Love is a Battlefield (Games of Love #1)

 

It might be modern times, but Kate Simmons isn’t willing to live a life without at least the illusion of the perfect English romance. A proud member of the Jane Austen Regency Re-Enactment Society, Kate fulfills her passion for courtliness and high-waisted gowns in the company of a few women who share her love of all things heaving.

Then she encounters Julian Wallace, a professional Highland Games athlete who could have stepped right off the covers of her favorite novels. He’s everything brooding, masculine, and, well, heaving. The perfect example of a man who knows just how to wear his high sense of honor—and his kilt.

Confronted with a beautiful woman with a tongue as sharp as his sgian dubh, Julian and his band of merry men aren’t about to simply step aside and let Kate and her gaggle of tea-sippers use his land for their annual convention. Never mind that “his land” is a state park—Julian was here first, and he never backs down from a challenge.

Unless that challenge is a woman unafraid to fight for what she wants…and whose wants are suddenly the only thing he can think about.

 

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Chapter One

Lady Lovelace’s Ball

What the ballroom lacked in authenticity, it more than made up for in effort.

The room was dim, lit by a chandelier that struggled valiantly to appear as though it were made of candles, and not the plastic, glass and filaments that so effectively shattered romantic illusions, watt by watt. The music, which was not the string quartet it purported to be, floated up from a CD player someone had the foresight to hide behind a swatch of flowing white gauze. And the attendees of the ball, present in a horrifyingly unbalanced ratio  of females to males, were dressed in silks, satins and feathers designed in painstaking detail to recreate the best scenes in a BBC period drama.

“Kate, have you seen that woman over by the piano?” asked an ethereal young woman whose alabaster skin was in keeping with the evening’s tone. Her voice was just right too, the low vibrations sweeping underneath polite murmurs and the sound of the music with fluid grace.

Kate peeked over her shoulder. It was Lady Lovelace, the grand matriarch of their little community, wearing yards of puce satin like she owned the color. No amount of persuasion on Kate’s part had been able to convince the woman that not everything from the Regency era needed to be preserved.

“She’s the one hosting tonight’s ball,” Kate explained. “Why?”

“I think her hair is purple. From here, it looks like a really dark brown, right? Get closer. I swear to God, it’s actually deep purple. Like you get at one of those free beauty schools—or if you let Prince do your hair.”

Kate choked on a laugh. “I don’t think Prince does his own hair.”

She whirled her friend away from Lady Lovelace, searching for something that might captivate her interest for a few more minutes. From the way she kept wandering around, poking her fingers into the custard tarts and looking out the gymnasium windows, her friend obviously wasn’t enjoying the evening. In fact, Jada was downright bored.

And when Jada was bored, she was dangerous.

Kate should have known better. A monthly ball put on by the Jane Austen Regency Re-Enactment Society wasn’t exactly her friend’s idea of a rocking Friday night. Jada was better suited for nightclubs, where history never lasted longer than the first round of martinis.

“So, are we going out after this?” Jada asked as if on cue, indicating the ballroom floor. Despite the elaborate preparations, there wasn’t much to see. Two male members of their historical preservation group—the only two male members—were struggling through the steps of the waltz with a pair of ladies covered in flounces, but no one else even bothered trying to dance.

“I don’t think so.” Kate took a glass of punch labeled with a sign ordering them all to pretend it was ratafia. “I promised to help clean up after the ball, and I was planning on going into the bookstore pretty early tomorrow to get some work done.”

“Really? That’s your excuse? Cleanliness and productivity?”

“What time is it, anyway?” Kate resisted the impulse to check her wrist. There were no watches allowed here. No Visible Modern Conveniences—that was rule number eight, right after No Real Names and right before Male Guests Require Cravats.

Although the rules occasionally felt like an attempt to wrest any last bit of fun out of the JARRS group, Kate loved the entire charade. There was something about the way the women in the group bonded—in a longing, wistful, romantic way—that brought a smile to her face.

It was silly. Silly and longing and wistful and romantic, and she couldn’t help it. No matter how much her sensible parts rebelled, there always remained the lingering feeling that if she squinted her eyes just so, or if she focused on the stays that forced her spine into a straight line, she could spend a few minutes in a time that appealed to the grandiloquent corners of her heart. A touch of the real historic England, right here in modern-day Washington state.

Not that any of that was going to happen tonight—not with one of the men’s Nike sneakers flashing white underneath the lights of the chandelier and Jada snorting with mirth as she emptied a fifth of vodka into the punch bowl.

“Seriously, Jada?” Kate reached over and checked her friend’s generous hand. “Lady Lovelace put a lot of work into the party tonight. The least we can do is be respectful. She probably spent hours taking all the crusts off those cucumber sandwiches.”

Jada’s dark eyes flashed in a glimmer of mischief Kate had long since come to recognize and dread. “I think you’ll find the spirits are about to become extremely necessary.”

