Read an Excerpt
Eyes of the Devil
"Who is that man over there?" demanded Charlie. "See the one I mean? The tall impertinent-looking fellow by the ballroom door, talking to Sir Horace Rumbelow."
Beatrice Weatherly suppressed a sigh. Her brother could be a bit of a bear sometimes when he drank too fast, and the champagne was disappearing down his throat tonight at an alarming rate.
"I asked you to wear a more conservative dress. Something dark and modest, maybe one of your mourning gowns," Charlie went on. "But of course you wouldn't, and now look what's happened. I swear that if he doesn't stop ogling you this very minute, I'll go across there and box his ears for him!"
I'd like to see you try, brother dear. He looks as if he could swat you like a gadfly with just one hand.
"Please, ignore him, Charlie. He isn't bothering me in the slightest, so I don't see why he should bother you." Keeping her face carefully averted, Beatrice sipped her own champagne. She was determined to make every glass last as long as she could tonight. Just look what had happened the last time she'd drunk fizz.
But, truth be told, her bold scrutinizer across the reception room did bother her and it wasn't an urge to box his ears she felt. No, it was something far more alarming. Her heart pounded and her entire body felt deliciously restive every time she caught his hot gaze on her. Something that seemed to happen every few moments or so because try as she might, she couldn't help looking back at him. And he hadn't taken his eyes off her since they'd entered the room.
Of course, when she and Charlie had been announced, it seemed as though almost everybody had swiveled around to stare at them. Oh look, she imagined them all saying, There she is, Beatrice Weatherly, the Siren of South Mulberry Street, the shameless hussy who posed naked for those scandalous cabinet cards. Men who probably owned copies of said cards had eyed her with salacious interest when their wives weren't looking. The women had frowned and pursed their lips as if worried that their men would be so overcome with lust that they'd flock around the indecent Siren, unable to help themselves. Even the discreet servants circulating with their trays had seemed to study her covertly.
Now, though, the first reaction was over and the hubbub of gossip had returned to its normal clatter. Some wives had won the battle for propriety and a few groups had self-consciously cut her and Charlie, but most of the other guests seemed far more free and easy.
I suppose a fast set like this is more forgiving of transgression, sexual or otherwise, and scandals are two a' penny, something new every day, she thought.
But the tall man with dark eyes and blond hair continued to stare.
The temptation to glance around at him again was a physical force. It bore down on Beatrice's chest, making her breathless, and it seemed to be affecting other parts of her anatomy, too. It was as if she'd suddenly appeared in Lady Southern's salon dressed exactly as she'd been in one of her ex-sweetheart Eustace's racy photographs.
That was, in nothing but her birthday suit.
Trying to appear not to be moving, she inched her head around, then blushed crimson when he nodded his head in acknowledgement.
Hateful man! I've had enough of this!
Beatrice glared back at him, adding a curt nod of her own for courtesy's sake. He looked vaguely familiar to her somehow, as if she'd seen his image recently, too. An artist's impression in some periodical or other, although obviously not a nude study. Her face and chest turned rosy pink at the thought of that, too. Especially as the elegant cut of his suit couldn't entirely mask the rangy power of his body, making the job of her imagination dangerously easy.
Her oppressor gave her a smile. A dazzling, daring smile, so much more arresting than a mortal man's should be. A smile that had her gulping her champagne as if it were lemonade, regardless of her resolve to be cautious.
His lips were sultry. In a clean-shaven face that was neither young nor older, but somehow strangely both, they were strong and firmly outlined, hinting at voracious appetites never denied. Beatrice imagined him savoring rich food and fine wine, but always in moderation, appreciating every pleasure without going to excess. Lips like that would kiss a woman just as hungrily and with equal calculation. Lips like that would kiss a woman until she gasped.
Lips like that would kiss a woman into doing anything.
Across the room, it was impossible to see the color of the man's eyes, but they were dark, dark as night, glittering with mystery and menace, his stare unwavering.
Almost suffocated, Beatrice had to look away, barely able to breathe. Had Polly laced her too tight? Much as she disliked corsets, hers hadn't seemed excessively oppressive tonight, not until she'd arrived here and set eyes on him. Now she wanted to rip open her bodice and wrench the entire miserable thing asunder, laces and all.
