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Authors: Ann Lethbridge

More Than a Lover

BOOK: More Than a Lover
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Will he unlace all of her secrets?

Former captain Bladen Read knows respectable Caroline Falkner would never look twice at an illegitimate ruffian like him. But when he's suddenly thrown into the role of her protector he discovers the undercurrent of tension runs both ways...

At first Caro tries to resist the pull of attraction, for Blade is a link to the scandalous past she buried long ago to protect her son. Although when the opportunity to explore this rake's expertise in the bedroom presents itself, temptation proves too much to resist!

“Thank you,” she murmured. “I think I will be able to sleep now. I will be up and ready to leave first thing.”

For a moment, he thought she might rise up on her toes and kiss his cheek, like a sister or a friend, but it was his mouth where her gaze lingered. Heat rushed through him. His blood headed south.

The distance between them was so very slight he could feel the graze of her breath against his throat, see into the warmth in the depths of her melting, soft brown eyes. Could such a kind, gentle creature, such a respectable woman, really want a man like him?

Author Note

I have wanted to write Caro and Blade's story for ages and finally had the chance in
More Than a Lover
. Discovering from Blade that he was at Peterloo, a massacre of civilians at St. Peter's Field near Manchester that was vilified in the press of the time, gave me lots of interesting historical background. Having a character tell you where he was and how it affected him is always the icing on the cake for an author. I hope you enjoy the journey as much as I did.

Also, I hope you enjoy this opportunity to catch up with the twins and their brides from
The Gamekeeper's Lady
and
More Than a Mistress
because they are some of my favorite people. If you would like to know more about me or my books you will find me at my website:
annlethbridge.com
. I love to hear from readers.

Ann Lethbridge

More Than a Lover

In her youth, award-winning author
Ann Lethbridge
reimagined the Regency romances she read—and now she loves writing her own. Now living in Canada, Ann visits Britain every year, where family members understand—or so they say—her need to poke around every antiquity within a hundred miles. Learn more about Ann or contact her at
annlethbridge.com
. She loves hearing from readers.

Books by Ann Lethbridge

Harlequin Historical
Harlequin Historical Undone! ebooks

Rakes in Disgrace

The Gamekeeper's Lady
More Than a Mistress
Deliciously Debauched by the Rake
(Undone!)
More Than a Lover

The Gilvrys of Dunross

The Laird's Forbidden Lady
Her Highland Protector
Falling for the Highland Rogue
Return of the Prodigal Gilvry
One Night with the Highlander
(Undone!)

Linked by Character

Haunted by the Earl's Touch
Captured Countess
The Duke's Daring Debutante

and

The Rake's Inherited Courtesan
Lady Rosabella's Ruse
The Rake's Intimate Encounter
(Undone!)

Undone! ebooks

One Night as a Courtesan
Unmasking Lady Innocent
A Rake for Christmas
In Bed with the Highlander

Visit the Author Profile page at
Harlequin.com
for more titles.

Get rewarded every time you buy a Harlequin ebook!
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here
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I would like to dedicate this book to all the wonderful editors at Harlequin Mills and Boon who have helped me write more than twenty-five stories to date, and in this particular case, to Nicola Caws, who let me write the story my way and then helped me to make it better. Thank you.

Chapter One

March 30th, 1820

B
laden Read, erstwhile captain of the Twenty-Fifth Hussars, stretched his legs beneath the scarred trestle table in the corner of the commons of the Sleeping Tiger. Nearby, a miserable fire struggled against the wind whistling down the chimney while the smell of smoke battled with the stink of old beer and unwashed men oozing from the ancient panelling. He might have stayed somewhere better these past five days, but it would have been a waste of limited coin he preferred to spend on decent stabling for his horses and a room for his groom. After all, it wasn't their fault he'd been forced to tender his resignation from his regiment.

That was his fault, fair and square, for not blindly following orders. And not for the first time. It was why he'd never advanced beyond captain and never would now.

Hopefully, his letter to his good friend Charlie, the Marquess of Tonbridge, would result in an offer of employment or he'd be going cap in hand to his father. The thought made his stomach curdle.

He nodded at the elderly tapman to bring him another ale to wash down the half-cooked eggs, burned bacon and day-old bread that served for breakfast in this establishment. Not that his rations while fighting for king and country on the Iberian Peninsula had been any better, but they also hadn't been that much worse.

He opened
The
Times
and placed it beside his plate.
The tapman wandered over with a fresh tankard. He slapped it down on the table, the foam running down the sides and pooling in a ring around its base. His lip curled as he pointed a grimy finger at the headline—the words were stark: ‘Hunt. Guilty of Sedition'
.

‘Sedition?' the old man growled. ‘It was a massacre. There was women there. Families. It's the damned soldiers what ought to be up on a charge.'

‘You are right.' Blade knew, because he'd been at St Peter's Field. Hunt had been invited to Manchester to speak to a populace suffering from the loss of work or low wages and high prices for bread. He advocated change. What the powers that be had not expected were the vast numbers who would come to hear the man speak.

