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By Sharon Page APHRODISIA BOOKS
Copyright © 2008 Sharon Page
All right reserved.
Chapter One Before the start of the London Season, March of 1818
"The choice is yours, my love. I want you-you know that. Meet me tonight, in the gallery. Don't wear your gown. Wear something easy to remove ..."
Grace Hamilton knew she should be scandalized by Lord Wesley's proposition. She should refuse. But she had been trying to stay strong and good and proper for a week and she could not resist any longer.
"I do not know, my lord," she whispered. He stood behind her, away from the hot, sparkling chandeliers and the swirling crowd, in the shadows of the ballroom at Collingsworth, ancestral home of the Marquis of Rydermere. Lord Wesley's home and a place she had no right to be.
Grace stood by dark gallery doors, wearing a borrowed gown, terrified everyone would see her for the fraud she was.
His lordship rested his hands gently on her waist, his long fingers splayed to meet across her middle-she hadn't expected him to touch her yet and the contact stole her breath. "I will be waiting," he murmured, his voice a possessive growl. "If you aren't there at midnight, I will have to assuage my broken heart elsewhere."
How many other ladies here would accept his proposition? A wave of his hand and any number of women would beg to be kissed by him, would eagerly agree to meet him for sin. Dozens of women here wanted to marry him; theircalculating eyes fixed on the prize-to become Marchioness of Rydermere.
This house teemed with lovely ladies of good birth, but Lord Wesley had singled her out, had pursued her ever since her arrival. From the first moment he had bent over her hand and let his lips play magic on her fingers through the thin muslin of her glove, she had been entranced. And each look he cast her way, each hot and intense glance, had assured her he felt the magic every bit as much as she.
Or was she wrong? What, after all, did she know about men in love?
"Midnight. By midnight," she teased, feigning a confidence she didn't feel, "you will know if I am coming or not."
His breath tickled her neck, a hot caress. "Wicked wench. I'll be there." He moved closer to her, leaving the shadows to press his body against hers. She both stiffened and melted as a hard ridge snuggled against her silk-clad bottom.
"I can't wait to grasp hold of this lush, fashionable arse-" With a groan, he ground his erection against her curves, setting her heart racing. "That, my golden nymph, is for you."
And then he was gone.
Grace snapped open her fan and beat it so feverishly the thin silk tore from the spokes. She'd never had a man do this to her before. Be so bold. Be so gruff and direct and lusty-
"What was my rascal of a brother saying to you? Oh, Grace, you aren't going to faint, are you? Your face is aflame."
Grace started guiltily as Lady Prudence joined her in the private corner. Her friend's closed fan rested against her lips, half hiding their firm line. "Did you let him coax you here?"
"No ... I needed a rest," Grace lied.
Lying had never been her talent and she doubted Lady Prudence was fooled. Her friend gave a tip to her head so the candlelight caught the tiny diamonds and sapphires threaded through her dark hair. Lady Prudence was so lovely. It was astonishing to Grace that she had such a friend.
"Don't believe a word he says," Lady Prudence warned, her gray-blue eyes very solemn. She bent close to be heard clearly over the graceful melody of the waltz. "My brother is a scoundrel."
Couples twirled past, elegant and glittering beneath the glow of a thousand candles. Gentlemen's hands rested lightly on slender backs; ladies' gloved hands entwined with those of their partners. Skirts swirled around graceful ankles and coattails fluttered to give glimpses of muscular male bottoms.
Grace sighed. "Aren't most of the men we encounter scoundrels at heart? That is what makes them so interesting. But no gentleman would ever really behave as a scoundrel with me."
"For which you should be profoundly grateful." They were the same age, both eighteen, but Lady Prudence suddenly looked wise and mature. "You are so exceptionally beautiful, Grace, you will make a devastatingly successful marriage."
"Will I?" She was running out of time. Within a week or two, the fashionable world would all be in London. Her eldest sister Venetia was already in London, in a rented townhouse, drawing erotic art to save their family, and their mother was sick with worry.
And Grace could save them all. All she had to do was marry.
She ground the toe of her slipper into the gleaming parquet floor and gripped her fan until the splintered spokes bit through her gloves. All she had to do was capture a titled man and she could keep her family from the workhouse. She could return her mother to the world that had cast her out.
Since Grace had turned thirteen, her plan had been direct and simple. She would marry a title. She would make things right. Everyone had told her she was lovely, that she would grow to be a great beauty. She had overheard the secret conversations, when matrons had told her mother how valuable her beauty would be.
"Grace, I am serious." Lady Prudence gripped her shoulders and gave her a gentle shake. The silk of Grace's gown-one of Lady Prudence's that she had bought but later decided she did not like-shimmered around her legs. "Do not believe a word my brother says," Lady Prudence warned. "There is not a young woman on this estate that he has not ... had intimacies with."
