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CHAPTER ONE

“Ah, a naked lady. How lovely.”

Katharine Kylie Woodbridge felt a whisper of breath tease against her neck, its gossamer touch warm and wicked on her bare flesh.

“A naked statue,” she corrected. Ignoring the sardonic smile reflected in the diamond-paned glass, she carefully turned to the next painting in the portfolio.

The Conte of Como, strolled a step closer and perched a hip on the edge of the library table. “It appears that Lord Giacomo has quite a talent for painting the female form,” he drawled, leaning his well-tailored shoulder a little closer.
A little too close.

As heat speared through the thin layers of silk and wool, like a hot blade melting butter, Kate tried to quell the liquid quickening of her pulse. Don’t, she warned herself. Oh, don’t react. It would be flirting with danger—nay, utter disgrace—to encourage the attentions of Giovanni Marco Musto della Ghiradelli.

Of all the men in London, he was the only one who might recognize the truth . . .

“Do you not agree?” The conte—who preferred Marco to his more formal string of names—traced a fingertip along the deckled edge of the watercolor.

Perhaps if she were rude enough, she could make him go away.“Indeed,” replied Kate, keeping her voice deliberately cool. “Lord James is a highly accomplished artist.” She paused a fraction. “How nice to see a gentleman apply himself to mastering a laudable skill. So many aristocrats idle away their lives in debauched revelries.”

“I, too, have devoted a great deal of time to the serious study of feminine shape and proportion,” replied Marco, a flutter of amusement shading his gaze.
No man ought to have such long, luxurious lashes. Or, for that matter, such exquisite brandy-gold eyes, or such a supremely sensual mouth. Kate quickly looked back at the painting. And it was most unfair of the Almighty to bless a rakehell rogue with beautiful bones and hair that tumbled in sin-black curls to kiss the ridge of his shoulders.

No wonder he was said to be the very devil with women.


“And I would say that Lord Giacomo could use a little work on sketching the shape of a lady’s breast, si?” went on Marco. Lowering his aquiline nose to within inches of the textured paper, he made a show of studying the painting from several angles. “It’s not quite perfect. Perhaps he should draw from life instead of inanimate stone.” The indecently long lashes gave another silky swoosh. “After all, he now has a lovely model close at hand.”

“What a very vulgar suggestion, sir,” replied Kate, pinching back the urge to laugh with a thin-lipped frown. “Especially as the lady in question is your cousin.”

“You don’t think Lord Giacomo will be tempted to sketch his new bride in the nude?” asked Marco with a provocative smile. “As a connoisseur of Italian art, he seems to appreciate seeing the principles of symmetry and proportion stripped to their bare essentials.”

The mention of body parts, clothed or otherwise, was absolutely forbidden in Polite Society, but as usual the conte seemed to take obscene delight in making a mockery of English manners. Which, in truth, was rather refreshing. She, too, found the all complex rituals and rules of the ton horribly constricting.

However, as she could never, ever admit that to Marco, Kate snapped the portfolio shut with an exaggerated grimace. “You are outrageously lewd, sir. And crude.”

“So is Lord Byron,” murmured Marco. “Yet women find him . . . intriguing, do they not?”

“That’s because Lord Byron is intriguing. He writes wildly romantic poetry when he’s not being naughty. While you—I shudder to think what you do when you’re not flirting or drinking.”

Marco rose and smoothed a wrinkle from his elegant trousers “I might surprise you, bella.”

Her eyes flared in alarm at the whisper of Italian. Dear God, surely he didn’t suspect that there was any connection between a long-ago night in Naples and the present . . .

No. Impossible.

But all the more reason to keep him at arm’s length.

Quickly masking her reaction with a mocking laugh, Kate hastened to add, “Ha! And pigs may fly.”

“Have I made you angry?” His sensual mouth slid into a lazy smile. “Come, let us cry pax. I was merely trying to tease a touch of color to your cheeks with my banter.”

“Your mere presence is enough to do that,” retorted Kate. “Your arrogance is really quite intolerable.”

Marco clapped a hand to his heart.

Assuming that he had one, thought Kate. The gossip among the ladies of London was that the conte possessed only one sensitive organ—and it was not located in the proximity of his chest.

“You wound me, Miss Kate-Katharine.”

“Actually, I’ve only insulted you,” she replied. “You are lucky I am wielding only my tongue and not a rapier. Else your voice would be an octave higher.”

