London, England, 1812
"EXQUISITE. Positively exquisite ..."
Elizabeth stilled and cocked her head to the side, listening intently. The man's whispered adulation was murmured from nearby, and fondly pronounced, as though he was wooing a lady right in the middle of the crowded theater foyer. His diction was unusual, imbued with a hint of the exotic. Perhaps he was Italian or French.
The male voice came again, closer this time andif she didn't know betterhad been uttered from directly behind her. She was dying to turn around, to probe the swarm of faces, in order to discover which pair of lovebirds had the audacity to carry on so affectionately in such a public place.
"Your skin is like silk. So smooth, so soft."
Her brows rose in amazement. No doubt about it, he was hovering immediately to her left. Why, she could feel his warm breath gliding across her nape! Her gown was stylishly designed, trimmed low across bosom and back, revealing a broad expanse of shoulder, arm, and chest, and the fiery puff of his exhalation shimmered over her collarbone and slithered down into her cleavage, settling on her breasts in a manner that was disconcerting and discomfiting.
Though the cramped entrance was stifling, the air hotand stale with the crush of bodies proceeding toward the stairs and the box seats above, she shivered.
Who was he? And who was the woman with whom he was so enamored that he would risk an improper verbal display where anyone might hear?
Cautiously, she glanced over, not rotating in the slightest, but shifting only her eyes, eager to make out form and substance. When ... there he was! A stranger, tall and indistinct, a lanky torso dressed in formal black. It was the second week of February, yet he was bronzed as though he'd tarried too long in the sun.
She wrenched her gaze to the stalled line before her, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other.
But he'd seen her peeking! He laughed, a seductive chuckle that rumbled across her nerve endings and tickled her stomach, filling it with dancing butterflies. Embarrassed at being caught, she stoically stared toward the stairs, which now appeared miles distant and unattainable. An unwelcome flush reddened her cheeks.
"My glorious beauty"his legs were brushing her skirts!"please tell me your name so that if I perish in the next instant, I might die a happy man."
That foreign lilt, that fanciful flair in his enunciation, sent a chill down her spine. Was he talking to her?
Frantically, she searched the area around her, vainly hunting for his companion, but perceiving no one. There were dozens of women scattered across the bustling lobby but, at that very moment, she was surrounded by men. Her eyes widened with the stunning realization that she was the sole female he could possibly be addressing.
The bounder! What was he up to, accosting her? She cast about, seeking a familiar faceher father or some acquaintancewho would rescue her from the interloper's inappropriate advance, but there was nary a friend in sight.
Hoping she wouldn't be observed chatting with him, she nevertheless whipped around to confront him, to scare him off with a fierce look or, if necessary, to give him athorough dressing-down that would make him desist and depart. Yet to her dismay, once she made the move, she couldn't express a single reprimand.
He was so beautifulif such a term could be used to describe a man. His hair shone in the glittering candlelight. It was swept off his strong forehead, highlighting his aristocratic nose, his full mouth, his immaculate, tanned skin. He was resplendent, his features perfectly assembled, and he had the sort of countenance an artist might paint on the ceiling of a cathedral or carve into a block of swirled marble.
People pushed past, jostling them until he was bumped against her, and for some idiotic reason, her heart fluttered. His fabulous eyes, blue and keen and shrewd, were focused on her mouth, evaluating every nuance in painstaking detail. Leisurely, he examined her pursed lips, then slowly, methodically, he lifted his calculating gaze to hers.
"Gad, but even the blush on your cheeks is becoming."
Her color deepened, and the indecorous comment provided the fortitude she required to retort. "Are you speaking to me, sir?"
"Assolutamente," he admitted without an ounce of repentance. "How could I resist?"
Elizabeth frowned and whipped away, trying to gain insight into the scoundrel's impertinent overture. Men never dared to waylay her. Her exalted station, as the only child of the Earl of Norwich, meant she was protected from unsuitable encounters. In fact, with the exception of a newly hired servant, she couldn't recall when she'd last conversed with someone to whom she hadn't been introduced.
The rogue next to her was impeccably dressed for the event, his clothes excellently tailored, his shirt starched and blindingly whitened, his cravat expertly tied. He seemed to be the finest gentleman, out on the town for an evening of entertainment, yet his conduct was far out of bounds, and he didn't grasp that he was acting in an uncouth fashion.
