Read an Excerpt
London, June 1878
“It’s the same luscious female,” Lord Ranelagh murmured, surveying a painting of a scantily clad odalisque in the Royal Academy show. “I’d recognize those breasts anywhere.”
“She had more clothes on in the painting you bought in Paris,” the young Earl of Airlie said, his gaze intent on the splendid female form. “It looks as though she’s become even more — er — emancipated.”
Samuel Lennox, the Viscount Ranelagh, heir to an earldom of great fortune, rich in his own right, cast his friend a skeptical glance. “As if all models aren’t bohemian by nature. More to the point — since Leighton’s painted her, I wonder if the pretty vixen’s in London?”
“Why not ask Leighton? Since the painting’s not for sale, he might have a special interest in the model.”
“Do you know him?”
“Not personally, but my cousin attends his musicals. I’ll have George introduce us.”
Edward McDonal frowned. “I thought we were going to the Marlborough Club.”
“How long can it take to stop at Leighton’s and find out her name? Besides, I want to buy the painting.”
“There’s a Not for Sale sign prominently displayed under the title,” his friend pointed out.
A faint cynicism raised the viscount’s dark brows. “Everything’s for sale, Eddie. You know that.”
An hour later, an imposing butler ushered them into Frederic Leighton’s studio, despite the inconvenient hour and the artist’s custom to receive by appointment only, despite the fact the artist was working frantically because he was fast losing the sun. The butler knew that Leighton, ever conscious of his wealth and position, particularly now that he’d been knighted, cultivated friendships with the aristocracy.
The room was enormous with rich cornices, piers, friezes of gold, marble, enamel, and mosaics, all color and movement, opulence and luxury. Elaborate bookshelves lined one wall, two huge Moorish arches soared overhead, stained glass windows of an Oriental design were set into the eastern wall, while the north windows under which the artist worked were tall, iron-framed, utilitarian.
Leighton turned from his easel as the men entered, and he greeted them with a smooth urbanity, casting aside his frenzied air with ease, recognizing George Howard with a personal comment and his companions with grace.
Lord Ranelagh hardly took notice of their host, for his gaze was fixed on Leighton’s current work — a female nude in a provocative pose, her diaphanous robe lifted over her head. “Very nice, Sir Leighton,” he said with a faint nod in the direction of the easel. “The lady’s coloring is particularly fine.”
“As is the lady. I’m fortunate she dabbles in the arts.”
“She lives in London?”
“Some of the time. I could introduce you if you like.”
“No, you may not, Frederic. I’m here incognito for this scandalous painting.” A lady’s amused voice came from the right, and a moment later, Alexandra Ionides emerged from behind a tapestry screen. She was dressed in dark blue silk that set off her skin to perfection, the front of the gown still partially open, her silken flesh that had an alluring warmth about it, as though she’d been in the heat of the sun, quickly disappearing from sight as she closed three sparkling gemstone clasps.
“It’s you,” the viscount exclaimed softly.
Her eyes were huge, the deepest purple, and her surprise was genuine. “I beg your pardon?”
“Alex, allow me to introduce the Viscount Ranelagh,” Leighton said. “My lord, Alexandra Ionides, the Dowager Countess St. Albans and Mrs. Coutts.”
“I’m a widow. Both my husbands died.” She always enjoyed saying that — for the reaction it caused, for the pleasure it gave her to watch people’s faces.
“May I ask how they died?” the viscount inquired, speaking to her with a quiet intensity, as though they were alone in the cavernous room.
“Not in their beds, if that’s what you’re thinking.” She knew of Ranelagh, of his reputation, and thought his question either flippant or cheeky.
“I meant ... how difficult it must have been — how distressing. I’m a widower.”
“I know.” But she doubted he was distressed. The flighty, promiscuous Lady Ranelagh had died in a riding accident, and very opportunely, it was said; her husband was about to either kill her or divorce her.
“Alex and I were just about to sit down to champagne. Would you gentlemen care for a glass?” Leighton gestured toward an alcove decorated with various colorful divans. “I reward myself at the end of a workday,” he added with a small, deprecating smile.
A bottle of champagne was already on ice atop a Moroccan-style table, and if Alexandra might have wished to refuse, Leighton had made it impossible. Ranelagh was more than willing, Eddie had never turned down a drink in his adult life, and George Howard, like so many men of his class, had considerable leisure time.
