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Authors: Anna Campbell

Tempt the Devil (22 page)

BOOK: Tempt the Devil
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She'd emerged strong and shining from horrors that would destroy most women. The respectable world might consider her below its notice. He knew better.

She was pure gold to the depths of her courageous soul.

“Erith,” Montjoy said coldly, when acknowledging Olivia's companion would mean an obvious slight rather than a slight only the two of them noted.

“Montjoy,” Erith said with a bow. “Compliments of the occasion.”

Montjoy shot him a killing glare from his large coffee brown eyes. Not for the first time, Erith thought what a spectacularly beautiful young man Montjoy was. No wonder he and Olivia had fooled the greater world into believing them lovers. Her lean, angular beauty and warm leonine coloring provided a perfect foil to Montjoy's dark, Italianate good looks.

“Thank you.” Montjoy turned back to Olivia. “Of course, you've saved me all the waltzes?”

Olivia, Erith could see, hadn't missed the silent exchange between the two men. “One perhaps, Perry.”

Erith lifted her hand and placed it on his forearm in a proprietory gesture. “I'm sorry, old man, but Miss Raines dances with me exclusively.”

“Erith, it's his birthday,” she protested, but without withdrawing. Another signal that she accepted him tonight in a
way she never had before. His heart leaped with fierce pride. And something else much more dangerous.

The primitive possessiveness that had gripped him when he saw her wearing the collar rose. Very deliberately Erith picked up her hand, placed a kiss upon it, then returned it to his arm. “The waltzes are mine.”

“Olivia?” Montjoy looked utterly astonished.

As well he might. Erith already had a good idea of how she'd treated her previous lovers. Like lapdogs she petted or ignored at her whim. And dismissed at the end of the liaisons with hardly a backward glance.

He was determined to be different.

“My waltzes appear to be taken.” She gave a husky laugh, and Erith caught a soft note of feminine satisfaction in the sound. “Can you bear to stand up in a contredanse, Perry?”

Montjoy's face paled as he glanced from Olivia to Erith and back again. Abundantly clear were his anger, his helpless bewilderment, and his deep and abiding affection for the woman he addressed. “Oh, hell, Olivia. I told you this would be a disaster.”

Olivia's teasing smile faded and Erith glimpsed inner turmoil.

After last night they had to talk. But in pleasure's aftermath, he'd been too tired and too elated to introduce the difficult subject of what their future might hold. He'd been busy with his family all day. And she'd kept him at bay in the coach that brought them to Montjoy's, avoiding anything that smacked of seriousness.

Now he wished to God he'd disregarded the no trespassing signs she'd erected around any topic of importance. The uncertainty was clearly preying on her, just as it preyed on him.

“Perry, I'm sorry,” she whispered, the social mask slipping for a revealing second. “I couldn't help it.”

Clearly, she was far from easy with what had occurred last night. The need for a discussion became paramount, but
Erith couldn't drag her away in the middle of her best friend's birthday ball. Frustration gnawed at him like hungry rats.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Montjoy said with devastating compassion.

“Be happy for me.” Her voice cracked. She reached out with her free hand and Montjoy grabbed it. Erith was dismayed to notice that her fingers trembled.

“I can't,” Montjoy said in a stark, low voice so nobody around them heard. “When it's all over, I'm here to pick up the pieces.”

“This isn't a damned Greek tragedy,” Erith snapped.

Montjoy's eyes hardened with hatred as they focused on Erith. “No, it's just a tragedy, you bastard. One you'll walk away from with a shrug, no matter the mess you leave behind.”

“Perry, don't,” Olivia said in quiet distress. “This is meant to be a happy night.”

Montjoy lifted his head with a jerk, as if realizing this wasn't the place for a private discussion. But the look on his face promised that he intended to follow this up when he had the chance.

Erith firmly drew Olivia away and returned that challenge with a haughty glare. “Montjoy, this is none of your concern.”

“Olivia is my concern,” he said with real venom.

“No, Olivia is

“Stop it, both of you,” she hissed. “You're acting like schoolboys. I'm not a bone to be fought over by two dogs. I'm a woman with an independent soul who makes her own decisions.”

