Authors: Anna Campbell
To my very dear friend Amanda Bell,
who has listened to me talk about writing
for the last thirty years!
I want to be your lover.”
The earl's voice was wintry. He sounded as if heâ¦
Ashcroft sipped his champagne, the cold bubbles bursting against hisâ¦
Diana was aware of nothing else apart from the powerfulâ¦
He's gone.” Lord Ashcroft's whisper was a breath across theâ¦
As she spread her thighs across Ashcroft's lap, Diana forcedâ¦
She'd failed. She'd failed. She'd failed.
Diana felt like a cat on top of a stove.
Ashcroft launched himself into the bed, tangling his bare legsâ¦
Blind to everything but his volcanic release, Ashcroft pumped intoâ¦
Lord Burnley's carriage rolled through the impressive stone gates markingâ¦
Desperately, Diana searched the old man's face for some resemblanceâ¦
One hundred and fifteen hours.
Diana sucked in a shuddering breath and collapsed against theâ¦
I wasn't sure you'd come.”
That should take you about five seconds. Including the fourâ¦
Hot, salty liquid spurted into Diana's mouth. Automatically, she swallowed.
Ashcroft glanced up from the books he'd piled on theâ¦
In their rooms in Perry's house, Ashcroft lolled naked amidstâ¦
As Ashcroft had expected, the lovely fluidity drained from Diana'sâ¦
Ashcroftâ¦” Diana's chest constricted with agonized denial.
Struggling to dampen his rampant arousal, Ashcroft watched Diana. Herâ¦
Ashcroft hammered on John Dean's door. He'd left London inâ¦
Ashcroft froze as if struck by lightning.
Ashcroft stared at this smug, evil old man, waiting forâ¦
Lord Ashcroft! Lord Ashcroft, can you hear me?”
Burnley's words struck Diana silent as if he produced anâ¦
Diana's wedding day dawned sunny and bright, perfect October weather.
Ashcroft abhorred seeing his strong, vivid Diana so hurt andâ¦
Diana, Countess of Ashcroft, rose from the satinwood desk inâ¦
want to be your lover.”
Diana was shocked to hear herself issue the invitation. Even more shocked that she didn't stumble over the bald words.
She'd never been sure she'd summon courage to speak them aloud. Yet they emerged clearly, firmly, without hesitation.
The statement sounded confident, as if she spent her life asking strangers into her bed.
Silence descended. Lengthened. Drew out to become uncomfortable.
She curbed the urge to twine her gloved hands together in her lap. Even though she was sick with nerves, she needed to appear strong, in control. Her heart battered the walls of her chest. She prayed its frantic gallop wasn't audible in the quiet room.
You can do this, Diana.
On such a sultry summer afternoon, the veiling over her
face was suffocating. Her teal dress clung more tightly than her usual clothing. Part of the plan, of course, but uncomfortable. She realized she gritted her teeth, and even though he couldn't see her face, she relaxed her jaw.
The veils obscured her view. Nonetheless, her attention fixed unwaveringly on her target, sitting across the mahogany desk from her. Through the filmy barrier, she discerned little, apart from his height and dark hair.
Tarquin Vale. The Earl of Ashcroft.
Plutocrat. Collector. Devotee of reformist politics.
Rake. Debauchee. Hellspawn.
Unwitting key to a future greater than she'd dared dream was possible.
An instant before the electric pause became unbearable, the earl leaned back. She couldn't see his expression in detail, but tension snapped in the heavy air, scented with the tang of old books, leather, and ink. He braced his elbows on the arms of his chair and steepled his elegant hands in front of him. An incongruously scholarly pose for a man she knew to be shallow and worldly.
“Iâ¦see,” he said slowly.
He had a deep voice, pleasant, musical. She imagined he employed it to devastating effect when he set out to seduce. Even sitting here, despising him, despising what she must do, that dark honey baritone rippled down her spine like a caress.
Taut with anticipation, she waited for him to say more, to agree. Reputation indicated he was an undiscriminating and profligate lover. No chance he'd refuse her. She was easy game.
Still, he sat in silence. Still, that strange tension crackled and sizzled. Like summer lightning trapped inside this opulent library with its beautifully bound books lining the walls, its gleaming celestial and terrestrial globes, its elaborately carved furniture.
Her lurid imagination had conjured many settings for her ruin. Bowers of sin draped in scarlet satin. Cabinets decorated with murals of fleshy nudes. A dark cellar crammed with instruments of gothic torture. A library wasn't on the list.
So far, nothing had gone as she'd expected.