By her attire alone, he should have recognized that shewas inaccessible. From the expensive fabric of her gown, to the adroit coif of her auburn hair, to the priceless string of emeralds circling her neck, she was the very picture of an affluent, titled English lady, and therefore ruled by society's strict standards for interaction with the opposite sex.
Still, from his choice of words and the slight inflection in his voice, it was obvious that he was a foreigner, so in all fairness, maybe he didn't understand the serious breach he was committing. As she'd had scant occasion to prattle with unknown men, she wasn't certain how to go about educating him as to his lapse, and she decided not to try. The best resolution was to reach the stairs and, ultimately, the safety of her father's box.
"Don't glower so, milady," he urged gently, the fluid flow of his accented speech washing over her. "I mean you no harm. I'm merely enchanted by how lovely you are."
They were packed in with the other theatergoers like fish in a bucket, and each of his avowals was quietly declared, so no one else could hear him; she was sure of it. Another passerby jostled him, and through her ample layers of undergarments, petticoats, and skirts, she could feel his lean frame flattening the length of her backside.
Never before had she been wedged up against a man, and his adjacency instigated a curious medley of previously unexperienced sensations: of sentimental longing, but also a peculiar impression of physical yearning. Her body was attuned to his, as if it was extending out, craving to be merged with his more tightly.
Their odd arrangement instituted an informality that suggested a bond and partiality that was out of proportion to their actual circumstances. Puzzled by the stimulation his proximity invoked, she scooted away as much as she was able.
He countered by resting his fingers on the small of her back. The gesture was outlandish and totally indecent, but she didn't shake him off. It felt good. Shockingly, she couldn't remember when another person had held her handor hugged her. Her sterile, barren environment was one of polite discourse and tepid exchanges, and nobody possessed an ounce of the zeal essential for tangible contact.
When had that happened? How had she grown so disconnected from others that the simple caress of a man's hand could burn through dress, corset, and chemise?
"Please go away," she decreed through clenched teeth.
"I've been watching you," he said. "From the instant you alighted from your carriage."
He'd been watching her? Was he insane?
Overt curiosity had her spinning in his direction. And conversing with him even though she'd rather have bitten off her tongue.
"To what end?" she couldn't preclude herself from inquiring.
"So that I might learn who you are," he unabashedly replied. "I had to find out."
His divine lips were only an inch from her own, and he was analyzing her, cataloging each trait, and missing no characteristic. His azure eyes bored into hers, then dropped to her mouth, once more, and she couldn't get past the perception that he was dying to kiss her, which was absurd.
As she'd never been kissed in her life, and had never had a man ogling her with anything vaguely resembling ardor, she couldn't deduce why such an astounding prospect might be conceivable, but in an internal, isolated, feminine part of her, she discerned his male intent: He wanted to kiss her, and bizarrely, she was wondering what it would be like.
What if he closed the gap that separated them? Remarkably, the brief fantasy did amazing things to her anatomy. Her pulse raced, her palms itched, and her breasts ...
They swelled and expanded, the nipples instantly emphasized and erect. They rubbed against the confines of her corset; the lacing was too constricting, and she could barely inhale.
With a practiced flick of her wrist, she opened her fanand whisked it back and forth, cooling her exposed surfaces, and giving her unruly hands something to do. Of a sudden, they were dangerously inclined to caress the nap of his debonair evening jacket, or mayhap to rest against the center of his chest.
Her inexplicable weakness was appalling, and she couldn't prevent herself from gaping at him in alarm. She was not a spontaneous person; she didn't pine away or fantasize over handsome dandies. Not even as an adolescent, when marriage and family were still a nebulous, oft-contemplated option. The corporeal cravings that induced others to ludicrous episodes of amorousness had never plagued her.
She was too sensible, too discriminating and rational, to be swayed by a comely appearance or masculine physique. Yet, in a matter of seconds, she was all but smitten by an attractive knave who'd done scarcely more than say hello.
Though she was loath to admit it, his whispered compliments were excessively gratifying. Sweet, endearing balms. It had been a long while since anyone had examined her and appreciated the woman lurking beneath the prudently poised exterior.