A casual flick of his wrist set the fobs on his watch chain to dancing against the silk of his waistcoat. “Trust me, Miss Kate-Katharine. If we were to cross blades, you would not come out on top.”

To Kate’s chagrin, she felt a fresh flush of heat rise to her face.

Marco slid a step closer and flashed a lascivious wink. “I am considered one of the best swordsmen in all of Europe.”

Much as she wished to riposte with a clever retort, she found herself momentarily at a loss for words. For all his braggadocio, he wasn’t exaggerating his skills with sharpened steel. Even if she hadn’t known for a fact that he routinely bested Angelo, the premier fencing master in London, she would have guessed at his physical prowess. In her former life, she had learned to assess a man’s strengths and weaknesses in one glance.

And Marco? His gestures were deceptively lazy, but beneath the pose of an indolent idler, the conte moved with a predatory grace. Like a lean, lithe panther. A sleek wild animal, all whipcord muscle and coiled quickness.

But that was not the only reason he was dangerous . . .

Recovering her voice, Kate stepped back and slowly drew on her kidskin gloves. “What a pity we cannot put such a claim to the test.” He was not the only one who could employ theatrics.

Marco watched the soft leather slide over her skin. “You could use one of those to slap me across the face and challenge me to a duel.” The hint of laughter in his voice—a rumble redolent of aged brandy and smoky boudoirs—sent a tiny shiver prickling down her spine.

“Tempting,” she said. “But I mustn’t forget that I am a lady.”

“There is no danger that such a fact will ever escape my mind, cara.”

Danger. The word stirred another whispered warning inside her head. Kate averted her eyes, reminding herself that she mustn’t encourage him to look too carefully at her features. The chances were razor-thin, but he just might remember . . .

“No doubt because you rarely think of anything but sex,” she said tartly, trying to deflect his attention. “Do you never tire of the subject?”

At that, Marco laughed aloud. “On rare occasions I do think of other things.”

“Now you have shocked me, sir.”

“Not as much as you interest me, Miss Kate-Katharine—

“Do stop calling me by that ridiculous moniker,” she interrupted.

“Izzz wrong?” he asked, greatly exaggerating his accent. “My cousin Alessandra calls you Kate and your maid calls you Katharine. Knowing the English fondness for double names, I assumed—”

“Please spare me the long-winded explanations.” As she preferred a more informal name to ‘Katharine’, she was called ‘Kate’ by her close friends. Among whom the Conte of Como did not number. “And please address me properly. To you, I am ‘Miss Woodbridge’.”

“Propriety is so boring,” he murmured. “I should think that a lady of your intellectual inquisitiveness would agree.”

Ignoring the remark, Kate stepped away from the display table. “If you will excuse me, I must find the bride and groom and take my leave.”

“Why the rush back to London? Most of the wedding guests are staying until tomorrow.”

“Charlotte has a lecture on medieval metallurgy to prepare for the Mayfair Institute of History and Science.” The elderly scholar was, like herself, a member of the Circle of Scientific Sibyls, a small group of intellectual females who met each week to share their knowledge. And their friendship.

Given that the ton did not approve of serious learning for ladies, the five members had taken to calling themselves by a more informal moniker—the Circle of Sin. Kate felt a small smile twitch at the corners of her mouth. Without the stalwart support of the ‘Sinners’ over the past year, she wasn’t quite sure how she would have navigated through the uncharted waters of Polite Society.

“Sounds fascinating,” drawled Marco.

“Yes. It is.” She raised her forefinger and crooked it up and down. “After all, without science, your steel might bend at an inopportune moment.”

He was suddenly blocking her way. “I have heard of the phenomenon, but having never experienced it, I am not sure what could cause such a malfunction. Perhaps you would care to explain it to me?”

She gasped as his coat brushed against her breasts, the heat of him singeing through the silk. “Nemernic.”

The dark laugh sounded again, far too close for comfort. “I speak enough Romanian to know that I have just been called a very bad name.” His wide, wicked mouth was now only a hairsbreadth from hers. “I thought you weren’t going to forget that you are a lady.”

“I—” Her words were cut off as his lips came down on hers. Their touch was shockingly sensual, like sun-warmed velvet stroking over the most sensitive spot of flesh.

The sensation held her in thrall, but only for a heartbeat. Recovering her wits, Kate struck a sharp uppercut to his jaw, her knuckles landing with a good deal more force than his teasing kiss.

