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CHAPTER ONE

“You tied my daughter to a tree?”

Rendered momentarily speechless, Alessandra della Giamatti flashed a very unladylike gesture at the gentleman who stood on the edge of the terrace, stomping great clumps of wet earth from his mud-spattered boots.
“Si grande nero diavolo—you big, black devil!”

He stilled, and his dark face tightened in a fearsome scowl. “Damnation, it was for her own good.”

“For her own good,” she repeated. “Dio Madre, if I had a penny for every time a man said that to a woman, I would be richer than Croesus.”

Lord James Jacquehart Pierson muttered something under his breath.
Alessandra narrowed her eyes. “I’ll have you know that I am fluent in German, sir. As well as French and Russian.”

“Well, it seems that your command of the English language leaves something to be desired, marchesa,” he shot back. “For you don’t appear to have comprehended the situation quite clearly.”

Squaring his broad shoulders—which were made even broader by the fluttering capes of his oilskin cloak—he set a hand on his hip and glowered. His olive complexion and wind-whipped tangle of raven-dark hair accentuated the shadows wreathing his chiseled features. In the fading light, his eyes appeared to be carved out of coal.

No wonder the man was known throughout London Society as ‘Black Jack’ Pierson.

Alessandra did not doubt that his pose was an intentional attempt to appear intimidating. However, the man really ought to know her better by now. A delicate English rose might wilt at the first sign of masculine ire, but she was only half English.

As for the rest of her . . .
Meeting his gaze, she deliberately mimicked the gesture, adding one slight variation. As her shoulders weren’t quite as impressive as his, she stuck out her bosom.

His dark lashes flicked up a fraction.

Tit for tat, sir, she thought.

After another long moment of silent stand-off, he cleared his throat. “Would you rather I had let her follow me to the cliffs? It was pelting rain, the winds were blowing at gale force and one misstep on the splintered rocks would have meant a sheer drop into the surging surf.” His black brows angled to a taunting tilt. “But perhaps she is a Nereid,” he continued, referring to the sea nymphs from ancient Roman mythology. “Or maybe her father was Neptune, God of the Oceans.”

Alessandra sucked in her breath at the thinly veiled barb. Men. Most of them seemed to prefer females who were smiling, simpering—and stupid. So it was hardly a surprise that Lord James Jacquehart Pierson should choose to mock her. A noted scholar of classical archeology, she was used to such a reaction when the opposite sex learned of her intellectual accomplishments.

And yet it still stung.

“Heaven knows, “ exclaimed Jack. “It would have required divine intervention to save her from certain death had she slipped.”

That he was right only added an edge to Alessandra’s indignation. “She said you handled her in a very ungentlemanly manner.”

Her daughter looked up, lips quivering and a glint of tears in her eyes. “Si.”

Alessandra recognized that look of assumed innocence all too well. She was aware that Isabella deserved a good scold for what had happened. But for the moment, she was too relieved at finding the little girl unharmed to do more than brush a soft kiss to her curls. A lecture would come later. Right now, all her fears were still fierce—and the fury of her pent-up emotions was directed at Black Jack Pierson.

“His hands were like ice against my bare skin, Mama,” added her daughter in a small voice.

Jack sputtered in disbelief. “Is she . . . are you . . . accusing me of impropriety? You are mad—both of you!”

Va’ all’ inferno,” piped up Isabella.

“I can’t believe my ears,” he muttered. “I’m being cursed by a six-year-old.”

“I am eight,” said Isabella, lifting her little nose into the air.

Alessandra winced as her daughter added several more phrases in Tuscan cant. “Isabella!” Forgetting her anger with Jack for the moment, she looked down in chagrin. “Those are very bad words. Wherever did you learn them?”

“Marco says them,” replied her daughter.

She felt a flush steal to her cheeks, well aware that Black Jack Pierson’s frown had curled into a smirk. “That does not mean a young lady should repeat them.”

“Foul language seems to run in the family,” observed Jack.

It took every ounce of self-control for Alessandra to keep a rein on her tongue. She knew she was behaving badly. After all, the man had kept her impetuous daughter from plunging headlong into danger, however unorthodox his methods. But something about his manner set her teeth on edge. He always appeared so steely, so stiff—as if a bayonet were stuck up his . . .

I am a lady, she reminded herself. And a lady ought not be thinking about certain unmentionable parts of a man’s anatomy.

Even if those parts were extremely impressive. Jack’s cloak had fluttered up in a gust of wind, revealing well-muscled thighs and a solid, sculpted—

Forcing her gaze away from his lordly arse, she replied, “Italians are known for their volatile temperament, especially when upset.”

“Oh, please accept my abject apologies for causing you mental distress,” replied Jack with scathing politeness. He bowed. “Along with my humble regrets for keeping your daughter from smashing her skull into a thousand little pieces.”

“I did say thank you, sir.”

“It must have been in a language incomprehensible to mortal man.”