For years, she'd dawdled in her widowed father's shadowas his hostess, his companion, his secretarial attendantuntil she'd become a master at the art of blending in and never garnering attention for herself. She'd stooped so low in ceding to her father's wishes, needs, and commands, that she was little more than an extension of his illustrious self. Not a woman in her own right, but merely the earl's rather plain, unmarried, boring but efficient daughter.
How marvelous to have her eccentric swain behold another aspect of herself, someone better and more grand. She was secretly flattered, even though he was too bold by half; no sense in encouraging him.
"You're angry with me," he murmured, just when she would have turned away.
Indeed, she was piqued, but how had he guessed?
"As I don't know you, sir," she was compelled to mention, "how could I possibly feel anger or anything else toward you? Now, if you'll excuse me"
"Gabriel," he interrupted.
The man's breeding was atrocious. Had he no discretion at all? He simply blurted out his identity like a common ruffian.
"My name is Gabriel Cristofore."
Italian. Of course, he would be.
The appellation rolled off his tongue, conjuring images of sun-drenched hills and turquoise oceans. Temperate, lazy days and fine red wine. Soft music and romantic suppers.
She'd always dreamed of visiting Italy, but she'd dutifully passed up the lone chance she'd once had to travel to the charming country. Shortly after she'd finished her formal education at age sixteen, her favorite teacher and several students had planned a scholarly tour, but she'd declined to go, succumbing to pressure from her father as he'd insisted that he couldn't manage without her for the six months she'd have been gone.
It still rankled that she hadn't taken that trip. There had been many opportunities lost due to her father's maneuvering and coercion. In many ways, he was like a spoiled, demanding infant, wanting her at his beck and call, with her entire energies devoted exclusively to his happiness.
At his behest, she'd abandoned numerous adventures, staying at home to supervise the mundane trivialities of his day-to-day affairs, until it seemed that all she ever did was tally her regrets.
As she stood there in that heated foyer, an ancient twenty-seven years old, and with nothing to show for her interval on earth but a decade of serving as a combination nanny and governess for her spoiled, overbearing tyrant ofa father, she was swamped with a thriving discontentment she'd never previously noticed. She was chafing against restriction and constraint.
What she wouldn't give to throw off the shackles that fettered her, to live as she pleased, to be free of her father and the injunctions he imposed upon her?
The turbulence bubbling just below the surface baffled her. From where did this resentment emanate? Why hadn't she noted it before? Why was it abruptly pleading for acknowledgment?
Yes, she'd been disgruntled recently. With her father's unanticipated, hasty marriage to his seventeen-year-old child bride, Charlotte, everything had changed. The horrid, immature girl had inflicted herself into their once-peaceful residence. Who wouldn't be put out by the transformations? But apparently, Elizabeth's umbrage was more grievous than she'd suspected, and it played a much bigger role in her current condition than she'd ever supposed.
"Well, then" She composed herself, swallowing down a wave of dissatisfaction that was not befitting and would get her nowhere, and she forced herself to the task at hand: ridding herself of her dapper nuisance. "Good-bye, Mister Cristofore."
"You're upset that I approached you." Not chastened in the least by her rudeness, he flashed a smile that lit up the room, blanking out all others who were present.
No one had ever looked at her like that before, as if she was alluring and desirable.
Against all volition and sanity, she reveled in that smile. The brilliance of it made her knees weak, and had her body slanting toward him with an impulsive aspiration to be nearer. She caught herself, but not before pondering why she was so eager to fall recklessly into his arms. The man exuded a wicked spell that was capturing her in its web.
Either that, or she was going mad.
"You're correct. I don't approve." She sounded snobbishand patronizing. "Your behavior is quite scandalous, and I can't fathom why you're so determined to harass me."
"Can't you?" He gawked at her as though she should have readily grasped his motives. "Your hair ... the shading is so rich, so abundant. And your face ... so impeccable. Your shape ... so rounded, so generous, so womanly."
With each indiscreet reference, he waved his hand before her body, indicating the exact feature to which he referred, and she was positive that if they'd been alone, he'd have handled the places he'd mentioned. The inkling made her stir uncomfortably.
