With This Kiss Online - Victoria Lynne

PROLOGUE

London, 1855

London slept.

A curtain of darkness blanketed the city. The gaslights that lined the grand boulevards had flickered off, as all respectable folk had long since abandoned their evening pursuits for the safety and comfort of their beds. Silence echoed from within the shops, pubs, and alehouses. The cab drivers, costermongers, coal porters, and crossing sweepers had retired. Even the thieves and prostitutes that normally filled the narrow alleys and darkened doorways had returned to their homes, content with whatever meager profit they had gained from their night’s work.

And so it was that Morgan St. James, Viscount Barlowe, made his way alone through the deserted streets. He had dismissed his driver hours earlier, sending Markum home rather than expecting him to wait while he conducted what had evolved into a series of lengthy business meetings, followed by an equally long evening at Black’s, his private club. Prowling the dark streets of London on foot was admittedly a peculiar pleasure but one Morgan had indulged in for nearly a decade. Besides, Markum’s wife had only recently given birth to a baby boy — the couple’s fifth child in as many years. Although his driver had taken pains to hide it, he had clearly been anxious to return to his family and had been effusively grateful when Morgan had sent him home.

The night sky was clear and cloudless. Although the moon was not full, it provided ample light. But as Morgan made his way from Regent Street onto Oxford, an early morning fog began to creep in. It was not a timid fog, the kind that curled softly around corners and seeped between passageways, but a bold, assertive fog that rolled over the city, wrapping everything it touched in a shimmering, shifting blanket of glistening silver.

As the swirling mist increasingly obstructed his vision, his other senses grew sharper. The odors that surrounded him seemed more pungent: the sharp tang of fried eel, the rank stench of manure, and the sweet spice that drifted from the darkened tobacco stand. He was pleasantly aware of the cool dampness of the fog against his skin. The echo of his boots striking pavement seemed unnaturally loud, as did the snorting protests of the tired nags that pulled the milk carts as they were hitched for duty. Even the low calls of the stevedores and sailors, furiously loading cargo in hopes of catching the morning tide, seemed to come from a point just over his shoulder rather than the distant docks.

Morgan reached Bond Street and glanced east. Sometimes, if his timing was just right, he was rewarded with a view of the early morning sun gilding the cross upon the summit of St. Paul’s. But not that morning. He was too early and the fog was too thick. He walked on, his long strides carrying him swiftly to Mayfair.

His home did not sit in the fashionable West End. Unmoved by the splendor of Park Lane — an area where the real estate had become so prime the stately homes were packed shoulder to shoulder like workers on an evening trolley — he had purchased instead a five-acre tract of land east of Grosvenor Square. There he had constructed a town house that rivaled any in London, complete with private stables, manicured gardens, indoor plumbing, and a formal ballroom. Rather than razing the original estate that stood on the grounds, he had converted the modest structure into separate living quarters for his servants.

He reached his home and stopped. His gaze moved automatically toward the window of his bedchamber. A single candle flickered softly against the glass pane, as though bidding him welcome. Inside, Isabelle Cartwright lay waiting for him in his bed. A familiar scene, but one of which he doubted he would ever grow weary. He took a moment to picture her: dark hair cascading over his pillow, full lips slightly parted in sleep, lush body completely bare save for the soft linen of his sheets.

In two weeks’ time she would be his wife.

Morgan stood in the predawn silence, contemplating his future. He was thirty years old and anticipating his upcoming nuptials with a sense of smug contentment that was as absurd as it was embarrassing. Theirs was not a love match; neither of them was foolish enough to expect that. Isabelle was undeniably beautiful, gracious, cultured — perhaps a bit pampered and spoiled, but the ideal wife nonetheless. He certainly had his own faults — far too many to list.

Still, they would do well together. They both