“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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“No, like you, she cried off,” replied Lucas slowly.
“She claimed to be exhausted from all the excitement.”
“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
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
Her jaw tightened. “It was a private discussion, sir.”
“Then you should not have conducted it in public,”
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.
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.