"I know." And Grace did. She knew she was a fool to imagine that Lord Wesley, a wealthy heir, a devastatingly handsome man, would want to marry a nobody like her. But she knew, even after only a week, that she could not bear to settle for anything less. It was not his title she wanted-it was him. The man.
Grace tapped her lips with her torn fan. She wanted it all. Could she not only marry well, but also marry a man she loved and desired? Or was she simply hoping for too much, when her family's security was at stake?
Prudence had adopted a motherly air. "There are many gentlemen who are already besotted with you, Grace. Lord Ornsbrook, who is a viscount, and a wealthy one, is a thoroughly respectable catch. Pelworth hangs on your every word, and he is an earl!"
Grace swallowed hard. Either man should be perfect: young, reasonably attractive, and tongue-tied around her, which should be a good sign.
Prudence pointed with her fan at a lanky blond man laughing his way through the dance set. "Even Sir Randolph Thomas, over there. He possesses a fortune! Yes, he's an atrocious dancer, but, really, a woman never dances with her husband."
"Or Lord Wynsome. Such a suitable name. He melts every woman's heart. And he's heir to the Earl of Warren. He's delicious, isn't he? I'm certain he would take one look at you and-"
"Stop!" Grace cried. The Earl of Warren was her grandfather-her mother's father. He had thrown her mother out and barred all of them from his house. Lady Prudence, of course, knew not of that. Like everyone else, Prudence believed the lies Grace had carefully cultivated-the lie learned by her and her sisters. Her mother was respectably married, her father, a sea captain who was away, far across the world, hoping to make his fortune. But that father was her mother's fictitious creation.
She would never dare tell anyone that she was Lord Warren's illegitimate granddaughter and that her father was really Rodesson, the famous and scandalous artist of erotica. Or that her eldest and talented sister was the one now painting the erotic works that bore Rodesson's name.
Lord Wynsome had no idea she was, in fact, a cousin to him. There was no way he would guess, but it was still her greatest fear that he somehow would, that he would expose the truth to Lady Prudence.
Prudence was her entry to the ton, to the world of rich and titled and delicious gentlemen-
She couldn't dare risk Prudence's friendship. And, in truth, she dearly loved her friend.
"But, still, there are more," Prudence said cheerfully. "Over there-" She stopped abruptly. "Oh good heavens, what is he doing here?"
Grace never heard that tone of voice from Prudence. Low, serious ... fearful. Surprised, she strained to look.
A gentleman stood at the entrance to the ballroom-he towered head and shoulders above the crowd. He must have been over six and a half feet in height. And his hair-it was a wild mane of dark blond that streamed past his shoulders, unruly and wild. She knew, by instinct, that it suited the man.
He gave an enormous grin, which revealed deep dimples framing his handsome mouth and brilliant white teeth. Several servants were trying to push him out. With his arms crossed over his huge chest, he appeared to be an immovable wall.
The butler hastened up to the fray, but the mysterious guest merely amiably punched the servant in the shoulder.
Laughing, openly amused, the gentleman refused to budge. To Grace's shock, she saw his head turn and his gaze slide over the crowd. Toward her. She was staring, but so was everyone else. There was no reason he should feel her curious gaze out of the hundreds of others.
Polite decorum decreed she should look away, but she could not stop watching him. His skin was golden bronze, close in color to his luxurious hair. He was obviously a man who exposed his body to the sun. Even bathed in the light of a chandelier, he stood too far away to reveal the color of those penetrating eyes, but she guessed they would be blue.
A silly fancy. She forced her gaze to move demurely away. But she was still aware of him; it was as though the music had stopped and the dancers had whirled away into the night, and there was no one in the ballroom but the handsome stranger and her.
The strangest sensation gripped her, along with a heat that threatened to set her skin on fire.
She'd desired Lord Wesley, but she'd felt nothing like this-
Every forbidden erotic picture, every one of her father Rodesson's erotic drawings-those she'd secretly looked at-spilled through her heated mind.
She wanted this man, this powerful, compelling stranger. She wanted to know what it would be like to lie underneath him and part her legs and take him inside her. She wanted to know how his skin would taste to her lips and her tongue. To know if he would be rigid and big and if he would fill her completely and make her scream in pleasure. She wanted to see him naked, taste him naked, and make love to him until they were both sweaty and senseless-
He was staring at her.
Grace felt it. Felt an answering fire rush over her skin.
Preposterous! How could he even see her? But she glanced up, enthralled by the moment, knowing their gazes would lock-
Or was he looking at Prudence? Wouldn't that make more sense?
He was not looking at either of them. Abruptly he turned on his heel and strode out through the gilt and ivory doors.
Her fan was in tatters beneath her fingers and her heart felt two sizes too big for her chest. Her throat was tight and dry. Her drawers were indecently wet.
She had to know. It was like a sudden addiction. "Who was that?" she cried.
