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The Royal Conquest

Scandalous House of Calydon Series

His dark seduction will be her undoing…

Miss Payton Peppiwell has had enough of lords and the scrutiny of high society.

After the ton‘s fickleness leads to her being jilted and the resulting disdain, Payton vows to marry someone as ordinary as she. Fate delivers in the form of a scandalous encounter with Mikhail Konstantinovich, an intriguing—and untitled—horse breeder.

Mikhail abhors anything to do with intimacy. Yet Miss Peppiwell stirs hunger and a need long forgotten in him. But he has a dark past—one that means his lust must be sated in a way entirely unsuitable for a lady. His biggest secret may be hardest for Payton to forgive: Mikhail is not only titled, he’s a prince…

Chapter One

October, 1883
England, Norfolk, Sherring Cross

The thief smelled exotically alluring—sweet, feminine, an elusive whisper of spiced wine and strawberries. Very much at odds with the tightly fitted trousers, billowing white shirt, and cap the person wore. The shadows shifted in the prodigious Calydon stables, and the interloper slinked forward, moving with the elegance of a sensual feline.

A woman. Without any doubt. Only an imbecile would ever imagine those delightful curves belonged to a young man, despite the mode of dress. She strode forward, the strong breeze lifting her shirt, baring to his eyes the delectable curve of her mouth-watering rump. The shadows dipped, and she disappeared with the darkness. Why was she creeping about around the stables in the dead of night? A maid meeting her lover for a tryst? With her clandestine approach, it was more likely for her to be doing something underhanded. Who would be so bold as to sneak into the Duke of Calydon’s property to steal one of his prized stallions?

Mikhail moved with the silent grace of a predator, using his sharpened senses, honed from being a grand general in the Russian Army, to track the woman, not even a whisper of sound betraying his movements. Shrouding himself in the pockets of darkness, he wove through the stalls, listening to the soft footfall of the intruder.

There was a rustle of sound, a sharp inhalation of what could be appreciation…or desire.

“You beautiful, magnificent beast. I want to ride you so desperately,” a low husky voice crooned. “I want to feel your power and strength between my thighs. Will you allow me to mount you?”

Sweet merciful Christ.

Mikhail’s body reacted with painful immediacy to the woman’s words. The softly purring voice stoked his intrigue. Suddenly, irrationally, he wanted to be the one to be ridden, hard and desperately by this faceless female. Absurd to be sure, for he was not a man to be led around by his cock…ever. He had always selected his lovers with utter discretion and only succumbed to pleasures of the flesh after conversing at length with a potential bedmate. Not to mention conducting a thorough investigation into her background. He assuredly did not jump into meaningless encounters, no matter how tempting. He had more control over his desires than that, especially after his days of torment under Madam Anya. Yet with innocent words, this unknown woman had his mouth drying and lust rising hot and thick inside him.

“Will you allow me to ride you? Please allow me… I need to feel you underneath me,” she purred.

A sharp neigh sounded, and a throaty laugh spilled into the air. “It seems as if we are in agreement.” Her murmur was filled with awe and triumph.

Moonlight sliced through the darkness of the vast stables, and he was able to make out her form as she stopped at his horse Sage’s stall. She moved with liquid grace as she eased closer to the massive black horse. Stallions were considered unsuitable mounts for young ladies, yet she seemed determined to ride Sage. Mikhail wondered if he should speak, but he dismissed the idea. He was too enthralled by the unconventionality playing before him. She roused his interest, a curious change from the bitter desolateness and icy disdain that had shrouded his heart for years.

Who is she?

A thief? If so, she picked the wrong night to pilfer from the Calydon stables. She opened the latch to the stall, all the while crooning sweet nonsense. Sage seemed to lap it up, because Mikhail’s damn temperamental stallion allowed her closer, nickering his welcome, nudging her shoulders playfully. With an efficiency and strength that was surprising, she saddled Sage and fitted his reins.

Definitely not a novice.