Erith realized he indeed acted like a cranky mastiff guarding his ewe lamb from a hungry wolf. And whatever he and Montjoy felt about each other, at base, they just wanted the best for her.

His voice softened as he turned to her. “You're right, Olivia. I apologize. Tonight is a celebration.”

Erith bowed to her. When he lifted his head, he noticed that astonishment had replaced Montjoy's fury.

“My God,” he breathed. “I don't believe it.”

“What?” Olivia said blankly.

A genuinely sweet smile lightened Montjoy's expression, and he leaned forward to place a tender kiss on her cheek. Not the happy, excited kisses he'd given her when she arrived but something that conveyed a message, although Erith had no idea what it could be.

“Nothing, darling. I'll come and find you for our dance.”


“Go. You worked so hard to arrange the festivities. The least you can do is enjoy them.”

Erith needed no further invitation to end the awkward confrontation. He led her into the huge salon where he'd first seen her. It was almost unrecognizable, decorated like a Russian winter palace with sparkling crystal and swaths of white muslin to emulate snow. The striking style and elegance of the decor were so essentially Olivia that he couldn't help smiling.

All the footmen—handsome to a fault, Erith noted—were garbed in Cossack costume. Montjoy was lucky. The night was warm, so loose white shirts and breeches were perfectly suitable. Shivering servants might add a nice touch of Russian authenticity but they wouldn't weave through the crowd with their current aplomb, bearing trays of champagne glasses or caviar.

There was a balalaika orchestra in one corner, although the buzz of conversation drowned their efforts. Erith heard his name mentioned a few times in passing but he ignored attempts to lure him from Olivia's side.

From the next room, he heard the vague scratch of a more conventional ensemble playing a quadrille. On previous visits he hadn't realized that one wall was actually made up of folding doors, open tonight to allow people to flow between ballroom and salon.

“Don't worry about Perry,” Olivia said at his side. Her face was bright with interest as she took in her surroundings.

Erith placed his hand over hers where it rested on his black superfine sleeve. “He's just trying to protect you because he loves you. I admire him for it, much as I resent the fellow's demand on your attention.”

She stared at him in shock. Apparently it was a night for people to react with wonder to perfectly normal remarks.

“What?” He echoed Olivia's question to Montjoy.

“Nothing,” she mumbled and turned away. “Do you like the frost effect? It was frightfully hard to achieve.”

“Olivia,” he growled. Something told him she'd been about to say something important.

She turned back with a sigh. “You're a stubborn devil, Erith.”

“I am. And I told you to call me Julian.”

“Not in public.”

A smile that was pure seduction curved her full lips. Her paint was subtle but it highlighted her features in a way Erith found remarkably enticing. Darkened brows and lashes. A touch of rouge to the cheeks. The deep red of her lips. Lips that turned that color naturally when he kissed her. Arousal fermented in his veins.

“Then tell me what you meant.”

She shrugged. “I'm always astonished when I hear you speak of love so easily. As though it were a fact of life, like, I don't know, a chair or a table or your carriage drawn up outside waiting to take you to your club.”

He smiled back at her, wondering how such a clever woman could be so willfully blind. “Don't be a fool, Olivia. Of course it's real.” He tightened his hold over her fingers. “Now, unless you want me to shock every roué and bark of frailty in London by whisking you out of this ballroom for a quick tupping, we need to mingle.”

“Mingle,” she repeated, but the word clearly had no mean
ing to her. Her gaze clung to his as though she couldn't bear to look away.

He lifted his hand to tap her chin and gently close her mouth, which was agape. “Yes, mingle. I can wait until later to have my wicked way with you. Barely.”

He saw her look around and realize that, just as in the anteroom, they were the cynosure of all eyes. She drew herself up with all the grace and dignity of a princess. The flawless mask of her beauty settled over her face.

She was the queen of this particular world. He should let her reign. The power she exercised over him was a private matter.

He reached out and collected two glasses of champagne from a footman. He handed her one and raised his own. “Let me salute the woman who holds me captive.”

