Tempt the Devil – Anna Campbell

Across the packed, noisy salon, Julian Southwood, Earl of Erith, studied the notorious strumpet who would become his next mistress. He was in the middle of Mayfair on a fine spring afternoon. Yet the reek of sex for sale was as pungent as in the slave markets of Marrakesh or Constantinople. The crowd was mostly male, although a few provocatively dressed women mingled in the throng. Nobody paid them the slightest attention. Just as nobody but Erith seemed to notice the startling and realistically detailed frescoes of rampant Zeus seizing swooning Ganymede. From a corner dais a pianist and violinist doggedly plowed through a Mozart sonata. The music came from a different world, a cleaner, purer world untainted by animal carnality. A world the Earl of Erith would never again inhabit. Erith shook off the bleak self-reflection and turned to the man beside him. “Introduce me, Carrington.” “Shall do, old chap.” Carrington didn’t ask the object of Erith’s interest. Why would he? Every man here, including his companion, focused on the slender woman reclining with studied nonchalance upon the chaise longue. Without being told, Erith knew she’d deliberately chosen her setting in front of the tall westfacing windows.

Late afternoon sun flooded her in soft gold and played across her loosely bound tumble of tawny hair. In the clear light, her vivid red dress was like a sudden flame. The effect was worthy of the Theatre Royal. Even he, familiar to ennui with courtesans’ tricks, had felt the breath catch in his throat at first sight of her. One glance and the blood in his veins hummed a deep, dark song of desire, and his skin prickled with the compulsion to make her his. And she achieved this remarkable effect from half a room away. Of course, this was no ordinary courtesan. If she were, he wouldn’t be here. The Earl of Erith only bought the best. The best tailoring.

The best horses. The best women. Even by his exacting standards, this particular cyprian was a prime article. Two extraordinary women had set London on its ear in the last ten years. One, Soraya, cool, dark, mysterious as moonlight, had recently married the Duke of Kylemore, igniting the scandal of the decade. The other, radiant sun to Soraya’s moon, arrayed herself now before Erith like a spectacular jewel. He assessed her as closely as he’d contemplate an addition to his stables. Lord, but she was a long Meg. A sheath of crimson velvet displayed her lean body to dramatic advantage. She’d fit his tall frame to perfection, even if his taste usually ran to plumper, more voluptuous bedmates.

His memory filled pleasantly with the fleshy blond charms of Gretchen, the mistress he’d left in Vienna a month ago. Gretchen couldn’t contrast more strongly with the jade before him. Where the Tyrolean beauty offered soft, yielding curves, this woman was all spare elegance. The bosom under her gown’s low neckline wasn’t generous, and her waist was long and supple. He guessed the narrow skirt hid legs as graceful and elongated as a thoroughbred’s. Gretchen had been dewy with youth. This woman must verge on thirty. By that age, most bits of muslin frayed at the edges. But this bird of paradise continued her unchallenged reign over the male half of the ton. Her longevity as the most sought-after courtesan in London made her yet more intriguing.

His gaze slid up to her face. Like her body, it was unexpected. After the rhapsodies he’d heard in the clubs, he’d imagined less subtle attractions. The unmistakable greed he’d heard in her admirers’ voices had led him to imagine a brassier, more overtly available bawd. Her jaw was square, almost masculine. Her nose was a trifle too long, her cheekbones too high. From where he stood in the gilt-framed doorway, it was impossible to tell the color of her eyes, but they were large and brilliant and set at a slant. Cat’s eyes. Tiger’s eyes. Her mouth… Her mouth perhaps explained what he’d heard about her preternatural allure.

It might be too large. But who would complain? No man could look at those succulent lips without wanting them on his body. Erith’s groin tightened at the decadent pictures rocketing through his mind. Undoubtedly, she had…something. She wasn’t a great beauty. She was well past first youth. Nor did she flaunt her charms like tawdry trinkets on a fairground stall. If he’d encountered her at a respectable gathering rather than this louche brouhaha, he’d almost believe she belonged to his own class. Almost. After the hubbub, all this was surprising.

