Authors: Anna Campbell
“Do you like it?” he prompted.
She raised troubled eyes. “It's beautiful.”
His lips twisted in the already familiar wry smile. “Yes, but do you like it?”
“It's a collar.”
“Yes,” he said patiently.
“You want me to wear your badge of ownership.”
He released a long satisfied sigh and leaned back in his chair, his hand still toying with his wineglass. He'd drunk surprisingly little.
Tonight the wildly debauched Lord Erith of Perry's un-sympathetic description had lost himself neither in sex nor alcohol. The wildly debauched Lord Erith, she started to suspect, was a protective shell. Just like uncaring, wanton Olivia Raines.
He cocked one dark eyebrow in her direction and his lips tilted in a pleased smile. “There's something to be said for a clever woman.”
The air between them charged with sexual awareness. How had he done it? She never responded physically to her lovers yet every hair on her body rose as if lightning must strike.
She stiffened in unstated resistance. “You have no claim on me. You fancy yourself a little too much, Lord Erith.”
The smile deepened, lining his lean cheeks with interesting grooves. “I definitely fancy
. But you know that.”
She shrugged. What was the point of arguing? Of course he fancied her. Men always did. She ignored the tiny voice that whispered if she were a different woman, a
woman, she could easily fancy him.
“I haven't earned this,” she said shortly.
Her ill temper didn't faze him. “You will before you're finished.” He gave a short laugh. “Devil take it, you're the queerest jade. You're my spectacular and notorious mistress. I'm your keeper and the envy of every man in London. I'm supposed to shower you with jewels. It's part of the game.”
She'd accepted largesse readily enough from her other protectors. Anything extra now would cushion her retirement. Nonetheless, something stronger than logic made her close the box and slide it across the table.
“I won't wear a collar as if I'm your dog.”
“That rajah's ransom is a damned extravagant gesture for a hound, madam, even the swiftest,” he said with a huff of amusement. “The rubies are the finest I've seen.”
They were the finest she'd seen too. But the gift seemed wrong. “Not to my taste.”
He lifted the case, opened it, considered the sparkling contents, and closed it again. He pushed it back to her. “Take the necklace, even if you don't wear it.”
Unwillingly, she nodded, although she left the box sitting on the table. It remained an enigmatic statement between them, as so much tonight had been enigmatic.
“What is your pleasure, my lord?” she asked, as she'd asked so many paramours.
Why did the question this time hold such significance? Perhaps because for once she had no idea of a man's answer.
“My pleasure, Miss Raines, is to talk, if it is your pleasure also.”
Shock left her mute. She struggled to muster her thoughts.
He laughed softly. He had a nice laugh, low and deep. It rumbled out of his chest and surrounded her with warmth. “You know, converse like civilized people.”
Giving him access to thoughts and feelings was more threatening than allowing him unfettered use of her body. But as she watched him across the table, something surfaced that she'd stifled since her childhood. A sweet, desperate curiosity this man could satisfy.
She dragged in a deep breath. “When I asked Perry about you, he said you'd traveled.”
The voice didn't sound like hers. It sounded like the girl
she'd been so long ago, before life had thrown her to the wolves.
“I'm a diplomat. I travel for a living.” He sounded noncommittal, but a spark lit the gray eyes.
He couldn't break her simply by knowing she longed to roam the world, to experience a freedom granted to few women. In London, she'd carved out her own freedom within limits. That made it no freedom at all, much as she boasted her independence.
“What sights you must have seen.” She leaned forward and extended her hand as if asking him to take it. She realized what she did and snatched her hand back, hiding its trembling in her lap.
“Where would you like to go most?”
He laughed again. She liked it when he laughed, and she didn't like that she liked it. “What shall I tell you about?”
She settled for the place she'd give her soul to visit. “Italy.”
He leaned back and crossed his arms. “Italy it is.”
he next evening, Olivia sat at the piano, picking her way through a sonata. It was late, almost midnight, and her mind wasn't on the music but on the man she'd accepted as her lover and the bizarre wager they'd made.