“Why? What have you done?”

“I haven’t done anything.”

“Jada,” Kate warned, but she didn’t have a chance to say more. A scream from a short, rounded woman in a turban brought all attention to the door.

“We’ve got crashers!” the woman cried.

Vodka. Crashers. Jada doubled over in laughter… Kate spared only a quick, pained glance at her friend before turning her eyes toward the door, where four young men were in the process of making a rather dramatic appearance.

Dramatic. That was one word for it.

Each man looked as though he’d stepped right out of the pages of a Regency novel, but not the Jane Austen variety. Oh, no, they were from the juicy kind—the ones full of rakes and midnight trysts. The ones that proudly boasted Fabio’s well-waxed torso and windblown mullet. All four men were dressed in painstaking detail, complete with small clothes that outlined every inch below the waist and cravats that might have been tied by a foppish hand straight from the past. Their hair was pomaded into gleaming locks, and each man bore a grin that demonstrated how well he knew his worth.

They were handsome. They were debonair. They were perfect.

They were trouble.

“Jada, this better not be what I think it is,” Kate hissed. But it was.

Correction. It was worse.

The young men moved through the room, whisking up women old enough to be their mothers into impeccable waltzes. They twirled and turned, spun and swept over the floor. If the squeals of delight were anything to go by, the women loved it, eating up the chance to move around the ballroom floor on delicately shod feet.

But Kate knew better. The only men she knew who could dance with so much grace and fill out a pair of pants like that were not interested in dancing with the ladies—at least, not unless the ladies in question carried fistfuls of dollar bills.

Jada moved to the hidden stereo, while Kate got stuck in a sort of suspended animation. She wanted to stop Jada—knew exactly what was coming—but she always froze at moments like this. The world would keep moving, pushing her sluggishly through, and there wasn’t anything she could do to stop it. Watch and cringe. Clean up the mess afterward.

It was the story of her life.

One of the young men made a beeline for her and grabbed her waist in a masterful move that confirmed her worst fears. There was one huge erection pressed up against her, and although she was wearing a rather low-cut gown, she doubted she had very much to do with it at all.

The music took a turn for the worse. Loud, thumping beats replaced the soft Haydn strains, and Kate could see she wasn’t the only woman in the room held captive by a pair of well-tailored, masculine arms that seemed at odds with the sudden bumping and grinding underneath the tight, tan breeches.

“Oh. My. God,” Kate cried as soon as her partner released her.

In a single fluid, practiced movement, the man ripped the breeches away from his body, helped along by a panel of snaps tailored for immediate release.

There was nothing of the Regency about the blue spangled thong that was suddenly the only thing separating Kate from the hard rod of her dance partner’s livelihood. The stripper—he could be called little else now—tore off his jacket and cravat in another consummate move, tossing the clothes casually aside. A few gasps from across the room indicated Kate wasn’t the only one getting such personalized attention.

The strippers weren’t the least bit disconcerted as they moved toward the middle of the room together, resting their hands casually behind their heads and rocking their pelvises up and down in time to the music. The line of erections bounced joyfully underneath the ballroom lights, the synchronized slapping of cock on balls  keeping the beat with alarming precision.

“Jada, you’d better get them out of here—and fast.” Despite herself, Kate let out a giggle as a pair of women finally gained their bearing and marched over to the stereo. “You might want to go too. Oh, no! Wait, though—look at Lord Hampton. He’s covering his wife’s eyes! He’s physically holding her back to keep her away from the ballroom floor.”

Jada howled with laughter, clutching her stomach. “The punch,” she managed between breaths. “Encourage them to have some punch. It’ll calm them down.”

“Oh, Jada,” Kate cried, still half choked with laughter herself. “You’ve really done it this time.”

“It’s more action than most of these women have seen in months. They’ll thank me for it. Just you watch.” Jada offered a cheerful pat on Kate’s butt and turned to the ballroom floor. With two fingers placed in either side of her mouth, she let out a whistle better served on a football field. “C’mon, boys! This show’s over. Let’s go grab that drink I promised you.”

In a practiced theatrical bow, all four of the men swept out of the room, pausing only to pick up the garments that littered the floor, a clear view of eight chiseled ass cheeks making grander a departure than Kate was certain she would ever witness again.

Female voices rose behind her, bringing with them a wave of piercing aspersions on Jada’s character. Kate’s character. The character of her mother, and her mother before that. Kate took a deep breath and turned to keep back the tide.

It had been a mistake to invite Jada. Her friend had warned her it wasn’t her style to sip punch with a bunch of tepid old ladies, but Kate had pressed her. This stuff mattered to her. Didn’t that mean it should matter to her best friend too?

Unfortunately, she’d forgotten that Jada never did anything without a bang.

And this time, she’d added a bump and a grind.