Once Upon a Touch
Forever Wicked (multi-author series)
by Danni Price
Ebook ISBN: 07678-02476
[ New Adult Fantasy Romance, MF ]
Lady Charlotte has one night to select a husband or her father will marry her off to the sadistic Lord Crowley. When she meets the blue-eyed Viscount Sutherland, she thinks her prayers have been answered until she learns the handsome lord isn’t who he says he is. Will Charlotte marry Crowley or take a chance on a lowly painter and love?
“Once upon a time in a faraway land, there was a –”
“Mother.” Charlotte, Lottie to her friends, turned away and rolled her eyes. “I’m not a child anymore.”
“Is that so? Because you’re acting like one.” Her mother, still beautiful well into her fifties, sat down on the bed. Oversized and ostentatious, the bed with its overdone gilding matched the rest of the painfully ornate room. “Your father went to a lot of trouble to arrange tonight’s festivities.”
“Nobody asked him. In fact, I begged him not to.” Lottie stared out the window at the gardens, arms folded across her chest. “I don’t want to be married.”
“You’re the sole heir to the duchy. You must marry, as you are well aware.”
“If I’m the heir, why must I do anything? I don’t need a husband to be a good ruler.” Lottie dropped down onto the bed and reached for her mother’s hand. “Can’t you make him understand?”
Her mother squeezed Lottie’s hand. “No, I can’t, because I agree with him.”
Lottie yanked her hand away. “How could you?”
“Had you shown more interest in court you would know that some very powerful people are whispering that you, a mere woman, aren’t fit to manage your father’s lands. An alliance with a powerful family would silence your critics in more ways than one,” her mother said.
“What if I don’t want to marry any of their spoiled brats?” Lottie jumped up and paced in front of the bed.
“You will attend the party,” her mother ordered in a firm tone. “Every eligible young man in the realm has been invited. If you fail to choose an acceptable husband to father the next heir to the Rockwell Duchy, your father will choose one for you. Do you understand what that means?” Her mother’s voice softened with the question. A small frown marred the older woman’s otherwise stern countenance.
“Crowley.” Lottie shuddered at the sound of the toad’s name.
“He’s the wealthiest and most powerful of your father’s lords.”
“I hate him. He’s cruel.” She hurried back to where her mother now stood. “You can’t let Father do this. You’ve heard what they say about him.”
Her mother rested a hand on Lottie’s cheek and looked straight into her only child’s eyes. “Then choose wisely tonight.”
The door to the bedroom swung open. Lottie’s maid stumbled forward, weighed down by the dresses her mother deemed appropriate for a soon-to-be-engaged lady. The Duchess left the room without another word. The door shut behind her with an ominous click as Lottie stared on, thoughts racing.
“Lottie?” Tabitha dropped the dresses onto a large gilded chair that matched the hideous bed. “We need to get you dressed if you’re to be ready on time.”
“Oh yes. It’s almost time for Father’s party,” she said with a sneer as the anxious maid helped her out of her day dress. “A party full of the same self-centered fools I’ve spent my whole life trying to avoid.”
“Surely they aren’t all that bad?” Tabitha dragged Lottie forward to choose one of the conservatively cut dresses. “Some of the lords are even quite good looking.”
“I’ve known them since forever. It’d be like kissing my brother…if I had one.” Lottie stuck her tongue out at the maid. Different though their stations were, Tabby was a trusted friend.
“I am not.” She stomped one foot. “At the Smythe Ball, I took Lords Cayce, Monteith, and Rutherford into a secluded spot in the gardens.”
“All at once?” Tabby’s face flushed bright pink, but her eyes shone with a definite interest.
Lottie shook her head and smiled. “No, but maybe I should have. Let’s see. Cayce slobbered all over my face. Monteith was a little better at the kissing part, but kept shoving my hands down his trousers. And believe me there was nothing impressive down there.”
Tabby dropped onto the bed and rested her head in her hand. “What about Rutherford?”
“Just what you’d think. The shocking part was that he managed to touch one of my breasts before he ran off.” Lottie shook her head sadly.
“So, the stories are true about him and Lord Hayes?”
“Most likely. But he always dresses so nicely that I thought I’d give him a try.” She pointed to the yellow dress. The shade complimented her honey-colored skin. And with her brown eyes and hair, she had to use every trick to stand out.
“Those are only three men. Your father invited at least ten times that many to tonight’s party. I heard his secretary complaining his hand hurt from writing out so many invitations. Surely one among them will interest you.” Tabby slipped the dress over her mistress’ head.
“I have a plan,” Lottie said with a smile, her first of the day.
Tabby winced. “It wouldn’t happen to be marrying a handsome lord with an even handsomer valet? Would it?”
Lottie schooled her face into a solemn expression and shook her head. “No, sorry.”
