Exclusive chapter excerpt from THE BACHELOR BARGAIN by Maddison Michaels, for Fresh Fiction.
Being hauled over the back of Sebastian’s shoulder like a sack of coal, with her derrière resting high near his head, was not how she imagined the evening ending. In fact, some would think it rather mortifying, even though Livie found it a tad thrilling.
She’d never been carried by any man before, well, at least not since she’d been a child. Though it was slightly uncomfortable being jostled on his shoulder while he stalked down the street, presumably to where her carriage was waiting.
Hearing some horses in the distance, Livie knew her assumption was correct. Just as quickly as he’d scooped her up, he swung her down, careful to keep one hand of his on her waist as she steadied herself while he placed her cane in her other hand.
Her breath caught in her throat from the touch of his hand against her own; even through her gloves she could feel the heat radiating from his skin. His hand was so large and work-worn, so very different from the manicured and soft hands of the gentlemen she knew. It was a hand capable of untold violence, she was certain, but perhaps, based on the way he held hers, tenderness, too.
Livie peered up into his face and instantly felt every single part of her body tingle. His eyes were fixed firmly upon her own, with an almost ferocious hunger in his gaze.
No man had ever looked at her like that before. No man had ever dared touch her waist before, either.
“Everything all right, my lady?” Gregson, her carriage driver, interrupted, as he stuck his head out from the driver’s compartment, concern etched in the lines around his eyes before he noticed Sebastian standing in front of her. “I have a shotgun with me and I’m not afraid to use it!” Gregson couldn’t quite hide the tremble in his voice as he tried to stare down Sebastian.
“It’s fine, Gregson,” Livie implored. “This man is a business associate of my brother’s, and he’s just assisted me out of a perilous situation.”
“And I shall be joining her to ensure she gets home safely,” Sebastian added as he pulled open the carriage door.
“I knew I never should’a brought you here,” Gregson grumbled, still looking suspiciously over at Seb. “Nasty neighborhood this is. The King of the Rookeries runs it, he does. Devil’s spawn I’m told he is.”
“Everything is fine, I assure you, Gregson,” Livie managed to utter before she was bundled into the carriage by Sebastian. “Please just take us home.”
“Very well, my lady.” Gregson’s voice was muffled through the wood as Livie adjusted herself on the cushioned seat, while Sebastian followed her in and swiftly closed the door.
“I’m sorry about what he said.” She stared at Sebastian as the carriage pulled away and glided down the street, the pace increasing quickly. It seemed Gregson was keener to leave the area than even she was. “He didn’t realize who you were, obviously…”
“I’ve heard a lot worse, Lady Olivia,” Sebastian replied, staring steadily through the window and watching the streets they passed. “Think nothing of it.”
“It’s probably just as well he didn’t know your true identity, for I think you already scared him,” she said, belatedly noticing how much space he took up in the carriage with the breadth of his shoulders and his muscular legs. The man was like a Viking dressed in a tailored black suit. She rather liked it. “And, after what we’ve just been through together, please do call me Livie and I shall call you Sebastian.” She already did in her head, so it would be easier to do so when she spoke to him, too.
“Very well, Livie,” he said, her name rolling off his tongue like butter, smooth and velvety. All she wanted to do was lap it up.
Perhaps it hadn’t been one of her best ideas. Hearing her name from his lips was far more intimate than she thought possible.
“Tell me this, though,” Sebastian continued, leaning forward, his head lowering close to her ear. “I scare most people. Why don’t I scare you, Livie?”
His breath was a rough whisper against her skin. She softly gasped as desire, sharp and swift, unlike anything she’d ever felt, filled her. Pulling her head back, her eyes flicked up into the vivid gray of his, and her heart began to gallop at the intensity staring back at her. “How do you know you don’t scare me?”
“Because I can sense fear in others, but in you I do not.” He raised his hand slowly up to her face before gently brushing the pads of his fingers over her cheek, caressing the smoothness of her skin with the roughness of his. “In fact, what I sense in you is…excitement.”
It was all Livie could do not to melt into his hand. His touch was like lightning, sending a searing heat of awareness to the core of her being. She was in unknown territory with the feelings he was eliciting in her, feelings she’d never experienced before.
“Should we not discuss the events of what just occurred?” she blurted out, not wanting to discuss any of the odd feelings the man was conjuring within her. When he dropped his hand, she was glad of it, and perhaps even a little disappointed. Though the way her emotions were all currently jumbled, it was hard to tell the difference.