And the even more bizarre way their first night together had concluded.
She struck a sour note and started the allegro again. Her fingers automatically found the right keys and she relaxed into the flow. Through all the turbulent years, music and books had been her solace. She remembered that odd, almost companionable moment in Perry's library with Lord Erith. He'd seemed to understand.
No, he understood nothing.
But he'd been surprisingly patient with her questions about Italy and left without forcing a parting kiss upon her. Or dragging her back to the bed where she'd brought him to shuddering climax with her mouth.
When she realized she licked her lips, her fingers stum
bled into a tangle of wrong notes. What was wrong with her? She never enjoyed what she did to her protectors. Except as an exercise in power.
With a sigh, she turned back to the sonata's first page. Lord Erith would visit tonight, she was sure of it. He'd canceled their planned visit to Tattersalls that day, saying family business detained him. The note had been short and remarkably free of the usual compliments. He hadn't called her a goddess. He hadn't thrown himself, at least in words, at her feet in worship. Yet the few blunt words in a stark, flowing black hand had pleased her.
As she admitted, much of his behavior last night had pleased her.
Why wouldn't he please her? He was brilliant, witty, and well-traveled. And he treated her as if she had a brain.
She lifted her hands off the keys and crashed them down so notes jangled out like untuned bells.
“I don't think that's in Herr Haydn's manuscript.”
She looked up to see Lord Erith in full evening dress, watching her from the door. He did that, she noticed. Paused before he went into a room, to check the lay of the land before stepping inside.
“Perhaps it should be,” she snapped, too off guard to remember she was a practiced seductress who never revealed her true self to her lovers.
“That sounded more like Beethoven.”
As had happened last night, she forgot Erith was her protector and she merely his temporary mistress. “You know Beethoven?”
“We've met. I wouldn't presume to say I know him.”
“Will you tell me about him?”
She couldn't hide her eagerness. He'd made Italy sound so wonderful. She'd basked in descriptions of paintings and palazzos and piazzas. The hot summer sun. The dark blue Mediterranean Sea. The cold snows of the Dolomites.
Now he'd tell her about Vienna. She could hardly wait.
His lips slanted in the smile that was already so familiar it was part of her. How had he managed this in their few short meetings? Except last night, he'd stayed for hours, until nearly dawn, talking. She'd never before passed a night in a man's company without lying naked in his arms.
She'd been tired when Erith left. Jumpy and stimulated. Much more so than when she entertained a lover her usual way.
“You need to earn your traveler's tale, Olivia.”
Abruptly, the small bubble inside her that might have been happiness burst.
Lord, what a ninnyhammer she was. How could she forget why he was here? Last night had been exceptional. In every sense of the word.
She fought to keep her expression neutral. With most men, she'd know she succeeded. With Lord Erith, she couldn't be sure. Nonetheless, she rose from the piano stool with the graceful, self-conscious languor her first lover had taught her. The man who, with her brother's conniving, had ruined her. She made her lips curve in the smile of the worldly courtesan who performed any act to please her keeper.
She would. All sullen reluctance had been beaten out of her when she was a girl. There was nothing she hadn't done. There was nothing she wouldn't do.
Lucky Lord Erith.
The bleak thought left a foul taste in her mouth. Where soon she'd taste Lord Erith.
“Would you like wine before we proceed, my lord?”
“No wine,” he said softly.
Olivia cursed herself for a fool, because she thought she heard compassion in that deep voice.
Erith prowled after his mistress up the lamp-lit stairs to the bedroom. Her slender back was ruler straight and her hips swayed in a soft rhythm that made his heart accelerate with
anticipation. Her rose evening gown indicated she'd expected him.
Of course she'd expected him. Something inexorable drew them together. He just wished to hell he knew what it was. Not sex. Although soon it might be.
Was she frigid?
