Love is the one risk he doesn’t have the heart to dare.
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Miss Lucinda Parnell is out of money. A dismal failure at the Marriage Mart, she’d just as soon leave Society far behind. Desperate to earn funds to retire with her grandmother to the country, Lucy disguises herself as a man to gamble in London’s hells. But the Earl of Dartford, an Untouchable she never imagined speaking to let alone spending time with, is onto her in a trice. When he insists on acting as her protector, Lucy fears her chance to remain an independent woman is destined to go up in flames.
After losing his entire family, Andrew Wentworth, Earl of Dartford built a wall to keep attachments at bay. He believed he could keep Miss Parnell safe without compromising his defenses, but she’s exciting and irresistible. Their deepening relationship makes him even more determined to push her away. Nothing will stop him from trying to avoid reliving the anguish of loss. Love is the one risk he doesn’t have the heart to dare.
“Yes, let’s be direct with one another, shall we?”
Lucy blinked at him. “I am always direct.”
“Unless you’re trying to fool people into thinking you’re a man.” His sarcasm was simultaneously annoying and charming.
“Yes, that. A necessary transgression, I’m sure you agree.”
His brow arched. “I hardly think you care whether I agree.”
He had her there. She grinned. “Maybe a little. I mean, I do care. A little.” She’d come to like Dartford during their brief acquaintance, in spite of his moments of arrogance and imperiousness. She looked forward to another adventure or two with him. “You have my word that I won’t venture out without your assistance. Shall we set our next appointment?”
His eyes widened briefly. He seemed a bit surprised at the ease with which she’d agreed. “Excellent. Tell me when, and I’ll meet you as I did tonight.”
“Four nights hence, at half past eleven.”
The hackney drew to a halt on Bolton Street, but not in front of her house. They stepped out of the cab, and Dartford paid the coachman.
With her house in sight, weariness seeped into Lucy’s frame. She longed to pluck all the padding from her body and scrub her face clean after discarding the fake sideburns.
Dartford walked with her toward the house. “What would your grandmother say if she knew you were doing this?”
Lucy suffered a pang of guilt. “She’d be horrified.”
“What does she think you’re going to do once she retires?”
They’d reached her house. Lucy stopped and turned toward him. “She expects me to marry.”
“And is that a possibility?” he asked. Shadows played across his face, but she could see his eyes clearly. They were dark, intelligent, often filled with humor. His cheekbones gave definition, while his chin, square with a slight cleft, provided character. He bore an appealing countenance. No, that wasn’t at all fair. He was exceptionally handsome. And an earl. Precisely the kind of man her grandmother had hoped she would marry but who’d consistently ignored her the past five years. An Untouchable.
She tamped down a scowl, suddenly annoyed anew at her predicament, which was silly since she’d abandoned the idea of marriage. A choice she didn’t regret in the slightest.
She gestured to her costume and the sideburns stuck to her face, currently making her itch. “Would I be doing this if it were?”
He shrugged. “Perhaps it is possible, but you don’t wish to marry, so you choose this instead.”
That actually summed up her current attitude quite accurately. She would choose this over marriage. “As it happens, Idon’t wish to marry.”
“Indeed?” He cocked his head to the side. “How surprising. We are alike, then, because I don’t wish to marry either. Some distant cousin will need to inherit the title.”
She wanted to ask why but didn’t. That would encourage him to ask her the same, and she had no intention of explaining that to him. Besides, it was best if they didn’t become too…close. This was a necessary partnership, but they weren’t going to be lifelong friends.
“Are those comfortable?” He reached out with his fingertips and brushed the sideburn glued along her right jawline.
She ignored the frisson of delight that sparked down her neck. “Not particularly. In fact, I’d like a few days to recover from wearing them.”
“I should like to see you without them.” His dark gaze penetrated through her carefully constructed wall, and his deep voice shot straight into her chest, stirring the inconvenient attraction she felt toward him.
Her breath caught. “I doubt you ever will.”
His mouth ticked up in a half smile. “Don’t tease me. Please. Not when I’ve been so helpful. Think of all you won tonight.”
All she’d won. It wasn’t just the money. Not to her. She’d won respect with her shooting, even if she couldn’t tell them she was a woman.
She took a step back, determined to put space between herself and this suddenly dangerous man. “I appreciate your help, but I won’t share credit for my winnings. They are mine alone.”
He gave a slight bow. “My apologies,” he murmured.
“I’ll see you in a few days.” She turned from him.
“Not if I see you first,” he said.
Darcy Burke is the USA Today bestselling author of hot, action-packed historical and sexy, emotional contemporary romance. Darcy wrote her first book at age 11, a happily-ever-after about a swan addicted to magic and the female swan who loved him, with exceedingly poor illustrations.
A native Oregonian, Darcy lives on the edge of wine country with her guitar-strumming husband, their two hilarious kids-who each seem to have inherited the writing gene in some form-and two Bengal cats. In her "spare" time Darcy is a serial volunteer enrolled in a 12-step program where one learns to say "no," but she keeps having to start over. Her happy places are Disneyland and Labor Day weekend at the Gorge.