“Yes, I suppose we should,” Sebastian said as he sat back on the seat, his eyes settling upon her intently. “Tell me, then, how did you come to be in the alley? You mentioned something about it being at my request, which, I assure you, was not the case.”
Livie told him of the note apparently authored by him that she’d received while at the McAuley ball. She pulled it from her cloak pocket and handed it to him.
His eyes scanned the parchment. “It’s not my writing or my signature.”
“How was I to know that?” Livie replied. “If you had replied to my previous letters, I should have known it was not from you in an instant.”
He merely raised a brow.
She lifted her chin and smiled somewhat sarcastically at him. “Now your turn. Why were you there? You mentioned something about me having a party and not inviting you?”
He nodded. “I received word that you were meeting an informant in the alley. As I knew it to be a dangerous area, I decided to attend to protect you.”
“That’s very gallant of you.” For some reason, Livie was thrilled with the thought.
“I assure you it wasn’t,” he stated, his voice gravelly. “I went because you’re my sister’s ticket to the Dragon Duchess. I had to protect my soon-to-be investment. Especially when she makes such hairbrained decisions.”
Obviously that was why he’d attended. She should have reasoned that before conjuring some image of him being noble and heroic. To him, she was nothing more than Charlotte’s entrée into Society. “It wasn’t a harebrained decision. Getting your note seemed like a godsend after spending a fruitless day searching for you,” she said.
“You were searching for me?”
“Then you have gotten your godmother to agree already?”
The man was quick, she would give him that, and she got the impression, vague though it was, he was somewhat surprised she’d been able to get the duchess’s agreement so swiftly. “Indeed, I did,” she took great pleasure in telling him. “I am to bring Charlotte to her house at midday next Monday to meet with her.”
“That was fast.” He didn’t sound too thrilled with the news as he ran a hand through his hair, ruffling it somewhat.
For a mad moment, Livie wondered what it would feel like to run her fingers through his hair. Brush the locks away from his head and caress each strand through her fingers…perhaps trailing some kisses along his jaw as she did so. A delicious heat spread through her stomach even just thinking about it. Goodness, she was getting carried away and had to get her mind back on track.
“I haven’t even told Charlotte yet,” he continued, glancing distractedly out the window.
“Why does that not surprise me?” Livie sighed. “In any event, as I’ve filled my end of the bargain, you’re still going to honor your agreement, aren’t you?”
“I told you, I always fulfill a promise. I will sign the contract and fund your gazette.”
“Good. I need the funds you’ve promised, and urgently, too.”
Livie chafed a bit at the command, but she succinctly told him of Mr. Mooney and his threat regarding the rent. “Clearly, now you can see why I went against all good sense to meet you. The gazette is on the brink of disaster before it has even begun. It’s imperative I get the funds. Though, in my defense, I thought I’d be perfectly safe with you there, so I saw no real issue in attending.”
She saw the surprise that flashed in his eyes for a brief moment.
“You thought you’d be safe with me? Even knowing all you do of me?”
“Yes.” And perhaps some would question her sanity for doing so, but she knew down to her bones that Sebastian Colver would never physically harm her, even if he was prepared to kill, as she’d seen for herself earlier. But he had his own code, which she knew included never hurting a female.
“Well, you were wrong, weren’t you?” A cold, hardness slammed across his expression. “In the end, you weren’t safe with me; you were shot at multiple times because of it. Nearly collateral damage in a rival gang’s vendetta against me.”
“Who’d dare have a vendetta against you?”
He briefly told her of the Lads of Leybrook Lane. “The snake tattoo on the man’s neck identified him as part of that gang.”
“Do all gang members have tattoos?”
“Yes. And each gang has a different design.”
“Do you have one?” The question popped from her lips before she could think better of it.
His scar twisted slightly in what appeared to be amusement. “I have a dragon on my chest.”
Images of his chest suddenly flashed in her mind, and her eyes were drawn of their own accord to that part of his body. Covered in the layers of silk and cotton that made up his shirt and jacket, the refined clothes couldn’t hide the breadth of his chest and muscles underneath.
“Do you wish to see it?” His voice dropped an octave as his hand went up to the collar of his shirt.
“No!” she blurted, dragging her gaze away from his chest to his eyes. “That would be highly inappropriate.” Even if she did want to. Suddenly, she felt the need for some fresh air; the very thought of him unbuttoning his shirt and exposing his chest to her making her feel decidedly hot and flustered.
He laughed. “Well, if you ever change your mind, Livie, you need only ask.”