He didn't believe that. But he also knew if he wanted more than a courtesan's tricks from her, he'd need every ounce of shrewdness and sensual expertise.
A worthy challenge for an infamous rake and seducer.
He'd stood listening long enough as she played to realize that whatever limits she placed on her physical response, there was passion in her. He heard that in the music, in spite of the odd fits and starts.
She played like a man, attacking the music as if she went into battle. She did other things like a man too. His blood heated as he remembered her in trousers, knocking back brandy like any society gentleman.
His wife had been the most feminine of women, except on horseback. She'd ridden like a demon. That recklessness had killed her, and left him a broken man at twenty-two.
Shocked, he paused at the top of the landing. Why think of his wife now? He couldn't imagine two more different women than Joanna and Olivia Raines. One was pure as an angel. The other sold her favors to any taker.
Except that wasn't fair.
Gossip indicated Olivia discriminated about who she took to her bed. A couple of lovers a year, fewer recently.
She reached the door and turned. “My lord?”
Two words in that husky contralto and his cock stood to attention like a damned soldier on parade. He'd had so many women. None of them, even his darling, dead wife, had affected him like this.
Primitive determination surged. He'd win Olivia Raines. He'd show her a world she'd never known. He'd make her his so irrevocably that she never forgot him.
He strode forward to join her in the doorway. In the confined space, they were mere inches apart, but neither moved to bridge the gap. He heard her breathing, soft and uneven. She wasn't as composed as she tried to appear.
Of course she wasn't. Last night he'd brought her to the brink of trusting him. Or as close as such a wary creature would venture. Now she thought he betrayed her by taking her to bed.
“I've bought some more unguent,” she said bluntly.
“You won't need it.”
She glanced down without a blush to where he rose rampant as a damned stallion. “It will be easier for me.”
He reached out to touch her arm. Her skin was cool and smooth beneath his hand. He turned the touch into a caress, running his hand down to take hers. “I won't hurt you.”
A cynical expression crossed her face. “Your pleasure will be greater if I have my way, my lord.”
“Let me be the judge.”
“What a typically male response.” Disentangling herself with a skill he could only admire, she slipped into the room.
“I am a typical male.” He followed her toward the bed.
She glanced over her shoulder with a slight smile. She didn't argue. “Shall I undress you?”
The rainbow shifts of power between them were familiar now. Inevitable. After last night, she thought she had his measure, but she wasn't going to gain the upper hand as easily as she imagined. He had a plan and it started now. “No, I'll undress you.”
She shrugged as if the matter held no significance. “Be careful with the gown. I like it.”
Erith laughed with reluctant delight. “Damn your impudence, Olivia. You treat me like a cursed ladies' maid.”
Her lids lowered and she shot him back a look that was pure temptation. He had to remind himself it was nothing but an act. Or an act that covered a reality she wasn't aware of.
This damned game proved more a conundrum with every moment.
“How would you like me to treat you?” she purred, turning and running her hand down his jaw. “Mmm, freshly shaved.”
“You've got such delicate skin. I don't want to mark you.” He reached out and curled his hand around her neck. The fine hairs that escaped her upswept hairstyle tickled his fingers. He paused and dragged in a breath. “I have to kiss you.”
Her expression froze and she jerked free. “No.”
“We'll kiss before we're done, Olivia.”
“We'll be done before we kiss. Should I let down my hair?”
“Let me.” He felt like he was with a new lover. Of course, last night he hadn't been her lover. Nor, for all her sensual banter and his predatory desire, would he be tonight.
Unless he lost control.
The searing memory of how she'd sucked him dry turned his confidence to ash. How easy to surrender. Leave her in charge. Accept pleasure without her true participation. But the fruit of that tree was rotten at the core, in spite of the deceptive sheen on its skin.
No amount of logic could shake Erith's certainty that if he gained her genuine response, his every sin would be forgiven.
It was as stark, as important, and as unreasonable as that.
