Andrea Kane returns to Regency England in a tale that pulses with excitement, as a mercenary of noble birth and an unconventional lady risk their lives and hearts in a dangerous hunt for a fabulous gem.
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Devonshire, EnglandJanuary 1818
"I will not marry him!"
Lady Aurora Huntley nearly toppled the study chair, leaping to her feet as if she'd been singed. With a look of utter incredulity, she stared across the desk at her brother, her chest tight with unspeakable fury. "My God, Slayde, have you lost your mind?"
"No." The Earl of Pembourne unfolded from his chair, his silver-gray eyes narrowed in warning. "I assure you, Aurora, I am quite sane. You, on the other hand, are bordering on irrational. Now, sit down."
"Irrational?" Aurora ignored the command, tilting back her head to gaze up at her tall, formidable brother. "You've just announced to me, as casually as one would announce the time of day, that in a matter of weeks you'll be marrying me off to an affable but uninspiring man who is no more than a chance acquaintance and for whom I feel nothing, and you find my anger irrational?"
"The Viscount Guillford is a fine man," Slayde refuted, hands clasped behind his back as if prepared to do battle. "He's honest and principled -- I've done business with him for years and know that firsthand. He's also financially secure, well respected, even tempered, and generous, not to mention nice -- looking and charming, as is evidenced by the number of women reputedly vying for his affections and his name."
"I'm not most women."
A muscle flexed in Slayde's jaw. "I'm only too well aware of that. Nonetheless, the viscount is everything I just described and more. He's also -- for some very fortunate and equally baffling reason -- thoroughly smitten with you, even after a mere four or five meetings. In fact, according to him, he fell under your spell on h, when all the wonder Courtney had effected was in danger of being shattered -- and by the very man Slayde so loathed.
Lawrence Bencroft, the Duke of Morland.
Fury swelled inside Aurora as she contemplated the hell Morland had resurrected with his bloody investigation, his false accusations. Damn him for stirring up doubts that had, at long last, begun to subside. Damn him for casting aspersion on the Huntleys, then dying before he could be disproved.
Most of all, damn that bloody black diamond. Damn it and its heinous curse. For three generations it had haunted her family. Would they never escape its lethal grasp?
With a hard swallow, Aurora struggled to compose herself "Slayde," she tried, reminding herself yet again that her brother's irrationality was founded in fear, not domination or cruelty. "I realize that the ton's focus has returned to the diamond with a vengeance since Morland's accusations and now his death. But..."
"The ton?" A predatory look flashed in Slayde's eyes. "Cease this nonsensical attempt to placate me, Aurora. You know bloody well I don't give a damn about the fashionable world or their gossip. What I do give a damn about are the three attempted burglaries, half-dozen extortion letters, and equally as many threats that have besieged Pembourne over the past ten days. Evidently Morland's sudden demise, on the heels of commencing an investigation that -- according to his very public announcement -- would prove I was harboring the black diamond, has once again convinced numerous privateers and scoundrels, prompting them to act. Clearly they intend to ransack my home, threaten and browbeat me into producing the stone -- a stone I've never see n and haven't the slightest clue where to find."
"But how can anyone invade Pembourne? You have guards posted everywhere."
Slayde scowled. "That offers reassurances, not guarantees. Aurora, I'm your guardian. I'm also your brother. That means I'm not only responsible for your safety, I'm committed to ensuring it. I won't see you harmed or vulnerable to attack."
"I'll take my chances."
"I won't." Slayde's tone was as uncompromising as his words. "I intend to see you safely wed, severed from the Huntley name for good."
Wincing, Aurora tried another tactic. "How does Courtney feel about your insistence that I marry the viscount?"
One dark brow rose. "I think you know the answer to that."
"She fought your decision."
"Like a tigress."
Despite her careening emotions, Aurora smiled. "Thank God."
"Don't bother. 'Tis a waste of time. You won't win this battle -- not even with Courtney's help."
A knowing look. "Why not? She's not only my closest friend, she's your wife -- and your greatest weakness. I have yet to see you refuse her anything."
"There's a first time for everything." Slayde inhaled sharply. "In any case, Courtney is not the issue here. You are."
"I beg to differ with you. Courtney is the issue here. As is your unborn child. How are you going to protect them from the curse?"
