Despite her looks, Bathsheba Crawford had never been shy.
Most people thought she would be. She was no beauty, with a round face and plain features, her hair an ordinary shade of brown. She could not sing, had never learned to play an instrument, and didn’t speak a word of French. There was nothing distinguishing about her, really.
But her mind worked quite well, thank you very much. With no expectation of getting by on her looks or charm, Bathsheba had learned to use the talents she did have: an unmatched memory, a sharp, practical intelligence, and the ability to listen more than she spoke. She also learned to pursue what she wanted, because nothing was freely given to young women of unremarkable looks whom everyone believed quiet and withdrawn.
That had seen her though hardship and adversity when her parents died of consumption and the family printing business failed. When her brother Daniel came home from war missing part of his arm, unable to work. When they were within a hair’s breadth of losing everything. It also drove her to seize opportunities when they arose: taking a chance on printing a scandalous story called Fifty Ways to Sin on the old printing press sitting idle in their scullery, which succeeded beyond all their dreams, and then daring to write her own wicked novels, even if anonymously.
She might still be a plain little mouse of a woman, but she was a successful one. Her Tales of Lady X, about the romantic follies of a daring adventuress, sold very well. Whenever she caught the faintly pitying glances people sent her way (“The poor dear, so plain and quiet, no wonder she’s a spinster…”) or the openly surprised glances when she said something sensible (“Oh, good heavens; Miss Crawford, we didn’t notice you…”), a fierce satisfaction burned like a small sun in her breast. She was someone, even if none of them knew it.
She reminded herself of all this as she approached the London Intelligencer , a London gossip newspaper. She was here on business, after all, and Liam MacGregor had long recognized her head for business. He was the owner and publisher of the Intelligencer, a strong-minded, ambitious Scot with a taste for risk. He’d become their partner in the final frantic days of printing Fifty Ways to Sin. If Bathsheba knew anything about Liam, it was that he never said no to a profitable business proposal.
She went through the Intelligencer’s ramshackle offices and knocked on Liam’s door. A muffled shout was all the welcome she received; he didn’t even look up from his task when she came in and closed the door.
Bathsheba was undaunted. “I have a proposal,” she announced. “A business matter.”
Liam’s eyebrow arched, although he didn’t raise his head from the newspaper copy he was reading. “What is it?”
So direct. She admired that about him. Bathsheba was neither delicate nor missish, but now that she’d come to the point, she’d rather only have to say it once. “Tales of Lady X are selling well—”
Liam flashed a fierce grin at her before dropping his gaze back to the copy. Nothing pleased him more than success, and her novels were one of his biggest. Bathsheba appreciated that about him; he hadn’t quailed or scoffed when she brought him her manuscript. Instead he spotted its potential at once, to the benefit of both their purses.
Buoyed, she took a seat and went on. “Quite well. But I believe the tales could be even better. Lady Constance and Fifty Ways to Sin proved there is a real hunger for stories of genuine passion, and of course I want to find every way to improve. And after much thought, I think there is one thing which would notably better my stories.”
Finally his head came up. “Oh?”
She gripped her hands a little tighter together, keeping her eyes locked on his. Given what she was about to suggest, she ought to be able to do that, at the very least. It wasn’t a hardship to look at him; Liam was handsome in a sharp, bold way, with broad, high cheekbones and a straight nose over a rather sensual mouth. If anything, his eyes were the most unsettling part of him; they were gray, and when he was annoyed or angry, they could pale to an almost unearthly color. Now they were fixed on her, unflinching and bright beneath the too-long waves of his dark hair.
“I lack—” She stopped, the words suddenly thick and wooly in her mouth. “I need—”
“Run out of ideas?” he asked.
She shook her head. Not ideas. Bathsheba had plenty of ideas for her books. It was something more practical that she lacked, and it was beginning to affect her work.
“What?” His forehead creased. “Don’t tell me you’ve written too indiscreetly about a past lover and he’s going to make trouble.”
“Don’t be stupid,” she snapped. “Of course not.” It was insulting that he would think her that careless.
His expression cleared of irritation, but the interest remained. “Then what is it? Do you need funds advanced?”
He should know she didn’t. Her share of the profits had accumulated to a tidy sum. She pressed her hands flat on her knees. “No. I lack deeper knowledge of my subject.”
It took him a moment, but Liam realized her meaning. “No,” he said in sly disbelief. “Don’t tell me you’re a—”
“No, but near enough,” she said impatiently. She wasn’t a virgin, but her carnal experience was limited, and—to put it mildly—uninspiring.
“Then how have you written—?”
