Janna MacGregor

Excerpt: A Simple Seduction

Book 1: The Millionaires of Mayfair

For the first time in her life, Honoria felt beautiful. Completely concealed behind the mask and the burnished blond hair that fell to her waist, she straightened her back and studied the crowd. Men stopped their conversation and stared at her. Their appreciation for her costume made their eyes glint.

As Honoria surveyed the room, more and more men turned her way. Even the women who were attending took notice. Most of the men wore simple black cloaks with a traditional black domino mask, but some were dressed as clowns, jesters, medieval warriors, and even priests. The women were far more colorful in their dress. Shepherds, nuns, and queens of yesterday were all represented at her brother’s masquerade party.

She’d changed her simple gown for the costume behind a copse of trees. At first, she’d felt exposed in the costume. With a silk that perfectly matched her skin, Honoria’s gown made everyone take a second glance to ensure that she wasn’t naked. A golden gaze netting with strategically sewn brilliants and beads covered the gown. Her every breath made the ensemble twinkle like water drops clinging to her skin.

And there was no one else dressed as her.

Honoria glanced up at the second floor where her brother stood in all his glory, dressed as some Greek god. The pale sheen of his blond hair was unmistakable. Two men flanked him.

She took a breath to summon the fortitude to step into the masquerade. Not a single soul would know her identity. Including her brother. All anyone saw was Venus. A smile creased her crimson-colored lips. Never in her life had she worn rouge on her lips, but her disguise emboldened her. Such confidence gave her the courage to find a lover.

A footman dressed as one of Robin Hood’s merry men took her hand and helped her onto the dancefloor. “May I offer something to drink?”

When she shook her head, the footman bowed then left.

As she surveyed the people gaily dancing, the crowd parted, and a man strode directly toward her. He’d been one of the men standing by her brother. The man’s height allowed him to see over the crowd. From afar, he walked with confidence. The closer he came, the more defined his features. His gaze locked with hers. His expression was terrifyingly determined and confident. Yet even with his half mask, it didn’t hide his square jaw and chiseled cheekbones.

He was the one she would pick tonight.

Her heart pounded in her chest as another idea took hold.

What if Pelham had recognized her and sent the man to escort her to him? In that instant, her best-laid plans of hiding behind a costume seemed outrageous.

The stranger’s gaze never left hers as he approached. With his every step, her heart pounded harder and faster. Quickly, she scanned the room for another exit. She would not allow herself to be discovered and face the humiliation of confessing to Pelham.

He’d not understand why she wanted one night of passion and affection before she turned her back on the possibility of marriage. Though Pelham had constantly argued that she was hardly a spinster and highly desirable as a potential marriage candidate for the male paragons of the ton, she wasn’t for them.

Several couples danced across the floor and blocked the veritable giant from continuing his resolute stride to reach her. Honoria took the opportunity and hurried through a door on the left that led out to a passageway. Once out of the ballroom, she took the first left and found a library of sorts. As her heartbeat galloped through her chest, she tucked herself into a darkened corner next to a bookshelf and waited. Old habits never died. She still had the ability to hide in plain sight.

Slowly, she brought her hand to her chest and breathed as quietly as she could, praying her runaway heartbeat would slow down before it burst through her chest.

No footsteps followed her.

She took a deep breath and relaxed her shoulders. Immediately, she inhaled the scent of oranges and spices. The pleasant fragrance was layered with something darker, and she silently gulped another breath.

She leaned her head against the bookshelf and closed her eyes. She could taste the disappointment that quickly replaced her giddy excitement for a pleasure-filled evening of fun. The man would be looking for her all night. Perhaps it was best if she went home and waited for her brother’s arrival. No doubt, he’d summon her to his study tomorrow for a proper lecture.

He’d never chastise Honoria for her actions tonight, but he’d be disappointed in her. That would hurt far worse than any punishment he could inflict.

Why was it that men could enjoy the company of a woman without matrimony, yet a woman couldn’t enjoy a man’s company without being ruined? Honoria glanced out the window at the star-filled sky. It was such a magical night, but now it held no promise of amusement.

Honoria smoothed her hands down the beautiful gown again. Such a waste not to be able to wear it all evening. She hadn’t even had the chance to dance or flirt with a handsome man.

Well, there was nothing to be gained by asking the what-ifs and why-couldn’ts of the evening. Yet, Honoria had stood on the edge of the room and had commanded attention.

Pushing aside her disappointment, Honoria carefully stepped onto the terrace. Once she found the steps that led to the small garden, she carefully gathered up her gown in her hand so she could move freely without fear of falling.

As she lifted her foot to take the first step, a deep masculine voice chuckled. Then a half growl, half whisper surrounded her. “Venus, I was afraid you’d gone back into your shell.”

* * * *

When Venus whipped around, Marcus instinctively grabbed her arm to keep her from falling.

Her other hand flew to her chest, and her eyes widened behind the mask.

“Careful. I apologize for startling you.” Gently, he released her. “I didn’t want you to take a tumble.” He offered his most charming smile. “I hope we could spend some time together this evening.”

“Do I know you?” Venus asked.

The sweet, silken smoothness of her alto voice sent prickles across his skin. “No. Shall we change that?”

“Perhaps.” Her gaze traveled the length of his body then returned to his. “I want…” She shook her head. “Pardon me. I must gather my thoughts. I don’t know how to approach the subject, so I’ll be direct.” A smile creased her lips. “I’d like to spend the night with you. How much does something like that cost? One hundred pounds?”

