Sabrina Jeffries’ reworked Restoration Era novel, originally published under her Deborah Martin pseudonym in January 1994.
Arriving in a cloak of mystery, London Theater’s newest actress, Annabelle Taylor, quickly became known as “The Silver Swan.” While she loved performing for her adoring audiences every night, Annabelle secretly longed to draw out the aristocratic father who abandoned her and her mother years ago.
Sent to unmask her identity, Colin Jeffreys, Marquis of Hampden, had only his dashing good looks and desirable kisses to use as bait. Sparring with wit and half-truths, Colin and Annabelle soon realized what they truly wanted was a night of passion. But when Annabelle’s vengeful quest traps her in a nest of deceit and treachery, she realizes she must place her faith in Colin—a man she doesn’t trust, but can’t resist.
Shivering, Annabelle headed to the hearth of the tiring room to lay a fire, and as she knelt, a sharp pain made her suck in her breath. Devil take her tight laces! She always suffered on days when the winter damp seeped into a person’s bones. But it had been only a year since the squire had thrown her down, then kicked her hard enough to break three ribs. Perhaps in more time it would heal.
A grim smile crossed her face. At least she no longer had to fear being tormented by her wretch of a stepfather.
She fought for control over the ache, and in moments had a comfortable blaze going in the fireplace.
As she gazed into the flames, she touched her hand to her silver swan brooch. The poem “Captain Maynard” had left behind was engraved on her memory after all the hours she’d studied it, looking for some clue to the identity of the man who wrote it, who went by “The Silver Swan.”
Annabelle recited the poem’s lines aloud, searching yet again for any hidden meaning, but it didn’t seem to make any sense.
“Rather morbid verses for such a beautiful and accomplished actress,” said a man’s voice behind her.
She whirled, then tensed at the sight of a tall, broad-shouldered stranger just outside the open door. Alone, she would prove easy prey for any scoundrel.
Though he stood in the shadows, she could just make out his rich clothing and rakish plumed hat. That eased her alarm. This was no footpad looking to rob her, but another forward gallant. She could easily handle one of those.
“It appears you have lost your way, sir,” she said smoothly. “The pit is behind you to the left.”
“So you would banish me to the pit for daring to admire you?”
The deep, faintly mocking voice put her on her guard. “Better the pit than to be turned to stone, like those who gazed on Medusa.”
His low chuckle contained enough charm to seduce a stone. “You are hardly a Medusa, madam. I’ve heard it said that Aphrodite is your muse.”
She sucked in a breath. Aphrodite’s bird was the swan.
But that meant nothing. Everyone knew the nickname she’d deliberately cultivated.
“Then I will pierce you with Aphrodite’s arrows,” she said, determined to have the last word with this unsettling stranger.
“I’ll risk it.”
He stepped into the room, and she caught her breath when eyes green as a forest in spring raked her with insolent amusement. She tried not to notice his solid build, nor the cleft in his square chin, nor even the golden hair that streamed over his shoulders from beneath his wide-brimmed hat to glint in the firelight.
How strange that she had never seen him at the theater before. She certainly would have remembered him. Like Adonis, the only man who’d ever been spared Aphrodite’s shafts, he was almost too handsome for belief. Not that it mattered. She wasn’t in the market for a lover of his sort, no matter how handsome.
So it annoyed her when he made himself right at home, resting his hip against a scarred oak table a scarce two feet from her.
“I’m waiting for someone,” she told him coldly. “You can’t stay.”
“You’re waiting for me. Just ask your maid.”
She blinked, then groaned. “Devil take that woman! ’Tis so like her to do something like this.”
“I take it you weren’t informed of our appointment?”
“Of course not. If she’d told me, I wouldn’t be here.”
“Then I must thank Charity for her discretion.”
She leveled a scathing gaze on him. “No, you mustn’t, for her discretion will get neither of you anywhere. My maid does not decide whom I will see, so I’m afraid you must leave.”
“Ah, but we haven’t even been introduced.” With the smooth, frightening grace of a tiger, he whisked his plumed hat from his head and bowed. “Colin Jeffreys, Marquess of Hampden, at your service.”
A marquess, no less! No wonder Charity had agreed to arrange a meeting. Still, men with titles could be as treacherous as men without them. “A pleasure to meet you, my lord. Now, would you please go?”
“You can’t throw me out yet. We’re just beginning to get acquainted.”
When he tossed his hat onto the table behind him, she stifled a groan. “There’s plenty of time for that later.” She flashed him a simpering smile. “Why don’t you return after the performance? Many others do.”
“Precisely, which is why I’m here now.”
Stubborn ox. Time for another tack. She headed for the door. “You are becoming incredibly tiresome, Lord Hampden. If you don’t leave, I shall seek out the theater owner to remind you of the rules.”
His low chuckle gave her pause. “Go ahead. He and I are good friends. We’ll share a fine laugh over the ‘rules,’ and when we’re done, I’ll still be here.”
A tingle of alarm ran down her spine. It had to be alarm. What else could it be? “What do you want from me, my lord?”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “Surely you could guess that.” Pointedly he allowed his gaze to travel the length of her.
Color suffused her face, though she fought to maintain her aloof, bantering persona. “Ah, but that would take the enjoyment out of hearing you make the proposition.”
