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Outskirts of London
Her name was Vermillion. It came from the Old French, a color, a bright Chinese red; cinnabar, some called it.
Vermillion. The word conjured sultry, mysterious images. Hot, lurid, untamed images.
She had always hated the name.
In private, she called herself Lee. Simple. Straightforward. The middle name she carried that was more like the person she was inside. Vermillion Lee Durant, a pretty name, she supposed.
If only it belonged to someone else.
"Hurry, Vermillion, darling. We mustn't keep the colonel waiting."
Lee sighed. No, one must never keep a gentleman waiting. At least not here, in the world of the demimonde, where every man was king, or at least made to believe he was.
Lee paused in front of the tall cheval glass to check the fit of her scarlet velvet gown, a complement to the thick dark red curls swept up on her head, the style not really a la mode, as was the gown, but softer, more alluring, more pleasing to the gentlemen.
The elaborate coiffure was laced with gold ribbon to match the trim beneath the high waist of her gown, which was cut shockingly low, displaying an abundance of cleavage. The slim skirt, slashed nearly to the knee, was the height of London fashion, though hardly suitable for a young unmarried woman of Lee's mere eighteen years.
Still, she was used to the clothes and her sophisticated appearance. She stood patiently as her little French maid, Jeannie, swung the gold-lined, red velvet cape around her shoulders and fastened the diamond and garnet pin at her throat.
" 'Ave a good time, chérie," the woman said, though surely by now she knew it wouldn't be the least bit of fun for Lee.
"Good night, Jeannie." Pasting on the practiced, enigmatic smile her aunt and her admirers expected to see, she paused at the bedchamber door. "I'll be late coming home. I'll ring if I need help getting out of the gown."
Her artificial smile firmly in place, Vermillion swept out into the hallway and descended the curving staircase into the entry of her aunt's elegant mansion in Parkwood, a small village on the outskirts of London. Gowned in sapphire silk scattered with brilliants, Aunt Gabriella waited at the bottom of the stairs, her own, far more sincere smile in place.
Gabriella Durant was forty-six years old, taller than Vermillion and more slender, her breasts still high, her blond hair thick and luxurious, woven with only a few strands of silver gray. But fine lines had begun to appear around her mouth and eyes, and the flesh had loosened beneath her jaw. Though Gabriella loathed each small flaw, she was still a beautiful woman.
"You look lovely, darling." Aunt Gabby surveyed the ruby velvet gown and the upsweep of Vermillion's flame-red hair. "More beautiful every year."
Vermillion made no reply. The Durant women were known for their beauty. It was a simple statement of fact that Lee saw as more of a curse than a blessing. The butler, Wendell Perkin Jones, a thin, elegant little man who wore his dark hair parted down the middle and curled at the sides like an emperor, pulled open the door, and Vermillion caught a glimpse of the carriage, a sleek black barouche pulled by a pair of matched gray horses, a gift from the Earl of Claymont, her aunt's current cher ami.
"The coach is waiting," Aunt Gabby said. "Claymont is meeting us at the theater." Gabriella smiled, looking forward to the evening with a relish Vermillion rarely felt. She would rather stay at home, ride one of her precious horses if the sun were still up, or read a book, perhaps, or enjoy an hour on the harp, though none of those thoughts appeared on her face.
Instead, her smile widened as she settled into her role, almost second nature after so many years of learning the part. "I'm ready to go anytime you are. As you say, we mustn't keep the gentlemen waiting." Sweeping her cloak out behind her, Vermillion joined her aunt in the entry and the two Durant women walked gracefully out the door, into the glittering London night that awaited.
Captain Caleb Tanner held the harness of the lead horse of the pair in front of the carriage, keeping the flashy grays calm in their traces. The expensive black barouche sat in front of the Durant mansion, which was fashioned of brick, stood three stories high, and sat on several hundred acres of rolling green hills just outside London. Tall white Corinthian columns held up a decorative portico designed to shelter arriving visitors from inclement weather and a long curving driveway led up from the road.
The owner, Gabriella Durant, had inherited the mansion along with a very tidy fortune from her mother, a well-known courtesan of her day. Gabriella had followed in her mother's footsteps, amassing even greater wealth and continuing what appeared to have become a family tradition, currently being carried on by Gabriella's red-haired niece, Vermillion.
Caleb knew a great deal about the Durants, who traced their ancestry back to the time displaced French nobles arrived penniless in London to escape the guillotine. Using her great beauty and charm, Simone Durant had saved the near-destitute family and prospered, her skill as a lover legendary in the world of the demimonde. After Simone's death, her daughter, Gabriella, had become the reigning queen, La Belle, the toast of London.
