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Devil's KissThe Hellraisers
By Zoë Archer
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Ami Silber
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSussex, England, 1762
The Gypsy girl cheated.
James Sherbourne, Earl of Whitney, could not prove it, but he knew with certainty that she cheated him at piquet. She had taken the last three hands, and his coin, brazenly. Whit did not mind the loss of the money. He had money in abundance, more, he admitted candidly, than he knew what to do with it. No, that wasn't true—he always knew what to do with money. Gamble it.
"How?" he asked her.
"How what, my lord?" He liked her voice, rich and smoky like a brazier, with an undercurrent of heat. She did not look up at him from studying her cards, arranging them in groups and assessing which needed to be discarded. Whit liked her hands, too, slim with tapered, clever fingers. Gamblers' hands. His own hands were rather large, more fitting for a laborer than an earl, but, despite their size, he had crafted them through years of diligence into a gamester's hands. He could roll dice or deal cards with the skill and precision of a clockmaker. Some might consider this a dubious honor, but not Whit. His abilities at the gaming table remained his sole source of pleasure.
And he was enjoying himself now, despite—or because of—the cheating Gypsy girl. They sat upon the grass, slightly removed from the others in the encampment. Whit hadn't sat upon the ground in years, but he did so now, reclining with one leg stretched out, the other bent so he propped his forearm on his knee. Back when he'd been a lad, he used to sit this very way when lounging on the banks of the creek that ran through his family's main country estate in Derbyshire. Years, and lifetimes, ago.
"How are you cheating me?"
She did look up at him then. She sat with her legs tucked demurely beneath her, a contrast from her worldly gaze. Light from the nearby campfire turned her large dark eyes to glittering jet, sparkling with intelligence. Extravagantly long black lashes framed those eyes, and he had the strangest sensation that they saw past his expensive hunting coat with its silver buttons, past the soft material of his doeskin waistcoat, the fine linen of his shirt, all the way to the man beneath. And what her eyes saw amused her.
Whit wasn't certain he liked that. After all, she was a Gypsy and slept in a tent in the open fields, whilst he was the fifth in his line to bear the title, lands, and estates of the earldom that dated back to the time of Queen Elizabeth. That merited some respect. Didn't it?
"I don't know what you are talking about, my lord," she answered. A faint smile curved her full mouth, vaguely mocking. The sudden desire to kiss that smile away seized Whit, baffling him. He enjoyed women—not to the same extent as his friend Bram, who put satyrs to shame and even now made the other Gypsy girls at the camp giggle and squeal—but when gambling was involved, Whit usually cared for nothing else and could not be distracted. Not even by lush, sardonic lips.
It seemed he had found the one mouth that distracted him.
"I know you aren't dealing from the bottom of the deck," he said. "I have had the elder hand twice, the hand with the advantage. We know what twelve cards we both have. Your sleeves are too short to hide cards for you to palm. Yet you consistently wind up with one hundred points before I do. You must be cheating. I want to know how." There was no anger in his words, only a genuine curiosity to know her secrets. Any advantage at the card table was one he gladly seized.
"Perhaps I'm using Gypsy magic."
At this, Whit raised one brow. "No such thing as magic. This is the modern eighteenth century."
"There are more things in heaven and earth," the girl answered, "than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
Whit started at hearing Shakespeare from the mouth of a Gypsy. "You've read Hamlet?"
Her laugh held more smoky mystery. "I saw it performed once at a horse-trading fair."
"But you do believe in magic?" he pressed. "Gypsy curses, and all that."
Her slim shoulders rose and fell in a graceful shrug. "The world is a labyrinth I am still navigating. It is impossible for me to say I don't believe in it."
"You are hedging."
"And you're gorgio, and I always hedge my bets around gorgios." She gazed at him across the little patch of grass that served as their card table, then shook her head and made a tsk of caution. "They can be so unpredictable."
He found himself chuckling with her. Odd, that. Whit thought himself far too jaded, too attuned only to the thrill of the gamble, to enjoy something as simple and yet thrilling as sharing a low, private laugh with a beautiful woman.
She was beautiful. Perhaps under the direct, less flattering light of the sun, rather than firelight, she might not be as pleasing to the eye, though he rather doubted it. Her cheekbones were high, the line of her jaw clean, a proud, but proportioned nose. Black eyebrows formed neat arches above her equally black eyes. Her mouth, he already knew, was luscious, ripe. Raven dark and silken, her hair tumbled down her back in a thick beribboned braid. She wore a bright blouse the color of summertime poppies, and a long, full golden skirt. No panniers, no stiff bodice or corset. A fringed shawl in a vivid green draped over her shoulders. One might assume such brilliant colors to jar the eye, but on the Gypsy girl, they seemed precisely right and harmonized with her honey-colored skin.
