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“Convenient,” Alex said curtly. “Not only will you share your woman, you’ll provide the bed as well.”

Derek gave him a humorless smile. “I don’t share nofing what’s mine. Understand? Yes, I see you does.”

Alex stared at him in bewilderment. “Then you and she aren’t—”

“Narrow a once,” Derek said in guttural cockney, with a shake of his head.

“But before you must have—”

“I only takes whores to bed.” Derek smiled humorlessly at Alex’s blank expression. “Lily’s rum goods. I wouldn’t touch ’er with these ’ands. She’s too fine for that.”

Frustration and amazement collided in Alex’s chest. Was it possible that the rumors were false and there had been no affair between them? God help him if he allowed himself to believe something so implausible. But what purpose would they have for lying? It made no sense. Dammit, was he ever going to find out who or what Lily Lawson was?

Craven snapped his fingers at the factotum. “Worvy,” he muttered, and walked away quickly.

Stunned, Alex watched Craven’s hasty departure. “What’s going on between those two?”

Worthy regarded him impassively. “Nothing, exactly as Mr. Craven told you. Mr. Craven has always felt it would be prudent to keep his friendship with Miss Lawson platonic.” With that, he gestured for Alex to follow him along the twists and turns of the hall.

“Why?” Alex demanded. “What’s wrong with her? Or is it him?” He stopped and grabbed the factotum’s lapels, spinning him around. “Tell me, or I’ll wring it out of you!”

Gently Worthy disengaged the fine worsted cloth of his coat from Alex’s fists. “My personal opinion on the matter,” he said quietly, “is that he’s afraid of falling in love with her.”

Alex’s hands dropped. He felt as if he were hovering on the brink of some momentous disaster. “Oh, hell.”

Worthy looked at him inquiringly. “Shall we continue, my lord?”

Alex nodded without a word. Worthy brought him to an unpretentious door that looked as though it might lead to some cellar storerooms. Instead it opened to reveal a narrow staircase that spiraled upward. Worthy ascended the remaining steps and indicated another door. He looked up at Alex with the same expression Derek had earlier, yearning to make a speech but struggling to suppress it. “Let me assure you, my lord, you will not be disturbed. If you require anything, ring for the staff. They have been chosen for their efficiency and discretion.” He slipped past Alex and vanished like a shadow.

Alex found himself staring at the closed door with a grimace. He remembered Lily’s face in the gaming room as she realized she had lost. She’d been devastated. No doubt she expected the worst from him, especially after what she’d done to him. But he wasn’t going to hurt her. Suddenly he was impatient to make her understand that revenge had no part of this. Grasping the doorknob, he turned and pushed.

Worthy found Derek in one of the small, seldom-used rooms in the gambling palace. It was decorated with chairs, a desk, and a chaise lounge, making it a convenient trysting spot or a place where business could be conducted with absolute privacy. Derek stood by a window, nearly hidden by a drape. Although he was aware of Worthy’s approach, he remained silent, his fingers tangling restlessly in the thick folds of scarlet velvet.

“Mr. Craven?” Worthy asked hesitantly.

Derek spoke as if to himself. “Jaysus, she was white as chalk. Knees knocking fit to make ’er guts rattle. Not what Raiford expects to find, I’ll wager.” He gave a harsh laugh. “I don’t envy the poor bastard.”

“Don’t you, sir?” Worthy asked quietly.

There was nothing but silence. Derek kept his face turned away. There was a peculiar sound to his breathing. After a few moments, he spoke hoarsely, making a careful effort to soften his cockney accent. “I’m not good enow for her. But I know what she needs. Someone her own kind…someone who hasn’t lived ’is life so long in the gutter. I think…I think she could’ve cared for me. But I ’asn’t let it happen. I…wants better for her.” He passed a hand over his eyes and gave a bitter, self-mocking laugh. “If only I was born a gentleman,” he whispered harshly. “If I was born decent. Then I’d be with her now instead o’ bloody damn Raiford,” He swallowed audibly fighting for self-control. “I wants a drink.”

“What would you like?”

“Anyfing. Just be quick about it.” He waited until Worthy had left, then leaned his face in the drapes, rubbing the velvet against his cheek.

Chapter 8

Alex crossed the threshold of a tiny cove that served as an entrance hall. He found Lily standing in the center of a room filled with high-flown extravagance, all baroque clutter and gilt. He’d seen more tastefully decorated bawdy houses.

