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El Bello Desconocido / The Beautiful Stranger
By Julia London Titania
Copyright © 2003Julia London
All right reserved.
Mayfair, London, England, 1837
If Arthur Christian should ever be captured and subjected to the worst of all torture, his tormentors could do no better than to arrange an evening such as this.
It was his own fault. It was his ball after all, his mansion on Mount Street, his indifference that enabled the lowest quarter of the ton to come walking through his door. Yet in spite of hosting this elaborate affair — and many just like it during the Season — Arthur would rather be drawn and quartered than suffer one more come-hither look from Portia Bellows, much less her pawing of his leg.
The pawing was, of course, also his own fault. He'd been too inattentive of his guests and therefore hadn't seen her coming until it was too bloody late. Portia had very neatly cornered him in the little alcove off the main corridor, which was where they were at that precise moment, her hand brazenly roaming his thigh. “I've never forgotten you, Arthur, not for a single moment,” she murmured in her best bedroom voice.
“Of course not,” Arthur drawled, and reached down into the swirl of Portia's heavy satin skirts around him to peel her hand away, finger by finger.
“It is you I imagine when he is on top of me,” she whispered huskily, and lifted herhand to the large black pearl nestled at the swell of her bountiful bosom, carefully tracing a line around it that dipped lower and lower into the decolletage of her gold satin gown. “It is you who makes love to me in my dreams.”
Actually, he'd wager the bitch was thinking of Roth's rather sizable fortune when he was on top of her ... yes, drawn and quartered, thank you, with his limbs scattered to the far corners of the earth just so he should never hear this tripe again.
Her fingers stubbornly sought the inside of his thigh again. “I didn't mean to hurt you, darling.” She said it in exactly the same voice she had used when they were eighteen, the same soft purr that made Arthur profess his undying love to her a dozen times over. That voice, along with her smoldering look, had sent him off to breathlessly ask his father for permission to offer for her, to which his grace had quietly informed him that Miss Bellows was already betrothed to Robert Lampley. Two years older than Arthur, Robert Lampley was destined to inherit a fortune and a title — exactly one more attribute than Arthur possessed. It was the first time in his life that he had understood just how insignificant the untitled third son of a powerful duke could be.
Now, at six and thirty, he understood how tiresome women could be, and calmly removed Portia's hand again. “My Lady Roth, you know that I don't believe a word that passes between your lips,” he said, and smiled as if she amused him, though nothing could be further from the truth. Everything she did humiliated him and when she was really in top form, she made a colossal fool of him. Ah, yes — Portia Bellows had duped Lord Arthur Christian of the Duchy of Sutherland not once, but twice, thank you, and evidently, judging by the way her fingers were boldly flitting across his groin now, she had in mind to attempt an astounding third supreme humiliation.
Standing in the alcove, hidden from any guest who might be wandering off to the privy by one of the large potted plants Arthur's sister-in-law Lauren was inordinately fond of forcing on him, Portia boldly moved to cup the protuberance between his legs in her palm. She smiled wickedly; Arthur matched her smile with an insouciant one of his own, knowing that there was nothing the woman could do that would ever get that reaction from him again. He circled her wrist and squeezed hard. “Your husband is not fifty feet away,” he softly rebuked her.
Her cheeks flushed, she carelessly shrugged her lovely shoulders. “He cannot see us, and even if he did, he would not care.”
“Ah, but I do,” he said, and squeezed so tightly that he feared he might actually snap her bones before she finally let go of him.
Pouting like a child, she jerked her wrist from his grip and stepped back, rubbing the offended appendage. “You are horribly mean-spirited! You would fault me after all these years for merely seeking a way to survive this cruel world!”
With a low, irreverent chuckle, Arthur casually folded his arms across his chest. “I fault you for many things, love, but surviving is not one of them.”
Her dark brown eyes flashed with ire. “You've no idea whom you insult, my lord!”
“On the contrary,” he said, giving her a mocking bow. “You have the distinction of being the one woman I wouldn't bed if even to save my very life.”
Portia's eyes widened; she caught a small cry of indignation in her throat. “There is no need to be hateful!” Arthur grinned indolently. Portia pressed her lips together in a thin line, turned abruptly, and marched toward the double mahogany doors leading into the ballroom, cutting him in a way only a thoroughbred aristocratic woman could do. A footman just barely reached the door and opened it before she sailed through, her gold skirts swinging against the man's legs with her strut.
Smiling lazily, Arthur adjusted his neckcloth and smoothed back a thick, unruly wave of golden-brown hair. Portia was still a beauty, he would give her that. Red hair, alabaster skin ... but a viper all the same, and no one knew it better than he. After she had crushed his foolish young heart when they were eighteen, she had married Lampley, given him a daughter a few years later, then had watched him die from some fever. She was still in her widow weeds when she had sent for Arthur, artfully dredging up sentiments he had thought long buried. She had been persistent — when at last he relented, she had tearfully confessed it was him she had loved all those years. Although she was a fool to think it would affect him now, those words had moved him then, and well she knew it. Nonetheless, he was resistant, eager to avoid having his heart dashed to little pieces a second time.
And he might have actually spared himself the humiliating sting of her claws had Phillip not died when he did.
It was immediately following the events of Dunwoody that he had found himself drifting, quite unable to find his stride. It was when the dreams had begun, dreams of Phillip walking about with the gaping black hole in his chest, mocking Arthur with his death. It was during those long, black hours that he had turned to Portia, seeking a comfort he recalled from summers long since faded. Portia had eagerly given herself to him, had whispered sweet promises in his ear, made him believe that she truly had pined for him all those years. Sorry fool, he was — it was a great shock to read in the Times one morning that Lord Roth was to marry Portia that spring.