“Really? Why then do I feel I'm as much a victim as you?”

He smiled and sipped his drink, hoping the wine's coolness would temper the heat inside him. A vain wish, of course. “Never a victim, Olivia.”

He recognized the determined light that entered her beautiful topaz eyes. “Actually, Erith, I'm glad you accompanied me tonight. It will wipe the slate clean between us.”

He frowned, something in her tone alerting him to a change in her mood. His instincts shrieked that he wouldn't like whatever was coming.

“What in hell are you talking about?”

“Last night. You won our wager.” She turned to face the crowd. “My friends, I have an announcement.”

Because so many people observed them, not because her voice made itself heard over the din, the noise level dipped. Even those who hadn't been watching turned curiously to see what the famous, the notorious, the gorgeous Olivia Raines planned for their amusement.

Their eyes glittered with ribald expectation. Olivia always
created a crackle of excitement wherever she went. Because tonight was her first public appearance with her latest lover, the atmosphere was especially vibrant.

Suddenly Montjoy appeared at her side, a concerned expression on his face. “What's the matter, Olivia?”

“I made a promise to Lord Erith.”

Erith's every muscle tensed with disbelief and denial. “What is this?”

She couldn't mean what he thought she did. She must know they'd moved on since that stupid bet. After last night, surely, surely she knew. He reached forward to grab her arm.

Shaking free, she dismissed him with an imperious flash of her topaz eyes. “You know what I'm doing. Paying my dues.”

She passed Montjoy her glass with a grace that made Erith's breath catch, then turned to him. The silence in the room resonated with expectation. Even the Russian band had stopped playing, although the dance orchestra in the next room continued to saw away at their banal tune.

“When I accepted Lord Erith's carte blanche, we made a wager.”

Good God, this was bloody madness. She must know he didn't care a tinker's damn about the bet.

But he looked deep into her eyes and realized her self-respect forced her to fulfill what she saw as an obligation. How odd to realize this infamous wanton was the most honorable person he'd ever met. She took his breath away.

Even so, he couldn't under any circumstances let her debase herself. No matter what outlandish notions she had of the demands of honor.

“Olivia, no,” he breathed in horror, still trying to stave off a full-scale scandal by keeping his voice soft. “Don't do it.”

His efforts went for nothing. She began to sink down. The crowd edged forward, so agog with curiosity that the air bristled.

“A wager is sacrosanct.” She spoke calmly, as if this abomination she was about to perpetrate made perfect sense. “Surely you learned that with your mother's milk, Erith.”

“Olivia, for God's sake, the collar is enough,” he said urgently.

“I promised.”

“Devil take you, stop.” Recklessly he shoved his champagne at Montjoy, not caring whether the effete lordling caught it or not. He snatched her arms and with brute force alone held her upright. He hissed at her through clenched teeth. “I don't want this. I never wanted this. Even at the start.”

Her expression was puzzled. She hung suspended from his hands. “Erith, I lost the wager. You know I lost.”

The room burst into a flurry of whispers and shocked gasps. The crowd's avid curiosity was almost a physical force.

“You didn't lose. Nobody lost. Nobody won.” He lowered his voice to save them at least some portion of inevitable gossip. “I don't care about the bloody wager. The wager was only a stratagem to make you stay. You were about to leave and it was all I could think of to stop you going.”

“I made the bet in good faith. I said I'd go on my knees to you.”

Frantically he forced his mind back to that long ago night when he'd been half insane with the need to keep her. He couldn't believe even then, when every word, every gesture, had been a power play, that he'd insisted on her degradation. Her pride was one of the things he'd always admired about her.

He bit out the words, desperate to end this hideous scene. “I said I'd go on my knees to you. You were merely to admit to me that you surrendered. I never intended your public humiliation. Never.”

Brief uncertainty crossed her features. “You wanted me to proclaim that you'd mastered me.”

“I haven't bloody mastered you. Haven't you worked that out yet? Nobody's mastered anybody. I don't want a slave. I want a lover.”

BOOK: Tempt the Devil
5.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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