"My half brother." Prudence's voice shook with ... anger? Fear? An emotion Grace could not quite define.
"You have a half brother?"
"He's a bastard," Prudence continued, her voice contemptuous, using a word she should not. "My father's by-blow. His first-born child, in fact, and my father is stupidly fond of him."
Grace shook at the revulsion on her friend's face. She was a bastard. Would Prudence feel the same way about her if she knew the truth?
Suddenly Grace felt as though she stood on a tightrope, balancing over a pit of wolves. No, this was the ton. Not wolves-mocking jackals with slavering jaws.
"He should be hung," Prudence spat. "He's a highwayman. Can you believe he is so bold as to come to this house? He's probably robbed half the people here! And he was a pirate. Why the British Navy did not kill him, I cannot imagine. He's a murderer, a scoundrel, and ..." Prudence took a shaky breath.
Grace moved forward, startled by tears in her friend's eyes.
"And our father loves him best!" Prudence cried and stamped her foot.
Grace hugged her friend. "Of course not!"
Prudence pulled out of the hug, shaking. "He does. His mother was a love affair, ours a duty marriage. Of course, he loves dashing Devlin Sharpe. But I hate him."
"Why? Because of what he is?" Grace could hardly believe she wanted to press this. Why should she want to hear about the horrors of being recognized as a bastard?
"He murdered the man I loved. If I wouldn't hang for it, I'd grab one of my father's pistols right now and shoot him where he stands."
Grace blinked. "How could he murder a man and escape punishment?"
Prudence balled her hands into fists, and Grace heard her fan snap. "I cannot tell you what happened. Not even you, my dear friend."
She reached out and stroked Prudence's arm as her friend turned red-rimmed eyes to her and asked, "Do I look awful? I have to dance with Lord Wynsome next."
"You look fine." But a chill washed over Grace as she watched Prudence stroll away. Prudence's movements were controlled, precise, and lovely, belying her emotional outburst. If her illegitimate half brother had murdered the man she loved, how could he have dared walk into the house?
And even after hearing what a beast he was, she still ached between her legs. She was still flushed and anxious with desire.
She was supposed to meet Lord Wesley at midnight ... After feeling all that mad, delirious passion and hunger and need.
She couldn't bear to stand in this crowded, overheated ballroom one moment longer. She needed to escape.
* * *
"You weren't planning to meet me after all, were you?" Grace jerked away from the study windows and slowly turned around.
Lord Wesley stood in the doorway, the door closed behind him. There had been a key in the lock before and now it was gone.
His cravat was undone, the snowy-white cloth trailing over his black tailcoat.
He'd guessed the truth. She had not planned to meet him. She knew she couldn't-for two reasons. Both that mad moment of lust for a stranger and the fact that she could not have intimate relations with any man until she wore his ring. So, she had slipped into the study and poured herself some brandy to take away the frustration of knowing she couldn't meet him. But she tried to tease, "It is only the hour of eleven. You cannot possibly know that."
"I can guess, Grace." His lordship prowled toward her, his hip brushing a gilt table and setting the crystal glasses tinkling upon it. She saw from his unsteady gait that he'd been drinking. But then, so had she.
"I know you are afraid," he said. "I know what you want." He brushed back the now unruly locks of his white-blond hair.
"You do?" Brandy was hot in her blood. She leaned back against the arm of the settee. "I don't even know what I want."
"Yes, you do. But you deny it."
"I liked you much better when you were direct. What do I deny, my lord?"
His dark eyes-a stunning blend of violet and blue-held hers. He was breathtakingly beautiful. Much more so than that coarse and bold highwayman who was his half brother. "You deny that you want passion. Heat. Fire. You want lusty, sweaty, passionate sexual pleasure. You want to strip away the gowns, the corsets, and the bloody propriety. You want to fuck, sweetheart. And you want to fuck me."
She was shocked into breathlessness. The most confident, audacious grin turned up the edges of Lord Wesley's sensual mouth.
"You are drunk." She set down the glass, her heart like a live bird trapped in her chest. He was right. Of course. His very words had set her on fire. "And your sister warned me-"
"That I've bedded a lot of women. So have most of the other men here who act like eunuchs around you. The men who try to treat you like you are sweet and untouchable. Can you imagine a life wedded to one of them?"
"No." It was simply the truth.
"You don't want marriage, Grace. You want sex. You have to take marriage to get it."
She laughed at that, thrown off balance by the entire conversation. Had she already waded in too deep? She could hardly swoon or race from the room now. She had shown him the woman she really was. But she liked speaking this way. Bluntly. Truthfully. It was exhilarating. "And you don't," she challenged. "What would ever tempt you to embark on marriage, my lord?"
"The desire to possess something precious?"
Excerpted from Hot Silk by Sharon Page
Copyright © 2008 by Sharon Page. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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