Pain flashed in Slayde's eyes. "With my life. I have no other means. I can't protect them, as I can you, by severing their ties to me. 'Tis too late for that. Courtney and I are bound in the most fundamental way possible -- my babe is growing inside her. I cannot offer her freedom, a new life, even if I chose to. But with you -- I can." Slowly he walked around his desk to face his sister. "There's no point in arguing, Aurora. I've already accepted Guillford's offer. You'll be married in a month." He paused, studying Aurora's clenched fists from beneath hooded lids. "I realize you're furious at me right now. I hope someday you'll understand. But whether or not you do, you're marrying Guillford. So I suggest you accustom yourself to the idea." Slayde's expression softened. "He adores you. He told me himself that he wants to give you the world. As for you, I know you enjoy his company. I've seen you smile, even laugh, in his presence."
"I behave similarly in the presence of Courtney's pup, Tyrant."
Another scowl. "You'll learn to love him."
Vehemently, Aurora shook her head. "No, Slayde, I won't."
She turned and marched out of the study.
"I spent all last night pleading your case."
Courtney Huntley, the very lovely, very pregnant Countess of Pembourne, sighed, shadows of fatigue etched beneath her sea green eyes. "He's adamant that this union take place."
"The whole idea is ludicrous." Aurora paced the length of her friend's bedchamber, her red-gold hair whipping about her shoulders. "Slayde of all people should realize that marriage must be founded on love, not reason. After all, that's why you two wed. My brother is so in love with you he can scarcely see straight. How can he want less for me?"
"He doesn't want less for you," Courtney defended at once. "I promise you, Aurora, if there were someone special in your life, someone you cared for, Slayde would refuse Lord Guillford's offer in a heartbeat."
"But since there isn't, I'm being forced to wed the most acceptable substitute?"
Courtney sighed. "I can't argue that Slayde's plan is a dreadful mistake. All I can do is explain that his worry for your welfare is eclipsing his reason. I've never seen him so distraught, not even when we first met. Since Morland died and speculation over the black diamond's whereabouts has escalated into a host of threats, it's as if he's been reliving years past. He's no more rational about me than he is about you. I'm not even permitted to stroll the gardens alone. Either he or one of the guards is perpetually glued to my side."
"Well, perhaps you're willing to accept it. I'm not."
A flicker of humor. "Willing? No. Resigned is a better choice of words." Tenderly, Courtney smoothed her palm over her swollen abdomen. "I'm a bit more unwieldy than I was a few months past -- or hadn't you noticed? I suspect I wouldn't prove much of an adversary to the guards if I tried to outrun them."
Aurora didn't return her smile. "I can't marry Lord Guillford, Courtney," she whispered, coming to a halt. "I just can't."
Their gazes met.
"I'll talk to Slayde again," Courtney vowed. "Tonight. I'll think of something -- Lord knows what, but I'll fight this betrothal with every emotional weapon I possess."
With a worried nod, Aurora looked away, contemplating her options.
Customarily Courtney's assurances would have been more than enough. But not this time.
Slayde had been too vehement, too single-minded, and there was too much at stake.
She'd have to ensure his cooperation on her own.
The manor was dark when Aurora slipped out the back door and through the trees. She'd mentally mapped out her route five times since the last of Pembourne's lamps had been doused, grateful she had a new escape route the guards had yet to discern.
That was because she'd only just discov ered it.
She'd come upon the tiny path last week, by pure chance, while romping about with Tyrant. He'd raced off, thereby leading her to the small clearing. Curiously, she'd explored it, discovering with some surprise that the path wound its way to the southern tip of the estate. She'd stored that knowledge away by sheer force of habit, never expecting to use either the information or the route. Her perpetual attempts to escape the prison Pembourne represented had come to an end last spring, along with Courtney's arrival.
But today's decree called for drastic measures. And come hell or high water, she intended to take them.
Inching through the fine layer of snow that clung to the grass, Aurora made her way to the narrow section of trees behind the conservatory, then slipped through them, careful not to disturb the branches or make a sound. Although given the current circumstances she was sure none of the guards was concentrating on her whereabouts. First, because they were keeping vigil, looking out for intruders. And second, she thought with a grin, because her restlessness had so thoroughly vanished they'd become lax about keeping an eye on her. All the better.