Caleb cast a glance toward the door of the mansion, waiting for the women to appear. Rumor was, the niece Gabriella had raised as a daughter intended to claim the throne for the third generation.
Caleb had never seen Vermillion, but he had heard stories about her, gossip about her loveliness and skill in the boudoir.
He knew she must be beautiful.
But he wasn't prepared for the impact that hit him like a fall from his horse the moment she stepped out onto the porch. As he watched her in the glow of the whale oil lanterns beside the door, Caleb couldn't seem to tear his eyes away. He had never seen such fiery hair or skin so flawless. He had never seen eyes the color of aquamarines.
She was smaller than he had imagined, her figure fuller, more womanly. Beneath the clasp of her scarlet velvet opera cape, her breasts were high and lush and nearly spilled out of the bodice of her gown. His hands itched to cup them. He wanted to pluck the pins from her fiery hair and run his fingers through it. The true color of her lips was masked by the rouge that turned them a dark ruby red, but they curved in a sultry smile that made a man want to own them.
Caleb shook himself, a feeling of distaste rising inside him. Vermillion Durant was nothing but an expensive plaything, an object to satisfy men's lust, a woman who used her body to gain power over foolish, unwary men. Perhaps she was even a spy.
Which was the reason Caleb Tanner stood next to the horses, the newly hired head groom of Parklands, the name used by those who attended the lavish and notorious balls, ridottos, and house parties hosted by Gabriella Durant.
This assignment was different than any he had had before. Caleb had been ordered back to England during his tenure in Spain, having served in the cavalry under General Sir Arthur Wellesley through the Oporto campaign. The youngest son of the Earl of Selhurst, he had enlisted in the army just out of Oxford. Caleb had served in India and the Netherlands. On orders from the general, he was in England now.
At Parklands -- trying to catch a traitor.
Caleb watched the women walking toward the carriage, felt the pull of Vermillion's aqua eyes the moment they touched his face, and a second jolt of lust hit him, making his dislike of her harden even more than the erection pressing against the front of his breeches.
Inwardly he cursed.
But he didn't look away.
Vermillion paused as she reached the carriage, her glance straying to the beautiful matched grays standing calmly in their traces. She loved horses. The animals at Parklands were her pride and her passion, but she didn't recognize the groom who stood next to the grays and she knew every man and boy who worked in the stable. She had personally hired each one.
Except for this man. This tall, broad-shouldered stranger with the hard, dark eyes and faintly insolent smile.
Instead of following her aunt into the carriage, Vermillion kept walking, pausing when she reached the man beside the horses.
"Where is Jacob?" Jacob had been the head groom and trainer at Parklands for the past fifteen years. "Why are you here? Has Jacob fallen ill?"
"He was fine the last time I saw him."
She didn't like his tone any better than she liked the smug look on his face. "Then where is he? And just exactly who are you?"
His gaze ran over her, starting at her toes, moving to the top of her sophisticated coiffure, then returning to her breasts. She received that same too-bold perusal from a gallery of males every night, yet when this man did it, it made her cheeks begin to burn. He wasn't one of her admirers -- he made that clear by the casualness of his regard and the faintly cynical twist of his lips.
"I'm Caleb Tanner. Parklands's new head groom. Jacob had some family problems in Surrey he needed to attend. He hired me to take his place until he is able to return."
She lifted her chin, wishing for once she were taller. "I'm in charge of the stable. If Jacob had some sort of problem, he should have come to me. Do you have papers to recommend you? How do I know you can handle the job?"
He was a big man, not brawny, just tall and broad-shouldered, perhaps in his late twenties, with brown hair a little too long that curled against the nape of his neck.
"I was raised around horses," he said. "I worked mainly in the north...York, mostly. My specialty is racing stock."
"So you're a trainer as well?"
"That's right. Jacob spoke of a stallion named Noir you'll be racing at Epsom this week. At least give me till after the race to prove I can handle the position."
That seemed fair enough. Jacob had a knack with horses and he loved them as much as she did. He wouldn't turn them over to just anyone and certainly not to a man he didn't trust completely. Still, there was something about this man....
"All right. You have till the end of the week. If Noir wins the race, you stay on until Jacob returns."
A dark brown eyebrow arched up. "You believe if the stallion loses, the fault will be mine?"
Of course not. He would have been there less than a week, but it would be a way to get rid of him and for reasons she couldn't seem to explain, she wanted exactly that.
"Noir is a champion. It's up to his trainer to see that he wins. If he does, you can stay."
His mouth barely curved. "Then I had better make certain he wins."