What would it be like to be touched intimately by him? She'd never previously contemplated such a drastic happenstance, and doing so produced a surge of uncontrollable fleshly excitement.
The red on her cheeks intensified to a striking crimson, and she furiously fanned herself. Striving for calm, she attempted to ignore his brazen assertions but, try as she might, she couldn't avoid ruminating on his description of her, which didn't fit with her own.
She regarded herself as average, as too full-figured and too dark-haired. In a culture where young misses were lauded for being blond and petite, she'd continually stuck out. At age thirteen, she had started to develop her amply endowed figure, and she'd felt gauche and inept. Her sensitivity over her shape had never abated. As a girl in the initial stages of courting, the oafish boys of high society had been hurtful and crude, and she'd braved her share of offense and discourtesy.
Her father had been the first to subtly suggest that, with her mediocre bearing, she might be better off eschewing marriage altogether. When he'd encouraged her to forgo the marriage market and the family it would have brought, she'd seized the chance.
The few instances when she'd actually voiced doubts as to her decision, her father had habitually contended thather resolution was for the best and, without a thought, she'd agreed. She'd clung to the solitude and beneficial routine that spinsterhood rendered.
In the humdrum monotony that constituted her life, she'd never questioned his conviction that she was ordinary. How oddly refreshing to be apprised of another point of view, even though the man's opinion as to her attributes was ludicrous. Was he blind?
"Every time you open your mouth," she said, "your remarks become more outrageous."
"I can't help but be drawn to those captivating souls who cross my path," he righteously claimed. "I am an artist."
"An artist?" she scoffed.
"Yes. My portraiture work is exceptional. Perhaps you've heard of me?"
"No, sorry." She shook her head, but he wasn't deterred by her inability to confirm his fame.
"Let me paint you. With these talented hands"he held them up"we could reveal the goddess hidden within."
"Honestly," she sputtered, stifling a laugh, "what nonsense."
"The endeavor would bring me such joy."
She gazed into his spectacular blue eyes, and they were shining down on her with what appeared to be genuine affection, and it occurred to her that she'd like nothing more than to make him happy.
What was wrong with her?
She was out of her element where he was concerned, because there was something about the cad, an indefinable demeanor, that sucked her in, that made her relish his company. If posing for a portrait would gladden him, then she was enthusiastic to comply.
Craziness, she chastised. Perhaps the domestic troubles with her father and Charlotte were causing her more stressthan she'd imagined, and she was gradually growing unbalanced.
"Thank you for your offer, Mr. Cristofore, but I couldn't"
She stopped in mid-refusal when she realized that he wasn't concentrating on her, but on a spot somewhere across the room. To her consternation, she hated that his attentiveness had been so easily diverted. Wanting to discover what held him rapt, she glanced over, but all she could behold were capes and lapels. He was a head taller than she, so whatever the sight, it was a mystery.
"I must go." He was thoroughly distracted.
Ridiculously, she suffered a pang of remorse. His arrival had been a thrilling escapade, and she could hardly restrain herself from mewling, So soon?
With some effort, he refocused his intense consideration on her. "I must see you again. Let me paint you," he hurriedly repeated. "Say yes."
As she vacillated, struggling for a polite way to say no, he slipped a note into her hand and wrapped her fingers around it.
"Arrivederci a presto!"
Then, in a blink, he vanished into the crowd, and she couldn't believe the letdown she endured. It was as though he'd briefly filled her world with cheery colors and had taken them with him when he'd walked away, leaving her with tiresome grays and browns.
Desperate for a last glimpse of him, she tried to dawdle, but the throng behind was driving her forward, and she was finally at the stairs and ascending. She thought to hunt for him from the higher vantage point, but she trudged on, declining to further foster the inane flight of fancy he'd initiated.
A few more steps, and she was at her father's box and slipping inside, only to be interrogated by Charlotte, who'd manipulated the gathering with more finesse and was enthroned and impatient for Elizabeth to attend her.
"It's about time," Charlotte grumbled, petulant as ever. "I've been waiting an eternity. Where have you been?"
