Alessandro twisted free and fell back against the rough stones just as a dagger thrust straight at his heart. Steel sliced through linen with a lethal whisper, but the blade cut naught but a dark curl of hair from his muscled chest.
“Tsk, tsk—you’re losing your edge, Malatesta,” he called, flashing a mocking smile. “In the past, your strike was quick as a cobra. But now…” He waggled an airy wave. “You’re sluggish as a garden snake.”
“You’re a spawn of Satan, Crispini!” Another slash. “And I intend to cut off your cods and send you back to Hell where you belong.”
“Oh, no doubt I shall eventually find my testicolos roasting over the Devil’s own coals. But it won’t be a slow-witted, slow-footed oaf who sticks them on a spit.”
With a roar of rage, Alessandro’s adversary spun into a new attack.
Whoosh, whoosh—moonlight winked wildly off the flailing weapon, setting off a ghostly flutter of silvery sparks.
As he danced away from the danger, Alessandro darted a quick glance over the tower’s parapet. The water below was dark as midnight and looked colder than a witch’s—
“Crispini—watch out!” The warning shout had an all too familiar ring. “Le Chaze is behind you!”
“Damn!” muttered Alessandro. He had told—no, no, he had ordered—the young lady to flee while she had the chance. But no, the headstrong hellion was as stubborn as an—
“Damn!” muttered Miss Anna Sloane, echoing the oath of Count Crispini, the dashingly handsome Italian Lothario whose sexual exploits put those of the legendary Casanova to the blush. Throwing down her pen, she took her head between her hands. Several hairpins fell to the ink-spattered paper, punctuating the heavy sigh. “That’s not only drivel—it’s boring drivel.”
Her younger sister Caro looked up from the book of Byron’s poetry she was reading. “What did you say?”
“Drivel,” repeated Anna darkly.
Caro rose and came over to peer over Anna’s shoulder. “Hmmm.” After a quick skim of the page she added, “Actually, I think it’s not half bad.”
“I used a knife fight to liven things up in the last chapter,” said Anna.
“What about those clever little turn-off pocket pistols we saw in Mr. Manton’s shop last week?” suggested Caro.
“Chapter Three,” came the morose reply.
Anna shook her head. “I need to save that for when they hijack the pirate ship.” She made a face. Hijacking—even that sounded awfully trite to her ears. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I seem to be running short of inspiration these days.”
Caro clucked in sympathy. Like their older sister Olivia, the two younger Sloane sisters shared a secret passion for writing. “You’ve been working awfully hard these past six months. Maybe the Muse needs a holiday.”
“Yes, well, the Muse may want to luxuriate in the spa waters of Baden-Baden, but Mr. Brooke expects me to deliver this manuscript in six weeks and I’m way behind schedule.” Anna was much admired by London’s beau monde for her faultless manners, amiable charm, and ethereal beauty. Little did they know that beneath the demure silks she wore a second skin—that of Sir Sharpe Quill, author of the wildly popular racy romance novels featuring the adventures of the intrepid English orphan Emmalina Smythe and the cavalier Count Alessandro Crispini.
“Perhaps you can bribe Her with champagne and lobster patties,” quipped Caro, whose writing passion was poetry. “We are attending Lord and Lady Dearborne’s soiree tonight, and they are known for the excellence of their refreshments.”
Anna uttered a very unladylike word. In Italian.
“You would rather wrestle with an ill-tempered Word Goddess than waltz across the polished parquet in the arms of Lord Andover?”
“Andover is a bore,” grumbled Anna. “As are all the other fancy fops who will likely be dancing attendance on us.”
Caro lifted a brow. “Lud, you are in a foul mood. I thought you liked Andover.” When no response came, she went on, “I know you’ll think me silly, but I confess that I’m still a little dazzled by the evening entertainments here in London. Colorful silks, diamond-bright lights, handsome men—you may feel that the splendors of Mayfair’s ballrooms have lost their glitter, but for me they are still very exciting.”
A twinge of guilt pinched off the caustic quip about to slip from Anna’s lips. Her sister had only recently turned the magical age of eighteen, which freed her from the schoolroom and allowed her entrée into the adult world. And for a budding poet who craved Worldly Experience, the effervescence of the social swirl was still as intoxicating as champagne.
“Sorry,” apologized Anna. “I don’t mean to cloud your pleasure with my own dark humor.” She shuffled the stack of manuscript pages into a neat pile and shoved it to the side of her desk. “I supposed we had better go dress for the occasion.” Knowing Caro’s fondness for fashion, she forced a smile. “Which of your new gowns do you plan to wear? The pale green sarcenet or the peach-colored watered silk?” Her own choice she planned to leave in the hands of her new lady’s maid. The girl was French and had already displayed a flair for choosing flattering cuts and colors.
“I haven’t decided,” replied Caro with a dreamy smile. “What do you think would look best?”