For a minute upon her arrival, she hadn't even been sure Lord Ashcroft would see her. His butler looked surprised when she asked for his lordship. Although a libertine like Ashcroft must be used to unaccompanied, unidentified women turning up on his doorstep.
But the tall, austere old man, more like St. Peter than a family retainer, had stared down his nose in disapproval as he admitted her into the black-and-white-tiled hall. And he'd taken a discouragingly long time to return with news that his lordship awaited her.
She hadn't given her name, just said she was “a lady” calling on business with the master. She supposed “business” described her mission as well as any other word.
Surreptitiously, Diana straightened a backbone already stiffer than a ramrod and forced herself to breathe the hot fug that substituted for air. She felt light-headed with the heat, with trepidation, with suspense. Everything she wanted hinged on the next few seconds. She couldn't let Lord Ashcroft guess how badly she needed him.
Through her veils, she watched him tilt his head as if acknowledging a point in a debate. Or first blood in a fencing match.
“An interesting proposition.”
She licked dry lips, thanking heaven he wouldn't detect yet another sign she wasn't as composed as she struggled to appear. “I see no point in coy games.”
“Clearly.” Was that a hint of irony?
She braced herself against a crippling mixture of shame and embarrassment. She'd sworn to do this. Nothing would
stop her. Nothing. When she weighed this moment and the moments inevitably to come against the promised reward, her present discomfort didn't signify.
“Are you a bawd?”
He asked the question casually, as if it made little difference. She was sure it didn't. She'd heard he bedded anything in skirts, lady, professional, milkmaid. Still, heat prickled her face. Once again, she was grateful for the gauzy gray veiling.
In spite of her efforts, the denial frayed with resentment. She couldn't read his reactions with great accuracy, but something told her the sharp response piqued his curiosity in a way nothing else had.
“And yetâ¦” His quiet voice held a trace of derision that, illogically, angered her.
Of course, he suspected she was a professional touting for trade. What else could he think when she arrived uninvited and proposed herself as a candidate for his squalid attentions?
Get used to it,
she told herself grimly. She'd just set out on this particular path to perdition. Before she reached her destination, she had mountains and chasms and deserts to negotiate. It was too late to turn missish, even if humiliation curdled like sour milk in her belly.
When she didn't reply, he went on, still studying her over his braced hands. “Why choose me for this honor? I hesitate to say singular.”
She registered the insult. It puzzled more than angered. He was a legendary voluptuary. Women must accost him constantly. He certainly accosted them. What right had he to claim the high moral ground?
She raised her chin and shot him a glare he wouldn't see. In her bedchamber, when she'd dressed for this encounter, she'd recognized her mission would be difficult. Here, faced
with a polite, recalcitrant gentleman who wasn't acting at all like the rapacious rake of renown, it began to seem impossible.
Anger had one useful effect. It lent her spirit to continue, to launch into the story she'd prepared should this rouÃ© bother to ask why she offered herself. “I am a country widow.”
He gave another of those terse nods. “My commiserations.”
Her gloved fists clenched on the arms of her chair before she realized the gesture contradicted her spurious calm. She straightened her fingers and sucked in a deep but inaudible breath.
Already she didn't like this man.
No matter. All that mattered was what she gained if she persisted. One short descent into sin, and in return, she'd win everything she desired.
It seemed a fair bargain. Or at least it had until she sat in front of this surprisingly formidable man and offered to become his mistress.
She was annoyed and uncomfortable and at a disadvantage. Strangely, for all her uncertainty, she wasn't frightened. Before she'd arrived, she expected fear to be paramount. After all, Lord Ashcroft would soon have her at his mercy.
Or at least that was what she wanted him to think.
She forced herself to speak. “I'm in Town forâ¦experience.”
“How edifying. And am I now included in the sights of the capital, a human version of the Tower of London?”
He spoke evenly, but his question held a bite. She was disconcerted to realize he was a proud man. The perception sat incongruously with everything she knew about his prodigal appetites.
She still didn't feel any fear. Something else. The heady awareness she taunted a tiger, perhaps.
Confused by his reaction, she didn't answer directly. “As I
said, my lord, what purpose beating around the bush? I want a lover. I've chosen you.”
His low laugh shivered over her skin. “Why? Have we met?”
“So my question remains. Why me?”
“I'veâ¦I've seen you.” She cursed the betraying stammer.
Last week she'd arrived in London and glimpsed him at a distance, driving a terrifyingly fragile phaeton down Bond Street. She'd received an impression of a gentleman of fashion, one who imposed perfect discipline on his high-bred horses. Perfect discipline at odds with his unruly life. A stylishly angled hat had shaded his features although she'd noted a determined jaw and a firm, expressive mouth. Her experience with rakes was nonexistent, but she'd imagined someone less compelling, someone whose face immediately revealed his moral weakness.