Using the mounting block, she seated herself atop the horse with supreme confidence, no hesitation or fear displayed at the sheer size of the beast beneath her. She sighed, stretched, and then pouting lips, the only visible part of her face, curved into an irresistibly alluring smile.

An intense jolt of lust hardened Mikhail’s length with such swiftness that for a heartbeat he felt light-headed. What the hell is this? Must be the vodka he had drunk earlier. It was the only explanation for his lack of restraint over his desires. His heart pounded, and he breathed evenly, controlling his body’s startling reaction to such raw sensuality.

Thunder rumbled and light flashed across the sky. Sage did not shift, but she gripped his reins tighter, glancing through the massive open slat windows into the night. Mikhail could smell the storm in the air, feel the vibrations of the thunder. Do not leave, he urged silently. He did not want to have to track her down, and until he chose to make his presence known to London society it was best to keep a low profile. Mikhail certainly did not want Princess Tatiana Ivanovna tracking him to England to plead her case. God save him from perfidious females. But most importantly he wanted—no, he needed—some peace before wading back into the fray of society. He doubted revealing his presence to this unknown woman would compromise his plan, but caution still curled inside him.

He shuffled a foot, hoping to startle the young lady into abandoning whatever reckless plan she possessed. She froze, her head twisting toward where he stood in the dark. Mikhail held himself still, waiting for her move, waiting for feminine nerves to overtake her. After worrying her bottom lip with her teeth, she spun the horse toward the entrance and took off.

He smiled and moved in the shadows, careful to remain hidden in the event she turned around. Another crack of thunder and he glanced skyward. There was no doubt a storm was brewing. Was she familiar with the terrain, and did she know where the cottages were on the Calydon property? The storm clouds in the sky gathered, and he cursed himself for caring about a stranger.

Mikhail moved unhurriedly to the entrance. It was easy to make out her form under the banner of moonlight. She rode like a dream. Her laughter floated on the wind, and he hated to ruin her enjoyment, but he could not allow her to steal his stallion. He placed his fingers against his lips and let a sharp whistle rent the air, then cursed as a boom of thunder hid the signal that would have caused Sage to return to Mikhail despite her urgings. He quickly readied another horse. It was damn reckless of him to follow the female, even if she was a thief, but he felt compelled to pursue her.

“Allow me to follow the woman. I will return your prized stallion, Prince Alexander,” a low voice said to his left.

He glanced at Vladimir, Mikhail’s friend and constant shadow. “You forget my instructions. You will refer to me as Mikhail until I say otherwise.”

There was a pulse of silence and he could feel Vladimir’s disapproval, but Mikhail would not be swayed on this.

“You are not being yourself, you do not chase women, even if they are unusual and provocative, Mikhail.”

The last was uttered with grudging respect. And Mikhail would admit he was being a touch hasty, but it was a truth he was willing to ignore. “You will not follow me.”

“I will—”

At his pointed stare, Vladimir paused, executed a sharp bow, and melted into the darkness.

Mikhail launched himself onto one of Calydon’s stallions and surged from the stable.

He was chasing her.

Mayhap it could be that he’d allowed Calydon to goad him to drink brandy to test its potency against Mikhail’s vodka. The combination must have done something to his hard-won discipline, because the sharp interest that pierced him even now was unsettling. He was pursuing the unknown woman more for the desire to learn her identity than to recover his horse. His actions were so unlike him. He should be treading with caution; instead he was being reckless.

A blasted foolish thing to do.

Eagerness churned inside of Miss Payton Peppiwell, and a rare smile of peace tilted her lips. Cold filled her lungs as she inhaled the brisk air. She would ride the wind this morning. “Go, my beauty,” she crooned as she nudged the side of the massive stallion, encouraging him to move faster, reveling in the sheer power and grace of the animal.

After colliding with the Honorable Lord Jensen St. John earlier in the village, everything had been off-kilter. Payton had believed she’d forgiven him. But the surge of rage and pain she had felt at his renewed declarations stunned her.

I must not think of him.

