A smart woman may transform herself into whatever the situation requires.
—Miss Pearl Kelly to the Duchess of Colton
Venice, November 1816
The first time the Duchess of Colton saw her husband since their hasty marriage, she found him seated at a card table with a buxom woman draped across his lap, her legs dangled over the side of his chair. Julia could see them both quite clearly from across the gaming room. The woman was . . . pleasuring herself while the duke had one hand inside the woman’s bodice, his fingers moving beneath the fabric to casually caress her breast. His other hand, along with his attention, remained on his cards.
The display shocked Julia. Scandalous yet strangely alluring, the performance served as a reminder that her husband’s life was a world away from her own sheltered existence in London. But then, she reasoned, what else would one expect of a man dubbed the Depraved Duke? She swallowed her embarrassment and continued to watch the scene unfold.
He was handsome, she realized. Julia had seen him briefly during the wedding ceremony, but they’d both been younger, not to mention she’d been a shy and terrified sixteen-year-old. Now he appeared older and . . . much bigger. His black hair a bit long, it fell down around his collar to frame his perfect features: a straight nose, bold cheekbones, and a full mouth. He was truly breathtaking.
Some women might be consumed with jealousy at catching their husband in such a fashion. Not Julia. The man was a stranger to her, and she felt nothing but a combination of anger and annoyance. Anger that Colton had ignored her for eight long years, and annoyance that she’d been forced to create such an elaborate ruse and travel across the Continent to carry it out.
Julia watched as the trollop on his lap began gasping for breath. The woman closed her eyes and shivered from head to toe, her head thrown back in ecstasy. Colton’s expression revealed nothing about his companion or his cards, while the other players appeared nonplussed as they studied their own hands. Save Julia, no one else in the room paid a bit of attention to them. A woman was . . . finding release on his lap and no one even turned to stare. Was this a regular occurrence, then?
Once the woman caught her breath, she leaned in to whisper in Colton’s ear. He smiled, politely assisted her off his lap, and gave her backside a small slap before dismissing her. His attention turned back to the game.
Julia’s good friend, Simon Barrett, the Earl of Winchester, appeared by her side. “Are you certain about this? It’s not too late to back out, you know.”
She shook her head. “No. I’ve come too far to stop now.”
Simon was quite a handsome man in his own right, more so tonight with his fair hair and blue eyes contrasting nicely with his black evening clothes. He’d insisted on accompanying her to Venice, to pose as her current lover, allowing him to both escort her and protect her. Deep down, Julia was grateful for his help.
She smiled at him. “And after what we’ve just seen, I’d say my plan is perfect.”
“I was afraid you would say that.”
She sobered. This wasn’t Simon’s battle, and it seemed only fair to offer him the same chance of escape. “Simon, as I’ve said many times, I can do this on my own. Your friendship with Colton need not suffer because of your participation.”
Simon glanced across the room to the duke. “I have my own reasons for helping you. I’ll deal with Colt’s anger, if the time comes.”
She leaned up on tiptoe and placed a kiss on his cheek. “You’re a good friend.” Her heels came back down to the floor as she gently reminded him, “Now, I’m the incomparable Mrs. Juliet Leighton, London’s most notorious courtesan. Allow me a few moments with him but no more.”
“Fine. I only hope I can recognize you.”
Learning of her wayward husband’s preference for red-haired women, Julia had procured a dye to temporarily turn her light yellow locks to a fiery red. “What matters is catching Colton’s eye.”
“Oh, I shouldn’t worry about that.” Simon held out his arm. “Shall we?”
She nodded and accepted his escort. The card tables lined the back wall, so she and Simon were forced to amble through the clusters of guests and footmen passing glasses of champagne in order to reach their destination. Though Simon had warned her what to expect at a private party of loose morals, Julia had a hard time not staring at the goings-on around her. No wives were in attendance; instead, the women were mistresses, actresses, and prostitutes. And the men, mostly former members of the Venetian government or wealthy merchants, seemed eager to take advantage of the situation. Couples openly kissed and touched one another boldly, the air thick with smoke, lust, and sweat.
Her confidence grew as they crossed the room. No one they spoke with suspected her an imposter, and they treated her informally—as a courtesan, not a duchess.
Despite her nerves, there really was no choice in the matter. This plan
succeed. If Colton’s odious cousin, Lord Templeton, followed through on his recent threat to further reduce her stipend, in a few months she wouldn’t have enough funds to pay the servants or the rent on their small house in Mayfair. Colton’s mother had made it clear Julia was unwelcome at any of the ducal properties. Which meant she and her aunt would be destitute.
Julia needed a male child, a legitimate one, to serve as the heir to the Colton estate. Only then could she thwart Templeton’s designs on the dukedom.
Her plan was foolproof. Six months ago, Julia had sold off all her remaining jewelry in order to secretly hire Pearl Kelly, London’s true reigning courtesan, to offer advice. Pearl had proved a veritable fount of information, telling Julia precisely how to dress, act, speak, and flirt like a Cyprian.
Pearl had even helped design Julia’s gowns along with the courtesan’s own modiste. The resulting wardrobe was luxurious and elegant with sumptuous fabrics and daring necklines, such as the deep emerald green gown she wore tonight. The undergarments had been ordered from Paris, and they
made Julia blush. Her jewelry had posed a problem, since every good piece she’d owned had been sold off over the past two years. So Pearl had graciously loaned Julia several stunning sets, which included the expensive diamond and pearl necklace now around her neck.
Julia had also learned how to use creams and paints to best enhance her features. Earlier, she’d applied a dusting of white pearl powder on her face, rose pink rouge on her lips and cheeks, and a light coating of lamp-black on her lashes and eyebrows. The enhancements combined with her red hair made her completely unrecognizable to anyone familiar with the blond and understated Duchess of Colton.
