By Kat Martin
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1995 Kat Martin
All rights reserved.
London, England, 1809
Cat and mouse. Damien scoffed. More like seasoned panther and wary young doe. He watched her through the french doors leading into the main salon of Lord Dorring's town house. Gowned in emerald silk the same shade as her eyes, laughing softly with one of her beaux, she led the young man onto the dance floor.
It was crowded in the sumptuous high-ceilinged room, a crush of London's finest. Men in tailcoats and brocade waistcoats, ladies in silks and satins, some of them more richly gowned than she, but none of them nearly as lovely. She crossed the inlaid marble floor, all elegance and grace, a slender white-gloved hand resting lightly on her suitor's arm. For an instant her glance veered toward the terrace.
She knew he was out there.
Just as he had been watching her, she had been watching him.
Damien Falon, sixth earl of Falon, propped one wide shoulder against a rough brick wall of the town house. He had made it a point to discover the balls and soirees, house parties and musicales the young woman would be attending. The Season had begun, and the fashionable elite had arrived in London — Alexa Garrick among them.
He assessed her now, dancing a roundel, her pretty face flushed with exertion, fiery auburn hair shimmering softly beside her cheeks, then she and her partner left the dance floor. He was a thin man, the young Duke of Roxbury, but there was a presence about him, and he was obviously enchanted by the lady at his side. He pressed her for another dance, but Alexa shook her head. The duke bowed somewhat stiffly and left her near the door.
Damien raised the snifter he cradled in a dark, long-fingered hand and took a sip of his brandy. She was walking toward the terrace, tall and regal, looking neither right nor left, making her way through the French doors. Careful to avoid the place where he stood in the shadows, she crossed the terrace and paused at the opposite end, her gaze going out to the garden. The faint glow of torches lit the manicured oyster-shell paths, and moonlight glistened on bubbling fountains of water.
Smiling faintly, Damien set his brandy glass down on a small ornate pedestal and made his way across the brickwork to the woman at the opposite end.
She turned at his approach and something flickered in her eyes. He couldn't decide if it was interest — or anger. It didn't really matter. Already he had achieved his first objective.
"Good evening ... Alexa."
Surprise flared in her clear green eyes, which ran over his black tailcoat and white cravat, taking in the fashionable cut, the impeccable fit, seeming to approve, though the use of her name had caught her a little off guard.
"I'm sorry," she said, "I don't believe we have been introduced."
"We haven't. But I know who you are ... and I think you know who I am."
Her head came up a fraction. She wasn't accustomed to a man who challenged her. It was the key, he had discovered, the way to intrigue the lady, to capture her attention and lure her into his web.
"You're Falon." Her tone said she had heard the stories about him, most of which were true. Still, it was obvious she had no idea who he really was.
"Damien," he corrected, moving closer. Another woman might have walked away. He was betting Alexa would not.
"You've been watching me. I noticed you last week and the week before that. What is it that you want?"
"Nothing every other man here doesn't want. You're a beautiful woman, Alexa." He stood close enough to smell her perfume, the soft scent of lilac, to catch the hint of uncertainty in the depths of her pretty green eyes. "The truth is, you intrigue me. That hasn't happened to me in a very long time."
She said nothing for a moment. "I'm sorry, Lord Falon, I don't know what it is you expect of me, but I assure you it isn't worth all of this trouble."
A corner of his mouth curved up. "No? Perhaps it will be ... if you let it."
She stared at him, wary, yet her interest had been piqued. She glanced out into the shadows and nervously moistened her lips. "I-It's late," she said with a slight hesitation. "They'll be looking for me soon. I had better be going back in."
He could ruffle her a little. Good. From what he had observed, it wasn't that easy to do. "Why would you want to go in when it's far more pleasant out here?"
She stiffened a bit, throwing the lines of her face into shadow. "And far more dangerous, I should think. I know who you are, Lord Falon. I know you're a rogue with a despicable reputation. I know you're a rake of the very worst sort."
He smiled. "So you've been asking about me. I suppose that's a start." A delicate indentation marked her chin, he saw, as she thrust it forward.
"You flatter yourself, my lord."
"What else have you heard?"
"Not much. You're hardly a favorite topic of dinner conversation."
"But the consensus is that I'm off limits to innocent young girls."
"You're very well aware that it is."
"You don't think a man like me could change?"
Her eyes surveyed his face. There was nothing timid in that look, nothing shy or demure. He hadn't expected there would be.
"I didn't say that. How could I? My brother was an even worse rogue than you — if that's possible. Now he's a happily married man."
"So you see, there's hope for me yet."
Again she said nothing, sizing him up, studying him from beneath her thick, dark lashes. "I really have to go." She turned and started walking.
"Will you be at the soiree at Lady Bingham's on Saturday?"
She paused but did not turn. Beneath the torches her burnished red hair blazed brighter than the flickering flames. "I'll be there," she said, and then she was gone.