Oh, Portia had wailed prettily when Arthur confronted her — what, she had cried, was a poor widow to do? Worse yet, he discovered that she was toying with not one, but two other suitors, each titled in their own right. But not him, not Arthur Christian, not the son who probably should have bowed to the family's wishes years ago and joined the clergy in some quiet little parish.
With a sigh, he shoved his hands into his pockets and strolled to the ballroom entrance, pausing there to look around the room crowded with the elite of the British aristocracy.
The room fairly sparkled — the light of dozens of candles suspended on crystal chandeliers glittered against the ornate jewels on the hands and necks of the silk-clad ladies. Everywhere he looked there was opulence — heavy crystal flutes of champagne engraved with the Sutherland seal, gold-filled fixtures, fine bone china, hand-carved furnishings, great works of art.
In addition to the two hundred or more guests whom Arthur knew would give their firstborn to be in attendance tonight, there were also those dearest to him — his mother and lady Aunt Paddington, or Paddy as they affectionately called her. His brother Alex and his wife Lauren, Kettering and his wife Claudia. Only Adrian and Lilliana were missing, kept in the country with the birth of their son. This was, he thought indifferently, a Sutherland home, there was no doubt of it. This was a scene that was played out many times throughout the year. This was the haute ton at its highest caliber.
Arthur wished he were anywhere but here.
There was nothing for him here, nothing that held his interest or inspired him to greater things. He felt as if life was slowly marching past him while he hosted one grand fête after another, taking his youth with it and any sense of purpose he might have had as a young man. He had no idea where he belonged anymore.
His gaze inadvertently fell on Portia, who was now smiling prettily at Lord Whitehurst. The look on her face made him want to turn and walk out the door of his home and keep walking until he escaped the reverie and reached the Tam O'Shanter, the Rogues old haunt, but his brother Alex caught his eye and started toward him. Arthur dutifully waited, trying very hard to maintain an expressionless facade.
Alex paused to take a flute of champagne from a heavy silver tray a footman extended to him as he reached the door. “Need to warn you, old chap,” he said, glancing behind him, “my darling wife has a maggot in her head to introduce you to Warrenton's daughter” — he gave Arthur a look — ”she's a bit on the plain side.”
“Marvelous,” Arthur drawled.
“Ah, and here she comes now,” Alex muttered before beaming a smile over Arthur's shoulder. Arthur turned, smiling, too, as Lauren neared them, extending her hand.
“Arthur! You are a dreadful host! I've been looking all over for you,” she playfully scolded him as he took her hand in his.
“I humbly beg your forgiveness,” he said gallantly, bowing low over her hand. “I was unavoidably detained with a small housekeeping matter.”
“Oh,” Lauren said uncertainly, then suddenly grinned again. “Well now that I've found you, I am so very eager to make an introduction—”
“Ah, Kettering!” Arthur quickly interrupted, nodding in the general direction of the hearth. “You will excuse me, but I've an important matter that really can't wait,” he said, and inclining his head politely, stepped aside before Lauren could object.
“Liar!” he heard her mutter cheerfully under her breath, followed by Alex's throaty chuckle.
Arthur flashed a grin at her before disappearing into the crowd. He made his way deeper into the room, pausing only to greet his mother and aunt. The dowager duchess smiled warmly. “You look devilishly handsome,” she whispered to him. Arthur idly glanced down at the black superfine coat, the heavily embroidered silk waistcoat. He thought he rather looked as he did every day — trussed up like a Christmas goose.
“Never mind that,” Paddy said excitedly, and clapped her hands like a girl, making the fat white sausage curls dance around her cherubic face. “Miss Amelia, the daughter of the very important Lord Warrenton, is in attendance tonight!”
Aha. So Lauren had already gathered her troops for the attack. Arthur loved his sister-in-law dearly, but she seemed absolutely determined to see him shackled to a debutante from here to eternity. “I am certain Miss Amelia will have a grand time of it.” He patted his mother's hand then carefully extracted his arm. “Ladies, you will excuse me?” Ignoring Paddy's blustering protest, he continued on until he reached the sideboard where his butler, Barnaby, had laid out an impressive array of liqueurs and brandies. Shooing a footman away, Arthur poured champagne into a heavy engraved crystal flute.
“Rather thought you were going to abandon me to the conspirators in Miss Amelia's new courtship.”
Arthur chuckled and turned toward the familiar voice of Julian Dane, the earl of Kettering. “What then, are they all quite afraid I shall be put on the shelf before the year's end?”
Julian laughed. “You and Miss Amelia both, apparently,” he said, and signaled the hovering footman to pour him a brandy.
“It appears I shall be forced to have another frank discussion with my sister-in-law. Speaking of impossible women, what have you done with your wife?”
Julian chuckled as he accepted the imported French brandy from the footman, then nodded lazily to where a small string orchestra was resting for a brief interval. Claudia was perched on the edge of a French settee, her elbows on her knees as she pressed home what was an undoubtedly very important point to the rather vapid Lord Perry. “I predict Perry will hand over everything he's got in the three-percents before he even realizes what has happened,” Julian said, hiding a proud smile behind his snifter. Arthur had no doubt that was true. If there was a force in London who could raise funds for worthy causes, it was Lady Kettering. She had the ability to charm a man right out of his stockings — literally, in Julian's case. He was about to comment as much when Barnaby suddenly appeared at his elbow. “Beggin' your pardon, my lord, but Lord Rothembow insists upon a word.”
Rothembow. The name evoked a flash of his dream last night — a ballroom just like this, glimpses of Phillip, trying to catch him to demand an explanation, a reason.
Excerpted from El Bello Desconocido / The Beautiful Stranger by Julia London Copyright © 2003 by Julia London. Excerpted by permission.
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