Sweeter Than Sin
Book Two—Dangerous Liaisons
Her reputation ruined by one impetuous mistake, Lady Kyra Sterling lives as a recluse, determined never to make herself vulnerable to love again. She has her art and her flowers for solace. And that is enough—until a dashing war hero, wounded in the Peninsular War, come to stay at the neighboring estate.
Hoping to heal his own inner guilt over the battlefield death of his cousin Jack, war hero Rafael de Villafranca has come to visit his English uncle. He’s also looking for some peace and solitude in order to turn his Spanish grandmother’s historical notes and recipes for Theobroma cacao into a book. He doesn’t expect to strike up an acquaintance with his shy neighbor, but when he meets Kyra sketching in woods and sees her marvelous botanical watercolors, they begin to bond over art . . . and chocolate!
But their budding friendship is soon challenged when the man who ruined Kyra returns, desperate for her dowry, and threatens to stir up fresh scandal if she doesn’t marry him. Now she must make a difficult decision—does she make herself vulnerable again and seek Rafael’s help? Or does she allow the past to destroy all hope of future happiness?
Choices, choices. However Kyra quickly discovers that Raphael isn’t about to surrender and leave her to face the enemy alone . . .
“Deciduo.” Gazing up at the skies, Rafael added an oath in Spanish. “Diablo! What is the English word—dessi… dessa… desser…?” he demanded of the hawk circling overhead.
The bird’s effortless flight seemed a mocking reflection of his struggles with language. With a lazy flap of its wings, it soared higher, then disappeared in the mist of the distant moors.
On the morrow, he must remember to bring a dictionary. As well as another notebook and extra pencils. Glancing at the unruly piles of paper spread over the stone slab, he heaved a sigh. The task was proving even more daunting than he had first imagined. Though his English was usually flawless, he was out of practice. So he was having a devil of a time translating of Dona Maria’s notes on the different varieties of her beloved beans.
“Cacao theobroma, Theobroma sterculiaceae,” he muttered, looking down at the note in his lap. “What do you call such bloody trees?”
“Deciduous.” The reply seemed to come out of nowhere.
His head jerked up. “What?”
Straight ahead, the marble columns stood silent. Rafael looked to the lake and saw only a ripple of wind stirring the placid waters. Ghosts. In both word and pictures, he was surrounded by vivid reminders of the past. Was it any wonder that his imagination was playing tricks on him? Chiding himself for such flights of fancy, he forced his attention back to the spidery script.
And yet, the scuff of steps sounded very real. He whipped around to catch sight of a dark flutter between the trees.
“How do you spell that?” he demanded, giving silent thanks to the heavens there was no one around to see him shouting at shadows.
Hearing naught but the rustle of branches in reply, Rafael shook his head. His father had often told tales of Devonshire’s mystical roots. Such childhood memories were provoking odd—
He shot up from his seat, spilling the pencil and papers from his lap. “Who is there?” he called, taking a tentative step toward the forest. “A druid? A fairie?”
As if by magic, a figure materialized from among the tree trunks. “A very ordinary passer-by.”
Rafael stared in openmouthed surprise. The hooded cloak and muslin gown were indeed unremarkable. But the young lady herself was a vision of ethereal beauty. Slim as a shaft of sunlight, with a delicate face pale as the morning mists. He blinked, half expecting the apparition to disappear in a puff of smoke.
She was still there, however, and eyeing him askance. “Shall I go on? Or have you decided you do not wish to write it down?”
He quickly retrieved his pencil and notebook.
Her voice still soft as the lakeside breeze, she spelled out the rest of the letters.
“Thank you.” He looked up from the page, still unsure whether he was awake or dreaming. “As you have witnessed, my English leaves much to be desired.”
“As does my Latin,” she replied slowly. “Theobroma cacao? It sounds familiar and yet… “
“You know it as chocolate.”
“Chocolate.” Her expression was inscrutable, though he thought he saw a small spark of interest light in her eyes. They were, he noted, a deep leafy green, with flecks of gold that mirrored the cluster of curls framing her face. “That explains why I did not recognize it right away. I know most of the local flora by heart.”
“Are you interested in plants?”
The young lady shrugged. She slanted a glance at the notes spread across the stone stab, but without further comment turned to the trees.
“Before you go, might I ask your help on one more word?” he asked quickly, loath for her to leave just yet.
She looked around.
