Authors: Anna Campbell
So why didn't he get up and leave? The fact that he couldn't answer quickly or easily was just one more irritation.
“I can't imagine you entered this house yesterday before priming yourself with the gossip,” she said coolly. Her astonishing eyes, a clear and unusual light brown, revealed nothing of her thoughts. “You've heard I'm faithful to my lovers.”
“Yes.” Hell, he reacted like a callow boy, but the word “lovers” in that rich contralto made him break out in a sweat. He only just stopped himself from tugging at his neckcloth, which suddenly seemed uncomfortably tight.
“While the liaison lasts, of course.” With an aplomb he both envied and resented, she surveyed him in a critical light.
Most definitely, the Earl of Erith's addresses didn't overwhelm this lightskirt. The topaz regard was perceptive, assessing, probing. It wasn't, by any stretch of the imagination, seductive.
Yet he was immediately seduced. More powerfully than he could remember. God help him if she deliberately set out to entwine him in her wiles.
She was still speaking as though they discussed a business transaction. He supposed for her they were. He wished to Hades he were half so uninvolved. “I'm sure you've also heard I claim complete freedom when I take a protector. I choose when the liaison starts. I choose when it finishes. My time is my own to dispose of. My one promise is that for the affair's duration, I pledge complete fidelity.”
“It sounds, madam, as though I'm paying a lot of damned money to let you run wild,” he said sardonically.
She shrugged. “Your choice, my lord. There are other women in London.”
Yes, and none were Olivia Raines. Blast her, she knew that as well as he. The tight ache in his balls became unbearable. If only he could say her indifference didn't make him want her more.
She'd folded her hands in her lap. The pose could look demure if one ignored her smoldering sensuality. It was a
long timeâperhaps neverâsince a woman had challenged him so brazenly. This woman vibrated challenge from her perfectly coiffed hair to the delicate green silk slippers peeking out beneath her hem.
He hoped she didn't notice he fumbled as he reached into his coat's inner pocket. “I brought you a token of my esteem.”
He extracted the slim velvet box and slid it across the table. Without any great show of interest, she opened the case and devoted a few silent moments to studying the contents.
Perhaps at last he'd impressed her. He'd spent two hours at Rundell and Bridge that morning choosing the bracelet. The moment he saw the magnificent row of ruby flowers linked on a diamond-encrusted trellis, he knew he'd found what he wanted.
The bracelet was as unusual and spectacular as Olivia Raines herself. Somewhere, his initial doubts about her attractions had disappeared. Now he believed she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
Her expression didn't change, but a cyprian of her experience must know to the penny what the glittering frippery had cost.
The bracelet's message was unmistakable. The Earl of Erith was rich, he was generous, and if she consented to his protection, he was willing to shower her with treasure.
Very carefully, she closed the box. Then she raised her topaz eyes and considered him with an unreadable expression. “Yes, Lord Erith, I'll be your mistress.”
ven as Olivia spoke the words to place her in Lord Erith's bed, her instincts screamed to deny him. Her mind told her she risked no more than she'd risked with any other keeper. Her deepest self insisted the earl threatened everything she'd created since she'd accepted harlotry as her inevitable fate.
Unreasoning fear tightened every muscle.
Fear was her oldest, most insidious enemy. More powerful than any man.
I will not surrender to fear.
And why should she be frightened? Since reaching womanhood, she'd never met a male she couldn't dominate. Lord Erith was nothing special. She'd have great pleasure proving that. To the world. To him. To herself. Her reluctance now was just part of the odd humor that had gripped her since she ended her last affair, months ago.
A sharp ache in her wrists made her realize how hard she clutched her hands together. Deliberately, she relaxed her grip, although she already knew he'd noted the betraying gesture.
Somethingâsatisfaction, triumph, possession?âgleamed from under his heavy eyelids.
“Good.” He stood and stared down at her. She'd never been so conscious of his impressive height or the latent power in his body. “I'll see you tonight, Olivia.”
It was the first time he'd used her Christian name. Given what they'd soon do to each other, the small intimacy shouldn't matter. Somehow it did. That deep voice saying “Olivia” shredded her protective formality and laid her bare as if she already stood naked before him.
I will not surrender to fear.
She tilted her chin and glared. “I don't entertain my lovers in this house,” she said icily.
“I didn't imagine you would.” His narrow, sensual mouth curled into a sardonic smile. “I want every man in London to know you're mine. I want to see you. It builds theâ¦
How could he make such a harmless word sound more decadent than all the profanities she'd heard in a lifetime of whoring? The temperature of her voice sank another couple of degrees. “I belong to no man, Lord Erith.”
“You'll belong to me,” he said steadily.
Before she could move, he bent across the tea table and grasped her chin. She registered a chaotic mix of impressions. His fresh, clean smell. The warmth of his fingers on her skin. The almost feminine abundance of the lashes fringing his cold gray eyes. The flare of his nostrils as he inhaled her scent, like an animal before mating.