Taking small breaths so she didn't appear to be panting over the strange, aggravating man, she turned smartly toward Charlie and found him frowning at an alternative source of vexation.
Their recently acquired friends, Monsieur and Madame Chamfleur, were talking and laughing with a small but rather animated group, a few feet away. Watching them discreetly, Beatrice envied the way Monsieur Chamfleur kissed his wife's gloved hand with a decidedly French flair. It spoke of other kisses she'd imagined the two of them sharing, especially if the hot looks they kept exchanging were anything to go by.
"My God, those two are a rum couple, aren't they?" Charlie swigged down his champagne and took another glass from a passing waiter. "When you first introduced them, I thought them to be persons of quality, but there's something decidedly fishy about the way they look at each other. Don't you think so?"
Sometimes Beatrice wanted to give her brother a good shaking. She loved him dearly, because he was a sweet man in his own way and she knew he loved her, but he could act like a towering hypocrite at times. "Well, I think they're charming, and the way they exhibit fondness for each other is most refreshing. If more couples were as tender in their affections toward each other the world would be a far happier place."
Charlie clucked in irritation, the expression far too stuffy for his twenty-five years. "I think the less you talk loudly about 'exhibiting' and 'affections,' the better.
We're trying to retrieve your reputation here, sister dearest, not damage it further."
"Don't be such a stick-in-the-mud, Charlie!" Nerves atwitter, Beatrice tossed back the rest of her champagne and took another glass, too. Better that, to take the edge off her apprehension, than be drawn into a public argument with her sibling. "We both know I'm completely beyond retrieval or redemption in most people's eyes, so we'll just have to make the best of it somehow." She narrowed her eyes at him, keeping her voice low. "I think the sooner you relinquish thoughts of me making a good marriage to mend our fortunes the better. Maybe you should think about getting a job? I'll work, too. I'm a quick learner and there are plenty of things I could do."
Her brother looked as if he were about to explode. "No sister of mine is going to work! I'm a gentleman, for heaven's sake!"
"Goodness, don't take on so, brother dear. I was only thinking of learning how to operate a typewriting machine and enrolling at an agency. Anyone would think I'd just offered to walk the streets of Whitechapel at a shilling a tumble."
Charlie opened his mouth, no doubt to reprimand her again, but no words came out. He stared over her shoulder, frowning furiously, and as she watched him, a silvery shiver descended the length of Beatrice's spine. She hadn't a doubt in the world who she'd find when she finally turned around, but like Charlie, she was frozen too.
Don't be afraid, Bea. He's just a man. Just a man
"Such a modest sum?" A husky, measured voice rumbled with humor. "If it were me, I'd pay upward of a hundred guineas for such a splendid opportunity."
"I beg your pardon, sir!" Pink in the face, Charles started to bluster, then shut his mouth again, as if turned to stone by the Medusa's frightful gaze.
Slowly, as if in a strange, floating dream, Beatrice turned on her toes. Her chin came up, almost as if she were preparing to box some ears, just as Charlie had threatened to, but inside she was quivering to her core.
It was him, of course. The blond man of the dark, intimidating eyes and smooth, hard jaw. The man who'd stared at her so insolently. In an elegant flowing gesture, he bowed low, and it was only when he took her small gloved hand in his larger one that she realized she'd automatically held it out to him.
She could feel his mouth through the satin. The touch of it, the heat of it, burning like a flame. And at the same time she felt it elsewhere too, the sensation so vivid that she almost imagined she was back in the dreamy, drifting stupor Eustace had inflicted upon her when he'd sweet-talked her into letting him take those accursed photographs. A liberated state where she could do anything, feel anything, enjoy anything.
Between her legs, her sex fluttered as if her new admirer stroked it.
"I'm Edmund Ellsworth Ritchie, Miss Weatherly." He straightened up and stared her directly in the eye, his gaze unwavering.
It's like drowning. Drowning but wanting to drown.
Beatrice couldn't look away, couldn't be modest the way she knew she should be. His eyes were darkest blue, almost black. The color of India ink, fathomless and gleaming. "I won't say that I hoped to meet you here tonight," he continued, "because I knew I would. You were invited especially so I could meet you."
