“Strangle you. With my bare hands.”
“Would you? Or would you kiss me as you did in the library?”
His eyes flickered, and a flush edged his cheekbones. “Consider that a mistake,” he muttered.
Lily was stung by his contemptuous tone. Her experiences with men—Harry’s desertion, Giuseppe’s angry disappointment, even Derek’s lack of sexual interest in her—had all taught her that she lacked whatever it was that made a woman desirable. Now Alex had joined the list. Why wasn’t she like other women? What mysterious thing made her so unappealing? Some devilish impulse urged her to show Alex how powerless he was. She leaned close, her breath wafting over his chin. “You had me at a disadvantage in the library,” she said. “Have you ever been kissed against your will, Alex? Perhaps you’d like to know how it feels.”
Alex stared at her as if she’d gone mad. Smiling impishly, she dipped her head and pressed a light, close-mouthed kiss to his stiff lips. He jerked his head back as if he’d been touched by fire. She was doing her best to torment him. First a kiss. Next she’d probably start plucking out his chest hairs one by one.
Lily studied him in the silence. Something had made his breathing choppy. Was it anger? Or was it possible that her kiss had affected him? She was intrigued by the thought. “Should I consider that another mistake?” she whispered.
Alex stared at her, transfixed. He couldn’t make a sound.
Lily moved the necessary half inch to bring her lips to his. Alex inhaled quickly. This time he didn’t try to move away. Softly she brushed her mouth over his, giving him nothing more than questioning pressure. Alex tolerated her kiss with his eyes tightly closed, as if she were subjecting him to some acutely painful torture. His shoulders and chest turned rock-hard with the tension of his arms pulling on the ropes. She touched the side of his smooth, hot neck with her fingertips, and he gave a single gasp against her lips.
Astonished, Lily pulled herself higher onto his chest. She wanted more…something…but she didn’t know what, or how. Then there was movement, his head turning slowly on the pillow, adjusting beneath hers. Lily curved her small hand behind his neck, instinctively pressing harder with her mouth. She felt the sleek push of his tongue, and she was shaken by a jolt of pleasure that made her want to answer the silken movement. Alex felt the way Lily shivered, her breath striking his cheek in a rush of surprise. Expecting each moment that her lips would be withdrawn, he strained upward in hunger, seeking more. But she did not pull away—she stayed against him, open and sweet.
Alex clenched his fists. He was trapped by her sinuous body and the bed and his own helplessness. Excitement flooded through him, centering in his loins. Nothing would stop the hardening rise of his flesh, coming to life in heavy, twitching surges. He ached and groaned, and damned himself. Ripping his mouth from hers, he buried his face in the perfumed curve of her throat. “No more,” he said gruffly. “Either untie me or stop this.”
“No,” she said breathlessly. She had never felt so daring and giddy in her life. She laced her fingers into his thick hair. “I’m t-teaching you a lesson…”
“Get off me!” he said fiercely. He almost succeeded in frightening her away—he felt her give a little jump.
But she persisted. Still holding his gaze, she eased further over him until she was draped on him full length. He shuddered and bit his lip. The weight of her body bearing down on his aroused manhood caused him to press upward without conscious thought. It wasn’t enough. He wanted more—the softness of her flesh surrounding him, the cling and pull of her body as he thrust within her. Somehow he managed to speak very quietly. “Enough. Lily…enough.”
She was breathing very fast, looking as reckless as she had during the hunt, hurtling over impossible jumps. Alex couldn’t fathom what was going on in her mind, until she spoke. “Say her name now,” she urged in a thick voice. “Say it.”
He set his jaw so hard that he felt it tremble.
“You can’t,” Lily whispered. “Because it’s me you want, not Caroline. I can feel it. I’m a living, breathing woman, and I’m here. And you want me.”
A thousand thoughts raced across his brain. He searched for Caroline, but she wasn’t there…nothing but a blur of memories, faded color, muted sound. None of it was as real as the face above him. Lily’s mouth remained just above his, close enough that he could feel the warmth of her lips.
He didn’t answer, but she could read the truth in his eyes. Lily should have pulled away in triumph, glorying in her victory. She was right, after all. Instead she made a low sound and kissed him again. Disarmed, unable to retreat, all he could do was surrender. Her hands were on his face, his neck, exploring gently. Alex groaned with the need to touch her, hold her tight between his thighs. Instead he was spread beneath her. It was killing him slowly. The ropes tore at his wrists until they were raw.