So he moved forward, hiding his inner turmoil, and pulled the first pin from her thick, shining hair. A tawny lock fell softly over her shoulder. He didn't know what color to call her hair. It combined every shade from blond to bronze to auburn. A hymn to autumn.
He returned to a question that niggled at him. “Do you like women?”
Of course she wasn't shocked. She hadn't risen to the position of London's most sought-after courtesan without
encountering the less conventional variations on human passion. He imagined little was outside her experience. “As bed partners? No.”
“You need fear no condemnation. I've seen so much in my travels, I call almost nothing unnatural anymore.”
Olivia laughed softly and the sound curled around him like a warm fire. “Men and camels?”
He'd wanted her from the first moment he saw her. That was to be expected. He was a man of more than usually strong appetites and she was breathtakingly beautiful. Less expected was that the more time he spent with her, the more he
He laughed in return. “Perhaps not quite camels.” His voice lowered into seriousness. “Some cyprians prefer their own sex because their history with my own is too cruel.”
Because he stood so close, he heard her breath hitch. A clue. Although not one he wanted. Some bastard had mistreated her. It must have been long ago. The fellows he'd met who had shared her bed were so in awe of her, they wouldn't have the balls to abuse her.
Her jaw firmed. “My lack of response extends to men, womenâ¦and camels.”
He knew she hated talking about this. Not from modesty but because it threatened some bastion inside. That was why he pursued it. She'd never surrender until he swept her barriers away.
“I've seen you with Lord Peregrine.”
She stiffened and her expression became shuttered. “What about it?”
He shrugged, sliding another pin from her upswept hair. “I know what he is, Olivia.”
She wrenched away, dislodging another serpentine lock of hair, and twisted her hands in front of her. “Perry is my friend.”
Erith regarded her calmly. “He's also a man who desires his own sex.”
She whitened further. For the first time, he noticed faint freckles sprinkled across her aristocratic nose. She'd have been a hoydenish tomboy as a girl, with her untamed hair and strong, wiry body. “You accuse him of a hanging offense.”
He noticed she didn't deny what he said. “I accuse him of nothing. I just observe that if you find pleasure with women, your association with Lord Peregrine becomes understandable.”
“I associate with Lord Peregrine because he's kind and he cares for me.” She didn't add the obvious riderâ
unlike present company.
“The details aren't your concern, my lord.”
“I'm your acknowledged lover. Of course it's my concern.”
“Acknowledged if not actual.” She bristled. “Perhaps you take the most famous courtesan as your mistress in the cities you visit because you too hide something.”
A bark of laughter escaped him. Nobody had dared to question his masculinity before. “Nice try, Olivia. You know as well as I do that I like women. One woman in particular, however prickly and difficult.”
The tension didn't leach from her tall body, and her voice was urgent. “My lord, please promise you'll say nothing of your suspicions. I'll do anything to protect Perry. Anything.”
The words sent a surge of resentment through him. “I'm not going to blackmail you into yielding, Olivia,” he bit out. “I wouldn't even if I needed toâand I don't. Now come here.”
“You won't say anything?”
Her voice was still strained as she stepped closer with obvious reluctance. Good God, what did she expect him to do? Threaten to expose her friend's illegal predilections unless she pretended to passion in his bed? She must know after last night she couldn't deceive him.
“His secret is safe.” With ill grace, he returned his attention to her hair. “You have my word.”
Mixed with his fading irritation was thundering relief. He had the answer he wanted. Olivia didn't hanker after her own
sex. And he'd been right about her relationship with Montjoy. No doubt she and Lord Peregrine lived in that overdecorated house like brother and sister. Idly, he wondered how they'd formed the close, almost familial bond.
Her hair tumbled in shining profusion about her slender shoulders. He shut his eyes and leaned in, breathing deeply of her scent. When he opened his eyes, he was close enough to see her pupils had dilated, almost swallowing the sherry-colored irises. Her breath came faster through parted lips and her cheeks were flushed.