“You are asking me?”
“Only because I am hoping you’ll ask Josette to come with you and give her opinion.”
“Not that you don’t have a good eye for fashion,” said her sister. “You just refuse to be bothered with it.”
“True,” she conceded. “I find other things more compelling.”
Caro cocked her head. “Such as?”
“Such as…” A restless longing for something too vague to put a name to.
Anna had carefully cultivated the outward appearance of a quiet, even-tempered young lady who wouldn’t dream of breaking any of the myriad rules governing female behavior. Up until recently it had been an amusing game, like creating the complex character of Emmalina. But oddly enough, a very different person had begun to whisper inside her head.
The saint dueling with the sinner? As of yet, it was unclear who was winning the clash of wills.
“Such as finishing my manuscript by the due date,” she replied slowly.
“Well, seeing as you are so concerned about being tardy,” said Caro dryly, “perhaps we ought to start off this new resolve of good intentions by heading upstairs now to begin dressing for the evening.”
Much as she wished to beg off and spend a quiet evening in the library, hunting through her late father’s history books for some adventurous exploit that might spark an idea for her current chapter, Anna hadn’t the heart to dampen her sister’s enthusiasm. She dutifully rose.
“Oh, come now, don’t look so glum,” said Caro. “After all, inspiration often strikes when you least expect it.”
Slipping behind a screen of potted palms, Anna exhaled sharply and made herself count to ten. The air hung heavy with the cloying scents of lush flowers and expensive perfumes, its sticky sweetness clogging her nostrils and making it difficult to breathe. Through the dark fronds, she watched the couples spin across the dance floor in a kaleidoscope of jeweltone colors and glittering gems. Laughter and loud music twined through the glittering fire of the chandeliers, the crystalline shards of light punctuated by the clink of wine glasses.
Steady, steady—I mustn’t let myself crack.
“Ah, there you are Miss Sloane.” Mr. Naughton, second son of the Earl of Greenfield and a very pleasant young man, approached and immediately began to spout a profuse apology. “Forgive me for being late in seeking your hand for this set. I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”
Forcing a smile, Anna made no effort to accept his outstretched hand. “No apologies necessary, sir. The blame is mine. I—I was feeling a trifle overwarm and thought a moment in the shadows might serve as a restorative.”
His face pinched in concern. “Allow me to fetch you a glass of ratafia punch.”
“No, no.” She waved off the suggestion. “Please don’t trouble yourself. I think I shall just pay a visit to the ladies’ withdrawing room”—a place to which no gentleman would dare ask to escort her—“and ask the maid for a cold compress for my brow.”
Naughton shuffled his feet. “You are sure?”
“Quite.” Suddenly she couldn’t bear his solicitous smile or the oppressive gaiety a moment longer. Lifting her skirts, she turned before he could say another word and hurried down one of the side corridors.
Her steps quickened as she passed by the room reserved for the ladies and ducked around a darkened corner. From a previous visit to the townhouse, Anna knew that a set of French doors in the library led out to a raised terrace overlooking the back gardens. It was, of course, against the rules for an unchaperoned young lady to venture outdoors on her own. But she had chosen the secluded spot with great care—the chances of being spotted were virtually nil.
The night air felt blessedly cool on her overheated cheeks. “Thank God,” she murmured, tilting her face to the black velvet sky.
“Thank God,” echoed a far deeper voice.
A pale plume of smoke floated overhead, its curl momentarily obscuring the sparkle of the stars.
“It was getting devilishly dull out here with only my own thoughts for company.”
Speak of the Devil!
Anna whirled around. “That’s not surprising, sir, when one’s mind is filled with nothing but thoughts of drinking, wenching, and gaming. Titillating as those pursuits might be, I would assume they grow tiresome with constant repetition.”
“A dangerous assumption, Miss Sloane.” Devlin Greville, the Marquess of Davenport—better known as the Devil Davenport—tossed down his cheroot and ground out the glowing tip beneath his heel. Sparks flared for an instant, red-gold against the slate tiles, before fading away to darkness. “I thought you a more sensible creature than to venture an opinion on things about which you know nothing.”
Anna watched warily as he took one…two…three sauntering steps closer. Quelling the urge to retreat, she stood her ground. The Devil might be a dissolute rake, a rapacious rogue, but she would not give him the satisfaction of seeing her flinch.
“Sense has nothing to do with it,” she countered coolly. “Given the rather detailed—and lurid—gossip that fills the drawing rooms of Mayfair each morning, I know a great deal about your exploits.”
“Another dangerous assumption.” His voice was low and a little rough, like the purr of a stalking panther.
Anna felt the tiny hairs on the nape of her neck stand on end.
He laughed, and the sound turned even softer. “I also thought you a more sensible creature than to listen to wild speculation.”
“Indeed?” Feigning nonchalance, she slid sideways and leaned back against the stone railing. Which was, she realized, a tactical mistake. The marquess mirrored her movements, leaving her no way to escape.