His implacable hold stifled struggle or protest. Panting like a trapped fledgling, she waited for his mouth to meet hers. Her heart beat so fast, she thought it would burst from her chest. For one blind, terrified moment she felt like a silly virgin trapped in a rake's net.
Those firm, almost cruel lips captured hers. A moment's clinging pressure. Hot like fire. Hard like steel.
Abruptly, the searing contact ended.
He let her go and stepped away with a bow. “Until this evening.”
Before she could summon an adequate reply, any reply, he turned on his heel and strode from the room.
Dazed and shaking, she clenched and unclenched her fists in her lap. When she licked her lips, she nearly groaned. She'd kept her mouth shut during that importuning kiss. Even so, his taste lingered. Rich. Tantalizing. Evocative.
Fear surged up and overwhelmed her.
“Damn you, Erith,” she whispered to the empty room. “Damn you to hell.”
Erith paused at the entrance to the large salon where he'd first seen Olivia Raines. It was late, past midnight. The room was almost empty, and lit by only two candelabras, felt even more cavernous. Half a dozen men gathered around the fire, smoking and drinking brandy. He noticed the group's air of ease as they lounged on the pair of gilt couches or stood leaning against the mantel. He also noticed that ease evaporate at the sound of his name.
Where was Olivia? The sulky but undeniably picturesque Lord Peregrine turned toward the doorway. The four seated young men stood to greet him. They were strangers, although all were young and handsome. So handsome that any could have modeled for pouting naked Ganymede in the frescoes. Erith barely spared a glance for one gentleman lingering in the shadows.
Then that last member of the gathering stepped with languid grace into the light. Erith found himself staring into his mistress's slanted sherry-colored eyes.
The breath jammed in his throat while shock warred with astounded admiration. His hands curled at his sides as he physically restrained himself from reaching across the few feet separating them.
My God, she was magnificent.
Olivia was dressed like any buck of the ton. Biscuit trou
sers, close-fitting black superfine coat, white brocade waistcoat, elaborate neckcloth. Her long hair was bound tightly to her head, so he hadn't immediately realized he was looking at a woman. Why would he? Women of his acquaintance didn't dress as men.
The pure white neckcloth set off her fine-grained, slightly olive skin, and the stark tailoring shaped her lissome body with the closeness of a lover's hand. Erith felt a kick of arousal and his heart began to hammer wildly. His fists clenched harder. He wanted her under him. He wanted her naked and gasping her pleasure as he pounded into her.
You are mine.
He nearly growled the words aloud.
“Lord Erith,” she said calmly, and lifted her hand to take a long draw on a slender cigar. He bit back a groan as he watched her full lips close on the cigar. Decadent images of her taking his cock into her mouth seared every coherent thought to ashes.
Her eyes were brilliant with challenge as she stared back at him. She knew what she did to him.
Of course she did, the teasing baggage.
With difficulty, he fought back the covetous clamor in his blood and found his voice. “Miss Raines.” He bowed. “Gentlemen.”
Lord Peregrine looked even more hostile than he had yesterday. Clearly, Olivia had told him she'd accepted Erith's carte blanche. Yet again the puzzle of the decorative lordling's relationship with her teased Erith. He sensed closeness but no frisson of sexual attraction.
He studied the men, then glanced at the frescoes once more. No female forms graced the walls. No female forms anywhere in the house, if one discounted his mistress's lithe figure. A suspicion grew in his mind, a suspicion sheltered English minds mightn't entertain but that seemed increasingly plausible to a man who had traveled across Europe and Asia. If true, it explained a great deal.
“Fancy a brandy, Lord Erith?” Olivia drawled as if they'd
bumped into one another at his club. “Perry's broached a fine bottle tonight.”
Her overtly theatrical behavior made him want to laugh. She dared him to explode into outrage, but she picked the wrong target. He could play games with the best of them. It was what made him a brilliant diplomat.
“Why not?” he said smoothly. “Lord Peregrine, I don't believe I've met your friends.”
While Montjoy performed introductions, Erith watched Olivia pour him a drink from the decanter on the Boulle sideboard. Her attire was so severely masculine. Why did it make her seem more a woman? His eyes dwelt on her legs. His guess yesterday had been rightâthey were long and slender. He savored the prospect of those legs wrapped around him while he thrust into her.
He emerged from his brief daydream to find her passing him the glass. She very deliberately stroked her fingers across his. It was the first time she'd done anything overtly seductive, and his skin tingled under her touch.
He wanted her immediately. Since he'd met her, the delay had chafed. Now it became unbearable.
But for the moment, bear it he must.
She lifted her cigar again, drew on it, then exhaled so a drift of blue smoke wreathed her angular features. Features that merged to form a more compelling whole than conventional beauty ever could. No wonder she had every man in London in a flap.
“Lord Erith, this is Sir Percival Martineau,” Lord Peregrine said with a distinct snap. Clearly he'd been speaking while Erith stared lost into his mistress's fathomless eyes.