Tabby scurried around Lottie, tightening and securing the frilly dress for her friend’s last evening as an unattached lady. When there was nothing more to do, the maid stood back with a resigned expression. “All right, what’s the plan?”
“Lord Sutherland,” Lottie announced with pride.
“Who?” The petite maid wrinkled her nose in confusion.
“Precisely. Lord Sutherland is a visiting dignitary from a rural estate on the very edge of the kingdom.”
“And this is to be desired?”
Lottie walked over to the door of her salon. Since they’d hired the famed artist, Dominic Santos, to paint a mural on the west wall, the room remained locked to deny him or his servant access to the adjoining bedchamber.
“Yes! I plan to corner this countrified lord in the guest house off the east garden and seduce him.”
“What? But milady, your virtue.”
“I’m not going to consummate the relationship with him, just find out if we’re compatible or not.”
“Compatible?” Tabby sent her a suspicious look.
“Oh, all right. I want to see how malleable he is. If I must marry I want to be in control. If he is some hard headed fool who thinks a woman is suitable for nothing more than sitting quietly in a corner and producing babies, I won’t pick him. But if this Sutherland is as awed by wealth as the court gossips suggest, he’s the perfect husband.” Lottie charged into the sitting room and ripped a sheet off of her writing desk.
“Milady?” Tabby nudged her arm and pointed to the far wall. “We’re not alone.”
Lottie spun around but only noticed Santos’ man bent over some buckets. “Who?”
Lottie shook her finger at the servant with the shaggy black hair.
“Him? He’s nobody. Now come on.” She grabbed her favorite yellow fan out of the desk and slammed the drawer shut.
Tabby rushed ahead of her mistress and waited by the door. “But what if he heard us?”
Lottie followed. As she turned to shut the heavy wooden door, the servant, who looked to be no more than a little older than her own nineteen years, glanced up. Face hidden under shaggy, black bangs, he stared back at her. An uncomfortable moment passed before Lottie forced herself to turn away.
“He’s nobody.” She yanked the door shut but made sure to secure the lock.
* * *
Cillian tossed the last of the now clean paintbrushes into an empty pail and wiped his hands off on an old rag. Master Santos would expect him back in the tiny room they shared in a little under an hour, just before the festivities were scheduled to start. The old bastard wanted to check on him before heading off to drink himself into a stupor.
He pushed back his shoulders to ease the ache of his muscles from too many hours bent over his paintbrushes. The mural, the one Santos had been commissioned to paint, spanned the entire north wall of the Lady Charlotte’s salon for her nineteenth birthday and was almost done.
Ah, Lady Charlotte, the daughter of his master’s benefactor. Sometimes she acknowledged his presence with an annoyed huff and the familiar complaint about ‘that creature’ always being in her salon, but mostly she just ignored him. Beautiful as she was, he pitied her future husband. The girl was nothing more than a spoiled brat.
With the thought of her still lingering in his mind, he closed his eyes. Just a moment’s rest, he promised himself.
The door to Lady Charlotte’s door opened with a creak. He drew in a steadying breath as he turned around.
“I’ll be out of your way in a moment, my lady.” When he opened his eyes, his mouth fell open. She stood before him dressed only in a pair of bright red slippers and a heavy gold and ruby necklace. His gaze roamed over her body past her pert breasts, the perfect handful with their tight strawberry-colored nipples down to the dark thatch of hair that covered the juncture between her legs. His body roared to life.
“Come here.” She pointed in front of herself.
He glanced at the door, but obeyed. Someone would surely walk in on them. If nothing else, Lady Charlotte’s maid seemed a constant shadow.
“I want you.” She curled an arm around his neck and tugged him close for a wet kiss. Her stiff nipples pressed into his chest through the thin fabric of his button-down shirt. He reached for her breast, but she slipped out of his reach and shoved him hard. He landed with a thud on a small settee.
“You will do as I say.” Her chin tilted up in that same arrogant gesture he was so familiar with. What Lady Charlotte wanted, Lady Charlotte got. Who was he to pretend anything differently?
“Anything.” He reached for, but she stayed out of reach.
“Take off your pants.” She smiled and licked her bottom lip with the tip of her tongue as he obeyed her command. “Very nice.”
If possible his cock grew even harder as she knelt between his legs. Her pointed tongue poked out between her full lips still slick from his kisses. Their eyes locked as she drew her clever tongue along the length of his cock until she reached the tip. She drew the head into her mouth.
He fought to keep his hands at his side while she slid up and down his cock at a slow and deliberate pace. Then she hollowed her cheeks and added a little more suction, and his hips jerked forward. She took all of him with ease.
His eyes rolled back in his head as he lost himself in the feeling of her hot mouth on him. He forced his hand into her thick brown hair and urged her into a quicker pace. His cock swelled in response.