“You…you want me to pay you a hundred pounds?” Marcus needed a chair before he fell over. Never before had a woman bargained for her favors at such an exorbitant price. But then, he didn’t have much practice in this type of negotiation. He didn’t have a mistress. Too messy. Nor did he seek entertainment at bawdy houses. This woman was attractive, but one hundred pounds?

Her eyes widened in horror. “Oh no. I’ll pay you. But there are no attachments.”

“Meaning?” he asked.

“I’ll not marry you.”

Marriage? Who thought of marriage at a gambling hell masquerade party?

He blinked twice, trying to understand what she was saying. Then it dawned on him that Pelham and Ravenscroft must be behind such a farce. “Did my friends put you up to this?”

Venus frowned. “I assure you this is just between us.” She tilted her nose in the air. “But I won’t proceed until it’s understood that there are no attachments.”

He slowly released a breath. What the deuce was she up to? “You think you’ll be forced into marriage if we spend time together?”

She cocked her head. “Isn’t that normally what happens?”

He chuckled. “At a masquerade?” He chuckled when her brow crinkled adorably. “I suppose if we’re compromised and must marry, one of the priests attending tonight can do the honors.”

He bit his lip to keep from laughing again. This was not the type of marriage he should be concentrating on. But it was only for one night. Where was the harm? He didn’t even have a woman in mind except for perhaps Pelham’s odd older sister. The duke didn’t seem to care that Marcus wanted to talk to Venus.

She laughed, the sound reminding him of the Christmas bells of his youth. “You’re teasing me. The evening grows late.” She almost curtseyed, then caught herself. “If you’ll excuse me?”

“Wait.” He placed his hand on her forearm, stopping her from leaving his side. Was he actually considering her offer? She was unusual in a way he couldn’t explain. Yet, there was something about her that intrigued him. “Before I commit to your request, I want to see how we are together. Have a taste of one another.”

She stood there, not moving an inch. With her mask, it was hard to read her expression.

“Wouldn’t you agree?” He took a step back and waved a hand in invitation for her to join him on the terrace. “Come, Venus.”

Eventually, she took a step closer. Her jasmine scent wafted his way. “You’re certain you don’t know who I am?”

“No. But I would very much like to change that.” He inhaled and held her fragrance for as long as he could. Her floral scent was as unique as she was. She was tall for a woman, extremely so. When he kissed her, he wouldn’t have to bend in half to meet her lips with his. Quickly, Marcus allowed his gaze to take in her form. Venus’s dress hugged every curve of her lithe body. He’d always preferred women who were more well-endowed, but Venus set his pulse pounding.

She studied him as he studied her. After a moment, her brow crinkled. “I’ve never been to a masquerade before.”

“Never fear, Venus. I’ll teach you everything you need to know.” When she bit her plump lower lip, it took every ounce of fortitude not to lean in and kiss her. His voice lowered of its own accord. “We are all inexperienced at one point in time or another.”

Her eyes widened behind her mask. “I—I—”

Damn him to hell. She almost seemed shocked in what he’d said. “I meant as in first-time-to-a-masquerade. My first such party was when I was seventeen and at university.”

“How old are you now?” A hint of challenge tinted her voice.

“Thirty. Is that too old?”

She glanced at the steps of the terrace and shook her head. Slowly she lifted her eyes to his, and a broad smile graced her lips. “It’s ideal. Like a perfectly aged whisky.”

He tilted his head back and laughed. “No one has ever compared me to perfection.”

“I didn’t say that, good sir.” Her lips pursed in a wicked smile. “I believe that no whisky is truly perfection.”

Marcus brought his hand to his heart in a mock show of pain. “You wound me, Venus.”

“You didn’t let me finish,” she said softly. “Remember, whisky continues to change in taste as it ages. Just like humans. Perfectly aged is a personal preference, is it not?”

“Oh, Venus, we shall get along very well, I predict.” He took a step closer. “You are my ideal of desire.”

“How could you know that if you haven’t seen me or spent any time with me?” she challenged.

“I know myself,” he volleyed. “Therefore, I know what I desire.” He slowly reached toward her, then cupped the back of her neck. She inhaled sharply but didn’t pull away. “I desire you.”

At this very moment, he wanted to tear her mask off and take her into a kiss where they both would lose themselves within one another. He definitely wasn’t perfect and never would be. Yet she was interested in him.

“How do we make introductions without revealing who we are?” she asked.

“If you’re not comfortable telling me your real name, I can be Adonis to your Venus.”

She shook her head. “Their story is sad. Venus begged him not to go hunting because she dreamt that he would be killed. He didn’t listen.”

“And died when a wild boar attacked him.” He’d give anything to see her face at this moment. “Why don’t you call me Marcus?”

When she smiled, he felt ten feet tall.

“That’s a beautiful name.” She cupped his cheek just as he’d done to her. “Call me…Noria.”

“Noria,” he whispered, then lowered his lips to hers.

She exclaimed softly when he brushed his mouth against hers. It wasn’t a kiss per se, but a hello of sorts. He pulled back and studied her gaze. The pounding pulse at the base of her neck drew his attention. God, he wanted to kiss her there. Frankly, there wasn’t an inch of her that he didn’t want to taste. He leaned in again and angled his mouth to hers. This time he pressed his lips to hers and stayed there. Slowly, ever so slowly, he took her in his arms and brought her close. Through the thickness of his cloak, the hard shells covering her breasts pressed into his chest.

A whimper escaped her.

“Am I hurting you?” he asked softly and took a step back.

“Don’t you dare pull away,” she exclaimed breathlessly, then clutched his cloak in both hands and brought him closer. “Things are just now getting interesting.”

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