They ventured near the duke. After a moment, Colton looked up and his face registered surprise. “Winchester!” He threw his cards on the table and unfolded his lanky frame to stand before them. “I can scarcely believe it. Why didn’t you write to let me know you were coming?”
Simon managed to look surprised, then slapped Colton on the back. “I’d heard a rumor you were still here, old man.”
“I cannot find a reason to leave.” Colton turned to Julia, focusing on her with polite interest. “I see you are not alone. Pray introduce me.”
“Of course. Colton, meet the inimitable Mrs. Juliet Leighton. Juliet, this wastrel is my oldest friend, the Duke of Colton.”
She dropped into a deep curtsy and watched from under her lashes as her husband took in the shockingly low neckline of her gown, where her ample bosom threatened to make an appearance at any moment. “Mrs. Leighton, your reputation precedes you,” the duke said as she rose. “I’ve heard nothing but accolades to your beauty and wit. It is said you are the woman who holds all of London in the palm of her hand.”
Julia was relieved to hear the rumors they’d started had reached her husband’s ears. “Perhaps not all of London, Your Grace, but a fortunate few have indeed felt the palm of my hand.”
A black eyebrow shot up, and he gave a devilish grin that would surely melt the insides of a weaker woman. “Winchester, I am beginning to envy you,” Colton murmured, his smoky gray gaze never leaving hers.
“As you should. I am entirely at Mrs. Leighton’s whim.” Simon’s intimate smile left no doubt as to the nature of their relationship.
“You flatter me,” Julia said in her best coquettish voice. “Simon, darling, please leave His Grace and I alone for a few moments. Be a good lad and fetch me some champagne.”
Simon flashed her a besotted glance that would’ve had Julia laughing under any other circumstance. “Anything for you, love.” He walked away to leave Julia alone with the husband she hadn’t seen in eight years.
She should be tongue-tied, she thought, as she regarded the man who wielded enormous power over her, even from such a great distance. But considering the hot gleam of male interest in Colton’s eyes, the way he studied her carefully, Julia knew the control now lay in her own hands.
“Your Grace,” she started, then boldly moved closer and took his arm. “I feel as if we already know one another.” Julia led him toward the terrace doors.
“Do you?” He deftly maneuvered them around other couples and placed his large hand on the small of her back as they continued outside into the cool darkness. “If we had met, Mrs. Leighton, I am quite sure I would remember.”
“Oh, you must call me Juliet. All my good friends do.”
“Then, by all means, you must call me Nick. I’ve never been fond of my title.” Tall and lithe, he leaned casually against the terrace railing, the backdrop a surprisingly clean stretch of canal. He was even more handsome up close. His shoulders were broad, and power lurked beneath his finely tailored clothing. She suddenly felt so . . . alive and edgy in his wickedly alluring presence. Little wonder her husband had become such a rake and scoundrel.
“If you insist, Nick,” she drawled while noticing the way he studied her lips. “Are we to be friends, then?”
“I certainly hope so.” His face softened with a flirtatious smile and her knees went weak, the power of that small gesture warming her down to her toes. “Are you enjoying Venice, Juliet?”
“It is a lovely place. This is my first trip, and I must confess it’s nothing as I imagined. The food is superb and they are passionate, friendly people. And you? Have you been here long?”
“About three years. Before that Vienna, Cologne, Paris. . . .”
“And do you plan to return to our fair England one day?”
His features tightened ever so slightly. “No. I have no plans to return. There is naught there for me now.”
Rage blossomed in her chest, hot and strong. How dare he. Naught there for him—even a
Although her hand itched to smack his cheek, Julia forced what she hoped was an intimate expression and dropped her voice to a husky purr. “My luck, then, in meeting you here.”
“Indeed. And just when I’d thought Venice had grown boring. Have you known Winchester long?”
“No, not long. Though he’s spoken of you. I understand you’ve been friends forever.”
“It’s true. Since Eton, actually. We—”
“Here you are, love.” Simon appeared with a glass of champagne.
“So, Winchester,” the duke began, “tell me how you’ve been getting on the last two years.”
Julia gasped and almost choked on a mouthful of champagne. Simon had seen her husband two years ago? If Colton weren’t standing here, she would give Simon a good kick in the leg for not telling her.
“I find myself remarkably well. And you?”
“I enjoy it here,” Colton responded lightly. “The Venetians are quite pleasant, despite the resentment of the Austrian presence. I had thought, however, to travel to St. Petersburg next year.”
“It’s been eight years. Do you not think enough time has passed—”
“Do not say it.” Colton’s voice took on an edge and his face darkened. “After our last row, I thought you agreed to cease hounding me to return.”
“But really, Colt. Your wife deserves—”
“Oh, you mean my father’s pawn?” He straightened to his full height. “Cease immediately. Do not make me regret keeping you informed of my whereabouts all these years.”
Pawn? What on earth?
Julia could scarcely wait to get Simon alone in order to get answers.
Simon held up his hands in surrender. “I have no wish to quarrel with you. Especially in front of such a beautiful woman.” He slid his arm around Julia and gave her shoulders a reassuring squeeze.
Her face a mask of polite civility, she focused on the duke. “Your Grace, we plan to attend the performance of
at La Fenice the evening after tomorrow. Perhaps you would care to join us?”
“I had already planned to attend, in fact,” Colton replied, his posture once again relaxed. “I would be honored if you both would join the party in my box.”
Julia tried to look surprised though she’d already known his plans. Simon’s valet had convinced one of the duke’s maids to give them information on Colton’s daily social schedule. More chance meetings with Mrs. Leighton were in Colton’s future. “That would be lovely, Your Grace. I shall look forward to it.”