Sam made sure to seat himself beside Alex, a fact she took note of with mild disdain. She disliked men of Ranelagh’s stamp who amused themselves in ladies’ beds. It seemed a gross self-indulgence, when life offered so much outside the conventional world of aristocratic vice.
“Meeting you this afternoon almost makes me believe in fate,” he said softly. “I came here to discover the identity of the exquisite model in Leighton’s Academy painting, and here you are.”
“Whereas I don’t believe in fate at all, Lord Ranelagh, for I came here today with privacy in mind, and here you all are.”
He smiled. “And you wish us all to Hades.”
“How astute, my lord.”
He’d never been offered his conge by a woman before, and rather than take offense, he was intrigued. Willing females he knew by the score. But one such as this ... “Maybe if you came to know us — or me — better,” he added in a low voice.
Their conversation was apart from the others, their divan offset slightly from the other bright-hued sofas, and the three men opposite them were deep in a heated discussion of the best routes through the Atlas Mountains.
“Let me make this clear, Lord Ranelagh, and I hope tactful as well. I’ve been married twice; I’m not a novice in the ways of the world. I take my independence very seriously and I’m averse, to put it in the most temperate terms, to men like you, my lord, who find amusement their raison d’?tre. So I won’t be getting to know you better. But thank you for the offer.”
Her hair was the most glorious deep auburn, piled atop her head in heavy silken waves, and he wished nothing more at the moment than to free the ruby pins holding it in place and watch it tumble onto her shoulders. “Perhaps some other time,” he said, thinking he’d never seen such luscious golden peach skin, nor eyes like hers.
“There won’t be another time, my lord.”
“If I were a betting man — ”
“But you are.” Equal to his reputation as a libertine was his penchant for high-stakes betting. It was the talk of London at the moment, for he’d just won fifty thousand on the first race at Ascot yesterday.
He smiled. “It was merely an expression. Do I call you Mrs. Coutts or the dowager countess?”
“I prefer my maiden name.”
“Then, Miss Ionides, what I was about to say was that if I were a betting man, I’d lay odds we were about to become good friends.”
“You’re too arrogant, Ranelagh. I’m not eighteen and easily infatuated by a handsome man, even one of your remarkable good looks.”
“While I’m not only fascinated by a woman of your dazzling beauty, but intrigued with your unconventional attitude toward female nudity.”
“Because I pose nude, you think me available?”
The merest smile appeared on his lips. “So blunt, Miss Ionides.”
“You weren’t interested in taking me to tea, I presume.”
“We’ll do whatever you like,” he replied, the suggestion in his voice so subtle, his virtuosity couldn’t be faulted. And that, of course, was the problem.
“You’ve more than enough ladies in your train, Ranelagh. You won’t miss me.”
“You’re sure?” he pursued. “I can’t change your mind?”
“Absolutely sure ... and no,” she declared firmly.
“Speak for yourself. I have a full and gratifying life. If you’ll excuse me, Frederic,” she said, addressing her host as she rose to her feet. “I have an appointment elsewhere.”
The viscount had come to his feet. “May I offer you a ride to your appointment?”
She surveyed him slowly from head to toe, her gaze coming to rest after due deliberation on his amused countenance. “No, you may not.”
“I’m crushed,” he said, grinning.
“But not for long, I’m sure,” she replied crisply, and waving at Leighton and the other men, she walked away.
Everyone followed her progress across the large room, and only when she’d disappeared through the high Moorish arch did conversation resume.
“She’s astonishingly beautiful,” George Howard said. “I can see why you have her pose for you.”
“She deigns to pose for me,” Leighton corrected his friend. “I’m only deeply grateful, because she models infrequently and according to whim. Although, Alma-Tadema has intrigued her with his newest project.” He offered the men a self-deprecating smile. “We’re currently competing for her time.”
“I’m surprised a woman of her magnificence isn’t married again.”
“She has notable wealth from both her family and husbands and she prefers her freedom,” Leighton offered. “Or so she says.”
“From that tone of voice, I’m surmising you’ve proposed,” Eddie observed. “And been refused.”
Leighton dipped his handsome leonine head in acknowledgment. “At least I’m in good company. Rumor has it she’s turned down most everyone.”
“Most?” Sam regarded the artist from beneath his long lashes, his lazy sprawl the picture of indolence.
“She has an occasional affair, I’m told.”
“By whom?” Ranelagh’s voice was very soft. “With whom?”
“Kemp seems to know. I believe he’s acquainted with Alex’s maid.”
“With whom is she currently entertaining herself then, pray tell.” The viscount moved from his lounging pose, his gaze suddenly intent.
