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London, July 2, 1821
"What are we doing cooling our heels at a masquerade when we could be kicking them up at a witches' Sabbath? 'Tis summer, Hunter. There's got to be something better to do. Some prank, some diversion."
What, indeed? Andrew Hunter yawned and scanned the crowded ballroom at the Argyle Rooms. A masquerade, and he and his friends had not bothered to wear costumes or even dominoes. What a sad state of affairs, when he could not think of anything at all to interest him—here or anywhere else. Well, it was bound to have come to this sooner or later. He had not left much undone, untried, untasted.
Henley nudged him again. "There's going to be a black mass in the tombs beneath the chapel at Whitcombe Cemetery. If you know of another…"
Andrew took a deep draught of his brandy and then shook his head. "None better than the Whitcombe Sabbaths. Go on without me, Henley. I think I'll make an early night of it."
"Early night? Are you ailing, Hunter?"
Ailing? Is that what one would call boredom to utter distraction? Aye, then, he had a bloody terminal case of boredom. "It's all hogwash, Henley. Pretend and make-believe. Witches' Sabbaths, cock fights, bear baiting, whoring…"
His friend gave him a sage appraisal. "We need to find you an interest, Hunter. A cure for the doldrums."
"Lord save me!" Andrew laughed. "You are going to suggest a woman, are you not?"
"Nothing like a willing lass to lighten your cares, eh?" He considered the suggestion for one brief moment. Then even that palled. How many women had he had in the last year alone? How many assignations and seductions? How many illicit flirtations? God help him, he'd lost hisappetite for even that.
When his older brother, the Earl of Lockwood, had married barely four months ago, Andrew had taken a small town house. He had no wish to hang about the family manor and watch Lockwood's domestic bliss—comical as it was. His brothers, James and Charles, had also rented flats to grant the couple their privacy. Whatever restraint had been placed on Andrew by his elder brother's presence was now gone. Perversely, the freedom to indulge his slightest whim had robbed him of the pleasure.
All the same, he felt an odd restlessness tonight, an air of expectancy. Something unusual was in the offing, but he suspected he wouldn't find it in the usual places. "No," he said at length to Henley's suggestion of female companionship. "Think I'll see what's afoot at the club, then stumble my way home."
The look on Henley's face was amusing—as if he could not believe his ears. "Have you become that jaded, Hunter? We used to live for nights like this. Why, look! All around us, men and women are looking for mischief."
Once again, Andrew surveyed the crowd. Spirits were high, it was true. Hiding identities behind costumes and masks gave license to lewd behavior. Or was it summer and the long warm days that loosened one's morals? Whatever it was, it was present at tonight's gathering and would likely be present at the many balls, soirees, musicales, fetes, fairs and pleasure gardens in the days ahead. But…
"None of it is new, Henley. Just the same old thing wearing different guises." Lord, how he wished for something new—anything that would drag him from his constant state of numbness.
"Pshaw! There's plenty of variety. Why, this is the first year Lady Lace has made an appearance."
Henley inclined his blond head toward a group in one corner. Lively conversation punctuated by laughter carried to them. In the center stood a diminutive woman dressed in black silk and masked by a black lace-edged domino. She was slimmer than he liked, and not nearly as buxom, but she had a certain allure about her. She waved one graceful hand in front of her face in a dismissive gesture, and two fair young men backed away. Two more took their place, including his friend Conrad McPherson.
Andrew narrowed his eyes to peer through the dim candlelight. Yes, she was thin, but not so thin that she could not fill out a gown. And though she lacked a deep cleft between her breasts, milky white swells hinted at what lay beneath the lace ruching that trimmed her décolletage. Chestnut-brown hair tied up in black ribbons would have been drab if not for the gleam and glints of fire in the curls left to dangle down her back.
"Intriguing," he muttered. "Tell me about her."
Henley grinned, no doubt pleased he had snared Andrew's interest. "She is called Lady Lace, always wears black and has, thus far, evaded revealing her true identity. They speculate that she is from the north. Yorkshire, perhaps, or Scotland or Ireland by the faint trace of a Gaelic accent. She has not been long on the scene—a week, perhaps—and some say she is the widow of a country peer. Others swear she is a courtesan looking for her next protector. All we know for certain is that each night she appears, she favors a man with a kiss. And what a kiss! No sisterly peck on the cheek, but one deep and full of promise. Why has she never chosen me, I ask."
Andrew raised an eyebrow. "A device designed to make people talk and men anticipate her arrival. She is nothing if not a very canny businesswoman. Mark me, she will make a choice soon, and the poor devil will pay through the nose for it."
"You are without a mistress at the moment, are you not, Hunter? What say you give it a go?"
"She's not my usual fare. Not enough meat on her bones."
"You might want to try something new, eh? What a coup to make away with the most sought-after woman of the season. Quite a difference between her and the schoolgirls invading town to make their bows."
Did he care about a coup? No. But the thought of revealing what lay beneath the black weeds and lace held a certain appeal. He was not ordinarily competitive, but the idea of claiming a woman who did not behave like a schoolgirl and who would not act coy for a marriage proposal was alluring. Pray she was not a courtesan looking for a protector. He had just paid a generous congé to the last. "Go on to Whitcombe without me, Henley. I'll catch up to you later."
Isabella O'Rourke fought back her gag of revulsion as the black-haired man kissed her. He had a definite finesse, but the fact remained that she had permitted this intimacy with a stranger. And she knew now all she needed to know.
This was not the man who had killed Cora.
She drew away with a show of reluctance and placed one palm against his chest to keep him at a distance. "La! You quite take my breath away, Mr. McPherson. I shall have to watch myself around you."
He laughed and gave her a crisp bow. "Do not watch yourself, madam. I shall do that for you."
