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Lord Drake Boscastle had less than two hours to suffer through the party before his assignation with one of the most sensual women in all of Europe. If the evening went as well as he expected, he would make the celebrated English courtesan, Maribella St. Ives, his next mistress. He certainly hoped she would prove to be worth the rigmarole required for their rendezvous, or he would feel like a hell of a fool. He had spent a month corresponding with her and had presented her with a small fortune in gifts to prove his sincerity. Maribella’s private agents had conducted an investigation to research his character. The last Drake had heard, even his cook had been questioned on what his master ate for dinner.
His indigo blue eyes darkened with irony at the thought. Any thorough check into his past would have yielded a treasure trove of scandals and indiscretions. It seemed, however, that Miss St. Ives was not put off by his reputation. Apparently he had met whatever qualifications she desired in a protector. He had been summoned to meet her tonight in a private suite at Audrey Watson’s salon on Bruton Street. Salon, of course, being a euphemism for the exclusive bordello that its half-world hostess, Audrey, maintained.
His valet had efficiently packed a few personal necessities and a fresh change of clothes, not bothering to ask whether his master would be home before morning. Drake was rather hopeful he wouldn’t return for a week. His life had been curiously devoid of pleasure lately, sex included. His capacity for enjoyment seemed to be diminishing by the day. He couldn’t put his finger on the precise reason for his sense of dissatisfaction, but he was half-decided that if this affair with Maribella did not improve his outlook, he would return to soldiering.
“Counting the minutes?” his younger brother Lord Devon Boscastle asked from behind him.
Drake glanced around, grinning in reply. A small flock of debutantes stood gazing in breathless anticipation at Devon, whose openly playful charm made him appear far less of a threat than his more intense older brother. “I’m down to seconds at this point,” he said dryly.
Devon lowered his voice. “Do let me know if Miss St. Ives has any sisters in the market for a protector. That is, if you can talk coherently at the end of the evening.”
Drake shook his head and cast a sardonic glance across the room. “I’m going to be talking all night. Haven’t you heard that she’s famous for her wit?”
“And that’s why you’re interested in her? For conversation?”
He punched his brother on the shoulder. “Go dance with the debutantes, Devon. They’re dying for you to ask.”
“I can’t dance with all of them at once. Why don’t you help me out?”
He shook his head in amusement. “I’ll leave the innocents to you. Anyway, I think I ought to conserve my strength.”
One of their mutual male friends sauntered past them. “I suppose we won’t see you at the auction tomorrow, Boscastle,” he said to Drake in an envious voice. “Damn lucky devil.”
Drake’s answering laugh was suddenly drowned out by the blood-rousing strains of a country dance. He cast a halfhearted glance about for a partner. He’d prefer the sister or wife of a friend rather than a timid debutante who would gaze at him in hopeful trepidation or chatter her empty head off after the set.
His restless gaze lit on a young, nicely built brunette in a plain lilac dress who was staring across the dance floor. She looked lost and . . . maybe a little frantic. She had an interesting sense of panic about her and an even more interesting silhouette. Good enough for what he had in mind. He only wanted to squander a few pleasant minutes with the woman, not marry her.
He strolled up behind her, clearing his throat at the cursory glance she granted him before turning away. Ignore him, would she? That was a challenge his devilish impulses could not turn down. “Lost a sheep?” he asked quietly, his chin brushing her ear.
Her soft white shoulders stiffened. He knew perfectly well she was aware of him, even if she refused to turn to meet his regard. “Yes, in a manner of speaking,” she answered distractedly.
At that point another man might have taken the hint and melted away. Instead, he studied her profile, the imperfect patrician nose, her stubborn chin, a lushly shaped mouth. His gaze drifted in lazy appraisal down her shoulders to the ivory curves of her full breasts above her neckline. “Shall we look together?” he inquired, masking his thoughts behind a polite smile.