Thunder rumbled in the distance, and she frowned. She hoped it would not rain. Riding was one of her joys in life, and she craved an outlet for all the emotions roiling through her, to feel the bunch and release of muscle between her thighs, the sheer power of the magnificent horse as they raced across the plains. That was why she had chosen one of the duke’s stallions to mount, and not one of his gentle mares young ladies were encouraged to ride.

She rose before the rest of the household, determined to be free for at least a few hours before fielding the demands of her mother and her aunt, the Countess of Merryweather, to find a rich and titled husband.

Payton would enjoy her early morning adventure, and she would not think of her family’s persistent pressure or Lord Jensen’s renewed sentiments. As if mocking her, his words crowded her mind.

I have been a blasted fool, Payton. Forgive me. I beseech you to marry me.

His offer no longer held any enticement. There was a time when she had longed for the social whirl of the society. Curious and intrigued by the power the haute monde held, she’d desperately wanted to be a part of their selective world. She had danced too close to the flames and she had been burned, jilted by a man she had believed adored her, as he’d ardently professed. His actions had turned society’s unpleasant and hurtful scorn in her direction. Her broken engagement had filled most of high society, if not all, with delight. An American miss who had dared to try and elevate herself with one of their beloved lords had been firmly reminded of her place.

Her sister Phillipa had warned Payton of the fickleness and the hypocritical nature of those who belonged to the highest echelon of society, but she had not believed. She’d been too enthralled by the excitement of attending lavish balls, picnics, and carriage rides. Though she had still been on the fringe, as an American with no ties to nobility, capturing the interest of the honorable Jensen St. John, heir to the Viscounty of Kenilworth, had been a sweet and thrilling coup.

He had been so friendly and obliging, always seeking her company. After weeks of walking out together and dancing at least once at every ball she had attended, St. John had proposed. He was a charming and very affable young man, and Payton had said yes to his offer without hesitation. And all it had taken for him to shatter her was the spreading of a rumor about her soon to be brother-in-law, Lord Anthony Thornton’s bastardy.

Payton closed her eyes against the bittersweet memory, grateful she had not been seduced into giving Lord Jensen her chastity. Now that the haute monde had been unsuccessful in crushing the Calydon bastards—as Lord Anthony and his kindhearted sister, Constance, now the Duchess of Mondvale—had been referred to, Lord Jensen must believe the disdain Payton had been shown by association would melt away.

How could he imagine she would welcome him back into her life and heart?

“I will not be made a fool of again, and I will never allow my heart to be bruised by another lord.” Her vow was snatched away by the icy wind.

With a jerk, the wind tugged the cap from her head, loosening the knot she’d tied her hair in. But she did not pause, reveling in the sheer freedom of her ride. A boom of thunder echoed across the land, and she drew on the reins, slowing the horse. “Easy,” she crooned, rubbing the nape of his neck as he reared at another rumble.

The sky had darkened, eclipsing the stars, and she could now smell the rain on the air. She spun the horse around, startled to realize she had been so lost in her thoughts, she had ridden farther than she intended. Payton stirred uneasily in the saddle as she made out a lone figure in the distance, also on horseback.

Who else would be up and about at this hour?

The first drop of rain splashed on her cheeks. Drat. She would not make it back to the main house before the deluge. Turning her horse in a sharp move, she nudged him toward a cottage in the far distance. She recognized the area surrounding it as the hunting grounds of the Calydon property. Was it a hunting cottage? Not that it mattered, she only needed a suitable shelter until the worst of the rain passed, then she could slip back to the main estate without being seen.

A fork of lightning split the sky and slammed into the ground. Sparks flew from the earth, and the stallion reared. Payton desperately tried to prevent her fall, hooking her legs into the stirrups. She failed abysmally. The breath rushed from her lungs as her body made the hard impact with the ground. Her landing was bone-jarring. She tried to stand, and nausea churned in her stomach. The sky opened, and it started to rain fat, cold drops. Within seconds she was trembling. Stumbling to her feet, she lurched forward and then crumpled, collapsing on the grass

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Copyright © 2015 by Stacy Reid. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.

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