“Lanza,” he said in Spanish. “A shape of leaf, I think.” He added, sketching a rough outline in the air. “Like so.”
“Just so.” Rafael scribbled it down in his notebook. “Gracias, mea lady,” he murmured, the languages becoming hopelessly entangled in his head.
She hesitated, then ventured a question of her own. “Are you a botanist?”
“No, I am a… ” He surveyed the scattered scribblings. “I am a fool, to think I could take on such a project. It would take a magician to turn all of this into a coherent book.”
“A book on what?”
“Interesting.” However, the arch of her brow added a touch of skepticism.
“Actually, it is,” he replied. “My grandmother was quite an expert on the history and lore of the cacao tree. She spent a good part of her life collecting all manner of fascinating stories and tidbits.” Grabbing a paper at random, he smoothed out the creases. “Here let me read you an example of ancient Aztec legend…”
“Intriguing,” she admitted, when he had finished the short passage.
“However, might I make a suggestion for rewording the last sentence? As it is, it sounds a bit awkward.”
He made a note of her corrections.
“Do you pass by here often?”
She shied back, a look of wariness clouding her gaze.
“That is,” he added quickly. “I thought perhaps you might consent to hear some other chapters and offer your criticisms.”
She shook her head.
“Can I tempt you to change your mind? The book will also include a mouthwatering selection of her recipes.” Rafael added a smile, hoping to soften her solemn expression. “Dona Maria’s true genius came to light in the kitchen. In her hands, chocolate lived up to its name as ‘Food of the Gods.’ You have never tasted anything so sublime as her breakfast blend of the beans. Fragrant vanilla, peppery chilies and cane sugar from the island of Barbados.”
Her reaction was not at all what he expected.
A splash of color darkened her cheeks and her lips puckered. “I—I don’t care for hot chocolate.”
He could not quite believe his ears. A lady who didn’t love chocolate?
“What do you favor?”
“A sip of black tea. Or nothing at all. I’m not very hungry in the morning.”
“Madonna,” Rafael let out a low whistle. “No wonder you are thin as a wraith. My grandmother often spoke of how cacao is considered a medicine by many physicians who use it to nourish the ill and the infirm—”
She gasped and spun around.
“Wait! I did not mean to imply—”
Too late. Like a flicker of quicksilver she had already melted into the sun-dappled foliage.
“Damn.” Pursuit was pointless. He would only end up hopelessly lost in the wooded moors.
He kicked at a pebble and watched it skitter across the terrace and fall into the water. In both Spanish and English, his linguistic skills seemed to be sunk beneath reproach. He had not only appeared a stuttering idiot, but a clumsy oaf to boot. After all, he had just put his foot in his mouth.
Dona Maria’s notes on chocolate suddenly took on a bittersweet taste. Deciding he had done enough work for the day, Rafael fell to stuffing the papers into his satchel. After a last look at the forest, he slung it over his shoulder and set off on the long walk home.
Kyra hurried along the leafy path, but her thoughts lingered on the mysterious stranger.
A corsair. He reminded her of an engraving she had seen in a book on the Barbary pirates. Dangerous.
A shiver ran down her spine. Unlike the polished perfection of Lord Matherton, the stranger’s features were rugged, scuffed by sun and wind. His olive skin added to his raffish look. As did his black hair, which fell in devil-may-care curls that grazed his shoulders. Chas affected a tumble of curls, too. But somehow the effect appeared artfully arranged, as if he had spent hours in front of the mirror.
And then there were the stranger’s eyes—a deep ocean blue, their depths dark as midnight sin.
Sin. Kyra bit her lip. All men could go to the devil. She had learned her lesson about Spanish coin. Flatteries which lost their luster. Promises whose glitter proved false once they had bought what they wanted.
No, she would not be seduced into thinking the Spanish stranger was nice, simply because he had a sweet smile and self-deprecating sense of humor.
Nor would she think of chocolate, though the engravings she had seen of the cacao tree made it appear an appealing subject to paint. The fruit looked to have a variety of sizes and textures, with colors that ranged from ripe orange to lush purple. There was something exotic about it. Enticing.
Shaking off the wicked, wanton tingle in her fingertips, Kyra paused by a thicket of gorse and carefully clipped a sprig of the prickly blooms. She would stick to less fanciful flora. Sweet dreams, like dark-haired strangers, could only lead a young lady into trouble.