She smiled and drew her closed fan down the side of his right cheek. "I shall think upon it, sir. Now off with you." She made a shooing motion toward the ballroom and waited until he disappeared.
Alone, she exhaled and waited while a bottomless shudder passed through her. She turned to the console table in the alcove and found an abandoned glass of rich amber liquid. Whiskey? Brandy? It didn't matter. With just the slightest hesitation, she lifted it and took a deep drink, holding the liquor in her mouth until it burned. God grant it would burn away the last traces of her humanity so that she could finish what she'd begun.
She swallowed, closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against the wall, waiting for the warmth to spread through her.
"That little shudder of revulsion, madam? Was it for yourself or your partner?"
Myself! She straightened and turned to face the intruder in the alcove. He was watching her, one shoulder propped against the wall and a cynical smile curving his deeply sensual mouth. His eyes, dark and intense, bore into her, and she suspected he saw more than he should. Oh, that would never do!
"You find a kiss revolting, sir?" Her question was not an answer, but she hoped he would not pursue one.
"I do not, but your reaction proves different." He bowed, a mere mocking of manners. "Andrew Hunter at your service, madam."
She gave him an equally mocking curtsy but did not volunteer her name. What would he say if he knew she'd only had her first kiss a week ago? "My reaction aside, Mr. Hunter, I do like kissing. That is why I do so much of it." Oh, how smooth her lie was. How convincing.
He grinned as if deriving some satisfaction from her reply. "So, Lady Lace, is that your game? Gathering kisses?"
She was not surprised that he knew her alias. She was well on her way to becoming notorious. She considered lying to him but realized it would be futile. If she was any judge, this man had told enough lies in his life that he would surely recognize hers. "Perhaps I am too countrified, sir, but I am always amazed when I realize the degree to which complete strangers in the city feel they are entitled to the intimate details of one's life."
He gave her a slight nod. "I gather I am not the first to inquire into your background. But a name is hardly intimate, madam."
"There is no need to grant anyone permission to use it, since I do not plan on being long in London."
He reached out and lifted the domino from her face, dropping it on the console table. "Do I look like the sort of man who needs permission?"
No, he certainly did not. His very presence unnerved her. He was strong and commanding. He was dangerous. He was a man just like the one who had killed Cora. And then she realized what she had to do. She would come to it sooner or later, so it was best to have it over and done with now.
She closed the short distance between them, slipped her arms around his neck and lifted on her toes to reach his mouth. She felt his little shock of surprise in the sudden stiffening of his spine, but when she pressed her lips to his, he softened, wrapping his arms around her and turning with her until her back was pressed to the wall. No escape.
His kiss was consuming and powerful. It was undeniable, making her head swim and her senses reel. And then, when her resistance weakened, it turned coaxing, teasing with little flicks of fire at the edges. Her breasts, flattened to his chest, began tingling and aching, quite unlike anything she'd experienced before. Somewhere in the back of her mind it registered that she was losing herself to this kiss—losing her very will to resist.
Oh, dear Lord, she'd lost control of this situation! She summoned the few senses remaining to her and fought to regain that tenuous hold. Alas, Andrew Hunter had no intention of relinquishing it. His tongue met hers and merged with a hot demand. She wanted to retreat, but there was nowhere for her to go. With the wall at her back and Mr. Hunter at her front, she was trapped as effectively as if she'd been caged. And in another minute, she would crave captivity. She slid her fingers up his neck and stroked the soft wave of dark hair at his nape and arched against him, wanting more of the breathless feelings he elicited.
And then he went still and stiff. He surrendered her mouth with a low growl and reached up to disentangle her arms from around him and turned away. Had she disgusted him?
"You have bewitched me, Lady Lace," he said as he turned back. "But I prefer to conduct such activities in private."
She realized that she had somehow wandered from her original purpose, but she didn't know how. She could only stand there, looking at him, unable to speak.
"Name your price. And please do not disappoint me by asking me what I mean."
Oh, that much, at least, was clear. She could only hope he thought she was a courtesan rather than a common whore. "I understand, sir, but I fear you have misread me. I am not for sale. Not at any price."
"Then you are looking for a husband."
"Just as well, my sweet, since no respectable man would marry a woman who'd kissed half his friends and more."
She gave him a self-deprecating laugh and looked away, wondering if there was another abandoned glass of liquor nearby. "Perhaps the man I am seeking is not respectable."
"Then you and I are ideally suited, madam, since I am not the least bit respectable."
She might have thought he was teasing or cajoling, if his tone had not been completely serious. Oh, she could believe him. One could not kiss like that without years of practice and miles of experience. But there was something darker in his voice, something frightening. She glanced back to find him uncomfortably close. She raised one hand to hold him apart.
"No words of affection? No declaration of fidelity or undying love? No pretty manners or promises? What sort of courtship is this, sir?"
"Have I not said you've bewitched me? I could tell you lies, Lace, but I hoped you were not the sort to require such twaddle. How could I love you when I barely know you? How could I swear fidelity when we will both be on to the next lover as soon as our affair palls? But if that is what you need, I shall give it to you, though be warned—I won't mean a word of it, and I won't have you crying 'foul' afterward."
He was honest, at least. Of the four similar proposals she'd garnered, not one of them had been honest enough to tell the truth. "N-nevertheless, Mr. Hunter. I am not for sale."
"If not money or marriage, name your terms."
Searching for words, she shrugged. "When…when I know them, sir, I shall tell you."
"Please do. When I want something, I am not a very patient man."
"Thank you for the warning."
He grinned, bowed and took his leave. When he was halfway across the ballroom, he turned to look at her again. She could feel his gaze sweep her from head to toe. His admiration was clear, but the open sexuality of his gaze unnerved her.
She glanced at her domino on the console table. How would she ever hold him at bay? She had better find her quarry soon.