get in line, even at a backwater assembly such as this." Lizzie's brilliant eyes teased even though she pursed her lips to keep from smiling. He remembered that look, but it was much more effective now that she was all grown up.
"No. Although Miss Burke is indeed ravishing." He straightened and turned to face his childhood friend--and the reason his childhood had ended. "It's you I want to see, Lizzie. I've got a proposition for you."
This time her mouth smiled along with her eyes, the apricot lips widening until he could see the shine of her teeth. He remembered them as being particularly sharp.
In contrast, poor Celia Burke gasped at his audacity. Her blue eyes practically popped out of her head. It must be rare for her to witness a gentleman giving Lizzie as good as he got.
"Oh, off you go, Celia." Lizzie gave her friend a gentle nudge towards the door. "I'm safe as houses with dear old Jamie," she drawled.
She made him sound like a senile old uncle. He'd take pleasure in disabusing her of that notion.
"She'll send my mother out," Lizzie surmised as Miss Burke left reluctantly, with a wide-eyed last look over her shoulder at her friend. "We'll have to leg it."
She turned and, without waiting, led the way back into the building and down the narrow, creaking servants' corridor. It was somehow perfectly natural Lizzie should know the hidden ways and back rooms of the local assembly hall as well as she knew her own home. She was just that kind of girl, always had been. The sort of lazily inquisitive child who acted as if she had a perfect right and a perfect reason to be where she oughtn't.
"I couldn't help overhearing your conversation." He wanted to steer their chat to his purpose, but the back of her neck was white and long. He'd never noticed that long slide of skin before, so pale against the vivid color of her locks. He'd gone away before she'd been old enough to put up her hair. And nowadays the fashion seemed to be for masses of loose ringlets covering the neck. Trust Lizzie to still sail against the tide.
"Yes, you could." Her breezy voice broke into his thoughts.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Help it. You could have helped it, as any polite gentlemen should, but you obviously chose not to." She didn't even bother to look back at him as she spoke and walked on, but he heard the teasing in her voice. Such intriguing confidence. He could use it to his purpose. She had always been up for a lark.
He caught her elbow and steered her into an unused parlor. She let him guide her easily, without resisting the intimacy or the presumption of the brief contact of his hand against the soft, vulnerable skin of her inner arm, but once through the door she just seemed to dissolve out of his grasp. His empty fingers prickled from the sudden loss. He let her move away and closed the door.
No lamp or candle branch illuminated the room, only the moonlight streaming through the tall casement windows. Lizzie looked like a pale ghost, weightless and hovering in the strange light. He took a step nearer. He needed her to be real, not an illusion. Over the years she'd become a distant but recurring dream, a combination of memory and boyish lust, haunting his sleep.
He had thought of her, or at least the idea of her, almost constantly over the years. She had always been there, in his mind, swimming just below the surface. And he had come tonight in search of her. To banish his ghosts.
She took a sliding step back to lean nonchalantly against the arm of a chair, her pose one of sinuous, bored indifference.
"So what are you doing in Dartmouth? Aren't you meant to be messing about with your boats?"
"Ships," he corrected automatically and then smiled at his foolishness for trying to tell Lizzie anything. "The big ones are ships."
"And they let you have one of the big ones? Aren't you a bit young for that?" She tucked her chin down to subdue her smile and looked up at him from under her gingery brows. Very mischievous. She was warming to him.
If it was worldliness she wanted, he could readily supply it. He mirrored her smile.
"Hard to imagine, isn't it, Lizzie?" He opened his arms wide, presenting himself for her inspection.
Only she didn't inspect him. Her eyes slid away to inventory the scant furniture in the darkened room. "No one else calls me that anymore."
"Lizzie? Well, I do. I can't imagine you as anything else. And I like it. I like saying it. Lizzie." The name hummed through his mouth like a honeybee sprinkled with nectar. Like a kiss. He moved closer so he could see the emerald color of her eyes, dimmed by the half light, but still brilliant against the white of her skin. He leaned a fraction too close and whispered, "Lizzie. It always sounds somehow . . . naughty."
She turned quickly. Wariness flickered across her mobile face, as if she were suddenly unsure of both herself and him, before it was just as quickly masked.