“Sir Percival.” God help him if he needed to remember anyone's name other than Olivia's. She'd bewitched him.
Hell, what was wrong with him? She was just another female. He'd grab her, he'd take her, he'd discover there was nothing new between her legs or in her head. He'd had so
many women since his wife died, and none had engaged his heart. However much they'd engaged his body. His body, which currently hummed as though a mountebank ran an electrical current through it. He couldn't remember a female stirring him up like this since his first season. When tender emotions of love and respect had tempered his male excitement.
Good God, how could he link this harlot with Joanna? This conniving witch would never touch his finer feelings. Although she was welcome to touch anything else she liked.
Oh, yes, please.
Raw expectation scurried down his spine.
She gestured coolly to a sofa. “Would you like to sit down?”
“No, I want to talk to you. In private.”
She shrugged, placed her glass on the mantel and stubbed out her cigar. “As you wish. This way.”
He followed her through a corridor and into a library. Lamplight gleamed softly on richly colored leather covers and picked out gold lettering on rows of books.
Olivia moved forward and turned to face him, leaning with a grace that stopped his breath against the desk behind her. “What is it?
He realized he was smiling. “This room. It's the only one I've admired in this house.”
Surprisingly, she smiled back. A real smile conveying a wealth of affection for the man who owned the library. A shaft of unpleasant emotion stabbed Erith. Not jealousy. He was never jealous. And why be jealous when his suspicions about her host had firmed into certainty?
“Perry doesn't read much. He hasn't redecorated in here yet.”
“You like it,” he said softly. It was the first room he'd seen her in that didn't jar with his instincts about her. He slouched against the doorjamb and studied her.
“Yes, I do.”
She bent her head and light caught bronze strands in her thick hair. She really was an extraordinarily beautiful woman. More beautiful at this moment because her usual self-consciousness was absent.
“There's a library in the house I found.” When he'd seen the neat book-lined room in York Street, he'd assumed his new mistress would find it of no interest. Now he wasn't so sure.
She raised her head and the wariness returned. The regret he felt surprised him. For a moment he'd felt real connection. Not the connection of sexual attraction. That never waned. But briefly the ghost of a different bond had hovered, one that in other circumstances could blossom into friendship. Should friendship be possible between two such well-armored creatures as they.
“You've found a house already?” She didn't sound pleased.
“Something became available.” He didn't tell her he'd had an army combing London for a suitable residence nor that the hunt had started when he arrived home from seeing her the first time.
The place he'd rented was perfect. Small, luxurious, private, and close enough to Erith House for him to maintain a double life without flaunting his affair before his family. After leading a bachelor's life for so long, he wasn't used to practicing discretion. Alluring as she undoubtedly was, Olivia Raines offered merely a diversion. His real purpose in London was to reconcile with his children, and he could do nothing to risk that.
He wondered if he'd been prudent in his choice of
The news that he'd become Olivia Raines's protector was already the talk of London. Over port after dinner at Erith House, he'd responded to his cronies' envious comments while avoiding Carrington's reproachful glower. How long before the story reached more respectable ears?
Too late to change his mind. Even if he could summon the will to break free of the jade's damnable allure. He spoke into the silence. “I hope you'll move there tomorrow.”
Given a choice, he'd sweep her away now, ensconce her in the pretty little house and exorcize her inconvenient fascination over him. But his men worked all night on minor alterations and the place wouldn't be ready until morning.
She looked startled. “Tomorrow?”
“You have some objection?”
“I hadn't expected such dispatch.”
She spoke with the smooth cadences and ironical inflections of a Cambridge graduate. Had she risen from the streets? If she had, she'd done an extraordinary job teaching herself the ton's manners.
He shrugged, striving for an appearance of detachment that was far from reality. “I'm a man who makes his mind up quickly.”
“Clearly.” Her lips twitched in the familiar wry smile.
“In the morning, I'll send my carriage to convey you to the new house, then call in the evening to discuss arrangements. Perhaps a visit to Tattersalls the next day to choose your cattle. I thought two carriage horses and a hack. I've also ordered a curricle that I dare say will meet your approval.”
“Very efficient, my lord,” she said with unconcealed irony. “You will stay to dine tomorrow?”
They both knew she offered more than food. Heat blasted him, made him hard as oak. “Thank you. It would be my pleasure.”
Why wait? So far, the tame liberties his notorious mistress had allowed wouldn't raise an eyebrow among the marriage-minded misses at Almack's. Well, perhaps not altogether true. She was a dab hand at double entendre. And that one burning kiss still haunted him.
One burning, possessive, damnably short kiss.
When he kissed her, he'd tasted anger. And surprise. She hadn't wanted to kiss him, but that flaring instant incinerated every one of his doubts and dissatisfactions. Even the dull, constant ache of old grief and old guilt had briefly faded. Only with the greatest difficulty had he forced himself to stop after that one searing kiss.