Rings glimmered on almost all her slim fingers, golden hoops hung from her ears, and many coin-laden necklaces draped her slim neck. Whit followed the necklaces with his eyes as they swooped down from her neck to lie in sparkling heaps atop her lush bosom. He envied those necklaces, settled smugly between her breasts.
Whit had a purse full of good English money. He wondered if this girl, this cheating, sardonic siren, might consider a generous handful of coins in exchange for a few hours of him learning the texture and taste of her skin. Judging by the way she eyed him, the flare of interest he saw shining in her gaze, she wouldn't be averse to the idea.
"For God's sake, Whit." Abraham Stirling, Lord Rothwell's voice boomed across the Gypsy encampment, tugging Whit from his carnal musings. Bram added, "Leave off those dull card games for once and join us."
"Yes, join us," seconded Leopold Bailey.
"We've wine and music in abundance," said Sir Edmund Fawley-Smith, his words slurring a bit.
"And dancing," added the Honorable John Godfrey. Some - one struck a tambourine.
The men's voices blended into a cacophony of gruff entreaty and temptation. Whit grinned at his friends carousing on the other side of the camp. True to form, Bram had his arms around not one but three girls. Leo and Edmund busily drained their cups, whilst John received instruction from a Gypsy man on how to properly throw a knife.
Hellraisers, the lot of them. Whit included. So the five friends called themselves and so they were known amongst the upper echelons of society, and with good cause. Their names littered the scandal sheets and provided fodder for the coffee house, tea salon and gentlemen's clubs, their exploits verging on legendary.
Bored with London's familiar pleasures, the Hellraisers had all been staying at Bram's nearby estate, spending their days hunting, their nights carousing. Yet they had soon tired of the local taverns, and the nearest good-sized town with a gaming hell was too far for a comfortable ride. It seemed more and more lately that the Hellraisers grew restive all too quickly, Whit amongst them, seeking novelty and greater heights of dissolution when their interest paled. He was only thirty-one, yet he could gain excitement only when gambling. Lounging in the gaming room of Bram's sprawling estate, Whit and the others had considered returning to the brothels, theaters, and gaming hells of London, but then Bram had learned from his steward that a group of Gypsies had taken up temporary residence in the neighborhood, and so an expedition had been undertaken.
The Gypsies had been glad to see the group of gentlemen ride into their camp, even more so when liberal amounts of money were offered in exchange for a night's amusement. Trick horse riding. Music. Dancing. Fortune-telling. Plenty of wine. And cards.
"How much wine have you drunk?" Whit called to Leo.
It took a moment for Leo to calculate, swaying on his feet. "'Bout four or five mugs."
"Ten guineas says you don't make it to six before falling arse over teakettle."
"Done," Leo said immediately. The nearby Gypsies exclaimed over the absurdly high amount of the wager, but to Leo, and especially to Whit, the amount was trivial.
Whit smiled to himself. Leo was the only son of a family who made their fortune on the 'Change, and he was the only one of the Hellraisers who wasn't a gentleman by birth. He felt this distinction keenly and, as such, met any challenge with a particular aggression. Which meant that Leo took any bet Whit threw his way.
"Your friends seem eager for your company," the Gypsy girl said wryly.
Whit brought his gaze back around to her. "We do everything together."
"Everything?" She raised a brow.
"Nearly everything," he amended. Bram might have no shame, but Whit preferred his amorous exploits to be conducted in private. He wondered how much privacy he could secure for himself and the girl.
A striking older Gypsy woman walked up to where he and the girl sat and began scolding her. Whit could not understand the language, but it was clear that the older woman wasn't very pleased by the girl's behavior. The girl replied sharply and seemed disinclined to obey. The older woman grew exasperated. Interesting. It seemed as though Whit's saucy temp tress proved as much as a termagant to her own people as to him. Though Whit wasn't exasperated by the girl. Far from it. He felt the stirrings of interest he had believed far too exhausted to rouse.
"My granddaughter, Zora," huffed the older woman. Her accent was far stronger than her granddaughter's. "Impossible. 'Ere the fine gentlemen come for dukkering, and she does not dukker."
"What's dukkering?" asked Whit.
"Fortune-telling," the girl, Zora, answered. A fitting name for her, perfumed with secrets and distant lands. "Is that what you want, gorgio?" She set down her cards, then held out her hand. "Cross my palm with silver, and I shall read the lines upon your hand. Or I can use the tarot to tell your future." She nodded toward a different deck of cards sitting nearby, upon a scarf draped over the grass.
"I don't want to know the future," he said.
"Afraid?" That mocking, tempting little smile played about her lips.
"If I know the future," he replied, "it takes away all of the risk."
This made her pause. "You like risk." She sounded a bit breathless, more than the heat of the nearby fire reddening her cheeks.
He gave her a smile of his own, not mocking, but full of carnal promise. "Very much."