Regally, Charlotte glared as though she'd been stranded for hours in some godforsaken locale when, in actuality, she was established in the center of the most lavish box in the balcony and surrounded by a half-dozen youthful associates packed in on either side. As Elizabeth was well aware, Charlotte didn't really care about Elizabeth's tardiness; she just liked to complain.
"Ah ... reality returns." Elizabeth muttered under her breath, carefully shielding her aversion to the dreadful shrew, and relieved that Charlotte's horde of companions ensured that Elizabeth could sit in the back row rather than next to her unpalatable stepmother.
"What was that?" Charlotte asked, suspicious.
"It was really difficult to make the stairs," Elizabeth blithely replied. "The crush was hideous."
For once, the obtuse carper wasn't in the mood for controversy. She let Elizabeth's explanation slide without further discussion, for which Elizabeth was grateful. Usually, it was impossible to spend five minutes in the girl's company without a quarrel ensuing.
Doing her best to discount Charlotte, she adjusted her skirts and arranged herself in her chair, while trying not to brood over the miniature beauty as the girl chatted inanely with her gaggle of puerile colleagues.
When Elizabeth's fifty-year-old father had decided to marry Charlotte, Elizabeth had been convinced that he had suffered a fit of temporary insanity. One day, they were plodding along in the ho-hum, sedate fashion to which they were accustomed, and the next, he was spouting about how he'd never sired an heir, about his rapid and frantic compulsion to wed again.
As he'd unquestionably needed a son, Elizabeth hadn't argued with his determination or motives for matrimony, but never in her wildest dreams had she envisioned that he would seek out the likes of Charlotte as his bride. Withoutfail, the spoiled termagant was either whining or throwing temper tantrums. She thrived on berating the staffonce she'd even struck the butler!and turning their placid household upside down with her foolish demands and antics.
She was a menace, but she was solidly ensconced in her position as countess, holding court like a queen, which meant that, unfortunately, Elizabeth was the one paying the price for her father's impetuous decision. Daily, she struggled to keep the peace.
With his club, business affairs, and obligations in Parliament, the earl was seldom available to witness the havoc the girl wrought. And, of course, whenever the earl deigned to grace them with his exalted presence, Charlotte exhibited exemplary comportment. Elizabeth had spoken to him about the incessant discord, but he wouldn't intervene.
"Women troubles," the earl would grouse. "Can't you just get along with her? Why must I be expected to act as arbiter?"
So Elizabeth had stopped supplicating for his assistance, and persevered as best she could. Yet, it galled, having Charlotte serve as hostess, superintend the house, and assume the dutiesand execute them badlythat Elizabeth had once handled so well. Elizabeth was bored out of her mind, having had her responsibilities usurped by a newcomer who had no understanding of administration.
However, she did not want to be perceived as petty or jealous of Charlotte. She was just tired of having nothing to do. More and more, she wished that somethinganythingwould transpire to jolt her out of the predicament into which her father's precipitous action had landed her.
The ushers rushed down the aisles, deftly dousing the candles with their long sticks, and the audience noise hushed as the orchestra began the overture. The curtains opened, and Elizabeth settled in, hoping she might lose herself in the theater's operatic contribution, but within minutes,the stage couldn't hold her interest. The actors were atrocious, and the singing even worse.
Craving distraction, she peered down at Mr. Cristofore's note, which was still clutched in her fist. She tipped it toward the light and scanned the ornate lettering. It was a calling card.
"Extraordinary Artist." She harrumphed. The presumptuous title was listed under his name, and she rolled her eyes at his cheeky nature. The rascal was so full of himself!
Irritated, she started to toss the offending message on the floor then, almost as an afterthought, she slipped it into her reticule. Why throw it away? If nothing else, it would be an amusing reminder of their meeting.
Gradually, her attention wanderedto the other boxes, to the pitand she clasped her opera glass to her eye, investigating nobles and commoners alike, for any trifle that might occupy her until the intermission.
Directly across was an empty box, which was partly sealed off by a curtain. A hint of candlelight glowed from behind it, and she paused, mildly curious as to whether anyone was in the secluded room. She looked ... then looked again ... only to determine that a man and a woman were huddled together in the shadows andshe tilted forward to the edge of her seatthey were kissing animatedly!