Uno, duo, tre . . . Alessandra made herself count to ten in Italian before gathering what was left of her dignity and lifting Isabella into her arms. “If you will excuse me, my daughter is shivering. I must take her inside and get her out of these wet clothes.”

“Oh yes, by all means take the little cherub up to her room, give her a nice, warm bath . . .” The flash of teeth was clearly not meant to be a smile. “And then wash her mouth out with soap.”

* * * *

The splash of brandy burned a trail of liquid fire down his throat. Perching a hip on the stone railing, Jack took another quick swallow from the bottle, hoping to wash the stale taste from his mouth.

Va’ all’ inferno
, he repeated to himself. Go to hell.

Those were precisely his sentiments, he decided. The ungrateful lady and her imp of Satan could fall into the deepest hole in Hades for all he cared. This was not the first time he had offered his sword—metaphorically speaking, of course—to the marchesa. Only to have it thrust back in his arse.

So much for noblesse oblige.

To tell the truth, he wasn’t feeling terribly noble at the moment. Against all reason, the thought of swords coupled with the rapier-tongued Alessandra della Giamatti was stirring an unwilling, unwanted physical reaction.

That fine-boned face, exquisite in every ethereal detail . . . emerald eyes, fringed with smoky lashes that set off their inner fire . . . sculpted cheekbones that looked carved out of creamy white marble . . . a perfect nose, supremely regal in its delicate shape.

Oh, there was no denying that the spitfire was a stunning beauty—if one could ignore The Mouth. But on second thought, that proved impossible. Jack closed his eyes for an instant, recalling the firm, full lips, the rich, rosy color, the silky, sensuous curl of its corners . . .

No, he must not let his mind stray to forbidden territory.
The marchesa’s lovely body would tempt a saint. But her fiery temper would singe Satan himself.

Swearing under his breath, Jack took another gulp of brandy. Indeed, she was the most infuriating, exasperating woman he had ever encountered. There was no rational reason to explain why she seemed hellbent on deliberately misinterpreting his every action. Save to say she simply disliked him.

“So don’t get your hopes up,” he growled, staring balefully at the growing bulge in his breeches.

What a pity that a penis did not possess a brain. Then it might comprehend how utterly absurd it was to imagine that the aloof marchesa would ever consent to a physical liaison, no matter that widows were allowed certain freedoms if they were discreet.

An intimate joining of flesh? Hah! They couldn’t be farther apart in temperament. It was as if they came from two different planets.

Venus and Mars.

An apt allusion, given her expertise in classical archeology.

Looking up at the heavens, he let his gaze linger on the constellations. Like the ancient Greek and Roman goddesses immortalized in the stars, Alessandra della Giamatti was a force to be reckoned with. That she had a mind made for scholarship and a body made for sin was intriguing. Her aura of cool self-assurance was alluring . . .

However, every meeting between them seemed to spark nothing but thunder and lightning. It was ironic—had they dug into the subject of classical antiquities, they might have discovered that they shared some common ground.
Jack pursed his lips. Along with a taste for fine brandy and beautiful women, he also had a passion for the architecture and art of ancient Rome—though he kept it a private one, save from his closest friends. But given their most recent clash, it seemed impossible to imagine that they would ever reveal their most intimate secrets to each other.

Sliding across the cold stone, Jack leaned back against one of the decorative pediments and stared out into the night. A mizzle of moonlight cast a faint glow over the gardens and lawns, its glimmer reflected by silvery tendrils of mist rising up from the nearby sea. Above the chirping crickets, he could just make out the sound of the surf and its rhythmic rise and fall against the cliffs.

Lud, what a day.

As one of his gambling cronies was wont to say, no good deed goes unpunished. The only reason he had come to be at daggers drawn with Alessandra della Giamatti was on account of trying to help his best friend, Lucas Bingham, the Earl of Hadley—who was engaged to Lady Ciara Sheffield, the marchesa’s closest confidante.

Well, not precisely engaged, amended Jack. But that was a whole other story . . .
He expelled a wry sigh. Hell, the next time he was tempted to play the knight in shining armor, perhaps he should think twice, rather than risk his neck trying to do something noble. Scrambling over the rocks to help rescue Lady’s Sheffield’s young son and the marchesa’s daughter from danger had been no easy feat.
Thank God the adventure had resulted in no real harm, although there had been a few harrowing moments when his friend Lucas had been compelled to take a dive into the surging sea.

The more startling plunge had been his friend’s announcement that he was, once and for all, renouncing the life of a rakehell bachelor and marrying Lady Sheffield for real this time.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the blaze of lights in the main wing of the manor house. Laughter drifted out through the diamond-paned windows, punctuated by the faint pop of champagne corks. The impending state of matrimony had set off a great deal of merriment this evening—in no small part because Lucas’s elderly uncle had also become betrothed during the day.
Striking a flint, Jack lit a cheroot and drew in a mouthful of smoke. First Haddan, then Woodbridge, now Hadley . . . Was he really the only single man left from the pack of rowdy scamps who had banded together at Eton? He blew out a perfect ring, and watched it dissolve in the breeze.