“I—I don’t know why you would think that,” she went on. “You know absolutely nothing about me.”
“On the contrary. I, too, listen to the whispers that circulate through the ton.”
“Don’t be absurd.” She steadied her voice. “I am quite positive that there’s not an ill word spoken about me. I am exceedingly careful that not a whiff of impropriety sullies my reputation.”
“Which in itself says a great deal,” he drawled.
“You’re an idiot.”
“Am I?” He came closer, close enough that her nostrils were suddenly filled with a swirl of masculine scents. Bay rum cologne. Spiced smoke. French brandy. A hint of male musk.
Her pulse began to pound, her breath began to quicken.
Good Lord, it’s me who is an idiot. I’m acting like Emmalina!
Shaking off the horrid novel histrionics, Anna scowled. “You’re not only an idiot, Lord Davenport, you are an annoying idiot. I’m well aware that you take perverse pleasure in trying to…”
Cocking his head, he waited.
“To annoy me,” she finished lamely.
Another laugh. “Clearly I am having some success, so I can’t be all that bumbling.”
To give the Devil his due, he had a quick wit. Biting back an involuntary smile, Anna turned her head to look out over the shadowed gardens. Flames from the torchieres on the main terrace danced in the breeze, their glow gilding the silvery moonlight as it dappled over the thick ivy vines that covered the perimeter walls.
She shouldn’t find him amusing. And yet like a moth drawn to an open fire…
“What? No clever retort?” said Devlin.
Anna willed herself not to respond.
“I see.” Somehow he found a way to inch even closer. His trousers were now touching her skirts. “You mean to ignore me.”
“If you were a gentleman, you would go away and spare me the effort.”
“Allow me to point out two things, Miss Sloane. Number one—I was here first.”
The marquess had a point.
“And number two…” His hand touched her cheek. He wasn’t wearing gloves and the heat of his bare fingers seemed to scorch her skin. “We both know I’m no gentleman.”
Devlin saw her eyes widen as the light pressure on her jaw turned her face to his. It wasn’t shock, he decided, but something infinitely more interesting. Miss Anna Sloane was no spun-sugar miss, a cloying confection of sweetness and air that would make a man’s molars stick together at first bite. He sensed an intriguing hint of steel beneath the demure gowns and dutiful smiles.
If I had to guess, I would say that she’s not adverse to the little game we have been playing.
She inhaled with a sharp hiss.
Or maybe I am simply in a state of drunken delusion.
It was entirely possible. Of late he had been imbibing far more brandy than was good for him. Only one way to find out.
He would give her a heartbeat to protest, to pull away. Yes, he was dissolute, but not depraved. A man had to draw the line somewhere.
She made a small sound in her throat.
The tiny throb of her pulse beneath his fingertips had signaled her time was up. Devlin leaned in and felt their bodies graze, their lips touch.
A mere touch, and yet it sent a jolt of fire through him.
He froze. The distant laughter, the faint trilling of the violins, the rustling leaves all gave way to a strange thrumming sound in his ears.
Anna shifted, and Devlin shook off the sensation. It must be the brandy, he decided. He had just come from his club, where he had been sampling a potent vintage brought up from the wine cellar. Women had no such effect on him.
A kiss was a distraction, nothing more. A way to keep boredom at bay.
“Go to Hell.” Anna’s whisper teased against his mouth as she jerked back.
“Eventually,” growled Devlin. “But first…” He kissed her again. A harder, deeper, possessive embrace.
Her lips tremored uncertainly.
Seizing the moment, he slipped his tongue through the tiny gap and tasted a beguiling mix of warmth and spice. Impossible to describe.
He needed to taste more.
Clasping his arms around her waist, Devlin pushed her back a little roughly, pinning her body to the unyielding stone. She tensed and twisted…
I am Satan’s spawn.
…and then went still.
Time seemed to stop, to hang suspended within the shifting shadows of the fluttering leaves. A myriad of sensations seemed to skate over his skin. Fire. Ice. The slow softening of her resistance.
Anna made another sound. No words, just a soft feline purr that drifted off into the darkness. She moved, tilting forward in a tentative tasting of her own. Entwined, they swayed, weightless in the cool caress of the night.
Somewhere close by, a door opened and shut.
The echo broke the strange spell. With a shudder, Anna wrenched free of his hold, a gasp fluttering through her gloved fingertips as she touched her lips.
Devlin blinked, not quite certain of his own feelings.
For a fleeting moment it looked as though she was going to speak, but instead, she shoved him aside and walked off without a word.
Walked with her head held high, her spine ramrod straight, he noted, rather than pelter off in a torrent of tears and sobs.
Hard and soft—no question Anna Sloane was a contradiction.
Which made her a conundrum.
But Devlin liked puzzles. They kept his own inner demons at bay.