Excerpt from No Sweeter Ecstasy
Women were at a premium in California, and the wealth pouring into the gold fields had made them an increasingly expensive diversion, still Marc had a couple of favorites whose exorbitant price he considered money well spent. As captain of the Angélique, one of his family's fleet of clipper ships, he felt he owed himself the best of everything whenever he was in port.
He rounded the corner of Luke Everly's brothel, meaning to use the owner's private entrance, and came to an abrupt halt when he spotted a young woman climbing out of a second-story window. Clad only in a thin nightgown that was more lace than silk, she presented a captivating sight. In the gathering dusk, he could make out little save the extraordinary length of her shapely legs and a wild mop of blond curls, but the combination of those rare assets provided a powerful incentive to step into the shadows beneath her.
Raised to have the fine manners of a gentleman, although he frequently failed to display them, Marc observed the nimble lass with a rapt glance, meaning to grasp her waist and ease her to the ground when she came within reach. Unfortunately, before she arrived at that point, she lost her hold on the sheets she had knotted to fashion a makeshift ladder and came tumbling down into his arms.
Which of them was the more startled, it was impossible to discern.
"Let me go!" she ordered, attempting to keep her voice low as she struggled to escape Marc's near crushing embrace.
"I'll be happy to do just that," he promised in a deep voice edged with humor, "as soon as you tell me why you were leaving Luke's by such an unusual route." His captive's curls were scented with a fragrance of gardenias so heavy it was nearly intoxicating, but by a valiant effort he managed to keep his mind on the task at hand. "I can't help but feel that Luke wouldn't be pleased to find you gone."
The feisty blonde's efforts to break free intensified, so he shifted his hold slightly, agilely doubling her in half and forcing her knees against her chin to silence her. "If you don't keep still, we'll attract a crowd whose primitive appetites will make you beg to go back to Luke. Stop acting like a spoiled child and tell me what it is you're trying to do." When she responded with a series of unintelligible gasps, he relaxed his hold sufficiently enough for her to breathe deeply.
"I'll kill myself before I'll go back in there," she vowed through clenched teeth.
"Aren't you being overly dramatic? Everyone knows Luke has the prettiest girls in town, and the highest paid. I can't believe that you were mistreated."
She blew a curl out of her eyes. "Do you go to Luke's often?"
"Not nearly often enough."
"Please, this is important!" she scolded. "Do you recognize me? Do you know my name?"
"I can't see your face well enough to say. Why don't we go up to your room?"
"No!" she refused with a toss of her heavily perfumed curls. "I won't go back upstairs, not ever. Put me down."
He shifted her weight in his arms. She appeared to be quite tall, but she was slender and was a slight burden to hold. She smelled delicious, and if she had been in Luke's, she had to be pretty. "Will you promise not to run?"
"I doubt I could outrun you."
"That's no answer." He set her down gently. "Why don't you have any shoes?"
"They didn't give me any." She stepped into the light near the back door. "Are you sure you don't recognize me?"
"No, and I'm sure if we'd ever met, I'd remember you."
"Damn," she swore. "There's a huge lump on the back of my head, and I can't remember anything. Will you help me?"
No fool, he readily accepted her invitation. "Yes, it would be my pleasure."