It was said as if there were no doubt he could do it, as if the outcome had already been decided. Vermillion made no reply, just turned and started back to the carriage, her scarlet cape whirling out behind her. They were heading into London, to the box they kept at the Royal Opera House. Though they would be snubbed by the nobles and other members of the ton, on the third floor of the building, where certain wealthy but less socially acceptable members of society watched the performance, they would be treated like royalty.
"Hurry up, darling, we're going to be late." Aunt Gabby's voice floated out through the carriage window.
Vermillion cast a last glance over her shoulder at the groom, who was stroking the neck of the gray, speaking softly into the animal's ear. Both horses had impressive bloodlines. They were beautiful, spirited, and often difficult to handle. Not tonight. Tonight, they stood with their elegant heads hanging down while the groom's long fingers scratched between their ears.
Perhaps the man was as capable as he appeared, his oversized ego well deserved. As she settled back against the tufted red leather seat, Vermillion found the notion irritating in the extreme.
The purple flush of dawn brightened the sky by the time Vermillion returned to Parklands the following morning. After the opera, Spontini's La Vestale, Aunt Gabby had insisted they attend a party given by Elizabeth Sorenson, Countess of Rotham, a woman with a scandalous reputation whom Lee and Gabriella both adored.
The party was an outrageous affair held at the countess's town house, with boundless amounts of Russian caviar, crystal goblets overflowing with champagne, and no shortage of attractive men.
A number of Vermillion's admirers were there: Jonathan Parker, Viscount Nash; Oliver Wingate, a colonel of the Life Guards; and the outrageously handsome and utterly notorious rake Lord Andrew Mondale.
There were other men, of course, dozens of them, but these were the three who vied most strongly for a place in Vermillion's bed.
Lee shoved the distasteful thought away as she wearily climbed the stairs to her bedchamber. From the corner of her eye, she caught sight of the fresh bouquet of flowers Jeannie had placed on the rosewood dresser. The deep mauve counterpane was welcomingly turned back beneath the matching satin bed curtains.
Jeannie would be sleeping and Lee hated to wake her at such a late hour. She struggled with the gown and finally managed to undo the buttons, put on a long white night rail and climbed beneath the sheets. Exhausted from the events of the evening, the champagne and the dancing, she slept the sleep of the dead, lacking even the energy for her usual morning ride, and didn't wake up until nearly noon.
She had indulged herself on purpose, knowing tonight would be another late night. Colonel Wingate would be escorting them to an evening of gaming in Jermyn Street. Then tomorrow night she and her aunt would be attending the theater. Lee had lost track of her schedule after that, but she knew that at each event, her tireless pursuers would be present.
While other girls her age entered the Season in search of a husband, Vermillion searched for a protector -- the man who would become her first lover.
An image of the arrogant groom popped into her head. Why, she couldn't imagine. It was a fleeting vision, instantly forgotten.
She didn't think of Tanner again until three days later, when she saw him in the stable. The late afternoon sun had begun to fade and the soft glow of evening settled over the landscape. Aunt Gabby was giving a house party, so the servants were busy inside. Though none of the guests had yet arrived, they were sure to appear very soon. Dressed in a low-cut turquoise silk gown trimmed in black lace in preparation for the festivities, Lee slipped away from the house and made her way out to the stable.
She was worried about her beautiful horses, still not confident of Jacob's replacement.
She didn't expect to see the man himself, Caleb Tanner, standing in the middle of the exercise ring. He faced away from her, his collarless, full-sleeved shirt damp with perspiration and clinging to the extraordinary width of his back. The shirt was tucked into simple brown breeches that showed a narrow waist, curved over a round behind, and outlined a pair of long, muscular legs.
When he turned, she could see a vee of darkly tanned skin at his throat where the neck of the shirt stood open. The man was impressive. There was no denying that. Lee knew men -- dozens of them -- but she couldn't name one more beautifully built than Caleb Tanner.
He was busily working, Noir circling at the end of Tanner's lead line, the Thoroughbred's shiny black coat glistening in the fading rays of sunlight. Tanner didn't see her approaching. Or if he did, he simply ignored her.
Vermillion wasn't used to being ignored.
"You're jerking the line too much," she said as she came up to the fence. "He works better with a gentler touch."
The corner of his mouth curved up in a mocking half smile. "I'll keep that in mind." His dark gaze said he knew she had just made that up, which of course, she had. The stallion was working beautifully, doing his new trainer's bidding without the slightest hesitation. The man hadn't lied. He definitely knew horses. Noir could be fussy, and the stallion had never really liked being exercised on a lead.