Disappointing. But even as he dismissed the wench’s heralded charms, his eyes gravitated back to that spare, strangely aristocratic face. To that sin of a mouth. To the luxuriant hair. To that long, graceful body curved in complete relaxation upon her couch while men eddied around her in an endless whirlpool of fascination. She was the most powerful figure in the room. Even at the distance, he felt the sexual energy sizzling around her. She swept the room with a contemptuous glance. The raised angle of her chin and the irony that teased the corners of her mouth indicated defiance, courage, challenge. He tried to deny the sensual pull she exerted.

While his reckless heart kicked into the emphatic rhythm of a drum beating an army into battle. No, she wasn’t what he’d expected, but he didn’t fool himself into believing she was anything less than quality. She lifted her head and smiled at something the effete fellow standing at her elbow said. The lazy curve of those lush red lips shot another jolt of lava-hot arousal through Erith. That smile spoke of knowledge and sharp intelligence, and a sexual confidence he’d never encountered in a woman. Never, even though he’d dealt with the fallen sisterhood for the last sixteen years. Every drop of moisture dried from his mouth, and his interest, wearied through playing this game too long, engaged with an intensity that astonished him. The covetous buzz in his blood notched up a degree. Oh, yes, she was going to be his. Not just because she was the elite of London’s courtesans and his prestige would accept nothing less as his chère amie.

But because he wanted her. More than he’d wanted anything in a long, long time. “Miss Raines, I am happy to see you. I hope I find you well.” Olivia looked up from the wild Roman orgy painted on her silk fan. Lord Carrington stood before her. He’d vied for years to win her favors. For his sake, she’d never consented. He was a good, decent man and deserved better than her. Still, because he was a good, decent man, she made herself smile and extend her hand in its long crimson glove.

“Lord Carrington. I’m very well. And you?” The old social dance. She was so sick of it. Almost as sick of it as she was of her current life. Doggedly she fought back the dragging, persistent ennui. She was here because it was past time she selected a new lover. She couldn’t stay with Perry indefinitely, although he made no secret that he was happy to have her in residence. Even now he hovered over her like an anxious duenna. Olivia just wished to heaven she could summon a scrap of interest in who shared her bed next.

She needed to choose someone. Her hard-earned reputation for eternal dominion over the male sex depended upon it. How tired she was of her reputation too. “Tip-top, thank you.” Carrington bent briefly over her hand. “May I present the Earl of Erith, recently returned from abroad and in London for the season?” Without interest—after all, whoever he was, he was just another man—she withdrew her hand from Carrington’s and glanced at the tall figure beside him. A very tall figure. Her glance paused, became a stare. Slowly her gaze traveled up a lean, muscular body clad in the height of fashion to meet deep-set eyes the color of steel. Or perhaps that impression came from the frost glittering in the gray.

If she’d been a fraction less self-possessed, she’d shiver under that chilly regard. But she was Olivia Raines, London’s most famous courtesan. She might wish her reputation to the Devil, but she knew to the inch how to use it both to lure and daunt a potential lover. Her imperious expression didn’t soften as she held her hand out. “My lord.” “Miss Raines.” As Lord Carrington had, the earl took her hand and bowed over it. His touch was cool, even through her satin gloves. For an odd moment the room’s bustle receded. She was aware only of his strong fingers curling around hers and how his glossy dark head inclined toward her in a gesture that held more command than politeness.

The fine hairs on the back of her neck prickled, and her heart kicked into a wayward race. What on earth was wrong with her? Olivia blinked and forced herself back to reality. The reality of deciding on her next protector. Lord Erith, she already saw, offered definite possibilities. And she immediately recognized his interest. He didn’t hold her hand longer than manners decreed. He didn’t leer down her bodice. No flash of unseemly desire or possessiveness. Not even the contempt she sometimes found in men’s eyes. As if her freedom were despicable, whereas theirs was cause for celebration.

Nothing in that composed face indicated what the Earl of Erith thought or felt. So why was she sure he determined to become her lover? He was strikingly handsome, with a hard-angled jaw, a haughty blade of a nose, and thick black hair. How had she failed to notice him earlier? He was without question a man one noticed. His impressive height and his looks should have drawn her attention even without that indefinable air of authority he wore like armor. Armor against what? She stifled the fugitive curiosity. Why should she care? He was just another spoiled scion of the aristocracy. Another man for her to use then abandon. The pattern never changed. With a languid gesture worthy of the queen of courtesans, she raised her fan and waved it gently before her face. She made sure the picture of two naked men servicing the nymph top and tail faced outward.

