Authors: Madeline Hunter
A man on a mission with no interest in this type of diversion, Adrian walked slowly through the costumed bodies, looking for a female who fit the description of the Duchess of Everdon.
He noticed a canopied corner that appeared to be the place of honor. He aimed for it, ignoring the women who looked his way and smiled invitingly.
The canopy draped a small dais holding a chaise longue. A woman rested on it in a man's arms. Her eyes were closed, and the man was plying her with wine. Adrian's card had fallen ignobly to the floor from her lax fingers.
“I am grateful that you have finally received me, Duchess,” he said, announcing his presence. Actually, she had not agreed to receive him at all. He had threatened and bluffed his way past the butler.
Her lids slit and she peered down her body at him. She wore a garment that swaddled her from breasts to bare feet, but that left her neck and arms uncovered, revealing pale, glowing skin. In the low light he could not judge her face well, but her hair was a mass of dark curls tamed by a gold band circling her head.
The duchess gave Adrian a frank assessment and he returned one of his own. The only daughter of the last Duke of Everdon had attained instant importance with her father's unexpected death. For the past two weeks everyone who was anyone in England had been speculating about Sophia Raughley, and wondering what she had been up to during her long absence from England.
Adrian did not relish reporting the answer to the men who had sent him here. From the looks of things, the new duchess had occupied herself these last eight years in Paris with becoming a shameless libertine.
She twisted out of her lover's hold and stretched to grope for the card, almost falling off the chaise longue. She appeared childishly clumsy suddenly, and a bit helpless, and Adrian experienced a pang of pity. He picked up the card and placed it in her fingers. She squinted, and gestured to her partner to bring a candle close.
“Mister Adrian Burchard,” she read.
“At your service, Your Grace. If we could speak privately, please.”
Gathering her drapery, she rose to her feet. With the breeding of centuries stiffening her posture, she faced him.
“I think that I know what service you offer, and you have wasted your journey. I am not going back with you.”
Of course she was. “Again, I ask to speak with you privately.”
“Come back tomorrow.”
“I have come the last two days, and now tonight. It is time for you to hear what I have to say. It is time for you to face reality.”
Anger flashed in her eyes. She advanced toward him. For a moment she appeared quite formidable. Then her foot caught in the flowing silk. She tripped and hurtled forward, right into his arms.
He grappled with the feminine onslaught, gripping her soft back and bottom. She wore no stays or petticoats under that red silk. No wonder her blond Arab gleamed with expectation.
She looked up in dazed shock, her green eyes glinting. Her smile of embarrassment broadened until he expected her ears to move out of the way.
She was drunk. Completely foxed.
He set her upright and held her arm until she attained some balance.
“I do not much care for reality. If that is what you offer, go away.” She sounded like a rebellious, petulant child, provoking the temptation in him to treat her like one. She waved toward the drawing room. “This is real enough for me.”
“Hardly real. Not even very accurate.”
“My seraglio is most accurate. Stefan and I planned it for weeks. Delacroix himself designed the costumes.”
“The costumes are correct, but you have created a European fantasy. A seraglio is nothing like this. In a true harem, except for the rare visitor, all the men are eunuchs.”
She laughed and gave Stefan a playful poke. “Not so loud, Mister Burchard, or the men will run away. And the women? Did I get that right at least?”
“Not entirely. For one thing, an entire seraglio exists for the pleasure of one man, not many. For another â¦”
Stefan's expression distracted him. His smile revealed the conceit of a man who assumed that if only one sultan were to enjoy the pleasures of this particular harem, it went without dispute that it would be him.
Stefan was going to be a problem.
“For another, except for a few ornaments, the women in a harem are naked.”
Suggestive laughter trickled to the dais from the onlookers. Bawdy shouts pierced the smoky shadows. As if his words had been a cue, a woman on the other side of the room rose up from her circle of admirers and unclasped a brooch. Her diaphanous drape fluttered to the floor amidst shouts and clapping.
Another woman rose and stripped. The situation deteriorated rapidly. Garments flew through the air. The shadows filled with the swells of breasts and buttocks. Embraces became much more intimate.
The duchess's eyes widened. She appeared dismayed at the turn things had taken. Ridiculous, of course. She had just explained that she had planned it herself.
Stefan reached for her. “Come, Sophia,
The duchess staggered back with his pull and fell onto his lap. Adrian watched, a forgotten presence. Stefan began caressing her arm while he held the goblet to her mouth.
Adrian turned to go. This promised to be a distasteful task.
Still, it was essential for him to complete it. A lot was riding on this foolish, debauched woman. Quite possibly the future of England itself.
He glanced back to the chaise longue. Stefan had loosened her gown from one shoulder and now worked on the other. Her head lulled on his shoulder but her dull reaction did not deter Stefan in the least. She sat limply while the man undressed her.
Adrian stepped back onto the dais just as Stefan bared the duchess's pretty breasts.
“Perhaps in your amorous zeal you have not noticed, my friend, but the woman is no longer with you. She is out cold.”
Stefan was pulling the canopy's drapes closed. “Mind your own affairs.”
“Gentlemen rarely mind their own affairs when a lady is about to be raped. But then, you would not know how gentlemen react, would you?”
Adrian bent and slid his arms under the duchess. “I am taking the duchess to where she can recover. Interfere, and I will kill you.”
Stefan was almost drunk enough to ignore the threat, but, to Adrian's disappointment, not quite. With a scowl he moved away.
Adrian carried the duchess off the dais. Movement caused the loose garment to shift so that a breast peeked out of the red silk. Noting once more that her breasts were quite lovely, he bore the duchess out of the seraglio with as much dignity as he could muster for the two of them.
The old butler lurked in the corridor. Adrian called for the man to accompany him.
“Show me her chambers, Charles, and call for Jenny and two other women whom you trust. Then I will give you instructions for packing. The duchess will be leaving Paris. If you have any doubts regarding my authority to initiate these plans while she is indisposed, I should tell you that I have a letter from King William himself summoning her home.”
Charles pointed him down a corridor and they stopped at large double doors. Charles turned the doors' handles.
Adrian entered and stopped in his tracks. Dozens of inhuman eyes peered at him from around the chamber.
He had escaped a harem only to find himself in a menagerie.
A Bantam Book / November 2003
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Copyright Â© 2003 by Madeline Hunter
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Published simultaneously in Canada