“That’s right,” came his husky voice. “You’ll remember this…you’ll want more…and I’ll do it again…and again…”
She shuddered and cried out against his lips as the sensations raged through her in a devastating torrent. His words melted into a long purr, and he held himself deep inside her. Compulsively her body tightened around him, and he gave himself over to a cl**ax that burst through him in fiery plenitude. He was left breathless and weary and filled with a satisfaction that sank into the very marrow of his bones.
As he held her, she fell asleep with the suddenness of a tired child, her small head resting heavily on his shoulder. Alex stroked her neck and back, unable to stop touching her. He was afraid to trust the feeling of happiness that brimmed and spilled inside him. But it seemed he had no choice. From the very first, she’d been able to find the chinks in his armor.
He was a realist, scoring to believe in things foreordained. But it seemed that Lily’s sudden appearance in his life had been a gift of fate. Until then, he had allowed his grief for Caroline to overshadow everything. It had been pure stubbornness, his refusal to let go. He’d wanted to remain in bitter isolation and use Penelope as a safeguard for his solitude. Only Lily, with her twisted, tricky, haphazard charm, could have stopped it from happening.
Lily murmured in her sleep, her fingers twitching slightly against his chest. Alex hushed her with a comforting murmur and kissed her forehead. “What am I going to do with you?” he asked softly, wishing there was some way he could hold back tomorrow.
The first inkling Lily had of London’s reaction to what was rapidly becoming known as “The Scandal” was at Monique Lafleur’s shop on Bond Street. A dress designer who imported all the daring styles from Paris and cleverly adapted them for London tastes, Monique was always the first to know the latest gossip. Something about her lilting accent and cheerful blue eyes encouraged confidences from washwomen to duchesses, and everyone in between.
She was an attractive, dark-haired woman in her forties, kind-hearted and generous, unable to hold a grudge against anyone for longer than ten minutes or so. Her presence was so cheerfully inquisitive, her conversation filled with such understanding charm, that she had amassed a large and devoted clientele. Women trusted her to keep their secrets and dress them beautifully, knowing that Monique was that rare kind of female who never competed with those of her own sex. She never allowed herself to succumb to cattiness or jealousy.
“Why should I mind if one woman has a handsome lover, or another has great beauty?” she had once exclaimed to Lily. “I have a kind husband, my own shop, many friends, and all the gossip I can fill my ears with! It is a pleasant life, and it keeps me far too busy to covet that which others have.”
As Lily entered the shop with her usual brisk stride, she was greeted by one of Monique’s assistants, Cora. The girl paused with an armful of silk and muslin swatches and stared at her strangely. “Miss Lawson!…Wait, I shall tell Madame Lafleur you are here. She’ll want to know at once.”
“Thank you,” Lily said slowly, wondering at Cora’s unusual animation. It couldn’t be that they had already heard about her wager with Alex. Not even a day had passed, for heaven’s sake!
But as soon as Monique burst through the curtains that separated the front of the shop from the work area in back, Lily was certain. Monique knew.
“Lily, cherie!” the designer exclaimed, embracing her fervently. “Once I heard what had happened, I knew you would come here as soon as possible. There is so much work to be done—with your new status, you will need many new gowns, n’est-ce pas?”
“How did you find out so soon?” Lily asked dazedly.
“Lady Wilton was just here. She told me all about it. Her husband was at Craven’s last night. My dear, I am so pleased for you! What a brilliantly clever move! A magnificent coup! They say Lord Raiford appeared to be completely besotted with you. And what’s more, every man in London will surpass himself to be the next. You’ve been sought after for years. Now that it’s known you’re available, you can name any price, and any one of them will pay gladly to be your protector. No woman has ever had such a luxury of selection! Oh, think of the jewels, the carriages and houses, the riches that will be yours! If you play your cards right—no pun intended, cherie—you could be one of the wealthiest women in London!” She pushed Lily into a cushioned chair and dropped a pile of sketches into her lap, as well as a copy of La Belle Assemblée, a book containing pictures of the latest fashions. “Maintenant, perhaps you would like to glance at these while we talk. I want to hear every delicious detail. Trains are coming back, if you’ll notice. Somewhat inconvenient, having them drag across the floor, but so picturesque. Cora? Cora, put down those samples and bring Miss Lawson some café at once.”