Clearing the branches, Aurora's grin widened. The rear gates of Pembourne loomed just ahead. Beyond that, she knew, lay the dirt road which led to the village. Thus, the first part of her plan was complete.
She gathered up her skirts and sprinted forward.
Dawlish Tavern, as the pub's chipped sign identified it, was dark and smoky. Aurora's eyes watered the instant she entered, and she paused in the doorway, impatiently rubbing them as she tried to see.
Perfect, she thought a moment later. The occupants were definitely what he r past governesses would have referred to as riffraff, clusters of ill-kempt men gathered about wooden tables laughing loudly as they tossed off tankards of ale and flung playing cards to the table.
The ideal spot to be ruined.
She didn't have much time. Already it was a quarter hour since she'd struck her deal with a local street urchin, having sent him on his way three pounds richer. First, as expected, he'd snatched up the one-pound note she'd offered in exchange for directions to the village's sole tavern. Then -- also as anticipated -- he'd pocketed the two additional pound notes, swiftly agreeing to deliver Aurora's missive to the Altec estate.
Aurora wasn't stupid. She was well aware the boy could simply bolt with her money, discarding her message before it had ever reached its destination and rendered its impact. She'd eliminated that possibility with her tantalizing promise of a five-pound note for the lad -- if he returned to Dawlish Tavern with a written reply.
A chuckle rose in Aurora's throat, its sound drowned out by the tavern's raucous laughter. She could envision Lady Altec's face when the old biddy read the scandalous message from "a friend" revealing that Lady Aurora Huntley was consorting with sailors at a common pub. The elderly matron -- Devonshire's biggest gossip -- would probably jump into her phaeton and race down there posthaste, still clad in her nightrail, just to be an exclusive witness to the juicy scene.
Mentally, Aurora gauged her time. It would take the lad a solid half hour to travel to the dowager's estate, a few minutes to await a reply to the supposedly anonymous bearer of the tidings, then another half hour to return. That gave Aurora a little over an hour to find the right man to ruin her.
Abruptly she became aware that all activity in the room had stopped, and a dozen and a half pairs of eyes were fixed on her. She glanced down at herself and frowned. Despite her dust-covered gown and worn slippers, she still looked altogether too much like a lady. Well, her actions would soon disprove that notion.
"Wonderful -- a full house," she pronounced, her tone shockingly familiar. "May I join you?" She gathered up her skirts and marched boldly over to a table.
The men stared from her to each other and back to her again.
"Lady, ye sure yer in the right place?" a stout, bald fellow inquired over the rim of his mug.
"That depends. If there's good ale and friendly company to be found here, then, yes, I'm in the right place."
More stares. Another gaping silence.
This wouldn't do at all, Aurora determined. How could she be ruined if no one would so much as speak to her?
"Would someone care to buy me a drink?" she asked, looking from one bristled face to another. "Never mind," she amended, realizing these men were undoubtedly poor, unable to squander funds on every woman who walked through the door. "I can pay my own way." So saying, she walked up to the counter, extracting a handful of shillings from her pocket and laying them on the counter. "Will this buy me a glass of ale?"
"A glass?" The tavern keeper cocked an amused brow. "Sweetheart, that'll keep your mug full till next week."
"I hope it doesn't take that long," Aurora muttered under her breath.
"Nothing. May I have my drink now?"
"Sure." He filled a tankard and shoved it across the counter. "Let me or one of the girls know when you're ready for more. You've pa id for dozens of rounds."
"Girls?" That was a problem Aurora hadn't anticipated. She turned, scanning the room again, this time noticing two or three barmaids making their way among the tables, trays in hand, broad smiles on their faces. Scowling, she noted the way the men were laughing and joking with them in a familiar manner they'd definitely not afforded her. A problem indeed. Still, there were only a few women as compared with a roomful of men. Surely one of those men wouldn't mind feigning a night of passion rather than pursuing a real one -- especially if it meant earning money rather than parting with it?
That gave her an idea.
"Did you say I've paid for dozens of rounds?" she asked the tavern keeper.
"Um-hum. At least."
"Good. Then distribute them among the men."
Another startled look. "All right. Should I say who they're from?"