He pushed away from the table to approach her with slow, deliberate steps. She stared him down, no longer able to pretend amusement.
When he halted very near her, he reached out to smooth one curl from her face, and his fingers brushed her cheek just enough to make her heart’s pace quicken. It was nicely done. No doubt he’d perfected the technique by practicing it on other actresses.
Then his eyes locked with hers, their glittering depths offering interesting promises that she knew he’d never keep. Still, the intelligence in that look gave her pause. She didn’t realize she’d stopped breathing until he dropped his hand and a drawn-out sigh escaped her.
He glanced at her brooch. “Such a lovely piece of work. Where did you find it?”
That put her on her guard. It wouldn’t do to admit she’d bought the expensive jewelry on an actress’s pittance. “Oh, I scarcely even remember. Some admirer or other gave it to me.”
“Have you so many admirers that you forget their gifts that easily?”
He was mocking her, the devil. “I have more admirers than you can possibly imagine.”
“And not a one that you favor with your affection.”
The surprising insight worried her. He’d been digging into her affairs. She’d better take care. “Of course I’ve favored some with my affection.” She fluttered her lashes. “What poor actress could resist the sweet blandishments of London’s gallants?”
“Then why are you resisting mine?”
Uh oh. This began to feel distinctly like a trap. “At any other time, with your being a handsome marquess, I’d be tempted.” She found it increasingly difficult to play the part of jaded actress with this fellow. Something about him gave her pause. “Unfortunately, I have quite a tendre for Lord Somerset. We spend every waking moment together.”
He arched an eyebrow. “When you’re not in the theater, you mean.”
“Such a pity. The Silver Swan deserves someone better than a fop. Particularly when she bears the name Maynard.”
Her pulse jumped into triple-time. First he’d commented on her brooch, then her name. Was this about more than just a gallant looking for pleasure?
No, how could it be? A lord of his consequence never did anything useful. And he was too young—and of the wrong name—to be related to her quarry.
But that didn’t mean she couldn’t get information from him. “What does my surname have to do with anything?” With studied nonchalance, she moved to put a chair between them.
Lord Hampden’s gaze turned calculating. “It’s an important name in London, attached to a great family. Certainly greater than Somerset’s, no matter how glib his tongue and how fashionable his clothing. The man is all sparkle and no spark, all flash and no explosion. Rely on him for your maintenance, and you’ll find yourself eating cabbage when you ought to have caviar.”
“And I suppose you would give me caviar, spark, and explosions.” She cut a coy look up at him. “Sounds dangerous.”
His eyes gleamed at her, momentarily driving out all rational thought. No man should be allowed to walk around with eyes that arresting. He must make ladies trip over their feet wherever he went. “Ah, but you seem the sort of woman for whom danger has a certain appeal.”
Hardly. And she needed to bring the subject back to the Maynard family. “I’m not sure which Maynards you’ve been associating with, but this particular one prefers diamonds to danger. And reliable gentlemen to rakish ones.”
“You consider Somerset reliable?” He snorted. “You’re more naive than I thought. If it’s diamonds you’re looking for, you’re better off with me. Ask your rich relations. They can all vouch for my character.”
“So you know these . . . rich relations?”
“I know everyone of consequence.” He cast her a dark smile. “Which is why you’d be better off spending your time with me.”
Ah, so that’s why he was making much of the “Maynards” . . . as a way to gain her favor. Little did he know, in her eyes the fact that he might know her “rich relations” didn’t say much about his character.
“So, my sweet swan,” he went on, “I pray you will allow me to call on you in your lodgings on the morning after tomorrow. Two days should give you time to ask around about me and find out if I’m worth your trouble.”
His request threw her into a quandary. He knew some wealthy Maynards, but he also clearly wanted to bed her. And that wouldn’t be wise.
Still, it was worth the risk for the chance of finding out who her father was. “You may call on me in three days, my lord.”
“Two is plenty enough to determine my suitability.”
His business-like treatment of their impending assignation began to annoy her. “Perhaps I should ask for letters of reference,” she said tightly.
With a glint in his eyes, Lord Hampden rounded the chair. “I take it that you think me cold-blooded. I see I’ll have to explain myself better . . . so you’ll understand exactly what sort of association I propose.” His hungry gaze dropped to her lips, and his arm snaked about her waist to draw her close.
“Truly, my lord, I don’t think that’s necess—”
His lips on hers cut her off, causing a surprising tingling in her belly that took her utterly off guard. He dragged her tighter against him, then thrust his tongue inside her mouth, slowly . . . deeply . . .
Boldly. And she was swept up in a kiss of such fathomless intensity, it made her body ache. The plunge of his tongue in her mouth, mimicking the act he meant for them to share, made her pulse quicken and her eyelids slide shut. With a groan, he clasped her head in both hands so he could steal the breath from her with his ravening kisses.
Her knees grew weak and her blood ran hot. So this was seduction—this unexpected hunger that made her want to arch into him, to pull him into herself. Good Lord in heaven, what was he doing to her?
When at last he drew back, she stared at him through heavy-lidded eyes, her body awash with need. She couldn’t have spoken if she tried. As his heated gaze played over her face, he stroked her lower lip with his thumb.
“Two days,” he murmured. “How will I wait two days to have you?”