A childish ploy, but something in Lord Erith made her itch to shake his composure. Lord Carrington colored and looked away. Lord Erith’s glance flickered down to the fan then up again. The silvery eyes under their heavy lids showed no reaction, although something told her the obvious gesture amused him. “How do you find the capital, my lord?” she asked calmly. “I discover it has unsuspected beauties,” he said without inflection. Aha. The game began. “How kind,” she said flatly, not pretending to misunderstand. False coyness had never been her stock in trade.

“I hope you have opportunity to explore further.” “That is my dearest wish, Miss Raines. May I call upon you?” “Olivia is very busy,” Perry said sharply from her side. His hand came down hard on her shoulder, bare under the gown’s wide square neck. Startled, she looked up at her friend and host. He sounded positively hostile. In truth, she’d almost forgotten he was there, the silent duel with Lord Erith was so intense. “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure,” the earl said in the same neutral tone, at last shifting his cold metallic stare from her. “This is Lord Peregrine Montjoy,” Carrington said quickly, glancing between the two men. “Lord Peregrine, the Earl of Erith.

” “I know who he is,” Perry snapped. His grip on Olivia’s shoulder tightened. What was wrong with Perry? He knew the purpose of this gathering. They’d even discussed possible candidates. Erith hadn’t featured, but then, until a few minutes ago she hadn’t known he existed. “Lord Peregrine,” Erith said with another bow. His voice remained soft and deep but those few words sounded like a warning in Olivia’s ears. She made a sudden decision. “I take tea here at four tomorrow.” “Tea.

” The earl’s expression didn’t change, but she knew she’d disconcerted him at last. “Yes, tea.” Did he imagine she’d spread her legs just for the asking? If so, he truly had been away from England too long. She chose her bedmates, she set the rules, she finished the affairs. Her flagrant independence was notorious. That was why she was such a prize. She sensed Lord Carrington’s unspoken eagerness to be included in the invitation but ignored him. He wasn’t for the likes of her. Erith, however, was another case entirely. “Thank you.

I shall be delighted.” Not a hint of satisfaction in the bass murmur. How, then, did she know that triumph surged below his urbane exterior? “Tomorrow, then.” “Tomorrow.” He bowed over her hand again. Another fleeting brush of those long fingers. “Miss Raines.” “My lord.” He sliced his way through the throng with an ease that impressed her. This room brimmed with the cream of society, or at least the cream of the male half of society.

Yet for the Earl of Erith, the rich and powerful stepped aside without hesitation. “How can you even consider that blackguard?” Perry flung himself on her bed and stared in violet dressing-gowned glory at the ballet of plaster cupids on the ceiling. “I haven’t made my mind up yet.” Olivia rested her heavy silver hairbrush on the dressing table and watched Perry in the mirror. She didn’t need to ask who he meant. The Earl of Erith had been an invisible presence since her friend had stormed into her bedroom moments ago. “He thinks he’s got you.” Perry sounded sulky and unhappy. “What he thinks and what will happen aren’t necessarily the same thing.” Her gaze sharpened on the young man with the sultry good looks arrayed upon her sheets.

He was like a painting by Caravaggio come to life. “Why don’t you like Erith?” “He’s an arrogant ass.” “True. But so are most men in the ton. What do you know about him in particular?” “I know he’s a cocky sod. I know he’s cut a swath through the petticoat brigade. He left England sixteen years ago to join the diplomatic service and has rarely been back since. Everywhere he goes, he sets up the most popular courtesan as his mistress then abandons her flat when he moves on.” “That hardly matters,” she said tranquilly. “I’m not planning a lifetime of devotion to the fellow.