“I won’t,” she was quick to respond, noting the mirth twinkling in his eyes. He was enjoying teasing her, and the way her name rolled off his tongue, so intimate and familiar, was setting her heart aflutter.
Good gracious, get ahold of yourself.
Straightening in her seat, Livie took in a calming breath. “I assume you will be taking action against those responsible for the ambush?” She didn’t actually want to know what sort of action Sebastian would deem appropriate against a group that had quite literally tried to kill them, but she had to get him talking of something else besides partially unrobing.
“Yes. They will regret trying to do so, I assure you,” he replied, his eyes tightening at the corners as the amusement fled. “And once I find out who their leader is, he will rue the day he decided to come after me.”
His eyes showed an unrelenting promise in them, and Livie knew he meant what he said. “You don’t know who he is?”
“Not yet, but I will.” He shifted slightly in his seat, readjusting his legs, and Livie got the distinct impression he didn’t like not knowing that piece of information. But then a thought occurred to her. “Why would a rival gang send me a note pretending to be from you? What purpose would it have served them, having me attend? And how did they even know about me?”
“I don’t know. But I will find out, and trust me, I will make whoever is responsible pay for embroiling you in all of this.”
“I can get some of my own informants to make inquiries about this leader’s identity,” Livie added, even if they were technically Kat’s informants. But Kat wouldn’t mind, having given her access to her butler Fenton and the network of informants he coordinated.
“Aren’t your informants too busy trying to dig up the dirt on all the bachelors in Society to assist?”
“Indeed, they are, but the network is vast, and one more avenue of inquiry shall not be a problem,” Livie assured him. “Besides, I now have a vested interest in keeping you alive, for we are to be silent business partners. Which reminds me, I really do need to obtain those funds from you to give to Mr. Mooney, as much as it pains me to pay him his extortion.”
Livie felt like bolting out of her chair and shaking the man. “What do you mean, no?”
“I mean that Mr. Mooney will be getting none of my money. He’s a spineless coward, preying upon women, and you will not be giving him a penny of my blunt.”
Livie was nearly speechless. “But you cannot be serious. We’ll lose our equipment if we don’t pay him.” Some of the equipment had been shipped from France and would not be easy to quickly replace.
“I’m completely serious.” Sebastian crossed his hands over his chest.
“Then you are reneging on our agreement?” A horrid sense of betrayal settled in her stomach.
“I’m doing no such thing.”
“Then do explain yourself, Mr. Colver, as my patience is wearing thin!”
His lips twitched, and Livie got the distinct impression he was amused with her.
“It’s back to Mr. Colver, is it?” he murmured, leaning toward her. “But I rather liked you calling me Sebastian.”
There was such a wicked promise in his words that she felt her breath catch. But then she remembered how annoyed she was with him, so she crossed her arms over her chest and stared him down. “Well? I’m waiting for an explanation.”
He actually laughed. “You do have pluck, don’t you, my lady. To put your mind at ease, I’m not backing out of our agreement, but I will not have you extorted, either. I will send my men to pay Mr. Mooney a visit this morning, and they will ensure he is made well aware that you and your business are now under my protection. Then they shall relocate all of your equipment to one of my vacant warehouses, which can serve as your base of operations for the gazette. You shall never have to deal with the likes of Mr. Mooney again.”
Livie didn’t quite know how to respond. The idea of not having to deal with Mr. Mooney and his unscrupulous demands was a relief, but at least with him she knew money would placate him. Whereas she doubted Sebastian Colver would be placated by anything unless he chose to be. And if he controlled their rental space, what was to stop him from becoming more involved in the gazette if he so chose?
“I have no intention of interfering in your publication,” he drawled.
She blinked. “Were my thoughts that obvious?”
He winked at her. “Written all over your face, my dear.”
“You’re not the first to tell me so.” Demelza was right, she really did need to work on that flaw. “But forgive me if I’m slightly dubious of your assurance you won’t interfere, when you yourself the other day confirmed you liked to play an active role in your investments. Have you not heard the phrase Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes? Beware—”
“Of Greeks bringing gifts… Yes, I’m aware of the phrase.”
“You speak Latin?” The man couldn’t have surprised her more.
“My mother was a governess. Well, at least she was before she was thrown out into the streets, pregnant with me.” He shrugged. “She taught me what she could in between working fourteen hours a day at the cotton factory, and then darning socks and garments into the wee hours of the morning, all in an effort to keep us from starving.”