Lily gasped at the rhythmic goading of his hips. She tried to move away, only to find that he had caught her bottom lip with his teeth. “Turn your head,” he muttered, his warm breath rushing into her mouth. “Turn it…”
She obeyed, and he let go of her lip, his mouth opening to receive the twisting pressure of hers. Lily gave a small sob of pleasure. Compulsively she gathered tighter against him, impelling her br**sts against his hard chest, her stomach flat against his. The friction between their bodies caused her gown to ride up to her knees, but she didn’t care; she couldn’t seem to make herself care about anything except the urgent need building inside.
There was a knock at the door. Lily stiffened at the sound. “Miss Lawson?” came the butler’s muffled voice.
Weakly she dropped her head to the pillow, the puff of her breath tickling Alex’s ear. He turned his head against her buoyant curls and inhaled the sweet fragrance.
Burton spoke again. “Miss Lawson?”
Lily raised her head. “Yes, Burton?” she asked unsteadily.
“A message has just arrived.”
She froze. That could mean only one thing. Burton would never intrude on her privacy unless the note were from a particular source.
Alex watched Lily intently. The blush drained from her face. There was a gleam of something like fear in her eyes. She seemed dazed. “It can’t be,” he heard her whisper. “It’s too soon.”
“Too soon for what?”
The sound of his voice seemed to recall her. She wiped her expression clean and rolled away from him, jerking at her skirts. Carefully she avoided looking at him. “I must bid you good night, my lord. I th-think you’ll be comfortable here—”
“Not likely, you little tease!” He watched in fury as she fumbled to restore her appearance and left the room. He shouted a few choice obscenities after her, adding, “I’ll see you in Newgate for this! And as for your damn butler—” The door slammed, and he fell silent, glaring at the ceiling.
Lily faced Burton in the hall, too distracted to worry about her disheveled appearance. There was a note poised on the silver tray in his hands. The paper was sealed with a dirty blob of wax.
Burton proffered the tray. “You instructed me to deliver them to you upon their arrival, no matter what time—”
“Yes,” Lily interrupted, snatching the letter. She broke the seal, and scanned the scrawled lines. “Tonight. Damn him! He must have people watching me…always seems to know where I am…”
“Miss?” Burton had never been privileged to know the contents of the letters, which arrived at the terrace on a sporadic basis. He had come to recognize them by the elaborate, untidy handwriting, and the strange appearance of the bearers. The letters were always delivered by ragged boys fresh from the street.
“Have a horse saddled for me,” Lily said.
“Miss Lawson, I should like to point out the inadvisability of a woman riding alone in London, especially at night—”
“Tell one of the maids to bring my gray cloak. The one with the hood.
Slowly she went down the stairs, keeping hold of the railing as if to steady herself.
Covent Garden was an especially unsavory area of London, where every worldly pleasure from the conventional to the unthinkable was to be had for a price. There was advertising both visible and verbal: printed bills and notices plastered on every wall, the din of swindlers, pimps, and prostitutes shouting invitations at every passerby. Regency bucks, coming from the theaters with their light-o’-loves, teetered drunkenly to the market taverns. Lily took care to avoid all of them. A drunken lord could sometimes prove as dangerous and inhuman as a professional criminal.
As she crossed through pools of gaslight and shadow, Lily felt sympathy for the parade of prostitutes trodding the thoroughfares. There were young girls and haggard old women and every age in between. They were either thin from starvation or bloated with gin. They all wore the same weary look as they rested on steps and posed on corners, producing painted smiles for any prospective customer. Surely they would never have turned to such an existence had there been any other choice.
There but for the grace of God, Lily thought, and shuddered. She would kill herself rather than turn to such a life, even the life of a courtesan wearing diamond clusters and servicing her protector on silk sheets. Her lip curled with disgust. Better to be dead than owned by a man and forced to serve his physical needs.