Marco fell back a step. His nostrils flared as he drew in a taut breath and then he let it out slowly, looking oddly bemused. “Where did a gently-bred female learn to punch like that?”

“Never mind,” she muttered, surreptitiously flexing her fist. He had a very solid chin.

His nose quivered, like a bird dog on the hunt. “You smell like oranges and . . . something else.”

Damn.

Before Marco could go on, a shadow slanted over the alcove.

“Oh, there you are, Kate.” Alessandra della Giamatti—now Lady James Jacquehart Pierson, wife of the Duke of Ledyard’s youngest son—paused in the oak-framed doorway, her new husband by her side. “Excuse me, are we interrupting a private conversation?”

Ciao, Alessa,” answered Marco. “No, your learned friend and I were just having a very stimulating discussion on fencing.”

A tiny furrow formed between her brows as Alessandra spotted the lingering red welt on his jaw. “Fencing,” she repeated softly.

Si, and had I known science was such a provocative field of study, I would have asked to join your little group ages ago.” He moved quickly to kiss her on both cheeks and added a rapidfire volley of Italian. “You are more beautiful than ever this morning, cara. Marriage must agree with you.”

“And you are more incorrigible than ever,” murmured Alessandra, deflecting the sly innuendos with a wry smile. Turning to Kate, she said, “If my cousin is annoying you, feel free to tell him to va’ all’ inferno.”

Go to hell.

Kate made a face. “He’s probably been there and back several times over.”

“Aye.” James Jacquehart Pierson chuckled. With his midnight locks, olive complexion, and muscled military bearing, he was known throughout London as ‘Black Jack’. But Alessandra had assured Kate that he had a heart of gold. “I imagine that the Devil booted him back to our world, after finding him far too obnoxious to tolerate for any length of time.”

Marco contrived to look hurt. “And here I thought we were amicos, Lord Giacomo.”

“Friends?” Jack arched a dark brow. “Don’t press your luck, Ghiradelli. Your presence here is tolerable. Barely. In fact . . .”

Leaving the men to their verbal sparring, Kate drew Alessandra into one of the arched alcoves and brushed a kiss to her cheek. “Much as I hate to agree with your cousin on anything, you do look glorious. And happy.”

“I am,” replied Alessandra. Which for her was notable display of emotion. Of all the ‘Sinners’, she was the most reserved about her feelings and her past, even with her closest friends.

With good reason, acknowledged Kate. Alessandra had a dark secret from her past life in Italy that had recently come to light and threatened to destroy both her and her young daughter. But Black Jack Pierson, a highly decorated veteran of the Peninsular campaign, had proved his mettle in love as well as war by vanquishing a cunning enemy and winning her heart.

Glancing at the rows of leatherbound books, Kate felt her lips quirk. Just like a storybook hero. What a pity that a noble knight could not transform from ink and paper to flesh and blood.

Not that any mortal man could slay her dragon. Some secrets were worse than others . . .
Forcing a smile, Kate gave a light laugh. “We are all so delighted for you.”

Alessandra squeezed her hand. “Without the Circle of Sin, I don’t know how I would have survived the last few months.”

“That is what friends are for.” She paused, feeling a little pang of regret that she would be leaving Ledyard Manor that afternoon. “Speaking of which, I was just coming to tell you that Charlotte is anxious to return to London, on account of her upcoming lecture.”

“Of course.” Alessandra slanted a look at Jack and Marco, who were still exchanging barbs. “Come, let us fetch Ciara and Ariel from the conservatory, and visit her room while she finishes her packing.”

The idea of circling their little group, if only for a short while, lifted Kate’s spirits. “What an excellent suggestion. You don’t mind leaving Jack to fend for himself?”
“Oh, once he and Marco stop needling each other, they will actually enjoy conversing on Roman art and antiquities. For all of my cousin’s frivolous teasing, he is very knowledgeable on the subject.”

“I never would have guessed that the conte had any interest in intellectual subjects,” she replied slowly.

“Marco has a number of unexpected facets to his character, which he takes great pains to hide.” Alessandra’s voice took on a wry note. “But then, who am I to talk?”

Kate hesitated for a moment before answering. “I daresay we all have things that we keep to ourselves.”

* * * *

Let her go.

Assuming an expression of bored indifference, Marco slowly looked away from watching the two ladies walk off.