And yet, she continued to study him surreptitiously, so he held himself still for her perusal. To see if she would finally notice him as a man. He met her eyes and he felt a kick low in his gut. In that moment plans and strategies became unimportant. The only important thing was for Lizzie to see him. It was essential.
But she kept all expression from her face. He was jolted to realize she didn't want him to read her thoughts or mood. She was trying hard to keep him from seeing her.
It was an unexpected change. The Lizzie he had known as a child had been so wholly passionate about life, she had thrown herself body and soul into each and every moment, each action and adventure. She had not been covered with this veneer of poised nonchalance.
And yet it was only a veneer. He was sure of it. And he was equally sure he could make his way past it. He drew in a measured breath and sent her a slow, melting smile to show, in the course of the past few minutes, he'd most definitely noticed she was a woman.
She gave no outward reaction, and it took Marlowe a long moment to recognize her response: she looked careful. It was a quality he'd never seen in her before.
Finally, after what felt like an infinity, she broke the moment. "You didn't answer. Why are you here? After all these years?"
He chose the most convenient truth. "A funeral. Two weeks ago." A bleak, rain-soaked funeral that couldn't be forgotten. The downpour that April day had chilled him to his very marrow. He went cold just thinking about it, unable to shake the horrible feeling sitting like a lump of cold porridge in his belly. It was wrong, all wrong. Frank couldn't be dead. He shouldn't be dead. And yet he was. They'd found his body, pale and lifeless, washed up cold and unseeing upon the banks of the Dart. Drowned.
At least that was what the local authorities said. But Marlowe knew better. Frank was murdered. And he would prove it.
Lizzie's murmur brought him back. "My condolences, for what they're worth." She ran her palm up and down her other forearm as if she were chilled. Lizzie had never been at ease with open emotion. "Anyone I knew?"
"Lieutenant Francis Palmer."
"Frankie Palmer?" For a moment she was truly affected. Her full lips dropped open in an exhalation. "From down Stoke Fleming way? Didn't you two go off to sea together, all those years ago?"
"Yes, ten years ago." Ten long years. A lifetime.
"Oh. I am sorry." Her voice lost its languid bite.
He looked back and met her eyes. Such sincerity had never been one of Lizzie's strong suits. No, that was wrong. She'd always been sincere, or at least truthful--painfully so as he recalled-- but she rarely let her true feelings show.
"Thank you, Lizzie. But I didn't lure you into a temptingly darkened room to bore you with dreary news."
"No, you came to proposition me." The mischievous little smile crept back. Lizzie was never the sort to be intimidated for long. She had always loved to be doing things she ought not.
A heated image of her sinuous white body temptingly entwined in another man's arms rose unbidden in his brain. Good God, what other things had Lizzie been doing over the past few years that she ought not? And with whom?
Marlowe quickly jettisoned the irrational spurt of jealousy. Her more recent past hardly mattered. In fact, some experience on her part might better suit his plans.
"Yes, my proposition. I can give you what you want. A marriage without the man."
For the longest moment she went unnaturally still, then she slid off the chair arm and glided closer to him. So close, he almost backed up. So close, her rose petal of a mouth came but a hairsbreadth from his own. Then she lifted her inquisitive nose and took a bold, suspicious whiff of his breath.
"You've been drinking."
"I have," he admitted without a qualm.
"More than enough for the purpose. And you?"
"Clearly not enough. Not that they'd let me." She turned and walked away. Sauntered really. She was very definitely a saunterer, all loose joints and limbs, as if she'd never paid the least attention to deportment. Very provocative, although he doubted she meant to be. An image of a bright, agile otter, frolicking unconcerned in the calm green of the river Dart, twisting and rolling in the sunlit water, came to mind.
"Drink or no, I meant what I said."
"Are you proposing? Marriage? To me?" She laughed as if it were a joke. She didn't believe him.
She eyed him more closely, her gaze narrowing even as one marmalade eyebrow rose in assessment. "Do you have a fatal disease?"
"Are you engaged to fight a duel?"
"Condemned to death?" She straightened with a fluid undulation, her spine lifting her head up in surprise as the thought entered her head, all worldliness temporarily obliterated. "Planning a suicide?"