BOOK BLURB: She came from the alleyways, adorned by grime and soot…
Simon Astley has no reason to hire Miranda Post as his housemaid. She has no experience, no credible qualifications. She looks and smells better suited to the East End rookeries than to his West End town house. Worse yet, she reminds him of a soul-staining past he’d prefer to forget.
Unfortunately, she also becomes his fascination.
Physically scarred and lost to a life of poverty, Miranda has but one goal: survival. Although she distrusts her new employer’s generosity, she is determined to save herself, to save her father, and to crawl her way out of despair.
Each wants nothing more than to continue their roles of master and housemaid. But one night, in one sinful hour, when everything changes, a sensual battle begins between the corrupt and the innocent, and to win both Simon and Miranda must lay at stake something neither can afford to lose: their hearts.
“Miranda wrapped the shawl around her shoulders then returned the bonnet to her head, carefully tying the ribbons in a bow. Shadows edged her vision as she watched Mr. Astley stride back to his chair.
Envy curled in her chest at the way he moved: no tucking of the chin or stooping of the shoulders for him. No hustling as if through dank and filthy lanes, racing toward the salvation of the next alley. He had a home, clothes without tatters or holes, security. She, too, would have strutted about.
She, once, had also been fearless.
Despite her attempt at restraint, her gaze flew to the plate of food on his desk. The tower of food. Pastries stacked so thick and high, with golden, flaky crusts, and he ignored them all. Hadn’t even spared them a glance while toying with her earlier, arranging his books into their own sturdy little tower.
Cherry. They would be cherry tarts, she was certain. The sauce sweet and voluptuous, juice exploding from the bits of fruit and gushing over her tongue. A buttery shell, so soft and moist as it crumbled against the roof of her mouth—
God. Saliva ran slick over the insides of her cheeks. Her stomach clenched with greedy fervor.
Wicked, her father had called her, for daring to seek work from a nude portraitist. Wicked, he said she’d become, convinced her duties in such a household would mimic those of a harlot.
Perhaps he’d been right, Miranda thought, swaying a little. She’d stood in Astley’s house for less than an hour and already felt quite wicked. Envy and greed and taking the Lord’s name in vain. Next, the sins of theft and gluttony. Lust, presumably, could not be far behind.
Astley had hired her. Hired, when she’d received nothing but threats and sneers seven times before. And all she could think of was snatching the plate of pastries and scurrying away like the mouse he’d likened her to, hunkering down in the nearest corner as she shoveled the tarts into her mouth—one, two, three…there would never be enough to calm the gnawing inside.
“Miss Post?” Suddenly he was there, in front of her again, his hand cupping her elbow.
How she resented him for his casual disregard of the pastries, for knowing he need only ring the servants’ bell to summon more food from his kitchens. He should have emptied the plate upon its delivery; the contents should be stretching and warming his stomach rather than lying there untouched, taunting her.
He probably knew nothing of hunger’s sour taste, of these awful black shadows that dimmed sight, of the cold and hollowing numbness. He’d likely dripped with sweat under the summer sun, when at noon in August not even a shawl and her thickest stockings had succeeded in keeping her warm.
Indeed, he was hotter than the sun now: the fingers he closed about her arm sent heat sinking into her skin, through her flesh, to her very bones. Miranda fought the instinct to lean into him, to climb up and wind her body around his. She could steal his food and all of his heat and not worry about hunger or cold until tomorrow.
Hired. The word whispered again in her mind. She’d not yet settled her faith on it, though. It sounded like a promise. A very nice promise, but then she knew how transient promises could be. And this one didn’t possess nearly as much substance as the endless ache to which she woke and fell asleep each day.
“Miss Post?” he repeated, neither altering the inquiry’s volume or tone. He seemed to employ patience like some men used a blade; it made her wary. “You denied illness yet appear as if you might collapse at any moment. And retrieving you from the floor would be very inconvenient. The mud, you see.”
The whores across from the tenement would have crawled all over themselves for a chance at Mr. Simon Astley, so kind and chivalrous was he.
“Come now,” he coaxed. She wondered whether he was conscious of stroking the inside of her elbow with his thumb, whether a caress—like patience—was just another of his tools in extracting information. She wondered whether he realized she had mud at her elbow, too. “We’re not strangers anymore, are we? You may tell me the truth.”
She hadn’t said the words in two months. She’d rather have stolen the pastries, but his grip wouldn’t allow her escape. She darted another covetous glance at the plate and immediately felt her pulse throb with regret.
