Poppy Thompson kneaded the thick, warm dough, the scents of yeast and vanilla hanging heavy in the air. Flour puffed in clouds around her and she smiled to herself.
The kitchens of Hawksfell Manor were quiet at this hour, the family abed and most of the staff tucked into their rooms in the attics. This was the time she liked best, when the extensive kitchens were hers alone. During the daytime hours she served the earl and his family. The cook, Mrs. Padmont, ruled this place during those hours as well. As cook’s assistant, it was Poppy’s place to toe the line and do whatever was asked of her. At night, however? She was permitted to create recipes that would allow her to someday make her own way. She wasn’t chained to service, like the maids or footmen. She was on her own, with no siblings or parents to support. She would find a way to use what her sainted mother had taught her nearly every day up until her death three years ago. To bake with the hopes of opening her own shop one day.
She pounded her fist into the mass in her hands. “It will happen,” she whispered, punching and poking at the puffy dough. “May God help me.”
“Easy there,” a masculine voice drawled.
She stilled, the smooth tone of Julian’s voice cutting through the yeast and vanilla and flour. Withdrawing her hands from the dough, she wiped them on her apron.
“Good evening, Julian.” He still wore his uniform, though he looked a little less starched than he did lately. “Why aren’t you abed?”
He tilted his head to one side, the light from the bulbs hanging from the ceiling catching in the golden streaks running through his fair hair. His smile was a little crooked, and his blue eyes sparkled. Oh, he was handsome. And tall. As a footman in a great house, he was expected to be both. He didn’t have to bedevil her in her dark domain, however.
“Ah, Poppy. You know I can’t resist your creations.”
“They aren’t for you.”
He arched a brow. “And yet you make your treats in the manor’s kitchens?”
She nodded, and then lifted her chin. “Mrs. Padmont and her ladyship herself allow me this, Julian.”
He shrugged. “As you say.”
Blowing out a breath, she narrowed her eyes. “Why are you here?”
“Mr. Carstairs was just informing me of a new visitor to the manor. A Baron Stanton.”
“Yes. Hawk, actually. He’s another Hawk.”
Poppy’s belly gave a flutter. She’d been in service here at the manor for three months now, and had caught glimpses of the handsome Hawks that had come here to roost over that time. Brooding, gorgeous gentlemen, without exception. They all bore more than a slight resemblance to the Earl of Hawksfell. In fact, more than one of them had come to discover they were half brothers to the earl.
Julian stepped closer, and she caught his fresh, warm scent even here in the kitchen. “They are quite compelling, aren’t they? Tall and magnetic. Makes a body yearn, or so I’ve heard.”
Poppy blinked. This was the Julian she’d known up until last month when he’d been promoted. Teasing, slightly naughty, flirty Julian. She stiffened her spine and fought to ignore his lure. She’d always been a girl with an attraction toward lads who spelled trouble with a capital T. Since becoming first footman he’d taken on a staid, sober demeanor that never seemed to quite fit him.
“You would do better to stick with your disguise,” she said, immediately wishing she could bite her tongue.
He blinked in apparent confusion. “What disguise?”
She couldn’t tell him she knew he wasn’t the dull stick he now pretended to be. Did the other girls in the manor see the difference as well? Or did he drop his put-on airs when he wanted a little bit of something in the attics?
“Never mind, pray.” She blew a hair off her brow. “I’m a bit tired.”
He reached out and ran a finger over her cheek, his touch gentle. “You work too hard, I wager.”
“Julian,” she said in warning, her voice sounding breathy.
He held out his finger, showing flour on his fingertip. “Nothing should mar that face.”
It was her turn to blink at him in confusion.
He studied her mouth for a long moment, then straightened. It was as if he donned his mask again, a coldness settling over his features. “I’ll leave you to your work.”
And with that, he left the kitchens. His scent lingered, she was dismayed to learn. His fresh, hot scent and the memory of the way he made her feel. Jittery and flushed and like she could give up her dreams if only he’d gift her with a kiss from that perfect mouth of his.
“Don’t think it,” she chided herself. “He’s not for you.”
For a reason she couldn’t fathom, her eyes pricked. Dreams of kisses and romance weren’t in her future. She pounded the dough more forcefully. She wouldn’t lose herself, no matter the enticement.
And whether gorgeous Julian or handsome Hawk, she wouldn’t let herself be tempted.
Poppy held tight to Julian’s hand as he led her up the back stairs to the private part of the manor. She’d never been up here before, bound to the kitchens as she’d been since coming to work here. She’d decided to see what she and Julian could share together there as they’d sat and devoured each other along with her cake. It startled her to feel so much for him even as his words about Lord Stanton excited her.
She wouldn’t think herself out of this. She had a long road ahead of her, making her own way as a baker. She would take this opportunity to enjoy a bit of fantasy before resigning herself to her lonely, hardworking life.