“From Fifty Ways to Sin.” She glared at him, too smug and handsome with his cravat loosened and the sun gleaming on his hair. It wasn’t her fault she didn’t have a large number of past lovers. If anything, the Fifty Ways to Sin stories had made her very sorry for that fact, as they had opened her eyes to the existence of a world of sensual pleasure she’d barely imagined. Who wouldn’t want to experience the bliss described in them?
But the fact remained that she had not; her quiet, mousy appearance was to blame, no doubt.
“And from gossip,” she went on. “It’s not hard to overhear the most scandalous and depraved things, as you well know. A woman can learn quite a bit.” All the gossip Bathsheba had heard indicated those pleasures were no fiction, although neither were they commonplace.
He laughed. “I do know! I just never thought—” He stopped short and cleared his throat. “Well, do what you must.”
Bathsheba kept her composure by the narrowest of margins. Liam could be cold and calculating, and he didn’t waste time on platitudes or trivial conversation. Generally she admired that. “I plan to. Since it’s as much to your benefit as it is to mine that the … er … experience be as thorough and as inspirational as possible, I propose that you assist.”
For the first time she could ever recall, Liam’s face went blank, then flushed a girlish shade of pink. He didn’t even sputter or protest, just stared at her in disbelief.
Bathsheba raised her brows, pleased to have silenced him for once. “It’s for the benefit of our mutual business endeavor.”
“You want me—?” Liam’s eyes narrowed. “What sort of idiot do you think I am?”
She frowned. “Not an idiot. I’m not asking you to fall in love with me or even engage in a prolonged affair. Three or four times ought to be sufficient. Think of it as a research inquiry.”
“I am not a scientific experiment!”
“Neither am I,” she said coolly. “But I know you’ve got quite a reputation with the ladies—or so says the gossip—and I’d rather learn from the best.”
His face was still flushed. “How dare you gossip about me.”
“You don’t mind if I listen to every sort of tawdry tale about everyone else in society, but your name is beyond the pale?” She gave him a reproving look in spite of herself. “You encouraged me to listen. It’s hard to stop when a familiar name comes up.”
“You could if you tried,” he snarled, shoving back from his desk and bounding to his feet. “What the blazes would your brother say if he knew what you just asked me to do?”
“Good heavens, why would you tell him?” she exclaimed. Daniel didn’t even know Liam published her books. That had been her bargain with Liam: he must keep her identity secret at all costs, from Daniel and from the rest of the world. “It’s none of his concern. I’m twenty-nine years old, not a little girl Danny must protect.”
“‘Tis a bloody stupid idea,” he snapped, sounding more Scottish than ever. “Put it from your head.”
Bathsheba sighed. She’d braced herself for this reply, but it was still disappointing. “I take it that means no. Very well.” She got to her feet, then hesitated. “I trust you’ll be kind enough not to tell anyone about this.”
“Of course not—” He glared at her. “What are you going to do now?”
“Find someone else, obviously.”
“Don’t you dare!” In three strides he was across the room, barring the door before she could march through it. “Where did this lunatic idea come from?”
He had wedged himself between her and the door. Bathsheba had never been so close to him—nor to any man who exerted this sort of pull on her—but she refused to back away. He was only half a head taller than she, but her pulse skipped a beat as she looked up at him.
“The usual urges, Liam,” she said, quietly but firmly. “How can I write about lovemaking all day and not wonder if I’m describing it accurately?” Not to mention lying awake at nights perishing of curiosity about the heights of bliss one could achieve, with the right lover.
He looked like a storm cloud, dark hair curling wildly against his loose collar and his eyes turbulent. “Who would you ask?”
“I’ve spent enough time among the rakes and scoundrels of London to know it won’t be impossible to find one willing to toss up my skirts. I had hoped to avoid it being a stranger, but—”
“Sit down,” he growled. He jerked his head toward the chair she had just vacated.
Surprised, Bathsheba sat down.
Watching her closely, Liam paced the confines of his cluttered office. He combed one hand through his hair, mussing it even more, and Bathsheba’s stomach contracted involuntarily. No, she didn’t want it to be a stranger … She wanted to learn passion from a handsome, slightly dangerous man, and Liam fit the bill in every particular. The fact that he knew her, respected her, treated her as an equal for good and for ill, just made it even more logical that she should ask him.
The fact that she found him wildly, irrationally attractive ought not to figure into it, except as a private measure of delight for her. At first she had feared that was a fatal weakness in her plan, as his answer would matter far more to her than it should, but she had persuaded herself it was worth the risk. What was the harm in giving in to her secret infatuation?