Zora turned to her grandmother and spoke more in their native tongue. With a loud sigh and grumble, the older woman trundled away.
Whit seized his opportunity. "I can give you five times what you'd win from me if you tell me how you keep winning at cards."
"I thought you enjoyed risk," came her quick reply.
"There's a risk in cheating, as well. Someone might catch you. And if they do catch you, who knows what they might do. Anything at all."
She gazed intently at him, then shook her head, firelight lost in the darkness of her hair. "No. It would be too dangerous to give those skills to a man such as you."
"A man such as me?" he repeated, amused. He set his cards down upon the ground. "Pray, madam, what sort of man am I?"
Her fathomless eyes seemed to reach deep inside him. He felt her gaze upon—within—him, a foreign presence in the contained kingdom of his self. After a moment, she said, "Handsome of face and form. Wealthy. Privileged. Bored. Throwing years of your life upon a rubbish heap because you seek something, anything to engage your restless, weary heart and prove you are still alive."
Whit laughed, but the sound was hollow in his chest. He didn't know this girl. Didn't know her at all, having met her for the first time earlier that very evening. She certainly did not know him. He was an earl, for God's sake, with a crest emblazoned upon his carriages. No fewer than three substantial estates belonged to him, all of them staffed with small armies of liveried servants.
She lived out of a tent. Whit wasn't sure she even wore shoes.
Yet a few words from her cut him deeply, far sharper than any surgeon's blade, and much more accurate. Why, he wasn't even aware he bled, but he was certain he'd find droplets of blood staining his shirt and stock later as he undressed for bed.
His solitary bed.
"If you won't divulge your secrets with the cards," he said with an insouciance he did not quite feel, "perhaps I can tempt you to reveal other, more personal secrets." There could be no mistaking his intent, the suggestive heat of his words.
She drew in a sharp breath, but whether she was offended or interested, Whit couldn't tell. Despite her insight into him, he possessed none of the same insight into her, making her as opaque as a silk-covered mirror. When his physical needs required satiation, Whit knew women of pleasure in London, Bath, Tunbridge-Wells. Actresses, courtesans. He knew their wants, their demands, the systems—both crude and elegant— through which they negotiated their price. A mutually beneficial relationship, and one he could navigate easily.
When it came to offering a night of pleasure to a fiery Gypsy girl, here, Whit found himself happily at a loss. Happily, because he had no idea how she might respond, and the inherent risk made his pulse beat a little faster.
"Would you see me financially compensated for revealing those personal secrets?" she asked, her own voice sultry.
"Absolutely," he said at once. "If that is what you wish." He moved his hand toward the purse he kept tucked into his belt, but then he stopped in surprise when she reached over and clasped his wrist. Her grip was surprisingly strong, surprisingly arousing. He felt her touch spread like a lit fuse through his body, beginning the reaction eventually leading toward explosion. Whit stared down at her hand, her dusky skin tantalizing against his own lighter-colored flesh, then up at her face as she leaned close.
"Romani chis are not your gorgie whores, my lord. Especially me." Her voice was steady, yet her eyes were hot. "I may lie to you, but not with you. Not for coin." She released her grip and sat back, and Whit felt the echo of her touch. "If I were to take any man to my bedroll, it would not be for money."
Which seemed to imply that she might share her bed with a man, only without any sort of monetary inducement. That sounded promising.
Before Whit could speculate on this further, Bram staggered over with his arm hooked around the neck of a Gypsy man. The Gypsy looked a little alarmed to be so close to the tall, somewhat inebriated stranger, but could not easily break free.
"Taiso here just told me something very interesting," Bram said. "He said that a few miles from here is a Roman ruin. Isn't that right, Taiso?"
The Gypsy man nodded, though from eagerness to rid himself of Bram or ready agreement, Whit couldn't tell. "Aye," Taiso answered. "To the west. On a hill. Many old columns, and such."
"Bram, if your estate is nearby, wouldn't you already know about a Roman ruin?" Whit asked.
Apparently, this had not occurred to Bram. He frowned. "Must be a new ruin."
The Gypsy girl, Zora, snorted. Whit found himself smiling.
"We should go investigate," Leo said, ambling forward with John and Edmund trailing.
"No!" yelped Taiso. "Ye oughtn't go there. 'Tis a place of darkest magic. The haunt of Wafodu guero—the Devil!"
"So much the better," said Leo. "We're Hellraisers, after all."
Edmund and John chortled their agreement. "This place is getting deuced dull," Edmund added.
Whit didn't think so. Though he was uncertain whether the tantalizing Zora might share a bed with him, he wanted to stay with her longer, even if it meant simply talking. He couldn't remember being so engaged in a conversation for a long, long time.
Excerpted from Devil's Kiss by Zoë Archer Copyright © 2011 by Ami Silber. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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