“How did you know I was here?” Alex demanded.
“Common sense. You had to be in one of two places…here, or nestled in a certain pair of lovely arms, against a small but charmingly piquant bosom. I decided to try here first.”
“It seems you’ve heard about last night.”
Ross seemed unaffected by Alex’s forbidding scowl. “Is there a soul in London who hasn’t heard about it by now? Allow me to express my most profound admiration. I never suspected it was in you.”
“Thank you,” Alex indicated the door. “Now leave.’’
“Oh no, not yet. I’ve come to talk, cousin. Be congenial. After all, you see me only once or twice a year.’’
Alex relented and smiled reluctantly. Since childhood, he and Ross had maintained a relationship of friendly bickering. “Dammit. Come walk about the grounds with me.’’
They walked through the house to the parlor and opened the French doors that led outside. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard about my straightlaced cousin Alex and Lawless Lily,” Ross commented as they strolled across the smooth green lawn. “Gambling for a woman’s favors…no, not our dull, conventional earl of Raiford. It had to be someone else. On the other hand…” He studied Alex closely, his light blue eyes glinting. “There’s a look about you…I haven’t seen it since Caroline Whit-more was alive.”
Alex shrugged uncomfortably and crossed into the small but beautifully landscaped garden, with walks bordered by strawberry beds and flowering hedges. They paused at the center of the garden, where a large weathered sundial provided the necessary focal point.
“You’ve been a near-recluse for two years,” Ross continued.
“I’ve made appearances,” Alex said gruffly.
“Yes, but even when you bothered to attend some gathering, there was something rather hollow about you. Damned cold, actually. Refusing any condolences or expressions of sympathy, keeping even your closest friends at arm’s length. Have you troubled yourself to wonder why your engagement with Penelope was received in such lukewarm fashion? People can see you don’t give a damn about the poor girl, and they pity the both of you for it.”
“There’s no reason to pity her now,” Alex muttered. “The ‘poor girl’ is happily married to Viscount Stamford. They’ve eloped to Gretna Green.”
Ross looked startled, then whistled in surprise. “Good old Zachary. Did he really manage that by himself? No, he must have had help from someone.”
“He did,” Alex said wryly.
A long moment passed, while Ross considered the possibilities. He turned a laughing gaze to Alex. “Don’t say it was Lily? That must have been the reason for your performance at Craven’s last night, to even the account. Lex talionis.”
“That news isn’t for public consumption,” Alex warned quietly.
“By God, you’ve done the family proud!” Ross exclaimed. “I thought the old Alex was gone for good. But something’s happened…you’ve rejoined the ranks of the living, haven’t you? This proves my suspicion that Lily Lawson’s charms could wake the dead.”
Alex turned and leaned his weight on the stone sundial, crooking one leg slightly. A breeze rifled through his hair, lifting the lock on his forehead. He thought of Lily nestled in his arms, her lips pressed to his shoulder. Again, the absurd feeling of happiness and completeness swept over him. Staring at the ground, he felt one side of his mouth pulling upward in an irrepressible smile. “She’s a remarkable woman,” he admitted.
“Aha.” Ross’s blue eyes gleamed with a lively interest, quite different from his usual laconic boredom. “I intend to be the next to have her. What’s the opening bid?”
Alex’s smile vanished in a flash. He looked at his cousin with a threatening frown. “There’s no auction taking place.”
“Oh, really? For the past two years, every man under the age of eighty has wanted Lawless Lily, but everyone knew she was Derek Craven’s domain. After last night, it’s clear she’s on the market.”
Alex reacted without thinking. “She’s mine.”
“You’ll have to pay to keep her. Now that word of last night has been spread around London, she’ll be neck-deep in offers of jewelry, castles, whatever bait she’ll snap for.” Ross gave him a self-assured smile. “Personally, I think my promise of a string of Arabians will do the trick, though I might have to throw in a diamond tiara or two. And Alex, I would like you to put a word in her ear for me. If you want to maintain her for a while, that’s fine. But I’m going to be her next protector. There’s not a woman in the world like her, with that beauty and fire. Any man who’s ever seen her at a hunt in those legendary red breeches has imagined her riding on top of him, and that’s—”
“Pink,” Alex snapped, pushing away from the sundial and pacing around it edgily. “They’re pink. And I’ll be damned if I’ll let you or anyone else come sniffing at her heels.”