Now the horse seemed to be enjoying every lap he made round the practice ring. Lee watched them for a while, unable to take her eyes off man and horse working so perfectly together. Then Tanner tugged on the rope and the stallion began to slow. Noir nickered and trotted over to where the groom stood in the center of the ring. Tanner reached into his pocket, pulled out a treat, and fed it to Noir on the flat of his hand. Speaking to the horse in that soft way of his, he ran his fingers through the stallion's course black mane.
Tanner led the animal over to the fence and stopped in front of her, and Lee tried not to think what a magnificent pair they made.
"He's in excellent condition," Caleb Tanner said, patting the horse's neck. "Jacob's done a fine job with him."
"Then you think he's going to win."
"I think he has a very good chance. Who's riding him?"
"Warner's good, one of the best riders in the country." His eyes moved from her face down to the cleavage swelling up at the front of her turquoise gown. She rarely dressed this way when she came to the stable. Lee had forgotten that tonight she was Vermillion.
His smile held a trace of insolence it was impossible to miss. "But then, I imagine you know a great deal about riding...wouldn't you say so, Miss Durant?"
Her cheeks went warm. She knew what he was implying. At least she understood he was referring to the act of making love. She'd been raised in the world of the demimonde. Her aunt, though wealthy and many years now with the same man, was once a notorious courtesan with a long string of lovers. All of London believed that Vermillion was a courtesan as well, as very soon she would be. Having accepted that future long ago, a subtle innuendo here and there, spoken by one of her admirers, had never upset her before.
But when Caleb Tanner looked at her the way he was now, as if she were less than the manure on his boots, her face flamed the same fiery color as her hair.
"Win the race," she said simply. "Or get a job somewhere else." Turning, she forgot to walk with her usual provocative, hip-swaying gait, and stomped all the way back to the house.
Caleb cursed himself. Dammit, Colonel Cox had gone to a great deal of trouble to arrange for the trainer, Jacob Boswell, to relinquish his position at Parklands for the next few weeks so that Caleb could work in his stead. All he needed was for the little chit to fire him.
He had to start controlling his tongue, he knew, but somehow, whenever he looked at Vermillion's exotically beautiful face, her luscious breasts displayed like pale, ripe fruit, he couldn't seem to do it.
It bothered him that she was so young. Even with the rouge on her lips and cheeks, he guessed her not yet twenty. It bothered him that she had so willingly abandoned the chance for a respectable life in pursuit of power and greed.
It bothered him that his body wanted her just as much as every other man in London while his mind absolutely did not.
A shuffling sound alerted him to someone's arrival in the big stone barn.
"Ye want ta be keepin' yer job, ye young buck, ye'd best be keepin' a civil tongue in yer head when ye speak ta Miss Lee." Arlie Spooner, retired Parklands groom, tottered toward him, his few sparse strands of dull gray hair whipping in the breeze coming in through the open stable door. He had a wrinkled, liver-spotted face and a spine that looked painfully curved. The old man was no longer able to work in the stable, but still retained a position. At least the Durant women had conscience enough to take care of a man who had been loyal to them for so long.
"Who's Miss Lee?"
"Miss Vermillion." Arlie continued to shuffle past the stall where Caleb stood brushing Noir and continued on his way toward the small room he occupied at the far end of the barn. "Miss Lee won't tolerate yer disrespect. Ye weren't so blasted good with them horses a' hers, ye'd already be lookin' fer someplace else ta work."
The old man was loyal, all right. Caleb hadn't missed the affection in the old man's voice when he spoke his employer's name. Caleb wondered how much Arlie Spooner knew about Vermillion and her aunt and determined that as soon as he got the chance he would see what he could find out.
In the meantime, he would keep his eyes and ears open, as he was there to do. Caleb's superiors, including General Sir Arthur Wellesley, believed information was being leaked to the French. The casualties in Spain had been staggering -- more than five thousand British troops. Wellesley was convinced the numbers at Oporto would have been far less if a person -- or persons -- hadn't provided information directly to Napoleon.
Colonel Richard Cox and Major Mark Sutton had been assigned to find the traitors responsible, and both Cox and Sutton were convinced the source could be found at Parklands. It was Caleb's knowledge of horses and racing that had brought him into the equation and home to England.
Caleb watched old Arlie disappear into his room and finished brushing the stallion, thinking of Vermillion and the dozens of men who frequented the house, many of them military officers and gentlemen highly placed in the government. Had one of them traded his soul for the chance to satisfy himself in Vermillion's tantalizing young body?
As Caleb stood in the shadows outside the house later that night, watching carriage after carriage roll up the circular drive and its elegantly garbed occupants make their way up the steps to the entry, as he felt the pull of Vermillion's cool, smoky laughter coming from inside the house, he thought that it just might be true.
Copyright © 2003 by Kat Martin