Without thinking of the consequences, she reached out her gloved hand and placed it on top of his. “I’m so sorry that happened to her. To both of you…”
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” he replied, making no move to remove her hand from his. “I had a different start in life than you. Clearly.” He laughed slightly. “But rest assured, you have nothing to fear, as I am not Greek.”
They continued to stare at each other, and Livie could feel the heat radiating from his hand into her own. Quickly, she snatched her hand back and cleared her throat. Goodness, the carriage compartment suddenly felt stifling. She glanced out the window until she got her bearings— they were probably only five minutes to her residence. Thankfully. She didn’t know how much longer she could take being in such close confines with the man. He was playing havoc with her senses.
“Where is this warehouse, then?” She would have to let Etta and their printer know of the change in plans. “And how much is the rent on the property?”
“’Tis only a few blocks from my offices, hence safely within my territory, so there will be no unwarranted attention or trouble for you. And I shall lease it to you at half the rate Mr. Mooney was charging, yet it will be double the space.”
“Half the rate?” She narrowed her eyes at him as thoughts of what he was up to engulfed her. “And what is expected of me, to obtain half the rate?”
“I never should have made the suggestion of you providing me with some female companionship, should I?” He grinned. “I doubt you will ever forget it.”
Livie pursed her lips at him. “It is the first, and I imagine last, proposition of its kind I shall receive. So yes, I will never forget it.”
“Well, you can relax, my lady. I will charge you half, as to charge you full would be cutting into my own profits in the endeavor, which makes little sense.” Leaning across the small space, Sebastian took her hand in his and gently began to caress the top of her glove with his thumb. “You must trust me, at least a little, if we are to be successful partners in this endeavor.”
She licked her suddenly dry lips. “So you will sign the contract then?”
With his free hand, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a folded-up piece of paper. “I already have.”
It appeared to be the contract she’d left him the other day. “The contract for the gazette? And you’re carrying it around with you?”
“What can I say?” He shrugged one shoulder. “You’re very persuasive and my money was on you getting the Dragon Duchess’s agreement, though I did think it might take another day or two. Nevertheless, I brought it along with me, just in case. Nice to see my instincts are still guiding me well.”
He held it out to her, but as she went to take it, he pulled it back.
“I do have one last stipulation though,” he murmured, his thumb continuing to stroke along the top of her glove, sending jolts of energy through her arm.
She knew she should stop him from touching her. It was highly scandalous, but it also felt so good, she simply didn’t want him to stop. “What is this last condition then?”
“That we seal the deal with a kiss.”
Copyright M. Fitzsimmons 2021
Secrets, Scandals, and Spies #1
Bachelors, beware. For those who keep secrets and prey on the innocent, you will be exposed, with all your dirty little secrets laid bare to one and all. You have been warned…
Lady Olivia Haliford has had enough. Tired of seeing women lose their reputations, futures, and sometimes even their lives to scandal while the men walk free, she is ready to take back power and stand up for women everywhere. Along with her two closest friends, she plans to start an anonymous publication dedicated to dishing the dirt and exposing the secrets of society’s most eligible bachelors. But in order to do so, she will have to make a deal with the devil…
Sebastian Colver, known as the Bastard of Baker Street, is feared throughout London as the city’s most notorious gambling den owner and undisputed king of the underground. His life is nothing but darkness and danger, so he is shocked when the petite lady gracing his doorstep seems anything but frightened of him. He agrees to be a silent partner in the publishing of the Gazette if she will use her connections to sponsor his sister and launch her into Society and away from his dark world.
But exposing the secrets of the rich and powerful can be dangerous. Almost as dangerous as a lady falling in love with the king of the underground.
Romance Historical [Entangled: Amara, On Sale: May 17, 2021, e-Book, ISBN: 9781682814796 / eISBN: 9781682814796]
About Maddison Michaels
Indoctrinated into a world of dashing rogues and feisty heroines when she was a teenager, Maddison Michaels is a bestselling, award-winning Australian romance author, who loves to write sexy history with a dash of mystery! Her debut novel, THE DEVILISH DUKE, won the 2019 RWA Australia Historical Romance Book of the year.
Maddison’s historical novels are her way of time traveling back to Victorian London to experience a cornucopia of intrigue, romance, and debauchery all from the comfort of her living room! She lives in Sydney, Australia with her own very handsome hero, beautiful daughter, and two fur babies! Oh and always starts her day with a cup of liquid gold… coffee (just quietly, she’s addicted to the stuff)!