"Of course. Say they're a gift from..." A pause. "...The newcomer amongst them."
"Does this newcomer have a name?"
Not one she can provide, Aurora alerted herself silently. At least not yet. Once these sailors learn I'm a Huntley, they'll run for their lives. And if that should happen before I convince one of them to stage my ruin, all my plans will have been for naught.
"Rory," she supplied, reverting to the pet name her dearest friend, Mr. Scollard, had bestowed upon her years ago.
"Rory," the tavern keeper repeated. "All right, Rory. I'm George. And I'll fill the men in on your generosity."
"Thank you." With a brilliant smile, Aurora perched on a nearby stool, openly surveying the pub and its occupants. Sailors and fishermen, she thought with great satisfaction. Just as she'd surmised. Ranging in age from young to old, and in stature from large to scrawny. Which of them would be the one to serve as her necessary cohort?
That spawned another concern.
"George -- you do have rooms here, do you not?" she questioned anxiously.
His jaw dropped. "Yeah, I have rooms."
"Good." Sagging with relief, she took two enthusiastic swallows of ale...and shuddered. How could anything so golden and frothy taste so horrid? Steeling herself, she gulped down the remaining brew, suppressing her distaste to appear as nonchalant as possible. She must fit in if she wanted to elicit the assistance of one of these sailors.
"Fill everyone's mug," she heard George call to his barmaids. "Courtesy of..." A broad grin. "...Rory." He gestured toward Aurora, who raised her tankard in tribute.
A chorus of enthusiastic thanks ensued, and Aurora congratulated herself on her victory, dutifully guzzling down the second glass of ale George poured her. Actually, she mused, the brew didn't taste quite as bad as she'd originally thought. In fact, with enough patience the flavor rather grew on you.
"I'll have another," she informed George, holding out her mug. Blowing wisps of hair from her face, she shifted on the stool. "Is it warm in here?"
He chuckled, refilling her tankard. "Yeah, and it's gonna get a lot warmer if you don't slow down. Take it easy, Rory -- this stuff's strong."
"I loathed the flavor at first," she confessed in a conspiratorial whisper. "But no longer. Now I'm enjoying it thoroughly."
"I can see that." George shook his head and resumed polishing the glasses. "What made you come in here?" he asked offhandedly.
"Oh, dear." Aurora rose, clutching her mug. "Thank you for reminding me. I have an end to achieve. And very little time to achieve it." Teetering a bit, she made her way over to the table of the nice bald fellow who'd addressed her earlier. He looked like the kindly sort. Perhaps he'd understand her dilemma -- and her monetary offer -- and agree to help her out.
She dropped into a seat beside him.
"'ey, Jackson," one of the sailors at the table prompted the bald fellow. "I think our new patron is waitin' for ye."
Jackson turned toward her and grinned. "Did ye want something...Rory?"
Self-consciously she chewed her lip. How could she blurt out her proposition in front of all these men, without any preliminaries?
Her gaze fell to the cards in Jackson's hands. Whist, she concluded. They were playing whist. Now that was something she could chat about, thus breaking the ice enough for her to ease into her request.
Purposefully she gulped her ale, her stare fixed on Jackson's cards. "I have a bit of experience at this, you know," she announced. "Although, if I must be honest, I've only received instruction from one man, and only upon one occasion. However, I enjoyed it immensely and was a quick study. Given time, I'm sure I could be quite proficient."
Jackson's cards struck the table. "Brazen little thing, aren't ye?" he said, an odd light coming into his eyes. "Well, I've got lots of time. I can teach ye anything ye want to know."
"If ye don't fall asleep first," his whist partner retorted, slapping down his own cards. "If Rory wants instruction, I'm the one to give it. If 'er price ain't too high."
"Price?" Aurora questioned, lowering her tankard and wishing the room would stop spinning. "You'd be doing the teaching -- why would I ask for a fee?" She shook her head to clear it. "Besides, I can't learn tonight. Tonight I need to..."
"Sure ye can!" a stocky man at the next table chimed in, striding over to her. "Yer a woman after me own 'eart, cravin' excitement, not shillings."