“The fleeting sight of me ignited a fiery passion?” He sounded cynical, as well he might.
Before she'd arrived, she'd decided to stick to truth as much as possible. Anyway, she doubted she could carry off an appearance of being love-struck. Not to mention she guessed any mention of love was likely to send her quarry hurtling in the opposite direction.
She swallowed, her throat tight. “Even in the country, your feats as a lover are famous.”
Another soft laugh. Another frisson of awareness down her backbone. “Howâ¦flattering.”
She knew he meant absolutely the opposite.
Damn him, why didn't he just leap on her and have done with it? This dance of question and answer was torture. She steeled herself to continue. “I want a man to show me the pleasures of the flesh without making further claim. I want a man of reliable discretion.”
Strangely, this rogue had a reputation for keeping his mouth shut about his exploits. Most of the gossip emanated
from women who had either shared his bed or knew women who did.
“So one encounter?”
Once? Good Lord, no.
She didn't endure this humiliation, sacrifice her honor for a single chance at the prize.
“I thought the summer until the ton return to Town, and scandal becomes a risk.”
“So a shabby little affair to while away a few uneventful weeks?”
“I don't understand, my lord.” She frowned, although she knew he couldn't see her face. Her instincts screamed that, contrary to everything she'd been led to believe, this was no simple transaction with a lusty male animal. “You seem almostâ¦hostile.”
“Do I indeed?” This time the bite in his voice was unconcealed. “I can't imagine why. After all, a stud bull should be delighted that his services are in demand.”
Before she could stop herself, a horrified sound emerged from her throat. He couldn't know how close to the truth he ventured with this sarcastic response.
Thank goodness, he misunderstood her reaction. “Your pardon if plain speaking offends, madam.”
She dragged scattered thoughts together. With every moment in Lord Ashcroft's company, the unhampered progression of her plan to its fulfillment seemed less and less likely.
When she'd planned confronting the earl in his lair, she'd asked herself how she could intrigue a man jaded with the easy availability of any woman. She'd hit upon the veils as likely to tickle his curiosity, arouse his interest. A man tired of the usual amusements would surely find mystery alluring. Mystery combined with complete willingness. She'd assumed a stranger offering a few weeks' entertainment, a stranger who asked nothing more than the use of his body, would elicit immediate cooperation.
But then, before she'd met him, she'd imagined a slaver
ing debaucher. This self-possessed man was a million miles away from those imaginings.
Now she wondered if perhaps she should have tried some more subtle approach than a direct invitation. But it was too late to back out.
Her jaw ached with tension. “Surely you don't respond to all women whoâ¦invite you this way?”
“Only strangers who remain anonymous and shrouded from my sight.” The snap was still there, astonishing her. Anger was the last reaction she'd expected. “Do you intend to wear your veils when you fuck me, madam?”
His language jarred her, reminded her she teetered closer to the gutter than she wanted to contemplate. Or acknowledge.
Foolish woman she was, in the privacy of her bedroom, she hadn't imagined he'd care what she looked like. Not when her body was his for the taking, and she promised to do anything he wanted.
But of course he cared what she looked like. He was famous for only choosing the most beautiful of paramours.
Yet again, she felt completely outmatched in this wicked game.
Her heart accelerated to a crazy gallop. She licked her lips again and told herself, compared to what else Lord Ashcroft and she would do before they finished, uncovering her face scarcely counted.
Still, it was almost impossible to lift the veils. Her hands trembled, revealing her real feelings. She gathered faltering courage like a shield. To fail at the first fence? Over something as trivial as showing her face? God give her strength.
With a suddenly defiant gesture, she flung back her veils.
A chaos of impressions slammed into her. The day was humid, no breeze entered the room, but even so, the air felt cool against her cheeks after the stifling concealment. The library came into focus, its rich colors glowing in the afternoon sunlight.
And at last she saw Lord Ashcroft without a distorting filter.
Her heart crashed to a halt and her throat squeezed shut, trapping her breath.
Lucifer, the most beautiful. Prince of angels. Bearer of light.
The great tempter.
The Earl of Ashcroft was dark, almost swarthy. With an angular, strong-boned, ascetic face. A scholar's face. If one ignored the full, sensual mouth.
If one ignored his eyes.
Jade green and appraising her with unsettling intelligence and a palpable cynicism. “Very pretty.”
Heat rose in Diana's cheeks. She wasn't vain enough to expect swoons of delight at the merest sight of her, but surely she warranted more reaction than those two flat words.