“No one I know. A young art student for a time.” He shrugged. “A banker she knew through her husband. A priest, someone said.” He shook his head. “Only gossip, you understand. Alex keeps her private life private.”
“And yet she’s willing to pose nude — a blatantly public act.”
“She’s wealthy enough to do as she pleases ... as you no doubt understand,” Leighton noted with an urbane smile. “While a model is generally nameless anyway, particularly in cases like this, where a lady prefers a degree of anonymity.”
“Like a Madame X.”
Leighton shrugged again. “Something like that, I suppose. Although, keep in mind, Alex is also an artist in her own right. She views the nude form as quite separate from societal attitudes.”
“Toward women,” the viscount observed.
Leighton’s expression was unreadable. “I wouldn’t venture a guess on Alex’s cultural politics.”
“You’re wasting your time, Sammy.” Eddie waved his champagne glass toward the door through which Alex had exited. “She’s not going to give you a tumble.”
The viscount’s dark brows rose faintly. “We’ll see.”
“That tone of voice always makes me nervous. The last time you said ‘We’ll see,’ I ended up in a Turkish jail from which we were freed only because the British ambassador was a personal friend of the sultan’s minister. And why you thought you could get through the phalanx of guards surrounding that harem, I’ll never know.”
“We almost made it.”
“Almost nearly cost us our lives.”
“You worry too much.”
“While you don’t worry at all.”
“Of course I do. I was worried Lady Duffin’s husband was going to break down the door before we were finished last week.”
“So that’s why Charles won’t speak to you anymore.”
The viscount shrugged. “He never did anyway.”
Alexandra didn’t have another appointment. Rather, she’d felt a desperate need to escape.
Notwithstanding her disapproval of men like Ranelagh, something alarming had happened a few moments ago, and try as she might to disparage the viscount’s blatant sexual magnetism and his infamous use of it, she’d found herself not only drawn to him but, more terrifying, tempted. She drew in a calming breath, her emotions in chaos, her nerves on edge, an unusual agitation gripping her senses. Not only were all the stories of the viscount’s allure true, the man was fully aware of the effect he had on women — damn him.
Intent on repressing her alarming reaction to their meeting, she reminded herself he was just another man and she wasn’t a missish young girl whose head could be turned by a seductive glance and a charming smile. Nor was she some tart who could be bluntly propositioned as though he had but to nod his handsome head and she would fall into his bed.
In spite of the fact that seductive power was his hallmark and he was notorious for inspiring carnal longing in legions of women, she didn’t intend to be added to his harem of eager and willing females. She’d spent too many years struggling against conformity, trying to find a role outside the societal standards for women of her class, and she relished her hard-won independence. Surely, she was strong enough to resist a libertine no matter how sinfully handsome or celebrated his sexual expertise.
Regardless of the fact that she’d been celibate since a recent disastrous affair with a man who didn’t understand the meaning of no.
Reason, perhaps, for her current agitation.
But after Leon, she’d vowed to be more prudent in her choices.
And Ranelagh would be not only imprudent but — if his conduct at Leighton’s was any evidence — impudent as well.
Inexhaustible in bed, however, if rumor were true, a devilish voice inside her head reminded her.
She clasped her hands tightly in her lap, as though she might restrain her carnal urges with so slight a gesture. Impossible, of course, with the stark images of Ranelagh lodged in her brain — his tantalizing smile, the boldness of his glance, the overwhelming sense of power he evoked. He was tall, dark, breathtakingly handsome at close range, and all honed muscle and brute strength beneath the gloss of his fine tailoring. She’d never met such a man before, his presence one of sheer physical force. The purity of his finely modeled features only enhanced his image of physical perfection, while his brooding black eyes and sensual mouth suggested impassioned sensibilities beneath the consummate male animal.
And his hands were so very large — which meant —
Good God — she was carrying on like an infatuated adolescent.
Perhaps she should spend a few hours with young Harry and assuage her sexual urges, she tersely thought; he was always so grateful for her company. But boyish gratitude didn’t hold much appeal when Ranelagh’s virile maleness was in the forefront of her brain. Nor did young Harry’s sweetness prevail over the unabashed impatience in Ranelagh’s eyes.
“No!” she exclaimed, the sound of her voice shocking in the confined space of her carriage, as was the flagrant extent of her desire.
She really, really needed to talk to Rosalind. Her friend was always the voice of reason ... or at least one of caution to her rash impulses.