"What the hell would she want money for?" Jackson mocked. "She's got plenty. She paid for our drinks, didn't she? And 'er gown cost more than this whole bloody pub." He rose as well. "No, ye 'eard 'er, it's experience she's lookin' for." He glared at the others, his fingers closing about Aurora's arm. "And it's me she came to. C'mon, sweetheart. Let's go up."
Realization crashed down on Aurora with the force of a blow. These men thought she'd been alluding to her sexual proficiency, not her adeptness at whist. They were actually arguing over who was going to take her to bed.
Dear Lord, what had she gotten herself into?
"Please...wait," she began, determined to clarify her intentions before Jackson escorted her up to a liaison that was never going to occur. Yes, she wanted to go upstairs, but not for the purpose he had in mind.
"Mr. Jackson..." She struggled to speak coherently despite the fog shrouding her thoughts. "You don't understand."
"Oh, I understand, all right." He continued to drag her along. "And I'll make ye forget all about that clumsy man who had ye first."
"Let her go, Jackson."
The deep baritone permeated Aurora's disoriented state, simultaneously stopping Jackson dead in his tracks. An instant later a strong arm anchored her waist, dragging her away from Jackson and supporting her unsteady weight.
"C'mon, Merlin, don't ye 'ave enough women?" Jackson whined. "Leave this morsel for me."
"This 'morsel' isn't ready for the teaching you have i n mind," the baritone shot back.
"She's sure as hell not ready for you."
"No, she's not. But at least I have the good sense to know it." He shifted, hauling Aurora against his side and heading away from the table.
"Merlin?" Aurora twisted about to assess her rescuer and ask about his unusual name. She was confronted by a broad chest and towering height, which she followed upward to hard masculine features set off by probing eyes the color of topaz, blazing through her like twin bolts of lightning.
Her own twisting motion spawned a surge of dizziness -- one that made her stomach lurch with alarming intensity. "I don't feel very well."
"I'm sure you don't." Abandoning all attempts at subtlety, the man named Merlin swung her off her feet and into his arms. "Three rounds of ale -- drunk in rapid succession -- would make me a bit light-headed, and I suspect I'm a far more seasoned drinker than you are." His forward motion ceased, and Aurora squeezed her eyes shut in an attempt to stop the ceiling from shifting.
"George, which room's empty?" Merlin's voice rumbled against her ear.
"Take number four -- second down on your left," the tavern keeper responded.
"Thanks. Send up coffee. A lot of it."
He was moving again, ascending a staircase, Aurora's unsettled stomach informed her.
Good-natured teasing followed in their wake.
"'ey, Merlin, let us know 'ow she is!"
"Yeah, and if she's as quick a study as she claims, we'll all 'elp teach 'er!"
The man carrying her swore quietly under his breath, shoving open a door and striding inside.
Aurora winced as the door slammed shut behind them. "Too loud," she muttered.
"Get used to it. Everything is going to sound loud until that c offee does its job. Do you need a chamber pot?"
"No. I'm never sick."
"Really? And how often are you foxed?" With that he deposited her on the bed.
"Never. I..." Startled, Aurora looked about, her retort dying on her lips as the significance of what she'd inadvertently accomplished registered in her cloudy mind. A room. Complete with a bed. And a man -- one who seemed rational enough to listen rather than to immediately ravage her.
Instantly her stomach calmed.
"Perfect," she declared, congratulating herself for achieving precisely what she'd intended, when a moment earlier it had seemed as if her entire plan was about to explode in her face.
How much time did she have?
Squinting, she tried to focus on the clock on the mantel. "What time is it?"
"Half after ten. What the hell do you mean, 'perfect?' Perfect for what? What did you think you were doing down there just now?"
She sighed, lifting the cool pillow and pressing her cheek against it to still the throbbing in her head. "Staging my own ruin. At least what others would assume to be my ruin. Although, had you not come along, I fear my downfall would have been fact rather than fabrication. For which I'm extraordinarily grateful." She massaged her temples. "The situation was looking quite grim. Now, thanks to your intervention my scheme will succeed. Any moment now."