Lily’s stillness was deceptive. Alex sensed her explosive mood. He tried to keep his gaze on her face, but he couldn’t help sliding a quick glance over the black lace and nude silk of her gown, the gloves that covered her arms. He was glad she hadn’t undressed. He wanted to do it. The thought caused a violent response within him, making his heart churn and his body fill with heat. He wanted to soothe the anxiety that had caused the color to drain from her face. Before he could say a word, Lily broke the silence with a nervous gasp of a laugh.

“Derek’s apartments,” she said, gesturing around them. She wrapped her arms tight around her middle and manufactured a wry smile. “Charming, are they not?”

Alex glanced at the room, taking in its velvet decadence and expensive faceted mirrors and florid paintings of mythological scenes. “It suits him.” Slowly he approached her. “Do you want to go somewhere else?’

“No.” She hopped back, preserving the distance between them.

“Lily—”

“No. No, wait. I should like to tell you s-something first.” She ducked her head and went to a small table inlaid with lapis. Snatching up a small slip of paper, she held it out to him. As soon as he took it, she backed away. “I-I’ve just written that out,” she said rapidly. “My note for fifteen thousand pounds. I’m afraid it will take some time for me to make good on it, but I swear you’ll receive it all, with interest. Any rate you want. Within reason, of course.”

“I don’t want interest.”

“Thank you, that’s very kind—”

“I want a night with you.” He crumpled the paper in his fist and let it drop to the floor. “I’ve wanted it since I first saw you.”

“You can’t,” she said with an emphatic shake of her head. “It won’t happen. I’m sorry.”

Deliberately he walked toward her. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

Lily held her ground, but a visible shudder ran through her. “I can’t do this with you,” she cried, raising her hands to ward him off. “Not with any man!”

Her words seemed to hover in the air between them. Alex stopped, puzzled and wary, staring at her keenly. Was the thought of taking him into her bed so repugnant to her? Was it him or all men? Was it…A new, startling thought occurred to him, and he felt a burning warmth creep up from his neck. In all his arrogance, there was a possibility he hadn’t considered before. He took a deep breath. “You…” he began awkwardly. “Is it that you…prefer women?”

“What?” Lily regarded him with bewilderment, then turned crimson. “Oh, good God! No, it’s not that.”

She was driving him mad. “Then what is it?” he asked tautly.

Lily lowered her head. “Just take my pledge,” she said in an agonized whisper. “Take the money. I promise I’ll make good on it, just take it—”

He took her arms in a hard grip, interrupting the tumble of words. “Look at me,” he said, but she kept her head down. “Lily, tell me.”

She gave a dry, cracked laugh and shook her head.

“Did someone hurt you?” he asked urgently. “Is that it?”

“You’re hurting me—”

“I won’t let you go. Tell me what it is.” He let her writhe helplessly, until she realized it was no use. She went still, her body trembling. His hands bit into her arms as he waited, his head bent over hers. Then he heard her emotionless voice.

“I know what men think when they look at me, what kind of woman they—you—expect. They assume I’ve been with many men. But there’s been only one. Years ago. I was curious and lonely and…oh, I have a dozen excuses. H-he was the first. And the last. I hated every minute of it. The experience was as miserable, dreadful, for him as it was for me. He was a great society favorite, held in high esteem as a lover, so don’t assume the fault was his. It was mine. I don’t have those kinds of feelings. I am the last woman a sane man would want in his bed.” She laughed bitterly. “Now do you still want me?”

Alex slid his fingers under her chin and forced her face up. His gray eyes were filled with compassion and an underlying darkness as deep and infinite as a moonless night. “Yes.”

Lily felt a tear roll down her cheek. Humiliated, she twisted away from him. “For God’s sake, don’t pity me!”

“Does this feel like pity to you?” Lightning-swift, he caught her h*ps and pulled her hard against his body. She made an inarticulate sound. “Does it?” He held her against his rigid, aroused flesh and stared into her eyes. “Why did you hate it?”

She shook her head slightly, her lips compressed.

“It’s always painful the first time,” he said softly. “Didn’t you expect that?”

“Of course.” She flushed with mortified scorn. “I would have hated it in any case.”

“So you’ve judged and convicted all men from one experience. One night.”

“He taught me all I needed to know,” she agreed stiffly.

Alex pressed his hand on her lower back, keeping her against him. His voice was gently reproachful. “What if my opinion of all women were based solely on my acquaintance with you?”

“I daresay you wouldn’t be so eager to get married.”