“You can’t stop it from happening.”
Alex’s gray eyes narrowed, his expression turning dark and ominous. “You think not?”
“My God,” Ross marveled, “you’re actually angry. Livid, in fact. Hot as a Tartar. Ruffled, roiled, bridling up like a—”
“Go to hell!”
Ross smiled in wondering amusement. “I’ve never seen this much emotion from you before. What in God’s name is going on?”
“What’s going on,” Alex snarled, “is that I’ll strangle any man who dares approach her with an offer.”
“You’ll have to do battle with half the population of London, then.”
It was only then that Alex saw the cool enjoyment in his cousin’s eyes, and realized Ross was intentionally baiting him. “Damn you!”
Ross spoke in a quieter, more thoughtful tone. “You’re beginning to worry me. Don’t tell me you’re beginning to have feelings for her. Lily’s not the kind of woman a man keeps forever. She’s hardly what one would call domesticated. Be reasonable. Don’t make this interlude into something it was never meant to be.”
Alex schooled his features into a pleasant, self-controlled expression. “Leave, before I kill you.”
“Lily is a mature, experienced woman. She’ll lead you a merry dance. I’m just warning you, Alex, because I saw what losing Caroline did to you. You’ve gone to hell and back—I shouldn’t think you’d care to make that journey again. I don’t think you understand what Lily Lawson really is.”
“Do you?” Alex asked softly. “Does anyone?”
“Why don’t we ask Derek Craven?” Ross suggested, watching closely to judge if the arrow had hit its mark.
Suddenly Alex astonished him with a slow, lazy grin. “Craven’s no part of this, Ross. At least not anymore. All you need to know is that if you make one advance to Lily, I’ll take your head off. Now come back to the house with me. Your visit’s drawing to a close.”
Ross strode after him quickly. “Just tell me how long you intend to keep her.”
Alex continued to smile, his stride unbroken. “Find your own woman, Ross. It will be a waste of time to wait for Lily.”
St. James Street was congested with a long line of carriages as people arrived for the masked assembly at Craven’s. The full moon shed its bright light on the street, causing the spangled costumes of the guests to glitter and their feathered, plumed masks to cast exotic shadows on the pavement. Music, ranging from sprightly polonaises to elegant waltzes, floated outward from the open windows down the length of St. James.
Any ball would be an occasion for excess and exuberance, but the addition of masks gave the affair an exciting, even dangerous edge. People used the masks to do things they would never dream of in their everyday guises…and Craven’s was ideally designed for uninhibited behavior. With the multitude of dark nooks and small, private rooms, with the mingling of house wenches, society women, rakes, scoundrels, and gentlemen…nothing was safe or predictable.
Lily stepped from her carriage and walked carefully to the entrance of Craven’s. Her bare feet tingled from the friction of the pavement. She wore a dark cloak that extended from her neck to her ankles, hiding her costume—or lack thereof. She was tense with excitement and determination. It wouldn’t be difficult to win five thousand tonight, not with the amount of drinking and merrymaking going on. Not with the amount of skin she planned to expose. She would pluck the guests like pigeons ready for roasting.
Slipping past the crowd of guests awaiting admittance, Lily nodded a greeting to the butler. He seemed to recognize her despite the green velvet mask and long, dark wig that came to her hips, for he made no protest as she stepped inside.
Derek had been awaiting her arrival. As soon as Lily went into the entrance hall, she heard his voice behind her.
“You’re awright, then.”
Quickly she turned to face him. Derek was dressed as Bacchus, the god of debauchery. He was clad in a white toga and sandals, his head encircled in a wreath of grapes and leaves.
He gave her a searching, perceptive stare, and Lily was chagrined to feel a blush rising beneath her mask. “Of course I’m all right,” she said. “Why wouldn’t I be?” She smiled coolly. “Excuse me, I’m in search of a game. I have five thousand pounds to win.”
“Wait.” He touched her shoulder and regarded her in his old friendly, beguiling way. “Come ’ave a walk with me.”
She gave an incredulous laugh. “Do you expect me to resume our friendship as usual?”