Aurora watched as Merlin pulled a chair alongside the bed and straddled it. He was sinfully handsome, she noted. That was an indisputable fact -- foxed though she might be. True, his good looks weren't the classic kind Lord Guillford had, nor even the chiseled kind Slayde boasted. Rather, Merlin was handsome in a darkly alluring way that hinted at danger, op en seas, freedom, and adventure -- the kind of life she yearned for and couldn't begin to fathom. His powerful build, clad in an open-necked shirt and breeches, defied convention; his black hair, rumpled and longer than fashion dictated, swept his forehead in harsh, rebellious lines. His eyes, those fiery chips of topaz, were turbulent, alive, exciting. He looked like a pagan god -- wicked, seductive -- ideal for convincing the ton that she was in fact a fallen woman.
"Merlin," she murmured. "How unusual. Is it your given name or your surname?"
"Neither. 'Tis an acquired name."
"Ah. Then you're as brilliant as Arthur's advisor?"
"No. I'm as formidable as a falcon."
"The merlin?" Aurora inclined her head, puzzled. "But he's one of the smallest falcons. And 'small' is hardly a term I'd use to describe you."
"Agreed. But the merlin is also swift, unerring, and deceptively nonthreatening. All of which describe me perfectly." With that, Merlin leaned forward. "You said you were staging your own ruin. Or what others would assume to be your ruin. Why? Or should I say, for whom?"
"For the benefit of a kind, charming, and incredibly conventional man," she supplied. "However, that needn't concern you. All you need to do is sit there. Well, perhaps not just sit there." Frowning, Aurora tossed masses of tumbled hair from her face. "I suppose the two of us should look a bit more compromising than two friends sharing coffee. Perhaps an embrace? Not until the dowager arrives, of course. Until then we can just chat. In any case, I'll pay you handsomely for what will amount to no more than an hour's work."
One dark brow rose. "Pay me? For staging your ruin?"
Aurora propped herself on one elbow, groping in her pocket. "A hundred pounds."
"A hundred pounds?" he repeated.
She heard the incredulous note in his voice and interpreted it as scoffing. Swiftly she reacted, reaching out and gripping his wrist to stay his flight. "Please don't go. I originally intended to offer two hundred pounds. But the remaining funds were in my brother's study. And I couldn't snatch them without being spied." She searched Merlin's face. "I'll owe you the other hundred pounds. I'm honest; I promise you that. We'll arrange a time and place to meet, at which time I'll pay you the rest. Only please -- don't leave."
His gaze fell to her fingers, although he made no move to pry them from his wrist. "Two hundred pounds -- a lavish sum. Tell me, Rory, who is this man for whom you want to be ruined?"
"My prospective husband. You see, I'm being forced to marry him -- The only way I can free myself from the betrothal is to compromise myself."
Merlin's lips twitched. "I take it your conventional groom-to-be expects an untouched bride?"
"And I also assume that to complete this facade you've arranged for us to be discovered?" He awaited Aurora's nod. "By whom? Your father or the bridegroom himself?"
"Neither. By the biggest gossip in Devonshire. In fact..."
Aurora was interrupted by a knock.
"Is that she?" Merlin inquired, calmly remaining in his seat.
"No. 'Tis too soon."
"Then it's probably our coffee." He rose. "I'll get it. You're in no shape to stand up, much less walk." He crossed over and opened the door.
"Your refreshment," one of the barmaids announced smiling at Merlin as she carried in a tray, placed it on the table. Seeing Aurora, she reached in to her bodice and extracted a folded sheet. "There's an urchin downstairs who insists I give this message to the red-haired lady in the fancy gown. I assume he means you. If so, he says you owe him five pounds."
Unsteadily Aurora reached for the folded sheet. Smoothing it out, she forced her attention on the words.
Dear 'friend': it read. Thank you for the tidbit. I'll look into it at once. Lady Altec.
"Splendid!" Aurora nearly toppled from the bed. Resettling herself, she dug in her pocket and extracted two fivepound notes. "I'm grateful to you -- and the lad. Please see that he gets one of these. The other is yours."
"Thank you." The barmaid's words were for Aurora, but her gaze was on Merlin. "Will there be anything else?"
"Not tonight, Bess," he replied.
"If you should think of something. .
"I'll summon you at once," he assured her, holding open the door. "But for now, good night."
"Good night." With another wistful look, she was gone.
The instant the door closed behind her, Merlin turned back to Aurora. "Does the arrival of that note mean the 'biggest gossip in Devonshire' is on her way?"