But who knew he would turn into a stuffy prude at the first mention of a casual affair? Bathsheba spent her evenings haunting the edges of society. Everything she’d overheard indicated that rakes wanted precisely that: not love, not attachment, nothing but a few passionate nights in bed.
Of course, she’d also heard that rakes enjoyed the chase, the thrill of pursuing a reluctant woman, and she’d just scotched any prospect of that. But when she thought of how long it would take to entice Liam into wanting her, then pursuing her, pretending reluctance, then finally succumbing … Who had time for that? She wanted to know now.
Finally Liam stopped pacing. “Why do you think you need more experience?” A bit of the flush returned as he spoke the last word. “Lady X sells quite well; just keep on doing what you’re doing.”
“It’s getting stale,” she tried to say, but he slashed one hand.
“Bollocks. Just write more of the same. People love it.”
“It’s boring me.”
His eyebrows shot up. “Boring! You wrote of an encounter in Hyde Park in the last installment.”
Her mouth turned down. All the excitement of that chapter had revolved around the prospect of Lady X getting caught with her lover making love in a stand of trees not far from the carriageway. Bathsheba understood all about the sick terror of getting caught doing something illicit and risking being exposed and humiliated. What she didn’t know, at least not well enough, was the craving for another person that would drive someone to risk everything for those few minutes of rapture. “I can’t keep writing stories where the sole source of tension is the location of the encounter.”
She threw her arms wide. “Where else would you have me set a story? In the British Museum? Onstage in Drury Lane? If you suggest a Royal Drawing Room, I shall slap your face.”
He waved one hand irritably. “Of course I would never suggest that. You’ve never been—”
Blessedly, he stopped before finishing it, but Bathsheba knew what he meant. She’d never been anywhere half so elegant and wouldn’t have the first idea how to describe a Drawing Room reception at St. James’s Palace. Since it was true, she didn’t dwell on the faint sting of the words, but seized on the fact that he’d proved her point. “Exactly! I’ve never been to the court of St. James, so I couldn’t possibly write sensibly about it. The same is true of this other matter. However, while I am highly unlikely ever to receive an invitation to St. James’s, I bloody well can find a man to take me to bed.”
For some reason, whenever she swore, Liam took her more seriously. He did this time as well, dropping into the chair beside her. “I just don’t think it’s necessary,” he argued.
Bathsheba could see the fight had gone out of him. “That’s why you’re the publisher and I’m the author,” she said firmly. “It’s not your place to have good story ideas. Your job is to take full advantage of my good ideas. Don’t worry, Liam. I promise to be discreet and not betray any hint of the truth in a tale.”
He stared at her for a long moment. “Why me?”
Again Bathsheba’s stomach clenched involuntarily. Was he relenting? Something hot and exhilarating bubbled up in her chest for a moment before she forced it down. “Because it’s for our joint business,” she said aloud, reminding herself as much as telling him. “Because I know you and believe you would be discreet—it not being in either of our interests to reveal it. And because the rumors about you are impressive—” She stopped and had to look away as his gaze grew faintly amused. “Are you reconsidering?”
He leaned forward. “Bathsheba,” he said in the soft Scottish drawl that always caused unwarranted tremors to shiver through her. “Are you trying to seduce me?”
Yes. She would die before saying it out loud. “Would it be faster to try to hire you?”
Liam laughed. “You couldn’t afford me, love.” He sat back and ran a speculative gaze over her. Bathsheba tried not to feel the way her nipples hardened as his gray eyes lingered on her bosom. If any other man had ever looked at her breasts that way, she couldn’t recall it. “But for business … You know the way to my heart. I’ll do it.”
She blinked. “Lovely.”
“Where do you propose to conduct this reseach?”
“Er.” She hadn’t worked that out. In fact, she was only now realizing that she hadn’t truly expected him to agree. “I’ll let you know.”
But he’d seen. His eyes now gleaming with satisfaction, Liam surged out of his chair. “No, no, I’ll arrange it.” He gave her a look, the hint of a smirk curling his mouth. “Based on my greater expertise in the subject.”
Bathsheba’s wits had been somewhat scrambled by the lightning-fast change in his attitude. “Lovely,” she repeated in the same blank tone.
Liam crossed his arms over his chest—rather a broad chest, now that she looked at it anew—and smiled. Not a smirk, not a ruthless twist of his lips, but a sensual expression that hinted of wickedness beyond her wildest imagination. Which was what she had wanted, but perhaps not quite what she had expected. “It will be, love,” he promised. “It will be.”