“There isn’t much to tell,” Lily said in a strangled voice, sinking lower into the chair, fixing her eyes on the top sketch.
Monique gave her a speculative but friendly glance. “Don’t be modest, dear. This is a great triumph. You’re the envy of many. It was quite sensible of you to accept Mr. Craven’s protection for a while—after all, he is rich enough that one can manage to overlook his commonness—but it was high time for you to make a change. And Lord Raiford is an extraordinary choice. So well-bred, so handsome and influential, so authentic. He descends from a true ancient landed family, not like these dandies with easily gotten titles and questionable fortunes. Have you already made an arrangement with him, my dear? If you like, I could recommend an excellent lawyer to represent you—he negotiated the ‘understanding’ between Viola Miller and Lord Fontmere…”
While Monique chatted and showed her pictures of the new, heavily ornamented style of hems, Lily silently reflected on the events of the morning. She had dressed and left stealthily at dawn, while Alex was still sleeping. He had been exhausted, his tawny body stretched out among the white sheets in a long, unguarded sprawl. Ever since then, she had been wavering between uneasiness and a strange elation. It was indecent to have such a feeling of well-being. Undoubtedly she was being gossiped about in every parlor and coffeehouse in London.
But, amazing as it was, she had no regrets. She couldn’t help thinking about last night with a sense of ironic wonder. She would never have expected that Alex, with his cold eyes and remoteness, would have turned into such a tender lover, so erotic and gentle…even now, it seemed like a dream. She had been convinced she understood him, and now she was utterly confused on the subject of the earl of Raiford. The only thing she knew for certain was that she had to avoid him until her head was clear. Thank God Alex would probably return to his familiar life in the country, satisfied that he had received payment for his loss of Penelope.
Now she had to turn her attention to the matter of five thousand pounds, which she had to have by tomorrow night. There would be high-stakes gambling at Craven’s this evening. If she didn’t win the money there, she would pawn all her jewelry, and perhaps some of her gowns. She might be able to scrape enough together.
“…Can’t you tell me a little something about him?” Monique wheedled. “And without meaning to pry indelicately, cherie, what about the betrothal between Raiford and your sister? Does that matter stand as before?”
Ignoring the questions, Lily smiled wryly. “Monique, enough about this. I’ve come here to ask a favor.”
“Anything,” Monique said, instantly diverted. “Anything at all.”
“There is a masked assembly tonight at Craven’s. It is very important that I have something special to wear. I know there is no time, that you have other things to work on, but perhaps you could throw together something—”
“Oui, oui, I quite understand.” Monique said emphatically. “This is a great emergency—your first public appearance since le scandale. All eyes will be upon you tonight. You must have something extraordinary to wear.”
“I’ll have to buy on credit,” Lily said uncomfortably, not meeting her eyes.
“As much as you desire,” came the immediate response. “With Lord Raiford’s wealth at your disposal, you could comfortably purchase half the city!”
Lily shrugged and smiled lamely, refraining from telling her that she had no intention of being Raiford’s—or anyone else’s—kept woman. And that she had precious little wealth at her disposal. “I want to be wearing the most daring costume at the assembly tonight,” she said. “If I must brazen this out, I’ll do it with style.” Her only choice was to flaunt herself without a hint of shame. Moreover, she wanted a costume so completely distracting that none of the men she gambled with tonight would be able to concentrate on his cards.
“What a clever girl. Bien, we’ll make you a costume that will set the city back on its heels.” Monique regarded her with a calculating gaze. “Perhaps…it would do very well if we…ah, yes…”
Monique gave her a pleased grin. “We shall dress you, cherie, as the very first temptress.”
“Delilah?” Lily asked. “Or do you mean Salome?”
“Non, ma petit… I am referring to the woman, Eve!”
“Bien sûr, it will be talked of for decades!”
“Well,” Lily said weakly, “it shouldn’t take long to put that costume together.”
Alex went to Swans’ Court on Bayswater Road, an estate that had been in the Raiford family since it had been acquired by his great-grandfather William. The mansion was designed in the classical style, with symmetrical wings, Greek columns, and cool, wide halls of marble and white sculpted plaster. There was a large stable yard and a coachhouse that could accommodate fifteen carriages. Although Alex seldom stayed there, he had employed a nominal staff to maintain the place and see to the comfort of occasional visitors.