"Then the coffee can wait. First, we'd best discuss that compromising position you mentioned." He walked over, bypassing the chair and sinking down on the bed beside her.
A quiver -- was it of warning or excitement? -- ran up Aurora's spine. "Very well."
He leaned closer, studying her features as one would assess a fine painting prior to purchasing it. "You're a very beautiful woman."
How did one respond to so blatant a compliment? Aurora mused. Especially when one's dealings with men were as limited -- as nonexistent -- as hers?
Her silence spawned a flicker of curiosity in Merlin's eyes, tiny golden flames against burnished topaz. "Let me ask you something, Rory. Do you understand what was going to happen after Jackson whisked you upstairs?"
"What he intended to happen," Aurora corrected. "And of course I do. I might be foxed, but I'm not, stupid."
Merlin's lips twitched. "I didn't mean to suggest that you were. I was merely trying to assess the degree of your naîveté."
"I'm not naive."
"No? Then how did you plan to extricate yourself from Jackson's intentions?"
A twinkle. "I'm a very resourceful woman, foxed or not. I'm also an expert at eluding those I choose to elude. Should Mr. Jackson have managed to drag me upstairs, and should he have been unwilling to listen to reason, I would have found the means to escape. I always do."
One dark brow shot up. "How intriguing. Are you often in situations where you need to elude men?"
"Constantly. Other than now."
"Why not now?"
She gave him a beatific smile. "Because I never attempt to elude my allies."
An answering smile tugged at his lips. "How do you know I'm an ally? What if my motives are as untrustworthy as Jackson's? What if I decide to take advantage of your offer and our privacy by making your ruin an actuality rather than a performance?"
"What makes you so certain?"
"The fact that you want my two hundred pounds."
Merlin threw back his head and laughed. "Touché. It's rare that I'm bested, especially by a woman who's beside me in bed and too deep in her cups to walk away."
"Should I be flattered?"
Abruptly his laughter faded, supplanted by a quiet intensity that seemed to permeate the room. "I don't know," he replied, his gaze delving deep into hers. "You tell me." Even as he spoke, he shook his head, supplying the answer to his own question. "No. You shouldn't be. In fact, I'm beginning to think I'm the one who should be flattered. This arrangement of ours grows more appealing by the minute."
"I think the effects of the ale are wearing off," Aurora noted aloud.
Merlin's knuckles grazed her cheek. "Good."
With a shiver of anticipation, Aurora realized she was in over her head. Merlin's presence was too overpowering, the atmosphere about them too intimate. She felt vulnerable in a way she hadn't until now -- not even when Jackson was dragging her upstairs. And she hadn't a clue how to extricate herself, not when Merlin's warm fingers were drifting over her face.
"I didn't see you in the tavern prior to your rescuing me," she murmured.
"I was in the rear watching your performance." He traced the bridge of her nose. "It was fascinating."
"I felt like a fool," she confessed. "But I'd do anything to stop this betrothal from happening."
His fingers paused. "Is this prospective husband so untenable, then?"
"No. Quite the contrary. The viscount is a fine man. But he's just not...not..."
"Not exciting? Not challenging? Not the kind of man who would find your actions tonight amusing?"
"The viscount, you said. Are you, too, of noble birth?"
Aurora hesitated. "Yes, but my family is not the kind to call people out -- in fact, they'd do just about anything to keep our name free of public scrutiny. So don't be deterred."
"A family after my own heart." Merlin's palm slid beneath her heavy mane, savoring its silken texture. "And it would take far more than the peera ge to deter me." He sifted red-gold strands between his fingers. "Your hair is exquisite. Like a flaming waterfall."
Shrewdly he assessed her. "You have no experience at all with men -- except, of course, for eluding them -- have you?"
"Will you bolt if I say no? Because if so, I'll try to lie. Although I must confess, I'm not very good at it." She awaited his reply, wishing her wits had returned along with her sobriety.
"No, I won't bolt, and no, you needn't lie. I suspected you were an innocent the moment you began your charade. And I assure you, you'll go home as untouched as when you arrived." A hint of a pause. "Well, nearly."
"Is the two hundred pounds acceptable, then?"