Traveling south on King Street, she passed the churchyard. She ignored the catcalls and jeers thrown at her from the roofed shacks that served as shops and dwelling places. Cautiously she went across the street from the market entrance. The two-story arcade was fronted with a pediment and granite Tuscan columns, an oddly regal design for a place containing such squalor. She reined in her horse and paused in a shadow. There was nothing to do but wait. Ruefully she grinned as she saw a pair of young pickpockets nimbly working the crowds. Then she thought of Nicole. Her face turned to stone. My God, what kind of existence was she leading now? Was it possible, young as she was, that she was already being used to turn vice into profit? The notion brought stinging tears to her eyes. Roughly she rubbed them away. She couldn’t give way to emotion, not now. She had to be cool and self-controlled.
A lazy voice came from the darkness nearby. “So ’ere you are, then. I ’ope you bring what I want.”
Slowly Lily dismounted and clutched the reins of her mount in one hand. She turned in the direction of the voice, and forced herself to speak steadily, though her entire body was trembling.
“No more, Giuseppe. Not a farthing more until you give me back my daughter.”
Count Giuseppe Gavazzi had all the striking splendor of a figure from an Italian Renaissance painting—boldly prominent features, curly black hair, rich olive skin, and lustrous black eyes. Lily remembered the first time she had ever seen him. Giuseppe had been standing in a sunlit Florentine piazza, surrounded by a group of Italian women who hung on every word he spoke. With his flashing smile and dark beauty, he had taken Lily’s breath away. Their paths had crossed numerous times at social events, and Giuseppe had begun to pursue her ardently, ostentatiously.
Lily had been overwhelmed by the romance of Italy and the previously unknown excitement of being seduced by a handsome man. Harry Hindon, her only other love, had been staid and so very English, qualities that had pleased her parents. She’d thought Harry’s tight grasp on propriety would influence her, save her. Instead her wildness had caused him to leave her. But Count Gavazzi had seemed to relish her impulsive glee—he had called her exciting, beautiful. At the time it had seemed as if she’d finally found the man with whom she could drop all pretenses and be herself. Now the memory of her own foolishness disgusted her.
In the past few years Giuseppe’s looks had coarsened—or perhaps it was merely that her perception of him had changed. His pouting lips, praised by the Italian signoras for their sensuous fullness, now seemed repulsive to Lily. She loathed the way his gaze roamed greedily over her, though once she had been flattered by his attention. There was something seedy about his appearance, even in the way he stood with his hands clasped on his h*ps to emphasize their unusual narrowness. It made her stomach turn to look at him and remember the night they’d spent together. He had astonished and humiliated her by asking for a gift afterward. As if she were some dried-up spinster, obligated to pay a man to come to her bed.
Giuseppe reached out and pushed Lily’s hood back, revealing her resolute face. “Buona sera,” he said in his rich voice, his fingertip extending to stroke her cheek. She knocked his hand away, making him chuckle. “Ah, still with the claws, my darling cat. I come for the money, cara. You come for news of Nicoletta. Now give to me, and I do the same.”
“Not anymore.” Lily drew in a trembling breath. “You oily bastard. Why should I give you more money when I don’t even know if she’s alive?”
“I promise you, she is safe, ’appy—”
“How can she be happy with no mother?”
“Such a beautiful little girl we ’ave, Lily. With the smile all the time, and the pretty ’air…” He touched his own ebony curls. “Pretty like mine. She call me Papà. Sometime she ask me where is Mama.”
That broke her as nothing else could. Lily stared at him without blinking. She swallowed against a lump of pain, and tears sprang to her eyes. “I’m her mother,” she said wretchedly. “She needs me, and I want her back, Giuseppe. You know she belongs with me!”
He regarded her with a faintly pitying smile. “Maybe I return Nicoletta before now, bella, but you make too many times mistake. You have men looking, asking question in the city. You do tricks on me, ’ave them follow me after we meet. You make me angry. Now I think for more years I keep Nicoletta.”
“I told you, I don’t know anything about that,” Lily cried. It was a lie, of course. She was well aware that Derek had men searching for Nicole. Derek had informants in every part of the city, including porters, clerks, dealers, whores, butchers, and pawnbrokers. Over the past year he had summoned Lily four different times to take a look at dark-haired girls matching Nicole’s description. None of them were her daughter. She couldn’t afford to take them in. What Derek did with them afterward, she didn’t ask and had no desire to know.
She looked at Guiseppe with hate-filled eyes. “I’ve given you a fortune,” she said hoarsely. “I don’t have anything left. Have you heard the expression ‘blood from a turnip,’ Guiseppe? It means I can’t give you any more, because I don’t have it!”
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