Excerpt from Priceless Deception
by Jennifer Ann Coffeen

The garden was cool, lush and quiet, a welcome respite after the heat and noise from inside. Madeline took a deep breath of the fresh air, free of perfumes and spiced foods, and let her thoughts pour over her like a waterfall.

Had she lost her mind? She clearly saw herself, standing alone in the damp grass, foolishly unchaperoned, and waiting to meet an unknown man. Madeline always felt she had a firm grasp on her sanity, but doubt was creeping in.

She closed her eyes. The hideous nightmare had returned last night, leaving her shaking with terror in the early dawn. It was always the same, her father's hollow eyes seeking forgiveness, the seductive glimmer of the beautiful diamond. Perhaps Lord Rockford could help, he certainly knew her mother well and his strange reaction to her mother's death still rang in her mind.

But she took a terrible risk meeting him here. Scarcely in London a fortnight, Madeline knew well the consequences of being discovered: disgrace and humiliation, not to mention the wrath of Aunt Cecilia, she thought with a shudder. Her fearsome lectures on a ruined reputation were enough to keep any lady from running off into the garden. Yet she stayed, shivering in the chilly breeze, as much from apprehension as the cold.

Was this a mistake? She pictured Lord Rockford's eyes when he first greeted her, a cold commanding blue that held a desperate passion, something she didn't understand. But where else could she turn? Her hopes of gaining entrance into Lord Douglas's cellar had been fruitless; he was nowhere to be found, leaving Madeline no closer to finding the French Blue diamond than when she arrived. The firm weight of her vow to her father pressed heavily on her chest.

"Lady Madeline Sinclair." The deep voice bolted straight out of the darkness, making her jump. "Or should I refer to you as the innocent young lady I assaulted for no reason?"

She recognized Lord Douglas's voice the moment he spoke, unable to banish the dangerously seductive tone from her mind, but her heart leaped all the same. She searched the garden's muted corners before spotting him in the darkness, walking towards her.

"It took no small amount of effort to find you, Madeline." He was obviously quite proud of himself for uncovering her name. "My mistake," he continued, setting a half filled bottle down at her feet, "was looking for a girl in grey serge when, plainly, that is not your normal attire." He finished with a long heat filled gaze up the length of her gown, pausing briefly on the nonexistent neckline before ending on her red cheeks. "The color suits you."

If her encounter with the Duke of Douglas had not been seared into her mind like a tattooed gypsy, Madeline might not have recognized him at all. A different man than the one she'd met a week before. Tall and handsome in his full dress clothes, he still retained a slightly dangerous, disheveled look that reminded her of their last encounter. His perfectly starched white cravat hung loosely around his neck, the black jacket and waistcoat simple, yet with an impeccable cut, one Mr. Banbury would certainly approve of, she thought wildly. Gone was any hint of the vulnerability she had seen on his face when he was sleeping, oblivious of her presence. A politely controlled mask of confidence had taken its place, and Madeline found herself more nervous than before. "How's your shoulder?" she blurted out, desperate to take the attention off her dress, and it couldn't hurt to give him a little reminder, she thought wickedly, of who came out the winner in the last fight.

"Much improved," he replied, lifting the arm slightly as though to check. "Thanks to your remedy."

"My what?" She was having trouble concentrating.

"Garlic and vinegar," he reminded her. "Halbert was convinced you were trying to poison us with the smell."

She smiled, unable to help herself. "It is rather awful, but my intentions were pure."

"That's what I told him," Colin said. "I couldn't imagine such a beauty could be deceitful."

She looked away, suddenly uncomfortable under the intense gaze.

"I promise not to hit you again," she replied, forcing a light tone. "If you promise not to throw me to the ground and--"

"And?" One eyebrow shot up.

"Provoke me."

He laughed then, a full rich sound that seemed to drop the tension from his face. More recognizable now, Madeline felt her shoulders relax.

"I am sorry," she added. "My behavior that day was unforgivable. I do hope we can start over as friends Lord Douglas."

She held out her hand, the small warning bell in her head quickly silenced.

"It would be my pleasure." He took the offered fingers, bending slightly to press them against his lips. Not a trace of improperness, but a sigh caught in her throat all the same and she held it there, no longer breathing.

In the back of her mind she knew this was not a good idea. She knew perfectly well she should invent some excuse, run straight back into the ballroom and discuss Lady Farris's flowers. She didn't move.

"And since we are already intimately acquainted, I must insist you call me Colin."

"Colin," she said, finally exhaling so the name rushed out in a breathless tone. She wildly though of something else to say, but never managed a word.

Colin pulled her to him, the kiss as much of a surprise as her own response to it. Madeline's body instantly betrayed her, melting against the strong arms that held her until she had lost all sense of her earlier outrage. The world fell away, leaving nothing behind but Colin's searing lips blistering her own, and the faint smell of lilacs. She gave into the kiss, responding with equal passion, relishing the low growl of approval from Colin's throat. He shifted against her, sliding his hands down her hips then lifting her from behind until she was pressed against him, more erotically than she ever thought possible. The feeling was overwhelming, jolts of pleasure made their way through her limbs as Madeline clung to him. He broke free of her mouth, dropping his lips to her neck, circling the white skin until he stumbled onto a most sensitive spot directly below her left ear. A giggling shriek followed the discovery and Madeline was swept away, all sense of fear vanishing in the newfound feelings.