Lily spoke patiently, as if explaining a situation to an obtuse child. “Because last night I gambled with my body in a card game out of sheer desperation. And not only did you let it happen, you egged the whole thing on and used it to amuse and entertain the members of your club. That’s not the behavior of a friend, Derek. It’s the behavior of a pimp.”
He made a scoffing sound. “If you wants a little tail-tickle with someone, I don’t gives a damn. I beds women all the time—it changes nofing between you an’ me.”
“Last night was different,” Lily said quietly. “I asked you to intervene for me. I wanted you to stop it. But you didn’t care enough. You gave me away, Derek.”
Some dark emotion stirred beneath his calm, composed surface. Suddenly there was an uneasy gleam in his eyes, a betraying twitch of his cheek. “I care,” he said evenly. “But you was newer mine to keep. What ’appens in a bed—that’s nofing to do with us.”
“Whatever I do, it’s no bread and butter of yours. Is that what you think?”
“That’s right,” he muttered. “It has to be.”
“Oh, Derek,” Lily whispered, looking at him as she never had before. She was beginning to understand things that had puzzled her for two years. Derek had known for a long time about her desperate struggle for money, and yet he had never offered to help her, though it was easily within his power. All this time she had thought it was miserly greed. It wasn’t greed, but fear. He preferred a mock friendship to anything real. The brutal deprivation of his youth had crippled his heart in some terrible way. “You let us all do what we wish, don’t you?” she asked softly. “All you want is to sit back and observe, as if you were watching some endless puppet show. So much safer than becoming involved. Much safer than assuming risks and taking responsibility. How unchivalrous of you.” She deliberately used words he couldn’t understand, knowing he hated that. “Well, I won’t ask for your help again. I don’t need it anymore. It’s strange, but after last night I feel as if I’ve shed all my…scruples.” Gracefully she slipped off her cloak and stared at his face, enjoying his reaction.
The guests just arriving in the entrance hall abruptly fell silent, all gazes arrowing to her.
At first Lily’s costume gave the impression of nakedness. Monique had created a gown of diaphanous, flesh-colored gauze that wrapped loosely around her. Artfully they had added large, green velvet “leaves” that in truth covered a good deal. Those patches of green velvet and the long locks of the dark wig were somewhat concealing. But there were tantalizing flashes of soft skin through the transparent fabric, and the outline of her slender, finely toned body was clearly visible. Most startling of all was the painted design of a serpent that wound around her body, starting from one tiny ankle and twisting its way up to her shoulder. It had taken three hours for a friend of Monique’s, a female artist, to paint the serpent.
With a taunting smile, Lily lifted a shiny red apple in her hand and held it under Derek’s nose. “Care for a bite?” she asked silkily.
After his initial astonishment, there was no expression on Derek’s face. But Lily’s sense of perception seemed to be newly sharpened. She knew there was some well-governed corner of his mind that wanted to prevent her from wearing the revealing costume in front of so many people. He would make no move to stop her, however.
Giving her a cold, speaking glance, Derek turned his back and strode away. “ ’Appy ’unting,” he said over his shoulder.
“Hunting,” Lily muttered, watching him slink off like some betrayed lover. The sight of him made her feel guilty, responsible for some harm done to him, though she didn’t know what. With a sparkling, determined smile, she handed her cloak to a waiting servant and strode in through the central gaming room. A pleased laugh escaped her as she saw how cleverly it was decorated, giving the impression of a ruined temple. The walls were hung with long blue banners to resemble the sky, while towering wood and plaster columns were painted to simulate aged stone. Statues and altars were positioned in the corners and along the sides of the room. The hazard table had been moved to clear an area for dancing. Musicians were seated on the balconies above, sending sweet strains through the gambling palace. House wenches were draped in silver and gold, playing the part of Roman dancing girls as they moved among the guests with veils, gaudy lyres, and fake musical instruments.
An audible gasp went through the room as Lily appeared. She was able to go no farther as a horde of costumed men gathered around her—jesters, monarchs, pirates, and a fantastic assortment of fictional characters. Women glared discreetly from a distance as every man in the place tried to gain Lily’s attention. She blinked in surprise at the multitude of urgent voices.
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