Shaking off his black mood, Jack took another swig of brandy, telling himself he ought to be celebrating his freedom. He was damned lucky not to be legshackled to a wife.

“Won’t you come join us?”

Jack looked around as his friend Lucas took a seat beside him on the railing.

“Thank you, but no,” he replied after exhaling another mouthful of smoke. “I fear I would only put a damper on the festivities.”

Lucas held up a bottle of champagne. “If you insist on drowning your sorrows alone, at least submerge yourself in a superb vintage of wine.” He took a drink himself before passing it over.

With a wordless grunt, Jack downed a long swallow.

Tilting back his head, Lucas smiled up at the night sky. “Did you know that Dom Perignon, the monk who discovered the secret to champagne’s sparkle, compared it to drinking the heavenly stars?”

“No,” he replied, not bothering to glance up. “Only a man besotted by romance would know such drivel.”

“My, my, aren’t we in a prickly mood,” remarked his friend. “Any specific reason?”

Jack remained silent for a moment as the effervescence of the wine danced like tiny daggers against his tongue. Then, instead of answering, he asked abruptly, “Is Lady Giamatti celebrating with you?”

“No, like you, she cried off,” replied Lucas slowly. “She claimed to be exhausted from all the excitement.”

“Hmmph.”

“She plans to leave for London at first light,” added his friend.

“As do I. So if you don’t mind, I think I’ll retire for the night.” Jack rose and ground the butt of his cheroot beneath his boot. “And take the bottle with me for company—seeing as there are no willing wenches to warm my bed.”

“Ciara sends her thanks for all your help this afternoon,” said Lucas, ignoring the comment. He allowed a brief pause. “She also said to ask you not to judge Lady Alessandra too harshly. They are the best of friends, and yet she has a feeling that there is something troubling the marchesa of late. Something the lady dares not discuss with even her closest confidantes.”

“Assure your future bride that she need not worry over my opinion—I have none to speak of,” snapped Jack. “The marchesa and her mysteries are no concern of mine.”

“Ah,” murmured Lucas. “And here I thought that I had detected a glimmer of interest in your eye.”

“You must have been looking through the prism of your own lovestruck gaze,” muttered Jack. “Not all of us have been struck blind to reason by Cupid’s damn arrow.” As he turned for the terrace doors, he hesitated. “But the needling aside, I wish you happy, Lucas.”

A swirl of wind ruffled through the ivy leaves, nearly drowning out his friend’s reply.

“The same to you, Jack.”

He marched across the slate tiles, but as his hand touched the latch, he abruptly veered away, choosing instead to descend the side steps and take the long way around to the guest quarters. Perhaps a vigorous walk would shake off his dark mood.

Damn. He wasn’t usually so snarly with a friend.

Lifting the bottle to his lips, Jack quaffed the rest of its content in one long gulp. There—that ought to loosen his mood, he thought grimly, tugging at the knot of his cravat. The crunch of gravel underfoot echoed the clink of glass against the stones. Hopefully Sir Henry would forgive him for the lapse of manners in littering his lovely grounds. He rounded privet hedge and stumbled past the garden statues . . .

One of the sculpted shapes appeared to move.

Jack stopped short. Surely the wine could not have gone to his head quite so quickly.

“You need not give me that basilisk stare, sir,” said the stone.

Of all the cursed luck. It was not a figment of his foxed imagination but Alessandra della Giamatti in the flesh.

“Lucas said you had retired for the night,” he blurted out, then immediately regretted making any response.

“I decided to come outside for a breath of fresh air before seeking my bed.” Her hair was unpinned and fell in soft, shimmering ebony waves over her shoulders as she stepped out from the shadows of a laughing faun. “Or is there some arcane Anglo Saxon rule that prohibits a lady from enjoying a solitary stroll after dark?”

Her words recalled an earlier clash. “Will you never cease snapping at me for having tried to do the honorable thing, marchesa?” demanded Jack. “I have already admitted that my interference in the arcade was a mistake. How many times must I must I offer an apology?”

A week ago in London he had stepped in to defend her from the advances of an aggressive male. Unfortunately, the fellow in question turned out to be her cousin.
“Not that I feel I was entirely in the wrong,” he couldn’t help adding. “An English gentleman does not allow another male to continue haranguing a lady, especially after she has asked him to leave her alone. Code of honor, you see.”

Her jaw tightened. “It was a private discussion, sir.”

“Then you should not have conducted it in public,” replied Jack.

Alessandra drew in a sharp breath. “That is the trouble with you Englishmen—you have such a rigid notion of honor.”

“You would prefer that we act as cads?” His temper, which was dangerously frayed to begin with, suddenly snapped. “Very well.”

Two quick strides covered the distance between them.

Her lips parted in shock, but before she could make a sound, his mouth crushed down upon hers.