It was Beatrice's turn to be lost for words. She had them, plenty of them, but what was happening to her body shocked her into silence.
"I say" Charlie tried to rally, then he too shut up when Edmund Ellsworth Ritchie quelled him with a look almost as disturbing as the hot one he'd given Beatrice.
"Weatherly, I wonder if you'd allow me a moment of privacy with your sister, if I may?" It sounded courteous enough, but it was delivered like a velvet slap in the face, and before Charlie could answer, the ruthless barbarian had Beatrice by the elbow and was steering her away toward a concealed corner between a pair of potted palms.
I should shake him off. I should walk away. I should ask for a carriage to be called and leave this place immediately.
The danger was so acute she almost did it. But she couldn't. Deep in her body, some demon imp of sweet licentiousness was capering, roused to madness by the delicate touch of Ritchie's hand on her gloved elbow.
She knew him by reputation. Edmund Ellsworth Ritchie was a famous figure, who featured often in publications such as Town Talk and the scurrilous but fascinating Marriott's Monde, as well as the society pages of other more distinguished papers. He was a man of enormous wealth, an entrepreneur, owner of properties and businesses and the most notorious reputation with the ladies. He was always described as squiring some famous beauty or other, and the less salubrious periodicals, the sort Beatrice's maid Polly favored, hinted heavily at a string of affairs.
Yet because he's got money, he gets away with it all. He's done far worse than me, but society adores him.
Now away from the throng, she expected Ritchie to launch into a flirtatious conversation in keeping with his notoriety, but he said nothing, not a word, and just stared at her. Beatrice realized she was still clutching her champagne glass, and wished it full again, not for the alcohol, but just for something to do with her nervous hands. As if he'd heard her, Ritchie plucked crystal vessel out of her fingers and set it on a shelf beside them. High-handed beast!
"Kindly explain yourself, Mr. Ritchie." Beatrice schooled her voice to project the same kind of unruffled authority the man in front of her exuded. It was a tall order, but she managed it after a fashion. At least she didn't squeak like an outraged mouse. "What exactly did you mean? That you arranged for our invitation here. What do you want from us, sir, that you would do such a thing?"
Ritchie laughed, a low, thrilling chuckle that seemed to roll across her exposed skin and her covered parts, too. If it wouldn't have caused even more public awkwardness, Beatrice would have slapped him then and there she felt so angry.
But was it just anger? She felt confused. All awhirl. Astonished by the way her body was reacting and betraying her. There was heat in her face and her decolletage, every hidden delicate portion of her anatomy tingled, and her breasts ached in the confines of her gown and its underpinnings. Yet at the same time, the sensations were undeniably pleasant. More than pleasant. In her drawers, her sex felt agitated and hot.. as if, oh goodness, it were in need of touching?
"I don't particularly want anything from your brother, Miss Weatherly. I only want you." Ritchie paused, and his long, elegant, tapered fingertips rested against the lapel of his perfectly cut tailcoat. Watching him like an adder hypnotized by a mongoose, Beatrice jumped when, with a swift, almost showmanlike panache, he flung open his coat to reveal the inner pocket in its dark satin lining, and the gilded edge of what looked like a cabinet card.
Oh no! So that's why he wanted to meet me. He's seen the accursed things rather than just heard about them.
"I wanted to see if the real woman lives up to the promise of this image." His jacket still open, he ran a forefinger over the card's sliver of gold edging, slowly and lasciviously. "To see if you really are a siren." Appalled by the implications of what lay against him, Beatrice experienced a delicious but alarming ripple in the pit of her belly.
I've gone quite mad. I only met the man a few moments ago and he's turned me into a bedlamite!
"A gentleman wouldn't bring such an item to a social gathering." She gave him a hard stare, even though every single bit of her felt as if it was melting like a meringue before a gaslight. "A gentleman wouldn't even own such a thing!"
Ritchie snagged his lower lip in his white teeth for an instant, still fondling the edge of the card. There were stars in his dark blue eyes that seemed to dance in time to the waltz playing in the ballroom beyond them.
"A lady wouldn't have posed for it in the first place."