Excerpt from At Long Last

     
     Already shaken and distressed, his words flicked her on the raw, and before she could stop herself, she burst out bitterly, "I should have known you would act this way! You never cared who you hurt as long as you got what you wanted. I can see that you haven't changed." She flashed him a contemptuous glance. "Will it pleasure you to see us thrown out of Highview?  Will you come and oversee our removal from our home yourself. Or will you send one of your minions to do the task?" She made a sound, more sob than laugh. "Or will you make another wager with your friend Blackburne? Betting on how long it will take us to leave?"
     Tony's face went white. He snarled something under his breath and, his eyes glittering dangerously, strode up to her. Catching her shoulders he roughly shook her. "You dare," he said thickly, "you dare say that to me?"
     Stonily she met his fierce gaze. "Why not? Wagering seems to give you great pleasure. Especially wagers that bring others personal pain."
     His nostrils flaring, he took a deep breath and removed his hands from her. Glancing at her with open dislike, he growled, "Despite my many sins, and I will not deny that there are many, do you know that I have never laid hands on a woman in anger before in my life? And considering the provocation, you are damned lucky I did no more than shake you."
     "Very well, I will consider myself lucky," she said stiffly, conscious of the shameful pleasure that had knifed through her at his touch. Conscious, too, of the heat and vitality radiating from his big body as he remained standing in front of her. He was wearing a white-linen shirt, carelessly opened at the throat, and the sight of that strong brown throat, a throat she had once pressed wild, hungry kisses upon, and the well-remembered scent of his body was almost more than she could bear.
     Tony was assailed with memories as potent as hers, and he ached for all that he had lost through his own foolishness. She would never forgive him, and he doubted that his own considerable pride would ever allow him to ask for forgiveness. After all, he had made that damned wager with Blackburne.
     Fearful that she would give way to the powerful emotions that clawed through her, Arabella took several steps away from him. Turning her back, she asked painfully, "How soon do you wish us to vacate Highview?" She swallowed back a sob. "It w-w-will take my stepmother several d-d-days to pack."
     Tony's hands clenched into fists. He took a steadying breath. "I never said that you had to leave Highview," he muttered, his thoughts racing.
     Her eyes wide, hope brimming in their golden brown depths, she swung around to look at him. "You'll make the trade?" she asked breathlessly.
     Tony bit back a curse, on the verge of grabbing the vowels and thrusting them into her hands, when a decidedly reprehensible idea flitted through his mind. But, if he were to propose it, reprehensible or not, it would give him something he desperately, passionately wanted. The thing he wanted most in the world. Arabella in his arms once more.
     Assessingly he eyed her, a painful ache in the region of his heart. Was he really that base? he wondered. To use her unfortunate circumstances for his own needs? And if he did not, if he simply handed her the vowels, she would thank him and then be gone again. Out of his life once more. Oh, she might think kindly of him for the moment; no doubt she would even feel gratitude. But gratitude was the last thing he had ever wanted from Arabella Montgomery.
     As Arabella waited expectantly, her lovely eyes fixed on his, Tony considered his next move. She already thought him a most-despicable creature, and if he made the outrageous proposal, it would only confirm her worst opinion of him. So what, he asked himself harshly, did he have to lose?
     Recklessly, not giving himself time to think, he said, "I am willing to make a trade."
     A blinding smile lit Arabella's expressive features. "Greenleigh for Highview?"
     Tony shook his head. "I said a trade, not that trade."
     Puzzled, her smile faded. "Then what? I have nothing else of value."
     A sensual spark lit his blue eyes. "Ah, Elf, you are wrong there. You do have something of great value to offer me—your own sweet self."
     Arabella looked blank. "W-w-what? You want to m-m-marry me?"
     Tony's lips curled. If he thought he could really blackmail her into marrying him he would, but he doubted that she would tie herself to him for the rest of her life, even to save her family. No. She'd not marry him. But she might be willing to put herself in his hands for a specific period of time. And though he knew it was base and dishonorable, he was willing to risk it. For a little while at least, she would be his.
     But he was curious and he asked, "Would you marry me? For Jeremy's vowels?"
     Arabella gaped at him, hardly daring to believe what he was proposing. Could she marry him? Live the rest of her life as his wife? The memory of the pain and humiliation of their last meeting came rushing back, and she put out a hand as if warding off a terrible fate. No, she could never face that sort of anguish for the remainder of her life. "Do not ask that of me," she whispered. "I could not bear it."
     Harshly, Tony said, "You have nothing to worry about; marriage between us is out of the question. We trod that path once before, and it brought us both misery. No, what I am proposing is a far different arrangement this time."
     Arabella paled, her skin starkly white against the flaming red of her hair, her eyes dark with shock. His meaning was clear, and she could not believe that even Tony could stoop so low.
     But apparently he could, for he closed the distance between them and pulled her into his arms. Brushing his warm, knowing mouth against hers, he murmured, "My mistress. Become my mistress, and the vowels need never be called in."
 
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