Furtively, she glanced at those around her, wondering if others in the distracted audience were watching, as well, but no one else seemed to have noticed the ardent couple. Apparently, Elizabeth was the only one who had the exact angle that allowed her to peek through the narrow slit in the curtain.
Transfixed, she clandestinely evaluated them. She'd never seen the likes! People in her world simply did not kiss. Not like this, anyway! The infrequent embraces she'd observed had been nothing but polite pecks, a curt brushing of dry lip to dry lip. Hands and bodies were never involved.This was ... was ... indescribable, and definitely not the sort of behavior in which she'd ever imagined two adults might engage.
The couple's torsos were melded, and the man's hands wereElizabeth focused in, struggling to seeon the woman's bottom! He was massaging her buttocks, pulling her pelvis into his own, flexing in a deliberate rhythm.
They were straining, reaching, and the longer Elizabeth stared, the more she was drawn in. She couldn't distinguish their faces, so she was surveying an anonymous episode of covert passion. Proper etiquette dictated that, at the least, she lay her glass aside, but the pair's activity was so riveting, so absorbing, that she couldn't.
The man's hand left its perch on the woman's behind, roving a slow, languid path up her hip, her waist, to stroke across breast, bosom, neck, and Elizabeth gaped in aghast fascination. With each area stroked, she tingled with a bizarre excitement that was disturbing and inexplicable.
Tenderly, he caressed his fingertips across the woman's cheek, then broke off the kiss, whispering something into her ear that had her vehemently shaking her head.
The man pulled away, and the candlelight that had protected his identity fell on him, clearly delineating him.
Elizabeth gasped so loudly that Charlotte spun around, scowling over her shoulder.
"Do you mind?" she sharply intoned. "I'm trying to watch the play."
Elizabeth was so disconcerted that, in an attempt to cover up her surprise, she intentionally dropped her purse onto the carpeting. Pretending to search the floor, she bent over, steadying herself and regrouping, her thoughts tumultuously jumbled.
Who was he, this Italian lothario? He was brash enough to prey on one unsuspecting woman in a bustling theater lobby, then mere minutes later, make passionatelove to another nearly in plain view of an entire audience!
She returned to an upright position, centering herself on her chair, while checking to see if anyone else had yet discovered the torrid duo, but they were concealed from all but herself. Like the worst voyeur, she raised her glass to her eye.
Mr. Cristofore was kissing the woman once again. Elizabeth scrutinized angle and intensity, intrigued as he relinquished the woman's mouth to blaze a trail down her chin, her neck, her bust, coming to nestle betwixt her breasts. The bodice of her gown was nipped extremely low, much of her breasts protruding, and he nuzzled across the creamy swell of skin.
The woman gripped the back of his head, urging him on. He acquiesced, tugging at the rim of her dress and pushing at the fabric. Before Elizabeth had any notion of what to expect, the woman's breast was bared.
Mesmerized, Elizabeth evaluated every detail of the mound of flesh, its rounded profile, its jutting nipple. Mr. Cristofore gazed adoringly at the naked orb, kneading, pinching, and tweaking the nipple thenshocking Elizabeth to her very corehe leaned down and licked across it.
In visible ecstasy, the woman shoved her chest forward, offering more of herself for his spirited application, and he readily submitted, flicking at the peak, then sucking it into his mouth.
"Oh, my Lord!"
The immoderately loud remark garnered another frown from Charlotte. "Be silent!"
"Yes ... yes ..."
Elizabeth rammed a knuckle between her teeth and bit down hard, effectively averting another verbal blunder.
For an untold interval, she contemplated them. Mr. Cristofore suckled against his lover, much as a hungry babe might; he yanked and tugged, teased and toyed. Unable to restrain herself, Elizabeth dissected every aspect of the luridscene. When Mr. Cristofore broke the contact, she was so distraught that she wasn't sure how she could remain in her seat, yet the performance wasn't even half finished.
Amazed, undone, she could have observed them all night.
Mr. Cristofore murmured a farewell to the woman, stole a fleeting kiss, then exited the box. The woman waited a few minutes, then she departed, too.
Long after they'd gone, Elizabeth was glued to her spot, staring across at where they'd been.
Copyright © 2003 by Cheryl Holt.