” “He treats women as trophies.” Perry scowled at her, clearly annoyed she didn’t share his outrage. “Sops to his vanity. Now he’s back for his daughter’s wedding…” “His daughter’s wedding?” Her hand tightened on the engraved handle of the hairbrush. For some reason, she hadn’t imagined a wife. Stupid. Lord Erith must be nearing forty, and most men that age were well and truly shackled. “He’s married?” Perhaps Lord Erith was beyond her touch after all. The one rule she kept was that her paramours were unmarried. In spite of many extravagant offers to compromise, she’d kept her vow never knowingly to break another woman’s heart with what she did.

Perry’s full rosy lips turned down. “No, he’s not married, confound him.” He knew her rules as well as she did. “He wed young and his wife died in a riding accident after she gave him two children, a boy and a girl. The girl’s match is the talk of the season. You’ve kept to yourself these last months, I know, but surely you’ve heard Lady Roma Southwood is to marry Thomas Renton, old Wainfleet’s heir.” “No, I hadn’t heard.” Her voice seemed to come from a long way away. Olivia sucked in a deep breath. That couldn’t be relief unfurling in her belly, could it? One man was the same as the next, although even she admitted that Erith was more interesting than the majority of his sex.

But perhaps only because he was a stranger. She met her troubled brown gaze in the glass. Perhaps. She released the hairbrush and turned on the stool to face Perry. “You haven’t told me if he’s rich.” Perry’s unhappy expression intensified, but to his credit he didn’t lie. “As Croesus.” “He sounds perfect.” This afternoon Erith hadn’t seemed perfect. This afternoon that arresting, tanned face with its deep-set gray eyes and cynical expression had disturbed her.

He looked like a man who had experienced everything and felt nothing. Perry all but snarled. “He’s anything but perfect. He’s a rake without a scrap of kindness to offer a woman. He has a reputation for ruthlessness and hard dealing. He’s fought duels on the Continent and killed three men I know of. If he weren’t so cursed brilliant at what he does, the Foreign Office would have brought him home long ago. He’s a disgrace to his country and to his name. Good God, Olivia, he foisted his own children on his sister before his wife was cold in the grave and he’s barely seen them since. He’s interested in his own selfish pleasure, and Devil take anyone who gets in the way.

Does this sound like a man you wish to entrust with your person?” Perry’s vitriol surprised her. “Why the indignation? You’re hardly a pattern card for conventional morality yourself.” His mouth tightened. “I look after my own, at least. You used to have a greater sense of selfpreservation. Give yourself to Carrington if you must give yourself to anyone. He’s always been mad for you and he’s damned plump in the pocket. Or stay here.” “I can’t be your pensioner, Perry.” This was an old argument.

Her occasional sojourns in his opulent town house served both of them, but she didn’t want to become a permanent fixture. She began to plait her hair ready for bed. “I’d break Carrington’s heart. I suspect Erith has no heart to break. I can handle him.” “He’s clever and merciless and self-centered, Olivia. He’ll end up hurting you.” Her busy hands stilled. “He’s violent?” She wouldn’t have thought so, but Perry kept up with gossip much better than she. “No,” he said reluctantly.

“I haven’t heard that. But there are more ways to hurt a woman than hitting her.” Yes, wasn’t she living proof of that? She spoke quickly before cruel memory sank its claws into her. “I can look after myself. You credit the earl with powers he doesn’t possess.” The anger seeped from Perry’s face, and she read the aching concern underlying his temper. She loved only two men in the world and he was one. It hurt her to distress him. But whom she took into her bed was always her choice alone. “Anything I say falls on deaf ears.

You’ve decided, haven’t you?” She rather thought she had. Although tomorrow’s conversation over the tea table—she smiled to recall the earl’s shock at being invited to share the harmless beverage—would lead to a final decision. “Yes.” She tied the end of her plait, rose and shucked off her robe. Underneath she wore the plain white nightdress she preferred when she wasn’t working. “My next lover is the Earl of Erith.” “Then God help you. I’ll say no more.” Perry rolled off the bed and kissed her on the cheek. “Good night, my darling.

” “Good night,” she murmured, staring into the fire as Perry closed the door behind him. God help her indeed, although instinct whispered that both she and Erith were beyond heavenly help. She hadn’t told Perry the real reason she’d selected the earl as her keeper. When she looked into those cold, cold eyes, she’d seen a man without a soul. Who better for a woman who was herself without a soul to choose as lover?

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