The door was answered by Mrs. Hodges, the elderly housekeeper. Her pleasant face, surrounded by white wispy curls, registered surprise at the sight of him. Hurriedly she welcomed him inside. “My lord, we received no word of your arrival, or I would have made ready—”
“That’s quite all right,” Alex interrupted. “I wasn’t able to send advance notice, but I’ll be staying the week. Perhaps longer. I’m not certain.”
“Yes, my lord. I’ll inform the cook—she’ll want to stock the pantry. Will you be having breakfast, my lord, or shall I tell her to leave for market straightaway?”
“No breakfast,” Alex said with a smile. “I’ll have a look around the house, Mrs. Hodges.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Alex doubted he would be hungry for quite some time. Before he had left Craven’s apartments, a housemaid had brought up a tray laden with eggs, breads, puddings, ham and sausage, and fruit. A man identifying himself as Craven’s personal valet had brushed and pressed his clothes and gave Alex the most precise shave of his life. Servants had filled a hip bath with hot water and stood by with thick towels, soap, and expensive cologne.
None of them had answered his questions about where Craven had spent the night. Alex had wondered at the man’s motives, and why he would make no claim on Lily when he obviously cared for her. Why would he push her into the arms of another man and even insist upon providing his own apartments for their use? Craven was an odd man—wily, crude, avaricious, and unfathomable. Alex was intensely curious about Lily’s relationship with Craven. He intended to make her explain just what their strange friendship entailed.
Sliding his hands into his pockets, Alex strolled through the mansion. Owing to his sudden arrival, much of the furniture was still concealed with striped linen covers to protect it from dust. The rooms were painted in icy pastels, the floors either covered with fitted carpet or polished with beeswax. Each bedroom possessed a marble fireplace and a large adjoining dressing room, and was decorated with floral paper and chintz bed-hangings. Alex’s room was exceptionally large, with a ceiling painted to resemble a blue sky and clouds. The center-piece of the mansion was an elegant gold and white ballroom with tall marble pillars, ornate chandeliers, and opulent family portraits.
Alex had lived here during some of the months of his courtship of Caroline. He had hosted balls and soirées that Caroline had attended with her family. She had danced with him in the ballroom, her amber hair gleaming in the light of the chandeliers. After her death, he had avoided the place, flinching from the memories that seemed to drift through the rooms like faded perfume. Now as he wandered through the house, the shadowy memories brought no more pain, only a barely tangible sweetness.
He wanted to bring Lily here. It was easy to imagine her presiding over a ball, moving among the guests with her sparkling smile and lively chatter, her dark beauty emphasized by a white silk gown. The thought of her invigorated him, filled him with eager curiosity. He wondered what was going on in her unpredictable mind, and what her mood had been this morning. It had been damned annoying to wake up to her absence. He wanted to see her na*ed body in the daylight and to make love to her again. He wanted to hear his name on her lips and feel her fingers in his hair and—
“My lord?” Mrs. Hodges had come in search of him. “My lord, there is someone here to see you.”
The news caused his pulse to quicken in anticipation. Brushing by the housekeeper, Alex descended the central stairway with its wrought-iron rococo balustrade and landings illuminated by large windows topped by fan-lights. Rapidly he strode through the inner hall to the entrance room with its delicately painted panels. He stopped short as he saw the visitor.
“Hell,” he muttered. Not Lily, but his cousin Roscoe, Lord Lyon, whom he hadn’t seen in months.
A handsome and unusually jaded young buck, Ross was one of Alex’s first cousins on his mother’s side. Tall, blond, blessed with wealth and charm, he was a favorite of aristocratic women with inattentive husbands. He’d had a multitude of affairs, traveled throughout the world, and accumulated a variety of experiences, all of which had served to make him excessively cynical. It was said throughout the family that Ross had been bored with life since the age of five.
“You never visit unless you want something,” Alex said brusquely. “What is it?”
Ross grinned easily. “I sense a lack of enthusiasm, cousin. Expecting someone else?” Ross was fond of answering questions with questions—one of the reasons his stint in the army had been so short.
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