Damien smiled into the darkness, but his hands balled into fists. How easily she could make a man's blood heat up, his loins grow thick and heavy. Half the young bucks in London had begged for her hand, but she had refused them. Instead she merely toyed with their affections, leading them on, flirting outrageously, moving from one poor besotted fool to the next.
A dozen had offered her marriage.
She should have accepted when she had the chance.
* * *
"Alexa! We've been looking all over. Where on earth have you been?" Lady Jane Thornhill, a small, round-faced girl of two and twenty walked toward her. Gowned in a tunic dress of aqua silk ornately embroidered in gold, Jane was the daughter of the Duke of Dandridge. She was also Alexa's best friend.
"I was only out on the terrace." Alexa plucked at a button on her long white glove. "It's so very warm in here."
"The terrace? But surely you haven't forgotten Lord Perry? Faith, he's one of the most eligible bachelors in London. And so handsome ..."
"Lord Perry, yes ... I'm sorry, Jane. As I said, it was just so warm."
Jane eyed her shrewdly, soft brown eyes taking in the heightened color in her cheeks. She glanced toward the French doors leading out to the terrace just as Lord Falon walked in.
"Dear God, Alexa, surely you weren't out there with him!"
Alexa shrugged. "We spoke briefly, that was all."
"But he's — he's — Why, you haven't even been introduced."
"No, and we probably never will be."
"You've the right of it there. Your brother would probably cock up his toes if he knew that man was anywhere near you."
"I don't see what's so awful about him. Lots of men have affairs with married women."
"There aren't many who've killed three husbands fighting duels over them."
"My brother has certainly fought duels. And it's hardly a secret that Rayne carried on with Lady Campden. Why, he was —"
"Rayne is reformed. Lord Falon is not and probably never will be."
She toyed with a strand of her dark auburn hair. "I don't remember seeing him before, not until this Season."
"He's been out of the country for the past several years. Italy, I believe, or perhaps it was Spain." She glanced back toward the earl. "At any rate, he isn't much for Society. And they aren't much for him."
"Then why do you suppose he's here?"
"I can't imagine." They watched him cross the main salon, turning more than one head as he passed, moving with masculine grace toward the ornate doors leading out to the street. He was taller than most of the men in the room, lean but broad-shouldered, with wavy black hair and dark skin, high carved cheekbones, and incredible bright blue eyes. In a word, he was one of the handsomest men Alexa had ever seen.
"Do you think he's a fortune hunter?" she asked, almost reluctant to hear the answer. At present, she was unmarried and one of the wealthiest young heiresses in London.
"To be honest, I don't think so. From what I've heard, Lord Falon's estate has dwindled, but he isn't really poor — and he isn't in the marriage mart. If he were, there are at least a dozen wealthy young ladies who would marry him despite his reputation. To say nothing of a number of the eligible widows who are his usual cup of tea."
"What else do you know about him?"
"Not much, really. He lives in some dreary old castle on the coast. At one time there were rumors that he was mixed up in smuggling. Another time there was gossip that he was sympathetic to the French."
"The French!" Her brother, Chris, had been killed by the French. She loathed Napoleon and his endless bloody war.
"He's part French on his mother's side," Jane said. "That's where he gets those dark good looks."
Alexa sighed. "A rake, a smuggler — perhaps even worse. There isn't much to recommend him." She frowned at the thought, a little uncertain why the dark earl so intrigued her. Then she smiled more brightly than she had in a very long time. "Still, he is incredibly handsome. And those eyes — as blue as the sea after a storm."
"Yes, and just as unfathomable. You may rest assured, that man means nothing but trouble."
Alexa merely shrugged. Already she was counting the days until Saturday next.
* * *
Though the week seemed to drag for Alexa, for Lady Jane Thornhill the days swiftly passed. Standing next to a long white-clothed table at Lady Bingham's, beside an ornate punch bowl lit by a silver branch of candles, Jane watched her friend walking toward her on the arm of the handsome Lord Perry. Alexa was smiling, listening politely as she always did, just as bored as she had been since the start of the Season.
She had returned to London from Marden, not far from Jane's father's estate at Dandridge, where the two of them had met. For the Season, Alexa was staying with her brother and his wife at Stoneleigh, the viscount's mansion on Hampstead Heath. They had insisted she return to London this year, forcing her back into Society, hoping at last she would choose a proper husband. If it hadn't been for Peter and the tragedy that occurred, Jane was certain Lord Stoneleigh would have pressed his sister long before this.
Instead he had indulged her, knowing she had taken her young friend's death too hard, knowing she felt responsible, allowing her to remain closed up at Marden for the past two years.
But Alexa had finally returned, and within the first few weeks of the Season was just as sought after as she had been that very first year. She was just as beautiful — more so now that her features had matured — just as charming, just as warm. But inside she was different. She was no longer the carefree young innocent who selfishly basked in the male adoration lavished upon her. She was no longer willful, no longer spoiled.