People had come from miles away, the women in their Sunday best, many of them wearing white, holding their children by the hand and carrying the banners they'd stitched. They'd come to hear Hunt, a radical who was famous for his opinions and wearing a white top hat. Scared to the point of panic, the government had sent the army to break up the gathering because they had learned of the careful organisation behind the event. Curse their eyes. The crowd had been peaceful, not starting a revolution as the government claimed. Hunt had barely begun addressing the crowd from a wagon bed when the militia had charged.

The potman snorted derisively. ‘You were there, then, were ye, Captain? Got a few licks in?'

Not this soldier. He had tried to turn the militia aside. As a result, he'd been deemed unfit to serve his king. His years of service had counted for nothing. Not that in hindsight he would have done anything different. Waking and asleep, he heard the screams of women and children and the shouts of men, as the soldiers, his soldiers, charged into the crowd, laying about them with sabres as if they were on the battlefield at Waterloo. Eighteen citizens dead and over seven hundred injured, some by the sword, others trampled by horses. Just thinking about it made him feel ill.

No wonder the press had labelled it Peterloo. Britain's greatest shame and a tarnish on the victory over the French at Waterloo a mere four years before.

The potman spat into the fire. ‘The people won't stand for it. You wait and see. They might have put Hunt in prison, but it won't be the end of it.'

Blade's blood ran cold. ‘I'd keep that sort of talk to yourself, man, if you know what's good for you.'

The government had spies and agents provocateurs roaming the countryside looking for a way to justify their actions of last August and the laws they had changed to reduce the risk of revolution. The Six Acts, they were called. The radicals called it an infringement of their rights.

He swallowed his rage. At the government. At the army. At his stubborn dull-witted colonel. And most of all at himself for remaining in the service beyond the end of the war. He had wanted to fight an enemy, not British citizens.

The man gave him a narrow-eyed stare as if remembering to whom he was talking. ‘Will there be anything else, Captain?'

‘Mr and, no, thank you. Nothing else.'

‘That'll be fourpence.'

The waiter plucked the coins Blade tossed him out of the air and sauntered back to the bar. Blade finished the ale and pushed the food aside. He had no stomach for it this morning.

Time to check on his horses. With studied movements born of hours of practice, he carefully folded the newspaper and tucked it under his left arm. It never failed to irritate how the simplest things required the utmost concentration. He donned his hat and walked out into the sharp wind of a typically grey Yorkshire spring morning.

He strolled through the winding lanes, heading for the livery.

As he turned onto the main street, the walk of a woman ahead of him caught his eye. A brisk, businesslike walk that did nothing to disguise the lush sensuality of her figure, even though it was wrapped in a warm woollen cloak. In his salad days, before Waterloo, he might have offered to carry her basket. Women, young and old, loved the dash of an officer in uniform.

Well, he was no longer entitled to wear a uniform. He'd retired. Hah!

The woman stopped at a milliner's window, revealing her profile.

Caro Falkner. Pleasure rippled through him. Desire was certainly a part of it, a hot lick deep in his gut, but there was also a lightness, a simple gladness at the sight of her. Not that the gladness would be reciprocated. She had made it quite clear she wanted no remembrances of the past. Of youthful folly, before the carnage of war had taken his hand and killed her soldier husband.

He'd met her in a small village not far from Worthing, where his regiment had been stationed, but had been far too tongue-tied at her beauty to utter a word. How he had hoped, with the desperation of the very young, to ask her to stand up with him when he and his fellow officers had been invited to the village assembly. Naturally, she'd only had eyes for the older and far more charming Carothers. She'd been a delight to watch, though, as she danced and flirted her way through his more experienced companions.

These days the woman was far too prim and proper for her own good. And that made her a challenge to a man who had enjoyed the intimate company of several willing widows over the years. A challenge he had no intention of taking up because, for some reason, his very presence in a room made her uncomfortable. At Charlie and Merry's wedding, good friends of them both, she'd been far from friendly. Tales of his rakish ways passed on by Tonbridge, no doubt. And as the daughter of a vicar, she would likely be shocked by his antecedents. Horrified. Not even a smart new uniform would make up for such a background with a respectable woman.

He forced himself to pretend not to see her, as she had made it so obvious she would prefer. Never had he even hinted to Charlie of their past meeting. He could still see her, though, in his mind's eye, the sparkle in her eyes as she spun with her partners through the steps of every country dance that night. He'd been fascinated.

Not that he was about to force these memories upon a woman who shied away at the sight of him.

Besides, these days he preferred the kind of woman who enjoyed a bit of danger along with her dalliance. Widows or members of the demi-monde who were not looking for any sort of permanent relationship and were honest about it. Oh, his adoptive mother had forced him into a semblance of civility, given him polish and manners, and a degree of charm to go with it, but the ladies of the
ton
had no trouble sensing the ruffian who lurked within. Naturally, decent ladies avoided him like the plague. As did Mrs Falkner.