“Well, you solved that particular problem of mine.” He lowered his head and kissed the side of her neck. She leaned back, stiffening her arms between them. “Fifteen thousand pounds is a great deal of money,” he murmured. “Are you certain you shouldn’t consider spending a few hours with me instead?”

“Now you’re mocking me,” she said wrathfully.

“No,” he whispered, the word brushing her cheek like a kiss. She turned her face away. “And you dared to call me stubborn.” He threaded his fingers through her sable curls. “You’ve let the memory fester for years, probably turned it into something even worse than it was—”

“Oh, go right ahead, belittle my feelings,” she cried, her temper sparking. “But you don’t know the whole of the story, and I would die before telling you, so don’t try to make me—”

“All right.” He buried his lips in her hair. “I want you,” he said, his voice muffled and determined. “No more talking. We’re going to do this, whether or not I can find a bed in this damn place.” His arms tightened and he nuzzled deeper against her scalp. “All you have to do is let it happen. Just let it happen.”

Lily closed her eyes, her face wedged against his chest. His arms felt like steel around her. The jutting bulge of his loins burned through the layers of clothing between them. In spite of his urgency, he seemed to be waiting for something. His mouth moved among her curls, and his fingers splayed wide on her back. He whispered against her hair. “Lily, don’t be afraid. I want to please you. I’ll make it good. Trust me. You have to trust me.”

A strange passiveness came over her, a weariness she couldn’t withstand. She had struggled and fought for so long, using all her wiles to stay afloat in a churning sea. She had no more strength, no ideas. Nothing to lose. Finally she had come up against a will greater than her own, and there seemed to be no choice but to drift, and let herself be towed in its wake. Let it happen…the words seemed to echo in her ears. Hesitantly she turned her head to the doorway on the left, the direction of the bedroom. She spoke in a faltering whisper. “I believe…it’s over there.”

He picked her up easily and carried her through the next two rooms, until they came to one filled with lamplight and heavy gold-framed mirrors and an enormous bed adorned with carved dolphins and trumpets. Setting her on her feet, Alex took her face in his hands, his thumbs touching the corners of her lips. She looked at him through half-closed eyes, at his harshly perfect features gleaming gold in the muted light. He bent his head, his mouth brushing against hers.

With an erotic shock, she felt the tip of his tongue against her lips, edging the smooth curve, leaving behind a trace of silken moisture. Then he pressed deep, sealing their lips together. The warmth of his mouth was mysteriously pleasant. Lily swayed, suddenly off balance as she stood on her toes. She reached around his neck to keep herself steady, and let her lips drift apart in unconscious invitation. The intrusion of his tongue was gradual, barely venturing past her teeth.

It was folly to trust him. She knew the gentleness wouldn’t last. She sensed his growing tension, the way his hand shook as he took her wrist and loosened her glove and peeled the velvet from her slender arm. She could feel the raw power in him, the restraint pulling taut until it was in danger of snapping. But he removed her other glove with the same exquisite care. His fingers glided to the edge of her low-cut bodice and he toyed with the feathery border of lace. There was no other movement except for the small, restless stroke of his fingers.

Lily felt his gaze on her down-bent head, heard the deepening rasp of his breath. She wondered at the reason for his hesitation. Perhaps he might change his mind and let her go…the thought filled her with hope and an odd, sinking dread. Then he took her shoulders around and turned her to face away from him. He began to unfasten the row of tiny buttons at the back of her gown. The garment slipped precariously, held up only by the wispy sleeves that clung to her shoulders. Slowly the mass of silk and lace slid to the floor. He loosened the ribbon of her drawers and pushed them down, leaving her clad only in the flimsy protection of her white shift and embroidered stockings.

She felt his mouth on her shoulder, his breath wafting in a hot mist against her skin. Gently his arm came around her front, his hand passing over her chest. The floor seemed to shift beneath her feet. Leaning back against his solid strength, she hardly dared to breathe as his fingers curved underneath the slight weight of her breast. Lightly his thumb moved over the shift until he found her nipple, teasing it to a hard point. She couldn’t suppress a gasp, the movement lifting her further into his hand. But the elusive wisp of pleasure was doused by a wave of self-consciousness. Her br**sts were small—he must have expected more; her gowns were designed to make her look fuller. A stumbling explanation came to her lips, but before she could utter a word, his hand slipped beneath the shift to cover her na*ed breast. His fingertips stroked over the smooth curve, finding the dainty crest of her nipple.

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