When they reached the door of what must be Lord Stanton’s guest room, Julian pulled her close again.
“You’re sure about this, Poppy?”
She stared into his eyes and felt her heart flip. She knew he wanted her, but didn’t every man respond to a girl’s closeness? He cared for her, too, though. She sensed that in her soul.
“I’m sure,” she said. “You’ll keep me safe.”
He turned the knob and they entered the beautiful bedroom. As he set about his duties, turning down the bed and arranging the items on a low dressing table, Poppy took the opportunity to look around the sumptuous interior.
It was done in several shades of blue. Ivory warmed the space, as smooth and creamy as her best frosting. The bed, that decadent expanse of silks and linens, was piled with pillows.
It was a simple thing to imagine Lord Stanton reclining there, perhaps in a dressing gown. She couldn’t imagine him without clothing. She had no point of reference but for the glimpses of his muscles beneath his fine clothes. Even picturing Julian in such a state was beyond her, and she’d had all of his body pressed against hers just a short while earlier.
Closing her eyes, she let the memory of her encounters with each of them fill her mind. As if she turned a switch, heat suffused her as her woman’s flesh swelled. Julian’s scent wrapped around her, followed by his arms.
“You will love this, Poppy,” he whispered in her ear.
She reached up and grasped his wrists. “I believe you.”
He began to nibble on the side of her neck, making her tremble. He reached up to release her hair from its pins and she felt it tumble down her back.
“I’ve wanted to do that since I first saw you,” he said.
She tried to form an answer, but she was overwhelmed when he began to unbutton her blouse. The rough fabric scraped delightfully across her breasts as he opened the garment. In contrast, her slip was soft and silky and she felt like that was gone as well when he cupped her breasts.
“That feels so good,” she admitted with a sigh, arching into his touch.
“It’s just the beginning,” Julian rasped, pinching her nipples.
“Oh, I’ll surely perish,” she said with a shiver.
“Never that,” Lord Stanton said from the doorway.
She stiffened. She hadn’t even heard the door open, with Julian’s hands and mouth on her flesh. “M-my lord,” she stammered.
Lord Stanton closed the door and held up his hand. “Henry, Poppy. In this chamber, like in your domain belowstairs, I am Henry.”
She licked her lips and saw he watched the motion. “Henry.”
Julian chuckled softly behind her, easing her open blouse out of her skirt. “That’s our girl.”
“How is this possible?” she asked, craning her neck to see him better. “It’s been but a few days.”
Julian gave a graceful shrug as he stepped back. “I can’t explain it, sweetheart.”
Lord Stanton, Henry, came closer. “Poppy, this thing between Julian and myself.” He placed his hands on her bare shoulders. “What’s among all three of us. This is very new.”
She stared up into his dark eyes. “You’re experienced, Henry.”
“Very,” he admitted. “But that doesn’t follow that I’ve ever been tangled up with two people like you and Julian in the whole of my life.”
He kissed her then, and she felt Julian’s hands on her bottom now. Her drawers were wet as he reached around to touch her.
“Your pussy is so hot,” Julian said. “I can’t wait to taste you.”
Her mind spun as she tried to imagine what Julian said. Her…pussy was hot. Her entire body felt as though it was raw and aching, especially that place between her thighs.
“Taste me?” she managed to ask, her head lolling back against his shoulder.
Henry bared her breasts and licked her nipple. “God, yes.”
Poppy nearly melted to the thick carpet beneath her feet as he suckled her. His teeth were hard, his tongue teasing, as he roused her. She wore nothing now, though she wasn’t aware of precisely how that had happened. Her clothes, shoes, and stockings were scattered and intermingled with Henry and Julian’s jackets.
“Lick her,” Julian said, both hands spreading her with his fingers.
She should be mortified to be so exposed, but Henry’s dark, glittering gaze fixed on her flesh made her long for whatever came next.
Henry licked her nipple one more time, slowly and thoroughly, and then brought his face to her most private place. “You smell so sweet.”
Grateful that Julian held her up, she moved herself toward Henry’s sculpted lips. “Henry, please.”
He dropped a kiss on her lower belly, right above her center. “Strawberries and vanilla,” he said, using the tip of his tongue to trace slowly through her curls. “Pretty red curls and a pretty pink pussy.”
Her thighs trembled as he sealed his mouth to her. Sparks lit behind her eyelids and she flushed hot and cold.
“Oh,” she breathed, wriggling against his sinful tongue. “Oh, my.”
Henry gripped her bottom and stabbed his tongue inside, drawing her body tighter and tighter.
“You like that,” Julian said, his lips against the side of her neck. “You like Henry’s mouth on your pussy.”
She gasped, nodding as she rose higher and higher. Suddenly she broke, bucking against his tongue as a rush of sensation crashed over her.