He stepped clear of her at the same moment she turned away from the window. Their gazes clashed. Her eyes widened in recognition. The flicker of anxiety in her eyes sent a chill down his spine, though she quickly schooled her expression into one of reserved politeness. Was it merely the response of a sensible respectable woman when faced with a man who could ruin her reputation if she wasn't careful? Or something else? Her reaction wasn't a shock; he was used to respectable women distancing themselves. It was his hurt that
she
would do so that momentarily stole his breath.

He buried the pointless feeling of rejection and flashed her his most seductive smile. The devilment of anger taking possession of reason. He was, after all, a good friend of her employer. He lifted his hat and bowed. ‘Mrs Falkner, what an unexpected pleasure.' The purr of seduction in his voice caused her to stiffen.

‘Captain Read?' There was something about her soft and low voice that affected him in a very visceral way.

Blast it, he really should have pretended he had not seen her. He did not need desire for a woman he could not have to make his day any worse. ‘Just plain Mr these days, ma'am. I hope you are well?'

Pink stained her cheekbones with a becoming blush. He remembered that about her, the way she coloured. But that was all that remained of her from before. Her ready smile and happy laughter were nowhere to be seen. Respectable widows did not smile at rogues. ‘I am well,' she said, lifting her chin. ‘Thank you.' She hesitated a fraction. ‘And you?'

Her politeness surprised him. He didn't imagine she cared how he was for one single moment.

‘I, too, am well.' He glanced around, looking for a maid or a footman. Seeing no one nearby, he frowned. ‘Are you unescorted?'

She stiffened. ‘I am quite capable of doing a little shopping without aid.'

From the icy blast of dislike coming his way, he knew she didn't want to have anything to do with him, but he wasn't enquiring for her sake; he was doing what his friend Charlie would expect of him. And, indeed, Charlie's new wife, Merry. With the unrest among the population at the news in the papers this morning, even a guttersnipe like him knew better than to allow a decent female to walk the streets alone. He certainly would not allow his half-sisters to do so, though they, too, would likely baulk at his escort.

He grasped the handle of the heavy-looking basket over her arm. ‘Allow me, please.' Not really a request, though at least he had enough manners to phrase it as one. Perhaps the countess, his stepmother, had done a better job than either of them had thought.

A moment of resistance held them frozen, but her expression said that while she did not want his escort, neither did she want to make a scene in public. She let go and stepped back. ‘It is very kind of you, Captain...I mean Mr Read, but I have quite finished my errands.'

‘Then I will accompany you back to your lodgings. I assume you are staying in York overnight?'

Her eyes narrowed with suspicion. Then the sensible woman sighed, knowing there was no use arguing with a determined man. ‘At the King George. I return to Skepton tomorrow.'

He transferred the basket to the crook of his right arm and, gritting his teeth, slightly winged his left elbow. Enough for her to be able to ignore it without embarrassment for either of them. She would not be the first to refuse his injured arm.

His heart gave an odd lurch when, without a moment's hesitation, she tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow. The feel of her hand seared his skin through several layers of cloth, including her gloves. He could not remember the last time he'd felt this shaken. Foolish sentiment, no doubt. After all, a woman who went about gathering prostitutes off the streets of Skepton, as Charlie had related to him, was hardly likely to baulk at a missing hand.

Even so, it was with a sense of doom that he realised that even for such a small gesture from this woman, he would walk barefoot across hot coals.

Idiot.

* * *

Caro could not believe her bad luck. Or rather she could. If anything could go wrong where she was concerned, it would. She had hoped never to see Captain Read—no, Mr Read apparently, her employer's friend—ever again, after the Tonbridges' wedding was over and done. Indeed, she had hoped she would not. For Tommy's sake. Of all the people she had met in her life, he was one of the few who might guess at her secret. At her shame.

She still did not know whether he recalled their meeting years ago. The uncertainty made her heart flutter wildly, as did the way he regarded her as if she was some sort of tasty treat.

‘Who accompanies you on this shopping trip of yours?' he asked, his voice teasing, but also concerned, when he had no right to be concerned for her welfare.

If she kept her answers brief and to the point, hopefully he would take the hint and be on his way. ‘No one. Merry is in London with Tonbridge, who was called to attend his father's sickbed.' Caro tried to ignore the sense of abandonment that had plagued her since her friend's marriage. The same feeling she had experienced when her father had turned her out of his house. Yet it was not the same thing at all. She and Merry remained friends and correspondents. She had heard nothing from her family since the day she had left.

While she did not look at Mr Read, she sensed his gaze on her face. Sharp. Assessing. ‘You travelled to York alone?' he asked.

The note of disapproval in his voice added to her discomfort. Her father's voice had held exactly that note when one had a smut on one's nose or had misplaced one's gloves and kept him waiting. Instinctively her chin came up, the way it had so often in her girlhood, generally leading to further admonishment. What was it about this man that affected her so, when she had worked so hard on perfecting a calm demeanour? ‘I drove here in the Tonbridge carriage with his lordship's coachman.'

He made a scoffing sound in the back of his throat that he then tried to disguise as a cough. ‘Have you not
read
the newspapers, Mrs Falkner? The north is up in arms about this latest idiotic verdict—' He grimaced.

BOOK: More Than a Lover
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