Alexa was a woman now, in every way but one. The loss of her friend had cost her youth, and along with it some inner part of herself. It was almost as if she held herself back, as if some tiny spark of life inside her had died that day along with Peter.
Jane wished Alexa could be more like the rest of the girls her age. Caught up in the adoration of her young male admirers, having a difficult time choosing from the long list of suitors vying for her hand.
But Alexa wanted none of them.
"They're all just little boys," she'd once said. "I want someone who will make my heart pound. I want someone I can respect, someone I can talk to. I want a man, and I don't intend to settle for anything less."
Jane had laughed at the time, admiring her friend for being so outspoken, and knowing that was part of the reason they were such good friends.
And Jane had always understood her. Alexa's mother had died when she was young, just as Jane's had, leaving her friend in the care of a father and two older brothers nearly twice her age. It was hardly surprising that Alexa was attracted to more mature men. Unfortunately, most of those who pursued her seemed to hold as little appeal as all the rest.
Except for Lord Falon.
Of all the men her friend could choose, this one was the worst. True, he was mysterious and intriguing. He was also volatile and dangerous, perhaps even criminal. Any interest he had in Alexa must surely be dishonorable — though Jane had to admit she had never heard it said he had deliberately seduced an innocent young girl. His wealth was far less than Alexa's, and even if they fell madly in love, the viscount would never approve the marriage.
And yet there had been that spark in Alexa's eyes, missing for so very long.
Beneath the flickering lights of a crystal chandelier, Jane watched her friend moving gracefully among the fashionably garbed men and women of the ton, her pasted-on smile fooling all of them but Jane. Perhaps Lord Falon would be good for her. Perhaps he could rekindle the flame of life that had all but died inside her.
Perhaps the danger would be worth it.
Lady Jane Thornhill smiled. If Alexa was careful, what could it hurt?
She glanced toward the door leading out to the garden. The handsome Lord Falon had not yet arrived, but Jane didn't doubt that he would.
What would it hurt if Alexa flirted with the man just a little? What would it hurt if she even went so far as to kiss him?
There had never been a man Alexa couldn't handle. Perhaps it was time she met one who left her a little bit uncertain, challenged her in some way, sparked that hidden flame.
Perhaps, she thought — but she wasn't really so sure.
* * *
He was here; she could feel it. And he was watching her. Alexa laughed brightly at something her companion, the sandy-haired, slightly pudgy Admiral Lord Cawley had said, determined to disguise how nervous she felt. The admiral was speaking of the war, regaling his several-years-past victory at Trafalgar for at least the dozenth time.
Alexa's mind strayed from his droning nasal voice, and out of the corner of her eye she saw the earl enter the ballroom, tall and lean yet powerfully built. It made her stomach flutter just to watch the way he moved, sparsely, smoothly, with an innate self-assurance she found lacking in other men.
Pausing only briefly to exchange a word now and then, he made his way toward the doors leading out to the garden. How long would he wait? she wondered, unwilling to approach him too soon.
For hours, she decided, as the time ticked away. It appeared the earl was a very patient man.
She went to him just after supper, finding it easy to break away, grateful Rayne and Jocelyn had grown weary and left to return to Stoneleigh, an hour's carriage ride away. Thankful her brother had allowed her to spend the week with Jane.
"I've spoken to the duke," her handsome brother had said with an affectionate smile. Jocelyn stood beside him, one of them slender and elegant, the other massive and strong. "His grace is not yet ready to leave. You and Jane may stay until he is. Behave yourself, have a good time, and I'll send round a carriage on Monday." With his thick, dark, coffee-brown hair, masculine features, and rough male charm, her brother had always had a way with the ladies.
"Thank you, Rayne." She leaned over and kissed his cheek, thinking oddly that though her brother was more stoutly built, he was the only man she knew as tall as Damien Falon.
"Have a good time, dear." Jocelyn smiled and hugged her. Two years older, Jo was tall and slim, matching Alexa in size. She was dark-haired, pretty, and intelligent. In the years since her marriage to Rayne, she and Alexa had become close friends.
"I promise I shall dance every dance." That wasn't the truth, but it made Jo happy to think she was enjoying herself. In truth, until Lord Falon had made an appearance this Season, she would rather have been back at Marden.
She waited for her brother and his wife to leave, then summoned her courage and made her way toward the rear of the house, a two-story brick affair done in the French motif. Crossing the last few paces to the door, she smoothed the front of her high-waisted gold silk gown, pressing the sheer tulle back into place, straightening the deep vee neckline that showed a great deal of her bosom, a style, thanks to Jocelyn, her brother had at last grudgingly accepted. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Devil's Prize by Kat Martin. Copyright © 1995 Kat Martin. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.