“I’m going to cum,” he warned her but she didn’t pull away. Her head bobbed faster as she milked him.
A knock jarred him out of the moment and his eyes flew open. The room stood empty save for Cillian and his still hard cock. It had all only been the dream of a weary man celibate for too long.
Martin, a long-time servant, pushed the door open and poked his head into the room. “Hello?”
“Do you have it?” Cillian stood up, grateful for the loose shirt that hid the consequence of his dream, and eyed the neatly dressed man.
“Are we alone?”
With a nod, Cillian pulled Martin into the room and shut the door. “Did you have any trouble?”
Martin pulled out a package from under his arm. His wide mouth spread into a cocky grin. “Not at all. I got everything you asked for, even a pair of shoes.”
The shoes looked a little small, but the suit made with expensive fabric looked perfect. “Won’t he notice these things missing?”
“Sutherland? No, not him. He’s a regular peacock. I swear he brought clothes enough for five men. This was the plainest outfit in his chests.” Martin nodded in agreement with himself.
“Thank you. Are you sure you won’t take any money?”
“No, I just want what we discussed.”
Cillian glanced at his mural, a countryside filled with lords and ladies celebrating whatever the things were that the privileged perpetually celebrated. In a far corner, a tiny replica of Martin sat under a tree beside a buxom redhead. “I gave you a companion. She’s an opera singer that a wealthy merchant paid Santos to paint.”
“That’s nice. You did a good job.” Martin leaned forward and squinted at his likeness.
Cillian studied the man. In his late thirties and only now starting to show strain from a life spent working long days and nights, Martin grinned and looked ten years younger. Cillian smiled back.
“If you don’t mind my asking, why this?”
The man grinned even wider. “Years from now we’ll all be dead. And you and I, we’re no lords. We’re not even important people in our own households. But someday someone will look at this painting and take notice of my little bit of it. And they’ll wonder who that handsome devil was.” His expression went serious for a moment. “And for a little while I’ll be thought of and it won’t be as someone’s man. No, I’ll be a lord with a beautiful lady at my side. And that, my dear boy, is worth more to me than a few coins.”
The two men stared at each other in understanding. With an outstretched hand, Martin warned him, “Wait as long as you can to leave and stick to the outskirts of the garden. The drunker they are, the better it is for you.”
They shook hands and Martin slipped out the door. A few minutes later Cillian followed.
* * *
Cillian rested his hand on the middle of the rough wooden door that led from the servants’ quarters to the east garden. Without the picturesque view of the woods the other sections of the castle grounds boasted, the east garden should be less crowded. Only the faintest strains of the famed royal orchestra made its way through the oak door.
It opened with a creak of protest. The moon hung brightly in the inky night sky, but its light paled in comparison to the lanterns and bonfires that dotted the manicured grounds. With his feet already aching from his borrowed, too-small shoes, he peered into the distance at the many ships whose dark outlines filled the docks on the opposite side of the river. All he needed was make it to the docks where he’d stashed a small rowboat to cross the river. Then he’d be free at long last.
With every step his hopes soared. A few yards shy of the river’s edge he stopped. A grouping of guards milled in front of the largest dock, where he’d hid his boat earlier that day. Without a distraction to clear the way, his plan would fail. He turned to scan the crowds. A burly guard with heavy jowls slammed a meaty fist down onto Cillian’s shoulder.
“There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you!” The heavyset man grinned at his partner, a thinner but much more dangerous looking figure. Shrewd eyes stared out of the smaller man’s face.
Cillian stared at the two men in shocked silence.
“Cecil, take your fool hands off the fancy lord or the mistress will have your head.” The thin man stepped forward and waved a hand in the direction of the castle that served as the Duke’s primary residence. “After you, milord.”
Cillian shot a glance to the docks but the guards remained, blocking his hope of escape. With a resigned nod, Cillian followed Cecil while the unnamed brute trailed behind them. They passed a large bonfire and several drunken noblemen but his little group didn’t stop until they reached the guest house on the opposite side of the garden.
Cecil pulled open the door with a goofy grin. Cillian moved through the glass doors and stopped dead in his tracks. Lady Charlotte sat on a settee. One dainty foot poked out from under her bright yellow dress and moved up and down at a fast clip.
His heart skipped a beat as he waited for her to recognize him, to call him out, and throw him in jail. The spoiled noble studied him from her seated position for a long minute before standing up.
The skinny guard moved to stand beside him. “Yes, milady.”
Jenkins nodded at her command and placed a hand on Cillian’s back. With a strength the scrawny guard shouldn’t possess, he shoved him hard into the room and slammed the door shut on his way out.
Cillian stumbled forward but caught himself before he fell. Eyes lowered, he prayed for a miracle.