“Set your sights elsewhere,” murmured Jack, as if reading his mind. “You may be her cousin, but Alessandra will chop off your testicolos and feed them to the Tower ravens if you try to play your usual wicked games with Miss Woodbridge.”

Though he was thinking much the same thing, Marco reacted with a cynical smirk. “What makes you think she wouldn’t welcome my attentions?”

“The fact that you are a conceited coxcomb and your arrogance is insufferable at times.”

Si.” Marco widened his mouth to a wolfish grin. “But most females find that intriguing.”

“Alessandra’s friends are not like most females,” pointed out Jack. “Their intellect sets them apart, so you can’t expect to charm them with your usual approach.” He paused. “I imagine that Miss Woodbridge is smart enough to see that you are an arse.”

“Trust me, Lord Giacomo, I don’t need advice on flirting from you.”

“No? Well, from what I have observed, you don’t appear to be making much progress on your own.”

Leaning a shoulder to the fluted molding, Marco watched the last little flutter of seagreen silk disappear down the corridor. To be sure, Kate Woodbridge was no ordinary young lady. But it was not just her brains that set her apart. There was an unexpected glint of grittiness shading her lovely aquamarine eyes. As if she had seen the grim realities of the world outside of the gilded confines of Mayfair’s mansions.

Which was, of course, highly unlikely. Kate was the granddaughter of the Duke of Cluyne, one of the highest sticklers of Polite Society. She had been born into a life of wealth and privilege, and was surrounded by an army of servants ready to do her bidding.

Such coddled innocence bored him to perdition. So why did the sway of her shapely hips provoke the urge to follow?

“Perhaps I haven’t tried very hard,” drawled Marco, turning his attention to the folds of his cravat. Smoothing a finger over the folds, he added, “It’s hardly a fair match of skills. And contrary to what you may think, I do not deliberately toy with an innocent young lady’s affections.”

Jack gave a mock grimace. “Good God, you mean to say that you have a conscience?”

Marco straightened from his slouch. “You military heroes are not the only ones with a code of honor.”

“Well, you need not wage any great moral battle with your self-proclaimed noble scruples. According to Alessandra, her friend can look out for herself.”

Marco let out a grunt of laughter. “Miss Woodbridge may be clever and possess a cutting tongue, but that does not mean she is equipped to deal with the darker side of life.” He curled a lip. “Rapscallion roués, jaded fortunehunters. Or rakehell rogues like me.”

“Don’t be so sure of that,” countered Jack. “From what I gather, Miss Woodbridge has had a rather eccentric upbringing. Her mother tossed away title and fortune to elope with an American sea captain. She’s spent most of her life sailing around the world.”

He felt his sardonic smile thin ever so slightly. His cousin had not talked much about her friends with him. No doubt feeling that he couldn’t quite be trusted with the intimate details of their lives.

“The fact is, I think she had a rather rough time of it these last few years,” continued Jack. “Her parents died of a fever within days of each other, and only a deathbed promise to them brought Miss Woodbridge here to seek a reconciliation with her grandfather.” He shrugged. “Apparently the waters at Cluyne House are anything but calm. She’s fiercely independent, which tends to make waves with the duke.”

“That begins to explain her salty language,” murmured Marco thoughtfully. Today was not the first time she had let fly with a very unladylike word.

Jack chuckled. “Alessandra says she can swear like a sailor in nearly a dozen different dialects.”

“Interesting.”

“Yes, but nearly as interesting as the collection of rare books I have here on classical architecture.” For Jack, ancient Rome was a far more fascinating topic of conversation than Katharine Kylie Woodbridge. “Come, there is a 17th century volume of engravings on the Temple of Jupiter that I want to show you . . .”
Marco reluctantly pushed aside all thoughts about ladies—naked or otherwise—to follow Jack to one of the display table set by the bank of leaded glass windows. Yet somehow the tantalizing scent of Sicilian neroli and wild thyme stayed with him, teasing at his nostrils.

Strange, it seemed hauntingly familiar, but he just couldn’t place it.
And no wonder, he thought, dismissing the notion with a sardonic shrug. He had inhaled too many perfumes in his wicked, wanton life to recall them all. In truth, none of the women had been very memorable.

Save for one clever whore in Naples who had dared . . .

“Pay attention, Ghiradelli. If you drool on that Doric column, I swear, I shall cut off your tongue.”