She angled her head slightly to regard him. Her oval face bore an expression of practiced disdain that slipped as her eyes slowly met his. She blinked. He stared at her, enjoying his own rush of pleasant surprise. She was really quite lovely. He saw her bite the edge of her full bottom lip a little nervously before she retreated in a half step. She wouldn’t ignore him now. She recognized a threat to female virtue when she saw it.
“Come on,” he said, gently taking her arm. “We’ll hunt for your sheep on the dance floor. It just so happens that I’m good at hunting.”
She stared down guardedly at his hand before returning her shrewd gaze to his face. The shadow of a smile lifted those lushly curved lips. “Wolves usually are.”
He laughed, pleased but surprised at her response, and drew her forward. She gave a strong twist of resistance, although there was no room for her to escape. Guests had already filled the void where they’d been standing. The ballroom was thronged elbow-to-elbow with elegantly dressed lords and ladies. Loud ones, too. Drake was reminded of a barnyard filled with clucking hens and braying asses, which didn’t exactly speak well of his opinion of Society as a whole.
He could barely hear what his reluctant partner was attempting to say above all the chatter and music of the orchestra. “Tell me about him later,” he said in answer to her distressed look.
He didn’t particularly want to talk, or dance for that matter. He simply wanted to pass time with this pretty stranger before a night of bliss-inducing sex with a courtesan he’d met only once; and even during that meeting he and Maribella had not exchanged more than a few provocative words. This whole affair hinged on rumor and innuendo, which was what probably made it so intriguing.
“It’s not a him,” his partner said rather forcefully as he drew her resisting figure into the steps of the dance. An unexpected surge of arousal stirred his senses at the pliant warmth of her body. There was a pleasant sturdiness about her that appealed to him. She was an accomplished enough dancer to follow the pattern without seeming to pay attention. She seemed to be more concerned with looking for whomever it was she’d lost than with his efforts to disarm her.
His hooded gaze studied her as she faced the stage. She wore her hair back from her face, a heavy cluster of chestnut brown waves that enhanced her creamy skin. No jewelry except for a pair of pearl earrings. Her lilac muslin dress hadn’t been designed to impress anyone, either. In fact, she looked like a governess, or a lady’s companion. Which would explain why she was looking for lost sheep. He’d probably get her dismissed for dancing with him.
A middle-aged gentleman bumped into her as the set reconfigured. Drake gave the man a look and reached out his arm without thinking to steady her. Her full breasts pressed through his white linen shirtfront, another flagrant shock to his senses. He allowed his hand to fall to the rise of her well-rounded backside. Oh, yes. She felt very nice, very promising. He preferred a substantial woman in his bed.
“I beg your pardon,” she said, reaching back to pluck his hand away. “Someone’s fingers are straying where they don’t belong.” Her pretty oval face reflected a frowning disapproval that made him smile. She had hazel eyes, he realized. Dark brown and green dappled light at the same time. Intelligent and not entirely innocent.
“You don’t need to beg me for anything.” All of a sudden his thoughts went a little wild. “Why don’t you enjoy yourself for a moment?”
She looked as if she’d swallowed a boiled onion whole. “Enjoy myself?”
He caught her wrist. “Aren’t you allowed any pleasure at all?”
“I’ve lost my client,” she said in vexation before the dance parted them again. “And I’m not here to enjoy myself.”
“Do you want to go outside and look for her?” he asked quietly, the epitome of chivalrous concern. It was as hot as an inferno in the ballroom, and he wouldn’t mind leading her astray in the dark for a minute or two.
“Outside,” she muttered, her arched eyebrows drawing into a deep scowl. “I’ll throttle the wits out of her if that’s where she’s gone.”
He started to laugh. He really wasn’t making much of an impression on her. He trusted he’d have better luck later in the evening. “Do you always have this much trouble keeping your missing lamb in line?”
“An army of Hussars couldn’t keep that girl in line,” she said in exasperation. “Not that she wouldn’t enjoy challenging them, mind you.”
“Is that what you do?” He followed her to the French doors that led to the garden, welcoming the excuse to leave the stuffy room. “Keep unruly persons in line?”
From the Paperback edition.