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John Valentine strummed the fingers of one hand along the bar top while in the other he clenched a tumbler of whiskey. He stared at the clock behind the bartender's head, watching as the moments bled away one by one.
Glowering at the hated timepiece, he let out a string of low curses that didn't raise an eyebrow from the gentlemen and ladies surrounding him in the crowded room. In fact, most didn't even notice his frustration as they talked, kissed, and . . . He shifted as he glanced down the bar to watch one gentleman, a powerful figure in Parliament, lift the young woman in his company up on the bar to have easier access to the swell of her breasts beneath the low curve of her scandalous gown. Valentine couldn't help but stare as the woman dipped her head back with a loud sigh. The sigh turned to a moan as her companion pushed the neckline even lower until the dusky rose of one taut nipple popped over the lacy edging.
Valentine turned away, his erection lengthening beneath the bar. Arabella Nichols's underground haven of sex definitely lived up to the rumors surrounding it. Since his arrival, he had seen so much that this latest exposure to sin and sex seemed tame. How much more did the legendary Miss Nichols think he could take?
He started as a feminine voice, along with hot, sweet breath, brushed his ears. He turned to find a lovely auburn-haired woman standing at his elbow, a broad, flirtatious smile on her face.
"Arabella is ready for you."
The young lady's smile grew as he got to his feet and her gaze sweptover him. He ignored her blatant regard . . . and the equally blatant offer in her expression. With a grin, she turned and led him from the room, past a crowded parlor where even more ladies and gentlemen congregated for erotic foreplay, and finally through a ballroom with a stage where scantily clad ladies danced for the plea-sure of the men and women in the crowd below. Valentine kept his eyes focused straight ahead on the lace-clad back of his companion. His head wasn't so addled by drink and sex that he couldn't remember this was business.
Or at least try to remember. It wasn't easy when temptation waited around every corner.
His companion led him upstairs and down a long hallway. Through the closed doors, Valentine heard the moans and cries of couples, perhaps even groups in some rooms, acting out the pleasures hinted at below.
"Are you warm, Mr. Valentine?" his pretty guide asked as she glanced at him over her shoulder.
His lips thinned at the teasing glimmer in her eyes. "No."
She laughed as she paused at an ornate door at the end of the hallway. "Then you are a stronger man than most." She clicked the door open. "Arabella? Mr. Valentine is here."
Valentine did as he was told, even though the response came from a formless voice. As the door closed behind him, he glanced around. The chamber didn't look like he would have guessed based on the establishment's reputation. He'd expected a tacky display of erotic delights. A room dominated by a bed, perhaps clad in red with satin all around.
Instead the chamber was tastefully outfitted, from the rich oriental carpet beneath his feet to the expensive furniture and exquisite art that filled the room. There was no bed in the sitting room, but he assumed his hostess's bedchamber was through the closed doorway across from him.
Still, he could not find the infamous Arabella Nichols.
"You kept me waiting for over an hour," he said, his eyes darting from corner to corner. They finally settled on a high-backed wing chair by the fire. It was turned away from him, but a slender female hand lay on the armrest.
Still, she did not rise, or even move at all. "I am fully aware of how long you waited, Mr. Valentine."
Irritation sluiced through him, tamping down some of his earlier arousal. "So you don't care how my time was wasted? Is this how you run your business?" The hand curled into a fist before its own-er pushed to her feet and turned to face him.
Valentine caught his breath. By God, Arabella was even more beautiful than the gossips and rogues said she was. Long golden curls cascaded over her shoulders and down her back, draping over full breasts that were barely covered by a scrap of white satin that might laughingly be called a negligee. The long slit up one side gave him a good look at her slender, lithe limbs, the kind a man couldn't help but imagine wrapped around his waist.
And then there were her eyes. A stunning, captivating midnight blue that pierced through his own. There was a spark of intelligence, of challenge, in their depths that excited him as much as her exposed skin and husky voice did.
"Keeping you waiting is exactly how I run my business, Mr. Valentine," she said softly, her voice a little breathless and sensual. She obviously knew her full mouth and the words she formed with it were just as much a tool of her trade as the lush curves of her body or the heat of her sex.
He folded his arms and carefully, methodically, reined in his shocking animal reaction to this woman. He already knew what those urges could do. He had once vowed to never again be overcome by them.
"I am not a man accustomed to being kept waiting," he growled.
She gave him a small and knowing smile before she slid forward in a movement both graceful and enticing. "That I did know about you, though little else. You see, Mr. Valentine, I had to be sure about your character."
Valentine snorted. "My character?"Parlor Games. Copyright © by Leda Swann. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.