"Um-hum." He lowered his head, brushed his lips across each of her cheekbones. "Is this what you had in mind when you referred to a compromising position?" he murmured.
"I think so, yes." Aurora's breath suspended in her throat, and the warm glow of the ale melded into a hotter, more compelling heat. "Are you a sailor?" she whispered.
"Only during those times when I'm en route to my destination."
"Which is where?"
His mouth traced the curve of her jaw, nibbled lightly at her chin. "Many places. The world is vast, filled with opportunities. I simply wait -- then seize them."
"You've traveled?" Aurora's eyes drifted shut and she clutched the bedding as the swimming in her head intensified.
"For years." He framed her face between his palms, and she could feel the warmth of his breath against her lips. "Do you think a kiss would be compromising enough?"
"I imagine it would be ideal." Was that the lingering effect of the ale talking?
"Shall we find out? Because if we're unable to be conv incing, we'd best discover that fact now -- before the dowager arrives."
"I suspect you're right." No, that was she talking.
Aurora was still reeling over her own audacity when Merlin's mouth closed over hers.
God help her, was this a kiss?
Shards of pleasure screamed through her in hot, jagged streaks, the simple joining of their lips igniting sparks too erotic to bear, too exquisite to abandon. Merlin felt it, too, for she heard his indrawn breath, felt him stiffen with reaction, shudder as the unexpected current of excitement ran between them. Then he angled her face closer, kissed her again -- this time more deeply -- and Aurora was dragged into an explosive inferno of sensation, one she'd never imagined, much less experienced. Flames leapt from Merlin's lips to hers and back again, and the kiss took on a life of its own, their mouths meeting, parting, only to meet again.
His tongue delved inside, finding and claiming hers, then taking it in deep, heated strokes that made everything inside Aurora melt, slide down to her toes.
She responded on instinct, immersing herself in the magic, her hands gliding up to his shoulders, clutching the warmth of his shirt. He raised her arms, twined them about his neck, and lifted her against him, sealing their lips in a bottomless, drugging, intimate kiss, penetrating her mouth again and again until the very room seemed to vanish, until nothing existed but the torrent of sensation blazing between them.
Neither of them heard the commotion below. Nor were they aware of the sound of pounding footsteps ascending the stairs. Thus, when the door to their room burst open and an unexpected audience swelled on the threshold, they both started, pulli ng apart to stare dazedly at the intrusion.
A gasp rose in Aurora's throat as Slayde strode into the room, nearly shoving George, a half-dozen sailors, and a sputtering Lady Altec from his path.
"Aurora, what in the name of..." His words died on his lips as he spied Merlin, and Aurora would never forget the look of naked pain, of stark disbelief on her brother's face. "You?" he bit out. "Of all the men on earth, you?" Stalking over, Slayde dragged Merlin from the bed, his rage a palpable entity Aurora could feel. "You filthy bastard, not even your father would have stooped this low." His fist shot out, connecting with Merlin's jaw. "Did it give you pleasure to ruin an innocent young woman? To destroy her life simply because she's a Huntley?"
On the verge of striking back, Merlin stopped dead, outrage supplanted by shock. "Huntley?" His stunned gaze shifted to Aurora, raking her from head to toe as if seeing her for the first time. "You're Aurora Huntley?"An ominous knot formed in Aurora's stomach. "Should I know you?"
With a harsh laugh, Slayde reached over, yanking Aurora to her feet. "Didn't he introduce himself before he took you to bed? No? Then allow me. Aurora, meet the man you nearly forfeited your innocence to: Julian Bencroft, the newly ascended Duke of Morland."
Copyright © 1997 by Andrea Kane
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Have read all your historicals at least 3times! Some of your contemporaries at least twice...
Lol sorry for disrespect but its aye not eye &crown
Bonnie: unforunately ye cannot ask, ye must prove yeself to me, eye latties! *crew cheers*
Okay, most people traditionally read before they go to bed. However, in concern with this book, that's not the case. Don't read 'The Black Diamond' before bedtime, because if you do, you'll never be able to go to sleep. This is my first book by Andrea Kane and I am definitely will continue to read her books in the coming future. The author gives life, and beauty to her character and provide a gripping plot that will pull the reader into the story until the very last page! Five star to Andrea Kane and this novel!