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Where the Viscount Met His Match (MF)

Ways of Love

Etopia Press

Heat Rating: STEAMY
Word Count: 86,445
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Secrets. Lies. And a second chance at love...

Torn from the only man she'd ever loved by a tragic secret, Mara Miller has traveled a long and difficult road. From poverty and the workhouses, she's finally made a life for herself as the owner of a small haberdashery in London. With her companion, Big B, an African slave she'd helped escape from a Brazilian slaver, she's made a fresh start. But when the past walks into her shop—in the form of the ever-handsome Roarke Garrott, Viscount Eversleigh—Mara feels her whole world crash to her feet. Thrust back into a web of lies, deceit, and manipulation, Mara is forced to face the one man she'd sworn to forget.

For the past seven years, Roarke had sequestered himself in India to mourn Mara's death. Vowing to move on and put the past behind him, he returns to London, only to find himself gazing into those beautiful green eyes he believed he'd never see again. Now he's found her—alive and trying to deny who she was. A million feelings wash over him. Joy. Fury. Heartbreak. He would have the truth from her—of where she'd gone, and why—but when trouble from the past finds Mara and Big B, the truth becomes secondary to saving Mara's life. After just learning that the woman he'd loved is alive, Roarke is not about to lose her again...

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CHAPTER ONE



London, England

Autumn 1819



“I can’t accept this.” Mara shook her head as she slid the obscene bank draft back across the table to Lady Rockford, where they conversed in private in the back room of Mara’s haberdashery on Cheshire Street. “You don’t owe me anything.”

“That’s not true,” Athena countered with a slight hitch in her voice. “I owe you this and so much more for saving my life.” Reaching out, she grabbed Mara’s hand. “You have become one of my dearest friends, Miss Smith. Please allow me the chance to help you.”

And there it was…

Miss Smith.

Mara felt a stab of guilt toward the lie that separated her from the countess more than any rank or social standing ever could.

She knew at the beginning that it had been a mistake to befriend the former Miss Hawthorne, but sensing a kindred spirit, Mara had decided to do the right thing for once and help a friend, for heaven only knew those were in short supply for her as it was. Athena was also common born and had fallen on hard times after her father passed and their jewelry shop had been sold off to pay false creditors some weeks ago. With Mara’s assistance, Athena had finally been able to reclaim her inheritance, and eventually she fell in love with the Earl of Rockford and married him.

But Mara was well aware that not every story had a happy ending.

At the sound of the front bell, Mara found the perfect opportunity to end the conversation. “I’m sorry, Lady Rockford, but my answer is no.”

With that, she walked away. She might have given up a chance at a better life, a small fortune really, but she was perfectly content running her modest haberdashery. It might be located in the very heart of Spitalfields, but it had been her saving grace.

Where one life had ended, another had begun.

But now, as she turned the corner, her worst fears had come to pass. In the blink of an eye, she stood face to face with the very man she had studiously tried to avoid for seven, long years.

Roarke Garrott, Viscount Eversleigh.

“Mara?” His voice was hoarse with emotion as he came forward. “My God! It is you, isn’t it?”

She stared into those hauntingly familiar, hazel eyes as he reached out and grasped her upper arms and held tight as if he might never let go. His expression ranged from shock to anger and confusion before finally settling on—heaven help her—betrayal.

Mara ignored her bleeding heart and quickly fell into the role she was supposed to play. She struggled in his hold with a proper amount of righteous indignation. “Unhand me, sir! I don’t know who you think I am, but you are quite mistaken. I am Miss Anna Smith, proprietor of this establishment—”

He cut her off with a roar. “Don’t lie to me!” Shaking her violently, he demanded, “What kind of cruel game have you been playing all these years? Do you realize the torment I’ve been through thinking that you were dead when all this time…?” He couldn’t even finish the sentence, as if the very idea was unfathomable.

Athena’s husband, Orion Ashcroft, had been standing nearby and witnessing the exchange in silence, but finally intervened when the bell above the shop door tinkled again and a startled patron paused upon the threshold at the scene unfolding before her. Laying a hand on his friend’s shoulder, he advised in low tones, “Roarke, now is not the time.”

As if finally coming to his senses, the viscount blinked rapidly before releasing her. Taking a step back, he ran a trembling hand through his hair.

For a moment, Mara had to look away. How many times had she run her hands through that sandy blond mane or kissed those chiseled lips?

Whether it was due to heartbreak or desire, he still tore her up inside.

Roarke took a deep breath. Finally, he raised his head to regard her once more, and the look on his face clearly conveyed that their business was far from over. He turned on his heel and walked stiffly out the door, brushing past the gaping customer so abruptly that she nearly stumbled in his wake.

“I apologize for my friend’s crass manner.” Lord Rockford said, although Mara could sense that he regarded her more thoughtfully than before. “He has been under much duress upon his recent return to England.”

Mara swallowed over the lump of self-loathing clogging her throat. Unable to look the earl in the eye any longer, she glanced down and brushed off her skirts. “There’s no harm done, my lord.” Forcing herself to keep a neutral expression on her face, she turned to Athena, who had just joined them.

“Thank you again, my lady, for your generous consideration on my behalf. But if you’ll excuse me, I have a shop to run.” With that, Mara turned her back on the countess and her husband, focusing all her attention on the woman who had nearly been run over by Roarke but had recovered enough to riffle through the colorful ribbons on display.

Mara held her breath until the bell above the door chimed again and she knew they had gone. Her nerves were still finely tuned even after she heard the clip-clop of horses’ hooves as the Rockford barouche rattled down the cobblestone street. Thankfully, her one customer did not tarry overlong and, after quickly selecting a few fripperies, took her leave as well.

That’s when Mara collapsed.

It started out as a trembling through her limbs as she turned the Open sign to Closed and locked the shop door. But before she could even make it to the back room, she burst into a fit of tears, years of strain and unrequited love flowing down her cheeks. She quickly wet a cloth to press over her feverish skin, thankful she was alone and that no one was around to witness her fall from grace.

She hadn’t realized how much of an effort it had taken to remain so aloof and unaffected in front of Roarke. This wasn’t the first time she’d clapped eyes on him since his return to London nearly three weeks ago. However, it was the first time she’d been face to face with him in over seven, long years.

Time had changed him only slightly, for he still had narrow hips, a slim stomach, and broad shoulders, but maturity had given him a raw edge that hadn’t been there before. He’d always taken pride in his appearance and his attire today had reflected that. Dressed as he’d been in a pair of buff breeches, gleaming Hessians, with the perfectly white cambric shirt and gold threaded waistcoat, all topped with a starched cravat and brown jacket, everything fit him to perfection, although no one would dare call him a dandy. He exuded too much power and masculinity for that.

He was as handsome as ever—and just as untouchable.

And now that Roarke had recognized her?

Mara felt her chest tighten. She could hope that he might let the matter go, but unfortunately it would be in vain, for she knew him all too well. Roarke had always had a sharp mind to match his handsome looks. He would return, and she would become the villain without even gaining the benefit of a trial, for he would never believe the sordid truth that had led Mara to tear herself from his life so completely.

Shaken, Mara gathered up her few personal belongings and what meager allowance she kept in the cash register. Throwing on her cloak, she blinked away the moisture in her eyes, pulled her hood low, and rushed off down the street.

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