Foolish. Foolish. Confessing her weakness in such a way.
Astley tilted his head, studying her, then twisted to look behind him. His fingers flexed against her arm, five burning points of possession. When he turned back his expression was inscrutable. “You’re hungry.”
Her constant, silent litany. It chased her during the day, at night. When she walked, when she sat, when she lay down. Even after she ate the food her father hadn’t consumed, for those few scraps did nothing to fill her stomach. The words felt engraved in her thoughts, as permanent as the color of her eyes, the birthmark on the inside of her right knee. The scar on her cheek.
Still, she couldn’t say it aloud.
Astley stared for a moment then led her—or rather, dragged her—to one of the chairs across from his desk. A victory: she only stumbled once.
“When did you eat last?” He released her arm and motioned for her to sit. Miranda found herself grateful for the way he treated her: with the assumption she was more steel than china. As if she could not break.
Seconds passed as she weighed each of his syllables and struggled to follow with an appropriate response. Before, during her interview, he’d simply gone on talking. Now he stood and waited, his gaze steady on hers as she sifted through words.
“Two days ago,” she finally said, her heart beating faint and frantic. She cleared her throat. “I had a loaf of bread.” And then she smiled at him.
It was a ferocious overstatement. Her first theft, and she’d been so clumsy from shame and fear that she’d torn off only one tiny corner of the loaf, a piece little more than crumbs.
Astley reached for the plate of pastries; a resonant anticipation vibrated from the top of Miranda’s head to her toes like he’d instead reached deep inside her and plucked a string. He shoved one of the pastries into her hand, his fingers squeezing hers around the food.
“Here,” he said. “Eat.”
She wanted to keep it trapped inside her fist, to never let it go. Instead, she ripped off piece after piece and stuffed them into her mouth. When the crust became lodged in her throat, she pushed another bite in and swallowed the obstruction. Astley watched her closely, his gaze following the pastry when she lifted the remainder to her lips and bit into the center.
Not cherry. Meat. Pork. Or…beef? It was the best food she’d ever eaten, and heat surged into her cheeks and up into her scalp. More warmth spread in currents from her stomach to her arms and legs and along her spine. Her heart still raced, but the movement felt fierce now instead of weak. Her thoughts, scattered heretofore like stones cast from a child’s hand, began assembling themselves into coherence.
When she finished the first piece, he nodded toward another. A few minutes later, she took a third.
Halfway through the fourth, when her stomach grew uncomfortable, Astley smiled and leaned his hips against the desk. A low sound of approval encouraged her when she reached toward the plate for a fifth, and when she sought a sixth pastry he lifted it from the dish and extended his hand.
Their fingertips touched as hasty footsteps entered the room behind her. “Yes, sir?” Mrs. Dunworth asked.
He relinquished the pastry to Miranda. “I’ve decided to hire Miss Post. We intend to celebrate with a tea service.”
Miranda ate despite her surprise. She ignored the voice she’d obeyed all of her life, the one that urged her to stop before she became ill, to cling to the last of her dignity and act more human than animal. This was the same voice that had prevented her from stealing for so long, then attacked her with shame when she did.
She’d ceased listening to the sound of her own righteousness when the crumbs she’d stolen had disappeared with one swallow. She would eat everything Astley offered, even if her stomach must purge itself once or twice before she could do so.
“Do you have a particular food you prefer with your tea, Miss Post?”
Miranda’s chewing slowed. His question confused her…and made her even warier. He’d said he would hire her, had kept her from fainting. Strange enough he gave her the food from his desk instead of sending her below stairs; stranger still to take tea with her, too.
His kindnesses were excessive.
She glanced up then blinked, feeling as if the world which had righted itself as she ate abruptly became upended again. As if her previous interactions must have occurred in a different room with a different man. The one who fed her had vanished, revealing in his place another whose attention was far too invasive, a man much more dangerous than any who might only lead her into various acts of debauchery.
For the first time since entering his study, all thoughts of hunger and food retreated before the excruciating intensity of Astley’s blue eyes. So fiercely he stared—as though searching inside of her for pieces of her soul.
She couldn’t breathe. Dear God, she couldn’t breathe.”
EXCERPT continues here.
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She likes to think that she makes up for this injustice with each romance novel she writes. When she isn’t telling stories about sexy, headstrong heroes and intelligent, independent heroines, Elise stays busy refereeing between her two young daughters, coaxing smiles from her new baby, and semi-attempting to do housework.